I don’t know about you, but in London I rarely get chatting to people and make new friends. Give me an aeroplane, though, and I’m anybody’s.
I’ll explain. Last week, I found myself on a flight to Delhi. I was to spend a few days attending the opening of a luxurious new hotel and visiting some principal sights before returning home. I’d reckoned, though, without Rupa.
As soon as she had installed herself in the Club Class cubicle next to me, I was firmly in Rupa’s grip. “I’m slumming it”, she informed me, looking around the cabin with distaste and smoothing imaginary crumbs from her sari. “Usually I’m in first class.” Rupa may live in a two-up, two-down in Southall, but her son-in-law is a BA pilot, hence the perks. She turned to a passing steward. “Young man, you have beautiful eyes. Please get me water, an extra rug and something to read. You may look after me like a baby.”
Rupa is tiny, engaging, irreverent, kind, domineering (whenever I surreptitiously tried to lift the opaque glass divider between us, she would whisk it down again in order to impart some new titbit of information) and, despite many twists of fate in her life, indomitable. A native of Delhi, she was appalled that I wasn’t going to properly explore her beloved city, and as soon as we arrived arranged for her nephew, a charming man, to show me behind the scenes.
That’s how I found myself on the roof of a tall, narrow house high above the seething intestines of Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi, home to seven families including Mohammed, a champion of the ancient sport of pigeon flying. With sudden hoots and whistles he commands his precious birds to take off or return, his dearest wish being to tempt the pigeons of rival kaboortarbaz away from their flocks; we saw them, along with many eagles, wheeling in tight arcs in different parts of the city sky.
That’s how, not long after, I sat quietly on the floor of a Sikh temple, where beneath a pink silk canopy, a priest gently swept the air above the holy scripture, set on a golden altar, with a long-handled horsehair brush. Later, I played with bouncing children at a charity-run school and health clinic, the Hope Project, and plunged into the colour-soaked, pilgrim-choked all-night bazaar around the revered shrine of Nizamuddin. The ancient stepwell may be full of holy water, but it is also full of sewage, the only outlet for the surrounding basti, deeply impoverished but engrossing, filled with pilgrims, revered tombs, bustling markets, and devotional singing.
Thanks to my chance meeting with Rupa, I was able to discover something of the real city as well as enjoying the trappings of a spoiling hotel. Sprawling, confusing, impenetrable Delhi became instead a many layered, unforgettable collage of colour and sound, startling beauty and troubling truth.
And what of my new friend? As I trailed behind with the luggage at Delhi airport, she was greeted like royalty by a gaggle of adoring relatives. It was the last trip home, she told me, that she would ever make. Rupa, you see, is 94. She has summoned me to her 95th birthday party next month, to which I am much looking forward. She has broadened my knowledge not just of Delhi, but of London too, and it’s taken an aeroplane to do it.
See Fiona's fantastic website, the Hotel Guru