The last time I was here was 26 years ago. I was in my middle 20s, had only just met the woman who would become my wife and the mother of our children. It was only the second time I had travelled outside of the British Isles. I had no real idea of what I was doing and absolutely no idea why I was going to India. And even less idea of what I was going to happen once I was there.
On the outside I was there to meet two friends, one I still have and one I have lost. Nicky – dark haired then – less so now, Scottish, lives in the Lakes with a host of children and (in all probability) a decent whiskey waiting in the cupboard. Mike? Well that’s a different story. I have no idea where he is. Sometimes you pick things up and sometimes you put things down. And sometimes you are put down yourself; put down by somebody when they see no utility in carrying you further. It turns friendship into an object and conversation into scripted theatre. It turns friendship into something that left a bad taste in my mouth, and to this day makes me wonder if it was my fault after all.
If outside reasons were clear, then the inside was clouded with uncertainty. At the time, if I had been asked to explain why I had gone to India I would have struggled to form an answer that I actually believed. And whatever answer I managed to create, it would have looked like a landscape viewed through frosted glass – uncertain and vague. But maybe, just maybe, if I could go back and look through those clouds, applying the eye of a cognitive meteorologist to the weather that was brewing, would I see the roots of the storm that was to come? And if I could, would I? Would such knowledge have undone the collisions, so many collisions, which have led to this day?
Condensation weeps from the side of my beer and pools on the table below; Kingfisher in a lime green bottle. Droplets coalesce to form larger ones that roll down the glass, pulled by their own gravity towards the fluid circle forming between the bottle and the table. Dozens of collisions that, in the end, form the same shape no matter the order of the events. Inevitable simplicity from complication. A trickle down of cause and effect. It seems like a metaphor for the primacy of the past, or the inescapable consequence of history.
Further introspection is curtailed by the arrival of a second bottle. The whole process of condensation begins again and I try to put away the memories. Far too much has changed in 26 years for the experiences of today to be ruled only by chapters from the past. I look around for distraction and find it overhead.
Kites circle in the darkening sky, adults with forked tails, youngsters with square ones. Pigeons, unfazed or oblivious, clatter from the concrete cliffs that form the back of the hotel. A few small bats flutter by. Crickets chirrup from the ornamental plants and a fat moon shines. It’s cold in a way I find welcoming, and I’m glad to be wearing a fleece. An evening this crisp does not deserve to be muddied by the past.
I run my fingers through the condensation on the table and head off to bed. No circles anymore.
Next morning somebody walks past my breakfast table carrying a rather wonderful looking creation: a pancake of some kind, so large that it hangs over both sides of a dinner plate, folded in half to conceal a filling. Fortunately the owner of the pancake sits at a table close enough to mine to allow for a more detailed, if a little covert, observation. A few discreet enquiries identify the delicacy as a masala dosa, and a few more point me in the direction of where I can get one. Thin almost crisp batter, a mild – but not meek – vegetable filling and a somewhat more frisky sauce combine to make breakfast heaven. This really could be love at first bite.
Leaving the hotel after breakfast I pass through the layers of security put in place to keep the outside outside, and to protect anything on the inside. Guards with a military manner and moustaches to match, resplendent in red jackets and headgear stand in the doorway. Metal detectors scan bags and jackets, and by the gate, men – always men – in camouflage uniforms run mirrors under incoming cars. It seems like a porous barrier to those of serious malintent at best, and distinctly one way. I wonder how easy it would be to smuggle cutlery or a desk lamp out of the hotel, should I have a mind to do so.
But whatever the efficacy of these measures their presence does mark a boundary of some kind. It’s tempting to see this as some form of border between the real India of the streets and the stage-managed India of the uniformed guards and calm hotel interior. (And to be honest, writing this means I probably thought that). But on reflection that’s not the case: the street and the hotel are an aspect of a complex whole. India is not just the poverty porn of beggars in the street and neither is it just the world of the immaculate Indian guests in the hotel, looking so much sharper than the slightly down at heels and jet lagged internationals that share the buffets and bars.
The street outside the hotel is owned, more or less, by a group of black dogs that are so similar to each other, that they must be family. They seem to live in an unfinished multi-story building that occupies a prime corner of real estate just up the road from the hotel. The dogs seem not to be the only tenants in their unmade home, as some of the floors have been walled off with boxes and collections of wood. The dogs look healthy and happy. Some of the human faces that watch from behind the unplanned walls do not. It’s an unsettling combination.
The morning walk to work, from hotel to an office in Connaught Place, is as eye opening as a strong breakfast coffee. The staff in the hotel lobby seem shocked at our choice of transport, and seem convinced that we will become lost. It turns out that they are only partially wrong.
The term ‘street’ really does not sum up the experience of walking on these thoroughfares. A range of other activities are added to the familiar functions of western streets: bathroom and toilet, shopping centre and local store and possibly the most obvious, take away food outlet. Fresh fruit and fried food stalls pop up on most junctions and street corners, selling all manner of delicious looking – but potentially gastrically ruinous – foodstuffs. Outside of the office in which I worked a family fried aromatic potatoes and what looked like cheese sandwiches. The potatoes seemed to be popular with the passing trade, the sandwiches less so. It was a good game trying to identify what the foods actually are; donuts turn out to be fried cheese, curries become some form of dessert. The street is an assault on the senses, a potpourri of stimuli – not always fragrant – far removed from the controlled and sterile corridors of malls and supermarkets.
But the sensory overload is just a matter of degree; a significantly more intense and diverse version of markets and streets at home. What is really different is the way in which the street vendors are mind readers, with an unflinching confidence in their own abilities, and a startling willingness to share their insights with you. They know that you shoes need to be polished, your ear wax removed and your phone case replaced, even before the thought has entered your mind and the notion as been dismissed as frivolous. That your shoes are suede, your ear canals sterile and phone case cutting edge, is of no concern. They know what you need and you, foolish person that you are, do not.
The morning walk to work, and the afternoon return, becomes a ritual of missed business opportunities and awoken memories. The shape of the streets in Connaught Place is familiar from my last journey to India, but at no time do I recognise anything specific. There are fewer bikes and no cows, and most of the cars are shiny and new – although they almost all carry dents. The jelly mould shaped Hindustan Ambassador – a car of classic of Indian design and longevity – is now almost absent; the few you see are parked in side streets or decked in bright paint.
A simple part of this daily journey out and back makes the whole experience of being in India seem different from similar journeys 25 years ago. The smells and many of the sights are more or less the same, and the presence of child beggars just as morally confusing. Do you give – and in doing so, risk validating the parents’ choice to send the child onto the street (assuming that it was a choice in the first place), or do you ignore the weight of cash in your pocket and try to harden your heart.
These dilemmas are no easier to solve than they were 25 years ago – but one change of circumstance does oil the wheels of my conscience. This time, I am here to work. Last time I was here to watch.
In Old Delhi the chaos – energy if you like – is more familiar. Road junctions clog with cars, bikes and pedestrians. In fact the idea of “pedestrians” and “cars” seems artificial as designations: the two merge on roads, pavements and parks to a degree unthinkable in well ordered Melbourne. All you have is traffic, some mechanical, some human and some a combination of both. The traffic flows and stops, flows and stops and from this broth of chaos some form of partial, fleeting order seems to form. The pavement supermarkets offer all you seem to need, although vendors of electrical goods seem to outnumber the sellers of food.
For a sequence of just a few days I get up and go to work almost as usual. The tasks in the office are much the same – long-winded examinations of single sentences, the excision of excess and addition of clarity. Ambiguity is to be avoided, simplicity celebrated. A departure from my office normality arrives in fine china cups, with a saucer and two biscuits; not every hour on the hour – but close. I rather like that.
In the evenings I retreat to the area by the pool and end the day with a cold beer or two. Each night the condensation flows down the sides of the bottle to pool on the table. And each night I wonder what my family are doing and what stories I am missing. It is ever such.
On the weekend, with time away from the office, I start to build a story of my own.
The road from Delhi to Agra is surprisingly empty, and traffic speeds shockingly high. These two facts may be connected. It’s not a near death experience, but even with the lack of traffic I can feel the weight of mortality on my shoulders. Burst tyres and chunks of metal decorate the side of the road and pedestrians seem oblivious to danger as the wander from one side of the expressway to another. It’s early in the morning and it’s all a bit much to take in. The sun sneaks over the horizon to the left and a few strands of mist hang where the cool air of night lingers into the passing dawn.
Tall chimneys, some coughing smoke, stud the fields by the side of the road. All around them, soldierly rows of bricks stretch into the distance. The land surface and the clay below have been gouged away, so that the chimneys and their furnaces sit atop little islands of high ground. Electrical pylons march over the landscapes, capping their own little islands as well. It’s a strange landscape, with rural and industrial elements side by side. Cattle wander on the lowered land, and in a few places leafy crops grow beneath the chimneys. Is this what the early stages of the industrial revolution looked like, where two economies battled for ownership of land and the people? On the journey back to Delhi in the evening, when the Sun has crossed the freeway and it is setting, the sky is stained orange by the smoke and even in the car I could smell the tang of burning. If it is a battle between the bricks and the crops, then it seems that the crops are on the losing side.
Agra is shrouded in a kind of silence. The streets are more or less empty of people, and most shops are closed. Apparently there is an election in progress, and as a result the people are elsewhere, maybe in queues, waiting. It feels and looks very strange – emptiness in a land of crowds and bustle.
While the people are away it seems that the other residents of Agra come out to play. Thin cats with matted fur and half-mast tails, roam wall tops: dogs lounge in doorways and under cars: a horse, skeletal and seemingly close to death, slumps against a building. And by the gutter, in piles of rubbish, spotted piglets rootle for food. The last two – the horse and the pigs – call out for pictures, but I would have to have asked the driver of the car to pull over while I take tourist snaps of things best left unseen. My pictures would not have improved the state of sanitation nor animal care in India, and maybe I would have just shown myself to be just another seeking of poverty porn. I was deeply uncomfortable and equally conflicted by my desire to take pictures of these scenes. I am not a journalist and the reach and probable impact of my pictures (and presumably these words as well) is limited to say the least. I sat in the car, confused. There are days when photographing birds is a far easier choice.
Within a few minutes, and less than a couple of kilometres from the pigs and the horse stands the Taj Mahal. The first time that I saw this building, all those years ago, I thought it looked small. Today, with that in mind I am surprised by how big it is. I compose picture through archways and from behind trees. All of these images will have been made dozens, hundreds of times before, and my versions will not alter anything at all. So why the difference? Maybe I really should have photographed the horses and the pigs, and not bothered with the Taj Mahal? I know that India is supposed to mess with parts of your body, but what I was finding here was that my head was more upset than my gut.
The Taj Mahal was so clear and bright, that it seemed to flush away any of the uncertainty associated with the chaos of the street. I took pictures of people. I took pictures of trees. I took pictures of parrots eating flowers. And all this seemed fine. And I also know it felt pointless.
So, maybe, after all of my thoughts to the contrary I really was there just to watch.