I arrived in Delhi, around mid-morning on a Sunday. The ground temperature we were told was around 26 degrees. But as we came out of the terminal building the air felt as if it was coming from a tumble dryer. Hot and dry.
The first thing, which struck me, was that I was just a shadow of my husband!
Everyone addressed me through him. “Would Madam like to sit in the back” the driver asked him. And when I replied he still looked at my husband for approval before opening the door of the car.
Otherwise a woman is never invisible in India. Indian men are testosterone laden creatures, give every female form the once going over, a kind of visual strip search, before moving onto the next victim. They walk with a swagger, a kind of am the king of the castle attitude.
At my age, it is a bonus if someone looks at you, and I was congratulating myself for that effort I have been making with the anti-aging crmes. But after about a day or so it was getting to me. And by the end of the visit I was sick of it.
We have for the first time in our lives (and for the last) allowed a local travel agent to organise the whole trip, we had an air-conditioned car with driver and a guide at our disposal, throughout our stay. So every hour of the day was accounted for.
We were visiting five cities in sixteen days, and had to take in the history of thousands of years.
Delhi has a haze which hangs over it .It is locally known as the smog. For some years the traffic has increased with alarming speed and the resulting pollution hangs in the air. Causing watery eyes, breathing difficulties and wheezing. It is reported that every day one thousand cars are added to the streets of Delhi. When we arrived it was the Hindu festival of Diwali, when it is a religious requirement to shop for new clothes and jewellery. So the streets of the city were impassable .The Times of India reported that ten-minute journeys were taking three hours. We ventured out of hotel on foot, only to be confronted by just row upon rows of cars. No one keeps to any side of the road. Every inch of the road is utilised as every car fights its way out by squeezing in the gap. It is quite frightening to just see a sea of cars. We quickly retreated to the relative safety of our hotel.
The hotel was packed with European tourists, bussed in huge air-conditioned coaches. So indoors it felt as if we were in a European city.
The guides and drivers are on commission from various businesses and shops, to steer the hapless tourist into their premises. Once they are in the pressure is quite relentless to purchase. Though I dressed in traditional Indian clothes and we both spoke fluent Hindi, we were not exempt from this. We were taken to a “tea shop”, which the driver said sold some fine tea. Once in, we were offered some tasting and then the lady with the most persistent sales pitch proceeded to suggest various types. Not once mentioning prices.
Thinking that after all it was only loose tea, I opted for a few ounces of flavours. When the bill was made it came to Rs.20 000. Nearly two thousand pounds! I have never imagined tea could be that expensive! We have to decline and just settled for a few, even that came to nearly fifty pounds. It was an important lesson in understanding an organised and relentless sales tactic
From Delhi we proceeded to Agra by car. A journey, which took five hours, on the crowded and chaotic roads. You cant even stop at will on a roadside convenience, as the drivers have their regular stops. The ones who sell touristy goods, and pay them commission to the driver just for bringing the customer in.
Agra of course is the home of the world famous Taj Mahal. I too have seen countless pictures of it, but nothing can truly recapture its splendour. You walk through this long path before coming into a dark stone chamber; it is built on the concept of a veil for a beautiful face. It is meant to enhance its beauty. You come in and through the arched doorway you have the first glimpse of the Taj. I have heard that good art makes people cry. Not being an art lover, I have never experienced this. But I gasped, and tears started to roll down as I caught the first glimpse. I have never seen such serene and yet imposing beauty.
It is made of a special marble, which is translucent. So after four hundred years since it was built, it still stands looking as pure and wonderful, as the day it was built. Taking in the moods of the sun and the moon and reflects them. Taking on a pink hue at sunset, a bluish tinge at dusk and a silvery magnificence in moonlight. I was glad I had seen it, one of the must things to do before you die.
From Agra we went to Jaipur by car, Udaipur by train and flew to Jodhpur. Before taking a train to Mumbai, (never again) before flying home.
Jaipur and Jodhpur were the seats of power of Hindu Maharajas, where as Delhi and Agra have always been ruled by the Muslim kings.
They all are full of ruins and Forts. By the time I got to Jodhpur, I couldn’t tell the difference between any of them, and frankly I couldn’t care. The travel agencies, to justify their charges include every nook and cranny, which looks old. You get a good idea of the lavish and splendid lifestyle of these rulers, by the time you have seen the few main buildings. The rest is more of the same.
Udaipur though was an exception, though teeming with very rich non-resident Indians and equally rich Americans. All the hotels are very expensive. And cater for very expensive Indo American weddings. I heard an Indian mother of the bride say rather apologetically, that since her daughter was born in America, she has decided to marry an American! She sighed loudly before adding that it was a nightmare trying to arrange a banquet where they have to cater for both Hindu and American culture.
Udaipur is surrounded by a lake and is cool and clean. The James Bond movie “Octopussy” was filmed here. This is the lake, the guide told us, where Ursula Andrews emerges from the water. My husband looked hopefully towards the waters hoping there might be a repeat performance!!
The journey from our last destination to Mumbai was by train. The alleged air-conditioned two tier sleeping compartments are in reality sealed over crowded cubbyholes. Where the air conditioning doesn’t work and the windows don’t open. There are resident mice, which scuttle past you looking for food, and the toilet is a very low hole in ground. Which reeks
Going back to India as a tourist and talking and listening to the poor and the neglected as well as the mega rich in their own language I learnt a lot. Am impressed and appalled in equal measures. Life is hard in India. There is progress, education is freely available. There are State run schools which are standing empty. No teacher wants to work there and no one wants to send their children to those schools. There is a massive growth in private schools and everyone works and takes bribes to afford them. There are so many qualified doctors that every street has a clinic. They compete to survive, ordering tests and prescribing drugs not needed. The dispensing chemists offer them a regular share in sales. The same is true of law graduates. You can bargain, am told, and there are at least one dozen to choose from at any given time. The result is a constant battle for survival. And as the hotel driver said to me, no one can survive on salary alone, so they have to have bribes. And this, he said is why the police don’t control the traffic. They want people to make mistakes and pay for it.
I was also impressed and touched by some ordinary people I met. The old man who was selling Garnet necklaces by the roadside, made by his family. And asking a realistic price. I saw the same being sold in a shop for about 200% more. And the softly spoken young Coolie who carried our luggage to the train. He was so well spoken and mannered, that he left me humbled and full of respect for him and the way he was brought up. There was unforgettable honesty and self respect in those men.
So we arrived back on Monday evening. After landing an hour late, the pilot could not park the plane, as a truck was parked in its way. While we all sat belted and upright for half an hour, before the driver could be traced and the truck moved!
I was Home.