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June 23, 2008 / calebdresser

Meerut after dark

The streets of Old Meerut are tiny theaters, every shop and temple and alley a nightly pageant. I pass three men bargaining in the corner of a dim overhang piled with sacking, smiles on their faces. A cow   ambles though the middle of a congested crossroads.  Someone sleeps on a woven cot next to a drain, while bejeweled saris glitter behind thick glass. The tiny shops are crammed together, and though the meandering street is crowded, motorbikes whiz through the throng, horns honking. It is a magical place, every face an interesting story against a backdrop of bright lights. I see dirty, unshaven jowels and neatly trimmed mustaches, women in tight shirts and others wholly covered in black cloth – I cannot even see their eyes. There are the bright saris of the local Hindu women, the beards and turbans of Sikhs, and the occaisional pair of scholarly gold spectacles catching the light of the shops. To my enraptured eye, the spectacle matches Times Square at night: what it lacks in flash is made up for with sincerity.

Later in the evening, Mr. & Mrs. Mittal took me to a temple near the army cantonment. Gold-tipped spires of white stone rose into the steaming night as we approached, and the ringing of many bells was faintly audible. We left our shoes at the door, washed our hands and sprinkled water on our feet, and entered. Barefoot, the white marble was warm and smooth, a welcome respite from my heavy boots. After crossing a courtyard, we entered a small room at the base of a many-tiered tower, passing heavy doors that carried gods and epic battles in bas-relief on the brass. On the far side were two brilliantly adorned statues: Lord Shiva and his wife Parvati. Following the Mittals, I placed flower petals in water at the center of the room, and passed to the left around the perimeter to the statue of Shiva. I  received a banana and some flower blooms, and we passed out of the tower. Looking at the banana, Mr. Mittal smiled – a gift from the gods, he said. Somehow it seemed right that, in this land, I should honor the gods of this place and these people.

A a century and half ago, this temple saw secret meetings as Indian soldiers plotted resistance against the British occupation.  Mrs Mittal listed the abuses carried out by the British troops in detail, and told me that the freedom fighters would hide in the temple at times and pray to the gods for protection. Their desperate attempt ultimately met with failure, though a century later India did gain its independence.

The issues of perspective keep me on my toes. The warfare in 1857, which Mrs Mittal called a freedom fight, went down in my history textbook as the Indian Mutiny. Still, though the winners may have written the history, it is dry and covered in dust – the oral tradition of the losers is, I think much more alive and infused with emotion, by far the stronger force. An interesting paradox. Even stranger, to my amused and startled ear, was being informed by another person here that many words in English had been taken from Hindi, words like train and chemise and phone. Somehow I thought it was the other way ’round, but on reflection, from this particular viewpoint the difference is purely in the eye of the beholder. I think the speaking of Hindi in the home and English in many schools combines with the infusion of technical and commercial English words into Hindi to leave some people a little confused about which is which.

In closing, I really need to stop EVER going ANYWHERE without my camera. I didn’t have it the day I met the policemen (though I got photographed by them on one of their phones!), and I didn’t have it yesterday evening in Meerut, either. I was doing push-ups on the polished marble floor of my bedroom,  trying to halt the rapid atrophy of my already meager muscles brought on lack of exercise and a diet of  carbohydrates, vegetable, and a little dhal. Mr. Mittal came in and asked if I would like to go to the market. I stood up quickly, sweat dripping from my nose onto my mud-spattered work shirt, and said I would love to but must clean myself up first. Without missing a beat he told me I was looking very smart and walked out the door. Thinking we were going to the village market a hundred yards down the road, I stepped into my boots without socks, stuffed a few hundred rupees in my pocket, changed my shirt, and headed outside. Next thing I knew we were in the car bound for Meerut…

I now include a couple of photos I took in the Philippines and never had a chance to post, partly for your viewing pleasure and partly because I want them backed up in case my electronics here get inundated. I took both of these in the mountains of Ifugao province near Banaue.

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2 Comments

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  1. Margaret McCandless / Jun 23 2008 5:23 pm

    My huge sympathy about wishing to have the camera on every outing. Your sketches are really good, though, if you find time. I am eager to see your Hindi script, too.
    Maybe you can deal with owning more goods, and buy a comfortable pair of shoes lighter than your boots. You would not be required to keep them all your life; could donate…, yet useful for six months.
    Wonderful descriptions: market, temple, science, and all. Wonderful photographs!

  2. Rahul / Dec 4 2009 9:20 am

    Good discrption of my citi meerut, I was broughtup in meerut, Now is Korea. Thanks Mr. calebdresser. My email is rinku_delhi@indiatimes.com

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