shopping & more eating with the experts in india

It’s our second to last evening in New Delhi. Hubby’s nephew, Babloo (his nickname), an officer in the Indian Air Force, and his wife Anna have invited us to dinner in their living quarters where they live with their two sons. While we chat with the boys and catch up on old times with Babloo’s visiting father, Anna flits effortlessly from living room to kitchen cooking what we in the southern U.S. refer to as a “bodacious” dinner.  I’ve already mentioned how screwed up our meal times have been since we arrived. A “normal” dinnertime in India is usually around 8:30/9:00 in the evening. We’d had lunch late that day while we were touring all those temples and synagogues, and I’d already eaten nearly a whole bowl of Chinese-style shrimp. Still I was very much looking forward to Anna’s dinner as her reputation as a great cook had not been lost on us.

Anna is a Christian from Kerala, and grew up eating meat and fish. Babloo began eating meat after he grew up and joined the Indian Air Force, not sure which came first. On prior India trips, I had avoided eating meat but now I was really looking forward to whatever non-veggie delight Anna planned for our friend ML and me. When Anna called dinner, we saw a dining table laden with food, both vegetarian dishes to please father-in-law and Hubby, and not one–but THREE–lovely non-veggie entrees, beginning with a fillet of fish baked in a creamy sauce followed by a delicious Tandoori chicken and the usually accompanying dishes such as rice and naan and salad and vegetables. Then came the mutton stew! It was all delicious, but after having dipped my hand once too often into the biscuits while drinking tea plus the late lunch of shrimp, I was too stuffed to accept second helpings, much to my chagrin.

We returned to our hotel a little too full of good food for our own good and looking forward to spending our last day in Delhi shopping with Anna and Babloo. Not only had we heard about Anna’s cooking reputation from our daughters’ visit last summer, we’d also heard how cheerful and indefatigable she was at shopping and finding whatever you had in mind to buy. In our case that day, that included stainless steel salt & pepper shakers with holes on the side like the ones we’d seen in a restaurant in Agra, a carved wooden elephant and wooden segmented cobra for our grandson and bangles and ankle bracelets for our granddaughter. We knew our suitcases could hardly accommodate any more than that.

Here’s Anna, Hubby, Babloo, and ML in front of a typical shop in the circle grid of the Connaught Circus, representing the handicrafts of the Government of Orissa State. (I chose the setting for the elephant carvings along the top of the raised platform.) The State Emporia complex features handicrafts from various states and regions in India. To know where to go to find exactly what you’re looking for, you need to know what each state or region is famous for. We were told that bargaining was not permitted in these government sponsored state stores. Anna knows otherwise, at least for some stores. She gets the best prices from the vendors, and . . .

then Babloo steps in to pay, often securing an even better deal before rendering payment. It turns out that Anna and Babloo–working in partnership–are quite the expert shoppers.

Naturally, when a group of you are shopping, after awhile someone needs to use the facilities, and since you’re in no particular hurry you go into a shopping mall food complex to locate one. (Like we do here in the U.S.)  While you’re there, you might as well stop to fortify yourself with an ice cream or cup of coffee–so you won’t feel guilty for using their toilet. This food complex is not quite as big as those in American malls, but they’re far more appealing in their snack offerings if you happen to be a vegetarian. I can’t see a single meat product in these food cases. The floating weiner looking items in the lower right corner are not hot dogs, they’re sweet gulab jamun soaking in sugar syrup, seen more often in small ball shapes.

Outside, we encounter a group of musicians and colorfully garbed dancer. It’s unclear whether it’s to call attention to their state’s store or simply to collect bakshish (tips). Notice the casual dress of the shoppers as they stroll by.

When it was time to look for the bangles, we found a whole row of open-air handicraft shops in a different area not far away, where bargaining is more or less expected. Most of these stalls are devoted to bangles (notice the ones on the left). Glass bangles are especially popular during marriage ceremonies. They’re worn by women of ages and are available in an array of colors and sizes. You can mix and match for various color combinations to match whatever you’re wearing, and some women wear several inches worth on their arms and wrists. If you can’t find the color and decoration that you’re looking for in these stalls, they probably haven’t been made yet.

Apparently Valentine’s day has caught on in India. How would you like having this giant heart of red roses with a mix of what looks like calla lilies? This one is Texas “larger than life” sized.

While these are only a few pictures I’ve chosen to show here, the truth is by this time we’ve done quite a bit of successful shopping. Blessings to Babloo who patiently drove us to different shopping districts all over the city, parking and hanging around to help whenever we needed. When we reach a South Indian restaurant similar to Haldiram’s we’ve already partaken of, we know it’s time to stop for a chai or South Indian coffee and a rest. Of course we didn’t try very hard to resist other small (?) snacks as well.  ML looks a little daunted by the huge butter masala dosai with chutney and dal she ordered. How do you eat this thing?

The other dishes includes Anna’s paper dosai and Hubby’s sambar vadai, plus an uttappam in the foreground. No dinner for me tonight!

South Indian style coffee is served quite hot, almost boiling, in small silver tumblers that are not only too hot to hold in your hand, they could burn your lips as well. I asked Hubby to demonstrate for ML the coffee by the yard cooling method that Indian baristas use, that is, pouring back and forth from cup to bowl–without losing any to your lap–until it’s sufficiently cool to drink. In spite of his lack of practice over the years, he doesn’t spill a drop. On the other hand, I chose not to show a picture of myself trying to do the same. What can I say? I spilled.

Our last shopping stop is in the Khan Market in the part of Delhi we used to walk to often from Hubby’s brother’s home where we often stayed when we were visiting India. It was hard to grasp how large it’s grown over the years. It has apparently become one of the most popular and colorful shopping districts in Delhi as well. I remember when there were very few shops open, and those were most for small appliances, such as blenders not as easily available in India as they are now. Look how much American this store front looks. You could easily persuade me that this photo was taken on a street in Queens if I hadn’t taken it myself.

At the end of the day, we had accomplished most of our shopping agenda. I had my stainless salt & pepper shakers, the elephant, bangles and anklets, as well as several items Anna and Babloo insisted on purchasing themselves and sending to the daughters #1 and 2 and their families–not to mention the beautifully embroidered Pashmina shawls they gifted ML and me. We were also beginning to suspect that we might have to eventually break down and buy another suitcase as well. More on that later. Next post, we’re off to Goa!

a lonely princess and more of agra and taj mahal

Continuing our visit to Agra after a stop at Fatehpur Sikri earlier in mid-morning, we timed our next stop for lunch at a restaurant called appropriately enough, the Taj Mahal Restaurant. How many U.S. cities have Indian restaurants of that same name, I wonder? Since we’d gotten up to leave Delhi around 5:30 a.m. and had only consumed a train-provided so-so breakfast, the meal–though not quite fit for a Mogul perhaps–was delicious. What did Moguls eat anyhow? What we ate was–clockwise from the serving bowl at top left just below the plate of food–carrots, potato curry, chicken masala, dal stew, rice dish (in the middle) with plenty of naan (bread) and beer and coke to wash it down . Carrots grown in India, by the way, are much more red than the orange ones we grow here and taste slightly stronger.

After lunch, we were off to see the Taj. The tour buses and vans seemed to park much further away than during our first visit, and more commercial areas seemed to have sprung up around the area near the entrance of the Taj Mahal. Naturally, they’re all geared to tourists. When you leave the confines of your buses or vans, you’re besieged by hawkers of every age for everything imaginable for you to buy. I thought this shop was peculiar enough to warrant a picture. What other reason would you have to buy marble plates than to be able to say you bought it at a marble shoppy?

Approaching this entry(below) made me remember driving some of the back alleys behind some of the casinos in Las Vegas.

Finally we near the entry gateway near the eastern side of the garden, and I grab the opportunity to snap a candid shot of others on their way in as well. For some reason, I think I like backside views of people and animals. For one thing you rarely get in trouble since they’re unaware of your camera, and the shots really are candid.

I found I was just as impressed as I was 30 years ago by the calligraphy inscriptions  running lengthwise up and down the entry. They read “O Soul, thou art at rest. Return to the Lord at peace with Him, and He at peace with you.” The calligraphy is made by jasper (gray) inlaid in white marble panels. The letters are written slightly larger as the panels go higher so that they appear the same size looking all the way up.

Inside the dome I remembered to look up to see this impressive surface engraved painting of elaborate geometric forms.

Regular readers will remember my complaining several months ago about my first visit, 30 years ago, being marred a little by the fact that the one day we spent there, there was no water in the reflecting pool. Well, here we are and you can see the water was just fine this time.

At the time we reckoned our tushes were warming the exact bench on which Princess Diana was photographed in 1992 during a state visit to India while her marriage to Charles was in a state of collapse. (They separated later the same year.) After researching for this post, I’m afraid it was the wrong bench. The one behind Hubby’s head appears to be more accurate. You can check for yourself here.

Finally, on to the cenotaphs (empty tombs) in the interior of the marble tomb. Mumtaz is the smaller one on the right, placed at the precise center of the inner chamber, with inscriptions that praise her. Shah Jahan’s, to the left, is the only visibly asymmetric element in the entire complex. It’s also bigger than that of Mumtaz, but reflect the same elements: a larger casket on a slightly taller base, decorated with calligraphy that identifies him. Bases and caskets of both cenotaphs are elaborately inlaid with precious and semi-precious gems.

Because Muslim tradition forbids elaborate decoration of graves, however, the actual bodies of Mumtaz and Shah Jahan were placed in a plain crypt beneath the inner chamber–in the dark basement–with their faces turned to the right towards Mecca. They are no longer accessible to the public.

At the end of the visit, our last thing to do before we leave the Taj Mahal–for what will probably be the last time–is to retrieve our shoes.

I admit that every time I remove my shoes–no matter where I am–I always cross my fingers they’ll be there when I come back. So far, they always have been.

Now, in case you’re planning a visit to India yourself any time soon, here’s a great list of visitor’s do’s and don’ts I wish I’d known about. You may find them interesting and useful.