The expat's tale
"If you'll agree, I suggest lunch," Nigel said cheerily. Soon we were pulling under the porte-cochere of the Maidens, a crisp, white Victorian hotel with portraits of red-turbaned rajahs, potted palms and the sumptuous Lord Curzon Room. We were delighted with the cold salads, the hot curries and the chance to learn the story of our unlikely guide.
Nigel, it turned out, arrived in Delhi in 1945, en route to Burma (now Myanmar) with the British Army. When World War II ended, most of his fellow officers returned to England, but he broke rank. Why did he stay? "Here I have someone to bring me my bed tea and cook me dinner," he answered, and I was suddenly reminded of Nigel's age and solitude and the frailty of his gangly frame. Having morning tea brought on a tray must be no small comfort. "My houseman has been with me for 40 years," he added softly. "I'd never have that at home."
But Nigel is hardly a snob. He feels equally at home in the Maidens and in Old Delhi, which he introduced us to after lunch. Chandni Chowk, the main street of the walled city erected in 1639, was a sea of peddlers, pedestrians and pedal rickshaws. Nigel stepped around boys sleeping on wood carts and men collapsed on the 2-foot-wide median strip, oblivious to the clamor. Stands sold marigold garlands to temple-goers, and chaiwallahs ladled tea for tired workers.
Nigel excitedly led us to the camera market when Uncle Mike ran out of film. From there we forged through bazaars that radiated in all directions: the sari market, the silver market, the electronic-parts market, the plastic-bottle-top market. Nigel pointed to a 2-inch-thick stream of liquid glucose oozing out of a barrel and into a bucket on the street. He handed me a chunk of mercury ore so I could feel its weight.
But the more excited he got, the more I tensed up. I was the only woman here, and I regretted not bringing my shawl. Men stared, and boys clucked, "Hello, madam."
It wasn't until after braving the "deepest, darkest" staircase and learning to breathe in the capsicum market that I began to loosen up. Slowly, I realized that my two companions were so tall that their white heads floated above the sea of black hair. I wouldn't lose them.
I began to trust Nigel. My senses adjusted. Revulsion turned to wonder, and I reveled in the spice market's burlap sacks, bulging with star anise, myrrh, cashews, pumpkin sugar.
Suddenly, from inside a stall a boy stretched out a hand, blocking my path and trying to force something on me.
I shook my head, no, as I had learned to do dozens of times each day in India when beggars asked for money, mothers peddled pens, rickshaw drivers offered rides and boys pushed cheap postcards.
"Yeh aapke liye hai" — "This is for you," the boy said, appealing to Nigel.
"He means it as a gift," Nigel said gently. "Go ahead, take it."
The boy poured a dozen green pods into my palm.
"Thank you," I said, and he smiled sweetly.
As I closed my hand over the pods, I thought of the even greater gift my guide had bestowed: Without him, I'd never have made it here.
"That's green cardamom," Nigel said matter-of-factly. "Very valuable. Crush it up, put it in your cup, and you'll have masala chai for bed tea."