Transitioning: Dharamsala to Delhi (Buckle-up, please)

Once I’m properly fed, packed, and primed to go, I take my leave of the Kashmir Cottage staff. I give Tsering at the front office a hefty tip to be distributed to everyone who has helped make my stay so comfortable. l did not get a chance to talk with Ani-la, the resident Buddhist nun, because she was off to the LTWA to hear Geshe Lhakdor’s teaching…she has her priorities straight! Tsering gives me her usual sweet smile and I wish her well as she charts the next steps in her life. She already has a nurse’s certificate but is uncertain where she wants to live and work.

At first light, I could see high wispy clouds and blue sky, both good signs. Stepping outside at 6:50 a.m., I could feel lower humidity than the previous two days. Around 10:15, TC appears en route to a meeting and pronounces that I should be able to leave…providing the plane makes it from Delhi.

My driver is the bearded gent who lives down the road from KC, and I’m pleased he’s the one taking me to the airport. He’s driven a taxi for 21 years he says, 13 of them in the little Indian-made Maruti (now teamed up with Suzuki). He wants a new vehicle in a couple years but only for local travel prior to retirement. I lose courage to ask his age, but I’ll bet that despite his venerable white beard akin to a yogi’s, he is younger than me.

En route, the scenes out the window are alternately stunning, depressing, and entertaining. The mountains appear behind a thin veil of haze, so I’m jazzed that the flight will indeed proceed. I appreciate seeing the whole high range again and am looking forward to Nepal and the “real” Himalayas. At one bend in the road, a whole pack of pink-faced monkeys are sunning themselves, eating garbage, picking fleas, squabbling, and fornicating. At the next bend, I see down the hillside to the river where row after row of makeshift structures held together with rope, plastic tarps, pieces of wood and etc. give a new meaning to “slum.”

At the airport, I’m the only obvious foreigner on the flight. Somehow this comforts me. 

We have a slight delay when HHDL’s plane arrives from out of the clouds, now rapidly obscuring the mountains. Security people hustle out to the tarmac and whisk him away with only a tiny glimpse of a maroon monk’s robe visible to all the eyes straining for a view from the departure lobby. I chat with an Indian fellow who originated in Calcutta then went to school in London before ending up in Stockholm as a cultural geographer in a planning department. He wants me to sit beside him on the flight, but I excuse myself due to the exit row when actually I just want to chill and prepare myself for arrival.

We land in whiteout conditions, visibility less than 5000 feet for sure. How the pilots of the twin-propeller plane can manage the instruments so skillfully is a wonder. My checked bag appears just when it should and then I’m out into the atmosphere of Terminal 3. A long line of govt. controlled, pre-paid yellow and black taxis (of every shape and kind of vehicle) come and go, but none will take me to the address of my hotel. I’m asking and cajoling and even get into one cab but must exit when the young driver complains he can’t speak English and doesn’t know the address.

Finally, after 20 minutes, a fellow picks me up and plunges into the city traffic at 4:30 on a Thursday. Most of the time we zip in and around other cars, trucks, rickshaws, tuktuks, and wagons, but sometimes we come perilously close to colliding. Sometimes I just close my eyes and hold on. Heading down a three-lane road, I see in the outer lane a rickshaw man pedaling against traffic with a full load of gravel in his back. This is astonishing because cars seem to sense something is up ahead and slow down, honking all the while to create a steady wall of noise. One can only guess if drivers are annoyed at seeing this struggling man on his bike. In Delhi (and India generally), humans too are beasts of burden.

And when their bodies give out, one can follow the large, overhead highway sign not far from the Australian and American embassies: “Electric Crematorium.”

After an hour on the road, three phone calls, two pullovers to ask directions, I end up at the Heritage Inn, not far from University of Delhi. I give my driver 200 rps. tip (in addition to the 350 I’ve already paid) but he says, “one more (bill).” Uh, okay…I’m not going to argue about an extra $1.40 when my life has been preserved and delivered to its destination by this driver. Om shanti to you, brother.

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I’m able to do a 20 min. walk before darkness descends and see quickly that I am in an upper-class neighborhood. It is composed of huge walled compounds with family names on impressive looking gates, manned by guards and flanked by security cameras. The houses are truly mansions, some going up to four stories, with chandeliers visible from the dusty street. (Don’t ask me why the millions of poor people in Delhi have not risen up en masse to tear these people limb from limb.)

I meet the owner of Heritage Inn upon return, Mr. Ashok Gupta, originally from Pakistan, who is gracious and pleased to answer questions about the many portraits on the walls of my room and in the dining area. I recognize one couple–the early 20th century guru, Sri Aurobindo and the woman from France that was his key patron (known as “the mother.”) It turns out the Gupta family was an early supporter of Aurobindo, contributing funds (money earned from a patent on mineral oil) to his ashram in the south at Pondicherry. Mr. Gupta talked of many lengthy stays on the ashram, listening to teachings, meeting extraordinary people from both India and Europe, and being part of the “inner circle.” His dining room has statues or portraits representing Hinduism (Ganesha), Buddhism (Shakyamuni in meditation, earth-witnessing mudra), and Christianity (Mary and baby Jesus in Greek mosaic).

All this spiritual heritage will come to good use the next day. I learn from the hotel manager that Mr. Gupta’s elder brother has brought a court case challenging their inheritance. Despite Mr. Gupta having a deed from his mother that bequeaths him the property, the elder brother thinks that Mr. Gupta’s only child, a daughter now studying hospitality management in Montreaux, Switzerland, won’t need the property the same way he does. Thus, in an argument that is sexist, disrespectful, selfish, and ultimately unsupported by the law, the case has gone to the Delhi High Court. On the morning of my departure for the Univ. of Delhi guest house, that’s where Mr. Gupta and his wife are bound. (He told me the previous evening when we came to a portrait of them together and smiling as a younger couple, “We were married by our families. There was no love. After 17 years of marriage, our daughter arrived.”)

 After 9 hours of traveling, I have arrived in Delhi.

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