My eyes glaze following the rotating baggage carousel round and round. It seems as though I’ve watched the bags tumble down the chute and on to the carousel for hours. When Gerard’s bag arrived and mine failed to follow, I mutter “I have a bad feeling about this.” “That attitude won’t help,” he admonishes. I continue to scrutinize the carousel until the last few bags dribble out. Finally, after what seems like an eternity, my bag appears and I breathe again.
We head outside into the cold night air – smoky and damp. Even for Delhi in January it’s abnormally frigid. It’s 2 am but I shouldn’t be surprised to see the crowd thronging outside the terminal, to greet arriving family and friends. Delhi is like New York, even in winter it never sleeps.
Our main reason for beginning our trip in Delhi is to spend time with Kamal and Bhushan Mahajan, who welcome us as part of their family. It’s a very special relationship that has grown over the years since we first met their daughter, Shruti, in Boston. They treat us with the same kindness and generosity as they do their own family…perhaps more! And family ties are very strong in India. Bhushan is as concerned about our needs and travel arrangements as if it was Shruti setting out on a journey alone. Above all, we feel comfortable and welcome in their house even at times of sickness or upheaval. And this is the case right now.
While winter days can be a pleasant reprieve from the heat of summer, no one is enjoying this intense cold. With no central heat in the house, we all sit around with our coats on, wrapped in shawls. Concrete houses are notorious for retaining heat in the summer and cold in the winter. Father and grand-daughter have terrible coughs. Hacking away and with nose streaming, four-year old Simrita wants to play, her hands reaching out to grab mine. Being an ardent believer in the germ theory, I’m continually washing my hands.
It’s not an easy time for the family right now. With great reluctance, they must move out of their house by the end of the month and leave a neighborhood they’ve lived in their whole married life. Kamal recently retired from government work (Bhushan retired several years ago) and they have to give up their government accommodation. Many years ago, they bought a small house needing work, in Gurgaon, a now rapidly growing suburb of Delhi. At the time they bought, it was open countryside, quiet and unpolluted. Since then a modern city has sprung up, characterized by mile after mile of huge shopping malls.
For years they left the house untouched; now the renovation necessary for them to move in, is progressing slowly and become a huge source of tension, the more so since they’re dragging their feet on going to Gurgaon – and time is running out. They take us there to review the work – a number of men are standing around, some languidly painting the walls, some just watching. A stout man rides up on a scooter. Bhushan explains that he cannot speak English, and then introduces him (in English) as the contractor: “this fat man doesn’t know his responsibility.” Not understanding anything, the “fat man” laughs…we all laugh. Gerard wishes Bhushan had taken him up on his offer to act as a site manager (with translator). I wonder how much success he would have had changing work habits, but at least he could have diverted costly mistakes before they were made. Once the house is ready it will be very nice, but hard to believe it will be finished in time for them to move in at the end of the month.
We’ve become familiar with the area of Delhi they now live in, and are also sorry that this is the last time we’ll be here. Returning to the optician we used last spring, we are greeted by the gentle young Sikh, smiling broadly at seeing us again. He promises he will do his best to make me new progressive lenses that are accurate and of the thinnest material possible. No mean feat since my bad eyesight demands high magnification. And he can turn it around in two days! For Gerard he agrees to put sunglass lenses in a fragile gold frame that he’s had for a number of decades, and no optician in Boston could be bothered to work on them. Two days later we return and he’s done perfect work for both us. My lenses are markedly thinner, and Gerard’s happy to have his old frames again. (They may not last long but he doesn’t care.) And all at a price that is far lower than what the work would have cost in the US, plus we have a discount because we are staying with his long time customer, Mr. Mahajan. Big smiles all around!
The dentist is less successful. We returned to have our teeth cleaned again and consultations for possible dental work. The dentist insisted on x-rays first. Since they only cost $6 we agreed. But the full mouth x-ray was a joke. We stood in front of a machine that rotated around our head, in less than a minute. The x-ray looked like the mouth of a monster fish – all the teeth were visible but in a blurry blue haze and without any detail. The dentist insisted that there was nothing wrong with the teeth we thought needed work and concentrated on the empty space in both our mouths where teeth have been pulled and we’ve never bothered to have work done to fill the space (mostly because of the cost). He gave us several options for an implant or a variety of bridges that could be made in his own lab in a couple of days, and again at price a lot lower than the US. But we decided to wait and try another dentist on our return to Delhi in April. The x-ray had put us off.
We have little time for sightseeing, but do visit the tomb of Humayan, the father of Akbar the Great. Built in the 16th century it is a magnificent monument of sandstone and marble, symmetrically designed. The building is surrounded by landscaped lawns and flower beds. The Agha Khan helped fund its restoration beginning in the 1990s.
There has been a huge reaction in India and throughout the world to the recent rape and death of a young girl in Delhi. People even asked me, how can you go traveling in India when something like this happens? Well, yes it does happen, and many other terrible things. They happen in India and elsewhere in the world with unfathomable frequency. Nevertheless, it was disturbing to see a large white bill board on the roadside in Gurgaon announcing in black bold print: WAKE UP DELHI. SHE’S DEAD! Brutally direct, but also encouraging that perhaps Delhi won’t forget this event and the multitude of others, and that the current protests and demonstrations won’t be in vain. Bhushan’s comment was “It’s not a question of India waking up; it’s more an issue of if she will stay awake! Too many times, critical issues are raised with much fanfare and promptly forgotten about a few weeks later.” Doesn’t sound too different from back home.
With only three days before leaving, our train tickets for Goa are still not confirmed. We made them two months ago, but even then could only be wait listed. With the ever-growing population and increasing wealth of India’s middle class, the train system has become even more crowded. 1.2 billion on the move! Now we have been upgraded to RAC – (reservation against cancellation) which boils down to at least we can board the train, but we don’t have a berth! RAC begins to sound like the rack. Another hurdle along the way – in this case a thirty-two hour one! Bhushan contacts a friend who might have some influence to try to get us upgraded. He says he’ll do what he can but can’t promise anything. We’re not overly optimistic. Checking the Indian Rail computer site frequently – no change. Then on Sunday morning, four hours before we board the train, our status is upgraded: we both have sleeping berths. Suddenly the confirmed berths in 2AC become such a prize! We’ll be traveling in comfort after all.