Delhi is hell. It is hot. It hits one in the face like the exhaust pipe of a long-haul trailer spewing thick blackness into a pristine sky. It smells like ruin.
The impression is delayed, of course, as the city puts one its best feet forward at first. The sparkling, new T3 at Indira Gandhi International—the second largest air terminal in the world, they point out with great pride—greets arrivals with four giant gold hands in lotus positions, and a shining, gleaming, blazing white expanse of an epic duty free. It all feels very proper and clean. But as one exits through the swish of sliding glass to a throbbing mass of hired drivers and calls for taxi, taxi, taxi, one first smells the flaming soot. The sweet burn of wood and diesel. The Delhi bonfire. And yet, the pulse races because this is it, the most foreign of foreign places. It is the rush of unknown possibilities.
Misters! Misters! Here please, yes! and suddenly we are in a car. We are being bounced from one side of the road to the other. Horns blare. Lights flash. The roads grow narrower and more crowded and the whole mass of traffic moves faster. Buildings zip past, haphazardly stacked on top of one another so that one concrete block looks as though it has tripped over another.
There is Red Fort! Purana Qila, Sir!
A mass of red, Agra sandstone lurks in the distance. We careen and weave until we slam to a dead stop. This is it, sirs, Hotel Tara Palace. There is a bonfire—an actual bonfire—of trash and books its appears. Emaciated children scamper off into the tight, unlit alleys, beyond this main road. Goats chew through knee-high rubbish heaps. Swarms of flies tick the skin—flies at night, I think. The smell of propane and burnt milk; the blaring horns; ringing bicycle bells; white eyes in brown faces glued to the to white bodies of the men who’ve just stepped out of a cab and into the crumbling, choked bazaar known as Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi.
We will be shoved and beckoned, Sir, please, you come look, you like, as we are pushed from behind for the sin of stopping, or run off of the crumbling sidewalk porticoes to hop like froggert across the choked boulevard through a broken iron fence to the other side in search of the liquor stand. We will be surrounded by a pack of screaming children putting stickers on us, clasping and unclasping their hands for money. We will be scolded in Urdu or Hindi or Punjabi for letting them do this.
On the Rajpath a parade-route boulevard connecting the houses of Lok Sabha, or Parliament, with the massive triumphal arch of India Gate, a man with a wicker basket will stop us—Sir! Sir! Please, you have look. Look! Look!—as he dashes the basket to the ground so that a hooded cobra springs up hissing and bobbing in the dusty, gold afternoon. Three transsexuals might walk by, giggling in their saris and heavy makeup. They are considered mystics here, or something like mild witches. They are hired for weddings to say prayers and tell fortunes and are known to aggressively solicit money for services, wanted or not. They might bee-line for us.
Sir, sir, where are you going? Says the rickshaw driver
Sir, that is such and such road. You are looking for such and such other road, says the nice, paunchy, balding man in a crisp oxford shirt. I am just helping you with your going. You go this way for nice pashminas, saris, ali baba pants. The ticket off is this way. I can take you. He follows and follows and finally gives up.
Packed like sardines against the window of the metro. The shoving in and out at the same time. Elbows. Forearms.
The way it costs different for Indians and for us—for soda, for sites of archeological significance, for rickshaws, and water and anything.
The way it made him never want to come back.
The way I swore I never would either.
Backpacker ghetto. Paharganj. Just west of the train station which is really an open-air sleeping facility for anyone in transit or not. Whole families pile on top of themselves and on top of their belongings. Everything seems held together by tarp and string. It is six months later and I’ve returned, telling myself that I have unfinished business with India. It harbors secrets. It made me run to quickly. I must know why.
This way, sir.
I will take you to your platform, sir.
That office is closed, sir, I will show you new office.
You need to come this way for that train, sir.
Backpacker ghetto, because this time I’m not staying in Old Delhi and I promise myself that I will only stay in this city as little as possible, and if a night can be avoided I will avoid it, but that can never be the case because everything in India runs through Delhi. So I stay on the cheap in an airless, windowless room in Hotel Cottage Yes Please, a name I love. At least it is clean. At least the air conditioning works. At least is feels separate from the chaos of the bazaar outside where anything bootleg a mind could conjure is for sale.
But they have no rooms on my next pass through Delhi I must find somewhere else, somewhere recommended by a hostel booking website, a website with real and honest reviews according to their banner. Another windowless room, barely fitting a bed. A room up steep, dark, wet stairs with holes in the wall opening onto the stench of the alley and open sewer below. I spend as little time there as possible, afraid to touch anything. I wake in the morning to find a bedbug, dead, surrounded in my blood, having been crushed by my head in the course of the night. I am sure I will have to put everything into plastic bags when I get home. I’ve lived in New York City for nine years. I’ve never seen one and according to the billboard and subway signs there, those fuckers are an epidemic.
Delhi. Damn it.
I haven’t stopped talking about India, so I am back. I’ve collected a holy trinity of visits by now. Ask me why I keep coming back and I have ten thousand answers because I love this place and I hate this place. I think this country has some secret teaching, some small pebble that is the key to setting things straight—me and the thousands of backpackers that stream through T3 every month.
Being back means Delhi. And As I’ve seen enough red sandstone mausoleums and forts and shrines, as I’ve been hassled in the outdoor mall of Connaught Place, as I’ve been jostled amongst every living beast in the world in the strangled, collapsing alleys of Old Delhi, as I’ve tried slumming it with the dreadlocked hippies in Paharganj, I’ve decided to see some new aspect of the city. It’s a neighborhood I’ve heard about and read about, but never seen as it lays way out in the never ending sprawl. Hauz Khas Village—south of the madness, surrounded by trees. Artsy, say the blogs. Hip, writes the Lonely Planet. And what that means is that while it is still India—still a dusty mess of a crumbling road, still concrete blocks stacked too high on one another, still a bit fly-riddled and sometimes the air is punctured by the scent of rotting vegetal matter—it is westernized. It’s the Williamsburg of Delhi. It has cafes and art galleries and bars and swank restaurants and intentionally grungy ones and little shops packed tight with bright, kitschy wallets and shoulder bags trimmed with leather, and smart t-shirts emblazoned with the wry winks a New Yorker would appreciate. Half of it looks out onto crumbling Mughal ruins and tombs and beyond that a lake—a clean lake with swans and ducks—and manicured paths and shrubbery and peacocks and monkeys and owls and flowering vines and roses. It is gated off from the rest of the world—rickshaws can’t get in; honking, hulking Ambassador cabs are forbidden. In fact, no cars may enter unless with the permission of the village.
So just like that, Delhi becomes immediately easier and more palatable. My hotel serves fish and washes their vegetables with filtered water and has local artists hammered up all over the walls and oversized pillows are dashed on wide benches and the wireless internet works and the air conditioner, too. So I have come all this way, come to this place I swear I need because it is exactly the opposite of my ordered life—this place where gods jump off of every surface or can be in any stone or tree, where one can always smell incense and sandalwood on the air, where the smell of burnt milk means wafts down wide alleys as a temple bell clangs into the heavy air, where the world is a magical realist bonanza—I’ve come all this way to finally say I love Delhi because of its proximity to my own life: its New York comforts and American happinesses.
And, like that, I hate it all over again.