Saturday, August 27, 2005

My Gandhi Moment, and other random travels.

In 1893, Gandhi was thrown off a train in South Africa for sitting in a first-class compartment with a valid first class ticket because it was prohibited for 'coolies' and non-white people to travel in first-class. That experience was the start of a life-long struggle that ultimately led to India's independance from Colonial rule.

Two days ago, I was thrown out of a gym in Dubai - even though I was working out on the proper day reserved for 'males' because a British woman wanted to use the treadmill !! So, what earth-shattering event happened next ? All I'll say is that India sure is lucky not to have to depend on sons like me to earn its freedom :-)

I tried to talk to the guard (who, ironically was Indian :) as he led me down to the lobby but he wouldn't budge. So, as soon as he turned the corner I snuck back upstairs, struck up a conversation with the treadmiller, and broke some local law by exercising in the same room as a woman :-)

Local, as in the United Arab Emirates. Which is where I find myself now. Within a few hours of my writing my previous post last week my passport arrived in the mail, even as the authorities concerned assured me that it had not yet left the American Consulate. That issue resolved, I got on a plane soon after for my first visit to India's capital city, New Delhi. Got to say, I really like Delhi. Actually, it seemed to me like there were many Delhi's, each different from each other.

I stayed at the apartment of friends of my dad's in Lutyens' Delhi. This is the part of the capital where the elected representatives of the people and top bureaucrats live a lifestyle completely and totally removed from the rest of the country. Wide boulevards, proper roads, mansions with immaculate gardens, official servants to do their every bidding, and so forth. Fascinating, actually. The British designed this part of New Delhi as a fit capital for the Jewel of their colonial crown and the Indian political class eagerly moved in after independance.

I also went to the narrow, crowded streets of Old Delhi, to see the Jama Masjid. I got there around 1 PM and was told that non-muslims aren't allowed in until 2. So I decided to explore the area. It was a sunday and Crowded (like with a capital C). Turns out there are two special sidewalk bazaars on sundays - a book bazaar and a kabadi(junk) bazaar. I spent a couple of hours walking around these, and it was so cool. (the weather was was incredibly hot, though). People were selling stuff like an almost empty bottle of Tommy Girl, dusty circuit boards, rusty cycle chains, pirated VCDs of a movie that had just released. I was told that there is a local restaurant-type place called Karim's that was the place to go for traditional meat dishes. Tried searching for it but got lost in the bylanes of the area. Stopped to get a drink at a vendor selling coconuts on a pushcart. As I was sipping the coconut water, a cop came by and started beating the vendor with a stick !!! turns out he wasn't allowed to sell there or something, but man was it a shock to see the guy get beat up like that.

Thirst quenched, I made my way back to the Jama Masjid. And this place is something else. Huge was the first impression. Beautiful followed soon after. It was built by Shah Jahan, and I overheard this loosely translated snippet of a conversation between two young boys: "Shah Jahan sure had some great artisans. Everything he did is still so amazing today." So very true. The highlight of the visit was a climb up a long spiral staircase to one of the minarets of the mosque. They must be one of the best views of the city around. I also fell asleep for a while on the cool marble flooring alongside others who were also trying to beat the heat.

From there, a 20-rupee autorickshaw ride took me to what I'd call Next Delhi - The Metro. Now, I've travelled in subways in many cities and I have to say Delhi's metro is one of the very best. It is especially impressive considering the environs immediately outside. The stations are completely air-conditioned, very clean, good signage (rare for india, IMO), and with very clean trains that run on time. There seemed to be a lot of folks (like me) going for a sunday joy ride. Good thing, if you ask me. I saw many people trying to get on an escalator for the first time, and the kids seemed pretty excited all around asking questions of their parents about things like how the doors open automatically and what the symbol for the handicapped meant.

As a tourist of three days, the thing I loved about Delhi - new, old, next, whatever - is that all of these seemingly different worlds somehow make sense next to each other. Kinda like this stall I saw in the Book Bazaar where a kid had laid out his wares on the street. Lined up on the right side were these kitschly romance books and in one column, one below the other, were the titles:

Linda's Baby, Father Found!, and The World's Greatest Dad.


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