Legitimate fear of death came later

 

You could walk across eight lanes of Delhi highway on Wednesday morning without legitimate fear of death. No, legitimate fear of death came later on Wednesday.

For a week before India’s Republic Day, streets around New Delhi’s central India Gate, had been blocked off from public view. The defence force had erected three metre high green fences. The police had shut off roads with yellow barricades. Thousands of seats had been set up lining the main road, the Rajput.

All you needed was a ticket. Just 50 rupees to reserve your spot at the India’s declaration of military might. Its solidarity and diversity and it’s pledge to maintain a staunch democratic system. This is what the thousands showed up for – to be a witness to great things.

The precautions were understandable, said Gaurav Dayal, a guide originally from Jaipur.

“Things have become very dangerous. A lot can happen. Anything can happen. Terrorism is a real threat.”

Raju, the rickshaw driver was not concerned with that. The spindly teenager had decided not to pay the 50 rupees to attend the event but instead peer over the fence line about 1km away from the action. He would shuffle from spot to spot long enough to catch a glimpse of a tank or a truck before being ushered along by a solider. He grinned as a group of five tanks with barrels pointed sky ward came rumbling towards him bordered by the India Gate.

Those 50 rupees had to be saved.

“Too much,” he said.

A 21 gun salute undertaken by heavy artillery started the proceedings at 9.50am sharp.

Fourteen hours earlier I had been counting my blessings in a reasonable restaurant in south Delhi. How was it, I thought, that I have gone unscathed from the miscellany of evil stomach bugs and goolies that infamously reigned supreme in this land.

My answer came swiftly an hour later. Damn kofta. Kofta malai. That most innocent and understated of vegetarian dishes. It was definitely the kofta, I thought.

The following morning there was no time for retribution. I jumped in a tuk tuk and raced up towards the barricade, hoping to get a glimpse of something.

I had failed in buying a ticket. My journey to the office ended in disappointment two days earlier. “Sold out,” the man who once sat behind the counter but now leaned against it smoking a bindi cigarette. Job done.

I jumped out of the tuk tuk, handed the driver slither of a note, walked 10 steps, stopped. Looked around. And vomited.

I tried to hide my shame from the curious families that had similar ideas about attending the celebration of their country’s democratic might. Unlike me, however, in their hand they held their tickets. Their entry.

Behind those gates, through that barrage of army officers they would see, so I have read, a “Colourful tableaux depicting the myriad hues of country’s diversity, a vibrant performance by students and armed forces in full battle regalia,” reported the Hindustan Times. “A mini India,” wrote the Times of India.

On January 26 1950, India’s constitution was signed. It was four years after gaining independence from Britain, which had effectively ruled the country for 200 years. For 62 years the event was a significant date in the Indian calendar. It was a must see.

But here I was eyes pointed floor-ward avoiding the gaze of the father rushing his two young daughters to the entry gate. He took one in either had. The two girls’ other hands were firmly wrapped around a stick of pink candy floss.

I vomited again.

Closer to the blockade the scene started to materialise. From the other side of an eight lane road, I strode out unafraid. Nothing. No oncoming tuk tuks, no taxi drivers, no BMWs. Just pure, glorious tarmac.

At the fence, crowds gathered as a band of tanks made their way into a grassed clearing.

A man dressed in rags, a scraggly beard and hair peppered with dirt and grey began shouting. He sauntered past one of the entry gates, throwing his hands in the air and yelling the same indecipherable phrase over and over.

I asked the young man next to me what he was saying. The man, who introduced himself as Vikram just smiled and said: “Just crazy.”

He had the day off from his job of driving taxis. It was a job he started four years ago when money became more important. It was a job he now spent almost all of his waking hours fulfilling. He had a son yes, a seven-year-old, but he was at home with his mother. This was Vikram’s own treat. A 150 rupee ticket. A reserved seat. A chance to see the prime minister address the nation, a chance to see India’s new jet fighters. A chance to sing patriotic songs and remember what it was to be an Indian.

Which was exactly? Times were changing so fast it was hard to keep track.

One young Indian entrepreneur, who along with two other in their 20s started a successful fashion label, put it this way. Manisha reflected on the habits of her parents. They were religious about religion. They knew how to tie saris and anything they saved went towards a wedding that one day would come pre-packaged and arranged. Back then they would have come out of the back pages of the Times of India. Sixty per cent still do. The matrimonial classified advertise potential brides. Well educated. Always pretty. Caste no bar, they sometimes said.

But for Manisha that was a world away. Where in previous lives family might give jewellery to a bride as a present. In the 90s they gave appliances TVs, microwaves. Now they gave an Amex Black credit card.

“I am anti capitalist,” said Manisha. “But I love money.”

It was difficult to reconcile.

However, it was more difficult to reconcile the man with the pepper beard and the satchel thrown over his shoulder. His shouting had not calmed down. The army soldiers ignored him. He made his way past the police at the barricade. They ignored him. What was he saying?

Did he miss out on a ticket too? Was he fighting some venomous, show no mercy belly bug?

I followed him back down the main arterial road and saw him take a seat on a curb. He needed to rest. So did I.

*As printed in the Nelson Mail

At 3am, Delhi sleeps


At 3am, Delhi sleeps. Beyond the dull thud of iron on stone somewhere out there in the darkness, beyond the sporadic call of chattering birds and sharp bursts of bark from over excited stray dogs, Delhi is quiet.

I arrived on a Saturday. It was in the early hours of the morning when the air was cold and the traffic almost non existent. The army solider with the automatic rifle draped over his shoulder took my passport and eyed my visa carefully – upside down.

“Ok,” he said and ushered me outside.

He had the first of many great mustaches I would encounter.

The drive into Nizamuddin took less than half an hour. There is no worse way to have a first encounter with a city than at that particular time. Three am. A foggy haze obscured any vision of what the place might look like. The street lighting could not convey the what the lights flying in, on a 5hr 45 minute flight from Hong Kong, had hinted at. From up there immense pockets unfurled. They started and stopped and started again. The lights congregated and dispersed. From up there, it looked like they didn’t end.

But from the back of a car…just misted black. Faint fires lit on the road side to warm the pavement dwellers in the nine degree night. The outlines of trees marking the roadside.

About 17 hours earlier it began with a chicken – dead from natural causes. My brother had come to pick me up at 7am sharp to take me to Auckland Airport. He had bad news. The place he was house sitting, which was home to a large plump egg producing chicken, had a tragedy overnight. Hooli, his vegan dog, had savagely slaughtered one of those chickens. It was unclear how attached the owners were to it. Had they named it? How many were there?

“Two.”

“Oh.”

My next encounter with a chicken came one and a half days later in a restaurant in New Delhi that was far too swanky and dim for me to feel entirely at ease. There were Japanese tourists. Hindu tour guides speaking Mandarin. A Sikh tour guide speaking Spanish. How had I got here?

The tandoori chicken was suggested as a good dish. I had been advised against all things that were once breathing and now dead as legitimate feeding options. I had earlier also vaguely made a suggestion to myself that perhaps I should stop drinking for a while.

I ordered my tandoori chicken with a side of beer. It was happy hour. They gave me two. I got tipsy and wrote haikus.

 

Working on three hours
Not enough time unconscious
Hence I write haikus

When I awoke from those three hours sleep, the cawing had been replaced with the buzz of a concrete cutter. There might have been two. It’s hard to tell. The car horn, an invention entirely wasted on western cultures, was in full force.

I don’t get guilty often. Usually in these situations I do some amount of homework. But skirting through Delhi on my first day. Covering a thousand years of history spanning religion, war, love, death, coups, empire and victory, I could not help thinking: “I really should have read more.”

I should have read about the capital of empires. Of invading armies. Of the structures built to honour rulers, of ones that died before they got to complete them. Of dynasties and uprisings and the creation of vast tombs shared by enemies.

I should have read more of Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv. Both prime ministers. Both assassinated. Indira by her own bodyguards while walking to her study. That walk is now paved in crystal, like a flowing river. The place where she fell covered with a sheet of glass. Families bring their children to that spot.


I should have read about the note found in her personal papers after she was gunned down.

“If I die a violent death, as some fear and a few are plotting, I know that the violence will be in the thought and the action of the assassins, not in my dying.”

Nearby is the place where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated. A flame burns there. His last words engraved on the black granite. “He Ram.”

These are things I should have read and did not. But now I see them.