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

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 …

Fishy business (but good for the sole)

It’s not easy, being a girl. Especially a great, big, pink, sweaty, foreign girl, who has to live every day amongst thousands of beautiful (and petite) Indian women. The kinds of women who do that irritating ‘effortless chic’ thing with their glossy black hair, never-smudged eyeliner, glowing skin and expertly shaped eyebrows. The kinds of women who wear jeans in 40 degree heat without expelling a single drop of perspiration. I’m sure you’ll understand when I say this really doesn’t do much for my self-esteem.

But I think I’ve finally come to terms with being comically tall and constantly sweaty, and have faced the fact that wearing eye makeup (or any kind of makeup, for that matter) just isn’t an option in Delhi post-February.

What I can’t deal with, though, is having disgusting feet.

Living in a big, polluted city with a climate that makes wearing any footwear other than flip flops out of the question, it’s not surprising to get home after a long day and realise your feet are coated in a thick layer of dust, dirt and god-knows-what-else.

The thing is, I’m so lazy that during all these months of trudging along Delhi’s streets, and thus making my poor tootsies increasingly worn and disgusting, I haven’t been for a single pedicure treatment. And I’ve now reached the stage where I just can’t cope with the idea of expecting another human being to restore my feet to their former – softer and cleaner – condition. No person should ever have to perform a task that horrific.

A fish, on the other hand…

Well, that was my logic. Although I have been told by several reliable sources (including Maegan’s boyfriend) that most of these ‘fish pedicure’ places have been closed down because of hygiene reasons or, possibly, because animal rights activists thought it was cruel to make poor, defenseless creatures nibble the dead skin off the general public’s feet. Which, I suppose, is fair enough.

So it made perfect sense, then, to give this fishy foot fiesta a try before it was made illegal in Delhi too. And since it was Maegan’s birthday last month (and I hadn’t got her anything…), I thought it would be nice to drag her along with me and treat her to her very own aquatic ordeal.

We went to ‘Happy Feet’, a stall with a slightly misleading name in Select Citywalk, and plunged our feet into a glass tank full of small, innocent-looking brown fish, which quickly swarmed around our toes in exactly the same way that groups of students flocked round the aloo tikki stand after classes at DU.

It tickled. A lot. And then it started to hurt, which was unexpected. Nobody had told me there would be pain involved!

The small, innocent-looking fish were frantically chewing at my living flesh. They were basically mini pirhanas; the presence of my big, pink, foreign feet sending them into an ecstatic feeding frenzy. The whole concept, I suddenly realised, was horrible. Why was I doing this?

Ezgi, our Turkish friend from college, and who I’d also lured into this pirhana preschool, was watching her feet with great interest. ‘In Turkey they have spas where you sit up to your neck in water like this. With fish.’

Maegan and I grimaced.

But, fifteen minutes later, our feet emerged from the tank and – if you ignored the bite marks – did look a bit nicer. We were then treated to a bit of industrial foot-scraping, followed by some nice moisturiser and a relaxing massage. And, until I went outside and walked about in the dust, my feet did look incredibly well looked-after. It’s just a shame that the effects only lasted a few minutes.

I suppose these fish pedicures are more of a gimmick than anything. I don’t imagine I’ll be going back for another one, so I’m sure I’ll be able to cope if (or when) they get banned everywhere. As an experience, though, it was probably one of the only things that’s been ticklish, hilarious, painful, ethically-questionable and nausea-inducing at the same time, so it’s got to get some points for that. But I do feel a bit sorry for the fish.

Do not disturb the ducks

The Deer Park in Hauz Khas is really nice. It’s just a pity that until last week I had never visited it.

I really don’t know why I’d never bothered to take the small detour by the entrance of Hauz Khas Village (actually I do – it’s because I was usually on an urgent mission to find biscuits at Kunzum or crepes at Flipside), so I’m quite ashamed at my laziness and at how clearly unwilling I am to alter my (albeit deliciously biscuit-y and crepe-y) routines.

Anyway, it all changed the other week because my brother had come on a visit from Scotland, and I thought, as a supplement to our extensive tour of Delhi’s best dessert-serving establishments, I’d show him some of the city’s greenery. And Maegan, who’s lucky enough to live within walking distance of the Deer Park, came with us.

You follow the path that’s on your right as you approach the Village. First you’ll see some grass and trees and a few overexcited children, and then there’s a big enclosure full of deer. Actual deer! Most of them are quite timid, but some brave ones will come right up to the fence if you bribe them with a handful of fresh grass and some Haldiram’s snacks. There are peacocks too, that strut around with their fancy feathers on public display, and, according to a sign, the enclosure is also home to rabbits, though we didn’t see any. At this stage I didn’t realise I had my camera with me, so I don’t have any photos of the animals. But I’m sure you can imagine what it was like…

Then there’s a couple of dome-shaped tomb-type-things, beside which a group of awfully cool teenagers were playing volleyball. Surprisingly, we weren’t feeling sporty enough to join in, although we did try a few of the exercises along the jogging track.

What we were most excited about, though, was the duck pond. We’d been following signs to it for ages, our hearts filling with expectation at the aquatic-avian delight we were about to discover. We imagined lush greenery, crystal clear water and birds bathing blissfully. Perhaps we’d buy some bread to feed them, and then sit back and listen to them quack-quack-quack with happiness.

But then we reached the pond and were a bit disappointed.

Come to think of it, we mused, had we ever actually seen a duck in India? Maegan remembered that she had, once, but in Kerala. We’d obviously got our hopes too high. Not to mention, made the terrible mistake of believing what was written on a sign in India.

But never mind. It was time to leave the Deer Park anyway, and carry on with some much more important cultural activities, namely my chhota bhai’s first meal in India. Which, of course, was schnitzel and carrot cake at Flipside.

A lot can happen in Cafe Coffee Day

Mr Ramakrishnan, the President of CCD!

So, as we all know, 2012 is the year in which the world will end, and a clear sign of this impending apocalypse is Starbucks, which will be subjecting India to its undercaffeinated beverages and irritating jazz music before the year is out.

I’m particularly devastated about this because we already have a couple of our own perfectly good coffeeshop chains: Barista, and the cheaper (and perhaps more cheerful?) Cafe Coffee Day. The latter, with its iconic red sofas and Bollywood background music, has become something of an Indian institution – no mall or market is complete without the CCD red inverted comma.

But it’s all change at our favourite cafe chain. No longer must we rely on the sloth-like waiters, as we now place orders at the counter. The menu has also changed to incorporate some slightly fancier sandwiches (although, tragically, Maegan’s favorite lemon tea has been axed). Oh, and they’ve just opened a brand-new ‘Lounge’ branch by the Saket PVR.

So while everyone is busy raving about St*****ks, we have decided instead to celebrate CCD, by compiling this list. Enjoy.

Relaxed: The MIT CCD at Manipal (by Udita)

The CCD that has only ever housed students, almost always those that pretend to be studying heavy engineering books, is located in the heart of the University town that I lived in, Manipal. This CCD is witness to ‘filmy’ drama everyday, in the form of hook-ups, passionate making-out sessions, impromptu break-ups, and groups so large that all 9-10 of the tables must be joined. The conversations range from new crushes to the last exam to the latest bike in town. Often, there are local gigs (pioneered in my times by Anamol’s band) and one can listen to Floyd and Dylan while sipping not-so-well-made coffees. But when the music and the ambience is so laid back and ‘Hard Rock Cafe’ types, what more can one ask for?

Chilled out in Chennai: Adyar CCD, Indira Nagar (by Maegan)

Prominently located in one of south Chennai’s most amiable suburbs is another CCD that scores highly in the rankings. With an abundance of wicker chairs and sofas tucked under the shade of a leafy green canopy, its outside area may well be CCD’s most picturesque. Notable for its sizzling chocolate brownies (which are always proudly served with a suitable amount of drama and gusto) and unpredictable opening hours (I’ve known it to be open past midnight when busy but closed at nine on quiet nights), what really sets it apart are the staff. Willing to let you use their toilet when you’re passing by & just can’t make it home, they also came to the rescue by providing a small cup of (free!) milk when I ran out while baking a birthday cake for a friend late at night. Now that’s what I call service …

India’s best CCD?: Amber Fort, near Jaipur, Rajasthan (by Susanna)

When my parents were visiting, my dad developed a sudden and intense fondness for Cafe Coffee Day (the same way he did for ‘Ducky Duck’ in Japan). After a heavy thali, what could be better than a coffee in CCD? After being harassed by hawkers in Connaught Place, only CCD would provide some much-needed tranquility. And after traipsing around the Amber Fort for hours in the midday sun, when we spotted that little red inverted comma, and drank cappuccinos while looking out over the fort’s golden stone walls, we probably were the happiest tourists in all of India.

Engrossed: CCD Counter at STMicroelectronics, India (by Udita)

I consider myself fortunate to have a CCD counter at my workplace, where… wait, hold your breath… prices are half of what they are outside! Yes! It’s almost half the reason why I get myself to work everyday and since I am a very regular customer, I get goody-bags, free coffees etc. every once in a while. One can usually overhear people having intense discussions about the leakage graphs of a device or the capacitance of a BJT. The coffee is good and even lemon tea is still served here. The best part, they still makes ‘Coffee Toffee’ for people who request it; it used to be on the menu a long time ago.What can I say, I feel blessed…

India’s worst CCD?: Rajiv Chowk metro station, Delhi (by Susanna)

It would only be fair, while describing the best, to also include the polar opposite, which can be found in the sweaty, stale-smelling interchange metro station underneath Connaught Place. This CCD is always packed, but even if you can find a table you’ll immediately want to die because there’s no airconditioning. Once, I went in here to be told there was no milk. ‘Um, so what can I have?’ I asked the waitress. She heaved a sigh and eventually found the strength to reply, ‘only black coffee, madam.’

Tested  & Infested: Noida Sector 18 CCD, UP (by Maegan)

Susanna may have already taken the title of ‘India’s worst’ for Rajiv Chowk’s undeniably unimpressive branch, but in Noida’s sector 18 I think we have a contender. Tucked away not far from the metro station up an insalubrious looking staircase, its ambiance leaves much to be desired. Best-known for its acute cockroach problem and long-term out of use toilet (‘currently being fixed, madam’) the massive amount of time that I spent there is perhaps the most damning indictment of my Noida PG. Either that, or I kept going back because of the lovely waiter who enjoyed helping me with my Hindi homework.  As they say, you win some, you lose some …

(Photo of Mr R borrowed from here)

Curd, Lemon Juice, and Mustard Oil

However much I’d like to think that I completely fit in, there are several things that single me out as a foreigner. Granted, I’ve been blessed with a strong constitution when it comes to street food and tap water (God, please don’t strike me down with food poisoning for that comment!) but India – I have found – will catch up with you in other ways.

Have you ever witnessed a conversation between two ex-pats who’ve been here for more than about six months? The cliché would be that we’d reminisce about things we miss from home (turkey dinners, snowy winters, pub lunches etc) but the reality is somewhat different. Within five minutes the conversation will have turned to ailments – yes ailments:

“Oh my God, you have a weird skin rash under your armpits too? Apparently it’s the humidity”

“Don’t feel too bad – it could be worse -I have a friend here who literally cannot eat food outside anywhere without being sick for three days afterwards.”

“Ah! My hair is falling out in lumps too! What’s the deal with that?!”

You get the picture? My latest ailment has been my scalp, of all things. Having been through the wars with psoriasis supposedly triggered by Chennai’s humidity, I thought that I might be more suited to a dry, temperate Delhi winter. Conversely, it turns out that this is not the case – apparently my scalp responds to dryness by giving up the ghost, falling off & becoming incredibly itchy. Not good. Clearly I can’t cope with either extreme.

Fear not though – help is at hand! Almost everyone I’ve spoken to has had a simple (yet bizarre) solution to offer. My boyfriend remembered his mother massaging mustard oil into his sister’s scalp at this time of year – had I tried that? Friends from college poo poo-ed the mustard oil idea (too difficult to get out, apparently) but swore by the application of fresh curd.  Feeling very confused by these pieces of conflicting advice, I turned to (who else) Udita, who rubbished all of the above suggestions, but thought that lemon juice could help, and be a lot less messy.

I’m personally up for trying all three (perhaps not at the same time) and will report back on their relative merits. I’d rather that than carry on popping anti-histamines like smarties, which is clearly not a sustainable solution.  It’s funny – adapting mentally to a new culture and way of living can seem in the abstract like the most difficult thing to achieve, but it seems in many cases that it’s the body lagging behind the mind. Ah well, hopefully with the help of curd, mustard oil and a dash of lemon juice I can persuade my fragile gori physique to step up to the mark. I can hope, anyway.

(Photo courtesy of Michael Foley Photography, via flickr)