Surprisingly, despite hundreds of thousands of miles of travel, I had never visited India before September 2002. On balance, I am sorry to say that I experienced more that was sad and shocking in this encounter than I did the sublime or the enlivening. Not least was the terrorist attack on a Hindu temple the day before I arrived which caused a wave of national outrage expressed in a ‘bandh’, of which more later. As you can tell from the unusual lack of photographs in Mumbai, my camera did not emerge from hiding until Delhi. But both shocking and sublime were present – in the words of the film ‘American Beauty’, “there is beauty everywhere”.
Visiting Mumbai (the City Formerly Known as Bombay), I didn’t actually get down to the city centre proper as the event at which I was speaking was held well out of town, north of the airport in an affluent enclave. Even so, the streets still screamed both the pain and the entrepreneurial flair of the Indian people. The scenes were reminiscent of my visit to Harare in Zimbabwe in the late 90s – except with more people, many more people, and with fewer signs of an affluent elite and their associated security arrangements.
The culture in India clearly encourages a can-do entrepreneurial attitude in many people. Everywhere there were signs of private enterprise, with expensive signage posted above the most humble of locations, often no more than three walls covered with a light roof. A cement shop caught my eye – the sign of the one-person-sized brick booth proudly announcing the “Powai Cement Centre”, with a huge pile of dry cement powder heaped up outside almost obscuring the proprietor inside.
Mahatma Gandhi’s distaste for modern labour-saving industrial devices (soundly based on the observation that they destroy jobs and further impoverish the poor) is clearly still shared by the building trade in India. Passing a hotel under construction near the airport, a workman was playing concrete mixer stirring a huge pool of concrete in a pit just outside the site and dispensing it like so much porridge to a never-ending line of women in smart, colourful saris. They in turn filled baskets with concrete and carried them on their heads into the building site where, no doubt, they were being poured into frameworks to form the walls of the new building. There were no machines visible anywhere.
On Thursday, there was a unique scene that would have been impossible to predict. Mumbai is a teeming, seething mass of people and traffic, with never a daytime moment when anyone other than a madman would try to drive on the streets. My conference address was brought forward by a day to allow for the fact that many of the delegates would be unable to attend on day 2 due to a ‘bandh’, or stay-at-home protest, called by the opposition political parties with the tacit approval of the government and pretty much everyone else in response to a terrorist attack at a Hindu temple in central India. On the day, the bandh resulted in the amazing and rare spectacle of a silent Mumbai (whether out of solidarity or out of a fear of instant ‘discipline’ on those breaking the bandh).
The city came to life again as dusk drew near, and by flight time the madmen were again on the streets with their apparently suicidal driving style (just keep moving and everything will be all right). At the airport, the news showed riot police contrrolling demonstrators in central Mumbai with water cannon and the evening newspapers told of the apparent suspension of SMS service in some areas to stop ringleaders co-ordinating their supporters. Meanwhile, locals reported that the police had been sending them SMS messages all day to say there was nothing to worry about and everything was under control. Clearly SMS is a new tool in the police toolbox – a trend worth watching.
Airport security at Mumbai was unique in my experience (admittedly I have never flown El Al either).The fear of technology-lead unemployment was obviously rife here as well. Despite all hand baggage being x-rayed like everywhere else, it was all also thoroughly but inexpertly manually searched by a paramilitary type, who then stamped the bag tag to show he’d found nothing. Then at the gate, the bag was searched again, this time by a clearly experienced professional who knew what to look for and at and what not to bother with. To accompany the intrusive triple-search, I (and everone else) was also frisked twice and had my boarding pass and passport inspected at least three times by the myriad of differently-uniformed staff who seemed to outnumber the passengers. By the time I boarded the plane to Delhi, both my bag tag and boarding pass had three or four official stamps on them. This, I am told, is standard Mumbai practice.
Delhi was clearly different. The journey from the airport to the hotel was often lined with the guarded compounds of diplomats and politicians, and there was green everywhere, trees and grass. There were still clusters of slum dwellings everywhere, but it was clear that this place had know and to a degree still knew affluence. People-powered urban development was still much in evidence, not least outside my hotel where a new fibre-optic cable was being laid by crews of workers equipped with pickaxes, bare hands and relatives. One father was touchingly working on the trench while minding his young son (maybe two years old) on this shoulders. To my eyes at least, the crew all seemed to be living in dwellings they had made from the road rubble at the end of the trench.
Touring Delhi on Saturday my driver did his best to show me the sights. We couldn’t get anywhere near the Red Fort because of preparations for an event there, so I had to satisfy myself with a view of the huge walls from a distance. Driving back, I was dropped at India Gate to admire the imperial architecture of the Rajpath and had my first encounter with a small but persistent swarm of hawkers, including a charming snake charmer and his pet cobra in a dim sum basket. The photo to the left shows a lantern/mina in the area where a bird had found a home – versatility symbolised. As you can see from the photograph at the top of the page, a passing elephant completed the stereotypical encounter.
Continuing along the Rajpath towards the former Viceroy’s palace, the skill of Lutyens in designing awe into architecture gradually became apparent. The hazy distance from India Gate gradually revealed the immense scale of the palace buildings (now home to two government ministries as well as the president and his staff). The buildings are just immense, several times the size of Buckingham Palace – the three domes you see in the photograph are all the same building. In their day, they must have acted as the ultimate symbol of Raj.
Perfectly embodying the spirit of resourcefulness that I believe characterises India, the lush parks at the side of the Rajpath between India Gate andRashtrapati Bhavan (the president’s palace) were being groomed by the ultimate in eco-friendly grass cutters, balancing labour-saving with economy. This amazing device cuts the grass, gathers and recycles the clippings as fuel and even conditions and fertilises the turf. Cordless, powered, self-starting and eco-fueled, it has to be the best motor-mower I have ever seen. The photograph itself I have decided to name ‘Working Lunch’.
My tour continued to the tomb complex that includes the tomb of Hunayun, second Mughul emperor, who lived in the 16th century. After purchasing a ticket from sullen, almost hostile staff and immediately giving it to a cheerful security guard, the escape from the hawkers and bustle outside to the tranquility inside was striking. The complex offered a partial cross-section of the religious history of India, with Hindu, Muslim and modern Sikh styles all visible, and stood as testament to the sophisticated culture of its ancient rulers. A side visit at the site took me to Isa Khan’s tomb, octagonal and interesting if crumbling a little.
The main tomb at the heart of the building has a window with an impressive carved screen. Looking through the central star of the screen, it becomes clear that it is aligned to line up with the window in the gatehouse and that window itself is designed to align with the outer gate window. All of these align to give a clear line of sight to the horizon in the direction of Mecca. What an achievement this would be for any builder! Such attention to detail in ancient architecture is almost more impressive than the building itself. If you click on the photograph of the screen over to the right, you can zoom through the star to see the view.
I had always wondered what the Baha’ai fath involved, and in Delhi I had the chance to find out. I visited a stunning modern temple building on the outskirts of the city, build in the form of a lotus flower to reflect the local faith emphases and sitting at the top of a beautifully groomed slope in tranquil grounds surrounded by blue pools of water. A constant stream of visitors flowed up the path to its entrance and yet the sense of tranquility was not lost in the busyness. Removing my shoes and socks I walked the scorching path to the cool interior and wandered for a while enjoying the silence. After the encounter I am still not much the wiser about the tenets of the religion (seems a kind of eastern version of Unitarianism) but I am impressed by the concept and execution of the temple.
Before heading for the airport, my last encounter was a visit to a Hindu temple within a huge campus of temples to the south of Delhi. Again removing my shoes and socks, it was an experience of cultural dislocation – nothing familiar to grasp. Despite devouring “India -The Cultural Companion” [Amazon have it] (which I would recommend despite its lack of reference to either Christianity or Baha’ai), I found few points of reference and as none of the signs had any latin script at all on them there were no hints. The sense of unfamiliarity didn’t lift and the experience for me summed up how little I understand, or fit in with, this place.
My trip ended with a transit stop in Mumbai. Arriving there late in the evening, my car was mobbed at one point with begging children. I foolishly opened the window a crack to give some money and we ended up with a girl of about twelve clinging to the window and not letting go even when the driver drove away. For me, this encounter summed up the determination, enterprise and desperation I had witnessed throughout India and will stick as a visual memory of the visit.
My guidebook for Delhi was “Lonely Planet: Delhi” (US|UK), which I found very good although in common with several other Asia guides I have seen it seems to neglect the Christian heritage of India, which stretches back at least as far as the Islamic heritage.