True story: as I tried to rest back in the steerage compartment of the plane, a tall, dark-skinned man (pilot? co-pilot? flight attendant?) crouched down and snuck up behind a middle-aged female flight attendant and whispered, “I’ve got a weapon.” She turned immediately and said, “Lance!”—perhaps in genuine surprise, perhaps in shock that he would make such a tasteless joke. I wonder: have we reached the point where we can comfortably play these pranks on each other? 9/11—always good for a larff.
As I first stepped into the Delhi air—thick, but not oppressive—I noticed the haze, an opaque curtain that caught the orange sodium lights everywhere and made the city glow nuclear. It may have been dust; even at 10:30 in the evening, workmen walked along the exposed girders and half-formed concrete walls of the airport expansion. My taxi pulled away, and men with 2x4s on their shoulders interrupted the flow of the traffic circles that rule the city.
Delhi is circular. The traffic rounds dizzy; cars weave in and out of each other: you cut me off, I cut you off. Luckily, the cars here are a third the size of American cars, such that two lanes of traffic can accommodate three cars and possibly several bicyclists as well. Driving is less of a recreation and more of a full-contact sport. The Indians take pride in their vehicles as much as Americans do: the drivers of a small Mitsubishi Zen stickered with Ferrari decals of various sizes took umbrage with me staring at their car, and quickly merged away from my taxi. Along the road, signs with incomprehensible acronyms—and these were the ones with Roman letters. I suppose it’s the equivalent of being a foreigner and seeing directions for the DMV, the PO, the Cracker Barrel, only one of which serves a useful function.
To reach the entrance of Le Meridien, my driver had to navigate a circular driveway that seemed to go on forever. It was as if we were ascending to the Moonraker colony. Outside the door, men in crisp white Mughal outfits stood at attention. The staff was solicitous, as you would expect from a luxury restaurant. Inside, a young man wearing brown socks on his feet asked something of the guest services desk; a French couple chatted idly at check-in. A blue glass sculpture rose from behind check-in—beam me up! Indeed the modernist Le Meridien seems as if it’s not a part of the city at all; it’s a spaceship with hardwood floors and marble bathrooms, disgorging aliens to explore the locals.
I only brought a barely-packed carry-on and my laptop bag, yet they insisted on bringing them up to my room, followed closely behind by a pot of masala tea kept warm by a cozy. And cookies! A sugar-fennel cookie which I’m sure I’m going to have to try to make at home, and two other cookies of unknown origin, since my sinuses still haven’t yet cleared.
There’s nothing like a luxury hotel to make your life seem like shit. Just two nights in Le Meridien will cost me nearly $1000, but I’ve got two 42” plasma TVs that have a surfeit of Indian music videos and coverage of cricket matches. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I’ll get a music video in which the dancers are dressed as cricketers. It’s simply another colonialist fantasy among many; here I am, filling a tub with hot water, where just two hours ago, I passed women sitting cross-legged in the small patch of green inside of a traffic circle. On the sidewalk, a male dog hovered over his bitch, lying on the ground. I’m extracting the land’s resources for my own comforts, having a dark-skinned young man insist that I sit on the sofa and watch CNN while he pours my tea and sets it down in front of me. “Sugar?” he asks, and I say no, because obsequious servitude makes me feel bad. And while I don’t feel guilty enough to take a quick shower instead of a luxurious bath, I feel just guilty just enough to make it a short bath. When I drain the tub or rinse my mouth out in the sink, I hear the water gurgle in the other part of the bathroom. Yes, the other part.
Across the street from me: Shangri-La. It rises stories into the night, klieg lights at its base shining up. I could reach it if I wanted.