Sunday, March 10, 2013

Delhi: From Snake Charmers to Call Centers...

...in one generation.  Actually the only snake charmer we saw was in Varanassi.  On a really narrow street.  Lots of squealing and hugging the opposite wall as we went by.


New Delhi is a shock - wide straight streets, landscaped medians and flowery round-abouts.  Grassy parks and tree-lined boulevards.  Neat, clean, spacious, an English dream of order courtesy of Edwin Lutyens, Gertrude Jekyll's design partner.  She invented what we know as the English garden; he invented New Delhi.  At least the new New Delhi.  No trash, no beggars, no one living on the street.

This has been the capitol off and on for five thousand years.  Between 1192 and 1947 it was built and destroyed 7 times, most recently by the British when they bulldozed what was here and rebuilt it as New Delhi.

There are 17 million people here.  A thousand more arrive every day.  The mind boggles.  Rekha, our fabulous city guide, (rekhamehra@yahoo.com in case you're going - she's the best!) tells us "When the British left, Delhi was deserted.  The people who have moved here since then are hard working, not squatting and watching life pass them by."  We can tell.

"India is a rich country inhabited by poor people," she says.  "There are 300 thousand people with not enough to eat, yet we throw food away.  So what we really have is a distribution problem."

She explains about the Babus, the mid-level government workers.  "They come to work at 11, just in time for their tea break.  After the tea break it is time for lunch, and after lunch, to relax from their stressful day, they play flash poker in the roundabouts.  After poker it is time to go home."  Sounds like mid-level government workers everywhere.

"And we have a rush hour every two hours - every two hours the workers are rushing home."

We drive through the posh neighborhoods, past embassies.  Rekha comments: "And on the left is the embassy of Pakistan, our wonderful neighbor.  And best friends.  Note the barbed wire."  Irony is universal.

"This is our Washington, D.C." Rekha explains.  And the buildings are magnificent.  As we drive past the Parliament buildings there are monkeys in the street, and hanging on the power poles. "Ah yes, Parliament.  Monkeys outside - monkeys inside."

We ask about getting a driver's license.  "They give you a license for one day," Rekha explains.  "And if you survive for a day, you get a proper license.  It's quite an efficient system."  No kidding.

"You may have heard about the many religions of India" she says.   "Actually we have only one religion, and that religion is Cricket.  Without that gentleman's sport, life would end."  We ask about cricket versus Pakistan, and she says "Ah, yes.  Our war games."

We ask about tourism - who comes to India?  She says "There is a huge business in medical tourism.  People come here for all kinds of surgeries, but especially face lifts.   When you go home, your friends will say 'My Dear, you look ten years younger!' and what better advertisement is there for India?"

Didn't get one.  Just in case you can't tell.

The Sunday paper is filled with matrimonial ads - 90% of marriages are still arranged.  We have pre-nups, they have horoscopes.  You have to consult an astrologer and check the horoscopes - no match, no marriage.  But if the families are determined, a little money changes hands, and suddenly the horoscopes match!   What a surprise.

Hindu weddings last at least four days, and on the final day, the groom rides in on a white horse.  Rekha says "The biggest surprise of your life comes in on a white horse decked with marigolds.  When he lifts his flower, it's either 'Yay' or 'Oh My God!'"

There is little divorce here, I suspect because expectations of marriage are different, not because your parents pick better than you do.  But suicide is a problem.  When a couple marries, the bride moves in with her husband's family, and not all in-laws are nice.  Even tho they picked her, sometimes she's treated like dirt.  The guy who's in charge of the crematorium (and the eternal flame that feeds it) in Varanassi is in jail because his daughter-in-law committed suicide, and he and his wife are accused of making her life hell.  And it's a no-bail offense.  Hope he left someone to feed that flame.

The Mughal emperors were muslim, and one of them tore down a Hindu temple and built the first mosque in Delhi.  He recycled some of the stone, so this mosque (long abandoned) is full of square columns decorated with Hindu figures.


There is a tall tower, a very long time ago it was the tallest thing around.  Before Dubai.  

The guy who built the first section died in battle.  His heir built sections two thru four...and died in battle.  Finally some brave guy built the last two sections...and died.


The tower leans, and for a while young couples whose families wouldn't let them marry would climb up and commit suicide by jumping off.  So they passed a rule:  only couples married at least 25 years could climb the tower.  The problem with that was one would push the other off.  So no climbing.

Thru the gates of the old city wall into Old Delhi and we are back in familiar territory.  The wiring is astounding...


...and apparently the cause of many fires.  As the streets are narrow and choked with traffic, the fire department rarely arrives in time.  But I get the impressions there's not much to lose here in Old Delhi.


Old Delhi is mostly Muslim, Rekha tells us, and as we drive thru the butchers' quarter, she points out the goat heads lined up for sale.  "Oh, and a special delicacy," she smiles, pauses:  "Goat liver with flies."  I think I just became a vegetarian.


The Friday mosque, built by Shah Jahan, he of Taj Majal fame.  20,000 people can worship at once.  We have to cover ourselves - they used to allow women in pants, just not shorts.  An Australian woman  in shorts got in an argument with the Mosque guardians, and she finally took the cover-up into the dressing room and came out...in her undies.  Rekhaa says "Many more men come to worship here now, but now we all must cover up."


I don't think you'll be seeing this on the runways any time soon.

We talk about what we will eat when we get home.  Sylvia wants a salad, Lynn wants fresh fruit Greg wins with "I want a grease feast!"  Hamburger and fries.

Jeannie has a list of the best restaurants in Delhi; one is called Dum Pukht.  I want to go just for the matchbook.  And the menu, so I can frame it and hang it.

We have a fabulous last dinner at Varq, (pronounced work) in the Taj hotel.  Off to bed, off to home.  I was less than enthusiastic about coming; I'm so glad I did!




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