Friday, February 29, 2008

dirty ol' delhi

Keep your mouth shut,
guard the senses,
and life is ever full.
Open your mouth,
always be busy,
and life is beyond hope.
Tao te Ching, 52

I said to John (Wong) and Dominic (Ong) in the car yesterday, I was thinking that I should just keep a room in Singapore since I seem to come through here so often. John said to me, “But you do have a room here!”

I’m back with the friars at St Mary of the Angels in Singapore, here for a concert tonight, and then off on Monday for a whirlwind tour up the Malaysian peninsula doing concerts and then a retreat for the WCCM in Penang on the weekend.

So, Delhi. What I liked about Rajpur was that the locals neither seemed to interested nor surprised to see us. They were neither chasing down our business nor jacking up their prices to accommodate for Western money. On the other hand, it seems like everyone in Delhi is on the hustle. I had booked a room through a travel agent in Dehradun––Pinky’s––not really knowing what prices got you, but still had thought on the train that I would try the YWCA again first since I knew it and the area. A driver accosted me at the train station, and I told him I didn’t want a taxi, I wanted a rickshaw and he said, “Come!” I was trying to act like I knew what I was doing and said I just needed to go to the YWCA on Ashok Place, which I thought was just around the corner. He quoted me a price for it and I said it was too much. Well, so much for knowing what I was doing––I was not at the train station that I thought I was at and the YWCA was a clear 12 km across town from where we were. So I agreed to his price and we got to his vehicle, which was not an auto-rickshaw at all but a taxi. I noted that, and he said, “Yes, but it is a small taxi!” By then I was already tired of arguing, so off we went. He tried to tell me that the YWCA was not going to have any rooms, but he knew a hotel and had a pamphlet for it, his friends owned it, AC plus Internet, very clean, very safe. He was asking me lots of questions, did I have a reservation, how much was I paying, what was my budget. I’m just not very good at that and always feel like I have to answer all questions and answer them honestly too, but I finally said, please just take me to the Y and we’ll see from there. I didn’t want to tell him that I had a paid reservation at another place and that I was thinking of forsaking it (about $10). He was right; the Y had no rooms and so we were off to another part of town.

I was a little distressed when I saw the neighborhood and the hotel itself––Hotel Swagat Palace––where I had my reservation, even from the outside. He led me in, and I paid him off and got my room. The word “hellhole” kept coming to mind. It wasn’t the dirtiest place I had ever seen, but it was pretty primitive. There was no hot water; there was no faucet in the sink, no towel, no soap, and only a padlock on the very flimsy door. (That was particularly annoying since I had forsaken my morning hot bath at Sri Ram looking forward to a hot shower here in Delhi. Oh well.)

I hid my computer, locked up, strapped my passport and money around my neck, and headed out. I found the metro easy enough, and took it up to Connaught Place, the area that I did know pretty well. I walked around until I got my bearings, the block where I hung out last year, near the Sikh temple and the restaurant where Pranjal worked that I ate in every day. Again, I shouldn’t be surprised by encounters like this, but just as I came up from the underground tunnel, someone from behind me said, “Excuse me sir, what are you looking for?” I turned around and amazingly it was a young guy named Raj whom I had met last year. He was one of a dozen or so guys that had approached me on the street last year trying to lure me into going to visit the Indian Bazaar, where he would receive R 100 for having brought a customer. I had told him that I would pay him R 100 if he would walk around with me instead, so that I wouldn’t be accosted by other hustlers, which he did for about an hour, talking and still trying to lure me into the bazaar and/or get more money out of me for schoolbooks. He was quite surprised that I remembered him at all, and that he was from Rajasthan, lived with his uncle and was studying English. So he walked with me, I warning him that I was under no circumstances going to go to the Indian Bazaar. We had tea and I mentioned to him an inkling of an idea that I had had about coming to Delhi, that I might perhaps buy something at the famous music store named Rikki Ram, but I needed to go not to the well-known location but to their second store. He proudly said he knew right where it was and after we finished our tea he got on a bus with me and led me right there.

John Pennington had led me to their other store when we were in Delhi together in 2005. That place is like a pilgrimage spot for Western musicians. First of all, it is probably the most famous music store in India, especially for the sitar. There are many pictures of Ravi Shankar and his daughter Anoushka among other sitar greats, not just publicity stills but taken right there in the store with the proprietors. Of course the thing most people really come to see are the pictures of the Beatles, and one extra of George Harrison later in life visiting the store, because this is the store where George bought his sitar in 1966, which he used to record “Norwegian Wood.” John and I (or I should say, John himself) wound up buying the tabletop tambura there that we have used in concerts and on the last recording. I had in mind that I might possibly buy another one of those, perhaps even the improved version of it, though was truly loathe to go through the hassle of lugging it home. MC, knowing how I was hesitant about taking anything big with me on the road, had given me the idea when we were together down at Shantivanam of perhaps instead buying one of the electric tambura boxes that many of the professionals use now, that are also battery operated. That had struck me as a great idea, and it was echoed by Dayanand at Sri Ram, who himself had pulled out a very cool little electric tambura, and had said that he had gotten it a Rikki Ram, not at the main store but at the second store. And so there I was.

The big man working on a sitar behind the counter was friendly enough. It wound up being Sanjay, the owner. I told him I hadn’t known before about this second store, and he told me proudly that this was the store for the professionals, the other one, run by his brother, was just for tourists. I told him what I was looking for and he gladly pulled out the three models he had. The one Dayanand had was the least expensive of the three, and also the lightest in weight, and I might have bought that one, but Sanjay didn’t approve of the sound, which was synthesized and not a direct sample. To make a long story short, I wound up buying a very nice model, and in the course of buying and selling, we had a heck of a conversation. Sanjay proudly told me all about his friendship with Ravi and Anoushka Shankar, for whom he does all the repairs and construction, and who had just been in the day before. As a matter of fact he tours with Sri Ravi playing tambura, and was about to leave the next day for a series of concerts. Not only that, he made the mohan veena for the man with whom Ry Cooder had done the album that I love so much, and knows Ry Cooder himself, along with knowing Sting and Krishna Das and countless other well known Western musicians. Even more interesting, he knows Barry Phillips well and his wife Shelley, both of who played for me on my new album for OCP, and the new pieces for Echo of Your Peace; Barry is also on Compassionate and Wise. So it was pretty amazing to be across the world talking with someone with whom I had friends in common.

Just before I left, Sanjay’s mobile phone rang. “It’s my wife,” he said. The ring tone was “Norwegian Wood.”

I usually don’t buy something like that right away without thinking it over, but I happened to have all my money strapped around my neck and Sanjay was willing to accept American dollars. So I reached under my shirt and deftly extracted four $50 bills, for which he gave me change in rupees. I had mentioned Raj to Sanjay a couple of times, and how he had led me there, hoping that Sanjay might get the idea to give him a little tip as they would at the Bazaar, but no luck. But now Raj had seen me with a wad of cash, so as we left he asked me if I could buy him a school book, since we were right by the book depot, and I said, “Absolutely.” It was a little expensive, a Hindi-Sanskrit-English Dictionary, but at that point it felt like the right thing to do. Then Raj led me to a local restaurant where I bought us each a tali. The young guy who seemed to be the manager of the place was quite taken by having this Westerner there and was eager to engage in conversation, and others of the staff sat at the table across from ours and simply stared at me while we ate, but I guess by this time I am used enough to that to be able to carry on. By this time it was pretty late and dark and I didn’t know where I was, so I asked Raj one more favor––could he lead me back to my hotel, which he did esaily by way of public transportation, a frighteningly crowded city bus, right to the door of my hotel and advised me to not go out any more tonight, “People are drinking here. Just you stay in.” I gave him another little tip, and he said that he didn’t have school the next day and “Do you want me to come tomorrow too?” I said I thought that would be a great idea, so he agreed to come at 10 and show me around Delhi.

The next day was not quite so fun. I was surprised that Raj actually did show up, but he was there waiting at 10. My plan was to go to the Ramakrishna Mission to meditate and buy the second volume of Sancarya Charaya’s Commentary on the Upanishads, then go down to Sri Aurbindo Ashram for lunch and a look around, and perhaps a visit to the Oxford Book Store at Connaught Place before heading to the airport. Raj had a better idea; “How can you come to Delhi and not see all the monuments?” he said, and offered to give me a tour of the major monuments. Well, I thought he was right, that I had for once better do the tourist thing.

Raj led me immediately to a tourist place that he said offered a tour in a mini-van of all the major monuments. Only there was no mini-van so they said that they could get me a taxi for the whole day, wherever I wanted to go, for R 1800. This made me suspicious right away––I suspected that Raj was on the take from them––and I probably should have backed out at that point, but I was trying to be open. We stepped out for a minute while I thought about it, and I asked Raj right away if he worked for them, and he swore he did not, so I reluctantly agreed that if they would also take me back to my hotel to pick up my luggage and then on to the airport I would do it. (A ride to the airport alone might have been R500.) So we set off in our taxi.

All was fine until the third monument, Huymana’s Tomb, considered the Taj Mahal of Delhi. For an Indian it cost R10 to enter; for a foreign tourist it was R250 or $5 American––listed just that way, in American dollars. I hesitated but then again decided to go through with it, so I headed back to the taxi to get a five-dollar bill out of my backpack instead of using up all my rupees. Just as I was about to head back to the tomb, Raj came hurrying back, got into the taxi and said, “Let’s not stay here, let’s go to the next one.” I was a little confused but got back in the car. Suddenly a brown suited official came and knocked on the window on Raj’s side of the car and gestured for him to come out. An angry exchange ensued between the officer, the driver and Raj. No, I take that back. Raj wasn’t saying anything, just standing there looking very guilty and a little scared. I finally got out of the car and asked what was going on. The officer was very polite to me and just let me know that I should go and see the monument but that this was not a nice man––Raj. I thought he was telling me that Raj was actually a tour guide and had a card, and was posing as a friend to get me to go along. In other words, everything that I had suspected. I looked at Raj, who was saying nothing, but looking very guilty. So I grabbed my backpack and headed to the tomb, paid my $5 and went around for a lookabout, feeling as if the whole day had suddenly taken a very bad turn and that I was very naive.

When I got back to the car the driver was there waiting and, I was somewhat relieved to find out, so was Raj. I at least wanted to get an explanation from him, and was hoping he had not gotten arrested or something. We got in the car and he hurriedly explained to me that locals are not allowed to accompany tourists to these monuments unless they are certified tour guides and Raj (just the opposite of what I thought) was not a registered tour guide, and that officer was a tourist police guarding tourists against getting ripped off. Now I was really confused and didn’t know whom to trust or what to believe. I was made to understand that if we visited any more monuments there was a good chance of this happening again, and I would have to explain that Raj was my friend or else he could get arrested. By this time it was as hot as Hades, the traffic was a snarled mess, Raj and the driver seemed to be arguing with each other, and I was sorry that we had done the whole thing and was willing to cut my losses and be done with all of them. We wound up spending another hour or merely slowly driving by another three or four monuments without getting out, and then we stopped for lunch, at which point I left Raj behind and headed back to the hotel and on to the airport a little early with just the driver, though it still took another couple of hours to do all that. We did stop at Ramakrishna Mission on the way to the hotel, but it was closed. Alas, the one thing I really wanted to do…

What was stranger yet was that as soon as we left Raj behind the driver suddenly started speaking to me in pretty good English, asking me all kinds of questions and telling me all about the things we were passing on the way, which was pretty surprising because up to that point he had only been speaking in Hindi, and right to Raj, not to me. He was very nice, but by the time we got to the airport it became clear that he too wanted a little extra money, which led me to believe that perhaps he had been in on the little scam as well. He didn’t get much money from me because by that time I actually had spent all of my Indian rupees.

In other words, a horrible day, and I am now even more convinced to not do the tourist things in India. I was left pretty downhearted about the whole encounter, that that would be my last few hours, but that is exactly the down side of India. I was thinking as we lifted off that I either never want to come back to India again or I want to move here permanently.