I wake with a start. I’ve been asleep on Joji’s couch for about five hours. He’s already left for work (a former engineer turned journalist he’s scribbling away at the Indian Times, writing front pagers on a daily basis). Joji’s one of the few Indian Jews in Delhi (his parents are from Cochin originally) and, like most Jews, he’s over-educated, over-lingual (he speaks at least six languages) and over-protective (he’s had the maid make me breakfast). Not that I’m complaining – I’m ravenous after my ‘long march’ from Tel Aviv.
I tuck into chapatti, dhal, mixed vegetables, and a glass of chai…I’m conscious of the fact that I’m filthy, but I’m already feeling better – disoriented, yes, but surprisingly, unruffled at being back in Asia.
I jump in the shower and scrub away…the water runs brown and then clear and as I lather my hair I realise I’m ready to start singing Frank Sinatra (that’s a sign that I’m really in good spirits). I’m here…back in India…ready for new adventures. I loved Kerala, I marvelled at Rajasthan, I fell in love with Varanasi and I’m imagining that Himachal Pradesh isn’t going to disappoint. I’ve packed light – just a couple of shirts, two pairs of pants, basic underwear and my medical kit. Everything else I can pick up here…and at bargain prices.
So – it’s time to wander beyond ‘Pocket A.’ Joji’s just moved here and I don’t know the area at all. I am completely unfamiliar with my surroundings and stroll off down a side street, spying a cow ambling towards me. Women are sitting on the ground all around me, surrounded by piles of zucchini, chillies, an array of tropical fruits (quite a few of which I can’t recognise), children are returning from school, neat and tidy in their white shirts and grey skirts/trousers – little bags under their arms, chattering amongst themselves.
The small store nearby is packed with Indian goodies that I love – snacks, cookies, sodas (Limca! I love it!) Periodically, I see a stand selling chaats, dosas, pakoras and samosas. I fancy nosh so I pick up a mixed bag (which, of course, is wrapped up in newspaper) and munch as I walk along.
It’s only 2 pm but the sun is burning fiercely. The last time I was in the capital, it was shrouded in fog and mist, damp by night. Indeed, I remember shivering terribly, getting into bed one night in three sweaters. The good old days. Now, I realise I’m going to have to be drinking between 4-5 litres of water a day, just to stay in the game. This heat is brutal, even for the locals, but for an English flower like myself, it’s a killer. I hail down a rickshaw and climb in. After a few moments of haggling, we agree on 40 rupees and head off back to Connaught Place. This is home to Jampat market (a great place to pick up a shalwar kameez) Sagar Ratna (a Brahmin pure vegetarian restaurant, serving the best dosas in town) and the Oxford Bookstore (heaven on earth, because I can peruse printed matter in air conditioning!) It’s good to know the lie of the land…especially in 43 degrees temperatures.
Delhi is much as I remember it…busy, noisy, dirty, thriving, an economic, political and social capital. Of course it vies with Mumbai for Best Big City of India award…and it takes getting used to too. I’m glad the last time I was here I was able to wander in the old part of town, explore the Red Fort and marvel at the Bahai Temple, because the heat is such now that walking anywhere outside before 4pm would be terribly foolhardy. My plan is to acclimatise, adjust as quickly as possible then head out of town. Big third world cities never were my thing and in this season, anyone remotely sane will head to the hill stations (built by the British in the 1860’s onwards, where they would retreat from the sweltering climes of Delhi). All power to the Empire! (I can even take a train part of the way).
And so the next day and a half is spent in a limbo state, eating pakoras, drinking chai and sweet lassis, gulping down bottle after bottle of water…remembering the smells, noise, dirt, chaos and vibrancy that is India. That night Joji and I talk for hours…about journalism, Jews in India (he has a Hindu partner and his parents, after five years, are still refusing to acknowledge her), the economic boom in India and the impact it’s had on every segment of society…and then some. Joji makes iddly (steamed cakes) and I eat them with dhal and a little hot sauce. Fans swoosh above us. As we walk home, the streets are quieter but there’s still a certain degree of activity in every neighbourhood. I’m also struck by how safe I feel in India. Even in the capital. Having travelled in Latin America and East Africa (which can verge on the lawless) I feel completely at ease here – I fear neither robbery nor an attack on my person. Again, I think to myself that if I weren’t a Jew, for sure I’d become a Hindu. I really like these people – their values, their strong emphasis on community, their love of education, and their gentle persuasion.
The next day I drive into town with Joji. We’re in his car (air con at last) listening to oldies on his cd player – Neil Diamond, Jim Reeves, Phil Collins, Sade…and I’m transported back to my teens. We sing “Sweet Caroline” together, as we negotiate the traffic, and laugh out loud…we’re both feeling great but we’re both feeling the generation gap. I wish I could spend more time with my friend but he’s leaving in a few hours for Bombay, for work and, in any event, this heat is paralysing me. Sitting in Delhi is only for the foolish or desperate, and he only remotely sensible thing to do in my situation is to flee. Besides, I’ve only a month and I’ve got plans a plenty. Now all I need is an exit route.
Only I haven’t planned for the worst case scenario – in this case it being Indian summer holidays, which means every family (and their mother, auntie and distant cousin) is on the move. By train, bus, car…you name it, they’re on it. Within an hour I find out there are no trains anywhere for days…no air con, no non-air con, no third-class unreserved overnight (did that once from Panjim to Cochin and barely lived to tell the tale). Joji knows no-one in his wide circle who’s heading out of town for a weekend.
So that leaves the buses. Local or tourist? I’ve done both – and I know which I prefer, but needs must when the devil dares. I walk, sweat pouring down my neck, from one agency to another only to receive the same answer: “Madam, there is nothing…” Don’t tell me I’m going to be stuck in this dusty, dirty, city for another few days? It’s too much to bear. Ok, it’s time to get serious. By that, I mean: baksheesh. I don’t like pulling this stunt, but it’s this or melt – and those hill stations have never sounded so appealing. If greasing a palm is what I have to do, I’ll do it. I want out…and quickly.
Even so, it proves to be harder than normal. It seems that everything really is full and a little creativity is going to be called for on the part of an agent. Phone calls are made, phrases barked brusquely down the phone and I’m sitting in the corner, drinking my Limca and holding my breath. Outside, the sun is beating down, the thermometer’s at 45 degrees. It’s 1pm. The agent looks at me and I shoot him a desperate glance.
“Nothing north…nothing. And nothing to Rishikesh either. No trains, no buses. Everything is full. But I can get you to Haridwar on the night bus. Eleven hours tonight…leave at 9.30 pm.” I know there’s no time to waste. I’ll take the ticket (and I know I’m going to have to pay through the nose for it, but I don’t care…no price is too high at this point. I hand over fistfuls of rupees (probably double what the ticket would normally cost) and watch him laboriously write out my ticket. “Tourist bus” can mean anything. It could have push-back seats and air con, or it could have a hole in the floor and an engine that breaks down every 2 hours. We could stop in two places, we could stop in ten. Over the years, there’s not much I haven’t seen.
“Optimistic in deed, pessimistic in thought” as my friend Alberto Ottolenghi might have remarked.
The rest of the day is spent trying not to melt, hiding in the bookstore, watching middle-class students giggle over the overpriced shakes in the coffee shop there. I venture out to pick up some nosh for the journey, and to stock up on water. On my wanders, just trying to get my directions (I’m hopelessly lost for some reason) I’m already chatting with locals (it’s so easy to fall into conversation with people here and when you’re as garrulous as myself…) I meet a Keralan who’s applying for the civil service (“Indians are the biggest racists in the world – if it weren’t or the British we’d have killed each other”) a restaurant owner (who shows me pictures of his eight year old boy and talks enthusiastically about population control) and a young woman, studying engineering, originally from Chennai, daughter of Brahmins, who asks me (quite seriously) why so many people in the West still engage in “love marriages.”
I feel alive again, vibrant, engaged, light years away from Tel Aviv. I grab another banana shake, followed by a lychee juice (yum) and jump in a cab so that I can say goodbye to Joji. Maybe we’ll meet up on my way back to Tel Aviv – or he’ll meet me later in the Levant. Anything is possible and we’re both avid travellers. Then a rickshaw to the bus terminal – which is actually a petrol pump, but in India I tend to find that most pick-up points are in the most bizarre locations. It’s 9.15 pm and the temperatures a cool 34 degrees. I can only hope and pray that I can find some blessed relief on the banks of the Ganges. For, that’s right, I’m en route to Rishikesh, home of ashrams and yoga centres, reiki, crystals, healing centres and thousands of pilgrims. Rishikesh is where the town where John, Paul, George and Ringo rocked up in ’68…it’s new age, apparently kooky, full of oddballs and – rather un-Indian in many respects. But, hey, as John Lennon said, “Whatever gets you through the night.”
And here’s the bus…