ACCOMPANYING A FOREIGN FRIEND I VISITED FIVE OF DELHI’S most famous monuments. The three lower storeys of the Qutub Minar built by Qutubbudin Aibak looked as though they had undergone lazer treatment at the hands of a dermatologist, so pink and scrubbed did they look. Bus loads of Japanese tourists clicked away furiously, sitting in impossible postures on the denuded grass or scrambling over the scaffolding.
At the Bahai temple, we were two dots among the thousands that visit the temple every Sunday. At the entrance of the prayer hail, two young volunteers told us crisply and firmly to keep quiet, switch-off our cell phones, take no pictures, walk barefoot and not allow children to run around. I was skeptical about the quietude expected from hundreds of visitors, most of whom had come for an outing ‘en famille’ just for fun. Once we were inside the prayer hail, we could sit where we liked, on cold marble benches. There were no idols, no pictures, no priests, no flowers, no drums, no bells and no one in charge. And yet, quite miraculously, I did not hear a single cell phone ring. I also did not see any children attempting to run around the ample corridors,
I or ask silly questions which all children tend to, particularly when grown-ups ask them to be quiet. There was no jostling for space and not a single sound of expectoration. I wondered what miracle made this happen. It gave the hope that nothing is impossible, given proper handling.
At our next stop, the gardens surrounding the Humayun’s tomb were lush and green, the orange gravel freshly laid and most of the monument restored to perfection. Humayun’s Tomb and Qutub Minar are both World Heritage sites. The difference was apparent to even an untrained eye. Someone had made that difference.
At the Red Fort, the driver ordered us to get down at the bus stop, thanks to a Sunday bazaar which had usurped the whole road. Leaping across a pool of water, we elbowed our way past child beggars and vendors, towards the Lahore Gate. Surprisingly the much-maligned security staff was efficient and even goodhumoured. Although the restoration work on the Diwani-e-Aam and Diwani-e-Khas had been undertaken with care and precision, the grounds were dry and patchy. No water flowed in t1e canals and the surrounding atmosphere was unkempt and unruly. People pushed their way around for no rhyme or reason as there was plenty of space i1l around. Visitors showed little interest in the monument’s history or its significance as a national icon. Did the state of maintenance make such a difference to human behaviour? Would it have made a difference if some parts had been furbished with drapes and furniture to conjure up interest? Instead of a few self-styled guides concocting history with their stories of gold, silver and precious stones dripping from the monument, would visitors not prefer an explanatory film before starting the tour?
Diagonally across the other side of the road stood Chandni Chowk. Despite the chaos, my young American friend and I marched off, past scores of second-hand shoe shops and vendors hawking cut-fruit, gram and peanuts. We climbed the steps of the masjid exactly at sunset, relieved to leave the congested township at the foothill of the monument, well out of reach. Prayers were in progress and the atmosphere was serene, as verses from the Holy Quran resonated through the air. Despite the noise, the dirt and madness that pervaded the market-place below, the atmosphere evoked a feeling for history and reverence for the Almighty.
It was quite apparent that we as Indians listen, behave, display pride and ownership, given certain conditions. Something, someone makes that difference. The contrast is truly astonishing. We need the discipline of the Bahais to take over and teach us to care for our treasures, to respect laws and take pride in what we own. Someone has to show the way.