While there are some things I’m not so attached to in the city that’s been my home for over two years (including, in no particular order, the smog, gropey men and the expulsion of bodily fluids in public), there are plenty of aspects of Delhi life that I’ve become terribly fond of, and which I’m really going to miss.
There’s no doubt that this new blog is going to be packed with nostalgic laments about all things desi (in fact, probably to the point of nausea, so if sentimentality’s not your thing, you should probably think about unsubscribing. Just a warning), and so what better way to kick things off than with a list of things I’ll miss most of all. Right? Everyone loves a good list!
Let’s get on with it, then.
It’s impossible to pick my favourite Indian food – everything’s so damn delicious – but when it comes to drinks nothing beats a hot cup of chai. Drinking milky tea has been a morning ritual for me ever since I first arrived in Delhi – B’s sister used to bring me spicy ginger chai in a metal cup every morning, until I finally learned how to make it myself. It’s not even difficult, and now I make it at home every day. Personally I like it brewed with cardamom and tons of sugar. And as well as first thing in the morning, I also drink it after lunch, in the mid-afternoon, before bed… you get the idea. Maybe that’s why I had to get root canal last year…
I expect, like so many of the good things in life, chai is best enjoyed in moderation.
2. Pimped-up autorickshaws!
I sincerely doubt there’s a better way to travel than in an autorickshaw fitted with subwoofers, faux snakeskin seats and pictures of Katrina Kaif in bridal gear. While Delhi’s green and yellow autos all look pretty much the same on the outside, you’ll soon find that each one has had its interior lovingly customised by its owner. Many go for the religious theme, with a mini temple on the dashboard and garlands of fresh marigolds wrapped round the handlebars, and some combine this look with glittery, heart-shaped stickers featuring Bollywood stars, and maybe a fancy ‘welcome’ sign. The most impressive auto I’ve ever seen was one that incorporated a small shop – a string was tied across the windscreen, over which hundreds of sachets of paan and mouthfresh were draped. The driver also had a box of individual cigarettes and matches, and seemed to be doing a roaring trade at the red light in rush hour. That’s entrepreneurism!
3. The Delhi Metro Ladies’ Coach!
Although autos are great, it’s admittedly not much fun to sit in one in the smog on a gridlocked, eight-lane highway in the middle of summer. So that’s where the Delhi Metro comes in! It’s shiny and super-clean and super-efficient. It’s leagues ahead of the London Underground. And every train has an entire carriage reserved for women. This is the hotspot for eavesdropping, with all sorts of proverbial dirty laundry being aired: Did you hear that such-and-such ran away from her family and had a LOVE MARRIAGE?! Etcetera. The most fun thing about travelling in the Ladies’ Coach, though, is getting to shout at the trespassing menfolk who often try to get onboard. ‘Arre! Yeh Ladies’ Coach hai!’ we snap at the culprit, and point him (with a flourish of jingly bangles) towards the (much busier) next carriage.
Jingly bangles! Massive, fake-diamond-encrusted earrings! Red and gold platform bridal shoes with bells on! Anklets with bells on! Salwaars and sarees shimmering with sequins and embroidery and beads! India truly is Bling Heaven. Back in Scotland I could never get away with wearing three faux-gold and diamond rings on one hand without fear of looking chavvy, but here in Delhi, over-the-top displays of sparkle are actually quite fashionable. There’s a shoe shop in Lajpat Nagar that I go to purely to gaze in wonder at the wedding sandals, wishing that I was just a little shorter so I could wear those eight-inch stilettos coated in red glitter. Sigh. But at least there’s no height restriction on the spangly gold, pink and blue handbag that Udita gifted me last week!
5. The mysterious Delhi winter (aka Bizarre Knitwear Season)!
Of course the bling fashions continue into winter, which, in Delhi, consists of two months of blistering cold and fog before the sun comes swiftly back to roast us alive once again. In December and January we’ve got to wrap up, and this means donning chenille shawls, lurid cardigans covered in gigantic plastic jewels, and, Delhi winter’s pièce de résistance, the Tinsel Tank Top. This garment, knitted in a special gittery wool in colours like flamingo pink and baby chicken yellow, is the epitome of suaveness and sophistication for the desi boy. I tried hard to get a tinsel tank top for my brother’s Christmas present last year – I even asked waiters and car park attendants who were wearing one where they purchased it. The answer to the mystery? ‘My wife in the village knitted it.’ I obviously need a wife in the village…
6. The brain-frazzling Delhi summer (aka Mango Season)!
I don’t mind bone-chilling winters, but when the Delhi summer hits its 45-degree-plus peak in May and June all I want to do is die. Either that or eat mangoes. Yes, mango season probably is the only saving grace of summertime, and usually the only reason I step out from under my ceiling fan. Mango lassi, mango ice cream, liquidised mango served straight from the blender into a glass, ice cold… oh, and even the actual fruit! During my first Delhi summer I learned an ingenious way to eat a mango: first you squish it till the inside is all soft, then you bite off the end and slurp out all the fruit before violently hurling the empty skin and stone onto the ground. It’s quick, easy, and even keeps your hands clean.
Speaking of things that are tasty, we can’t forget about mouthfresh. If you’re in a restaurant or dhaba, and you’re lucky, you’ll be presented with a little metal dish of green fennel seeds and sugar granules when you get your bill. For the first six months I lived in Delhi I was highly suspicious of this dish and refused to touch its contents, until finally I was brave enough to give it a go. And it was amazing! Much better than a mint, as is the western tradition, this ‘mouthfresh’ (or that’s what I was told it’s called) really makes your mouth… fresh. And perhaps ready for some post-dinner chai. It’s not always fennel seeds, though – sometimes you get tiny green (or rainbow-coloured) sweets made from all kinds of weird chemicals. These are really good too, to the point that I sometimes have to remind myself that you’re only supposed to take one spoonful.
I spent two academic years (which is quite a long time) learning Hindi at Delhi University, only to realise that nobody in Delhi actually speaks ‘Hindi’. If I spoke to a shopkeeper or rickshaw driver in the kind of pure Hindi that I’ve been taught, they’d most likely fall over laughing. We speak Hinglish in Delhi, you see. It’s Hindi with an English twist, or vice versa. And it’s amazingly useful for firangis like me – when we get stuck trying to think of the right word, we can cheat and use the English one instead, and, most importantly, not feel guilty about it, because everyone does it. ‘Table saaf kariye, bhaiya’ or ‘Meter se chaliye!’ are phrases used all the time. And in the movies, actors chop and change their language constantly. It’s weird, and awfully trendy, and the best bit is that it makes it look like I actually have a clue about the language. Itna clever, hai na?!
9. Filmi channels on TV!
I honestly cannot get enough of Bollywood songs and music videos. Everything from the traditional ‘couple in a field/on a mountain’ (complete with blowing sarees and piercing backing music), to the more modern dance numbers that feature lots of macho men and blonde foreigners wearing not-very-much – it’s all good stuff. And there are loads of TV channels that only show these, back to back, twenty four hours a day. How utterly fabulous. But I know what you’re thinking: why sit for hour after brain-dissolving hour watching TV when you’re living in India?! Well, I think there’s a lot that foreigners can learn from these music videos. The language, obviously. And the dance moves. We can start to recognise the different Bollywood stars that are such a big part of Indian culture, and, when our favourite filmi song is played on the radio, or in a shop, or in a club, we can sing along (and do the corresponding dance routine if we’re coordinated enough) and really impress the locals.
10. Wildlife watching!
In Delhi, almost every journey can become a fascinating safari. Whether it’s a single bullock chillaxing in the middle of a four-lane road or a herd of buffalo (or goats), there’s nowhere better to look for wildlife than on an Indian city street. One of my favourite ‘safari’ destinations is the road between Vidhan Sabha metro station and Majnu ka Tila. Here you can spot all kinds of street dogs, chickens, goats, donkeys (although I think the white donkey has died, unfortunately) and the famous Big Black Boar. It’s the most humongous pig I’ve seen in my life, and spends its days rolling around in a giant pile of rubbish, which, for a pig, is probably a blissful existence.
But I don’t need to go out on regular safaris, as there’s easily enough wildlife at home in my flat for even David Attenborough to make a documentary about. There are ants, obviously, and mosquitoes. Plus the odd grasshopper and lizard. But I’ve also had a few unexpected encounters with bats (terrifying) and monkeys (annoying – they stole a novel I’d only just started reading!).
What things would you miss most about your city, if you were leaving?