Notes from a crowded country: India – 01

Sunday Jan 10, New Delhi, India

We arrived here late last night, or early this morning – at some point the line between the two blurs – due primarily to frozen water lines leading to the airplane at Reagan National in DC, and frozen cargo doors on the airplane at Schipol Airport in Amsterdam. Things were freezing up all over the place, or so it seemed.

We (my sister, Annelie, my brother-in-law Kesh, and I) were originally supposed to land in Delhi around 11 PM on Saturday night, but got in several hours after that. Then we waited what seemed like forever to get our bags, the net result being it was somewhere in the vicinity of 3 AM in the morning, Delhi time, when we finally struggled through customs, bleary eyed, into the foggy, cool Delhi morning.

Even at 3 AM in the morning, traffic around the airport is bad. People in India drive like they believe in reincarnation, and apparently traffic offenses don’t subtract from a person’s karma. As far as I can tell, lanes markings are mere suggestions, and the Indian driver’s two main controls are the gas peddle and the horn – the brake is to be used only as a device of last resort. Merging seems to be accomplished by barreling full speed into the intersection, horn blaring, and assuming any incoming traffic will make way – which it usually does, with inches to spare, horn blaring, off course.

In Delhi we’re staying with Padma, my sister’s sister-in-law, or my brother-in-law’s sister, which makes her my – I’m not sure.  My sister-in-law-in-law? Very extended family? No matter, she has certainly made us all welcome. A professor at IIT – The Indian Institute of Technology – in Delhi, she lives in campus faculty housing – a modest 2 story house with 3 bedrooms, a living room/dining area, a kitchen and a couple of bathrooms. Like all families of reasonable means in India, I gather, she has servants that work for her – Rup Lol, and his wife Meena, are the full time cooks, and Brij is her driver / general help. Brij was waiting for us at 3 AM in the morning. According to my sister, it didn’t matter how late we would be, Brij would be there waiting for us, and we were certainly glad to see him.

Our accommodations are spartan but certainly livable – though the funky plumbing takes some getting used to. There is running cold water, but no running hot water, so showering & bathing is done with a bucket of heated water and a small scoop (the servants bring the a big bucket of hot water in the morning).  And since Delhi is hot 10-11 months out of the year,  none of the houses have central heating, and nothing to speak of  in the way of insulation. In fact, in one of the living room windows an extension cord goes through a broken window pane out to somewhere in the garden. Of course, this is the one month in the year it gets cool in Delhi, and right now they are suffering a cold snap – hi 40’s/low 50’s in the evenings,  high of 60 or so during the day. Which doesn’t sound so bad until you realize that, with no central heating, the inside of the house is essentially the same temperature as outside. During the day when the sun shines, it’s often warmer outside the house than in.  Which is fine in the middle of the New Delhi summer – but (literally) not so hot when the high is maybe 55.  There are a couple of space heaters plugged in here and there, but unless you’re standing or sitting directly in front of one they don’t do much. For the most part the strategy is to wear multiple layers in the house. It feels a bit like camping inside the house.

This morning we got up at 10 or so, had a hot Rup Lol-made breakfast (vegetarian “Dosa” – the Indian version of crepes with a savory potato filling and Roti – Indian flatbread, and the ever-present fresh yogurt made on premises), and took off to do a little sightseeing and conduct a little business. First off on the agenda: A visit to “New Light Tailors,” my brother-in-laws customary tailor, where you pick your cloth, the tailor measures you up, and when you come back in a couple of weeks you’ve got a suit waiting for you, custom made, at a price that’s about what you’d pay for a department store off-the-rack suit in the US.  We’re only here for a couple of weeks, and between Kesh and I we order a fair amount – but Kesh is regular, repeat customer who is always on a short timeline when he comes from the US, so they accommodate us.

After lunch, back at new campus, we head to our first real tourist destination, driven by Brij.  “Qutub Minar” – the “Minar,” which I’m guessing is a larger version of a Minaret (or more than likely Minaret means “small Minar”) turns out to be a tower constructed in the late 1100’s by the first Muslim ruler of Delhi. The tower itself is part of a much larger archeological site, full of the ruins of tombs, mosques, the minar, and what looks to be an aborted attempt to build a second minar on the same site.

Today being Sunday, the area is packed with Indian families as well as tourists wandering around. Between the relatively low angle of the sun later on a winter’s day, and all the dust and smog in the air, you can look directly at the sun – evident as big orange ball hanging in the southwestern sky. It does cast a nice orange glow on the stone though, which makes for some nice picture taking.

We wander around for a while taking pictures, leaving at dusk when they close the park. Back over in the parking area, Brij materializes, seemingly out of thin air and we pile in the car to leave. On the way back to IIT, someone suggests we stop at a local shopping district on the way home – dinner won’t quite be ready yet, and jet-lagged as we are, if we sit around with nothing to do we’ll  most likely fall asleep, which we don’t quite want to do this early in the day. So we stop at   “Basant Loc,” to do a little window shopping – perhaps even a little real shopping if the mood strikes us.

Basant Loc is clearly one of the newer, trendier shopping districts in New Delhi – with stores like United Colors of Benetton and Levis and other US name brands and a nightclub, the throbbing pulse of who’s music can be heard out on the street. Even here, though, dust and dirt abounds – Delhi is certainly nothing but a dusty city – with dry, bare dirt in many places and millions of feet and automobiles kicking it up into the air every chance they get.