A Rude Awakening

A photograph of the spice market in Dehli.
The Spice Market

The morning after the nightclub, I woke up with a jerk. I didn’t know who he was, or what he was doing in my bed, so I got rid of him quick before the staff started talking.

A picture of a long yellow loofah.
Bathers beware!

Fortunately, this episode turned out to be no more than the confused echo of a nightmare. No doubt brought on by the excesses of the previous few days, coupled with malnutrition and a hefty dose of sleep deprivation. Nevertheless, I carefully checked behind the shower curtain in case an errant Bobby Ewing was lurking, ready to attack me with his loofah. There is nothing worse than coming face to face with a naked man clutching a loofah, except, of course, for a naked man with a loofah creeping up unseen behind you.

After a long shower and a few calls to God on the big white telephone, I was much refreshed and almost prepared to face the day. So, after dressing, I made my way downstairs to the ornate breakfast room.

By now it was already midmorning, and the only occupant was Ravi, dutifully hoovering up the last remnants of the food in the serving trays at the buffet. He hates to see decent food go to waste, especially if someone else is paying!

Ravi informed me that Mick had long since been and gone and was now outside, probably reading his latest history book by the pool. The grounds of the Taj are vast, but even though I didn’t know the layout, Mick wasn’t hard to find. I simply followed the tell-tale sign of a vulture circling high above and, sure enough, there was Mick, stripped down to his shorts and socks, reclining on a lounger. No doubt his long, skinny, extra white limbs looked like a pile of tasty bones to the vulture overhead.

“Good Morning Mick. Sleep well?”

“What’s good about it? And no, it’s too bleeding hot, and Ravi ate all the sausages.”

Mick is never at his best first thing. In fact, I am not sure if he has a best side, even when he is sober, but we are used to him, so I ignored his surly manner.

“What are you reading. A nice romantic novel by any chance?”

“Sod off! It’s a book about Akbar, the son of Hamayun and the third Mughal emperor.”

As I rolled my eyes, Mick began the daily lecture but, fortunately for me, just at that moment, Aziz arrived, Ravi in tow, to escort us on today’s tour.

The Spice Market

Our first stop was the spice market around the old Khari Baoli road, said to be the largest spice market in Asia. It is quite close to the Red Fort, but this time we did not have to go through what I had decided to call “Hell’s Underpass.” This meant that the traffic was not remotely as bad as the day before and so we arrived reasonably stress-free.

There are hundreds, and possibly thousands of small shops and stalls all displaying their wares in open hemp sacks and wooden barrels. The rich scents are overwhelming. This, combined with the ubiquitous smell of Delhi’s traffic and general pollution, make it hard to breathe, and the sound of constant coughing fills the air. I pity the people who have no choice but to work there, day in, day out, grinding out a living.

Mick and I found the smells and bright colours brought on an unpleasant and disconcerting sensory overload that it is impossible to describe, but Timothy Leary and his beat generation would have felt right at home. Ravi, on the other hand, was more than a little excited. Have I mentioned that Ravi is passionate about Indian cooking and even lectures on the subject? I recommend that you visit his blog site at currypassion.com to check out his menus.

Hangover Cure?

As we walked, Aziz and Ravi pointed out the various spices and discussed their uses both in cooking and medicine. They told us that spices have been known in India for thousands of years. They are even mentioned in the ancient Sanskrit writings of the Hindu Vedas (sacred scriptures), some of which have been dated to 1500 BCE and earlier. In India, spices are used for everything from cooking and aromatics to medicine and even magic. I am reliably informed that some of them make excellent shoe polish and yet others, aphrodisiacs, but you must be careful not to get them confused. You certainly don’t want to rub yourself up the wrong way.

As we made our way through this bewildering cornucopia, a small barefooted girl of about seven or eight, accompanied us, pleading for alms. With her unkempt hair, ash smudged face and a ragged floral dress she was obviously a full-time beggar, so we determined to follow our pre-agreed policy of ignoring all beggars. After a fruitless effort appealing to our generosity, she settled for walking beside me, tapping my hip with her tiny hand, and entreating me with her large puppy-dog eyes. She must have dogged our footsteps for several miles, before giving up and fading away between the stalls. In hindsight, I regret my hard attitude in not giving her even a single rupee and still feel guilty years later. As a result of that experience, and the benefit of my years, I rarely pass by a genuine beggar today without finding a few loose coins. Please don’t tell anyone though. I have a reputation to maintain.

The Two Towers

After the market, Aziz took us to see the historic Qutab complex, a UNESCO world heritage site in the Mehrauli district, claimed to be the second most visited monument in Dehli. I don’t know about that, but it is undoubtedly impressive.

The Qutab Minaret

The highlight is the Qutab minaret, a 240-foot-tall tapering tower of five storeys, with a 47-foot base diameter, reducing to 9 foot at the top. It has a spiral staircase of 379 steps and was first erected in the 12th Century. War, lightning, and earthquakes have destroyed it several times in the interim only for it to be rebuilt. The current version is red sandstone, except for one storey fabricated in natural marble.

Aziz informed us that when he was young, visitors could go up to a platform on the top from where one could enjoy a magnificent panorama of the city, but that ended in 1973 when the stair lighting failed, and 47 people were killed in the subsequent stampede to safety.

Craning our necks to look up at the impressive structure, we all felt a little dizzy. I had to laugh when Ravi claimed that he always felt like that when he woke up in bed each morning. Sleeping in a tent indeed!

“Wishful thinking,” I said. “These days I wake up more like that crumpled tower next door!”

Also in the complex is the Quwat-ul-Islam Mosque which was constructed at the same time as the Minar. The much older Iron Pillar of Dehli is said to have been fabricated around 430 CE from a metal that resembles iron but does not corrode. No-one quite knows how this miracle of ancient metallurgy was created but, as I told Mick, to my mind it was obviously the work of aliens or time-travellers! Mind you, as far as Mick is concerned; I also believe that the pyramids are ancient power stations, the Illuminati run the world, and Donald Trump is an ascended reptilian being from the Andromeda galaxy. The giant intellect, humble personality, and tiny hands, let alone the halo of weirdly coloured hair, is a dead give-away to those of us “in the know!” It may not be true, but it is fun to wind Mick up.

Shopping for a Rug

On the way back to the Hotel, Aziz took us to his favourite carpet shop. It was our lucky day as he knew the owner, Sanjay. Supposedly, he was a friend of Aziz’s second cousin’s brother in law and therefore totally trustworthy. Amazing, isn’t it? A billion people in India and everyone knows everyone else, especially when it comes to tour guides and potential commissions.

Luckily for us, the shop wasn’t busy that day, and so Sanjay was able to arrange a special personalised factory tour. Here highly skilled artisans demonstrated the process of dyeing and weaving traditional carpets on wooden looms. After the tour, he led us to a VIP-only sales area to see a selection of rugs not usually available to the passing tourist. Better still, he explained, we had arrived at an especially auspicious time. For this week only the carpets were available at a special price to celebrate the Vishwakarma Puja Festival when the Craftsmen of the city are revered. Well, we were special guests and, let’s face it, almost family, so were truly fortunate. I have always been lucky that way.

A Carpet shop in Dehli
The Carpet Shop

Naturally, as an experienced and well-travelled businessman, I wasn’t going to fall for any clever sales techniques. And so, although I accepted most, OK all, the proffered free beers and shorts, I didn’t let them affect my judgement. I knew what I wanted and, after an hour or two of haggling, I got exactly what I deserved. A genuine antique rug that took years to make and was, fortuitously, only finished in the factory that very morning. A bargain if ever I saw one, and after a heated haggle, I settled for just twice the asking price.

Bloody thing! I lugged that rug around India for the next two weeks, and the only thing that has faded faster than the memories of the day that I was taken for a sucker, are the guaranteed everlasting qualities of the dyes used to make that very special rug. Sigh! Never mix shopping with alcohol.

My underwear has expired!

Back at the hotel over a few beers, Mick bemoaned the fact that, as he put it, his “underwear had expired.” He never packs much clothing when he travels, preferring instead to either buy what he needs as he goes or use the services of the hotel laundry. Unfortunately, this time, he had been caught out by the heat and, just possibly, the more indelible evidence of his encounter with Delhi belly. With our departure for the train due the next morning, there was now no longer enough time remaining for him to adopt either strategy.

“Not a problem.” declared Ravi, “We can go visit my Auntie, and she will get one of her servants to do it.” Although slightly embarrassed by the idea of an unfamiliar dusky woman running his pants through her hands (something he normally dreams about), Mick agreed. After clearing it with his Auntie, who was, by the way, the mother of Pawan and Apita, Ravi called up our driver, and the three of them set off on a mission to resuscitate Micks sweat-stained T-shirts, smelly socks and dubious tighty-whitey’s. For my part, I decided to restrict myself to a couple of beers and then have an early night to catch up with some sleep. I certainly did not want to experience any more nightmares involving showers, naked men, and unprotected encounters with giant loofahs!

Of course, Mick and Ravi totally underestimated the family hospitality, and it was not until the following day over breakfast that I saw them again. However, Ravi’s Auntie did treat them to some spectacular Indian home cooking, and his Uncle generously shared his collection of 10-year-old Brandy. Given my already somewhat fragile constitution, I am glad I missed it.

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