Yesterday, I picked up an order of samosas and barfi for my dad at a local Indian restaurant/sweet shop.
While showing us around Delhi on family trip to India in November 2001, our tour guide (who happened to be Hindu and who took us around mostly Hindu temples) was emphatic « We are all Hindus. » Picture an Indian head nod and frantic doorknob turning hands and wrists as added flourish to this statement. Indeed, during Diwali, Festival of Lights, we truly are united in our victory over darkness, evil and ignorance.
Here is an excerpt from my journal entry as we landed in India on the eve of Diwali.
November 11th, 2001:
The flight over was interminably long. Poor mom didn’t have much of a meet and greet service from Dorval but there was better service from Amsterdam and then again in Delhi. The wheelchairs were a little ancient looking when we reached our final destination but hey, this is India.
When we landed, mom immediately remarked it smelled like the India she remembered arriving in Bombay in 1962 to marry dad. It was dank and pungent and slightly exotic, not altogether unpleasant.
After getting through immigration, we entered a large open area where people were waiting for their loved ones. Our « loved one » was the travel agent, Mr. Shawshank. Lots of cries of « taxi » rang out, which I had read about in the Lonely Planet guide. Not looking forward to being ripped off, another assurance from the book.
Driving is on the left side here, influenced by the British, no doubt. We didn’t see many other cars but there were a lot of palm trees along the way, not to mention a rather large cow crossing the road. Cows are sacred in India and whereas the driver may have continued if it was a person crossing the road, he did slow down for the cow. It was all a bit surreal.
Upon arrival, we noted the hotel rooms were clean but damp and the showers more than adequate considering where we were.
Monday, November 12th, 2001:
Had a wake up call at 7:30 am and a decent enough buffet breakfast of mildly Indian and mostly Western fare.
Our first glimpse of Delhi in the day was overwhelming as our driver picked us up. There were people everywhere, from beggars to the upper classes, and the traffic was a plethora of buses, cars, taxis, auto rickshaws, bicycles and pedestrians.
Why does everyone honk here? It does absolutely no good!
We drove to the travel agency first, where dad was surveyed by no less than seven people, as he paid for his travel vouchers.
Afterwards, we met our driver, Pandi, and our guide, Mr. Narang, a pleasant, short fellow with a lone tooth slightly left of centre on the bottom row of where his other teeth used to be. The latter, with a notably Hindu point of view, went on to explain the history of Delhi as we visited our first temple called Birla Mandir, dedicated to Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity and good fortune. (The three main Hindu gods are: Vishnu the preserver, Brahma the preserver and Shiva the destroyer.)
We were distracted momentarily from our reverie when a young man shook dad’s hand and promptly handed his baby over to my sister for a photo opportunity. Apparently it is quite fashionable for Indians to have their photo taken with foreigners.
Off next to the Jama Masjid mosque in Old Delhi which is the largest mosque in India, built by Shah Jahan between 1644 to 1658. It has three great gateways, four angled towers and two minarets, forty meters high. It is constructed of alternating strips of sandstone and white marble. According to Mr. Narang, cleaners hit the walls with pieces of cloth to remove dust and debris.
This was our biggest shock yet as there were beggars everywhere, some horribly deformed from leprosy, shouting Allah, Allah in the hot sun.
At the entrance to the mosque, we removed our shoes (praying they would be there when we got back) and walked through a wide courtyard. Prayers were beginning as men recited the Koran. No women were present and there were no idols or images of God. As our toothless guide explained, the Muslims believe God to be beyond our concept or possible imagination.
People stared and swarmed around us, some trying to rub shoulders, others taking photos. I fear we are destined to be in several local holiday photo albums.
All eyes were on dad as he opened his money belt to pay the mosque shoe guardian.
En route back to the car, we passed through some alleyways and saw people living in what was less than a shanty for shelter. There was also a compound with chickens and goats which were to be slaughtered at the end of Ramadan.
When we got to our van, the beggars crowded in. Apparently many will hire children or babies to get sympathy and money.
Driving through the market in Old Delhi, the decorations were up for Diwali. Rickshaws were everywhere including school bus versions and people were continuously banging at the window hawking their ware or begging for money.
Next we went to the Gandhi Memorial or Raj Ghat as on the other side there is a river. There is a simple square platform of black marble marking the spot where Gandhi was cremated after his assassination in 1948.
Dad found a plaque written in Urdu and asked me to take a photo. I’m not sure why he asked me to take a photo because when I later asked him what the plaque said, he replied that he had no idea. (Urdu is his first language, by the way.)
Lunch was at a restaurant in town where I ate my favourite Indian dish: channa (chick pea curry) and roti (chapatis). I was determined not to eat any meat during this trip.
Afterwards we went to Humayun’s Tomb and then the Qutab Minar Complex. At this point I had had my fill of temples and monuments and was pleasantly distracted by a display of puja cut into a banyan tree.
Through a market area, a madhouse of people were lined up for hours to buy sweets for Diwali which is on November 14th this year. Apparently a favourite shop is Nathus. During Diwali, family members exchange gifts of flowers and sweets. Wrapped in silver or red and gold foil, boxes of sweets are piled high in people’s cars or tucked under their arms. It’s a wonderful, festive time to be in Delhi.
In the meantime, everyone is honking and no one is paying any attention.
Our driver Pandi says you need « good horn, good brakes, good luck » to drive in Delhi. A sense of humour doesn’t hurt either.
We finished the day with a good Bollywood flick before heading to bed.