Let me say at the outset that this message comes to you courtesy of one and a half cheese masala dosas and the most enormous vanilla-enriched cold coffee milkshake I’ve ever consumed – that too, at nine pm in a country that doesn’t quite see the point of decaf! But after the day that Katy and I have just survived, I will confess to savouring every miniscule caffeinated jolt of that delicious concoction. I never thought I’d say this, but who needs beer when you can have a milkshake like this at the end of a long, hot day of “doing India”?
I can just imagine the look of horror on your face as you read that beer comment…Don’t worry, there’s some distance to travel before I turn teetotal, but I fear that this trip is changing me in mysterious ways. For example, while vegetarianism has never really appealed to me before, I am now perilously near to being seduced into the belief that this could be a viable lifestyle for me.
Part of this vegetarian wanna-be(haviour) on my part can of course be attributed to the amazing variety of non-sentient – or more accurately, “never were sentient” – items that make up the gastronomic final frontier in the Indian restaurants that the two of us have been exploring. Furthermore, after today’s experience, I’m convinced that dosas must be the ultimate comfort food, specially designed for the spicily-inclined. I mean, how can you go wrong with a deceptively feather-light wrapping of paper-thin savoury pastry deep-fried and filled with deliciously seasoned potatoes, with a little chopped carrot and a few peas thrown in as a nod to healthy eating?! The generous amount of cheese lining the inside of my dosa really put the comfort into this bout of comfort eating.
The day started well, since Katy and I were both determined to get in as much activity as possible before the melting caramel haze of the intense afternoon heat seeped into our bones and sapped our determination to make the most of this two-week break in northern India. We should have known better, I suppose, than to arrive in Delhi at what is still the height of summer. I think the autumnal shades of early September in London had lulled us both into believing that India would just be a warmer version of what we were in such a hurry to leave behind.
I have a confession to make. Although – as you know – I was born across India’s faraway eastern border, in Bangladesh, the many intervening years spent studying and working in Britain have left me completely disoriented in terms of how the subcontinent functions, from its weather patterns to the vagaries of public transport and the eccentric characters one invariably encounters in the course of travelling. And while that wouldn’t be considered an acceptable excuse by any of my South Asian brethren, the truth is I have more than once on this trip found myself experiencing the peculiar disorientation of a brown foreigner; the situation isn’t helped by the fact that I’m female, and expected to conform to certain codes of behaviour.
My Hindi (which is the closest that northern India comes to having a lingua franca) is a lot worse than rusty; it’s more like fossilised, based as it is almost entirely on a childhood diet of occasional Bollywood movies and a few family vacations. Needless to say, on the latter occasions, I at least had the luxury of relying on my parents, who both grew up under the British Raj and are fluent in Hindi. Unlike theirs, my Hindi is in such appalling shape that an Indian friend in London had warned Katy that she mustn’t rely on my non-existent communication skills. “I don’t know what language Farah’s speaking, but it’s certainly not Hindi!” she’d said, laughingly dismissing my halting attempts to articulate a few basic sentences.
In some ways, this trip has been a lot simpler for Katy – as a white English woman who speaks only her mother tongue, she has nothing to prove; she can, without embarrassment, explain away almost any faux pas on her legitimately alien status. She also benefits from the fact that the rules are different for “real foreigners”, particularly where gender issues are concerned. However odd the average South Asian on the street might consider social and sexual mores in the West where women are concerned (widespread acceptance of premarital sex, multiple partners over a lifetime, alcohol consumption, the use of “provocative” clothing etc), it allows Western women a degree of leeway when they’re travelling in this part of the world; though they are likely to encounter the occasional unpleasant stereotype of being perceived as “loose white women”. Nevertheless, the situation is probably easier for them than it is for an Indian looking-woman who looks, sounds or behaves differently from what is expected. As I have discovered to my considerable irritation!
Anyway, getting back to the language issue, we have by and large managed quite well. Fortunately, most of the Indians we’ve interacted with to date have spoken enough English to render my unintelligible linguistic efforts pretty much redundant. That is, until today.
We’d spent the morning visiting old Delhi, especially the area around the Red Fort. The architecture dates back to the Mughal period of Muslim rule in northern India, and the building style is a wonderful melange of arched entranceways; spacious apartments reaching up to touch soaring, domed ceilings; and manicured gardens full of colourful blossoms and verdant plant life, complemented by the luminous blades of emerald-green grass that spring forth from every inch of ground.
As usual, we encountered some young guys who wanted to practice their English language skills on us. Actually, I mind less when it’s their English that these ubiquitous groups of men want to practice, rather than cheesy pickup lines – which is quite often the case! My looks are considered fairly run-of-the-mill here, particularly since there is no dearth of gorgeous Indian women. But Katy’s dark colouring combined with a peaches and cream complexion is distinctly more exotic, and a combination that many find attractive.
Tired of negotiating this particular gauntlet, an inspired Katy decided to deny her British heritage in order to avoid the stilted conversation that was likely to follow. In response to the inevitable “Where are you from, sister?” query, she replied, briefly and without batting an eyelid, “Norway”.
The conversation that followed didn’t quite go according to script. In amazement, a couple of them cried out – “Nowhere?! How can you be from nowhere?”
I stepped in to clarify, saying “She doesn’t speak much English. She is from Norway – not from ‘nowhere’. Do you know it, N-O-R-W-A-Y?”
“Oh yes, we know Norway” one of the men responded gamely. He proceeded to respond in kind, “And we are from India – I-N-D-I-A”! They were good sports and didn’t pester us further, so we humoured their request and ended up in one of the group photos that is so close to the South Asian male heart, before moving on.
Dipping into some of the souvenir shops near the entrance of the Red Fort, we emerged with small treasures: sets of beautifully-made glass animals in swirling shades of red, green, blue, yellow and black, ranging from the more familiar standard dimensions to the fingernail-sized versions, rendered to perfection in each instance; intricately embroidered cloth wallets and purses; carved wooden miniature chess sets; white marble inlaid with jewel-coloured patterns of flowers and geometric shapes to create boxes of various shapes and sizes, reminiscent of the Taj Mahal marble work; and Katy’s favourite, small red seeds that had been hollowed out and filled with fragments of bone, miraculously carved into tiny animal shapes and clearly visible through a magnifying glass.
After a respectable afternoon siesta, we re-emerged from our hotel room to venture into the crowded alleyways of Delhi West in search of the famous restaurant, Karim’s. Although there was a larger-than-average youthful male presence in the alleys, I felt I was on familiar ground. This place has always been a Ghuznavi family favourite, though I haven’t been there in almost 15 years. In the end, I managed to locate the restaurant, and we laid to rest (or so I thought at the time) the possibility of a vegetarian lifestyle once and for all.
What followed was an orgy of grilled meats, kebabs on a skewer – and so that Katy could prove her ‘adventure traveller’ credentials, a surprisingly delicious dish of sheep’s brain masala – helped down by a selection of rotis, breads of various types and textures. A minor detour for the mandatory paan followed; this betel leaf and chopped betel nut confection is garnished with a white paste that’s notorious for providing a narcotic kick to the senses. It’s highly addictive, and side-effects include a tendency to produce copious quantities of scarlet spit. Neither of us managed to keep it in our mouths long enough to experience the latter; it’s definitely an acquired taste!
Deciding to work off some of the gluttonous calories we’d absorbed, we took a brief tour around the nearby shrine of Nizamuddin, which is the mausoleum of the Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya. The Sufis belong to a Muslim sect that takes a distinctly “peace and love” approach to all religions, and indeed humanity as a whole, emphasising spirituality and co-existence. The place attracts people of all faiths, and has a wonderful atmosphere of calm despite the crowds that make their way there to worship. This shrine also featured in the highly controversial film “Fire” where the lesbian protagonists find refuge after escaping domestic violence. We passed a couple of peaceful hours just people-watching and drinking in the atmosphere there, before making our way back to the main road.
I would like to blame what happened next on the narcotic in the paan, but that wouldn’t be fair since we’d both spat out the mangled green concoction into the nearest rubbish bin. I had once again let down my origins by doing so with unbecoming speed, even faster than Katy managed to get rid of hers. But I think that the sinful indulgence of that meat-heavy meal may have had something to do with lulling us into a stupor of sorts. Or maybe we were just blissed-out by our time at the shrine. Anyway, we climbed into one of the three-wheeled motorised scooters that litter the streets of the capital, and I instructed the driver to take us back to our hotel in Jorbagh.
It was only after we’d been riding for some time that I began to get nervous about where we were heading. It seemed to be taking a lot longer to get back than it had on the ride out. A couple of times, I reminded the driver that we wanted to go to Jorbagh. He nodded his head rhythmically back and forth in that uniquely Indian way that was presumably meant to be reassuring. But when we began once again driving away from the centre of the city into what looked like its outskirts, I could no longer dismiss my increasing sense of anxiety.
We didn’t have to wait much longer for enlightenment of a decidedly non-Sufi nature. Bringing the scooter to a screeching halt on the side of a dusty road in the midst of completely unfamiliar surroundings, the driver indicated that we had arrived. The question was: where were we?! The place appeared to be some kind of industrial suburb, with no sign of any tourist accommodation in sight.
Upon enquiry, the driver informed us that we were now in Karolbagh (which he pronounced to rhyme with our original destination, Jorbagh, as “Krorebagh”). If we now wanted to go to Jorbagh – which we should have told him in the first place, he asserted – it would cost us an extra 100 rupees!
I was outraged. It was the most obvious form of extortion. Clearly he had taken us both for idiotic foreigners who had no idea where they were. The fact that he was partially right didn’t make it any easier to swallow. And it certainly didn’t help that we were young women! Dressed in casual Western clothing, we were by no means clad revealingly, but it made no difference. The mostly male passers-by began to stare at us with somewhat aggressive curiosity, since it was perfectly clear that we didn’t belong there. With twilight fading into rapidly-descending night, and no other scooters or taxis to be seen, I didn’t give much for our chances of finding our way home alone.
Katy stood by the roadside, looking paler and more foreign by the minute, urging me to pay the man whatever he wanted to take us back to Jorbagh. But I’d had enough of being the vulnerable alien female. It’s possible he would have done this to a male foreigner as well, but there was something distinctly threatening about being women in such rough surroundings at that time of the evening. It made me angry and I began arguing with him in my appallingly fractured Hindi instead of handing over the money. He was taken aback, perhaps not having expected much resistance from a couple of women stuck in an isolated location.
It went on for several minutes; and it felt like a lot longer. To be honest, I’m not sure what I actually said to him, but perhaps my tone said it all – his certainly spoke volumes! In the end, he agreed to take us back for a mere 20 rupees extra. Hiding my relief, I scrambled back into the scooter with poor Katy, who was badly shaken, deprived of even the limited relief of an adrenaline surge born out of righteous indignation.
In less than 15 minutes, we were back in the blessedly familiar environs of Jorbagh. Our scooter driver drove off in a huff, hurling a few choice swear words in my direction as he went. He had understandably expected a better return on his scam than a mere 20 rupees. But I couldn’t have cared less. We were home safely – and surprisingly, the alternating surges of anger and terror (in my case) and unrelieved terror (in Katy’s case) had left us ferociously hungry once again.
Heading for our favourite vegetarian restaurant in nearby Khan Market seemed an apt way to celebrate our deliverance. And the cherry to top off the whipped cream on my delicious drink came in the form of Katy’s comment, uttered with unmistakably heartfelt sincerity: “I don’t care what anyone says about your Hindi, Farah – that scooter driver certainly understood what you were saying!”
So it all ended well; we survived our traveller’s rite of passage and have already started laughing about it. And on that happy note, I will leave you for this evening. The last bit of my masala dosa awaits my attention, and I’m contemplating dessert…Hoping for an update from your end soon -