Holy Cow(s)! – Delhi, India

The driver of one of the city’s three-wheel auto-rickshaws had proven honest and personable so I offered to hire him for a full day of exploring Old and New Delhi. The next morning Yogesh was at the door, right on time, in his little canvas-covered “tuk-tuk” with its puttering two-stroke engine, and off we went. As our final stop I wanted to wander the famous gardens surrounding Humayun’s Tomb so, after my faithful “rickshaw-wallah” took a picture of me taking a picture, I let him go with thanks. I thought that the thirty-minute stroll back to my lodgings would make the perfect end to a perfect adventure. I was wrong.

The day had indeed been perfect thus far. We’d navigated the chaos of Old Delhi to see the Red Fort, Chandni Chowk and Jama Masjid, stopping to pay our respects at the riverside Raj Ghat where Gandhi’s body had been cremated. Then, chugging our way through New Delhi and the triumphalist Victorian splendour of the British Raj we arrived at the entrance to the Humayun’s Tomb complex. The building itself is an architectural gem, the splendid mid-16th Century tomb of the second Mughal emperor, whose father, Babur, (buried in Kabul) had established Muslim rule on the subcontinent and whose son, Akbar, would lead it to heights of greatness and religious tolerance. Designed by an Afghan architect, the mausoleum combines indigenous red sandstone with a Persian love of white marble, establishing the distinctive Mughal style that would reach its apogee a century later with the all-white marble Taj Mahal in Agra, 200 kilometres downriver.

The mausoleum is surrounded by an extensive garden in the Persian chahar-bagh style (a four-part arrangement representing Paradise as described by the Holy Qur’an). Ultimately it was to include more than 150 tombs of the royal household – even that of a royal barber. During British occupation the garden had been modified to appeal to European tastes, spoiled further by five years as a refugee camp after Partition and independence in 1947. Since my visit it has been restored by the Agha Khan Trust for Culture but it was beautiful even then. Still, after an hour or so I was ready to stroll back to my accommodation in time for dinner. Along the way I was pleased to see a flagstone path leading under shady trees, a welcome prospect in the summer heat and polluting traffic. Indeed, although it was late in the afternoon, the stone path was still slightly damp. And slippery.

Cows are sacred in the Hindu faith so, even in a modern city like Delhi, they’re free to wander. Like people, they too are drawn to the shade of roadside groves. Unlike people, however, they relieve themselves wherever and whenever the urge arises. So, in one of those unfortunate combination of circumstances, when I slipped and fell on the damp stone I managed to land squarely on an extensive, green, malodorous, slimy deposit of manure. The front of my clothes were covered with the stuff. My hands were thick with it. Without thinking I went to wipe them on the leaves of a nearby bush, discovering the hard way that it had long, sharp thorns. So now, aside from bruised and smelly, I was also bleeding. For a moment I just stood there, jaw and fists clenched, thinking “Tomorrow this will be funny. Right now I’m really, really angry. But tomorrow it will be funny.”

The India International Centre is, according to its website, “one of the country’s premier cultural institutions … widely regarded as a place where statesmen, diplomats, policymakers, intellectuals, scientists, jurists, writers, artists and members of civil society meet…” On this occasion, however, the quietly sophisticated tone of the lobby was lowered briefly by the passage of a sweaty, bleeding Canadian, reeking of noxious manure. Nodding politely at the turned faces of the great and good I strode straight to my room and walked fully clothed into the shower. That night I was a particularly self-conscious dinner guest.

Sure enough, almost 20 years later the muck and blood are long-forgotten and the memory is indeed funny. Better yet, it’s an inspiration. More than once I’ve found myself comforted in unhappy moments by thinking “Tomorrow this will be funny. Today I am going to wallow shamelessly in upset and misery. But tomorrow it will be funny.” It’s a tool I recommend to anyone wanting to preserve perspective and a measure of sanity during those incongruous times in life.

It’s the 1st of March – Happy Saint David’s Day!

Cow face