An extract from a diary by Chinmaya Dunster, dated 1979.
Monday, 26th March
Ariana Afghan Airlines flies me over Istanbul (massacres in the streets, a coup d’état in the making); stopover in Tehran (Shah just deposed, Iranian revolution in progress) and Kabul (where chaos reigns and I’m wondering if those sounds I can vaguely hear outside the aircraft might be gunfire). It’s miles of desolation below us, grey snowy mountains marching off forever. It’s strange to reflect that just four years ago I had travelled overland from the UK as far as Northern Pakistan, traversing all those landscapes beneath me by roads that are now off limits to travellers. Then we cross the brown-streaked lands around the Indus and reach Punjab, a jumbly patchwork of coloured squares, interspersed with straight watercourses and villages radiating roads like stars. It’s a toy landscape complete with inexplicable splashes and stains where a child might have spilled food over the model.
It takes a few moments after I disembark and step out into Delhi’s heat and flies to shake off the culture I’ve just left. Taxi drivers mob me and insist that the buses are not running today. I’m panicky and looking out for other Westerners to cling to, but the few there are, are quickly gone on their own imperatives. Then memories of Pakistan kick in and I hit the ‘slow’ button, lean back against a wall, light a cigarette and answer all queries about my needs and immediate destination with a relaxed wave of a hand as if I’m simply not planning to go anywhere at all. That’s a signal for general relaxation and soon I’m exchanging friendly talk and smoke with a group.
Taxi down to a guest house on Fire Brigade Lane, just off Connaught Place, where travellers rent rooms in the old servants’ quarters in the back of the gardens. The strongest impression to hit me yet: the exotic smells, flowers and leaves of this garden. Some of the plants seem related to ones I’ve seen in England as houseplants but flourishing here on some stronger energy. I head off round the corner for tourist information, maps, telegram station on Janpath.
More impressions: so nice to see beautiful and beautifully dressed women everywhere, free and alone. Also, compared to Pakistan, don’t these Indians seem a touch less pushy? I just had to witness with amusement a Sikh guy ripping me off for Rs 30 with his ‘magic’ tricks and his charming smile. I couldn’t stop myself. Remembering the lovely dahi of Pakistan, I search for it, but no one seems to understand my appalling accent, so I get the guest house people to fetch me some.
I’m surprised: India doesn’t feel ‘spiritual’ if that’s what I expected; in fact it feels more earthy, more ‘this worldly’, more abundantly alive than England.
Tuesday, 27th March
After a mostly sleepless night – crazy mind churning – I wake up to the sound of a sitar. A Japanese guy, called Yuji, is playing in his room. I ask him about it, put my fingers on it, get the address of his guru in Benares. He practices all day and I envy him his dedication.
I drift into a Hanuman temple on Janpath. To the sound of the ringing of the temple bell, and with my back to a pillar, I get carried away to a dreamy place. A steady stream of devotees – young and old, Western-dressed and sari-clad, near-naked sadhus, children in arms – bring flowers, ring the bell, light incense and murmur their prayers towards the idol. I feel so much peace inside to participate, even if only by observing, in the merit of their devotion. Outside there are kids I give sweets to, beggars I give paise to, beggars I don’t give paise to and it feels like everyone I meet here is God.
I stroll, dazed, amongst the colourful blooms, butterflies, parakeets, in Buddha Jayanti Park, feeling like I’ve stumbled into paradise. The squirrels, with the marks of Rama’s fingers along their backs, twist around the tree trunks, peafowl promenade along the carefully clipped verges and the warm sun envelops me. I feel flooded with joy to be in India’s embrace as I lie on a path and watch scarlet blossoms and palm leaves dance against the pure blue of the sky overhead. Young Indians gather around me, find me funny and give me a cigarette.
Walking towards Buddha Jayanti Park, head down studying my map, I’m interrupted by Lawrence. He’s walking the same way, he tells me, and as we walk he relates his story. He’s a Christian from Tamil Nadu who spent ten years in jail for accidentally killing a man who threatened to throw his Bible out of a train window. In a rage, Lawrence, a trained boxer, clocked him and the fellow died instantly. He’s been out of jail seven months now, he tells me, and been turned down hundreds of times for jobs because of his Christian name. He shows me a letter offering him a job in Kashmir to start on 1st April.
“But, Sir. How can I possibly afford to go there? The train fare alone is thirty rupees!”
I look him up and down, his old clothes smart and straight, his references and a pen in his top pocket, a Times of India under his arm. I wonder how he keeps it all together as I hand him forty.
“Sir, I will write my wife and tell her of you. Only today I wrote and told her I had not found the money for the train. She will be overjoyed!”
We drink Thumbs Up at the Park Café, talk about religion and life. He reminds me so much of John from Circle Trust (an ex-prisoner I befriended in London three years earlier while working for a charity), his build and face, even down to the boxing. Life has been hard on them but somehow hasn’t hardened them or made them cynical, even if they are both a pair of old cons! So what if this story is mostly blarney, there must be tens of thousands of others for whom it’s true. Can anyone in Europe imagine what it’s like to have two pounds stand between a job and a life roaming the streets looking for work?
“Sir, I am weak now, for I only eat once a day. But if not for you I would have walked ten miles each way today to try to get an advance on this job to pay fare.”
I give him my address and wonder if, as he promises, he will contact me in a month once he is settled in and his wife and daughter have joined him.
More street scenes as my sandal breaks and for Rs 5 a street cobbler fixes it on the spot. In England that would be a “Sorry, we’ll have to send it off for repairs,” or more likely a throwaway. My first sacred cows, wide-horned bulls, taking up pavement space; two bullock carts full of gaily-clad village folk blocking the road. Chai (35 paise) at a roadside stall, my few words of Hindi greeted with smiles, laughter shared. Old people still use ath anna here for fifty paise, from the days when there were sixteen annas in a rupee.
Wednesday, 28th March
Hardly any sleep again due to late night talkers, so early morning I take myself off for a nap in the Hanuman temple. I wake up to watch the Hindu world go by: wiry, well-muscled labourers rebuilding around me, shifting great baskets of rubble hour after hour, dark-skinned and graceful of movement, seeming like giants or gods in their fluidity of motion; a neatly-dressed middle-aged man meticulously setting out his mat, blanket, candle, flowers, incense and holy book and reading quietly to himself; an orange-robed sannyasin, complete with beard and flower garland, making a great fuss of setting out his own place next to him, chanting mantras and then reading haltingly but loudly from his own book; first fellow is obviously disturbed but just makes a calming motion towards his neighbor with his hand whenever it gets too much; sannyasin shouts disapprovingly at two girls talking and giggling in a corner, pointedly indicating the middle-aged man’s book and repeating “Gita, Gita”; girls present me with prasad, bananas with ghee and black pepper; sannyasin puts orange mark on my third eye; I wash it off as I leave.
Thursday, 29th March
I walk on the Yamuna floodplain, looking for the ghats. Super hot day, aggressive dogs (rabid?), scores of persistent children demanding baksheesh. Their elders stare at me from their straw and plastic shacks, which they share with their cows, from hollow, uninterested eyes. I’m uneasily conscious of my pocket fat with money and retreat quickly back to a more comfortable side of Delhi.
Spend an hour and Rs 30 on that bottomless pit, the Indian telephone system, trying and trying to get a line to my girlfriend in Poona, taking turns with a couple of Indians who are also not getting through.
Saturday, 31st March
I walk around Old Delhi for seven hours. At Rajghat there’s Gandhi’s samadhi, where despite the Mahatma’s lifework getting Indian people to take responsibility for hygiene, the toilets are filthy. I continue along the Yamuna again, this time more relaxed as I have only Rs 30 in my pocket, but feel intensely the cutoff because of language.
A few corpses are burning in the ghats and a few onlookers, but no sense of ceremony, despite the pyre-men diligently dripping on the ghee. Further on the Ladakhi Buddhist temple is nearly deserted, although there are monkeys and vultures as well as beautiful green birds. Boats are being poled across the muddy river to the further bank where straw huts and racks of drying hay hang shimmering in the heat haze. Timeless but hardly romantic: unlike the tourist photos the reality smells of shit.
Old Delhi bazaar brought back the very best memories of Pakistan, bustling and wealthy with things being sold. I fuel myself with fresh watermelon juice and bidis and have enough energy left for a late afternoon yoga class suggested by a fellow resident Greet from Belgium. It’s all haste and hotch-potch, no comparison to what I’m used to in Canterbury!
Sunday, 1st April
A massive marquee set up in a park, crowded with folk eating, gossiping, taking care of noisy children and in between times paying attention to the music on the stage. We sit on carpets on the ground and the artists come and go for hours. At some point in the middle of the night a handsome man in his mid-thirties, dressed immaculately in white kurta, unveils this shiny silver beast of a stringed instrument and knocks my socks off with his playing. I study the programme notes, which refer to lots of people whose names all seem to end in Ali Khan. I retain the name: Amjad, and the word: sarod. My decision is made: this is the instrument I am going to learn to play!
Soon to come, Chinmaya’s next story: Voyaging on the Good Ship Sarod