We manage to reserve the last seats on the evening train out to Delhi and hurriedly sit down on the first that are vacant. While the railway official looks up a seat for me in his charts, the man sitting opposite me stares at me in visible dismay. I had queued up behind him as he had furtively purchased the last copy of this week’s Spatik (the weekly Outlook’s Hindi publication) at the bookstall in Varanasi’s railway station. This week’s cover story was about middle class Indian women buying sex and he had been looking forward to a good read this evening.
That I had dropped down right in front of him was causing him visible discomfort as he tried to nonchalantly flip through the magazine. He gives an embarrassed half-smile in goodbye as I move to my allotted seat a couple of rows down the compartment.
As I settle down for the evening, I catch snippets of conversation from the seats behind me. Our railway compartment has the Japanese boys I met in the cinema. A group of sales representatives are returning to Delhi and rib their friend every time his cell phone rings. They tease another when he buys a popular women’s magazine. Kiya kijiye cosmetic firm may hain and its competition tau dekhna hoga. Behind me I can hear two professors from Benares Hindu University discussing the conference they will be attending in Delhi. As one of them pores through the newspaper he excitedly points out a news item about a proposed relaxation of rules in applying for a visa to Pakistan. The other has wanted to go to Lahore for a while and is eager to read the column. As the two debate the merits of visiting Lahore over Karachi, I, in a fit of Pathan nationalism, introduce myself so to include some city from the NWFP in their proposed itineraries. We discuss the state of affairs at the Benares Hindu University. The university is recovering from the turbulence it had gone through in the eighties. I have questions about Varanasi: the paradox of it generating so much revenue through tourism, pilgrimage and industries and the visible lack of infrastructure. A stocky safari suited man sitting with them has included himself in our conversation. He runs a sari business in the city, but is a Benares Hindu University alumnus. He feels left out every time the conversation shifts to the academic and tries to steer it towards discussing the city. He is a frequent day-tripper to Delhi. At the moment he has decided to ease out from selling Benarsi saris for a while and is stocking up his Delhi store with cheaper synthetic Chinese imports. He is unperturbed when I ask him about the fate of the Benarsi weavers. Their time will come he assures me. Delhi fashions are so temporary.
The monsoon rains pour down on Delhi as I leave the railway station. I have always had mixed feelings about this city. For me, its "city of culture" visage is only a thin veneer camouflaging the city's bawdy inner self. The reminder of "what (violence) lies beneath "comes up in the oddest places. I would find myself discussing the upcoming Commonwealth Games in Delhi with a group of colleagues in a housing colony (near the under-construction site for the games), we are drinking tea and deliberating on urban planning and would suddenly realize that the apartment building we are sitting in has been the site of the most horrific of the 1984 Sikh killings. You try to enjoy the beauty of the Mughal section of the city and try to forget poor Dara Shikoh’s fate at the hand of his brother. The latticework of the white marble pavilion in the Delhi Fort is beautiful till you remember Shah Jehan, his daughter’s unfortunate paramour and the cauldron of steaming bath water on the fire.
I venture out towards the Old City. I haven’t visited Nizamuddin’s shrine for a while. One sidesteps the puddles in the street after the early morning rains. Roadside stalls sell traveling bags and the ubiquitous white crocheted caps. Ghalib Academy has been done up since my last visit and is now offering computer classes in Urdu calligraphy.In the narrow side lanes leading up to the shrine, the stalls are spaced closer. Under bright overhead lights, there is a chaos of roses, incense, sugar treats, qawali CDs. Men pull at your sleeves, jootey utaro, jootey utaro. But after a month of buying a tray of offerings in lieu of their guarding my shoes I have wised up. As I take off my shoes at the kiosk at the entrance, I look over the crowd within. Women read their rosary in the compound or hold on to the grill frame enclosing the saint’s grave as they beseech the saint for a favour. Men who can enter the inner shrine take their offerings inside. The qawals that congregate outside Amir Khusro’s shrine haven’t settled down yet. A khadim at the shrine is most courteous and spends some time helping me locate Princess Jehan Ara’s grave. Shah Jehan’s beloved daughter, she was Dara Shikoh’s loyal ally and much envied by the siblings Aurangzeb and Roshan Ara. She experimented with Persian verse, raised beautiful gardens and is the mind behind the construction of the Chandni Chowk area.
Outside, bread shops try to sell you tokens that guarantee a requisite number of the swarming beggars being fed nans. It is an efficient Delhi system catering towards your aspirations, towards benevolence, and none of the area’s ‘not so hungry’ dumping the food in the alleys. I want to hang around to find out how the stallholders and the beggars divide the proceeds from the sale of tokens. However, I cannot stay for long as men lead up goats with overfull bladders to where you stand. The goat stares at you steely eyed as the keeper urges you to curry merit by feeding it some foliage. It is hard to order mutton at Khadims after this encounter. But other hardened Delhi souls are unsentimental regarding the predicament this encounter poses.As I pore over the menu, on the next table a swarthy gentleman bellows into his cell phone that he has a visitor from Lahore. The visitor cajoles him to visit Peshawar, bahut pur sakoon jaga hai. Phal, meva, ek haftey may surkh safaid hojaayengey. He inquires about the history of the restaurant. Do all kinds of people come here or just Delhi Muslims? He tries to make eye contact with our table and I debate whether to quash his fantasy of a cross-border romance, or keep the fact that we share a postcode unknown.
On my way home my car passes through Janpath. As one pavement seller cautions regarding an approaching policeman, the others are swift to wrap up their wares before he descends, swiping his cane. The tableau continues, as they are toughened to his blows, and they quickly return to the pavements after a period of time. The lane of women stallholders selling their colourful Rajasthani silks is more organized. They have set up a more permanent establishment. However, the monsoon sky is unmerciful and as the heavens pour down, they implore the straggling group of shoppers one last time.