To Delhi and Back
The Khari Baoli Spice Market in Old Delhi is the largest spice market in Asia. When I visited in early January I found myself wandering through narrow alleyways piled high with overflowing sacks of every spice imaginable. Rusting metal bowls contained samples of dozens of varieties of raisins, sugar crystals, cardamom pods, and dehydrated seaweeds. Old men wrapped in tattered shawls pushed 2-metre long wooden wheelbarrows laden with sacks of herbs down roadways so packed you could hardly walk. Once they had delivered their merchandise, they parked their wheelbarrows on the lane divider in the centre of the road and settled down on top for an afternoon nap.
There's a mini-series on Netflix called 'The Most Beautiful Hands in Delhi'. I watched it in Calgary while waiting to come to Mumbai. It follows a middle-aged Swedish man as he avoids his divorce and rocky relationship with his teenage daughter by travelling to India. After arriving in India, he falls ill from drinking the tap water, and during his convalescence meets and falls in love with a young married Indian millionaire named Preeti. Switching between Swedish, Hindi, and English, the show details their affair, and then follows the Swedish man as he attempts to unearth a child-labour scandal.
In one of the scenes, the Swedish man and his all-knowing Indian sidekick attempt to secure an Indian press pass so that the Swedish man can sneak into a Bollywood star's press conference, and get an autograph to woo Preeti. They drive around Delhi in a rickshaw and arrive at Khari Baoli, Asia's largest spice market. They turn into a covered lane filled exclusively with chilli powder vendors, and the Swedish man sneezes uncontrollably while the Indian man procures a forged press pass from one of the vendors. So when I turned a corner and found myself in the very same narrow covered alley filled exclusively with chilli powder vendors, I was quite excited. Here I was, covering my nose and mouth with my scarf, yet still breathing in the sights and sounds and smells of the India that I had imagined from my kitchen table in Canada.
Only most of the time India is nothing like I had imagined it. I can't even really remember what I expected it to be like. I think there were a lot of elephants in my imagined India, and beautiful women with colourful powders sprinkled over their faces. There were brightly painted walls and corrugated tin roofs and children playing in the dirt with their pet monkeys. Delhi definitely had children playing in the dirt, and plenty of monkeys as well. And thick thick fog. One morning we set out to see the main tourist attractions, and the winter fog was so thick we could hardly see three metres down the road. Our driver drove slowly with his blinkers on and his head sticking out the window, as if it was the windshield that blocked his vision rather than the pollution of the world's second largest city. We passed monuments, and imagined what we would see if we could make out the stone outlines through the fog.
On Mondays I work with a group of American volunteers who are teaching English in a slum called Kalwa. We sit together and debrief on our experience as outsiders, and how we can contextualize our experiences in Jewish tradition. Usually we sit in a closet-sized dining hall with no windows and an over-powering fan, but today we sat in one of their bedrooms, sprawled out over mismatched sheets and overturned suitcases. The topic for the day was representation - how do we want to represent our experiences here to our friends back home?
One of the volunteers said that he hasn't been posting any photos on social media, because he feels like the photos he would be able to take wouldn't be able to represent the reality of the situation. Photos can show us so much, but without the sounds and smells and experiences of the present, the photos seem to be lacking.
Another girl was saying that one day, as she was walking from the train station to the school she teaches in, she was FaceTiming with a friend. Her friend couldn't believe how she crossed the streets in the face of oncoming traffic, or how she walked down the sidewalk with such confidence. She felt like it was a meaningful way for her friend to share in her experiences in real time, even without the friend experiencing it for herself.
We spoke about how we have a Jewish obligation to help those in our own community, and how it's easier to empathize with those who are closest to us. Yet social media has made it possible to see into the lives of those living thousands of kilometres across the world from us, to get glimpses into their personal lives even though we're never able to meet them. Sharing photos with you all is a productive way for me to process my experiences, and attempt to share my life here with friends back home. Yet it's important for me to remember that the faces in the photographs I share are not my own.
When taking photos I often try to share an experience with the person I'm photographing. Usually I'll take a few photos, show them to the person, and take a few more. If they speak English (or if I'm having a particularly good day with my Hindi) we'll try to have a conversation. Photography can be an excellent tool for bringing people together, and empowering people to take ownership over their own image. For example, I'm also working in the Jewish senior's home here, and we're creating a project together where I photograph the residents and then they make art using their own portraits. Seeing their reactions to such intentional representations of themselves is amazing, and many of them seem quite proud to have such nice photos of themselves.
But it's also important to remember whose story I'm sharing when I share photographs. I try to photograph to represent my own experience of coming into contact with so many new objects and experiences. In some ways the camera acts like a funnel through which all of my experiences are brought forward, and through which my new understanding of India is formed.
Delhi was amazing. My first morning there (before my parents arrived) I spent wandering through endless lanes of colourful saris, gold jewelry, dried fruits, school supplies, velvet ribbons, recycled electronics, and anything else you can imagine. One afternoon we visited a Jain Temple which housed a bird hospital, lined with rows and rows of cages housing deformed pigeons saved from the sides of roads. On our way up the stairs we had to push against the wall to avoid a muddy injured goose which was being carried up the stairs by it's wings.
Delhi's architecture is heavily influenced by it's Mughal past, and elaborate mosques are decorated with intricate carvings. The Qutub Minar is a 73-metre tall tower covered in passages from the Quran (and it's website describes it as "one of the most magnificent structures in the world"[?]). We visited the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, a massive Sikh Temple with a kitchen that gives out thousands of free meals a day, and a pool full of holy water (and catfish) where pilgrims can immerse themselves.
We also visited Delhi's only synagogue - the Judah Hyam Synagogue. Tucked behind an iron gate was a cozily decorated prayer hall in a courtyard full of orange trees, decorated with heavily-sequined challah covers and elaborate oil lanterns. The synagogue caretaker showed us around the complex - including a dust-covered library that had been converted into his grandson's drumming-practice room. It turns out his sister lives in Calgary and knows my parents.
Our days in Delhi were so packed, that we didn't get a chance to visit one of the main sites - the Jama Masjid. Although it was only five minutes from our hotel, by the time we got back to Old Delhi on our last day, the sun had set and the guards at the gate said it was closed to tourists.
So early the next morning, not wanting to miss out, I wrapped myself up in three sweaters and a scarf, and made my way past the men huddled on the sidewalks, warming their hands around makeshift firepits. The mosque was deserted. Several caretakers were rolling up the prayer mats that had been laid out for dawn prayers. As I made my way across the massive plaza, barefoot on the cold stone, I approached the ritual pond in the middle of the compound. A single woman was crouched over the pool, washing her face in the water.
It was such a beautiful moment, two women, one Jewish, one Muslim, essentially alone in the midst of the early morning fog. She looked up at me and smiled. I didn't take a photograph, I just smiled back and looked on at her veiled figure crouching in front of the main attraction of Delhi. I think that this is what I imagined India would be, when I was sitting at my kitchen table in Canada, dreaming of the possibilities - people living their lives. Though they're surrounded by colourful powders and sights and smells and traffic and magnificent things, at the core of it, I think it's people living their lives.