New Delhi 2011: Home?
I arrived back in Marin on Tuesday March 1st. night after two months in Delhi. The next morning was sunny and noticeably quiet. Looking out of the window all I could see was green. My neighborhood has its own 300 acres of open space that flows into Marin County open space. People can walk for miles without seeing a house. Strolling outside to reacquaint myself, I met several deer in search of food. Sometimes, families of wild turkeys wander around and the occasional peacock, but not that day. The next morning, I had an early appointment in West Marin to join my team for a pro bono consulting project to advise a local environmental NGO. I drove for 18 miles on country roads over hills, by lakes hardly meeting a car. I came down the Shoreline Highway, which is just a two lane road, to Bolinas Lagoon where my appointment was. As I turned towards the lagoon, the fog was lifting, slowly evaporating upwards towards the surrounding hills, reminding me of Chinese landscape paintings. I had to stop to take it in.
The tomb compound was a sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of one the most populous cities in the world. Built in the sixteenth century, its architecture is as sublime as the Taj Mahal for which it could have been the “dry run”, except it’s made of red stone, not white marble. Even after weeks of walking around it, an unexpected glance would leave me breathless. The gardens surrounding the tomb in the compound were well-cared for, but not as lush as I remember them from past visits, perhaps because flowers were not in bloom. For company, walkers enjoyed chirping doves, green parrots and few peacocks. Stray dogs were abundant too, as in most of Delhi.
Transport around town was an issue. Initially, I rented a car with a driver for about $20/day hoping the arrangement would last for my entire visit, but it did not. The owner/driver proved unreliable. Without consultation, he would send a substitute car that smelled of cigarette smoke and a driver who was not very familiar with Delhi. I also felt uncomfortable with a driver hanging around all day waiting for me to travel short distances. I preferred renting cars by the day whenever I had several places to visit. I tried taxis a few times, but gave up on them quickly. The so-called radio taxis were never available when I needed them and the conventional taxis took a long time to arrive and were bigger cheats than scooter rickshaws, which I used most of the time, although they had problems too. The drivers choose their direction. If they didn’t want to go in my direction, they took off. The second hurdle was the fare. I was invariably taken as a foreigner even before I said anything, probably because of my clothes. I also speak Hindi with an accent, which didn’t help. For that reason, most drivers offered an off-meter charge, usually double or triple the meter amount, which is also jiggered in their favor. These negotiations started out as fun, but soon got annoying.
Traffic in Delhi was awful in most places at most times, especially in Old Delhi, near markets and during the prolonged rush hour. Many roads were broadened in 2010 for the Commonwealth Games, but the growth in the number of cars and other vehicles has already exceeded their capacity. Roads are seriously congested, made worse by the anarchic traffic. No vehicles adhere to lane discipline. Drivers play chicken by inching forward wherever there is a gap and hope others will hesitate and not crash into them. It is the most overtly competitive behavior I have ever seen that is not in a sport. I could not drive in Delhi. I would freeze. Even if I got used to it, I would get incensed so frequently that my health would plummet. I used the new metro system whenever it was possible, which was not much. The trains work well, but the stations are far apart and transport from stations to places in-between is not readily available. In Colonial Delhi where prosperous people live, the trains were empty, but in Old Delhi, where less well-off and poor people live, they were jammed even in the middle of the day. The city is not pedestrian friendly despite the recently constructed sidewalks. Their surface is often uneven so walkers have to keep their heads down to avoid tripping and they are 18” above the road, making each crossing a hurdle race.
I reconnected with many friends and acquaintances going back more than 65 years in one case. There is no other place that I have a personal connection going back so far. My family’s history in Delhi goes back much further, to at least 1872 when my ancestors dedicated a Hindu temple that now sits just outside New Delhi Railway Station. My friends are well-integrated into the social and work fabric of the city, some in prominent positions of influence in economic and environment policies and business. It was great to see them flourishing, but not easy to integrate into their world during my short visit. I accompanied some of them to parties where I met new people engaged in the gamut of endeavors ranging from writing to tourism and art and photography. Because of India’s rising prosperity, it is now possible to make a good living in a broad range of activities, which was not the case when I was young. Expectedly, I remained a “floater”, however, not quite belonging, as I noticed did other “returnees” that I met. I’d have to stay much longer and do something to interact with people regularly to weave into the fabric of society.
Many interesting events occurred in Delhi (and Jaipur), especially in January. The highlight for me was the “Literature Festival” in Jaipur, despite the horrendous drive there and back. It took 7.5 hours to travel 180 miles on a so-called highway. Well, it was a highway in patches, but the rest of it was the old road, some of it under construction. Traffic was mainly trucks plying between several cities in Rajasthan and Delhi. There were too many for the small road. Traffic clogged up going through small towns. As in the city, lane discipline was non-existent. Indeed, many of the slower trucks were in the fast lane and vice versa, but generally the traffic was snaking along like in the city. On occasion, a vehicle would come in the wrong direction because the driver did not want to travel to the legal exit. Because the speed was a crawl, we did not encounter any accidents, a miracle. Even though I wasn’t driving, I felt exhausted and frazzled, especially on the way back.
I attended the festival for two of its five days, mostly during the week-end when it was crowded. It was not easy to get a seat or to move from one venue to another. I listened to talks by Coetzee, Amis, Rashid (Taliban), Hamid, Ahamed (Finance) and others. I had a brief exchange with Coetzee, one of my favorite writers, and spent some time with Mohsin Hamid whom I have known since he was three years old. Someone sitting next to me wondered aloud why so many illustrious authors traveled all the way to a small festival in India. Because India probably has among the largest readerships in the English language, I assume.
Many writers were asked questions about their process of writing. A consistent theme was the emphasis on re-writing and editing, worrying about the choice of each word and thinking about each comma and semicolon. Mohsin, whose talk was the most instructive for me as a budding writer, said that he read aloud each sentence at least a hundred times. With so many writers saying the same thing, I sensed that, as much as I want to write, it is unlikely I would be counted among them. I don’t have the patience for repeated editing or that level of dedication to the craft of writing. I met the owner of Sula Vineyards, India’s leading winemaker and a sponsor of the conference, because he happened to be a cousin of the friend I traveled with. We tasted his wines which were potable, especially the Sauvignon Blanc, but not memorable.
The Art Summit and Photography 2011 were held in Delhi’s Exhibition grounds in huge warehouse-like buildings. Both were packed with attendees. Photography occupied two warehouses with about 200 stalls in each warehouse offering world-class equipment and services. The Art Summit was in one warehouse with 100 stalls exhibiting paintings and sculpture from all over the world, although mostly Indian. Picasso drawings and Rodin statues were reportedly sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars each. In addition to the exhibition, clusters of art galleries have sprung up in Delhi, some quite posh. I also went to the Museum of Modern Art to see its collection and an exhibit of Anish Kapoor’s sculptures; an exhibition of Raja Deen Dayal’s excellent photos taken in the late 19th Century at the Indira Gandhi Art Center; and several photography exhibits at Max Mueller Bhavan. The two-week long theater festival was a little disappointing for me mainly because I had difficulty following the language. I learned Hindustani, a mixture of Urdu and Hindi when I was young, but common usage has since shifted towards Hindi, with which I am much less familiar. Many of these events were held in a central part of Delhi that has a cluster of institutes of drama and dance, theater and auditoriums. Perhaps I wasn’t aware of these areas and happenings on previous visits, but it felt like there was an explosion of artistic endeavors.
I got to hear the Dalai Lama speak in person for the first time in the auditorium of Modern School, where I started in kindergarten. And I attended the only World Cup Cricket match held in Delhi during my stay, a ho-hum competition between South Africa and the West Indies that took about 8 hours. The few exciting moments invariably occurred when I was in the toilet or engrossed in conversation with the friend with whom I attended the match. Old friends visited, giving me company and a chance to revisit tourist sites such as the Qutab Minar and Chandini Chow.
The surge in art has been made possible by India’s recent burst of prosperity. The growth of the middle class is visible in the number of cars, restaurants, bars, shops, modern dress, etc. It seems mostly an indigenous, organic development unlike for members of the Gymkhana who have links to an advanced country through a child or sibling living there. The newspaper and TV advertising caters to this affluent middle class. Traditional media seems to be flourishing in India, whereas it’s gradually dying in the US. The rich are still there and even richer than before. Anyone owning a house in central Delhi is worth millions of dollars. Home prices exceed those in Manhattan by a substantial margin. A dilemma faced by several people I spoke to was to choose between continuing to live in congested and polluted Delhi or buy an estate in Tuscany with a vineyard. I saw several Bentleys and Ferraris, not to mention the many BMWs, Mercedes, Audis and Jaguars (for some reason Lexus and Infiniti have not caught on).
I attended a wedding at a “farm” (sort of country house) just outside the city in which the tents for the ceremony and reception were the size of a football field and the immediate family dressed in royal regalia. A friend, whose fund had invested in a new five star hotel in Delhi, and I were shown around the hotel by the proud owner before it opened to the public. Every item glittered from gold paint or glass or mirror, dazing my eyes. It was totally over the top, but its rooms were priced above the Four Seasons. Gurgaon, the new satellite city of Delhi is all glass and steel with hotels and offices of companies from all over the world. For me, unfairly, it felt like the brashness of new prosperity. But why not? Everyone is entitled to feel good about their wealth. Unfortunately, if not managed well, and it isn’t, it brings with it clouds of pollution and clogs of congestion. Delhi is not a physically pleasant place to live in, which it used to be when I was young. Also, according to news reports, corruption at all levels of government, business and services has grown with prosperity rather than diminished as I would have expected. I acquiesced in this development by using facilitators (below) to deal with the bureaucracy.
I had a few things to follow up with India’s bureaucracy and to explore my own project on Ashoka. After finishing high school and leaving India, I have not succeeded in completing anything in India. I don’t know how things work there, obviously. I applied for an Overseas Citizen of India (dual citizen) card in San Francisco a few years ago and was rejected on the grounds that I had none of the specified documents to prove that I had been an Indian and the documents I presented were not acceptable evidence. With the help of a facilitator, I was eventually able to get an email from the Ministry of Home Affairs that said the documents I had would be sufficient to get me the OCI. I could not apply for the card in Delhi because the processing time was longer than my remaining stay there. I succeeded in getting an attested copy of an old Trust Deed for my family temple through a facilitator, but the main issue of resolving its status with the squatters that occupy it was kicked down the road again as it has been for decades. Nevertheless, I cherished my small successes albeit achieved with the help of facilitators.
There were several developments on my Ashoka project. A bookstore did a scan of recent publications in India on Ashoka and found three. Only one turned out to be relevant. It was a long novel written by a former police commissioner of a medium-sized city. He had clearly done a lot of research, more than me in fact, but could not pull off an engaging story. Ashoka’s history was his life-long passion clearly. Luckily for him, the book was published a month before his death at the age of 90. After the Jaipur Festival, my thought on the project changed to presenting it as an “ebook” that includes photographs of the main sites and interviews with important historians and Buddhist commentators. This way, my words alone would not have to carry the full weight of making the story interesting. It would also be a good way of reaching a broad readership in India when, in the near future, all children will have access to computers or tablets.
By chance, I met a professional photographer who is interested in working with me. Even better, his brother is a senior professor of ancient history who knows all the historians and can provide me with reliable research assistants. The historian brother told me about a conference on Ashoka in 2009. I managed to find the keynote speech and am following up with the professor who is publishing the conference papers. She happens to be visiting Princeton this year. I have spoken to her and she is interested in my idea and very helpful. All these coincidences taken together give me the best chance ever of making something of Ashoka’s story, an interest of mine for 30 years