Monday, November 10, 2008

PS: Delhi Revisited

Dinesh is Our Man in Delhi. His eyes aren’t quite interested in the same thing, behind his pebble-glasses, and he comes up to about Mr Roland’s third rib. Within a heartbeat of his whipping into the front seat of our Tourist Innova, we learn that he has two sons and a daughter, 18, 16 and 11, that he used to be a jeweller, in Bandra, Mumbai, that he speaks Japanese, and that he’s lived in Delhi for twelve years. We’re well out of the diplomatic area, with its spacious embassies and copiously-sprinkled lawns, and into the Mumbai-familiar scurry and scramble of Old Delhi, when Dinesh sees fit to mention his wife, before segueing smoothly back to his tourist patter. It seems the Presidential Palace of Delhi was home to the last Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten, who employed more than four hundred gardeners, to service its grounds, and fifty soldiers, as human scarecrows....

At the Jama Mashid Mosque, we feed single file through the bomb-detecting door-frame, and up the wall of stepped slabs beyond. The threat of terrorism's never far from anyone's mind, here, so it's not surprising, that they're so hot on national security. What is surprising, though, is that the bomb-dectecting door-frame's not wired up to anything other than fresh air. Indian security's so... Indian.

We’re just kicking off our shoes, breathless, before entering the central courtyard, when we’re shooed away by sentries – it’s four o’clock, and the muezzin’s revving up for the evening call to prayer. As we’re littering the doorway, with our mouths hanging open like bumpkins fresh in from the west, a posse of youths clatters up the stone stairs, three at a time. They flick their shoes to the chappal-wallah without breaking their stride, pulling their lacy skull-caps straight: they’re late.

Dinesh, apologetic, offers to bring us back in half an hour, when prayers are said, and the faithful no longer need protecting from the taint of prying observers, but I point to the schedule of house rules, by the entrance archway. “Number Eight: Women are not permitted to enter after the evening prayer.” I am the only female fly in this particular ointment, so I consider offering to wait outside, while they go in and fulfil themselves touristically, but I think better of it, before my kindness gets past my teeth. So, we peek in at the gateway, and that’s as much mosque as we see today.

At the foot of the steps, a whole Muslim community springs up on every side. If you don’t spot the crocheted cap stalls, the butchers are a dead giveaway, their counters curtained with grim carcasses, and laid with strings of dark meat. I turn away quickly, but not quickly enough, I’ve already seen the basket of goat-heads on the floor. Dinesh says, “Very danger area,” and flips the central lock. (Does that remind you of anyone you know? Anyone from Lucknow, for example?) At night, here, our man from Delhi says, only Muslims walk abroad.

We crawl through the maze of packed streets, happy to drink in local colour now we’re locked in - small shops, wooden stalls, or even bits of rag, spread on the bare pavement, then arranged with fragrant piles of garlic or heaps of toasted nuts for sale. There’s a whole unglamorous row specializing in car parts. “We keep the car moving,” says Dinesh, sagely, “We stay still, ten minutes, all car gone.” Just like Liverpool, I think... “Then, we come here, buy car back again, one piece this shop, one piece next shop...”

We drive to the Gandhi Memorial, and our afternoon of untourism is complete. It’s closed. The guard slouches on his plastic chair, his rifle leaning cosily against his khaki knees, but he wakes up for a consultation with Dinesh. Thus we learn that tomorrow’s the anniversary of the assassination of Indira Gandhi – 31 October – so the park’s secured twenty-four hours in advance: you can’t get in to mooch round the mausoleum, in case you’ve got a bomb stuffed down your salwar. Fair enough. “Is just square of black marble,” Dinesh says dismissively, as we do another U-turn, “... and eternal flame.” I wonder, why we were going to see it in the first place, since it’s such a non-starter, but I don’t say...

Plan C’s Birla’s Temple, and – desperate for some sights to see – we agree before Dinesh reaches the question-mark. We screech away from the lights, as soon as they turn green: dust and exhaust-fumes shroud the motley crew of somersaulting beggars, lady-boys, and coconut vendors, plying their various trades. An occupational hazard, if you live at the cross-roads.

Happily for us – and even more happily for Dinesh - Birla’s Temple’s a winner. Mr Birla’s big in construction, second only to Mr Tata, here in India, so the temple’s by him, rather than to him. It’s also known as the Lakshmi Ganesha Temple, but you could guess that from the statuary at the gate. Mr Birla has a statue of his own, but it’s in the back garden, to eliminate any possible misunderstanding.

Indian enterprise is ever alert to a retail opportunity. Before being overwhelmed by spirituality at this place of worship, they slip in a tourist shop by the front entrance. It doesn’t say “Tourist Shop,” obviously, it says, “Foreigners this way!” and by the time you realise it’s actually a shop, they’ve got your shoes. And, in our case, your mobile phones and your camera, too... There are elephants-in-elephants on sale, and pashminas, and sandalwood Buddhas, but there’s no obligation to buy. Not unless you want your phone back, that is. The temple’s dedicated to Ganesh, the God of Business, and to Lakshmi, the Goddess of Money, so how could there not be a shop on the way in?

Dinesh kisses the steps, and makes for Ganesh’s shrine, for a private word. With the ring-finger on his right hand, he presses a red kum-kum bindi, first on his own forehead, then on each of ours. His wife must know where he’s been, I say, when he gets home, of an evening.

The bell above the central arch, on the way into the main temple, is suspended out of reach, so you have to jump, to hit the clapper and make it ring. A French lady asks Owen to pick up her friend, to help him sound the bell, so he does. The Frenchman’s fairly substantial, and I’m just wondering why he needs a lift, when I notice, he’s blind.

On the way out, I buy a lacquered elephant, to redeem our shoes. In my own defence, it’s very small and blue, and therefore inevitable. Or, that’s what I tell Mr Roland.

We’re staying at the Taj Palace Hotel, in Delhi. So are the Australian and Indian cricket teams. We draw up at the grand entrance, and are swept out of the car and into the hotel, by Maharajah doormen in cockaded turbans and curly moustaches. The marble steps are flooded with reporters and random passers-by, brandishing cameras and mobiles, but I don’t twitch my kurta straight, or even pat my mad hair. Dinesh jostles importantly past the liveried flunkies. “So, tomorrow,” he says, avoiding the chief doorman’s eye, “we meet here in the foyer, nine-thirty, right?” I’m almost sure that’s right, because it’s what we agreed in the car, less than fifteen seconds ago. Dinesh needs a passport beyond the plate-glass doors, though, and we’re it. He abandons us instantly, and scuttles off to harass cricketing legends, and to be swatted out of the way by their minders. I’m thinking, it’d be nice to take some photos, too, for our cricketing boy, back in Mumbai, but there’s a small snag. I wouldn’t recognise Sachin Tendulkar if he served me my breakfast egg, unless he was labelled. Mr Roland contrives to catch Australia between floors, though, without getting punched, so our happy conjunction is not lost to posterity, after all.