What’s with these ’48 hours in…’ (insert a city) articles?
We get stories of bars, restaurants, artifacts and ruins that ‘must be seen’ – busily ticking off lists and locations, rushing from one place to another with a hired taxi that’s waiting at our beck and call.
But travel doesn’t have to be like that. It can be about taking breaths slowly rather than using them up rushing. It can be about reflection and observation – both of why we are here and what we are engaging with.
Let me tell you about one of my favourite places in Delhi. In this place you have as many hours as you like (you could easily use up all your 48 if you want), in an area that’s roughly 3 or 4 square kilometres. You don’t need a taxi – the metro will bring you close by and whisk you away again when you’re ready to leave.
This is not a quick run through a list but an opportunity to walk and take those breaths. These ‘breaths’ are breaths of the everyday – not big tourist breaths, not huge shopping-mall type breaths, or even bar-type breaths, though they are all nearby if you want. These are breaths of civilizations and of modernity.
The thing about civilizations is that they leave markers, yet they are part of the contemporary – the modernity of lifestyle, cultural values, social position. The Athens metro moves its way around sites of antiquity, not through them, the Pyramids sit as an outpost of urbanisation. You can walk through the natural landscapes of the Australian bush, oblivious to the ways indigenous people used and interpreted it, perhaps 50 000 years ago. You may see a scar tree, a midden.
The thing about these civilisational histories is that we also live them – through travels, work, study, interest, life or whatever. They are at once part of history and of the contemporary.
India is no exception. Layer upon layer of history is added, subtracted and left over time – markers of both history and of the modern. And these are both in civilisational terms, and, for me, in personal terms.
A good part of my own history, my own story, is tied up with India. I’ve been coming here now for something like 25 years – occasionally staying for months, occasionally only for weeks, depending on what my work required. Currently I’ve been in Delhi for the last 18 months and have more to go.
It’s a link that incorporates Gandhi (my first few trips were in search of Gandhi and his contemporary relevance for sustainable futures – especially small-scale decentralization and non-violent social change) and carries through to some of the great debates of modern India – the characteristics of sustainable development trajectories.
Over these visits, these years, you get multiple-layers of continuity and change. Smells, sounds, a gentle warmer breeze at the end of winter become part of the mosaic of layers. The area around Lodhi Gardens in South Delhi is one of these multi-layered spaces.
Seeing the 15th century tomb of Mohammad Shah Syad through the fog of a winter’s morning in Lodhi Gardens is a sight I’ve seen many times over the years. It has an ethereal feel. There is something special about it, at least to my mind and represents some of the great things about Delhi – its gardens and green spaces, the fact that you have these monumental sites all over the place and they are ‘just there’.
Here in the gardens you can see the changing nature of Delhi, and through these eyes, perhaps start to see the changing nature of India, as the middle-classes walk, as the homeless move on, as people read papers or do yoga or exercise in this most public of places. And don’t forget the dogs, with their warm overcoats to keep the cold at bay in winter, short coats in summer – so many dogs being led by dog walkers, by servants and by owners. And of course, those strays who seek out the warming winter sun or the depth of the Lodhi Gardens shade in summer.
Was it really that long ago that I was playing football on the lawns of the gardens with my son and daughter, both adults now, but then probably about seven and ten? And before that, driving to the airport after my first visit to India (some 25 years ago), discovering the wide streets of New Delhi for the first time, and driving past this place – where did this Delhi come from, we asked each other – was it always here?
India’s a bit like that – threads of timelessness and threads of change, coming together at these kinds of locations, and coming together through these inhabitants of the city – those who live and survive, those who work and try to.
One of the constants of Lodhi Gardens is of course people. Here, at weekends, can be found picnickers, sometimes with only a rug, often though extended families enjoying some winter sun (or summer shade), loaded up with rugs, soft drink, copious food in storage boxes and, often enough, the radio or the CD player.
Each day the paths are walked and run as various Delhiites come to the gardens to get their exercise. Walking often consists of two people, talking and discussing whatever it is they discuss – friends, business, politics, the state of the world, the state of India, the state of Delhi. All are topics which will be covered.
And of course, the active can be found in various cricket matches which are always there, no matter what season. Young men and boys, fathers, uncles, grandfathers all trying to hit the ball out of the park, or trying to bowl the ball at express speeds. India has a women’s cricket team but I’m not sure where they learn their craft – all the time I’ve been in India, I think I’ve only ever seen boys and young men in parks and on spare ground.
It’s a special place, and not just for me. Just the other day I was sitting having a coffee in a café in Defence Colony, where I live, and overheard two young men at the table next to me talking about Lodhi Gardens. For them, the gardens represent the intersection point of poverty, wealth, power and India. The difference, for them, is that in the gardens, all this isn’t stratified – the gardens provide a space where all come together and enjoy their interactions with the space – a space that is at once our space and their space.
And it is at once a contemporary space and a civilisational marker. And long may it remain so.