When I was posted to New Delhi in 1995 as a 25-year-old journalist, I was shamefully ignorant about India. Richard Attenborough’s film, Gandhi, had left me with a lasting impression of Indians as passive, non-materialistic people who travelled on the tops of trains and spun their own clothes. I had never eaten genuine Indian food and, like so many Brits, mistook the chicken tikka masala and “pompadoms” served in “curry houses” for the real thing. If you had asked me what language Marathas spoke, I might well have hazarded a guess at “Maruti”.
On my first Holi, it came as something of a shock to step outside for a morning walk and have the family upstairs dump a bucket of water on my head. When I retaliated a few hours later by lobbing entire packets of paint powder at them and a good many missed and exploded on the front of the apartment block creating a canvas of modern art, my reputation as a mad angrez was sealed.
Still, over the coming weeks and months, I started to find my bearings, both culturally and geographically, while exploring the citadels, tombs, and colonies of Delhi’s many past incarnations. When the news agenda allowed, I would take long walks along the leafy avenues of Lutyen’s capital and went on guided tours with a now-deceased Englishman, Nigel Hankin, who’d settled in Delhi in 1947 just months before the rest of his fellow countrymen hightailed it. I visited Coronation Park where Queen Victoria was declared Empress of India; explored the Arabian Nights alleyways, havelis, and bazaars of Shah Jahan’s faded capital; and marvelled at the symmetry of Humayan’s Tomb. I wouldn’t have been a bonafide expat had I not done Thursday night qawwali at Nizamuddin dargah followed by a hearty biryani at Karim’s.
But despite Delhi’s rich and fascinating past, I found the city somewhat dull and lonely. Even in the late 1990s, it remained a backwater where the Ambassador ruled the roads and the staid intelligentsia gathered regularly at the same old cultural centres. There was certainly no great emotional connection to Delhi—and had a certain young woman not walked into my office one afternoon, I doubt I would have remained beyond the length of my employment contract.
Anu was 23 at the time, with short black hair, dark, intelligent eyes, and a playful, beguiling laugh. It wasn’t long before I found myself hopelessly in love. Suddenly Delhi was a special place—our place. Riding in the back of autorickshaws was no longer a bone-rattling experience, but one softened by entwined fingers and whispered sweet nothings. We would spend afternoons lolling on the lawns between the 15th-century tombs in Lodi Garden and eating chole bhature and gulab jamuns at Nathu’s in Bengali Market. Although the movie theatres generally showed the cheesiest Hollywood and Bollywood had to offer, it no longer mattered just as long as we could secure two quiet seats together.
I had an apartment in Nizamuddin East, one of Delhi’s posher areas, but started spending all my free time at Anu’s pad in Amar Colony, a busy, congested quarter dominated by Punjabis. On our first Holi, we spent the day fighting with water balloons out on the street. On Diwali, when the place erupted with fireworks, and diyas appeared on balconies and in doorways, the landlady invited us in for chilli pakoras and spicy green chutney, and we played cards with her extended family late into the night. I attended engagements, weddings and even the odd funeral. And with Anu as my guide, I came to appreciate—even relish—the tamasha, the unending chaos and spectacle of the place. Gradually, as my empathy for the Indian way of life grew and I forged friendships that no longer felt transitory, Delhi went from being just a city I regarded as an incidental backdrop to the nation’s politics to one that I cherished as a second home.
On Christmas Eve, almost a year after we’d become involved, I booked a private dining room at The Oberoi. After suggesting to Anu that she might want to dress in her best, I blindfolded her with a scarf, drove her to the hotel and led her into the private room. By now totally disorientated, she removed the scarf to find me down on one knee.
The setting of our first wedding—like most cross-cultural couples we’ve had more than one—was nowhere near as sumptuous. This was 1998 and in those days the corridors of the Saket courthouse were strewn with litter and bidi butts, and the paan streaks on the walls suggested the scene of a recent firing squad. We had already been through the rigmarole of filing all the necessary marriage paperwork for a non-religious wedding at the ever-teeming Patiala House High Court. Now we stood waiting with our witnesses in the insufferable summer heat, the sweat gradually soaking through my freshly pressed shirt. When, at last, the judge called us into his chambers, we were given yet more forms to complete. Anu had to attest to being a virgin and I had to certify that I was a bachelor. Stamps, signatures, and seals were applied. We were minutes from finally being able to say, “I do.” Then came a knock at the door and two policeman appeared, dragging a couple of impoverished-looking gentlemen, whose wrists were bound in chains. They’d been arrested for theft, yet standing there before the judge, denied the charges. This earned them the displeasure of the cops who dealt them both a few rough slaps, engendering a good deal of grovelling and whimpering. The accused were then secured to a pipe at the back of the room to await the judge’s pleasure. Hence they and the arresting officers served as additional witnesses to our nuptials.
Not long after tying the knot, work—or at least the promise of it—necessitated that we move to London where we ended up living in an attic above a Bangladeshi sweatshop in London’s East End. It was a trying, often depressing time and, on many a grey winter’s day, we both regretted having left India. But gradually, we prospered and, in retrospect, I believe life in England made our marriage stronger. Children did not follow, however, and after years of anguish and disappointment, we found ourselves consulting fertility experts. The test results showed that Anu was ovulating and that while my boys were not exactly crack troops (more like army reserves with weak compass-reading skills) there were enough of them to get the job done. The doctors had no answers for us. “There are some things we just can’t explain.” They recommended IVF.
Reading about gynaecologic ultra-sonography, oocyte selection, and sperm washing made us recoil. “I don’t like the idea of my sperm being washed,” I said. Anu agreed: “I don’t want our baby conceived in a petri dish.” Her answer was to return to Delhi. “I think it will help if I’m there,” she said. “It’s a psychological thing—maybe because I was born in India.”
A few weeks later, I found myself in Safdarjung Enclave undergoing a course of Ayurvedic treatment. Mostly this involved lying naked on a hard wooden bed while a couple of men, both oblivious to my yelps and acute British squeamishness, rubbed me up and down with pungent-smelling oil. Supposedly, this daily routine—I had to endure a couple of weeks of it—was designed to make me relax, but had the reverse effect. Worse was an attempt at an enema with a rubber hose without warning.
We tried a lot of other approaches as well: yoga, visualisation, colourful cocktails of supplements the size of horse pills, gluten-free diets. On the advice of an Indian friend who castigated us for our lack of faith, we also visited Nizamuddin’s tomb, tied a ribbon and shed a few tears.
To make a living while all this was going on, I wrote feature stories for British papers and magazines. One for the Sunday Times was on Delhi private detectives, who make their bread and butter doing matrimonial investigations. After it appeared, I got thinking about writing a detective novel set in “modern” India. Delhi had gone through rapid change since our Amar Colony days. Its population had more than doubled. A concrete sprawl of suburbs with clusters of office towers, apartment blocks and metro lines was fast spreading into retreating farmland. Every day, thousands of villagers were pouring in from rural India searching for work. For every new golf course, there was a slum to match it in size, if not allure. I decided to try to capture this new dichotomy through the exploits of a rotund, chilli pakora-loving 50-year old Punjabi detective, a man whose resemblance to some of Anu’s uncles is by no means coincidental.
Thus there were two births within a few weeks of one another. First came Maurya, a healthy boy, whose conception, for all I know, might well be attributable to all that smelly Ayurvedic oil. The second was The Case of the Missing Servant, featuring jasoos Vish Puri. Since then, a daughter has followed, along with three more in my detective series. We are now living a stone’s throw from Hauz Khas Village in south Delhi.
Raising my children and building memories here has brought me still closer to the city. Nizamuddin East will forever be the place where my daughter took her first steps on a lawn beneath a flowering gulmohar tree; the Yamuna, a river into which my son almost toppled when we took a dawn boat ride. Every weekend offers the possibility of high adventure, the simplest of excursions—eating a giant dosa in Defence Colony or going on a troll hunting expedition in Tughlaqabad Fort—pure magic to their eager young eyes. The bond they have formed with their ayah, a woman who can barely read and write yet offers them an abject example of dignity and unfailing patience, serves as a daily reminder of the capacity for human kindness.
Being a mystery writer has given me a fresh incentive to explore the city as well, great swathes of which didn’t exist when I arrived here as a pup journalist. I have spent time in Kathputhli, a slum inhabited by magicians and artists, where it is not uncommon to see fire breathers practising on rooftops and street performers skewering their cheeks with swords. I have tracked down Love Commandos’ safe houses and interviewed cross-caste lovers on the run from their families; risen at the crack of dawn to observe Laughter Club members guffawing in fog-bound parks; frequented carrom board dens at Ottoman Gate in the Old City; and, in the interest of pure research, sampled street food at a few stalls and dhabas which, in retrospect, I should have avoided. Often, though, I don’t have to stray far to find inspiration. Time spent with Anu’s relatives has provided many a plot line and copious amounts of dialogue. Detective Vish Puri’s strong commitment to the institution of family is but a reflection of theirs. And if the value I now place on such relationships has increased (coming as I do from a culture that has strayed a little too far down the road of individualism), I only have them to thank.
It helps, also, that I find Delhi a more engaging city these days. I run into a lot of can-do people involved with new enterprise. Young Dilliwallahs are becoming increasingly exposed to the outside world and are shedding their social inhibitions. Local politics has become electrified of late. Much is being done to improve facilities and access to the city’s forts and monuments. you can now take bicycle tours through old Delhi. There are even French patisseries selling croissants and pain au chocolat, although the prices are rather on the high side—and if the truth be known I’ve grown rather fond of my aloo paratha.
There are some things that haven’t changed, however. Delhi’s infrastructure (the excellent metro aside) is pitiful, with the condition of the roads on par with Kabul’s. Even the most expensive of markets catering to the wealthiest residents look like they’ve barely survived an apocalypse. But of far greater concern is the tentative rule of law, with life for the vast majority of the city’s inhabitants remaining complex and tough. As a privileged foreigner, I cannot truly conceive of the choices most people have to make, nor the struggles they face. Here in our gated colony, we are fortunate enough to be insulated from the worst of it.
For now, at least, there is nowhere I would rather be. India and the rest of the Asia are resurgent and I wouldn’t miss this show for all the world. Besides, just occasionally, when we want a break from the kids, the power cuts and the din of construction, Anu and I can always jump in an autorickshaw and hold hands all the way to Lodi Garden.
Appeared in the February 2014 issue as “Love In Lodi Garden”.