We’re feeling less cocky. But as part of the package deal, we do get a driver and an air-conditioned car to take us around Delhi for our first day, which, though it fills us with a sort of white imperialist guilt, truthfully was pretty nice. We start with the Bengali market, an area we’ve heard has great chaat, a kind of stuffed bread filled and covered with spices, sauces, potatoes, cheese, and/or vegetables. We find a place that is stuffed to the gills with Indians from all walks of life and squeeze into a small table to order an array of delicious-sounding South Indian dishes. None of it lets us down, and it’s still some of the best food I’ve had in India so far: deliciously spicy lentil sauces soaking heaps of puffy bread doused in cilantro swirls and cumin-peppered potato filling, thin wafers filled with richly spiced paneer. For four courses and two Pepsis, it’s 100 Rs apiece: about $2.50. For another 40 Rs, $.90, we buy a small box of creamy candies whose names I never learn, but which are also excellent.
As we’re leaving, a girl of maybe 6 or 7 begins following us, holding out her hand and frowning from a grey-brown floral dress faded to the same color as her skin. She follows us to our car and stands three inches away from me on the other side of the glass, rapping her fingers on the window until we pull away. This is not the first or last time this happens in India.
Our afternoon starts with a tour of the Gandhi museum, a really beautiful and moving testament to the life of the most important man in modern India. The exhibits’ captions and loving display of so many of Gandhi’s personal effects make it clear how deeply he is loved by the Indian people; I choke up on reading the sign beneath the most sombre part of the exhibit, a display of the blood-stained robes Gandhi was wearing when he died and the weapon that killed him: “One of the bullets that took Gandhiji away from us.”
Afterwards, we head to Humayun’s Tomb, built to house the remains of an early Mughal leader and often called the “Little Taj,” as many elements of the Taj were indeed modeled on it. We admire long pools and trim gardens and agree that this is a fit way to be remembered.
In the gathering dark, we head to Hanuman Mandir, a Hindu temple, where we witness the surreal and spine-tingling ceremony that is a Hindu puja or prayer service. Beggars and old women selling wreaths of orange flowers to offer the gods mill around the temple entrance. I start when I hear the thump of heavy things landing on the green plastic overhang shading the path to the temple–turns out monkeys are patrolling the roof, strutting and leaping like the monkey god whose temple they guard. As we’re ushered to the shoeminder in the gathering darkness beneath the prowling monkeys and limping beggars, I’m filled with the sliding sensation of falling deeper down the rabbit hole.
Inside feels immediately ancient. Demons with tongues lolling jeer from the walls, statues of gods dance on squealing stone figurines, snake sculptures rise from pits, a priest cloaked in saffron hums and whispers to three statues that look like China dolls in varying skin tones. In the chamber that opens onto the main altar, worshippers reach up and loudly clang bells at random intervals. Incense and the smell of half-rotten fruit hang visibly in the air. The ever-tolerant Hindus gesture us towards the altar, where the priest is daubing thumbprints of yellow powder onto worshippers’ foreheads. We hang back and a grinning woman appears to lead us by the arms into a second room. She points first to a highly recognizable statue, garlanded with flowers: “Shiva.” At the bottom of a sunken stone basin, his son: “Ganesh.” She scoops sweets and chunks of banana out of the altars and stuffs them into our hands, gesturing to the statues and insisting we eat, indicating these are offerings from Shiva. Not wanting to be culturally offensive, I take the tiniest nibble. The woman dances with glee.
Our hands still full, we return to the other room, where the clanging of the bells gets more and more frequent. As the chamber fills, the ringing increases in volume until it is all we can hear. It goes on and on like “om,” like the sound that started the world, until it is the only sound, the only thing there is besides all of us and the priest waving a thick cone of smoky incense before Shiva and Hanuman. The clanging goes on and another priest comes from another room with a 40-stemmed candelabra dripping with wax and shallow tealights and Hindus reach to touch it and bow their heads and there is still only the clanging and the other priest is dusting off the statues on the altar. When the clanging stops, everyone rushes forward, ears still ringing, to receive blessings at the altar. A Westerner, no matter how atheist, can’t help but be both fascinated and disturbed. People are stroking and whispering to a statue of Nandi, Shiva’s bull: this is the idol worship the Bible warned you about.
But there’s something magic in the simplicity of the service: No prayers to remember, no hymns to sing, no sermon to sit through. Only this direct communion between worshipper and god, earthly and sacred, a raw negotiation in flowers and fruit.