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Started: 2012-06-16 22:20:15

Submitted: 2012-06-16 23:17:24

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator returns to Delhi in the pre-monsoon heat

My plane landed at Indira Gandhi International Airport around 20:00 local time on Friday, 8 June 2012. I gathered my belongings, double-checked that I hadn't left anything in the various spaces in which I might have dropped something, and trudged toward the main cabin door. As I stepped out of the plane onto the connecting jetway, I felt the pre-monsoon heat and stench of Delhi creeping in through the seams. I followed the crowd to the arrivals hall at the new Terminal 3, which opened a few months after my last visit to India, and waited to clear immigration under a large sculpture depicting the Nine Mudras. I took advantage of my status in first class and picked the shorter line (which was being served by fewer immigration agents) and saw in the regular-passengers queue a number of women wearing black burqas and niqabs, covering their entire bodies and faces, leaving only small horizontal slit for their eyes. I knew India still has a sizable Muslim population (in fact, there are more Muslims in India than there are Muslims in all of Pakistan) but I hadn't seen many burqas in person before.

I cleared immigration with a wordless stamp in my passport, found my suitcase waiting for me at the front of the baggage claim (in the "priority baggage" area, another odd perk of first class), and passed through customs to the arrivals hall. I spotted my name on a driver's sign and followed him out of the terminal into the parking garage ("car park"). When I stepped out of the terminal I finally felt the full force of the mid-summer Delhi heat: it was well after sundown but the air felt stifling; it still felt close to a hundred degrees Fahrenheit. I inhaled the stench of millions of cooking and trash fires in the Delhi megalopolis and my first thought was, "Smells like Delhi."

My driver whisked me away in air-conditioned comfort from the car park to the road to Delhi. The driver offered a playlist of music to set the mood and I selected the Indian classical playlist, which seemed appropriate, and I watched the city streets glide by in a jet-lag-induced daze. The city was as I remembered it from my last visit two years ago: slums and shanty-towns next to massive government compounds and palatial estates, and streets with lane markers no one followed. People sat, cooked, ate, and bathed in makeshift hovels on the side of the road. (And these were the people who, for the most part, fled the abject poverty of living landless in the village for the merely crushing poverty of the urban slum, where they could hope to get service jobs for the urban middle class. Anyone in the west who complains about the 1% ought to visit India and bring a mirror so he can compare how the 99% globally really live compared to the 1%.)

We reached the Taj Mahal Hotel, just south of Rajpath in New Delhi, and waited at the gate for a security check, which involved popping the hood and trunk and looking under the car with a mirror. (I didn't stay at the same class of hotel in my last visit to India, but this level of security seemed standard in my travels throughout upper-class Indian business society. I presumed it was related to the general threat of both domestic insurgency and international terrorism in India. My hotel is in the same hotel chain, operated by industrial conglomerate Tata, as the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower in Mumbai that was attacked by Lashkar-e-Taiba in November 2008. This hotel was also far more expensive than what I'd be likely to book on my own; one of the hazards (or, depending how one looks at it, benefits) of business travel is international business hotels, with prices comparable to business hotels in the United States.) At the door of the hotel, my baggage was screened in an x-ray machine and I walked through a metal detector and hand-wanding before proceeding into the lobby, where the reception staff met me and took me straight to my room. I unpacked and prepared to go to sleep (it was now after 22:00 IST), but just as I was wondering whether I ought to visit the concierge/travel desk in the lobby my phone rang and the travel desk let me know that they had purchased train tickets for me to visit Agra the next morning (on the late-booking Tatkal-quota scheme, mostly for foreign tourists like myself, but also presumably useful for last-minute travel within the country) but the tickets were still theoretically wait-listed, so she wouldn't know whether I had an actual seat until midnight. She'd check and I'd get a 05:30 wake-up call to make the 07:10 train.

I settled in to try to sleep and eventually drifted off around midnight, after receiving another call from the travel desk that my ticket had, in fact, been confirmed; and I would, in fact, be visiting the Taj Mahal in the morning.