We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again — to slow time down and get taken in – Pico Iyer
UNLIKE many visitors to India who tour the Golden Triangle that is New Delhi- Jaipur -Agra, I choose to do mine in a forward-reverse-forward and back, easily a more convoluted, twisted manner – that is, New Delhi-Jaipur-NewDelhi-Agra-New-Delhi-Chandigarh-New Delhi. This is because I have originally included this relatively young Le Corbusier planned and designed city of Chandigarh – the capital of both Punjab and Haryana, in my itinerary and to get there, I intend to take off from Delhi by train.But, less than halfway into my adventure in India, I am being called for a‘too-hard- to –resist-can’t- say no’ meeting in Bangkok. I have no choice but to drop Chandigarh from this trip and instead opt to stay much longer in one of the world’s most ancient existing cities (along with Damascus, or other sources say Jerusalem and Varanasi) – Delhi.
When I tell people I am going to India, I am never wanting in well intentioned roster of reliable advisers, Indian friends included, who remind me not to 1. drink the water 2.eat street food and 3. be chummy with the locals. But that is entirely missing the point. By doing so (or not doing so) negates the very ideal of why we travel. As the Harvard philosopher George Santayana in his essay ‘The Philosophy of Travel’ writes ‘we travel to escape into open solitudes, into aimlessness, into the moral holiday of running some pure hazard, in order to sharpen the edge of life, to taste hardship, and to be compelled to work desperately for a moment at no matter what.” Besides, common sense is a not too distant ambit of caution. So being the free spirited, unorthodox-not-for-the-faint–of- heart traveler that I am, I 1. drink the water 2. eat street food, the nuts and chips and kulfi at least 3. get chummy with the locals especially the English speaking cycle rickshaw wallahs (when I am haggling for the fare which they often win anyway) and in public squares, if I request them to take my picture.
Now here I am whole and in one piece, living to tell this New Delhi tale.
This is me, when I didn’t know anything much about how to wear the sari. My fascination and love of India is a puzzle to many. It is to me, too. Perhaps I need to keep going back to find out why.
I arrive in the Terminal 3 of Indira Gandhi International Airport (IGIA) in the dead of night. Newly refurbished and barely two years old, this terminal is surprisingly modern and spacious with well groomed carpet on whose red paisley print surface I strut my six inch stacker heels (I already lay the predicate about my being unorthodox) – and perhaps comparable to the best airports in the region. India being one of the hubs of European airlines, its immigration counters are expected to be crowded with Europeans. That night they are not. I search for the Visa On Arrival and find it just behind the stairs, to the right, adjacent to the rows of immigration counter. I utter my perfunctory hello to the visa officers, fill out the form they give me, I hand over my passport and its photocopy, my pictures and USD63 visa fee which earlier I have tucked neatly in an envelope. The officer carefully probe my documents, inspecting my other unexpired visas and passports, holding the four of them stapled together up and down like an accordion. Unlike the dour humoured and stoic faced immigration officers in most airports, the Indians at the counter are friendly and eager to help. I say my basic courtesies and Namaskar and leave to find a Thomas Cook currency exchange counter. The seller tells me ‘change as much as you want. There are no fees here. And don’t forget the receipt’. Having done that and getting clearance from the customs, I worm my way out into the meeting point.
The thing about feeling secure at arriving in the dead of night (or even daytime) in India is to have a reliable and safe transport arrangement – usually with the hotel. Outside the airport, at the meeting point, a huge crowd is gathered, people waiting for relatives, friends, business partners or loved ones – some with pained look at being awake and made to wait at the time of night but many others have the wide eyed excitement and look of eager anticipation. It is difficult to find what I am looking for in the sea of brightly colored sari juxtaposed among off white kurta of the men, the very bright airport lights contrasting against the stark darkness of night. I see many placard carrying well wishers and then from among the crowd one card board stands out. It has my name on it printed in flaming, dark red ink with variably colored flower border.
I wave at the driver to acknowledge. He waves back. As I inch my way to my airport pick-up, I heave a deep sigh of relief. I am where I have always wanted to be.
I have planned my trip to Jaipur the day after I arrive in Delhi. Having booked a train ticket with Ajmer Shatabde, I arrange for a cab to take me to the train station for my train that leaves at six in the morning. I leave my hotel half past five. Surprised when the driver tells me to get off the taxi in less than ten minutes as we are at the train station, I hesitate and doubt. From the rolled down window of the car I peek outside and ask a local police what time the train leaves for Jaipur. I am floored when he replies 10AM. I have been brought to the Delhi Cannt or the Delhi Sarai Rohilla – a sleepy, small train station with few and very old trains coming and going from Old Delhi. I double check my ticket and find out my train leaves from the New Delhi Railways (NDLS) right across from the backpacker ghetto of Paharganj. I instruct the driver to bring me there as fast as he can. I arrive at exactly 6AM. I grab my bags, jump out of the car and force my way into the thick crowd, scale the stairs that lead up to the platforms, look for my platform number, run as fast as I can almost a mile to my coach number that somehow is toward the forward cars of the train. I make it just in time for the crew to serve the flask of tea, more tea kits, chips, candies, a vegetarian breakfast and the day’s issue of the Times of India . After the jolt of adrenalin from fear at the prospect of being left by my train, after this confusion with the train station that leaves me breathless, I only have very little energy left– not enough to make me want to eat but at least enough for me to take a picture of what they serve in first class.
Coming home from Jaipur I am booked with Ashram Express. From Jaipur Junction train station my host Khamini makes sure I have fresh linens that she extricates from the cabinet not too far from my bed. She and her helper, Reemla meticulously make my bed, straightening the creases against the thin cushion as they have always done in the guest room in her well-appointed home. Online I have earlier chosen the lower berth. There is a reading lamp and the airconditioning just right. I help arrange the bottled water and tea in paper cup in the bedside as she checks and hands me my snack pack of chana, bhujia, soda and fresh jamuns. I probably will never find a host as remarkable as she and her family
The train leaves promptly at 4:30AM and is expected to arrive at the Delhi Junction or Purani Delhi at 10AM. However I arrive on a Monday so the station is expectedly busy. The train stops. The train goes. The train stops again. The train runs a few meters briefly. And stops again. I ask an elderly couple what the kerkuffle and announcements in Hindi are all about. The man replies we are stalled because there is no available platform for our train.
Having spent the entire train ride reading the travel guide to Delhi in my Kindle instead of sleeping, I change my mind about taking a cab back to my hotel. Instead, I decide to take the hike to Chandni Chowk ( Metro Line 2) the Metro that services the two biggest railway stations to take me two stops to Kashmere Gate, an interchange with the Red Line that brings me to my stop in the residential Kohat Enclave. From where I alight, it is quite a long hike but I find my eyes glued on the goings on in the marketplace that is the train station, on the minutiae of Delhi’s daily life – half naked men carrying bales of wheat on their shoulders, women balancing satchels on one hand and valises on their head, couples lost at which platform to take, sellers selling bottled water, soda and snacks in crude open food carts. Looking at the clock outside the train station, I realize I have been delayed for half an hour but in no time – I am at Chandni Chowk . In no time I am in my place in Delhi, with the backpack on my back intact.
This brings me to the story of the Delhi Metro.
Perhaps my reliance of, or even call it my melodramatic dalliance with Delhi Metro is made even more justified because of my innate quirky sense of adventure. After all, how does one navigate a huge, cosmopolitan city with dark inner streets that have been called many names – daunting and thrilling, both fun and agonizing, filled with wariness at the uncertainty that lurks in the unfamiliar street corner, tricky or even frighteningly twisted.
Built in early two thousand, the Delhi Metro is a convenient way of exploring Delhi. Safe, highly secure and airconditioned, the Metro shuttles about 1.7 million commuters every day. Imagine what the streets of Delhi will be like if all these passengers are crammed in buses in already congested, pedestrian hostile city streets.
I buy the Metro Smart card for INR100 with a load of INR50 and INR50 deposit upon the return of undamaged card. The minimum top up is INR100 and maximum of INR800. Built by Danish technology, this extensive metro system of both above ground and underground trains is patterned after the Metro system of most urban cities in the world, including the all too familiar ‘Please Mind The Gap’. English announcement is made by a male voice to announce each stop while a female voice gives announcements in English. Thus the chief of the Metro takes immense pride in the fact that almost a decade after, people still treat the Metro with the same discipline and reverence they have shown since the start. Passengers still line up, throw litter in the bins, and leave the walls of subways absolutely clean and free of graffiti.
A Metro station, the big ones at least, is a wonderful place to get to know the people , local customs and what a typical day is like in the center of Delhi. With coffee shops in every corner like Nirula’s or Caffe Coffee Day offering western brewed coffee instead of the traditional tea, pasta and pastries instead of traditional Indian sweets,and wafting the sweet aroma of these treats, this is where, on a slow day, I stay to people watch – students deep into their books or laptops, young professionals busily cross checking sales figures, friends giving an unsuspecting celebrant a surprise birthday treat and a bouquet of roses in turn filling the room with a delighted shriek and screams, bursts of young life and laughter, older people meeting with equally older folks – some of them rushing, a few taking their own sweet time, others in deep contemplation despite the mid-afternoon rush. I myself contemplate with envy the sari clad women with intricate bead work around me, how graceful are their ways and how casual they walk despite the many folds of pleats on their skirt without falling flat on their faces and want to bop me in my head for not bringing the few saris that I own. At times I walk aimless in these stations, reading the signs, following the arrows, fixating over a billboard of the latest often hilarious if not action packed offering from Bollywood, getting myself familiar because it behooves me as to how one station can actually have so many exits and that how many of them seem to have the same Baba or Singh or Margh in their names. I must have looked like an aberration. Despite this, several times I have been stopped for directions and have to stifle the urge to grin or throw my fist in the air at the guilty pleasure and thrill of being mistaken for a local or at least someone who probably looks the part.
Easily the busiest station, where most lines congregate is the Rajiv Chowk (the Indian name of what used to be popularly known as Connaught Place). Outside of its outer and inner rings, I find landmark buildings like the Statesman,one of India’s oldest newspapers. There are rows upon rows of Indian and western fashion stores, travel agencies, currency exchange outlets, bookstores, bazaars and restaurants.
Right behind the Regal Theater, an elegant white building near the Janpath that is New Delhi’s landmark for many years but now has seen better days I find my way to the Saravan Bhavan, a vegetarian restaurant famous for its South Indian cuisine.
One fine Sunday, in Ashok Place, near Connaught Place, I attend the Sunday Catholic mass at the Sacratissimo Cordi Jesu (Sacred Heart Cathedral), the biggest Catholic church of the Archdiocese of Delhi. I join the English Syro- Malabar morning mass that follow the earlier rites in Hindi and Tamil. I am with a large community of South Indian Catholics from Kerala, Cochin and Goa which have populated New Delhi colonies of R.K. Puram and Chanakyapuri and other nearby colonies.
The building which is made of red brick may not be as imposing and intricate as the mosques and forts and temples that dominate the historical and architectural landscape of India but this makes for the strong presence of Christians at least on a Sunday, in New Delhi.
In the neighbourhood of Connaught, taking the Metro to the Central Secretariat (Violet Line), one finds the Parliament House (Sansad Bhawan) and the President’s House (Rashtrapati Bhawan), both British colonial buildings that are a mirror image of each other. At the time of my visit, more than forty OB vans with satellite dishes are found in the front lawn of the President’s House, only a fraction of the over four hundred such TV stations all over India.
At the Rajpath, the three to four kilometre walk over clayey soil from the President’s House, the India Gate looms ahead. While I pay my respect to the fallen Indian soldiers who perished in World War I by visiting this memorial, I linger – drawn and taken to the throng of people that gather in the huge open field right behind it – watching young would be Sachin Tendulkar wannabe’s practice the game of cricket.
Taking the Yellow Line interchange with the Blue Line, I am ushered to Nehru Place – a swanky station where one finds the latest gadgets and electronic devices. This is the favourite hub of techies in search for gadgets, repair shops etc. But this is also the place of residence or offices of most embassies in India. About a kilometre walk from Nehru Place station is another landmark that is popular among tourists – the Lotus Temple or the Bahai Place of Worship. Although there is not much inside, people flock to the place perhaps enamored with its lotus flower design of twenty seven petals made of white marble. More than anything else, I am fascinated by the blue pond below the temple which circulates the cool breeze despite the humid afternoon. In a place as landlocked and flat as Delhi, dry like most Northeastern part of India and away from beaches (unlike the Southern part of India) people congregate by these ponds perhaps to revel, no matter how microscopic in this body of water, no matter how artificial. But instead of walking the short mile, I opt to take the auto rickshaw because of the slight drizzle. It costs INR30 for the short trip. It is made farther and circuitous because of one way streets.
Just like Hongkong and Singapore Metros, the Delhi Metro has stations near many places of interest notably the Qutub Minar, the
twelfth century skyscraper where one takes the Qutub Minar (Yellow Line) or Jama Masjid near the
Red Fort in Old Delhi, where one takes Chawri Bazaar.
For someone who has cried over Ben Kingsley’s portrayal as Gandhi in grade five (I still do each time I pull it out of my collection to watch it for the nth time) my trip to Delhi will never be complete without paying homage to the Gandhi memorial – the Rajghat. The place looks like a park with garden patches and well trimmed bushes, tiny birds perched over bird baths but the solemnity and quiet that embrace the place is a reflection of the reverence and respect each visitor gives this shrine and what it represents – the cremation site of Mahatma Gandhi. The highlight is the carpeted marble altar with perpetual flame in the center.
Just like any metropolis, Delhi is not wanting in malls and stores that offer western brands, restaurants and amenities that showcase its new found opulence, more notable among them in Lajpat Nagar where the new rich and the new middle class of Delhi come to meet and shop. At Metro Walk in Rithala, the end of the Red Line farther northwest and a more modest neighbourhood of Delhi is a picture perfect family place with a catwalk and large parking spaces. There is a dancing fountain in the middle before I am ushered to the water park adventure area.
I must say I do not come here for shopping but for a sampling of various Indian cuisine in specialty restaurants interspersed between Pizza Hut and TGI Friday’s and McDonald’s. First I try the pista and matka kulfi, the Indian version of ice cream packaged in terra cotta cup and topped with printed cloth sealed with rubber band. Then there’s the Tibetan momos that taste and look like dumplings only more bland but sets the palate on fire with its spicy dip. Pind Balluchi specializes in Punjabi cuisine while Amritsar to China is a fusion of Indian and Chinese cuisine. It seems that in India,cuisine is as much a part of the culture as are the sari and bindi.
Pico Iyer’s lines resonate as I state my case about doing things differently in the way I travel. Many times I meander away from where the tourists are, often without the benefit of a guide save for my trusty Kindle and the map of the Metro. He writes, ‘Thus travel spins us round in two ways at once: It shows us the sights and values and issues that we might ordinarily ignore; but it also, and more deeply, shows us all the parts of ourselves that might otherwise grow rusty. For in traveling to a truly foreign place, we inevitably travel to moods and states of mind and hidden inward passages that we’d otherwise seldom have cause to visit.’
For indeed, a travel to India, the case in point, in Delhi, is not just a stamp of a visa on the passport. Rather it is an indelible imprint in the soul and spirit.
Pico Iyer further explains ‘Travel in that sense guides us toward a better balance of wisdom and compassion — of seeing the world clearly, and yet feeling it truly. For seeing without feeling can obviously be uncaring; while feeling without seeing can be blind.’
While it is true that there will never be an end to cautionary tales about the scams and the stench, the shanties and the slums I try to blend with the locals. After all, such is the story as when you are in Fes in Morocco, in Rio in Brazil or in Manila, Philippines where it is supposedly number one for fun.
Despite or because of all the drudgery, still you are not too far away from home. One asks why visit Delhi at all?
I do because many people tell me not to.
No matter how misguided or well placed their sentiments may be about the place, I refuse to see Delhi in somebody else’s eyes other than my own. And yet I let my feet be my guide, my intuition my sight and I realize I do not have to be Indian, no matter how transient, to be a Delhite. For there is something about the place that awakens the senses not just upon seeing the spires of Jama Masjid or the doors of Swaminarayan Akshardham Temple or the multi-colored shoes by the shoe storage in Gurudwara Sis Ganj . Whether you sleep over threadbare mattress in a bed and breakfast in Karol Bagh or on 300 thread count linen in highly secure Hyatt in RK Puram, mystified by the play of lights in Hotel Lalit or feel lonely at the solitary landmark Crowne Plaza in far far Rohini or a hostel in the outskirts of Jahangirpuri, it is the sight of a vendor selling pani-puri in the alleyway of the Red Fort, the side walk bookseller cross legged seen from the clear glass walls of a Haldirams eating banana for lunch, the overfed pigeons that flock at the dumpsters in
Connaught, the old woman seated on rough tiled floors tugging at my skirt to sell her trinkets, the three layered parking in Connaught’s inner ring roads, the pair of white socked feet resting on the car door at noontime, a blue turbaned holy man coming out of a gurudwara and the cows crossing the streets stalling a traffic of spanking black Mercs alongside Suzuki Marutis, the khaki color uniformed policemen in the Metro, the street children and beggars grappling their way back to Vasant Vihar at night, more than the monuments and the shopping malls – that make for the city’s collective soul.
These are what make Delhi, Delhi. These I also have to see.
At the end of the day, dust collect at my feet, sweat that soaked my back from the searing heat has long since dried as I, along with the blob of humanity that gather at the platform await my turn to board the ‘Women Only’ coach of the Metro.
Back in my dimly lit and tiny hotel room, I read and re-read things I need to do and see the next day until everything is stored in memory.
Before I sleep, I count down the days of my stay. And I thank my God, my lucky stars and other people’s gods that tomorrow is still going to be another day in Delhi.