Delhi Stories: Red spit and jolly customs surprise

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Things were different from the moment I got off the plane in Delhi. When I tried to change money at the airport, the man behind the counter held up his hand to stop me. He was sprinkling what looked like white ash on to a piece of paper.

Things were different from the moment I got off the plane in Delhi. When I tried to change money at the airport, the man behind the counter held up his hand to stop me. He was sprinkling what looked like white ash on to a piece of paper.

He would change my money, he said, but first he insisted I must try some of the paan he was preparing. Paan is the mildly addictive mix of betel nuts and other exotic ingredients that Indians like to let slowly dissolve in their mouths. Traditionally it is prepared wrapped in a leaf - but the crumbly powder the man held out to me is a modern, mass-produced version.

Immediately my mouth filled up with saliva and my tongue and throat went numb, which was not the best state to be in to find my driver at the airport. He stood smiling patiently as I spat great streams of saliva, now dyed blood-red, into the gutter before we could go.

But the friendliness of the welcome on my new posting was overwhelming - and a far cry from the bureaucratic hassles I had been led to expect. Customs officials were just waving everyone through. Perhaps the Indian government's current huge tourist promotion had something to do with it ...

Delhi is generally a very safe city - but its dangers can come from unexpected quarters. Recently the papers have been full of stories of wealthy citizens being murdered by their servants.

In a country with a vast poor population, domestic servants are cheap and readily available. One guide for expats I saw said: "Large retinues of servants are a thing of the past. These days most people have just three or four." Delhi's middle classes are cossetted by cooks, sweepers, and chowkidars - security men who sit by the front gate all night to make sure dacoits don't get in.

But sometimes the danger is already inside: several recent stories tell of lone widows garrotted by their live-in servants, who then disappeared with large amounts of cash or jewellery.

Unlike Bombay, conservative Delhi is said not to have much night life. It exists alright - but not without complications in a city where you can still be booked by the police for public displays of affection. In one bar, we thought trouble was brewing when a young local put his arm around his date. It wouldn't have raised an eyebrow in London, but someone from the management rushed over immediately - but not to ask the couple to leave, or tell them to clean up their act.

Instead, the manager politely showed them to a secluded table behind its own partition, apparently reserved for such situations: modern Delhi's answer to the back row of the cinema.

Comments