The first visit to India is an eyeful. Baskets of ocher-coloredspices, outstretched hands, a rainbow of shawls, and relentlessdichotomies - new/old, rich/poor, ugly/beautiful - pour into thelens of a hungry camera. It is during my first sightseeing tour ofDelhi that these preconceived fantasies of what India would becollide with a reality that zooms toward me in the form of a signon the bumper of a truck.
"Horn please," it reads.
Our driver plunges a foot to the brake pedal, his vehicle skiddinggently in the dusty road, coming within inches of the truck'sbumper. Then he leans into the horn. Two men digging up bricks 15feet away barely muster a glance. I exhale.
"There are three things you must have to drive in India," my guide,Ashoka, says, matter-of-factly. "Good brakes, good horn, good luck.If you don't have all three, you can't drive here."
The visitor to India would be wise to skip straight to a fourthitem: a driver. There is no place on earth - not even Boston -where I'd rather drive less. This isn't just a matter of safety (orsanity); there's so much to glimpse along the sides of the roadsthat you'd miss most of it sitting behind the wheel. It's alsoworth investing in a good guide - easily arranged through thebetter hotels - because India's capital, New Delhi, is a swelteringmetropolis of more than 12 million, a city that resists orderlyexploration, especially for a Westerner unfamiliar with Muslim andHindu history and tenets.
"It's hard to get people to visit the first time," Ashoka concurs."But it's easy to get them to come back."
Delhi is an excellent place to get a handle on India, a countrythat celebrates its past as it feasts on the future. Streets wideand narrow are still navigated by sacred cows lumbering beneathslick billboards that announce the opening of the latest Bollywoodepic. The sobering din of crushing traffic is mitigated by a strollthrough the peaceful Lodi Gardens. The impersonal modern buildingsof "New" Delhi are escaped with a left turn into the intoxicatingshanty lanes of Chandni Chowk.
Where to begin? Start with the name: Today's New Delhi is at leastthe eighth city to inhabit this dusty plain on the banks of theYamuna River. It was first known as Indraprastha, founded in 1450BC by the Pandava dynasty (the family immortalized in the epic taleMahabharata). Successive rulers left their mark, capped in1911 when Britain's King George V proclaimed that the ImperialCapital of India would be shifted from Calcutta to this spot, to benamed New Delhi.
Architect Edwin Lutyens was hired to remake the city - into the"Rome of Hindustan," he proclaimed. Thirteen years of building wereinaugurated in 1931, most visible in the city's broad majesticstreets, the Presidential Palace, and the India Gate, a memorial tothe more than 85,000 Indian soldiers who died in service to Britainduring World War I.
But I didn't come to India to revel in the twentieth-centuryarchitecture of colonialists, so my hotel arranges for a guide anda driver. Early one morning, we head south past the India Gate tothe city's southern suburbs, to the Qutub Minar, a striking minaretthat has become Delhi's iconic symbol. Completed in 1198 to markthe arrival of Islam, the 238-foot-high fluted sandstone towerrises next to the ruins of India's first mosque, theQuwwatu'l-Islam - or the "might of Islam." But there are somecharming architectural inconsistencies.