Monday, August 1, 2011

Details, details

India is democracy at its best and worst. You assume you love your fellow man until you’re pressed in among the throngs in the heat and stench. Actually, the smell hasn’t been bad at all, nor really has the heat, though it’s so muggy my camera fogs up every time I step out of an air-conditioned car or building.
The whole country, it seems, is one giant gringo trap. On the streets of Old Delhi, every footfall must be carefully placed to avoid some foul spill, missing piece of sidewalk, fellow human’s foot, or collapsed body. Yet it’s so crowded that at times there’s little more than one foot’s width of ground to step on.

New Delhi seems to give the lie to all the stereotypes of India: leafy boulevards wind around in a semblance of order and quiet, traffic and crowds are under control, buildings are well-spaced and in decent shape. Then you get to Old Delhi, and it’s as chaotic and intense as anything imaginable. New York, Hong Kong, the Moscow subway have nothing on the sheer crush of human life that crowds Chandni Chowk and the other narrow old streets.

The Taj Mahal is where rolls of film and memory cards go to die. Many have called it the most beautiful building in the world; I won’t argue. The poet Tagore likened it to “a teardrop on the face of eternity.” If anything made of stone can justify such flowery prose, the Taj can: it’s one of those rare places that exceeds all the hype. I didn’t really see the supposed luminosity of white marble, but there are so many other little details to revel in, it hardly matters. From the tiniest filigreed flower in bas-relief to the massive meringue kiss of the central dome, it massages the eye on every level. Yet for me one of the greatest satisfactions was tactile: in order to reduce abrasion, you must wear crepe shoe-covers in the central mausoleum—or you can go barefoot. There’s a special magic to feeling an architectural gem as well as seeing it. Marble is a delightful surface to walk on, but every other time I’ve had the pleasure it’s been cold; thanks to the sweltering Indian summer, it’s almost the exact temperature of human skin, so that walking on it becomes an intimate affair.

The vast majority of visitors to the Taj are now Indians; as recently as ten years ago, they were nearly all foreigners. This bears witness to the burgeoning Indian middle class, which was on almost vulgar display at the restaurant where I supped, a sleek, starkly lit place serving classic Indian cuisine in a kind of nouveau chic style. Though it billed itself as a “family restaurant,” it swelled with immaculate young couples not yet fully comfortable spending money freely but trying ever so hard to appear so as they ordered mojitos and bloody Marys. I had to settle for a gin and 7-Up because they were too cool to stock tonic water. The food, like everything I’ve had in India so far, was excellent: spicy Peshawar lamb, steamed rice with every grain perfectly separate, and a lush vegetable raitha swirled with cumin and other spices. Those inclined to think “decadent yogurt” is an oxymoron need to visit India.

The tour company has booked me into some uncharacteristically swank lodgings. The first night I was upgraded to a “club” room, one of the nicest habitations I’ve ever slept in. Even the complimentary white chocolate was delectable; the fruit was more ornamental than edible, but a fine ornament it was. Of course you get what you pay for, but a certain attention to detail transcends money. The woman sweeping the floor at the roadside restaurant where I lunched today, in her fuchsia sari with matching lipstick and hair-plait, looked more put-together than an American teenager on prom night. Every plate of food, meanwhile, is as much a painting as a meal.

It’s obvious why Indians have become customer service reps to the world. The eagerness of hotel staff, tour guides, and drivers to ensure that every aspect of my trip be satisfactory could almost be called “aggressive” if it weren’t so graceful. Little formalities like clasping one’s hands together as if in prayer with every greeting transform mundane interactions into almost spiritual encounters.


  1. This may be one of the finest Blog Posts you (or anyone else) has ever written! Your writing is better & better - I was literally blown away by your prose - now is the time to seriously start thinking about writng a book!

  2. Thanks so much.

    You'd like it here, I think: on the train this morning I was served two separate tea courses--one thermos of boiled water and two tea-bags each (plus powdered milk and sugar). The hotel room is stocked with Twinings: Earl Grey, Darjeeling, English Breakfast, and Assam.

  3. Good stuff here, Shorty. I especially like the bare feet - marble detail. And the almost-spiritual manner of greeting and asking if all's well. Of course, I would not last 20 minutes in the dense crowds and heat, but you're doing a nice job of doing that for me.

  4. Wait, isn't a plait a braid? Her hair was fuchsia too?

    Barefoot tourism? Love it!

    No tonic water? Tragic!