The flight arrived around one in the morning and the temperature in mid august was oppressively high, the monsoon rains had yet to deliver this far north and daytime temperatures were up to 45° centigrade and it still felt about the same as we negotiated the first meeting with Indian bureaucracy at immigration.
Reasonably quickly we were through customs and immigration and there was a very young skinny Indian boy with my name on a card waiting to take us to the Gulnor Hotel, in one of the smallest little red cars one could find. We all set off for the city barely bouncing along in a car with not much suspension.
Somehow I wasn’t a shocked, only saddened, to see so many people sleeping out by the side of the road, under the flyover or contorted across their cycle rickshaws wearing what was probably their only possessions and my immediate thoughts went to the Indian tycoon, Mittel and his lavishing of £50 million on his daughter’s wedding at Versailles.
The road and roundabouts into New Delhi are spacious with large green spaces, all laid out and planned by architects Lutyens and Baker for the new capital of the British Raj, replacing a geographically out of the way Kolkota, and locating it at the site of the old capital of the Mogul empire, central for all the trade routes. It was started in 1911 and finished in 1931.
For a capital city of 24 million, of a country of perhaps 1.2 billion people, the drive in is relatively free of bright lights, advertising hoardings and high rise buildings.
It was a relief to arrive in the airconditioned hotel, situated on a quiet roundabout in Karol Bagh. As ever in india there is the man to take the bags from the car, the man to hold open the door and at least one more to take the bags to your room. Waking early next day the world of Delhi came to life from our window, the tea shops full, and the Paan shop busy for that early morning fix, and the tuktuk and rickshaw drivers touting for business.
We had just booked flights and 3 nights in the Gulnor hotel and had a vague plan of organising a tour around Rajasthan on arrival… train, buses and probably flights. In the reception the first morning was Abid, the force behind Abyss Tours, not the most comforting name for any company but we sat down over breakfast and he sketched a plan literally on the back of an envelope for the two of us, with car and driver and all hotels for 10 nights and eleven days encompassing pretty much the route we had thought about, and for us Europeans an attractive price . Here comes the point where you say to yourself do I trust this guy, and as usual if you want to do anything, especially in India, one has to go with gut feelings, so within an hour we signed up. We had a choice of Nissan car with non English speaking driver or Rajesh and the ageing Tata..
We chose Rajesh and again we struck gold.
Abid suggested we could have Rajesh for a free day tour of Delhi.. and as we were leaving in two days and the next day was Independence day and a public holiday we went off with Rajesh in our white Tata.
It was strange having a car and driver..saying ok that’s enough here lets do something else …Ive never been in that position before…But I suppose it was a sort of breaking in ..and it wasn’t going to be like that in the few months ahead after Laurence had gone back and it was just going to be me, my backpack and 1.2 billion Indians …
We visited India gate first, a memorial to the million plus Indians who served and the 82,000 who died fighting for Britain during the first world war and more recently India’s monument to the unknown soldier. Here were all of India’s diverse peoples, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Tamils from the south, all together to celebrate Independence and visit Delhi’s remarkable monuments. In the tourist car park, hidden between two cars I came across a man with a flute and a basket with a snake, rather blase I walked on thinking I would find another snake charmer in a better setting to photograph later but in the end never did!
The Lodi gardens, with such beautiful tombs and mosques, including Mohammed Shah’s Tomb which for me is the most stuningly simple of all the wonderful tombs and shrines. Here families, enjoying the beginning of a public holiday were picnicking with the women dressed in their best colourful saris.
These beautiful gardens originally laid out during the Raj, so peaceful and so green with palm trees and english lawns shimmering in the heat, the women in orange,red and yellow saris and with the multitudes of red kites gliding across a cloudless sky, this could could only be in India.
The restaurant in the hotel served fantastic curries, sauces just spicy enough to make the lips tingle but not hot enough to cause serious damage. I love indian food and the prospect of curries everynight was an eagerly anticipated pleasure.
Next day was independence day and everyone told us at first that the metro was free that day, then it was just free in the morning then it turned out it was only free to the 5000 invitees to Modis first independence day speech. India doesn’t appear to run much on fact but the uncertainty of rumours seems more fitting for a nation that prefers hearsay to hard facts.
Leaving the airconditioned and slick metro at Chandni Chowk we headed towards the Red fort, where earlier in the day Modi, the new prime minister and leader of the Hindu Nationalist party the BJP, MP for the ultra religious Varanesi and with a dubious past record regarding the Gujarat riots, gave his first Independence day speech.
Here we encountered the full force of India, the many tuktuk drivers wanting to take you a few hundred yards down the road, a full variety of beggars and the odd one offering to be your guide for today and forever!
It doesnt take that long to laugh and ignore them, but never answer how many times in india sir, with it’s my first…..
The Red fort was closed for the holiday but we went to look from the outide railings where Modi had been that morning and there was still one Modi supporter carrying out some extra judicial punishment on any indian who got near the Red fort’s perimeter.
But here in the centre of Old Delhi, the vibrant part of the city and previously the capital of the Mogul empire there was a party atmosphere, with indians from all over the subcontinent visting their mosques and temples; the Muslims, the Hindus, the Sikhs and the Jains. Here was the India I had expected rather than the India of New Delhi with it’s monuments and whiff of state power.
One often has certain preconceptions about a country beforehand and although I had tried not to read too much about India, and let first impressions influence me more, I had bought a book about Hindu gods and goddesses, but put it down rather quickly when I got to the 22 avatars of the supreme being, which meant very little in suburban France.
One has vague notions of the nature of Indian Independence and the partition, school history books perhaps give a one-sided picture of the Indian mutiny and the British Raj, but do we in the west really understand the religious nature of the various conflicts in India since 1948, from the Amritsar temple massacre to the ongoing Kashmir problem, from the Gujarat riots to the Naxalite / Maoist insurgency in central India and the recent Mumbai terrorist attack, and to this years elections where a rather right wing Hindu Nationalist party gained power. A resurgent Hindu nationalism appears to me to be a rather dangerous proposition in an India that appears to just about work.
Would I ever begin to understand the complexities of the Hindu religion, the caste system, India’s rather dysfunctional and corrupt political system and how well over a billion people get on together in just a couple of months, probably not, but travelling in India might give me a better perspective not just on the country but on it’s literature and more importantly for me it’s cuisine.
…certainly a few months wasn’t going to bring me that much closer to understanding India but I hoped that travelling round a large part of this subcontinent I would acquire some framework and begin to make fit things in.