The Kumbh Mela held every 12 years on the banks of Rivers Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati at Allahabad is supposedly the biggest religious fair on earth. Allahabad or Prayag is my home town and I grew up with the myths surrounding the three rivers.
Moksha is salvation and a dip in the sacred waters cleanses mind and body.
The whiteness vandalizes the senses as I gaze at this architectural splendor from the prism of the entrance arch. On closer view the white is flecked with browns and greys and burrowed settings once embellished with precious and semi precious stones. I savor the fluidic elegance of ‘a teardrop on the cheek of time‘* and wonder how long will it take for the present pollution level to stymie the Taj into a giant tear drop.
It is amazing how this venerated love monument has taken on the rampaging composition of pollution, population and political sentiments……the prayer caps and picnicking families, the gullible tourists* (foreigners pay Rs. 700 as compared with Rs. 20 for locals), the never-ending queues of admirers listening to guides crochet VIP visits ‘Princess of Wales sat on this very seat’ with the history of the monument, the workmanship, the conspiracy theories of Shah Jahan hijacking a Hindu monument, whether it is a ‘monument of devotion’ or simply a Mughal conquerors statement.
Agra played a central role in Mughal history, forfeited its capital status to Delhi in 1637. with its cache of Mughal architecture such as Fathepur Sikri the city built by Akbar, the tomb of Itmad-Ud-Daula, Sikandra 13 miles from the Great Red Fort of Agra from where an imprisoned Shah Jahan would view the Taj Mahal through a piece of glass and the Taj Mahal, constructed in 1631.
This was my fifth visit to Agra and the Taj Mahal in last 40 years and on this visit the Taj took on the hue of the protagonist of hypothetical murder mysteries revolving around religious conflicts, secret organizations, assassinations and the world of dancers and dons. In real scenario the main burial site of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan is off-limits to tourists and I tried to visualize the action as I strolled on the paved pathways searching for hidden clues. The surrounding narrow and congested lanes, the dilapidated Mina Bazaar near the entrance to the Taj, the gardens turned into farms, crowded parking lots, the colorful modes of transport, the varied cuisine are props for an actionized duplicate.
The real is marbleized photo-op for visitors.
* Rabindranath Tagore
*The Taj Mahal is visited by nearly 2-4 million visitors annually with over 200,000 from overseas.
Delhi is celebrating 100 years of its existence as the capital city of India and shades of its glorious past squint through heritage sites and dilapidated pockets of livelihood. The long journey of transformation from collective villages into a metropolis has been traumatic, uneventful, deceitful, apathetic, joyful, resentful.
Delhi is my adopted city, married here, and Allahabad my birth city and school holidays meant visits to my mother’s ancestral home in one of the lanes of Ballimaran, Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi. My great-grandfather had seven sons and one daughter and the wise old man refused to build property because he did not want his sons to fight over bricks and mortar. I remember the rented ‘haveli’ or mansion with its shadowless rooms, the ‘baithak’ or lounge with a massive mattress, where great-grandfather reportedly spent hours puffing on his hookah, and the labyrinth of passages for the children to run around. I heard stories from my mother and her cousins of how they would sneak out to purchase candy from street-hawkers when great-grandfather had his afternoon nap. The visits also meant gorging on jalebis* at the Dariba, fruit chaat* from the vendor in front of State Bank building and parathas* from the Paratha gali or lane.
I made New Delhi my home, after marriage, and similar to most dwellers became immune to the dirt and squalor blaming it on the government and the people trooping from adjoining cities and villages. I would weave my way through traffic stopping at red lights by choice and accepting noise pollution, power outages and water shortage as addendum of daily living.
The equation changed when we returned after five years in Oman, 2000, and I viewed Delhi from an ‘outsider’ perception. The ‘India Shining’ slogan rang hollow against the squalor, the lounging cows blocking roads and traffic, the daily workers living on roadsides and using the vacant plots as toilets, the women beggars with scrawny infants hanging onto their hips, child beggars and the ‘acceptance’ attitude of the public. The list was endless little realizing that I was voicing ‘tourist’ views when I too was to blame for the apathetic state of affairs.
In 2006 we moved to Gurgaon, 15 miles south of New Delhi, hoping for a slice of the ‘millennium’ bonanza. My first impression of the ‘Millennium’ city was that ‘it is haphazardly crowded’ with nearly 26 shopping malls showcasing major world brands, golf courses, private clubs, movie theaters, pubs and bars, luxury apartments, palatial villas, slums and all-glass commercial hubs displaying world’s top corporations. The city touted as the symbol of rising India slipped somewhere along the line and problems that were once the bane of Delhi haunt the new city and its residents: The unreliable power supply (generator power is the main power supply), missing pavements and sidewalks, vacant lots converted into garbage disposal sites, pot holed roads and lanes, the newer overcrowded Metro stations still in incomplete stage, rickshaw queues and traffic snarls.
On a recent visit to Delhi/Gurgaon from Hong Kong, our residence since 2008, I was driving from Gurgaon to Delhi on the main connector M.G. Road with its demolished landmarks (commercial buildings demolished when the Municipal Corporation decided they were illegal) and the crawling traffic made me chant prayers to keep my cool. For a few minutes it worked but I soon gave up all pretence of civility and for rest of the one hour drive I was mouthing expletives at passing motorists and motor cyclists. There is still no lane or signal concept and before you can say ‘red’ a car zooms past oblivious of your rear view mirror. It is an ordeal or an adventure, whichever way one looks at it, though I still would not trade it for a monotonous drive I experienced commuting from San Jose to San Francisco where one is in danger of dozing off.
The 2011 Anna Hazare movement against corruption captured the collective imagination of the country in different ways. Even when the Anna fast was going on and streets crowded with sympathizers, an employee of the electricity sub station in my block, in Gurgaon, wanted to know whether I was living in a bungalow or an apartment. I had gone to register a meter fault and was without electricity for four hours. He showed up around 6 p.m.,least apologetic about the inconvenience though sorry for missing out on ‘pocket money’ because by then I had called a private electrician to repair the meter. A Catch-22 situation..be damned if you give and be damned if you don’t.
The Gurgaon and Delhi refurbishings are still on, and hopefully, someday the cities would not remind me of village belles stepping out of their comfort zones with mismatched accessories.
For an Indian man any woman above thirty is a ‘bahanji’ (sister) and any woman above 50 a ‘mataji’ (mother). Here I was belonging to the second group traveling in the county’s national carrier. I desisted from wearing tights, a loose shirt and knee-length boots. After all I did not want to short-circuit the immigration officer. He would waste ten minutes scanning me and then my age in the passport…a ‘mataji’ gone mod.
A flight is known by the food it serves and services offered. Asked for non vegetarian and it was a mistake. The chicken was anything but curried, the bun too solid, pulled and pulled and tore it apart, thankfully saved my teeth. Satisfied my hunger with rice, fat-free yoghurt and yellow lentil to last me for 4 (four) hours.
The plane is half full…tour groups and company largesse crowd from small towns, getting high on free glasses of whisky, calling out to each other across the aisle.
The new airport is humongous. I felt I had never stopped walking from Hong Kong to New Delhi, except for the few hours plane ride. Kept glancing upwards, towards the ceiling, waiting for some mishap. With so much happening, falling bridges and ceilings, one expected the worse. But then as a friend pointed out, it is the national airport.
Visited Connaught Place or Rajiv Chowk. It did look refurbished, new coat of paint and new tiles. Some left over patches are visible and one wonders whether we will have to wait for the next big event or wait for the tiles to disappear to people’s homes. Anything is possible.
The one constant, India Gate, a mute witness to the shenanigans of the inhabitants, still manages to stand tall.
Feb. 28, 2010: The morning fog had a surprise in store for me. Walking on Hung Leung road, Hung Hom towards Whampoa,(Kowloon) I heard the distinctive ‘Koo Ooo’ of the Koel, my childhood nemesis. It was a surprise because in 2 years of my stay in Hong Kong this was the first time I heard the ‘Koel’ and it was an instant carry back to cool summer mornings, boat rides on the Ganges river, raw Mangoes and Guavas. We have this open land around our house in Allahabad (India) crowded by Mango, Neem and Guava trees and early spring the trees would be full of blossoms and new fruits. The Koel could be heard from different perches and I would follow the voice to put a face to it but the bird would, invariably, outwit me. Till date I do not know what it looks like except for Wikipedia pictures and with information that it is the male of the species that loves to hear its voice. I always thought it was the female but like the Peahen (Peacock family) the female Koel is the indistinctive one. The Male Koel is bluish black with yellow-green beak and crimson eyes. (wikipedia.org/wiki/Asian_Koel)
Now, here in Hung Hom, in concrete surroundings with countable trees, I thought I was imagining the snippy ‘koo OOo’ and the only way I could check it out would be to out koo OOo it as I would do during three ‘spring’ months every year till I outgrew the sport. It was a regular ‘slanging match and with every koo..OOo the pitch would increase forcing one of us to give in….either I would be called inside the house or the Koel flew away. Another reason for finding the narcissist tweeting irritating (as the present techni-tweeting) was that the Koel was a precursor of Board examinations (Class 10 and 12) and later College and in between all the cramming the melodious koo OOo was a taunt. Here was a bird, a known parasite who does not make its own nest, hopping around full of cheer and I had to study.
In ancient Indian literature, the Vedas, the Koel is referred to as ‘raised by others’. The male Koel creates the ruckus helping its partner lay its single egg in the crow’s nest next to the already present egg. The crow, without realizing the difference, conveniently hatches the egg.
In Indian poetry the ‘Koel’ is a melodious symbol and the Sanskrit root of Koel is “Kokila’. Both very popular names for girls in India.
Listening to the Koel, after all these years, reminded me of challenges and serene mornings that had inadvertently tiptoed into mundane affairs.