Travels in India, 2001: (2) Delhi, part two.

My second day in Delhi, in which I saw 15.7% of the ancient cities of Delhi and lost my hat.

When Timur the Lame (Tamburlaine) conquered Delhi in 1398, he slaughtered 50,000 prisoners – it took him an hour – and he was only passing through. Those that stayed longer made a more thorough job of things, which is why there are seven former cities in Delhi. I thought I would spend the day looking round them and for this I needed a guide. The hotel lined me up with a chubby, smiling, utterly charming gentleman called Satya Gupta, who spent the first half an hour finding out all about my wife, children, Scotland, golf, and just about everything else. By the time he had finished, he knew more about me than I did.

One of the things I discovered about Satya was that he was not a great believer in the virtues of stopping. Once he had locked onto a target, that was it. No diversions tolerated. We decided to make Tughluqabad, the third city of Delhi and the furthest away, our first port of call. We headed south. After about five minutes, I happened to notice an ancient fort about 200 yards to our left, which I thought might be worth a look. Satya didn’t. A brief discussion ensued. Satya pointed out how difficult it would be to stop. There would be nowhere to park. We wouldn’t be allowed in. It would take too much time. And then, before the ‘but’ that was forming on my lips could see the light of day, he cut me short with the sort of look mothers give their children when they are being difficult. It was the ultimate raised eyebrow, the penetrating stare over the half-moon glasses, the one that says, ‘I said no, darling, and no means no.’ That always did for me as a child. I could never find the right reply. Once you step down the road of, ‘I know no means no – What do you think I am, some kind of half-wit?’, you’re sunk. What comes back is, ‘Good. If you know what ‘no’ means, stop doing it.’ Like I said. Done like dinner. So we drove on to Tughluqabad, and I sat in the back, muttering.

When we arrived, we stopped by the side of the road. Satya pointed at some old City-like ruins on the far side of an unpromising area of scrubland, and then scrambled down a sparse embankment to relieve himself. A few goats were grazing amongst the battered walls, boys were playing an impromptu game of cricket and, apart from that, not a great deal else was to be seen. If this was as close as I could get (as Satya said – and which I seriously doubted), the Tughluqs deserved better. Few dynasties have produced a more charismatic figure than the demented and patricidal genius, Mohammed Tughluq (1325-51), a Sultan who, able and generous as he may have been, spilt blood with an abandon rarely seen even in the annals of India’s gory and ensanguined history.

Mohammed Tughluq was completely barking, no two ways about it. If you incurred his displeasure, you were lucky if you were merely invited to join the happy band queuing at the city gates for their turn to be executed. Otherwise you were likely to have your skin stripped from your body, stuffed with straw and sent on tour round the Provinces. Alternatively you could end up being casseroled (with rice) and served to your own children. Charming. Leftovers were thrown to the elephants.’ Then there was the famous occasion when he took the maniacal decision to force all the citizens of Delhi to abandon their homes and march 1400 kilometres south to Daulatabad (only to march them back again a few years later). By way of persuading the reluctant, he fired a cripple from a medieval catapult, and ordered a blind man who hadn’t shown much enthusiasm for the move to be dragged there. It took him 40 days and, unfortunately for him, ‘he fell to pieces on the road’. The only thing that reached its destination was his leg. After that, the citizens of Delhi came to appreciate that relocating to Daulatabad had a great number of points in its favour which they had overlooked when the proposal had first been put.

None of this was of any interest to Satya. Well, we didn’t actually discuss it, but, being sensitive to the little nuances of life, I could detect from the way that he was holding the back door of the car open and looking at his watch that idle chit-chat would not be allowed to compromise his schedule. We hurried back. The first and, as it turned out, his only scheduled stop was Lal Kot, the site of the first city of Delhi. The thing about Lal Kot – the awful thing – was that, once it was captured by Afghan marauders in 1192, the Hindus of Delhi were never again governed by people of their own religion. Not until Independence in 1947. When the good citizens finally thought they’d seen the back of a succession of alien Muslim dynasties, along came the even more alien British.

Satya wanted me to see the Qutb Minar or, as we would say, Minar(et), built by those same victorious Afghans out of the ruins of 27 demolished Hindu temples. Demolishing temples was how they liked to say hello. The Qutb was a splendid sight. Wide enough for an elephant to walk up and tall enough to serve as a lightning conductor. It was, however, closed to climbers. The authorities didn’t wish to see a repeat of that moment in 1831 when a man jumped from the top, stayed perfectly vertical for half his descent, and then offered his audience a repertoire of tightly tucked somersaults, until striking the ground like a shot from a gun. You could see their point.

Much more fascinating, in its own way, was the small iron pillar that stood nearby. This was 5th century and it hadn’t rusted, which singular fact prompted Von Daniken (Chariots of the Gods) to suggest it had been left behind by visiting spacemen. It’s not every day you come across something that might be extra-terrestrial, so I gave it my undivided attention. I walked round the thing a few times, and made a brave attempt to recall some relevant science – which, since I don’t know any science, was an endeavour always doomed to failure. I was thus engaged in dredging something from the depths, when I found myself approached by an extremely attractive Indian lady, with an enticing smile, who asked if I would be photographed with her family. I thought initially she wanted me to take the photo, but no, she wanted me in it. This was a world first. I agreed of course. They stuck me next to her brother, Prakash, who didn’t look at all pleased by the turn of events. His face was a picture. Every irate crease was spewing forth expletives, whose general drift might be summarised as ‘what the *!*! has my sister done now, inviting this plonker who we’ve never seen before in our lives, and if I have anything to do with it will never see again, to step into our family album.’ The photograph was duly taken and Shanti, for that was the lady’s name, promised to send me a copy. She did. I cherish it still for the sight of Prakash doing his best to smile.

Satya had, by this time, become extremely agitated and was fluttering around in the background, anxious to transport me to what turned out to be the arms of a carpet salesman, from whom Satya would have pocketed a decent rake-off had I succumbed (which I didn’t). Thence to the main business of the day, lunch. As far as Satya was concerned, this was nub of the proceedings. Before you could say ‘chicken vindaloo’, I found myself sitting down in a smart restaurant, ordering myself a coke, and watching my guide tuck into a gargantuan mound of curry that I knew I would end up paying for. Curiously enough, I didn’t mind. I couldn’t help liking the fellow. We chatted amiably, mainly about where Scotland actually was and, in the way these things do, the conversation drifted to my elegant St Andrews golf cap. He wanted it. So did I. It was an old friend. We had travelled many miles together in victory and defeat. Besides which, it kept out the sun. I resisted his advances for as long as I could, which was about as long as a virgin would hold out against the advances of Shah Jehan. Satya tried the cap on – just to see how it looked. How proud his wife would be, and how jealous his friends, were he ever to possess such magnificent headgear as this! Of course I gave it to him, with as much grace as I could muster, and he sat through lunch with it on, squeezing the peak occasionally with both hands, as if firming up a pat of butter. After lunch, he shook my hand warmly, asked me to give his sweet regards to my wife, and, with a cheery wave and a broad infectious grin, disappeared into the afternoon sun. So ended my guided tour of the seven cities of Delhi.

I hung around for a while outside the restaurant, read the Lonely Planet Guide and regretted that my dear old cap was now departed. Still, what was done was done. No point in brooding. I decided to see another of Delhi’s magnificent sights, Humayun’s tomb. A taxi deposited me outside the main gate, and I managed about two paces forward before being overwhelmed by kids, swarms of them, like flies around a freshly-laid dropping. They offered to sell me just about everything (postcards, elephants, a wooden snake), everything except the one thing I really wanted. It didn’t even have to be that slightly faded blue with the tastefully muted St Andrews label.

I pushed on, bought my ticket, and walked through. Blow me if Satya, flaunting his new headgear, wasn’t standing there with a couple of tourists. We both did a double take simultaneously and then, with a smile that stretched from one side of my old companion to the other, he introduced his new friends. It turned out they were from Kinross, in Fife, of all places. As we talked, I began to feel that, given we were neighbours more or less, I should warn them to keep any prized possessions hidden from Satya’s acquisitive glances. This wasn’t going to be easy with Satya standing there. I looked the husband straight in the eye and, like a hostage who has a kidnapper with a gun in his back and wants to tell the postman to fetch the police, inclined my head ever so slightly in Satya’s direction. Out of the corner of my mouth, I rasped the words ‘watch out.’ But there’s no helping some people. The man put a protective arm around his wife and shuffled backwards, as if suspecting rabies. It was probably too late anyway. The pair of them were smiling inanely, which suggested to me that they were in that euphoric, isn’t the world wonderful, state that immediately follows an act of selfless generosity. Remorse would come later. Besides which, it wasn’t my business. Why try to interfere with the laws of nature? The tiger eats the buck. That’s how it is. I said my goodbyes, told Satya that the cap really suited him, and left him to feed.

… to be continued.

© Michael Tobert