11 July 2014

First days in India

At the rooftop restaurant on the roof of the Lord Krishna Inn: memories of eight years ago. Could it really be so long? Little seems to have changed, though, other than the terrific heat and a few new, electric rickshaws that look just as battered as the old CNG versions. Other travellers seem less evident, too, although that's hard to judge from just a day here in Delhi.

A pigeon speeds past, high up above the teeming bazaar in a grey, hazy sky, travelling faster than its few deliberate wingbeats suggest; the screens shading much of the cafe sway and flap in the breeze, which is augmented by the wind from a furiously-spinning fan directly overhead so I have to weight the pages of the notebook with a salt shaker to keep them flat as I write. I sip the best mango lassi I've ever had -- bright yellow, the colour of my pen, and intensely flavoured, as if the essence of mango-ness has been distilled and concentrated into this rich, thick drink. All it needs to be perfect is the ice I dare not risk.

This morning I walked along Main Bazaar to see if the Sikh tea-seller still had his shop (he didn't; the roller door, covered in dust, still had his name in faded print but clearly hadn't been opened for a long time). A rickshaw driver greeted me and fell into step beside me. I knew the deal -- strike up a conversation, find out what I wanted to do, offer to help me -- but I didn't mind; I hadn't yet been jaded by constant ploys, perhaps because surprisingly few had tried it on or had given up easily. I let him show me the abandoned tea shop then lead me to another tea seller, who sold mostly spices rather than tea and offered only a limited and disappointing range of teas: generic first flush Darjeeling, generic second flush Darjeeling, generic Assam.

Raju the rickshaw driver then led me down the road to show me the CCCI supermarket. On the way, he showed me small photographs of his 6-year old son and 4-year old daughter. I asked where he was from.
 'Delhi,' he said. 'All my life in Delhi.' He gestured, indicating all of Delhi. 
We arrived near the CCCI store. 'Anything is possible there,' Raju said. 'Anything. Cheap.'

He then pointed to a set of big glass doors. 'Government tourist office,' he said. Right, I thought, a government tourist office. This means two things: first, it's meaningless -- every other shop in Delhi seems to be a government tourist office -- and second, with the exception of the one true government tourist office, the term 'government' means 'government approved'. This is also meaningless.

Nevertheless, I walked into the government tourist office and was instantly overwhelmed -- by relief at entering an air-conditioned room, and by several young guys apparently delighted to find their long-lost friend. I explained I wanted to go to Ladakh and after being transferred among several consultants finally ended up talking with Ahmad. Ahmad liked me instantly, even before knowing anything about me. Very quickly he told me how my attitude reminded me of his grandfather, a wonderful man who had taken Ahmad off the street (Ahmad was an orphan) and raised him. Within ten minutes he'd shaken my hand several times; eventually he explained how, when his family felt comfortable with someone, they hug them three times, and he embraced me and delivered three bear hugs. 

He planned an itinerary, quickly and in minute detail but insisting everything was flexible. The usual stuff: houseboat in Srinagar, trekking with 'gypsies', homestays, etc. In fact, he said, he'd be trekking in the area at the same time, with his fiance, an American yoga teacher who, by selling yoga mats, raised tens of thousands of dollars to support the orphanages Ahmad was setting up in three regions of India. Jennifer would be happy to have a complete stranger from New Zealand join them on their month-long trek, he insisted.

He offered three budgets. The deluxe budget amounted to more than I earn in a good year; the least expensive exceeded my budget for the entire four months of my travel. Pointing this out didn't faze him.
 'Tell me your budget and I'll work out an itinerary for you,' he said. Presumably this would take care of the entire sum. Despite his outrageous approach, I couldn't help liking him -- not enough to accept his offer, though.

Back at the hostel, I dropped off my gear and visited the nearby barber for a meticulous, expert shave by a guy seemingly too young to need a shave. At four o'clock I met Raju and got him to drive me through the insane chaos of Delhi traffic --and this wasn't even peak hour -- to one of Delhi's famous tourist attractions: Humayan's Tomb. Delhi traffic operates by no apparent rules; if any exist, I saw no evidence. Instead, the apparent anarchy seemed to operate according to some underlying law of nature less obvious than that of schooling fish, which seem in comparison to be of one mind; Delhi drivers seem to be more like swarming ants, often in conflict but somehow achieving the desired result. During the drive there and back, I saw no accidents, which seemed impossible. The rear of many rickshaws exhorted other drivers to 'Keep distance', which I took to mean they should come no closer than the thickness of a coat of paint. The same distance applied in every direction and was tested to its limit.

In contrast, the tomb itself could have been an oasis. The place felt like a refuge: tranquil; a few people wandering about slowly, some photographing the monuments, others photographing themselves; leafy trees providing shade for a few panting dogs with bright, intelligent eyes and surprisingly few signs of mange or malnutrition. Mynas gasping; black kites circling in the grey, shimmering sky; crows calling. I heard a palm squirrel chirring from a well-trimmed, knee-high hedge and later saw one stretched out partway up a palm trunk -- the first palm squirrel so far. The sight felt like a welcome back to another aspect of India.

I spoke with the man whisking the floor of the main tomb. 
 'You look after this?'
He nodded, with the characteristic Indian head wobble that can mean anything the listener wants. He showed me the tombs, pointing out which belonged to whom. The whole family lay here -- had lain here for four hundred years, and given the obvious care with which the complex was being looked after, would continue to lie here for hundreds more.

Later I asked if I might photograph him with his broom. He head-wobbled, picked up his broom, whisked a few strokes, looked at me -- glowered would be a better term but I think his expression arose from anxiety about whether he was posing correctly -- and whisked a little more.

Then he took me over to the grating in the wall and pointed out the Sikh temple gleaming in the distance, and I understood he meant me to frame the temple in one of the gaps in the grating. I obliged. When I thanked him and turned to leave, he said something -- something about 'something', then, 'teep'. Fair enough, so I gave him a small tip and left him to his whisking.

I returned to the rooftop restaurant late in the evening, hoping it would be cooler. It wasn't. I ordered aloo mattar with a plain naan and another mango lassi, but the heat had killed my appetite and I managed to force myself to eat only half the meal; the lassi, however, went down just as well. I kept thinking of a beer in a cool, air-conditioned bar, but that seemed like admitting defeat. Perhaps, though, it was simple common sense.

1. This is just a selection to give a flavour of life in this part of Delhi. Much more has happened, but you'll have to wait for the book (ha ha!)
2. Please excuse any errors of formatting -- I'm trying to produce this on an android tablet and don't want to waste time trying (probably unsuccessfully) to deal with the idiosyncracies of an operating system obviously designed to 'consume' rather than create.
3. I'm also worried about the quality of the photographs, which, try as I might with the only android app that processes RAW files, seem to fall well short of the quality of those I process back in New Zealand in Lightroom on my Windows desktop. In particular, they seem consistently unsharp, although the originals are definitely up to scratch. Sorry.

1 & 3. The tomb-whisker.
2. One of the other monuments at the Humayun's Tomb complex.
3. The view at night from the rooftop restaurant.

Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor


Relatively Retiring said...

Wonderful - literally. I feel as if I'm there, too.
Could you find a way of importing the mango lassi, please? Or get the recipe.

Anonymous said...

Simple common sense! Yes! Cheers, Maureen

Barbara Butler McCoy said...

Had to laugh - "Jennifer would be happy to have a complete stranger from New Zealand join them on their month-long trek, he insisted." ;0

pohanginapete said...

RR, I wish I could bring you one back :)

Maureen, I'll soon be in Dharamsala where it should be much more bearable. Maybe when I return to the plains I'll have regained that common sense ;)

Barbara, it really was something else. Glad you enjoyed it.