India 2019


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July 14th 2019
Published: July 14th 2019
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When my Indian pal, Ajay, suggested I visit him in Delhi during the summer vacation, I did not hesitate: I went to Thai Airways and bought a return ticket from HCMC to Indira Gandhi. Our initial plan was to visit Kashmir, but a suicide bombing there in February put us off and we opted for Nepal instead. I have written about our Nepal trip in a separate blog; now I want to record the time we spent together in India – before and after visiting Nepal.

Ajay met me at Indira Gandhi Airport and we travelled by metro to his family house – tucked away somewhere inside a labyrinth of alleyways. I could never have found it by myself. On the metro I chuckled at the notices written in quaint and euphemistic English. Some seats were reserved for "PHYSICALLY CHALLENGED" or "DIFFERENTLY ABLED". The "NO SPITTING" signs around the metro stations amused Ajay, because in Vietnam, where anything goes, I am a notorious public spitter..

In toto I spent four days in the family house, sleeping in the big bed vacated by Ajay’s elderly mother. I was treated like a king, eating tasty vegetarian food, drinking delicious masala tea, watching World Cup cricket and playing chess with Ajay’s young nephew, Ujjwal.

I had visited Delhi before so had little desire to see the sights all over again. We visited Connaught Place one day and made our way to the grand old Imperial Hotel, where on a previous trip I’d had a superb buffet breakfast and glimpsed the pop star, Sting. My intention was to treat Ajay to an Imperial breakfast on the final morning before I flew back to HCMC, but, alas, after returning late at night from Chandigarh, we were too exhausted to leave the house.

Walking through the alleys around Ajay’s house was an unpleasant experience. The alleys are narrow, squalid and infested by stray dogs which deposit their turds liberally. On either side of the alley outside Ajay’s front door was a drainage channel full of putrid standing water and assorted rubbish. Goodness knows how long it had been like this or when, if ever, it would be cleared. All the alleys were thus – bordered by disgustingly filthy rubbish-choked drainage channels. What would happen, I wondered, when the monsoon arrived? Our walks down the alleys were hampered by passing motorbikes (much larger than the motorbikes I’m used to in HCMC), which tooted their horns aggressively. Ajay’s house was a little oasis, a haven of tranquillity and comfort, compared to the squalor and din outside.

From Ajay’s house we – myself, Ajay and his very personable younger brother, Navin – made two excursions to an excellent South Indian restaurant that specialized in masala dosas. If you haven’t eaten a masala dosa, you haven’t lived. These were undoubtedly the best dosas I've ever eaten, and they were dirt cheap. The mango shake I drank from a nearby street stall was the perfect dessert.

One day Ajay’s older brother, Sanjeev, a very religious and taciturn man, drove us out of Delhi into the countryside to see the family plot – several acres of fields. We walked around in the hot sun, and I spotted various birds including bee-eaters, ibises and what looked like lapwings. Then we sat in the house of a retired policeman, a relative of Ajay’s deceased father, who bored me to death with an unintelligible story in broken English.

Delhi served as a launching pad for our big trips: to Nepal and then to Shimla and Kasauli.

After returning from Nepal, our plan was to visit Shimla, the summer capital of India during British rule. Ajay had never been there, and I had only read about it in books – a hill station loved by the British for its cool climate. We took an overnight luxury coach and arrived without mishap in Shimla at 6am.

We hadn’t booked a hotel, and finding one proved tricky. As we waited patiently for overnight guests to vacate their rooms, we encountered some large aggressive monkeys. Shimla is full of monkeys: Hanuman langurs, which are grey with black faces, and rhesus macaque monkeys, which are smaller and brown. Eventually we took rooms in the Hotel Sangeet.

Our exploration of Shimla began with breakfast – a masala dosa, inferior to the one I’d had in Delhi, followed by gobi paratha in a tiny restaurant down some steps. And, of course, masala tea. The paratha was delicious.

After sleeping until 4pm, we sallied forth for our evening stroll.

Sitting in a restaurant, drinking a banana lassi, I happened to see a picture of a steam train on the wall. We made enquiries and discovered that daily trains ran from Shimla to other hill stations. This gave Ajay the idea of going to Kasauli, a very pleasant hilltop town he had once visited. We walked to the train station, checked the timetable and decided to take a morning train to Solan. After that we would catch a bus to Kasauli.

On our walk it started to rain, the first rain of the holiday. We trudged back to our hotel, sheltering under my small umbrella. Shimla was something of a disappointment. It is a town of enormous historical significance: the British rulers of India lived there from April until October, governing a population of 361,000,000. Today, it is a tourist town, full of wealthy Indians attracted by the cool weather. There was little to do or see in Shimla, so leaving by train the next morning was sensible. The highlight of Shimla for us was the food: the gobi paratha and the local thali we had for our evening meal.

Next morning, after scrumptious gobi paratha and masala tea in our favourite little restaurant, we boarded The Himalayan Queen, which was not a steam train at all but a diesel train. The journey to Solan was very pleasant, through wooded uplands and many tunnels. At Solan we found a bus to Kasauli which, Ajay informed me, had been known as ‘Kussowlie’ during British imperial times.

In Kasauli, we looked for a hotel. We made the mistake of staying in the Hotel Anchal, a run-down and over-priced establishment, definitely the worst hotel of our entire holiday. The owner demanded payment as soon as we arrived and was reluctant to give us a receipt. We should have smelt a rat but didn’t. Ajay handed over the money, and we went for a late afternoon stroll.

Ajay led me to a church, built in 1845 in Victorian Gothic style and 6335 feet above sea level. He pointed at a sundial on a pedestal outside the church. “Do you know what this is?” he asked, not realizing that in the UK sundials are quite common. It was the only sundial Ajay had ever seen, and it obviously impressed him. Yes, it was a splendid sundial.

Now we ate excellent daal makhani and malai kofta at a hotel, before continuing our stroll. We walked along a country road full of gung-ho advertisements for the Indian army, which has a base here. Slogans included: “God have mercy on our enemies because we won’t”; “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf”; “Warriors are not born – they are made in the Indian army”. As we walked, there were nice panoramas of the countryside and several viewpoints to watch the sunset from.

Back in our hotel, I sat in Ajay’s room for a while before going to bed. Ajay, a teetotaller, was vastly amused by my reaction to the cheap quarter bottle of spirits I'd bought for 60 rupees (less than one US dollar) in a liquor store. Called Santra, it was orange-flavoured and virtually undrinkable. After a mouthful I put it to one side, resolving to give it away in the morning.

Now I went to my room. The TV worked but the sound was unbearably distorted. In the bathroom I got an electric shock from one of the ancient switches. There was no top sheet on the bed, only a coarse and very dirty-looking blanket. The undersheet had unsavoury stains on it. I should have inspected the bed more closely before agreeing to stay here, I reflected. The blanket was so disgusting I decided to sleep without it, but the night was rather chilly and I needed something to keep warm. So for the second time on this holiday (the first was in a very cold air-conditioned bus to Kathmandu) I donned my trusty fleece jacket. This helped somewhat, but I had a rough night.

Next morning a gobi paratha and cup of masala tea helped to assuage my bad mood. Before checking out of the hotel and heading home, we went for a long walk to Monkey Point. The morning was misty, but we had a nice walk along a country road with good views. In order to reach Monkey Point we had to pass through an army base, which forbade the carrying of mobile phones and cameras. Ajay pooh-poohed this, but I took it literally. I was not going to risk having my camera, with its precious photos of Nepal and India, confiscated. Besides it was raining now, and I had left my umbrella in the hotel. So I decided to skip Monkey Point. As Ajay walked bravely into the rain, I sheltered and waited for him to return. While waiting, I took a photo of a sign on the gate of the army base. It read: “Trespassers will be shot”. Then I hid my camera and looked around for snipers.

Back at the hotel we changed into dry clothes, gathered our belongings, and I put the vile bottle of spirits into my pocket. I wanted to give it to a funny old man we had met the previous evening; however, he was busy serving customers in his roadside shack, so I dumped the bottle near the statue of the celebrated Indian hockey player, Dhyan Chand. This man, nicknamed The Wizard or The Magician, won three Olympic gold medals. The bottle, which had an ill-fitting cap, had spilled its contents onto my shorts and handkerchief, and I reeked of cheap liquor.

Two buses took us to Chandigarh, a city that Ajay wanted me to visit because, he said, it was beautifully laid out. As the bus passed through it, I was impressed by the number of trees. It reminded me of Welwyn Garden City in England.

In Chandigarh we bought tickets for the 8-30pm bus to Delhi and then took a tuk-tuk to the Rock Garden, a modern amusement park of little artistic merit where, for 300 rupees, I had my portrait drawn by a professional artist. It was a desperately bad likeness; a school kid could have done better. Now we found a restaurant with a TV where we ate masala dosa and watched the ODI semi-final between India and New Zealand .

The bus left on time. It was the fastest bus I’ve ever travelled in. I managed to snatch a little sleep before it deposited us somewhere in Delhi at 12-50pm. A tuk-tuk took us close to Ajay’s house, and his mother opened the door at 1-20am.

The next day we went for a farewell masala dosa and mango shake, then lazed around in Ajay’s house watching the cricket, which had been rained off the previous day. We were expecting India to trounce New Zealand after New Zealand’s modest batting performance, but the unthinkable happened: New Zealand bowled and fielded like demons and won the game handsomely. After the last ball was bowled I bade farewell to Ajay’s family, and Ajay escorted me to the airport.

Reflecting on the Indian leg of our holiday, it was not as exciting as Nepal, but it was very good. Ajay was an amazing host, looking after all my needs. He gave me a metro card and allowed me to use his phone to telephone Vietnam. He paid for everything we did or bought in India. During my whole time in India I never changed money; indeed I never laid eyes on a single rupee. It was a rupeeless holiday! On the last day, I repaid Ajay in US dollars for all the hotel, bus and meal expenses he had incurred on my behalf. Ajay’s Hindi was invaluable – both in Nepal and India. Without him I would have had a very hard time travelling around. In Kasauli, for example, many people spoke only Hindi.

Ajay’s family deserve a big mention, because they were so hospitable. His mother, who is in her 70’s and speaks not a word of English, gave up her large comfortable bed so that I could sleep soundly. Ajay’s sister-in-law, who also speaks no English, plied me with masala tea and plates of delicious vegetarian food. Ajay’s younger brother, Navin, was affable and talkative and took me to the best masala dosa restaurant in the universe. Ajay’s older brother, Sanjeev, was very reserved but drove us into the countryside and allowed us to use his credit card to book our flight from Kathmandu to Delhi. And I will never forget young Ujjwal, Ajay’s nephew, with whom I played chess and discussed English.

This was my fourth and possibly last Indian trip. My other trips were to Kashmir in 1987, to Ooty around 1990 and to Rajasthan in 2004. Now it’s back to life in Vietnam, which is not a bad prospect. But one thing worries me: when I eat masala dosa or paratha in my favourite HCMC Indian restaurant, it is bound to be disappointing after all the magnificent food I had in India.

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30th July 2019

I'm glad you had the chance to taste original Indian food. Its cuisine is unparalleled!

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