Food for Thought
New Delhi has always been one of my favourite cities in the world, with its attractions including spacious streets, beautiful architecture, amazing bookstores and above all, a tremendous sense of history. From the verdant greenery of Lodi Gardens, the remains of the Mughal era legacy in the old city and outstanding monuments like the Qutub Minar, this is one place where with every second step, one risks tripping over some relic of the past - the Rome of the Subcontinent.
Part of my fascination with Delhi can undoubtedly be blamed on my History teacher in Holy Cross School. A tiny figure with a ramrod straight back, Miss Katherine Gomes was not to be trifled with, and every girl in my class of fifty students had the basics of our shared South Asian history, from Mohenjodaro to the Mughals and eventually the British era, early drilled into her. Since Miss Katherine (wisely) didn't trust most of us to do our homework properly - although the prospect of that gimlet stare scorching into our souls made sure that most of us attempted to hand something in most of the time - she made sure that most of our learning was actually done in class. History was one subject none of us needed a private tutor for!
Miss Katherine was an exemplary teacher, and I was one of the students who desperately vied for her hard-to-obtain approval. One of my greatest regrets was when I managed to obtain Letter marks in Geography in my Matric exam, but missed History by a few percent. And interestingly enough, even the most hopeless students (and those who absolutely hated history) somehow managed to retain enough information to scrape through the history exam paper - and it certainly wasn't because the syllabus was easy.
Anyway, I remember the first time I went to Delhi as a teenager and was transported by the idea of how many fascinating and powerful characters from my history books had traversed those very streets - albeit perhaps on elephant-back or in horse-drawn carriages.
Its history aside, modern Delhi has enough attractions of its own, with its bookshops and emporiums as well as cultural events. While the unwary tourist has been known to acquire the terrible syndrome known as "Delhi Belly", it is hard to avoid taking a risk or two at the delicious eateries, including those at Khan Market. For those of a more adventurous disposition, a visit to Karim's in Old Delhi is highly recommended for a scrumptious but prohibitively rich introduction to true Mughlai cuisine their tandoori dishes and brain masala for example are considered gourmet fare, but vegetarians should stay far, far away…
All this to say that I seek any opportunity to return to this city, which I consider to be as much part of my ancestral heritage as any inhabitant of Delhi might. Nevertheless, my recent brief stay there, on my way to Europe, was not without its challenges. Be warned that while this is a city well serviced by taxis and spaciously comfortable baby-taxis, if you aren't fluent in Hindi, (just as in Dhaka) it's wise to agree on how the fare will be calculated before you step into the vehicle. You might choose to go somewhere for a fixed amount, but if not you should make sure that the meter is switched on as soon as you begin your journey.
I discovered this the hard way after encountering a number of the more deranged taxi-drivers prowling the city, a drama that continued unabated until I met a compassionate expatriate Indian in the car park of a shopping centre. This encounter occurred even as I was trying to reason with one of these nutjobs, who remained maddeningly intent on misunderstanding my (admittedly limited) Hindi. The Indian-American woman that a merciful providence had finally sent my way very kindly provided me with the phone number for an excellent taxi service known as Meru, thereby taking care of that particular problem for the rest of my stay.
Less simple however, was the arduous task of reloading credit onto the Indian telephone SIM loaned to me for this trip. As I found out to my horror, if your SIM has been obtained in one Indian state, the task of refilling credit appears to confound many of the vendors in other states. This is apparently because the amount of money that actually gets loaded does not necessarily correspond to the amount of money you pay, and the variation is unpredictable, varying from state to state based on exactly where you bought the SIM, and exactly where you are trying to recharge the credit on it. Makes perfect sense, right? Not!
It was after my fifth fruitless try at re-charging that I was finally able to locate a very pleasant Sikh gentleman, who despite his initial reservations, finally managed to get that pesky SIM to function again. Sadly, this was only achieved on my last day in Delhi. And it didn't change the fact that although I now had some credit on my phone, because the initial SIM card had been purchased in Calcutta, all my phone calls in Delhi were charged at roaming rates and I was charged for any incoming calls, whether local or international!!
Nevertheless, those minor irritations aside, Delhi remains one of my favourite places, and has been so from the time that I first went there as a child. The fact that it has so many wonderful bookshops is not, of course, entirely a coincidence…Anyway, I was recently at one of the aforementioned bookstores in Khan Market, when I had an encounter that confirmed for me that yoga really is good for us.
An older British man arrived in the shop and instructed the charming, well-informed bookseller at Bahri Sons to find some books on the events of 1857. In his own words, "Basically, I am looking for any interesting books about what you call the first War of Independence, and I call the Indian Mutiny"! For him to be in someone else's country and be so gratuitously obnoxious really infuriated me; such arrogance is unappealing, not least when this kind of comment comes from the ex-coloniser, who does not appear to have understood that we are in fact living in the 21st century.
Even as I browsed the bookshelves and seethed (remember, after all, that in 1857 we were all considered Indians), I suddenly came across a book that appeared to be exactly what this creep was looking for. Immediately, an internal struggle began - between my outraged Sub-continental identity and the part of me that had been encouraged by my yoga teacher not to react to other people's bad behaviour with hostility, but to respond with dignity and pleasantness. Argh.
Finally, the supposedly enlightened, yoga-mindset part of me won out. So I walked over and offered the book to the man, who was delighted and thanked me with every appearance of gratitude. I didn't stick around for further discussion, but my friend actually overheard him telling me, "Don't go away". Presumably this meant that he thought I was in fact one of the bookshop staff, albeit one who spent way too much time browsing the shelves!
(…to be continued)
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