Losing my Shangri-La, Chadni Chowk – Old Dehli, India

“So I’ve bought my tickets, I will be there next Saturday at 5. Can somebody pick me up?”

“OH. KAY.” yells back my mother. “Dobro. Dobro.”  Good, good, she yells down the phone and for the very first time, I am thankful she is yelling, as the line is terrible.

“Remember, I’m not alone. I’m bringing my new boyfriend with me. His name is Philippe.”

“FILIP!” she yells again. “Lepo ime.”  Nice name, she says and I can guess why she thinks it’s a nice name.  Filip Višnjić was a much-celebrated poet from her homeland Serbia. Filip was blind, and played an instrument called the guslé, much like a lute.  I was taught some of his poems when I was a child and was even given a toy guslé when we visited the former Yugoslavia.

Chadni Chowk market, Old Dehli

“Where are you?” she yells back.

“I am still in India. In Dehli, the capital, in this really crazy market.”

“OH-KEHY. How long you stay?”

“I’ve been here three months.”

“No. How long you stay home?”

“Um. I don’t know yet mum. For a bit, will tell you more when I get there.”

“OH KEHY. SEE YOU. Be careful.”

“Always ma.”

We rang off, but I kept standing there in the hot and cramped little telephone booth, at the back of an equally hot and cramped little store of all sorts.  Philippe and I had been shopping for some last minute gifts in several of Delhi’s markets that morning. We had made our way over to Chandi Chowk in Old Delhi, which was a labyrinth of a market, with winding alleys and streets selling souvenirs, spices, sari’s, an entire section devoted to silver jewelry. We had stopped in a little restaurant for a lunchtime thali. The place seemed to be overrun by long-term expatriate journalists and senior English professors. I remember one woman, about my age, having adopted the custom Indian head bobble, which is a way of saying yes, yet she did so often she looked as if she had a nervous disorder.

“If she does it any more, her head will drop off,” I whispered to Phil whilst shaking my own head frantically back and forth.

Philippe now shook his head back at me, but in the Western way. He hadn’t quite got used to my sense of humour yet.

Thali

“I’m just like my Dad,” I said, shaking my head again, “He loves impersonating people.”

That reminded me. We had bought our tickets for Australia that morning, and I needed to tell my parents I was coming home for Christmas. I looked outside the dirty restaurant windows and spotted a strange little store selling souvenirs, spices, stationery, yet there was also a psychedelic sign, which read INTERNATIONAL CALLS.

I was 30 when I visited in India, yet had been wanting to travel there since I was sixteen and a new wave of hippy had taken over my high school and home town.  To a pseudo hippy, India represented Shangri-La.   I was reading Siddhartha, my classmates and I spoke about revolution. I smiled a lot, I walked around barefooted, and I listened to Dylan, Jefferson Airplane. My friends and I went to protests, made our own clothes. You’d think I would grow out of it, but no, this continued right up until the time I graduated from University. Upon getting a job, my harem pants were replaced by a suit, my smile with a stress frown, instead of Siddhartha, I read self-help books to help me get through the day, herbal cigarettes were traded by a pack a day of Marlboro, chamomile for diet coke. I rose quickly up the corporate ladder and was headhunted by a major consultancy firm where I was given a skyline office, a nice salary with all the perks.  I lasted all of three months, before packing it in and moving to the Australian tropics where I could go barefooted once again.  That story is fodder for another blog, but needless to say, after almost 15 years waiting for India, standing there in that hot and sticky telephone booth, I wondered why I waited at all?

The trip had been hard. The trip had almost been horrible.

Asides from the food, which was fabulous, I hated India. I hated its noise, its heat, its chaos, I didn’t understand the fuss about the dirty Ganges, I was traumatized by the ashrams, which were chock full of spiritual tourists, who travelled from one ashram to another like a night out bar hopping.  Goa was so over-run by drunken Westerners; you’d think you were any place but India. But what I didn’t like most of all was the gross inequality and apathy towards the poor, the outdated and childish caste system, and the poverty – omnipresent and inescapable.

In the market that morning, and throughout much of the country, we had come across children begging, children sick, always dirty, perpetually hungry, their orange tinged hair showing the signs of malnutrition and wasting. My heart broke a hundred times each day.  I stepped around lepers and people without limbs. In Bombay, a torso lay in the middle of the footpath, a beggars bowl alongside it, later on that day, it had been moved to another part of the city.

India has experienced great economic achievement in recent years, as well as great increases in food production, yet it is still home to one third of the world’s malnourished children. I recently watched the film Good Food, Bad Food by French filmmaker Coline Surreau which brought me back to India all these years later.  Initially driven off their land through land enclosures imposed by international multinationals (who mostly planted cash crops such as cotton and siphoned the produce over to Western countries for their own industries) small-scale farmers in India have also become dependent on these large corporations for supplies. Traditional farming methods have been replaced by fertilizers and insecticides, which have depleted soil of its natural resources and contribute to poor yield. Corporations have also pushed and shoved their way into the food chain, so much so that India’s agricultural sector faces some of the most staggering suicide rates in the world.  This chain of events is also contributing to the rise of slum cities, where farmers and their families often end up in urban centers looking for work.  Today, on account of urban sprawl, some 93 million people live in slums in India, here they lack clean water, sanitation and of course safe shelter.

Given that two thirds of the world’s poorest people are reliant on land for their food and income, investing intelligently in agriculture is crucial, not just in India, but everywhere.  Thankfully, today there are a number of local, grassroots organizations that have set up in India and working to create ecologically diverse systems that require few inputs and focus around what people really need.   When I returned from India, I remember looking at food differently, and it was probably the moment that I stopped shopping at supermarkets and whenever possible, buying my food at markets, trying to do my little bit for the farmer, but also for the earth.

Today, whilst writing a report about the nutrition situation in India’s equally troubled neighbor Pakistan, I decided to take a break and walk down to Montréal’s own Little India, which is a 10-minute walk away from home. I went to a new place as my usual one was being renovated. The owner asked me my name, “Mira,” I said.  “Mira, good, good.” He smiled, “You know who Mira was in India?” I did know and have heard that story many times during my travels, yet never tired of listening to it, so prompted him to continue, “Well Mira, she was a Hindu poetess and a mystical singer, who was also romantically involved with Krishna …”

I sat there listening to him and realized that although India shattered my young adulthood wanderlust, it was probably just as well.

Check out Good Food Bad Food’s trailer here http://www.tribute.ca/trailers/good-food-bad-food/13053/

For Thali in Montreal go to Indian Curry House 996 Jean Talon Ouest, Curry and Naan, 989 Jean Talon Ouest or Mahli Suite 880 Jarry Ouest. For Thali in India, follow your nose, you’ll be sure to find some soon!

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