Friday, 26 February 2010

Cards and chopsticks

I've always been partial to getting my tarot cards read. Some people swear by hypnosis, others by pranic chanting,others by runes, but it's tarot for me. I mean, picking cards at random out of a pack and having a stranger deduce your personality and the events of your future by them - what could be more scientifically accurate than that?

Recently I was at a fusion Chinese restaurant at Siri Fort called Chopsticks for dinner. At one end of the restaurant sat a portly middle aged woman, on her own at a table covered in a long red velvet cloth. Occasionally people would wander over to her, sit down, chat for a bit, then hand her some money and return to their tables. I couldn't get my eyes off her. Was she dealing drugs? Was she some kind of footsie prostitute? So I went over to investigate.

She turned out to be a tarot reader. Shovelling mouthfuls of chicken manchurian and noodles into her mouth with one hand, she handed me a note with the other. "You must agree to these before I read your cards."

The note set out the terms for her reading.

* 100 rupees per question
* Special: 6 questions for 500 rs
* Questions must be so they can be answered with a yes or no. 
* No long answers will be given.
* No responsibility will be taken if life events don't match reading.

This was the first time I'd ever encountered a closed-answer question only rule at a tarot reader. I sat down. "Two questions please."

She stopped shovelling the food down her mouth for long enough to spread the cards out for me. Tapping the pack with her talons she said, "pick five."

I picked out five. 

"Think of your questions," she ordered.

"What will happen for me career-wise?"

She shook her head. "Not specific enough. The cards will not answer that. You must make it tighter. And set out a time frame."

"Umm... how will my career pan out over the next five years?"

She shook her head again, increasingly impatient. "Too long. Make it one year. And you must be more specific."

"Okay. Will my career pan out the way I want over the next year?"

She paused, running her fingers over the cards (no doubt leaving traces of Manchurian sauce on the Queen of Wands.) Then, sighing theatrically, she pronounced, "Yes."

Was that all? I said, I'm sorry but that's not enough. You have to give me more. You can't just say yes.

She said, eyes narrowed, you knew the rules, pointing at the rule card.

I argued a bit more, and she relented and said, "Okay, I will tell you that the cards tell me that your career wishes will be more than well and truly fulfilled over the next year. Next question."

"Will I get value for money from my time here today?"

She shot me a death glare, then turned back to her chicken noodles and resumed the shovelling. My time was up.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Sunday in the park with dogs

There is an unassailable truth that must be acknowledged, that crosses all cultural, linguistic and socio-economic barriers, when it comes to the fine art of Picking Up Chicks. 

The Pulling Power of Puppies.

No Jason, not puppies like Nigella Lawson. Puppies as in baby dogs.

That group of guys walking their labradors at Lodi Gardens on Sunday might not have realised the PP of Ps until the moment me and a bunch of friends descended upon them, cooing manically like the oestrogen-charged thirtysomethings we are.

However the guys quickly realised their advantage and, in their broken English, theatrically told us how the litter had been six pups, but three had sadly died in the cold weather and one was at home, still weak.  They encouraged us to pick up and pat the pair of six-week old siblings, as their lactating mother Lara growled at our ankles. ("Ooh, Lara as in Brian Lara?" I said, trying to speak cricket. They looked bemused. "No, Lara Dutta.") They demonstrated Lara's tricks (sit! lie! shake hands!) and invited us back home to see the other puppy. Or maybe they meant their etchings. 

There's a guy I know in Bombay who is pitching a reality show to various networks here, called, I kid you not, How To Pick Up White Chicks. Matters of taste aside, he should call on these guys to teach the PPP module.

I was in Lodi Gardens for an impromptu gathering; earlier, I'd been at Sagar when my phone beeped. Did I want to join in a game of wiffle ball? Did I ever. I hoovered down my coconut dosa and watermelon juice and off I went. And there, in the shadow of two Mughal-era tombs with intricate Urdu carvings and flaking blue tiles, we played the park version of baseball. 

It was great. Nearby, a gathering of white-bearded men who looked like Muslim scholars sat on a blanket, drinking tea. For some reason they became an immensely popular photography subject, particularly when the slanting sunset light hit them at just the right angle.

Later a bunch of us went to the closest place we could get beer in a garden setting, there, I sat in between an Icelander who works for the United Nations and a Canadian out here doing his thesis on telemedicine. For all the hardships and annoyances of living in Delhi, I can't imagine meeting such an interesting bunch of people at the Windsor Castle in Prahran, my former regular weekend haunt when in Melbourne.

It was the same story on Saturday night. It was my lovely friend A's hen's night, and rather that submit to the potential fun of having us tuck 500 rupee notes into a stripper's lungi she opted for a posh meal at Zest. To get to Zest you have to walk through this ridiculous piece of Dubai transplanted into the Delhi outskirts, the DLF Emporio shopping mall, and walk past Jimmy Choo, Versace, and the like. We were led to our outside table past a glass wine wall, past the many kitchens heaping out seven different cuisines, and Barkha Dutt at one of the tables. Turns out it's the see-and-be-seen place. Outside, the air was gently perfumed with lemongrass. How do they do that? I sat between a geologist and a Scottish caterer and we talked about everything from oil drilling in the Rajasthani desert to Brazilians. It was a hen's do after all. 

Later, as we waited in the valet bit of the parking lot, I saw in my peripheral vision a man, a minor media mogul, who some months ago made me a job offer that soon after mysteriously evaporated. I briefly considered going up and saying hello but it took just a New Delhi minute to decide against it and instead let him see me climbing into my friend's car with its diplomatic plates. These things matter in this city, after all.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

The nights are the hardest

Remember that bit in 101 Dalmations when all the dalmations of the city spend the night barking to transmit vital information about Cruella De Ville's reign of terror? I can relate: for the last few months it's been dalmation night every night. Despite sleeping with heavy duty earplugs and often a pillow over my head, the howling from the neighbourhood street dogs is still so loud it's like they're in the room with me. 

What makes it unbearable is that it's every single night, and for hours. One howls for a bit, then as their top notes decrescendo another picks up the baton and starts up. It's like they're trying to harmonise, like a canine Boyzone or Take That. I now feel like I know individual dogs by their respective howls. 

All this is severely testing my otherwise love for dogs. Advice from friends has ranged from "why don't you get the night guard to shoo them away? That's their job isn't it?" (because durrr, I don't have a night guard) to helpful advice on where to buy an air rifle, to shoot in the air or at the dogs. I now know I can get one at my local childhood needs store, called Baby Walkers, where the rifle and ammo sit displayed next to the Fisher Price stuff. But I can't bring myself to do it, it's too cruel. Despite the howling I still love dogs.

Unfortunately, so do all the elderly people in the neighbourhood. Every morning around five am they gather in our street, outside our house - walking blocks to get here - to feed the local street dogs. The dogs are now used to it, so when their feeders are late, the howl-fest begins again. My landlords, who live downstairs, have unsuccessfully tried to wage a charm war on the local dog-feeding elderly: they've gone round, sipped tea, tried to implore them to feed the dogs in their own streets, to no avail. 

My husband was somewhat less diplomatic.

There are noticeably less street dogs these days compared with what I remember from childhood visits; I think a sustained program of adoption and sterilization has had some effect. In the past there have been unsuccessful attempts to cull them, but there are too many, all having too much sex and too many litters. Those in the know say mass sterilization is the key to reducing street dog populations. Unfortunately for me, that's a long-term solution that won't help me sleep at night.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Dastkar spring bazaar

The hardest part about getting to the Dastkar spring craft fair is conveying where exactly you want to go.

"Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts jane," I would say to rickshaw drivers, to which they would look baffled, confused by all the syllables, mumble and shake their heads. "National Archives jane," I would say. Still mystified. But I would press on. "National Museum," I would say, finally striking gold but heading a good few blocks from my actual destination.

Somehow, despite the difficulties, I've made it three times since Saturday to the Dastkar Basant Bazaar, which is on in central Delhi until February 21st. Organised by the Dastkar society, which is aimed at promoting and maintaining crafts and craftspeople, it brings the said craftspeople into a marketplace setting, delivering them straight to the buyers.

And it's a fun few hours. There's puppet shows, dancers, music and a kind of a food court, as well as all the shopping. 

And I think it was the food that brought me back today: after reading on other blogs about the mystical daulat ki chaat, which is generally only available at roaming street vendors in Old Delhi, I was thoroughly excited to find it on sale here, for the princely sum of 50 rupees a bowl:

I've had four plates in my three visits. What is it? Imagine fluffy, mildly sweetened milk foamy-froth, that dissolves when it hits your tongue but is studded with enough khoya and ground pistachios to keep it interesting. Apparently the secret to making it is to leave it outside overnight to let the dew settle on the milk. When I told Jason this he turned just a little bit green, but still kept eating.

I preceded today's bowl of daulat ki chaat (which translates to rich person's food) with some snacks from the popular Maharastrian stall. Apart from the ever-present pao bhaji, vada pav and bhel puri on the menu, I was thrilled to see some of the food my Maharastrian mother fed me as a child before I realised the copius ghee=thunder thighs connection: puris, modaks and puran poli among them. I chose the latter and chased it down with some lacy appams fresh out of the pan from the Keralan stall.

Then it was to the shops. No gloomy, dusty government emporium products here, Dastkar trains craftspeople in how to make their products fresh, contemporary and appealing.

At the Ranthambore tiger sanctuary stall:

Interesting charpoy-style chairs with built-in chai trays:

Rajasthani puppets:

Handmade leather jooti-style shoes:

Painted beaten leather made into fish mobiles, from Madhya Pradesh:

Pressed leather bags (I think he was thrilled to be photographed but the desire to appear cool runs through to Rajasthan):

And beautiful, hand-embroidered work from Kutch district in Gujarat, thanks to Kala-raksha: 

Friday, 12 February 2010

Launches and lunches

Delhi only has, roughly, three to four months of decent weather each year. Right now, we're emerging out of the frigid cold of winter and the mercury has not yet started spiralling upwards uncontrollably, so it's a good time for parties and general frivolity.

Last night I somehow ended up on the list to go to a book launch at the French Ambassador's residence. In the diplomatic quarter, it is a house truly made for entertaining: soaring ceilings, massive artworks on the walls, a sprawling garden lined with trees with lights strung up in the branches. I wanted to take photos but that would have been way uncool. It was a French thing, after all. 

Today I had lunch at the Lodi Gardens Restaurant, one of Delhi's prettiest garden restaurants. At night all those lanterns in the trees are lit, there are candles on all the tables and little lights throughout the garden, so the whole garden glows.

Beef is banned in Delhi, so I presume the steak on the menu was probably buffalo meat. Whatever. It was wrapped in bacon, and everything tastes good with bacon, so that's what I had. It was excellent, and the first time I'd had steak since last October, when my dad insisted it was his duty to make sure I was eating properly and took me to Melbourne's top steak joint, The Point, which has a display of raw meat in the entrance.

Both times, the steak made me pretty happy. I am officially a Bad Hindu.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Spot the difference

I just bought some bindis for a Sikh wedding I'm going to. I haven't worn bindis since I was in my early 20s and used to stick diamante ones all around my eyes. I even forgot to get them for my wedding and had to draw it in with eyeliner.
My local fancy store didn't have any snazzy multi-coloured ones, just an array of red dots of varying sizes. Some had a bit of diamante action, but overall they were big and boring.
"Big and boring," I said/gesticulated, grimacing, to fancy-wallah.
"Big? They're not big," he said/gesticulated, pointing to my selection, these:

He turned and rifled through a box behind him, then pulled out a packet.
"These ones are big."

They're BIG. They're so big that if you're wearing one in any proximity to the airport, you may well be mistaken for a flight control light.
Why would anyone wear a red dinnerplate on their forehead? Well, the bigger the spot, the closer one is to God, they say.

Friday, 5 February 2010

The secret life of the Delhi housewife

In India, massages are usually a straightforward, no-nonsense, no-fear affair: there's a beauty/massage centre on virtually every corner, for the most part specialising in the sort of Ayurvedic, slippery-oil massages that Gora-Gora-Gora wrote about rather descriptively here.

The cold weather recently caused my rapidly ageing muscles to contract painfully, so I went in search of a decent, firm deep-tissue massage to sort it out. There's a place nearby I've walked past regularly that had good, professional signage and looked clean and neat inside, so in I went.

The day spa was warm and inviting, green-painted walls dotted with Asian wooden carvings and sculptures. There was a long list of facials, massages and other treatments on offer.

In the waiting room sat three burly but fastidiously-groomed gentlemen. The sight of them raised my hopes; surely metrosexuals, particularly Indian metrosexuals, would be particularly discerning about the quality of their massage and facials.

(Going to a men's-only beauty salons is quite common here. By sheer accident I once found myself inside the 'Madonna Mens Saloon': it was like the saloon bar scene in a Wild West film where everyone stops talking and looks at the swing doors. But in this case, instead of gunslingers in boots and spurs chugging down sarsparilla, it was men getting pedicures while flipping through mags, getting vigorous facial massages, and so on, all stopping their grooming and turning to gawk at the interloper in the doorway.)

As I was waiting, another man came in and insouciaountly flopped into the chair next to me.

"Do you have an appointment?" asked the receptionist, displeased.

"No, but I was sure you'd be able to fit me in easily," he replied, somewhat arrogantly.

None of this struck me as odd initially, but as the young masseuse kneaded my shoulders like dough as I lay on the table, I got to wondering about the place and why it might have been popular with menfolk when it didn't advertise itself as such (unlike the Madonna Mens Saloon).

I am also a chatter during massages, I like to know a bit about the person who is up close and personal with my hamstrings.

So I got talking to my masseuse, a young woman from a faraway state.
I casually asked whether they had many customers, many regulars, and what they were like.

She answered dutifully and then paused on the last one. "Mostly men," she answered, then looked at her colleague who was also in the room and they both giggled.


A short time later she moved me onto my back. Snapping her gum she hovered over me. "Just chest or also boobss? she asked, hissing on the s.

"Wha? I struggled to ask.

"Do you want me to massage your boobss?" she asked, indifferently.

"Erm, no thank you," I managed.

Noticing my discomfort, "We have to ask, some people want it," she said, slightly apologetically.

She paused, and added, "In fact I have one regular client who wants it for fifteen to twenty minutes each time."

Then she and her colleague both fell into a volley of giggles. My girl was laughing so hard she was convulsing, the other was doubled over clutching the side of the table.

"She makes me do it at the start of the massage and..." giggle "her voice..." giggle "her voice goes all sexy."

Then she made appropriately sexy noises to illustrate.

It was at that point I remembered a news article I'd stumbled across, which had reported that some massage centres had been busted for moonlighting as something else. Surely that wasn't the case here? The room was innocuously decorated, the expert masseuses both dressed modestly. Plus, the place was part of a chain across North India, which wouldn't be a particularly discreet way to conduct parallel services.

Whatever the case, one thing was for sure: discretion was not a strong point.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Some places to stay in Jaipur

(Shahar Palace rooms)

One of the joys of visiting a touristy place is there's always a wide array of accommodation options. I, again, decided to go to Jaipur rather late in the day so ended up having to book into three separate hotels for the five-night stay: one budget, one mid-range and one five-star. I rate each one highly, for different reasons.

Night one was spent at Shahar Palace. It's an 80-year old, rambling family home, or small palace really, converted into a series of rooms opening out onto a sprawling, beautiful green garden featuring a small fountain. Sitting here in the blue-skied sunshine after my seven-hour journey from Delhi packed in the back of a 4x4, knees-to-chest style, alongside garrulous travel companions and no iPod, it was possibly the most relaxed I'd been in weeks.
(The massive, relaxing garden. That's a group of my bookclub cohorts there.)

The owner is a retired military colonel, former polo player and a minor royal. Despite some initial terse moments over an overbooking he and his family turned out to be wonderful, warm and charming hosts. His 20-something son is a professional polo player (polo is an extremely popular pursuit in Jaipur, with all its royalty and horses) and spends much of the year travelling the world with his four horses, playing in various competitions.

The room was better than you'd expect from a budget hotel: clean and neat with a TV, a proper shower in the quite-fine bathroom and a lovely wooden wardrobe. It was a bit dark, however, but I'd handed my original, sunlight-drenched upper floor room to my bookclub friend who'd organised the trip. She deserved first pick.

(Khandela Haveli central courtyard)

Next up was Khandela Haveli, in the suburb of Bani Park which is home to numerous similar guesthouses. As the story goes, the haveli (rooms built around a central courtyard; a popular structure in desert Rajasthan) was originally in the small neighbouring city of Khandela, and had been dismantled and rebuilt in Jaipur. The place looked extremely new and well-maintained so I'm not sure about that story, but whatever. It was absolutely lovely: cosy, intimate, lovely touches that weren't over-the-top, TVs and nice bathrooms and so on. We stayed here for two nights; first in the sprawling royal 'suite' then in a normal 'deluxe' room; both were great.

(Rooftop dining area, next to the pool; Khandela Haveli)

Next door to the hotel is Hotel Mahal Khandela. It's run by the brother of Khandela Haveli's owner. When I brought this up with the manager his eyebrows shot up and he archly said, "Who told you that?" (It was the polo-playing son from Shahar, but I didn't tell him that.) Perhaps Khandela v Khandela is Jaipur's own Ambani v Ambani.

(Le Méridien Jaipur)

For the final two nights we were the guests of Le Méridien Jaipur. It is important to note that Le Méridien is actually situated on the outskirts of Jaipur, past Amber Fort, and a good 45 minutes by rickshaw, at least half an hour by car. As my whole reason for being in Jaipur was to go to the literature festival it was a bit of a drag, but that most certainly does not reflect on the hotel, which has an incredible amount of space and virtually no neighbours. It's also in the process of being extended.

(Musicians stroll through the gardens and entrance way; they play a traditional Rajasthani instrument that's kind of like a violin made of bamboo; this guy's dad sits in a corner of the hotel grounds making the instrument)

As would be expected from a five-star property, Le Méridien is beautifully outfitted, furnished with antique-like fittings that hit just the right mid-point between beige anony-hotel and jarringly ornate  Rajasthani. Service is seamless, there is a beautiful pool in which to swim in warmer weather, and a few different restaurants from which to choose. Our room had a rain shower, a bath, a four-poster bed, nightly turndown, a flat-screen TV, and a balcony overlooking the pool. Best of all, deep fluffy pillows, in-room AC controls and a soft doona.

Verdict? I'd definitely stay at any, or all of them again. I think Shahar is best if you're with a group; Khandela is great for couples, particularly if visiting parentals are part of the package, and Le Méridien is best if you're after a relaxing weekend getaway, rather than an action-packed few days of frenzied shopping and eating.

But when I go back I think I'll give Khandela #2 a try. There's nothing like a bit of brotherly rivalry to amp up the experience.