Delhi Part Two: Standing firm in the face of relentless pressure

on Thursday, 31 October 2013. Posted in India Travels


Today, I had only my second moment of weakness and began to crave for the beaches of South India. Enough of the chaos, the squalor, the dirt, the craziness and noise and everything of North India. The first time was early in the morning in Udaipur, around 4am, when the noises started and I couldn’t sleep, that time of the day when you feel just that extra bit vulnerable. I had the same feeling today, trying to get to Old Delhi and wandering why we were bothering.  But it didn’t last, thankfully.

This evening, I took mum to one of the most sacred shrines in Sufism, the tomb of the fourth saint of the Chishtiya order, Sheikh Nizamuddin Aulia (1236-1325) (thanks Rough Guide).  It is in a neighborhood called Nizamuddin in South Delhi, and we got a nice Sikh man to take us there in his tuk tuk and wait for us outside as we made our way through the labrynthian alleyways, with beggars and children and stalls and then small rooms with people in and then suddenly we are standing in a courtyard, in the middle of which is the tomb of the saint. We have bought some flowers to put on the tomb and we are shown where to put them on the actual tomb in a very small room, full of people doing the same and praying. Outside are a large group of people sitting, and some singing Qawwali music, the devotional music often associated with Sufism, but found throughout North India. Nusret Fateh Ali Khan was perhaps the most famous exponent of this music.  We were ushered to the front row of people sitting, but only after I was asked to write my name and address in a guest book, and a suitable donation given to various causes, which I have no idea what they were. The whole scene was so wild and intense. Hundreds of people all around, some sitting, some standing, the musicians singing and playing the harmonium and then people kept coming up and putting money in front of the musicians.  Directly opposite us sat a major Sufi/Muslim dude as people kept coming up and kissing his hand and his knees and then would throw some money in front of him. He was wearing a yellow turban and had a small beard, and must have been around 40 years old, but he didn’t look anything that unusual. The vast majority of people there were Muslim, mostly men, but there were some women and a few other tourists. It was great, but mum was having a hard time sitting on the floor as her knee was still swollen from the fall the other day.

Leaving the place was intense as we had to walk through the alleyways again and having found our way out and got our shoes, we are accosted by children begging, who just wouldn’t give up. Mum gave one a power bar which only encouraged others, especially a 3-4 year old who just wept and whimpered in front of us, and they followed us out toward our taxi, totally freaking mum out as she thought they were going to get run over or something else would happen to them. I told her just to keep walking and ignore them. They know their way around here way better than we do. Also, there is nothing to be done, giving them anything would only encourage them to beg more and as soon as we got in the tuk tuk, the child’s mother appeared and dragged the kid away. I told her that the child had probably already been told to do this by her mother – but I could be wrong!

I realized I think I got ripped off at the airport pre pay taxi booth.  I thought I gave the man a 500 rupee note and he said I only gave him a 100 note. I didn’t question it at the time as I wasn’t sure but soon after I realized that I’m quite sure I gave him a 500 note.  The bastard. The last time that happened was in New York, but I caught the guy doing it that time. It’s so easy for this to happen and one can get jumpy about every interaction you have with people. You begin to think that everybody is about to rip you off and get paranoid about it, and then when it doesn’t happen, you are surprised.  “Really, you don’t want to bargain. You’re not charging me three times the amount?” 

One of the interesting things that was written in the book on Bombay I’m reading is that to get anything done in India, you need to know somebody.  You have to have a personal relationship with a person who can wield influence, whether it’s buying a ticket for something or getting something done somehow. Merely calling a person up and asking for something is not enough. The question is, who do you know and what influence can you or someone else wield on your behalf. A friend of the author was horrified that she could spend a whole day in London and get many things done without really having to interact with a person. Here in India, everything is about interaction, whether you like it or not. It takes effort to do this and to remain open to possibilities here.  It’s easy and understandable to want to close off – it’s just too much – and keep to oneself. And then somebody will sidle up to you and speak to you from the edge of your perception, maybe will ask you a question and see if you respond. If you do, then another question may follow and then you’re engaged again. Anything could happen next. Usually there is some financial agenda, but not always. Just walking along the bazaar tonight, one man talks to us about knowing Ram Dass when he came to India and then another man said, “Are you from the U.K?” and then told us his brother lives in Sheffield and that he has a travel business. I went with him to get his card, walked up a few steps and then in a very small room, no more than 6ft square, 8 people were sitting, hanging out. 

These sorts of thing happen every time you go out and you can choose to ignore it or not.  But if you do ignore it, you can close yourself off from any interaction, which then feels unnatural here in India. Sometimes you don’t want to have to deal at all, but then you’re forced to when you have to get anything done, even just getting a taxi.  Tomorrow, we’re getting the nice sikh man to take us around Delhi in a car and look at the government area of new Delhi, built by the British architect, Edwin Lutyens in a predictable pompous style of colonial inspiration. Until then.