Waiting with Alice in reception for her lift to the airport to show up, the door of the hotel is being left open a lot and a chilly breeze is finding its way in. The reason, I soon observe, is to expedite the egress of hotel staff conveying broken pieces of wood. As I notice the aqua green paint of my room’s décor on some of the bits, I assume renovations are underway.
Outside, seeing Alice off, I see the same guys piling the wood in a modest sized tee pee in the street.
‘It is for our Punjabi festival, the Lohri festival,’ one grinning waist-coated man tells me.
‘Yes, is for start of planting season, the end of winter. You come at 8 pm. Much singing and dancing,’ says another.
Judging by the origins of the bonfire wood, the singing and dancing may be the hotel manager when he finds he has a few doorless rooms.
Later that evening bangers start going off in all directions and the firewood out the front is lit. The racy drumbeat issuing from the street is somehow familiar and I expect to hear Paul Simon launch into The Obvious Child any minute. These guys certainly know how to enjoy themselves with very little.
The next day found me sitting in a car enjoying my own lift to the airport. Revisiting Paharganj the previous day had given me great delight to be in familiar territory and this morning I had stood at the edge of the rooftop terrace trying to memorise the Delhi rooftops. There had been a stiff breeze the previous evening and I was amazed at how far I could see.
The road to the domestic airport is straight and lined with trees both sides. I stare out of the window re-experiencing the month in flashbacks: a Paharganj market stall with rings of uncut keys; the twittering popcorn noise of a car launched into reverse; the miles of pink Jodhpur sandstone slabs used for fencing (intermittently with three rows of wire in more remote areas); the dominant hugeness of Jodhpur Fort; castor oil and mustard plants; stacks of marble cut into sheets outside Jaipur; tall handsome Rajput men; bottomless cups of chai; crowded markets at Ranakpur in the early morning and passing a large field where dozens of men were lined up on the far side doing their morning number twos; Ajitji’s beaming Clark Gable visage as he distributed bottled water on a silver tray on our long bus trips; Shivani’s tinkly laugh and her gorgeously coloured salwar kameez – I will always think of her in bright pink or lime; banana lassis and mango juice; dahl and porridge; incense and pollution; bells and drums; candles floating fearlessly on the Ganges…
I am brought back to the present when we start passing a long procession of smartly decked out camels. Their khaki-clad riders have them lumbering along in rows of three and I count 100 including their leader. My driver Abhay informs me that these soldiers are rehearsing for the Republic Day parade on 26 January. I must remember to turn the TV on that night for the highlights. Take a note Miss Jones.
After a tussle with airport officials I am finally allowed to board my flight to Kochi. Apparently the credit card I paid for the flight with (the one sitting in my wallet), does not match what they have on their system, and showing my passport as ID proved useless. When I was on the verge of losing my lolly and itching to see what the wobble range of Indian heads are when they are given a good shake, it was suggested that they could reverse the original payment and re-charge me for the flight. Hmm. I had to go with it, but if they say the number they have doesn’t match my card, where exactly is the refund going I wonder? Another loose end to clear up when I get home.
To distract myself from potentially distressing thoughts I turn to the jokes page in the in-flight magazine. I found this little gem that I cannot resist sharing, as I do love word humour:
A linguistics professor was lecturing to his class one day. ‘In English,’ he said, ‘a double negative forms a positive. In some languages, though, such as Russian, a double negative is still a negative. However, there is no language wherein a double positive can form a negative.’
A voice from the back of the room piped up, ‘Yeah, right.’