Delhi, National Geographic Traveller (UK)

Nat Geo DelhiMy piece on my relationship(s) with Delhi will appear in the January issue of National Geographic Traveller UK. You can read it in advance here.

Otherwise here’s the text:

When I was posted to Delhi in the mid-1990s it was a sleepy, parochial backwater.  There were no imported cars, and the Ambassador, which was modelled on the post-war Oxford Morris, still ruled the roads.  Non-Indian restaurants were few and far between.  If you wanted a change from chicken tikka and dosas, you invariably ended up in one of the luxury hotels, or Rodeo, a Mexican joint where the Indian waiters were an incongruous site in Stetsons and the enchiladas were essentially rotis rolled into wraps.  The city’s cultural life was equally limited.  Jaded intelligentsia gathered regularly at the same old cultural centres where the staid atmosphere was indicative of the malaise that gripped the country.

Still, there was plenty for me to explore.  Delhi’s history is unparalleled, dating back at least two and a half millennia.  British ‘New’ Delhi, which became the capital in 1911, is but its eighth avatar. The landscape is dotted with the domes, battlements and mausoleums of conquerors, emperors and saints.  During time off from work as a journalist, I would take long walks along the leafy avenues of this former colonial capital, with its whitewashed bungalows and columned edifices.  I would root around in ‘Old’ Delhi, the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s walled citadel with its magnificent Red Fort standing sentinel over a warren of frenetic bazaars. And I will never forget the first time I visited the colossal red sandstone tomb of the Emperor Humayun and was mesmerised by its calming symmetry.

But I didn’t feel any great emotional connection to Delhi.  And had a certain Indian-American woman not walked into my office one afternoon, I doubt I would have remained beyond the length of my employment contract.

Anu was 23 at the time with short black hair, dark, intelligent eyes, and a playful, beguiling laugh. It wasn’t long before I found myself hopelessly in love. Suddenly Delhi was a special place – our place.  Riding in the back of three-wheeled auto rickshaws was no longer a tedious, bone-rattling experience, but one softened by entwined fingers and whispered sweet nothings.  We would spend afternoons lolling on the lawns between the 13th century tombs in Lodi Gardens; eat bathure chhole and gulab jamuns at Nathu’s in Bengali Market; and although the cinemas generally offered the cheesiest Hollywood and Bollywood had to offer, it no longer mattered just as long as we could secure two quiet seats together.

I had a flat in one of Delhi’s posher areas, but started spending all my free time at her pad in Amar Colony, a busy, congested quarter inhabited by boisterous Punjabis.  On our first Holi, the spring festival, we spent the day fighting with water balloons and packets of powdered colour out on the street along with all the neighbours.  On Diwali, when the place erupted with fireworks and diyas appeared on balconies and in doorways, the landlady invited us in for chilli pakoras and spicy green chutney, and we played cards with her extended family late into the night. I attended engagements, weddings and even the odd funeral.  And gradually, with Anu as my guide, I came to appreciate – even relish – what north Indians refer to as tamasha, the unending chaos and spectacle of the place.

Delhi is where I proposed marriage (in a private dinning room in the Oberoi hotel); it’s where we eloped (secretly before a disapproving judge and two cuffed local thieves); and where we are now raising our two children.  It’s also where I’ve set a series of novels starring a Punjabi detective whose resemblance to some of Anu’s uncles is by no means coincidental.

Since our courtship and the reforms to the economy, India’s capital has experienced rapid change.  Its population has more than doubled.  Its concrete sprawl of suburbs have grown exponentially with clusters of office towers, apartment blocks and metro lines marching out into the retreating farmland.  Every day, thousands of people pour in from rural India searching for work. For every new golf course, there is a slum to match it in size, if not allure.  The Ambassador is now an endangered species, replaced by plenty of Toyotas and even the odd Ferrari.

For the vast majority of the city’s inhabitants, life is complex and tough. Corruption and sheer negligence make living in Delhi often frustrating, sometimes dangerous.  But there’s nowhere I would rather be.  Asia is resurgent and I wouldn’t miss this show for the world.  Besides, as a mystery writer, there’s always something new to discover: from Kathputhli, an entire neighbourhood inhabited by street magicians, to the new microbreweries of Gurgaon.  And just occasionally, when we want a break from the kids, the power cuts or the maddening bureaucracy, Anu and I can always jump in an auto-rickshaw and hold hands all the way to Lodi gardens.

© Tarquin Hall, 2103

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3 Responses to Delhi, National Geographic Traveller (UK)

  1. emma kaye December 23, 2013 at 2:38 pm #

    Did you really time travel and write this piece in 2103? Sorry, but I am cursed with an eye for typos. Otherwise excellent background and I always listen to Vish Puri – either as a book on CD or iPod downloaded from the library!

  2. Dan Connerton January 5, 2014 at 2:13 pm #

    Hello Tarquin,
    I teach Asian history and culture at the university level and greatly enjoy your novels and the work you put into them. But what puzzles me is that your criticisms are so frank, so cutting, and so true, that I can’t imagine what Indians think of your work. I gather they like it–but why? I can’t imagine that the India Tourist Board promotes your work! Personally I am both amused and depressed by your observations. There is a tension in the books (and India) I find hard to live with.
    Dan

    PS: I also enjoy your blog and the work of your wife, Anu.

  3. Bharathy January 17, 2014 at 4:31 pm #

    I just finished reading your book, The case of the love commandos. I loved it! Thanks for creating Vish Puri and his family & staff of employees. I love them all especially Mummyji.
    I really appreciate the fact that you depict the real India and manage to not make me feel as bitter as I always feel about India. I don’t know how you managed the miracle of depicting the real and ugly India, without repelling me (as I often am by India). I think the humour and good people in your book balance out the typical ugliness of corruption and crime in India.
    I hope you continue writing these books and I pray that these books propel India and Indians towards change for the better.
    I am an Indian who often hates India and Indians; So I think your wife must be a really wonderful lady, if she could make you, an outsider, from a first world country embrace India and love it. My best wishes to you and your family!

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