Rachelle Braido Shekhar
I climb in the door-less, three-wheeled vehicle and a small man with an intense stare drives us away. He wears a button-down, short-sleeve shirt tucked into khaki pants. Red pom-poms line the windshield sporting a long crack through the middle. A large Ganesha statue stares directly at me. India; you will either hate it or you will love it. My finance professor’s words drift through my mind as we cruise around Connaught Place in New Delhi.
India assaults every one of the senses: saris of all conceivable colors, energy-zapping heat, horns honking incessantly without reason, and pungent smells of temple incense mix with suffocating smog. With a population topping 1.2 billion, competition is fierce. Every auto rickshaw driver wants your business and every begging child wants your spare change. New Delhi and Old Delhi are massive and sprawling, filled with historical sites, temples of varying beliefs and vibrant markets. It feels overwhelming to witness unimaginable poverty and surreal to encounter palaces of splendor, free-roaming monkeys and cows, and snake charmers on the street.
A reddish brown dust coats the sidewalks and roads, and clings to buildings. It blows through the air and clogs my sinuses. It doesn’t, however, adhere to the stunning white kurtas I see men wear. A seemingly impossible achievement, like the smiling faces of poverty living in the shadows of 5-star hotels and up-scale apartment buildings. Most of these residents are starving villagers who sold their family land and traveled to a large city in search of a better life, only to find a high cost of living and low paying labor jobs. They construct makeshift homes from nearby rubbish. Walls and roofs cleverly held together with flattened water bottles and plastic grocery bags.
The young girls and boys that emerge from these homes are playing and chasing one another while laughing. They are unbelievably thin with limbs like sticks yet somehow full of energy and chatter. When they see me, they come running. A girl with dirty curls in a stained lime green top walks in front of me, twirls around with a ballerina’s precision, and launches into a one-handed cartwheel. I walk around her. She’s a pro at eliciting handouts from sympathetic foreigners but the money surely won’t feed her. It will, instead, line the pockets of a slum lord. Boys stand at either side of me, “amma,” they cry pulling at my shirtsleeves. I see other children hanging back, waiting for my money to emerge before they bother to approach. This feels like a performance. “Nahi,” I say as I walk faster toward a waiting auto rickshaw.
I stare back at Ganesha, the serene elephant-headed God, a remover of obstacles, where journeys begin. The driver turns around to face me and asks where I want to go. “Lodi Gardens,” I answer looking out at the children I left behind. The gardens, located near the lush embassy district, are filled with trees, flowers and grass, which cool the air and filter the pollution, providing a much-needed respite from the city. The stray dogs in Delhi are clever, not only are they skilled at crossing busy streets without getting hit, they also come to Lodi to rest in the shade. Ruins of old mosques appear out of the greenery. I walk the paths to explore the remains and crumbling arch doorways. Toward the end is a bonsai and bamboo sanctuary growing hybrid species. Outside the garden walls, my driver waits. I return to the tuk tuk and request to see the largest Gurdwara (Sikh temple) in New Delhi.
The Bangla Sahib is a grand site of white expansive buildings with a magnificent golden dome. I walk toward the steps and stare ahead in awe. A young woman suspects this is my first time at a Gurdwara and leads me by the arm to a table of bright scarves. She chooses a sky blue one for me and ties it over my head. She then leads me to a shelved kiosk where I deposit my shoes. I step through a shallow pool of running water to clean my feet and walk up the green-carpeted staircase. I hesitantly enter the temple. I have no idea how to act, where to sit or what to do.
Upon entering the prayer hall, I take a seat on the floor with the rest of the guests. I observe I am the only westerner but I am greeted with curious glances and smiles. The holy text of Sikhism sits on a platform with cushions covered in decadent cloths. Adjacent to the text is another platform which houses musicians playing instruments. A gentleman greets me and scoots closer to me on the carpet. “Do you know about Sikhism?” I shrug, unsure of the rules about talking in the temple. He offers to show me around the gurdwara and explain the beliefs. I jump up to follow him out the side door to the grounds.
In the sun, I can see his white beard and deep lines in the corner of his eyes and his smile. In Punjabi accented English, he guides me around an open pool of water called a sarovar. It’s large enough to be a lake and is outlined with a covered, stone hallway that shades visitors from the sun’s penetrating heat. It’s reminiscent of Pompeii’s open-air halls that surround the palestra.
I observe devotees bathing in the sarovar and we come to a halfway point and stop. The gentleman tells me to pray right here for whatever I want and it will come true. He tells me the story of his arrival in New Delhi with his wife and children. They had left Punjab in search of better work. He prayed in this exact spot for a good job and received one and that provided well for his family and put two children through college. I tell him that I too am in need of a good job back at home. He touches my arm gently, removes my camera from my grasp, and takes a photo of me praying. He sprinkles some water from the sarovar on his clothing and we continue to walk around the rest of the pool and head to the kitchens.
I had seen a gurdwara kitchen (langar) on television, but never imagined how massive it would be in person. The langar operates on a continual basis, staffed with volunteers who produce 20,000 healthy vegetarian meals a day consisting of lentils, potato, unleavened flatbread, basmati rice and onion. Sikhs feed all people who come to their langar, regardless of their religion. This is part of their belief and encourages equality and interaction among all the castes. The lentils and potato are cooked in colossal, black kettles, which are stirred with a large wooden paddle that resembles an oar. The flatbread is hand rolled each day by men and women and cooked on a long burner. It releases to the food servers on a conveyer belt.
Guests sit on the floor in long rows with a steel thali plate (sectioned plate typical throughout India) as food servers come around and spoon out the dishes and offer bread. A small bowl with water to cleanse the right hand prior to eating is also served. I am humbled by the humanitarianism of the Sikhs, realizing that no one in India should go hungry because the gurdwara will never refuse a meal to anyone. Afterwards, the Sikh gentleman shows me the dishwashing area where men and women wash 20,000 thalis, side-by-side, rinse them in fresh water, and then stack them for the next group. The efficiency and production of this amount of meals is remarkable. It’s also refreshing to see men and women work together without stigma. Once outside, I purchase a symbol of Sikhism, a plain, steel bangle for 10 rupees (17 cents). Blissed out by the experience, I thank the gentleman whose name I never got and find my driver.
I am dropped off at my 5-star hotel, which serves to keep the real India outside. I take the elevator up to my air-conditioned room and shower the dirt off. I breathe filtered air deeply and order room service chai. I gaze out the window and watch the hotel staff set up the courtyard for a wedding later that evening. The lights, sound systems, stages, bhangra dancers and servers set the tables in preparation for the grand event. Later, as guests arrive in lavish saris and expensive jewelry, I reflect on the insufficiencies of the poor I saw earlier in the day and how it contrasts so deeply with the decadence I see now.
The next day, I hire a driver to visit Old Delhi. The bumpy ride over potholes showcases poor neighborhoods with run down apartments, decaying temples, dated buildings and a famous bazaar called Chandni Chowk. The outdoor market is stuffed with patrons, Indian and tourists, bargaining over everything imaginable. My western consumerism takes over as I finger through dizzying displays of colorful fabrics for scarves, saris and salwar kameez. I covet a gorgeous wrap on an Indian woman shopping near me and search frantically for something similar in pink and turquoise. I am victorious and somewhat feverish to continue perusing the goods.
I continue through the maze of vendors and come upon the sparkle of bangles in every hue. I grapple with my avaricious nature and limit myself to 6 pieces. I emerge with jewelry befitting of an Indian princess and wander through the myriad elephant statues and paintings. I select several pieces, pass the books in Hindi and stop at a pleasing aroma. All around me are spice bins and I inhale the heady blend of cardamom, chili, cinnamon and cumin. I choose saffron and an exquisite variety of Darjeeling tea. The driver is not surprised at the amount of bags I keep adding to the car. After I deposit the third load, I begin to feel guilty and hungry. He suggests a place for lunch nearby and drives us back over the bridge to New Delhi.
Upon exiting the vehicle, a small group of children crowd me, calling me amma and holding their arms up to me. One girl has green discharge coming from her nose and eyes and is crusted in a layer of dirt. I cringe looking at her, then cringe at myself for walking away. A doorman opens the restaurant door and the children disperse like mice back into their holes. I am disgusted with myself. I think I need a drink.
I am seated and handed a heavy menu. The waiter asks if I have any questions about the food. “Nahi,” I say, “my husband is from India.” He looks surprised and walks away. No one in India is pleased that I am the wife of an Indian. They must worry about the shame his parents face by having a son who married outside the culture. I keep this in mind and avoid the temptation to order alcohol. It’s fine for western women unless you are married to an Indian. I opt for a natural refresher of lime soda water and black salt. It smells like sulfur, but has a curiously addicting taste. My husband and I drink this at home on hot days. I order the spicy Hyderabadi paneer, which is served in a copper pot with sides of flatbread and condiments of Indian pickle, raw onion, chili and lime.
Outside, the children have returned to accompany me to my vehicle. I pick up my pace to a jog and the children pick up their pace. I’m kicking up dirt and rocks as I round the corner and see an empty alleyway. Where the hell did the driver go?
The children become more aggressive and start pulling on my clothes. I loathe them with their dirty, diseased faces and hands touching me. It’s like looking at a sick, stray cat meowing at you. You feel horrible for the creature, but you don’t want it anywhere near you. The driver suddenly appears and I get in as fast as I can, closing the door on humanity. “How about seeing the sites?” He asks hopeful that I won’t end the trip early due to his disappearance. I’m out of breath but nod to continue to the sites.
He drives me to the India Gate, which resembles Paris’ Triumphal Arch, and I get out to take photos. I hate myself. I hate how I treated those children, afraid if I gave one some money, more would swarm me and paw at me. Afraid that the money I gave them would go to someone who abuses them. I can’t shake the image of the girl with green mucous and each traffic stop brings more poor children to the vehicle. Small, filthy hands slap at both the windows. I am emotionally drained, so I put my head in my hands and close my eyes until we arrive at Gandhi’s tomb.
I am well aware of my hypocrisy as I approach the eternal flame, which shines as a reminder of Gandhi’s light over India’s people. Gandhi would have embraced the children. I ran.
A short drive from Gandhi’s tomb led me to explore some of the most architecturally unique Hindu temples devoted to different deities. Outside, each of the temples are divinely varied with either smooth or textured designs, paint, statues, pools and lotuses blooming. Inside these temples are similar, clean marble or stone floors, no shoes allowed and the head must always be covered. A guru might be saying prayers, conducting ceremonies or blessing visitors with a smudge of tika over the third eye.
By contrast, the Lotus temple of the Baha´i faith, unlike a Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Muslim or Jain temple, appears much as a Christian church inside with bench seats facing the podium. The Lotus temple is literally a temple in the shape of a lotus bloom. The grounds are a utopia of orange trees and striking plants. A pool is located outside and visitors are welcome inside to pray after discarding their shoes and entering in a separate location from the Baha´i devotees.
I prayed all over New Delhi until the sun began to set. I met many people, most eager to share their faith with me. I even attended a Catholic church and purchased a bible in Hindi. India is highly spiritual in a positive, non-threatening way that I find intoxicating.
I arrived at my hotel, exhausted but centered. India, the land of contrasts, lived up to its reputation as an exotic, alluring enigma. My experience was bittersweet; good and bad, sad and enlightening, spiritual and challenging. All of it remains with me and pulls at me often to return.
Back in the states, I sit in the office of my new job, twirling the steel bangle on my wrist and thinking back to that auspicious prayer spot at the gurdwara. I wish I knew that gentleman’s name.