At the Nizamuddin Dargah

A being enters the narrow winding lane and transforms into an oasis. Nudge-nudge-push-shove, and the hawkers try to peddle you all they can: beads, boxes and incense sticks. The more pious looking ones are offered chaadars to be draped at the dargah. Through glitter, grime and tiny portals, the oasis reaches the main gate.

Guarded by a wall of white, the main dargah hall is a square structure around which the entire enclosure is designed. The white holds fort, broken by a patterned lattice that lets light and life seep through. The oasis gazes at the new expanse and finds a corner to blend into- hard, among the faithful poring over their holy books.

To the right are two brothers, entangled in a playful scamper, with hands and feet trying to make contact. One, in borrowed royalty and a brown sherwani, is about two. The other, more successful one looks to be around six. The younger one contemplates a run up from the opposite direction to finally be one up. Pulls up his shiny blue trousers and dawdles full steam ahead- only to end up flailing on the marble. His fall breaks the reverie of a man in prayer who hastens to get his nirvana back. The mother notices the hullaballoo and picks him for a feed. The brother, who up till now had a smug grin etched on his face, looks crest fallen. He trudges back to the father, who sits leaning against the iron fence separating one compound from the other.

The backdrop to this is provided by an old, rustying man sitting with a harmonium, directly facing the namaaz area’s entrance. The Caretaker of the Harmonium. His spindly fingers hold four keys on static, pumping air into the contraption whenever people come near. Directing them to sit with his voice and his machine, he continues raising his hands, timing them to the music that leaks.

To the left, a man in white seeks his manna, one green bead at a time. He sits on his haunches, with closed eyes, a string of translucent green beads in his right hand. He sits oblivious to the world, ignoring the wails of the kids and the Caretaker’s croaks.

Meanwhile, the feed is over and it’s time for rolling-the-wheel-on-the-elder-brother’s-belt. The younger one happily whirrs the wheel, his gurgling laughter animating his eyes. In the compound housing the studious word readers, there is one at least at peace.

 The croaks are replaced by a discernable tune and the Caretaker jaggedly makes way for the old harmonium player, clothed in shimmering green. To strains that sound like Chhap Tilak, a man on the roof far left brooms fallen leaves to the floor. In gusts of gold dust, the yellowed leaves fall to the floor, creating an iridescent cloud that rises upward and then dissipates.

Right in front, a man sits cloaked by a dirty black screen with a flame atop its black counter. A wrought iron candelabra next to him holds lit incense sticks. Families come clutching bunches of agarbattis which he lights and they then place them on one of the black branches.

A round of the square structure in the centre takes one around men and women in prayer, reading from copies of holy books stacked against the side of the structure, each enclosed in satin. At each corner wall, a round black and white clock shows the time. All except for one, that has no more time left to tell.

Tiny exits lead to peddlers selling books and trinkets. In a hidden corner, a man with a pointy skullcap asks for alms. Rose petals lie strewn on the marble floor. One exit takes you to the mausoleum of probably a discipline of the main saint in whose honour the dargah has been built. A young qawwal sings praises, often rising on his knees with the song’s force. A man with a fraying leather waterbag offers water to tourists carrying heavy cameras, who shuffle enthusiastically ahead in their olive and cream shorts.

A retreating turn and the piercing glare of an eerily fat white cat meets, singling you out yet again. A hasty walk forward; scouring the pile of shoes at a nearby shop for yours; briskly passing through the tunnelled exit; past musty green staircases tucked in the dark; past meat-shops pouring forth their stench; past wrinkled faces asking for pity; onto the busy street, with its cars and harried pedestrians and cyclists and strangers who push you forward. The oasis lives no more.

Vasudha Wadhere