On this Sunday morning the palm trees in Lodhi gardens are throwing long spidery shadows across the lawn. The dust and smog swirling in the air catch the low-slanting light, giving the park a misty, mystical look as the flowers explode in colour, every blade of grass glowing poison-green where the sun catches it just right. Among the medieval tombs, lush foliage and swirling fog the Indiana Jones theme song plays in my head in an endless and mildly annoying loop, but unless Indie has cleverly disguised himself as a uniformed dog-walker there won’t be any exciting treasure-hunting going on today. The winding gravel paths are indeed full of dogs on a morning walk, dogs with beautiful fur and of recognizable pedigree, a strange sight in this city of decaying mongrels.
On a bench by the Shah-Sayid tomb a shirtless old man is doing breathing exercises, a mesmerising performance of ballooning inhales and thunderous exhales, interspersed by short sharp breaths, the stomach becoming round and taut and then compressing alarmingly right back to the spine. Under the arches of the tomb a young couple is already well into its giggly courting ritual.
A young man, Garmin strapped to the wrist, iPhone to a bulging biceps, zooms past in a whisper of expensive sportswear and the crunch of gravel, the outline of his fluorescent compression socks still burned on my retina after he’s turned the corner. A bureaucrat – what else could he be with that ruler-perfect moustache and air of grim resignation? – is walking briskly, wind-milling his arms slowly as he goes, taking no apparent pleasure in the soft light and the slight cool breeze, so hard to come by in late Delhi spring. Everywhere there is a soft rhythmic scraping of brooms against gravel, brooms against stone, as the sweepers make their morning rounds. An old narrow man with white hair is sitting on a bench, inert in the middle of a sunny spotlight reaching through the tree-leaves. An older Sikh couple is taking a regal morning stroll, her hand hooked under his, her light red sari aflutter. He is soberly dressed in black trousers and a white button-up shirt, with an impressive white beard and a magnificent marigold-yellow turban on his head.
In this city of apocalyptic traffic jams, of constant hurrying and scurrying, a city that on a bad day can seem like a Kafkaesque joke trapped under a lid of gritty soupy air, a regular visit to Lodhi Gardens is an indispensable cornerstone of my sanity. It is a place where time expands, where against the solemn history of rich men’s tombs people come for leisurely picnics, morning yoga and impromptu cricket matches, young couples hold hands and make out behind trees far from the supervising eyes of their parents, and I sit on a bench observing, untroubled, unhurried, simply enjoying one free afternoon in the span of history.