One would think that the biggest challenge of sightseeing with our four families would be keeping track of the four young children. That, however, proved less difficult than shepherding my eighty-year-old father. My father’s mind is as sharp as it ever was and he’s an adept traveler, but he never checks to see where everyone else is going and he has the attention span of an indulged king. He’s zealous about his own interests but is incapable of manufacturing even passing tolerance for things that don’t amuse him – or for events where wine and cheese aren’t served. As his daughter, I have experienced the upside of this trait. Making my father laugh is one of the greatest joys of my life because I know that there isn’t a chance in hell that he’s faking it. The downside is obvious. He wonders off, tunes out, and often stands up in the middle of a discourse, puts on his coat and heads out the door. If I’m a decent conversationalist it’s because I honed my skills by desperately searching for ways to sustain my father’s interest. When I was a child, we would accompany him to church to listen to the music. But when the sermon started, my father would look down our pew and give “the nod”. At that point my family would rise en mass and follow him out the door.
When Keir told us that the crowds teeming through the narrow streets leading to Hazrat Nizamuddin’s Tomb for gawwali (devotional sufi singing) were intense, I wondered if there was a way we could tether my father to my mother for the walk. Sufism is a mystical sect of Islam and Hazrat Nizamuddin is one of its greatest saints, so devotees from all over India and other countries come to hear the singing at his tomb at sundown on Thursday nights. It would be dark, chaotic, and there would be lots of shiny things hanging in small shops and stalls to attract my father’s attention. Chances of losing him were high.
Pat stayed home since he’d been revisited by Delhi belly that afternoon. That meant a little more room in the van but fewer adults to manage children. We parked as close as we could, but like Varnasi, there was a point where the streets would be too narrow for the van (although not too narrow for hundreds of people, motorcycles, bicycles, and livestock). We organized on the curb. Shona helped Erik strap their one-and-a-half-year-old son, Kiran, into a backpack contraption on Erik’s back. Keir hoisted Zoe on his shoulders. I grabbed Murphy’s hand and asked my mother to grab Spencer’s. I’d learned from Varansi that it was easier to negotiate the crowds, one adult to one child.
“But who has Du?” my mother asked, using my father’s nickname.
“What do you mean, ‘Who has Du?’” I asked, gripping both of my sons’ hands tightly.
“Brett,” my mother said, “If someone doesn’t watch him, he’ll wander off.”
Already crowds were pouring into a cobbled street ahead of us.
“I’ll take Spencer,” Robyn offered.
“OK,” I said. “Mom’s got Du and everyone’s got a kid. We’re good.”
Keir took the lead, racing off to the top of the narrow street, all of us jockeying for position behind him as he cut a swath. My father started to walk in the direction of a stall of trinkets. “Du,” she said sharply and he fell back in line.
I overheard Erik and Shona debating the merits of negotiating the crowd with a toddler in tow. However, as soon as Kiran was settled into his pack, he fell asleep – a toddler’s first line of defense.
It seemed that everyone on the street was going to the same place and that I could simply let my legs go slack and be carried by the jostling wave of humans rolling toward the tomb. By now, the boys were used to the routine and skipped easily over puddles and around dogs, respectfully saying “No thank you” to hawkers. There was an old world charm to winding streets. The crowd bustled with courtesy and benign anticipation. I only saw a couple of western tourists. I looked back to locate my father who did, indeed, look as if he was being carried forward by the crowd’s momentum as his head swiveled independently to check out the crowd and the shops.
As we turned a corner, we found Keir waiting with Zoe still aloft, “Guys, leave your shoes here.” He indicated a pile of shoes off to the side. A man squatted near them arranging them with a stick as if he were stoking a fire.
Keir paid the gentleman as we all kicked off our shoes.
“How will we get them back?” Du asked.
“Don’t worry about it,” Keir said, producing paper head coverings for the men and boys. “And put these on.” The boys giggled at each other’s hats as we women pulled scarves over our heads. In stocking feet we continued to walk through more streets, passing more piles of shoes being poked with sticks by their keepers.
“How will we find our pile of shoes?” I heard my father mutter to no one in particular. I didn’t know the answer. If the reclamation were up to me, we’d return to the van shoeless. But I had learned to trust Keir’s instincts and to adopt his attitude that if everything failed, there would still be a story in it. After a few more twists and turns, we found ourselves at the actual tomb -- women being directed into a partitioned area to the left, men being herded through an elaborate gate.
“Du,” my mother yelled as my father fell in line. She was unable to finish the thought as we were corralled behind a grate. It was dark in the corridor. Some women sat in front at the grate, peering through tiny holes. My mother, Robyn, and I leaned over the women and peered too. We could see the men, ours included, making slow progress around a tomb.
“There he is,” my mother announced. “I see Du. He’s there.”
I looked at Spencer’s and Murphy’s solemn faces, freshly wondering at children’s ability to soak up a mood without fully understanding the situation. Peering through the grate made me feel voyeuristic even though the men, presumably, knew that we were there. We were the unseen presence. Females.
“There’s Du. He’s almost at the exit. I’ve got him,” My mother said, pulling away from the grate and continuing around so she could catch him when he emerged. I could see Spencer and Murphy placing petals on the tomb. What were they making of all of this, I wondered? I would ask, of course. But with children, the answer is often simply a shrug. They were purely there. Looking. Listening. Following.
“There’s Spencer,” Zoe called out.
“Yes,” said Robyn. “And Murphy. And there’s Daddy.”
We watched the men shuffle out and followed my mother out to intercept Du. A few more steps took us to a dimly lit courtyard that was surprisingly large after the tiny streets. We padded over to a step in our socks and sat down to wait. I wouldn’t have guessed, but we had made it there ahead of most of the crowd. We watched as more and more people poured into the courtyard. My father looked down our row and said, “I just don’t know how we’re going to find our shoes.”
“We will, Du,” Robyn promised.
As the crowd swelled, men came out to move us around and to a couple of long bolts of cloth. From our new vantage point, cross-legged in the courtyard, we watched men arrange themselves in two rows on the cloth. Very shortly, we heard a call to prayer and the men kneeled in unison, bowing their heads to the ground (“Like ‘child’s pose’ in yoga,” Murphy later pointed out). This was repeated a few more times before it stopped. The men quickly dispersed and the bolts of fabric were rolled up.
By this time, I was sure that the courtyard must be filled to capacity. This did not stop men in white from pressing us all back to make room for musicians. My father stood at the back with Erik and Keir flanking him so he couldn’t wander, while the women sat on the stone floor with the children.
“Look back there,” Robyn indicated with her head. “The fingers through the grate.” I looked back to see fingers of women poking through the holes in a grate. I had told the children earlier that women sometimes screamed during the singing to let out demons. That must have been a special zone specifically for screaming, since women were certainly allowed to sit in the courtyard.
When the musicians were in place, the music started. I could see a keyboard that sounded something like a pipe organ and a horn or two. But the most identifying sound was that of drums, beating out a consistent rhythm that pulsed through the crowd. Being sensitive to noise, Spencer had to periodically put his hands over his ears. Murphy rocked to the drumbeat and even sang along with some of the call and response. The volume rarely dipped, but when it did, we could hear wailing and yelping coming from behind the grate. When Spencer first noticed it he glanced back, then burrowed closer into my side. I put my arm around his shoulders and said into his ear, “Don’t worry. I’ve had days like that.”
And I have. Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, to be able to go somewhere safe on a weekly basis and scream out my demons?
After a few minutes, Spencer relaxed and my ass started smarting from the stone floor. I left the kids with my mother and snaked my way through the crowd to stand with my father and brothers. As a song ended and another started, my father scanned the exits and said to Keir, “I’m done. Can we go?”
Erik put his arm around my father and said, “Haven’t you heard? They serve wine and cheese afterwards.”
|My father taking in the scene as Keir leads|
|Du with Spencer, Erik, and Kiran, donning hats and leaving shoes|
|The boys waiting with Robyn|
|Me waiting for the singing with my parents (photo: Erik Paesel)|
|Kiran looking back from the crowd as the men clear a space for the musicians (photo: Erik Paesel)|