We were dragging our battered suitcases out of the Indira Gandhi International Airport and at the exit door I stopped, sure that some kind of terrible calamity had occurred just outside of the terminal. Inches from the glass door I saw an absolutely stupendous crowd of people out there in the darkness. It was so striking that I grabbed my wife’s hand and backpedaled past the door guard to try to seek safety inside the airport.
Perhaps it was a political demonstration. But … at two o’clock in the morning? Or maybe a building had collapsed nearby and these hundreds of thousands of people were all trying to get supplies from the airport.
It was so chaotic that I wondered momentarily if maybe I was having some kind of scary dream while still on the plane for the twenty-two-hour flight from America.
No, I was awake. So maybe there had been an earthquake and people were trying to get out of Delhi. After all, I saw whole families out there: lots of men; women in all kinds of Indian clothes; children; and even newborn babies in mothers’ arms. What was going on?
My wife was tugging on me to go outside with her. I was sure I shouldn’t let my wife go out there, it must be some kind of dangerous riot: it was such a pulsating, pushing-each-other crowd stirring up the dust in the darkness just a few feet away. All of those people were shouting something or other at the top of their voices. It had to be a riot.
But, I was … let us say, mistaken.
There was no calamity that put this crowd of people there in the dark outside of the airport. These were simply people waiting for arriving passengers. All planes originating from America and Europe seem to land in India in the middle of the night.
Due to security concerns, only passengers are allowed in the airport building. Everybody outside was looking through the big glass walls for someone—a family member, a business partner—and shouting loudly through the glass to try to get their attention. It was impossible for people inside to hear anyone outside, and the crowd figured that out, so the entire five-hundred thousand people simply shouted louder.
I saw a lot of security police in tan uniforms, carrying long sticks that had a multitude of uses, but they were impotent to faze the enthusiasm of the pushing crowd. In fact, it appeared that they were completely unconcerned with what was going on. I was even more astonished when I saw what happened when a cop’s break time arrived. He would shrug his shoulders, go off for a cup of chai, and another cop would take his place doing pro forma but useless crowd control.
The taxi drivers stood interspersed in the crowd at precise strategic positions, like a grid around you that blocked all escape routes. Luck, or the animal strength to push hard through the sea of people, placed the loudest-voiced taxi drivers at the choicest spots.
All dumb tourists who had no Indian family to greet them were assaulted with promises of an air-conditioned car that would quickly whisk their honored personages and all ten pieces of luggage to their esteemed and certainly excellent hotel. Every yard you walked, a completely new set of taxi voices called this same message to the tourists. It was an insidious plot, I thought grimly. The taxi-valas pulled at you with clinging words that had been honed and perfected over years. Over centuries.
I saw that after a while every dazed unaccompanied American tourist would break down, give in, and end up in a tiny taxicab with their luggage tied with old ropes to the back and top of the vehicle. Sometimes a bag was … accidentally … left behind if the driver couldn’t fit it.
Even I almost wandered away from my wife, having partially been put into a trance by the sweet promises of the taxi-valas. She pulled my arm to get us back on track.
To get to the airport parking lot, if you had a car waiting there like my wife and I did, you had to pass all those masters of persuasion and all those taxi-valas let us know how much we sadly disappointed them. Their hearts were breaking, their families were starving because we didn’t let them drive us somewhere.
My wife and I wandered aimlessly in the dusty blackness between randomly parked cars. Then suddenly, amazingly, we found the car owned by my adopted Indian family.
In fact, there were a whole lot of members of the family there to greet us. I looked around. Where was the second car to carry some of these people and all the luggage and presents my wife and I brought?
Of course, there wasn’t a second car. Before me was a lone Hindustan Motors Ambassador sedan, and everybody would be going home in it. I was about to experience a new aspect of the Indian practice of adaptability and inner strength.
We all piled into the seats, baggage was packed into the trunk, onto the roof, and onto our laps. Family members were also sitting on each other’s laps, as well as on luggage.
I looked inquisitively at my wife through a tiny hole between luggage and people.
She whispered, “This is normal. Don’t worry about it.”
Indian drivers can judge spaces down to the micrometer. When finally I was brave enough to remove my hands from over my eyes, I could see that the drivers were very calm as they cut each other off or pushed their way to the front or drove on the curb or grass to go around someone else or make a tight little circle as they bypassed the wooden booth where they are supposed to pay two rupees for parking.
Why did they drive around the collection booth? The parking fee was only two rupees. That translated to about four cents in U.S. currency. Later I was given the answer: why should they pay to park? Wasn’t the space at the edge of the airport terminal just sitting there unused anyhow?
Our driver, named Sitaram, had been with the Delhi branch of the family for a million years, so he was elderly and perhaps a little weak in his eyesight. But he could whip that car around other vehicles and push ahead with the best of them. In fact, he was very wise: he didn’t need to drive around the booth at the airport, where the parking fee was collected, like most of the other cars did. His true experience and skill displayed itself magnificently as he came up to the parking lot collection officer.
Sitaram cranked down the window with vigorous motion of his skinny right arm, stuck his head out, and in street-Hindi pointed out that he was there picking up … an American. He pointed his thumb back at me, where my face was just visible in a crack between the suitcases on my lap.
The parking collector peered in briefly, nodded, and waved us through without paying. This being my first visit to India I asked, “Why did we get through free?”
My cousin-brother-in-law laughed from somewhere up in the front seat and said, “Have to impress the VIPs you know, and a white guy traveling with an Indian family in a private car obviously had to be at least an ambassador if not the president of some country in the West.”
“Seems a little chaotic,” I murmured.
“Not at all,” he replied. “This is India.”
We drove off into the darkness. There were clouds of reflective dust that seemed to make the car’s weak headlights temporarily more powerful, but actually obscured vision.
I edged my head around a suitcase from my place in the back seat of the sedan and looked through the windshield.
Everything was black, except for the dust that made the air glow an odd golden color during the times the headlights were switched on—which wasn’t all the time. Sitaram could drive using intuition sometimes, it seemed.
I couldn’t see a road, a sign, or a building. True, the international airport is far outside of Delhi, and so there may be but few buildings here. But I saw … nothing. How in the world was Sitaram driving? How could he tell where he was going?
“Where are we?” I asked nobody in particular.
“The driver is taking us home,” said Prabha Bhabhi, my wife’s cousin-brother’s wife. Her English was singsong and heavily accented but she was always fun to talk to. But this time she had answered me with a tone that showed me I had asked a rather stupid question.
After a long time had passed, I painfully stretched my neck around the back edge of another of the suitcases on our laps. I whispered to my wife, “Where are we? Do we know how to get home?”
Even she dismissed me with a look of impatience used on foreigners who should know better. “Just leave it to the driver. Don’t worry about it.”
I was impressed. She had reverted from being an American businesswoman into a practitioner of Indian mannerisms in fewer than thirty minutes out of the airport.
The driver leaned farther over the top of his steering wheel, his nose almost touching the windshield. His side window was open all the way, and it was a bit chilly and lots of dust swirled in, but nobody seemed to even notice this except me. Nor did they care. I wasn’t going to be the softie American who complained about the cold or dust, so I said nothing.
We drove on through the dark, I suppose exploring the inner jungles of mysterious India like the early explorers. Damn, where did I put my compass? I had a mini-flashlight somewhere in my luggage. If things got bad I could strap it to the hood ornament of the car to provide some real light.
We drove for quite a while like this. My foot had gone to sleep and I was scrunching up trying to wiggle my toes under the bags on my lap, when Prabha Bhabi started to say something to the driver in quick, melodic Hindi. There was a tone of command mixed with a pinch of concern in her voice, like an out-of-place dash of bitter masala dropped into a carefully balanced Indian meal.
The car slowed, but other than that the driver acted like he hadn’t heard her.
“What’s going on?’ I asked quietly.
I suppose they were being ultra polite and deferential to me and didn’t laugh at my stream of stupid firangi questions. They acted like I hadn’t spoken.
More dust came in the windows. Occasionally car and truck headlights moved around us in odd directions. I was just beginning to relax when, with no warning, but with a jerk and a screech, our car came to a stop.
I suddenly, shockingly, could actually see something outside the car. We were next to a line of scooter-taxis, little two-seater things with a plastic yellow-and-black cover over a seat for the passengers behind the driver. One taxi driver was sharing a cigarette with a friend as our august driver spoke to him in very loud, very fast, street Hindi. It was so fast and accented that I could not catch even a single word.
I whispered to my wife, who I hoped was still buried next to me somewhere under the luggage, “What’s going on?”
She whispered back, “The driver got lost. He’s asking for directions.’
I knew it! I was right! I was right! We were lost!
While the driver was leaning out of the window jabbering with the taxi-vala, seemingly arguing with him about the accuracy of his directions (which seemed silly to me since we didn’t know where we were and any directions were better than none) some of the women inside the car also began talking fast. They were contributing their part to the deduction of directions of where we were to where we wanted to be. There was a lot of noise and a lot of fast Hindi.
The driver turned the car engine off. It looked like it would be long discussion.
“Anything I can do to help?” I whispered to my wife. “… Like, look at a map?”
“I’ve never seen a map of Delhi,” she replied thoughtfully. “I’m not sure they exist. Let them handle it.”
Minutes passed. Hours passed. Completely unexpectedly, with my thinking that the direction-discussion ceremony wasn’t nearly finished, the driver put the car in gear and we jerked forward.
We drove back in the opposite direction through more absolutely uninteresting darkness. There were still occasional headlights and eternal dust, but after a very long time I began to see lights on buildings and signs for shops. We slowed, went over a couple of suspicious bumps, and the car engine was turned off again.
Everyone started to get out of the car, so I did too. This action could only be executed mostly by exploding the suitcases out the doors, and then by our climbing out stiffly on top of them.
It was very dark, but I could make out the shapes of five-story buildings around us on the street. I had the vague impression of tall trees, and somewhere across the street I could sense a very large open space of some kind.
We had parked on a dirt area close to one of the buildings. This building, I was informed, was The Old House in Delhi, a place built several generations back and used in typical Indian-style: extended-family mode.
It was here, standing on the dusty street fiddling with luggage, that I saw some of the recurrent sadness of India. Around the car were horizontal little wooden structures like bed frames, big enough for one person. There were no mattresses, just a crisscross of wide sturdy strips of jute. People were on these beds, out in the open, some with thin blankets, some without. It was cold this time of year.
Sleeping under the stars can be an enjoyable thing, like on camping trips in America. But here, the people on the little spring-less bed frames only had the dusty opaque sky of Delhi to look at. Most of them were men who had come from their villages to work as laborers or taxi-valas, or to provide produce for the subzi bazaar that was laid along the street in the mornings. They slept here, awoke and worked in the daytime peddling their taxis or unloading trucks, and washed themselves and took care of body things somewhere more or less out of sight.
Evidently the car might be vandalized, or perhaps wholly stolen, by some of these people sleeping here. Thus, the family had a permanent employee called a chaukidar who was a guard. His assignment was to watch the car. He sat out all night, sitting on an uncomfortable-looking chair, watching things and talking to those individuals around him who happened to be awake. The chaukidar had a little steel container with food and a thermos bottle of chai to sustain him through the cold darkness.
We climbed a long narrow stairway carved into the building next to the car. At the top of the long steep stairs doors opened to pour warm yellow light into the stairway. A set of cheers came from people on the other side of that doorway. Yet more relatives were there waiting for us, eager to feed us even though it was the middle of the night. They all wanted to talk to us … and to closely examine this gringo husband my wife had married. Some of them were seeing me for the first time.
My jet-lagged mind faded, settling in the sea of happy babbling Hindi around me. I was left to my own thoughts. I wondered why my new relatives violently cheered and shouted when we arrived. That seemed a little strange.
Then I knew the answer.
They weren’t sure we’d make it home either.
Alex Maarten is a 20-year veteran of the high-tech industry. He now writes full time while trying to figure out his adopted Indian family.