BANGKOK – NEW DELHI

I was up with no difficulty at 5 and, since Khun Chakkrit doesn’t like early hours, into a cruising taxi at 6. At the airport I decided not to lay myself open to the tender culinary mercies of Air India, heading to The Mango Tree for a breakfast of tamarind shrimp. I love The Mango Tree despite its wait staff that seems to consistently be engaged in contacting ectoplasm on another planet.

It is a cheerful busy place with quite good food and if you get a seat near the outer railing you can leave your cart less than an arm’s reach away while you eat.

The flight was empty. People stretched out. I wrote lots of postcards.

Delhi airport is large with good signage but it tends to have nonfunctioning walkways and escalators. With no difficulty I found the prepaid taxi stand where, not thinking about traffic and heat, I entered a debilitated cab with a saintly driver. Were there aircon cabs that I didn’t see? It took us an hour through dense, barely crawling traffic, to get to my destination, which is close, about 20 minutes, from the airport. I thought I would have lung cancer on arrival the pollution was so intense. I felt terrible for the driver who does this everyday of his life, which is going to be short.

R was at work so A and I had lunch, talking about our children and mutual friends, after which I napped. A is an exceptionally pretty woman, an actress in four languages. Impressive.

Waking from sleep I saw on the balcony rail outside my window a chipmunk like creature stretched out at full length. Its partner with infinite care, starting at the mouth and snout and working around the ears and then down the spine, nibbled and groomed it, while chipmunk 1 lay flat in palpable bliss. Then they changed places. They appear to live in the white flowering vine that climbs the wall next to the balcony. I hope they have a long and happy life safe from crows, cats and dogs.

We were slated to go to a party that night at which, A told me, there would be a 96-year-old woman who wanted to meet me. I have been to a few Indian parties and I am always intimidated because not only am I unsure as to who is who but I cannot keep track of the relationships that crisscross the room like some sort of three dimensional weaving. Everyone is related to everyone else. I was, therefore exhilarated to recognize K whom I hadn’t seen in 12 years but whom I know is R’s nephew. I was amazed that he remembered me.
I met the 96 year old, who is someone’s aunt but I don’t know whose, and was tickled with delight when she told me that she has recently, for the first time, been feeling a decided decline in energy. I told her that I felt between 79 and 80 my energy had been cut in half. If I’ve got this right, she handles the finances of all the members of her family. She made me feel like a do-nothing younger sister.

The food was heavenly and endless. Two men came in and circled the room, bending down to touch each person’s feet. I am not sure who they were but it is a vassal to lord or lady gesture that I have seen a few times. It makes me cringe. That this gesture of homage and subservience should still be allowed in modern India tells the visitor all kinds of things she would rather not know. R told me later that he and his brother were forbidden by their parents to allow any to touch their feet in homage or to touch anyone’s feet.

Ethan, my grandson was to arrive the next evening, so I went to bed elated with anticipation. He is 23, and this would be his first time to India, although we were only staying three days before going on the trek in Nepal.

I had a very quiet day, much of it in the company of the street dog that A and R have taken in, against R’s vehement protests. He has a torn ear and must be treated with caution because the feral in him can surface suddenly. He is startlingly intelligent, totally independent in character, knows how to open doors both inward and outward, as well as how to open drawers. Because I had dog biscuits in my room, he was interested in being my companion. He hasn’t yet learned how to open the cupboard. I am sure he is working on it.

Ethan, brilliantly, had his driver call R to get instructions on how to locate the house. A went to bed but R and I waited by the gate until Ethan arrived. I was feeling decidedly worried and antsy, but Ethan looked fresh and vigorous, although he couldn’t have had much sleep. As he got out of the cab, which was several decades younger than the one I had taken, I realized he was speaking Hindi. Who knew he had taken Hindi in college? R took him off to the kitchen and dinning room to settle down to eat and talk. I went to bed.

After breakfast Ethan and I took off in a taxi for Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi, where we were almost immediately gathered up by a man with a crutch who was missing his right foot and ankle. He sighted my confusion about which entrance to use, where to leave our shoes at a Hindu temple and just segued in. I would have had to make a very firm stand, which I was not up for. Also I had no map and only a meager recollection of the area. So he seemed a good idea. We entered the temple, which had shrine after shrine with doll like gods carved out of alabaster and dressed in exuberant costumes in outrageous colors. Marigolds, the flower of the gods, were everywhere. I particularly liked the Hanuman, the monkey god who helped Ram rescue Sita and defeat Ravanna the demon who lived on Sri Lanka.

As we left there were people chanting to a drum and other instruments I couldn’t identify.

We went on, the order is no longer at all clear to me, to the street of wedding dresses—great extravagances of red emphasized by beads, sequins, “jewels”—men’s wedding clothes which are equally magnificent with flamboyant turbans, and the street of wedding decorations—extraordinary imaginings of tinsel—to a Jain temple.

It was not the Jain temple I had expected which has a hospital for birds and small animals, but an older building of great delicacy. We made a contribution to enter. It was not at all crowded so that we could relax rather than dodging about worrying if we were getting in the way of people’s rituals. The paintings on the ceiling were delicate; the whole structure had the precise, rather static quality of a miniature. It was very peaceful.

We walked through endless lanes, seeing fellow foreigners only occasionally and always in rickshaws, never on foot.

The Sikh temple was last and certainly the most modern in its splendor, with walls and floors of white marble, red carpets and gold ornamentation. It has a much more open feeling than the other two, more expansive, also and I can’t explain this, somehow more middle class. Here they were singing to a gold covered keyboard and a silver tabla, an Indian drum. There was an electronic screen on which the words were displayed in three languages and three alphabets. There is a feeling of prosperity and comfort.

On we twisted our way between fellow pedestrians to the spice market but didn’t stay long despite the ecstatic odors issuing from burlap bags, the plethora of dates, pistachios, almonds, but headed to the mosque, too late to get in, as it was time for prayers.

As it became obvious that we were now finished our one legged guide suggested we go into an emporium opposite the mosque. I knew I was likely to be proof against temptations but it is always interesting to look. To our guide and the shopkeeper’s obvious disappointment, Ethan bought only one pillow cover for about what it would have cost in the US.

Returning to R and A’s was a three-wheeled nightmare. We fought one young cowboy down to 200R, taking off in a great blast of, what Ethan informed me was Techno music, I would not have known, passing, by way of contrast and irony, through the Imperial-Luyten’s section of town. The kid didn’t really know where he was going and finally dumped us somewhere. We paid him and got another three-wheeler, which took us home for another 100R. We had a delicious lunch; followed by a nap, follow by lots of good talk which went on after dinner into the night.

R and I discovered that we have similar reading tastes and love many of the same authors, Eric Newby (A SHORT WALK IN THE HINDU KUSH, SLOWLY DOWN THE GANGES), Patrick Leigh Fermor (A TIME OF GIFTS, BETWEEN THE WOODS AND THE WATER, THE BROKEN ROAD), William Dalrymple (FROM THE HOLY MOUNTAIN, THE AGE OF KALI), and Rory Stewart (THE PRINCE OF THE MARSHES).

The next morning Ethan and I had the dinning room to ourselves for breakfast where he consumed huge quantities of eggs, toast and whatever else was available. When R came in we arranged our day—the Qtub Minar, lunch, the Lotus Park, which someone had suggested to Ethan.

R went with us, although he has seen all these things a thousand times. At the Qtub we acquired a guide who took pictures of us every ten feet but was quite a good guide. R peeled off to sit under a tree while Ethan and I went around in the heat. The Qtub is over a thousand years old; I’ve lost the exact number. Qtub was the Moslem conqueror who tore down the Hindu temple that had been on this spot and, thriftily, used the stones to build his mosque so that quite inappropriate Hindu motifs turn up on pillars and lateral supports. There is a sort of Hindu revenge in this that I find appealing. The meld between stone caving and architectural intent makes an interesting statement about the problems of cultural integration. The minar itself, the minaret, is one of my favorite things in Delhi with its dark traceries of dancing, curvaceous Arabic lettering. It is now shorter than it used to be because of an earthquake.

R took us to his and his brother’s offices in a sort of office park. They built their own building, which is interesting and ecological. The bricks are recycled from old buildings. They have a cafeteria that became so popular that they had to restrict entrance to it. The view from the top is extraordinary over a sea of treetops. It is a reserve that R told us is full of cobras, kraits as well as the largest antelope in the world. It is beautiful to look down on that undulating carpet of varying greens separating you from smoggy Delhi.

R took us to a village, which is a sort of mall, full of wonderful shops. Ethan bought a chess set carved from stone; I bought a pair of inexpensive earrings. I don’t like to flash gold in Nepal where people are severely poor. There was once a fort here and the stones and a terrace remain. Looking out from the terrace across a small, very green scummy lake you watch swans floating serenely on it.

We had lunch at a south Indian restaurant—two vegetable curries (Ethan is a vegetarian), one slightly hot, a superb prawn curry and, most specially a white, dome shaped bread made from rice. I had a buttermilk masala. A superb lunch.

I nixed the Lotus Temple when I realized it was the Baha’i temple I had been to years ago and had found to have an oddly missionary and commercial quality to it. Instead we went to a tiny, crammed, heavenly bookstore that I’ve been to before. R bought me IN AN ANTIQUE LAND by Amitav Ghosh and I bought a book he recommended, THE EMPEROR by Ryszard Kapuscinski. We had a lovely time comparing notes on our favorite authors but could not find Rory Stewart’s book on Afghanistan for R.

So early to bed, because our flight to Kathmandu was at 6:30 am. Again, R saw us into the taxi at 4 something am.

I nixed the Lotus Temple when I realized it was the Baha’i temple I had been to years ago and had found to have an oddly missionary and commercial quality to it. Instead we went to a tiny, crammed, heavenly bookstore that I’ve been to before. R bought me IN AN ANTIQUE LAND by Amitav Ghosh and I bought a book he recommended, THE EMPEROR by Ryszard Kapuscinski. We had a lovely time comparing notes on our favorite authors but could not find Rory Stewart’s book on Afghanistan for R.

So early to bed, because our flight to Kathmandu was at 6:30 am. Again, R saw us into the taxi at 4 something am.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s