I had no expectations as I boarded the flight from Madras to Delhi for the long overdue “North India” trip. To my surprise, I was travelling with four others among whom two intriguing personalities stood out. One, a 24-year-old girl named Diya Raghav, born in India, but living in New Zealand for the past 15 years. This was her first trip to India in the last ten years, and she was eager to see how India has evolved. The second was Lakshmi Rajendran, an elderly NRI relative who has lived in New Zealand for more than 30 years. She visits India often and is a wise person with an uncanny facial resemblance to the late Indira Gandhi. Besides my observations, this would capture the journey through the lens of two different personalities, two different generations and two perspectives on today’s India. Indians once again rediscovering the heart of India
Delhi (Days 1-2): “Wow, this looks so royal, is this India?” said Lakshmi as we went through the streets of Lutyen’s Delhi. The first stop was on Safdarjung Road for the Indira Gandhi Memorial which highlighted the life and times of India’s most commanding and controversial Prime Minister. Despite the museum’s world-class calibre in terms of its interiors, it was not easy to ignore the smell of urine emanating from the parking lot on the other side of the road.
The drive through the streets of Lutyen’s Delhi was glorious. India Gate looked stunning from far and it was even better as we got near it. “This is all good, but see that”, said Lakshmi as we were about to take pictures of India Gate. There was a throng of kids begging a group of western visitors, literally running after them for cash.
As we progressed on our journey to Qutb Minar and the Lotus temple, and we were nearing the end of day 1 of the trip, I wanted to get Diya’s perspective on what she saw. “To put it bluntly, I would say not much has changed except that everyone now has a mobile phone,” she said. “However, I am enjoying the trip and looking forward to more,” she said, in a happy mix of Kiwi Tamil with a Pallakad accent.
The Akshardham temple was the next destination. Both Diya and Lakshmi were visibly excited by the sheer scale of the architecture. The next morning, we made our way to some parts of Old Delhi. The streets of Old Delhi perpendicular to the iconic Red Fort were like a bigger version of Chennai’s T Nagar. The “Kiwis” and I got into two rickshaws and had a fascinating ride through the multitudes at Chandni Chowk. Crowded, ugly, filthy and noisy — yet there was a buzz about the place. As we looked at Haldiram’s and other shops which have been here for decades, the rickshaw driver showed us a big sign on the opposite side of the road. “McDonalds in this place. Wow!” Diya said with a smile and showed the victory sign to us.
Delhi en route Agra: The journey from Delhi to Agra by car was the beginning of an insight into some aspects of real India. We took the usual route (not the renovated Yamuna Expressway) and witnessed a completely different landscape — a landscape that was at odds with the large multi-storied buildings in Delhi. On both sides we found lush paddy fields and yellow flowers sprouting all along the way. We had a pit stop for the driver’s lunch break and for some of us to find a washroom. “The toilets here will be yucky, don’t bother going there” exclaimed Lakshmi. “Its allright, let me try it,” said Diya.
As I walked across the road, I noticed, to my surprise, a HDFC ATM 100 metres away.
Agra (Day 3): The crown jewel in the Indian tourist agenda has always been the Taj Mahal. Numerous photographers crowd around the Taj premises with offers of ‘instant photos’. We went around the Taj and had a look at the Yamuna River. It had little water and it was largely polluted. “Such a brilliant monument and is this how you maintain it? When I came here in the 70s it was much better,” said Lakshmi.
I sat down in a shop looking at beautiful marble sculptures. As I looked around, I noticed in one corner small kids playing around. They were helping out others in making the sculptures. In all likelihood, these were child labourers. I question the owner and he said, “They are learning the art of making sculptures. This is the process”.
Jaipur (Days 4-5): The late-evening ride through NH11 highway that connects Agra with Jaipur was memorable. The highway was probably the best stretch in the entire trip. The roads had been laid new, with very few bumps and cooled by a breeze from across the borders of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. After a short stop at Fatehpur Sikri, we reached the pink city of Jaipur.
Early next morning, our first stop was the astronomical museum in old Jaipur. This was very near the palace of the current prince to the throne, who happens to be 15 years old. The museum was a revelation. “This is how they measured time those days. It is the most accurate time in India” said our tour guide. Diya seemed curious on how time was measured by looking at the shadows of the sun through the day. “So what happens during night?” she asked. “They had other ways to do it,” the guide said, as he showed us around.
One of the most famous palaces in Jaipur is the Amber Palace, situated about 11 km from Jaipur on top of a hill. Construction began in 1592 by Raja Man Singh I and was completed by Mirja Raja Jai Singh. The palace is made of red sandstone and white marble and features a unique blend of Hindu and Mughal architecture.
The Water Palace in Jaipur is also located on top of a hill. Surrounded by a lush lake, the palace was right in the middle. It used to be the summer abode of the kings. It was also the place where royalty would engage in aquatic activities. A pavement dweller came rushing towards us, offering to take pictures of us in Rajasthani attire with the palace as the backdrop. Diya jumped at the offer. They were transformed in no time when they put on a dress that had an ankle-length skirt and a short top, also known as a lehenga or chaniya choli. “This is once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Lakshmi.
Jaisalmer (Days 5-6): The train journey from Jaipur to Jaisalmer lasted 11 hours through the night. The trains did not impress the NRIs despite the fact that they travelled in AC first class. “I have a warning. Do not enter the restroom unless you go with another person. The doors cannot be closed and the flush is not working,” said Diya. As we were crossing the Pokhran railway station, en route to Jaisalmer, we saw a sea of Army troops around that area.
“How do they have a palace in a complete desert?” asked Diya, as we entered our accommodation. The “Desert Tulip” hotel was filled with such splendour and glory that one felt aristocratic just walking into it. “Look at this toilet; this is like a mansion in itself. Compare this to what we saw in the train just a few minutes ago” said Lakshmi.
“Will you be travelling with us too?” I asked the camel owner as I gradually sat over a camel. We had driven down from our hotel before noon to look at the pride of Jaisalmer – the sand dunes. Diya jumped onto a camel and instantly started taking photographs. “See, the camel is so dirty and its nose has been pierced. They treat these animals so cruelly here,” said Lakshmi as we made the 20-minute journey atop the dunes. As we came down from the peaks we saw the owner of the camels, an illiterate, using his cellphone to talk to someone in Rajasthani.
After one more day of sightseeing in Jaisalmer, we took the train back to Jaipur. We had to catch the flight to Chennai. At the Jaipur station, I pointed to Diya hundreds of people sleeping on the floor. One guy, right in the middle, had an Apple laptop and was using the wifi available at the station.
I expected a final complaint, but Diya surprised me by saying, “India really fascinated me. If this was New Zealand or any other developed country, there would have been a million instructions on what to do if the camel did this, did that, etc. Here, there was nothing. We just sat on the camel and enjoyed the ride. The natural way of embracing our journeys is, to me, the essence and beauty of India.”
(The names of Diya and Lakshmi have been changed on request)