This post is part of a series of posts on my Delhi trip last year.
I had promised a detailed, regular snapshot of my year in India — and what have I given you instead? Nothing better than a few scraps and fragments, scattered here and there. Betrayed and lied to, I realize you may never come back to me. It might not be enough to say that something called “the Occupy movement” has transformed my life since the time of my last post. Yes, I’ve found someone else…
And yet I’ve returned. Because India has latched onto my brain and won’t let me go. I need to tell someone about it. And I’ll try to be more faithful.
I waved goodbye to you at the doorstep of the National Archives of India, which is well and good because you cannot enter anyway without proper documentation and permission. Why don’t we linger here a bit? Gaining entry into such institutions gives as much of an insight into the processes of knowledge production as anything that you might read inside.
First of all, so many bureaucrats lovingly made my research project their own, from the Indian Consulate in New York which issued by visa to various US and Indian border authorities to the Home Department of the Government of India. What they made of a project entitled “Insurgency, Violence, and Anti-Colonial Resistance” I cannot say, but I certainly didn’t choose the most subtle title. It was only after being duly stamped and scanned by these gatekeepers of knowledge that I could make my way to the NAI.
In the early days at the Archives I had not let learned how to get through the gates of the compound—surrounded by tea-drinking policemen with long rifles and big mustaches—if I got there before the wizened and silent old man who is supposed to issue the pass. The Archives might be open, but if you don’t have your official pass from the Home Department, nothing will get you past the gates. This St Peter of the NAI must have signed your paper and entered your name into his ledger, skillfully copying your information at the exact same moment that you enter it onto the form, reading your handwriting upside down. How many years has he sat there, entering name after name so diligently? Researches from all over the country and the world, laborers working that day in the compound (who often either signed with a mark, or have a supervisor sign them in), and all others who did not have some sort of permanent identification queue up outside that office.
No matter how long the line, no one could force St. Peter to fill out the form before he had completed (deliberately, methodically) his daily routine. I can see him now: he slowly comes up to the padlocked office, brings out his big ring of keys and opens the door, takes off his jacket and places it on the hook, walks back to the desk and sits down, turns on his small fan, if appropriate, produces a thick, dusty ledger which slams on the desk with a cloud-creating thwack, opens it up to the right page, places the forms in front of the lines of eyes, watching him impatiently now, and taps once or twice to tell you he’s ready.
These were the early days. Later, I discovered how to get through on my own terms. A smile and a nod to the policemen who had seen you there before, a tug on the official-looking badge hanging on your neck (who cared that it only indicated you were a parent at your kids’ school), a brisk walk with your head held high indicating you’re a man of some importance (underline and bold on “man”) – all of these were sufficient. But you couldn’t be arrogant about it, and you had to accept the offer, once in a while, of tea and ‘interrogation’ (Where are you from? Why’s your Hindi so bad? How much are you paying for rent, and why not move to another place? How many kids do you have? ). And you had to know what day it was and adjust your behavior accordingly: a few weeks before days like Republic Day, the place would go into lockdown mode, new cops would rotate in, and even the ones who knew would act officious.
Can I emphasize enough that whatever informalities developed not a single rupee passed from my hand to theirs?
Since I’m at the compound anyway I might as well tell you about it a bit more. As we all discovered over time, sharing information with newcomers to the NAI, there were two main eating places: the canteen and the dhaba, just outside the side gate (the one leading to the Krishi Bhavan bus stop and Central Secretariat metro station). Both really inexpensive, both very tasty, both liable to you a little sick every say, sixth meal or so. In other words, a good deal.
The ‘bread-omelets’ at the canteen – well, I remember them every time I saturate my bland, US omelets in salt and pepper. And the chutney that they give with the samosas at the dhaba—my god, if you never understood why the treatment of “ear, nose, and throat” are often combined in medical practice you would after tasting some of this. That chutney sears through your system like a wildfire, and begins an entire cycle: you go for more, you get stomach upset after the 6th time, and then once you’re recovered, you go back for more.
Remember: the fresh samosas at the dhaba come in around 3. Don’t go before; the old oil reduces the rate of upset stomach to once every 4 or 5 meals.
Can you see what just happened? Each entry gets so long, so focused on small things, that you feel like you can’t take the time to write more regularly. What to do? You begin to talk about one thing and get overwhelmed by the significances of the minute images and incidents that are associated with it. But this was India for me, a series of experiences in which every moment stood out in rich detail.