By Khushi Jain
(Best experienced while listening to DilGiraDafatan from Delhi-6)
Petals sweltering under the scorching sun and leaves drying to flakes. Battered, on the grey concrete, incessantly stomped on by local chappals and tourist Nikes. The scent lingers though, mixing with the smell of petrol and sweat. The Lal Mandir is alive with its most frequent visitors, the birds. Loquacious and energetic, the winged creatures come here to heal. Or maybe the healing is a mere side effect of the divine presence. A little further down the road, to the right, it is still the 1970s, or at least shopkeepers and customers still in the 1970s. They carry pencils behind their ears and Walkmans in their pockets. The left is completely devoted to cycles – both old and new, both taken apart and complete.
It hits suddenly. No. It doesn’t hit, it attacks. That same scent, only richer. Idols of stone, their necks blooming with those that ultimately lie half dead on the congested roads outside. It is strong enough to be discomforting. For a split second, the entire idea seems discomforting. But it is easy to shrug off. The pandemonium is enveloping, it is exciting. Curiosity oozes out of every pore as eyes try to catch moments – the ocean of people, rocking back and forth. It is an attempt to stand motionless in time.
A few steps ahead, the Redeemer lies in a house of white – elegant and sophisticated. Maybe a little too simple but not extraordinarily simple. People are different in this part of the street. They walk slower, their hands move rhythmically, almost in sync and if you step in their way, their reproachful voices have depleted volumes. The shadow of the of European columns hugs their faces, it is an embrace of soothing tranquillity.
Deeper into this motley of people, markets and hasty dreams, is a Sybaris. Fresh fruits chopped with a dangerously sharp knife, in motions swift enough to make you dizzy, peppered with all kinds of condiments – when teeth bite into them, the entire nervous systemsizzles with energy. The voluptuousness continues with the confluence of mint, dry mango and black salt. Lazing in a siesta in colossal earthen pots, jaljeera is electrifying all the way from the palates of the tongue to the pits of the stomach. The spicy green liquid floating in ice is no less than a slap to the boiling months of June. Not far from this is the eccentric soda in its equally eccentric kanche-vali bottles, waiting to flow into parched food pipes. It is strangely ironical that the man selling these stands drenched in sweat beside a thirsty fountain.
A lofty building of a sombre orange with open courtyards sits on a platform gazing at this spectacle. For a few days each year, lights festoon every inch of this edifice. It shines in all its glory. Today is not one of those days. But that doesn’t mean that it is defeated. It is humble. And therefore, much more glorious. Its golden domes bounce off the rays of the sun, they are competitors; and more often than not, Phoebus Apollo has to forfeit.
It is here that the effervescence reaches its precipice. Windows glitter with rhinestones and textiles. Old coins clink in steel bowls, their songs more romantic than those of wineglasses. The waning flowers no longer populate the air. Or they do. Because the air smells of everything at once, its indiscernible. There’s a weightlessness, an abundance in this pocket of human suffocation. Existence stops. It slowly withers away and leaves behind a nakedness that is liquid. And that flows. There are no confusions, no hurries, no anticipations and no regrets. But it is not stagnation either because there is constant movement, it flows.
Like water. There is a temptation to sip it. The desiccation has returned and with it, an indefatigable consciousness. In some ways, the corporeal has always overpowered the immaterial. But this water is different. It quenches without kissing the lips as eyes feast on the seven arches swaying slightly in the constituent of the ornamented bowl. It has always been food for thought, the idea that water is continuously moving but never reaches. Perhaps, it has already reached. But it still stirs, it still roams, a gypsy in search of solitude.
Men loiter in white kurtas and checked pyjamas. A low hum is emanated by the grey speakers, it makes the whole mosque echo with tactile vibrations. The central white dome is barely visible but its presence is undisputable. Pigeons walk on the mammoth red-sandstone tiles like Jahaanpanas of the place. The arrival here has been a sedated epiphany, the puzzle coming to life piece by piece. It is also an unravelling of the nerves. Time really did seem obsolete in those previous moments. Were they even moments?
The grandeur is blinding. It is not singular. Remember, this place is decadent. There is a flavour all around – in every bit of space. Reds, ochres, greens, yellows, browns, blacks and whites percolate into the skin cells – drip dripdrip. How could this not have been sensed till now? Remember the decadence. It is excessive, overwhelming. Bodies bundled in sheets of corporate routines in stale suburban pockets take time to notice it all, to register everything. The spices are not in tin boxes and jute boris in warehouses, the spices are not in weighing scales and customers’ palms. They are on the tongue, settling under the skin and dissolving into blood. And what the eyes witness is no less of an experience.
It is a celebration. Qila-e-Mubaraq. Everything else is worthless and rightly disappears. Everything but the spices and the people. The ocean of people becomes one large blurry mass. The fort steals away all life. It stands over them, on their heads.
It looks like something never seen before. Distance does that. A sleek snake of red stone sleeps while minarets soar high into the cloudless blue sky. Imagination moves its cogs and starts dressing up the lifeless structure into a bride.
You are decorating her for yourself.
A thin river of chandnislithers towards you.
You pin a thousand moons into her hair.
The gleaming silver is reiterating a silent prayer.
Her veil overflows with golden zari and lotuses lining the edges, join in a chorus of blessings.
The rotten flowers.
That is all you think off as the bride adorns her wrists with bangles and ties singing anklets on her feet. They are in there somewhere with the spices. Trampled and torn, awaiting eternal sleep on the foot of this fort, you don’t see them and yet you do. It is Tuesday today, 16 of June 2020. And the 1970s. And the 1850s. And the 1650s. All together. Temporality is lost one moment and rediscovered the next. The cycle is incessant. Time is a joke and you are the punchline.
Locked in a city and ironically, also away from it. Is it an unfinished love story? No. It seems more like a one-sided romance. You don’t fall for Makhfi because she yearns for someone else. And yet you did, you do, every day, every time. Can love become a routine yet in its familiar essence hold originality of experience? Can it become a poem you know by heart yet have to read it each time you try to recite?
You identify with them, the rotten flowers of Old Delhi.
“Sippiyo Ke Honth Se Moti Chhalak Rahe Hain
Ghazlon Ke Sohbat Mein Geet Bhee Behek Rahe Hain
Samandar LeharoKee Leharo Kee Chaadar Odhake So Raha Hai
Par Main Jaagu Ek KhumaariEk Nasha Sa, Ek Nasha Sa Ho Raha Hai
Tu Magar Hai Bekhabar, Hai Bekhabar
Dil Gira Kahin Par Dafatan”