Namaste. My first evening in Delhi has been quiet, mainly because I seem to be the only person in the hotel awake all night. The dreaded jet lag. I cannot tolerate sleeping pills; I am wired backwards so drugs tend to have the opposite effect. The one time I took an Ambien, years ago, I bolted through the streets of London in a crazed mania for two and a half days.
Dalrymple describes a visit with the author of Twilight in Delhi, Ahmed Ali, in Karachi, where he lives in self-imposed exile. He is embittered, and cannot bear what has become of his beloved city. (As with all excellent books, Djinns has got me making lists of more books to read.) Ahmed Ali and an old friend of his talk about the transformations they have witnessed.
"The old men swam together through great oceans of nostalgia before finally coming ashore on a strand of melancholy."
Dalrymple quotes the poet Mir Taqi Mir, who captures the despair of loss:
"What matters it, O breeze,
If now has come the spring
When I have lost them both
The garden and my nest?"
The sun comes up in a moist, milky smog, against which the color of saris and flowers is vivid. Delhi is among the most polluted cities in the world. The smell and taste of soot from cars and trucks overwhelmed me as I left the airport, bringing back an acrid memory of the air in New York City in the sixties and seventies. I actually found myself thinking, thank goodness for the Clean Air Act. But there you have it. In the heated rhetoric against government regulations, Americans forget how fortunate we are to have protection against such massive pollution. My eyes do not stop burning.
I order a large pot of the masala chai to which I quickly become addicted, and with its spicy aroma wreathed about my head, read a front page story in The Times of India: "It's only going to get hotter, wetter: Scientists' Grim Forecast Means Crop Failures." Temperatures in india are "set to get higher--way higher than what the country has recorded in the past 130 days." In the same paper is a long article from Mumbai about the alarming incidence of gall bladder cancer among people living near the Ganga and its tributaries; the water and soil of sixty villages has been found to contain a high concentration of heavy metals.
Later in the morning my sister (who can take sleeping pills) and I set out with a lovely young woman, Himali (her name means Princess of the Mountain) to visit some small, neighborhood temples. Small children wander out into busy traffic to beg. Stray dogs trot along the road. Himali graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont a few years ago, and worked in New York as a freelance writer before moving back home to Delhi; she now writes about art and culture for various local publications.
The morning's paper, hindustantimes, leads with the headline: "Soon, Helmets Must for Women Bikers, Pillion Riders". This regulation has been made over protests by the Sikh community, as men are not allowed to wear anything over their turbans, and women must keep their heads covered at all times.
Then we drive over to the Hindu temple that Himali and her mother, Anita, visit every Saturday, as a way of spending quiet time together. We stop at shrines to various gods, ringing a bell over each one to move the spirit energy. The smoke of incense pours out of tiny pots; oil drips over statues; red string for blessings is wound around the sacred "peeple" tree trunk (the tree under which the Buddha found enlightenment)--red string tied around our wrists, right arm if not married; our foreheads are daubed with oil and crimson dye; we are given necklaces of marigolds to wear and cubes of sugar to eat, to bring sweetness to our lives. We ring the bells, summon the spirits, disperse the energy, bow low to show respect and humility.
Silvers sparkle and gleam, colors glow as if lit from within, my sleepless state amplifies it all so that the vivid hues swim and shimmer and I am glad for the hallucinatory aspect of my first impressions--the sweet, the acrid, the bold, the lost, the filth, the poverty, the beauty. I want six arms, I want a tiger by my side...the poor tigers, they too are endangered; the morning's paper brought news of one killed, in error.
Blessings upon us. A propitious start. And we are on our way.