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  • Writer's pictureSimon Howard


Updated: Aug 24, 2022

I’m sitting on the steps of the Jami Masjid in Old Delhi, happy to have escaped the YMCA for the day. The YMCA is what I imagine the Lubianka to be like: identical grey corridors layered upon each other, with muffled echoes sounding along them – but endless hawking from Indian throats thrown in. I’ve made the terrible mistake of staying there, but can’t be arsed to move anywhere else because I hate everything to do with Delhi in the early Eighties. On the first day I heard an American moaning from the lavatory: ‘I’ve been here just one day and I thought to myself, I don’t want to be here six months…’

It’s late afternoon, and I’m on the top step leading down from the enormous mosque to the bustling street where people shout, and all kinds of vehicles shriek and screech and blow and bellow as they tear through the crowds. It is a heaving sea, this timeless urban India. On a rooftop way above, children play on tricycles as a family of monkeys hop past them, heading home in the dusk.

‘Einstein theory relativity,’ says a soft voice nearby.

A handsome boy is staring directly across the crowd at me, dressed in a simple white robe. An adolescent Jesus, I think.

‘They can take away your thought.’

Suddenly I realise it’s not a boy at all, but a beautiful madwoman, her short hair flecked with grey, beckoning me. When I go over, she grips my arm.

‘I said to that man, “I have no food, no money, and I do not know if my brother is alive or dead”.’ A tear shines in her eye and she squeezes my wrist. ‘The policeman he stick a point into my arm and it bleed. They would not let me into the mosque. Green is the colour. You know what it is in Hindi?’

I shake my head. She points her finger.

‘You see that graveyard over there?’

I see only open ground and a house with green shutters. But it’s possible there are grave-stones in the distance.

‘Now you see what I mean. Einstein theory relativity.’

She drifts away as loudspeakers call the faithful to prayer. I sit down again – my companions madmen, beggars and a few goats. The rest of the people have moved into the mosque. One or two foreigners pass by, but they seem like dreams. The bustle seethes below, the crowds making their way towards the markets and to Chandni Chowk, the old town’s lifeblood, its tarmac Yamuna River.

‘What is your good name please?’ asks a piping voice. Three small boys have appeared at my side.

I tell them.

‘Oh. What is your native place?’


‘Oh. Your country name?’


‘Oh. What is the time?’

‘Half past five.’


They run off giggling and no wiser about the time or me.

Two steps below, a goat pisses on a sleeping beggar and leaves neat droppings beside him. It nibbles my copy of The Times of India, while a little girl with huge eyes stares unsmilingly at me. A crescent sliver of moon supplants the falling sun, and the sky turns yellow.

Magnificent bearded sadhus appear in saffron robes and tall turbans, with white markings on their old foreheads, clutching bowls. One carries a finely carved stick and another, a long trident. Fascinated, they stare at me adrift in Asia, but are soon gone.

With a loud crash the beggar wakes up and knocks over his can, spilling its contents – a solitary ten paise coin – into the scattered goat droppings. Several kites seem to float around the moon, which is turning silver, as they scavenge for food below. (‘Shite hawks’ the British troops used to call them.) One lands silently in a tree, which shivers gently under its weight. The beggar lights a beedi, staggers to his crippled feet and strolls in a shambling way across the wide steps, puffing smoke towards the now orange sky.

The tiny unsmiling girl wraps her scarf round her head and sets off down the mighty steps on God knows what errand.


Men swarm out of the mosque and I’m caught up in their tide, going with them to the busy street below. Cycle-rickshaws swerve past me, children scuttle through the traffic and are nearly hit by large, careering trucks; an agile cyclist weaves his way in and out, lithe as an ice-skater. A hideous old woman pokes my arm.

‘One rupees!’ she screams. ‘One rupees! One rupees!’

Suddenly I become aware that a slender boy with a baffled expression on his beautiful face has stopped his cycle-rickshaw next to me. It is the only look of innocence in the whole of Old Delhi. I jump aboard, and the boy carries me into the densest, most dangerous part of the traffic as the old woman continues to scream:

‘One rupees! One rupees!’

Soon we’re swept along by the terrifying cataract that is Chandni Chowk, the boy’s beautiful face more baffled than ever, as though he’s seeing it for the first time – and all the braver, all the more beautiful, for that.

We continue: pulled along, tossed about, sometimes in the wake of other vehicles, at other times facing oncoming cars, trucks, motor-bikes – gradually leaving the old city and heading for the new. A disabled man tears past in his three-wheel vehicle, furiously turning the wheel which drives it with one hand and wiping his dripping nose with the other.

In the window of a medical supplies shop a team of green-clad mannequin surgeons and nurses perform an operation on a dummy. From inside a music shop trumpeters play, running through the scales in opposite directions. Four Sikhs are carrying a piano up the stairs and one of them trips, sending the piano crashing down to the pavement, making the men scatter and sounding deep notes as it goes.

A horse-tonga passes. A girl in a salwar kameez sitting in the back looks at us, saying to her friends up front:

‘Let’s sing to fascinate these chaps.’

She and her companions start on ‘Doe a deer, a female deer…’ but the sound is soon lost amid the frenzied blare and squeak of horns.

Eventually I decide it’s time to switch to a taxi – I’m expected for drinks with a newspaper editor – so I step down from the cycle-rickshaw and pay the boy, whose beautiful eyes are full of questions. I have no idea that this is the last display of tenderness in public that I will see for six long months on my first visit to India. Or that the American in the lavatory was being so prescient when he moaned his dread across the cubicles.


And what is the black mahal?

The black mahal – my term – was the companion to the Taj Mahal that Shah Jahan had planned for himself on the other side of the Yamuna River, to be linked to Mumtaz’s mausoleum by a bridge – and its negative image in black marble. But Shah Jahan’s romantic plan was scuppered by his deeply unpoetic son, Aurangzeb, who locked him up in Agra Fort instead. Out of his prison window the deposed Emperor could see the Taj Mahal and the plot of land where his own black mausoleum was to have been. And to add terrible insult to awful injury, Aurangzeb built a dreadful plaster copy of the Taj Mahal down on the Deccan – just like the Taj, but robbed of all its poetry, a counterfeit taj. (However, the Aurangabadians are very proud of it and most welcoming whenever anyone is foolish enough to visit.)

For me, in my initial bitterness, the black mahal is the India that could have been – following Independence – but never was.

And the counterfeit taj?

What India is.

Of course, I’d be the first to admit that it’s all relative.


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