‘Madam, there is an ATM up your backside, you can be using this if you need more cash’. ‘Madam, I come you’. ‘Madam, auto, a big mosque on right side’. ‘Madam, madam, madam, madam…’.
It’s been a big day of madams and an abundance of men – and, an overwhelming stench of urine (and everything else), plus dogs and diesel and kerosine and unhinged horn tooting (and did I mention the noise), and the sadness- unadulterated sadness of men (always men) half asleep in cycle rickshaws, emaciated and pretty hungry muttering seemingly their last ‘madam’ at me in desperte whispered breath – all nine million kilos of me. How can I justify an exhausted man driving me on his last gasp? (but then how does he eat if he doesn’t cycle nine million kilos of human- shouldn’t I be cycling for him?). The circle of human life doesn’t really make much sense, and for the record, I don’t think I could ever ride in a cycle rickshaw in this city.
Sadly though, I don’t think my standoff is contributing much towards the overall issue.
And then there were more dogs, and children and thousands more men and not a woman in sight and I’m so white and so female and all I really wanted to do was return to a very special place just off the Meena Bazaar in Chandni Chowk – one of the oldest parts of Delhi.
Yes but madam, if you walk it will come at a cost, an internally blown fuse and a fair amount of frustration (said my imaginary Indian man friend in my head).
Before all of this, I checked in at the beautiful Imperial Hotel earlier this morning – this hotel needs to be seen to be believed and it will be my place to call home for the next four days. After driving through the huge white gates and along a driveway framed by palm trees and neat, sweeping green lawns, I left my bags at reception before being shown to my room full of rattan furniture, white linen, big bay windows, a black and white tiled bathroom and more rattan and then a rattan fan in case there wasn’t enough rattan. It is absolute heaven and I could quite easily move in here immediately. Before leaving my room, the porter who had dropped my bags left me with a final offering ‘is the whiskey a gift madam, very nice…’.
I explained that the whiskey is a gift (of sorts) to myself and my friend Victoria, who will arrive later tonight. I didn’t bother telling him that I’d remembered an old saying from my days in the Himalaya ‘whiskey in, whiskey out,’ – it will repair the sickest of stomachs and heal the harshest of wounds and, Delhi duty free was running a bonanza sale on single malt at the end of the visa queue and to the left of the baggage carousel when I arrived on Friday so, it just had to be done. (And for the record, I don’t only apply the whiskey rule to India…).
Walking from the Imperial Hotel to Chandi Chowk is a short enough 55 minutes and parts of the walk can be quite wonderful- weaving through Connaught Place and its fading but beautiful Georgian buildings (modelled after the Royal Crescent in Bath) before hitting the crazy Minto Road which runs all the way up to the Meena Bazaar- which in short, is an assault on so many levels but mainly to the senses. Not a square inch between anyone and there is nothing to hide, not even teeth being taken out of a mans head as a chicken is butchered only meters away.
The Jama Masjid was built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan between 1644 and 1656 at a cost of one million rupees. It’s completion in 1656 saw three great gates, four towers and two 40 meter high minarets constructed of strips of red sandstone and white marble, all of which still stand tall and untouched today. The courtyard can accommodate more than 25,000 people and when I first entered this mosque in 2003 I was utterly blown away – I will never forget how quiet it was.
Sweeping views to the Red Fort can be enjoyed from the east side and shoes are to be removed on arrival – from there it is game on with people, pigeons and prayer.
Once inside the mosque, there is always a strange feeling of peace – a haunted peace- hundreds and hundreds of years of it. I suppose it’s moments in a setting like this one that ease the bad bits of madam who gets frustrated at all the questions, and the offerings and the advice and the sound of flip flops approaching, before her arm is held and she is begged to ‘Come. come, come madam’.
There is so much going on in this city and there are a thousand stories to be told. One of the best things I ever did by means of trying to understand the way that the system works in the wild and wonderful country that is India, where there is brutality and boldness (but kindness in equal measures), was reading Rohinton Mistry’s ‘A Fine Balance’ quite a long time ago. He weaves a beautiful tale (so sad that I wept throughout the entire book), in such a concise and measured way. In moments of frustration where I want to shout ‘MY-NAME-IS-NOT-MADAM-I-AM-PIN-AND-I-WANT-TO-WALK-IN-PEACE,’ I take time to reflect back on his writing, set my eyes to the ground and remind myself that quite often, it is best to just say nothing at all.