Our first taste of India, real India, came with the pre-paid taxi. “Do you know where this address is?” I asked as the young man in blue sweats chucked our backpacks into the rickety old minivan.
“This van is black,” Andy muttered. “They told us the official taxis were black and yellow.”
Good observation—my wife is constantly making good observations—but I was already shutting her into the car, and Lavkar, or something like that, was already gunning us out of the parking lot and into the wilds of Delhi. I sighed to Andy’s hesitation and attempted to reassure her qualms: “Sir,” I started, hesitantly, “are you an official pre-paid taxi?”
He responded with an ambiguous head-bobble and a reassuring, “Do not worry, mister. I know the city very well. My name is Lakvar [or something like that].” He then proceeded to shake hands to seal the introduction—which is a normal pleasantry among polite, respectable persons, but one usually skipped when piloting a time bomb of a taxi through the cutthroat traffic of a Delhi night. While savoring the obligatory cigarette, mind you.
Honks and shouts rained down on us from the terrified masses outside. Andy stared in horror from the back seat and also shook his hand, but never took her eyes from the chaos of screeching tuk-tuks and honking motorists and screaming children splashing across the windshield’s range.
Kavlar (or something like that) wasn’t done with his surprises, though. He proceeded to inform us that our chosen hotel was located in the middle of a “slum,” shouted at me when I asked whether he really knew where it actually was, and swore emphatically that even if he did, he couldn’t take us there. “The police have closed it down!” He yelled at me while careening through dusty streets filled with gaggling pockets of midnight pedestrians. “It is in Muslim area, and police close it all! They prevent the Hindus from making propaganda there at night!” He stared the point home to me in the back seat while ramming through a red light and laying on the horn like a freighter in a foggy bay. “They make the propaganda, you know! So police close down the slum!”
“Where you want I should take you now?”
Andy and I looked at one another.
She was too gracious to say “I told you so.”
To be perfectly honest, I’m still not exactly sure what the difference between Delhi and New Delhi is. I just know that I don’t want to go back.
If you think that sounds a little unfair, just keep in mind that nearly all of India badmouths (New) Delhi as well. As far as I can tell, it’s something of a national pastime. The policeman on vacation in Kashmir said it: “Oh, Delhi. I hate it. I just have to work there, you know.” The Jaipur tuk-tuk driver agreed: “And how did you like Delhi? No Indian likes Delhi. They just go there for work, you know.” And the Udaipur hotel clerk found no reason to hold back: “Back to Delhi? Well, not unless you have to. It’s not a pleasant place in the least.”
I struggle to recall a single (New) Delhian who would defend the name of the city. Not one in ten million, it seems, may be up for it.
Even the weather tries to convince you to avoid the folly of stepping within its bounds: a summertime blast of hazy blaze sure to wither the resolve of all but the most demonic forces, and a deceptive December chill that creeps steadily into your bones, leaving a sticky mildew of resentment.
My own reasons, however, stem from a harrowing trio of misfortunes encountered a bleak December ago.
No one ever knows what exactly to believe in Delhi. The populace has so long been in conflict with itself, with one another, with colonizing Brits, and with wary tourists, that exaggerations have become a way of life in India; deceit, a background buzz humming in your ears.
Pity I didn’t realize that before.
Sure there’s the normal exaggeration of prices that occurs in any wet market you visit in Asia’s half of the globe, with starting prices easily dialed up to double their actual value. By the time Andy and I would be finishing our trip, backpacker style with no “guide” nor “agent” nor “friend” to show us around markets or tourist trinket shop, the proprietor would stroke his inevitable mustache, glance outside the window to confirm with his undercover sentry outside, and calmly whisper to us, in his most fatherly tones, that prices in his store were now half of their previous value—simply because we had wandered in unencumbered by a local guide to whom he’d have to pay “commission.”
Custom dictates, you see, that fully half the price you pay for any article in any market goes to the local guide who led you, blindly trusting his sense of innate goodness, to the shop.
That’s actually a normal sort of exaggeration. Delhi’s, however, takes on a much more institutional flair. Take, as another example, the billboards plastered around the Indira Gandhi International proclaiming it to be the “Best Airport in the World” that year, as discovered by an “independent” survey by a certain “unbiased” consumer review.
Now I’m not against India having good airports, but I will testify to the number of blogs and travel guides warning visitors of the hassles of that same airport: from the long lines for taxis outside its gates to its interminable wait to transfer between terminals to its lurking masses of seedy guides to help you around to its nightmarish waits for immigration stamps to its constant film of cigarette soot hanging onto every surface you touch. Without fail, the written guides – up to date in publication times, no less – ranged from unfavorable to unduly harsh when discussing Indira Gandhi International.
What we actually found was a decent but aging place with functional services and reasonable employees.
It simply wasn’t that bad.
But it simply wasn’t that good—especially not compared to Singapore’s lush Changi or Kuala Lumpur’s sleek KLIA, not when sat next to Doha’s opulent Hamad nor Hong Kong’s swanky vibe, all of which seem to be in competition to draw tourists to town for nothing more than to peruse their terminals. Delhi works, no doubt, but it’s certainly not up to snuff for the “world’s best” as it blatantly pounds its own chest to travelers who are already trapped within its confines.
Let the scent of that claim leak abroad to a pack of bored investigative journalists with a knack for airport scandal, and they’d be digging up the perpetrator of such vicious exaggerations in less time than your tuk-tuk driver could find you a “decently” priced “authentic” carving of the Taj Mahal.
Here’s another tasty tidbit: the morning following Lasik’s [or something like that] traffic perpetrations through half the capital, our new driver serenely pointed out a rather normal looking building as we passed. “This building is worth fifty million dollars.” He kept driving and looking straight ahead, as if he hadn’t just spoken a bold-faced lie to a pair of innocent witnesses. “This area of India is very historic and important. The land here is the most expensive in the world.”
The land was just a couple blocks away from last night’s “slum” that we couldn’t enter, due to alleged “propaganda.” The land was tangled with vines and mangoes over a cracked sidewalk, and a flurry of violent traffic pressed into its two lanes.
The building itself was a reddish sort of box about three stories tall. It had windows.
But fifty million dollars?
But, as were would learn later rather than sooner, the exaggeration is a part of life in India. If a restaurant is tasty, it becomes the most legendary site for fifty miles around. If it actually is the best place for fifty miles around, it beats the crowds away with clubs and a debilitating caste system and proclaims itself the Maharaja’s personal chef’s dynasty of unbroken succession of secret curry mixes blessed by the 42nd incarnation of Vishnu’s bull. It’s the way Delhi speaks. If there has been a little shouting in the streets, it becomes a full-blown emergency and police cordon off the area for religious propaganda.
We discovered that our intended train tickets, in the pleasant words of Lucifer, would be “utterly impossible” to find at this hour, but the rental car tour he was hawking was surely “the most majestic moments of your lives.”
We found the parliament hill to be impressive, stately, worthy of pictures and contemplation. But the bystanders outside hailed it as the crowning achievement of all mankind. Next to the Taj Mahal, of course, they corrected when I probed further.
I stopped for a cool, refreshing Coke, and a passing Brahma mendicant, on seeing me raise the nectar of America to my lips, burst into a mighty reverie praising the surpassing flavors of the gods dripped down to earth for the pious sanctification of the thirsty traveler’s throat.
OK, so maybe that last one didn’t actually happen.
It’s something in the air, something in the way conversations go, something that says you take everything said—from airport advertisements to real estate prices to restaurant recommendations to marketplaces price tags—with a heaping handful of salt. There’s a penchant for nothing to be normal and to color all conversation with the same outlandish flair as the saris and jewelry of a Delhi bride.
Exaggeration in Delhi, is a fact.
And speaking of exaggerations, how about that time we walked straight into Lucifer’s unhallowed lair?
That was the night the Laskav [or something like that] failed to bring us to our hotel, shouted at us for booking a room in a propaganda-filled slum, then shouted into the phone at the hotel owner who told us the room was already given to other guests, then drove us straight to the lair of Lucifer himself: the Government Authorized Travel Assistance Office.
It was midnight, a tiny office on a deserted street, Andy and I at each other’s throats, and a driver one moment ready to scorn us into shame, and another ready to fight for us to the death. We were just two hours into India.
The light was on.
Blue letters blazoned “Government Authorized” on the glass door.
There, behind a faux-paneled desk and a humming computer monitor sat the man, whom, to protect his real name, I’m calling Lucifer.
He stood from his desk, tall and sleek and boasting a modest belly over his belt. His English was suave and practiced, his laugh deep and reassuring, and his chai—our first in India—sweet and steaming. He listened to our complaint, called and casually berated the owner, explained about the “slum” and the “propaganda,” and offered us similar lodging in a nearby locale for a similar rate.
We thanked him and arranged to return tomorrow for the train tickets.
Tomorrow we wanted to say thank you and purchase train tickets to Amritsar. “You’re welcome,” Lucifer crooned, “but I’m afraid that’s utterly impossible. Train tickets at this hour is a nightmare.”
“What? It’s nine AM. The office isn’t opened yet?”
A deep chuckle reverberated from the ghastly cubicle walls. “Have another chai, my friend, and step into my office. I’ll tell you all about train tickets in India.”
And he did – for the next six hours. Each time that Andy and I were ready to call his bluff and walk out of his office, he came back with another cup of chai and another call to his “guy” working “inside the office” at the station, just waiting for a pair of sleeper-class tickets to open on the overnight haul to Amritsar.
Andy asked for a business card – we could go around the neighborhood and call back in an hour.
“OK, ma’am, I have somebody bring one in a moment.”
Meanwhile, while this imaginary demon in the train station toiled away at infernal machination of the ticket counter, Lucifer regaled us with horror stories of past clients on the rails and the paradisiacal bliss of those who booked a car and driver and tour package with him.
We listened patiently to the spiel while the supposed train deal was getting hammered out. We sipped the chai and nodded politely and said all the “no thanks” that we could stomach. We asked again for a business card.
“Sorry ma’am, I think we’ll have to print a new one. Just a moment.”
But Lucifer was a pro: a gentle reproach, a scolding call to his friend, another brochure of the resorts he offered along his route… We started to crumble.
‘What if we can’t get the train tonight to Amritsar?” We looked at each other. “What if we go through this hassle every time we need a train? What if…”
If there’s one thing I’ve ever learned in my thirty-five trips around the sun, it’s this:
Lucifer thrives on juicy what-ifs.
What more is there to say? By the time three o’clock rolled around, we had agreed to not only a train ticket, but to eight days of purgatory with his minion driver—to be paid when we returned to Delhi after our sojourn through Punjab and Kashmir.
Yeah, anyone want to guess how that little shindig wound up?
And of course Lucifer never managed to get us a business card.
Chaos and Order
We’re no suckers—contrary to what Lucifer must’ve been cackling about as we walked back into the mayhem of Delhi’s streets—when it comes to chaos. We’ve cut our teeth on Jakarta’s alleys, run its boulevards and sweated its markets and haggled its merchants.
But Delhi takes chaos to another level.
Back in Missouri, a car’s horn is utilized something like 0.0002% of the total driving time of the car—if you’re a prodigal spendthrift of a honker. In India, it’s roughly 88% — if you’re on the conservative side.
Streets seem angry.
There’s no way around the riotous mess that rages between the curbs—the noise level rivals a rock concert, and the event is definitely surround-sound. Tires clash and men shout and trucks rumble and dogs bark and wedding music trills and a cow strolls serenely through it all. The consternation is palpable; the decibels higher than your blood pressure.
We decided to wait out rush hour in a nearby temple: the Shri Lakshmi Narain. Pay to get in, brush away the gaudy-hawkers, remove your shoes, and feel that grit underfoot. Get used to it. That’s the next three weeks in India.
Up the red sandstone staircases and through the must-duck tunnels and into the gory realms of multi-armed and bloodlusting demons bent on renting you a car—oh, wait, that was the last place we visited.
Hindu temples are fascinating, a real treat for the detail-spotter. Each is filled with color and images and bells and chants and weary sojourners begging for a better station in an existence they hope is coming.
It’s shameful for me to admit, I know, but it can be too, too easy to feel a little drowsy in a sermon back home. Try nodding off, though, through the blaring chants and the pushing line and the…. Well, yeah. There’s not much of a sermon, I guess. Straight to the donations and the blessings, it seems.
But compared the streets outside, at least there’s a bit of order in here.
Sure, too many idols hang around with too many arms and too many weapons, and yes, the droning chants of the dude with a harpsichordish instrument and a microphone are not exactly my cup of chai, but at least it’s a chant. It’s repetitive. Maybe even calming.
At least it’s not the traffic outside.
The craftsmanship, though, is what kills me. I’ve never sculpted anything more than play-doh or my rock-hard six-pack (see if that little joke makes it through Andy’s proofreading), so it’s hard for me to imagine the process of bringing a single Vishnu or a solitary swastika to light. Yes, yes, I know, the Nazis aren’t the inventors of the crooked cross, and yes, yes, I’ve witnessed my fair share of these on scattered temples around Southeast Asia. In Bali, I slept right across the street from the Swastika Guesthouse. And in Delhi… Well, let’s just say that good old India Jones—that perpetual thorn in the side of the Third Reich—would have his fists full of pummeling around here.
But as I was saying about the craftsmanship: it’s easy to stroll through a temple and notice that, “Hey, there are a lot of little gods around here on the walls,” but maybe it’s not quite as easy to stop and peruse the tiny details of each of the hundreds of idols with hundreds of details apiece. In an age of mass-produced everything, I can scarcely fathom the task of sitting down to my workbench every morning and churning out the Shivas and Ganeshas and Vishus all day, detailed down to their bloody daggers and sharpened tridents. Judging by the army of tiny gods around, there’s got to be a battalion of sculptors cranking the works out.
But enough of that—the afternoon was waning, and we had a train arriving. We were off to the Sikh temple.
Ah, yes, the Sikhs. Daggers and beards and doo-rags, and they’re not even pirates! They’ve got a penchant for gold, and a hankering to chant, and an uncanny ability to dish out free food to all who darken the door of their intricate temples. Geometry and precision and pools full of nectar, chants and long hair and warrior’s devotion—the Sikhs are something amazing and something intimidating and definitely something worth looking into.
But allow me to pick back up on the Sikh theme in Amritsar—the Sikh capital of the world, and the seat of their illustrious Golden Temple.
For the moment, Andy and I were stepping from the structured marble steps of the Sikhs and wading back into the crashing din of Delhi traffic.
Delhi also features, in the order side of the ledger, something of an arc de triumph – except it more like a square sort of thing, and filled with mustaches and lassis rather than berets and wine, and is called the India Gate. Originally built to honor war heroes of the Great War, today it stands an island of rationality in a chaotic mess of snack vendors. Swirling around the geometric perfection of the India Gate, you see, lie concentric rings of madness: the crowds of a hundred languages chattering and shouting and the snacks of a thousand flavors selling and crunching, and the strange and addicting hubbub of Delhi.
“Hello, Sir. May I please have a click?” the young man in a black jacket asked me, wagging both his phone and his head toward me.
“A click? What?…” He was already moving the phone into selfie mode. “Oh, yeah, sure.”
So we clicked.
Next came the family of four with a teenage girl too shy to ask for herself, so her daddy put the question to us: “Click, Mister?”
And then came the grandma with her entourage of grandbabies, each wanting a hello and a click. All the while Andy kept up her fierce whispers in my ear, the mantra more oft repeated than even the chants in the temples, the unending mantra of
Keep your hand on your wallet!
Don’t worry about that, babe—Lucifer’s already got his hands too deep for these guys to make any difference.
So we orbited every which way around the gate, spun among the software engineers and policemen and government clerks and shopkeepers and I don’t know how many in Delhi on vacation to attend a relative’s wedding. Around the outskirts of the pavements sat the humble hawkers with cartfuls of exotic sweets and salties and spice, a strange rainbow of flavors that we would have loved to sample were it not for the endless clicking of the Delhi mob.
A glance at the watch confirmed my suspicions of the fleeting afternoon. We whisked ourselves away to the Parliament—that imposing old sandstone monument towering on a hilltop perch, benevolently gazing over its masses in the valley—an imposing symbol of the rational and enlightened minds of a unified government—while inside rage the cutthroat debates and backroom conferences of the neatly chaotic phenomenon of politics. All the chaos is bundled in a neat little package of English, a gift of administrative unification left by the Brits after a handful of unwieldy centuries making sense—and boatloads of money—from the subcontinent’s raucous currents.
Yes, it’s Delhi in a nutshell—chaos crashing across a lifesaving foothold of order somehow holding firm under the flood. That model held true even to the train station (yes, Lucifer made good on his bargain) where Lonely Planet recommended not trusting anyone (false station agents apparently steer tourists away from correct tracks and force them into buying fake tickets for phantom rides).
Is anything ever easy here?
We settled in at a trackside café for the real reason—the one true purpose we’d booked this fiasco—a plate full of steaming biryani and smoldering samosas.
Yes, one day into India, and we were certainly taking a ride—with Lakvar (or something like that) from the airport, with Lucifer’s day-long deal for a driver, with a tornado of tourism through the sacred and the state, and now a second-class ticket on an overnight ride to somewhere far, far away.
Andy and I were collapsing into the shelf-like bunks. We kicked off the sweaty shoes, and curled into our coats and jackets. It had been a long day. Mob-rule propaganda and boiling traffic and sleazy salesmen and more gods that streetlights, government and shoving and too many flavors to keep your taste buds sane.
We had been in India just twenty-four hours.
Three weeks of these remained.
Andy, slipping out of consciousness already, whispered her final warning…
Keep your hand on your wallet.