NEW DELHI: CHAI AND GANDHI by RJ Furth
This is my sixth time in India, a place that has always had a strong attraction. I begin every visit with a sense of excitement, and often leave frustrated and annoyed, pledging never to return. This time Sandy and I stopped on our way to Bhutan, a layover in New Delhi of less than thirty hours. My first impressions were far different from my previous five visits when I arrived by train or at funky airports in Mumbai or Cochin. This time we landed at Indira Gandhi airport in New Delhi at 3:00 a.m., a new, modern airport that doesn’t look a bit like the India that I know. It is spotless and lacking in any personality. It could be anywhere. Then we walked out of the airport and began to cross the skybridge to the parking lot and there was India. Dozens of men were sleeping, shoes off, waiting for work to begin in a few hours.
The ride to our hotel was nothing like I’d ever seen in India. The highway was modern and free of traffic. The road leading up to our hotel was spotless. There were no holy cows, nobody sleeping on the sidewalks, nobody pissing on the street. This was the diplomatic quarter, lined with embassies and the residence of Prime Minister Modi. I was disappointed by the lack of atmosphere, lack of India, but that was the point of New Delhi, which like Washington D.C. and Canberra was built as a new, modern capital. The city appears safe and antiseptic. Today Sandy and I visited Humayun’s Tomb, which was the model for the Taj Mahal. The grounds were spotless, the visitors polite and respectful. It was beautiful and calm, and I was glad we had decided to pay a visit, yet I was disappointed. This was not the India that had thrilled and challenged me so many times. Then again, we had chosen to stay in a nice hotel in a nice neighborhood. We were not in India for adventure, but rather to wait for our early morning flight to Bhutan.
This afternoon, while Sandy was busy, I went searching for my India. To my great joy I found it. I was walking down the clean, tree-lined road when I came upon a small side street. As I often do, I turned down the street, which ran behind the embassies and large, heavily guarded estates. After a few minutes I turned a corner to find an intersection that smelled of garbage. I knew I was close. Then I spied one of the things I had been looking for all day: a chai stall. Sipping hot, sweat tea in a garbage-filled street might not sound exotic or wise, but it is real. Chai is cooked over a gas fire for a long time, so it is safe to drink. (I’ve sipped chai all over India countless times and never gotten sick, so far.) Rather than the tiny clay cups that are common for chai, this stall offered small paper cups. The chai transported me back in time. I continued to walk and came upon half a dozen men squatting on the ground, putting flowers together in styrofoam displays. It was cottage industry at its most basic. When I continued my walk I hit the jackpot.
I had returned to one of the clean main streets when I noticed people standing in front of a white one-story building surrounded by beautiful gardens. Two monkeys were harassing a dog. As I walked up I noticed a sign. This lovely estate turned out to be the home of a wealthy industrialist who was a supporter of Mahatma Gandhi. More importantly, it is where Gandhi was staying when he attending a prayer service at which he was assassinated in September, 1947, seventy years ago. Gandhi has been my hero, my inspiration, since I was a young man, so finding this place was a magical moment. I entered the grounds (free) and spent half an hour looking at exhibits, walking where he walked, marveling at my good fortune. Amidst the new, modern, spotless India that is New Delhi, I had once again found my India.