India Beckoned

Travel Diary

By Jan Arden

Having decided on a sightseeing and exploration trip to India before either that the sub-continent’s fast-paced development or my own health forbade such a luxury, I restricted myself for time reasons to the general north-west, i.e., the capital New Delhi, the famous Agra-Taj-Rajasthan triangle and a wider perambulation that would be decided on the spot. Many of MT readers have been there and done this up-north trip for leisure, spiritual travel, trade or business and surely have explored far more than I could, either as base point for sacred rites at Rishikesh or the Kashi-Varanasi temples and ghats or again to north-eastern hill stations.

People enjoying the weather, at India Gate, in New Delhi. Pic – Sanchit Khanna/HT

At the back of my mind was my last business trip to New Delhi more than 25 years ago when, residing about one hour outside the capital at a relatively decent hotel reached along tiring pot-holed roads, a severe bout of « Delhi-belly » gripped me in the last days there, ferociously brought on by a couple of innocent-looking ice-cubes at the hotel bar. Forewarned and armed with a panoply of emergency pharma stuff, I decided this overhang for three weeks would be unbearable and asked my city tour driver to take me to a « dhaba » where he would personally lunch. This was no place for the faint-hearted but a ubiquitous Rs 150 thali later and without any signs of queasiness, I relaxed and felt emboldened enough later to plunge by foot or an occasional rickshaw, into Delhi’s numerous bazaar and food streets around the noisy, dirty, lively, and rag-tag areas near the 24-hour Central station.

By contrast, New Delhi’s south was a haven of lush-green and leafy tree-lined avenues, with its embassies, political brass residences, administrative staff enclaves, its unmissable landmarks, and museums around the Gandhi-Nehru era dynasties. In a city gorged with temples and mosques, each piously greeting devotees, it was absolutely refreshing to visit the exquisite gardens surrounding the Lotus temple, an amazing open flower structure of concrete of Baha’i universal faith, visited daily by tens of thousands of tourists from across India and Delhiites alike.

Designed by an Iranian origin architect, like all Bahá’í Houses of Worship, the Lotus Temple is open to all, regardless of faith. 27 free-standing marble-clad “petals” arranged in clusters of three to form nine sides, with nine doors opening onto a central hall with a capacity of 1,300 people. The Lotus Temple has won numerous architectural awards and exudes spiritual serenity. 

The other major attractive feature was undoubtedly the India Gate vista and fully pedestrian promenade, with brooks, water features, shady trees and manicured lawns surrounding a majestic 42-metre-high tribute to martyred Indian soldiers of the first European World war, with their 13,000 names etched on the walls and, further on, a statue to Subhash Chandra Bose. Miles of leisurely unhindered stroll, with occasional vendors of beverages, fruit salads, ice-cream or « bhel puri » regrouped at the sides, take you, at the other end, to the restricted and security controlled imposing government buildings and the Houses of Parliament, old and new.

Temples, gods and leisure aside, the other back of mind inquiry was a pulse-feel, intentionally talking to a variety of ordinary Indians who had settled in the capital, Rajputs, Punjabis, Marathis, Muslims, Sikhs and many others, particularly in this sprawling capital city of 10+m, housing the usual rowdiness of Parliament houses, where occasional all-India gatherings of activists elicit a few hundred or thousand folks and where electioneering times or the ins and outs of central Enforcement Directorate offices, can rally crowds or raise temperatures. Of course, New Delhi was not West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, or Kerala, but ruled by Opposition Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) stalwart Kejriwal, was not considered a BJP or Modi bastion, so I rather eagerly awaited some inkling, however limited, of its cross-cultural under-currents.

Was there really an atmosphere of constant fear in minorities engendered by so-called wild Hindu supremacists, RSS bedfellows or the Modi-Shah regime? Were the leftist-liberal narratives in 2014 or 2019 of « dark and ominous » places or the rivers of blood that a BJP regime would bring to India, that plagued the BBC coverage, Oxfam do-gooders or the haughty Guardian editorials, were the accusations grounded in reality or just high-pitched shrillness and hyperbole reflecting the political fortunes of Congress and its allies? A sort of milder version of Arundhati Roy’s posts for her groupies where such discourse as « the banality of evil, its normalisation, is now manifest in our streets, in our classrooms, in very many public places » entertain western magisters or politically motivated Indian fans.

In the very short time, I was there I cannot pretend to have met anything more than a sprinkling of Indians of all walks of life, but nowhere in New Delhi could I feel any of these undercurrents as most people, of various faiths and regions, plied their trade and focused on getting on board the immense opportunities being opened up by the developments taking place. Was it merely all of India’s obsessive love of the great game, the ICC World Cricket Cup being played out daily and capturing rapt audiences every afternoon? Sure, there were many who knew at any moment every detail of their favourite team, bowler or batter statistics and India’s massive wins over every international team in the round-robin part leading to this week’s semi-finals. There were those happy with the AAP at local level but Congress sympathisers or undeniably Modi at national elections. Nowhere in Delhi did I feel Ms Arundhati Roy’s assertions that these were « dangerous time for India’s minorities, Muslims and Christians in particular » and thankfully her brand of tireless fiery quasi-apocalyptic pamphlet-writing sounds so feverishly anachronistic.

The tragic ongoing events in Gaza after the murderous onslaught by Hamas on a thousand Israeli civilians, has left Indians, whose country is regularly targeted by infiltrated terror network operatives from across its borders, outraged and sympathetic to Israel’s narrative even while most of them would urge a peaceful two-state solution with sovereignty and national security safeguards for Palestinians and Israelis.

They know too that this is a forlorn hope while Hamas or Hezbollah and their powerful Iranian backers, vowing to destroy the state of Israel and exterminate all Jews, make ordinary Palestinians miserable victims and cruel hostages of greater geopolitical games in the Middle-East. Neither Indians nor we, beyond prayers for an early cease-fire and humanitarian aid, stand anything to gain in importing an age-old enmity and enduring territorial-cum-religious conflict onto our generally peaceful shores.

The second part of this narrative will be devoted to a week-long discovery of Kashmir.

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 17 November 2023

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