Our last few days in India rush up to us in a flurry of night trains, rickshaw haggles, and last-minute site-seeing in Agra where we squeeze in a few sublime hours at the Taj before pushing on. Exhausted and exhilarated, trying not to look backward or forward too much, half-heartedly picking out highs and lows, we pull into Delhi at 11 p.m. for our final 24 hours.
Although this is the first morning we can truly sleep in in nearly a month, I am so accustomed to gray-orange, pre-dawn risings (from our meditation retreat and so many overnight and early-morning trains over the last few weeks), that I am up before six, standing on the roof of our hotel in Paharganj.
I watch the sun, an unrushed, red balloon floating between the minarets of a nearby masjid, or mosque, which issues its call to prayer as I take in the wakening cityscape. A large black bird, too big to be a raven, too elegant to be a vulture, passes in front of me, a long branch in its beak, dark against the hazy glow.
Eggs, toast, and horribly sweet instant coffee as the redness disappears with the morning chill, and the light becomes warm, lighting up the stone shrine to Shiva behind me, as well as a jolly, elephant-headed Ganesh icon, protruding from the wall.
At noon, Tay and I take an auto-rickshaw to the Press Club of India, where we meet with local environmental journalist, Sujit Chakraborty, editor at a major Indian news magazine, to talk about tea while drinking beers and eating chicken curry. Sujit, it turns out, is a kindred spirit of sorts, who shares some heartbreaking information with us about the pesticide problem in India, especially in the tea gardens of Darjeeling; we talk for over three hours as the room — which has the atmosphere of a gloomy dive bar — fills up with all kinds of serious-looking Indian journalists, all of them men, some speaking noisily with each other or into cell phones, others drinking alone and staring at the big-screen television, or off into space.
After the long lunch, Tay and I make a vague attempt to see a few Moghul sites, but our hearts are not in it, so we return to Paharganj. Walking the narrow alleys of this backpacker ghetto and market area, we cannot stop thinking about the bomb that exploded here less than a month ago, planted by extremists angry over Kashmir; the blast was less than 100 meters from our hotel, but today, all is peaceful (or at least, normally chaotic in this corner of one of the largest cities in the world) as we browse the stalls. Tay decides against one last henna painting, since we must pack, and she would not have time to let the dye dry properly on the palms of her hands.
first time in many months, we’ll be soaring straight into it.