A mosque outside my window

January 13, 2007 at 3:30 PM • Filed under India 2007

          Adela Quested, who quite possibly posseses the best name in all of English literature, traveled to India in E.M. Forster's "A Passage to India" to meet up with her fiance, a British administrator, in the 1920s.
          "I want to see the real India!" she exclaimed breathlessley upon arrival. Her desire was motivated by the fact that she and all the Brits around her were holed up in various English clubs and complexes of some sort or another, cordoned off from anyone remotely Indian. (Adela eventually got her share of Indian experiences, both good and bad, and rightly learned from Aziz, her nemesis of sorts in the novel, that "no one is India.")
          Today's equivalent of those stuffy English clubs are the four- and five- star hotels that are peppered throughout the country, primarily in the cities. They keep the "real" India -- the cluttered, crumbling, heart-breaking and life-affirming India -- outside their glass doors. I certainly do not begrude any Westerner their desire to stay in a clean, quiet, familiar place during their journey  -- in fact, I am staying in one such upmarket place myself next week. But I realize now, after staying at the low-budget Hotel Broadway, that expensive places offer much less than their residents are paying for.
          I threw open the window of my spartan room at the Broadway and below me was Old Delhi - the Muslim section of the city and the poorest one. I was four flights above the street but the stench made its way up with no problem. On the narrow lane below, children yelled and played with bats and balls next to sheep that "baaa-ed" as they wandered aimlessly along the pavement near a water spigot at which old men were brushing their teeth next to constuction workers in sandals loading concrete onto the backs of donkeys. Men in fake leather jackets made deals with each other next to frowning women yelling at their children to get out of the way of the cycle rickshaws being driven by very thin men who were trying to avoid bewildered beggars. There was no let up in the noise, and northern Delhi stretched out beyond them, shrouded in the mists of pollution.
            As soon as I lay down on the bed to rest after a day of sightseeing, I heard someone breathing, very loudly.  At the window I drew back the curtain and saw the mosque across the street. It was a small mosque, no tourist would visit it, and up top I glimpsed the loudspeakers. And then the wailing begain, the chanting. I don't know what to call it except chilling, the most evocative sound I have ever heard. It was a muezzin, I believe, one who calls neighborhood Muslims to prayer over the loudspeakers with his voice. (Pardon me if it's not called a muezzin - such is the drawback of a travel blog, where you have little time to write and no resources to check your facts like a good ex-newspaper reporter.) I sat on the bed, incredulous.
          Islam, to this Westerner, has always been "the news." It has never been outside my window. It has never been inside my ears. Never under my skin. And as the haunting chant drowned out the myriad of noises on the street, as I watched a slow trickle of men file into the mosque, it hit me that I was in a part of the world where religion matters.  Here, unlike the places of my daily life at home, religion is a social force, and for the utter poor, I instantly recognized, it could be everything. Clearly there are millions of people back in the States for whom religion is deeply important, myself as a Zen practitioner included, and I felt a similar depth and chill in the spine when I heard beautiful chanting at my friend Alicia's synagogue recently. But at home, few people live in neighborhoods were everyone is knit together by the same devotion, where you walk out the doors of your place of worship and your religion continues among everyone around you. I smiled to myself as I realized that the evening news and my news websites back home have been utterly worthless. Call me naive, call me sheltered, but I will gladly admit that I needed to come here to this open window to realize the reality of religion in the workings of the world.  
          It was a deeply evocative moment for me -- nothing earth-shattering, nothing necessarily enlightening -- and who knows what effect it may have on me down the road, if any. I went back to the bed to rest. The chanting woke me the next morning at 6, and repeated at 7:30, guaranteeing that I would not forget the notes. I could chant it for you if you were sitting here next to me in this cyber cafe.