Chapter Five: Welcome to French India
Delhi is more arid than Mumbai. From the moment we stepped out of the train station and into the early morning sun we knew it wasn’t going to be the sweltering experience we’d just had. There was, however, a fine haze in the air. You could see it in the rays of sun beating down on the tops of idle black cabs, but you couldn’t feel it because it wasn't water vapor, it was a fine, nearly translucent veil of dust, the first evidence of our proximity to the world’s ninth largest subtropical desert, the Thar or ‘Great Indian Desert’ as it is sometimes called.
Although I hadn’t had the foresight to think about what we would do when we finally arrived in Delhi (you remember the K/T saga I’m sure), my colleague had thought about our next move, Gott Sei Dank, working away on the train with German efficiency, making sure our prearranged connections were in order. I’m pretty sure the last thing he wanted was to have to deal with me in another state of near hysteria. Can’t say I blame him. And anyway, after stepping off the train, I made a solemn vow to chill out. A little intestinal issue and some uncleanliness were par for the course in India, not to mention that one wasn't a truly seasoned subcontinental wanderer until experiencing both. I had read William Sutcliffe's hilarious book Are You Experienced a few weeks before, and though I didn't want to be anything like the book's wannabe spiritual hippie, Liz, I thought I probably needed to toughen up a little. How I was to accomplish that was a little daunting, so I put it out of my mind for the moment and decided to turn my attention to getting us a cab.
But first, my colleague entrusted me with the luggage while he made a visit to the “Deluxe Toilet” outside the station, and as soon as he left, I had a ring of young India rickshaw drivers surrounding me, all asking me where I wanted to go. I had no idea since I hadn’t asked the German for the address details, but they thought I was just messing with them and kept right on asking. They were nice, extremely flirty, knew about zero English, and were very intent on staying right there in the middle of the dusty lot and chatting with me. Unlike blond colleagues of mine who are something of a novelty on the subcontinent and are thus frequently overwhelmed by more aggressive groups of admirers, these guys just seemed curious. They yapped away and poked at my suitcases as I stood there looking indifferent, until eventually my colleague returned. For purposes of simplicity, I’ll refer to him as Max from now on.
Despite the assurances from numerous rickshaw drivers that our luggage would fit behind the seat (it most certainly would not), we eventually got a pre-paid cab and headed off past the entirely uninviting Paharganj (a place I would visit much later on) and toward the home of our new hosts: the French Diplomats.
The opportunity to travel to India was happenstance -- a team of European researchers had decided to return to various cities across India to do some follow-up research on a project involving the small business sector. Max was part of that group and invited me to come along knowing how much I like to travel, and probably hoping I could help out. We flew to Mumbai to greet India properly and take in its madness, but Delhi was to be our so-called CentCom. As such, arrangements had been made to stay with old friends of Max who knew about the project and wanted to support it: a French diplomat, his wife, and their three children. Their home was located in a neighborhood colloquially referred to as “South-Ex-Two.” In long form that’s “South Extension Two.” Doesn’t sound like a very good name for a respectable neighborhood, I admit, but it was apparently situated around one of the poshest markets in Delhi, one that carried international brands and all. As I would soon find out, posh is a highly relative term in India.
As we drove toward our destination, we came upon large, square houses, most of them standing behind tall, spindly iron gates. One could glimpse the occasional attempt at a well-manicured lawn, equipped with the requisite statues of gods, but the stray dogs roaming the street and the random piles of sand dotting our path took away from the overall aesthetic. The cab dropped us off in front of one of the big, square houses. This one was light pink, which I thought was charming, and there were four heads peeping out at us from the top floor balcony. Max got our stuff out of the car and I stared up at them. They looked like a generational picture of an Indian family: an old woman the age of my grandmother, a middle-aged woman with a broom, and a younger-looking woman holding a baby. I thought maybe we were at the wrong house, but Max said no. I took his word for it and we made our way inside.
The woman with the broom helped us carry our bags upstairs against Max’s protestations. She was completely fit to do it, actually, and was up the two flights much faster than we managed. We were asked to stow our luggage temporarily in a children’s room set up like a scene from Disney’s Aladdin, princess-style bed and all. The woman then showed us out to the front porch and served us Yogi tea, mumbling something like "Ma’am will be back soon" on her way out.
Max took this time to tell me about Solenne. He had met her about ten years ago when he was in India doing PhD research, and they had formed a little circle of expat friends right there in Delhi. Solenne eventually married Édourd, had three kids, and wound up back in Delhi with her husband’s commission at the Indian Embassy, certainly a pleasing fate, since Max described her as the ultimate lover of India. He hadn’t been in touch very often since then, but explained that Solenne was the most open and uncomplicated person he’d ever met, and that her offer to live in their extra rooms for a couple months was not only generous, but absolutely frank. In other words, I didn’t have to worry about being a nuisance there.
The door slammed shut and I heard some rapid-fire French in a voice about one note deeper than I had expected, accompanied by the squeal of a child who wanted something that her mother wasn’t willing to give. “Manjuuuuu” the woman crooned. The Indian woman that served us tea was named Manju, and she was the general housekeeper, originally from Kerala. The group we had seen on the balcony were other domestic helpers, plus extended family. Manju pointed Solenne to the front porch & she burst upon us with a giant smile and “WELCOME!” in a strong French accent. The noisy child in the hall turned out to be an adorable, tiny blond girl who was now hiding behind her mother’s legs looking at us shyly. It only took a little smile from me to prompt her out into the open, and when asked her name she proudly and distinctly said “APPOLINE.”
Solenne had Manju get us lunch right away, and we sat down to homemade Kerala chicken with rice and some kind of potato salad. She told us that everything Manju and the others in the house made was perfectly safe and that none of her children had ever had food poising in India. I breathed a huge sigh of relief. She continued to talk about everything we could do while in Delhi, that we could ask their driver to take us places when they didn’t need him, participate in the yoga sessions that took place right here in the house at 5am, and a whole host of other activities. “She really is an India lover," I thought, and smiled at the realization that my resolution to chill out was going to be much easier than anticipated. Welcome to French India indeed.