Friday, May 06, 2011

Finding Little Tibet in the Delhi Dark

"Henceforth I ask not good-fortune—I myself am good fortune;
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Strong and content, I travel the open road."

Song of the Open Road (1856) by Walt Whitman

This journal entry was written on the 3rd of April, 2011 - otherwise known as Day One.

"Why do your holidays always sound like torture?" sniffed the Long-Suffering Girlfriend™ right after I told her about my plans for after I land in Delhi late in the evening. She couldn't join me this time, but I sensed the vibe that she's secretly glad she didn't need to survive another one of my madcap backpacking escapades where I attempt yet again to walk my feet into stumps.

Frost on the Airplane Window
Frostings on my airplane window.

That was the last conversation I shared with her before I boarded my plane. Upon arrival in the capital city of the Great Hindu Hinterlands, I turned on my cellphone to find that it had dropped off the grid. Hence, I was officially cut off from the modern magic of instantaneous telecommunication, and whether I am dead or alive was no longer of concern to the world that knew me - a simultaneously liberating and chilling thought. I wished I could tell Phoebe about it.

The first task I set myself to accomplish after my egress from the Indira Gandhi International Airport was to innoculate myself into the arterial network of the city's Metro rail system, and finding my way would be a cinch after that. However, I unwisely abandoned that part of plan when I spotted a shuttle bus bound for Kashmere Gate sitting right outside, thinking it would be more expedient. That's close enough to where I was heading, or so I thought. I must make it a point to look at the scale of the next map I peruse half-asleep.

One of the most unappealing hazards of travelling to a country where you do not resemble the natives even one bit and couldn't be construed as anyone but a Tourist, is that all prices quoted to you sound suspect and the indigenous fleeces know it well. I was accosted instantly on arrival at Kashmere Gate by an autorickshaw driver who offered to take me to Majnu ka Tilla - where I was heading - for the low, low or high, high price of one hundred rupees. That's an unreasonable fare, I thought reflexively, but even after he halved it, it still sounded like a ripoff to me. 'That is night rate,' he said. 'It is seven, eight kilometres; don't walk,' he said. 'No more buses so late,' he said. All of it sounded like the wheedling of a villain, so I assumed that much of him. With ten kilogrammes of my stuff strapped weightily to my body, I decided stubbornly that I would walk. I had no bearings. I had forgotten more than I remembered of the map which I studied in what seemed like another life. It was 10:00 PM in a strange metropolis in an alien nation. Sounds like an adventure.

Boy on the Delhi Metro
A child on the Metro - on the Metro which I should have taken that night.

I was surprised to find that Delhi is not as fluent in English as I had previously given it credit for, and asking for directions was part charades - but luckily, policemen and nightwatchmen were in plentiful supply to humour me. I had my grey hoodie wrapped ninja-style around the lower half of my face to protect myself from soaking up too much of the sickly citywide miasma, and to prevent the would-be criminal elements from recognising what a lucrative prospect I represented.

Every once in awhile, I would chance upon scores of the local citizenry crowding around tea stalls with a telly set, presumably watching a cricket game. The Indians are fanatics of the colonists' sport and in a manner, it's as ironical as the African Americans enslaving themselves to the God of their former slave-masters. I do not care for cricket myself, but must give it thanks for keeping the streets peopled - and thus, safer - for me that night. If only cricket could shorten the never-ending road I was on too, which was looking more and more like the "seven, eight kilometres" the auto driver cautioned me against. Every time I stopped to ask about Majnu ka Tilla (which I persistently mispronounced, I'm sure), they would tell me to walk further along the road I was already on. They always had this puzzling pensive expression after every time I asked, pausing overly long before telling me to go that-a-way. I began entertaining the possibility that that was in fact just the general direction they point to when they don't understand what the fuck you're talking about.

At about 11:00 PM, the explosions began.

It came to me at first as distant popping sounds, like cars taking turns to backfire. That's how gunshots sound like - not the thunderous roar we are used to at the movies. Next came the concussive booms which shook the old bones of the city. Fireworks, I eureka-ed when I saw the fiery blooms and flares in the sky, honouring an otherwise nondescript second of April night. Before I knew it, bands of celebrators poured into the streets, setting off firecrackers and dancing with wild energetic abandon to the rat-a-tatting of many drums. It was as if real life had segued into a Disney music sequence.

Delhi World Cup Victory Festivity on the Streets 2011
It's like a welcome party for me.

I joined the merriment for a bit even though I had no idea what they were making merry over. Turns out, you don''t need a reason to party.

I made it to the Tibetan Refugee Colony of New Aruna Nagar in the end with all my money in my wallet and all my organs in my body. A decorated oriental gateway reminiscent of the style of Chinatown arches stood outside to mark its limit. Little Tibet is a place which does not put great store in street lighting or civil planning - it's a chaotic labyrinth of puzzle blocks crisscrossed by dark backstreet alleys, and if it wasn't for two Tibetan young ladies I walked into, I wouldn't have been able to locate the guesthouse.

Majnu ka Tilla
The place does not really carry the epithet Little Tibet. It's just what I call it in my head.

The little town was abuzz with mosquitoes, both outside and inside my faded but clean room, but it wasn't too upsetting for me. Come morning, the tiny bloodsuckers retired back into their little coffins and other verminous insects would come out to play. The air here is a microcosm of flies; little galaxies of flies orbiting around invisible centres of fly gravity and worrying napping strays. Majnu ka Tilla is admittedly not the shiniest of real estates in the bloated corpus of Delhi but it's no slum either. Health awareness posters about tuberculosis, political flyers and ads wallpapered every available surface. Peddlers of trinkets lined the narrow streets with their semiprecious jewelry, singing bowls and hand-held Mani wheels. It was my first day in India and I have already walked blisters into the soles of my feet because I made a bet with myself that I can survive my entire month in India without getting into a rickshaw.

She would call it torture, but that's not how it feels like - not to me. I feel pleased because all is right in the world. I have arrived, I am here. The lesson I have long since learned and learned again is that travelling is not about going to places far away. It's about going to a place inside my head.

P.S. I would later discover that the reason why they took to the streets in celebration. Apparently, India had just won the 2011 Cricket World Cup - the country's first in nearly three decades.

Can't believe it's over,
k0k s3n w4i


Dr.Vishaal Bhat said...

What a welcome you jut have had! The whole of Manipal went crazy that night... Phone Conversation: 2nd April 2011, Midnight. Some of it is in Bengali, but you would understand the feel i suppose :)

Dr.Vishaal Bhat said...

And yes.. Next time take the Metro! It's there for a reason, I may sound rude, but it is because people do stupid things (something you did that night) and then complain that Delhi is bad for tourists!

Phoebs said...

i wanna go shopping in delhi! :D

Reader from Adelaide said...

Travelling is about the experience of the journey...It doesn't matter if you end up in the wrong place :). I once ended up in lille when supposedly i should be in Paris. Haha. Fun!!

k0k s3n w4i said...

Dr.Vishaal Bhat: but delhi is bad for tourists. the air is terrible and the admission prices to most of the attractions are exorbitant.

Phoebs: you want go shopping everywhere -.-

Reader from Adelaide: that's pretty much what i did this time. i had no real itinerary. i was simply moving from town to town on a whim - it's so liberating!