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We wake up at two a.m. to the sound of far away music. The drums go thump thump thump thump THUMP over and over and the third time I wait for the last THUMP and whisper, “Tusk!” like I’m in Fleetwood Mac and Todd giggles.
Todd, who has been to India twice already, warned me to expect jetlag and a general feeling of dreamy unreality for the first few days. From the moment we arrived, however, I’ve felt fresh as a daisy. The time my watch reads (I’m writing this at 5:23 AM on Friday, for those of you in Toronto it’s still 6:53 PM on Thursday) has seemed correct since we got off the plane. In Toronto Todd is one of those people who thinks, “I’d like to sleep now,” and is peacefully slumbering within three minutes. Meanwhile it takes me an average of thirty minutes of playing tricks on my mind (like naming every single American state in alphabetical order) to bore myself into sleeping. I tend to wake up for a couple of hours in the night, too, so as we lie awake reading at two a.m. I whisper, “Maybe this is my insomnia superpower. You’ve got Sleep On Demand in Toronto, I’ve got Jetlag Immunity here.”
We do eventually drift back to sleep and when I wake up again at 4 a.m. I write up day two, part two. When Todd wakes up a few hours later we go to the park just outside Dr. Khatri’s Dreamhouse. It’s very hard to be in Delhi and NOT imagine living here, spending our mornings sipping chai on the park benches and listening to the birds. I walk behind a sparrow-sized bird who doesn’t hop, or run, instead she positively skips like a little kid. I’m sure she would rather my attentions were elsewhere but she never flies away, just skips around the park periodically looking behind her to see if I’ve found some other defenseless animal to be enchanted by.
There’s a massive peepul tree in the corner of the park with marigold petals strewn across the roots. An odd little creature with the head of a chimpmunk and the tail of a squirrel runs down the trunk to grab some petals for breakfast. Todd wonders if the marigold petals are left there specifically for the for the Squipmunks to eat while solitary men and women in their seventies amble around the park in a very, very slow race to the finish.
On the other side of the park, a group of elderly men sit on park benches and chat. The benches have been built in a circle for, it seems, just this reason. It’s a familiar sight – in our neighbourhood, filled with new Canadians, the old men spend their days in the local shopping center doing exactly the same thing. (When there was a small fire and half our shopping center was closed, they still came, sitting at the last of the undamaged tables next to the cordoned off stores watching the contractors making the place habitable again.) Our neighbourhood does have a park, but the park benches are not arranged for conversation.
We exit the park on the far side and see enclave residents buying fresh vegetables from a man with a vegetable cart. One resident has a very small, fat dog in a sweater on a leash. This is the first non-street dog we’ve seen, and it looks fixedly at the ground as if trying to avoid being laughed at by the street dogs who lounge confidently everywhere.
Every single street dog seems to have sprung from the loins of one medium-sized majestic maternal precognitor, a sandy haired pointy nosed queen of the streets. Some dogs are playful with each other and some are loners. Most houses and stores have some kind of soft place – blankets, towels, cardboard boxes – for a street dog to sleep. Aside from the first dog I saw, the one with the tumour on her leg, the dogs I see are sleek and bright eyed, and maybe the Squipmunks are too slow to get away because they all seem well fed too.
As we near the edge of the enclave and the main road, a van comes barreling through, going much faster than anyone else. One of the street dogs springs to life and runs after the van barking HUGELY, and to my surprise the van immediately slows down. The dog trots off, for all the world like a speed cop who’s properly done his job.
Todd asks if I want to see the roof which he saw yesterday and I am eager to look. We go up the stairs, past a small room festooned with orange marigold flowers that I’m dying to look inside but don’t and on the roof we surprise our host who is gathering palak for breakfast. She shows us her tomatoes, coriander, and chilies and picks an ajwain leaf for us to smell. On the roof we can see the garden from above, and the surrounding apartments. There are roof gardens on top of most of the buildings.
Then we hear a MRRW! and look to see a long black cat with sparkling amber eyes. Our hosts tells us that this is Bagheera. He sniffs my hand for a long time, then allows me to snorngle his cheek for a moment before turning to investigate Todd. I think of our cats at home, Peter and Tenzin, and that if they were all people Bagheera would be twenty three, in a four thousand dollar suit, the CEO of a massively successful business while Peter and Tenzin would be the laziest of frumpy old men, happily farting on the couch and spooning each other. (I mean. Even the embarrassed small dog on the leash is cooler than our cats.)
Bagheera says MRRW! and leads the way back to the apartment where our host makes us besan ka cheela, chutney, and papaya. The besan ka cheela is a sort of flat savoury pancake, and we put the chutney in the middle, then eat it up with the papaya as a side dish. FOR REAL GUYS IF YOU HAVE AN OPPORTUNITY TO TRAVEL AND STAY WITH PEOPLE VIA AIRBNB, DO IT. Our host is one of the best cooks I have ever met in my entire life, and I feel blessed to have eaten her food.
After breakfast we have a nap, and then begin walking to Qutb Mimar, a UNESCO world heritage site, a minaret built in 1192. There are sidewalks stretching as far as the eye can see and me and my messed-up ear are relieved. We pass a restaurant far off the road and see our first tourists standing outside. Soon we arrive at a narrow alley and start down it, only to find that it’s a warren of narrow alleys, filled with shops selling motorcycle helmets, Maggi noodles (ramen), electronics, and snacks like Mad Angles Achaari Masti, chips with a sweet and spicy pickle flavour.
I see a chair that used to be the driver’s seat of a car in a little nook, with a massive hookah set up in front of it. There’s a man standing on a bamboo ladder to fiddle with his store sign. I hear giggling and turn the corner to see two fifteen year old girls, who are hiding in a doorway and peeking at a very handsome man sitting astride a 1960s motorcycle.
We wend our way back through the labyrinthine alleys and are back at the main road. A teenager pulls his bike over to the side of the road and his forty year old dad hops off the handlebars and onto the sidewalk. We walk and walk. We cross the road and see a young woman sitting on a rug on the median with two toddlers and a five year old boy. (It feels strange to leave that sentence out there on its own, but I don’t live here and I don’t know anything about anything. So I’ll just say the truth, which is: it’s very sad. I don’t know what to do.)
We walk by autorickshaw drivers having a break and chatting, then the Tuburculosis and Respiratory Disease Clinic, and eventually pass a small solar panel attached to a battery which is in turn attached to a cord which runs all the way to the small store selling snacks. I think again of my mom, Kite, who lived in the woods and used a solar panel to run her one electric light.
Two massive busses labeled TOURIST BUS sit in traffic. The white passengers stare out the window with the kind of horror usually reserved for people watching zombies eat newborn babies.
And then, suddenly, there’s a forest reserve park in the midst of all of the chaos. I ask Todd to ask in Hindi if we can go in, and the security guard at the gate affably nods. It takes less than five minutes of walking before the traffic sounds all but disappear. We sit down on a bench and for the very first time a street dog (I mean, I keep saying street dog but I’ve seen scruffier dogs win Dog Show contests) with a wagging tail takes an interest in us. Though he seems completely benign, Todd says “Nahin,” which means no, and we walk away slowly, trying to be as boring as possible and the dog loses interest in us and goes to make friends with another dog instead.
I walk over to a small pond to take photos and am absolutely flummoxed to look up and see, of all things, a deer! I run over to Todd and whisper, “COME SEE THIS DEER,” and then of course by the time we get back I realize that it was a cow the entire time who – along with the doggles and the monkeys – I can’t go cuddle. (My poor farty old man cats, who are going to be the recipient of way too much COME SIT IN MY LAP AND LET ME PET YOU FOR SIX HOURS attention as a result of all of this pent up non-cuddling when I get home.)
We keep walking down the wide path. A young man practices a speech, pacing back and forth which is at first really interesting until I see my first monkey at which point I abandon all dignity and run towards them, whispering in a shout, “MONKEYS MONKEYS TODD LOOK MONKEYS”. There are at least ten that I can see, just hanging out at the park, no cage, no minders. I’m shocked by how human the monkeys feel. Standing and taking photos feels much more like standing in Kensington Market in Toronto recording hipster faces than taking the picture of the Cow Wearing The Deer Disguise. I take a thousand photos of one very patient monkey about the size of a four year old kid, staying a respectul fifty feet away, until a much bigger monkey comes over and glares at me. We decide he is her grown son, all, “Listen. That’s my MOM and you need to leave her alone.”
And now, it’s 8:10 AM here (9:41 PM in Toronto) and time to pack up. I’ll write up part two later – soon we head to Raipur.