In the hands
Of a nervous
Of all he sees
I had read of the smells of India. The potency of sewage and spice, railing through the hefty air, dancing like beauty and the beast through the racket of rickshaws and the rich color of streetlife.
I walked out of the metro from Indira Ghandi International Airport in New Delhi, which I found marvelously clean and timely, at 5:30AM. What I found splayed before me was a very different scene from the orderly metro. A few hundred meters from the station door rose a while building with a blaring red sign that read “New Dheli.” Between me and that beacon at the center of India, there was a groundbreaking turbulence.
A sea of green and yellow tuk-tuks bounced and beeped around a maze of police gates. Thousands of rickshaws, as though ants building an enormous colony of asphalt, concrete, and fake leather seats.
The street carts where occupied by blanketed bodies sleeping atop the store of goods, young boys guarding the merchandise with their bodies, veiled from the world in sleep. A chai wallah waited with a steaming pot for the next bleary eyed stranger to get a cup of tea. A cow nearby sniffed a murky pothole, it’s neckbell tolling the hour, 5:37, another day in the pasture.
This scene, reflecting back, caused me some shock. I knew it was coming, but it was like being fired out of a canon into a world that seemed, at first, to only want my money. Dozens of drivers and more salesman offered me various services and goods as I walked around trying to find my way through the onslaught of traffic.
It was obvious to me that I was a walking stock of money, with my western-wear and big blue rucksack, my cap and not-Indianess. But this was only true until I inquired for help. As soon as I asked for something, the offers and insights for a transaction evaporated, and within minutes, I had 5 or 6 men providing me detailed instructions on where I had to go, how to avoid being ripped off, and even offering to show me the way to my next stop.
The warmth of those reactions soothed me and put my anxieties of being in the city to rest: just ask. Like a hot-springs of humanity, simultaneously offering unknown and dangerous depths and abundant healing waters,
Delhi is India’s major governmental hub, it’s largest city. It is home to well over 20,000,000 people, 200 lakhs being the typical measure here, a lakh being 1,00,000 or 100,000 for the western minds.
Though many had cautioned me not to spend too much time in the overwhelming rough and tumble of Indian cities, I was here on a mission, to meet up with Shilpika Gautam, the impassioned and relentless mind behind the stand up paddleboarding trip down the Ganges River.
I arrived a day before Shilps came in from London, though her parents live in Noida, a city that abuts Delhi from the opposite bank of the Yamuna River, a holy tributary of the Ganga.
Shilps father, Dr. Sudhir Sharma, was busy through the day, and I was to meet him at 5PM, so I scheduled a meeting with Mrs. Chicu Lokgariwar, a writer and activist in India with the India Water Portal, the leading news outlet for all things water.
I made my way by metro to the Defense Colony Market in a district of the city called Lagpat Nagar. When I arrived, I found a nice place to sit, and I watched a morning cricket match run its course in the parking lot down the way, behind me a group of men practiced some sort of marching excercise, at once looking professional and completely goofy.
The businesses of the market slowly opened, shopkeepers swept dust off the entryways and stray dogs came sniffing, curious to see if I could give them scraps, but always shy, staying a few feet away.
At one point some children, not more than 9 or 10 years old came up to me begging for money. The trio looked quite rough, and I wanted to help, though I felt out of place giving them money. My intuition told me no. They hung around begging, asking, reaching out, sometimes touching me. I had to be quite direct, “Nahi” I said authoritatively, one of the few Hindi words I know, “no.”
When it was finally time to meet Chicu at a very nice cafe in the market, I asked her about these kids. She told me not to give money, that they are part of gangs, often it causes more harm than good. Later a new friend Brendon who lives in Mumbai explained to me that one time he saw a group of kids begging in traffic. Someone gave them some cash and they began to scamper towards the woods by the roadside. Just as they got close, he saw a man with a stick of bamboo emerge from the trees and lash the kids, hard. They fell and gave him the money. As Brendon began driving away, the kids ran back out towards the road to beg again.
The toughness of street people is no surprise. The hardship that affronts those kids juxtaposed sharply against Chicu and I enjpoying our beautiful coffees in the air conditioned cafe as she taught me about her ideals and passions concerning water in India. Her mission is to hear the silenced voices, the voices of muslims and women who get such little attention in Indian press. I thought of Amy Goodman, “go where the silence is.” I watched the kids running around outside the window. Playing and trying to beg a living all at once.
I felt so grateful to be speaking with this progressive, fascinating woman within the first hours of my stay in India. She offered loads of insights and leads. Chicu and I parted ways and I rambled about the city for a few hours before getting in touch with Dr. Sudhir. He told me he had already gone back to Noida and I was to take a metro to meet him.
I did as he said, arriving a bit before he did. Outside the metro stop was a McDonalds. I went in, thinking about the odd reality that I was in an American corporate chain that I never visit in the USA. The people there seemed dignified and many were families eating out all together, there was a birthday party as well. I sat next to the bust of Ronald Mcdonald with my water, reading a book that rested against his goofy red plaster shoe.
A minute later Dr. Sudhir arrived. A tall and slender man, Dr. Sudhir has a trim mustance and a stoic demeanor, he seemed extremely ordered and immediately with little formality we walked off towards the car. We spent a moment in the chaos of the another rickshaw clogged artery before Dr. Sudhir found his driver and his white sedan. After some quick directions we whizzed off through the disorganized city streets, Dr. Sudhir commenting that Delhi was more organized than Noida.
We stopped in the road unannounced to me, and Dr. Sudhir asked if I wanted to join him. I said OK, and we got out. On turning I saw a truly lovely scene, something that filled me with happiness. Beside the road was a line of vendors with vegetables arranged in the most wonderful arrays and vendors shouting their bounty. I thought of Saturday farmers markrts with my mom at home… Fresh vegetables, open air, good conversation.
We walked through as Dr. Sudhir aptly navigated the vendors, picking the cream of the crop from each one. At a certain point he executed the most skillful banana purchase I’ve ever seen. We walked past about 5 banana stands, then Dr. Sudhir did a double take. A moment later, he was examining a bouquet of bananas with as much care as he might a patient, feeling for bruises and identifying which pieces needed amputation. The vendor arrived from nowhere and they began to negotiate. Dr. Sudhir showed the man the unfit fruits and they took them off the bundle. The vendor complaining all the while. After 2 minutes the deal was settled, and we had a beautiful bunch of 10 perfectly spotten bananas, the last purchase at market.
Still, burned into my head is an image from behind the banana stand; a boy of perhaps 12 sitting before a bunch of potatos and onions, behind him a cycle-cart and a cow stood idly in a field of garbage, between them ran a drain of horrifying cloudy water. The goodness of life, the hardship of work, the refuse of civilization, and the Gai, the Hindu cow, the mother, all standing together in one frame, set against the skeletons of concrete skyrises.
In the car on the way home Dr. Sudhir and I indulged in some bananas. He explained that he and his wife are fully vegetarian. When we arrived at their place, a series of highrises that Dr. Sudhir referred to as a “society,” we ascended to the 26th floor where Mrs. Usha, Dr. Sudhir’s wife greeted us warmly at the door. Inside was an extremely clean, decorated living room with shrines of hindu Gods and a large statue of Ganesh.
The smell of spices rolled out into the living room from the kitchen. Mrs. Usha brought out some tea and we spoke for a while about the nature of my visit. That I am to be one of the team that will paddle down the Ganga with their daughter, a plan they seemed wholheartedly unimpressed with, they want her to be married and settle into a job.
I didn’t know what to say, I just nodded and appreciated my rich cup of black tea with ginger.
I bathed and rested before super, when Mrs. Usha brought out the first of what was to be a week full of masterpiece meals. Her passion for cooking and food was wonderful. She taught me about what was in each dish and told me a bit about Hinduism, about how now was the time to celebrate Ganesh, the elephant headed God. She told me that she had worked as a computer programmer for many years, but was now retired, taking care of the house and her family.
With each bite I took I could feel the care and time in the wonderful preparations. I felt relaxed from the maze of city that I had navigated all day, suddenly able to realize the immensity of India. 1.3 billion people and growing.
I wished at that moment, as Mrs. Usha delighted in Dr. Sudhir and my enjoyment of her food, that all the world could eat like I was eating, could steady to the masala dal and the fresh chapatis, could feel such calm after a day in the storm of the world.