Travel

Meals and wheels in India: The trick to eating is getting to the table in one piece

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.

We walked outside into an autumnal coolness. "Last night there was a full moon," Mrs. Grover said. "There was a Sikh festival. Everybody celebrates everybody else's festivals." (A unity, at least, in partying.)

"The prime minister's house is just behind that wall. I come here for walks and go past the guard. And the house where Indira Gandhi was assassinated," she said, looking toward the street, "is right over there."

Driving around the back of the Gymkhana, Mrs. Grover pointed out a well-kept lawn. "Both my sons' wedding receptions were held there."

I awoke to the sounds of children playing. A school sat behind the house, and beyond the school stretched the Deer Park.

The maid served me two fried eggs that, having been made in the same pan, fit perfectly atop my roti. The Times of India waited on the table. Inside, a small headline read: "Hospital Sued For Removing Kidney Instead of Stone."

I walked up the street. There were sidewalks, but they had missing sections, uprooted sections, trees growing in the middle. Everyone used the street, which meant mostly men, in their light-colored shirts and dark faded pants. I'd been in other countries where men vastly outnumber women in public -- Algeria, Turkey -- but in India it seemed especially regrettable. When females appeared -- usually in salwar kameez, sometimes in saris -- it was as if characters from a color film had been dropped into one in black-and-white. Though occasionally a man would appear, improbably, with hennaed hair.

The computer shop on the corner demanded payment for 10 hours of use. "I just want to send one e-mail," I said. The young man explained that they had stores in other cities; I could access my account in Jaipur, Mumbai. I paid him the sum, which was less than $5.

Outside, I steeled myself for another taxi ride. I had learned to sit directly behind the driver (preferably one with a big headrest), so as to miss as much of the action as was psychologically possible. After countless close shaves, a constant barrage of horn blasts, I was dropped at the entrance to the Indira Gandhi House.

It was a rambling white bungalow set behind hedges. The front rooms had been emptied of furniture and the walls hung with photographs of family, school friends, state occasions. One of her favorite games as a child, I read, "was to gather all the servants and then stand up on a table and deliver a speech." (Though some historians have said that she was a reluctant leader.) In the back of the house, the dining room, the study, the reception room were kept as they were when she was alive. Outside, a glass panel marked the spot where she fell after being shot by her Sikh bodyguards.

Across the street, Devender stood waiting for me inside the Gymkhana. (I almost felt like a regular.) He was the father of an acquaintance, a fit, hirsute man who looked too young to be retired. He had worked in the travel division of Oberoi Hotels & Resorts and over lunch in the club's new Chinese restaurant he told me the story of the company's founder.

He began as a clerk in a hotel in Shimla. The owner decided to sell the hotel and move back to England. The young Oberoi wished to buy it, but he didn't have enough money, so he sold his wife's jewelry. "Jewelry to an Indian woman," Devender said, "is very important." Eventually he bought a second hotel. And thus began the career of one of the world's great hoteliers.

Devender and his wife lived on a farm outside Delhi. They had no animals, apart from a cat, a boxer and a Dalmatian, but they grew seasonal vegetables. He also played the stock market. "Sometimes I make a few bucks. It's easy -- I just call my broker. Then around 4 I watch sitcoms."

"Indian?"

"No, American. "Cheers," "Seinfeld," "Everybody Loves Raymond." I used to take a walk in the evening but now, no. I can't miss George and Kramer."

Leaving the grounds, Devender handed his token to the guard and, turning to a small shrine, brought his hands together for swift namaste.

Back in Green Park I walked along the main shopping street, past the newsstand, the Madras Cafe, the sari store, McDonald's and into Evergreen, the famous sweetmeats shop. I chose a colorful assortment and carried the box to a young woman who gave me a receipt that I took to the counter. A bored, curt man grabbed my money and silently handed me my change. I thanked him and waited, expectantly, looking him in the eye. He resignedly brought his fingers together, half-heartedly raised them part way to his chest, and then quickly -- as if to say, "Alright, alright, I recognize the God in you. Now buzz off" -- flicked them apart.

Another thriller cab, which landed me in a tidy neighborhood of spacious single houses. Jenny's had a guard in front of it. An Indian man opened the door. Recordings of sitars filled the interior. I presented my sweetmeats.

Jenny was American, with some connection to the World Bank. Her friend, Ameeta, joined us presently. The man who had opened the door served us dinner: vegetables in delicious sauces, raita, naan.

I mentioned how the papers were full of ads for preparation courses for SATs, GREs, GMATs. (The U.S. had obviously surpassed the U.K. in attractiveness to Indian students.)

"There's so much aspiration in India now," Ameeta said. "There is a problem, in fact, of teenage suicide because of all the pressure."

And life abroad wasn't always easy. "You grow up with people always doing things for you," she said. (I had had to convince Mrs. Grover's maid that I didn't need help carrying the sweetmeats down the steps.) "It's a shock finding out you have to do things for yourself."

She added, though, that Indians were less arrogant today, more accepting of other cultures. "I love the way you have Madras Cafe, McDonald's, Evergreen all co-existing." It enhanced the already animated scene. She told of an American woman who came to Delhi and just sat on her balcony and watched the endlessly fascinating life of the street.

"You go home," Jenny said, "and it's so boring."

Wednesday morning headline in the Times of India: "With a 3-Year BA, You Can Now Join a U.S. Varsity."

My computer store was closed. Its shutters were pulled down and the lock at the bottom bore a government seal. So this was sealing, which the papers had been writing about for days. The government had finally decided to do something about long-disregarded zoning regulations by closing shops that had opened illegally in residential areas. Everybody said that each successive government had accepted bribes and let things stand; no one was quite sure what had prompted the current action. Nearby, trucks unloaded truncheon-bearing police, a few in turbans. Definitely not boring.

I caught a taxi to Rajiv Chowk (Connaught Place). (Unlike Mumbai, Delhi is too spread out to explore on foot, and if it weren't you'd almost always arrive covered in dust.) Getting out, I felt little of my usual relief. There was no sealing going on, here in the capital's main business district, but many of the shops had yet to open. For all the talk of India's boom, its cities don't give an early-morning impression of bustle.

Down in the fairly new subway station, things were quiet. The sprinkling of passengers went through security, women taken behind a curtain, before reaching the platform. A sign hanging on the wall listed "Do's and Don'ts." Among the latter was: "travel on the roof of the train."

A taxi to the India International Center. The driver, like many of my drivers, raced off to a place whose name he hadn't clearly understood and whose location he couldn't exactly pinpoint. It turned out to be near the India Habitat Center. None of my contacts knew each other, but they clearly all traveled in the same circles. (Salman Rushdie, appearing on Book TV shortly before my departure, said India today has about 100 million rich people, 100 million middle-class people, and 800 million poor people. A recent article in the Economist put the middle-class figure closer to 300 million. In any case, I was meeting the comfortable minority.)

The center looked like part of a modern university. Ashok greeted me in the lobby and led me to the upstairs dining room. He explained that you had to be a member to use the center (later he would show me the well-stocked library) but that some of its events were open to the public.

Ashok was a writer and filmmaker, an intellectual. "I don't know what religious means," he said when I mentioned that Andre Malraux had called India the world's most religious country. "Does it mean observing religious holidays? Does it mean living in peace with other people? Does it mean having a spiritual life?"

He was the first Indian I'd met who expressed disdain toward the British. In fact, though middle-aged, he had recently made his first visit to England. "For a long time I could not reconcile how a foreign power could come and take over a country, make its people subjects, and call itself a great civilization."

As we left in his car, he said thank you to the guard. I noted that I often heard Indians using the English term with each other.

"The English taught us to say two things: `thank you' and `sorry.' So `thank you' has remained as a superficial thing."

In the morning, Mrs. Grover gave me a key chain as a farewell gift. At first I thought the three-pointed star on it was an ancient Hindu symbol but then I decided it was the Mercedes-Benz logo. I successfully waved off the maid, lugged my suitcase downstairs, and entered the taxi for the dreaded ride to the airport.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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