Top 5 things I will miss about Delhi

I’m all set to go to Edinburgh and begin my course, this time next week, I will have reached. I have no idea how my life will fit into two suitcases, but I hope to figure out soon. So here we go about the top 5 things I will miss about Delhi (I have been here for 2 yrs 8 months now), in order of increasing importance…

Number 5

The Delhi charm! The city. The absolute bling that only Delhi can be, from the sparkling choodas on most Punjabi hands to the absolute disregard for any kind of rule or law. The red light jumping, the not-free left taking, the rickshaw, the auto, and in general the complete madness!

Number 4

My workplace… at STMicroelectronics. It was almost always good, sometimes nasty, but it has been a helluva ride. I have learnt and taught others; I have faltered and succeeded, and it was very hard to leave behind the long saga of the reason I ended up in Delhi.

The Sexy Campus!

Number 3

The Noida-Greater Noida Expressway. My daily commute to work, oh what a gorgeous road. I loved the rolling fields in the monsoons and the way we used to peer along at 40 kmph in the winter fog. I will miss the long conversations with V and the McD breakfast on the go. The winding roads, nostalgia…

On a crisp January morning

Number 2

My lovely lovely home, where I put up for but 10 months. It was the nicest place I have stayed in so far. I had my books, my clothes, a beautiful space, and a very comfortable room in a flat. It has been one of the few places I have lived in that I can imagine staying in for years together, cozy and snug.

Number 1

K. My love, my flatmate, my soul sister. She is my twin from a parallel universe. We think alike, we talk alike, we read each other’s minds. We say the same things together, invariably, always. K has been a rock solid support, a brilliant friend, a caring flatmate, and basically the awesomest person ever! If there was anything that would’ve kept me in India, it was her.

U & K

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Chandni Chowk to China (via Scotland)

That’s it. I’ve finally become Indian.

I’m sure you’ll know this by now, but I’ll tell you again anyway: I’ve left India, and returned to Scotland.

(Cue violins.)

It’s only been a few weeks, but it already seems like a lifetime ago that I was snivelling over my last ever Chicken McSpicy in IGI Airport; getting strange looks from a sunburnt Israeli backpacker, who had opted for a Subway sandwich. My Paharganj-quality suitcase was wrapped in industrial-strength cling-film, and, as usual, I held up the queue at Immigration while the officer, oblivious to the line behind me, chatted away in Hindi. “You should continue to live here in India,” he said, when he learned I’d been studying Hindi, “You are most welcome to stay for as long as you like.” But before I could make a half-joking comment about him giving me a green card, he picked up his stamp, and with a flourish marked my passport: Departed, 7th April 2012.

And, later, as the always-apathetic Jet Airways staff poured cups of weak, lukewarm coffee at 30,000 feet, I watched Rang De Basanti and snivelled some more.

I had a great last week in Delhi, though. My landlord had made me move out of my flat early, which meant for six days I was crashing on beds and floors and charpais all over the city, including New Ashok Nagar with Udita and Safdarjung Enclave with Maegan. We spent hours making food and chai, chatting, reminiscing, being nostalgic. We indulged in a bit of weird beauty therapy, some fancy mehndi and a couple too many gulab jamuns. I even squeezed in a final cinema visit – it was the perfect way to say goodbye to my adopted city.

Fancy hands! (And yes, Maegan is wearing pyjamas)

So what’s next? Again, you’ll probably know this, but I’m off to China in August to teach English for a year. It’s funny – I actually applied for the job kind of as a joke. One morning in January, Maegan and I were sipping carrot juice (I’m not sure why)  in our favourite cafe in Majnu ka Tila and I was online, scouring the English teaching vacancy websites looking for a possible Plan B (Plan A involved earning enough money to be able to stay in Delhi, and, as you can see, it didn’t quite happen). “English teacher wanted in Inner Mongolia”, I read off the screen. I don’t think I could have pointed out Inner Mongolia on a map at that stage, but it sounded weird and fabulously obscure. I immediately announced to Maegan, “I’m going to apply.”

When, a few days later, the school replied (mentioning that Inner Mongolia was, in fact, an autonomous region of China and quite different from ‘Outer’ Mongolia (which is basically an informal name for Mongolia, the country. Don’t worry, I learned all this on Wikipedia, too)) and said they had “great interest” in my CV, I began to think more seriously about the job. Anyway to cut a very long story short, I’m going there in August!

Baotou, the small city where I’ll be living, couldn’t be more different to Delhi. It’s in the middle of nowhere, for one thing. Somewhere between the ‘famous’ Grasslands and the edge of the Gobi desert. It’ll be cold there, and people won’t speak much English. But, as well as the opportunity to experience a new culture and way of life, I will also have the major advantage of a WASHING MACHINE IN MY FLAT. And I’m not going to lie; that’s basically what swung it for me. I’m so excited I can hardly contain myself!

Anyway, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I’m still at home for the next few months, so stay tuned for Scottish updates. And I’ll leave you today with a cliffhanger: I’m not the only Cheesecake girl who’s left Delhi…

The Cheesecake Girls: Delhi’s best blogging trio?

A Suitable Tailor

Last weekend, sitting on the floor of my living room, drinking tea and attempting to gain a little respite from the sun, my friend received an email:

‘A friend back in the UK is planning a low-budget wedding, and needs to get a wedding dress made. She’s asking my advice on whether to get it made up here. What do you think?’

A good question. Getting clothes tailored has been a re-occurring theme during my two year stay in India. The concept of affordable, personalized tailoring as an everyday service – completely unheard of back in the UK – has always appealed to me. So why was my gut reaction to the email to think ‘don’t do it!?’

My quest to find ‘the perfect tailor’ has been something of a holy grail. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in those early days in Noida, I reveled in the whole experience: trekking off to the fabric shops, browsing through colours, patterns and designs with friends while sipping on chai, choosing a neck design from a well-thumbed brochure and finally being measured. What’s not to enjoy?

When a week later the day came to pick up my clothes (a full kurta churidar set) I could barely contain my excitement. Nor was I disappointed when I reached the shop – it was ready! Only when I arrived back home with my friend did the realisation set in. While her suit fit like a glove, mine was near ridiculous: the top half sagging off my shoulders and wide around my chest, but tight around my hips, and the churidar barely able to be squeezed over my feet.

‘Maybe the tailor got confused’ my friend helpfully pointed out, ‘you do have quite thick calves … and your hips are wide in comparison to the rest of your body …’

Hmmm, not exactly music to my ears, but perhaps true. Three repeat visits back for alterations and I had a kurta that was perhaps passable. Strike one.

Eager to try again, a friend suggested that I had a much better chance if I found a shop-bought item that I liked, and then had it copied. Fab India kurta in hand, I optimistically returned. This time the results were admittedly better – this time it was uniformly large, as if made two dress sizes too big. ‘It will shrink in the wash, madam’. Yes, but sadly not that much …

Then came a bit of a lull – I got busy with my Hindi course, and moved across town to south Delhi. But for Diwali and my trip to Lucknow I decided to try my luck with my new local tailor, with similarly disastrous results (extra sad considering the lovely polka dotted silk I had purchased for the purpose). With a heavy heart, I decided that perhaps tailoring and me were not meant to be. What are we on now- strike three?

Only when I received three (lovely) sets of fabric as a Christmas gift did I get myself back into the game. This time I wasn’t taking any chances. A trip was made to INA market, and I purchased a few metres of cheap fabric for experimental purposes. With this in hand I made my way to the swankiest tailor that I could see in Green Park Market.

With high expectations (I’m an eternal optimist) I returned after the prescribed four days, only to find it wasn’t ready. I went back again after a week and then again a few days after that, and on both occasions was greeted with closed shutters. These posh places don’t have a lot of holidays. Between shop closures, my trip to Chenani and the three alterations needed to make the kurta fit the entire process took around six weeks. Thwarted again.

By this point I really had given up (I’m an optimist, but I’m not stupid – maybe I really am just a bizarre shape that no tailor can contend with). Perhaps unwisely though, when buying some leggings in a cloth shop in Green Park Market a few weeks later, I couldn’t stop myself asking the million dollar question: ‘I don’t suppose you know a good tailor?’
At this, the shopkeepers eyes lit up, and he clicked his fingers, beckoning his young son towards him:

‘Madam – I have one. You won’t find it going alone. Follow my son.’

Completely wrapped up in the intrigue of the situation, I duly followed the small boy, negotiated my way through the residential streets behind the market, and came to an unmarked door, where I was unceremoniously deposited.

Feeling slightly giddy by this time, I rang the doorbell, and was greeted by a friendly looking auntie type, who ushered me inside. Slightly skeptical of the fact that it just looked like someone’s living room, but reassured by the experienced-looking tailor she introduced me to, I nevertheless decided to try my luck, and left one of my suits to be made up.

What beautifully tailored suits, madam ...

Result! Can you believe it? Three days later I picked up a beautifully stitched kurta set which (wait for it …) actually bore a perfect resemblance to the shape of my body. Since then I’ve had Auntie-ji’s tailor make three suits, all of which have been great, and she’s even taken on the task of altering my previous disasters. When on occasions something isn’t made quite right the first time, the changing area (read: family bathroom near the living room) means that it’s easy to show the problem, and adjust things there and then, without multiple trips home. I haven’t tried any western clothes yet, but that might just be the next experiment.

So, in answer to my friend of a friends question … maybe you can get your wedding dress made in India. But you might have to wait for a few years before you find the right fit …

Nightlife! – Part I

My cool take on the hot-spots of the Delhi Nightlife, in no particular order…

1. Capitol (Hotel Ashok)

This is one of my favourite places to party. The club opens up at about 11 and the crowd picks up only at midnight. There is hardly any place to move by 2 AM. The dress code is formal, so most men are well-dressed. It is a good place to go dancing, when in a large group because then one can reserve a table. The music, experience tells me, depends upon the mood of the DJ. So, one can expect to hear quite a variety of genres on any given night. The only downside is the entry fee of Rs 2000, but the club has the concept of guest list (where someone who knows someone who knows someone at the club gets the names on to a list)!

Prices: Expensive

2. Cafe Morrison (South Extension)

The music is the best part about this lounge. There is brilliant hard rock, soft rock, a bit of trance, and some country. Most women here are totally dolled up, so if one decides to end up here on a whim, then women might feel self-conscious. The dance floor is small, sort of like an aisle between the bar counter and the wall. So, when it’s crowded it is irritating. Best to reserve a table. These guys open relatively early in the evening and it’s a brilliant place for an evening of great music.

Prices: Inexpensive

3. Flluid (Mosaic)

This one’s in Noida. At the moment, it is closed for renovation. There was a time a year ago when I would be found here at least twice a week! It is an all time favourite place. The food is great (order from the Latitude menu). The music is okay-ish, they play all the popular tracks of all time. The service is remarkable; all the staff is very courteous and friendly. This too, is a lounge, so open from 6 PM (I think) to 1 AM. By usual Noida standards, I think the most educated and polished hang out here.

Prices: Membership for me :), mid-range otherwise

We love to play with electricity!

4. F-Bar (Hotel Ashok)

Dress code is strictly formal, men in sports shoes aren’t allowed in. This place is right next to Capitol. It is the most most expensive place ever. Reputedly, the richest in Delhi go dancing here, which means neither the suave or the polished. The music is decent, not great, the sort of crowd that goes with weird music. I wouldn’t recommend it, it ain’t worth the money.

Prices: Super expensive!

5. Reverb (GIP)

Again a lounge, again in Noida. This place also shuts down by 1 AM. If one wants to tap feet to a good collection of Bollywood and Punjabi, this is the place. The crowd consists of mostly college people, the kind of dresses one sees are casual to semi-formal. The bouncers are surprisingly robust and this is a good party place with friends.

Prices: Inexpensive

Price ranges (per person, including entry if applicable):
Inexpensive: Rs 1000 – Rs 1500
Mid-range: Rs 2000 – Rs 3000
Expensive: Rs 4000 – Rs 6000
Super expensive: Rs 9000 – Rs 15000

Beautiful Birthday Update

I, the littlest of the Cheesecake girls, celebrated my Birthday this month. Even aside from the fact that February is my Birthday month, it really is the most gorgeous time to be in Delhi. We met at the Rajiv Chowk metro station for the first Birthday of the year. S knew that I wouldn’t have the slightest notion of a plan, so she had the perfect one ready. We headed to The Triveni Kala Sangam, an artsy place of glorious sunshine. Close to Mandi House, this seemed to be a place that holds frequent art exhibitions. It had beautiful flowering trees and by Central Delhi standards, an immense amount of open space. There was a quaint amphitheatre around which we lazed around, toasting in the warmth. Noelle and Mirta joined us and I felt very little and very brown indeed!

M and S, my lovely darlings, gifted me earring and a book (! Ain’t that the best present ever!) and we ordered these massive paranthas, lots of chutney, and cups of coffee/chai. It was the laziest Saturday Birthday and I wouldn’t have been happier 🙂

We then headed, again on S’s recommendation, to Bonsai café in CP. Here we had deep talks of life and times and perspective, of dating Indians and not dating them, of marriage and of S moving away soon. It was beautiful. Enough said!

PS: Sadly, but predictably, I was too full after the paranthas for cake; but M did have a carrot cake and approve.

The Streets are Paved With …

Those of you living in Delhi will I am sure empathise with me when I say that it’s become very hard to get out of bed these days. No, not because I’m lazy (or not any more than usual) but because inside my bed, under two double duvets and a wool blanket, is the only place I’ve been able to achieve anything resembling warmth.

The thought of stepping out of this mini haven onto the icy cold marble floors or worse still into the bathroom is all just a bit much. Anything that can be done from bed is fine – eating, drinking tea, chatting on the phone, working on my laptop … all possible. Getting dressed and going outside? Not happening.

The Arts Faculty bathed in the winter sunlight

It’s a good job that I’ve got more than Hindi class to tempt me towards North Delhi on a daily basis, or  I’d have a serious problem sitting the exam come March. Luckily, the streets around Delhi University’s north campus are paved with – if not gold – the best array of street stalls you could wish for.

First stop – momos (choose from chicken, vegetable or paneer) from the Nepalese family near the metro station. Lunch? Tick. Need a notebook? A brightly coloured pen? Or a plastic folder with Sponge Bob Square Pants on the front? The stationery wallah has it sorted. Then for the ten minute walk down Chaatra Marg towards the arts faculty. The incentive? A steaming hot cup of chai from our favourite Uncle-ji, delivered with a smile, all for the bargain price of Rs.5.

Chai!

This chai has to provide sustenance through the first two hours of Hindi class. There is just about enough caffeine and sugar to last through revision of the present continuous tense and a lesson on when to use ‘apna’ before it’s back to the same hut for another cup and a freshly-fried samosa. For the last hour of class it’s the sheer amount of oil that you have consumed that’ll see you through.

The scrum at our favourite jewellery stall

Post-college, a reward is required. This comes in the form of the jewellery-wallah, perfectly positioned between the faculty building and the metro station. Even better, his stall is a bit up-market. Rather than his wares being laid out on a sheet on the floor, he has a giant tray attached to the back of his bicycle, making it all the more browse-able. Genius. You want glass bangles, a novelty bear or a Minnie Mouse mobile phone case? He’s got it covered. Even better are the beautiful wooden carved earrings in all colours – just like the ones in Fab India, but for a fraction of the price.

Finally, it’s back on the metro, but not before picking up an aloo tikki. I maintain that nothing can make you feel as good as fried potato inside lightly fried bread.

Aloo Tikki, fried with love

A good routine, no? The only problem being those days when it all goes to pot. Like yesterday: chai accidentally made without sugar, aloo tikkis finished before we reached the stall, and the jewellery wallah on holiday. It better get warm soon, because if things carry on being this unpredictable I’m going to need another reason to get out of bed and go to University …

Tea, coffee, travel culture, and a bowl of coconut soup

While we’ve mentioned once or twice that Hauz Khas Village might be becoming a tad too ‘bohemian’ (read: pretentious) for its own good, there are a few places in the tangle of leafy, winding lanes that are well worth checking out.

The other day, after a long and questionably useful Hindi class at DU (Did you know that the poet Kabir was abandoned at the side of a pond by his mother when he was a baby? Well, you do now.), Maegan and I headed to South Delhi’s artsy urban village for an evening of socialising at Kunzum Travel Cafe.

Started back in 2007, Kunzum – named after the ultra altitudinous mountain pass in Himachal Pradesh – is a space for swapping travel tales with newly made friends; for reading travelogues and guidebooks stacked on library shelves; for daydreaming about exotic and distant lands (owner Ajay Jain’s photography all over the walls helps with this!); for penning/blogging your own holiday memoirs… Oh, and even for just sipping tea or coffee, which, believe it or not, you can pay whatever you like for!

And the best part – my lovely friend Brandi now works there. Lucky b*tch.

Look how smug she is!

We shuffled out of the bone-chilling January fog and into the cosy cafe. I swear it was the first time I’d felt warm in days; I even had to take off my shawl. Brandi and some other friends were lounging on floor cushions, discussing film nights, book launches, workshops and several million other exciting things which would be happening at Kunzum soon. We had masala tea in Fabindia cups and rectangular peanut cookies. We chatted about a new collaborative e-zine called Outside In. We toyed with the idea of turning chai drinking into a sport, envisaging headlines like ‘Team Chai completes race across Delhi, discovers chaiwallah with best recipe’.

Creative ideas in a creative space: Kunzum is just like that.

And then it was closing time. And we decided to go in search of soup. The quest took us along the Village’s narrow gullies, round dark corners and up crumbling staircases – via detours at Flipside and Elma’s – until we reached Lah! – an almost brand-new Southeast Asian eatery with bright pink walls and a slightly out-of-place Christmas tree. Studying the menu that promised tasty-but-perhaps-not-100%-authentic dishes from the likes of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, Maegan and I ordered a gigantic bowl of ‘Laksa Lemak’ to share. A spicy coconut soup full of noodles, veg and beansprouts, it was the perfect meal for a cold winter night. We were very happy indeed.

So while I didn’t move to India to sit drinking coffee and using free wifi, or to eat Thai soup beside an elegant vase of bamboo, there is definitely room in my life for the odd night in Hauz Khas Village. And with Brandi filling me in on the events at Kunzum (she does excellent Facebook updates), I expect my visits will soon become more than occasional.