The Red Line in Boston is the failed state of public transport systems. Perhaps the only metro lines that have required me to lower my standards of public health and safety even more were in Cairo and the Ukraine—one of which is actually a failed state, and the other a sort of post-apocalyptic metropolis built to withstand all calamity. When I think of Delhi—or used to imagine it—the last thing that would come to mind was “ah yes, beautiful metro system.” Well, there is one, and it is exemplary. Modeled after London’s underground, and stealing both slogans and logos from the former colonizers, the Delhi metro is clean and efficient, though not without its endearing multilingual developing country mannerisms such as the warning sign above the metal detectors that reads “no phones while frisking.” A friend had mentioned the amusing announcements and signs that dot the metro stops. Her favorite (side note: she is white, so, this only makes sense in that context) warns “no crackers allowed.”
An Indophile since 17 (see Facebook photos to corroborate this claim), India has been on my urgent to do list for several years. I have been fortunate to keep sort-of up to date on Indian pop culture through the teary-eyed friends who used to watch Bollywood on the big TV in my old apartment, and by way of the frequent wall posts chronicling the making of Chammak Challo and Why This Kolaveri Di. The latter was just blaring in my cab to the airport.
As all flights to India seem to arrive at three o’clock in the morning (more or less), my first impressions were surely tainted by sleep-deprivation and the effects of breathing only sterilized, why-are-my-eyes-watering airport and airplane air for about 26 hours (I know you know what I’m talking about). That said, the moment I stepped off the plane I asked myself “I wonder if the tires skidded pretty badly on landing?” since it immediately smelled of burning rubber. Well, the answer to my question is irrelevant, as the entire city smells a bit like burning rubber and trash. I say that affectionately. Another surprise upon arrival was the fog—that pea-soup London fog that somehow makes its way through walls and into the Indira Ghandi Airport arrivals hall, which is hazy enough to make passengers squint to see the exit signs clearly.
Having slept for eight hours on the flight from DC to Doha, I surprised myself when I slept yet another six hours after arriving at my home away from home in CR Park, which I’m told is sort of the adopted ugly child neighborhood of posh South Delhi. Many apartments in Delhi don’t have any central heating system as the weather for most of the year turns homes into kilns. January is the exception, when nighttime temperatures flirt curiously close to freezing and wool socks and winter hats are the unfortunate but necessary accoutrements of pajamas. Even in mid-morning the fog smothers South Delhi, sealing in the damp chill that is only slightly, if tastily, abated by the thick, milky masala chai sold at a bring-your-own-cup-from-home stall a block from Karan’s house.
I have a love affair with markets—a hereditary condition passed down from my father—so old Delhi was a perfectly overwhelming introduction to what I’m sure will be a city that leaves a strong impression. We entered the metro in a suburban parking lot, congested but verdant, for a thirty-minute ride into Old Delhi. Just six months since my trip to Cairo, the smoky flamboyance of concrete and mud-brick capitals remains fresh in my mind, so I braced my senses for my expectations of Old Delhi. Emerging from the metro, the pageant beauty that stole my gaze was the misty dome of the distant Jama Masjid—Delhi’s most famous mosque—regal and burgundy red, as if sketched from the storybook imaginations of those of us whose favorite Disney movie was Aladdin (fun fact: Aladdin—the original story, that is—takes place in China). From the Jama Masjid my eyes looked down the street that leads to the mosque, a street consumed by serpentine, pirated power lines that suffocated the mud-brick walls like kudzu. I have never seen so many wires packed together, dangling precariously and surely illegally overhead as we began to walk down the sidewalk. Old Delhi’s streets are predictably too narrow for the massive flow of man-or-goat-powered traffic inching along at the dangerous and aggressive “encouragement” of motorbike horns.
A predominantly Muslim area, Old Delhi greets in many languages, with touristic sites announced and marked in at least five languages—English, Hindi, Urdu, German, and Chinese, sometimes with French or Spanish hastily misspelled at the bottom of the sign. Much like those in Cairo or La Paz or other monochrome and dirty mega-markets I’ve visited, Old Delhi is separated rigidly into sections—with all of the wedding card shops begrudgingly sharing the same three blocks, all of the door handles and metal pipes cohabiting the next blocks, followed by the mountains of (arguably stolen) car parts and tires stacked higher than the height of three men. Occupying the insufficient sidewalk space are men selling or making absolutely everything, from cement bricks—made just from tap water and the gravel accumulated under the foot traffic—to spare keys to delicious but parasitic mid-afternoon snacks like fried shredded potato or kebabs. With no horns to announce the fact that they are about to run unto the back of your knees, rickshaw drivers yell at pedestrians in nasal, high-pitched Hindi, and crossing the street just five meters can take up to a minute as you negotiate a clear path and step just…high…enough to make it over the front wheel of motorbikes.
With an internationally famous reputation—making its way into most guidebooks—and an address that goes something like “Number 8 alleyway between tire shop one and tire shop two” sits Kareem’s. The number one “Mike you have HAVE to go there” place on my cousin Michelle’s Delhi to-do list, this restaurant is hard to find and seats only twenty people or so. The kitchen is more like three kitchens, each ingeniously carved into literal holes-in-the-wall of a small alleyway courtyard. The menu, written on the wall, is overwhelming for the indecisive-of-heart, and the ambience…well, it’s one of those places that—after you see the pervious diners’ chicken bones still sitting on your table, the little skull-capped man crab-walking across the floor sweeping up trash, and the proportion of locals versus white people (i.e. perhaps for the local intestinal composition)—surely will make you at least a little sick, but also will leave you with such a sense of food accomplishment á la Anthony Bourdain No Reservations.
I let my friends order, as Punjabis are known for their good taste in food, and apparently the theme of the day was mutton—mutton korma, mutton kebabs, mutton chops (and by that I mean goat meat, not facial hair), served with naan and sweet roti and some chutney that I was clearly instructed not to eat, lest I poo myself to death 12 hours later. It was, as I was forewarned, entirely del(h)icious, made even better by the sweet kheer (think arroz con leche with a nutty flavor).
A brief look into the Jama Masjid—beautiful, imposing, and oozing with pigeons—ended with my first ever ride in a rickshaw, towards the metro. Needless to say I do not fit in a rickshaw, especially when there are two other people sitting with me, and as I bent my head to avoid the rusty metal frame and once-red canopy, I had a fantastic view of the peddler’s painful wedgie and the street below. While a bit of a tight squeeze for three, the rickshaw is fantastic mode of transport, providing an unexpectedly serene way to view the market that we has seen only by foot.
A late evening Italian meal atop a rooftop cabana, heated by open tableside fires, provided a contrasting but fitting curtain call for the day, a day that was but a tiny appetizer of the cultural and culinary adventure that I’ll enjoy for my ten days in India.