by Lawrence Bush
For Part 1, click here.
HE WAS A VERY handsome Sikh man, dark-eyed, smiling, turbaned, of course, about 40 years old, and he was pleading with us — gently, obsequiously, with “sir” and “lady” tagged to every sentence — to engage him as a driver any time we needed one in Delhi and its environs. It would cost us only 9,500 rupees, he said — about $160 — for an overnight trip to Agra and the Taj Mahal. He was from the Punjab, he said (the Sikh-majority state of northern India), and his “babies” were 14 and 7, in private school (“veddy expensive”). He’d been driving since morning, he said, and we were his first customers — at nearly 11 p.m.
He’d picked us up at the Hotel Imperial, where we had just spent about $100 on dinner — duck, wild-mushroom, ravioli, and a glass of wine apiece — then wandered the halls for an hour looking at photographs of King George V and Queen Mary; at prints of battles between British lancers and Indian mutineers in 1857; at bronze sculptures of elephants in full religious regalia; at expensive saris and gift items; at hotel guests (mostly foreigners) reading Financial Times in various sumptuous alcoves.
We were there because another guest at our bed and breakfast, a New Zealander woman traveling solo, had told us that morning that we must have a meal at the Imperial — and because we wanted to celebrate the start of Susan’s Fulbright residency and to eat a meal of food that we easily recognized.
“In New York,” I’d said to Susan, over dinner, “when we visit a very fancy place like this, I always feel like I don’t belong, you know, that we’re curious kids poking around before we get thrown out. But in Delhi,” I continued, “the privilege feels tailored to me. I have to wear it. Whatever that means.”
Purim at the Imperial. Three Israeli women were sitting at the table across the dining room from us, and Susan and I were disguised as Queen Esther and her uncle, rich British imperialists.
The cab driver’s name was Jasmindersi, or Jasminders — he wrote it down with his phone number and gave me the paper for my wallet.
The ride cost $8, including tip. Quite expensive for Delhi. He may have overcharged.
Tomorrow night comes Holi, an Indian spring festival known as a riotous free-for-all, just like Purim. I’ve already had a water balloon explode at my feet while walking down a rubble-strewn street trying to pretend I’m not a British imperialist.
Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.