Fools, who would search for the soul of India in the cold and sombre shadows of her many tombs and temples! May your tour be long and consuming, for while you are horded, flocked and herded between the shrines of Gods and worthy mortals, the streets are mine to swim in, pure and fresh and clean, for this is where the real India is to be found!
The life! The sheer abundance of life! From setting sun to setting sun the raging torrents of street-life pour forth with endless, exuberant, and wholly unnecessary noise.
Past open-front shops selling fabrics and saris of every shade and subtle hue, as bright as though the colour had been rendered from the sun itself (which of course the pagan knows it has), embroidered with twisting, intricate designs, laden with stones and mirrors that twinkle in the eyes of the fat men reclining regally amid their stock, like preying mantis awaiting their prey with greasy wet-lipped smiles.
Past dingy restaurants lit by overhead fluorescent tubes where grinning young men covered in the filth of the street yell at their customers as they create dishes so deliciously scented with saffron, cardamom, ginger and cinnamon that it is a crime to float by without stopping.
Past bookshops and trinket stores and grocers and phone booths.
Past faces that change in a flash from pictures of fury and rage in the heat of excited debate to images of purity and openness such as a European can only imitate, with smiles that come straight from the soul and pour love unadulterated into the world.
Past enclaves cut into the wall where a blackened boy sits as if inside a mighty kiln, camouflaged, except for the bright whites of his frowning, concentrated eyes, against the soot stained walls, frying bhajis, pakoras, whole sandwiches and pieces of vegetable that he serves with spicy dhal, to a shoving crowd so ravenous that he must move his hands as quick as the eye in order to meet his demand.
Past backlit archways that entice the soul and lead to new streets and whole new worlds of excitement, adventure and intrigue.
Through walls of stench from the open latrines that mingle with the earthy musk of cow dung and the acrid wafts of incense.
Under a canopy of vine-like cables that climb poles and loop between the buildings that they cling to and lace like spiders webs.
And past doorways that lead up grotty stairs stained with betel juice into homes and hotels where all manner of life is sleeping, preying, eating or loving.
To the shrill squeals of elastic limbed children.
To the ear-splitting, wincing blasts of the motorists’ horns.
To the screeching of tired and broken speakers yelling crackled Bollywood songs at each other across the mighty din.
And to the beat of a distant marching band leading a marriage procession through the streets.
The river of life flows on.
And in the midst of it all, as mangy dogs scamper and cower between feet and wheels, like so many fish among swirling kelp, all the while yelping maniacally at each others trespasses.
As moped drivers wobble at speed to dodge through the mob with the steely gaze of a fighter pilot (never will you know how many times the sharpened edge of a sepulchral scythe has come within a hair’s breadth of your enlivened soul in just one hour on the streets of Delhi!).
As muscled youths in tight t-shirts riding motorbikes kangaroo-jump two metres at a time from one blockade of scurrying pedestrians to the next.
As the rich bemoan their pride from inside air conditioned cocoons that, no matter how loud their horns, fail to intimidate the burly streets and move more slowly than the haggard old beggar women tapping at their windows.
As a walrus wrapped in a mile of delicate silk moves even more slowly, aback a cycle rickshaw driven by a skinny waif who has to stand all his weight on one pedal to produce any movement at all.
As straight-backed children on ancient bicycles career at high speed, weaving through invisible gaps in the thronging crowd and whooping in delight as they go.
And as the cows stand and stare at it all, chewing dry litter and dust in their hunger, oblivious as only the bovine are.
As the whole world crashes by in relentless, streaming chaos: a look, a glance, a held stare from the eyes of a girl, veiled in shimmering colour from head to toe that disguises every part of her beauty but her eyes – but is this deliberate?
For it is in the eyes of a young Indian girl that all the world’s beauty is stored, and you would never know it, you would pass by as you do all the others, lest she chose to raise her look and fix you with her gaze.
And all the world is there: all the longing, restraint, dignity, compassion, fire and love of the universe is in those eyes, large and round and innocent as a young doe’s, but quick and bright as an eagle’s. In the midst of a country where everybody knows the question – and in the midst of all of life’s distractions from it – here is the answer.
And then – as a passing turban breaks the spell – it is gone.
And the river of life flows on.