Having started the day with a journey on one of the lowliest trains of Indian Railways, I was bookending it with one of the most prestigious, the Bhopal-New Delhi Shatabdi Express, timetabled to be the fastest train on the network, averaging 87 km/h and occasionally managing all of 160km/h – I could feel a fit of the vapours coming on at the though of such speeds – with reclining seats and such very un-Indian excitements as on-train announcements. I was firmly on one leg of the Golden Triangle tourist circuit, with significant numbers of white and east Asian faces in the carriage for the first time.
Within seconds of pulling out of Agra Cantonment station, the inclusive dinner was plonked on the tables – a tray of impressively bland saag paneer and dahl so watery that a straw would have been useful. Compared to the pantry car fare on overnight expresses, this was dismal stuff. We roared through the night along smooth tracks, stopping just once in the two hours to New Delhi. Alongside the tourists, the Chair Car was well populated with military types – Agra fort still had a major portion in army use – many making lengthy mobile phone calls in what seemed to be a special Indian Army version of Hinglish. In the course of the journey, the subject of the captain sitting behind me’s conversation went from being a ‘very influential chap’ to a ‘very influential bugger’, who was snaffling all the best postings and damaging the unit’s morale. It was, ‘strictly between us, old chap’ (and the rest of the carriage), simply not cricket.
My seventh-floor hotel room window, conveniently located in New Delhi station’s goods yard, revealed a morning smoggy sky over a surprisingly green vista of the capital. The first part of the morning was spent on administration, including seeking out India Railway’s International Tourist Bureau, a curious mix of sofas and hard metal chairs on the first floor of New Delhi station, where I joined the rucksacked and non-resident Indian masses gazing at the slowly moving screen for their ticket numbers to come up. Despite the warnings in the guidebooks, online, from SD Enterprises and on numerous Notices, no-one tried to convince me that the Bureau had closed or burned down, to entice me to their commission-heavy travel agency. What had become of touts these days?
One of the last few seats on a Jammu Tawi – Amritsar train duly secured for some days hence, I hired a pre-pay auto-rickshaw to take me to Old Delhi Junction to deposit my bag. The pre-pay system involved queuing up at a hut to give your destination to a traffic policeman, whereupon the greyshirted members of the auto-rickshaw drivers’ cartel, also clustered outside, would argue vociferously with him as to how far away the destination was and how much money he should collect using the distance-based table of fares.
For Old Delhi Junction, at least, there was no dispute, so I handed my rupees to the policeman, the ensuing chit to the driver and of we set into the unprecedented chaos that is Delhi’s traffic. This was beyond anything I’d experienced in India before and having thought I’d cured myself of the ‘eyes-shut-during-an-auto-rickshaw-journey’ disease, found myself relapsing. Auto-rickshaws, cycle-rickshaws, pedi-cabs, bullock carts, hand carts, motorbikes, pedestrians and even the odd car competed in a free-for-all where even the concept of driving on the left was studiously ignored. Things became worst when bazaar-lined streets crossed the main road, as huge quantities of cross traffic, much of it conveying huge loads to stalls and shops, attempted to weave aggressively through.
It was, all-in-all, a pretty slow way to get around on the surface and once my rucksack was deposited in Old Delhi Junction’s cavernous cloakroom, the modern, air-conditioned metro became my speedy, if sometimes rather packed, friend. Short rides on the Blue and Yellow lines brought me to Mandi House station, where emerging I seemed to be in a different city – the broad, straight tree-lined streets, well-mannered traffic of planned-out New Delhi. I had planned a low-paced day, partially forced on me by the fact that it was Monday, and Delhi (or rather, its tourist attractions) is closed on Monday.
A stroll along a shaded, unobstructed pavement past media firms and the National Green Tribunal brought me to India Gate in the middle of a large grassy hexagon around which traffic swirled at a discreet distance. A huge war memorial, inscribed to the Indian dead in Flanders, Mesopotamia and elsewhere, the Gate wore its Edmund Lutyens design on its sleeve, resembling the Menin Gate as much as it does the Arc de Triomph. Beneath it, ceremonially-uniformed soldiers solemnly guarded an eternal flame, while families snapped each other in front. The Gate stands at the end of the kilometer-long Rajpath, a dead straight ceremonial road (called Kingsway when it was first laid out), at the end of which stands the dome of the presidential residence (built as the viceregal palace), framed by the Gate itself. The whole set-up resembles rather Washington DC, if it had been founded near a source of red sandstone rather than white marble. Is this late-1920s Lutyens-designed landscape perhaps a glimpse of what London’s own government quarter might have looked like had the Luftwaffe succeeded in devastating Westminster?
Walking up the wide grassy, tree-lined parks beside the Rajpath, the dome of the presidential palace came more into focus through the clearing haze, the clean, classical lines of the design becoming apparent.
In front of the palace were the twin, enormous piles of the Central Secretariat buildings, lining the artificial gradient of the broad boulevard leading to the palace. These were real Hindu-Moghul-chrashes-headlong-into-Classical pieces, with columns and pavilions akimbo, yet somehow they had a grace which belied their size and bulk. This was basically Lutyens-land, Edmund getting to do to a capital what Albert Speer was limited to making models of. The irony was the very short lifespan this layout had in its intended role as administrative centre of an outpost of Empire. These great monuments to the Raj were constructed throughout the 1920s in preparation for the shifting of the capital to Delhi from Calcutta in 1931, when the latter city became too hotly nationalist for the British. For just sixteen years, these were the capital buildings of the Raj, before they became those of an independent nation.
In front of the Central Secretariat were drawn up the white chauffeur-driven Ambassadors of the senior civil servants, while amongst them lesser brands of white car bore the number plates of state governments, their officials no doubt summoned to the Secretariat to pay homage to the Deputy Chief Under Secretary.
Beside the Secretariat, largely hidden behind high security walls, was the simple, yet enormous circular building of the Lok Shaba, India’s parliament, it’s columned colonnade at second floor level running the full orbit of the building. Even outside, the vacant aura of a prorogued parliament – awaiting its fresh-faced election victors – permeated the sleepy streets around.
A few more streets of ministries and reserve banks brought me to an odd survivor of the old amid New Delhi’s planned streets (on the subject of Delhi’s constant historical re-invention, amongst much else, I found Sanjeev Sanyal’s Land of the Seven Rivers: A Brief History of India’s Geography very illuminating). The Jantar Mantar, an open air observatory built around 1725 by the then ruler of Jaipur, contained a number of surreal larger-than-life deep red painted masonry instruments to record the celestial bodies.
These included a sundial with a twenty-foot gnomon, a sort of gigantic butterfly and two miniature coliseums. These were highly accurate scientific instruments, calibrated to provide near-perfect readings, even when they stepped over a line between astronomy and astrology. Today they sit in a little park overlooked by skyscrapers of banks and airlines which seem to almost mimic the instruments.
I spent a pleasant hour cafe and market-hopping around Connaught Place, concentric circles of white colonnaded streets that if repainted and filled with chain shops could be in Cheltenham or Harrogate, but which exude a fine scruffy faded grandeur. Ironically, for a commercial area built by the British to replace the bazaars to the north, the bazaars had now moved in and filled the vacant gaps in the circles. I glided in air-conditioned comfort on the metro back from New to Old, descending in classical Connaught Place to emerge in the wonderful, enlivening of Chawri Bazaar. The narrow streets and pavements were made narrower still by shops and stalls encroaching on every inch, while cycle-rickshaws, handcarts and head-bearing porters ruled what little space remained. Many of the tall buildings on either side still bore the balconies or carved window frames if you peered hard enough between the layers of grime and advertising posters for the goods being sold beneath. An absolute jungle of wires were strung anarchically along the street at first floor height representing every possible cable-based service.
Chawri Bazaar specialised in vinyl, rope, chains and, beyond the junction with Nai Sarak, screws, nuts and bolts. It became almost second nature to abandon the near-impassable pavements and to own your place along the margins of the road, demanding others swerve around you. Which they did. Above the seething mass below towered the striped domes and tall minarets of Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque, the crowds of worshippers on their way to which added to the variety of the melee.
To break from the increasing heat and pollution, I dived into a pleasant little tea shop, whose owner cheerfully guided me through china cups of all three ‘blushes’ of Darjeeling, of which the republican in me was delighted to find themselves most elegiac about the Presidential blend of first blush, along with some excellent Nilgiri. I left somewhat lighter of wallet and imperceptibly heavier of bag.
As it was Monday, I was unable to visit the garden where, as part of a youth opera production of Glass’ Satyagraha, I had shot Mahatma Gandhi every night for a week and twice on Saturdays. Clearly the authorities never found out about that, or I’d never have got the visa.
Instead, I wandered into the Rajghat, a park beyond the Mahatma Gandhi Ring Road (lead your nation to freedom at immense personal cost and get a by-pass named after you), where Ghandi-ji’s samadhi – the site of his cremation the day after his assassination a few blocks away – stands. The cremation site has been surrounded by an artificial mound, hollowed out in the centre and the visitor enters through one of four archways into the enclosed space, at the centre of which is the cremation site, with an eternal flame burning on a simple platform, on which are inscribed Gandhi’s last words – ‘Hai Ram’ (‘Oh, God’). The remainder of the space is quiet lawn dotted with flowering magnolia trees. It is simple and affecting – and was clearly a moving pace for the steady stream of Indians passing through. To me, Gandhi was a man of many flaws – his strategy poor, his attitude to women questionable, his approach often bone -headed, but his virtues outweighed them. He was an essential part, though by no means the only essential part, in securing belated independence. It is perhaps a telling mark of pacifist Gandhi’s problematic relationship with the concept of armed forces in an independent India that his samadhi is guarded by Indian soldiers in non-dress uniform, unarmed.
Beyond the Mahatma’s memorial, the parkland continues in a sort of Glade of Martyred Heroes, with the samadhis of the two other assassinated Gandhis (grandmother and grandson of each other, but unrelated to Mahatma), Indra and Rajiv. Rajiv’s memorial, complete with a heroic bas-relief that borders on socialist realism, lays it on rather thick:
Friend of the Poor
Champion of Secularism
Beacon of our Youth
Votary of our Modernization
Crusader for World Peace and Justice
Prime Minister of India 1984-89
Martyred at Sriperumbudur 21 May 1991
Given the entire Gandhi clan feud playing out in the Indian papers seemed to consist of one distant relation telling another that ‘Rajiv was martyred [because he opposed what you’re doing/advocating]’, perhaps they could all come here and check if that is the case. Indra’s samadhi doesn’t say what she was martyred for, though presumably the territorial integrity of India is the official story, not ‘for a bungled, heavy-handed military assault on the holiest place of one of the nation’s major religions’.
Beyond an attractive rainwater lake, filled with white geese, the samadhis continued with unmartyred heroes, including a rather moving, simple memorial to Jawaharlal Nehru, consisting solely of a very low grass mound and a stone inscription setting out his last will as regards his ashes, explaining why – despite his strongly anti-religious and pro-secularist stance, he wanted a portion deposited in the Ganges, and for the rest to be dropped from an aeroplane so as to be indistinguishable from the dust of India. It felt more like a tribute to his nation from its first prime minister, not vice-versa.