Mission Delhi – Irene Banias, Humayun’s Tomb

Mission Delhi - Irene Banias, Humayun's Tomb

One of the one per cent in 13 million.

[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]

She clicks the camera button, looks at the image on the LCD screen and is disappointed. “I’m better at writing than photography,” she says. The Delhi Walla met Irene Banias in Humayun’s Tomb, the first big Mughal monument to be built in India in 1570. “This is just spectacular. The beauty and the harmony of the curved lines trying to reach upward, to the spirit…”

It is sunny but the sweltering May heat is tolerable due to the strong wind. Ms Banias is carrying a handbag and a water flask. A lawyer, she teaches human rights at Bosphorus University, Istanbul, Turkey, and is in Delhi for a sabbatical from work. It is her first time in the city. “The Machu Picchu in Peru and the Oracle of Delphi in Greece are also as deeply spiritual as Humayun’s Tomb. I went to Peru in 1998. The stones of Machu Picchu, the lost city of Inca people, rises out of the huge rocks in a rain forest. The sun god was worshipped there. Since the city was buried under a thick foliage for centuries, the Spanish conquerors could not destroy it,” Ms Banias says while showing the entry ticket to the guard. Being a foreigner, she paid US$ 5. For Indians, the ticket is priced at Rs 10.

“In Greek mythology, Delphi is the site of the Delphic oracle. It was dedicated to Apollo, the god of music and art. The oracle was founded on the slope of a mountain. Kings would come to seek advice from the priestess Pythia, who would sit on a tripod-legged chair that was placed over a fissure on the earth. The vapours coming from there inspired visions to the priestess whose pronouncements would then be interpreted by other priests.”

Feeling the same emotional connection to Humayun’s Tomb as she did to these two historical landmarks from Peru and Greece, Ms Banias says, “Although this monument is surrounded by the city, it feels solitary.”

Ms Banias arrived in Delhi in April 15, 2010. A Greek from the island of Samos, in the Aegean Sea close to the Turkish border, she has traveled in Ecuador, Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, Spain, Italy, England, France, Holland, Belgium, Romania, Croatia, Macedonia and Bosnia. At 18, she left Greece for higher education in the US. She married in Wisconsin and, 30 years later, divorced in Illinois. “In every place I lived, I took a part of it in me. My biggest passion, however… the thing that always stirs in me strong feelings… is… I don’t know if you’ll be able to understand it… is social justice.”

At the university in Istanbul, a student once asked Ms Banias what made her chose human rights as her specialty in law. “The reason was personal and I hesitated to tell him since we were in a public space. When I was a very young child and Greece was in the middle of a civil war, in the late 40s, my father was tortured by the para-military forces due to his political beliefs. I must have been three or four but I remember the sight of my father as he returned from the detention. He had broken ribs and his face was swollen. His body was black and blue with bruises. He was repeatedly hit with rifle butts. I can see all of it very clearly. But what was inspiring was that my father survived and spent his life without any bitterness.”

Sitting on a bench in the sprawling lawn of the monument complex, I ask Ms Banias how difficult it is to let go of the past bitterness. As a Greek woman, how complicated it is to live in Turkey, the historical ‘enemy’ of Greece. “I never had any desire to go to Turkey. Living in Istanbul was an idea I never thought of. My father was Turkish-born of Greek descent. The Turkish-Greek war of the early 1920s resulted in an chaotic exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey and my young father like so many others had to flee for his life. He and his family suffered great losses. So, you know, I had no desire to go to Turkey. You see children inherit the pain of their parents.” The wind ruffles through Ms Banias’s hair.

“Then a very close friend moved to Istanbul and she kept convincing me to visit. After a lot of efforts to persuade me, I relented and decided to visit her for four days in 1999. It was my life’s most dramatic experience. From fear and apprehensions, I came to love Istanbul and its people. I felt that something was changing in me. As if an outer skin was slipping off from my body and soon I was left with no bitterness towards the Turks.” For a few minutes, we quietly look at the red-stone tomb. Humayun was the second great Mughal and his widow had built this mausoleum.

During that short stay in Istanbul, the friend invited a few colleagues for dinner. One guest, a professor in Bosporus University, was sitting across Ms Banias on the dining table. During the conversations, she suddenly looked into Ms Banias’s eyes and said, “Will you like to live in Istanbul and teach human rights? No one is teaching that course presently?”

Stunned by the unexpected offer, Ms Banias’s said, “Isn’t it absurd to ask a Greek woman to come and teach human rights in Turkey?”

The professor replied, “It is not absurd at all. We will love to have you.”

In 2000, Ms Banias shifted to Istanbul.

How did Turkish students take to a Greek woman teaching them human rights? Turkey, after all, is a very proud nation and very sensitive about foreign critics pricking it on delicate issues of the present and the past, such as its role in the massacre of Armenian people in the last century. “Students were so open and accepting. They were very eager to talk to me, to discuss sensitive issues, to find out more about me. At times we would continue the conversations we had started in the class. I have developed warm relationship with some of my students.”

In her course, Ms Banias would cite references from the various judgments of the Indian Supreme Court. “I’m impressed by some of the clauses in your constitution, for example, the right to life which has been interpreted by your courts to include the right to livelihood. In other countries, you don’t have a right to establish a community on a sidewalk where so many are able to find jobs nearby.”

Climbing the stairs to the tomb, Ms Banias turn to me and says, “Economical and social rights are not considered fundamental rights in many developed Western countries such as the US. This is one thing that piqued my interest in India.”

It is dark in the tomb chamber. Ms Banias walks to one side of the hall and try looking out of a stone screen that is sculptured with a fine latticework. Sunlight is streaming inside in patches. “Although the laws are there in the books, the extent of poverty in Delhi is overwhelming. Courts alone cannot rectify it.” We come out of the hall and watch a few laborers working on the stones under the noon heat. “I’ve seen poor and homeless people in the US and everywhere I have been. The look of the homeless is the same everywhere. Empty gaze, filthy clothes, disoriented consciousness. But the lack of any kind of effective measures to address poverty on a large scale reflects the priorities of our societies.”

Delhi is becoming intense for Ms Banias. “The density of the population, the abject poverty, the content of the rich, the destitute and the comfortable living side by side, the great diversity of peoples and cultures, the magnificent monuments… all this is so overwhelming.”

As a human rights scholar, is there anything here that makes her angry?

“My stay has been too short to draw any conclusions but at time I do perceive a resentment of those who are well-off towards those who are living on the streets. I just sense it though I have no proof. But I also see people who reach out to the poor and give.”

Ms Banias chose Delhi for her sabbatical because of a strong recommendation by a Spanish friend who has lived in the city for a long time. “For years I’ve been reading Indian literature. I read Bhagwad Gita and Mahabharat. They opened my mind to a different way of looking at things. I also read contemporary Indian authors such as Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy and Amitav Ghosh. Their novels spoke to me about a multi-cultural multi-layered society that has developed strong spiritual traditions but also faces many challenges. It mirrors the cultural background of my land, Greece, where too the gods frequently mingled with the mortals but which also faces daunting challenges currently.”

After watching the Delhi monsoon in July, Ms Banias will return to Istanbul. Her book-filled apartment, a block away from the Bosphorous, is in a small village called Arnavutkoy. Dominated by the Greek in the past who have had to leave Istanbul, it is now very cosmopolitan and is home to conservative Muslims as well as liberal artists, academics and foreigners. The village has elegant fish restaurants along the sea, traditional kebab places and coffee shops. Ms Banias commutes by the bus and the metro rail. She loves cooking and often invite friends to dinner. “My Christmas and Easter dinner guests are mostly Muslims, atheists and a few stray Greeks,” she says with a laugh.

In Delhi, Ms Banias spends her time meeting human rights activists, making friends and hopping the city’s monuments. She is also planning to visit Benares and Kashmir. Refusing to disclose her years, she says, “When one reaches a certain age, time becomes of the essence and one must live fully. I think I’m very happy at this point in my life. I’m glad to be in Delhi.”

[This is the 23rd portrait of the Mission Delhi project]

On a sabbatical

Mission Delhi - Irene Banias, Humayun's Tomb

What’s wrong with my camera?

Mission Delhi - Irene Banias, Humayun’s Tomb

Isn’t it lovely?

Mission Delhi - Irene Banias, Humayun’s Tomb

The perfect corner

Mission Delhi - Irene Banias, Humayun's Tomb

Happy in Delhi

Mission Delhi - Irene Banias, Humayun’s Tomb

Inside Humayun’s Tomb

Mission Delhi - Irene Banias, Humayun's Tomb

In front of Afsarwalla’s mosque

Mission Delhi - Irene Banias, Humayun's Tomb

Behind Afsarwalla’s mosque

Mission Delhi - Irene Banias, Humayun’s Tomb

Delhi’s not totally Greek to me!

Mission Delhi - Irene Banias, Humayun's Tomb

A moment in the monument

Mission Delhi - Irene Banias, Humayun's Tomb

Ms Banias, careful

Mission Delhi - Irene Banias, Humayun's Tomb