Richness glistens among India's poor

 

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Category: Travel Date: 25 Jan 97


Prime Minister Basdeo Panday may be surprised to find glimpses of Trinidad in the land of his maternal grandmother. Every now and then I come across sharp reminders of my Indian childhood in Trinidad.

 

It is in a sunny rose garden, the crumbling steps of a colonial home, gold dust on a dusky highway, the pungent scent of a garland of jasmine, a throng of people outside a cinema flanked by the pink icing faces of Bollywood (Bombay’s Hollywood), or even a freshly washed temple floor in the morning.

 

You don’t need a ticket to New Delhi to go along with the Trinidad and Tobago contingent. We can fill in with imagination and memory and follow them.

 

First the eight-hour flight to London. Then the 10-hour flight to New Delhi on Air India with sari clad air hostesses. We have arrived at Indira Gandhi International Airport. Let’s skip immigration and lines.

 

Here is the red carpet; the glittering welcome to a country which understands pomp and combines it with the exquisite manners of her emperors. And tight security; to keep the Kashmir separatist terrorists at bay. Then there is the traditional garlanding of the Prime Minister; who is whisked off in a limousine to the President’s House.

 

The rest of us? We are outside the airport, New Delhi, capital of a country of 800 million people. It is cold, anywhere between seven and 21 degrees Celsius. We hear calls of  “coolie” and lean leathery men in loin cloths scuttle over and double over with trunks of baggage.

 

In  airport lounges we see middle and upper class India. Women in silk sari’s, salvaar khameezs (a long tunic and trousers), embroidered Kashmir shawls, and diamonds - a certain expression which is bred only with an easy life with many self indulgent pleasures and servants at your command. This is North India so the skins are light, the noses straight.

 

Then on the way out - sudden throngs - crowds and crowds of people - jostling. Glimpses of the other India - tiny hungry looking women with thin scrappy saris, a baby in their arms, small children around her sari, thin, dirty children with big eyes - men, women and children begging for alms surround you.

 

As we drive off you think of the Mahatma who fasted for peace and of emperors adorned in jewels who conquered and lived with harems and armies. India is a land of immense contrasts -  wealth and poverty; old and new. A country you either hate or love intensely but cannot ignore. We are still driving. It is very foggy. When you see motorcyclists and cyclists riding with covered noses and mouths it’s not a fashion, it’s pollution from the buses, cars and auto rickshaws (three-wheelers, running on diesel) sounding like drills.

 

Everybody blows their horn whether they need to or not. And nobody pays any attention to the honking. You drive, you honk. And there are no lanes. Just a cluster of traffic moving in two directions. As we enter the capital city, intimations of an ancient civilisation, tombs and numerous ruins mark the city’s history; from the imperial Gupta dynasty 1600 years ago to the Mogul conquerors to the colonial Raj.

 

A city of gardens and fountains; a profusion of winter roses, chrysanthemums and violas bloom in the Lodhi, Mughal and Roshan Ara Gardens. We pass boulevards of flowering trees. Along the Yamuna river front memorials set in flowering gardens have been built for 20th century national leaders as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawarharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri.

 

In New Delhi, over the next two days, some of us stay in five star hotels; glimpse academies of music, dance, drama, art and letters; visit libraries, archives and museums and change money at the State Bank; banking headquarters of India.

 

We may stop off at Queensway, famous for its emporiums; an entire complex where India’s 20 states are represented each for their own craft, jewellery and fashions. We mill about in Connought Circus, a fashionable shopping area of restaurants, nightclubs, tailors, boutiques and an underground shopping arcade.

 

Meanwhile Prime Minister Basdeo Panday has been staying at Rastrapati Bhavan, the official residence of President Shankar Dayal Sharma. The Presidential House, formally the British Viceroy’s residence (Mountbatten was the last to have lived there), combines the best features of modern English architecture with traditional India.

 

Imagine peacocks in the garden, hanging vines, marble pillars, the famous rose garden and freshly watered lawns. Inside, all the splendour of a colonial past; shinning floors, life sized portraits, tiger skins, tall mirrors, silver, etc. The next day Mr Panday is the chief guest at a dinner reception hosted by Indian Prime Minister HK Deve Gowda’s.

 

I must have been no more than 10 years old when my parents took me to meet Mrs Indira Gandhi in the gardens of the home where she was to be shot 12 years later. The lack of security then was astonishing. At the time people were pressing at the gates, surrounding the house; a collective crowd roaring “Indira Gandhi is good, she keeps her promises.”

 

But that dream was shattered and now, with the anti-terrorism alert, the Prime Minister’s home must have wall-to-wall soldiers. Those of us who have not been invited, take our own tour starting with old Delhi. The streets of old Delhi are irregular, a confusing mixture of narrow and winding streets, culs-de-sac, alleys, and courtyards.

 

Chandhini Chawk, an enormous market place more than 300 years old, is like Alladin’s Cave. Your senses are overwhelmed. Old Shops selling gold, silver and diamonds for centuries. The sharp tang of incense mingles with delicious frying sweets and vegetables.

 

In every stall somebody is bargaining for a better price. Huge figurines of Hindu gods, marble chess sets, leather, cottons, silks, fruits and flowers all jostle for a buyer. Poverty and grandeur live together without any seeming awareness of the contradiction.

 

The Red Fort is one of the most impressive buildings of the old city. Its massive red sandstone walls are 75 feet high and enclose a complex of palaces, gardens and military barracks. Mogul Emperors created the Indo Muslim architecture mostly found in the old city. The Qutub Minar is an adaptation of Hindu materials and style to Islam motifs. The Red Fort and the Jama Masjid  is made of marble and elaborate florid decorations.

 

Splattered here and there are slums inhabited by construction workers and low income groups... another facet of the city.

 

In Delhi, Mr Panday attends a luncheon banquet at the President’s House, addresses academics and diplomats and on the following day is special guest of India’s Republic Day parade and then he will leave for Agra where he is sure to be photographed at The Taj Mahal; a wonder of the world and an undying testimony to love. And we will follow him there too.

 

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur