Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Travel Tales: India, Day 1 in Delhi

We arrive in Delhi and get a pre-paid taxi to our hotel. It’s the middle of the night. There is a fog and visibility is low. The driver seems oblivious to this or the traffic rules as he speeds past red lights in happy abandon. Maitu lets out a little squeak at a near miss with a cyclist. I counsel her to close her eyes as I determinedly look at familiar roads made unfamiliar by time.

We are booked at the Hans Plaza, close to Connaught Place. We check in quickly. I am not much impressed with our two rooms. There is a rather a sad look about it all; the carpets are worn, the bed spread looks well-used, the bathrooms could have done with a good scrub. But the next morning the breakfast spread is good, and we are replete.

We meet the travel agency's representative in the lobby. There is a slight confusion...was our agreed sum in Indian rupees or was it in US Dollars? The rates have changed, they want to charge us more now. But I have my confirmation emails with me. We negotiate a mutually agreeable sum but I am muttering to myself "Typical!!!". We are given vouchers for every hotel and for every guided tour included. Good thing my good man is so thorough by nature; he checks every bit of paper to ensure that it’s all there. It all takes a good amount of time.

We want to set out to explore Connaught Place, very close to our hotel. "Do you want to walk?" the receptionist asks "Where do you want to go? Take a cab" she advises. But we are walkers. The receptionist looks mildly askance...why? I wonder. We set off with directions which we forget the moment we step outside. I should know all of this, I think, this was my playfield in my growing days. I remember hanging out with my friends at Palika Bazaar, seeing films in Regal, buying cheap clothing in Janpath, eating Dosas at Nirula’s....I want to show my children all this but sadly I am as lost as a newbie.

From the moment we reach the inner circle, my antennae go up. This is a Sunday. There are too many loitering young men, standing in groups and hardly any women, not even women-hawkers. As we walk towards Regal, groups start following us. My pretty 19 year old is attracting too much attention. I feel hemmed in, distinctly uncomfortable. They seem to be getting closer and closer. I have a flashback to my university days, when a street-gang, armed with hockey-sticks, had got into the bus, and had surrounded and molested a young student. I remember sinking into my seat, wanting to get off the bus and being too frightened of being noticed. I remember that no-one, not a single man or woman protested. Only this girl's voice saying "Let me go, please let me go" and the boys' laughs. My fear of young men in groups affects me today...but it is not just me. Maitu whispers "Mum, I want to go home". My man's antennae seem unaffected. But he agrees to a strategic retreat. Afterwards, when we talk about it to local friends, they are surprised.

We walk swiftly towards Jantar Mantar, an observatory built in 1710. I hadn't planned to go in, we shall be seeing a better version in Jaipur. But I am glad for the quiet inside. It feels like a haven. We are hustled by the gate keeper into taking him as a guide, and he mumbles in incomprehensible English. The kids listen with mute fascination to his strange utterings. He forces us to pay an astronomical sum for his 5 minute spiel. We are all feeling resentful, put-upon and sorry for ourselves. We sit amongst the salmon coloured structures, looking at each other, wondering if we had made a big mistake. My man asks "So, what do we do?". This was to have been an easy day, just shopping and getting over jet lag.

I have a brainwave. I suggest going to Ajmal Khan Market. Not a tourist area but a middle-class shopping area. We emerge from Jantar Mantar, watchful, and quickly get a taxi. We agree to the 100 rupees he asks for. I breathe a sigh of relief when we reach our destination. It is exactly as I remembered. It is madly crowded, but not in the least threatening. Shops spill out into the pavements. There are families weaving their way through the crowds, arms full of babies and their weekly shopping. Well dressed women of all ages emerge from sari shops in their multicoloured glory. Hawkers call out to passer-byes extolling their goods. Street-side shops sell all kinds of tantalising food which our sanitized stomachs will not withstand. Fruit-sellers have neat pyramids on their trolleys. Kids try to sell handkerchiefs. Nobody pays us the slightest heed. I am happy. I feel we have finally arrived.

I excitedly point out the shops where I bought my wedding saris. We are now quite ready for lunch. A shop keeper points us to Roshan di Kulfi. It looks familiar, I think I might have lunched here while shopping with my mother. It's crowded. We wait hesitantly at the door and then walk in. No one pays us the slightest attention. We wait in the aisles, looking for someone to leave. Just as someone does, people who have come after us and are lurking close by dart forward and grab the table!! After this happens the second time, Maitu is miffed. Her eyes analyse the situation. She takes control.

She whispers "Mum, you beside that fat family, they are on their desserts. Dad you stay there, lots of empty dishes. Nushk, in that corner. The moment someone pays the bill, shout out to us".
We follow the strategy. The table behind which I am waiting to pounce is emptying. I give a cooee and a glare at these people behind me who want to shove forward. My family zooms in from all sides and we slide in, even before the previous diners have left. We beam at each other, quite satisfied with ourselves :)

Three of us order Chole Bhature and one a Thali. The food is so good I could kiss the surly waiter!! The Kulfi that follows is one of the best I have eaten. My man indulges his sweet tooth. All for a total of 250 rupees for 4 people. We spend the afternoon shopping and get back to the hotel with arms full of goodies. Maitu is very happy with her shoes and tries them all on again.

That night we take a taxi to a Taste of China in N Block, Connaught Place. The food is excellent and so is the service. In spite of a bad start, we have had a good day.

1 comment:

Shankar said...

Do tell us more tales. I like the style and the pics. Can we peek at some of your paintings too?