Tuesday. March 1: My arrival in New Delhi at 1:30 a.m. is strange and surreal. A driver picks me up at the airport and drives 20 minutes to my bed and breakfast, through smoke, smog, cement dust, piles of stones and garbage along the streets. I’m staying at the Chhoti Haveli, in a gated community next to a reserved green forest. Haveli is a Persian word that means “enclosed place” and in India and Pakistan, it usually refers to a private mansion. This haveli is not a mansion; it’s just a duplex apartment, but it has the ambiance of a haveli. It’s tastefully furnished with period handcrafted furniture from Rajasthan. Homey and cozy, it’s one of the nicest places I end up staying in India. The actual setting for the place is not what you would expect for a “gated community.” I find it is best in India to always revise my expectations downward.
It’s dark and quiet and a little eerie when we arrive. I settle comfortably in my room which I have reserved for a half-night, and sleep soundly until morning. At that time I have an Indian breakfast of cauliflower pancakes and coffee and papaya and meet the innkeeper, Surinder Maini, a kind and genteel lady who used to live in the U.S. for a while. We have the common ground of both having lived in Richmond, Virginia, where she used to work for DuPont.
In the morning I am to meet an Indian friend from Bangalore who I met on Facebook in November. Actually, I first met him on Badoo, where we started chatting and then he added me on Facebook, along with his 1100+ other friends. His name is Tao and he’s 25 years old. Why he is coming 30 hours by train from Bangalore to meet me I don’t know. We have been chatting online for months now and though he speaks English, I often have trouble understanding his pronunciation. He also looks more Cambodian than Indian to me. And when I ask him numerous times why he is talking to me when I am so much older than him, he tells me time and again that he “feels good” when he talks to me. Of course, I am suspicious, because I figure everyone wants something. And what could he want from me, a woman who is over twice his age?
I ask Surinder for a place to shop where I can scope out salwar kameez. The salwar (as pronounced in India) is a loosely-fit pajama-like pant. The legs are often wide at the top, and narrow at the ankle. The kameez is a long shirt of tunic length which hits at the middle of the thigh, but traditionally, it comes down to the top of the knee. Jayne is to arrive in two more days and she asked me to try to find a place where we can buy some Indian clothes. So Surinder tells me to check out a store called Fab India at a nearby mall called dlf Promenade. She explains to me how to get there by auto-rickshaw, but then she ends up offering to drop me there. In the meantime, Tao has called, and we arrange to meet at the mall.
The mall is a slice of Americana in the unlikeliest of places. It’s ultra-modern and sleek and unlike anything else in Delhi. I meet Tao in front, our first meeting. He is tiny, shorter and slighter than me, so I feel like an Amazon woman. At first it’s a little awkward. I tell him I want to look for salwar kameez at Fab India. We wander around the mall and I find a shop called Biba, where I try on several outfits. I find one I like and Tao insists on buying it for me. I feel uncomfortable accepting his gift, but he insists and as I know my funds will be tight on this trip, I accept. I buy a cream kameez with navy and silver beading that I end up wearing the Taj Mahal later. The salwar (pants) are navy blue knit. A cream chiffon scarf bordered in silver accompanies the kameez.
We look in Fab India as well, but there is too much to choose from and I decide I will wait till Jayne arrives to check it out in detail. Tao and I wander around the mall a bit more, then I tell him I’d like to see the Lotus Temple. It’s the Bahá’í House of Worship but is called the Lotus Temple because of its flower shape. We take an auto-rickshaw there. It’s funny, when the rickshaw drivers see me, a foreigner, they want to charge me an exorbitant price, but Tao tells them how much we will pay. If they don’t agree, he walks away until the driver comes after us agreeing to take us for our stated price. I’m so happy to have Tao with me, as he knows the ropes and what we should be paying.
The Bahá’í laws emphasize that the House of Worship should be a gathering place where people of all religions may worship God without denominational restrictions. The leaflet they give us explains that it is a “new, independent world religion whose purpose is to unite all the races and peoples of the world in one universal Cause and in one common Faith.”
The grounds of the Lotus Temple are serene and manicured, with gardens and emerald-green grass and flowers. We drop our shoes at an underground shoe-keeping operation, and walk around the temple and its surrounding pools of water. It’s quite lovely.
When we leave the Lotus Temple, Tao tells a rickshaw driver we’d like to go to City Walk Mall. The driver agrees to take us there if we will stop at an Emporium first. I’m surprised that Tao agrees to this, but we do it. We do our perfunctory walk-through in the Emporium, but I have no desire to buy anything. We get back in the rickshaw. After a short distance, the driver stops, gets out of his rickshaw, goes to the rear, and comes back with his finger covered in black oil. He tells us he can take us no further because something is wrong with his vehicle. This is a scam I’ve read about, where drivers take you to some shop where they get a commission and if you don’t buy anything they leave you stranded. I don’t know what Tao ends up paying him, but it’s some lesser amount that what he agreed to.
Tao wants to go then to the City Walk Mall, where there is a multiplex cinema. I would love to see a Bollywood movie, but since there are no English subtitles, I won’t understand a word. It happens that True Grit is playing. Since I haven’t seen many new American movies in my last year in Korea, we go together to see True Grit. It’s as modern a theater as anything we have in America. Because of the constant Pakistan-India tensions, I find everywhere in India there are tight security measures. Here at the movie theater, I must leave my bag, including my camera, passport, everything (!) with an attendant. This makes me very nervous and I find it hard to relax knowing all my essential belongings are with some stranger, and not even under lock and key! All I have is a little slip of paper that serves as my bag claim ticket.
The City Walk Mall is highly modern. After the movie, we walk around window shopping. It’s funny, despite my reservations about Tao, I find his company comfortable and enjoyable. I’m really happy that he came up from Bangalore to spend these two days with me.
Later, we have dinner at an Indian restaurant where I have palak paneer, an Indian dish of spinach and paneer cheese (like cottage cheese) in a curry sauce. I want a glass of wine, but as most vegetarian restaurants don’t serve alcohol, I have a mango lassi instead. I feel a little queasy after.
After dinner, Tao accompanies me back to Chhoti Haveli by auto-rickshaw. It’s a good thing he comes along because I cannot find it and we end up having to call Surinder to have her give directions to the rickshaw driver. It turns out Surinder and her husband are worried about me since I have been gone all day long. Tao drops me off and takes the auto-rickshaw back to his hotel. We plan to meet the next morning. I get comfortable in my nice room at Chhoti Haveli and sleep soundly.
Please visit the Chhoti Haveli website of if you are thinking of visiting Delhi. 🙂