This is a bit of a sleep-deprived post so apologies for any strange errors or abrupt transitions…busy week to share hopefully soon.
The sunrise in Delhi is something worth getting up early for. It’s winter now in Northern India and the sun rises after 6:30 and seems to stop and hang half-way up the horizon. It takes up so much space in the sky that it’s hard to believe its the same sun with which I’ve risen my whole life. It shimmers in an arresting shade of reddish-gold and makes everything the light touches appears washed in a hazy, soft pink glow.
This morning we set out far earlier than usual, in search of a supposedly stunning wholesale flower market open only just past dawn at the Hanuman Temple near Connaught. For anyone who’d like to cut to the chase, I’ll tell you now: that market no longer seems to exist.
A man sitting on a blanket surrounded by pairs of shoes asked me to remove mine as soon as I stepped off the sidewalk-a sign as sure as any that I was in the wrong place. I walked barefoot through the temple crowd anyway though, carrying 15-month-old Will and his companion, “Monkey,” hoping in vain that the flower market might be found somewhere just beyond the worshippers. I bought a wreath for the temple and wondered which of the beggars, who turn out in the hundreds here to receive free food and donations from temple parishioners, needed my money the most. I felt out of place and confused. As I tried to collect my shoes from the shoe watcher, a tall man with wearing a mangey shawl and vacant eyes came lurching after us yelling, reaching for Will and demanding money. People shouted for me to give him money, to not give him money, to give them money and suddenly everyone was watching a bewildered foreigner handing out rupees like they were flyers for a new high-rise apartment complex in Gurgaon. I beat an embarrassed retreat back to our car, realizing suddenly that this might be exactly the sort of Indian experience that makes some people hate it here.
The truth about India though, the truth about any country really, is that you will only like the place as much as you like the people there whom you are lucky enough to meet. And, contrary to what it might seem to any tourist trying to make their way around Connaught, there are far many more good people in Delhi than not.
Our new driver is one of them. Chris and I realized that if we really wanted to see Delhi we would need not just a vehicle with which to get around, but a person with an inborn understanding of Delhi to drive it (and, quite honestly, someone to circle the block wherever we go because parking is usually quite scarce). R is our housekeeper’s nephew and when she talks about him, her love and admiration for him practically radiates out of her face. We are beginning to understand why.
R is one of those good-down-to-his-bones sorts of people and he’s also slowly getting used to me and my little quests around town. When I came back to the car without finding a flower market, he asked if I would like to drive clear across the city to find a flower market near Mehrauli that one of his friends had told him about. He laughed a little knowingly when I said yes.
About 5 minutes away from Qutab Minar (still on my list to go see) and in the middle of a seemingly quiet neighborhood, we parked next to a cluster of scooters, the passengers’ seats all piled 3 feet high with stacks of bundled stems and maroon and gold marigolds.
From there I edge my way through the crowd and found myself in an open-air market, surrounded on all sides by the walls of restaurants and apartment buildings. Cast-off leaves and foliage bedded the ground in soft piles and a million and one rose petals buried the normal din and noise of a busy market beneath the whisper-soft sounds of so many flowers being bundled and moved around the small space. Hundreds of thousands of lilies and roses and daisies, ginger flowers, gladiolas and so many flowers I’d never seen before lined the tiny walkways between vendors. Along the walls, on a raised platform, women sat wrapped in heavy woolen shawls, delicately stringing marigolds and jasmine blossoms together to form the long beautiful chains that are used here to decorate temples and special occasions. When I lived in Chennai, women would buy miniature versions of these flower chains and wear them in their hair, leaving behind a trail of otherworldly fragrance that banished all sewer and street smells in their wake.
The haze and the smell of the flowers and that beautiful golden-blush glow from the sunrise made the market feel more like a dream than a real place and Will and I both smiled. As I wandered, vendors rummaged through their piles of orphan blossoms and, beaming, offered carefully de-thorned rose blossoms to Will and I. When I asked how much I should pay, they just shook their heads, said something about smiles and walked away.
Markets are interesting to me, I get a kick out of seeing how they work, what’s for sale, how to pronounce what’s for sale, how it should be cooked or used or displayed. I find that whenever I’m genuinely excited, genuinely fascinated by what’s going on around me, people respond in kind and share with me small tidbits about themselves and the places in which I meet them. These little interactions are grounding. Like tiny threads, each one of them gently ties me a little closer to Delhi, tugging me–if only briefly–out of the expat bubble I usually inhabit.
We left the flower market with 2 dozen jasmine flowers and 7 rolls of something like tissue paper–an item I’d been desperately trying to find in Delhi for weeks and weeks now and finally found for sale amidst the flowers. Afterwards we headed to INA market to pick up a few things for Thanksgiving.
The INA parking lot is crazy at most hours of the day. Usually R drops me off and circles the block while I bumble and blunder my way across the slick, broken tiles to find what I need. But two freshly-slaughtered chickens and a big bag of flour, plus Will in his baby carrier, is a bit much for even me to carry by myself; and since the market was still nearly empty so early in the morning, R parked and came with me.
And that’s the other thing about needing to know good people to really fall in love with a country. No matter how good I get at navigating that market, I’ll never be a native Dillite–and it’s a completely different experience to go with someone who is. The interactions are smoother, we visit specific stalls purposefully, seemingly picking our vendors based on cues of quality or relation that are invisible to me. I learn a lot.
I ran into the chai-wallah from this post while we were buying some flour. He remembered me and offered another 10 rupee cup of chai from his traveling tankard of brew. The shopkeepers all laughed, but I bought. It’s not everyday that I’m at the market with a free hand to wrap around a steaming styrofoam mug of chai and in the company of good people with whom to share it.