by Raju Peddada
[Author's preface: Thirteen years after starting his career, at the age of 37 in 1970, my father had reached the pinnacle of his career. This is something that is achieved only in late middle age, nearing retirement, for most Indians. His infectious enthusiasm, innocence, and naiveté, and straightforward character is something of an anachronism today, especially in India -- where almost everyone appears grated and jaded, as specters of cynicism. He was a risk-taker in a place where everyone was risk averse, more so today. He was to risk what a moth is to a bulb. Risk is the essential ingredient, for not only our material progress, but more significantly, our psychological and intellectual growth. Risk tunes up our senses, and history is shaped by great risk-takers. When you eliminate risk, everything regresses. The marginalization of risk is one of the key symptoms that precipitates corruption. In a country like India, risk-taking, especially on merit, is callously derided, in favor of the accrual of security, through easy and nefarious means.]
(Swans - July 28, 2014) My dear Father,
Won't you agree that no human experience is ever devoid of purpose or import, or for that matter, undeserving of evaluation? Fundamental values, even if they are negative, are derived from specific circumstances -- which leads me to think of Delhi as a huge experiment. This kind of reflection is only in hindsight, but by experiencing it in the present, I could not help but feel Delhi being anything but a state of dissonance. There is no coherence to anything, except the profound banality of survival, and nihilism being that mechanism.
We knew Delhi as one huge garden, but today, incarcerated in inflation, it's a vast, dusty, and voluntary concentration camp where people compete viciously for survival. Every civil institution had been neutered by corruption from within. The smallness of people is inversely proportionate to their abuse of power, which is more vivid here than anywhere else. The Indian constitution itself is a corrupt law that allows polygamy for one religious group, while banning it for the other. And confoundedly, there's no initiative, on the part of the majority, to amend this unfair allowance -- it's pathetic apathy. In Delhi, when it comes to protecting their interests, people can be, and in most cases are, essentially brutal, egoistic, superfluous, and uninhibited -- where values like honesty and civic awareness, or cleanliness and beauty, will cower to the preponderance of survival.
If I was blindfolded and dropped into Delhi I would recognize it -- by its pervasive smell? Is it the odor of survival or corruption? I can safely say that this smell is a fusion of burnt diesel, urine, decomposing organic refuse, and the aroma fall flowers. Dad, you had experienced both, the east and the west, wouldn't you agree that what constitutes even the basic qualities of life in the west, are seriously wanting, even in the most affluent localities of Delhi?
Besides the smell, there's the noise that envelopes you and smothers your capacity to think. It is quite disconcerting. At 10:30 in the morning, I hear a loud conversation between two men across the street. I could simultaneously hear someone praying and kids screaming and running after each other. And, most of all, several type of horns from vehicles on the street, and above that din, a street vendor's piercing call for his wares. As if to add their presence, monkeys screeched on the rooftops, who arrive as large groups, moving in unison like silent guests, bent on extracting their due from their distant relatives. I tried inventorying the various noises once, before giving up. Silence is a premium one cannot afford. If you want to enjoy India, which can be infinitely enchanting, you would have to develop the capacity to transcend this discouraging triumvirate: dust, smell, and noise.
Dad, I found three categories of people. Those who follow politics and the ensuing scandals; then, there are those who follow the Bollywood films and actors; and others who are glued to their TV for cricket. When I was there, the news of retirement of their Cricket god, Sachin Tendulkar, consumed everyone. Anti-corruption activism and speeches are like throwing glasses of water at a conflagration. They have 24/7 melodramatic "breaking" headline cycles that veer to the talk-show formats for "expert" opinions. TV, devoid of any intelligent content, is loud and vapid.
It's strange to see many people, boorishly trumpeting themselves -- deciphered, it's insecurity, manifesting as a defense mechanism, something like a Chihuahua's barking. Everyone wields a sharp tongue. And under that gregarious informal facade of acquaintance, familiarity, and joviality, there lurks a deep mistrust and dread of what anybody would do or might ask or demand. I suspect this is a conditioning, for decades, that was forced on by frequent interactions with people of "authority" who could be as low as your local municipal electric or water-meter reader. People of authority are basically government employees, purveyors of benign negligence and botchery, who are responsible for public services, i.e., water, electricity, zoning permits, taxes, and tariff collections.
There is one person who did not fit this bill; rather, who was humorously self-effacing. You remember Rajiv, don't you, dad? Rajiv Rastogi happens to be my oldest and best friend. In fact, before Rajiv, I did not have a friend -- as we kept moving from one place to another, before I could make one. This was the first person I met, in January of 1967, in my 5th grade class, with Mrs. Kanda as our teacher. Over the decades, he never went off my radar; neither did I, on his. Through our vicissitudes, we managed to be best of friends. The six days I stayed with him last December was a treat, especially with his wife's hospitality and masterful cuisine. Rajiv did not engage in insistent chest beating, like a lowland silverback, or constantly stole credit -- there was no TV or small talk. Only delicious moments of extended silence, with complicit smiles that rang decades of memories.
He'd refer to his kinetic wife with a loving smile, "my Hitler." Or, he would say, let's have rasagollas, and take me to the homeopathic medicine shops. He drove me around, without an ounce of irritation. One day, as he drove, I exclaimed, "Hey watch out, potholes, man!" To which he, with a smile, responds, "Ooh, don't worry, Butchie, they'll get out of the way -- they hate to get run over." Gesticulating casually with his hand, and said in such dry sincerity and earnestness that I had stomach cramps with laughter. I found out that he, in order to stay away from corruption and keep himself sane and happy, had relegated himself to an area of fifteen kilometers in radius to make his living. When asked about corruption, he sighs and allowed, "I'll be corrupt, even if I operated just within my apartment complex -- we both corrupt each other." Smiling and pointing to his wife. I have categorized his humor as "Rajivisms."
Nobody reads here, dad. There are no bookshops anymore! Bookshops like the New Book Depot and E.D. Galgotia & Sons have given way to Western-style cafes and fashion boutiques, and most books, pirated, are sold on tarps on the dusty pavements. I found Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson as a cheap paperback; also, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall in a Signet pocket edition! In fact, every bestseller from 2013 was there, in paperback!
Between the orgies of greed and survival lies the unfortunate history of India, for which I came, with romantic notions, to exhume it from its dusty seclusion. History, what remains of it here, are only the fumes. Here, everything crowds everything, and in the dust, the crowding appears like some distant phantom; an illusion that helps in the denial, and this denial is the very motor of sustenance and destruction as well. Individual memories have disappeared, behind the cloud of construction dust, but collective memory, the history, is also being erased, methodically and systematically, by the collusion of progress and politics, of the business elite and the government -- in the rush towards uncertainty.
Delhi has become a place where memories vanish without a trace, especially the spatial ones. Dad, every place that we had lived at, all the five places, had been erased for apartments. Nothing remains, except that old Pipal tree in front of 9/21, in Kalkaji -- the only witness from our years there, and the sole consolation, from all this "progress." In weird twist of fate, there is one place where progress could not encroach.
Not many pictures exist of you with us boys. There is this rare picture from 1967 that I treasure very much because it shows your corporeal affection for us. A picture, taken by your mother, flanked by my brother to your left, and I to your right -- with your arms draping over us, holding us close. I am sure you know this one. You were probably grinding your teeth, instructing mother on how to compose the shot and squeeze the shutter. It did come out well, except a little out of focus. If you recall, it was shot against an ancient wall, probably in Lodi gardens. This photograph haunts me -- it is the most indelible image of your vigorous youth, and our boyhood -- everything has dissolved. Only this moment at shutter speed remains, in the form of a print.
This picture always lingers; it permeates my memory, dad. I had promised myself to locate the exact spot in the picture someday. Well, the day came last winter -- on December 7, 2014. Let me tell you how it went. I took the Metro to Jor bagh, where I was accosted by several rickshawallas, bidding 50 Rupees for Lodi gardens. But there was this thin older man with his rickshaw, wiping his brow -- he had this resigned appearance. I cannot imagine pedaling a rickshaw in that heat, and at that age. I approached him, followed by others. The old man seemed surprised, "How much?" I queried. "Whatever you can...", looking right into my eyes. "Let's go -- Lodi Gardens." It was a 15-minute ride, and upon reaching the gate, I again asked. He said, "Sahib, this is not a 50 Rupees ride... give me 20." His earnestness was so refreshing. I did what you always did -- I gave him a 100 note, patted on his back, and started walking, while he fumbled for the change.
At the gate, I realized that the main entrance into the gardens was a kilometer away. So I started walking towards it, and as I walked slowly taking in the environs, the same rickshawalla pulls up next to me and asks, "Sir, was this not where you wanted to go? Please get on... I'll take you." I was moved, and said, "I thought this was the gate, but the entry is over there -- don't worry, I need the walk." I insisted and he relented, tendering his salutation. He was still standing there, looking after me, when I turned around. I waved to him -- at that moment, something clicked, and we both soared. I know why you never bargained. All we need to make each other feel valued is rather simple, the recognition, despite our station in life, of decency and dignity -- just the recognition. It's something primordial.
It hasn't, thankfully, changed at all -- Lodi gardens is a 90-acre complex, of three distinct monuments. These were the 15th-16th century tombs of the Sayyids and Lodis, who were the predecessors to the Mughals. The monuments were surrounded by exotic flower gardens and trees, like years ago, offering seclusion from the maddening rat-race beyond. There was this board, with painted images of birds, telling visitors about the ones that made these gardens their home. Parrots screeched above us, and on one dead tree, there were about 20 to 30 large birds of prey: kites or falcons, immobile, like figurines.
As I walked towards the tomb of Mohammed Shah, I pulled out the picture -- and referred to the distinct construction of crenulations, wall and rock patterns in the picture. Nothing matched. It took over 40 minutes of detailed survey -- nothing at all. Then I looked into, and at both the Sheesh and Bara mosques. A painstaking survey revealed nothing. It occurred to me that the picture probably was not taken here at all, and mother's memory of it was wrong. I rested, contemplating, with burgeoning disappointment and anxiety, the enormous number of monuments I faced in Delhi, to just locate this one precious spot. As I looked down, running my hands over my head, I heard this sound of soil being turned over. When I looked up, there was this uniformed gardener clearing the weeds from a Dahlia bed.
I said to myself, "Ahaaa!" and walked over to him, then, showing the picture I asked, "Can you recognize this structure -- is it here at all?" "Why yes! It's the enclosure wall of that tomb," he said, pointing to a distant complex, which was Sikander Lodi's tomb. It was a long walk. My heart thumped anxiously, as if I was going to meet you there, dad. This complex was on a plateau, steps led into it. Upon entering it, I immediately noticed the distinctive crenulations and wall pattern, but the thing was so huge. And I shook with anxiety. There seemed to be no one inside, and I found myself walking slowly to the right of the gate, heading east. I kept on very slowly, peering at each crenulation that looked like sneering mildewed teeth, mocking my search. The south wall did not match; then, to the right was the eastern wall, it was long. Halfway through it was another gate. There, I came upon a young khaki clad security man, Najabuddin Ansari, sitting and reading his Hindi-to-English instructional book.
He saw me and approached, and asked what I was doing. I showed him the picture and said I was struggling to find these two crenulations with triangular stones. He walked slowly along the wall with me, holding the picture, till we were almost in the northeast corner -- then, suddenly, we both exclaimed, "There they are!" pointing to the crenulations. The pattern of two triangular stones, and the next one with three rectangular stones, over your head in the picture matched. Looking exactly as they did, on that day, 46 years ago. Dad, I was shaking after finding our spot. At least something survives from our life! "Who are they?" Ansari asked. I swallowed hard and pointed out, "You -- my father, me to your right, and brother to your left -- in 1967 -- mother was behind the camera." He responds in disbelief, "1967?!" He's young, dad. Ansari was the same height as you, so I asked, and moved and adjusted where he stood, to match the exact location you might have stood that day.
I was overcome, dad. Ansari drew away from me instinctively. I stood there in silence, shaking in tears, on that very spot we all stood, almost five decades ago. It was the only way I could experience it, in profound despondency, for what we had. It was something intensely within -- any other rational consideration would have belittled it. You know how I regularly teleported myself into the history of others, but this was about you, and it debilitated me. I could muster nothing objective -- every intellectual impulse was neutralized -- and every pore in my body screamed, with sentimental longing, "Where have our years gone?!" You know this better than anyone -- it's a scream that we deny, both consciously and unconsciously -- just to carry on.
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About the Author
Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines. (back)