Indianniversary: two years of desi-fication in Delhi

Originally published in First City magazine, Delhi, October 2011

I’m not one of those sentimental types who like to remember certain events for years and years and take every opportunity to get all misty-eyed and nostalgic about them. Actually, that’s a total lie. I am. Well, sometimes, anyway – because it seems October has become quite a significant month for me. I feel a bout of nostalgia coming on…

October the 14th is my ‘Indianniversary’. On this very day, back in 2009, I stepped off an Air India flight from London with nothing but my medium-sized backpack and a second-hand Lonely Planet for company. It was hideous, that first day, and not least because my first experiences of Delhi were, unfortunately, in the infamous hellhole that is Paharganj’s Main Bazar.

My first memories of what may well have been a very nice country were completely drowned by the chaotic squawking of ‘Yes, madam? Pashmina?’; ‘Very cheap, madam. Best quality!’; ‘Rickshaw, madam? Shopping centre? Tourist office? Ten rupees only, madam. Come.’ And so on. At one stage I even narrowly escaped a very close encounter with a ‘professional ear-cleaner’. I ended up losing about three-quarters of my sanity in under six hours, it was awful. But, just as the thought of getting back on the plane started to become incredibly appealing, something happened.

From what I remember, he was wearing pinstriped trousers and pointy shoes, and had jet-black hair in thick, well-oiled ringlets. Quietly singing to himself in Hindi, he was walking leisurely towards the Outer Circle of Connaught Place.

Maybe he read my mind, or maybe he just saw the guidebook-brandishing foreigner gazing around in helpless confusion, but he smiled and asked if I was alright. I wasn’t – I was starving. I hadn’t seen a half-decent-looking place to eat all day, and was on my final mission to find some dinner before collapsing into my questionably clean hotel bed. I mentioned this casually, and the next thing I knew, he was buying me Special Thali and Thums Up.

One thing led to another, as happens in India, and three days later I was at his family’s house, setting off fireworks (precariously balanced in plastic drinks bottles) for Diwali. News travelled across the suburb that there was a gori amidst the celebrations, and before long I was surrounded by various aunties and uncles and having scalding chai poured down my throat. It was madness. But nothing like the madness of the Main Bazar; this was the real India, I thought. Utterly chaotic, but at the same time so welcoming, friendly and fascinating. I’d finally found what I was hoping for. And I wanted to stay.

Fast-forward twelve months to the next October – 2010. In April that year I had officially ‘moved’ to Delhi to be with B, and so I’d spent the following months enthusiastically immersing myself in Indian culture. Here are a few highlights from that all-important period of desi-fication:

  • I moved in with B’s extended family in the back of beyond (Rohini). This was an extreme crash course in Indian-isation – the women didn’t speak English, and I ended up spending months with them, joining in with their everyday tasks of cooking (roti rolling included), cleaning and, of course, gossiping about the neighbours.
  • I learned how to eat food with insane amounts of chilli, and enjoy it. Scottish food isn’t even remotely spicy, so my body wasn’t used to it. But, I soldiered on, and now I refuse to eat anything that’s less than red hot.
  • I survived the entire Delhi summer with only a ceiling fan. (The trick is, just before going to sleep, to soak a bed sheet in cold water and lie under it. The ceiling fan combined with the wet sheet creates the effect of air-conditioning, for about ten minutes. If you can’t get to sleep in that time, you have to repeat the process.)
  • I enrolled in a Hindi course at Delhi University, and discovered the endless mental acrobatics required to speak the language. Ka Kha Ga Gha still echoes in my ears.
  • I moved into my own flat in North Delhi, and washed my clothes (and dishes) in a bucket. For a year.

October itself was spent in Goa (remember that fiasco in Delhi that drove out most of the locals? What was it called? Oh yeah, the Commonwealth Games). Against all the odds, B and I were still together after twelve months so we headed South to celebrate, beach style.

I’d been visualising white sand, coconut palms and unadulterated relaxation. In the ‘tourist hotspot’ of Calangute, however, only two things seemed to be on offer; tattoo parlours and 24 hour karaoke bars. And, of course, the fuel that kept these establishments running – alcohol.

So without much choice we wandered up a narrow street and found a bar. It was the size of the average hotel bathroom, and a rum and coke was about Rs.30. As the drink kicked in and I began to consider an afternoon sing-along and some permanent body art, a woman in a faux leather miniskirt stumbled in the door. She’d clearly been under the Goan sun for a few too many years; her face was leathery and deeply tanned, wrinkled like an elephant’s rear end. ‘Dance with me!’ she screeched, grabbing my waist and swaying to the Bonnie Tyler track that was playing. Taken aback by her accent, I asked where she was from. ‘North Berwick,’ she slurred. Another seaside town, less than an hour’s drive from my home city of Edinburgh. Even in India, it’s a small world after all.

On the 14th we were in Mumbai. The original plan for our anniversary was to go to the Taj Palace for dinner; a plan which quickly changed to ‘just a drink’ after hearing rumours of the price of a meal there. When the evening came, we ended up going into the famous hotel for a quick look and a visit to the toilets, before making a swift exit and heading to somewhere a bit more modest for dinner. (But even then, at Rs.30 for one chapati, I’m glad I live in Delhi!)

So now yet another year has passed and it’s October again. Oh, how time flies. And, of course, a lot has happened. I recently gave up my North Delhi flat and moved to Expat-ville: Saket. And, thanks to all the Coffee Day shops, I’ve settled in very quickly. On the desi spectrum, I’m sure that another twelve months of Delhi living has pushed me up a few notches. Let’s see…

  • I’ve driven an autorickshaw and not crashed it.
  • I’ve learned how to carry a bucket of water on my head without spilling (much of) it.
  • I’ve mastered the Devanagri alphabet, and can speak Hindi (almost) like a local. Arre, yaar!
  • I’ve started dyeing my hair with mehndi, after a certain incident during a certain Spring festival, in which my hair was turned irreversibly neon pink.
  • I’ve caved and got air-conditioning, but I still wash my clothes in a bucket.

Sometimes I think about that short-haired, clueless backpacker wandering around Paharganj and can’t believe how much has happened, and how much I’ve changed since then. And after writing this, it’s also impossible not to wonder where I’ll be next October. Will I still be with B? After three years?  Will I finally achieve my dream of becoming bilingual? Will I have given up chai and turned into a CCD cappuccino? Who knows. In a place like Delhi, I’ve learned that absolutely anything can happen over the course of a year. As every rickshaw wallah, shopkeeper, and professional ear-cleaner will tell you, ‘In India, madam, everything is possible!’



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