Today is Lee’s 74th birthday and we’ve just arrived in India!
We’ve been planning this trip since June, so we’ve had more than half a year to prepare for it. Trying to get our minds around India has been a delight, though daunting. India’s civilization is so old, so complex, so diverse, that we knew from the start we’d barely be able to skim the surface. Now, after having read a stack of books and watched dozens of videos, we hope we have come to appreciate a little of India’s richness, but there’s so much more to learn, and we’re really looking forward to the next three weeks.
Indira Gandhi International Airport
(Click on images to enlarge)
One of the books I found most intriguing was The Baburnama: Memoirs of
Babur, Prince and Emperor. Babur was the first Mughal emperor of India and
a contemporary of Henry VIII. He left this extensive memoir in a period in
which nobody was writing memoirs. Of course, like all these medieval
warlord-kings, he was in many ways a thug (though I was recently surprised to
learn that Henry V, whom I have always considered to be a first-class thug, when
he wasn’t besieging helpless towns, spent time composing sacred
music—which is something Shakespeare didn’t tell us about Hal!).
Babur came by his tendency to violence naturally, being descended from both
Genghis Khan and Timur (Marlowe’s Tamburlaine). Reading his memoirs, one
goes through long, tedious descriptions of his battles and of the captives whom
he has had beheaded only then to encounter his latest poem or a description of
a garden he is designing or a comment like this one:
Tulips of many colours cover these foothills. I once counted them; it came to thirty-two or thirty-three different varieties. We named one the rose-scented because its perfume was almost like that of the red rose. It grows by itself on Dasht-e Shaikh and nowhere else. The hundred-leaved tulip is another. It grows by itself on the hill below Parwan.Or this one:
In conquest and government, though many things may have an external appearance of reason and justice, yet one lakh [100,000] reflections are required to consider the implications of each of them. From this single rash order of ours, what troubles came about! What rebellions arose!Think if we had the equivalent from Henry VIII or Elizabeth I!
(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
But the book I absolutely loved was
Red Earth and Pouring Rain by Vikram Chandra. The title is taken
from a line in a classical Tamil poem that can be translated, “But in love
our hearts have mingled like red earth and pouring rain.” It tells the
story of a White-faced Monkey living from hand-to-mouth in a modern Indian city
who, as a result of an injury, recovers the memory of his previous life as a
poet in the days of the East India Company. He learns to type and pleads to be
allowed to live long enough to write his story. Hanuman, the monkey god, comes
to his defense and arranges a contract with Yama, the god of death, to allow
the poet to survive as long as his story does not bore his audience. The poet
O Hanuman, you are the best of monkeys, the most loyal of friends, the protector of the weak, the refuge of poets—you are eternal, undying, O Son of the Wind, strongest of the strong. I praise you.And he promises a good story:
‘I won’t tell what happened,’ I stammered eagerly. ‘I’ll make a lie. I will construct a finely-coloured dream, a thing of passion and joy, a huge lie that will entertain and instruct and enlighten. I’ll make The Big Indian Lie.’I’ve read the book several times now and am still finding treasures and have just barely begun to discern the ways in which Chandra alludes to and parodies classical Indian works, raising their love of a frame story to impossible depths. But if there were nothing else in the book, I’d love it for the 18th Century Indian journeyman printer who impulsively steals a copy of Shakespeare’s works and falls in love:
‘And so day by day I read through to the end, not understanding much but learning. The next year I read through again. And then again the next year. And so I have traversed the complete works thirty-four times, and from a foreign jungle I have made it my own garden. Every part of this terrain I have faced with my body, this earth is my earth, Willy is my boy.’He becomes incensed when given the job of setting the type for an anti-Stratfordian tract entitled Was Sir Francis Bacon the True Author of the Stratford Plays?:
‘Proof, you might ask, where in damn hell is the proof? All this, this robbing of poor Willy, all this was based on some wishful thinking, a refusal to accept that one who was not one of theirs could create something as excellent and as good, and finally some slipshod unbelievable discovery of mechanical proof in the text, which is to say this owner-master said there were ciphers in the text, sonnets which spelt out, acrostically, “Bacono” in reverse and “Francisco” on the diagonal, unbelievable bright-green horseshit the likes of which you’d never heard.’His solution is to set the text but to use a slightly modified font to insert characters that encode the message, “Did the mother of this author lick pig pricks by the light of the full Stratford moon?”
(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
|We flew to London a week ago, hoping to get a head start on making the 10.5-hour timezone adjustment between Princeton and India. We’d chosen to stay in a new (for us) part of London, Southwark. As it turned out, the flat we rented was just around the corner from the location of Chaucer’s Tabard Inn. I felt a little ping of delight each time we passed Tabard Street on our way to and from the Tube station. Hail to Harry Bailey!|
We’d planned our time in London to give us more opportunities to learn
about India. We were fortunate that the National Theatre schedule while we were
there included two plays about India.
One was David Hare’s adaptation of Katherine Boo’s study of life in the Annawadi slum beside Mumbai’s modern airport, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. I thought it was really well done; the book came to life. One felt as though one were living among the trash pickers. The brutality and corruption narrowing their lives became very real. And one had to keep in mind that these people for the most part viewed themselves as having escaped poverty, having left the countryside where there was even less hope. (This production is currently being shown at movie theaters in this country as part of the NT Live series. I definitely recommend it.)
|The other play was Dara, from the Ajoka Theatre in Pakistan. It tells the story of the children of the fifth Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan (who built the Taj Mahal in memory of his wife Mumtaz after she died following the birth of their fourteenth child). Shah Jahan named their eldest son, Dara Shikoh, a religiously liberal poet and soldier, as his heir, but Dara was killed (and Shah Jahan was imprisoned) by a younger son, the fundamentalist Aurangzeb, whose religious intolerance as the sixth Mughal emperor broke with the Mughal tradition and brought on the decline of the Mughal Empire (at a time when the Mughals ruled approximately one-fourth of the Earth’s population and so had great scope for causing misery). The play was written by Shahid Nadeem, a courageous Pakistani playwright, who has said, “If we want to reverse the retrogressive process of religious extremism and bigotry, we have to revisit this critical and dramatic point in our history.” It played in Pakistan and India before being brought to the NT (where it was tweaked to be better understood by a London audience). The play was beautiful to see, but I found its message to be rather heavy-handed. I think it unlikely that Aurangzeb died repentant; those kind never do. Its reception in London among people of South Asian descent seems to have been very positive in that they were happy to see a part of their story being told by the National Theatre.|
|High on our list for our stay in London was a visit to the astounding Nehru Gallery at the Victoria & Albert Museum. We especially wanted to see the white jade wine cup of Shah Jahan:|
|We went around the entire gallery carefully. It was just magnificent. There were unbelievably delicate and intricate inlays and embroideries and paintings; the textiles (especially the cotton and silk muslins that have been described as “woven air”) were amazing. One wonders how many people-millennia of skilled labor were represented in those galleries. In addition to the wine cup, I particularly admired some of the many delicate sandstone and marble jalis (perforated stone screens), a Mughal dagger hilt of jade in the form of a horse’s head, impossible stone inlays, and a beautiful cameo of Shah Jahan:|
I was amused to see the famous
Tipoo’s Tiger, the mechanical device of a tiger chewing on a
European; it’s larger than I had imagined, actually about life-size.
From the V&A, we traveled to Covent Garden to have lunch at Dishoom, recently recommended as being among the best dal restaurants in London. It was just great, definitely a new favorite restaurant. We began with the Chili Cheese Toast, which I’d love to learn to make. For our main course, we had Haleem, a wonderful stew of lamb and lentils served with black sesame naan. We added a side of their Black Dal and also a Raita. The Raita and the Mango Lassi were the best I’ve ever had, and everything else was excellent.
Every day we were in London, there was something to remind us of India. After repeatedly changing Tube trains at Elephant & Castle, we decided one morning to surface to see what the area looked like above ground. Sure enough, there was a statue of an elephant. One is reminded often, too, of the Indian Diaspora that has so enriched Britain while bringing joys and sorrows to the many who made the wrenching change in their lives. We spotted this telling self-portrait of the artist Baljit Balrow in the Norwich Castle Museum:
Then, after a week of dashing about London seeing as many plays as we could and
eating our favorite foods as frequently as possible, we flew out of Heathrow
last evening, and Lee’s birthday began with us at 39,000 feet somewhere
over the Middle East sharing the misery of an overnight flight. We noted that
the plane had deviated from a Great Circle route in order not to fly over
Donetsk, and we were grateful for that.
Lee had the window seat and spotted the sunrise when it was very distant. I came up out of my grog and joined him in looking down, but there was heavy cloud cover the entire way, so we got no view at all of India until the plane landed shortly before noon (new time). Everything went smoothly with our arrival: we got through border control, changed some money, retrieved our luggage, and were met by our minder, who quickly got us out of the airport and into the vehicle he’d arranged. It was a comfort to have somebody taking care of us.
We had concluded that it was likely our first Indian bird would be a myna, but in fact we spotted two brown raptors while the plane was taxiing, very likely Black Kites, though we couldn’t get a good enough look to say for sure. Just outside the airport, we spotted a House Crow (I will be indicating lifebirds with boldface); then as we were driving along we did indeed spot some Common Mynas, a cheeky Indian bird we’ve come to know as they’ve spread to Australasia, the Indian Ocean islands, Hawaii, and even Florida.
I was amused to see a plastic Ganesha (the elephant god) on the taxi’s dashboard. It made me feel right at home, as I’d had a lovely introduction to Ganesha in Red Earth and Pouring Rain:
Hanuman eased away from the wall, and a small mouse backed out of the hole, its tail still gripped by the Wind-son’s fingers. A small figure hopped off the mouse’s back and took a few steps, growing larger with every step. My face curved in a ridiculous smile; I clapped my hands; I burst into laughter. ’O snoot-face!’ I said. ‘O marvellous excellent fat one!’ Ganesha picked daintily at his shawl with plump fingers, until it lay just so, and his trunk twisted about his head and neck, adjusting the brilliant necklaces of unearthly stones and the crown of gold. ‘Do you have to be so rough, monkey?’ he said. ‘Uncouth.’
|But overall, fatigued as we were, our first impressions of India included a degree of culture shock. The intense traffic seemed chaotic, the air was pea-soup thick with pollution, and there was litter everywhere. It was with some relief that we escaped into our standard international hotel. It was five kilometers from the Delhi airport but could have been anywhere in the world, except for the charming Indian artifacts in lighted niches along the corridor to our room, especially the jade rabbit outside our door. We were so tired that I had to phone the front desk to ask how to turn out the lights in our room. We sacked out right away, but were careful to set the alarm to allow ourselves to nap only a few hours, as we have learned that it is important to get out and walk around in daylight before the sun sets in order to help reset our internal clocks.|
The hotel’s grounds are not extensive, but we did find some wildlife.
The first creature we found was not wild, however; it was secured by a rope. It
was, appropriately enough, a Hanuman Langur (Northern Plains Grey Langur). I
have no idea why the poor thing was being held captive. Its rope was long
enough to allow it to move around in a bushy area and to climb the trees.
The birds in the garden included hundreds of Common Pigeons (they all have “wild-type” plumage here), Red-vented Bulbuls, Large Grey Babblers, House Crows, Black Kites soaring over, and unidentified vultures circling in the distance. India’s vultures are in a crisis that may drive several species to extinction, though only a few decades ago they numbered in the tens of millions. The culprit has been determined to be the veterinary use of Diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug that kills the vultures when they eat dead livestock. Its use has been banned but the ban is leaky. The garden is also home to many fast-moving little animals that are either Five-striped Palm Squirrels or Three-striped Palm Squirrels; they were too fast for us to count the stripes.
After 45 minutes of conscientiously gathering rays to placate our pineal glands, we went in and showered before making our way downstairs to the Great Kabab Factory. The waiter wanted to serve us a mammoth meal with many courses, but neither of us was very hungry, so we settled on several courses of starters, all of which were lovely. We promised we’d be back tomorrow evening much hungrier.
|On our way to dinner, we’d negotiated with the lobby manager for two more bottles of water in our room and he’d promised four. When we got back, we found three. That was good enough to allow me the relief of brushing my teeth for the first time since yesterday morning. We got ourselves organized for our outing tomorrow and took it easy until an early bedtime.|