Friday, March 4: Today we head right off for Gandhi Smriti, the Mahatma Gandhi memorial. We tell our driver K. Lal we only need 45 minutes, because there is no parking here and we have no phone to reach him. We soon regret our self-imposed time limit as the museum is fascinating, filled as it is with photographs of Gandhi and his words of wisdom, dioramas of his life, and the footsteps that show the walk he took prior to his assassination on January 30, 1948.
After assuming leadership of the Indian National Congress in 1921, Gandhi led nationwide campaigns to alleviate poverty, expand women’s rights, build religious and ethnic harmony, end untouchability, and increase economic self-reliance. He played a pivotal role in India’s quest for independence and used civil disobedience to bring about change. He insisted on non-violence to achieve his ends. He is truly my hero!
I am deeply moved by Gandhi’s words, posted beneath photographs of him on the walls of the museum. I’ve read his philosophy before in different places, and his biography as well. One quote that I find particularly inspiring is this: “I shall work for an India in which the poorest shall feel that it is their country, in whose making they have an effective voice, an India in which there shall be no high class and low class of people; an India in which all communities shall live in perfect harmony. There can be no room in such an India for the curse of untouchability, or the curse of intoxicating drinks and drugs. Women will enjoy the same rights as men. We shall be at peace with all the rest of the world. This is the India of my dreams.” M. K. Gandhi
My thought is that, in just the three days I’ve been in Delhi, it’s evident that Gandhi’s dream is far from being realized. As I travel throughout northern India, this thought is reinforced and amplified time and time again. I feel sad that Gandhi’s vision, even under a “democratic” government in India, and despite India’s growth in the world economy, is so far from coming to fruition. My experiences in India will be revealed bit by bit over the course of this blog. But suffice it to say, the country is not taking care of its own. India does not have the infrastructure, neither does it seem to have the political will, to take care of its vast population of 1 billion people. This fact is thrust in my face throughout my 21 days in India and it becomes increasingly sad and unbearable with each passing day. More on this to come.
Another of Gandhi’s quotes involves religion and faith. He says: “All Faiths Are Equal. I believe in fundamental truth of all great religions of the world. I believe they are all god-given and I believe that they were necessary for the people to whom these religions were revealed and I believe that, if only we could all read the scriptures of the different faiths from the standpoint of followers of those faiths, we should find that they were at bottom all One and were all helpful to one another.” M.K. Gandhi
This I agree with wholeheartedly! I have a real problem when people profess their own faith to be the only legitimate way to God. I believe there are many ways to God. Like Gandhi, I subscribe to the belief that all faiths are equal.
We walk through the beautifully manicured grounds of the museum, alongside the path where actual concrete footsteps are attached to the sidewalk showing Gandhi’s final steps before he was killed by a fanatic Hindu assassin. The spot where he died is marked by a small pavilion known as the Martyr’s Column. Gandhi had been staying at this house as a guest for 144 days, and we can see the room where he slept on a mattress on the floor, along with his few meager possessions: a walking stick, spinning wheel, sandals and spectacles. I love the peaceful beauty of this place, especially situated as it is in the center of chaotic Delhi.
After holding up poor K. Lal for a half-hour more than the 45 minutes we estimated for the Gandhi memorial (which causes him to drive around in circles while waiting for us), we drive up Rajpath, or Kingsway, the approach to New Delhi. There is no parking, so we can only do a drive-by of the North and South Secretariat (or Parliament) Buildings, two domed mirror-image buildings that hold over 1,000 rooms between them. At the west end is Rashtrapati Bhavan, or the President’s House, built in 1929. K. Lal throws us out of the car to take pictures while he drives around in more circles. At the eastern end is the India Gate, a tribute to 90,000 Indian army soldiers who died in World War I. We drive past the India Gate several times today, each time trying to get pictures of it out of our car window.
It is now time to pay our dues, so we go to our travel agent Umer Ullah’s office to pay the balance due on our tour of India. We had given Umer a 1/3 deposit, so we needed to pay him the remainder. Near Connaught Place, on a potholed dirt road being ripped apart by construction, we find the decrepit office of Discent Travel, which says on the front: Instant Booking & Tourist Information Centre. Nowhere on the facade does it say “Discent Travel.”
Umer has been recommended by a friend who used him for her trip to India last summer, otherwise I’d be worried as The Lonely Planet warns against travel agents who tout themselves as official “Tourist Information Centers.” The place is a dive, which makes me a little uncomfortable, but as we go along in India, we find most places are dives (except the tourist spots!). Umer, sweet and thorough, gives us our plane and train tickets, vouchers for hotels and sightseeing tours. It is all quite well-organized. We’re happy for his services as we didn’t want to plan this complicated trip ourselves. Surprisingly, Umer invites Jayne and I to have dinner at his home this evening. We’re thrilled to be invited to an Indian’s home for dinner!!
Next stop, Humayun’s Tomb, built in the mid-16th century by Haji Begum, the Persian-born senior wife of the second Mughal emperor Humayun. The style is Persian, but the two-tone combination of red sandstone and white marble shows a merging of Indian and Persian cultures. The grounds are lovely and I love the architecture in India left behind by the Mughal rulers! The highlight of our time at Humayun’s Tomb is being accosted by uniformed schoolboys and schoolgirls who beg us to take pictures with them. It’s so funny and cute really; everywhere we go, they all want pictures with us! It’s like being in Korea again!
K. Lal wants to drop us at a nice restaurant for lunch, but we ask for fast food as we don’t want to waste a long time in a restaurant in the middle of the day. Besides, we don’t want to eat much as Umer has invited us to dinner. So we stop at Nirula’s, India’s oldest fast-food restaurant chain, where we get Vegetable Deluxe Thali, a combination platter of Dal Makhani (boiled lentils), Paneer Makhani (Indian cottage cheese in rich tomato gravy), Mixed Vegetable Raita (cucumber, tomato, and onions with grated coconut, green chilies and mustard seeds), Zeera Rice, Pudina Parantha (a kind of bread), Moti Choor Laddu (a kind of sweet), Papad- Roasted, Sirka Onion, and mixed pickle. It’s delicious and cheap and quite a feast! Perfect lunch!
We tell K. Lal we want to go to a tailor shop to have salwar kameez made, so he drops us near the Lotus Temple at Delhi Haat, a “craft cottage industries.” Basically salwar kameez is a unisex dress worn in South and Central Asia similar to the shirt and pants worn by westerners. We have a blast here! A guy named Shiva takes over as our all-around man; he’s quite funny and is also taken by Jayne!! He can’t keep his eyes off of her!
Jayne has brought me some linen pants I ordered and had sent to her house in California; these need hemming, so the tailors take care of that. They offer us large Kingfisher beers, and we have a grand time picking out fabrics, getting measured, buying scarves, and just general high jinx! This turns out to be one of the most fun times we have in India! It’s so crazy. We give the tailors the name of our hotel, and later that evening, we each have two new salwar kameez delivered and ready to wear on our trip through India.
Jayne hasn’t seen the Lotus Temple, so we walk around here and even go inside to sit silently for some meditative moments. The temple is shaped like the sacred lotus flower, with 27 white-marble petals. It was designed by an Iranian-Canadian architect in 1986. As I mentioned in my previous entry, the Bahai faith espouses universal peace and the elimination of prejudice; believers of all faiths are welcome to pray or meditate here according to their own religion.
Driving around Delhi is an assault on the senses. The roads in Delhi go around grassy circles in which poor men and women sleep or eat or play cards. Filthy children run around with no pants on so they can poop or pee anywhere the urge hits them. Thousands of people live on the sides of the road either in the open air or under blue tarp tents, people with emaciated bodies, filthy faces and clothes. They live in animal-like ways under bridges and overpasses, making fires, and washing clothes and picking lice out of each others hair. Men chew paan, betel leaf filled with powdered tobacco with spices (although there are other variations without tobacco), and spit the red juices all over the place. Men everywhere piss shamelessly against walls or trees or into bushes.
When caught in traffic in Delhi, people approach our car trying to sell magazines or long chains with colorful elephants on them, or any sort of thing you can imagine. Then there are the people who I call the “black ghosts.” These are the really dark Indians who silently appear at your car window, right in your face, pressing their foreheads against the windows. Most often, these are women in saris with rings in their noses, holding a baby and making gestures of feeding the baby. Begging for money to feed their child. Sometimes the “black ghost” is a young boy who has smeared his own spit under his eyes to look like he’s crying, holding his empty fingers to his mouth, as if putting food in his mouth, but his fingers are empty. This occurs so many times throughout India that if I were to give $1 to every person who asked for money, I would need hundreds of dollars. It’s incredibly sad and disturbing.
The Laxminarayan Temple, also called the Birla Temple, is our next stop. It’s a Hindu temple built in 1938 and dedicated to Vishnu, the second of the Hindu Trinity of creator-preserver-destroyer, and his consort Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth. It was inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi on the express condition that people of all castes and especially untouchables would be allowed in. The exterior is faced with the white marble and red sandstone typical of Delhi’s Mughal architecture. We try to go in, but when they tell us we can’t take our cameras in, we opt not to pay to enter. We can take pictures from outside the gate. Besides, we’re tired by this point. On the street a guy is selling books of Indian stamps. I’ve always been fascinated by colorful exotic stamps so I buy a small book for 300 rupees (about $7).
K. Lal takes us to yet another emporium where I buy an enamel bracelet and some silver earrings in the shape of a fan, along with a punjabi top. We spend a lot of time here actually browsing through their salwar kameez collection.
By now, it’s late, and we head to Umer’s house for dinner. We’re ushered into his home, which consists of three narrow unfurnished rooms one right after the other. The floors are covered in Persian or Indian carpets and the walls are marked with pencil scribbles and blotches of dirt and other scars. I could swear red paan juices color the bottom half of the walls. We spend a long time sitting on the floor talking about Kashmir, where Umer is from. He shows us numerous photos of Kashmir on his cell phone. Then he goes off to take an interminable phone call, leaving us waiting. And wondering.
We are wondering if we are really going to have dinner, as it’s very late by now and we’re starving. No mention is made of dinner and there seem to be no preparations. Finally, his mother brings in a meal of chicken with vegetables, rice, and roasted cauliflower, which Umer and his sister eat with their fingers. Umer gives us utensils to use.
After dinner, Umer’s friend brings in oversize suitcases full of Pashmina shawls and scarves made in Kashmir, none of which entice us in the least. The colors are dull and many are an ugly plaid pattern. He continues to bring them out of the suitcase, like a magician pulling rabbits out of a hat, and despite us telling him we don’t care for them, he continues to pull them out one by one. I never see one in the hundreds he brings out that I remotely like. Curious, we ask him the prices. He says they run between 15,000-50,00o rupees!! This is $340-$1,100!!! Oh my god! This is crazy, especially considering that none of them are remotely attractive!
Hmmm… Not quite the idea we had in our minds when we were originally invited for dinner at an Indian’s home!