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Posts Tagged ‘Delhi’

We drove around slowly looking every building up and down for some clue to the past. Twenty years is a long time in any Indian city to hope that traces of a particular taxi stand would still exist.

You see, we were on a literary adventure of sorts. I mentioned in my last post that my dad had become particularly enamored with a book about Delhi called City of Djinns (I’m now mostly through it and I really can’t put it down). While the book mostly focuses on Delhi’s history during the Mughal Empire it is sprinkled with stories of the writer’s present day experience. Woven through the book are stories of the various people he encountered including Balvinder Singh, a lothario taxi driver who provides humor and perspective to the story (My dad’s favorite line: ‘May your mustache never turn gray!”). He quickly became my dad’s favorite character.

And so he decided that we must find Balvinder Singh.

The magnificant Humayun's Tomb

The book was published in 1993 but the author’s year in Delhi was 1989, so I thought this was a bit of a fools errand. Beyond that, the only locational clue we had was that the taxi stand was at the back of the International Center (which gave the taxi stand its unintentionally hilarious name, ‘International Backside Taxis’). We’d spent the majority of our day in Delhi going to the main tourist sights: the Red Fort, Jama Masjid and Humayan’s tomb. And each one was spectacular and breathtaking. But after every stop my dad would say, “Ok, but lets not forget we have to find International Backside.”

A view of the Red Fort

So finally, as the day wore down and we were headed back to the hotel, we decided to give it a shot. Maybe Balvinder Singh and his father Punjab Singh were still running their business with the rest of the Singh family?  My dad thought that since the book had given us so much depth to the historical sights we were seeing – allowing us to imagine the feel of each place during its time of Emperors and great architecture, war and prosperity – we should also want to give life to the details of the modern elements of the book.

As we drove around we finally spotted the International Center; it felt like a large victory until we realized that there didn’t appear to be a ‘backside’. We took a left and then another left to see if there was anything on the other side – in this particular area of Delhi the blocks stretched on and as we drove around I started to get the sense that maybe the whole area had been changed too much. Maybe one of the beautiful bungalows we were looking at had required razing the local taxi stand to the ground. We came back around the corner, deciding that we would stop into the International Center and show them the book to see if they knew anything. But as soon as we had made this new plan, my dad suddenly shouted out: “Stop, stop! There’s a taxi stand, look!”

I couldn’t believe it – down a very small gravelly alleyway, in the midst of a posh road in Delhi was a small line of old black and yellow Ambassador taxis with a group of Sikh men sitting around on stools drinking chai. We stopped the car and my dad jumped out.  He opened his book to a page detailing Balvinder Singh and held it up to one of the men, who had stood up and walked over in his curiosity. Our driver (who probably thought we were crazy) got out to translate. They talked animatedly until the man nodded his head and walked away.

Showing the book

He came back with another older man, who spoke a bit of English. He wore a bright orange turban and was missing most of his front teeth.

“You are looking for a Singh?” he asked. My dad explained about the book and that Balvinder and his father Punjab were characters. The man squinted and looked at the pages of the book, as though some person was going to spring to life right out of its type. He laughed.

“Very interesting this book!,” he replied, indicating that he was well aware of the Singh family. And he had an update on everyone.

Dad and his many new friends

“Punjab is died three months ago. Very sad. Balvinder moving to Canada about ten years ago. The other Singh brothers is now driving taxis in South Delhi. But they used to be working right here.”

I was astonished. We may not have been able to meet the Singhs, but we were able to extricate them from the page – we saw with our own eyes the taxi stand described so frequently in our newly beloved book and we had a twenty-year-later update on a family that until moments ago remained vaguely fictional.

My dad and the man continued to try and chat – talking about chai, their ages and Ambassador cars. Eventually we said thank you, shook every single cab driver’s hand, and got back in the car.

I don’t know why it was so thrilling – perhaps being able to bring to life a person from a book that had so effectively brought old Delhi to life made everything we had read seem so much more tangible. If Balvinder Singh could be real, couldn’t I better picture Shah Jehan listening to an audience of subjects in the Red Fort? Or perhaps even trapped in the Agra Fort by his bloodthirsty son Aurangzeb?  Could I suspend my imagination and see Chandni Chowk with elephants strolling down its length and shopkeepers selling their wares at a time when the buildings looked new and fresh?

It was just a small slice of Delhi – and yet for us, the city seemed a little bit more knowable.

 

(Addendum: A lot of people have written and asked how my mom is feeling after her sojourn with Delhi belly: She is completely fine now! Back to her old self and enjoying the rest of the trip)

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In India you always have to take the good with the bad. It’s part of the experience. So I suppose it’s only fitting for my parents that one day after seeing the Taj Mahal they’ve come down with a case of Delhi belly.
 

The 'Great Gate' at sunrise

We woke up yesterday at 5:30am to get ready to see the Taj Mahal at sunrise. It’s a strange feeling anticipating seeing a monument that you can picture so well without ever having laid eyes on it. There’s only a few places in the world like that: the Eiffel Tower. The pyramids of Egypt. The Chrysler Building. And of course the Taj Mahal. Part of the joy of India is that you usually don’t even have a concept of what to expect. But this is an entirely different scenario.

 
We arrived at the ticket counter and hurriedly purchased tickets before taking a trolley-like vehicle up to the South Gate (regular cars aren’t allowed within a certain radius of the Taj because of the pollution). We waited in separate security lines for men and women and my mom and I huddled together to try and minimize the chill from the pre-dawn air. As we stood in line waiting to be searched and prodded I watched as the sun slowly began to rise. I kept expecting to see a glimpse of the Taj every time I stepped forward but it was hiding from the gazes of all the tourists waiting in line.
 

The Taj in the morning fog

When we finally got through the gate we had to go through a magnificent sandstone arch and then… there it was. It wasn’t yet its magnificent white color due to the hazy morning light. It was almost gloomy, towering over us as the sun began to peek out in the distance. And it was beautiful. It seemed almost like a postcard or a mirage – it was so new and yet so incredibly familiar. We took the many requisite photos as we walked closer and closer and as the rising sun made the marble gleam whiter and whiter.

 

All of us in front of the Taj Mahal

Close-up of calligraphy and inlaid stones

When we finally reached the steps the sun was high and we made our way up close. From every angle it was beautiful – immaculate marble everywhere you turned, Arabic carved in delicate black calligraphy four inches deep into the stone, semi-precious stones were inlaid into the marble that fanned out into flowers and vines. We looked from the front, from inside, from the back, from inside the neighboring ‘guest-house’. I just couldn’t stop looking at it. Maybe it was the actual beauty or maybe it was seeing the legend up close, but I certainly was not longer tired from my early wake-up.

Me and the Taj

One common sight driving in India

We let the memory sink in as we drove the long drive to Delhi. The highways of rural Uttar Pradesh are a stream of different Indias. Farmlands of wheat give way to dusty smoggy towns. Huge goods carriers swerve around camels pulling carts loaded with goods. I haven’t minded the drives because there’s always something to look at.

 
But after settling in to Delhi, eating dinner at our hotel, and going to bed I woke up with some bad news – my mom was sick. She hadn’t eaten anything questionable (no roadside food, no salads, no water from a tap) but she had a case of the notorious Delhi belly. One day after India gave her the gift of marveling at its beautiful architecture it had struck her down with its just as renowned stomach problems. My Dad wasn’t feeling great but he was excited to sightsee, so we let my mom sleep and we decided to venture out into Old Delhi
 
My dad has been reading a book called City of Djinns (thank you to Daniel’s parents for giving it!) which is William Dalrymple’s memoir of his year living in and exploring the history of Delhi while trying to find the  remnants of the Moghul and British culture and architecture. My dad really wanted to find some of the places mentioned in the book (not normally on the tourist trail) and we set out to see if we too could spot the old architecture and charm amidst the chaos of the old city.
 

A ride down the street

We haggled a price with a bicycle rickshaw driver and made our way up Chandni Chowk and then turned down a narrow road. It was like stepping back in time- on this road bicycle rickshaws, men pushing large hand-carts, vegetable-wallahs, cows, people carrying goods on horses and pedestrians made their way slowly along the road, past crumbling old shops with dirty retro signs. Monkeys climbed along the balconies. The electricity and telephone wires were a jumbled mess above and even motorcycles were few and far between. It was odd to watch the street-life pass by as we sat in our rickshaw, slowly meandering through the very dense traffic. And it was so different to the India I know in Mumbai.

 

A monkey making his way in Old Delhi

When we came to the end of the road we found what we’d been looking for: Turkman Gate, one of the old major gates to the city walls. It was like crashing out of an old city into a new one- once you stepped past the gate the narrow ancient lane morphed into a modern highway. Next to the gate was the Delhi Stock Exchange. You couldn’t come out of time travel faster if you tried. It was a shock.
 

Where we bought some extra medicine...

But the more difficult shock was that my dad had slowly started to feel bad as well. We headed back to the hotel, disappointed that Delhi belly had claimed another victim.

 
They’re resting now and my fingers are crossed that their illness is the food poisoning it appears to be – usually these things don’t last more than 24 hours. It would be a shame to miss seeing the highlights of Delhi, even is some would argue that the illness might also be an ‘Indian highlight’. We’ll see tomorrow!

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