University of Minnesota

“If It Isn’t Fun.” – Misery in Old Delhi

Cardiologists from around the world were gathering in New Delhi in fall of 1966 for the Fifth World Congress of Cardiology. I was delighted to sample the mystery and beauty of the Indian subcontinent and had every intention to enjoy this experience with savoir faire and gustatorial safety.

Not waiting to unpack my bags on arrival at the Grand Hotel Ashoka, I hailed a taxi for the American Embassy, where I requested a commissary card. I projected that, with a full larder of cereals, canned milk, packaged fruits, nuts, candies, crackers, cheeses, and bottles of mineral water, I would be able to eat sufficiently and also to explore Old Delhi with confident good health.

I was still hale by the time of the midweek congress gala, held under a magnificent tent the size of a football field, with brightly colored tassels and banners undulating in the light evening breeze. The setting was in a vast plain, the entire dramatic scene enveloped in the singular purple haze that usually lies over the dusty Indian landscape at the extremes of the day. Blazing flares attached to the internal tent supports created a festive air. Servants scurried between tables bearing huge, heavily laden trays. At the center of the tent was an immense cornucopia of exotic foods — steaming mounds of grains and curried rice; vast arrays of fowl, condiments, fruits, and cakes.

My hearty cardiological companions piled their plates high with these delicacies while I socialized and walked about with bottled mineral water in hand. We were happily bathed in exotic fragrances, romantic lighting, and elegant opulence. All of us sensed how special was that particular enchanted Indian evening.

But over the two or three days following the banquet, many colleagues were absent from the meetings. I heard reports about widespread intestinal rumblings and about some colleagues who had become quite ill. Meanwhile, I continued my plain, sterile, American-made snacks in quarters. Fully fit in the midst of the intestinal epidemic, I was able to attend all sessions and to plunge enthusiastically into excursions in the great city of Delhi.

On the fourth day of the congress, I left alone for a walk through Old Delhi, moving ever deeper into the teeming mass of people struggling to survive in that human inferno. The density of people, the intensity of color, the noisy chaos were overwhelming. Street vendors hawked their exotic foods, snake charmers wove their mysterious rhythms, and mendicants wailed their melancholic cries from every corner.

Abruptly, a tiny figure appeared in the corner of my eye. It seemed to move when I moved and stop when I stopped. After a few blocks, I realized that my shadow was probably around age eight, round-faced, with soulful brown eyes. He started holding his hands out with the plaintive call, “Baksheesh!” I smiled but ignored him and continued on my way. He followed ever closer, but would back away quickly every time I stopped to peruse the sidewalk wares. He seemed to share my indecision in picking out green stones, purported to be jade, as gifts for my daughters. He seemed to experience my pleasure when I bought a heavy brass decorative chain for my wife. His eyes became huge as he saw me tumble for a colorful Indian wedding tent and inquire how much it might cost to send it home by sea. He seemed especially delighted when I bought the tent on the spot.

By then we had established a tenuous companionship. He seemed somehow assured that his faithfulness would “pay off” with a worthwhile tip at the end of our walk. That indeed was my intent. After a while, I stopped and became involved in conversation with the other lone Anglo-Saxon in this teeming center of Old Delhi, a street evangelist shouting his proselytizing nonsense, distributing his brochures to the masses of uninterested Hindi and Moslems.

Suddenly, I was horrified to see the flying body of my new little friend as it hurtled past my head, landed across the alley, then collapsed in a heap in the gutter. As I ran toward him, I turned toward the shouts to see a toothless old crone, a beggar whose territory my little shadow had unwittingly invaded as he followed me. I was almost upon the boy, to comfort him and give him that long awaited “baksheesh,” when he jumped up, looked in terror over my shoulder, and darted away, lost forever in the teeming crowd.

Stunned, I walked slowly and aimlessly away. Then, tears streaming down my face, quite overcome, I jogged all the way to my hotel where I packed my bags and departed directly for the airport. I felt that I simply couldn’t stand another hour midst the misery and the seemingly permanent hopelessness of that wretched society.

Since those days long ago, many of my friends have gone to India and found inspiration in its grandeur and solace in its philosophy. Others still go into the developing world to try to help peoples in need. The secret of those “successful” in such endeavors, such as Mother Teresa or Albert Schweitzer, is their intense focus on the single life before them, relieving the pain and suffering of individuals, one at a time. Noble and patient, they courageously pull drowning souls from the swift current, one by one. Yet they cannot touch the multitudes that continue to fall, or to be pushed, into the river upstream.

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