Sayantani Dasgupta


New Delhi, March, 2003

March mornings can sometimes be balmy, just as it was today, although Delhi is supposed to remain pleasant this time of the year. It is afternoon now, and the weather is somewhat better than what it was in the morning. Perhaps the powers that be have sensed that my colleague, Biju, and I are out on a special mission, and have decided to be kind to us.

It is a few minutes to one in the afternoon and we are on Biju’s black and red motorbike, snaking our way out of the narrow lane that has our office, and are about to hit the main road any minute — the road that’s crammed with honks, pollution, dust, screams, shrieks, abuses, conversations, unacceptable decibel levels, sunshine, broken footpaths, loud posters, the latest Bollywood music blaring from buses, cars and roadside shops, and up above all this, tiny but cheerful fluffs of cloud. After cutting through this we will enter the meandering lanes of Old Delhi, specifically the area known as the Walled City. It is impossible to navigate the Walled City in cars, you have to either walk, or be on a two wheeler, in fact sometimes the lanes are so narrow that there is just enough space for two people to walk side by side.

Biju and I work at the same publishing house, a seventy-five-year-old establishment tucked in a hundred-year-old address. From the outside no one can tell that the building has churned out and is still churning out so much of the country’s literary genius. It’s dilapidated, the paint is flaking off in places, and there is a complicated maze of old electric wires running crisscross on top of our heads. Our boss is superstitious, he doesn’t want to change anything —either on the inside or outside. This business was set up by his father, and since their ways of working have made them millionaires, he won’t tweak, not even gently, anything in this office.

It’s been a good day so far, the boss is out of town, which means there is no one staring into the surveillance cameras every now and then. We are free! To celebrate this special day, all of us in editorial have done minimal work. In fact all that I have done so far is draw up a contract with one of our regular authors who writes regularly and in my opinion, rather meaninglessly, books on any and every subject that catches his fancy. Seriously, he has signed so many contracts with us that I wonder if he even glances at the terms anymore. As long as his eyes see that everything is perfect in the three columns that really matter — advance payment, manuscript submission payment, and copyright — he is happy. Sometimes I wonder who reads his books. But then again, I am not the one with the final say as far as manuscripts are concerned. As long as they bring in money, just like this author’s do, in our universe’s scheme of things that’s all that matters.

When the hands of the big wall clock near 1, all the eds want to do something spectacular to celebrate the no-boss-around day. Of the many ideas that are tossed around, some are crumpled to dust even before they can be aired properly. Yet others are ripped to shreds with impatient hands slamming them down on hard wooden desks. But the one idea that is allowed to bloom and achieve a mushroom cloud like finality is, “Let’s get food from Karim’s.” The task gets assigned to Biju and me as usual. Biju, because he is the only one with a motorbike in our office, and me, because I am the only one who can balance several bags of food while sitting on the passenger seat of a motorbike that has to weave its way through deliriously crowded roads.

In ten minutes or so, we reach the bend around Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque that was built in 1656. I can hear the muezzin calling the faithful to congregate for prayer. His voice is melodious and soulful, and although I cannot understand the words, they fill me with a kind of peace. The majestic, red sandstone walls of the Masjid can hold up to twenty thousand men at one time but the fact that it is built on a higher ground than the surrounding area is what lends it even more grandeur. Of course, Shahjahan knew what he was doing, just as he knew when he built the Taj Mahal. So what if his love for architecture left the country bankrupt? Emperors are not supposed to think about the mundane realities of life.

Our actual destination, Karim’s, is round the corner from here, blink and you can miss its arched entrance, so much so that even after living for twenty-two years in Delhi, my dad still needs my navigation skills to remember the location every single time. This entire stretch of road is a foodie’s paradise, which is why it is called Gali Kababiyan, or the street of kababs. There are warm tandoors and sizzling tavas, the aroma of juicy chicken tikkas and butter naans, and the visual delight of mountains of fresh dates and miscellaneous nuts. And outside each such shop, sits a cluster of beggars with their palms outstretched waiting for the day to turn into night when the shutters will come down and following tradition the shop owners would have to distribute all the cooked food that they weren’t able to sell during the day.

Entering Karim’s is like entering the mouth of a blue whale, although I haven’t entered the mouth of a whale ever, this is how I imagine it to be. There will be darkness for a brief second and it would seem as if the walls around are closing in. And then suddenly, they will open up into this gigantic circular vault with high ceilings. While entering Karim’s, there is that moment of complete blackness when the transition from the well-lit world outside to the cramped, claustrophobic inside is a difficult one to make, one where the sense of sight is swiftly overshadowed by the sense of smell. And by the time the eyes get used to this sudden shift, the low arched tunnel gives way to a circular piazza, with Karim’s entombed in it.

I spot my favorite waiter, Abdul. “Assalamu ’Alaikum Abdul miyan,” the few words of Arabic I know roll off my tongue with ease. Abdul beams, giving me the flash of white teeth he reserves for those who leave generous tips. I don’t need to consult the menu, I know what to order, in fact I can walk up to the counters and order with my eyes closed, my sense of smell my only guide. I rattle off, “Sheermal…six. Four tandoori rotis. Two plates of mutton korma. One plate of brain masala. Six phirnis.” There. Biju pays and now it’s time to return. He starts the bike, I climb onto the passenger seat while Abdul hands over the packets of food to me, the aroma of the hot mutton korma entering into a crazy marriage with that of the sweet phirni. I divide the load in my hands to ensure that everything is well balanced, and then our little jet kicks off, I can see the grease of the mutton korma slowly begin to stain the packet it is in, while the heady blend of its spices makes my head do a 180 degree spin and provokes my hungry stomach to growl with fierce impatience.

We have barely traveled ten yards before we are forced to stop. The crowd that had been casually milling around Jama Masjid seems to have grown. From the height that the bike affords me, all I can see is gigantic concentric circles of men. There are men on the road surrounding the mosque, there are men stacked on the enormous staircases that lead up to the mosque, and there are thousands of men inside the mosque. Men. Only men. And they were praying. All of them, together. Because today is Friday, the day of community prayer. Shit, it is Friday. And Friday’s prayer is so sacrosanct that in the vicinity, ideally, there should be no woman nor any non-Muslim. And I am both.

I see the scene as they are seeing it. Two people, obviously non Muslims, and one of them is a woman. They are atop a motorbike, and they have dared to come this way while the prayer ceremony is still going on. Inside a sermon is being delivered while outside, there are these two, with food, a temptation, with them.

Unaware of our existence, and comfortable within the sandstone walls, the preacher carries on. The powerful public address system carries his words outside. His words, easy enough for me to understand because they are in Hindi and Urdu, are filled with venom. His speech is anti-America, anti-Bush, anti the war in Iraq that Bush has just launched. That doesn’t upset me … America is far away. I don’t have any friends or family there, just a boyfriend, that too someone I broke up with last year. I am not supposed to care about him any more. I still pay attention to the sermon, might as well since we cannot move from here until the crowd decides to disperse, and also because like all well meaning citizens of the world, I too have a polite interest in international politics.

But then unexpectedly the content of the sermon changes. It becomes anti-Hindu. It starts off in the preacher’s throat with a tiny spark and then slowly builds up into a towering inferno of rage. He is angry with the Hindus, he is angry with the Indian government, he accuses the government of being pro-Hindu and anti-Muslim, he calls the country a Hindu nation and declares that secularism is a sham that India likes to peddle to the rest of the world. Deep down, he insists, India wants to be a Hindu nation, it wants the Muslims to realize that, and he, wants all Muslims to think about that and to bring about some serious change.

And now, I am scared. I begin to think of everyone I love and where they might be at this moment. I wish I was still in my office, in that predominantly Hindu neighborhood, safe and away from this crowd that is increasingly getting more and more incensed. For a moment I even wish that I was in a different city, not that that would have solved any problem. Meaningless violence, caused either by fanatic Hindus or fanatic Muslims, over issues whether serious or imagined or over sheer, silly misunderstandings are not uncommon in any part of the country. I don’t hate any one, I believe in the sanctity of human life, I want everyone to live their lives, be happy, die in peace. I don’t want to be in the middle of a riot, certainly not in one that could be caused by my presence.

There are two policemen standing under a lamp post. They notice the tension and the hundreds of pairs of eyes that are on us. They walk towards us. One of them wipes his brow, clearly nervous. The other one looks at us carefully, and asks, “Didn’t you know that this was prayer time? Why did you come this way?”

I answer, “We forgot. I am sorry.”

“You need to go out of this place immediately. You know that right?”

I nod, unable to come out with words, now that my fears have just gotten confirmed.

The other policeman tells Biju to start his bike. Biju does so, and over the din of the motorbike, he is given instructions about an alternate route that we can take to get out of this place. Biju listens, and nods mutely. The packets of food don’t seem that enticing to me any more but I still hold on to them. The bike surges forward, its sudden motion throwing me off balance by an inch or two. The men in front of us stare at us for a moment and then they part to reveal a tiny clearing, willing us not to become headlines in the next morning’s newspapers.


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