Monday 13 July 2020

N is for Nights

Night transforms India. By day, the land bakes under a dusty pitiless sun, and the cities are a constantly jarring clash of opposing sights and sounds. Darkness descends like some ancient balm poured over the sores and wounds of the day. The heat is moderated; the air becomes Zephyrous, neither hot nor cold. The harsh contrasts of the streets mellow and mingle as the shadows lengthen, reach out and coalesce. Most importantly, the mad frenetic din, the horns and the trucks and the banshee shouts, all is tamed and harmonised into the soft equable noise of human babble.

Delhi in particular is magical by night. Without the harsh light, the city's constant and overpowering sense of distances is lost. The weak electric bulbs in the shops cast small circles of illumination which further reduce the scale. Only Connaught Place retains a sense of wide open space.

But even that is tamed. What by day is a huge bowl of empty sky becomes at night a hall whose roof is hung with velvet drapes. Around its inner circle, the shops which hung back diffidently in the deep shadows of the colonnade are now glistening like tiny candles on a grand iced cake. Across their lights, twin currents of people swirl in opposite directions, spilling out onto the almost deserted road.

The outer circle is even more animated. Hundreds of tiny shops have burst into life: one is selling car seat covers, another has typewriters hired out for use there by the hour; another boasts a single small photocopying machine; many others sell brightly coloured cloths or provisions or one of the many monochrome cooked dishes. Laid out on the street are second-hand books or some of the multitude of indigenous and foreign magazines. It is one of the great Joys of India that neither here, amidst the huge throngs of bustling shoppers, nor in the quiet roads radiating out from Connaught Place, or indeed in any of the other cities of the north-west, do you ever feel threatened. The night in India is totally benevolent.

That same carefree sense of certain safety exists in Kashmir. More so perhaps among this happy and graceful people. But the night itself has a very different quality, and none of the plain's enveloping sense of a warm, almost maternal embrace.

The Kashmiri night is stern. During the day, the sunshine streaks through the thin air with a direct and surprising strength. But the instant that the sun sinks behind the rim of the encircling mountains, it is as if some great brazier had been extinguished, plunging this other-worldly land into the dark and deep cold like a bad wizard's spell in a fairy-tale.

But there are compensations. Not only is the next day's light and heat all the more welcome, but the cold of the valley is of such a clean and bracing kind it is hard to harbour a grudge against it. Besides, it is the occasion of one of Kashmir's richest pleasures: to sit on a houseboat on Dal Lake in Srinagar, the boards creaking around you, as a blazing log fire in the room's stove throws out a wet and almost loving heat, together with the unforgettable odours of gently choking woodsmoke.

A Partial India A to Z

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