"Welcome to deepest, darkest Delhi, where no white man doth tread," Nigel Hankin said in mock cadences. His snowy eyebrows arched as his left foot perched on a dirty stair. I peered up the ancient passageway. It was indeed a path straight to darkness, a grim corridor into the unknown.

My uncle Mike and I had retained the octogenarian Englishman as our guide, asking him to show us the Delhi most tourists miss. So, gulping, I ascended, my feet feeling for each foothold, my left hand skittering along a grimy wall. I counted 23 steps, wrapped my hand around a corner, turned left and saw — way up there — a square of light.

It led, finally, to the second-floor balcony of a crumbling three-story building. Looking out, I could see what was once an airy courtyard ringed with filigreed balustrades was now a teeming shantytown.

Minutes later, we plunged back into Delhi's streets, long tunnels barely wide enough for one person. Wiry men, bent under burlap sacks and wooden crates, bore down and drove us headlong into cramped stalls.

Suddenly, all around me was a great gasping, choking, coughing. The porters donned kerchiefs, bandit-style. Soon I too was sneezing and struggling for breath.

We had arrived at the capsicum, or pepper, market, and in the press of hot bodies and red pepper I felt my senses seize up. All I could think of was escaping this corner of the planet. Now.

Meet your guide

Early that morning, when we had met our aging expatriate guide, we had hardly anticipated the pungent day ahead.

"Did you have a plan for the day?" Nigel had asked in starchy British syllables, as he fiddled with a worn black satchel.

"We're putting ourselves in your hands," I gamely replied to the man whom diplomat friends had called Delhi's best-kept secret.

We'd come from California for a wedding in March but had little interest in another day of shopping with my aunt and cousins. The intrigue in tracking Nigel down and booking him for a day held much more appeal.

Friends at the American Embassy had told me to ask the guards at the Mughal Gate of the British High Commission for "Nigel Hankin's diary" and then find an empty page and request a date. (Nigel has no telephone, and the British High Commission does not take calls for him.) To confirm, I had to return another day to check the journal.

On the day of the confirmed appointment, we arrived at 8 a.m. with the required car and driver. The additional requirements: 2,000 rupees (about $45), plus lunch for Nigel and the party at a restaurant of his choosing.

He was well over 6 feet tall and stooped and was dressed in dingy brown slacks, plaid shirt, wool vest and running shoes. His ragged white hair gave him the air of an elder who lacked someone to watch after him.

Nigel quickly commandeered the front seat of our hired car, barking "Dahine! (Right!)" in Hindi to the bemused driver and bending his wrinkled hand. "Seedha! (Straight!)" he commanded as we entered one of the city's countless roundabouts.

"The word 'bungalow' comes from the Hindi bangla, or 'house in the Bengali style,' " Nigel said as we approached a white stucco cube set in a lawn edged with high trees and potted roses. Then we entered the cool rooms of Indira Gandhi's former home, now a museum.

Photos, news articles and personal effects recalled highlights in the life of the four-term prime minister, but it was Nigel who added details of her roots in Kashmir, the family mansion in Allahabad and the privileges showered on her, the daughter of India's first democratic leader, Jawaharlal Nehru. Nigel became especially animated describing the controversial policies she forged in the study, the only room preserved as Gandhi left it.

Also preserved was the peach-colored, bloodstained sari she wore on Oct. 31, 1984. "She was walking down a garden pathway headed for an interview with Peter Ustinov," Nigel recounted, leading us to the crystal plaque that marks the spot where she was shot dead by Sikh bodyguards.

"After the assassination there was brutal rioting," he added. "It decimated Delhi's Sikh population."