Delhi bikes & blues
I don't like Delhi. It was my first encounter with India some eleven years ago. I got ripped off as all new visitors to Delhi are wont, and I generally had a miserable time there. My father had given me a contact, the brother of a friend of his. I rang him up, "Hello Mr. Patel, my name is Marc McNeill" I said, "I have been given your name by my father who is a good friend of your brother Dillip in London". I received a curt and short response. "Well? What do you want?" I wasn't sure of the answer, and in my hesitation my contact put the phone down on me. I returned to my room and wept. I wanted to meet a friendly face, someone to reassure me that I'd be all right in India. The staring faces and beggars and touts all wanting a piece of my pocket got me down and I'd only been in Delhi a day. I hated it. I wrote to my parents telling them that I'd be home in a fortnight. I got the first available train out of Delhi and headed for the Himalayas. Not in India mind, but in Nepal. It took six weeks of Nepalese apple pies, trekking and chilling to prepare myself to return to India. And then a love affair began. But Delhi was always my bête noir. For me, Delhi has the misfortune of being the place that the cheapest flights land, so I've been back on almost every trip to India. Never spending more than a day or two there. This time we spent nine days. Which was a bad idea. By the ninth day Lindsey was in tears and reciting the dreaded mantra "I want to go home". But we had a reason. Without a reason we'd never have dragged ourselves to the Indian capital. There was one, primary reason for being in Delhi. To buy an Enfield motorcycle.
So the Enfield. I've often dreamed of travelling round India on two wheels and an Enfield Bullet is the best bike to do it on. A heavy, sturdy British designed bike, that when the production run was finished in England, the factory line was shipped over to Madras and production continued in India. They are unmistakable; classic lines with a single cylinder that fires once every lamppost. I decided that rather than going for the 350 Bullet, we'd go for the more meaty 500cc.
First port of call was Lalli Singh. I'd heard of Lalli on my first trip to India. I'd met a couple of kiwis who had bought bikes from him and had not a bad word to say about the man. I'd got on well with these two New Zealanders, despite receiving their wrath soon after meeting them. They'd asked me what I did for a living, and as I'd recently been working in a pizza-pasta restaurant I said 'chef'. This got them interested; when I told them what sort of chef they severely reprimanded me. "Mate, you are a cook. You cook shit food in a shit restaurant. We are chefs. Classical French cuisine and a Michelin star apiece. You are a cook. Don't you forget it". I was put in my place. But we got on and they gave me the address of Lalli Singh and here, eleven years later I was paying the old Sikh a visit.
Seeing rows of Enfields got me excited and as I discussed them with Lalli I decided I not only wanted to tour India but wanted to send it home when we'd finished with it. Lalli recommended me to buy a new bike. I agreed that would be a good idea and left his garage with my head buzzing. The second garage we visited was even more inspiring. Here I discovered old British made Enfields dating back to the early sixties. And Nortons and Triumphs and BSAs and my head was reeling. The proprietor of this garage took us to his lock up and there were crates being assembled around Enfields and Lambretta Scooters for shipment to the UK. And he had a Norton Big Four that would be ready in a few days. I looked at it and my head pounded with yet more ideas. The seedling idea of getting a bike to ride round India was blooming into a classic bike export business.
Lindsey brought me back to earth. "Stop this nonsense" she said, "we're here to get a bike for India. Nothing more. So put a hold on your crazy ideas, lets get the cheaper, older bike from Lalli and get out of Delhi quick. I hate it here".
I reported back to Brian who was staying in the room next to ours. When I mentioned the word 'Lambretta' he got excited. "Did you say Lambretta mate?" He was a scooter fanatic, (scooters were his passion, second only to the northern lights). His mother rode a scooter in the sixties and chastised him when he bought a new model, 'why not a Labretta?" she had asked.
And so with Brian, we checked out the scooter sellers and found a lockup with a row of old, classic scooters, including a pristine, unrestored 1961 Lambretta. Brian was buzzing. But he was also methodical and commenced a long process of research on the marketability of old Lambrettas, export restrictions out of India, Import restrictions into the UK and tax and registration issues. Much more methodical than me in his research, yet I was able to learn much from him and realized that buying a new Enfield was fraught with potential problems. Then after three days in Delhi on the motorcycle case it all went pear-shaped and the idea died a sudden and painful death.
Lindsey woke up in the middle of the night with a start. She was panicked and in a cold sweat. She woke me up. "We mustn't get a bike," she said. "Yeah yeah" I grumbled, go back to sleep. She'd already voiced concerns about safety and was happy not to bother about seeing India on two wheels but that was typical of Lindsey. We work so well together because, like a sentence we complement and complete each other. She is a noun, just 'being,' whilst I am a verb, a doing word and have to be active. I find it difficult to be noun-like. Yet this start in the middle of the night was something different. It was more like a premonition; a rush of fear and boding for a bike that had woken her. I fell back to sleep and forgot about it, yet the following morning when I awoke I had a darting pain in my chest and an overwhelming feeling that we shouldn't get a bike. Now I don't usually take premonitions seriously, and think that people who do are talking mumbo jumbo. It's irrational right? But something just didn't feel right. Besides, I had to take into account the fact we were in India, and India is the home of the spiritual mumbo jumbo and it is taken seriously here and it would not be wise to poo poo it when both of us have had profound negative experiences regarding a common future event. When Lindsey awoke she still felt uncomfortable. When I told her about my discomfort we agreed that, sadly and annoyingly, we'd knock the idea of the bike on the head. Suddenly we both felt much better.
I still joined Brian on his trips to Karol Bagh, home of vehicle sales and spare parts. He was having difficulties. "Mate," he said to me, "buying anything from a used car salesman in the UK is a nightmare. In India it is fuckin' torture!" Lindsey had seen enough of Karol Bagh and Enfields and Lambrettas for one lifetime, even if us boys could talk of little else.
Besides, Delhi was doing little for our relationship and Lindsey, whilst now almost an old hand at India, this being her third visit, was suffering culture shock and was speaking those dreaded words of 'had enough' and worse still, 'aeroplane home'. To be fair, it wasn't so much Delhi; it was where we were staying. The hotel was reasonable enough, it was the street outside that was the problem. Par Ganj is the area opposite New Delhi railway station. It is essentially a narrow dusty single street lined with cheap hotels and cheap restaurants. The shops sell clothes; hippy garb, saris and silk; souvenirs; 'new' old Antiques; grocery shops, soap shops, chemists, and quack doctors surgeries. Many of the shops spill out onto the street itself, with wares displayed on wooden tables, often with a wallah sitting crossed legged amongst his goods shouting the price 'pachis rupia pachis rupia' or haggling with customers. Shops selling stainless steel goods, cups and plates and saucepans and pressure cookers, sold not by the item, but by weight, with large scales at the shop entrance being used to calculate the selling price. The street is further encroached by hand carts, little more than tables on pram wheels, piled high with amongst other things fruit, cheap plastic Chinese novelty goods, cigarettes and sweets, religious stickers with neon Oms or posters of fat babies and Hindu deities with crass proverbs written on them. Other carts are mobile kitchens, large circular iron dishes or woks or kettles over kerosene stoves, cooking omeletes or samosas or pakora and chai. The streets around Par Ganj are hectic, none more so than Main Bazaar. People are not individuals, it is a torrent of bodies, an ungradable rapid that flows in both directions with eddies of people stopping and standing and milling about and getting in the way. Everybody is getting in the way. And through this flood of people we push through. Jostling against the tidal crowd.
Walking Par Ganj is more taxing than a Krypton Factor assault course, flight simulator and quiz- combined, (you do remember the Krypton Factor don't you?). We hold our stomachs in as coolies push a tala cart laden with concrete reinforcing rods. There is barely room for them to pass. We push through, avoiding the thin rickshaw wallah with sunken cheeks, wearing a checked blue lungi and dirty punjabi carrying the fat paan chewing, white dhoti-wearing, handle-bar-moustached pandit coming one way; the fruit wallah with his wooden cart of apples the other; the cool dude cutting through between them on his Bajaj scooter, constantly hooting his horn that whines and increases in pitch as the engine is revved up, a whine that is straight out of Disney, a Donald duck on acid whine. And we all avoid the docile white bullock chewing on a discarded garland of orange flowers in the middle of the street. The rickshaw wallah slaps the cow as he passes. The cow looks round as if to say 'what's your problem mate' or 'keep your horns on' then returns to munching the garland. The pandit spits out a mouthful of paan, narrowly missing the two English guys who walk in front of us. One of them turns to him and swears profusely in a coarse London accent.
Par Ganj is home to a chocolate box assortment of western characters. Some appearing pleasant, some who appear decidedly unsavory. Many only appear at night, mingling with dodgy Indian characters, sitting in shop doorways, sipping chai, chasing the dragon. Emaciated white guys, skeletons who exist in India solely for the next fix. Travelers with dreads and filthy Indian clothing who left their dogs on string back in Bristol and don't have the money or the inclination to leave India and the cheap charas. Shaved heads, rough faces, pretty faces, fashionable T-shirts and Tevas, lungis andflip flops. All nationalities are represented, some more than others. Several years back many of the shops catered for the Russian visitors that were common in India at the time. Not so much now; the signs in Cyrillic have been replaced by signs in Hebrew.
And as we walk down Par Ganj there is a symphony of hassle in our ears.
"You want something?"
Hello, excuse me, come and look in my shop"
"You want rickshaw?"
No. If I did I'd ask"
"Remember me? I've got the charas you asked for".
"Piss off low life chancer"
And the continuous "you want charas?" During an evening stroll shady characters appear, selling what purports to be hashish at inflated prices to newly arrived, naive and unwary tourists. They return to their room in glee to smoke and get stoned only to find they've been sold doop, sticky black incense. We walk, watching our step, the street is filthy, litter everywhere, avoiding the puddles of spat out paan, phlegm, and cow dung diarrhea (the cow pats just aren't the same when the diet isn't grass and grain). The aroma isn't of Indian spice, it is of men's urine. Children tug at our shirts, begging. We've taken a leaf out of Brian's book and have bought a job lot of small soap bars and shampoo sachets. We don't give money, rather soap to make them smell nicer. A man hobbles along aided by a wooden stick, his arm outstretched. "Baksheesh Baba" he cries at me. A woman walks the other direction. She is bent double, on her back clings a horribly disfigured man. I have to look away. His torso is twisted at 90 degrees so his front is actually his side. His back is grotesquely bent and his shriveled legs hang beneath, grasped by the woman but capable of no movement themselves.
There are dogs everywhere. Manky, flea ridden creatures, many of which have lost all their hair reveling filthy mottled and scabby skin. Outside our hotel a man stands with a stick in his hand and a large silver monkey with a collar and chain by his feet. It bares its teeth at the dogs who frantically bark at it. Unlike in Tibet where the dogs were ferocious, here they are pathetic creatures, little more than vermin.
We arrived in Delhi in the days preceding Diwali, the Hindu festival of light. This made Par Ganj all the busier, with crowds buying gifts in the same way we buy presents for Christmas. Indeed transfer Oxford street in the run up to Christmas into a dirty alley with cows and dogs and beggars, human powered transport, scooters and motorbikes all jostling for space and you will begin to get a picture of the maddening crowds. Don't judge India by this I remind Lindsey.
Diwali means fire crackers to many. Additional care is needed to avoid fireworks thrown at us. On the night of Diwali we sit on the hotel rooftop restaurant and watch the fireworks. There is more boom than light; occasional 'arrs' from the small contingent of Japanese backpackers. The smell of sulfur rises from the street below where strings of bangers are let off. The noise continues into the early hours.
"Diwali crackers raise pollution levels" shouts the Times of India, "in one suburb of Delhi, suspended particle matter was eleven times greater than permissible levels... noise levels in Par Ganj were 81.9 decibels". Yet I was surprised when we first arrived in Delhi how little pollution there appeared to be. Delhi used to be a choking, smog laden asthmatic's hellhole. Yet no longer did we stand by the side of the road, waiting to cross it, getting engulfed by the black fumes from the bus exhausts. Auto rickshaws no longer spat out high levels of carbon monoxide from their inefficient engines. Something had happened in Delhi. Not so long ago the government banned polluting vehicles. All public busses and rickshaws had to be overnight converted to run on CNG, compressed natural gas. The madness following this diktat only be imagined, getting anything done in Delhi in a hurry is hard at the best of times. Successfully converting all the busses at the same time would have been a miracle.
Despite the outward appearances of Delhi being cleaner, a few days wandering around the city proved it to be as polluted as ever. Our noses became blocked with hard black bogies and blowing the nose on a handkerchief dyed it a pollution-snot black.
The roads were as mad as ever. Might has the right in India and rules of the road are rarely followed. Still, traffic lights seemed to be obeyed and new, multi-lane highways were being constructed. Lindsey decided she wanted to check out the Delhi branch of Marks and Spencers (which must be a luxury brand here- clothes are significantly more expensive than in the bazaars, and even more than premium brands such as LaCoste). It was in a shopping arcade in the suburbs. We took a rickshaw, driving down a highway that could almost be mistaken for the North Circular round London. Only you don't have Elephants or horse and carts walking down the inside lane on the north circular.
M & S was on the second floor of this shopping plaza. We took the lift up. It was operated by a lift wallah. Probably the most superfluous job in the world. I didn't fancy much for his job security.
Middle class guilt
Most nights we ate on the roof top restaurant with Brian. Once travel talk had dried up, conversation drifted to the mundane. To houses, prices of property and loft conversions. Dull talk that interested me at the time, the mundane life that we must look forward to. Brian was having problems with the Scooters. He was pursuing it with a vengeance; he'd had enough of teaching and was grasping at anything that may give him a different future. Plumbing had been the most obvious choice, "until I met you" he grumbled. "Before I had the misfortune of bumping into you two I'd never have encountered Lambrettas in India. "Shit, I'd be in Iran right now, supping mint tea". With barriers being placed at every turn he quipped "I wish I'd never met you bastards!" Things were not going well for him, "these bloody Indians don't seem to understand the concept of business. I'm going to give it a couple more days. If they don't stop with their bullshit I'm gonna walk away. Waving a fat wad of dollars under their noses saying 'this could have been yours.'"
He did. And then went to Bombay where he found scooters at a third of the Delhi price, from a man who was actually keen to sell them to him.
Brian was brought up in a council estate in Belfast. He was a Thatchers child and had kicked off his proletariat legacy. Days of hardship were over for him. There'd be no slumming it on his trip. I said how much I missed going second class on Indian trains, how I used to thrive on the atmosphere (and cheap price) of dormitories. Lindsey rebuked me, "you wouldn't stay in a dormitory now would you?"
" Yes of course!" I replied. Lindsey was incredulous.
"He's telling the truth" said Brian. "He's trying to rid himself of his middle class guilt. I've seen squalor. I grew up in a working class estate in a grotty council house. I've done my bit of slumming it. That's for me no more. Ha! I'm the working class kid who's on the climb and you're the middle class kid trying to fashionably fall". I was embarrassed by his words but they were true.
"Discomfort?" said Brian, "not for me mate. Trust me, if I could have taken a helicopter to the Annapurna base camp I would've. Shit, I only did the walking because I had to!"
We'd been for a splurge in a bar in Connaught place. Five, ten years ago it would have been unimaginable to have a place like this in India. In the UK it would be a naff theme bar with a half-decent sound system. Here, in Delhi it was the epitome of cool. Full of chubby middle classed middle aged Indians talking English between themselves and leach-like waiters serving cocktails and mocktails and finally food. It was impossible to pursuade them to take our order all in one go. The music was refreshingly good. Repetitive beats of happy house so before we left Brian asked the DJ if he had a residency anywhere or knew of any decent clubs in town. He obliged us with an address and so on Saturday night we donned our clubbing clobber and ventured out for a night of dance.
I'd assumed the address was in Old Delhi. It certainly sounded like an Old Delhi address, and I presumed that all the rickshaw wallahs were having a laugh when they quoted in excess of 150 rupees for the trip there. We finally got in an auto rickshaw for the agreed price of 100 rupees (a little over one pound thirty) and head off. South. Old Delhi was north. Where were we going? We kept on heading south, further and further out, deep into the suburbs of Delhi. Finally, after an hour cramped up in the rickshaw, being chilled by the evening Delhi breeze and breathing in more than our RDA of Delhi pollution we arrived.
It was like jumping into a cab in Leicster Square and being driven to Ritzys in Croydon. Well almost. The distance was there. The club was surrounded by security, brown shirted security guards hanging round looking mean as they do anywhere in the world. An airport style metal detector had to be walked through before we were frisked. They went through Brian's bag and refused him entry. "No camera" he was told. He'd go back, it was no problem if we stayed. Curiosity got the back of me and I persuaded the door staff to let me take a look in the club before staying there. It was dead. A handful of people propping up the bar; totally devoid of atmosphere. Poor music as well so we turned on our heels and enjoyed the 45 minute rickshaw ride back. some money had been pumped into the club and their attitude to westerners was surprisingly cold. With all the security and the refusal of Brian's camera suggests that it was the haunt of either Delhi's rich, politicos or gangsters. Probably all three because in India they are one and the same person.
We got dropped off at Connaught place and walked round the circle looking for somewhere open to dance in. The first club was playing Kylie and resembled a school disco with couples embarrassingly dancing together. Half of the club was still under construction so we give it a miss. The second place fared not much better. Whilst it was more busy it lacked any real atmosphere. Brian commented that it was the sort of place he'd expect in Chelsea. the sort of place people go to be seen in, rather than to have a good time. I agreed. We tried to order drinks but something about getting a coupon and cover charge first seemed all too complicated so we decided to leave club number three. We could find nowhere else open. Brian, with exceptionally sharp eyes for ice cream and chocolate led us back to an ice cream parlour but this was closing when we arrived. Our attempts at clubbing, Delhi style, had borne no fruit. Our legs were undanced, and with not even an ice cream to console ourselves with we headed back to Par Ganj to sleep as if we'd been raving all night. We finally emerged from the pit the following morning at an afternoonly hour.
How old are you?
Booking train tickets in Delhi is the art of simplicity. If you don't mind queuing that is. There is an office dedicated to foreign and Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) which means you avoid the pain of the booking hall with its crowds lined up, police wielding lathis beating the lines into order when they disintegrate into a seething mass of pushing humanity.
We got to the front of the queue after an hour. Two clerks were on duty. "I hope we don't get the guy on the left. I don't like the look of him." The guy on the left became free first and we sat down at his desk opposite him. He was getting on, in his late sixties, with wide, brown framed bottle-thick glasses. His hairline was receding with wisps of silver hair unconvincingly brushed over his balding head in an attempt to hide his follicle challenge. "Face it mate, you're a baldy" I didn't say to him. "Yessss" he said to us. I explained we wanted a collection of tickets and handed him our reservation request form. Nothing in India is done without forms. He requested our passports, thumbed through them then entered our details on the computer, including our names, sex and age. He typed in '27' for Lindsey's age, despite her having written '26' on the request form. Lindsey challenged him. I sighed. Don't start now I thought. "I am twenty six, not twenty seven" she said.
"Madam", the clerk replied, picking up Lindsey's passport and pointing to her date of birth, "you are in your twenty seventh year". It was that old millennium conundrum of when the millennium actually was.
"No" Lindsey replied, I am twenty six." I kicked at her under the table. If he says your twenty-seven, you are twenty-seven. We don't want to get on the wrong side of this railway official, leaving Delhi is more important than your age. But Lindsey persevered. Finally the man begrudgingly moved the cursor over the offending numbers and changed them to 26 as per Lindsey's request. With all our tickets printed and paid for, I asked one more question. "Should we make a reservation on the train from Ajmer to Udaipur". "No" came the reply. "No need". "But the Pushkar camel fair finishes on the date we wish to travel on." He sat back in his chair, put his hands behind his head and gently nodded. "That, sir, is something I had not entertained". So we bought a ticket to Udaipur as well. "Happy birthday" he said to Lindsey as we got up to leave. She entered her twenty eighth year a fortnight later.
One night, two days in Amritsar
The only peace we found in Delhi was in a Sikh temple that had been recommended to us by a Sikh friend back home. Lindsey liked it, so why not go to the Amritsar and the Golden Temple; the place for the Sikhs what Mecca is for the Muslims and the Vatican is for the Catholics. Why not indeed. It would also give us a chance to check out the bike scene there; Sikhs are amongst the most mechanically minded people in India and there was every reason to expect to find decent second hand Enfields and Lambrettas in the city.
I'd been to Amritsar before. The last time was on the back of an epic train ride from Calcutta. It was supposed to take 38 hours, but after 38 hours when we pulled into a station I thought, hey! I recognise this place, this isn't Amritsar, it's bloody Delhi. Amritsar was another painfully slow eight hours away. This time however we boarded the Shatabdi express that did the Delhi to Amritsar run in just over five and a half hours.
As we approached Amritsar station, the brick buildings on either side of the tracks were painted with advertisements. Most of these were in Hindi. The only advertisements in English were for "Sex Clinics" and "Solve Your Sex Problems." Are 'sex problems' particularly rampant amongst English speaking Punjabis I wondered.
Sleep was in order. It was an early train and sleep had been difficult. We'd either been too hot in the room, or with the single speed fan turned on, frozen by the wind chill factor. I'd left our sleeping bags in our packs in Brian's room. All we needed for the trip to Amritsar was a couple of sheets and a day bag. With no sleep Lindsey spent much of the night in tears. "Let me fly home" she said. "Hang on for one more night, we'll be out of Delhi tomorrow" I said in a loving tone. I lie. I didn't; we rowed and spent much of the night bickering.
It was important to stay somewhere decent. Unfortunately the guidebook was rather short on ideas. The "delightful place" with "clean rooms... stuck in a now very fashionable 1950s time warp" was not our idea of very fashionable. Very grotty and beyond kitsch we decided, and walked away. We'd check out the Gurudwara at the Golden Temple instead.
Voluntary service is an integral part of the Sikh religion. A prominent aspect of this service is seen in Gurudwara kitchens, where Sikhs serve food to all, removing destinations between caste, colour or creed. An extension of this is the provision of free accommodation to pilgrims. We were pilgrims of a sort and availed the Sikh hospitality. We were given a large room with bathroom within the Golden Temple complex. The first thing we did was sleep.
I like the Sikh religion. In fact if I didn't already have a religion of my own I'd consider adopting Sikhism. Sikhs are not evangelical about their religion, they let it talk for itself. Whilst we were at the Golden temple we saw several American converts. But seeing them made me think that I would encounter not so much a theological difficulty in converting to Sikhism rather an aesthetic one. I'd look daft in a turban. Walking round the Golden Temple you must keep your head covered. I tied a sarong around my head in the fashion of a turban. Lindsey laughed at me. It was hot under the acres of material, and I've got short cropped hair. It must get very hot and sweaty when you've got a mane that has never been cut and metres of cloth tied in a turban on your head. Sikhs grow their hair and never cut it. This is because hair is associated with saintliness; indeed with the exception of Buddhism the religious big cheeses in all major religions are hairy. There is a body of thought that goes beyond the religious aspect of long hair and promotes it on scientific grounds. We were handed Sikh literature on leaving the Golden Temple, a couple of pamphlets were on hair. In the first, "Human Hair: a factory of vital energy" Dr. Chandra Singh asks the question "As there can exist no life without solar rays similarly no animal life is possible without hair or scales. It may be questioned : How does the modern shaven man continue to exist?" Luckily he has an answer to this question, "the act of shaving causes only partial deprivation and not the total and so ca not cause total extinction of the life thus the incomplete life, the shaven man lives, depends upon the short body hair, spreading on to the entire body, left unravaged by the razor". Quite. Another pamphlet by Dr. Gursaran Singh "Keshas; Gods test of Humans" extols moustache growth because "those who keep moustaches are less prone to suffer from respiratory diseases because moustaches serve as filters for the air they breathe in". He also states that a "beard contributes to an impressive personality" and that "those who cut their head-hair and shave their beard loose their teeth sooner than others. Repeated cutting of hairs reduces the quantity of protein in the body and one becomes mentally weak". Sadly he does not provide references or scientific evidence to back these statements up; is he suggesting that shaven bald guys are teethless idiots with no personality?! Much of the thesis of both of these authors is that hair promotes assimilation of vitamin D; Dr G. Singh prophetically concludes his chapter on the scientific aspects of hair growth; 'It should be kept in mind that the super-structure built on a weak foundation cannot last long. Today's children are the citizens of tomorrow. In the building of better nation, one has to build from the strong foundation up and not from the top down. The health of the children has to be built upon a strong foundation. The need of Vitamin-D is maximum during the active growing phase of early life and hence the necessity of long unshorn hair right from the earliest age".
Unlike other religious sites I have visited, the golden temple feels special. Unlike the impersonal, cold and dark cathedrals of Christianity that are more spooky than spiritual, there is a celestial atmosphere, an aura of peace on the Golden Temple; it's the sort of place God would chill out in. Surrounding the Sarowar, the 'pool of nectar' is a marble walkway. Pilgrims generally walk clockwise around it (although this does not seem to be as rigid as with the Tibet circumbulation of their stupas). In the central of the Sarowar is the Hari Mandir, the Golden Temple itself. The bottom is constructed with inlaid marble, whilst the top is covered with gold, reflected in the pool below. It is accessed by a walkway. In the heart of the Hari Mandir under a shroud is the original copy of the Sikhs holy book, the Granth Sahib. To the left as you enter the temple are three musicians, one playing the tabla and the other two playing harmoniums. For twenty-four hours they sing prayers. By putting the prayers to music, even if you do not understand the language you can still appreciate the divine rejoicing a Sikh guy in Delhi told us. The music is ethereal and haunting and gets inside you making meditation and emptying of the chattering mind simple. It was easy to find peace, sitting by the pool, staring at the Hari Mandir, listening to the music. We were at peace again after the nightmare of Delhi. In the golden Temple we began to love India and (after the previous nights bickering) each other again.
The Sikh religion is inherently practical, "The gurus laid the foundation of man's uplift not on such short cuts as mantra, miracles or mysteries but on man's own humanity, his own character as it is character alone- the character already formed which helps us in moral crises' says Teja Sing in 'The Sikh Religion; an outline of its doctrines'. Unlike most other male dominated religions, women get a shout. "How can they be called inferior" says Guru Nanak, "when they give birth to kings and prophets?" Another Guru called women "the conscience of man. "The roots of the Sikh religion were in Hinduism and Islam; in particular moving away from the caste system and instilling discipline and service in day to day living. One aspect of seeing all human nature as one is in the giving of Karhah Prashad or Holy Pudding. (Now come on, you've got to give credit to a faith that has holy puddings!) Sikhs buy servings of the pudding, served up on banana leaves. They then offer this at the temple. It gets added to a common pot from which it is doled out to everyone without distinction; all eating the common pudding. At the Golden Temple it is dolloped into your hand as you exit from the walkway. Lindsey couldn't get enough of the stuff, for her it tasted just like weetabix!
Sitting, meditating, watching the world go by was easy for a time. But Sikhs in the Golden Temple are very curious, and it would never be long before a child would come up and offer to shake our hands, or women would sit bedside us with their babies crawling and dribbling on the floor, then thrust into our faces for a 'smile at westerners'. And then young men with their "what is your good name, what country come from you?" I am talking to one Sikh man and I'm sure he has trimmed his beard. I point at it, saying I thought it was forbidden to cut hair. Embarrassed he smiles, "oh no, I use fixer". I suspect there is a brisk trade in hair sprays, mousses and gels for Sikh beards in the Punjab. A group of youths start talking to us. A guard wearing white with an orange turban and a spear in his right-hand shoos them away. He points at his ears. Listen to the prayers. well that is what we were trying to do Baba before we were rudely interrupted with "England cricket team not doing very well in Australia ay?"
Inspired and at peace we left the Golden Temple after giving a donation in the Hari Mandir and Lindsey having one, final dollop of Prashad.
Nothing is easy
With a few hours to kill before our train departed we went looking for Lambrettas for Brian. First stop was a scooter repair shop, 'we fix all types of scooter' read the board. I asked the proprietor, the only man who wasn't covered in oil and grease if he knew where we could find second hand scooters to buy. "We only fix scooters" he said to me, rolling his head as he spoke.
"Yes, I can see that" I replied, "but do you know where we can find old ones to buy".
"We only fix" he said, still rolling his head. This exchange followed in a similar fashion for a minute or so before he said "old scooter buying not possible."
"So you are saying..." my voice trailed off. We were getting nowhere, I thanked him for his help and wandered off.
I approached a young Sikh on a scooter and asked him the same question. Did he know where we could buy second hand scooters. He did, called over an auto rickshaw and directed the rickshaw wallah to a second hand scooter dealer. Only it wasn't. We found ourselves outside a large showroom selling brand new Honda scooters. Maybe they'd know where we'd find old Lambrettas. I walked into the showroom with the rickshaw wallah following me a couple of footsteps behind. I had barely stepped in when a young man with dark skin and slick black hair, oiled back asked me my business. I decided instantly that he was a lackey, the man I really wanted to talk to was the boss sitting at the desk on the far side of the showroom, but grease-head wasn't letting me past. He had little idea of personal space and placed his face uncomfortably close to mine. He was confrontational. "No, this is a new dealership. we don't sell Lambrettas, only Honda"
"Yes, I can see that, but I want to find a dealer who sells old Lambretta scooters". He repeated that this was a Honda dealership selling only new scooters several times, every time bringing his face just that little bit closer to mine so that by the end he was almost kissing me. I was getting irate.
Finally the boss came over. I explained my conundrum, where to find an old Lambretta. Naturally we started with "this is a new Honda dealership" but finally he caught on to what I was looking for and babbled something at the rickshaw wallah. His eyes lit up. He could help me himself, he knew what I wanted. I thanked the boss, remarking as I left that I didn't think much of his young salesman.
We criss-crossed Amritsar, being taken to second hand dealer to second hand dealer, and whilst we found old Bajaj scooters, there was not a Lambretta in sight. At every place we were went somewhere else. More often than not with the question, 'you want Enfield' ringing in our ears as we left. After four dealers our Rickshaw wallah was getting excited. He now knew the place, we'd definitely find what we were looking for here! There were four dealers next to each other. The first two excelled themselves in unhelpfulness; did they sell second hand scooters? "yes". Did they have any Lambrettas? "No." Did they know where I might be able to find Lambrettas? "No". By this point they were practically shooing me out of their offices. The third 'auto consultant' as second hand car and bike salesman are called was not so much helpful, more illuminating. "No, you will not find old Lambretta here" he told me. "There are none".
"But I have seen in Delhi" I replied.
"Delhi maybe. Not Amritsar". I didn't believe him. He went to a filing cabinet and pulled out a document. It was a scooter registration form. At the top was stamped '15 year expiry'. "No Scooter in Amritsar more than fifteen year old" I was told. "All old Lambretta sold for 15 rupees a kilogram". All those old bikes scrapped. Brian won't be happy I thought! The rickshaw wallah wasn't, however convinced when I suggested our search had been in vain. "No Baba, one more place. I know good place to help". It was next door. "You tried hard there mate" I said to the rickshaw wallah. We went into the office-cum- showroom. A long narrow room with an open shuttered front. A row of shiny motorbikes and scooters down the side and at the front a desk with several plastic seats around it. By the desk sat an old Sikh man dressed in white, sitting crossed legged on a bright red plastic chair. He nodded at me when I told him what we sought. Without a word he opened a desk drawer and rummaged around for a while before producing a well-worn and dog-eared address book. He flicked through the pages before settling on one. Running his forefinger across one of the entries he dialed a number using an old red phone. Other than the newspaper and the address book it was the only other item on the desk. He babbled in Hindi then put the phone down. "Please wait" he said, before offering us a cup of tea. And we wait. And wait. I get frustrated, we have, after all got a train to catch. And then a man pulls up on an old Enfield. The Sikh guy is beaming. "Here is the bike".
"Eh?" I grunt. Can it really be possible to confuse the word "Lambretta" with the word "Enfield". In India, anything is possible.
"No, I do not want an Enfield, I want a Lambretta" I told the man who had brought the motorbike.
"But Enfield is a good strong bike, Lambretta is no good".
"But it is a Lambretta that I want"
"This is good Enfield. Good price Baba". butts in the rickshaw wallah who now fancies himself as a used bike dealer. "Look," I begin, slowing my words, masking the frustration I feel, "I do not want an Enfield, I want a Lambretta Scooter, preferably one from the early sixties. You do not seem to have any, so lets not waste any more of my or your time". The man who brought the Enfield nods his head in agreement. "You want old bike. I bring 1960s Enfield for you". Stay calm I tell myself.
"Not Enfield. Lambretta."
"Lambretta are no good...."
"Come on Linds, we're leaving", and I start to walk away. The rickshaw wallah trots behind us. The man calls me, I turn around.
"I have brother who has Lambretta. Can bring it to you tomorrow..." I left those words hanging in the air as we sped off to the railway station, defeated. Then as we cut through the traffic a new seedling of an idea began to germinate. And so I probed the rickshaw wallah in depth about his auto-rickshaw. How much, how fast, how possible to change the license from public service to private... "Just imagine," I said to Lindsey, "touring India in a Rickshaw! We'd paint it pink and what a blast that'd be!" Lindsey's face blanked over. "I'm not entertaining any more of your crazy ideas Marc" she said with a resigned look.
"OK, not this trip, but the next one..."
"Yeah yeah" she said, letting me amuse myself with my daydreaming of trundling round India in a tuk tuk.
We picked up our bags from the lockers in the Gurudwara and J.P. Singh, the rickshaw wallah who we'd by now befriended took us to the station. As we walked to his three wheeler, other rickshaw wallahs drove up to us a called "you wanna water, you wanna water". I asked J.P. why they were asking us if we wanted water. "Oh no Baba", he said to me, they ask you if you going to the boarder". Pakistan was only thirty kilometers away. "I like my head to much" I said to J.P, "too much to get it chopped up off in Pakistan". He laughed. Indians don't care much for their Pakistani neighbors.
This is a mans world
The Shatabdi express is a very civilized way of travelling, and quicker than even the express and mail trains that run the same route. Wo betide ye who finds himself on any other train, least of all a local train. You can abandon all hope of a timely arrival at your destination, you will visibly age as you shunt through every provincial backwater in India on your way. There are a number of Shatabdi expresses, running on popular lines offering only air-conditioned accommodation. They borrow many of the tapping of airline hospitality, but in an Indian Railways style. We were travelling AC Seat class with a reclining seat. And the hospitality goes something like this:
First we are brought bottles of water, with a reminder on the tannoy to destroy our bottles before we leave the train. Stories persist of 'miscreants' rebottling mineral water bottles with water of dubious origin and selling it on to unsuspecting tourists. Shortly after tea is served, then food. India must be one of the few countries where being vegetarian is second nature. Indeed in many parts it is more the norm. So rather than having to book your veg food months in advance, and be served with second rate tasteless mush, a vegetarian option is always offered and is every bit as good as the meat counterpart. And so the steward approaches us, pushing his heated trolley and asks me "veg or non-veg". I say "Veg" and he pulls out two trays from the heated trolley with vegetarian dishes and places them in front of Lindsey and me.
"Did you see that?" asks Lindsey.
"What?" I say blankly.
"Don't be stupid, you know".
"You are going to have to help me here Lindsey, our marriage hasn't extended to mind reading yet"
"Don't be sarcastic. Didn't you see the way he served us."
I thought for a while, but could see nothing peculiar, "yes, he served us both veg dishes from his trolley"
Lindsey tutted loudly at me. "he served us both veg dishes from his trolley. Precisely".
"No. Sorry, you've lost me."
"He never asked me if I wanted veg or non-veg. It was as if I was invisible. no say in the matter."
"Yeah great isn't it! women know they're place here!" Lindsey elbowed me hard in the side. But she's made her point. It is all too often a man's world in India. It is always me who is offered tea first, my hand that is shaken, my answer is always assumed to speak for both of us. Despite the slow emancipation of women in India, the growth of women's magazines, Elle and Femina and their entertaining problem pages, women are still, certainly subdued in India.
"It could be worse" I told Lindsey, "he could have addressed you like you weren't my wife." In Amritsar we spoke to a distinguished Sikh gentleman who, when I introduced Lindsey to him asked me "Is she your daughter?" Do I look that old?! But that was just an insult to me. The first time we were in India together Lindsey had short hair. On that occasion I was asked more than once, "is he your son?!"
Back to Delhi at 11:30pm. Lindsey crashes out immediately. I pop by to see Brian and tell him the Lambretta news. He has had enough of Delhi and the jokers in Karol Bagh and is getting out. Not as early as us. We are on the 06:10 train to Jaipur. Up at 5.