Tom & Payal’s mehendi and sangeet party at The Manor, Friends Colony West, Delhi, Feb 24, 2012.
As Tom put it during our car ride from Indira Gandhi Airport to my hotel in South Delhi: highways in India are, at least, totally democratic. Lawless as they seem to terrified Americans, lanes are shared equally by pedestrians, un-helmeted cyclists and motorcyclists, cars, 18-wheelers and the occasional ox-drawn cart…more to follow about my experiences as passenger and pedestrian on the streets of India. Meanwhile, Payal was telling me that my best options for getting around the city for site-seeing purposes would be taxis and auto-rickshaws, and that the practically brand new Delhi Metro was a perfectly good alternative, as well.
Being intimately acquainted with the concept of subways, I was instantly interested in this option. What could be more familiar in a completely foreign country than underground public transportation? Commuters in big cities around the world surely have the same needs: affordability, reliable service, basic personal safety and access to a city’s important places. The Delhi Metro seemed a good choice as much for comparative research as a fellow commuter in a big, global city as for a cheap and useful way to see the sites as a tourist.
It did not disappoint! The spotless stations; wide, vaulted platforms; and suburb/exurb connectivity reminded me of the DC Metro, while the graphic design of maps and logo reminded me of the London Tube. The people watching was a tie between the MTA (diversity and sheer number of fellow passengers) and the Paris Metro (their beauty and impeccable style).
But, naturally, the Delhi Metro is entirely its own thing. For one thing, it’s mad cheap: you can buy a 1-day Tourist Travel Card for Rs100 ($2), plus a Rs50 ($1) deposit, which you get back when you return the card. It’s got metal detectors: my first time in the system, I stepped blithely up to the men’s line and was immediately waved over to the women’s line by a compassionate and quick-witted lady guard. And, best of all, the single-sex theme carries through all the way to ‘Women Only’ train cars: I found myself loving their peace and quiet, so much so that I would not at all mind a few Women Only cars on the 4/5 train, especially during rush hour.
Why? Because, at least as far as the Delhi Metro is concerned, Women Only subway cars are empirically cleaner, quieter, less…full of men. I adore men, but anyone who enjoys clean, quiet environments and not being stared at by men might reasonably prefer to commute in a Women Only subway car. Just saying. But with Tom’s observation about the ‘democratic’ highways of India in mind, I wondered about the social separation of gender underground, and elsewhere in public. What an intriguing challenge to my cultural assumptions about gender and democracy. Clearly I’m coming from a very specific cultural viewpoint: gender is such a complicated subject for Americans (New Yorkers?), and apparently, such a simple one elsewhere. But is single-sex anything really so simple…or democratic?
Not that I’m prepared to answer that question, except to note that the value of traveling (on a daily commute or around the world) does seem to be related to the experience of sharing the lanes.
On one of my afternoons of site-seeing in Delhi, I visited Birla House, where Gandhi spent the last 144 days of his life trying to broker peace between Hindus and Muslims before his assassination in 1948. Meanwhile, at the suggestion of a friend, I had been reading All Art Is Propaganda, a collection of George Orwell’s critical essays, which contains his 1949 Partisan Review essay, ‘Reflections on Gandhi.’ Orwell on the Mahatma:
“It is well to be reminded that Gandhi started out with the normal ambitions of a young Indian student and only adopted his extremist opinions by degrees and, in some cases, rather unwillingly. There was a time, it is interesting to learn, when he wore a top hat, took dancing lessons, studied French and Latin, went up the Eiffel Tower and even tried to learn the violin – all this with the idea of assimilating European civilization as thoroughly as possible. He was not one of those saints who are marked out by their phenomenal piety from childhood onwards, nor one of the other kind who forsake the world after sensational debaucheries…His character was an extraordinarily mixed one, but there was almost nothing in it that you can put your finger on and call bad, and I believe that even Gandhi‘s worst enemies would admit that he was an interesting and unusual man who enriched the world simply by being alive. Whether he was also a lovable man, and whether his teachings can have much value for those who do not accept the religious beliefs on which they are founded, I have never felt fully certain.” (All Art Is Propaganda, ed. George Packer, Mariner Books, 2009).
On the numerous placards hanging on the walls of the museum, one of Gandhi’s quotes really stood out for me: “As I am nearing the end of my earthly life, I can say that purity of life is the highest and truest art.” I considered this statement while studying his scant ‘worldly remains’ and wondered what Orwell might have thought of it. Whatever else you can say about him, with regard to asceticism, Gandhi surely walked the talked. I found that extremely reassuring. Probably Orwell would, too, although not because he would have valued Gandhi’s asceticism per se, as much as the integrity with which he committed to its practice. I also found reassuring the single tchotchke to be found anywhere in the house, and next to his writing desk, no less: a wooden carving of the ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ monkeys – a trustworthy, if trite, old proverb, which suggested to me that even a saint needs to be reminded daily how to live purely.
Seeking refuge in a simple cup of tea is one of my tried and true strategies for feeling at home while I’m on the road. When I’m overwhelmed or unsure of my next move, sipping a hot beverage buys me time to reflect on exactly what in the world is going on around me and how I fit into the picture. Also, tea pairs well with writing in a journal, which I’ve observed, most waiters around the world tend to indulge with a friendly smile, and usually a few curious questions about what I’m writing, where I’m from, etc., etc.. A little caffeine perks me up if I’m weary from my wanderings, and before long I’m ready to venture forth again, into the unfamiliar. What I especially enjoyed about my teatime in India was the experience of the tea tray as still life: a crumbly cookie, pressed linens, flower petals floating in a bowl of water. Composed of slightly more than just the cup of tea I’d ordered, memorable moments were made by a few simple touches of color, texture and taste. A good souvenir to bring home! I also had a cup of tea in the airport while I waited six frustrating hours for my rescheduled flight from Delhi to Udaipur. It came in a tiny red plastic cup, with lots of undissolved white sugar and instant creamer, and, as far as serving its strategic purpose of smoothing the bumps in the road on that particular leg of my journey, it was every bit as memorable as those pictured below.
While on tour in Croatia & Slovenia in 2008 for Must Don’t Whip ‘Um, Philippa Thompson was telling me about a friend of hers who always photographs street art wherever she travels, because it’s a good way to know where a city’s head is secretly at. As with many other aspects of my recent trip to India, I found the graffiti in Delhi elegant, yet perplexing. For example, “DISSENT OVERDOSE” – a slogan I saw tagged on an overpass on Sardar Patel Marg on the way from South Delhi to Bijwasan – definitely caught my eye, but what does it mean, and to whom? It’s comforting to know that I’m not the only one asking, and I suppose that’s the point of any good work of art, especially if it’s so emphatically and intentionally in the public eye: If we’re not asking ourselves what it means, we’re probably not even noticing it in the first place.
A week before my trip to Delhi, I dream of learning to ride an elephant. There’s no saddle to sit on, just a rough wool blanket right on the crown of the elephant’s head. I tumble off and am sitting in the dirt, defeated. Standing behind me is an Indian man, very thin and taut, shirtless but wearing a turban, who insists that I climb back on board that enormous creature and learn to ride properly. I’m afraid, but he insists. He’s a trainer of some kind – of people more than elephants. He’s all business; therefore, I do as he tells me, and when I’m seated again on the elephant’s head, I realize that the elephant doesn’t mind my being there, and that there is nothing to fear. I proceed to practice steering right and left by pressing the back of his ears with the soles of my feet. It feels good, like pressing my feet on the mat in tadasana. Not being very proficient, however, I steer him directly through the tall marsh grass and into a deep, calm, silty brown river. How can I describe the way the water feels? It’s like a grandmother’s embrace, soft and loving. The elephant is completely submerged, but I’m perched on his head, mostly high and dry, if somewhat perplexed. Again, the elephant doesn’t seem to mind at all. He knows I’m there to practice, and he has the virtue of patience.