Jan 17, 2013


an early morning arrival on a heathrow-delhi flights offers serene vistas of the craggy, snow-covered peaks of the himalayas. indira gandhi international airport's international terminal has an arrival hall large enough to have its own weather system and, this morning, it was smoggy. a 45-minute drive through thick haze in a non-airconditioned taxi later, i fell into a deep and glutinous sleep to the sound of jackhammers in fort siri. waking with difficulty several hours later, i went out into the city hunting for food.

the day was cool and slightly humid and walking not a chore. at the end of the road, a sign in the gatepost of a stately stuccoed house read "NATURE MORTE."

many architectural features of south delhi remind me of singapore in the 1980s: packed sand yards with thinning crabgrass, balconies covered in many identical pots of mostly bougainvillea, unconvincing security guards dozing on stools under trees, the extensive use of crumbling, enamel-painted, coarse-sand cement.

i took a right turn into a gated and carefully tended colony, and stumbled onto, then into, the gulmohar clubhouse, where the smell of damp carpet and fry grease took me back many years. they let me have teacoffee even though i wasn't a member. i saw many great signs while the sun was still up:

i pursued a socket adaptor — a surprisingly elusive object — through a series of likely looking appliance and electronics shops, into the very depths of green park. except it turned out to be the rapidly gentrifying tourist trap of hauz khas. i realized my mistake when i walked by the fourth gourmet pizza shop and struck out again for green park market. by this time, the light had faded completely and the streets were illuminated only by the lamps of roadside stalls mounded with fresh fruit and vegetables. on the pavement in front of the green park main market strip, four vendors sold charcoal-roasted spicy sweet potatoes with raw starfruit. many friendly dogs that looked like horus got in the way of dabbawallas redistributing the last of their empty tiffins.

green park market ended abruptly and turned into a long stretch of pavement and no-pavement. then into the sudden noise and crumbliness of gautam nagar, where i saw more things i wanted to eat in a 30-meter stretch of sidewalk shopfront than i had in the last 6 kilometers: a narrow shopfront featuring one stool and a small table for guests but separate and dedicated tandoor and naan ovens, a chicken specialist (with butcher curled up smoking in the window), a coffeeshop with curry-to-order from a cook with a several thousand BTU burner far larger than his wok (a very good sign), a kebab stand with a large brazier of correctly glowing coals and a long line of waiting patrons, and a very large case of fly-free burfi.

in the dark, everyone wore scarves and hats. crossing the street was amusingly haphazard and best accomplished in a crowd. two men guided a battered bus full of india vocational college students back a hundred meters down a 3-lane highway so it could make the turn it had missed, then walked off separately. i felt anonymous and comfortably safe. sometimes, unpredictably, there was the penetrating and synthetic smell of saffron.

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