by Niki Marangou

As published in Volume 8, NO 4, Dec. 2011

At Dubai airport it was now Asians I saw around me. Indian women in chic saris, Philippino maids, men in multicoloured turbans, black people in colourful clothes. On the carousel, where I was waiting for my case, bundles stitched and tied up with string arrived with the cases. I arrived in Delhi early in the morning, tired out from the all-night journey. My sister Marina was waiting for me at the airport. The roads felt dusty, the traffic was chaos. We went to South Delhi, to her house. To the left and right of the road were shacks, open drains. We arrived in an area with greenery, with signposts saying “Farm”. A house of the colonial period. We had breakfast, she showed me round the house, it was a strange feeling to see some of mother’s furniture in this distant home. The portrait which was over the fireplace, the dining table and chairs, the sideboard. All beautifully arranged with the talent Marina has for creating homes in various parts of the world. She wanted to show me an area near her house built by Feroz Shah in the 14th century. Mosque and medresse in a park with squirrels, a lake and in the background the skyline of the city. A part of the building was being repaired. The workmen were taking a break, playing cards. Further on, a workman was having a bath, despite the cold – we were wearing warm jackets – he had undressed, a thin brown body, with a black undergarment, he had soaped himself and with a bowl was pouring cold water from a barrel over himself to rinse the soap off. In the area some lovely shops had recently opened, with antiques and wonderful Indian fabrics. Later, I saw this same phenomenon in other places, this co-existence of the old and new. On an earth road, with open drains and animals, I suddenly read “Swiss Bakery”. Marina bought bread, the driver having gone into the stream of oncoming cars, which never stopped, in order to get there. Midday was approaching and Marina started to climb a worn-out, dirty staircase. I followed her with no idea of where she was taking me. We went up six floors and reached a terrace which had been turned into a restaurant with a wonderful view. All the tables were taken but we found one soon and the fragrant breads and curries arrived. We went to bed early because the next day we were to leave for Jaipur, where we would attend the literature festival held there every year in January.

It was not yet dawn when we arrived at the station, not the central one but a small one in South Delhi. In the half-light of the station, bundles and people were waiting for the train. The train was full, so we had difficulty in finding a place for our luggage. As soon as we were settled, there came a thermos with hot water and tea, biscuits and sweets. Newspapers followed and then hot food. Hangovers of colonial government: ketchup on the tray and the menu written in old-fashioned English. At the end of the corridor was written “Pantry”, a word which one rarely heard in England nowadays. As day broke I tried to look at the landscape through the grimy windows of the train. In the Times of India I read intelligent and well-written articles but one news item took my breath away. Some young people travelling to take exams could not find seats on the train and were travelling on the roof and when the train passed under a low bridge they were killed. And further down in the paper, a grandfather, believing the house was haunted, threw his two grandchildren into the fire, following the advice of the relevant guru, and the two children were burnt. One column in the newspaper is always devoted to philosophy, with excerpts from Plato and Shakespeare to Woody Allen. Next to me a young Indian woman was designing a web-page on her computer. What a country!!!

We arrived in Jaipur, a friendly hotel near a chaotic street. We left our luggage and went off to the festival to be in time for the talk by Githa Harihan, whom I had met some years ago in Cyprus and had loved her books. The festival was at the Diggi Palace, with huge tents in all colours. Githa was in a tent with divans and cushions in colours of pink, orange and red. A day of talks followed. We missed Orhan Pamuk but I listened with great interest to Jung Chang (Wild Swans) talking about China and her experiences and her new book about Mao. Her husband, Jon Halliday, added his stories about Mao. Jung Chang described in very dark colours the man who was responsible for the deaths of millions of Chinese. “I was an electrician at that time,” she said “but we had no proper training and so I got five electric shocks in one month.” She finished her talk, however, saying that Mao loved books and his bed was constructed in such a way that half of it was full of books. Jo Anderson talked about his book on Che, how he started out working for the lepers of the Amazon. Liaquat Ahamed spoke about his Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the financial crisis of 1929. Though not being at all interested in financial matters, I listened by chance but with delight to the excellent speaker. Many talks related to Indian history and culture. Patrick French spoke about his book India: A Portrait, an intimate biography of 1.2 billion people. The talk by the very young English woman Alex von Tunzelman impressed me. Her book Indian Summer describes the relationship of Edwina Mountbatten, the wife of the English Viceroy, and Nehru during those difficult years which led to the partition of India and Pakistan and to the population exchange of 12 million people. “Were they in love?” asked the presenter. “Without a doubt,” replied the author, who had studied their correspondence. “Were they lovers?” the presenter went on. “Does it matter?” Alex von Tunzelman replied. “No, but it is so interesting,” the presenter said. The Nobel Laureate Coetzee read a story about someone who visits his mother who has a lot of cats. The message was that every living thing has the right to live. It didn’t make much of an impression in a country where birth control is essential. What was amazing was to see young people, pupils and students, queuing up for book signings, attending the discussions, asking intelligent questions. The newspapers had extensive coverage of the festival with front page reports on the various events and even a quiz of the type “Which author at the festival has such-and-such a character in his book?” The prizes for the correct answers were books signed by the authors.

The festival was open to all, with no entrance fee and no protocol. There were no reserved seats and many listened to the talks standing. At the lunchtime buffet, whoever did not find a seat ate standing. The organisers who began this festival in 2004 with an audience of 40 had no idea of the success it would have, reaching 50,000 visitors today. At the Diggi Palace, a building 280 years old, four great tents had been erected in which the talks were given. There were four simultaneous presentations, a total of 113, from 21st – 25th January. In addition, various organisations and shops had been invited to put up stalls with handicrafts, clothes, foodstuffs, so that the whole event resembled a great fête. A man in a white turban served masala tea in small earthenware cups from a huge urn. On the terrace of the house next-door four poles and an awning became a clothes shop.

We travelled to the Diggi Palace by rickshaw, a moped with a seat for two passengers. “Welcome to my helicopter!” shouted the young rickshaw driver. “We won’t be flying today, I’ll take you by road.” On the pavements to the right and left I saw every so often homeless people sleeping, women cooking, lighting a fire between two bricks. Small children were running around naked from the waist down despite the cold. In the middle of the chaotic street, where 3-4 streams of cars and rickshaws, hooting non-stop, were weaving left and right, I saw someone sleeping on the central island of the road. The homeless were wrapped in blankets, as if in a shroud, and around them were animals, dogs, rubbish.

The soul and epicentre of the festival was its instigator and organiser William Dalrymple. A man of amazing vitality, one of the best writers of travel literature, he set the tone of the festival with the choices he made. In many cases he was a member of the panel, giving a light note, with intelligent interventions and without the slightest air of importance. His book City of Djinns, an amazing description of Delhi, was for me the key to India. I saw people reading it everywhere. His latest book, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, about nine cases of Indians dedicated to religion, is a journey into the deep spirituality of this country. I read it during my flight home and had no sense of the passing of time. It is a book which shook me. He wrote his first book, In Xanadu, at the age of 22. His books have been translated into Greek by Oceanida publications. In From the Holy Mountain, he set out from Mount Athos to follow the itinerary of a monk as described in The Spiritual Meadow of John Moschos. What made the festival so lively was the choice of subjects. Journalists, historians gave a distinctive tone, without of course literature ceasing to be the focal point of everything. The presenters, who were mainly Indian, and often women, impressed me with their knowledge, their perfect command of the English language, their humour and their eloquence. Their questions were often challenging and required thought to be answered. Generally, it was for me, who had become unbearably bored with festivals and was thinking of giving them up, an unexpected breath of fresh air which took me completely by surprise. I heard, for example, Rachel Polonsky talking about her book Molotov’s Lantern, a stroll through Russian history, which she had been inspired to write when, living in Moscow for ten years, she discovered that Molotov had lived on the floor above and that his books and papers where still there. I heard Anthony Sattin talk about his book A Winter on the Nile which he wrote after discovering that Florence Nightingale and Flaubert had travelled on the Nile at the same time in the same river boat . I listened to Vikram Seth talking about his book A Suitable Boy with all the eloquence and self confidence of a man who was born in Delhi and whose mother was a judge and a writer. He spoke with humour and modesty and I felt that he was the embodiment of this strange country. Martin Amis said, in talking about biographies, that life is the foot and literature the shoe. David Finkel talked about his recent book on American soldiers in Iraq. He had lived with them and described how these young men were transformed within a few months into broken people.

Returning to Delhi, I listened to the peacocks all night long. The house was cold because in Delhi the houses are built for the long hot summer, with cooling systems and facing north so as not to get the sun. The two or three radiators could not possibly warm it. So I went around wrapped in pashminas from Pashioum, that is to say fluff from Kashmir, which I bought. There is no rain after the monsoon which lasts for about two months, July and August. Thus the trees and streets are full of dust for nearly a year. Until it rains again.

The next morning Marina had arranged with Ratsa to wait for us at the entrance to the Red Fort to take us on a tour of Old Delhi. He was waiting with his rickshaw. We sat in the two seats and Ratsa stepped hard on the pedals so that he was often standing over the saddle. We went into the narrow streets of the bazaar which were full of people, children, rickshaws, bicycles, cows, motorbikes. Ratsa sped as if possessed, shouting, gesticulating and hooting, so that all made space for him to pass. At the turnings in the road, though totally unable to see what was coming in the opposite direction, he did not slow down at all and in a miraculous way, at the moment I was certain there would be a collision, the rickshaw coming the other way slowed down, the pedestrian dropped into the shop and we went through. The road was earth or asphalt, full of holes, and every time we fell into one of these I bumped my head on the iron frame of the rickshaw. We passed by the spice market, the silk market, the jewellery market, the market for wedding goods, small shops with flamboyant clothes with thousands of pearls, little mirrors, ornaments. On the floor was a white mattress and the customers, having removed their shoes, were sitting cross-legged on the floor. “I’ll take you to see what an old house, a haveli, is like inside,” he told us. He got permission from the owner and set us down in front of a low door. A man with hair dyed red with henna opened and showed us round his house. “One of Ghandi’s companions lived here,” he told us. Small rooms with openings for ventilation during the unbearable months of summer when the temperature in Delhi rises to 45 degrees with dreadful humidity. We went up a staircase to the upper room, where there were pashminas from Kashmir. In the next room I saw a man rolled up in a blanket, lying on the bed and smoking. We went through the room. In the bed next to it a woman was sleeping, without taking the slightest notice of us. On the bedside table was a thick English Dictionary, Cassell’s. The rooms opened out onto a yard, which was peaceful amid the chaos of the city. In the Jain temple we had to take off our shoes and have nothing on us made of animal skin in order to go in. Inside the temple was a hospital for injured birds. I learnt a lot about the Jain and their strict religion by reading the first chapter of Nine Lives.

In the afternoon we took the dogs for a walk in the neighbourhood. High walls concealed the “farms” which are no longer farms but houses where wealthy Indians and foreigners live. From a Sikh monastery came the sound of chanting, further on a Centre for the Science of Religion had a park with various gods. Among them was a Christ whose clothes were changed daily. Dalrymple’s house was at the end of a country road where three women were laying bricks. They piled them up five at a time on their heads and carried them. I don’t know how they didn’t step on their saris and stumble. To the right of the house was a well-tended vegetable garden, with the guard’s cottage. Tall grass led to a veranda where a table was laid. I left him some books, thanking him for the lovely festival.

On Sunday we went to North Delhi to see the areas where the British used to live. The British cemetery was full of small children’s graves.

Go home my parents, and shed no tears.

I must lie here till Christ appears.

Short was my time, long be my rest

Christ took me when he thought best.         Date 25.5.1858

It seems that young children did not survive illnesses. Many graves of unknown people with “Deo notus”, known to God. The Coronation Memorial erected for the coronation of George V as “Emperor of India” in 1911 is uncared for, the statues of Viceroys, grassy and broken, young Indians play cricket. In the old Oberoi Hotel, English food and silver dishes on the table. Parrots fly among the trees.

On the last day of my visit Marina arranged for us to go to Salaam Baalak. It’s a centre which cares for street children. A friendly young man, Satender, was waiting for us. He was a street child, lived in the Centre, went to school and now works for the Centre. About 30 children arrive every day at Delhi’s Central Railway Station, who have left home, often maltreated; they sleep on the platforms and eat whatever they can find. He left home when he was 13 because his father used to beat him. He came to Delhi, travelling standing locked in a toilet. He slept in the streets and was afraid to trust anybody because he had heard stories about children being abducted and maimed in order to beg. When people from Salaam Baalak approached him, he didn’t want to follow them at first, he was afraid, but they gradually persuaded him. They sent him to school, he learnt English and now helps in the organisation. His self-confidence, humour and the pride evident in his movements impressed me. Through narrow alleys we went up to the place where the children are. Two large bare rooms, the children sitting on the floor watching television. A small boy reminded me of my grandson. I asked him how he had come, from where. He didn’t remember anything. Satender translated for me. In the car, where the driver was patiently waiting for us we had the Lego which friends of Marina’s had sent from Switzerland for the children. Their website is

In India I learnt to drink masala tea.

You heat one cup of water and one of milk with three cardamom pods and a piece of ginger which you have pounded in a mortar. When it has come to the boil 2-3 times you add 1-2 teaspoons of tea and 1 of sugar. Leave it on the heat a little longer then strain it. Wonderful!

Translated by  Christine Georgiades

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