Imperial Hotel Part 1 — Reflections on Independence

Imperial Hotel, Janpath, New Delhi — a magnificent white palace I first experienced at 4 a.m. after a 12-hour flight from London to New Delhi. That leg followed flights from Denver to Chicago to London. I arrived tired but excited; this was my first big intercontinental trip. We were to spend a day in New Delhi and then fly north into Jammu and Kashmir to Leh, the traditional capital of Ladakh on the Indus River, to trek in 13,000- to 16,000-foot mountain valleys in Buddhist Ladakh.

Ladakh, bordering Tibet, is another story. But due to a scheduling snafu, I got to spend extra time at the Imperial Hotel at both ends of the Ladakh trek — events which I will never regret.

Prefatory note: My father moved us from Buffalo to Mountain Home, Idaho, in 1967, so I finished high school in a town populated by potato farmers and Air Force kids, many of whom had lived all over the world. The farmers and the brats did not mix well; I fell in with the brats. One of the sons of an Air Force master sergeant became my best friend; he is the one who organized treks in the Himalayas.

India seems to be an easily susceptible, attractive target for foreign influences. The Taj Mahal, the Red Fort and Fatehpur Sikri, together with more fabulous forts and mosques all over the country, were built by Muslims. Extreme northern mountainous areas are mainly Buddhist and therefore the architecture resembles Tibet. Most of the country is traditionally Hindu, of course, but over many decades foreign powers have overrun and dominated the country: Muslims, then the British.

Outside the Imperial Hotel on a late July day, temperatures were well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, with the rainy season expected and therefore few tourists, so the cab business was slow. But, the cabbies had to wait somewhere, so more than 100 cabbies were parked in queue in the Imperial parking lot, some waiting days for a fare. Magnificently dressed Sikhs attended the entrance door, waiting to call a cab if one was wanted. I was looking for birds, so frequently when I exited the main door, I did not need a cab; I was walking. Nonetheless each time I pushed the door bar, the attendant Sikh made the inquiry, and the next desperate cabbie who had waited in line for two days looked expectant, only to see his hopes dashed.

But, one day, after discussing these matters with hotel staff, I did hire a cab to take me to a park which was famous for a variety of eagles and other birds. There were literally hundreds of cabbies waiting for a fare. I drew a Sikh about 50 years old; fortunately, his English was passable. He seized the opportunity to drive me on a circuitous route, past the India Gate (“built by British”) and the National Museum (“built by British”), and several other buildings (all “built by British”). We got to the park and he offered to wait for a modest fee; I said I would be a long time but he did not care. After waiting two days at the Imperial for a fare, he was not leaving me. I agreed to the fee, less than a Starbucks latte.

Sidenote: Solo birdwatching in India can attract a variety of unwanted attentions. A prostitute joined me walking the park in New Delhi. This adventure lasted about 15 minutes; she lost interest and wandered away when I explained, testing the depth of her professed interest in birds, how many species of eagles could be identified in this area. This park, highly recommended by hotel staff, was filled with eagles. Days later, while employing binoculars in a park in Agra, I had the unexpected pleasure of observing young gay males make displays which I might have welcomed if made by breeding birds, but not so much there. Escaping the gay-rendezvous park, I wandered, following some wagtails (wagtails are birds), into a complex of apparent soccer fields outside of Agra, only to find that I was well inside a military police complex. Luckily for me, the young cadets were so thrilled to practice their English that the sour commandant, reluctantly, gave them leave to do so. Otherwise I might still be in jail. And then there was the incident in Ladakh, when I was standing in the street photographing the monastery at the top of the hill, and, inadvertently, the military police station at the bottom of the hill. Bad time, bad place. That I still own my camera is a miracle.

Back to the park in New Delhi. After shedding the prostitute who proclaimed a short-term interest in birding, I returned to the parking lot, there to find my loyal Sikh cabbie. He then exploited the fact that I was captive in his cab to give me the total tour of New Delhi. Knowing that I was being taken for a ride was not so bad, given that the cost would be a few dollars US, he had waited two days for the fare, and I could easily afford it.

The Sikh cabbie kept showing me magnificent buildings, stating at each: “built by British.”  He was obviously quite proud of the buildings. Remember, the Sikhs are famous for their fierceness in battle and their unswerving loyalty to the British. I considered these facts as I gathered the courage to ask a question.

Pause button: Is The Sage Grouse a neocolonialist? Is The Sage Grouse a plain, old, ordinary 1800s-era colonialist? These questions did go through my head, but I had an interesting question to pose and maybe few opportunities in which to ask it. India achieved independence, but 50 years later much of the country continued to be uneducated, mired in poverty, without proper water and sewers and generally not looking like it had emerged from colonialism very successfully.

So, I ask my Sikh cabbie: If the British built everything of which you are proud, wouldn’t you be better off if the British were still running the government?

If I had exploded a skunk in that cab, the reaction would have been the same. How badly did I misread this issue! If you want to see an expression of ultimate horror and disbelief, I saw it that day. It was suddenly apparent that no sentient being in India wanted the British back.

Were the Brits that bad?

Remember the saying: “Scratch a liberal, you will find a conservative.” That reverberated through my embarrassed mind as well.

The best architecture in India was created by Muslims many centuries ago, and the next best by the British more recently. But Sikh cabbies are proud of independence.

My visit was in 1997. Since then, India has enthusiastically adopted western (American) styles, fast food, technology, fashions and business practices at a rate unforeseen during my trip.

American culture: The third wave of conquest?

I wonder where my cabbie is now? How do you define independence? Independence is in the eye of the beholder.

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