Hello, Delhi!

Delhi. India’s capital city, steeped in history and a legacy descended from the Mughal era. A city whose beauty and nobility is shadowed by rising crime rates and the infamous ‘Janta hai me kaun hoon?’ attitude of its privileged denizens. Delhi – a city I’d only known through news reports, photographs and the accounts of friends and strangers.

The Qutub Minar complex

The Qutub Minar complex

I will admit – as I set foot into Delhi in the dark hours of the night, I felt more than a single sliver of trepidation creep into my heart. I remembered Nirbhaya and the several cases that followed. We arrived at the domestic airport at around 8 PM and had a bus to catch from ISBT (Inter-state Bus Terminal) at 10 PM. A couple of youngsters taking an overnight bus from big bad Delhi – oh, I was more than a little apprehensive.

I wouldn’t say that my fears were completely misplaced. Delhi is not a city to be messed with. It’s not a city where you can throw caution to the winds and do as you please. In the light of day, the city is revealed to the traveller’s eye in all its architectural splendour – the India Gate, the Qutub Minar, the bazaars and the dhabas – they welcome you with their myriad offerings. But in the shroud of the night, if you dare stay awake while the city slumbers, you will encounter seedy characters, clusters of men whose eyes follow you until you’re out of sight and an implicit threat in the air, which seems to counsel against daredevilry.

And so, while my friend smoked a cigarette, I stood waiting outside a pan-bidi shop on the street with cars zipping by, feeling not exactly unsafe but not at ease either. We wandered around for a while, trying to find a way to reach ISBT and the people we asked were generally helpful, even if they didn’t offer smiles or friendly words of advice. Eventually, we boarded a bus to the nearest metro station and I had my first ride in a Delhi metro.

The metro, the dhaba and the terminal

What’s a Delhi metro ride after enduring the inhumanly packed local trains of Mumbai? Not a big deal at all. The only difference was, we boarded a non-ladies compartment and nobody misbehaved. This Delhi wasn’t turning out to be a city of ruffians after all. We made it to the superbly organised ISBT terminal and even dined on sumptuous paneer paranthas at a dhaba outside. The food was delicious and replete with the true flavour of North India – aromatic, rich and succulent. Parathas are really not the same here in Mumbai; at least not at that price!

Ruins at the Qutub Minar complex

Ruins at the Qutub Minar complex

My second brush with Delhi

My second, longer encounter with New Delhi happened while returning to Mumbai from Manali. We had half a day on our hands and a lot to accomplish. Gifts were to be bought, friends were to be met. We managed none of that. What we did manage was to lose all track of time among the minarets and gardens of the Qutub Minar complex in Mehrauli.

Qutub Minar 

Qutub Minar
We arrived in Delhi in the wee hours of the morning, tired and disgruntled after a bad night’s sleep in a semi-sleeper bus. But the excitement of being in India’s capital city infused an irrational energy into our bones and I called up my friend Shruti to ask her what we could do in half a day’s time. She told us that we could either go to India Gate and Khan Market or spend all our time at Qutub Minar. India Gate’s true splendour would only be revealed in the night, she warned us. And so the choice was made.

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We breakfasted on perfectly made chole bhature at another dhaba and bought tickets to Qutub Minar metro station. Now in the daylight, I was able to appreciate just how clean and organised Delhi was, and what a welcome contrast that presented from the chaos of Mumbai! I only compare it to Mumbai because it’s the city I know best. Here in Delhi, we also spotted the slow but romantic cycle autorickshaws (maybe next time) and vendors selling nimbu paani with no sugar, only salt. This was a Monday in March and there was a pleasant nip in the air that confirmed the onset of spring. Walking amongst the many office goers hurrying towards their workplaces, I could imagine that I had built a life in this city, and I almost felt guilty at enjoying an excursion on a working day!

At the Qutub Minar complex
The metro station was actually quite far from the complex and by the time we made it there, it felt like we’d been walking for half an hour at least. At a height of 73 metres, Qutub Minar is the second tallest minar in the country and as we stretched our necks to see where it met the sky, the sun glinted on our eyes, forcing us to squint. We wandered in and out of ruins, mausoleums, gardens and photo galleries and in this exploration of a bygone era, we forgot that we were bound by the laws of time and place.

At the Qutub Minar complex
Nowhere did we see people littering, as is the case in many monuments in Mumbai, and there were guards posted strategically to pull up any miscreants. One guy decided to climb an ancient tree and pose there, while his friend clicked what would undoubtedly be a profile picture with at least a hundred likes. Alas, long before he could press the button and do the needful, a guard pulled the chappie down, while on-lookers tittered in an abject lack of sympathy.

Mausoleum at the Qutub Minar complex
We paused to read all the inscriptions at this World Heritage Site and learned that the minar was commissioned by Qutubuddin Aibak, the first Muslim ruler of Delhi, in 1193 and eventually completed by Iltutmish. It was like reading about someone I knew, for these names had been such an integral part of my childhood existence, painted as they were, on the pages of my history textbooks. The structures at the Qutub Minar complex get their distinctive colouring from red sandstone.

A strange encounter

Strange events unfolded when we exited the complex, had a bite at an eatery outside and began looking for a ride back to the metro station (we were in no mood to walk again). A man was trying to hail passengers, announcing that a ride would only cost them 10 rupees each. We went to enquire and before we could protest, he had ushered us inside the vehicle and begun driving. It was almost like a willing abduction. Now, the strangeness began. The driver told us he’d take us to the metro station but before that, we would have to visit the Dilli Haat, a government-sponsored weekly bazaar.

A strange tree at the Qutub Minar complex

A strange tree at the Qutub Minar complex

It wasn’t like we could refuse and ask him to stop – we had already committed to the ride and although we didn’t have too much time to spare before our flight at 4:00 PM, the idea of a bazaar did sound interesting. He told us that the government offered free rides to the bazaar every week on Mondays and we’d just gotten lucky that day. I have no idea if this was true or not and the indoor store he took us to, bore little resemblance to the colourful open-air bazaars I equated Dilli Haat with. Nevertheless, they had an admirable collection of saris, salwar suits, jewellery and artefacts and we enjoyed browsing through everything. But the clock was ticking by and soon we asked the driver to hurry up and take us to the metro station. No, we did not purchase anything, indecisive as we were.

The mad rush

When we reached the metro station, we realised that we were running really late. We practically bolted up the stairs and bought a ticket to New Delhi station, from where we would have to change trains on to the airport metro express. Now the airport line will take you to the T3 terminal but that wasn’t our goal. To reach the domestic terminals T1 and T2, one has to take a bus from Delhi Aerocity. By now, it was almost 3 PM and panic was starting to set in. At Delhi Aerocity, the bus was already waiting at the curb and we thanked our stars when we finally made it inside.

Alas, the bus simply refused to budge. They wanted to wait until it was completely full. On top of that, one passenger had boarded the bus without a ticket and was sent back to buy one and return. We had already spent a lot of money on tickets (the airport line is ridiculously expensive though very comfortable and well-maintained) and we were quite aggravated at this unnecessary wait.  But our predicament wasn’t as bad as one gentleman whose flight was already preparing for take-off! The hapless guy spent a few minutes having furious conversations on the phone at the end of which, he admitted that there was no way he was going to make it in time for his flight. Our flight was the next in line. Would we make it?

The bus eventually reached our terminal at 3:30 PM and we fled up flights of stairs and escalators in time to hear the announcement blaring “Last call for Ankita Shreeram!” I had never imagined that I would be tardy enough to gain this dubious achievement! We felt like celebrities as everyone turned around to stare at this idiotic couple who had arrived just 20 minutes before the flight’s scheduled departure. The crew ushered us in as quickly as they could and at long last, we found ourselves on a flight headed back home. Mumbai.

A close-up of the Qutub Minar

A close-up of the Qutub Minar

(Featured image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons. All other images: Ankita Shreeram)

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