“As long as the FCO does not advise against your going your insurance will cover you….” said charming Tom at the NFU.
The FCO did not. So mid-morning on March 1st 2020 we were sitting in the generously squashy, leather armchairs of the Etihad Airways departure lounge on our way to India for a private holiday that had been 7 months in the planning. The concourse of Terminal 4 had been so empty that I had spotted Henry and Penny as soon as I arrived, from 100 yards. There had been no queues for dropping baggage; passport control; or security and the few assistants in Duty Free, with no one to assist, had been standing around chatting.
Henry and Penny, both one-time employees of a posh bank, are members of that bank’s travel club and they travel at the sharp end. To be fair, even if Henry’s knees did not have enough metal to trigger an orchestra pit of security alarms, his legs wouldn’t fold into steerage. I have no such challenges and being mean, turn right on a plane but I have no qualms about enjoying the finer things whenever I can wangle them. When I presented myself at the lounge’s reception desk, anticipating having to pay for a few hours of upgraded respectability, I had been welcomed with warm smiles.
“Your friends are expecting you.”
As were the waiters, of whom there were more than punters. In fact we were the only people there. We downed delicious Bloody Maries and were offered refuels. The manager engaged us in amusing banter and promised that the restaurant would open soon. By the time it did there were seven privileged Etihad customers to take advantage of the delicious early lunch. Table d’ hote or self-service? We helped ourselves to spicy prawn curry with warm parathas…… crisp white linen napkins were shaken, unfolded and landed on our laps….. an artfully arranged cheese platter duly arrived for ‘Sir’ and we accepted top ups of the chilled chablis. If this was what some Chinese virus was doing to air travel it was not at all bad.
Penny, Henry and I had met in Gujarat in 2017 and soon had become the best of cocktail hour friends. Gujarat is ‘dry’ but forewarned we each had our covert supplies of our favourite tipples and before suppers we would meet to toast the setting of the sun, in whatever spot or room seemed the most congenial. Sometimes we sat with the backdrops of lakes, groves or fields chinking glasses to the distant sounds of birds settling to roost or oxen turning ploughs. On others we decided which of our bedrooms was the least unattractive and we crept along dimly lit hotel corridors with secreted bottles and tooth mugs. We sat on the ends of each others beds or balanced on any available, rickety chair inescapably near the rattle of water fighting its way through airlocks in ancient pipes. Penny and Henry never failed to scoop up packets of nuts along the route and we constantly scoured the markets for fresh limes and the street stalls for tonic water – a surprisingly elusive commodity that purports to be Indian.
In 2018 we joined a trip to Odisha, in eastern India, during which we shared two long train journeys south from Kolkata – a true test of friendship – and in 2019 we joined another group meandering south from Udaipur in Rajasthan to Maheshwar in Madhya Pradesh. With many suns downed and a couple of country house opera evenings behind us Penny and I had decided to organise a private tour with the help of our good Indian friend – Devendra.
In July e-mails began to ping across the ether from Blighty to India and back as we planned our itinerary. Henry and Penny had been to India 16 times, and this would be my 6th so it was inevitable that one or other of us would have been to some of the places already. Despite that Divendra came up with names of places none of us had heard; we added in some places that had been on our lists but we had not visited and we became excited about the opportunities to see old haunts from a different perspective. We decided to give the Thar desert camel camp and ride a miss. Travelling with friends often ends in tears and India is a Marmite country so, armed with our finalised itinerary, we decided to see whether any of the friends we had made while there, would like to travel with us again.
March 2nd 2020
Nine of us were to meet in New Delhi. Ken and Margaret; Ken’s climbing friend Richard and his partner Davina; Sally from New York and her old school friend Hanley from Pittsburgh – all had accepted our invitation.
By the time we landed in the early morning, our only concern was about the riots between Muslims and Hindus that had been widely reported in the British media during the day before we left. They had looked bloody and vicious in the footage but we told ourselves that as they were in the north east of the city and that both Indira Ghandi’s airport and our haveli in Hauz Khas are in the south, there would be a lot of traffic and many thousands of commuters buffering between us. We were probably OK. Narenndra, who was to be our guide for the first week, met us as we left the baggage collection hall, and when asked, described the riots as a bit of ‘turbulence’.
Refreshed after our respective flights we caught up with each other’s news in a restaurant renowned for its thali. The heat of India, after England’s winter, encouraged our old muscles to relax and the Kingfisher chilled what the sun couldn’t penetrate.
Haus Khas is off the tourist track, an area full of desirable houses, quite a few embassies, lots of parks and a great many trees. ‘Haus’ is Urdu for lake or water tank and ‘Khas’ is Urdu for royal and what is known as the Haus Khas Complex’ is a number of ancient temples and allied ruins near the reservoir that was built by Alauddin Khalji in the early 14thC. It originally supplied water for the Siri Fort and remains an oasis for locals and bird life. Narenndra related this to us under a great tree that was tentatively pushing out the first shoots of Spring. A Little Owl, knowing this history by heart, snoozed above us; a gardener gathered the detritus that he had tried to collect with his antique mower and a dog watched a canine quarrel from a safe distance in the coolth of a marble mausoleum. It felt a world away from the dust, dirt and noise of the what we hitherto had experienced as Delhi.
As suggested by Penny, who had been inspired by William Dalrymple, we took off for nearby Mehrauli (City of Djinns). Covering more than 200 acres, the area was jungle until the late 1990s and although there is much evidence of hacked vegetation; new paths; signposts and litter bins, we could not have felt further from all but a few dozen of Delhi’s 30,000,000 inhabitants. Those we did see were walking their dogs (many Pugs); taking a short cut; reading in the sun or (not) kicking a ball. It is an area that has been continuously inhabited for over 1,000 years. The Tomar Rajputs; Khalji and Tughlaq dynasties; the Lhodi dynasty of Delhi Sultanate and the Mughals and (oh dear) the Brits successively have enjoyed this space.
A row of women in brightly coloured saris sat cross legged weeding in the Rose Garden. We marvelled at the 16thC Jamal Kamali Mosque and meandered, in that desultory post long-haul-flight way past a few of the 40 monuments until we reached the step well where the gates were about to be padlocked. Sally, who would join us with Hanley the following morning, is the step-well queen. We wished she already had been with us.
Our post supper way back to the haveli was blocked by a wedding and we were delighted to jump out of our bus….. to walk….. to join in. The tasteful calm of Hauz Khas was being shattered by cymbals, drums and trumpets. The groom, caparisoned like the bravest of Rajputs, sat high in his awned chariot that was pulled by two ribby, flea-bitten grey Marwari horses. They alternated resting diagonal front and back legs – doubtless sore from years spent clattering Delhi’s tarmac. The two ‘fathers’ girated in increasingly mad circles round each other obviously mutually happy at the deal they had struck. Sweat poured off them. A few contemporary onlookers, while amused, looked worried that the party might be cut short by a heart attack or two.
Somewhere in the middle of the maelstrom, the bride covered in bright pink silk, chiffon and much embroidered and jangling gold, must have been wondering what on earth her future held. She would not have seen the man for whom her parents had decided she would bear children; with whom she would spend the rest of her life.
Then the Marwari were persuaded pull the chariot a few strides further to be nearer the wedding venue’s yellow and pink Crimpolene tunnel. They stopped without being asked. With mopped brows the fathers started circling again. The young boy at the head of the wedding band twirled the poster printed with the wedding band’s contact number so that everyone could read it.
We left them to it, grateful that we were staying a few blocks further from the cacophony. I don’t think I was alone in being thankful that I had chosen in which marital bed to lay, although as I drifted off to sleep I smiled at the thought that my father might well have made a more rationed choice.