Star literature eid special issue, 2018
Old Delhi, New Experiences
I hope that you are well in London town — and that you are missing me! Let me say at the outset that this message comes to you courtesy of one and a half cheese masala dosas and the most enormous vanilla-enriched cold coffee milkshake I've ever consumed. That too, at 9 pm, in a country that doesn't quite see the point of decaf. So if I sound a little hyper, you will understand why…
I can just imagine the look of horror on your face as you read about my reckless self-caffeination! It's true, it's not like me. But after the day that Katy and I have just survived, I will confess to savouring every miniscule caffeinated jolt of that delicious concoction.
Anyway, this trip is changing me in mysterious ways. For example, while vegetarianism has never really appealed to me before, I am now perilously close to being seduced into the belief that this could be a viable lifestyle for me. Don't worry, though, I have no intention of inﬂicting it on you — before or after the wedding!
Part of this vegetarian wanna-be(haviour) on my part can of course be attributed to the amazing variety of non-sentient — or more accurately, “never were sentient” — items that make up the gastronomic ﬁnal frontier in the Indian restaurants that Katy and I have been exploring. Furthermore, after today's experience, I'm convinced that dosas must be the ultimate comfort food, specially designed for the spicily-inclined. I mean, how can you go wrong with a deceptively feather-light wrapping of paper-thin savoury pastry, deep-fried and ﬁlled with deliciously seasoned potatoes, with a little chopped carrot and a few peas thrown in as a nod to healthy eating?! The generous amount of cheese lining the inside of my dosa really put the comfort into this bout of comfort eating.
Anyway, our day started well. We were both determined to get in as much activity as possible before the melting caramel haze of the intense afternoon heat here seeped into our bones and sapped our determination to get things done — and seen! I recognise that Katy and I feel driven to make the most of this two-week break in northern India. We should have known better, I suppose, than to arrive in Delhi at what is still the height of summer. The autumnal shades of early September in London had lulled us both into believing that India would just be a warmer version of what we were so keen to leave behind. Though you did try to warn me, I admit that! I should have listened to you. Instead, despite being born in Bangladesh, I now ﬁnd myself having to admit that the many intervening years spent studying and working in Britain have left me completely disoriented in terms of how the subcontinent functions, from its weather patterns to the vagaries of public transport and the eccentric characters one invariably encounters in the course of travelling. And while that wouldn't be considered an acceptable excuse by any of my deshi brethren (except, perhaps, you), the truth is, I have more than once on this trip found myself experiencing the peculiar disorientation of a brown foreigner.
My Hindi, it turns out, is a lot worse than rusty; it's more like fossilised, based as it is almost entirely on a childhood diet of occasional Bollywood movies and a few family vacations. Needless to say, on the latter occasions, I at least had the luxury of relying on my parents, who are both ﬂuent in Hindi. Unlike them, my Hindi is in such appalling shape that as a bona ﬁde Northern Indian, Naina had already warned Katy at our last meeting in London that she mustn't rely on my non-existent communication skills. “I don't know what language Shilpa's speaking, but it's certainly not Hindi!” she'd said, laughingly dismissing my halting attempts to articulate a few basic sentences during our recent lunch together.
In some ways, this trip has been a lot simpler for Katy — as a white Englishwoman who speaks only her mother tongue, she has nothing to prove; she can, without embarrassment, explain away almost any faux pas on her legitimately alien status. Luckily, most of the Indians we've interacted with to date have spoken enough English to render my unintelligible linguistic efforts redundant. That is, until today.
We spent the morning visiting old Delhi, especially the area around the Red Fort. I love Islamic architecture, and the Mughal building style is evident in the wonderful melange of arched entranceways, spacious apartments reaching up to touch soaring, domed ceilings, and manicured gardens. The latter are ﬁlled with colourful blossoms, complemented by the luminous blades of emerald-green grass that spring forth from every inch of ground.
As usual, we came across a group of young men who wanted to practice their English language skills on us. Fed up of negotiating this particular gauntlet, an inspired Katy decided to deny her British heritage in order to avoid the stilted conversation that was likely to follow. In response to “Where are you from, sister?” she replied, without batting an eyelid, “Norway”. The conversation that followed did not quite go according to script. In amazement, a couple of the boys cried out, “Nowhere?! How can you be from nowhere?” So I stepped in and said “She doesn't speak much English. She is from Norway. You know, N-O-R-W-A-Y?” “Oh yes, we know Norway” one of the boys responded gamely. He proceeded to respond in kind, “And we are from India. I-N-D-I-A”! They were good sports, so we humoured their request and ended up taking one of the group photos that is so close to the South Asian heart, before moving on.
Dipping into some of the souvenir shops near the entrance of the Red Fort, we emerged with small treasures: sets of beautifully-made gass animals in swirling shades of red, green, blue, yellow and black, ranging from the more familiar standard dimensions to the ﬁngernail-sized versions, rendered to perfection; intricately-embroidered cloth wallets and purses; carved wooden miniature chess sets; jewel-coloured patterns of ﬂowers and geometric shapes inlaid into white marble boxes of various shapes and sizes, reminiscent of the Taj Mahal marble work; and Katy's favourite, small red seeds that had been hollowed out and ﬁlled with fragments of bone, miraculously carved into tiny animal shapes and clearly visible through a magnifying glass.
After a respectable afternoon siesta, we re-emerged from our hotel room to venture into the crowded alleyways of Delhi West in search of the famous restaurant, Karim's. This has always been a family favourite, as you know, although I haven't been there in over a decade. In the end, I managed to locate the restaurant, and we laid to rest (or so I thought at the time) the possibility of a vegetarian lifestyle once and for all. What followed was an orgy of grilled meats, kebabs on a skewer — and, so that Katy could prove her 'adventure traveller' credentials, a surprisingly delicious dish of sheep's brain masala — helped down by a selection of rotis of various types and textures. A minor detour for the mandatory paan followed. I warned Katy that the zarda often slipped into the triangular betel leaf package is notorious for providing a narcotic kick to the senses, but she wasn't listening. She was more excited at the prospect of producing copious quantities of scarlet spit afterwards. We decided to work off some of the gluttonous calories we'd absorbed by taking a brief tour around the nearby mausoleum of the Suﬁ saint Nizamuddin Auliya. The shrine has a wonderful atmosphere of calm despite the multi-faith crowds that go there to worship. We passed a few peaceful hours just people-watching and drinking in the atmosphere, before making our way back to the main road.
I would like to blame what happened next on the narcotic in the paan, but that wouldn't be fair since we'd both spat out the mangled green concoction into the nearest rubbish bin. I, of course, had once again let down my origins by doing so with an unbecoming speed, even faster than Katy managed to get rid of hers.
But I think that the sinful indulgence of that meat-heavy meal may have had something to do with lulling us into a stupor of sorts. Or maybe we were just blissed-out by our time at the shrine. Anyway, we climbed into one of the three-wheeled motorised scooters that litter the streets of the capital, and I instructed the driver to take us back to our hotel in Jorbagh.
It was only after we'd been riding for some time that I began to get nervous about where we were heading. It seemed to be taking a lot longer than it had on the way out. A couple of times I reminded the driver that we wanted to go to Jorbagh. He nodded his head rhythmically back and forth in a way that was presumably meant to be reassuring. But when we began once again driving away from the city centre into what looked like its outskirts, I could no longer dismiss my increasing sense of anxiety.
We didn't have to wait much longer for enlightenment of a decidedly non-Suﬁ variety. Bringing the scooter to a screeching halt on the side of a dusty road in the midst of unfamiliar surroundings, the driver indicated that we had arrived. The question was, where? The place appeared to be some kind of industrial suburb, with no sign of any tourist accommodation in sight. Upon enquiry, the driver informed us that we were now in Karolbagh (which he pronounced to rhyme with our original destination, Jorbagh, as “Krorebagh”). If we now wanted to go to Jorbagh — which we should have told him in the ﬁrst place, he asserted — it would cost us an extra 150 rupees! I was outraged. It was the most blatant form of extortion. Clearly he had taken us both for idiotic foreigners who had no idea where they were; and the fact that he was partially right didn't make it any easier to swallow. I felt convinced that he would never have tried such an obvious scam with a male tourist; least of all a deshi-looking one like you, for example. Passers-by began to stare at us with somewhat aggressive curiosity, since it was perfectly clear that we didn't belong there. With twilight descending rapidly, and no other scooters or taxis to be seen, I didn't give much for our chances of ﬁnding our way home alone.
Katy stood by the roadside, looking paler and more foreign by the minute, urging me to pay the man whatever he wanted to take us back to Jorbagh. But I'd had enough of being the brown alien. In my appallingly fractured Hindi, I began arguing with him instead. It went on for several minutes; and it felt like a lot longer. To be honest, I'm not sure what I actually said to him, but perhaps my tone said it all. His certainly spoke volumes! In the end, he agreed to take us back for a mere 30 rupees extra.
Hiding my relief, I scrambled back into the scooter with poor Katy, who was badly shaken, deprived of even the limited relief of an adrenaline surge born out of righteous indignation.
In less than twenty minutes, we were back in the blessedly familiar environs of Jorbagh. Our scooter driver drove off in a huff, hurling a few choice swear words in my direction as he went. He had understandably expected a better return on his scam. But I couldn't have cared less. We were home safely; and surprisingly, the alternating surges of anger and terror (in my case) and sheer terror (in Katy's case) had left us ferociously hungry once again.
Heading for our favourite vegetarian restaurant in nearby Khan Market seemed an apt way to celebrate our deliverance. And the cherry to top off the whipped cream on my delicious drink came in the form of Katy's comment, uttered with unmistakably heartfelt sincerity: “I don't care what anyone says about your Hindi, Shilpa — that scooter driver certainly understood what you were saying!”So it all ended well. We survived our traveller's rite of passage and have already started laughing about it. And on that happy note, I will leave you for this evening. The last bit of my masala dosa awaits my attention, and I am contemplating dessert…Hoping for an update from your end soon — and missing you!
Farah Ghuznavi is a writer, newspaper columnist and development worker whose writing has been widely anthologized. This story has been previously appeared in Fragments of Riversong, published by Daily Star Books.