Thursday, 8 March 2012

INDIA


HOW can I describe how extraordinary this first trip to India was?  I still can’t quite believe I was there, it is just so different.  I had 6 days of intense visual experiences, wonderful food, confusion, crash courses in assertiveness and negotiating, and my back seat driving has been cured for life after taxi/tuk tuk/rickshawing my way around Delhi.

DAY 1 taught me that walking around Delhi is not an option.  After two hours of trying to find the inner circle of Connaught Place (it didn’t look far on the map) Caroline and I gave up and ran to the nearest tuk tuk and headed straight for the Imperial Hotel’s Atrium Bar and a much needed cup of tea.  We had been accosted by numerous people trying to ‘help’ us and each one had sent us off in a different direction.  Tea was the only possible remedy and from that moment on, driver operated transport was a must. 
The Imperial was New Delhi's first luxury hotel (1931), but is most famous for being where Pandit Nehru, Mahatama Gandhi, Jinnah and Lord Mountbatten met to discuss the Partition of India and the birth of Pakistan.  

Tuk Tuks waiting for the next client

DAY 2 was a visit to the Taj Mahal.  Again, nothing happened the way I imagined, but it was an amazing day.  I cannot begin to describe how beautiful the TM is, as those of you who have visited it will know.  I will never forget my first view of it and am eternally grateful to Caroline for having requested that it be part of the trip, as I would never have bothered if I had been alone, and that would have been a huge oversight.


One thing that particularly amused us was how fascinated the Indians were by us.  While we were being terribly PC and not daring to ask them if we could photograph them, they were blithely snapping away at us with their phones and cameras and lots came and asked us if their families could stand with us for a photo.  Very funny.  But it did give us the courage to snap away ourselves.  Nice to know that the fascination was mutual.



DAY 3 was the first day of fabric shopping, which was, after all, the whole point of the trip.  My delightful guide was Shubham Kohli, the wife of a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend, who took me to Nehru Place where there was a whole bunch of fabric sellers.  Nehru Place was amazing … it reminded me of Les Halles in Paris crossed with a widescreen city scene from Bladerunner, and if I hadn’t been with Shubham I think I would have just turned straight round and gone back to the hotel!  At H P Singh, I found just what I had been hoping to find: lots of lovely silk print designs.   

Just a small selection of the wonderful silk prints I found on my trip 

DAY 4 we were tourists.  Hamayan’s Tomb and Lodi Gardens, in Delhi.  I was struck by how there was absolutely no litter at these sites, and realised there were no snack bars, restaurants or vendors of any type within the walls of the site.  This made for a calm and almost timeless atmosphere which was very agreeable, particularly in comparison with most European sites which seem more often than not more of a shopping/fast food mall than anything else.

Top: Humayan's Tomb
Bottom : Lodi Gardens

BY now we were dab hands at negotiating our daily taxi service, though it never seemed to get any quicker.  The obligatory ‘how much will you charge us for the day?’ followed by no reply but wanting to know how long we were staying, what we had seen (in order to be able to convince us to go to what we hadn't), how we should see the shop of his brother-in-law/friend/father/cousin ‘on the way’ to wherever, and then finally after several reminders we would get a price which then had to be negotiated down!  Exhausting even before you’ve started the day!  And I now have the mobile phone numbers of several taxi driving gentlemen from Delhi in my little black book.

The classic New Delhi Taxi

DAY 5 was a trip to Chandni Chowk, old Delhi, the part everyone thinks of when they think of an Indian city.  The taxi wouldn’t take us in there as it is so crowded, so he dropped us and we got a cycle rickshaw to take us to the spice market, then we walked back to the Red Fort.  Chandni Chowk was  fantastic, just as I had imagined, hustle, bustle and craziness.  Despite previous warnings from a French lady that the streets would be ‘running with excrement’ (just one of many exaggerations) this was definitely not the case, in fact I saw more doggie do on my first day back in Lagrasse than in the whole time I was in Delhi.  Ditto for bad smells.

Market sellers in Chandni Chowk

Chandni Chowk chaos!

Then our second visit to the Imperial Hotel for the full High Tea experience.  It just had to be done; a 3 layer cake stand filled with smoked salmon sandwiches, scones and strawberry jam, √©clairs, millefeuilles, chocolates and more.  And yes, I ate it all.

We met up with Shubham again in the evening and went in search of another fabric supplier I had read about in Lajpat Nagar, an area that made Nehru Place seem orderly and calm. After a long search (I am happy to say that Shubham was sent in a hundred different directions too, so it’s not just us!) a little boy took us to a silk specialist where I found yet more delights.  The hierarchy in the shops is fascinating; quite Dickensian.  There are usually 2 or 3 guys sitting crossed legged somewhere, then they gesticulate to a minion somewhere who starts pulling out bolts of fabric willy nilly and throwing out 10 metres or so of it in front of me.  As you will know, I have very particular taste and was mortified when metres and metres of designs that I was definitely NOT looking for were piling up around me, but as Shubham said when I commented on all the work it would be to reroll the bolts, ‘look at all the people working here!’.  Quite the opposite experience to the Sentier in Paris where sometimes I get the impression that the fabric suppliers there are just decorative and don’t want to sell, let alone serve me!

DELHI shopping is so different to European shopping it’s almost disconcerting.  We had also visited Kahn Market, recommended for its ‘classy’ shopping.  Hmm.  Lots of western labels yes (which we weren't interested in of course), but classy, well, not really!  

Kahn Market

But I did find a wonderful jewellery emporium in a basement and of course lots of it is now hanging in the  shop! 



AND then it was the end of this whirlwind visit and time to go home.  Lots of memories: the delightful people, the colours and elegance of the Indian ladies, the unbelievable noise and traffic, the particular odour of Delhi ... wood smoke mixed with traffic pollution (strangely not as awful as it sounds), the endless negotiations, confusion between English English and Indian English, the fantastic food, and so much more.  All my silks are carefully folded away onto my workshop shelves and will make their way through to the shop over the coming months.  One thing is sure:  I will be back!