Delhi is such a glorious city! Yes, it's covered in smog, it's grimy, the traffic is maddening and the urban sprawl hugely excessive. But in the heart of the city, there are places of immense charm and elegance - and buzzing with bird life.
Last week, for the first time in twenty years or more, Anu and I spent a few hours, just the two of us, as tourists in Delhi - a city in which we have lived, in total, for seven years or more.
It's no longer home, but it still has the pull of home.
Lodhi Gardens is one of my favourite places in this world. I just love it. What a privilege to stroll past its fifteenth century tombs and gumbads, across its lawns, and around its lake.
I don't know much about Marie Adelaide Freeman-Thomas, the Marchioness of Willingdon, the wife of the Viceroy in the early 1930s. But this park initially took her name - and you can still see mention of 'Lady Willingdon Gardens' on the gate in the north-east corner.
Good on you, ma'am!
And Lodhi Gardens bird life? Well, the highlight on this visit was a pair of red naped ibis. Spectacular!
When I first got to know Lodhi Gardens almost thirty years ago, you could see the bewitching silhouette of vultures roosting at dusk. They are long gone. And on this trip I didn't see a grey hornbill, which I have caught a glimpse of in the past.
But on the lakeside, there was a real thrill - a white throated kingfisher as bold as brass perched on a low-hanging branch:
Next stop, the exquisite Humayun's Tomb, mid-sixteenth century and the earliest of India's 'garden tombs' (of which the Taj Mahal is the most famous).
Cheel or scavenger kites are common across North India, but here they were majestic as they circled and wheeled overhead:
Then, for the first time, we visited the adjoining Sunder Nursery - ninety acres of monuments, gardens, woodland and water. It's been wonderfully fashioned with support from the Aga Khan Trust.
We saw a black drongo and a family of peacocks - but for me the highlight was spotting my talisman, a group of hoopoes grubbing away. They are not particularly rare in Delhi but there is something special about them - beautiful. elegant, elusive:
This reads a little like a love letter to a city I didn't know I loved.
I certainly loved the alexandrine parakeets which popped over from Lodhi Gardens to perch alongside our sixth-floor breakfast table:
Stranger and stranger! I went today to the shopping malls and crowded market streets of Noida Sector 18, part of a city of a million plus which is now the eastern-most part of Delhi (though it's across the state border in Uttar Pradesh). It's a middle class area, largely prosperous but not on a par with the tree-lined elite colonies and housing developments of South Delhi and Gurgaon.
The mall I popped in to bore the name ...
.., but judging by the array of western shop names, there's not all that much of India in the place.
I popped into a coffee bar - Costa, of course - for a flat white, and ended up forking out 240 rupees (that's not far off £3). So some of the prices are more firangi than desi as well as the brands.
But the most remarkable sight was a London bus - OK, it was novelty for kids, but bearing the label 'LONDON BUS' - perambulating round the mall. And you could buy tickets for your 'bus' ride at a mock-up of a red London phone box.
It's amazing the way that these iconic London institutions have found a resonance in Uttar Pradesh!
Overwhelming the Sector 18 skyline is a vast new development - mall and offices, by the look of it - which is evidence of the investment still pouring into this part of India's capital. Cycle ricks still ply their trade in its shadow, reflecting the deeply uneven development India is undergoing.
On the streets, there's still the food carts and the mehndi stalls. This woman was doing something I'd never seen before - having mehndi applied to both hands at once.
Noida is a beneficiary of the most spectacularly successful of Delhi's innovations - the metro. It's cheap, clean (really!) and ultra-efficient - and Noida is now no more than half-an-hour from Connaught Place, the heart-beat of Delhi.
It's so much quicker than a London bus!
It's more than a month since the first votes were cast, but still India's election juggernaut rumbles on. Today is the sixth of seven polling days - the final day is in a week's time - and Delhi is among the areas where voting is taking place.
I'm in the Indian capital to be an election pundit on WION, a news channel which is part of the Zee group. I popped out this morning to see how voting is going. This is the East Delhi constituency - currently held (as are all seven Delhi seats) by Narendra Modi's BJP, but where the Aam Admi Party (it means the party of the common man) is putting up a strong challenge.
There was a steady stream of voters at this polling station in a government school, but hardly a torrent. Turn-out in Delhi is usually well below the national average, and is lowest in middle-class areas.
In many countries, it's the marginalised underclass that doesn't engage with elections - in India, the poor know their electoral strength and it's the upper middle class who are often the most reluctant to cast their ballots. That's partly out of disdain for 'dirty' politics - partly that they feel they will be hugely out numbered by the hoi palloi - and as the temperature is touching 40 degrees and you can taste the grime in the Delhi air, it's very tempting to stay put in air conditioned comfort.
At some distance from the polling stations - about 200 yards away - the main political parties have stalls, keeping track on who has voted and offering encouragement (and in the BJP's case free saffron-coloured caps) to those heading to vote.
The party workers all have voters' lists complete with mugshots and make attentive notes about whether their supporters are showing up to vote. The Election Commission has really cleaned up the polling process over the last twenty years. Voting is electronic, and all those who vote get an indelible mark on a finger which takes about a month to fade away.
But there are still huge problems - with the under-supervised use of WhatsApp and other digital platforms to campaign, cajole and sometimes misinform ... the huge amounts of cash disbursed to buy votes and favourable coverage (voting has been postponed in one South Indian constituency after the seizure of cash amounting to more than £1 million believed to have been intended to influence the result) ... and a persistent problem of personation.
The friend who showed me round the Mayur Vihar polling stations said he and his wife won't be voting - but by 6pm, he added, his vote would still have been cast. Those who don't vote are sometimes victims of impostors voting in their name. And some of those who come to cast their ballot late in the day are told that they have already voted - even though they haven't.
And what next? Well, the exit polls will be released when the last polling stations close next Sunday - and then votes are counted four days later, on May 23rd.
Who do I think will win? Watch WION - and you'll find out!
The most wonderful inscription I have ever come across. This is a legacy of the Indian rebellion of 1857 - what was once described as the Indian Mutiny, and on occasions is now referred to (equally misleadingly) as the first Indian war of independence. You can find it on an old British Magazine, an arms depot, on a small traffic island in old Delhi. It's near Kashmere Gate, and just a few minutes rather treacherous walk from St James's church, which bears so many remembrances and marks of 1857.
The plaque is a counterblast to a tablet erected by the Imperial authorities in tribute to British soldiers who died at the spot during fierce fighting here in the heart of colonial Delhi...
It's difficult to read the initial plaque - but this in part is what it says:
On 11th May 1857, nine resolute Englishmen ... defended the Magazine of Delhi for more than four hours against large numbers of the rebels and mutineers until the walls being scaled and all hope of succour gone these brave men fired the Magazine - five of the gallant band perished in the explosion which at the same time destroyed many of the enemy.
What's truly marvellous is that after independence, the Indian authorities didn't remove or efface the relic of Imperial valour and attitude. The original was left in tact - and a counterblast, again in tablet form, installed just beneath. Would that all rival versions of history are expressed with such tolerance.
The Magazine itself, small and architecturally undistinguished, has been restored after a fashion, but remains dilapidated - and in the middle of a really busy road. It's difficult to access and distinctly hazardous to photograph (you can see my look-out and safety adviser above, we were there late last month). It is though quite the most remarkable physical embodiment of sharply conflicting historical narratives.
Remarkably, not far from the Magazine there are to this day businesses dealing in arms and ammunition.
I mentioned St James's - beautiful, serene and in every sense historic, with some very telling and elegiac 'Mutiny' memorials. See for yourself:
It's the part of central Delhi that time forgot. I lived in the city for a total of seven years. But it was a brief visit back at the beginning of the month that gave me my first real opportunity to explore the outer circle of once grand Connaught Circus, Indira Chowk I think it's now called.
It's a wonderful amalgam of small leather shops, a (remarkably well stocked but tiny) Communist bookstore, dusty offices, sparkling car showrooms - and stores which feel as if they haven't changed since independence. The likes of Harison's 'high class furniture', and next to it my favourite, Marques & Co's music shop.
The window is emblazoned with the 'by appointment' coats of arms of the Raj's great and the good, and some not-so-good. There's not many commercial establishments which would want to boast a connection with the Earl of Willingdon, Imperial Viceroy of India for five years in the 1930s. He was noted for taking a distinctly hard line against the increasingly assertive Indian nationalist movement.
His wife created Lodhi Gardens - which is much to her credit, until you realise that several urban villages were razed to clear the area round the gumbads and Lodhi-era tombs.
The shop front has survived unscathed since, well, anyone's guess. And there are nice touches now largely hidden from view. So above the splendid 1950s-style name board there's a slightly hip design built around music notation - now, frustratingly, hidden by a staunch metal shutter. The overall effect is charming - I'm so glad it's survived.
The business was established by Franz Marques in 1918, about whom I have been able to find out very little - and it has a website with its own distinct charm, including an endorsement from 1927 by Field Marshal Sir William Birdwood, Bart. And the firm's onetime locations - 'Bombay, Delhi, Simla' - are a distinct throwback to the Raj.
I have to confess I didn't go into the store - just took photos of its wonderful exterior (including the almost self-portrait to the right).
I did wonder how it keeps in business. Though I see on the internet some very warm and admiring comments about Marques. And indeed when I mentioned at home about my time travel in outer CP, my wife chirped up: "Marques - that's where we bought Samira's saxophone."
So, I am happy to say, the Whitehead family has played some very modest part in patronising one of Delhi's most evocative stores.
Delhi's middle class doesn't go to the zoo, never mind the tourists. They don't know what they are missing!
Delhi Zoo is magnificent. It's overlooked by the commanding walls of Purana Qila, the Old Fort, with kites massing overhead. It's green, spacious - and has the most marvellous bird life. Not in cages, but all around.
I was there last week - to discover that the painted storks (entirely wild as far as I can make out) are still roosting in the 'hidden' lake, hardly visited at all, at the centre of the zoo. There was a group of pelicans too - I suspect they may have clipped wings. It is quite magical.
Of the sounds I associate with Delhi, and indeed India, one of the most evocative is the shrill cry of the pariah kite, a scavenger bird so common it's regarded with disdain by Delhi-ites.
The kites wheel and soar over rubbish tips - around Lodhi Gardens - and seem particularly attracted to the ancient monuments in the heart of the city, Humayun's Tomb and Purana Qila.
Maybe, like the ravens at the Tower of London, they are guardians of the city's past. They certainly deserve a little bit more respect from the city than they get.
But the still greater delight of Delhi Zoo is the birdlife you chance across amid the glades and parcels of grass. I love the hoopoe. Few things give me more delight than watching this shy, graceful, slender bird of great beauty pecking at the ground with its long curved beak and tugging up a grub. As a child, I used to stare at the painting of a hoopoe in my parents' big bird book. It is just wonderful to see it for real.
The photo here I took last week with a very ordinary camera. You can see the crown on the hoopoe's head, the probing beak, and the black-and-white chevrons on its back which become more marked in flight.
Towards the back of the zoo, there was a colony of wild peacocks - looking for a place to roost in the adjoining shrub. Then as I was leaving the zoo, with the light fading, I spotted this lovely kingfisher hopping around one of the drainage ditches. I went away happy.
There are few more wonderful places in this world than Lodhi Gardens - as I was able to remind myself last week. They are beautiful - teeming with antiquity - even more alive with bird life (and bats as dusk falls) - and when the light is right, the atmosphere is magical. Wherever my ashes are scattered, some must rest here.
Of the monuments, my particular favourite is the Sheesh Gumbad, featured above and right. The last remannts of what must once have been vivid peacock blue tiling are visible high up on the frontage.
Below is the nearby Bara Gumbad, the first building you encounter as you enter from Lodhi Road. There is something particularly enchanting about the colours of the stonework - subdued, almost pastel shades. If you have never been, go!
Another great piece by Ian Jack in today's Guardian: why Delhi is still at heart a contractors' city.
He's quite right - it's a slovenly, '10% cut', type of city.
The metro has been a huge, transforming success - but the Commonwealth Games episode suggests that underneath, the culture hasn't changed.
'Sarkar' means government - which means, in India as elsewhere, slow, bureaucratic, uncivil and somewhat tarnished.
Sad news from Delhi - the death earlier this week of Mrs Khorshed Italia. She's the mother of a good friend, Shenny. A lovely, warm hearted woman, who had lived for more than seventy years in a top floor flat in CP, Connaught Place, for decades the colonnaded heart of the Indian capital.
Mrs Italia was 88 and the longest standing resident of CP, where the dwindling number of householders are being squeezed out by the pressure for offices and commercial lets. The Italia household was the last Parsee family in CP.
A newspaper article two years ago described Mrs Italia as 'the grand old lady of Connaught Place'. A very apt title. She also features affectionately in Sam Miller's wonderful Delhi: adventures in a megacity.
She once told me how from her balcony she saw the looting of Muslim shops in 1947 and witnessed Jawaharlal Nehru chasing rioters wielding a policeman's 'lathi'. She worked for several months as a medical volunteer, helping refugee women who reached Delhi from the violence-wracked plains of Punjab. I was greatly moved by her modest, unvarnished account of her work, the women she helped, and the injustices she railed against - the interview is available here.
The photograph by Ros Miller dates from 1997 - and below is a charming photo of Mrs Italia when young which I was given by Shenny a few years ago.
'Peeli Wali' has re-entered my life - bringing back a keen and warm memory of my mother and my daughter together. Let me explain. 'Peeli wali' in colloquial Hindi means the yellow one. When my daughter was a baby, and we were all living in Nizamuddin East in Delhi, Hindi was her language. On one occasion, when my parents were over visiting, I told Samira to look at the yellow ball, the 'peeli wali' ball.
'Andrew, surely that's not Hindi', my mother said. 'Peeli wali, I haven't heard that since I was growing up in Glasgow'. And she told the remarkable story of how in the working class corner of Glasgow where she lived until she was about nine, 'peeli wali' meant someone who was off colour. As I recall, she told me it also had a second meaning - a very weak cup of tea (which was also known as 'Jenny PC', or 'Jenny pee clear', though my mother would not wish to be associated with such vulgarity, at least not in print).
This sense of connect between popular Glaswegian dialect and my daughter's very basic Hindi fascinated and delighted me. I wrote about it at the time in an Indian news magazine. And in the past week I recounted the story to a friend, and Indian-born US academic, when we met for a drink. His wife is a student of language, and a specialist on the collision between English and India. And that's how the issue has all come to life again.
There is a fantastic book from the Victorian era, a dictionary of sorts, which captures Hindi and other Indian language loan words which became used in Indian English. It's got the unforgettable title of Hobson Jobson. But 'peeli wali' isn't there - I suspect too informal and plebeian for this rather grand project.
What I probably said to Samira all those years ago was: 'Peeli wali ball dekko!' Look at the yellow ball. Dekko, of course, is another Hindi word which has found a place in vernacular, but not formal, English. 'Have a dekko', meaning 'have a peek', was a phrase I grew up with in Yorkshire, without having any sense of the word's origins.
This is in Hobson Jobson, after a fashion. Not 'dekko', but the much more stylised 'deck' - from the same root and with the same meaning. It makes me wonder, though, how much of the Hindi that (I imagine) British soldiers and seafarers brought back with them from India still has to be find a chronicler.
And thinking back to the 'peeli wali' incident, it makes me realise just how inter-connected the world was long before the current era of globalisation.
Andrew Whitehead's blog
Welcome - read - comment - throw stones - pick up threads - and tell me how to do this better!