Delhi will give no quarter. That’s not how it works. Perhaps somewhere off in walled-off compounds, the cacophonous hustle, bustle, blaring babble and bluster of humanity is beaten down to ambient noise — assimilated into the droning hum of air-conditioned palaces. I live in the wide-landed tree canopied streets of central Delhi; I can almost imagine what that would be like —peace. Sometimes the sing-song chatter of the orange-faced, black-masked mynahs is the most noise I contend with.
Sometimes it’s pigeons scrapping claws across stacks of air conditioners in the throes of dead, read-eyed passion. Sometimes it’s the suicidal washing machine filled-with-rocks sound of my upstairs neighbor’s air-conditioner unit that beats back the birds and traffic like a John Deere racing a short track on a gravel lot.
A bus hurdles down nearby Barakhamba Road; engine roar seemingly red-shifting forever until auto rickshaw bleats punch holes in the rumble. The leaves continue to rustle soundlessly through glass. The palms stand at attention. The partially eclipsed gulmohar paints an orange aura of flame around the evergreen leaves. A wire dangles overhead.
The first time I came to India, I realized the volume on life was just turned up. It is one of the few places on earth that makes Moscow feel relatively empty and easy. I remember walking those tritone streets in the dead of winter upon my return; metallic-silver skies with white snow screens hanging between achromatic gray soviet tower blocks. The sidewalks were wide, the people sparse, though they still manage to bump into you in that Russian way (or ride your soles despite you being the only other soul on the street; least a strangers internal burden not find an external resting place.) But then that angry spirit pushes off beyond a snow drift, his footsteps muted by packed-powder and swallowed by the wind.
India forces upon you a kaleidoscope view of the world, through some of the pebbles filling space between the light-reflecting mirrors end up being desiccated shit. Okay, a lot of them in fact. Though in these parts, sometimes that which appears to be diarrhea sprays of shit, like the stained colonnade corners of Connaught Place, are in fact sunbaked streaks from passerby paan spitters. That description might not bode well for the gift shop spiritualists who imbue the brown-skinned extras in their poverty porn with some superfluous form of hyper-humanity. Yes Jessica, you are the dog whisperer, and they are your anthropomorphized pets. Just eat pray love honey, eat…pray…and love.
No, northern India is a place of anger, quirk and dirt. At times there is mockery in their smiles — they are not always laughing with you. The open wound of partition pumps through Punjabi blood, which, like paan spit, features heavily in the Delhi palette. But yes, there is love too. In all places there is love.
Forget about pony-tailed narcissists karate chopping their way to the heart of India à la Shantaram. Love was neither created not perfected here. Religion is often reduced to the same type of brow-beating, rain-made genie lamp rubbing superstition that you would scoff at if it came from a Christian grandma in a minivan. But deep down, it’s the same old shit. In India, as everywhere else, the one true religion of the poor is hustling. The one true virtue: pragmatism. Luckily for the guru industry, goras buy snake oil in bulk. ——————
I used to say that Moscow took a lot from me, but it gave me a lot back in return. But there is something I’ve noticed that, in the physical reality of India, differentiates itself from Russia. In Russia I was able to compartmentalize my beauty; to keep my red, yellow and blue from turning into an infinitely less appealing composite tone. As of yet, India keeps taking me on a tawny turn and forces me to pick my diamonds from among the muck. The is no shrine free from the waft of latrine or pungent particulates puffing your eyes fuck-pigeon red. Delhi always demands its pound of flesh and starts cutting before the meal is over (and sometimes before the meal begins.) After years in Moscow, I often said I was living in a city of ghosts. They were my ghosts, from my own life. I had spent enough time there to have street corners turn into beacons of hiraeth; empty nooses of nostalgia waiting to catch my neck. I began to feel like I was an ash tree in a cemetery, tree fingers casting shade on steles and pushing roots beyond bodies. But in Delhi I feel like a water lily on black water, floating on the surface of something opaque and impermeable. It could be sewage, it could be sacrosanct, it could be both.
The high, ceilinged, modern and massive office space feel of the Barakhamba Road metro station gave me a false sense of security. It was mostly empty. Maybe that the crush of humanity above me had not yet taken to the trains and tunnels I thought. Three stops later and hands pulled me into a rugby scrum pack as we clashed head on with the testudo formation trying to break out lines and push onto the train. I wanted to tell them there was a better way, but then my head phones got ripped out of my ears and as i turned around, a woman offered a smile to complement her elbows in my kidneys. Never turn around in a stampede.
From that point on the inertia takes you over and you just ride the wave onto the escalator. Then the eyes find you, and they never let you go. You are ejected into the open sewage smell of the ‘moonlight market’ in Old Delhi, where a few neo-colonial buildings are mostly overshadowed by the crumbling cardboard box feel of not-so-high rises being quartered by a massive tangle of cross cutting wires. One giant hand on that mass of cable could make the whole thing rise or fall depending on the decision to push or pull. A hand just like that had found its way to neighboring Nepal. The Red Fort frames the street in the 40 degree head-hazy distance. The street food, stray dogs, rickshaw drivers, shoppers, walkers, errant tandoori-baked tourists; dust clouds, ammonia stench, soot, exhaust and wet shits, mosquito-coil cancer, camphor, and incense burn a miasmic dust cloud swirl in a Mughal urn.
So you dive into the swirling dust like Pig-pen being mauled by the Tasmanian Devil, make a b-line through a sea of makeshift stalls, and find yourself in the splendor of the Jama Masjid, where beggars line stair cases ascending to the northern gate.
The candy cane minarets of red sandstone, white marble and perfect gumdrop domes are glorified by the blue sky. The over head eagle swarm is awe-inspiring. The legion eyes swarming on you, less so. The massive stone courtyard sucks up the sun and cooks your feet for those stupid (or tough) enough to ignore the trail of cloth snaking its way around the complex. I plead stupidity. While walking back through the madness on sole-burned feet, i caught a glimpse of what Delhi will likely be to me during this strange intermission in my life. In Moscow, my relationships formed around the principle of the sculpture hall of the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum; many of the figures were only plaster replicas of the real thing, while a small, small number were genuine works of beauty cut from sturdier stuff.
At the very least, all of them had form in the sense that I understand form. Reach out and touch it. Sometimes the plastic arts chose the medium of stone. But on the dilapidated backstreets of a dead dynasty’s heart, the sculptures were crushed to dust and scattered like ashes. Rather, the occasional glints of sapphire, emerald and amber eyes, alabaster smiles, and betel-juice grins were all varied pieces of stone and glass flung my way; tesserae to paint a picture of human connection in a sea of chaos.
The figures do not stand, this mosaic is fleeting by design; you can never call on the same configuration again. Moscow is going to take some processing, even if it did feel like a cemetery at times. The thing about cemeteries though, is there may be death in the soil, but there is life above ground. The sun shines overhead, birds perch on tombstones, and the living walk among the dead. If I had once been an ash tree in a Moscow cemetery, it wasn’t always the ghosts rustling me leaves. No, sometimes it was two pigeons fucking.