Saturday, November 20, 2010

One more day in Delhi, Lodhi Gardens

A Muslim refugee camp in Old Delhi, during the Partition era.

The Partition. I mentioned it before. The Partition, the seismic moment in Indian history. I talked to Leon about it, and I wanted to ask Sheila too, but somehow in a subtle way, like I couldn't just grab her by the shoulders. Shout, HOW ABOUT THAT PARTITION. I hope you know what I'm talking about. The nation arbitrarily torn into two parts. The mass exodus of Hindus from what was now called Pakistan, and Muslims from India. It is hard to imagine now but Pakistan used to be as Indian as India itself. Even today (like so many world conflicts) the differences between the two nations people are insignificant, the similarities enormous. As a a friend of mine said to me: "Whenever I went and lived overseas, most of my friends were Pakistani. Once you're overseas, you realize pretty fast fast that Pakistanis and Indians are the same people, there's no point in denying it, you have so much in common..."

Do you know that I don't know a single Pakistani? They are, so I hear, very common in the UK. And pretty much non-existent in the US.

And the Partition was a tragedy, a tragedy of epic proportions. Around 12.5 million people displaced and on the move. No one is quite sure how many people died in the inevitable fighting, but estimates range from a 100,000 to a million. The division of land between the two states was often arbitrary or poorly thought out: Partition is one of the reasons why Kashmir is such a mess today - combine a majority Hindu population in the Jammu region and a majority Muslim one in the Kashmir valley? You're going to have problems. Anyhow. Fighting on the streets, friends lost forever. Even the language got messed about. (Leon, remembering the day when he learned to speak Hindustani up in Mussorie, instead of Hindi). Another irony: some of the oldest archaeological sites in India are in Pakistan, in the Punjab. Gandhi was against the Partition. No one seemed to listen to him.

That evening, Sheila and I set off for one last walk around Lodhi Gardens. My favorite place in India.

(When I first came here: I went to one of the more secluded tombs, and was all alone (so rare) in India. It was my last few hours in India, I was headed to the airport right after. And I watched the green parrots and thought to myself, "When will I see this again, when?"
And reassured myself, "It will be soon, must be soon. Within two years, which is all I have left of school."
And do you know - I did it).

I asked her about the Partition.

"Ah, I remember," she said, as we begin our loop around Lodhi Garden. The sky is pink and birds coming down, the sun so distinctly Indian, a sun that can be found nowhere else. "My sister and I went to the Woodstock School every day, you know - we lived in Landour. There was a sweet old man who used to sell lovely bangles and jewelry, on the way to school. We loved to buy those beautiful things, and sometimes our mother would get them for us. He was a Muslim man - I guess we knew that. It wasn't anything important, then. He was very kind, a lovely person.

Partition happened, and the fighting happened, you know all that. My mother, terrified. She tried to shield us from the worst of it, and she mostly managed. But - we went to school one day, I suppose, and the little man wasn't there. And my mother - she told my sister that he had moved, had gone away.

Of course, he had been killed, murdered by the Hindus. We found out about it all at school. It hit my sister the hardest. She cried for days and days, couldn't understand at all."

Like anyone could.

"I remember the violence, too, in the eighties, with Indira Ghandi and all. Your grandfather, too. Living in Berlin, right after the war. And the Great Depression. He saw things, too

Baldev, too. He's from Peshewar. His father, my father in law - he was a popular dentist there. So they didn't let him leave after Partition. They wanted him around. That kept them relatively safe, even not being religious. He never spoke Hindi, as a child. Just learned Urdu."

She though for a moment. Green parrots in the trees, and an ex-pat couple jogging bouncily around the trails perimeter, and the air going pinker and more divine by the moment. The tombs glow this time of night, as if backlit, and the remnant of blue tile on their fronts become intensely colored.

"Have you ever seen violence? Real violence?"

No, I said, no, not at all, not like you and my grandparents, not the world you four occupied.

"Well, that's good. It's the real world, maybe. But you don't have to experience so much, not just yet. Maybe Cambodia will be like that. "

She ran into a friend of hers, a very old looking Indian woman with the particular carriage of one who has led a life of stone cold bad-assery. We exchanged greetings, and continued our stroll. I love it when this happens because then Sheila always tells me all about the person we just met. She didn't fail me.

"That woman - her husband was diplomat to the pope. She had me over for lunch one day, and told me a story, a wonderful story. She had an audience with the Pope, and the Vatican naturally requested she wear a hat, and gloves, and stockings, something like that. Of course, she wondered. How would she do that with a sari? It would look absolutely strange. She was no push-over. She covered her head with her dupatta, and put her hands in her dress instead of wearing gloves. "This is appropriate for Indian dress," she explained to the Pope, when she appeared.

Well, he certainly wasn't going to argue with her.

Her family - her one son - he shaved his head in college. Some philosophical thing. And her husband, his father. Well, he refused to talk to him for 8 years, because of this silly thing. She finally broke down the wall, she did it. "This is stupid," she said, to both of them. And it did work. She's like that. The husband is dead now, I think.

The son - he was a lawyer, or something - he loved Mussorie, he wanted to retire there like everyone does. He made a lot of money, so he bought a nice place there, when he was middle-aged. And what do you know. Maybe his second night there, he died. All alone, his family all back in Delhi. He just had a heart attack, unexpected and sudden. He was quite young.

I guess the moral is, you might as well live as you please, now. There's no use in waiting."

(How many times have I heard that from family and older mentors, that particular advice. My grandfather, regarding his bourbon at 6:00 PM, sitting in the leather chair I know so well. "You might as well. You could get hit by the beer truck tomorrow. You might as well." )

We went back to the house for dinner. Baldev had finally come down - I suspect a big grudgingly - from Mussorie, and it was good to see him again, him and his curious electric-blue eyes. Like my grandparents and like Sheila, he carries the same aura of sheer gravitas about him.

"I know I'm not a Hindu," Sheila said, "not really. But, there was this one time." (Pouring me yet another drink).

I said I'd go to this temple, if Rajeev got well. And he did, so I went with my friend. I was dutiful about it. We got to the airport - they assigned us this nice young soldier, to accompany us. We couldn't get a jeep up there, the roads were out, so we needed to walk. He looked at me in my salwar and said, "Mrs. Lal, can you make it?" And I said, "Well, I'm from Mussorie. I guess I can try."

I got up there, and the shrine is in this cave, it's quite popular. It's like re-entering the womb, it's really slippery. That's the idea. You crawl through corriders, and caves. You can't go out the same way you came in. In the central area - it costs a lot of money to do puja there, or stay there a while. I ran into this group of people, Gujaratis I think, and they had paid a lot of money to do this puja. So they let me into their group: "Ah, you're my sister, you're like my sister." And I go, "Uh, okay, I' m your sister." So I get to see this - very expensive puja, i get to stay in there for a while.

I was going out, and I passed by this very tall woman, over six feet tall, and dressed all in white. I remember her sari was very long, and I couldn't see her feet. She looked almost lost - she was going the wrong way, and you shouldn't do that. But you're not supposed to correct others in temples. They're places of worship, in the end, you do do what you want to do. She had the most beautiful face, as I recall. I thought it was strange - you don't see lots of over six foot tall women in India. I told my mother about it - she was a hardcore Hindu - and she laughed at me. "Oh, Sheilie - that was obviously the Dara. You saw her, it was her. "

"Well, the Dara is very beautiful, then," I said. Another friend of mine - they say it was a hallucination, that I wanted to see her. So I willed myself into "seeing" something. They're probably right. But it makes a good story, doesn't it?"

I took some photographs of them for my grandparents. I got the two of them connected on Skype. (They are both remarkably technologically savvy). That's the power of technology: get two couples who have known each other forever and live on opposite sides of the world, talking on video phone for the first time in years. Cynics about technology and its supposed evils might want to stop and consider that.

I was headed to the airport early that morning: off to Bagdogra. We all said goodbye in the rather manful fashion of our respective families. I reassured them I'd be back (I would). They assented (they would). I said goodbye to the dog, and was sent off with a Ferro Rocher chocolate, and then went to bed early.

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