Our train is delayed and doesn’t get into Delhi until mid-morning, but thankfully the restaurant at the LetsBunk Poshtel – a trendy setup decorated in minimalist Nordic style – never closes, so we can order whatever we like for lunch. Except that today is voting day in Delhi, so we can only choose dishes made from ingredients delivered to the Poshtel yesterday. Which is basically none of them.
After unpacking, a hearty lunch of butterless white toast and a massive nap, dinner takes care of itself. We’d already decided back in January that going to Pizza Express in Delhi had an irresistible reverse-orientalist allure, so we set off towards DLF Promenade, a shopping centre large and bright enough to make UB City in Bengaluru look like a street market.
It’s like being back in London, in the most depressingly soulless way possible. There are Calvin Klein outlets, Forever21, Jamie’s Italian, even a Marks & Spencer. But who are we to judge? We’re here to eat our favourite, London-born brand of pizza. And it is good.
On our way back to the Poshtel we stop in studenty, street arty Hauz Khas village for a beer at the charmingly self-deprecating bar Imperfecto. An enthusiastic grunge band are hammering out fuzzy chords while a creepy bloke in a trilby waltzes lecherously around the dance floor. Behind them the final scenes of the IPL final are playing out.
At one point I’d hoped we might go and watch an IPL match live while we were here, but for a long time it looked like the matches would all take place in the Gulf states due to security concerns with the elections, so we went to see the international T20 in Bangalore instead. Those security concerns were put to bed, though, and I’ve been dipping into the tournament every time we’ve been around a TV showing the matches which, this being India, is quite a lot. Early on I picked RCB (Royal Challengers Bangalore) as my side as we’d been to their stadium and the talismanic Virat Kohli is their captain. However, as time’s gone by I’ve realised that was a poor choice for two reasons: firstly, they’re terrible and finished bottom of the table; secondly, while Kohli is a huge star with a Bollywood actress wife and enough sponsorship deals to keep him on every other advert in India, the previous captain Mahendra Singh (“MS”) Dhoni is, according to a friendly lad who works at the Poshtel, the people’s favourite.
The former railway ticket inspector, who was en route to becoming a football goalkeeper before his coach suggested he join a cricket team as wicket-keeper for extra practice, captains the Chennai Super Kings. That’s an IPL franchise, not a cigarette brand. CSK, as they are known, are currently on the big screen behind the grunge band, attempting to chase down Mumbai Indians’ total of 149.
It’s looking near-impossible for them until Mumbai’s Sri Lankan fast bowler Lasith Malinga bowls a torrid couple of overs that allow CSK back into the match, and it goes right down to the final over. The entire bar, besides the chap in the trilby (still grooving away despite the band having finished their set and left), are on their feet, nervous with anticipation. Even Rebecca is chewing her fingernails. Come the final ball, CSK need just one run to equal Mumbai’s total, and two to win the tournament. Malinga, earlier the villain of the piece, sets Mumbai alight by dismissing Shardul Thakur LBW.
Initially I’m bummed out because I’d been supporting Chennai but I quickly realise that I’d only decided I support them this morning, so I get over the dramatic defeat with minimal sulking.
A few months back, my friend Nav from my old work and I realised we’d both be in Delhi at the same time and arranged to meet up, so in the afternoon Rebecca and I pop over to meet Nav and his wife Parsim – herself a Delhiite – at Haveli Dharampura, a two-hundred-year-old boutique hotel in Chandni Chowk, the heart of Old Delhi.
Afternoon tea at the hotel is a dream; a procession of perfectly-made street foods including pav bhaji and dahi puri. It finishes with a plate of kulfi – dense, creamy ice cream – which I enjoy very much, and Nav and Parsim tell us they know a great place to take us later on. When we’re finished eating, Parsim shows us up to the roof, where a man with a broad moustache is preparing a kite.
Originating in China, kite flying or kite fighting is a popular sport across northern India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. I can dimly remember an episode of QI that characterises it as the most dangerous sport in the world; strings are often studded with broken glass, to make it easier to sever those of opponents, and people are frequently injured by rogue lines.
The scene is wonderful. We can see the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid, and as the sky turns gold before sunset kite flyers emerge on the rooftops all around us. Our flier, an Old Delhi native who works at the hotel thanks to its links to the traditions of the city, has finished preparing the kite on its long reel of twine and tugs expertly at the string as it soars high above us, fluttering in the breeze.
He passes Rebecca the reel and, much to the consternation of the guy on the roof opposite, she accidentally cuts his wire. As his kite falls to the ground, Parsim explains that in addition to the rooftop competition between fliers of kites, at street level kids compete to collect the kites as they fall – like in The Kite Runner.
After a while Rebecca, unaware she’d managed to fell the neighbour’s kite, passes the reel to me and the kite immediately dive-bombs towards the rooftops. Our pro guide tugs quickly on the line, restoring the kite, and after a little while I get the hang of keeping it airborne and roughly where I want it to be – not quickly enough, though, to prevent Rebecca’s victim exacting his revenge by downing my kite. I apologise to the man, who laughs and procures a stack of a dozen or so more.
On a nearby roof, a flock of pigeons circles closely, reminding me of William Dalrymple’s encounter with pigeon fanciers in City of Djinns. We head downstairs as the sun dips below the horizon, and emerge into the dusky streets of Chandni Chowk. Following Parsim and Nav as they expertly navigate a rabbit-warren of alleyways seemingly as tangled as the spaghetti junction of electric wires overhead, we pass surreal stacks of ring-binders as we wriggle through Delhi’s stationary-manufacturing district on our way to Kuremal Mohan Lal’s.
This cosy kulfi wale is a Delhi, and even international, institution. Parsim explains that the outfit has catered at weddings as far afield as Rome while the proprietor assembles her a stack of different kulfis for her father’s birthday tomorrow. The ice-creamerer to the global Delhiite diaspora treats us to a deluge of different flavours while we sit in the cosy parlour, from chikoo to the signature stuffed mango (mango skin filled with mango kulfi then frozen).
Parsim offers us a lift back to the hostel, giving us a chance to compare notes on Indian and British driving habits. Nav explains that Parsim refuses to drive in London because “she finds it too boring”. Parsim laughs as she weaves between a bus and an onrushing wall of tuk-tuks.
The penultimate day of the trip is all about luxury. Frugal budgeting as we’ve scrimped and saved our way around India for four months (AKA a generous birthday gift from my mum) has earned us a one-night stay at the airport plaza Radisson Blu.
We’ve booked the cheapest room available, but when the porter lets us in the room’s phone rings non-stop for no apparent reason so we’re apologetically upgraded to a suite. We spend the first ten minutes or so running excitedly around its capacious lounge area then another half hour meticulously exploring the rest of the rooms, before a lazy afternoon spent by the pool and eating eye-wateringly expensive meals at the hotel’s restaurant, all the while secretly craving another round of Bengaluru street food.
Barely slept last night. Nerves? Sorrow the journey is over? Excitement to finally resume the Football Manager save I’ve had on hold for months?
Whatever it was, it might explain why it takes a full thirty minutes at the check-in desk, while sceptical-looking airport staff shake their heads at our tickets, to remember that I had an email from the airline a few weeks back with updated flight details. Rebecca – who, bless her soul, has had her patience with my insistence that I’ve “got things under control” worn almost completely through during our travels – gapes at me in terrified disbelief for the entire ordeal. New, blissfully-compliant barcodes scanned, we’re able to board in good time after all. Ample time, in fact, since our departure is delayed by a thunderstorm raging around us, throwing ominous forks of lightning down around the airport from a charcoal-grey sky.
“Airplanes can’t get hit by lightning, right?” I ask Rebecca. She shrugs and says she doesn’t know. I realise she’s not yet forgiven me for the check-in desk fiasco.
But eventually, we take off. And eventually, we land. Home to green fields and blue skies, dappled with a stunning crimson sunset.