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Why Delhi's primordial chaos is strangely liberating

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaIn between exhausting political conversations and enquiries into your personal life, Delhi also serves up history, excellent hotels, glorious food, shopping, and persistent ear-cleaners with a dollop of smog, pollution and standstill traffic.

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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor / December 2023

SEE ALSO Bangalore guide | Goa Resorts | Delhi business hotels review | India Spas | Ladakh guide | Mumbai business hotels | Goa churches and curry

A glorious winter week in blue-sky Delhi, Lodhi Gardens to dog walks and roof breakfasts

A welcome blue-sky week: at the flowering rooftop at Colonel's Retreat (left); Lodhi Garden in all its blazing glory (centre); and those Werewolves that followed me about on morning walks/ photos: Vijay Verghese

MY Vistara flight from Hong Kong to Delhi on 5 December (2023 that is) had us boarded an hour before the scheduled departure time in a rare display of that uniquely Indian practice of 'preponing', where buses and aircraft take off when full, leaving cool Gucci-clad late arrivals sans-seats and red-faced to ponder the perils of overbooking.

While all us passengers were fully accounted for and the airline was indeed remarkably well organised, the general habit of 'preponing' is not to be confused with 'efficiency', a word that puzzles many in the subcontinent. After all, everyone knows it is the vigorous obstruction of a process that creates opportunities for reward. Facilitation is the folly of fools. Everywhere I turned up to queue with notarised documents in triplicate, people looked at me pityingly. "You need to motivate the staff, sir," they sighed, cursing their luck to be stranded behind some law abiding moron. People are highly motivated here.

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Back on the tarmac, our crew had not reckoned with the staff shortages at Hong Kong International Airport and our pushback only happened about 45 minutes later. Everything about the fight was unique. It was on time. Staff was alert and smiled a lot. The captain was a young lady. Toilets were clean throughout the flight. Food was terrific. When I asked for water I was handed a bottle of enigmatic 'masala lemon water'. Vistara gets rolled into Air India early in 2024 and clearly this is the kind of 'motivation' India sorely needs.

Flying from Hong Kong to Delhi is a bit like teleporting to a strange land. One arrives from a place of clockwork efficiency and rules to a lawless Wild West of outstretched hands and head-bobbing crowds where just catching a taxi will confound world travellers. Yet this chaos is strangely liberating, if in a naughty kind of way. Freed from all control, you can do whatever you wish — park wherever you fancy, hold on to a taxi an entire day and keep it waiting anywhere. There is no burden of timekeeping. People will arrive blushingly late, laugh and say, "Indian Standard Time," and no nose is out of joint.

{This lawless Wild West of head-bobbing crowds will confound world travellers, yet this chaos is strangely liberating, in a naughty kind of way...

New Delhi's Connaught Place with United Coffee House and shoeshine boys

The darkly fading but popular elegance of United Coffee House at Connaught Place with its scruffy guard displaying a fearsome mustache; and (right) shoeshine boy gets started on my well-worn leather/ photos: Vijay Verghese

Here you can find your essence, something The Beatles attempted in the Sixties when they arrived in Rishikesh. There is a richness to life in the packed book stores, the impertinent questions (how big is your flat?… how much do you earn?), the shoeshine boys, the newspaper readers, the intelligence and craft of a thwarted nation pouring itself into solar energy, low-cost housing solutions, recyclables, geriatric care,  and the championing of lost causes. The diet also includes mobs and mafias, myths and madness, traffic snarls, religious bigots and charlatans shredding the social fabric of the country but, somehow, the economy lumbers on, ranked fifth in the world (though tiny Bangladesh's per capita GDP is a tad above India's according to the IMF).

In leafy Defence Colony, every day at dawn huge dogs — Huskies, Dobermans, Labradors, Retrievers and Great Danes — would tamely wander the colony, suddenly lunging ferociously at other furry brutes, barely restrained by muscled handlers, only to round the corner and transform back into docile pooches in need of a head pat. I seemed to encounter Werewolves everywhere. It summed up the character of the city, exceedingly gracious and well-mannered one moment and loutishly alarming and unpredictable the next.

Here, under rare blue skies (where the PM10AQI can touch 500), the authorities were waging war against vermin of all sorts. As a result many mice had sensibly abandoned the poison-strewn drains for comfortable three-storey accommodation with TV and Netflix. I arrived for one lunch to find my hosts screaming and climbing atop furniture as their dog chased a rat, which it then displayed between its jaws, the inert tail dangling like a bizarre trophy, evoking fresh wails. Despite the commotion, the food was a tour de force.

In the heart of Lutyens' Delhi at Connaught Place — or Rajiv Chowk as it is now called — international brands strutted their stuff while some ill-lit musty throwbacks like the United Coffee House continued to pull in punters undeterred by the thug-like moustachioed gent standing guard outside. I stopped to have my shoes shone by one particularly persistent lad. In seconds I was surrounded by gents offering to clean my ears, flower sellers, beggars with babies, and one large bloke who attempted to give me a head massage.

I walked past open-air book displays and sniffed the air heavy with smells of hot samosa, bhelpuri and other savouries. Kake di Hatti's copper utensils lined the restaurant entrance, hinting at the aromatic curry delights within.

The Imperial New Delhi is a hotel icon while Khan Market pulls in shoppers and foodies

The Imperial New Delhi (left) is an art deco icon, much loved by residents and visitors alike with red-turbaned doormen; (centre and right) Khan Market attracts those looking for food and chic garments/ photos: Vijay Verghese

I met up with old schoolfriends, enjoyed glorious rooftop breakfasts at Colonel's Retreat (my go-to Delhi lodgings), lunched on the lawns at the Delhi Gymkhana Club (the codger conversations awash with politics and pills), walked Lodhi Garden and admired its austere Sultanate tombs (blasphemy in a time when even the grand Mughals are being erased from Indian schoolbooks), breezed through Sundar Nursery, pottered about the stately Imperial New Delhi that was witness to the historic 1911 Delhi Durbar and later hosted Gandhi on its lawns, sampled mutton kakori kebab at Khan Market, gawped at the fabulous textile displays at Fabindia, and then motivated some caretakers at the cemetery where my parents are buried to get the graves cleaned.

After all that motivation I had some change left over for a traditional Delhi meal of chilli chicken, prawn in hot garlic sauce and egg fried rice at Aka Saka. Nothing quite like Punjabi Chinese or 'Sino Indian' as it is snobbishly referred to in some parts. Were China to discover how deeply it has infiltrated the place — and not just with mobile phones — politics might take a turn for the better. When I got back to sane Hong Kong it seemed bland in comparison. After a long hot shower to wash India out of my hair I called a friend to arrange dinner. "How about biryani or dosas?" I asked.

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