LET'S say you are in India's capital and in one of those happy situations where the meetings got through in quick succession, ending with a formal lunch hosted by your local associates. The Singapore Airlines flight home to Singapore is only at 11 p.m., so you have a good six hours on your hands, unexpectedly. Not enough time to zip down 220 kms to Agra to see the Taj Mahal but enough to get a feel of New Delhi.
What should you do?
One way to start is to call your hotel and request for a late check-out. If that is not possible, change into casuals - preferably cottons - and check out straightaway. Tell the hotel to store your luggage. Assuming you have a hotel taxi at your disposal, the other option is to leave the bags in the boot of the car and tell the driver to not stray from the car.
NORTHERN India is baking in the summer sun these days, so it's always good policy to stay well hydrated. The better hotels always leave a couple of bottles of water in the car but in case they forget, you shouldn't. Buy a bottle of Kinley, Bisleri or Catch - all reputed brands of packaged water, and sip from it regularly. Wear a cap, or a scarf if you are a woman. It's very useful protection.
NEW Delhi is a historic city with overlays of culture starting from the Muslim invasions from Afghanistan, the era of the Mughals, the British colonial period during which New Delhi was founded and of course, post-Independence. Ask the driver to take you to Old Delhi first, to get a feel of the Mughal-built Red Fort. You needn't get off the car but a slow drive gives you a sense of the grandness of the Mughals.
The walls of the fort, built in 1648 AD by Emperor Shahjahan on the banks of the Yamuna River, are 2.5 km long and vary in height between 16 metres and 33 metres. Every Independence Day on August 15, the Indian prime minister addresses the nation from its ramparts.
Across is the Jama Masjid, the Grand Mosque of Delhi which also was built by Shahjahan. Chandni Chowk, the famed silver bazaar of Old Delhi, is a stretch that starts from the side of the mosque. Given the heat and the crowds, it is probably safer to stay in the car throughout.
Ask the driver to take you through Connaught Place, still the shopping area of choice downtown, and on to India Gate. Built by the architect Edwin Lutyens to commemorate Indian soldiers who died in World War I, the 42-metre tall India Gate stands at one end of Rajpath, formerly called King's Way. You can't get too close to the monument because security has ringed it off but a slow drive up Raj Path is a pleasant experience as the 340-room Presidential Palace comes into view, flanked by South and North Blocks, the seat of government. On the right is the circular Parliament House.
Most capital cities are impressive because of their skyscrapers and malls. New Delhi is decidedly low-rise, with a massive green cover. It reveals little of the red-hot economy driving this nation. But these buildings, which were built after the British moved the colonial capital to New Delhi from Calcutta, are thoroughly impressive, giving hints of India's power and strength.
YOU cannot, of course, return from India without buying a few things for the folks back home. One place worth visiting is Khan Market, in central New Delhi, situated near the Lodi Gardens. Get out of the car and walk along the market. You can do a lot in the area.
One of the cheapest things to buy in India are books. You can buy bestsellers - completely legally - at prices less than what Borders or Kinokuniya would sell you for in Singapore. Stop at old Khan Market shops like Faqir Chand, where the lawyer Anup Bamhi and his wife Mamta, keep a range of excellent coffee-table books in the shop set up by his grandfather. My own favourite bookshop is Full Circle, run by Ms Poonam Malhotra. I love the generous air-conditioning and the wide space between bookshelves. Upstairs is a music shop and on the top floor is the Café Turtle, where people come to be young together as they feed on milk shakes and the outstanding lemon cake.
Full Circle is nice, not just because you can browse with the smell of coffee tingling your nosestrills, but also because it has a fine range of children's books. Besides, many of the staff are from India's northeast and their Chinese looks can make you feel you are in Southeast Asia, especially when your waiter is named Tang.
Of course, if you are feeling like a big snack, just walk across to the Big Chill, which has a range of Western food. The menu has a picture Audrey Hepburn on the cover, so the mood is 1960s. Initially, I hesitated to eat there alone it doesn't serve alcohol and because many of the customers were women catching up with friends or bringing the kids out but then I decided it was no slur on my manliness to frequent the place. After all, this is the era of the Sensitive New Age Guy. So these days, I show up once in a while and order the rosemary scented chicken breast or the escalope of lamb baked in mustard and cream sauce, followed by a chocolate souffle. For S$20, I can have a non-alcoholic drink, a main course and a dessert and that's entirely affordable.
Ogaan, which is the Sanskrit word for the waves made by water, is worth visiting if you are shopping for women. Owned by Kavita Bhartia, the wife of a local tycoon, Ogaan stocks Bhartia's designs and the work of 18 other designers. This season, a lot of her range tends to have a decidedly Western look. Broad waistbands too.
You can pick up a silk tabby long skirt with sequins - great for an evening party - for Rs 9,000. A top in satin lycra - mildly stretchable should your girl-friend have put on a bit of weight in your absence - can be yours for half that amount. You can also pick up something sensible in cotton for the secretary, if you are so inclined. Some of the other designers on show, like Meenakshi Dadoo and the upmarket Nakul Sen, are value for money as well.
Many Singaporean women now have a fascination for Indian pashmina, which they find useful to stay warm in their air-conditioned offices. Ogaan has a few, but I would ideally recommend you check out the Kashmiri shawl seller at the next-door Ambassador Hotel's lobby floor. He has a great range and the stuff is authentic and of good quality. Besides, Kashmiris never get offended if you haggle.
As a final gesture, just walk to the back of Khan Market and pick up a box of the lovely Alfonso mangoes. A box of eight cost Rs 400 and that's value for money for the king of mangoes, which India started exporting to the US as of this year.
THERE should be just enough time to catch a good dinner. The restaurant most talked about overseas is the Bukhara at the Maurya Sheraton, its fame heightened by President Bill Clinton's love of its food. The food is superb, no doubt, but I personally think its priced too high and I don't like any place where the manager suggests he is doing you a favour by giving you a table. That goes for Silk Road at Imperial Hotel as well.
So, I tend to take my overseas friends to the Dhaba, the Indian restaurant at the Claridges Hotel. A dhaba in Punjab is typically a restaurant by the highway. At the Claridges Dhaba, the daal is just as good as any in Delhi and they do some great kebabs and a famous Balti Meat (Meat in a Bucket) that I have never heard anyone complain about. The ambience, with the old truck fixed into the wall, is designed to give you the feeling that you have stopped for a meal somewhere along the Grant Truck Road that connects Calcutta in the east to Peshawar, on Pakistan's border with Pakistan.
You can show your approval by squeezing the horn on the way out. You are also welcome to belch. We Punjabis aren't easily offended.
Just make sure you give yourself half an hour for the drive to the airport. And be there at least two hours early. Finally, do tip your driver - Rs 200 for the day should be fine.
Ravi Velloor is the India/South Asia Bureau Chief for The Straits Times
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