At the immigration counter out of Hong Kong the booth I went to had a man and a woman working in it serving two separate lines of passengers: an endless stream of people pushing paperwork across a counter at you. For some time I thought that the woman who was processing my visa was making dismayed and derisive comments about it. If there’s one situation where you feel like the veil between your normal life and being violated by officials in a back room is about to be pulled it would be when an official takes an interest in your forms at immigration. But that was not what was happening. I realised that the female and male officials, processing the two lines without looking at each other, were talking to each other. They were in fact deep in conversation.
On the plane to India a man asked if his mum could sit with him. He was overweight and unshaven. After a few minutes his mother came steadily up the aisle with rocking gait. She had a cardigan over her sari, glasses, and long braided plait of mostly grey hair. After a while the son put down his book, Autobiography of a Yogi, and went to sleep. The mother sat on the edge of her seat and watched Harry Potter films for six hours.
What do you start with? Do you do it order, in the order that the events occurred? That’s how it happened after all: chronologically. One thing after another until bed and even then the brain picking over and sorting the events of the day. Maybe when you are on the railroad tracks of your ordinary life, passing the familiar stations and landmarks of your daily landscape, it seems sensible to think of your life chronologically. And then you become insensible to even that. Nothing seems notable. Life as a lived negotiation stops. To be fair, society tends to try and steer us down that path, to take out all the bumps, to take the blood out of the meat in supermarkets, to make funerals a neat process, and to siphon your money into things, possessions, holiday experiences.
The problem with chronology is that while we seem to live that way we don’t, and we certainly don’t remember that way. When we live our lives we don’t see things as a CCTV camera, we see them as beings, as a confusing cocktail of instinct, experience and character. If we see differently then we must remember differently. What one person sees another doesn’t. The events of life sit in the head differently in different people. One event can sit in the head of one as proof of a theory, and in another a troubling contradiction of a proof.
So this is how I remember Delhi.
Dogs. Let’s start with dogs. What was for me an unusual and striking impression of India on my first night, a dog lying completely flat on its side, un-moving, almost dead, is actually how dogs are in India. They are flattened by the heat. Or they are loping across a street their heads swinging back and forth with the rhythm of their gait. There was a dog with a thick wheezy cough who queued up with us to go through the ticket booth at Humayan’s Tomb.
Humayan’s Tomb. We were told a wealth of detailed historical information but for me its message was contrast. The contrast between the white marble tomb of a single man under a massive dome, in a great building, atop a raised platform, set in gardens, surrounded by walls, punctuated by gates, with – on the bus out – the clump of little kids under an expressway overpass, in a great mess of roads, atop broken boxes and cardboard sheets, set in scattered rubbish, surrounded by scooters and cars, punctuated by horns.
Crows. That derisive caw. A long harsh haaaaaa. Above a high prayer well, on the peak, a lone crow sat and offered withering asides to our guides attempts to explain something cultural, or religious, or something like that.
“Just Want U Back – Anna – 16 Aug.” Spray painted on the wall of an underpass. Just Want U Back. It must be that there are a lot of accidents. The horn is used to mean: “I’m coming past so don’t hit me.” A lot of people are always coming past. Families, of course, on scooters. Some women sit side saddle behind the man. Some sit side saddle holding a bag, or a baby. One was breastfeeding. At the traffic lights a man walks down the line of cars. He has no hands, and a small tin bucket hangs off one stump while he uses the other to bang on the passenger windows of waiting cars. The passengers sit stiffly waiting for him to move on which he does, after awhile.
Sign on a lamp post for a day care centre called “Brats and Cuties.” Peacock. A man with no pants putting on his shirt. Stalls selling water, fruit, snacks, tyres, helmets. Cows. Slow heavy cows stepping unenthusiastically from a rubbish pile to a puddle.
We visited the largest mosque in India which squashes in 60,000 people at Eid. Mainly for us, the visit was about the girls putting on light weight floral dressing gowns so as not to offend. Our girls were dressed conservatively anyway and the dressing gown simply served to make everyone hotter and more obvious to everyone. Florence F said:
“I feel like a garlic bread.”
Once we made it into the open air arcade of the mosque and stopped we became the focal point of a hundred different videos and photographs. We were ringed by people recording the fact of us. Or, I should say, them. The women were of interest; the middle-aged guy off to the side, not so much. It was hard to understand the purpose of these photos. Hard not to be discomfited. The male gaze. The male jokes. Power. The way people always look to me first, or the joking about my good fortune to be travelling with 20 women. Ha, ha, ha… I think.
Like a crow.