On December 21 my wife and I headed to India for the first time. We live in Kazakhstan and work at universities in Almaty, a city just on the other side of the great subcontinental uplift that runs from the Himalayas to the Tien-Shan. So, landing at Delhi puts you near the first flat ground after our doorstep, over one thousand miles away to the north. Getting to Delhi means flying in a huge arc around the greatest mass of upland country and mountain peaks on the earth. From the window of the plane, hundreds of miles of uninhabitable and unconquerable tracts of sandstone and granite stretch in unbroken lines off into the horizon. When cruising over this piece of the Earth the plane is not much higher than the landforms that it is flanking and the snowy peaks of the Pamirs, the Karakorum, and the Himalayas form a line of sight with the wing.
Delhi was misty even at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. The greens and deep ochres visible from the plane window extended into a yellow horizon. The long list of Delhis, old and new, stretched in every direction, but nowhere rose above the vast Gangetic plain. Since we have lived for over a year in a city stuck under the foot of massive peaks, such linearity was a distinctly exotic feeling. Driving into the city was a splash of colors, tuk-tuks and orange buses with grocers’ names painted in pink and green letters and giant statues of Ganesh and Hanuman peeking from over the palm trees. In the West, driving isolates you from the crowd, in India it is as personal as walking hand in hand with your lover. There is no space between you and the next car, there are no averted gazes, there is no attention to oncoming traffic or pedestrian corridors, and, in the midst of the slow moving cavalcade, one is simply lost among the chaos. If you have time to enjoy the defeat of vehicular progress, then the traffic jams of India can be endlessly entertaining.
The hotel was a prim piece of the British imperium disguised in white sandstone. The entire British Empire seems to have survived by its very paleness, invariably lost in the colors of India, defeating them by its beige subterfuge. The Mughals, at least, lined their brilliant whites with maroon sandstones and glinting rocks…the British sanded every edge of their empire and made sure that it did not require more than a perfunctory glance. The real show must always be the market, the street, the temple, Britain would remain behind the iron fence and the tended garden, dressed in white and reflecting the intense heat from India’s kaleidoscopic whirry. We headed to our mahogany paneled room, feeling every bit that accommodation that the Indian had long ago concocted for the European.