Incredible India

India is incredible. I’ve heard this said so many times by so many different people and despite having been there five times in my life, I didn’t fully understand why people would say this. Of course, my experience mirrored that of some British-Indian second and third generation children, whereby we (my family and I) would fly to Indira Gandhi International in New Delhi, take a taxi to the railway station, then take a train to the Punjab and then in the Punjab,  stay with various relatives, with trips to the bazaar and places of religious interest being the only real outings and parts of India that we had really seen.

On this trip, I was determined to experience a different India, one that was more relevant to me and had the things that I wanted to see. After two months of reading every review and recommendation on TripAdvisor and compiling exhaustive lists of things to take and places to go and see, the trip finally rolled around and as I sat at Heathrow waiting for our flight, it finally hit me that some of the things I had dreamed of for a long time would now come true…

Day One

Mosquito Bites: 0 Marriage Proposals: 0

We arrive in Delhi Airport which has been pimped out quite a bit since my last visit in 2006. Immigration takes 20 minutes instead of the usual hour and our luggage also arrives in reasonable time. I kill two mosquitoes as I wait for our suitcases and feel bad that in my first 40 minutes in India, I’ve already buggered up my karma. A quick visit to the loo reminds me of when Bollywood actress Preity Zinta got locked in the loos here and had to climb out – when the speakers start playing Bollywood music as people do their business, these are clearly no ordinary toilets.

We emerge from the airport having paid for a pre-paid taxi and get into a battered yellow roofed black taxi which is like an oven inside and rattles unnervingly. Our bleary eyed driver (who smells of drink) gruffly asks us exactly where we are going and then inducts us into the crazy world of Indian driving. With a “find your space on the road” policy, we weave in and out of different cars, have 15 near misses in the space of five minutes and hold onto each other for dear life as the car swings left to right. I realise in this moment that God does exist and is too busy dealing with Indian traffic to solve other problems around the world.

Arriving at our accommodation (booked by an uncle), clearly word of my mosquito killing spree has got out and flies and cockroaches have also called in to fight this most vicious of turf wars as we see walls infested with the dreaded insects. I take one look at the dire room and know we are not going to stay here. After somehow resting for an hour, those months of studying TripAdvisor pays off as I ask our contact to take us to a centrally located boutique hotel near one of the main shopping areas and after inspecting the room (clean, smells nice, and no mozzas) nod my consent – we have finally arrived.

The exhaustion of travelling catches up with us so after spraying Deet on the renegade mosquito that has snuck into the room and cranking up the air conditioner to arctic settings, I settle onto the double bed and fall asleep – I am finally in India.

Day 2

Mosquito Bites: 0 Marriage Proposals: 0 Hours of sleep: 7 and a half

We wake up and enjoy a big breakfast before meeting our driver who is taking us around New Delhi. Sadly, he is a miserable sod and shoots down attempts at conversation and doesn’t even blink when we almost run over a stray dog. We go to the Qutub Minar first, the pillar of Truth where a policeman stops me and asks me where I am from. I joke that I am from Mumbai and immediately regret it as he takes me seriously – and asks to see my identity card. I tell him I left it in my bag (as one is not allowed to bring bags onto the site) so he asks me to speak Marathi. I curtly inform him I speak Hindi, Punjabi and English and wonder how to get out of this situation – assuming a haughty posterior and adjusting my sunglasses self-righteously does the trick – the officer tells me I can go on as normal. Note to self – some jokes don’t work if people don’t know the context. The Qutub Minar is amazing, well preserved and reminds me of the film Cheeni Kum which uses the QM as part of its story.

We then get back into the car with sullen driver and drive to the Lotus Temple which has a queue longer than the first day of the Next sale to get into, so we drive on to Rajghat, Mahatma Gandhi’s resting place where I burn my feet on the scorching hot marble floor – clearly, walking on hot coals is a different matter altogether. We drive to Rashtrapati Bhavan (Indian Houses Of Parliament) and India Gate where we stop for a quick photo opportunity before driving to Chandni Chowk, where we go past the Jama Masjid, Sheesh Ganj Gurdwara and the Red Fort, all with the intention of exploring them in depth later.

By this stage, we are so hungry our driver seems non plussed when we ask to go to Khan Market but lowering my sunglasses and glaring at him makes him comply – am hoping I won’t have to channel too much Miranda Priestley from The Devil Wears Prada whilst here. Khan Market is amazing, and I promptly buy Filmfare and Vogue India at the magazine stand (taking care to flap them in the face of a well dressed woman with matching designer bag and shades who tried to get served before me – can’t buy class etc). We stop to eat at Mrs Kaur’s Crepes where we have pasta and erm, crepes, and chill out in the pleasantly cool restaurant.

Then its back home and sullen driver perks up a little, suddenly pointing out places on interest on the way back. His motive becomes apparent when he asks what time he should come tomorrow. We coolly inform him we are off to Agra tomorrow and will probably use the Metro from now on. I also don’t thank him as we get out which feels rude but when he drives off as I have barely closed the door, I feel less bad. Heading to bed early for a ridiculously early wake up call, we have visitors who outstay their welcome and I have to channel Miranda Priestley once more to get rid of them. Finally hitting the sack at 12, we’ve had our first full day in Delhi and I’m loving it.

Day 3

Hours Of Sleep: 4 Doors Held Open For Me: 12

The alarm buzzes loudly at 4.30am and I make the mistake of hitting snooze. Nevertheless, we are ready for our 6.30 call time and get into a white jeep with a much nicer driver (who smiles and holds the door open for me which is perhaps where my addiction to having doors held open for me begins) and drive through a rather relaxed Delhi which has a buzz in the air as the sun rises and people start their commutes to work. Having had a gulp of tea for breakfast and a bag of Thai Chilli crisp, I am ravenous and fall asleep as we travel to Agra, waking up at the toll booth and at the rest stop where a monkey jumps onto the window and scares me to death.

We manage to get to Agra in three hours and start at Fatehpur Sikkri which we view from the outside and is very nice to look at. However, there is only one main attraction here for me and that is the Taj Mahal. We drive to the complex, buy our tickets and meet our guide, who recites facts and anecdotes verbatim but doesn’t like to be asked questions until he is ready to answer them.

Although I have seen the Taj Mahal on television and in pictures, nothing prepares you for the beauty of this wonder of the world and it really is an amazing sight to behold. Beautiful from all angles, I am awed by the detail and work that has gone into the monument. I also indulge in some people watching as it seems the whole world really is here. I also have to put my camera away as it pictures really don’t do justice – this place has to be seen to be believed.

Finally, hunger strikes with a vengeance and we eat our packed lunch from the hotel as well as some takeaway crepes bought from Mrs Kaur’s Crepes the previous day. We then go and see how marble is made and buy a marble statue for the house. Its then onto Agra Fort which is where Emperor Akbar resided and once again, I am reminded of yet another film – Jodhaa Akbar and imagine myself dressed in an ornate sherwani, walking with an entourage in tow and enjoying the grounds. The courtesan’s quarter is my favourite place in the fort with some very intricate marble work. We can also see the Taj Mahal in the distant and as I stand at the window, I feel the history of the place come alive and feel transported into another world. I take a mental picture, already knowing this moment is one of the most poignant and memorable parts of my trip and something I will remember for life.

Feeling on a high, it is time to return to Delhi and we pick up  some Costa’s (yes, the same one from the high street!)  Mango Frappucinos which hit the spot in the 40 degree heat. The journey back takes four hours and on the way, as I listen to my Ipod and watch the sun set, I feel a sense of inner calm that I have not felt for a long time.

Day Four

Hours Of Sleep: 10 Doors Held Open For Me: 12

Exhausted by the previous day, we wake up for breakfast and then go back to bed again to catch up on sleep. I wake up before everyone else with my body clock totally confused and use the time to shave, read and write. That afternoon, we take the Metro from Rajendra Place to Karol Bagh (only one stop). The Metro is amazing, runs smoothly and punctually, trains are well designed and have air conditioning (Boris Johnson, pay attention) and the ride feels surreal and almost futuristic. (and yes, I did think of Love Aaj Kal and Paa for those following my film references!)

Karol Bagh market is huge and as we walk down the Ajmer Khan Road, we browse, ignoring the people trying to get us into their shop and once in any shop, trying to play down my accent and letting Mum negotiate prices as some of the prices quoted are ridiculous. I am fiercely proud when Mum manages to barter prices down to reasonable rates and shows me which parent I have inherited my shopping prowess from. We go to McDonalds (the shame, I know) where I stick to a soft drink, saving myself for samosas from Punjab Sweets on the corner.

We head back to the hotel via the Metro which is now far more packed and uncivilised than before and in a packed sweaty train, I get the giggles, which baffles everyone around me. We meet a friend for dinner who is lovely company (unlike our previous visitors) and have a tasty dinner at a nearby restaurant.

Surprisingly, our time in Delhi has already come to an end as we fly to Amritsar tomorrow morning. I really like the city and feel there is still so much to see and do here and wish I could spend three weeks exploring. Still, I feel a bond between the city and myself, something I only feel with my other two favourite cities, New York and London. Is this love? I think so!

Day Five

Mosquito Bites: 0 Doors Held Open For Me: 2

Leaving the hotel, we drive to IGI Domestic Terminal to find our flight has been delayed by two hours. Luckily, the pimped out Terminal comes into its own – I write, browse the shops, eat pizza and check email and before we know it, it is time to board the plane which is very basic (no screens!) but for a 50 minute flight, is perfect.

Arriving at Amritsar airport is lots of fun as we get to exit the plane via a staircase and I milk the moment for all its worth, shaking hands with the pilot at the top of the stairs, wearing oversized shades and taking a bit too long to walk down. However the bus that takes us to the airport brings me back to earth with a bump as the driver pretends he is driving a London bus and swerves imaginary corners with aplomb. As we grab our suitcases and meet our relatives, outside as we try to load our suitcases in the jeep, a random man comes up and offers to help. Our first mistake is to acknowledge he even exists as he promptly shoves the suitcases in the boot and demands money for it. I coolly inform him we didn’t ask for his help and then offer to pay him if he asks me in English. Finally, my uncle hands him some money and he goes off singing our praises.

As we drive from Amritsar to Jalandhar, there is development and building works taking place everywhere, with metro lines, highways and roads being built – ironically, these will probably be finished the next time I visit India. As we get to Jalandhar, a small city, it seems everyone has cars here now and the roads are clogged up as a result. Even in four years, it takes me some time to get my bearings and I am surprised at how the area has changed so much. After refreshments, the electricity promptly disappears and reappears just before dinner. As we retire to bed down for the night (having sprayed so much Deet, we have to leave the room for a minute), as lights go out, a pack of dogs start barking like crazy and have what sounds like a crazy dog fight. Surprisingly, I still fall asleep and suddenly miss the comfort of the hotel.

Days Six – Nine

Mosquito Bites: 1 Crazy Bus Rides: 2 Sulky Drivers: 1

One determined mosquito bites me on the neck one night at night (sadly no Indian vampires to be found here) and I have a huge bite that grows of its own accord. I take revenge by killing any mosquito that dares cross my part and push my karma further into the red. We have had a chilled few days catching up with relatives in Jalandhar and Hoshairpur, the town where my mum comes from and is an hour away from Jalandhar.

Meeting my relatives makes me feel like I promoting a film based on my life – the same questions are asked each time and every time; what is your job, when are you getting married, you look fatter/thinner than last time, do you want an Indian/foreign bride etc. One must answer with the same enthusiasm and give similar answers each time – cousins and aunts and uncles are like tabloid journalists, cross checking information and blowing open any discrepancies.

Marriage in particular is the hot topic as I am advised I am now in my prime and after this, the offers will not be so great. Apparently, being single is not an option and different arguments from emotional blackmail to biology are used to cajole me into saying I will get married soon and that I will invite my relatives over. I nod obediently and give wry smiles whilst crossing my fingers behind my back.

We finally make plans to go to Amritsar and take the bus from Hoshairpur to Jalandhar where we have hired a car to take us to Amritsar. The bus journey is crazy as the driver drives ridiculously fast – a journey that should take an hour takes 35 minutes as the driver blasts Punjabi songs from the radio, talks on his mobile and jokes with passengers at the front – we feel quite light headed after.

Our trip to Amritsar starts well and the 2 hour journey is over before we know it. We go straight to the Golden Temple, checking our shoes in at shoe point and buying orange scarfs to tie around our heads (as covering one’s head is mandatory for men and women). The Golden Temple looks beautiful and once again, having seen this on celluloid does not do it justice. Despite the heat, the floor is cool and we walk around the long way to join the queue that leads into the main temple. The queue is a little undignified – I make the mistake of giving way and get separated from my mum and brother who are ahead. I am pinched, pushed and punched by an old woman trying to get in front of me and I have to remember I am in a holy place before deciding to swing my oversized bag at her which stops the prodding for a while. A little boy is not as lucky – he finds it funny to kick my ankles as we wait and after my bag “accidentally” hits the side of his head, I do feel guilty when he is unable to walk in a straight line.

The jostling and pushing is worth it – once inside the temple, people still push to pay their respects but after we have paid our respects, we go to a mezzanine floor and suddenly I feel very calm and spiritual, as it is much quieter and less crowded here. Once again, I take a mental picture and absorb as much of the detail around me as I can. Now that I know what to expect, I already think about my next visit here as to me, it seems the Golden Temple is a place that reveals more about itself the more one becomes familiar with it.

We then go to langur hall, which is where one receives blessed food and the crowd is huge. We wait outside the hall which is huge as the previous pilgrims finish their food and the room is cleaned. Once the doors are opened, I am surprised to see the huge crowd that has formed behind us and surges forward with abandon. We sit cross legged on the floor and the food is distributed quickly, being dropped into our plates from a large height – raising one’s plate is quickly vetoed by the food distributors who insist on pouring ladles of dahl (lentils) from a height. The food is tasty and goes down well. Soon, it is time for us to get up and once again, a huge crowd has gathered outside for the second sitting. As we walk away from the langur hall, we get to see how the food is made, with mountains of vegetables being cut by an army of volunteers as well as dishes being washed and rotis (chappatis) being made by a machine. The scale and production is amazing and simple at the same time.

From the Golden Temple, we walk to Jallianwallah Bagh nearby, where a British General ordered troops to fire at unarmed civilians taking part in a peaceful protest. The grounds have obviously been made to look pretty but looking at the bullet holes and the well that many people jumped into for safety shows the true horror of what happened here, and I feel sad and angry at the same time. When I learnt about this in school, I remember feeling sad at learning of the tragedy but actually seeing the place magnifies those feelings and gives them a new dimension – much like when I visited Ground Zero in New York.

I don’t get to dwell on this too much as we have to rush to our jeep to drive to the Wagah border ceremony, which is the border between India and Pakistan. We get there bang on 5 and rush through security to find the place jam packed to the rafters and over spilling. There is plenty of pushing and climbing over people and eventually, I find a spot where I can see things from a distance but is by no means an adequate view. The ceremony starts off with people dancing to songs like Chak De India and Jai Ho but we are overwhelmed by the crowd around us and move back. It amuses me to see people try and push and shove to the front, especially one cocky tourist who is no match for the professional crowd pushers and is swiftly ejected from the front the moment he gets there by the crowd. Half an hour later, we give up and resolve to come back earlier next year so that we get a seat and can see the soldiers properly.

We drive back to Amritsar and see the remains of a demolished building with a crowd surrounding it – our driver asks a bystander who informs us this was a Jewish synagogue and has been knocked down, though no one seems to know why. As we drive on, we also see mosques, temples and gurdwaras in Amritsar and it strikes me that although Amritsar may be the home of the Sikh religion, there are many other religions that peacefully co-exist here too, which feels reassuring – and makes me wonder about what happened to the synagogue.

The drive home takes 3 hours as we stop for tea and I fall out with the driver when he refuses to stop at the new mega mall as I had wanted to shop in Amritsar but because the driver wants to get back early, we can’t stop there. I put my I Pod on and fall asleep for an hour, forgetting where I am for a while.

Arriving home, after dinner, it is straight to bed and as I lie thinking about the day, I conclude that I want to see more of Amritsar and explore the city in more depth as well as visit the Golden Temple again. I am also realising these places I want to visit can’t really be “done” in a day – if anything, when one visits sites of interest, if one makes a connection or a bond with a city, these bonds need to be kept alive by revisiting the place and it is only through multiple visits that one can really get to know a place.

Day 13

Early Morning Starts: 1 Power Cuts: 1

Early starts really will be the death of me. As the alarm buzzes at 4.30, I quickly silence it and get out of bed to avoid the “five more minutes” trap. I am worried about waking others up at 4.30am on a Sunday morning but I needn’t have bothered – the whole bloody street is wide awake and making more noise than a stampede of elephants. Just as I start brushing my teeth, the electricity goes meaning we are left in near darkness. My cousin turns on the generator for an alternative supply source but my uncle, one of the only people still asleep wakes up and promptly switches it off, thinking it must have turned on of its own accord. Finally, we are bathed, dressed and fed by 6.45 and get into a jeep to take us to the city of Chandigarh, a 3 hour drive away. Chandigarh is often called the Milton Keynes of India though I think that is a rather inaccurate description. Carefully planned and built, Chandigarh doesn’t feel like India at all – in fact the leafy green trees and red brick buildings remind me of London. Traffic is far more regulated here than in most parts of India and it takes me a few moments when we pause, to realise that the car has not broken down but the driver has stopped to observe a red light.

We start off in Shanti Kunj, the peace gardens and have delicious homemade parathas with aloos, all washed down with sweet coffee (incidentally, my first cup of coffee in two weeks – I have been drinking tea every day). We then walk around the gardens, looking at the beautifully tended gardens and the only dampener is the beggars and the litter, where inspite of numerous dustbins, people prefer to throw their rubbish on the grass. The same applies to the nearby Rose Gardens which smells lovely and has many rare flowers. I ask my brother in law the time and am shocked to learn it is only 10.30 in the morning – clearly, there are many advantages to an early start!

We get back into the jeep and take a short drive to the Fantasy Rock Garden, an amazing place where art is created out of waste – for example, broken plugs, marble, glass or my favourite, coloured bangles. It is like entering another world and once again, I forget that I am in India and feel like I don’t know where I am in a good way. The Rock Garden takes a good two hours to explore and at the end, we are ravenous so we drive to Sukhana Lake, a man made lake which is a bit manky and not as picturesque as suggested where we have dosas for lunch. After a short walk along the lake, we then go to Sector 17, where all the shops are based – unfortunately, as its Sunday, many of the shops are closed so we end up going to a nearby market where I buy two kaftans that I am rather chuffed with.

Then it is back into the jeep to go Pinjore Gardens, which is just outside of Chandigarh. To keep our young cousins amused, we go to a nearby amusement park where we sit on a minature railway and drive go-karts round a race course and race each other. Then just before sunset, we go into the gardens and they are beautiful. Well maintained, carefully planned out and serene, we watch the sunset here and wait for the lights to come on as dusk settles. I am hit with a realisation at this point – I have fallen in love with India – I now feel I realise why people fall in love with this country, why they visit again and again and what India has is very unique, special and cannot be found anywhere else. Yes, there is some bad here but there is also plenty of good, just like any other place in the world and I finally feel this is the India I have been looking for on my previous trips and one that I will continue to explore throughout my life.

We leave Pinjore late and the drive home takes 4 hours thanks to our amateur driver missing turns and preferring to stay to the left of the road when most of our junctions are on the right. In the end, we have to read the road signs and direct him and finally get home in one piece (did I mention he drove like a lunatic?)

Day 15

Lump in Throat: 1 Pleas to Consider Marriage: Infinite

This is always the hardest day on every trip I’ve ever made to India. It’s time to say goodbye to the family and there is a strange irony about this – when we arrive, within 5 minutes, it is like we have never been apart and are not separated by the seven seas – but when it comes to leaving, it feels like we are leaving behind a significant point in time that will not ever return and one that will live on through memories but won’t be recaptured in any other way.

The day moves slowly and quickly at the same time. We put off packing until two hours before we are due to leave and once we are packed, time starts hurtling forward. I manage not to cry as I say goodbye to my nan and aunts who have taken care of us over the past few days but feel a sense of sadness wash over me and the whole atmosphere becomes heavy with emotion as everyone struggles to control themselves.

I am momentarily distracted in the rickshaw to the bus stand when we are almost killed by a crazy motorbike rider and a car both determined to get to their destinations before anybody else (and helpfully going in different directions) but once on the bus and making that journey from Hoshaipur to Jalandhar, the reality hits me and I realise I am not only sad to be saying bye to my relatives but also saying bye to India – clearly, I am not quite ready to return home.

That night, as I settle into bed after packing my suitcase, the dogs outside bark like crazy, I watch the fan on the ceiling whir lazily into the night and wonder what will be different here when I come to visit again. I fall into a deep sleep for four hours with that thought on my mind…

The rest of the trip flies by in a daze. In no time at all, we are taking the early morning train to Delhi and once we arrive, are accosted at the train station by drivers touting for business. We stupidly say yes to one who then calls another older man (who smells awful) and embark on the most dangerous death ride of the trip through the packed streets of New Delhi with the world’s most dangerous driver who speeds into oncoming traffic and swerves on the correct lane, almost knocking two scooters and an auto rickshaw over – all because the lady loves Dairy Milk (well, to overtake the car in front…). Back at the hotel, we are all exhausted and spend a good two hours sleeping off the trauma.

The next two days are spent meeting up with a family friend from the UK, visiting Sarojni Market and Karol Bagh Market and generally relaxing. On a Friday evening, we drop my younger brother at the airport to continue his travels in the Far East and the next day it is my turn to go to Indira Gandhi International. After a swift check in and through security, as I wait at the terminal, I wonder what would happen if I miss my flight home…

[A week later, the ash cloud falls over the UK and Europe and flights to and from London are grounded. Needless to say, I curse the volcano for different reasons to others]

So, did I see the India I wanted to see? Yes would be the answer. I finally found an India that was relevant to me, one that I enjoyed, understood and wanted to explore more of. In my previous five trips, I thought I had seen at least a bit of India but this trip has made me realise that I haven’t really seen anything yet. India really is an assault on the senses but in the best way possible – the change of scene did me a world of good and now back in London, I am finding I am rediscovering my city and falling in love with it once again, prouder than ever to be a Londoner.

Some people may hesitate or worry about visiting India – I would say they should bite the bullet and just go for it – at worst, you might get dysentery (OK, dysentery is awful but imagine surviving it and the kudos this would bring at dinner parties) and find the heat unbearable (touch wood, thank goodness I didn’t get ill this time) – but otherwise, for many, they will find a beautiful country that is a mass of contradictions that they may never fully understand but will easily grow to love…

April 2010

You can see some of the pictures I took by clicking on (or cut and paste into your URL bar) this link here:


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