Delhi Airport (Now/Then)

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I have a few minutes of free wifi time at the Delhi Airport after the information lady very kindly registered me with Aircel. She said I needed a number — any number–which she could then call in on my behalf. (Ideally, it would be some kind of phone number, whether or not it was mine.)

There is a kind of bureaucracy that seems to thrive in India. I’m not going to talk about crossing security at this moment. Needless to say, carrying all one’s things on carry-on was not convenient, nor is having super short hair, which caused me to be directed to the line-free men’s only area, and after a certain amount of compressed giggling, re-directed when my sex was realized. (Needless to say I do not have the grace and dignity of many women my age who are Indian; this was compounded by zero sleep.)

At any rate, Delhi airport is now all chrome and glass and starbucks and Italian clothing, and duty-free shop.

This is very different from my first visit here when it was small and dark and India was in an era of self-sufficiency with little foreign investment, and the whole airport seemed lit by a couple of huge buzzing buglamps. To be fair, my memory waws also from a time in which I’d had no sleep.

I set forth below a sketch that i wrote about my first arrival in India. Needless to say, it is very much a draft, written on the fly and with only a few minutes late, can’t correct, but here goes.

PS — Sorry for the length and any kind of un-p.c. aspect. Take care.

**************************************

The first time I went to India I arrived in the middle of the night. It was completely black out with a sense of heavy overhang. Unseen tree branches. No street lights or traffic lights.

The airport, Delhi, was fluorescence painted yellow–everyone’s seemed to be lit by camera flash. The man who picked me up, Vijay, from the South had a huge toothed bright smile. Even the custom’s agents in their olive drab seemed only lit up in swatches. Vijay led me to a cream colored Ambassador, it’s rounded hubs like the Art Deco of another age.

This was the early 1980’s, a time during which the Indian government was promoting self-sufficiency as well as reacting against Kissinger’s past “tilt” towards Pakistan during the Nixon presidency. As a result, and as I was soon to discover, you could find practically nothing in the country that was not made in India – except for a few very minor imports from the USSR.

That included cars. We drove the round-hubbed Ambassador through that heavy overhang of darkness. It was not hot–October, not cool – I don’t remember much of the weather actually –only that it was incredibly dark–from the back seat I could not even see the road– and I had a feeling we were driving forever, and my host Vijay kept turning around and smiling and asking me how my flight was.

We stopped at a gate, opened, by a guy in a pale khaki uniform – I soon learned that it was common fin Delhi for even employees of the most minor hotels to wear uniforms and came to a stop before the letters YWCA. My guesthouse.

Vijay took me to the door where everything became fluourescently blue, instead of the yellow of the airport, and after ringing the bell repeatedly, one of the darkest men I’ve ever seen came out in a uniform pants, yawn and sleeveless t-shirt, looking blue black beneath the buzzing tube light–wings of moth fluttering unseen around him, and looked at us questioningly. Vijay rapped off sharp words–the man nodded, had me sign a detailed register, which asked everything from my address to my mother’s maiden name–wanted to take my passport which there was no way I was giving up. I had it tethered to my neck in a pouch. Vijay barked some more, and then turned that same fullsome smile back to me – he was a rounded man–, namasted and told me he’d see me tomorrow, or he laughed later that same day for it must have been about 2 a.m. by that time.

Then he was gone – the one person in the country who seemed to know my name, and English–I thought that they would all speak English in India, and the porter, with an open uniform khaki shirt now over his slender torso, wifebeater, hoisted my backpack upon one shoulder — not on one shoulder through the strap, but at the top of his shoulder balancing it it by his head and began to climb up the robin’s egg pale stairs, in and out of the fluorescent light tracts.

I followed him and the moths, noticing suddenly on an interior wall, a lizard climbing vertically up – a gecko I guess– gasped loudly enough that the porter turned down to me. I nodded towards the lizard who kept up its same translucent cimb–in that light–you really seemed able to see through the toe webbing.

His face was shadowed even darker–at that time most Indians were ver slender –I think that they still are, and have the dramatic bone structure that goes with leanness – and the whites of his eyes against that darkness looked almost mottled – as if the contrast with his skin made one see all the variations in the whites more clearly – the tiny little veins – the blue and red tinges – the actually cornea (brown black) — those corneas stared now blankly, not comprehending that the lizard could have incited my gasp.

And waited for me. I nodded quickly–the pack looked so heavy by the side of his head like that – he wore flip flops as pale and transluscent as the lizard’s webbing – and so we trudged on again, on to about the fourth floor.

The actual floors, had landings that were open to the world–too dark to see anything, just night hair – cooler than I expected, or I shivered anyway, ands he opened the door with what looked like a skeleton key – one of those old ones in British movies, and I felt an embarrassed, ridiculous but real fear to be going into the room with him – taller than me, seemingly made of teak, mottled eyed, the world utterly dark and quiet except for the buzz of the fluorescents he’d switch on.

He did that now – the room buzzed softly – he brought my pack in, put it down on a table covered made of a kind of cheap wooden board, gingerly stretched his neck. Stared at me.

I finally got it. But Vijay had not waited for me to change money at the airport as my guide book had suggested, and I realized now that I had no rupees.

The porter nodded towards each bed, then went to the bathroom and turned the light on and off meaningfully. Then, waited,stared.

No rupees, I said, and tomorrow, and he switched the lights in the bathroom on and on again. There was one on the mirror over the sink. He switched that one on and off now too.

Swung open the closet door. Swung it shut. Waited. Stared.

Tomorrow, I said, and no rupees. And cursed silently the smiling Vijay, and all I had were five twenties that my boyfriend had given me before I left – there at the door of his apartment, and five pink packages of sweet and low – saccharine being something not readily available in India, and me an addict and thick pad of traveeler’s check, still I dug around my stuff wondering if I could bring him a post card of New York –and found in the side of my purse a five dollar bill.

Now five dollars at that time in India was a great deal of money. there were then 13 or 14 rupes to a dollar (now about 50) and my sense was that a dollar – 14 rupees went a long way –

I’ve got this, I said.

He stared at it blankly, his skin seeming to me more blue-back, his cheekbones more sculpted than ever. He did not reach out to take it.

“Dollars,’ I said, “Five Dollars.” I tried to do the math into Rupees – like 75,” I said.

He stared. Then went back to the bathroom, turned on the switch one more time, turned it off again, all the time keeping his dark eyes on me.

“It’s all I have,” I said.

I think that now a porter in Delhi would not react this way.

But this was thirty years ago, and my sense then and now was that probably someone who was a porter had very little contact with dollar bills.

“It’s all I have, ” I insisted, holding it out, and he took it at last, reproachfully, and scuffed out of the room, me following closely so I could quickly lock the door behind him.

(Though, of course, he had the key.)

But I did not worry about my safety exactly. More, I think, about my sanity. I was alone. In New Delhi. With no rupees. But at least I knew how to work the lights.

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6 Comments on “Delhi Airport (Now/Then)”

  1. hedgewitch Says:

    This was fascinating, k. This little day to day stuff is what makes things real, though I must say you project that travel-logged, weary sense of disjunction and unreality very well, too. So glad you found wifi, and glad to know you are writing.This is a great piece of narrative prose.

  2. janehewey Says:

    your details are exquisite.
    this is my favorite way to read about another culture.
    thankyou, k.

  3. Mama Zen Says:

    This is so interesting! What an amazing place to visit.

  4. claudia Says:

    very cool k. – thanks for giving us a glimpse into now and then… india is such an interesting country.. hope you’re enjoying your time..

  5. kkkkaty1 Says:

    yes, very cool to read your fluid writing of your trips, past and present..

  6. brian miller Says:

    nice….i hope you will be giving us these glimpses along your journey….what an intriguing moment with the porter as well


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