Thursday, September 30, 2004

Mil Nam Tom Ka

Virtually from the moment that you touch down in this country, you notice that, as with other places where the language is spoken, India has its own particular brand of English. This is, to some extent, surprising – English is, of course, on one level the language of colonialism, and thus to be eradicated. Gandhi certainly felt that English should not be regularly spoken by Indians, although equally he would not stop anyone from speaking it, and he himself could read, write and speak it very well. A more extreme version of this view that I read one day in The Times of India said “that to educate our children in English is to expose them to lesbianism and free sex.”!!!

What I guess that means is that English is the language of modernity, prosperity, globalism and global media, and call centres (for which adverts are displayed in the street offering to coach people in their accents so that they can get a call centre job – is this the linguistic equivalent of skin-lightening creams?), which are good or bad, depending on your viewpoint.

One of the reasons that India appears to be an attractive destination is its combination of differentness with the English language, the exotic with the familiar: it’s probably for me the most different place that I most wanted to visit where, for a short visit to an urban centre, another language would probably not be required.

And so it is true that I have not needed to speak anything other than English to get by here for 3 months. But it’s also true that despite India’s 1,600 languages and dialects (18 of those languages ‘official’!), a working knowledge of Hindi is very helpful. Even if this extends only to transliterated written or spoken Hindi (untransliterated Hindi is of course in a completely different script, Devanagari, which is also used for Sanskrit), it’s still better than absolutely nothing, which is what I have. Only 3% of Indians have some knowledge of English – according to Mark Tully – and amongst those are some who write exclusively in English. Of course, there is a preponderance of English speakers in urban areas (especially Delhi), and amongst certain social strata (there’s that Delhi word again) or classes.

For example, the majority of the streetchildren that I meet speak no English – although a couple who speak a bit have tried to teach me some Hindi, with very limited success (the title this week is one of the few things that’s stuck, so I hope it’s correct!). And it has to be said that most autowallahs and ordinary people in general have very little English, words or phrases only – more than the amount of my Hindi!!! However, knowing Hindi is no panacea for travelling around India, as the number of those languages and dialects tells you. The girls from Chennai who came to the meetings that I attended in June spoke only Tamil, and their adult facilitator had to translate from English to Tamil for them!!!

As Hindi dominates in the north, and is less known in the south, English seems to act as the second language, or common language, for a certain sector of society. And, of course, there are forces which accentuate this, globalisation, universities, and call centres among them.

The rampant and uncontrolled visual pollution in nearly any business or commercial area in Delhi mostly manifests itself in transliterated Hindi – Roman letters – about 50% of the time. So the sign for the street where I catch my bus in the morning, reads “Sansad Marg.” Then, about 30% of signs will be in English – in this case, “Parliament Street”. And, for example, all the painted signs on the outside of buses, trucks and autorickshaws are in English: ‘use dippers at night’, ‘keep distance’, etc. Only 20% will be in Hindi only – for which I can’t give you the example, ‘cause I’d need a Hindi typewriter. There’s a lot of mixing, for which there seem to be no rules. For example, I went to a seminar Wednesday at the India Habitat Centre. The materials were completely in English. The banner in the conference room was all in English, except for a Hindi translation of the sponsoring institution. Of 27 speakers, 25 were Indian – all speakers spoke in English save one, who spoke in Hindi. He was from Bihar, the northern centre of organised crime, mafia dons controlling local commerce, contract killings, and general chaos (a local joke goes that if the Pakistanis so badly want Kashmir, tell them that they can have it if we can throw in Bihar as well!). So you go away thinking, English is the common language here, so I can get on with English.

Then you try to take an auto – oh, by the way, there was an auto strike this week, and it was such a damned shame to do without the autowallahs’ toothy leers and ingratiating manners, “h-e-l-l-o, Sir, where are you going?” – and you find that you just can’t communicate where you want to go. You can’t even communicate that you won’t pay the Rs. 50 that they are asking which, in most cases, immediately drops by 40%. It has to be said that most autowallahs’ English only extends to “100 rupees”, some English place names, and “meter no working”!!! The bus conductors, of course, can make do with “a-delay-a-delay-a-delay-a-delay-‘Naught-Place-‘Naught-Place-‘Naught-Place-‘Naught-Place!!!!” and, if you listen carefully, some mangled English place names (Green Park Extension is just called Green Park Extension, not anything else).

Or you have an encounter such as I had at my hotel when I arrived back in July. The day after I arrived, sleeping off my jet lag, I heard a knock at 6:10 and opened the door to a swarthy hotel employee:

Me – Hi.
Him – Silence
Me – Can I help you?
Him – It’s 6:10.
Me – I know it’s 6:10. What do you want, please?
Him – Silence
Me – Thanks – I am going back to bed. Goodbye!

So, I recommend that if you do come to a part of India where Hindi is spoken, a bit of Hindi will be most helpful, even if it’s only the phrase book type. However, the drawback is that you may not necessarily be understood even with that. Vijay Nambisan says in his essay “City Without Natives” (in Khushwant Singh’s book City Improbable) that “hardly anyone speaks Hindi in Delhi. It’s Punjabi, or Urdu, or Khadi Boli, or Avadhi, or Rajasthani. I can’t think of any other state capital which doesn’t have a native tongue, though Bangalore is fast going that way.”

Is Indian English another type of English, like American English? It’s at least the standard English with a desi (Indian) twist. Look at any of the 7 or 8 English speaking Indian papers on sale in Delhi (The Times of India, Indian Express, The Hindu, Hindustan Times), and you will find endless examples of the mixing of transliterated Hindi with English. Main hoon na. This Hinglish or Engdi mixing happens all the time – especially in the media, where English words keep creeping into Hindi, and Hindi words or phrases are used in the middle of a paragraph of English, just like that. Many of them, like the one I just used, are from Hindi films or songs. A typical headline in the back of the Times of India will be,“Salman, Sex, Shah Rukh, Success” and, in its usual hopped-up style, it will hype “for the gals, raapchik Arjun Rampal; for the guys, red hot Priyanka Chopra ka chutzpah.”

The other newspapers, by the way, will be in Hindi, or some other language. There are so many Malayalee persons in Delhi, such as my friend Dr. Dilli, that they’ve begun to publish a Malayalam paper here. Dr. Dilli is I guess atypical, in that he’s trilingual in Hindi/Malayalam/English, but knows smatterings of other languages I suspect.

So how does Indian English usage differ from what you know? Well, at the most basic level, in funny and unintended usages that are the stock of any travel book. You know what I am talking about. I haven’t noticed anything as obvious as a restaurant menu with ‘Fried Dirt’ and ‘Rice Cream’ on it (the language was here for quite awhile, after all…), but I have noted the usual errors or mistakes, mildly amusing to language mavens. Here are some, not too many…

When I arrived I saw a sign saying “all photography is permitted inside the immigration area” (surely they mean ‘prohibited’?). And then went through customs and bought my first bottle of water in India, a brand unfortunately named H2GO. I certainly hoped not. And there are a lot of those – I’ve already mentioned the beer brand ‘Knock Out’ which I have yet to try (thank goodness!). And, on my second day on my second trip, I saw a sign on the way from Hauz Khas advertising painting classes, specialising in “fancy marriage packing”! What the hell??? And, going to visit a friend, I saw a restaurant saying, “Spontaneous Food Court” (is this a court for spontaneous food, or do you mean that – at any moment, without warning – the whole restaurant might suddenly turn into a nuclear power plant???).

Some of these are just non-speakers having to use the words – so transport spelling errors are rampant: ‘propelly’, ‘carriagege’, and ‘pailot’ for ‘propelled’, ‘carriage’, and ‘pilot’, ‘flover’ for flyover, ‘undar parmat’ for ‘under permit’, and even “no U trun”. Does nobody check anything here???

Okay, so being serious for a minute, there are some different words and phrases for sure, either home-grown ones such as ‘eve-teasing’ for sexual harassment, ‘yeti’ for “young, e-technologically inspired”, and ‘mixi’ for blender (I like the last one, just as I’ve always admired the German ‘handi’ for cellphone or mobile phone).

A second tendency is to add prefixes or suffixes to words for emphasis. How else do you explain ‘upgradation’ for ‘upgrade’ and ‘intentionality’ for ‘intention’? This extends as well to adding whole words or phrases, so you get double emphasis phrases, such as ‘bubble boom’ (“Experts say Growth of Private Sector Healthcare Isn’t a Bubble Boom”). Is that a bubble or a boom? No, it’s really bad, it’s a bubble boom – is that a bubble that explodes loudly???

Lots of things get abbreviated and, if you’re a foreign reader, you need translations. This happens everywhere of course. But here, the compressing tendency extends to omitting articles and prepositions, thus making the writing appear denuded or a even a descendant of Bernard Shaw’s attempt to simplify English (or perhaps this is only felt by the old-fashioned amongst us who can’t decipher SMS messages!): “if the Great Indian Middle Class, with its unhealthy disdain for public healthcare, is flocking the growing private healthcare sector…”, said The Times of India in its bullshit authoritative voice one day, missing the ‘to’ after ‘flocking’. And, “decisions, however, will come next week after PM Manmohan Singh assesses with Chief Minister the extent of drought. However, watch out the costs.” Eh?

Most of this is harmless, but occasionally it gets in the way of meaning: the weekly Tehelka, a left-wing journal that specializes in exposes, on 18 September had a piece in its column ‘Elsewhere…’ called “Right Wrongs” which showed the Indian penchant for leaving out articles, definite or indefinite: “While the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993, makes it mandatory for every state to have a commission, few states in north India, including Bihar, continue to ignore the formation of a state commission.” Surely the writer means ‘a’ few states, not that ‘few’ states are ignoring the Act, which is against his argument!!! Finally, compression means that there’s lots of noun-to-verb migration (someone was described to me as not “under a barrage”, but ‘barraged’ the other day!).

Orally, combined with the Hindi accent, this can make Indian English seem clipped, almost staccato, headache-inducing on the telephone during long conversations. However, with over 1 billion Indians barraging the rest of us with their call centres and outsourcing, who’s to say that Indian English won’t become the standard English?

Well, now that that’s off my chest, I can explain its relevance by this week’s story about my trip to Jaipur.

I didn’t make it.

As a result, this week’s pictures are a selection of previously unpublished things, including some that I took on Saturday at Gandhi Smriti, where Gandhi was assassinated. To see them, click here.

I went off to Old Delhi Railway Station about 13:45 for the 15:00 train, plenty of time, despite the traffic around Old Delhi. My autowallah asked me where I was going, and I told him Jaipur, so he told me, I will drop you at the Kashmere Gate side, from where the Jaipur trains go. That sounded fine, until you get there, and step off into this…sandpit, looking like the arse end of any railway station anywhere in the world – no marble columns, no chandeliers, no bustling porters, just…Delhi sand, blown in every day from the desert. And a small outbuilding up ahead which looked to be selling tickets – this is Old Delhi station? I can’t believe it…I could see only 2 platforms…one train at one platform. No signs, no information anywhere, not in the outbuilding, not on the platforms. Who to ask? There didn’t seem to be any train staff anywhere…

However, on walking up to the platform end, I espied some steps and, while doing so, I heard an announcement about the train for Jaipur being on Platform 9, in alternate staccato English and Hindi…I headed for platform 9 to check this out. It was about 2:40.

Platform 9 had a train but, similarly, no information. Nothing affixed to the train. No staff. No platform number!!! So I heard the announcement again and then boarded the train and asked someone. They confirmed that the train was for Jaipur. So I sat down and got comfy. I only realized later that the wooden sign affixed to each coach has the train numbers on it for the route…

After a minute or two, a tendril of doubt began to creep over me, so I asked the railway employee getting blankets and pillows out for the sleeping part of the journey if this was the train to Jaipur, and he said yes. So, I sat back and got settled. I got out my book, and then the train started to move. A few minutes early. That seemed odd. Late, yes, but early? As we trundled slowly above the city and over the Yamuna into Noida, East Delhi, and the suburbs, I watched the sights go past slowly – we couldn’t have been going more than 20 m.p.h. at any time – and then settled down to my book when…the conductor came by and looked at my ticket. He then broke the news to me that I was on the wrong train – worse, was going in the opposite direction from the one that I was supposed to be going in!

What on earth can I do? I asked. Well, you can get off at the next station – we’ll be there in 40 minutes or so. Ghaziabad. And then come back to Delhi. You can get 50% of your ticket refunded to you. And Jaipur? Well, you can see if you can get another train when you get back. I sat back, calmly, and thought about it, looking intently at my Indian Railways timetables; there was an 18:00 from some station called Delhi Sarai Rohilla, wherever on earth that was. If I could get that, I could get to Jaipur by 23:30 or so but, in the rush to get to the other station, buy a ticket, find the right train, ringing my accommodation was completely out of the question – I looked at the next train, and that was at 22:50, not arriving until 04:20…the next one was the Shatabdi Express, at 06:15, neither particularly attractive…

So I went back to my book until we seemed to be arriving in our next station – unsigned for the most part, of course, but then finally a limp sign came into view: Ghaziabad. Thank goodness, somewhere I’d heard of, an eastern suburban part of Delhi – in reality, its own city…but featured under the Delhi part of the Times of India today, despite being in Uttar Pradesh, for its 10- to 12 hour power cuts. Luckily, we were arriving in daylight. We’d obviously not travelled very far or very fast in 40 minutes.

As I got up to leave, a group of railwaymen sitting and travelling together got up to leave at Ghaziabad and kindly took pity on me, trying to help by pointing out the platform and train to get back to Delhi. That they couldn’t agree amongst themselves only shook my confidence a bit!!! After a fierce argument about which platform, which train, what time, they settled on platform 6 at 16:15, which would mosey its way back to Old Delhi Railway Station in about 45 minutes.

Despite their kindness, for obvious reasons, I wanted to check it out. Also, having not ended up anywhere, I was antsy and so walked around the station to get rid of my nervous energy and try to find some information. There was none. No destination board, no arrival board, no platform information. No platform numbers on the platforms, no reassuring European data and language-free pictograms, no announcements in multiple languages, no WAGN apologies to customers, nothing!!!

I decided to try to find someone to ask, which in the UK usually means someone with an ill-fitting, over-bright cheap-looking polyester uniform and horrible matching cap and a rectangular badge with a smiley button saying, “Hello I’m…”, above a narrow ledge for their name, followed by “and how may I help you?”, who then proceeds to possibly help you, or possibly confuse you, or possibly tell you that they have no idea what is going on. So you see, the Indian method is not necessarily inferior, just a different way of confusing the traveller. Or oriented towards the 99% of people who know which way they’re going, not the dumbo tourists who don’t…

Poking around the station, I found the Stationmaster’s Office. And the Assistant Stationmaster’s Office. The Station Controller’s Office, and the Assistant Station Controller’s Office. Station Manager and Assistant Station Manager. There were persons in every one of them, beavering away. Finally, dopey North American persona at the ready, I barge into one of them and begin speaking loudly – “can you tell me the next train to Delhi please?” In the corner, two fat rats conferred and waddled out of the room. They didn’t answer – one of the Assistant Station Manager’s Assistants did: yes, platform 6, 16:15.

Platform 6 had oodles of people marauding around with packages, bags, boxes, bundles. It’s coming up to 16:10 by this time. I ask several people this time if this is the right train. Yes, it appears that it is, for they all confirm that they’re going to Delhi. Unless it’s a tourist conspiracy or mass hypnosis, to Delhi we will go!

The train jerks away from the platform at a couple of minutes after 16:15…without shutting its doors. Minor detail, I guess…I sat down quickly so I could get over the imminent feeling of being about to fall out onto the track as we clickety-clacked back to Delhi.

By the time that we arrived back in Delhi after 17:00, I decided to leave Jaipur for another weekend, sometime, and surrendered my tickets for a refund, got an auto back to the YMCA, and then made a farcical hour-long attempt to telephone my accommodation to personally apologise for not showing up (the correct number of the 3 that I had was in my Jaipur Walks book, but didn’t work the first time, so I ended up at the YWCA and their STD/ISD/PCO booth, which was fortunate, as they were quite helpful). By that time, I was ready to have dinner at a trendy restaurant in ‘Naught-Place-‘Naught-Place-‘Naught-Place and pound a big bottle of Sandpiper…

Friday, September 24, 2004

Buff Momo

It won’t have escaped your notice that your travelspondent is reporting hardly at all on India, but purely on Delhi, so have I already turned into such a Delhi-ite, such a Dilli-wallah that I can hardly stand to depart from the place? Answer: no, but practically, it’s hard to work and sightsee outside the urban area at the same time. One reason is that, as you know, I work alternate weekends. I could avoid this, I am sure, but I feel that if you’re made the commitment, within reason, you should follow what your colleagues do. Secondly, in Delhi, there’s a lot to pack in. With the heat and distances and transportation difficulties, it’s tough – try to blitz the city in two or three days, you’ll die trying. Finally, Delhi is a good place to get the train to other cities or other places in northern India, but the distances and times involved are large – there’s almost nothing that lends itself to a day trip.

In 2 weeks time, therefore, I am taking an Express train for a weekend visit to the pink city of Jaipur (5 ½ hours by train). And this weekend, I visited Kathmandu, a flying visit, going there on Saturday arriving after midday and returning Monday midday. Whew…

The Afghan, Bangladeshi and Nepali partners in the project that I am working on generously extended invitations to me to come to Kabul, Dhaka and Kathmandu on my return visit to Delhi. Kabul seemed a good idea until, after 25 years in the country, even through the Talibanic tyranny, Medicins sans Frontieres pulled out for security reasons. Dhaka seemed a possibility, until it was submerged half under water by the recent monsoon floods. So we’re down to Kathmandu, and beforehand, it wasn’t looking that great.

Elsewhere, it’s probably been lost in the mass of international news, but in India, what’s been happening over the border makes the headlines. First, there was the attack by Maoist guerrillas on an upmarket hotel in Kathmandu. And I hadn’t even checked in yet!!! Then, they decided to blockade the capital to starve the government into submission. Then, 12 Nepalis, about as blameless as you could get (well, there is Canadian, I suppose!) but working for the Americans in Iraq, were murdered by an Islamic extremist group, which sparked anti-Islamic riots in Kathmandu. There is now a curfew in the city. If it’s not lifted by the time I go, the weekend is offski!!!

To prepare for the trip, I went to a Wine & Beer Shop in Delhi for the first time. My Kathmandu friends wanted me to bring them some Guinness – and sadly, despite the marvellous array of brews on sale, lip-smacking suds such as ‘Godfather SS High Power’, ‘Power 10000 Super Strong’, ‘Thunder Bolt Super Strong’ and, the best one, ‘Knock Out’ (what’s the brand promise? to render you comatose?), I could find none of the black stuff. Guess it will have to be the local brew, unless that’s been thwarted by the threatened General Strike…

On Saturday I set out for Kathmandu on the morning Indian Airlines flight from Delhi, and both on this day and the following Monday, it was unfortunately raining in Kathmandu, quite heavily on the day I arrived – a really damp afternoon, chucking it down: the end of the monsoon that we had not really experienced in Delhi.

The flight was noteworthy only for the amount of hospitality and food provided for an hour and a half flight – clearly to Indian Airlines the British Airways sad-sandwich-in-a-sack ‘Deli Bag’ (Delhi Bag?) idea was anathema!!! But sitting on the left hand side of the plane as you fly north from Delhi to get the best view of the mountains…great billowing clouds dumping rain just up ahead made it impossible to see much for most of the trip but then, as we neared the city, some of the clouds cleared and we were able to see fabulously towering peaks of mountains hoving into view, their tops and torso streaked with clouds.

Looking down, the view was equally spectacular – patchwork fields and oblong and rectangular blobs of land in the valleys below and on the stepped terraces up the mountainsides, each patch a completely different coloured shade or hue of green, an amazing collection of greens and grassy shades, nurtured by the monsoon. Scattered below were houses and smaller blocks of flats, all only a few storeys high…the houses were predominantly red brick or concrete, or some combination thereof – there seemed to be few indigenous architectural styles surviving in the capital, as far as I could see, but on closer inspection many did not look as if they had been built with craftsmanship in mind!

The city sprawls over the valley floor, its tendrils snaking up into the lower reaches of the foothills and mountainsides. I was met at the airport by the hotel owner, with whom I chatted as we drove to the hotel in the rain in his 4 X 4. He said that tourism was way down because of the bad press. Although there was no general sense of crisis in Nepal or amongst the Nepalis, there was alarm because of the strong-arm tactics of the Maoists in the countryside, and the authorities’ inability to protect their citizens from this. Everyone everywhere had the same lament about the lack of visitors: the tour guides touting for business, the restaurants, my companions there.

We wound through the streets of the capital, by the Royal Palace, and up to the hotel. The streets seemed very much like those in India, with street businesses squatting right by the roadside, shops open to the street, and everywhere people walking by the side of and all over the roads. On closer examination, though, the roads seemed to be in poorer shape. However, they were calmer and less chaotic than Delhi, befitting a city 1/20th the size! My hotel was in the northern part of the city called Lazimpat, the diplomatic quarter, and it was a quiet oasis compared to some of the more touristy parts of town, such as Thamel, except for a dog barking excitedly and constantly and, a nice rural touch, a rooster and one of the loudest dawn choruses I’ve ever heard in a city!

I’d chosen it because of its proximity to one of the jazz clubs in Kathmandu, the Jazz Upstairs. Kathmandu has a thriving little jazz scene and even a jazz festival early in the year. My friend came by to pick me up early in the evening, absolutely soaked to the skin. We then took a taxi through the blur of rain to the Jazz Upstairs, which was not very far away and in a few minutes we were ascending the red painted stairs through the side entrance to the building to the welcoming club upstairs.

It appeared home-decorated, like a Village Vanguard in Kathmandu, with a small bar as you came in on the right, posters of jazz greats all around, tables and chairs in one corner, and to the left a small performance space with cushions and pillows scattered all around. As my friend had had something to eat, I decided to try the momos, which are very popular in Nepal. They’re pasta-like Tibetan dumplings with fillings. I ordered some momos for us to snack on and beer. The momos were served with this spicy dipping sauce and hit the spot.

By that time, the music had started – guitar, bass, tenor, all very creditable, and a superb drummer. All except for the tenor player were Nepali, and were quite good, very tight, playing some jazz and other standards well. The room got reasonably full, and there were 20 or so aging hippies splayed out on the cushions in front of the band.

My friend advised me to try the buff momos and, when I asked him why they were called buff, I explained that buff where I came from either meant (i) polished and well turned out, or (ii) naked!!! He laughed at this…at about this time, one of the newborn hippies decided to get up and take their clothes off. My mate laughed and shouted, “hey, buff momos!” Buff, it turns out, means buffalo…and if you never associated buffalos with Nepal, start doing so now!!! They’re predominantly in the lowlands…buff momos, the local delicacy if you go to Nepal.

My friend said that, for its size and situation, Kathmandu was probably more international than a megalopolis like Delhi, which I think is true, from what I saw of some of the people there, in the club and elsewhere.

We stumbled out of the club about 10:30, which made breakfast in the bright sunlight of the hotel garden the next morning a welcome contrast. And then…well, what I did not realise was that Sunday was a day of work, Saturday a day of rest!!! So I went to meet my friends at their HQ for lunch, then went out in the afternoon to look at some of their contact points in Kathmandu and, in doing so, saw some of the city. One of their offices specialized in child porters, children that work carrying 40 Kg. loads or more!!!

Afterwards, we went to a small momo dive off the central district of Thamel down an alleyway to drink beer and eat plates of momos and other exotica, then off to a restaurant for more beer and food – at 8 storeys one of the highest buildings in Kathmandu, so we went to the top floor and watched the lights winking in the valleys above us, while we were joined by others who came by to hang out with my friends.

So the sightseeing part of this story has been crammed into a small and rainy part of Monday morning. I think that Kathmandu, travelling around it, and using it as a centre for the valley and trekking, deserves at least a week and, during the jazz festival, probably two. For in the centre, in Durbar Square, is the most spectacular collection of temples in the smallest space ever, anywhere. To see some of the pictures, click here.

The Durbar Square complex, which is what it really is, starts at the end of New Road, in Ganga Path, and continues into Basantpur Square, then Durbar Square proper, which then branches off to Makhan Tole, and the entire area is rich with temples, monuments, columns, palaces, and other things of note. You could quite easily spend most of the day there, if you were able to gain admission to every monument, and I had a bare morning.

Picking out a few sights, there is the amazing Kumari-ghar, or Temple of the Living Goddess (yes, ladies, you may think that you have first claim on that title, but the Nepalis bagged it before you!). It was built in 1757 to be the home of the living goddess, or ‘Kumari’, who is considered to be an incarnation of the goddess Taleju. The Kumari appears from time to time in the bay windows on the 3rd storey, in the company of her guardian priestess to she can see and be seen by her admirers!!!

The Maju Deval, or Maju Dega, was built in the late 17th century, and is one of the most impressive of the storeyed or stepped style, with nine steps to give it towering height (and lots of steps for tourists to write postcards on!). The wooden doorway, pillars, windows and struts are all carved. It is probably the most popular meeting place in the city. The temple has erotic carvings on its roof, and offers great views of the Square and City.

Kasthamandap or Maru Sattal (‘house of wood’) was believed to have been built out of the wood of a single tree. It originally gave Kathmandu its name. At first, it was a public space or community centre, then it was converted into a temple dedicated to the god Gorakhnath, and at the four corners is the image of Ganesh, the elephant-headed god.

With all that and more to absorb, I was exhausted after the end of the morning!!! I was also amazed at how everyone was very friendly and, despite being hard-up for tourist sales, there was no hard-sell as in Delhi. After a slow taxi ride back in the horrible traffic, I went to the airport to go through their multiple security checks (some of them pointless – what’s the point of x-raying stuff and searching it as well?) and you have to do things in a specific order (e.g. pay airport tax – then change your Nepali money, which you can’t take out – hoping that they didn’t find on me the Indian currency that I was not meant to have!).

The views as we took off were wonderful – clouded over as we banked over the city, which carpets the valley – because, unlike the arrival, you could this time see the mountainsides arching towards the clouds, a magnificent sight, a great way to end a good, but far too short weekend – with the promise to come back for at least a week in the future (haven’t I promised to go back to every place I’ve been to for a week in the future?), even without the allure of a keg of ‘Knock Out’ to keep me going…

Friday, September 17, 2004


After my foray to the walled city of Old Delhi, Purana Dilli, Shahjahanabad, a few weeks ago, there is only one city of cities left to explore: the British New Delhi. I had previously not bothered with it, as I am everyday essentially living in it, commuting through it, and working amidst it. And, frankly, I had formed an opinion that following Humayun’s Tomb, the Purana Qila, the Lal Qila, the Jama Masjid, and the Qutb Minar, not to mention Tughlaqabad, the Firoz Shah Kotla, Hauz Khas, and various other cities and monuments, it would be a letdown.

How wrong I was.

As with all of these cities and remnants of cities, it has its own pecularities, attractions, atmosphere, dynamic. Thinking about New Delhi means thinking imperial majesty displayed for a subject people; 20th century urban planning; English garden city and garden-influenced landscaping; oases for the rulers at a safe distance from the ruled.

George V announced that the capital of the subcontinent would be moved from Kolkata to Delhi in 1911. It followed a half century of discussion and debate about moving the capital to the old capital of the long-dead Mughal empire. Once that decision was made, where to put it in the midst of all those other Delhis was the subject of intense wrangling. Experts were imported from Britain (naturally) to advise on the site and planning of the new capital, foremost amongst them architect Edwin Lutyens. At that point, his principal qualification for the job was that he had never before been to India.

There were northern and southern sites to choose from, both named for their location in relation to old Delhi. Pretty much as I did, Lutyens and his committee chose to come to India at the wrong time, so their deliberations became increasingly fraught as the weather got hotter and hotter. They eventually chose the southern site, and so it was there that Lutyens placed his Viceroy’s House surrounded by fountains, waterways, and the King’s Way, the Record Office, and the layout of the new city streets. His friend Herbert Baker designed the Secretariat, Council Chamber, and the All India War Memorial. Various others were responsible for landscaping, gardens, and other details.

Exploring New Delhi isn’t quite like exploring other parts of Delhi – generally, walking the vast distances in this city in its intense heat and sunlight is a bad idea, but here cooling tree-lined avenues are a relative haven. So I walked straight to the heart of the imperial and now the Indian Government, easy for me to get to as I normally travel down Sansad Marg (Parliament Street) every day on the way to work.

The showpiece or centre of New Delhi was the long east-west green belt between Raisina Hill, where the Viceroy’s House and the two Secretariats towered over the immediate surroundings, and Baker’s war memorial, now called India Gate. In the middle of this strip was the Kingsway, now called Rajpath. At 90 degrees to Rajpath runs Janpath, the former Queensway. In a complete departure in meaning and attitude, Janpath means “road of the people”.

North of this green space was built a maze of roads connected by large and small roundabouts, those traffic circles of which the English are so fond. They do have a good role in regulating traffic, especially where several roads meet, but in Delhi have inevitably become morasses of surging traffic around which buses, for example, fling passengers from side to side like rag dolls!!!

New Delhi continues almost over to the Purana Qila and the Jumuna River in the east, and towards the Central Ridge Reserved Forest in the West. The straight line of Janpath eventually runs out at Connaught Place, its sweeping arcades and market-like feel apparently designed by Lutyens with an interlocking wheel design with inner and outer circles connected by spokes to act as a buffer between Old Delhi, or Shahjahanabad, and New Delhi, thus keeping the ruled away from the rulers.

South of Rajpath roads and roundabouts radiate in all directions towards what is now called South Delhi, and the Lutyens environs seem to run out at about Lodi Road and Sardarjung’s Tomb and the I.N.A. Market, where urban sprawl – most of it spawned since independence – takes over

Within these confines New Delhi is the city most unlike the rest of Delhi. Its bungalows once housed colonial administrators, but are now are homes to judges, politicians (I go by Vajpayee’s house every day on the bus) and other important people (known here as VVIPs). A Really VVIP is someone who, such as Vajpayee, is important enough to have armed guards in sentry towers around the grounds, even though no longer Prime Minister. The current Prime Minister lives in Race Course Road, where apparently he lives in one of 7 houses, the exact one unspecified. Of course, if you had had several Prime Ministers gunned down in your post-colonial history, you would also probably be just a little bit careful…

Vast, chunky buildings of colonial administration strike one as dinosaurs, not because they don’t look nice – care was taken to blend indigenous and classical elements, and traditional, local materials such as light marble and red sandstone (remember Sardarjung’s Tomb?) were used – but because of the scale. Oddly, they made me think of Ceausescu’s massive folly in Bucharest, allegedly the biggest building in the world, because the scale was deliberately designed to impress the ruled. As you can see from the pictures if you click here, they perch atop the hill, below which sweeps a garden down to Janpath; from there, the garden begins to ascend to India Gate, which you can just see in most of the pictures.

The Viceroy’s House was so big that the first occupant kept losing his way – it has over 340 rooms. Gandhi suggested after independence that it become a hospital, but instead it has metamorphosed into Rashtrapati Bhawan, the President’s Palace. Although used for receptions and official functions, in an interview in the newspaper today President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam states that he only uses 10 of the rooms!!!

The enormous Secretariat buildings in front of it house External Affairs and Finance. Outside one of them is etched in an archway chilling and contemptuous words: “liberty will not descend to a people. A people must raise themselves to liberty: it is a blessing that must be earned before it can be enjoyed.” Nobody decided to erase them when the Indian people apparently managed to meet that criterion in 1947, when the British scarpered from India, leaving the horror of Partition behind them!!! Finally, off to the side is Sansad Bhawan, or the Parliament Building, which seems (although it apparently wasn’t) almost an afterthought in the ensemble (why bother with a legislature when you’ve got an emperor anyway?!).

The colonial remains a part of the landscape, even with the colonists long gone, and the buildings have been Indianised, rather than removed. It’s a strange feeling – can you imagine British government buildings and institutions persisting in the U.S.A., for example? – and one wonders if it has had a good effect. Gandhi apparently advocated scrapping a lot of the trappings of colonialism, arguing rightly that replacing one colonial ruler by another, even if native, was no way to proceed. Apparently he lost the argument, for the remains of the rule of British India are still centre stage today in New Delhi, the final city of Delhi, and some of the laws from colonial times are still apparently on the books…

I then walked to Nehru’s house, a wonderful colonial mansion nearby, in which the history of the struggle for independence is traced, then looped back to the YMCA via Lady Willingdon Crescent, the name changed in the last few years to Mother Teresa Crescent…

Now that I have peeled back many of the skins of Delhi, it is interesting to think about how complex the city is, how multi-layered and multi-faceted. Amongst ways of thinking about the city are the cities of Delhi – the 8 cities whose remains I have explored. Then, there is culture – Delhi is a magnet for Indians, and there are a number of cultures – Punjabi, Gujarati, Rajasthani, Malayalee – co-existing with each other. Then, religio-cultural: Muslim and Hindu, Jain and Christian. Then, class and caste, language, profession and occupation.

Cities are horizontal layers, mingling and overlapping and with elements from one appropriated for building another. The others are vertical layers, veins running through the cities of Delhi and waxing and waning through its ages. That is what makes Delhi such a fascinating mixture. Its depths are difficult, if not impossible, to plumb, its exterior challenging and at times off-putting, and those two factors make it a unloved but lovable city. Side-by-side in Delhi are these discrete cultures, peoples, cities, all separate but mingling realities. Beside Shahjahanabad is a city constructed 300 years later, beside that city are monuments that pre-date Shahjahanabad by hundreds of years…

Vijay Nambisan in an essay entitled City without Natives observes that “it has been said that Delhi is not a city, but a collection of villages. Every colony is fenced off from its neighbours by not only metal railings and ‘green spaces’, but by cultural fences as well. Good fences make good neighbours. I lived first in Chittaranjan Park in a Bengali village, then in Amar Colony, Lajpat Nagar, in a Kashmiri village, and last in Greater Kailash II which was no village at all but only a suburb. There were Tamil villages, and Gujarati and Kannadiga, and over everything, like a blanket – like a blankety-blanket – a vast and spirited Punjabi joy in living that kept the city together and made it one, made it as much as was possible a city.”

Connoisseurs of Delhi, of course, would say that such observations are about modern Delhi, but that the real and significant cultural mingling took place long before – that Delhi has always been a place where this has happened and, in fact, where conditions are uniquely conducive for it. This refers to the Delhi culture that emerged from the Moghul era, in which Muslim and Hindu lived side-by-side, influenced each other, borrowed freely from each other’s traits and characteristics, lived together, all while the Muslim Moghul emperors ruled over their Hindu peoples. A unique flowering of poetry, literature and dance flowed from this time. When Partition came, it was a terrific wrench, and a complete denial that this co-existent culture did exist or could exist, a attempt to refute the idea of India itself.

I found it odd when I came to Delhi to find that most of its areas and suburbs had names redolent of separation, of a long-ago colonial area that one would have thought would have been stamped out in 57 years since independence. Rukmini Bhaya Nair in her essay City of Walls, City of Gates perfectly captures my puzzlement: “…the imperial ‘colony’ (e.g. Defence Colony), the ‘enclave’ (Sarvodaya Enclave), the ‘estate’ (Lodi Estate) and the ‘park’ (Gulmohar Park)…tend to house the elite and the western-educated, while the suffixes vihar, nagar, pur and puri (Sarita Vihar, Soami Nagar, Shadipur and Govindpuri) imply a more mixed population, ranging from the upwardly mobile middle classes to impoverished tenement dwellers…”

And so in Delhi today, there is another side-by-side relationship that is striking, and that is the traditional beside the modern, the poor beside the affluent middle classes, the Asian and subcontinental beside the Western. When I first came here, I was struck by the differences with what I had known, the images of India that we see in the west and are perhaps led to expect stand for all of India. But this land and this city is more complex than that – the Barista coffee bar chain exists next to a Sikh Gurdwara, a modern club next to a chai stall, an encroachment of tin shanties perches on land next to a shopping mall that would be completely at home in Europe or North America, featuring brand names (Adidas, Pizza Hut) with which any Westerner would be familiar. The middle class seem to have existed for some time here, but only recently have their numbers been burgeoning, fed by growing prosperity for those with employment in booming sectors, such as IT. And they constitute another vein running through this city, side-by-side with the press-wallah, the auto-wallah, leading these parallel but different lives.

Acknowledgements this week to Khushwant Singh’s City Improbable: Writings on Delhi, and to all those who kindly offered their sympathies on learning of my hard disk crash. You may be interested to know that Dell have been as usual less than helpful, but I do hope that a resolution is shortly at hand!!!

Friday, September 10, 2004

48 Crash

This is a shorter entry than usual this week because 48 hours ago my hard disk crashed in my laptop. As a result, “Side-by-Side-by Shahjahanabad”, the planned entry for today, resides on my laptop in the charred remains of a miniature piece of metal – possibly. And all the pictures. Now, I’m not silly. I did do a backup on 31 August of all my key data (I don’t backup 26 CDs of jazz, unfortunately, for obvious reasons). But f’r’cryin’ out loud, that’s a week of data and all the damn software inaccessible.

I telephoned Dell India and found them remarkably helpful. They promised someone within 1 business day to replace said hard disk. Great. But that didn’t help me with (i) reloading the software – not surprisingly, I don’t carry a slew of software CDs with me, and (ii) recovering my data. And Dell confirmed that, indeed, they would not help me with either of those. So when the repair man swanned in today, I said, replace the hard disk, but can you recommend a data recovery firm? I was thinking, if I can by chance recover all the data, perhaps I won’t need to get the discs sent from the UK by rocket, and I won’t have to reload all the software. So my settings restored, all my files there, and no need to redo anything from the past week, recover lost pictures, or de-Gatesify my operating system!!!

Mr. Hard Disk Man from Dell recommended a firm named Stellar (I thought he was talking about lager for a second, and got excited). They did indeed appear to exist and be somewhat reputable enough to be in the Yellow Pages, so I phoned them up. After going through a couple of people who concluded that it was not their problem (and one of which kindly offered to send my laptop away for analysis – fine, but I’m crawling up the wall here!), I got a sensible person who promised to collect the hard disk this afternoon, image the disk, and lift the recoverable data, by next week. Cost, exorbitant, but it’s in rupees!!!! Grrrreat. Mr. Dell India had already concluded that he couldn’t install his new hard disk until I had recovered the data (he has to take the ruined part away), so I hope to be up and running by sometime next week. Of course, Dell India hadn’t bothered to tell Mr. Hard Disk Man that I needed to recover data from the disk, and that I didn’t have any software CDs, both of which I had made clear on the telephone (but of course DELL DOESN’T HELP YOU WITH THAT…have you got that, sir????), so he made a pointless journey for nothing and will now have to return next week.

In the meantime, my colleagues are being driven up the wall by my griping, groaning, moans, gnashing of teeth, biting the carpet (this with a marble floor!), etc. and are following the hourly saga with barely disguised amusement and alarm.

So apologies for a short entry this week, and I promise to return (I hope!) next Friday!!!

I bet that Charles Dickens never had this problem...

Thanks to Suzi Quatro, leather lady of 70s glam, for this week’s title.

Friday, September 03, 2004

Labyrinth Labyrinthorum

Thanks for the title this week to the author Chaman Nahal, who in his book The Triumph of the Tricolour referred to the “labyrinth labyrinthorum of the maze that the old Delhi is”. I met that Labyrinth Labyrinthorum last weekend, and spent time on Saturday inside the boundaries of the old city walls.

After last week’s narrative on the travails of autos and their drivers, there was some demand for close-up shots of Un Coco Poco Loco. You can find these in the album for this week if you click here. It was easy, as it made eminent sense to get an auto this weekend to one of the gates of the old city, then begin a walk or something else from there.

The autowallah today was bluff and friendly, combining his sales pitch with expressions of concern for another tourist throwing themselves into the lion’s den. What is this? Old Delhi, Purana Dilli, Shahjahanabad, are all names for the densely populated central area in Delhi, north east of Connaught Place, next to the Red Fort or Lal Q’ila. “Shah Jahan’s most ambitious creation was another new Delhi. Designed to supersede Agra as the imperial capital, it was…a while new city with processional thoroughfares, bazaars, caravanserais, shaded waterways, spacious squares, and massive stone walls” (Keay, India: A History). It was constructed between 1639 and 1648. There were 27 towers and 11 gates. 400,000 people lived there after it was finished.

To the east, near the River Jumna, Shah Jahan built the Lal Q’ila. No slouch, he also managed to build the largest mosque in India in the middle of Shahjahanabad, the Jama Masjid. These were my compass points as I tried to orient myself.

Which I did with difficulty. My autowallah had finished his rambling sales pitch then, as I alighted, said, “be careful of your wallet and your money and your camera. Just watch it in those little alleyways. Are you sure that you’ll be okay? Fine. Do you want me to pick you up? No – okay. Well, remember my Rs. 500 fee for a day touring Delhi, and see you again…”

I’d asked to be dropped at Lahori Gate as it seemed a good place to start a walk – north in the direction of Old Delhi Train Station, east towards Chandni Chowk. I didn’t realise that I was behind the gate and so took a wrong turn or two before I came back to the Khari Baoli (Baoli means ‘step well’), after which I concluded that I would indeed do best (and as many of the locals seem to) to hire a rickshaw to take me around the area to begin with…though it wasn’t a real rickshaw, but a big tricycle with a seat on the back, and a little canopy over it to shield you from the sun, fine idea until you hit your head on it with every little bump in the road!

Shahjahanabad and New Delhi are the only two historic Delhi cities which can still be discerned reasonably clearly, even with changes, as the settlements that they were intended to be. Shahjahanabad was a walled city originally, but there are very few parts of the wall left…other than some of the gates (Delhi Gate, Lahore Gate, Ajmeri Gate, Kabul Gate, Turkman Gate), themselves named after cities.

It is here that you find the old streets and old lanes (or galis), the old mansions of the Mughals (or havelis), the romance and the vigour, the passion and the sweat, the hard work and the dreams, the dust and the clangor…great Urdu poets have written odes to Shahjahanabad, and many others have told of its charms and its attractions…

So many of the galis have merchants from one trade or one area of commerce gathered together – the booksellers and stationers in Nai Sarak, for example. All the galis are narrow, and there are frequent traffic jams, but you just have to wait, wait, wait, and that’s okay – as long as you keep your wits about you, you are safe in the hands of your rickshaw driver…

It has to be said that there is probably not a lot of the romantic side of Old Delhi left, unfortunately. Chandni Chowk (or “Moonlight Square”) is now a thriving commercial and trading centre. The expansion of Delhi on all its sides and its replacement as the centre of Delhi by the upstart Connaught Place has yet to dent its dynamism and verve. The amount of activity on the street is just overwhelming. In a rickshaw this impression is even stronger as you’re very close to the action on the street, and not low down as in an autorickshaw, but up above where you can see what else is going on, and with no sides or back to obscure the view. You’re also in among the constant traffic, which is good as that’s where the action is, as you can see from the photos!

The streets are a thriving, constant hive of activity, people hauling, carrying, pushing, pulling, waving, lying, walking, running, cycling…it’s amazing what heavy loads people haul, on donkeys, handcarts, bicycles, tricycles, rickshaws, etc. The sacks of feed, flower, rice, or whatever, look staggeringly heavy and are hauled around seemingly at will by the tide of humanity, the endless people about in this area

It’s amazingly congested – which is part of its appeal – and has a number of monuments and sights worth seeing (the Digambara Temple has an adjacent Bird Hospital run by the Jains, which sounds quite wonderful!). The rickshaw driver kindly pointed out streets to me, which I took in, but had to either decipher them from the riot of street signs, or look them up later - he gave me an excellent hour’s tour of the main sights, which you can see in the pictures.

I then ended my morning with a visit to the Jama Mashid, a magnificent and impressive sight, largest in India, a three-dome Mughal mosque, which was the example for other mosques in the area and the final architectural extravagance of Shah Jahan, begun in 1644 and completed by 1658.

You ascend a steep flight of steps on the south side, take off your shoes at that point, and then enter a large courtyard, running the normal gauntlet of hangers-on, cloakroom wallahs, volunteer guides, shoe wallahs, etc. The courtyard has gates on three sides, north, south and east, and the Jama Masjid was on the west side, facing towards Mecca

Crowded bazaars exist on all sides of the mosque outside the walls, but inside it is relatively calm, with few people in and around the courtyard, and quite peaceful (it is outside the time for prayer, however). Red sandstone and marble are the materials in use here again, in alternating strips, with others (such as alabaster) used for detailing and sculpting. There are rectangles on the ground indicating where people should kneel in prayer. You can ascend the south minaret to take pictures of the city, from which you discover that when Lutyens designed New Delhi, he made sure that the Jama Mashid, Connaught Place, and Sansad Bhawan (Parliament Building) were in a direct line.

I enjoyed my visit, but the galis on a first visit just seem crowded and congested, teeming with life, which is wonderful, but you would have to spend a lot more time there, walking through them and getting to know them, their characters and their peculiarities, intimately, to fall in love with them and, as always, there isn’t enough time. I wonder if they ever give up all their secrets.
Oh, and to finish the story of Shah Jahan, he had already distinguished himself by building in 1631 in Agra a paean of love to Mumtaz Mahal, his dead wife. Like many of the Moghul emperors, he came to a bad end: all of his sons rebelled against him, and against each other, and he was vanquished by one of the, Aurengzeb, to lifelong imprisonment in Agra where, sick and dying, he stared at a mirror on his wall above his bed…in which was reflected his gleaming, ever changing masterpiece, the Taj Mahal. He finally expired in 1666, by which time the Stuart restoration in Britain was 6 years old…

It seems the right time to talk a bit about the street life in Delhi, in India, as this is what a foreigner often thinks about, watches, or reads about. When you plunge in, you find out that there is almost no activity that does not find some sort of form on the street. During the night, in the warm weather, people will be sleeping outside, on charpoys (strung bed frames), on the ground, in the roundabouts (which I discovered when I stayed here before) – and that before you count the numbers sleeping in the makeshift shacks or tents in the encroachments by the roadside, made of plastic, corrugated fencing, tarp.

In the morning, the streets yawn, stretch, wake up…you get a steady procession of persons peddling their specialties of the day…the vegetable wallah…the fruit wallah…the brush wallah…there’s the press wallah, starting his ironing…and there are endless others…collecting scrap and rubbish…selling juice and ice cream…all with their distinctive calls, or shouts, or yells.

Wherever you are, preparations for businesses will occupy the beginning of the day. In the case of someone selling dosas and vadas, they will begin preparing ingredients and readying cooking utensils. In the case of the chaat seller near my bus stop, he first cycles along with some heavy bags hanging off the back of his bike. He parks the bike by a tree and goes away for about 20 minutes. He then returns, bent over, with what looks like an enormous set of scales that he carries with a massive brace across his back. On each of the small platforms sit his bags of chaat, neatly packed and covered. He tops them up from the bags on his bike. He then goes through a morning routine of sweeping the area around his chaatform; cleaning each of the utensils and weigh scales for the chaat with lemon juice and water; erecting netting over the riot of colourful chaat; tidying and shaking out each of the bags and the contents, decanting and replacing all his stock. It takes a long time, during which he is serving the army officers, bus travellers, students, and civil servants going by.

As for other food sellers, I hardly ever come to work in the morning without the frying of pakoras and somosas already taking place, the heating of roti (bread cooked on a hot plate), the stacking of snack foods, the frying of sweets (jalebis), the making of yogurt, the stacking of boxes and packets, the delivering of bales, the drying of peppers, the stacking of enormous rectangles of paneer at the dairy. Add to this all the bicycles, pedestrians, motorcycles, cows, stray cars, autos, worshippers in temple lane, papersellers, fruitjuicewallas, paan sellers and drinkswallahs, and you can be suffering from sensory overload in a matter of seconds!

Indian street life almost certainly has more variety than I can ever adequately describe. You need to experience it, then withdraw for awhile, then plunge back in again. Adam Mynott, former South Asian (now South African) correspondent of the BBC, recently said in an interview in the Hindustan Times that, “I have a theory about journalism. According to me, every street has a story. But in India, every street has at least 10 or 15 stories. The texture and intensity here is just amazing.” With that in mind, I will take a break from Shahjahanabad next week and discover a very different Delhi…