5th – 15th September
A sense of direction?
We arrive in Delhi early on a Saturday afternoon, not a little reluctantly and unsure as to what to expect, apart from a sweltering ordeal. We are careful to arrive in good order, to arrange some accommodation before nightfall. Despite a complete absence of road signs, we rather surprisingly make it through the bewildering and chaotic suburbs of Old Delhi and reach Connaught Place by 3pm; surely enough time to make contact with the few guesthouses we have been recommended here and settle in before drinks o’clock?
A British tour specialist we bumped into in Ladakh recommended Likir House, a Tibetan run clean, quiet and inexpensive guesthouse near the Defence Colony, one of New Delhi’s smartest areas and very central in such a sprawling city. After kitting ourselves out with an Indian SIM card (possible now we have reached Delhi) we call up the guesthouse; happily they have space and, apparently, are an straightforward 20 minute drive through New Delhi from Connaught Place.
Two hours later, tired, angry, fed up and on the point of giving in and staying in the Marriott, we find Likir House. The average Indian has a hopeless sense of direction; furthermore he is utterly unable to say ‘I’m sorry I don’t know’. So whenever you ask for directions in this country, there is about a 10% chance you’ll get the right answer. Generally, you will be pointed in an arbitrary direction and given hopelessly confusing directions, the end result being it takes a long time to find anything, anywhere, every time. Our guesthouse is in an area called Lajpat Nagar Part II; unfortunately for us, not even the locals living in Lajpat Nagar Parts I or III have the slightest idea of where ‘A’ Block in Part II may be…
But happily, we make it, and immediately book in for several nights - as we can’t face a repeat performance of this tomorrow and we plan to be in Delhi for around 10 days, to arrange several onward visas. We find Thai food in a smart Chinese restaurant round the corner, and the following morning, much rested, we enjoy delicious lattes in the local ‘Café Coffee Day’ – India’s burgeoning equivalent to Costa. The delights of being somewhere cosmopolitan for a change!
Uncovering the layers
Delhi could be likened to an onion. The longer you stay here, the more layers of its history you can unpeel, allowing the hidden mysteries, charms and delights of the city to avail themselves upon you. The more time we spend here, the more we appreciate and enjoy it.
Delhi has existed, in one form or other, for several thousand years and has been built and razed to the ground seven times (the British-built New Delhi is the eight incarnation). It has more collective history than virtually any other city on earth. Parts of all of its ancient, ruined cities remain; more often than not surrounded by modern apartment blocks, leafy roundabouts, filthy and crammed bazaars, even dotted throughout the city’s exclusive golf course.
As we acclimatise, we start to see through the perpetual bedlam and thronging humanity; to notice the half ruined Mughal mausoleums that peer out from roadside verges; to catch glimpses of the once grand and opulent havelis (ancient Mughal city mansions) now covered in gaudy advertising hoardings and layers of ingrained dirt; and to stumble upon the graveyards, churches and decaying residences that are relics of the Raj. It is a truly fascinating city, and with each passing day, we fall for the place more and more, wondering how many months or years we would have to stay here to get a full appreciation of all the hidden enchantments and mysteries that this city has to offer.
Before arriving in Delhi, we were given an introduction to Yamini, a friend of a friend of a friend. We meet up on Sunday night, our second night in Delhi, and immediately she blows away all our expectations. We have arranged to go out for an early supper (i.e. 8pm here) but alas Yamini’s driver falls foul of the incomprehensible back roads around Lajpat Nagar II, and her Mercedes finally draws up nearer 9pm.
The gypsy queen
Supper is never just supper with Yamini – she is glamorous, educated, charming, fun, well connected and above all incredibly kind. Tonight turns out to be a dinner party at a ‘farm’ (essentially an opulent country mansion) just south of Delhi, with one of the world’s six gypsy queens, Livleen, and her partner Sunny, himself the Indian president for a French energy company.
We are greeted effusively by Livleen, despite having never heard of her before, and are very promptly given triple strength G&T’s by a waiting servant. Their palatial house is set in four acres of immaculately manicured lawns and gardens and we enjoy our pre-dinner drinks in the double-height drawing room, festooned with fine artwork and a comprehensive library. Dinner is served in the elegant dining room where three waiters attend the six diners with humble but meticulous obedience.
We have vaguely heard of gypsy queens before, but meeting Livleen is a revelation. Old pals with Prince Charles, Woody Allen and heaven knows who else, she is exceptionally high powered and influential; she is, nominally and spiritually at least, in charge of every gypsy clan throughout Asia. She looks glamorous yet mysterious, exotically dressed in flowing traditional clothes and sporting an enormous nose ring through which a fine gold chain is attached, looping over her left cheek, around her ear and tied into her numerous dark plaits. A theatrically sized pendant colourfully adorns her forehead.
Naturally she is at the other end of the scale from our previous gypsy experience in Kashmir. Part of her work entails touring selections of the multitude of clans throughout Asia, giving educational lectures and trying to promote more sophisticated and erudite lifestyles in her subjects. “Unfortunately most gypsies are the same” she informs us ”no matter how much money they have, they all want to live in filth and have eight children”. Our own experiences concur, and it is interesting to note she is fully aware of the permanence of the uphill battle she faces.
Sunny is a highly educated gentleman and a great linguist. He is eminently worldly wise and also a terrific wit, hugely important when living with someone as animated and spirited as Livleen. Dinner conversation veers between world politics, nuclear weapons, economics, sexual perversions, gypsy history and local gossip – so quickly that we barely notice the delicious food that appears before us, or the surprisingly refined red and white wines that accompany each dish.
Sunday being a school-night, we leave at the relatively civilized time (by Hindu standards at least) of 12.30am and are deposited back at our hotel by Yamini, hugely grateful and overwhelmed by the evening’s extraordinary events – of all the things we expected tonight, a lavish (and really quite drunken) dinner party with a gypsy queen and one of India’s most prominent businessmen was certainly not amongst them.
Finally, some sightseeing
Monday morning, a little hungover, an early start. Just like being back in London… We arrive at the first of our consular appointments at 9am sharp, and spend the remainder of the morning reccying other embassies in Chanakyapuri, New Delhi’s immaculate and pristinely manicured embassy sector in preparation for applying for our next batch of visas over the following days. Unlike London, which has no Chanakyapuri equivalent, virtually every foreign representation in Delhi is grouped together across half a dozen tree lined avenues, thus making our administrative tasks much easier.
Finally, on our third day in Delhi, we start some sightseeing. Over the next six days and in between consular appointments, we slowly gather in the sights of Old and New Delhi, in relaxed and manageable portions.
Old Delhi, or Shahjehanabad, is really Delhi’s 7th city, built by the Mughals during the 1600’s but now a dirty, run down and congested remnant of its former glory. New Delhi, built by the British in the 1920’s when they moved their imperial capital from Calcutta, is architecturally elegant and imposing, a masterpiece of modern urban planning but above all a show of strength, designed to demonstrate the empire’s technological and industrial superiority and to belittle any local thoughts of nationalism. There is an ancient saying out here though, which states: ‘He who builds a new city at Delhi, shall lose it’. Sure enough, barely 15 years after the completion of New Delhi and its civilized grid of leafy boulevards, India gained its independence and the British moved out lock, stock and barrel.
In New Delhi we explore the megalomanic Mughal mausoleums of Safdajang and Humayun; in Shahjehanabad we battle our way through the touts at the Red Fort, cringe at the decrepit seedyness of Connaught Place and spare a thought for the multitudes of British, soldiers and families alike, who’s deaths are commemorated in the St James’ (Skinner’s) Church and the Nicholson Cemetery north of Kashmir Gate. South of New Delhi, we wander around the ancient Tughluquabad Citadel, Delhi’s 3rd city, built in the 14th century. In between, unmarked tombs, temples and ruins lie waiting to be stumbled upon, and the more we see the more we realise just how paltry our 10 days here will prove.
Come Friday, Yamini’s working week is over and she has a string of parties lined up for us to attend with her over the weekend. High caste Hindus and Sikhs love to party and will match any Brit worth their salt in the boozing stakes. First up on Friday night, the Patiala Princess’s birthday party – at another fabulously opulent farm out of town. We arrive at 9.30pm, normal kicking off time here, and are soon in quaffing our G&T’s amongst Delhi’s elite. We meet the Afghani ambassador to India (not the easiest diplomatic post in the world, we imagine) who immediately offers us visas and assistance should we wish to continue our journey through his fine country.
Young politicians, old royalty and high flying businessmen all follow - all are charming, highly educated and progressively more drunken as the evening progresses. They all are fascinated about our trip, too, although we are equally intrigued by them and their stories. Most are Punjabis who have only lived in Delhi since 1947 when, as children, they fled with their families from Pakistan to India during Partition: the greatest single movement of people in history when 12 million Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims fled their respective homelands of the new Pakistan and India, leaving half a million dead in the chaos and fighting.
Many too, have horror stories of the four days of rioting in 1984 in the aftermath of Indira Ghandi’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguards, during which 3,500 Sikhs were massacred in the streets of Delhi by Hindu mobs. For all the luxury and opulence, these are some of the hardest working and successful people we have ever met, Delhi’s bourgeoisie who have made it through harder times than most will ever give them credit for. They are also a reminder of the somewhat fragile co-existence in this country of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims: generally harmonic but occasionally upset, with disastrous consequences.
Much later, we leave for another party we’re invited to, in town. By now happily plastered, we pile into the back of an assortment of Mercedes and Porsches, drinks in hand, and race back in to town for the next instalment, beyond which it all gets a little hazy. It’s nearly 4.00am before we are dropped off at home, on probably our most drunken night since leaving the UK.
Saturday night is much the same, a birthday party in town – a small affair of just some 40-odd guests. The house is extraordinary – laden with so much antique ivory, silver and artwork as to resemble a museum – and the pink champagne flows, along with excellent food. As the night wears on, Charlie asks our hostess, Nanoo, if she enjoys cooking. “My dear, I can’t cook a f..king thing, but I am very good at giving instructions!”. She certainly is, and her chefs and staff are amongst the most diligent and skilled we have come across in our brief time here. The evening is rounded off with a little singing, first a selection of Indian favourites before we are invited to reply. Happily, Charlie’s knowledge of Max Boyce and accompanying Welsh accent goes down a storm!
After an equally debauched Sunday night at the Golf Club, we are almost relieved when Monday arrives – sadly we have to say goodbye to this remarkable city and to our wonderful and extraordinarily kind new friend, Yamini – but at least our livers will appreciate the rest.