Attack of the Hag

Courtyard of the Jamil Masjid in Dehli
Jamil Masjid – The Red Mosque

The next morning, our first full day in New Delhi, the Amigos shared a relaxed breakfast in the Cafeteria and, while Ravi and I nursed our hangovers, Mick lectured us chapter and verse on the history of the sub-continent.

Other than an attack of his regular early morning wind, which typically manifests itself as a series of extremely loud belches, intermittently punctuated by high pitched farts, he seemed fully recovered. We call them bewildered farts because you never know which end they will come out of next.

These attacks wouldn’t be so annoying if he didn’t insist on raising his left knee, pumping the air with his right fist and declaring “More Tea Vicar,” every time he lets one go.

Mick told us that he had cured his Delhi Belly by taking a triple dose of Imodium, but was not amused when I asked him if he realised that the tablets were not meant to be taken as suppositories and that he could have saved money by using a cork.

You can always tell when Ravi has a hangover because he reverts to his unshaven homeless look, which is to say; stubbled chin, surprisingly dark, since he claims that he doesn’t dye his hair, rumpled black and white horizontally striped T-Shirt, crumpled blue denim jeans and scruffy trainers. All topped off with a baseball cap and fashionable Ray-ban shades.

You can always tell when I am hungover on holiday, because it is morning, and I am.., well, did I mention I am on holiday?

As I picked at my omelette, and Ravi went up for seconds, with a side helping of fries and lashings of Heinz Tomato Ketchup, Mick continued his diatribe on the history of India in general, and the Mughal period in particular.

According to Mick, the period was a Muslim empire initially based in the north of the Indian subcontinent, including Afghanistan, but later extending to the south as well. To be honest, I can’t remember precisely what Mick said, as I was more focused on keeping my breakfast down, so the following is a summary based on subsequent research. Thank you, Wikipedia and other sources. If I knew the names of the various contributors, I would acknowledge them!

The beginning of the Mughal empire is conventionally dated to the sixteenth century, and to the founder Babur’s victory over Ibrahim Lodi, the last ruler of the Delhi Sultanate. The Mughals were Central Asian Mongols belonging to the Timurid dynasty, starting out from what is now Iraq and who claimed direct descent from Genghis Khan.

I lost interest at this point, especially when Mick dismissed my own amusing anecdote that ninety per cent of Mongolians in the world today claim direct descent (backed up by modern DNA research) from Genghis Khan, but that isn’t surprising when you take into account that Genghis and his many offspring were the world champion procreators of their day, perhaps of all time.

This factoid is less surprising when you consider that the conquered ladies of the day were unlikely to have a headache when an extremely violent warrior came knocking on their tent flap with his sword and whatever else in his hand. Never mind Prima Nocte, those guys had Prima Whenever. If you want to know more about the Mughals, then you can google them for yourself, and indeed I recommend that you do so. Fascinating, and a real insight into the history of India and the Middle East, as well as that of the spread of Islam.

After breakfast, Aziz met us in the lobby, and we embarked on our guided tour of Delhi, driven by the ever-willing Ravi Driver Walla. As we boarded the Jeep, we were already sweating in the intense heat and humidity.

After leaving the hotel, we turned right on to the broad, uncrowded Sardar Patel Marg, which runs much of the way through the Government and Diplomatic area of Chanakyapuri, with its beautiful parks, embassies, and government buildings.

The road itself is a tree-lined dual carriageway, with a central reservation filled with low planters brimming over with brightly coloured flowers and bushes. To the left is the landscaped expanse of Nehru Park, named after India’s first Prime Minister after independence, Jawaharial Nehru.

Lenin's Statue in Nehru Park
Lenin Statue in Nehru Park

Nehru was, of course, the father of Indira Gandhi, who by the way, was not a relation of Mahatma Gandhi. Her eldest son, Rajiv, succeeded her as Prime Minister, and her second son, Sanjay, would also have done so if he had not died in a plane crash. Instead, Rajiv’s widow, Sonia, who wasn’t even Indian, but Italian by birth, took control of the ruling Congress party.

In fact, the Nehru / Gandhi family have been in power of one type or another for most of the last 60 years. They are worse than the Kennedys, Clintons, Bushes and Trumps combined when it comes to nepotism. Don’t believe a word of what they say about India being the largest democracy in the world. It’s just another corrupt political dynasty.

I found it strange that the centrepiece of Nehru Park is a large statue of Lenin, which puzzled me until I discovered that the whole area was established in the 1950s at a time when India and the then Soviet Union were besties.

Even though Ravi and I were enjoying the air conditioning of the Jeep, Mick insisted on opening the window to get some “Fresh Air,” as he put it. He simply does not understand how air-conditioning works, preferring instead to hang his head outside in the breeze, tongue lolling and ears flapping in the wind. If Ravi is a Labrador puppy, Mick is an ageing, grumpy Afghan Hound. Woof!

Eventually the ring road circles around the edge of Connaught Place before entering the original New Delhi, built by the British and laid out by the architects Edwin Luytchens and Sir William Baker in the 1920s and the 1930s at the end of the British Raj. It is full of monumental and highly impressive buildings, such as the Parliament and the Supreme Court.

As we drove, Aziz gave a running commentary on what we were seeing and the history of the area. Although this an interesting and informative talk, it would have been better if every other sentence hadn’t been interspersed with a “Yep, yep, yep,” or “I knew that,” from Mick.

India Gate

India Gate
India Gate, New Delhi, India

Our first stop was the famous India Gate located in Freedom Park. Although world-renowned, the tall red brick archway was only built in the 1930s and was not inaugurated until 1941. It was commissioned by the Imperial War Graves Commission to stand as a memorial to, as it says on the plaque “The 82,000 soldiers of the undivided Indian Army who died in the period 1914–21 in the First World War in France, Flanders, Mesopotamia, Persia, East Africa, Gallipoli and later elsewhere in the Near and the Far East in the Third Anglo-Afghan War.” Mick of course already knew that but it was news to Ravi and me.

What struck me, even back in 2001, is that it was now 100 years on, and wars are still being fought in Iraq, Iran, East Africa, Afghanistan and all across the Middle East. Maybe never-ending conflict is in the nature and religious culture of the people who live in those countries?

Mick  “Why do they call it the India Gate?”
Dave     “Well, if you look up, you will see that there is a bloody great engraving  on the top with the single word, “India”, and it is in the shape of a Gate.”

Gandhi’s Memorial

After India Gate, it was all back into Ravi Driver Walla’s charabanc, and across town to see Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial close to the banks of the Yamuna River. This would have only taken ten minutes or so if we hadn’t had to go through an underpass to get into Old Delhi. While much of new New Delhi benefits from wide roads designed for modern traffic, Old Delhi still functions on a chaotic system of narrow roads, paths and alleyways, designed for a pre-industrialised world.

Traffic in Old Dehli
Dehli Traffic

This was most noticeable at the underpass, which lay along our route and where diesel belching trucks, cars, motorbikes, bicycles piled high with sacks of grain, people on foot with packs on their backs or heads and stray cows and mangy dogs, all join up to filter through a narrow arch. Consequently, it took us over an hour and a half to get through to the other side of the Raj Ghat. The only positive was that the smell of diesel and animal dung was so overwhelming, it forced Mick to wind the window up.

Gandi was a Jaine, and almost certainly the most famous Indian of all time, at least in the West. Jainism is an ancient Indian religion belong to the Sramana tradition along with Buddhism. It prescribes non-violence towards all living beings. Paraspaparohraho (“The function of souls is to help one another”) is the motto of Jainism.

The three main principles of Jainism are; non-violence, non-absolutism, and non-possessiveness. Followers of Jainism take five main vows: non-violence, not lying, not stealing, chastity, and non-possessiveness. Mick would have made a good Jaine, apart from the chastity which I suspect would not be his first choice.

As a man of science and a self-confessed agnostic, I consider all religions to be mumbo jumbo, based on ignorance and misplaced faith, but if we must have fundamentalists in the world today let them be Jaines rather than Muslims, Jews, Communists or Christians. Buddhists and even Hindus are OK in my book. Mick is more direct. In his superior opinion “All religion is Bollocks!”

Gandhi’s memorial is a large, waist-high rectangular platform of black marble which stands on the place where he was cremated on 31st January 1948, the day after his assassination. The memorial is approached from the road via a path through neatly manicured lawns. As you get closer, you are overwhelmed by a suffocating miasma of incense and saffron.

At one end of the platform an eternal flame burns, and on the day we visited, it was covered in vibrant orange garlands. Despite the crowds, you cannot help but be affected by the sense of serenity and spirituality. Even I was quiet for once.

The Red Mosque

Next on our tour was the Red Mosque, located in the Nataji Subhash Marg district of Old Delhi, just to the west of the Red Fort.

Everyone has heard of the Red Fort in Delhi, but not too many Westerners know about the Red Mosque, which was built around the same time in the mid 17th century on the orders of the Emperor Shah Jahan of Taj Mahal fame. I call it the Red Mosque as that was how Aziz introduced it to us but, its real name is The Jama Masjid, and it is said, by locals, at any rate, to be the largest Mosque in India.

Steps up to the Red Mosque
Steps up to the Red Mosque

The building stands on a high mound in the middle of Old Delhi and is constructed mainly of red sandstone, which I guess is a clue as to why the locals call it the Red Mosque. The Mosque was completed in 1656 AD or 1066 AH if you prefer the Islamic calendar. It has three huge gates, four towers and two tall minarets faced in white marble. The courtyard alone has space for more than 25,000 worshippers, with room for more inside. There are three huge white marble domes behind the façade, which is flanked by the two minarets. The prayer hall is under cover between the facade and the domes. If it were in the USA, it would make a great shopping arcade. They would probably name it “Trump Plaza,” but what are you gonna do?

As we arrived at the summit of the mound, still panting from the hot climb up the steep steps to the northern entrance, the Muezzin, or more likely a recorded message started booming out the call to Salt-al-zuhr, midday prayers, from the West facing Minaret.

If that sounds wrong to you then just remember that Mecca is to the North West of Delhi. I am reliably informed that the words are very poetic, spiritual and moving, but as they were in Arabic it sounded to me that what he was chanting was, “Get off the f**ing grass, Get off the f**ing grass.”

[video_lightbox_youtube video_id=”fe8qRj12OhY&rel-false” width=”640″ height=”480″ autoplay=true alt=”The Islamic Call to Prayer” anchor=”If you are interested in the sound and words of the prayer you can click here to see a Video”]

Aziz instructed us to remove our footwear and leave it outside, as the wearing of footwear is regarded as being disrespectful to the Mosque. We dutifully took off our sandals, shoes and scruffy trainers, but there was nothing we could do about Mick’s baggy khaki shorts, so we took the gamble that his skinny calves and knobbly knees would not incite too much sexual arousal and offend the faithful, and set off across the hot stones of the courtyard.

This wasn’t a problem for Mick, who of course was still wearing the knee-high black socks that he always wears with sandals. With his baggy shorts and a rumpled white T-Shirt, all he was missing was a knotted white handkerchief on his head, but I am not his woman, so why should I care?

It was a bit of a problem for the barefooted Ravi and I though, so the two of us progressed in a series of ungainly staccato steps, hopping from one foot to the other across the hot tiles until we found a shaded alcove at the back of the prayer hall, from which to observe the proceedings.

Ravi was told off by an official for not removing his baseball cap. Fortunately, Mick had cleared the wind from his stomach over breakfast, so we got away with that. Given the extreme heat I might have welcomed the breeze, but on second thoughts, probably not.

Mick instructed us on the life of Muhammed in an untypical, respectful whisper, whilst the faithful bowed and prostrated themselves in prayer. To be honest, it was kind of moving and powerful, but I didn’t feel the slightest urge to join in.

The Hag

After prayers, Aziz called Ravi Driver Walla on his mobile and told him to meet us at the bottom of the steps on the far side of the Mosque, and we went off to retrieve our footwear.

Ravi and I quickly located ours, but Mick was convinced that some thieving bastard, as he vociferously surmised, had stolen his opened toe sandals, despite us telling him that not even the poorest, most desperate beggar would want to walk more than a couple of yards in his shoes, let alone a mile. After a ten-minute search, he found them exactly where he had left them. So much for racial and religious stereotyping.

As you walk down the steps on the Southern side of the Red Mosque, the beggars and purveyors of goods, who are banned by custom and, just possibly, the financial self-interest of the Imams who run it, from the confines of the Mosque itself, return ten-fold.

No doubt, to my mind anyway, they gather there to salvage something from the missed tourist fleecing opportunities which the pious principals of the Mosque normally reserve to themselves.

Strange isn’t it, that all religious orders throughout history have promoted the belief that God wants his followers to ensure that his representatives on earth live The Good Life. “Cast your offerings in the air and what God wants he will take,” they say. “What drops to the floor he obviously wants his priests to have.” “Bullshit,” I say.

An old hag.
Mick’s Goo-mah?

One ancient beggar, in particular, latched herself on to Mick. I swear to Vishnu that she looked exactly like Frank.L.Baum’s wrinkled skinned Wicked Witch of East from the Wizard of OZ, right down to the hooked nose, long black robes and a single front tooth which she no doubt called “Old Faithful”. I don’t recall that she had an eye patch or a steeple-crowned hat, but she did have a jet-black head shawl which looked decidedly pointy to me.

She was also clutching an obviously unhappy, and probably borrowed or stolen, screaming baby, that she kept thrusting in Mick’s face, and which led to me asking him if he was sure he hadn’t been in India before.

“What do you mean by that,” he asked?

“Well, I don’t understand what she is saying,” I replied. “But from her gestures and body language, it looks to me as though she is suggesting that you are the father. You have to admit, it does look an awful lot like you.”

“Piss off you fat git!” Mick riposted, as ever the master of the witty, quick reply.

She was still banging the child’s head against Mick’s window in the 4 x 4 as we drove away. No doubt, hoping in vain, for an acknowledgement of culpability followed by a donation of rupees from the alleged father. Needless to say, she didn’t get either, and Mick seemed less than impressed when I suggested that she was probably his best chance of getting laid this holiday. That was his second missed opportunity. Strike two!

It was pretty scary for a while as she persued our Jeep for several blocks through the slowly moving traffic, all the while screaming unintelligible threats and waving her crying infant above her head. It reminded me of that scene from Terminator 2 – Judgement Day, where the T1000 chases after the heroes. Thank God she didn’t have her broomstick with her or we would have been doomed.

By now it was mid-afternoon, and of course both Mick and Ravi were hungry, so Aziz took us to a restaurant in the world-famous Connaught Place. Mick had a large plate of rice and high fibre raw vegetables to top up his gas bag, while Ravi, of course, had a large plate of fries and half a bottle of Ketchup. I had a couple beers and half a packet of cigarettes before we returned to the Taj Palace.

Happy Harry

As we drew up to the impressive entrance, the traditionally costumed Sikh doorman stepped forward to open my door and, as he did so, I was thrown for a couple of seconds as he declared, “Why, Mr Dave Sir. Welcome back! I am so pleased to see you again.” Turned out he was Happy Harry whom I had met the year before on a family holiday in Hong Kong.

Happy Harry was a professional doorman and part-time bodyguard who worked for the international Hotel chain. Six foot eight from the tips of his curly shoes to the top of his turban, with an impressive moustache and a military bearing. His favourite saying was “Can be done Sahib” to whatever you asked of him. He even once managed to get me a packet of Silk Cut and a Bloody Mary at three O’clock in the morning. Now that’s what I call service!

Two of the Amigos went for another snack and a cold shake in the café, while I had a quick beer in the bar. Afterwards, Mick and I retired to our rooms for a late siesta, while Ravi went off to find a backstreet moneychanger to exchange our stack of English currency for the local kind. According to him, you get a much rate that way.

This turned out to be a big mistake, the details of which will be covered in a later chapter. Suffice it, for now, to say that we Ravi off with a moderately sized envelope of cash, and he came back with a suitcase.

Meet the younger relatives.

That evening, Ravi’s Niece and Nephew in-law, Pawan and Apita joined us for a drink in the Orient Express Bar, and they turned out to be two of the most charming young people that I have ever met.

Back then, Pawan was already at university, and Apita was in her final year of college before going on to Uni herself. Like most young Indians of their class or should that be caste, they were extremely well educated and brought up. A delight in every way when compared to the typical western teenager of the time.

I don’t remember them drinking at all, but the Amigos made up for it, and the conversation flowed as smoothly as the alcohol. We talked about Indian history, a speciality for Mick, the sorry state of the world and the potential repercussions of 9/11.

We also spoke about their ambitions, like all young educated Indians they hoped to emigrate to the UK, Western art and culture, definitely not one of Mick’s specialist subjects, and eventually moved on to all things religious, spiritual and occult. This allowed me the opportunity to display my party trick of guessing the birth signs of strangers, and as usual, I was correct. Honestly, I don’t know how I do it, but it always seems to work. There again, I am, almost, the seventh son of a seventh son.

The Night Club

The Taj Blue Bar

Pawan and Apita departed in a taxi at about 10:30 pm which, in those days, was still early for us Amigos, so we decided to go across the road to the TPHD Disco, which was a definite eye-opener. All we were after was a quiet beer or two. But, inside the room was heaving with the rich, young and beautiful of Delhi. I guess it was their equivalent of an upmarket London nightclub in the 1970s. We three middle-aged crocs certainly didn’t fit in, but they kindly admitted us anyway.

While the barman popped the caps on our Kingfisher premium beers, we watched open-mouthed the antics of the beautiful young things as they gyrated around the dance floor. Were we ever that young? Surely not!

We were particularly taken by the loud music, which was a throbbing fusion of Bhangra and Western Disco. When I say we, I mean Ravi and myself. Mick doesn’t like any music unless it is by Queen, Rod Stewart or the Cliff Richard of his youth. In extremis, he will make an exception for Abba and the Carpenters, but only provided he can whistle the tune. Despite this, he has a surprisingly good singing voice, which he will demonstrate at the drop of a hat in the local Karaoke bar if he has had enough cider down his throat.

Ravi can’t sing, but he does love dancing. Boy does he love dancing, especially when drunk, and particularly to Bhangra. He should have been in the chorus line of Bollywood movies. At the first beat, his feet start tapping, and his shoulders start bopping. Two or three Rum and Cokes later and his hips are swaying, his arms and hands gesticulating in time to the music.

A few more drinks and he is up on the dance floor, hopping from foot to foot like a demented chicken on a hot plate, while his hands are simultaneously changing imaginary light bulbs above his head.

“Dinka Dinka dink, Hoppa Hoppa hop, Boppa Boppa bop. Change the lightbulbs, Feed the birds, Shovel the sh**.”  That’s the way to do it!

This night was no different. Have you ever seen the movie, “Weekend at Bernie’s 2”, where Bernie’s corpse becomes voodoo animated at the sound of music? Well, tonight was just like that, as Ravi followed the Pied Piper of his own personal Bhangra spirit around the floor, oblivious to all and everything around.

Eventually, of course, his desire for another drink overcomes his need to groove, and he is forced to return to the bar. When we reached that point, Mick grumpily insisted we call it a night and go back to the hotel. Shame!

Back in the Orient Express, we had a few more drinks before eventually giving in to age and fatigue and staggering off to our rooms.

It had been a good day, but there was so much more to come.

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