Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Part One of Our Trip in North India

Dharmsala and Other Points North

I hadn’t seen my parents in a few years and was looking forward to picking them up at the Indira Gandhi International Airport. I called my driver and made sure he wouldn’t be late. Will was in school. I arrived a little before schedule which allowed me to push my way through the crowds loitering outside with their signs, touts, con artists trying to push expensive taxis on unsuspecting tourists and such vermin. I elbowed my way to a spot against the barrier that would give me a good view of the people arriving. You can always tell those who were arriving for the first time, their eyes open wide, looking disconcerted because of the smell (a.k.a.stench) of Mother India.

Of course, their plane from Mumbai was late. But when I finally saw them, I was shocked at how much they had aged. My mum was in a wheel chair and used a cane. She seemed even smaller, more fragile than ever before. My Dad still looked like he always did, just a little grayer, but he seemed more alert, more excited than I’d seen him in a long time. He reminded me of Will when he was looking forward to something. I tried not to cry when I saw them – these last few months had been very difficult for me – I was just so glad to have my family here with me.

I instructed Gopal, my driver, to bring the car around. There was clearly too much luggage to fit us in the car at the same time, so I left them to hire a pre-paid taxi for us, while the luggage would go in my car. We dropped the luggage with Gopal and headed to Gurgaon. My parents were clearly exhausted. I sent all their dirty clothes with my housekeeper who managed to get them to the dhobi-walla same day. They would have to pack for our journey to Chandigarh.

Gopal showed up a little late. We were supposed to leave at 2:30, three hours prior to our train’s departure north. He arrived around 3:00 PM. He then proceeded to drive us all over Delhi for the next 2-1/2 hours, stopping constantly asking people how to get to the station. We missed the train. I contacted the IRTC booking agents around 5;15 explaining the situation and said that our seats had already been given away, but there was a train leaving at 7:15 from Nizamuddhin and another one at 9:45 from old Delhi station.

Now, Gopal had driven us to Nizamuddhin just the day before to listen the Sufis singing Ghazals at the Dargar Mosque, but he had no idea how to get there. We got there with 15 minutes to spare only to find that there was actually no train going to Chandigarh from there. We called Gopal immediately with me screaming “Pickup abhi! Old Delhi Station chele!!!” We all climbed back into the car, threw the luggage back on our laps and headed out in search of the station. I pulled a map out of Delhi. II showed him where Ring Road was and that he needed to “Bia chele piche Delhi Fort”. Simple, huh? It was easy to see that he could not read a map, the constant stopping and asking directions confirmed this. As we were just about to get to the station, he was stopped by a cop for running a red light. He begged with the officer and asked me for money for a bribe. I denied him any help. We had been in that car for over five hours at this point. He gunned the car, racing away from the cop who was chasing him.

Once we got to Old Delhi, I had to purchase new tickets and there was no way to figure out where to get them. I stood in line after line, moving from building to building until I finally found the reserved ticket office. I was told to come back at 8:45 when the tickets would become available. Meanwhile, my parents found Baskin Robbins and were chowing down on ice cream. I was completely stressed out and fervently hoped we’d be able to get four tickets together on the sleeper. I bided my time and was standing first in line at 8:45, elbowing people out of the way, and yelling at others who tried to cut in. No one was getting those tickets before me. I stood in front of the same ticket guy I had spoke to earlier, I explained that my mum was in a wheel chair and my parents were very old so please find us something with easy access. He did a fine job. When we got on the train, we were in one of the first set of bunks, and we were able to close the curtain for privacy. It was very nice. We arrived at some time around 3 AM and our driver was waiting. The hotel looked pretty awful from the outside, but it was serviceable once we got inside. The manager was asleep in a chair waiting for us to arrive. All any of us wanted to do was sleep, and sleep we did.

First, I have to say, we’re not tourists. Let me give you a prime example. We visited Stonehenge when Will was six in 2000. The tour we were on, happened to visit the site on the Summer Solstice. This was also the first year that the Druids were allowed to perform their rites in more than 50 years and it killed me that we had to leave because of the tour director. My parents took off on side visits to castle ruins in Wales because the tour didn’t go there. We’re not the kind of tourists that do things the typical way. We have our own interests and wherever we go we want to delve deeply into those areas.

Chandigarh was very important to my father. Having been designed as an urban planning experiment by Corbusier, an architect that my father has revered for more than 50 years, it was a place he had never expected to visit in his life time. I was glad to offer him the chance. I called the Chandigarh College of Architecture and asked to speak to the head of the school. After a few moments wait, a charming man named XXXX answered. I explained the situation and he welcomed us warmly, giving me his mobile number and the rest of his contact information and said to definitely meet up with him and he’d open the school for us.

Now, I had my own history with Chandigarh. I was there in 1977 and all the buildings were open to us. Because of security issues (thanks Osama), my father couldn’t climb to the top of the Secretariat to survey the entire grid as I’d seen it over 30 years ago. Instead, there was high chain link fences and barbed wire everywhere. Our guide, a very nice young man named Santosh, convinced the surly security guard to let us up into a parking lot that at least got us close to the Secretariat and the High Court. We were able to get up close and personal with Corbu’s Hand sculpture, something I didn’t remember from my last trip. The city has grown out quite a bit. Talking with the guide and the driver, land costs more in Chandigarh than it does in Delhi, Gurgaon or Kolkata. Open space is limited and the cutback for land vs. building is substantial. The air seemed much cleaner. The boulevards were wide and clean. Will thought the chicks in Chandigarh were the prettiest in India. I had to concur. So were the men. I have a secret – there’s something about watching a young Sikh man unfurling his turban and combing his hair that just does it for me. When I was hanging around Chandigarh College in ’77, a 3rd year architecture student sat down and started doing just that. I stared at him the entire time. I was fixated. As he was combing out his hair, he looked at me for the first time. I blushed and looked away. When I looked back, he was smiling at me, his eyes shining in the midday sun. This memory is still vivid to me. Returning to the school this many years later, I saw the exact spot where this incident occurred. Of course my father had to tell the dean who found this amusing.

Meeting the Dean was by far a highlight. He gave us access to places we couldn’t have seen, in fact he showed us his office which had Corbu’s desk (well, the one he designed for the space). It had been in storage forever, but he had recently had it pulled out and restored. I loved it. There is something about Corbu’s eye that finds the spirituality between machine and the organic at the same time…the desk seemed like a living thing. You could understand the trees that made this desk were living things – there was something of their life and legacy within the wood… I know. Sounds stupid, but I felt life within it, something you don’t normally experience with a simple piece of furniture.

We visited the students’ workshops and walked around the building. I could have sworn it was bigger when I saw it last time, but they’ve kept the same footprint.

One thing I learned from my sculptor grandfather is that all art succumbs to the fourth dimension – time. The same occurs with architecture. When Corbu designed this school, he never envisioned the electrical load that would be required for computers, let alone high powered CAD systems and large format printers. The chases all over the walls clearly showed the “Indian” way of updating older properties. This is actually not just an Indian way – even the English and most of Europe do the same things to their older buildings, just adding soffits or constructing external chases for wiring and upgraded plumbing… It’s not pretty and takes away from Corbu’s oeuvre.

We have an interesting conversation with the Dean, Dad and me. I was discussing the fact that many Indian architects are in demand overseas because they are trained not only as architects but as structural engineers. He debated that perhaps that’s not the best thing – that having two specialists’ stamps provide two sets of eyes make a stronger building. Maybe so. I understand it from my years as a writer and editor. Two pairs of eyes DO make a difference, but if I had the choice between two people with no experience, one a registered architect from the U.S., and a registered architect from India, I would still hire the Indian because he can design with the structural engineer’s background as part of his knowledge set as well. I would be more concerned with his aesthetics, than whether the building would be stable.

We visited a number of other places, but my favorite was visiting a temple devoted to Shiva.

Overall, Chandigarh was a success.

Next day, we drove to Dharmsala and made our way to the Norbulinka Guest house, recommended to me by a good friend, Sudhir, presently living in the Defence Colony section of Delhi. The drive was nice. Dad took pictures of the farmland, especially of those still working their fields with bullocks or even by hand. He found the architecture interesting and we all watched as the building style changed as we headed up into the hills. As the sky darkened, we headed up very twisty roads, some covered in rubble, others with full sized rocks that we had to drive around. There were very few fences blocking anything from running off the road, no sidewalks to speak of and plenty of people walking up the hillsides with heavy loads of wood and rubble and others coming down after their day uphill. It took forever to find Nobulinka, and it already being dark, made it hard to see much, but we managed to put down our things and head over to the restaurant that was part of the complex just before they closed. It was vegetarian food only (after all, we’re talking a strict Buddhist guest house), but even my Dad managed to find something to eat. It was much colder up in Dharmsala than it had been in Chandigarh, but at least there was heat for my parents, otherwise a whole lot more bitching would have occurred. There was a TV downstairs, but we were all so tired, we immediately all fell asleep after dinner.

Enough for now... I'll updat eyou with the rest of the trip in a few days...


  1. Came across your blog quite by accident and realized that I had actually seen you and your son once before. It was in 2007 december in Ekta heights, Kolkata inside an elevator. I was coming home for a break from Chicago where I was studying. Nice to read your blog. I currently stay in Schaumburg, IL not too far from your hometown Aurora.

  2. ITt's such a small world, isn't it? I've been to Schaumburg many times while living in Aurora. Certainly different for life here, nah? :-)