Saturday, 26 September 2009

The tailor of Qutb Minar

Sometimes, here in this aggressive, rude, often violent and almost always misogynistic city of Delhi, you meet someone, or have an experience that makes it all worthwhile.

I met Kuku Arora in a fairly unremarkable way: I needed a dress made for a ball I'm going to tomorrow night; he is a tailor recommended by someone on the expat forum. I went to his studio in one of Delhi's 40-odd urban villages, not far from some of the city's important heritage sites (as opposed to the unimportant ones; Delhi is a city that literally has a Mughul ruin on every street corner). Kuku, a gently-spoken man with a permanent smile, told me of the London boutiques his workshop provides garments for, and the celebrities who've worn those garments (Uma Thurman amongst others).

Once my sartorial needs were fixed, we got chatting. "Are these your children?" I asked, pointing to a photo above his desk. "Well yes they are my two biological children, but I have more than a hundred others," he said, smiling and pointing at the wall. From the other side came the hubbub of a classroom, sounds that had until that point been merely white noise.

Turns out, Kuku has taken custodianship of around a hundred of the local slum children - he schools them, feeds them three meals each day, clothes them, and provides for them in every way - except they go home at night to sleep.

Kuku's mission began about six years ago when a young girl who appeared around the same age as his eldest son - then two years old - began hanging around the alleyway outside his office. She had no right hand, and was usually begging. Kuku began musing on the vast gulf of opportunity between his own son and this little girl, and started bringing her food in every day - sometimes a sandwich, sometimes a banana. Numbers swelled and soon Kuku found himself bringing half a dozen, a dozen sandwiches or bananas in each day for the local underprivileged children.

After much consideration, one day he approached the girl's parents, and asked if they would permit him to look after her as his own child: to provide food, education, medical care and the other childhood necessities they were unable to give her, however she would remain their daughter and go home to them each night. They said no. Kuku pressed on, offering to also help out their other daughter. Still, the parents said no. Only when he agreed to take on their son as well did they acquiesce.

Over the course of the conversation a group of children had gathered around. Take me too! And me! they said. So that's where the school began.

Since then, the children have become an integral part of Kuku's family. August 24 is when they all celebrate their birthdays (most don't' know their birthdate; that date is his son's birthday). They get cake, clowns, balloons, and presents. Monday was Eid, and all students - Muslim, Hindu, otherwise - celebrated accordingly. Next month is Diwali and again, a festivus is in store. There'll be sweets, firecrackers, sparklers and gifts: each child will receive a blanket, as winter is approaching.

The school, which occupies a large part of the floor next to Kuku's office, is staffed with teachers and the usual array of peons and office boys. These kids are bright: I sat with them for a bit yesterday when I went for a fitting and was treated to their English reading skills, got to see almost impeccable report cards, and shook lots of little hands proffered by beaming, healthy kids.

A handful of the brightest kids are actually enrolled at a program at one of the city's top schools, Delhi Public School, meaning each afternoon they receive instruction from that school's teachers and get to use its facilities.

What's most remarkable about this is that it is self-funded. When I asked Kuku whether he's considered setting up as an NGO, he waved it away. Too much trouble, it's better as it is. Do his biological children ever get jealous of the time he spends with the other kids? It's all they've ever known, he replied. In fact, his elder son does a bit of teaching at the school.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

The longest bus trip

Perhaps I was misguided in thinking I might get some sleep on the overnight bus between Delhi and Manali. The coach's optimistic schedule has it leaving Janpath at 6pm, a brief dinner stop at a roadside Haryana dhaba, then through the night up the hill to reach Manali by 6am.

Down with a cold, I tried to get out of my bus ticket, but failed, so I arrived at the designated coach stop in central Delhi. Here I found hundreds of passengers waiting to get on one of dozens of buses, in a busy street. It took me almost an hour to find my bus, which turned out to be in a completely different location to what I'd been told, but it didn't matter as it was well past seven by the time we left, after the sharp-featured Sikh driver had shot the breeze and smoked beedis with his mates. The bus, an ageing Volvo with dust-flecked curtains and broken pouches lurched into action for a minute or two, then inexplicably stopped again. There it stayed, on an empty road, just metres from our starting point, for a good ten minutes.

My plan had been to get at least five hours sleep which would leave me the entire day to explore the town of Manali. I had come armed with foam sleeping plugs to help me, and was pleased to find I had no one sitting next to me.

I dozed for a bit, then woke with a start. Looking out the window, it was dark and we were travelling down an isolated albeit manicured highway. Along came a building, rising out from the empty blackness. Next to it, a stand with a black digital banner, showing headlines of the day. It was the office of the local newspaper: Chandigarh was approaching.

At the next stop, a group of adult passengers got on, and an argument about seating held up the bus another 20 minutes. There was a lot of shouting by the men standing in the aisle as they jabbed their tickets, a lot of shrugging by the driver, and a lot of sighing by the women. In Hindi, so I didn't understand. Finally one of the men looked over at me. "Well what do you say, what is your choice, young lady?"

They'd apparently been arguing about who had to sit next to me.

Finally one of the wives acquiesced. She was clutching a toddler girl, who turned to stare. "Mama, auntie bolo?" she asked, but didn't wait for an answer, just settled into her mother's bosom and fell asleep.

It wasn't long until little Hasinca was spread-eagled across her mother and me - feet resting on my knee, hands hanging numbly in my airspace. Her mother too was spreading under the weight of her child and had firmly colonised the arm rest, while her head was dangling precariously near my shoulder.

I envied their easy sleep, something I was far from, not helped by the raucous Bollywood flick playing overhead. In fact, it was the latest of many films off the one pirated DVD that had been on rotation throughout the trip., complete with static. However every time the driver took a phone call he turned the volume off or hit pause, replacing the blaring strains of "Gold mine, gold mine, everyone wants a gold mine" with the shouted contents of his call. He would then flick to another film, meaning I will now never find out what happens in the end of Garam Masala, in which some hapless playboy spends the first two and a half hours juggling air hostess girlfriends called Preity and Schweety.

Added to this were the soft snores from Hasinca's mother in my ear. No matter how many times I gently nudged her towards the aisle, her head would inevitably drift back towards me.

Eventually the movie ended at about 2am. Finally some quiet, I thought. But it was not to be. Immediately the driver started up his tape of bhangra tunes, loudly, and this time without sweet blessed telephone breaks. So I resigned myself to a night of no sleep; it didn't help me that all around me were able to.

By this stage we were well into the mountains, travelling up a skinny steep road. Outside, lush grass and towering pine trees lined the road. On one side - thankfully not mine - the road dropped away steeply, with the occasional row of boulders or concrete slabs cautioning against driving too rashly. This route is popular at night, judging by the amount of traffic, and we found ourselves stuck in frequent jams, alongside trucks bearing likenesses of Krishna clutching his flute just above the windows, in the 'third eye' spot. After a good half hour wait at one were were back on the way, only to halt suddenly a short time later.

Driver went out to investigate, came back in and mumbled something in Punjabi, switched off the air conditioning, grabbed his bedroll and went back out. I tried to sleep but finally gave up and headed outside for some air. Ahead, a couple of trucks and a bus were also stopped; turned out the bus had broken down and behind us, a line of vehicles as far as I could see. No one had thought to try to direct traffic around the broken-down bus. Instead, our driver had rolled out his bedroll on the road in front of the bus and was having a nap. Most of the people from our bus were scattered out on the road, some lying prostrate on the concrete barriers lining the road, others crouched and smoking.

I was a bit dazed and woozy and didn't fancy trying to sleep on a boulder only to roll over and find myself rolling down the mountain, so went exploring. About 100 feet up the hill was a little temple. I took off my shoes and went inside. Despite its apparent modesty, it was fitted out with about half a dozen elaborate, almost life size statues of various gods. Most appeared to be Shiva or Vishnu and various incarnations, clutching their wives on one side and tridents on the other. I'm Hindu but it's been a while since I was last in a temple - my wedding wasn't even in one - so I wasn't really sure what to do.

Out of nowhere appeared a sadhu, with dreadlocks and wearing shrunken and stained shorts and a t-shirt. Muttering and swinging his dreads, he bounced from one statue to the next, placing what looked like a beedi on the fork of each trident.

Then the bells started. Unnoticed by me was a network of about twenty bells of varying sizes and shapes suspended from the roof. In those eerie minutes before dawn, the sandhu was conducting his daily puja.

I got out of the way, stepped outside and joined the crowd gathering there. The sadhu's bell ringing and chanting was a long crescendo, gradually getting louder and more frenzied. Some in the crowd bent their head so their forehead met their namasted fingertips; some touching their eye, nose, earlobe and cheek in rapid succession, others just gawking at the spectacle, with the sky still dark but daylight about to burst through.

The sadhu must have done something right for it wasn't long before driver came crashing through, announcing we were to be on our way.

Our bus trundled along for a while, stopping a few hours later for breakfast. I abstained, not wanting to be forced to go to a roadside toilet. Hasinca and her mother went back to their original seats and one of their male companions took the seat next to me, nervously sitting on his hands and joking with his friends. I managed to get a couple of hours of sleep, but was thrown awake with a neck-jarring jolt and screams. I turned to see, over the aisle, little Hasinca and her parents covered in pebbly glass, along with the couple behind them. I thought a boulder had rolled down the side of the mountain and screamed, but it turned out we'd been hit by a truck coming too fast around a bend. Wordlessly, most of the men on the bus got up, filed out, and helped with the negotiations. Other passengers used towels to break the remaining glass from the window pane.

Another hour later we were back on our way.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Travel update: Himachal Pradesh #2

The drive from Dharamsala to Manali, about eight hours, is staggeringly beautiful, so beautiful I forgot to be scared of the steep drop on the side of the road. Although at one point we were stopped by men in land-diggers who sensed that a rockslide was about to begin. They were right, and we watched as rocks the size of skulls started pouring down the side of the steep hill.

Parts of the drive is along the riverbed, which is lush and this flourescent green, straight out of In the Night Garden or some similarly disturbing Japanese cartoon.

At one point we stopped at a grubby little roadside dhaba so the driver could have a nap (??) and I left my fellow travellers - two Israeli hippies, one Polish Buddhist - and wandered out the back onto their balcony, and was rewarded with this view:

Imagine it with the whooshing, gushing sounds of a swiftly-moving river to complete the imagery.

Manali is an odd place: it's the destination of choice for many honeymooning Indian couples, ageing hippies who enjoy the easy access to the finest of Himalayan charas, as well as an array of local and foreign mountain hikers. So walking down the main street, you are greeted with the sight of spaced-out Israeli hippies on their obligatory post-military-service drop-out-of-life-in-India, Indian brides covered in mehendi, wearing fancy red-and-gold salwar kameezes, and Himachali locals. The locals, particularly the older generation, have a unique gypsy-style dress: baggy pants, a plaid - usually fuschia - blanket-style tunic, a floral headscarf and gold hoops snaking up their ears.

I found a place to stay out of the LP: an old British Raj-era homestead converted into shabby guest rooms, but oh what a view:

Here, I met a young Danish backpacker travelling on his own for six weeks through the Himalayas, attracted to the mountains in that they're the opposite of Denmark, which is as flat as a chapati. I opted to do my own thing during the daytime but for the three nights I was there we would hang out in the evening, sitting on the balcony watching the flickering lights across the valley, drinking rhododendron wine, a regional speciality, and chatting. In other circumstances that might have been a prelude to that special kind of bedroom mountain hike, but he was waaay younger than my married self so I was thoroughly comfortable there would be no awkwardness. We discussed all manner of things: travel, siblings, art, etiquette. He'd recently been on a philosophy summer school so told me about the learnings and teachings of the great Danish philosopher Kierkegaard.

The last night, however, I came up the stairs and found my young Dane looking rather pleased with himself, joined by two Euro chicky babes. The three were drinking on our shared balcony so I joined them and offered up the remnants of my bottle of special Himachali fruit wine (not special as in a Manali Cream way, special in that it's hard to find out of the region). I could see the Dane getting twitchy, all like "am I going to get it on tonight? Which one? Could I be truly lucky and get both?" But try as he might, he could not manage to steer the conversation the way he wanted, given he had three females discussing Gossip Girl for company. (Some things manage to transcend all cultural and linguistic boundaries.)

After some time my phone rang so I withdrew into my room to have my goodnight chat to my husband. The other three were still drinking and laughing outside and I was itching to rejoin them - but wifely duties overrode so I focused on J. "I miss yooou... no I haven't been speaking to any boys etc".

Outside, I heard the conversation lull. Then the Dane, an unmistakeable twang of hopefulness in his voice: "You know, Kierkegaard had some very interesting theories regarding sex".

I took that as my cue to retire.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Travel update: Himachal Pradesh

I just love being able to say I've spent three weeks in the past month on the road. It's what I dreamed about two years ago when I was stuck behind a desk in the middle of the night in Melbourne writing stupid stories about, oooh I don't know, the importance of soy in one's diet, just because there was somewhat of an Asian angle to it. Because of course, Asian soy eaters didn't know that already.

So. I have spent three of the last four weeks on the road. Working backwards: Dubai, London, Dharamsala and Manali. The latter two are in Himachal Pradesh, just north of Delhi. The other two destinations are in somewhat of a northwesterly direction from Delhi.

Dharamsala, or more accurately the satellite town of McLeodGanj, is home to the Dalai Lama and many, many Tibetan refugees. I was only there for a night, but liked it enormously. (So clean! No open gutters! Great coffee at the cafe/photo gallery!) Apart from having a rather welcome tourist infrastructure, I had many enjoyable conversations with lovely warm people. I also had my fortune read by a Tibetan fortune teller, based on my birthdate. I am to "be careful" in the mountains, but will have a long and happy life with my "karmic" husband.

Another highlight was discovering a serene little stretch of road, just beyond the main temple:

I walked up and down this on my own a few times. Most of the time I was on my own, and nary a sound to be heard, just the fluttering of prayer flags in the wind, bells chiming and birds singing. At the end was a little cottage with H.H.D.L. carved into the gatepost; but I doubt it was home to the big man of Dharamsala: there was a child's bicycle in the backyard and someone inside was watching Hindi soaps on telly.

More tomorrow.