Assault on the senses


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Category: International 13 Jan 08


“Delhi is the symbol of old India and new—even the stones here whisper to our ears of the ages of long ago and the air we breathe is full of the dust and fragrances of the past, as also of the fresh and piercing winds of the present.”

Jawaharlal Nehru

On our approach to Delhi, I get my first sight of the slums along the railway lines; people living in this country of one billion people, peddling against the odds in rough dwelling places without access to electricity water or sewage.

My heart lurches.

Typically, in this land of extremes, after slowly weaving through the din of a frenetic market and hotel district, we speed past tree-lined colonial homes and clubs with large gardens, where uniformed staff serve afternoon tea on a silver service and fashionable wives of businessmen and army and air force officers play cards, discuss their winter roses and the hazards of cleaning marble with Dettol.

The solid colonial architecture at Rajpath, the central seat of government, which stretches from the palatial Rashtrapati Bhavan to the arch of India Gate, is reminiscent in its symmetric beauty of Washington.

Mentally, I had to update my childhood memory of Rashtrapati Bhavan, which is now heavily-guarded and barred with gilded gates.

One summer, several decades back when I was a girl of ten, my father took me to meet Indira Gandhi. Then the Bhavan thronged with adoring crowds chanting in Hindi: “Indra Gandhi is good. She keeps her promises.”

Mrs Gandhi was imposing with that trademark strip of grey in her severe and strangely compelling face. I remember Rahul Gandhi her grandson by her side, fidgeting. A photograph was taken.

Several assassinations later (Indira, Rajiv), such access to any leader is virtually impossible today.

Part of Delhi’s disorienting appeal is that despite its modernisation, high-rise hotels, new underground metro, which transports over 300,000 people around the city daily, hefty malls, trendy bars and nightclubs, it heaves with the weight of centuries of conquerors (Rajputs, Afghans, Turks, Moguls, Persians, British), who have marked it with monuments and gardens and carved out no fewer than seven cities here.

If you want to step back 50, 100 or maybe 5,000 years, though, you can, literally.

The 16th century Red Fort—a ghostly reminder of the splendour of Mogul rule—looms over the old city, with its sandstone turrets, moat, palaces with ceilings (once overlaid with gold and silver reflected in a central pool in the marble floor).

There is a hall of public audience where a marble throne is surrounded by panels inlaid with precious stones, and the fort’s vast lawns; once a scene where elephants fought to entertain royalty.

India’s recent history of the Gandhi dynasty, partition and independence is to be found in Central Delhi in a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi, and the homes, now beautifully-maintained museums of the lives of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi.

Nehru’s bedroom, where he died, his study, the sari Indira Gandhi was wearing riddled with bullet holes, her final walk, now inlaid with stone to evoke a river, the spot in which she was shot, is all preserved, strangely poignant.

India’s past remains its security blanket.

In the wintry haze amidst throngs of people, we attend the wedding of the daughter of Trinidad and Tobago’s former high commissioner to India on the vast Air Force grounds, Birla temple, where my parents married, visit family.

There is so much left to see, but the assault that India is to the senses can bring on a sudden exhaustion. It’s time to head for the Himalayas.

Next week — Simla.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur