The India Chronicles, part II, Delhi, and home.
Before I begin I wish to remind my readers that everything written here reflects the miniscule part of Delhi/India that I could take in and an acutely subjective point of view presented as a series of images in a stream of consciousness.
I read a quote that says “every statement you make about India, the exact opposite is also true”. With that in mind, I will begin.
Another five star contradiction in terms, The Lalit had a towering marble lobby and a whole battalion of faithful employees complete with Namaste and designer uniforms, a fancy roof pool, a bright red Ferrari and a shining silver Mazeratti parked out front and metal detectors everywhere. It could have been a complete twilight zone if only they’d manage to do something about the, well, ahem…surroundings. Everything can be scrubbed and swabbed, swept under the carpet and glazed with a smile, but the view from the window remains the same: a filthy shambles, covered in dust and grime, clogged with human traffic fused with any type of machine that will transport you from point A to point B and mired with some sort of foggy film that paints the sky grey well into late morning.
And as we’ve mentioned late morning, we can discuss….
Nothing is opened until nearly 11 am. Why, I ask? No answer, as always. A country with a warm climate almost year round, where the sun sets early half the year and where no major signs of night life are visible (to me at least…but I am surely missing something) would, logic have it, function in the early hours, possibly break midday and resume in the afternoon when the blessed evening breeze comes in. But no, it doesn’t work that way…
The view from the car window:
“Delhi”, says the very erudite journalist from Times of India, one of the county’s major papers who had come to interview Mira and myself, “is probably India’s least chaotic city”.
From the car window I found it hard to come to terms with that statement. I saw nothing but chaos for five days.
The traffic? Indescribable. Constant horn honking, pushing and shoving of all and any type of vehicle, swarms of green and white three-wheeled buggies shooting in an out of the jam like drunken wasps, motorcycles coming within a hair of buses, coming within a split hair of taxis, stuck to private vehicles, all bullying each other endlessly albeit non violently (this is, after all, is the land that reared Gandhi), and all vying for space and motion, all striving for “progress”. All except the cows, whom, thank Krishna, had been herded out miraculously a few years back, I’d been told, by some “pied piper” method formerly unknown to man. Had they been part of the show I cannot think how the plot would unfold…!
It all would have been quasi-bearable had it not been for the beggars, especially the filthy, barefoot children or stick-figure mothers bearing infants in all states of heart wrenching disrepair and despair. These will come straight up to your window and push their noses against the glass, banging their small fists and demanding their share of your magnificent wealth. “You billionaire”, they say. Children as young as two or three years will weave their way into a four-lane major thoroughfare jammed with vehicles in a red light, in hope of gaining a few rupees. As the traffic begins to growl forward, you are left praying they make it alive to the side of the road, clutching the money they have hopefully succeeded in taking from you, that is, of course, if your conscience and heart have not yet developed that hardened crust that inevitably numbs your soul and enables you to turn them down. Gil and I gave most every time, despite the stories of the “beggar industry” ,horror tales of intentional maiming and other things I cannot even whisper to myself let alone say out loud. We gave despite the theories of caste and creed, of this being a ‘job’ for them, of how they were ‘born into it’ and so on and so forth. If we have aided any sinister powers I beg forgiveness from the god of compassion for our weakness and stupidity.
The side of the road, mostly, looks like a huge construction site or worse (a virtual post war situation. When the whole world does finally go to pieces, India will probably be thinking: what’s all the fuss? All in a days work).
There are piles of debris and waste everywhere, except near the embassies and government buildings, which have been spread out in Washington DC/Paris Champs Elysee style. Truth is, it looked pathetic to me. What in God’s name has that got to do with anything here (along with polo and cricket, in incongruent enigmas abound)? The lawns, far from well kept, were always strewn with bottles and plastic bags, or groups of people camped out, as they are everywhere, waiting for, who knows what?. The buildings all looked in need of drastic renovation, as did almost every single edifice I saw. Even at the height of an attempt at western glory, the shabbiness prevails. It makes you wonder. (That’s actually all I found myself doing here. Wondering)
The only buildings I saw which did NOT need repair were the extremely shiny, glittery squeaky clean fresh-out-of-the-box shopping malls on the outskirts of town. On our way to a meeting with a very prominent business man whose offices, adjoining such a mall, could very easily have graced Manhattan’s 5th Avenue, we encountered a steel and glass retail behemoth flaunting the whole western glamour-gale of consumer mania, from Mango to Zara to H&M and The Coffee Bean, and on it goes. How familiar that looked, how strangely out of place, how vulgar and comforting at the same time. I felt a little smile creeping up on me, imagining sari and kurta clad Indians drinking a ‘tall latte’ and trying on Penelope Cruz’s latest mini skirt.
And why not really? Better to leave them in the inhuman state of poverty that is so prevalent here for the sake of national geographic documentaries and gaping tourists? Shouldn’t we be happy that an emerging middle class is coming of its own?
At the very fringe of the mall complex I beheld the ugliest slum my eyes had seen so far. Mud and dirt, laundry hanging from barbed wire, piles of garbage, holes in the ground where people dwell as rats do. What cynical juxtaposition.
I love India’s unique nature, color, culture, it is fascinating and wonderful, I pray its beauty remain intact… but not at the expense of human dignity. A balance must, and I believe, will be found. In light of all this it is impossible not to ask big, unanswerable questions. How? Why? Until when? Where is it all going? How many years will it take if ever? What will the implications be on the rest of the world? Is there enough to go around? Basic terms like, fair, good, evil, wrong, right, human… constantly come to the front of your eyes, heart, mind and conscience, begging for some sort of unraveling. But like the edges of a fine pashmina scarf, the unraveling never comes. You are simply left wondering.
The Israeli embassy in Delhi and other Israelis we met:
The Israeli Embassy people, and their satellites, are some of some of the nicest, warmest people I have ever encountered. Chana, Achiya, Maayan, Yahel, the Ambassador and his wife, everybody’s children…all of us are deeply grateful to you for your open hearted hospitality and gentle generosity.
On the third night of our stay in Delhi we were asked by the ambassador to sing a song at the Rabin Memorial he had arranged in his home. We accepted, of course. Gil and I had been there at that fateful peace rally 16 years ago, singing, minutes before prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin was murdered by a fellow Jew. And now, Thousands of miles away from home, in the most troubling times our country has known, with the paralyzing prospect of war in the air, a stalled peace process threatening to give way to more and more violence, dangerous ideas being spread by the highest government officials, and the mind boggling conclusion that the main, government-sponsored memorial event in Rabin Square that had taken place every year since his murder has become “irrelevant”…in the midst of all this, we find ourselves in a modest back yard in Delhi with a small group of Israelis, none willing to let go of this great man and his legacy. I sang with tears in my eyes.
Since the theaters had no dressing rooms to speak of, I was forced to come from the hotel all decked out, make up, hair, the whole shebang. I never ever do that, but here, what choice did I have? (India in that sense makes Italy AND Israel look like Switzerland :-).
SO, there I was in my high heels, waiting for the elevator holding my concert dress in its long black case, when a bell boy runs over to take it from me lest the madam hurt her pinky.
On our way down, with a shy smile he asks: “is maam going to a fashion show maam?”
“no” I reply with a smile, “I have a concert tonight”..
“oh, but maam must surely be a super model!”
Hah! I think, Come every day.
“no”, I say “maam is just a plain old singer”.
“oh, no, maam is a super model singer for sure maam. Good luck maam, you’ll surely be great maam!”
And so the Queen of Sheba walks out the elevator door followed by her number one fan in India, straight into the waiting taxi that smells of sweat and curry. Maam the singing super model waves goodbye, and carries a little smile in her heart the whole evening.
The markets are thoroughly delicious. I just couldn’t get enough of them. So many thrilling objects! Oh, the colors, the textures, the diversity, the bargaining, the treasures and disappointments, the beauty of it all! A riksha ride through the bazaar adjacent to the Shah Jeha Mosque ranks as one of the most incredible half hours of my life. I could hardly take it all in: the little stalls laden with all type of wares, to wear (if you dare) or eat (and beware), or use in this way or that, or not, who cares? You are a bug on the tree of life, aren’t you? The electric cables above the tiny, crowded alleys laid out like a drunkard’s attempt at knitting, all tangled, knotted and hanging perilously, skimpily shaded the passers-by. People, motorbikes and rikshas all passed eachother where hardly one could get through. Every few meters a tiny courtyard opens up to a place of worship (Hindu? Muslim? Seik? Christian? One of them..), tiny oases of peace, or suddenly a well lit portal to a savvy seamstress’ shop, or a cubby hole with a doctor snoring behind his old desk heaped with jars containing all sorts of potions and concoctions, or a steep stairway to some dark place, or a gorgeous black eyed three year old selling fried puffs on a huge black pan twice his size. The array of human and material variations had me in a semi hallucinatory state. “Buy me!” it all cried out, or at least try me!, or give me!, or if none of these… at least, remember me…
The concerts were thrilling. The Indian audience is very close to being a dream come true for people like us. They are English speakers, many of them educated but not (yet) cynical, curious about cultural diversity, accustomed to rhythms and vocal inflections but fascinated with variations of such. Their hearts, eyes and mind are wide opened, effortlessly resonating with “roots and wings”. All the shows were great but for me, the solo concert at the Indian Habitat Center topped them all. It was so exciting, so moving! The place was packed; we got a standing ovation that was started by a turban-wearing Seik (!), and countless compliments from people who had been moved to tears. Yahel from the embassy brought his young boys to every single concert we had in Delhi. One of them came to me after that show and said, ‘you were so lovely this evening’. Coming from an 8 year old looking me straight in the eye, it made my knees weak. And after him, a student, a father, a musician, a photographer, more and more Indian people of all sorts, with stars in their eyes.
In Siri Fort, a major Delhi venue, Mira and I had a great show and a surprise at the end. The Indian Minister of Railways, a very important and clever man, had seen us in Goa. When he read in the paper we were to sing in Delhi, he delayed an official trip to Calcutta and came with his bodyguards and all to see us again. After the show he stayed to compliment us and chat, informally and warmly, and left us his number “in case we needed anything” . I find it hard to imagine such a scene in any other country.
Which brings me to….
Here is the best part of it all. India is just full of amazing, interesting people. We met so many, but I will tell you about one.
Sminu Jhindal is a 38 year old woman who has been in a wheel chair since she was 11. She is the mother of two young boys. She is also the CEO of a multi million dollar steel company and was voted India’s 33 most powerful woman by Fortune magazine. She married for love, breaking the mold of pre-arranged marriages common in families such as hers (5th wealthiest in India). At age 6 she declared to her father that she would go into business, starting her career from the very same chair he was sitting in, and she did just that. In her spare time, she promotes the cause of accessibility for handicapped people throughout India, giving them hope for a life of dignity. With all that, she is kind, modest and sweet. She came to our concert, invited by lovely Maayan (Israeli singer and photographer whose children go to school with Sminu’s), undeterred by the non-wheelchair friendly situation, and enjoyed every moment. Sminu, it was an honor meeting such an extraordinary woman.
I know I have only seen a fraction of India, that every state/city/village is different, I know I am far from being able to fathom the history and politics, the width and breadth and depth of it all, but the spirit of India has seeped into my heart and overwhelmed me. I have a lot to think about now.
I am writing sitting on the plane transporting me back to my children. What joy. Finally I can shed the skin of the Noa-avatar I’ve become the past twelve days (how else to deal with this longing for my family?), step out of the matrix back into my life. I can go back to my to-do list, to the sweet smelling rooms and the scent of the sea, the warm skin at the nape of my baby’s neck, to 5 hours sleep, the studio, songs, concerts, meetings, gory politics and my mother’s cooking. Home.
India’s havoc will slowly fade…but I will have gained, once again, perspective.
Will I return? What will I find if I do? Will any answers to those big questions ever present themselves, through the fog, like tiny crystals in the mud?
“I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know…”
With this I leave you.
Thanks for reading.
Noa in the sky,
Nov 12th, 2011.