Northern Indian is a foreign land to me. So when a plan to have my visiting American friend take a “Golden Triangle” tour (which is not what you might think) by herself was nixed, I went with her for a quick four days to Delhi and Agra. Time being at a premium, we flew from Pune to New Delhi and were picked up at the airport by a car service, whose driver would best be described as painfully earnest. Used to showing tourists the standard spots, he worked hard to conceal his bemusement at our interest in places like the Jantar Mantar observatory
the Crafts Museum
and the National Railway Museum.
The hotel was a standard issue airport hotel: clean enough, with a decent restaurant, and an ensuite bathroom. We plagued the staff with requests for extra blankets, Delhi being colder than Pune in February and most windows not being winterized, which makes a 12 C/53 F temperature pretty uncomfortable. After our second request for more blankets, they brought us four more. We thought they were making some sort of point…
In our two days in Delhi, Jagdish, the earnest sweater-vested driver drove us to the museums and parks we wanted as well as the Nehru Memorial, India’s first Prime Minister’s elegant family home (whose quiet was fantastically disrupted by hordes of stampeding schoolchildren on a field trip). Jagdish also gently but firmly made sure we saw Raj Ghat (Gandhi’s memorial),
the Qutub Minar
the Rashtrapati Bhavan buildings
a temple dedicated to Parvati and Ganesh
and the Baha’i Lotus temple.
Since we thought the son-et-lumiere show at the Lal Quila
would be fun–I used to hear about it from my father–we had Jagdish drop us off there in the evening but then found that we had two hours to kill before the English-language version. This led to us wandering through Chandni Chowk, the crowded and chaotic gateway to Old Dilli that I hadn’t ever thought of traversing.
We peeped into a Jain temple filled with devout followers and crowned by a great wire-mesh bird (since it doubles as a bird hospital–go figure),
and walked by a Gurudwara, a Shiv temple, a mosque, and a church with Urdu inscriptions.
If there was ever a place where an imam, a priest, and a pundit could walk into a bar…
The son-et-lumiere show proved to be far less interesting than a subsequent conversation with the security guards (probably regular army soldiers), one of whom exhorted me to tie the knot. I wasn’t sure whether he wanted my number for himself or if he had an eligible young man whose family he meant to give it to.* Fortunately, Jagdish called to see where we were and we managed to escape from the somewhat interesting but suspiciously interested jawaans.
New Delhi is a very different city compared to Bombay or Pune: beautifully designed, with wide boulevards and well marked streets.
To see much of it from inside an air conditioned, chauffeured (albeit non-luxury) car, was a disorienting experience. When I was growing up, taking a cab was a huge indulgence, one we partook of only two or three times a year. Even now, I don’t own a car and tend to walk, bike, or take public transport everywhere. A car service separates you from the everyday, from heat and dust and sexual harassment, always an ever-present concern, but even more so in Delhi today. But it’s a privileged position, with a driver who stayed at our beck and call, apparently only eating before he picked us up and after he dropped us off. It was a discomfiting luxury, a glimpse of an India that is becoming foreign to me.
(*He was one of about a dozen people, including cabbies, rickshaw drivers, the cleaning lady, etc, who asked about my marital status and my salary in the three week trip.)