Rakesh Mehra was standing outside the The Oberoi hotel in New Delhi when I paused to figure out how to cross the highway that lay between me and the great Mughal monument I had seen out my guest room window. He directed me to a crosswalk over the highway and gave me walking directions the rest of the way. “Or,” he said with a smile, “I could drive you there for 50 rupees.” I calculated 85 US cents and immediately agreed. Little did I know that this would be the start of a beautiful friendship.
A few minutes later a black and yellow taxi — the classic Hindustan Motors Ambassador, which looks a lot like a 1960s Volvo — rolled out from behind the hotel. It took us less than five minutes to drive to Humayun’s Tomb, where I said goodbye (or so I thought) to Mehra.
Named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993, the tomb is perhaps the second greatest Mughal monument in India. Since I had only one day to spend in Delhi, the teeming capital with its more than 17 million inhabitants, I had decided to forgo the six-hour round trip to see the greatest monument, the Taj Mahal, in favor of a whirlwind tour of the city. This seemed like a good place to start.
Son of the poet-warrior Babur, Humayun was the second of the Mughal emperors. He was also an aesthete and an astrologer who surrounded himself with beautiful things. But it was Bega Begum, his first wife and lifelong consort, who honored his memory with the first garden mausoleum on the Indian subcontinent, begun in 1569.
Had the Persian architect built the stunning domed structure at home, he would have covered it in colored tiles. In India, the architect called on Mughal stonemasons to create the same effects with multicolored building stone. Scholars consider the tomb the inspiration for the Taj Mahal, begun in 1631.
I didn’t feel I had settled for “second best” at all — just earlier and different. The honeycomb of tomb chambers, including one for the emperor’s barber, is flooded with natural light, and the structure has been meticulously restored since being named a World Heritage site. As they entered a tomb chamber, devoted visitors would remove their shoes and prostrate themselves in prayer at the base of stone sepulchres. Even for nonbelievers like me, it was impossible not to be moved by the immense mausoleum set in acres of gardens. By getting me there so swiftly, Mehra had made it possible to appreciate the early morning serenity of this artistic and holy site. But the school day was beginning and children in monochromatic uniforms swarmed the entrances. As they streamed through the gate, I wove my way among them to leave.
Mehra spotted me in an instant. Did I need a taxi? We discussed a price for the day (1,200 rupees, or about $20), and struck a deal. I had a few stops in mind, but my main interest, I explained, was to see some of the life of the city.
Off we went to the National Zoological Park, where Mehra joined me. His admission was 10 rupees (about 17 cents), little enough to pay to make sure no other driver poached me. Moats inside the 176-acre zoo keep the humans and animals apart — except the native local monkeys, that wander through the gardens and chatter from the trees. Large birds like ibis, egrets, and herons splashed in the irrigated gardens and water features. No animals are actually caged, but leopards, lions, and tigers are discreetly fenced since they are excellent jumpers, and in some cases, swimmers.
I had as much fun watching Delhi families enjoying the zoo as I did seeing exotic animals. When I spotted several families at one fence, I guessed that I had found the zoo’s prize pair of rare white tigers. The male was pacing around the enclosure, a coil of muscle weaving back and forth like Richard Parker in “The Life of Pi.” He eyed the onlookers balefully, yawned widely to show his teeth . . . and squatted in the grass. I laughed as hard as the children did when he pawed vigorously in the largest litter box any of us had ever seen.
It was time for lunch, and I was happy to go any place that paid Mehra a finder’s fee, but I wanted local fare. We drove to a roadside greasy spoon and scored the last table in the upstairs dining room. Seeing mutton all over the menu, I ordered a mutton curry, some sautéed greens, and mixed vegetables. Without looking, Mehra ordered a hill country dish of long-cooked dark greens and small pieces of firm tofu. We traded portions, we talked, we ate. I learned that he sleeps in a cot at the taxi barn behind the hotel, going home every month or so to see his wife and children. “Home” was about 150 miles north of the city. “But Delhi is where the work is,” he shrugged.
Having started my day in the green spaces of New Delhi, I was ready for the human crush of the old city. I asked Mehra to take me to Khari Baoli Road, said to be the largest wholesale spice market in Asia. As we drove through New Delhi, Mehra was on his cellphone. When he suddenly pulled into an alley on the periphery of Old Delhi, he explained that he could not take me the rest of the way. But he had a plan. The plan was Vijay, a strapping younger man in a soccer shirt who operated a pedicab. I didn’t even ask the cost.
We set off into Old Delhi, thick with walkers, plodding Brahmin cattle pulling rudimentary carts, a few motorcycles, and lots of pedicabs — tricycles with seating for two (or more) behind the men pumping the pedals. Vijay fearlessly wove in and out of traffic like a bike messenger until we were in the thick of the Chandi Chowk market district. Suddenly he pulled up short in front of Golden Horse Tea, where a salesman came rushing out.
A chef in Udaipur had taught me to make a masala and I wanted to buy spices. The salesman took me into the back. “Here,” he said, “are the spices I bring to my cousins in Vancouver when I visit.” The modest-sized, vacuum-packed pouches with printed labels would please US Customs. Equipped to make any possible masala, I dashed down the street to the wholesale market, much to the near-panic of Vijay, who feared losing me in the crowd. I promised to return in five minutes, which was plenty of time to see the spectacle of a warren of stalls, each selling a single item — ginger root, galangal, turmeric, almonds, dried beans, pistachios — in quantities measured by the kilogram.
When Vijay delivered me back to Mehra, a snake charmer with two cobras awaited (no doubt arranged by Mehra). I could only laugh. I paid Vijay three times what he asked, tipped the snake charmer, and Mehra and I headed to my last stop: a walk in the Lodi Gardens, with their 15th-century ruined mosque and tombs of the Pashtun princes. The sun was falling in the sky, locals lolled in the grass, and I pondered as I walked. I might not have seen the Taj Mahal, but I’d spent a day in a living city, and that was more than enough.