The myth of Mount Sumeru and the four continents - or Hotel Amax Inn, New Dehli - and reversibility.

 

Hotel Amax Inn, at the outskirts of Paharaganj in New Dehli, holds only one honourable place in my memory. It is from where I started rebuilding what Piaget called reversibility. Reversibility is the ability to backtrack an action. Among the children Piaget did study, this ability developed around the age of seven. Before this, a child has to learn going there as one task, and then going back as a separate task. The pre-operational child can learn how to put on his stocking, while still not being able to take it off. I lost part of this ability in a car incident years ago. When I went to India in 1999, some ten years later, I still was not able to walk around in a city and then, just turn back. I could not reliably follow a map.

For some reasons I don't particularly want to remember, rather than sitting on a train heading for Kanpur, Sarnath and Bodh Gaya, I was stranded in this rather miserable hotel for a little longer than a weekend. Suffice it to say, two of the least disagreeable reasons were a temporary problem with my credit card and food poisoning. The reason for the first problem I never came to know; the latter to the rooftop restaurant of Hotel Amax Inn. So, here is my advice: If you ever go to New Delhi, don't stay at the Hotel Amax Inn. If you by some misfortune end up there anyway, don't eat in the rooftop restaurant. And if you, in spite of my warning, find yourself stranded in Hotel Amax Inn, too exhausted to go out, and extremely hungry: don't order Biryani. Order purely vegetarian and simple food.

 

Nobody did warn me, so I did it all.

The first 24 hours in the hotel, I was too tired from the Aeroflot flight, and the heat and hassle of New Dehli, to do much other than rest. Then for the first time in my life I ventured out into a real big city. The Paharaganj area of New Dehli is where the backpackers stay, though the more renowned hotels will be closer to Connought Place. On either side are large avenues, and in-between these narrow streets where cars can only meet at the odd places where by some mystery there is room for two cars side by side. Hotel Ajax Inn lies in a tiny alley stretching twenty or thirty meters away from one of the tiny streets, making a connection between two of the avenues going in a star-like design out from the Connought Circus; just where there is a small bend in the narrow street.

 

My first enterprise was to find a shop and buy some soap. The trick was - how to be able to get back? I decided to try doing it this way: walk a distance, and then turn around and have a good look at the street at every other corner until I got to the avenue; then walk back until I could see the sign for Hotel Amax Inn. Now I had learnt both ways, I went back to the avenue, and a short stroll along the avenue to find a shop where I might find some soap.

That evening I had my first restaurant meal in India, at the rooftop at Hotel Amax Inn. The most familiar dish was Biriyani, and I did not have the proper know-how: don't ever eat Biriyani if it is served in less than an hour. The reason, I later was told, is that Biriyani served in twenty minutes will invariably be pre-cooked, stored in a refrigerator in a city where the electricity fails four or five times a day. The refrigerator will often be located in the scorching sun at the rooftop kitchen. At two AM the next morning I woke up, feeling really sick, and for the next 48 hours I lay in fever, unable to hold as much as water.

 

Then I started walking New Delhi. I had abandoned any plan requiring a long train trip, and got an airplane ticket so I could get up to Darjeeling as soon as possible. Thereafter, I was trying to get some strength back; drinking water with "Electrolyte" (a sugar, saline and mineral powder useful for rebuilding after dihoerrea); not really eating anything until the vegetarian airplane lunch a couple of days later. In the meantim, I did a lot of walking.

The method for knowing my way was the same; walk just a short distance, turn around, walk back. Repeat, repeat, repeat. I kept a card from the Hotel Ajax Inn in my pocket, just in case, but soon discovered I could manage by doing it just that way. Where I since the age seven or so have needed just one mental map - being able to reverse it when needed - now I was building up two maps; one for going there, and another for going back again.

 

 

Now, what is the nature of these mental maps? Years later, as I discovered that this practice of building double sets of maps really have made for the kind of relearning that paves way for reversibility around the age of seven, I see a mental kind of map that is not quite following the pattern of the great map makers.

A mental map has a centre; a pillar around which everything is grouped into four categories: everything is either in the front or the back; secondly, to the right or to the left. That is, Mount Sumeru and the four major continents. In my case, occupying a room in New Delhi, slightly off the not so fashionable hotel area of Paharaganj, in Hotel Amax Inn, it was like this: in front of Mount Sumeru, is Pahrarganj proper until Connought Place, and in the back an undiscovered continent where I only made a few small ventures to learn the finer details of vegetarians versus meat eaters - the smell from the toilets when crossing from mainly Hindu to obviously Muslim quarters. To the left of Hotel Amax Inn there is one of the major avenues leading to Connought place, and across that, is the Railway Station; to the other side, another uncharted continent at the far side of the other major avenue. I never went there.

 

This is a purely mental map; while the real, geographical map is somewhat different. This mental map made it possible for me to walk around without referring to a real map. If I had prolonged my stay in New Dehlh, living at the Hotel Amax Inn, then no doubt I would have ventured into the subcontinents, and as such known where I was when searching for the Ashoka Rock Edict and the Ashoka Pillar; as well as through what subcontinents the taxi took me the morning I went for the Domestic Airport to catch a plane for Baghdora near Darjeeling.

For a few days I had Hotel Amax Inn as my mount Sumeru. It is not a place I would recommend. But living the life of the preoperational child, whatever one has, can become the central point of reference. To me it became a temporary return into the magical reality when our rationality is borne.

Top Right: A hotel in the street.

Left, and next to the bottom Right: Views of the Western Continent, from the top of my temporary Mount Sumeru

Second Right: Don't eat Biriany! The nan bread and the raita are ok.

Bottom Right: Animal life at the rooftop