The sharp joy you feel when your plane touches down is short-lived in India as you realize now you must get in a taxi. Goodbye order, upkeep, hygiene, caution. Hello dent king. Hello chaos.
On a Sunday evening at Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi I plucked my bag from the Jet Airways carousel and walked, just as Mrs. Grover had instructed, to the Pre-paid Taxi window. Then I headed with my receipt out into the melee. "Green Park," I said to my driver, who wore a white knit cap and a graying beard.
The sun slipped low behind a curtain of fog, smoke and dust. There was a spaciousness that you didn't find in Mumbai, but the buildings, even though newer, bore similar signs of deterioration. The streets were wider, but the drivers just as manic.
We turned down a lively shopping street, our headlights cutting through the dusk, scattering saris. After another turn we drove through an open gate and down a street of modern, tightly bunched houses, stopping at the third on the left. I breathed a sigh of relief; I had once again made it from terminal to destination without anyone being harmed in the process.
A thick-set woman in a sari took my suitcase and, with pitiful groans, carried it up to the second-floor apartment, where Mrs. Grover stood waiting. She was a small woman with salt-and-pepper hair done in a stylish coiffure and Nike sneakers peeking out from under her salwar kameez (pants and tunic). She was headed out to a concert of Indian classical music and asked if I'd like to come along.
From Mumbai I had called Mrs. Grover on the recommendation of a friend of a free-lancer, neither of whom I had ever met. She had two rooms which she rented to people like me.
We drove down more wide streets. It was fascinating to watch Mrs. Grover behind the wheel, seemingly undaunted by the laneless anarchy. I thought that if I lived in India I would just stay home a lot, especially in the evenings. She calmly pointed out the floodlit tombs of the Lodi Gardens. Then she pulled into the grounds of the India Habitat Center and parked in the underground garage.
The musicians sat on a slightly raised platform bordered by orange, brown and yellow flowers. The woman in the middle brought her hands together so that they mirrored each other, and said, "Namaste" (the everyday Hindi greeting means, literally, "I recognize the God in you."). Then she began singing dadra -- semi-classical songs -- from the state of Uttar Pradesh. One she introduced by saying it "expressed the everyday customs and sentiments of life in general." Another began with a kind of ululation before becoming more lilting. I was transported far from the world of careening taxis.
One song made Mrs. Grover chuckle. When the concert was over she explained why. "It's about a woman walking with a jug of water on her head. She gets a pebble in her shoe and she is worried that she will spill the water and get her sari wet. She's not worried that she'll get wet, but that her mother-in-law will taunt her about it."
In the car she asked: "Would you like a bite to eat?"
Not far from the center we turned down a driveway and parked to the side of a low, white, colonial-era building.
"This is the Delhi Gymkhana," Mrs. Grover said.
"I went to the Mumbai Gymkhana," I said, "but they wouldn't let me in.
"This one is better."
We walked through the vestibule and came to a vast wooden floor under a high white ceiling. "They have Christmas and New Year's Eve dances here," Mrs. Grover said. The place seemed haunted by the ghosts of viceroys' wives. The dining room was on the other side. We doubled the number of diners. I ordered chicken masala; Mrs. Grover opted for grilled fish and a salad.
"I never have Indian food here," she said.
She and her husband, I learned, had both been born in what is now Pakistan. Her husband, who died a number of years ago, had been a ship captain, and with him she had visited some of the U.S.: Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Los Angeles. She felt gratitude to the English for teaching Indians their language, which she spoke like a native, though she didn't learn it until she entered high school.
I mentioned an article from that day's Times of India. It was by William Dalrymple, the author of an excellent book about Delhi titled "City of Djinns." He claimed that, while today we talk about a "clash of civilizations," if you look at the history of India there was much to admire: peaceful Hindus, tolerant Muslims, Englishmen who, at least at the beginning, took an active interest in the cultures and the languages (as well as the women). Mrs. Grover heartily agreed. She said the two biggest problems in India today were education and hygiene. She spent part of her time working with the families of alcoholics.
For dessert I had gulab jamun (fried balls of milk curd swimming in sweet syrup); Mrs. Grover had creme caramel.
Meals and wheels in India: The trick to eating is getting to the table in one piece
The trick to eating is getting to the table in one piece
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