Share on Google+

The Slightly Rocky Road to India

Column: 
Amber fort palace outside Jaipur, India

Chers Amis,
Who could have imagined that travel to India would require a visa? Well, yes, I grant you that “anyone who would take the time to read” is a tiresomely parental answer, but aside from that outdated lot, who else could have imagined that American wallets are not free to roam the globe at will?

The Indian visa office in Paris, gateway to the magic of India
The Indian visa office in Paris

I asked the question as a rhetorical whim two hours before my flight to Paris where I planned to spend a week before traveling onward to Delhi. As we French would say, the visa question gave a certain frisson to my departure, but in Larry’s greatest-ever act of cyber-savvy, he produced information about expedited visas. Upon arrival, I dropped my luggage at the apartment and went directly to the Indian Visa Service on the deceptively named rue de Paradis (Paradise Street) where my experience of India began under the flattering glow of fluorescent lights reflecting up from a linoleum floor on the faces of supplicants waiting in rows of moulded plastic chairs for their numbers to be called.

A celebration in Old Delihi Bazaar Gulian
A celebration in Old Delhi Bazaar Gulian

This face of Indian bureaucracy – a creation that rivals the French but cannot yet touch the standard set by the Italians – is polite, gracious and indifferent to humans. I pose questions and answers come quickly:

“Yes, there is a three-day expedited service but only for French citizens. You will need to fly to New York if you want this service.”

“Yes you can make a regular visa application. How long? – minimum of six business days”

“No, we have no applications here. You can get only get one online at the cyber-café around the corner. Remember, the application desks close at 1:00 pm.”

My first application contained a small but fatal spelling error that required a second frenzied trip to the cyber-café at 12:45, but I managed to file the application as the gate closed. Several more questions about the application yielded the same answer – “minimum six business days, not counting today.” After all the unnecessary angst I threw at the problem, the visa arrived in six business days.

There is little, probably nothing, I can say about India that has not been said before by people of greater perception, but since I touch type, manifest destiny requires me to continue.

Old Delhi at midnight smoulders and honks. It is an eerie introduction to the country. The fogs of winter’s 50-degree nights are converted to smog by unfiltered emissions from every imaginable kind of vehicle which competes for space on narrow lanes. Pedestrians lack of the right of way. Trucks’ rear gates bear the words “Please Honk” and people do, not in anger, but merely to say, “I’m here and will be scooting by you as soon as there is a micron of extra space.”

The miracle of electrical service in Delhi
`The miracle of electrical service in Delhi

The pavement is not visible beneath a thick layer of dust, crushed vegetables, litter, dung, and plastic bags which arrived in their undegradable durability in the 1990s. Here and there, the poorest people have gathered flammable waste and lighted small fires in the gutter for cooking and warmth. Chaos abounds, but there is no evidence of aggression, just jostling for position in a world with too little space. I arrive at our hotel which is furnished and designed in the spirit of IKEA modernism. The rooms are small, clean and functional. It is an anomaly in an ocean of crumbling buildings and three-storey neon signs advertising hotels that only the most intrepid adolescent backpacker would dare to try.

I had imagined that I would wander the streets of Delhi on my own as I do in Paris, as I had twenty years ago in Kathmandu, Kirtipur and Bhaktapur, Nepal. What foolishness. My age and Asian pollution have taken their toll. Without a mask, I would have lasted a day. My freakish coloring (blond & blue-eyed), excites the attention of every beggar and persistent vendor. Having been raised in a New England matriarchy that believed good manners require acknowledging all who speak to me, I answer their requests by saying “No, thank you” until our guide, Vishal, points out they hear “maybe” to whatever I say, So I try to learn to ignore people, but it is a difficult task. When I ask Vishal how they see us, he says quite candidly, “When they look at you, they see money.” It is a sad, but true comment borne of a world with grotesque differences in wealth and opportunity.
 

Amber Fort Palace outside Jaipur
Amber Fort Palace outside Jaipur

Having lost four days, we set off the next morning directly for Jaipur, a walled city built from scratch between 1727 and 1733 when the previously fortified citadel of Amber had been rendered obsolete by the introduction of firearms and cannons. One of the many extraordinary aspects of India is that its capital has been moved so many times, especially during the 16th to 18th centuries, when the Moghul emperors could command work forces of twenty-five thousand to build immense palaces and cities in five or ten years. The scale of these buildings and the population of the country, which grew from 125,000,000 to 255,000,000 in the 18th century, should have intimidated the English, whose cold, damp little island was home to fewer than six million. But, as Louis XV observed, the English are to be watched carefully; they appear harmless, but are crafty and acquisitive. Bit by bit they nibbled at India, taking what they liked and even exploring the possibility of disassembling the Taj Mahal for re-assembly on the banks of the Thames. For a century they swallowed India, but indigestion here is endemic here. 

Jaipur Street Cleaning at Dawn
Jaipur Street Cleaning at Dawn

Like Delhi, the population of Jaipur has exploded and now exceeds 2,500,000.  Old merchants’ houses have been carved into dozens of small dwellings, many without running water, or with access to water during restricted hours of each day.  Modern storefronts push out into the streets and fragments of original decorated plasterwork can be seen at the upper storeys and old doorways.  A walk at dawn gives me a chance to see the city awakening.  Low caste women in brightly colored saris sweep the dusty streets with brooms of long twigs bundled together.  They send up a cloud of dust, pulverized dung and unimaginable microbes that add to the fog and mystery through which I walk, cough and sneeze.  Farmers bring their milk to a central location in metal canisters into which their customers stick their arms and swirl them around to feel the fat content of the milk.  They buy what they need and return home to boil it – a very good idea.

Jaipur--Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds)
Jaipur--Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds)
Jaipur--Old Merchant's House Entry
Jaipur--Old Merchant's House Entry

Elsewhere food vendors bring out iron woks to fry breads and starchy dumplings to sell to passersby.  Unlike every other vendor, the food sellers leave me alone.  I suspect few Europeans or North Americans dare to try their worrisome wares.  Nearby, a tea vendor boils powdered tea and milk with tooth-aching amounts of sugar.  Customers bring their cups or use his.  Our guide tells us that Indians do not generally have the European custom of sitting together for long meals, but rather eat more quickly, in part because they live in extended families and see so much of each other throughout the day.  Two other vendors open their adjacent hardware and clothing stalls.  They stand waving broomsticks at monkeys who have occupied the balconies above their shops.  The monkeys move out of reach, but do not go away.  They, too, are looking for breakfast and are not above a quick raid on unattended portable food.

Children in school uniforms are everywhere – packed tightly with parents in three-wheeled open taxis (putt-putts) and walking hand-in-hand.  They say hello and giggle in response to my greetings.  One very properly dressed little boy standing and waiting for his ride sees me, and speaks carefully, “Good morning, sir.”  I wish him a good morning and he looks pleased with himself for this venture into English.

Jaipur-- First Courtyard of the City Palace, 18th Century
Jaipur-- First Courtyard of the City Palace, 18th Century
Jaipur-- Second Courtyard of the City Palace, 18th Century
Jaipur-- Second Courtyard of the City Palace, 18th Century

Cows wander down the street snuffling through the garbage in the gutter.  Those that are young enough to produce milk have homes to which they return each evening on their own.  Those that are beyond their milk-producing years are left to the street, as it is inauspicious to have a cow die in one’s courtyard, so their owners abandon them to avoid misfortune.  Goats wander out of alleys to check out the same garbage heaps that the cows have examined.  Some of them wear old sweaters with their front legs going through the armholes.  It is, after all, winter and their owners want to protect them from the cold in which I immodestly wear shorts and sandals.

The end of my walk is signaled by the arrival of many more people on the streets.  In the short space of half an hour, shops have opened and food vendors have arrived with pushcarts loaded with mangoes, oranges, pomegranates, greens of all sorts, beans and gigantic papayas which they slice open in a dramatic zigzag cut to display their ripeness.  Were it Europe or America, I would plunge in, but several Indian friends have warned me that giving into temptation of this sort will provide a near-death experience for my pampered American innards.

Marble carved wainscot at the Amber Fort Palace
Marble carved wainscot at the Amber Fort Palace

An old beggar (probably younger than I) attaches himself to me.  I follow the instructions of my guide and avoid eye contact or comment.  The beggar persists, touching my sleeve repeatedly.  Finally, he has begun to grab at my sleeve – gently, not aggressively – but I cannot stand it.  I say “Stop it now!” very sternly, and, to my surprise, he does.  I am not proud of myself, having spoken aggressively in a manner one does not hear from Indians.  It has, however, worked, and I return to the cocoon of the Samode Haveli for a quiet breakfast overlooking the garden before our departure for Agra.

Ton correspondant français en Asie - Brian

Brian Pfeiffer is a free-lance architectural historian who works on historic preservation projects in Nantucket and throughout New England.  Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Brian spends much of his time on islands - Nantucket, Mt. Desert, Maine and the Île de France, specifically Paris, where he has developed an embarrassing infatuation with all things French.  In his more serious moments, he is advises non-profit institutions on the care of their historic buildings and is a contributing writer to Apollo Magazine in London.  In his less serious moments, he wanders with his camera to see as much of the world as he can by foot.