The zoo turned out to be closed on Fridays, but Sonu suggested we see the Old Fort, which is right next to it. As we were parking the car, he held up his cell phone and said, “This camera, all snaps, yesterday, gone. No work.” What he meant was that yesterday at some of the sights he’d asked people to take our picture together, and that something happened to those pictures.
“Oh no, that’s too bad,” I said. “I can send you my pictures when I get my Internet connected. Do you have an email account?”
“Yes,” he said.
We got out and walked toward the Old Fort entrance. Admittance was five rupees for Indians and one hundred rupees for foreigners. I couldn’t slip past as a local, so I had to pay the full $2 to get in. I gave my money to Sonu and he had a brief Hindi conversation with the man behind the ticket counter, walking away with two tickets: one for himself and one for me. We walked under a huge Persian arch in red sandstone. A man tore our tickets in half and started speaking at length to Sonu. I didn’t understand what was going on, but I think what happened is Sonu tried to get in for free as “my driver” (like a seeing eye dog) and they weren’t falling for it. I offered to buy Sonu’s ticket but he said no, I should go inside and meet him at the arch when I was finished.
I walked through the searing white sun to the Purana Qila plaque that explained this was the site of Indraprastha, an ancient civilization that mysteriously vanished, and that the Afghan ruler Sher Shah built the fort during his rule from 1538 to 1545.
I was reading the plaque and sweating profusely when Sonu popped up behind me. “Are you okay?” he said. I think he’d seen several people ask me to take their pictures. This is a new phenomenon for me. Complete strangers see you have a camera, say “Ma’am, photo?” and then pose for you with their children or date. They don’t even want to see the picture after you’ve taken it. They just want to be photographed.
I told Sonu I was fine and we walked off toward the crumbling exterior wall of the fort, stopping for photos every few hundred feet. When we got right up to the wall, I noticed there were stairs. This fort, unlike the Red Fort I’d seen yesterday, was not locked down and patrolled by guards and officers with large guns. This fort was totally free for exploration. I followed Sonu up the centuries old flight of stairs and into a chamber of arched doorways and windows. We walked right up to the edge of the window and looked down about two stories. I thought, “This would never happen in America,” and, “Hrm. Someone could just pop up and push me right off this ledge and that would be the end.” People walk close to the edge here in India as a matter of routine. Today I saw a woman riding side saddle on the back of a motorcycle through Delhi traffic, holding a tiny baby in her lap. Even the cows seem unphased by the potential dangers around them, standing serenely in the middle of intersections while all manner of traffic swerves within inches of their lives.
After we exited the chamber, we climbed up another level onto the roof—again with no railing, again hundreds of feet in the air. From the roof, the city unraveled. Sonu pointed out the Akshardam Temple and the Lotus Temple we’d seen the day before. We saw mosques and high-rise buildings engulfed in bamboo scaffolding and miles of low rise shacks all baking with us under the white heat.
Sonu took a cloth from his pocket and wiped the sweat pooling on his face. I think all the locals have such a cloth on them at all times. I did not, so my hands had to suffice. I thought about the bottle of suntan lotion I’d used right before leaving my room. “Water proof. Sweat proof,” it said. Somehow, I don’t think Bullfrog tested their product in the Delhi summer sun because my arms suddenly became white with lotion as I watched it just melt off into the heat.
Sonu scrambled down the rocky path in front of me and people stopped me, “Ma’am, a photo?” From behind, I realized that his shirt had a design of two wings—one of each of his shoulder blades—and thought, yes, he’s certainly been a good guardian for me these past few days.
We walked to the abandoned mosque on the premises, glad for its shade. An empty pool sat in its front courtyard. Before the River Yumna was diverted, it ran near the fort and would have kept this fountain full of fresh water for people to wash in before they performed their prayers.
“Too bad it’s empty,” I told Sonu. “I’d like to jump right in.”
We heard a persistent squeak squeak squeak. It was a child in sandals that have, like, dog toy squeakers in the soles. I’ve seen kids in such sandals everywhere I’ve gone. Imagine stepping on a dog toy with every step you take. Maddening; some kind of sick joke on the part of parents tired of chasing their children around, perhaps. “Those sandals are funny,” I said to Sonu.
“Yeah, funny,” he said with a look that betrayed no humor on his face.
After the mosque we walked to the front of the wall, but it was under construction and piled with bags of concrete mix and boards. Unwired spotlights stuck out of the ground at intervals. As we walked past the vestibules, Sonu would point out what was inside. “Doggies,” he said, and, more menacingly in a lower register, “Delhi mosquitoes.” They were the size of mayflies.
Exiting the front gate, Sonu said, “You enjoy the boat side.” The front of the fort had a small lagoon with paddle boats in it. I agreed. We could take a look at the fort from the boat side.
We walked down a shaded path. Vendors sat on the ground cross-legged selling bits of food. I followed Sonu all the way down the path to the boathouse where there was a price list: fifty rupees for one hour. I was literally soaked with sweat. The color of my shirt had changed to a darker grey because it was totally wet. The last thing I wanted to do was exert myself, but Sonu looked so eager, so I forked over the cash.
We hopped in the boat and began paddling into the little stagnant lagoon. “Delhi mosquitoes,” Sonu’s admonishment echoed in my mind. I could just imagine coming down with a case of [insert exotic name] fever before I ever got to my work assignment in India. That would go over well. As I kept my eyes tuned to searching for airborne beasts, Sonu got out his cell phone camera. He laughed and pointed it at me. “Say hello,” he said.
“Oh my God,” I thought. I was so wet I looked like I’d had a bucket of water dumped over me. My hair clung to my face like a dead octopus, and here he was capturing the moment. I could only laugh myself at the absurdity of the situation.
We paddled and paddled, nearly missing other boats and having one full-on collision. “Oh my God,” said the woman in the exquisite glittering sari as her companion steered their boat right into ours.
“Hey, driver,” I joked to Sonu, “let’s not crash again!”
He paddled joyously with seemingly no effort as thought, “How lame would it be for me to tell him my legs are really tired and my feet hurt and I need to rest? How much longer can I do this?”
I was so relieved when we pulled into shore. A man walked toward our boat. I thought he was going to pull us in, but instead he motioned to his watch. Sonu held up our ticket. The man was telling us we had more time, and Sonu turned the boat around and paddled back out. “Oh well,” I thought, “since I can’t exactly do my 5k jog around the neighborhood and I have no gym, this exercise is as good as any.” I approached my task with renewed enthusiasm, if not much more energy.
When the boat ride finally ended, Sonu pointed out another section of fort wall at the end of the path. “Snaps?” he asked.
“Okay,” I said. We got up to the section of the wall and he wanted to do one of those put your heads together and take a photo of both of you maneuvers. I couldn’t believe he wanted to get within three feet of my slimy self, but who was I to argue. He took the picture then showed it to me, smiling. “Cute,” I said.
“Yes. Cute,” he said.
I’m not sure what all this snapping is about. Sonu’s married and has two small girls, three and six years old. I don’t think it’s a romantic thing. I do think I am somewhat of a novelty here. At more than one tourist location I’ve visited, men have stopped and asked to have their picture taken with me. I’m trying not to let it all go to my head, but I have to say it is nice to be considered cute even in the depths of my sweatiest sweat hogging.
On the way back to the car, we spot an elephant. Sonu runs ahead through the gate and talks to its keepers. We can take it for a ride, he indicates. I’d told him earlier in the day on the way to work how much I love animals and love to see the elephants here, so he knows this will be exciting for me.
The ride is a straight up thrill. The animal’s keepers take our cameras and take pictures of us as we bobble around on top of it. The animal’s head is painted with orange flourishes and he flaps his big ears back and forth as he ambles on. At the end of the ride, the keepers yell a command and the animal slowly kneels down so we can disembark. I slide down his neck as he bats an ear back in my direction. I am amazed at the elephant’s simultaneous immensity and gentle nature. I stare into his eyes and take a few last snaps as the keepers ask for their money. Sonu tries to haggle over the price, but I don’t care. I just rode an elephant.
We head back to the car and I can’t contain myself. “Wow,” I exclaim, and, “That was so cool,” wondering if “cool” is an idiom with which Sonu is familiar.
Sonu wants one more snap before we get into the car. Give it up already. “How many snaps do you need,” I think, but smile big because I just rode an elephant!
We get in the car and Sonu says, “Defence Colony?” I look at the clock. It’s only five and we hadn’t started out until about ten thirty that morning. I’ve got a little time to kill.
“How far is it to Lotus Temple?” I ask. “Can we go for just a little bit?” I was bewitched by the palpable peace I’d felt there the day before and wondered if a second visit would bring the same sensation.
He smiles and says yes, we can go.
We whiz over and park on the side of the road. As always, Sonu doubles as my crossing guard, helping me negotiate the perils of pedestrianism in Delhi traffic.
We cross the street and go through the gate to the manicured walkway that leads to the Lotus Temple. This time I feel it before we even get inside: a sense of deep connection and communion with everyone I’m walking past, almost like a membrane that enfolds us all.
We check our shoes and listen to the same schpeal we heard the day before about not taking any pictures and observing complete silence once we get inside. We walk in and sit on one of the cool marble benches. On Thursday when visited, there was a cool breeze at my back and what I thought was a recorded sound of a bird. Today there is no breeze and no bird sounds, but I realize it wasn’t a recording—that the architecture is such that bird cries from outside get amplified and echo lightly through the temple.
I fold my hands and close my eyes thinking that since these conditions are different and I am still disgustingly soaked from my paddle boating adventure that I probably won’t feel the same thing I did the day before. But it is there before I can even complete this thought: the feeling. A feeling of being embraced. By what? By air? By light?
“What is this feeling?” I silently ask, wanting to be able to name it, to take it with me, to duplicate it outside the grounds of this place, and from somewhere, an answer comes: “You are whole.”
“You are whole. You are complete.”
I am whole. It doesn’t mean much at first, but then I recall my phone call to my husband this morning wherein I started crying when he said goodbye and made him stay on the phone longer. I recall not being able to look at pictures of my pets without bawling because I miss them so desperately. And somehow this message takes away the desperate longing and replaces it with sheer peace.
You are whole. You can love your husband, your family, your pets without grief and pain because you are whole without them—in fact you are one with them and they are with you. You have everything you need to figure out your remote control and your deadbolt and your phone. You have everything you need within you—not without you.
Layered over this realization is a sense of oneness with all humanity. If we are all one, there is no you or me. There is no desperate, painful longing because we all carry the whole of existence within ourselves.
And suddenly I know this is the real reason I came here, to India, by myself: to discover this truth.
I open my eyes to find Sonu sitting next to me, leaning back in his seat, patiently waiting for my epiphany to draw to a close. I lead him over to a plaque I noticed the day before that seemed custom made for my visit and copy down the words in my notebook:
Wert thou to speed through the immensity of space and traverse the expanse of
heaven; yet thou wouldst find no rest save in submission to our command and
humbleness before our face.
Baha’ u’ llah
I don’t know who the “our” are in the quote, but I kind of think of it as God.
We leave the temple in silence and get a voucher from a woman outside to visit the Information Centre for free. We retrieve our shoes and walk back down through the delicately manicured garden to the Centre at the other end of the walk.
Inside there are explanations of the Baha’i faith, which is the faith behind the Lotus Temple. I never knew much about it, but am stricken when I read that its central and prime tenant is “the Oneness of Mankind.”
I copy down another quote:
May you become as the waves of one sea, stars of the same heaven, fruits
adorning the same tree, roses of one garden in order that through you the
oneness of humanity may establish its temple in the world of
I don’t try to translate the weirdness of this experience for Sonu, but I don’t feel I need to. We walk around the Centre looking at quotes and pictures of Baha’i temples and institutions around the world, read a little about the history of the faith, and then they turn the lights and fans off. A woman in a long white flowing salwar kameez says in a refined Indian accent (the kind with a little British mixed in), “In case you were wondering, this is not a power outage.” The people around her chuckle. “We are closing in five minutes. Kindly move to the front of the museum.”
Sonu and I leave the red pyramid-shaped building and he pauses. “Snap?” he asks.