hacker emblem
jaegerfesting
Search | Tags | Photos | Flights | Gas Mileage | Log in

Tryst with destiny

Started: 2012-07-02 19:16:21

Submitted: 2012-07-03 23:13:41

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator visits Delhi, sees Muhammad's footprint, and stands in Nehru's footsteps
Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. It is fitting that at this solemn moment, we take the pledge of dedication to the service of India and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity.
- Jawaharlal Nehru, 14 August 1947

My tryst with destiny in Delhi was somewhat less momentous than India's own, sixty-five years ago, but I did at least get to see some of the same places. On my previous visit to India, I spent a grand total of twelve hours in Delhi on the way in, and another six hours in the airport on the way out, which didn't give me the chance to see much more than terminals 1D and 2 of the airport, the hotel I stayed in, and the roads between the airport and the hotel. This time, I scheduled more time in Delhi -- an entire weekend -- so I could actually see the highlights before heading on to Hyderabad for the working week.

I returned from Agra entirely too late to get a decent night's sleep, especially with a full list of things to see in Delhi on my way to the airport. I was awake by 10:00, local time. I ate breakfast in the hotel restaurant, finished packing, and checked out. I asked for a car and driver to take me around the city and then to the airport, and when I hesitated at the price (after converting it from rupees to dollars), they quickly offered a discount, which I thought was still probably overpriced, but probably worth the hassle of alternate transportation.

Armed with a laundry list of sights to see from the concierge desk, my driver took me into the New Delhi morning. It was 11:00, sunny, with a light haze, and already getting hot. (I believe the forecast high for the day was on the order of 110°F, and as I hopped in and out of air conditioning, I believed it.) We started on the broad boulevards and lazy roundabouts of New Delhi and drove a short distance to Rajpath (the "th" is pronounced more like an English "t"), which the British designed as the administrative center for their jewel in the crown, and has since been adopted as the center of government in independent India. The physical layout is very much like the National Mall: a long string of grassy fields with large administrative buildings on both sides, and throngs of tourists (in this case, exclusively Indian, except for me). I noticed the architectural details of the buildings and recognized where the British adopted their default colonial architecture, a drab neo-Romanesque, with Mughal flourishes. We drove up the small hill at the western end to the President's House (formerly the Viceroy's House), and I watched as the hill first occluded my view of the mansion, then gave me a commanding view, shaping my experience like a Mughal garden.

My driver took me down the length of Rajpath to the India Gate (built to commemorate the Indians who fought and died in the First World War) and I stepped out in the late-morning heat to study the monument in detail. Immediately to the left of the gate was a large fountain in a pond with men and boys climbing up on the fountain to play in the water. I'd expect to see a fountain like that in any public area in any major city around the world, but only in India would the local authorities allow the locals to climb on it.

Fountain on Rajpath
Fountain on Rajpath

The India Gate was thronged by Indian tourists and guarded by a handful of uniformed soldiers, one of whom looked distinctly north-eastern. Willy would have been able to identify his background at a glance, but I was left to guess wildly.

India Gate
India Gate

From Rajpath, my driver took me north, from New Delhi into Old Delhi, under a brand-new metro line, through streets that grew progressively smaller and less straight. We circled the massive Red Fort, the seat of the Mughal empire in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which didn't make my list of sites to actually tour, but I was happy to gawk at the red sandstone walls and see the long lines of Indian tourists queuing to enter. We turned deeper into the old city, past a street bazaar and through tiny alleyways teeming with people, and reached Jama Masjid (the Friday Mosque).

Jama Masjid
Jama Masjid

I left my driver in front of the mosque, passed through a metal detector run by a pair of bored-looking policemen, and climbed the steps to enter the massive open-air mosque, with space for (according to my Lonely Planet guidebook) 25,000 worshipers praying every Friday. As I entered, a guide attached himself to me and took me through the sights, including a set of relics purported to be from the Prophet Muhammad: a hair from his beard (suspiciously straight, displayed inside a vial), the remains of his sandal, and his footprint in a piece of stone that he was standing on while praying so fervently that the stone melted. I smiled, nodded, and provided a tip when prompted.

Main corridor at Jama Masjid
Main corridor at Jama Masjid

My next stop was Rajghat, the memorial at the site where Gandhi was cremated, in the blazing mid-day sun, at a park to the east of Old Delhi. I took off my shoes and walked around the memorial, a black marble platform surrounded by a low wall, in a sunken garden surrounded by a high wall.

Rajghat
Rajghat

I left Rajghat in search of the other memorials in the vicinity. I stumbled upon Veer Bhumi, honoring Rajiv Gandhi, and found signs proclaiming Shantivan, honoring Jawaharlal Nehru, but couldn't identify a specific monument in the garden of peace as I hurried past. I visited Shakti Sthal, honoring Indira Gandhi, and took off my shoes to pay my respects, but the first thing I thought of was "the widow with the party-colored hair" (from Midnight's Children), and the next thing I thought of was her complicated history as India's prime minister.

Shakti Sthal
Shakti Sthal

I found my driver and we drove through the interstitial spaces between Old Delhi and New Delhi, where the reinforced-concrete frames of illegally-constructed (or insufficiently-bribed) buildings sat, twenty years after they were abandoned, next to finished and occupied buildings. My driver took me to a handicrafts store near one of the abandoned buildings, which had a normal assortment of rugs and silk scarves and sculptures in bronze and wood and stone, but nothing that struck my fancy. We continued on to lunch, where I ate at an expensive (by Indian standards; and virtually empty) restaurant on the second circle of Connaught Place.

When I finished eating, it was mid-afternoon, and I still had several hours before I needed to be at the airport for my evening flight to Hyderabad. Next on my list was Jantar Mantar, a fantastically-bizarre set of stairs to nowhere with odd curves and edges. It was a manual astronomical observatory of sorts, built in the eighteenth century to observe the positions of stars and planets by lining up the celestial bodies by sight. I enjoyed wandering around the strange structures, and in being something of a tourist attraction myself, as a pale-skinned foreigner.

Astronomical structures at Jantar Mantar
Astronomical structures at Jantar Mantar
Astronomical structures at Jantar Mantar
Astronomical structures at Jantar Mantar

My next stop was Teen Murti Bhavan, where Jawaharlal Nehru lived and worked while he was the first prime minister of independent India. After he died, the building was transformed into a museum and contained photos and exhibits tracing Nehru's life, with varying degrees of context. The second floor preserved his office and sitting rooms, and I stood in the office, protected by plexiglass, looking at his desk and chair and bookshelves and decorations knowing this was where Nehru himself had stood. In the rest of the museum I caught occasional flashes of inspiration as I fit the exhibits into my knowledge of Indian history, but seeing the office was profoundly moving in a way I can't fully articulate: it was two and a half years of studying Indian history compressed into one room: the hopes and dreams and fears of an entire subcontinent at independence wrapped up in one man, and that one man embodied in his office.

Teen Murti Bhavan
Teen Murti Bhavan

I wandered around the grounds after finishing the museum itself and found a large rock with excerpts from Nehru's "tryst with destiny" speech printed on it. I noticed a rocket placed, incongruously, between the side entrance (where I entered, since it was next to the car park) and the planetarium, and climbed onto the roof of the planetarium for a better look. Willy later identified the rocket as an SLV-3, the first Indian-made rocket to launch an Indian satellite.

Indian satellite launch rocket at Nehru Memorial Planetarium
Indian satellite launch rocket at Nehru Memorial Planetarium

My last stop in Delhi on my way to the airport was Qutb Minar. We drove through the broad boulevards of the embassy district of New Delhi (including the US embassy, inside the obligatory compound wall), and into the suburban outskirts of the city. Qutb Minar itself was a giant tower proclaiming the greatness of the first Muslim ruler in India, surrounded by a ruined city. My driver gave me half an hour to wander around amongst the throngs of Indians promenading about. It didn't take long to notice that the site was in the approach path for Indira Gandhi International Airport, and that I could photograph both the ancient tower and the modern jetliners at once, copying Willy's photo from his visit to Delhi.

Qtub Minar and jet landing at Delhi
Qtub Minar and jet landing at Delhi

I bid Delhi farewell and rode to the airport, and began to get confused when my driver took me to the new terminal 3, rather than terminal 1, where I flew domestically the last time I was in India. It turned out that terminal 3 now holds almost all domestic and international flights, so I was, in fact, in the right place. I checked in for my Jet Airways flight, learned my flight was delayed, passed through airport security (which let me keep my shoes on, and gave everyone the same hand-wanding), ate a dosa for supper, and watched part of a National Geographic show about a team of rock scalers working on Washington state highway 12, somewhere in Lewis County.

I sat in a middle seat in the back of a crowded 737 for the two-hour flight to Hyderabad. I was exhausted, and tried to rest in my tiny coach seat, with limited success. When I arrived in Hyderabad, at Rajiv Gandhi International Airport, it was the furthest from home I'd ever been (8496 miles, on the great-circle route), and the furthest south in the northern hemisphere on solid ground. Once I had my checked luggage, I exited baggage claim for the arrivals hall, and before I had a chance to look for a driver sent by my hotel, someone came up and asked, "Mr. Logan?" (I was probably the only white-skinned person in the terminal, so it was a reasonable guess.) The guy identified himself as being from my hotel (the Westin Hyderabad Mindspace) and took me to my driver (who was, in fact, carrying a sign with my name, having waited when my flight was delayed). My driver took me out to the car park, and as we stepped out of the terminal, I felt the night air, warm and humid, but not hot, and immediately felt better than the hot-and-sooty Delhi. The most direct route from the airport to the "high-tech city" on the outskirts of Hyderabad where all of the tech companies were located was the outer ring road, which even I recognized as a proper controlled-access grade-separated highway. After two days in Delhi and Agra, where nearly every road was crammed with every transportation conveyance imaginable, from trucks and busses to auto rickshaws and bullock carts, seeing an honest-to-god expressway was nothing short of amazing, and I began to like Hyderabad.

I checked into my hotel, bearing all the signs of an expensive business hotel (including the vehicle security check at the gate, and the personal security check at the door), and went to bed after midnight local time. I'd have to start the day still sleep-deprived and a little jet-lagged, but I'd seen the highlights of Delhi and completed the destiny I left unfulfilled on my last visit to India.

Will the last geek to leave america please turn slashdot off?