Friday, October 29, 2010

Delhi: The Ridge, The Golf Club, The Mutiny

Raan al Sikander. It's a beautiful thing. Named after Alexander the Great of course. (Sikander himself!)

One afternoon in Delhi, Sheila had a friend over for lunch. He's a history professor at St. Stephen's College in Delhi, one of the city's predominant educational institutions, and taught Rajeev when he was a student there. He was from Australia at one point, (Fremantle, to be exact) but he's been in India for more then 50 years and has taken up Indian citizenship, has almost entirely repatriated himself. Most importantly: when Rajeev fell ill, he was there. Even when he had his schizophrenic breaks, he came to the house and talked to him, kept him company. Although he's pushing 86, he still works as a residence advisor at the university. And he still comes to see Rajeev and Sheila, once or twice a month.She vacillated some on inviting me. "He's terribly old, you see," she said. "He's very old and he might bore you."

(The probable worry: that I might bore him).

"But I have specially ordered raan al sikander, of course, and I know you do like that." She thought. "So perhaps you could put yourself out. Come over for lunch."

And I did. Raan al sikander is, of course, Indian style leg of lamb. Absolutely divine, and Sheila's Guwhati cook does a bang-up job of it. Tender and delicately spiced meat. Served with bhindi masala, just the way I like it.

"Well, I've got something to show you two, and Rajeev," he said, as we sat back in our chairs, in a state of post-feast recuperation. One of his students had prepared a video on the Ridge.

The Delhi Mutiny was India's first great surge against British rule, an immense outpouring of popular anger and outrage. It all started in 1857, when the sepoys - Indian soldiers in the pay of the British - exploded into action against their employers, who had been under the cheery impression that the Indians were perfectly happy with the invasion of their country. The reason cited for the explosion of violence was a religious one; a rumor spread that the bullet cartridges the army was issued - the wrappings of which had to be bitten off to be used - were greased with cow and pig fat. As this was abhorrent to both Hindus and Muslims, the Sepoys revolted in various areas across British India, with action occurring from Meerut to Peshawar. It was a close fight for a while there, and the Indian rebels were only decisively put down with the fall of Gwailor in late 1858. It was the first indication to the previously blissfully ignorant British that India was not willing to humbly submit to the Crown forever - a conflict that would, a few generations later, come to a head under the leadership of Gandhi.

Delhi was the scene of one of the most savage and protracted battles of the Mutiny, and it was the Ridge that served as the East India Company's base during the infamous 1857 siege. The sepoys had, as a nationalist play, decided to attempt to restore the Mughal Empire to its pre-British eminence: they flocked to Delhi to attend the aged (and deeply unenthusiastic) Emperor Bahadur Shah. The rebel forces managed to violently push the British forces and their families out of the city, with a copious amount of bloodshed - much of it civilian - on both sides. British troops were either scattered or unavailable. The future of Britain's ascendency over India lay very much in doubt. As may perhaps be obvious, the British did defeat the Indian rebels. The Last Mughal, Bahadurr Shah - forced to be an unwilling nationalist symbol for the mutineer forces - was captured and taken into British custody. His three sons were captured the next day at Humayun's tomb by East India Company official William Hodson, whose clemency only extended to their father. He stripped them naked, forced them to kneel and shot all three of them dead at the Khooni Darwaza (Bloody Gate). Their heads were, thoughtfully, presented to their father after the fact. The unfortunate Bahadur II died in exile in Burma.

Today, Delhi University and St. Stephen's both abut it the Ridge. The former battleground has become an enormous green space in the center of the city,much of it a biodiversity park that has been allowed to exist in a fairly untouched state. Hordes of large and deeply terrifying monkeys roam the area, as well as Delhi University students looking for a good place to canoodle (as occurs everywhere). The professor's student decided to focus on the Flagstaff Tower in her video, a small building of British origin that served as a refuge for the scattered and mostly civilian British survivors of the May fighting. It's on the Ridge, and very near to the University. But it hasn't been kept up, and almost no one knows what the Flagstaff Tower is, or why it was (at one point) important as a place of a refuge and an important icon of the Delhi Mutiny.

"You have to conclude," the Professor says in the video, sitting in front of the Tower on a hot day. "You have to conclude that Delhites don't care about their history. Even though they've got so much of it around them.

The video couldn't quite play all the way. Even I, the 21st century representative, couldn't repair it. "Ah, well, then," the professor said. "That's that."

"Well, I think I'll have to go to the Ridge, then," I said. "The video makes it look quite interesting."

The professor either could not pick up about 98% of what I said at any given time (which wasn't much - I knew my place) or simply found it irrelevant. "I guess you can, if you'd like," he shrugged. "Why not."

Sheila gently but firmly forced him to take a nap, in the way she forced everyone to bend to her will. I headed back to the International Center by way of Lodhi Gardens, thinking of the past. The professor was not in any way shape or form of this era, had committed himself to history, to drawing rooms in Delhi. I'd asked him about Australia. He'd shuddered. "Ugh. That horrible place. It's so awfully new. No respect for history. No history at all, and no culture either."

"I thought it was all right," I said, a bit chastened.

"You did," he said. A subtle judgement on my character.

I dutifully set off for the Ridge the next day. I corralled an exceedingly proud Sikh driver outside Khan market (but all Sikhs are, aren't they?). I looked at the map he had in the backseat as we drove off. "You have no need for any other cab driver in Delhi, madame," he said.
"Oh?" I said, looking out the window at the Gandhi monument. I keep on not visiting it.
"For I am Mister Delhi," he said.

Here's a photo of a goddamn monkey. I hate monkeys.

"Oh," I said. Forty minutes later, we were at the Ridge. I began walking up the hill. It's a beautiful place, totally unexpected in the middle of the occasionally horrific urban jumble that is Delhi. It feels like a real jungle, full of monkeys and mysterious bird calls.

Populated by a healthy number of my beloved giant mutant snails, as evidenced here.

As expected, the building is not spectacular. St. Stephen's uses it as a storehouse for athletic equipment. There isn't any signage - you have to know what it is you're looking at. Still, you can imagine what did happen here, if you squint a little.

Here's how the Flagstaff Tower looked right after the Mutiny. I suppose the Ridge was massively defoliated by the conflict, but I'm not really sure. The photo was taken by the enigmatic and fascinating photographer Felice Beato, one of history's first war photographers. His eery and stark photos of the Indian Mutiny are incredible and well worth a look if you've any interest at all in the history of the era.

Sheila, Rajeev, and I went off to have dinner at the Delhi Golf Club. This entailed getting dressed up. The Golf Club is society.

One has to wonder what the enraged sepoys of the Mutiny would have made of the Club. There is no sport, no pursuit, more British then golf after all, no recreational activity so obtusely luxurious. A golf course requires an incredible amount of space to build, after all, and then it also requires an incredible amount of effort to maintain.

But then, look at the clientele. All Indian. They've entirely inhabited the Golf Club, and so the club is an entirely Indian institution. It's not like India hasn't put up some of the world's very finest golfers. This is perhaps the end-game of the British colonization. The British left an inordinate amount of things behind, but Indians took them up, tweaked them a bit, and made them entirely their own. (The English language is perhaps the paramount example of this - Indian English having become a very separate but entirely relevant offshoot of the King's own tongue).

The food at the golf club is quite good. A step up over limp burgers, fries, and beer at most American golf clubs. The bar upstairs is convivial in that British Indian way, and you can sit at little glass tables and watch the football (soccer) game and argue over things, over tandoor items and whatever else pleases you. So we did.

They have a servicable fish tikka...

And very nice roomali roti...

And a damn good bhindi masala. God, I love bhindi masala. Why can't anyone make it right outside India? (Well. Other then me).

Like we did two years ago, Sheila and I took out our drinks, our glasses of whiskey, and looked out over the golf course in the night time. An abandoned and lovely red Lodhi tomb sits on the first hole, and spotlights bathe the greens in a rather ethereal, moonlit light. I remember what she told me last time we were here. "There's cobras on the golf course," she said. "It's a bit of an obstacle."

"What's the rules say about cobras?"

"If your ball comes to rest on one - don't ever pick it up."

Duly noted.

1 comment:

  1. Golfing in India is the new rage with some of the Indian players making big on the global stage.Thankfully, being in the capital city of India, Golf course in Delhi is really world-class in nature and what a scenic lush greenery !! Amazing and truly awesome..