When I was posted to Delhi in the mid-1990s it was a sleepy, parochial backwater. There were no imported cars, and the Ambassador, which was modelled on the post-war Morris Oxford, still ruled the roads. Non-Indian restaurants were few and far between. If you wanted a change from chicken tikka and dosas, you invariably ended up in one of the luxury hotels, or Rodeo, a Mexican place where the Indian waiters were an incongruous site in Stetsons and the enchiladas were essentially rotis rolled into wraps. The city’s cultural life was equally limited. Jaded intelligentsia gathered regularly at the same old cultural centres where the staid atmosphere was indicative of the malaise gripping the country.
Still, there was plenty for me to explore. Delhi’s history is unparalleled, dating back at least two and a half millennia. British ‘New’ Delhi, which became the capital in 1911, is but its eighth incarnation. The landscape is dotted with the domes, battlements and mausoleums of conquerors, emperors and saints. During my time off my work as a journalist, I would take long walks along the leafy avenues of this former colonial capital, with its whitewashed bungalows and columned edifices. I would root around ‘Old’ Delhi, Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s walled citadel with its magnificent Red Fort standing sentinel over a warren of frenetic bazaars. And I’ll never forget the first time I visited the colossal red sandstone tomb of the Emperor Humayun and was mesmerised by its calming symmetry.
But I didn’t feel any great emotional connection to Delhi, and had a certain Indian-American woman not walked into my office one afternoon, I doubt I would’ve remained beyond the length of my employment contract.
Anu was 23 at the time, with short black hair, dark, intelligent eyes, and a playful, beguiling laugh. It wasn’t long before I found myself hopelessly in love. Suddenly Delhi was a special place — our place. Riding in the back of three-wheeled rickshaws was no longer a tedious, bone-rattling experience, but one softened by entwined fingers and whispered sweet nothings. We would spend afternoons lolling on the lawns between the 15th-century tombs in Lodi Gardens; eat chole bhature (chickpeas and fried bread) and gulab jamuns (sweet dumplings served in syrup) at Nathu’s in Bengali Market; and although the cinemas generally offered the cheesiest Hollywood and Bollywood had to offer, it no longer mattered just as long as we could secure two quiet seats together.
I had a flat in one of Delhi’s posher areas, but started spending all my free time at her pad in Amar Colony, a busy, congested quarter inhabited by boisterous Punjabis. On our first Holi, the spring festival, we spent the day fighting with water balloons and packets of powdered colour out on the street along with all the neighbours. On Diwali, when the place erupted with fireworks and diyas (lamps) appeared on balconies and in doorways, the landlady invited us in for chilli pakoras and spicy green chutney, and we played cards with her extended family late into the night. I attended engagements, weddings and even the odd funeral. And gradually, with Anu as my guide, I came to appreciate — even relish — what north Indians refer to as tamasha, the unending chaos and spectacle of the place.
Delhi is where I proposed marriage (in a private dining room in the Oberoi hotel); it’s where we eloped (secretly before a disapproving judge and two cuffed local thieves); and where we’re now raising our two children. It’s also where I’ve set a series of novels starring a Punjabi detective whose resemblance to some of Anu’s uncles is by no means coincidental.
Since our courtship and the reforms to the economy, India’s capital has experienced rapid change. Its population has more than doubled. Its concrete sprawl of suburbs have grown exponentially, with clusters of office towers, apartment blocks and metro lines marching out into the retreating farmland. Every day, thousands of people pour in from rural India searching for work. For every new golf course, there’s a slum to match it in size, if not allure. The Ambassador is now an endangered species, replaced by plenty of Toyotas and even the odd Ferrari.
For the vast majority of the city’s inhabitants, life is complex and tough. Corruption and sheer negligence make living in Delhi often frustrating, sometimes dangerous. But there’s nowhere I would rather be. Asia is resurgent and I wouldn’t miss this show for the world. Besides, as a mystery writer, there’s always something new to discover: from Kathputhli, an entire neighbourhood inhabited by street performers, to the new microbreweries of Gurgaon. And just occasionally, when we want a break from the kids, the power cuts or the maddening bureaucracy, Anu and I can always jump in an auto-rickshaw and hold hands all the way to Lodi Gardens.
Tarquin Hall’s latest book is The Case of the Love Commandos, published by Hutchinson. RRP: £14.99. tarquinhall.com
Published in the Jan/Feb 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)