Monday, February 11, 2008

Horse Trading

It's one of my most favourite sights, all year round, but especially so on crisp winter nights in Delhi. As a mist rises from the roads and meanders into the neon lights, and car headlights pinpoint prisms into your eyes.... the sight of a young horseman galloping a white steed back to the stables. Back from a wedding that must have just about begun with the jai maala, after the baraat has been recieved with due ceremony...

For years I've watched this streak of a visual on random Delhi roads. There is a wedding hall of sorts very close to my mother's house; my brother's reception happened there. We of course, the boring bengali sorts, did not have horses decked in red and gold, but a sedate white ambassador to do the honours.

But from the gates of that wedding hall I have often seen this exhilarating sight. I don't know why the rider is invariably a very young fellow, a lad almost. And the horse, a white mare, never seems so unfettered than in those perfectly free moments.

At times I have been lucky enough to see both pre and post. While driving out to the market or to a friend's, I have seen the baraat arrive. At its simplest, the horse is draped in thick velvet cloth of red and maroon, brocaded in gold, and the groom, his face hidden under the canopy of flowers from the sehra streaming from the pagri, rides gingerly, clutching both reins - I mean, what are the odds of the average Delhi groom having equestrian skills? - a petrified little boy, the 'sarwahla' sits in front of him, looking dangerously close to slipping off. A motley crew of absurdly overdressed people follow, stomping their feet and flailing their arms to the tired tunes from the brass band. Wizened and rickety thin men carry gas lamps on their head. More lights on an open bed truck, drawing their power from a noxious and noisy generator, blaze into the night air, and between lamp hiss and generator drone, the sound of the band fades. Never did understand why they play 'ye desh hai veer jawano ka' in any case. A tongue-in-cheek dig at the brave man going to war?

There is always a white maruti van at the back. Filled with the naughty young men of the family, and their 'car-o-bar'. Indulgent looks from elders. Flirtatious ones from the women, especially from the bride's side. Laughter. Bling. Tinkle. Guffaws. Pagris. Aiye, aiye...

Now that's the simple version. As it gets elaborate it stops short of nothing. Only the traffic stops. For hours. The circus can go up to an unbelievably elaborate horse drawn carriage. And miles of bad dancers behind. Expensive cars. Sweating armpits. And red gold signages held by more impoverished looking men.

And the over bedecked horse sniffs and snorts and stamps in impatience, as it is reduced to an uncomfortable .05 kmph with its unwieldly burden. The lad leading it looks dazed, gripping the reins to ensure the horse doesn't buck and heave, the lights in his eyes blinding him - he should wear blinders too, like his charge.

And a voice in your head tells you - in all probability, the bride and the groom have met barely once, or twice. Maybe done a coffee if the family is progressive enough. Perhaps indulgent bhabhi jee sat discretely at the other table. And from then till now, that resplendent bride inside has focused all her energies on the wedding. And nobody is prepared for the marriage. And nobody will know when the flowers dry.

Thinking such half thoughts, I have then returned an hour or so later, and the gates of the wedding hall have been more or less deserted. The ceremonies have begun in earnest inside and apart from some stragglers, some really late, hasty smile expression arrivals, and some of those guilty tipsy boys rushing out for another plastic cupful, there is hardly anybody around.

And then out of those gates bursts forth a vision. A horse. And his rider. Unfettered. Unblinkered. Unswathed in velvet and gold. Unchained. A trot, a canter, and then a full gallop as the night air swallows them in its cold crisp neon-laced mist.

A laboured, laden, slow mare, traded in a few hours for a gloriously free beast. And its master. Enjoying the night air whipping through hair and mane. Leaving behind all that they have been asked to deliver for a paltry sum of money - duty, responsibility, role playing, expectations, exasperations, alterations, adjustments - all of it shed with the weight of the gas lamps.

A few more minutes, and other burdens may grip. Poverty perhaps. And loneliness. And villages connected by distant trains. Money orders and bad hay. Cold quarters and a rough brush on diseasing skin. Worries, both human and animal, as exhaustion makes both sleep on their feet.

But for the moment, the gallop of the truly free. For this incadescent instance, without a care. Wind in the hair.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Quote Hanger

When you think of the long and gloomy history of man, you will find more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion. - CP Snow