Riding with the Captain

Kitty corner to the garden in Lajpat Nagar that has a Kashmiri pine as its heart, a silver Renault SUV is parked. I stepped into its passenger seat last night. On the opposite side of the Renault, the Captain yelled up to his wife if she wanted to join us. She did not. He stepped into the driver’s seat.

It is festival season here. The Bengali neighborhood of Chittaranjan Park is bedecked with lighted pathways that lead visitors to the different pandals in the neighborhood, tents that have been set up for Durga Puja. Inside them drummers beat out steady rhythms, girls in bird costumes step delicately to choreographed dances, and crowds flit from one sight to the next like hummingbirds at a feeder. Totems of the goddess Durga looks down benevolently on the proceedings. She has a trident pointed towards the demon Mahishasura, and different gods and goddesses sit to her left and right. Durga’s likeness graces the many selfies being taken in front of her. Outside the pandals, Market 1 and Market 2 hum with activity as customers push in front of one another to order fish, kebabs, ghugnee, kathi rolls, biryani, sweets. Begging children weave through the processions, poking their grimy fingers at the hands of those with food and money to give.

Today is Dussehra, the day that commemorates Ram’s killing of the demon Ravan. In the evening, effigies of Ravan will be burnt in the many neighborhoods of Delhi. To learn where to observe my neighborhood’s celebrations tonight, I asked the Captain to show me the grounds. He happily obliged.

The Captain knows Lajpat Nagar like the back of his hand. As we walked by stores and turned around corners, he steadily unveiled the backlog of knowledge that has accumulated over the years. “This here is where the brother of a former prime minister used to live,” he said, pointing to a house on the right. To a row of stores in front of us, “Those stores offer wholesale prices for household items.” We found ourselves standing next to a row of shiny new foreign cars. “Black money. The shopowners here find ways to avoid taxes. A piece of property in Central Bazaar is worth a lot of money.” The man who owns the rest of the building I live in, he told me, has just a small shop in the Central Bazaar. The torrent of customers that walk through the market provide more than enough business.

We arrived at a roundabout. Painted demon heads turned onto their sides were smiling menacingly. Their bodies lied in a dissembled pile nearby. The Captain talked to a huddle of young men sitting on cars nearby. He learned that the proceedings would begin at around 7 PM the next day.

As we returned to our neighborhood, the Captain asked me if I would like to go for a drive to see the Ramlila Grounds, where the largest effigy of Ravan in all of Delhi will be incinerated. I quickly agreed. We climbed into the silver Renault that sits adjacent to the garden.

There was a time when a quiet ride in the car would have bothered me, when I would desperately try to fill the silence that swallowed the vehicle. For whatever reason, it does not now. I resolutely looked out the window at the passing neighborhoods bathed in a manic whir of headlights. The unexpected quiet provoked memories of many silent late-night drives along Forest Way Drive. I drove a silver 1992 Toyota Camry with a fuzzy steering wheel in those days. Its license plate number was 288 8217. There usually wasn’t anyone else on the road when I came back from Wilmette after midnight, so I turned on the bright headlights. The eyes of grazing white-tailed deer eerily reflected the light when they turned to face me. The only pause in the journey was that stop sign at the intersection with Tower Road.

“Have you lived in Delhi all your life?” I asked.

“No, my father was a civil servant, so my family moved around India with his work. We spent a considerable amount of time in the Punjab, in Amritsar. I was there during the war with Pakistan. In Chandigarh, too. A very modern city, Chandigarh. It was built by the French architect–”

“Le Corbusier,” I blurted, overeager to show off the little knowledge I had about Chandigarh.

“Le Corbusier,” he echoed without blinking. Several moments of silence followed. “I moved back to Delhi in the early ’80s.”

We passed by India Gate (“Darkened for the festival season”), by the restaurants and bars along Connaught Place (“You must try Barbeque Nation. They have a delicious all-you-can-eat buffet for a very reasonable price.”), by the theatre district (“Very high quality plays”), by Nizamuddin (“In the Sufi shrine, they play classical music on Thursdays. I have never been before. Perhaps I will go tomorrow.”). Unfortunately, the crush of traffic going towards Old Delhi blocked us from seeing the Ramlila grounds. The Captain turned around and we started driving back towards Lajpat Nagar.

“Before that barrier existed there, I could easily drive back to my flat,” he said, pointing towards the concrete barrier separating traffic on Gandhi Feroze Marg. “It was constructed several months before you came here.” Now he must drive down to Lajpat Nagar III and take a roundabout pathway back. It’s very inconvenient.

As we pulled into the parking spot in front of his flat, he asked if I would like to get some kulfi from the Mother Dairy stand down the street. I have never turned down an offer of ice cream and was not about to start last night. The Captain noticed the haste with which I devoured the creamy and dense ice cream bar. “It’s better to take one’s time,” he said. I thanked him and shook his hand before saying good night.

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