Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Polo, New Delhi Style

I once had a friend … well, he was my boss … who played polo in India even though he couldn’t ride a lick when he arrived in New Delhi for his three-year tour of duty at the American Embassy. Then, someone took him to a polo match. “It looked like fun,” he said. “So, I joined the local polo club.”

Maybe it was cheaper then. Now, it’s one thousand dollars a year plus you pay for your lessons and your rides. But they do teach you polo, and you do get to play—but not like the top national riders.

Most of them come from the military, which means that polo is more or less run by the Indian Army. Every Saturday and Sunday the lorries—that look like beet trucks—haul into the New Delhi polo grounds, each holding eight or nine cross-tied “ponies.” Troop carriers follow, filled with uniformed horse handlers. There are men to hold the horses, men to groom them, men to clean up after them. There are horse-walkers, tack wallahs, and water carriers, not to mention non-coms to direct the whole affair.

…even the seats in the viewing stand sport white slip covers …

Polo, as a sport, originated in India, and the Indians take it seriously. From the horses, which are as good as any I’ve seen anywhere, to the organization, attention to detail is everywhere present. Even the seats in the viewing stands sport white slip covers, brilliantly clean. And, every week a horde of low caste Indians labor on the thirteen-acre playing field, repairing the damage done by hundreds of galloping hooves.

On the subject of caste, I wonder if polo is a social leveler. Theoretically, I would assume, a low caste Indian with a talent for making goals, can whack mallets with a prince and receive a congratulatory kiss on the cheek from princess. Do they? I should find out.

We went to the all-India finals, the last matches of 2006, hoping that rumors of intermission entertainment of performing elephants and other Indian delights was true. It wasn’t. We were treated to music from a regimental band and a marching cadets who goose-stepped right smartly across the turf.

... they missed my own fashion statement of jeans from Linton’s Big R …

Other entertainment included a “best dressed” award that went to a twenty-something dressed in skin-tight designer jeans, a leather jacket and a matching leather tam. What I couldn’t figure out was how they missed my own fashion statement of jeans from Linton’s Big R and a Ralph Lauren polo shirt over a pair of sandals.

Another puzzlement was how we, American horse breeders, missed the Indian market. Most of the horses, I learned, come from Argentina and are Argentinean Thoroughbreds or TB crosses. And the prices the Indians pay! A hundred thousand for a nice 15 hand gelding with potential.

Think of the demand. Most of the players have a string with a minimum of six horses. There are four players with alternates for each team. And there are dozens of teams in Delhi, nevermind those based in other parts of the country.

But for any of you thinking to break into this market, forget it. The Argentines have it locked up through the simple expedient of sending their players to India along with their horses. The players come. They win on their own horses. And they sell and sell and sell. Really, too smart.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Speaking Laughter

“Hello. Hello.” Giggles almost always send the repeated hellos up the musical scale, sometimes creating near hysteria as the children calling us clutch their sides and run around in circles, in love with their own daring. “Hello. Hello.” More laughter.

If I answer, “Hello. How are you?” Faces lift in expectation—surprised and pleased. “Hello. How are you?” they repeat as a chorus. Like little parrots they are expected to repeat and remember. “Hello. How are you?”

“I am well thank you.”

The chorus comes amid giggles, “I am well thank you.”
...soon laughter is augmented by actual words ...

When my own daughter was as young as these children, we talked of the language of laughter that children of different nationalities use to communicate. German-speaking, French, Hindu, Amharic … mix kids with no common tongue and, in my experience, they’ll play happily and in perfect understanding, using nothing except noise and laughter, gestures, and grins. In no time, they are picking up words of each others’ tongues, and, soon, the laughter is augmented by actual words.

But these children at the Imanbala (House of the Iman) want to practice their English. Often, they know only the one word, “Hello,” but, still, it gives them great pleasure to have the “Hello” returned.
...enchanted with the word and our white skins...

Entering the Imanbala in Lucknow, the little group of tourists that I’ve joined is surrounded by an entire school plus their teachers when a New Zealander with us asks to take a picture of one group of children. They are well-dressed in their neat school uniforms. “Picture, picture, picture,” they chorus, enchanted with the word and with our white skins. They all want to touch us. They all want to shake hands and, maybe, get our autographs. One enterprising young man presents an Italian tourist with a ten-rupee note. “Please,” he says as though the Italian is a Bolywood star.

“I am learning good English,” one girl of about fourteen says. And she does speak quite well, telling us where they come from and telling us that they are touring to “understand our history.”

It’s certainly true that everywhere I go, each historic site I visit in India, I see hundreds of school children in their uniforms. They line up and walk along obediently with their teachers. But, once released, they swarm like children everywhere, hooting and yelling, running and playing tricks on each other.

“Hello, hello.” Our school has at last gone its way. Now, we have a new group of youngsters following us. “Hello, hello.”

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Siege of Lucknow

High pillars rise into the gloom. The walls are white-washed brick broken where canon balls slammed into them in 1857. We circle down and down, descending below the thick walls of the British resident’s house in Lucknow to a deep cellar, its vaulted roof forming the ground floor of the house above. Arches lead from room to room

Dark. For the victims of the Siege of Lucknow, what little light they had came from small half-moon windows up at ground level, many of the spaces were black holes, litterally.

Here was where most of the women and children were sequestered. They were the wives, mothers, and offspring of British officers who had elected to live in India. They were young women who had come out from England to visit relatives and, they hoped, find a husband among the many eligible bachelors posted with the regiments. They were the most unlucky among the unlucky.

I can visualize them in little family groups, trying to make some sort of a life as the siege of the British compound continued for month after month and into the searing heat of summer. They lacked all sanitation, had little water, ran out of food and candles. They were killed by cholera, typhoid, starvation, scurvy, small pox, heat stroke, the occasional canon ball, and plain fatigue.

...fled their McPalaces for refuge in the cellars ...

Outside the deep hole occupied by the women, the buildings on the British compound slowly disintegrated under regular pounding by Indian artillery. We walk around the ruins, and I’m amazed at the size of the homes, termed bungalows. These mini-palaces were occupied by the senior officers.

I gawk at the regimental doctor’s home, which features in the history books. I had no idea. It’s three stories tall with a massive portico that would dwarf the finest southern mansion’s entry. How the mighty were fallen. On one day in 1857, the middle class British of Lucknow fled their McPalaces for refuge in the cellars and behind the walls of the residency. There they died or there they stayed for time beyond imagining.

At the end, some seven hundred members of the British community holed up in Lucknow lived. Two thousand died. At the end, the British triumphed over incredible odds and despite appallingly dreadful leadership.

“This place,” our guide says as we look at the hole a canon ball made on the cellar wall, “is the only place in India that I can feel sorry for the British. The only place.”

Later, we’re standing in the middle of a street. Just up the way is the cellar of the women. All around are the tatters of brick that once shaped buildings. Then, there is the impressive ruin of the doctor’s house with its reminders of the British Raj and its injustices. “I feel sorry for the people,” I say. “All of them.”

Get Me to the Train on Time

“Holy shit!” I shout out loud into the depths of my blankets, the sound reaching the dark of my bedroom, waking my daughter next door. The illumined dial of my watch, even under the covers, says its five-thirty in the morning. Simple math. I can do simple math. Shocked and at five-thirty am, I can still do simple math. A six-oh-five departure time gives me thirty-five minutes to get to the train.

Five minutes later—whatever I could find thrown into a bag and clothes pulled over arms, legs, and head, with my daughter up and dressed—we wake the soundly sleeping guard to unlock the gate. He takes his time, has to put on his jacket, and can’t find his key. “Hurry!” I shout. “Hurry.”

Five more minutes takes us to a taxi stand with its drivers asleep on cots. Unintentionally, our flashing lights and honking rouses two soldiers—on nighttime duty—their automatic rifles jerking upright in our headlines. Two minutes pass as soldiers and guns try to decide if we’re friend or foe. Two minutes of waiting for the designated driver to wind his turban onto his head—God forbid he should go out with his hair showing.

“Hurry!” I shout. “Hurry.” Twelve minutes down. No. Only twenty minutes left. I’ve lost three minutes.

The driver doesn’t hurry, but he gets his car started, and we’re on our way. I barely hear my daughter calling, “Good luck.” The soldiers are on their feet now, the butts of their guns on the ground.

Why a taxi? Because our knowledge of the streets around the train station is minimal, and there’s another challenge—locating the right entrance to the station. As it is … . I punch numbers into my cell … have to do it twice. Whatever did we do without cell phones? “Here,” I hand the device to the driver. “Listen to the directions.”

He does. He can’t talk and drive, so his foot comes off the gas pedal and lands on the brake. His vehicle coughs and chokes, the engine threatening to quit. I get the cellphone back, and we pick up speed, and the taxi clangs and clatters as though detaching and dropping bits and pieces behind, leaving a trail like Hansel and Gretel. Honest to God!

But it is early and the broad streets are mostly empty streets. With five minutes to spare, we creep up to the station, the driver not sure of the entrance. Finally, he mumbles something, and the taxi groans to a halt. Taking it all on faith, I shove twice what the fare should cost at him and leap out the door.

The seat belt comes with me. My foot tangles in it, and I almost go head first into the high curb. Hurry. Hurry. Hurry. The words ring in my head, as I run through the door, up a set of stairs, over a track, and down the other side. “Lucknow Express” says the sign. The train is there! Exactly as advertised. And the first class cars are right in front of me.

Now, I run faster, my bag bumping behind, leaping the irregularly placed paving blocks. Three minutes … all the time in the world. I slow. I stroll, looking for car number twelve. I begin to think about what didn’t go in my case, about what I’m wearing, about not bringing a jacket.

“I did it,” I say to my daughter a few minutes later, my case tucked into an overhead bin, my butt planted in a Pullman chair. We’re chugging east in the general direction of yesterday’s Burma where Kipling’s “sun came up like thunder over China cross the bay.” At the very least, we’ll get a red sunrise … guaranteed this time of the year.

My eyes close, and I repeat, “I did it, and with five minutes to spare.” Bed and sleep and a race across Delhi are a memory. The red sunrise is my future.

Lucknow Express

Click and clack. Clickety-clack. The Lucknow Express picks up speed, pulling out of New Delhi Station, leaving behind a snarl of traffic—human, vehicular, and animal—and heads into the still dark early morning.

There’s nothing to see but the white light of the car, the dark skins of the passengers, the packed overhead luggage bins, and the shiny linoleum floor. The door at the end of the car opens and a waiter comes in with the first offering of the six hour trip. He’ll be back … often.

I listen to an iPod and work a Sudoku puzzle while the woman next to me, a heavy jacket over her bright yellow sari, dozes. Her head lolls against the darkness beyond the window.

Dawn is approaching. The door opens, letting in the click and clack of metal wheels on rails, and the waiter is back. This time his cart carries thermos jugs of hot water to go with the tea bags he brought on the first trip. Letting my tea bag seep in the hot water, I turn my head toward the windows where light seeps above the horizon. Here, now, come the black shapes of water buffalo, the thatch roofs of granaries, the tall cone of a brick kiln.

Visual vignettes. A village comes close, and there is a boy on a roof with the giant red ball of a sun just topping the horizon behind him. Briefly, his arms frame it—an Apollo bearing the sun. Then, he stretches, losing his brief flirtation with the supernatural, and begins a routine of calisthenics.

I watch other Indians waking in their incredible numbers. With the dawn, they’re working, tilling fields, riding bullock carts, burning ditches.

Slowing, we pull into Ghanziabad, passing makeshift huts, new construction with unfinished walls and networks of pole scaffolding. Mazes of wire festoon the building fronts, witness to a national freebooting spirit, a help yourself attitude toward power distribution.

The train jerks to a stop. Was it here that the windows of our car were starred and pitted by hurled bricks and stone? Every car in the train is similarly battle scarred—train bashing seeming to be an important component of civil protest in India. Just the day before this trip the newspapers had featured photographs of burning “bogies,” part of a riot in one of the southern states. But what’s the story behind the injuries suffered by my bogie? Were there people like me inside, appearing as bodiless heads to the rioters on the platform. Today, thank God, all is peaceful.

The reminder of violence returns later as we pass an ambulance train sitting on a siding. The windowless cars, a flat shade of orange, stimulate more questions. How often is that special train needed? Did it clack along the tracks to the relief of the earthquake victims last year? It must take hours to get the staff together, to find an engine, to clear the tracks, to … .

One answer comes all too soon when I wake up the next morning to CNN reporting the collapse of an overpass onto a passing train. Thirty-two people died immediately, and many more suffering serious injuries were expected to succumb to them because … it took the hospital train twelve hours to reach them.

Death is common in India, a normal part of Hindu life and, if the person is fortunate, this death ends the chain of reincarnation. I see one such aspirant getting a head start on eternity, being carried toward the sacred waters of the Ganges. His body, wrapped in white, lies on a platform balanced on the heads of eight men. They reach the water and lower him into it. Then, we are past Kanpur and crossing a river along which the gods walked and where death is a business.

Outside, scenes blur. One bullock looks much like the next. The dogs of every town, tails in loose, high curves, scavenge through identical trash heaps. They also lie in roads, apparently mistaking their unprivileged lives for those of the sacred cows. The latter can and do claim roads as beds without fear, and the sight of kamikaze drivers braking to roll cautiously around a recumbent cow is so common, it is as interesting as wallpaper.

Upside down ditches—banks that delineate fields—make similar patchworks everywhere. Uttar Pradesh, the most northern of India’s provinces, snugging up under Nepal, is the breadbasket of the country. It is also the wealthiest province, as anyone from UP will tell you in a nano second.

Click and clack. The refined voice of the female announcer tells us that we are coming into Lucknow, the cultural heart of UP. I see a woman holding her baby boy with his naked butt hanging over the edge of the station platform, his little body obediently defecating onto the tracks … poddy training, Indian style.

Friday, December 01, 2006


Tuk-tuks, thousands of them looking like flocks of ducklings, welcome us back to Delhi, bobbing cheerfully along New Delhi’s broad avenues, swimming together on byways, lined up along tall curbs. They are everywhere—borne along by the ebb and flow of humans and cycle-rickshaws in Old Delhi’s narrow lanes, packed together on the broad avenues of Connaught Circus, speeding under shady trees of the diplomatic enclaves. These yellow-bonneted taxis, small boxes with open sides and one end more or less anchored to three wheels, cheerfully putter about, their protruding single front tire looking like a perky, little bill. Nebishing along each and every street and lane, drivers in their Sikh turbans or Hindi sweater vests, they pick children up at schools and drop them off, carry men to their work and women to their shopping. Call and one will appear in the time it takes to disconnect your cell.

Their little green bodies tend to disappear below the level of traffic, but, thanks to their tops of yellow vinyl, they’re impossible to miss and, with drivers of uncertain abilities, they often aren’t missed. Cages of iron bars fence their lights to protect them from breakage. Dents and dings, scratches and rust, mark their bodies, the ones that bobbed when they should have ducked, that darted forward at the wrong time, that challenged one normal-sized vehicle too many.

...the man has his guide, and he's following it ...

Thinking of this, we come up behind a tuk-tuk that has his single front wheel solidly placed on a line, managing to hog both lanes of traffic. Our driver honks. He honks again. He leans on the horn. But the tuk-tuk driver might as well be sitting in the cab of a train following a track. This man has his guide, and he’s following it.

A circle comes up, and we slide around him, escaping, a flood of traffic following us and spreading out, vying for road space in the usual ‘threading the needle’ way. As we weave and dodge along our own path, I watch other tuk-tuks skipping agilely from lane to lane like ducks in a circus shooting gallery.

From the rear, their hoods could as easily belong to an eighteenth century buggy or the rig that Curly sings about in “Oklahoma” with “isinglass curtains that roll right down, in case there’s a change in the weather.” Many of these, too, come with curtains that can “roll right down.”

...a set of toes visible where the driver's shoeless foot has been tucked up under him ...

Just as the duckling have a certain adorable charm, so do the tuk-tuks. Look a bit closer, though, and most interiors are as battered as the exteriors and as lacking in cleanliness. But the price is right. For the equivalent of two dollars, a tuk-tuk will drive any place you want to go in Delhi.

One slips in front of us, a set of toes visible where the driver’s shoeless foot has been tucked up on the seat and under his body. The toes wiggle as the tuk-tuk slides into impossibly small gaps in traffic, breasts a river of vehicles on a traffic circle, then disappears down an adjoining street. Our driver says something in Hindi that I don’t understand. Just as well. Tuk-tuks often act as mindless as they look, trying the patience of the most phlegmatic driver.

Still, the sight brings a smile. How often are toes a part of a driving experience?