Posts Tagged ‘India

15
Aug
14

The Unexpected

I was enjoying the best muesli of my life on my last leisurely morning in Leh. It was heaped in a bowl with fresh mango, bananas, and apples, tossed with a rich, homemade curd, or yogurt. This magical muesli was full of nuts, crunchy flakes, and roughly cut chunks of fresh coconut still edged in little bits of husk. It was one of those chunks that brought tears to my eyes and a resounding crack, which I realized was my tooth and no nut. Damn. A trip to a Delhi dentist flashed before my eyes, and I was soon perusing the US Embassy list of dental professionals and sending emails to several friends who had lived in Delhi to get recommendations. My plans of cruising Chandi Chowk by bicycle rickshaw and hitting some favorite clothes shops seemed foiled.

As the day wore on, it seemed that perhaps my tooth was not cracked as I had feared, but was markedly looser. Even when my double dose of Advil wore off, I was not in pain. Chewing on the opposite side of my mouth and avoiding stout muesli seemed a good option until I arrived home in 10 days. My plans were restored.

Two days later, with a tattered clipping from a flight magazine in my sweaty fist, I was searching for some travel writer’s suggestions for Old Delhi’s best Indian sweets. The holy grail of this search was tiranga sohan halwa from the 200 year old establishment called Ghantewala. It was irresistibly described as a buttery confection chock full of almonds, pistachios, cashews, almonds, and cardamom. Surely, I could chew those nuts on the left side of my mouth… This was not to be missed.

We made our way up and down the chaotic Chandi Chowk, jostling other shoppers, being jostled by push carts, cows, dogs, pilgrims, motorbikes, rickshaws, and workers carrying impossible loads on their heads. We popped into several sweet shops and tried their specialties, but Ghantewala was not to be found. When we asked one plump lover of burfi at one stall where Ghantewala was, she shook her head, not understanding until we showed her the clipping. “Ahh!,” she exclaimed. “GHHAntewala!”, hitting the first consonant as if clearing her throat. She waved up the street in the direction we had just come. “GHHAntewala!”. We headed back through the mass of activity we had just passed through. Alas, no tiranga sohan halwa to be found.
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Time for a change of plan, and there was the hive of activity that is the Gurdwara Sis Ganj Sahib, the Sikh temple in Old Delhi . Turbanned guides swept us along with pilgrims cueing to wash their hands and feet before filing upstairs to sit on carpets and pray in an airy, rose-scented marble worship hall above. Refreshed, we made our way to the mezzanine overlooking the ever-changing bustle below. There, seen just across the way on a small side street, was Ghantewala! We could see the sign, though it looked as if this 200-year-old-establishment was closed; a metal door was pulled down over the entrance.

Once back on the ground, we pushed our way over to the sweet shop storefront. In front of the shop, a chai wallah and some other vendors seemed permanently installed, as if the 200 year-old-shop had been closed for at least the last 50 years. The sign was worn, but right there it heralded that this was the home of the elusive tiranga sohan halwa. Perhaps it was only closed this morning? Had it gone out of business after such a long run? I made my way to a saried chai customer, and gestured toward the closed shop. “Ghantewala???” I shrugged.
She nodded, stone-faced, and turned toward the storefront. Her eyes locked with those of a young man. She nodded. He nodded. She waved us toward him and returned to her tea. We made our way through the crowd to where the young man had been standing. He was quickly headed toward a worn, painted green door next to the closed metal gate of the storefront. He pushed the door open and led us up a narrow staircase with deeply worn stone steps, into the darkness. Did Ghantewalah have a second floor office? Did they have stock there? Where the hell were we going?

At the top of the steps, we were in total darkness. Our young guide flipped a large circuit switch on the wall, and then a second, and the space flooded with fluorescent light. There were two large posters on the wall: “Root Canal Project”, with garish pink illustrations of gums and yellowed teeth, and a blinding set of “Dentures”. There, now no longer in darkness, a smiling man in wire-rimmed glasses and a crisp linen kurta sat at the counter, awaiting patients. Apparently, he was waiting for me.

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01
Jul
14

Hand-made surroundings

A coconut shell bowl, a peacock feather fan, and a white cotton sari. Those are the only possessions of Mataji, a 38-year-old Jain nun featured in the the first story of William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives: A Search of the Sacred in Modern India, a wonderful book I have been enjoying this week as I prepare to travel to India. Each section explores a variety of religious devotion through the story of an individual practitioner: a temple prostitute, a dancer who becomes a deity incarnate, and Mataji among them.

Jainism is a very ancient religion, described by Dalrymple as being similar to, but more demanding than Buddhism. While the Jains I have met are affluent merchants in Rajasthan, those who dedicate themselves to the ascetic path of ordination renounce family and possessions and take to the roads to wander for the rest of their lives. They are to avoid attachment to anyone or any one place. Their hairs are plucked one by one until their heads are bare, they eat only one meal a day which can be offered, but not begged, and the monks travel completely naked.

Mataji, as a woman, is permitted to wear a white cotton sari, no doubt hand-spun and woven khadi cloth. She also carries a bowl for water, which is strained to avoid swallowing small living things, and a fan to clear the path of tiny unsuspecting creatures that might be crushed by her footfall.

If you are to go through life with one set of clothing and two tools, how much richer can that life be if those objects are made of natural materials, marked by the hands that crafted them. Now, there is my bias and sense of attachment showing, but I was struck by the beauty of this aspect of Mataji’s life in a world where the poorest people may now only own a few plastic bowls and an acrylic blanket, a world in which increasingly, machine-made items are replacing hand-made, and the skills and traditions of handcraft are being lost.

In my early 20’s, when I was a devotee of poet and novelist Robert Graves and carried a machine-printed but dog-earred copy of The White Goddess from apartment to apartment, I read somewhere that Graves’ study in Majorca was filled only with hand-made objects, but for a few machine-printed books and the electric light fixtures.

Thinking about Mataji’s life set me to the very un-handmade task of googling for a reference to confirm this memory, which I found in a 1969 interview for The Paris Review. As he spoke with Peter Buckman and William Fifield, Graves hand-rolled his own cigarettes. “Yes: one secret of being able to think is to have as little as possible around you that is not made by hand.”  

-Ann