Chapter Seven: Light Through A Filigree Lattice
Chapter One: A Mass of Humanity
Chapter Two: A Long Day in Mumbai
Chapter Three: The Rickshaw
Chapter Four: A Night Train To Delhi
Chapter Five: Welcome To French India
Chapter Six: Into The Light
Born again and fully recovered from my first travel illness, I began to settle myself into the French house, unpacking my suitcase into the chest of drawers they provided, hanging my Princess Jasmine-esque mosquito netting, and familiarizing myself with the schedule of a busy family. I inevitably awoke everyday at 6am to pounding footsteps and screaming children, and if I wasn't at the breakfast table by 9am, Manju, one of the house "sisters" would knock on my door, let herself in, and open the doors and windows to the sunlight. The wash room was just behind my room, and she didn't have the time or patience for my leisurely schedule. Manju made all the adults in the house a breakfast of fried eggs, buttered toast, and black tea, but with my immense distaste for eggs, I became accustomed to plain toast and a yogi tea. I began to enjoy the warm mornings, the arid Indian days, and the cool nights at last. As much as travel excites and ensures a constant parade of assorted sensory pleasures, staying in one place heightens awareness and allows one to become acquainted with the ethos of a place. With the hectic traveling and tumultuous first weeks behind me, I can say with certainty that my love for India began in Delhi.
Of course it wasn't just the comforts of the French home and the stability of an everyday routine that nurtured my adoration. Like good love stories often do, mine started with idealized notions and grand ideas. New Delhi, the exalted subject, was not just the dusty city I was currently living in, it was itself a notion and an idea nurtured by an author whose words floated off the page. In City of Djinns, William Dalrymple described New Delhi as "a bottomless seam of stories," and entangling history with his own modern experience, he spun Delhi the idea in my mind with "whirling dervishes and eunuch dancers," making the city "a strange mix of piety and bawdiness."*
"From the very beginning I was mesmerized by the great capital, so totally unlike anything I had ever seen before. Delhi, it seemed at first, was full of riches and horrors: it was a labyrinth, a city of palaces, an open gutter, filtered light through a filigree lattice, a landscape of domes, an anarchy, a press of people, a choke of fumes, a whiff of spices."*
All I needed was a little poetry.
Max and the rest of the research crew were spending most of their days at the office of an Indian business that conducts research on market clusters. Mukesh, the Director of the office and kind and thoughtful man, offered me a desk there as well. Though it was air-conditioned in the office, and a wallah offered me Chai on a continuous basis, I decided it wasn't the right place for me. Twenty minutes from a proper restaurant, cluttered with people, and reeking of mothballs, I would have been incredibly distracted and grouchy by noon. I didn't have any work that required a desk anyway, and Dalrymple's words pushed me out into the city.
In the first weeks of daytime solitude I opted for Khan Market. Solenne told me it was the most upscale market in New Delhi, which was really hard to believe given its condition, but there was a nice bookshop and cafe there, and a delicious restaurant called "The Big Chill." I climbed the steep steps to that restaurant everyday (many restaurants occupy second or third floor spaces), and enjoyed a routine lunch of spicy Penne Vodka and Diet Coke. Sometimes I even indulged in their wonderfully authentic New York Cheesecake. Covered in delicious blueberry sauce, it could have been from Junior's.
After lunch I would have a necessary midday drink or two, and then wander over to the Lodhi Gardens where I could observe tourists and natives walking and conversing as they made their way along the winding pathways. If I became bored with walking, which I often did, I would find a bicycle rickshaw wallah and ask him to drive me to another market. These hard-working bicycle men were often very funny, and drove their rickshaws in and out of traffic with a daring that was frightening and exhilarating. I liked to sit up high in the bike rickshaw chariot and watch people's faces as I snapped photos or waved at little children or inquisitive teens like a beauty queen in a parade. Oftentimes, they would try to con me into another ride after we had reached our destination, and I gladly played along, paying a few extra rupees for a circle around the market.
It was during one of these bumpy rides that I discovered the Greater Kailash Market I or "GK One" as the rickshaw wallahs called it. An expansive market set up in distinct blocks and offering a range of products from books and housewares to women's traditional Indian clothing, GK One is also the home of my favorite restaurant in all of New Delhi, Zaffran in Kasbah. Although it wasn't open that afternoon, I brought Max and his colleagues for dinner that evening, and sitting in a fully air-conditioned faux-garden amongst rich, fat Punjabi businessmen, we had a delicious meal of all the good things Northern Indian cuisine has to offer. It was the first real Indian meal I had eaten since arriving in India, and it did not disappoint.
In the days ahead, I would come to know Delhi much better, exploring its landscape of domes, its open gutters, and the intoxicating views through many a filigree lattice. Delhi, and India more generally, is an anarchy, it is a press of people, and it does stifle with all of its fumes and spices, but there are riches among the horrors. It just takes time and patience to learn them.
**quotes from Dalrymple's City of Djinns