In the latest instalment of our ‘Notes from … ’ travel series, Brass Monkey Books Publisher Kabita Dhara shares her experience of a return to a foreign city that feels like a homecoming.
As soon as the plane touches down, my heart starts racing. For me, every visit to India begins with this rush of adrenalin, this anticipation of delicious chaos. In the customs hall of Delhi’s brand new international airport, my husband and I head for the queue that processes OCIs and PIOs. The former denotes that I am an Overseas Citizen of India, the latter that my husband is a Person of Indian Origin – a fact that never ceases to amuse us seeing as I am the one with Indian blood and my Melbourne-born Anglo husband has none that we know of.
When I step up to the customs officer, he is already annoyed at me; he has been trying to divert people from his queue into others, presumably because he has had enough already. A few stern glances between my face and my passport and I’m through. When it is my husband’s turn, the officer goes through the same motions, but this time he also turns to scrutinise me over his shoulder, as if by doing so he can confirm that we really are a couple.
Stepping out into the cool Delhi air I’m starting to bubble with excitement. Delhi is not my ancestral corner of India; this is only my second time here. But it is the only part of India I have explored alone, and it is mine in a way unlike anywhere else. I spent two and a half months here in 2009/2010, working in a small publishing office, criss-crossing the city to meet other publishers and industry professionals, haggling with rickshaw drivers in my very basic Hindi. This is the place where I wrestled with my fears about India, and won.
A young man from the guesthouse where I stayed on my last visit meets us at the airport. He drove me around Delhi the last time I was here. Now he watches my face, obviously hoping for some recognition. When I smile and greet him warmly, he grins, abruptly wrests the luggage trolley from my husband’s grasp and sets off towards the car at a cracking pace. It is 3 am, and he wants to get home.
A light fog settles over the city as we make the half-hour trip to the guesthouse in South Delhi. It is wedding season and the smoke from thousands of spent firecrackers hangs in the air. The ride has a calming effect on me; the sight of the guesthouse fills me with a sense of homecoming. The same smiling security guard I met on my last stay opens the car door and I can barely choke out a greeting, overcome by the familiar face.
The guesthouse’s proprietor has given me my old room and once my husband and I are settled in, we decide to go for a walk to stretch our legs. We both know it is not the smartest of ideas; Delhi at 4 am has its dangers, even in a housing colony like this. But we are both simmering with excitement at being back (my husband visited me in Delhi at the end of my previous trip) and we plunge on into the night.
It is still. The murmur of parties – probably wedding parties – rages on in distant parts of the colony, but there is no one else around at this hour. The only sign of humanity is the security guards, shrouded in shawls and topped with woollen hats, many drifting off to sleep at their posts.
Amber streetlights cast a weak glow. We keep a wary eye out for stray dogs; from experience we know that as docile and meek as they are in the daytime, come nightfall the streets belong to them – and they can be vicious if you stray onto their turf. We wander along the canal that runs through the colony, a river of sewage that they have been trying to build over since last year. We have dubbed it ‘Shit Creek’. When I first came to live here last year, a fellow Australian who was staying at the guesthouse told me she used the stench from the canal as a landmark – if she got lost in the colony she followed her nose home. We barely notice the stench now; the cooler weather and absence of passing men using the canal as a urinal might have something to do with it.
The canal leads us to the park at the end of the street, ringed by huge trees not unlike Australian gum trees. And then we hear it. The squelching sound of mastication. Rustling in the trees. We stop. Movement at the far end of the park. Peering into the light we can just make out a shape. It’s big. An eye. A trunk.
There is no mistaking it now. In the middle of this middle-class housing colony, an elephant is out for a late night snack. Its trunk is painted. It has probably had a long night on the party circuit, transporting some nervous groom in a wedding procession, surrounded by drums and marching bands and firecrackers and traffic and dancing. It pulls at the branches of the trees and munches, oblivious to our presence.
Kabita Dhara is Publisher at Brass Monkey Books.