It all started with the heat.
The unbearably overwhelming heat might not be one’s biggest enemy in Delhi, but definitely the first enemy that one would encounter upon arrival in the wrong season, one against which fighting is reduced to nothing but hopeless.
That was how the obnoxious heat had ironed an indelible scar in my memory on the night of my arrival: thirty five degrees at midnight 3 a.m., a suffocating room that had long missed any trace of human being, and the worst logistics in the IIT Hostel among which a broken fan- I was not asking for an AC or even a cooler!- turned out to be most destructive. It was also in more or less the same manner that my next three days were shaped- or ruined. My peeled fingers, burnt lips and even the corpse of a parrot apparently too tired to carry on flying under the scorching sun all served as a reminder of the over-aggressive powerfulness of the Delhi heat. You were like a Sisyphus against this sizzling stone. Bound to lose, no chance to win, no matter how many invitations the devil has sent you.
Here was simply one more such invitation, on my second day of moving into my current apartment right after the AC in the drawing room where I slept the first day- alleged to be the only AC in the apartment that time- got burnt up because of its miniscule capacity. The combination of a sheepish cooler and two moderately functioning fans was far from being helpful in a sparse airtight oven. (Why it was airtight? Because my landlady did not like the idea of my sleeping with doors open, “threatening” that pigeons, or I even fancied monkeys- not to mention rates and insects- might break in fervently once I left the doors open!) I rolled in bed with my sheet back and forth even though the cooler was just thirty centimeters away and the wind generated therefrom blew right into my face. It was nothing because it was both weak and hot. In fact, due to the more spacious air circulation in the dining-cum-living room (one façade of the living room is open to the outside instead of having a wall), it was slightly cooler than my spacious inferno-cum-oven bedroom. And three chairs sufficed to get my body fixated. So the choice was between rolling in the bed awake all night and fall asleep once in a while no matter how uncomfortably. I need sleep and I long for coolness. The deal was obvious.
I was nevertheless forced out of my makeshift chair bed quite early. Piercing through a whole wall of glass windows, the 7:30 sun beam of Delhi effortlessly beats its counterpart of any sharp afternoon in Shanghai’s hottest days possible. I lost the capability to do anything in the apartment except for sweating and frustrating myself in the sweat. I need some air, really cool ones. And Wifi.
I am never a fan of any kind of Starbucks. So it was amazing to have found myself in front of its gate more than half an hour before it opened, as if it were a stadium that hosts the concert of my favorite singer. And what I did within those thirty minutes indeed created an illusion that I was a devoted fan. Two girls from Korea arrived slightly later but went away with their fully-geared backpack after seeing Starbucks’ not open yet. In contrast, I stayed. For the reason that I did not know what else to do except for standing there and reading my book.
I learned the lesson of being slightly more patient and leave a little later the next day, both from this personal experience and from the book that I happened to have picked up: Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. Jeff, to dodge the police check at the railway station and the over-priced fancy hotels, used to go to “Florence on a train, slept all the way, and then g[e]t a train straight back and sle[ep] some more.” In any case, forty minutes in an AC-equipped metro carriage with a seat (the merit of Women’s Carriage at the weekend!) would only be more endurable than six or seven hours of commutation from Venice to Firenze and back during a sleepy midnight.
I was pleasantly impressed that Starbucks opened on time, but was not surprised that I was not their first customer of the day. Indians were equally good, if not better, at jumping queues as Chinese, plus we don’t have a proper queue in the first place. Still, being one of the first granted me the privilege to choose an advantageous seat. A seat with electrical socket underneath and a table high enough to dine, read, write and type. Managing the four familiar activities all together, I finally cashed in on the strange triumph of going back to my turf. The Korean girls sitting next to me were making plans on Leh-Manali-Dharamsala, the same route that I did last year with my roommates yet in the reverse order. Mostly they were killing time before staying the night at the airport and leaving for Leh in the early morning. Occasionally there were guys sitting nearby who submerged themselves into the world of books just as I did. Some were reading newspapers, some working on laptops, others simply hanging out. Within one hour or two, the entire place- each and every seat- got all packed up, with background music loudened quickly from some sweet folk songs of rains and rainbow to hot fast-tempo stimulating electronics. All these details, in fact, were what Starbucks would be like on a typical weekend in Shanghai as well. In that sense, I was really on my own turf.
Except that by claiming this long lost sense of accomplishment, I was immediately turned into both tourist and poker face. The heat does not matter anymore. Or at least it became less a threat or concern than a mere survival instinct. (Indeed, in my initial days here I didn’t have proper internet access. But even now when I had connections, I never once bothered to check the weather forecast.) Similarly, the same Delhi that used to trouble, intimidate and annoy retreated to a faraway symbol as well. “On a telephone line I can be a super model or Norman Meller; you wouldn’t know the difference.” In a Starbucks it can be a Delhi steaming summer or Shanghai benevolent winter and no one would tell the difference either.
Within as short as one weekend I was infected by some finicky touristic behavior that I would have easily loathed one year ago. It was initially unthinkable because the whole point of travelling, at least to me, is to explore and experience something- anything- that is local and different from the world one is used to. The only defense at my disposal seemed to be my change of roles. It was nevertheless a powerful one that enabled me to see through the un-touristicity amid my stuck in a Starbucks chair.
Four years ago I was a traveler by definition. Exploring around was my only purpose that no matter how awkward I looked at this first time, I had not even slightly considered hiding myself at any place that looks un-Indian. Being a student at the second time was more or less the same. A substantial part of life was taken care of by the university to ensure that I still had enough flexibility to travel around. The only difference was that I was more knowledgeable about what I saw and whom I met. These, in retrospect, were always the golden days of my life.
Except that, as Frost pathetically yet truthfully put it, “nothing gold can stay.” The best adventurous lifestyle was squeezed into ephemeral once you stepped out of your golden role. Now that you are working for someone, responsibility naturally grew on your shoulder. You’ve got more tasks to fulfill than simply catering to your own wild aspirations. The biggest lesson from my otherwise perfect first passage to India in 2009 was that to strike a balance from being knocked off from either side, it was sometimes necessary to lose a battle to win a war. And in that process, it would be less about love than it is about adaptation.
Which makes “love” the hardest words to say both in and to Delhi. So you get tough like everyone else.
But even if you don’t, it won’t be the end of the world anyway. It only means that you take your time and say it slowly, with the time span of two months:
I L-O-V-E Y-O-U D-E-L-H-I.
(The weekend referred to here was 2013.6.22.)