It’s departure day today. I get up and get dressed by 6:30am because I want to spend whatever little time I have left with my grandparents. Ram makes me chai. He and Usha will be my escorts back just as they escorted me to Dayalbagh.
I greet them with the usual Radhasoami and settle into the chair in their room. Priya’s coming early to help with breakfast and do mehendi on my hand before departure. Apparently she’s really good at it. She’s here at the dot of 7. Last night we had cabbage and potatoes for dinner, so there was enough left over to stuff into the roti dough and roll out to make ‘ban (pronounced bun) gobi paratha. Mama says she didn’t sleep last night. Her asthma is kicking up too. She looks dejected. I give her a big hug and remind her that Amit and my parents will be here with her in 24 hours.
Priya serves me breakfast. It’s too early for their breakfast – which is usually served around 9:15am. I go sit near daddy and remind him to eat slowly and chew his food well before taking the next spoonful. We’ve made a joke about it– as he would tell me ‘haste (has-tay) raho (keep laughing), I remind him ‘chabate (chaba-tay) raho (keep chewing)! He gives me a belly laugh that warms my soul. His smile and his well worn face are imprinted deeply within me.
After breakfast I get completely ready to leave, the taxi arrives so Ram loads my bag. Usha arrives around 7:20pm. She’s yet to be on time for anything. Her younger son is with us, and I assume it’s because she’s hoping I’ll give him money.
Priya does my henna and then it’s time to leave. I kiss and hug daddy and kiss and give an extra big hug to mama and then it’s time to go.
I get into the car as does Usha and Ram and to my surprise so does her younger son. I knew she was going to visit her father’s brother in Delhi and I guess she brought him along for company and security.
The driver is adept and gets us out of Agra downtown traffic by taking a detour through New Agra which allows me to see daddy’s home which he built and where Rami uncle has lived for decades. For free.
The drive is uneventful and soon we are on and then within 90 minutes off the Yamuna Expressway which is like a freeway in the U.S. Amazingly people actually ‘follow lane discipline’ as is advised on signs routinely. They have well marked signs showing people to only overtake on the right (because of course here we drive on the left side of the road, and the drivers seat is on the right.)
Our exit off the expressway is Noida and thereafter we are in the thick of Delhi no-rules, no lane driving, road signs and rules-are-an-inconvenience, honk-happy traffic. One hour after we got off the expressway we are pulling into Mala Didi’s home. (Didi is a term to describe sister in a respectful way. Usually reserved for older sisters but also used to address a woman of equal age out of respect). I am happy to be here and quickly change out of my travel clothes into the first pair of jeans I’ve worn all week. After offering the travelers some refreshments, I finally tip Usha and Ram Rs. 1,500 each for spending two days of their life traveling for me and for their more than 60 years of collective service (Usha 20, Ram over 40, since he was 15) to my grandparents and then they’re on their way.
Mala Didi and I head out after one of Sona’s (her house manager of 19 years) delicious iced coffee drinks. We’re going shopping so I can pick up a few things for the kids and hopefully Jason (he’s terribly tough to shop for).
I manage to find some rather adorable things for the kids (Lego for Corwin — nothing Indian about that I realize)
Now we are then heading to Kaylin, an Asian fusion restaurant where I’m hoping to have some of my favorite food flavors – Indian Chinese food. This is one of those made up cuisines to suit to palate of a people. I grew up on this as our main ‘Eating out’ cuisine. Unlike here in the USA when I was growing up in India there were no coffee shops (there are now, no American fast food (sadly there are now), and eating out was an occasion to dress up for, pose for family photos for, and was something that was really really occasional. Fast food for me then was Indian street food…samosa chana (samosa with masala chick peas sprinkled with diced onion, green mint/coriander chutney and a maroon sweet tamarind/date chutney), pani puri (puffed airy crispy little balls of fried dough that you crack open gently with a finger and stuff with a mixture of diced seasoned potatoes, onion, cilantro and then it’s dunked in a mint/coriander water and then the entire piece of goodness is stuffed into your mouth for a phenomenal explosion of flavors! Literally.) ‘Bhel puri’ or ‘dahi puri’ (both of which include Indian rice crisps tossed in the two aforementioned chutneys and also includes some of that same seasoned potato onion mixture. Dahi Puri has all this and plain yogurt seasoned with spices added to it). Other street foods I loved and can never have again on a street corner in India is ‘Bhutta’ (charcoal fire roasted hard kernels corn that’s finished with a half lemon dabbed into a mix of chili powder and salt). All my years of school in the summer, I’d get off the school bus at 6pm, and at a corner of my street would be sitting the same ‘bhuttawala’ he would reserve an extra ‘kadak’ (hard) corn for me. He’d show it to me as I got off the bus, I’d run up, change clothes (we wore uniform), bring a Rs. 2 bill for him and grab my evening snack! Some of the best dosas I’ve had in my life were from a cart vendor who would push his big heavy griddle on a cart up the hill to the main gate of my college. He would set up shop right outside and as we let out he would be deluged with hungry college students (we did have a cafeteria in college). My mom would come pick me up from college at least once twice a week to have an excuse to get his ‘world-famous’ (to us it certainly was) Mysore dosa. If memory serves me this dosa is a stuffed dosa but it’s different from the Masala dosa I described earlier. This has the stuffing in the batter itself and it seriously defies description. Someday it might be worth it to me to prep my system with an anti-diarrhea pill and face the consequences of indulging one more time. Another staple outside colleges was a ‘sandwichwala’ this was a sandwich made on white bread with butter AND green coriander/mint chutney, then slices of potato, cucumber, tomato and seasoned with coarse salt, chili powder and pepper. It was filling and divine! And finally there was nothing better at 4am after a night of clubbing that to get an omelet with ketchup from a street vendor catering especially to the club-goers…or club-leavers I guess I should say.
We order a smattering of food. Mala Didi is pure vegetarian and I know with everything we order there’s going to be left overs so I be sure to order the main course vegetarian. We start with soup…miso for her, sweet corn chicken soup for me.
One bite of this after seasoning with vinegared chilis and ‘soya sauce’ (soy sauce) and I’m instantly transported to Kamling, my family’s favorite Chinese restaurant when I was growing up in Bombay.
Our next course is dim sum.
But then I’ve just passed Taco Bell, McDonalds, Starbucks, Johnny Rockets, Chili’s, and a French pastry shop with perfect looking French macaroons and other delicate petit fours that I never thought I’d see here. Yes we were in Delhi but seriously we could have been in any mall anywhere in the world. Interestingly this mall has an edge up on the American malls as far as I’m concerned. Fantastic Indian stores alongside American brands and a large smattering of British brands that also brought back fond memories. Marks and Spencer’s, Hanleys of London etc. the food court was something I’d love to have in the US. A delicious smelling potpourri of mainstream fast food with Indian fast food.
The dim sum is divine. Thereafter our main course Singapore street noodles for me, Pad Thai bowl for Didi. My noodles are a bit dry and not really the color they’re supposed to be, but they smell good. A typical Indian thing is that rice is meant to be had with a curried, soupy type accompaniment…this could be a daal, a chicken or other sort of curry. So since my noodles are dry, Mala Didi asks the server (who’s plating my food from the dish he’s just brought me) to take some ‘gravy’ from her bowl and pour onto my dry noodles.
We literally have 2-3 bites and then we are stuffed and bloated!
Mala Didi pays the bill, and we waddle out of there with our leftovers which will be dinner for Didi and her husband Pikoo Bhaiya (brother, as a sign of respect for someone who’s not an ‘uncle’ … Sort of the difference in being called Ms. or Ma’am at the grocery store).
Finally we head home, I have to shower, pack my shopping and Didi is going to drop me off to JW Marriott where my parents and brother are spending a night before heading out to Dayalbagh tomorrow morning. I’ve warned them to leave early because I promised mama they would be there for lunch.
My first shower in 5 days feels pretty glorious I must say. And then its time to go to the hotel to spend a couple hours with my parents and brother. Also my father’s older sister and husband are coming over to meet my family for dinner so I I’ll get to meet them. After 10 years.
Mala Didi graciously drops me off. I hug her goodbye and am glad that we got to spend quality time together after many many years.
The hotel is a gorgeous 5 star hotel with exceptional customer service and exquisite interior design. I’m escorted to their room because I’m not an overnight guest here. I’m happy to have someone pull my suitcase for me. The room is huge! The bedroom is massive, complete with credenza and even a fairly largish sofa. Huge bay windows overlook a small private airport and the sun is about to set right outside the window. The living room is actually the size of my living room and In fact probably longer.
Rene aunty and Pramod uncle arrive shortly before 7pm. Wow, aside from Renu aunty having lost a bunch of weight, they seriously look exactly the same to me! We catch up…exchange photographs on iPhones and take new ones together as a group. She is a gregarious, high-decibel woman who isn’t afraid to speak her mind. Pramod uncle had retired as Admiral in the Indian Navy a few years ago. Her daughter, my first cousin Bhavna lives in Southern California with her husband and two sons. We get to meet once or twice a year.
Papa order some small eats for the room as they’re going to enjoy appetizers and drinks here before heading down to the hotel restaurant for dinner. Tender tandoori chicken with mint chutney and spring rolls
Soon it’s time to leave. I say my goodbyes and hug everyone. Amit is going to take me to the airport in the hotel car that’s been arranged. As we are walking across the hotel lobby, two different staff start walking toward us to assist with my one suitcase. We assure them we are fine and walk out to the uniformed driver who loads us up. And away we go. During the very short ride over, I tell Amit about trying to get daddy to eat slowly. I’m hoping that Amit will continue to remind daddy so that the habit gets strengthened.
We get to the airport and Amit asks the driver to wait a while. He’s hoping to see me inside, but the very officious looking guard at the entrance is checking ticket and passport (thank goodness I had printed my e-ticket out) so I say goodbye to Amit and then he’s off.
I find my way to the Cathay Pacific counter which is completely empty. I check in, ask for window seats all the way through, ask for a fragile sticker for my bag so it will get less manhandled and hopefully the Good Earth tea cup set won’t break (it’s wrapped in clothes).
Immigration and security are quick and soon I’m by the gates. I head off toward my gate. I’ve got some Indian rupees to spend and a few more souvenirs to get. I find an Indian emporium with many different souvenir options and soon it’s spent. As I’m walking toward the gate I find another wonderfully ethnic store with all sorts of fun things. Jewelry, bags, clothes, incense, God/Goddess prayer paraphernalia which I happen to love to look at; prayer platters, embroidered cloths for the prayer area/altar, incense holders etc. they also had a live music session with tabla, sitar and vocalist. They had so many attendants that I couldn’t go more than a couple seconds without someone wanting to greet me ‘Namaste’ and be of service. I just wanted to be left to my own devices and was trying hard to be polite about it. I picked up a couple of small things and within the next 5 minutes I had to say no thank you to 3 different sales people who wanted me to hold a basket. Finally when the fourth one just handed me one silently, I took it…easier and less annoying to just roll with their way, after all they’re just doing their job. I ended up with more than a couple items so the basket did come handy after all.
Finally I made my way to my gate which to my pleasant surprise was at the T-junction at the end of the path that I was on. I quickly found a spot to sit and grab a bite. A sports bar of all things! They had 9 TVs in a big giant square so that the image of the two men trying to kill themselves in some sort of fighting sport (WWF, MMA etc.) I sat in a way that I could observe the people walking by and not have to subject my senses to the violence magnified on their giant screen.
Sadly the lamb wasn’t cooked so well. I also thought it would be more dry than curry like. I had half my can of beer, two of these roti things and then went off to sit at my gate which was a hop away. This was the main drag of all the gates and at the heart of it, right by my gate was this gorgeous 20 foot tall mixed metal sculpture of Buddha and on the other side of it was a sun. It was gorgeous and I don’t think the pictures I took do it enough justice!
Pretty soon they start boarding us. Back of tr plane after first and business class. I’m toward the front, just after Premier Economy. Difference being slight more leg room. And so off we go, first 6 hours of the 24 hour journey home. I’m anxious to see my kids, my husband, my cats, my home and to sleep in my own bed!