Non’s welcome to Delhi was what most tourists experienced: a mix of shock and awe. He was in absolute disbelief seeing the worn-out state of the puny airport, which I told him was the second-busiest terminal in India then. Hoping to see cafés, restaurants, and an abundance of retail, he was disappointed to find the airport housing a nondescript, poorly stocked duty-free outlet, which he walked through in less than a minute.
In search of water, he located perhaps the only eatery in the terminal and was astonished to find it in the shape of a kiosk, with its corners bandaged in red and black tape. The wobbly cart and the creaking baggage belt aside, what made his arrival less than welcome were the intrusive in-your-face taxi drivers hawking their services, out-shouting each other, leaving him visibly petrified. “I can’t tell you how happy I am to see you,” Non exclaimed, relieved to spot my face amidst the chaos. The relief, however, was short-lived.
As we drove into the city, the blaring horns and the zigzagging drive left him unnerved. He was used to the peak-hour traffic congestion in Bangkok and dodgy tuk-tuks but not what he witnessed in Delhi.
And then there were the cows that he gasped incredulously at, wondering how they were allowed to park themselves comfortably on pavements, roads and dividers. “This because the cow is a sacred animal, isn’t it?” he asked hesitatingly, unsure if it was disrespectful to pose such a question, given that religion and religious beliefs were both personal and political.
“I think so,” I shrugged, saying that Delhi was a divided house when it came to Gau Mata. Many agreed cows on the streets were a traffic hazard and a risk to life. There were others, I confirmed, die-hard worshippers, against displacing the animal from its chosen abode, recognising its personal choice as sacred. “A choice you don’t have, and a cow does,” he remarked under his breath, making a point that hadn’t crossed my mind earlier.
Non was a curious sort, keen to walk the streets, explore local food, markets and religious places, and observe how we lived. We ventured in all directions, visiting tombs, mosques, temples, gurdwaras and churches, giving him a flavour of what we called “secular.”
The sheer mix of architecture, aesthetics, quiet and soul of the different religious spaces overwhelmed him. So did the variety of Indian cuisines he tasted at several restaurants, as did the experience of handicrafts from different states he saw at Dilli Haat. And there was good reason, as till now he had assumed Hinduism and Hindi would be central to the capital city, that butter chicken, dal makhani, chicken kebab and naan roti was what all Indians ate.
He even thought there was a singular structure and palate of colours for Hindu temples, expecting to see a replica of the one on Silom Road. He didn’t expect a Birla Temple constructed in white marble or the expansive and distinctive Akshardham, which had been just a few months old at the time. “Most Buddhist temples look alike,” he said, drawing a distinction, a homogeneity he was familiar with.
The city’s green cover and the many parks he saw enamoured him. He liked the fact that pretty much all public transport had moved to CNG, and we had an efficient yet small metro rail system that was considered green. Additionally, it was the low-lying skyline, as opposed to the Manhattan-like structures of Bangkok, that caught his fancy.
As it turned out, these were amongst the reasons Non liked our home, a two-floor bungalow, dwarfed and sandwiched between double-the-size residences on either side. He enjoyed the kitchen and the terrace filled with potted plants, creepers, and hanging baskets that created a green look, easily identifiable on the busy main road in front of our premises. It delighted him to find lemongrass, kaffir lime, galangal, celery, sweet basil, and several other herbs growing in terracotta pots, the results of Ma’s hard work and green thumb.
He wished Ma were in town and not away at my eldest brother’s home so that he could have cooked for her, and in exchange, learnt about naturopathy and alternative healing that she was proficient in. His way of thanking her for his stay was a gift of a Thai silk stole and a number of recipes, all vegetarian, that he scribbled in a diary, which I still have and refer to.
For me, there was a great sense of joy, returning from work, being welcomed at the door by him, with a Thai meal waiting. The kitchen was spick and span; the table was beautifully laid; and the bed was always ready to sleep in, with puffed pillows and neatly tucked bedsheets. If I were tired and aching after a long day at work, he would use his skills as a masseur to ease me of pain and stress. And when we had my friends over, he was quite the co-host, in and out of the kitchen with me, conversing with everyone and, like what Ma and I usually did, was the last to serve himself.
In those few days of growing familiarity, I thought Non had settled in, that we were on our way to creating a sacred space for ourselves. “Your friends are warm. Your collection of music, the art on the walls, it is all so appealing,” he said earnestly while lying in bed after lunch, the day before he was to return to Bangkok.
“But there is something missing in this city,’ he said after a moment’s reflection, unable to put his finger on it in a definitive way. In an effort aimed at specificity, Non retraced his short visit, enumerating certain incidents and characteristics that struck him as strange or different from his experience in his own country.
He recounted how he saw well-off people bargain combatively with street vendors who were struggling to eke out a living. “This makes the poor, poorer,” he observed. He was stunned by remorseless customers yelling at waiters, as though it was a right that came with the power of money. He felt it was thoughtlessness that permitted minors to sell newspapers and magazines at traffic junctions, when the press itself should have been protecting the rights of children. He found it odd that basic utilities such as lavatories were not accessible to all, and that hygienic options were there only for a few, a certain class of people who visited restaurants and hotels. “People can’t be blamed if they urinate on the streets, against a wall. I can’t imagine how hard it must be for women,” he said.
As he continued with firm persistence, now insisting that people stared at him wherever he went, I was hurt. I experienced a pseudo-nationalist moment of my own, ignoring the spoken truth, wishing to counter him with whataboutery. I wanted to remind him of the poverty in Thailand, the high number of drunk driving cases on highways, and that the media was not absolutely free and the nation was overly dependent on foreign tourists – people like me. I, however, backed down before uttering a word, switching sides as they say today, since he swiftly came to what bothered him most, something that irked me too – the life of women and gay men.
Excerpted with permission from Queer Sapien, Sharif D Rangnekar, Rupa Publications.