Type to search

As Delhi Dawns

Featured Lifestyle & Science Long Reads Travel

As Delhi Dawns

Avatar photo

Jeffrey F. Barken writes about his trip to Delhi, India, and the wild ride he was taken on by the local “GOVERNMENT TAXI” and the “GOVERNMENT TRAVEL AGENCY.”

My own mind is my own church. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it.” Thomas Paine

That summer, I’d finished writing my novel. I told my wife the next book would contemplate free will. We’d had fun kicking the project around—last, laugh-filled nights—before she left, conjuring up new fates and characters. The premise was to depict a modern prophet first encountering clairvoyance. How could one maintain volition? And what weighs chance once others follow?

“You always have a choice,” my wife believes steadfastly.

Her work required she make an extended tour in India. I was determined to visit. She suggested I fly first to Delhi. “It’s important to see,” she told me. From there I could manage passage south; Hyderabad, two days by train. “Take second class,” she warned me. She’d traveled India twice before, had even been to Kashmir, although that happened somewhat unexpectedly.

I flew after her. Blur countries, centuries—east between—plunged south below, Himalayas north unknowns, the sun’s west swell is always setting. Innocence never fractures from within. The only way to go to India is blind. There isn’t boon can ward off truths so scalding. Eternal varna, jati, castes cursed spins—witness abject imbalance—the slighted plight of filth filched light, intangibles. Swirl the foul stench, burn incense, sift spiced epochs, divine colors. Enter the jarring array of daily extremes bombarding senses.

Odysseys require deceptions. I put on the prop fedora hat I’d bought when I was writing All the Lonely Boys in New York. Abroad, we’ve chosen character. It’s myth to say “I’m me.”

Bleary-eyed before a green cloth draped table, a mustachioed man topped khaki beret stared and stamped my visa. First breath of Delhi—unfiltered diesel mixed with marigold—dusk thick, rich and humid. I remember all the rickshas, parked outside as if it were New York in mocking miniature. Ragtag cabbies, “wallahs,” chewed and spit betel or smoked unfiltered cigarettes. Black haired men slicked sweat straight. Some wore flannel over T-shirts. Others buttoned pressed white shirts, with collars stiff for business. Their official sign read: “GOVERNMENT TAXI.”

“Yes sir, please sir, thank you sir. Where are you going, sir?” All swarmed naive go-rey. I chose my fate and went with one, rotund, who bore an air of calm authority.

“Come sir, please sir, what be your good name?”

“J—,” I answered.

He nodded, swallowed gob of—

Then he smiled, eyeing my guitar case.

“Good man, play music?”

“Here’s my hostel. Do you know it?”

“Yes, sir, of course, sir. The Old City. I take you there.” He read Delhi address, and ushered me to his vehicle. Lifting my trolly, he bungeed boot, I took guitar to hold on my lap and clambered cart. Eager wallah turned ignition and kicked the parking brake.

Gold tassels bobbed along red sari trim, curtained the cinnamon scented ricksha. My wallah burned odd incense, lit slim cigar, and played vintage sounds of India on the radio. I’d studied maps before I left and knew my path would wend around a massive park. We sped obsidian dim blurred turns, the road curved past the zoo. My wallah spoke of legendary Gauhar Jaan, whose voice and chants met jingles, chimes, exotic soothes. We slowed, idled. Night construction sprawled, nostrils burned noxious tar. When the boulevard proved barred, a K-turn saved. The highway frayed. Were those slum shadows men or djinn? On lesser streets rubble half-paved, bazaars swarmed every revelry. Children played late, bonfires blazed. As petards burst, cattle roamed saints, stray dogs howled chase and elephants attended weddings.

“Navreh, you see? New Year,”  Wallah explained. I’d asked twice but hadn’t caught his name.

We came to a checkpoint. Soldiers guarded a gate. Some words passed in Hindi. Ricksha reversed, diesel sputtered, we sought a different way.

After some time, “Tell me address again?” my driver asked. I tried to read awkward transliteration. He asked to see the printout. Tossing cigarillo stub spark overboard, he took my crumpled page but barely eyed directions.

“Closed,” he said. “Can’t go tonight.”

“What do you mean?”

“Look sir, see sir: New Years. The army—they close streets.”

“There must be a way around.”

“Don’t worry, sir. I help you.”

“You’ll take me to my hotel?”

“No sir, can’t sir.”

“You said you knew the way?”

“Don’t worry, sir, I take you—help you find a place to stay.”

“No. I want to stay where I booked!”

“Yes sir. Okay, okay, okay.”

Same music played.

Delhi chimes, estranging vibe, stillness amiss and treacherous. Slide solo alone unknowns anon too long is endless. Lull filled indecision. Fatigue began to weigh. I swung a pendulum patience toward rage.

We came upon a roadside edifice, well-lit and boasting bonafides. A bright yellow sign—writ reminiscent font—glowed: “GOVERNMENT TRAVEL AGENCY.”

“Look sir, safe here. Come, sir? Safe,” Wallah parked and motioned.

“I want to take my bag inside,” I said.

“Yes sir, of course sir.”

We extracted lug from boot. Slow rolling my trolly through the dust smeared door—faint bells adorned—across linoleum scarce mopped, doubts devoured trust. Inside, the small lobby housed four metal chairs, above which faded posters advertised Mumbai and Varanasi. There was a man in uniform seated at a clerk’s desk tucked inside small office.

My driver’s shadow breathed husky.

Swift words whispered Hindi.

“Where are we?” I said.

“This is Government Agency,” the officer replied.

“Can you show me on a map?”

“Yes sir, here, sir.” He scrambled in his desk drawer and produced a worn atlas.

“Look, sir, please sir, here you see?” Both men leapt to mark checkpoints, point out detours, all of Delhi’s tangled tendrils.

“Where is this place in relation to my hotel?”

“Tell me the name?”

I showed him my page.

My driver and the officer conferred.

“No sir, let us help you find another place to stay.”

“There must still be a way to get there tonight.”

“No sir. Unfortunately not. The road is blocked.”

“I want to call them.”

“Call who, sir?”

“Call the hostel.”

“I don’t think—”

“Call them.”

“Please, sir. You misunderstand.”

“Do you have a phone? Here’s their number. Please. Let me call them.”

They had a landline. I dialed once—didn’t go through. I tried again. This time: Busy signal.

“Is there a code to get out?”

“No sir, that is the correct number.”

“I must be pressing something wrong.”

I tried again to no avail.

“Please dial for me?”

The officer took the phone, sighed, and dialed. He got it to ring and handed me receiver.


“Hello, yes?”

“Yes, hello, is this the D——”


“Yes, sir, yes sir, who is this?”

“This is Barken. Yes? Don’t you have me listed? I’m meant to stay with you tonight, but there’s a checkpoint—”

“Yes sir?”

“Do you know about it?”

“Know? Sir?”

“The checkpoint. Did you know there’s a checkpoint?”

“No sir. No checkpoint.”

“On the way from the airport? There aren’t any checkpoints?”

“Yes sir?”

“Look, are you still open? Are the streets all blocked? That’s what I’m asking.”

Impossible static before the line went dead.

Safe bet few travelers disembark in foreign lands without some money on their person. Call it the wallah’s extortion sport, trust dangled by my thieves it fell to me to barter every morsel.

Safe bet few travelers disembark in foreign lands without some money on their person. Call it the wallah’s extortion sport, trust dangled by my thieves it fell to me to barter every morsel.

“All right. I’ll pay,” I said, eyeing my piled luggage. “I just want a room tonight.”

“Yes sir,”

“There’s a hotel near?”

“Yes sir, okay, I take you, sir.”

“How far?”

“Okay, sir.”

“I said how far?”

“Come this way sir.”

Slums surreal simmered embers. All I craved was day—bright way bliss paved—landmarks to anchor bearings. With my submission odyssey ensued through night absurd as choice departed. Tired or wired, my hired wallah, hardly bothered tune the radio. He smoked another cigarillo. Motors sputtered, fumes swirled haze, rickshas swerved bugs, insomnia resisting soporific. I yawned and slapped my face. There were several inns we tried along the way, but none held vacancies. Soon there were other tourists trapped in similar predicaments. I fell in with a group of Irishers. A Spanish girl was traveling alone. She stood half-bowed—her shoulders crouched beneath backpack—and bartered heatedly with her driver. Suddenly she was shouting. She accused chauffeur of every scam in Spanish. Our crew offered refuge.

Desperate to sleep and to finally let our guard down, we caravanned and searched an upscale district. Concierges accommodating room requests ran in-out and up-down steps of gaudy hotels resembling Hindu temples. Negotiating every hike, always twice-price outbid one’s fellow travelers for the last remaining guest room.

Despite my fits, impatience lit—whenever I’d demand my wallah stop and try to bargain for accommodation—bizarre camaraderie evolved in lieu of trust. At one point, I even thanked him for his loyal service.

“Yes, sir. Of course sir,” ritual gestures bore smirked truce. Assured he’d earned steep tip, he bobbled head, tweaked his mustache, and stamped out smoke.

The next few stops had rooms. One by one, each tourist paid capitulation price and all the necessary middlemen. It came down to the Spanish girl and me—Delhi’s taxi’s last remaining hostages. I didn’t bother place an offer when another suite came up.

She looked at me.

“Si, tu puedes tener.”

“Gracias,” she said, and pressed her palms Anjale mudra.

Reprieve—thanks be—her hotel let me use their downstairs restroom. It was 3:00 a.m. Jet lag weighed lead, I risked collapse. There was internet in the lobby. I got out my computer. My wallah smoked and made phone calls outdoors. That was when I realized I’d left my adapter back in Baltimore. My computer was old and hardly held a charge. I booted up, subscribed to wireless. Programs loaded slow but eventually I found my wife on G-chat. She was wide awake worrying she hadn’t heard from me.

“Where are you?”

“I don’t know,” I typed. “They’ve taken me for a ride. I’m pretty sure I’ll get a room soon. It’s going to cost a lot, but I need to lie down.”

“I told you to have someone pick you up.”

“I forgot. I wasn’t thinking.”

“Just get safe, okay?”

“I will.”

“You’ll let me know?”

“I will.”

“Miss you.”

Battery precious, I shutdown.

“Promise there’s a room next stop?” I asked my Wallah.

“Yes, sir. Of course, sir,” he nodded.

Swept Delhi’s afterglow—my final throes—the road hummed slow and there are parts I don’t remember. Final sprint, grime seeped skin, I realized how I stank of airline stale, diesel trails, incense smeared perspiration. Dust, caked, cracked, blood—crusted nose—it hurt to sniff.

We stopped dim-dawn at dusky motel. Outrageous ask; despite late hour and my ordeal, they still wanted a hundred-fifty dollars for a room. That was ten times the price of everything I’d seen online before I left. Pacified, desperate for sleep—any reprieve from Odyssey—I paid their price.

Also on The Big Smoke

My Wallah brought my bag, held out his hand but wouldn’t look me in the eye. I gave him ten. Lazy racket, spite and sadness, rehearsed routine ensued. “But I helped you, sir.” He shook his head and made cheap scene. “We drove all night. Petrol is very expensive.”

I found another five tucked passport fold. That appeased.

“Yes sir, thank you, sir. Thank you kindly sir,” he said and faded from the fore.

“Right this way, sir,” motioned the concierge. I carried my guitar and a bellhop wheeled my trolly steps behind us. Led a flight of stairs across a balcony, my room lay at the end. These quarters were unclean, and bore strange scent, but at least there stood a bed with tattered sheets. I checked the locks and tipped my ushers each a dollar.

Vagabond alone at last, I washed my face. Parched, I didn’t trust the tap and couldn’t brush my teeth. I laid a towel on the bed, bunched my jacket—pillow friend—surrendered sleep. Thoughts distilled spirals and seethed. Blue hues, sunup seeped shadowed scene. Hunger began to gnaw. My eyes dry burns, within an hour I’d stirred roars. Samson rage consumed me. I gathered all my things put on my hat, and stormed downstairs. Sounds of snores, the hotel staff had rolled out mats, they slept upon the floor. I rang desk bell and woke them. Some sat up, rubbed bleary eyes, others bolted feats “tips please,” the concierge among them.

“Yes sir, good morning sir. How can I help you?”

“That was some racket you ran last night.”

“Racket? Sir?”

“I want my money back and a ride to my hostel.”

“But sir, you sleep here?”

“The room is filthy. I’ve not been here two hours, nobody could sleep in there.”

“But that is not our promise.”

“Listen, I’m not meant to be here,” I said. “You’re in on the scam, that’s how much I overpaid. Look. Look! This was where I was meant to stay last night,” I showed ill-fated printout. I was behaving monstrously, hated my tone, but I’d been brought to utter fury on imposed path.

“Yes, sir, but you paid—”



“I said don’t you dare. These are the terms, or I’ll make trouble. I want half my money back and a ride to my original accommodations. Do as I say, I warn you.”

“But sir!”

“I said now! Go and get a driver.”

Bedraggled staff huddled. One man left the room to find his rig. The concierge returned, dug desk purse and paid me back with Rupees. There came a sputtering moped idling beyond the smudged glass door.

“Go sir, he will take you. Your hotel isn’t far.”

“On that?”

“Yes sir, of course, sir. Very safe.”

“What about my luggage?”

“Yes sir, no problem sir, come this way.”

“How far?”

“Fifteen minutes sir. No more.”

I didn’t believe there’d ever be space, but they insisted. Bungees strapped my luggage to the stand behind long seat. I climbed aboard behind my driver. He turned around, lent his helmet, and told me hold his shoulders. Again I lay my guitar across my lap, crushing fedora leather. Having found morning amusement prepping a westerner for frights ahead, staff cheered us on our way.

Mario kart, sinews knots taut, hard turns I closed my eyes and let my body strain. Gut thrown somersaults, sweat soaked straights, inhaled exhaust asphyxiates. Back ached, so dizzy I’d faint, at last roads slowed. We passed sidewalk barbers, outdoor markets. Silks for barter, meats to order, spices piled, fragrant flowers. An old man showered in the street. Hunched women swept debris—wielding straw brooms—and set litter afire.

We passed sidewalk barbers, outdoor markets. Silks for barter, meats to order, spices piled, fragrant flowers. An old man showered in the street. Hunched women swept debris—wielding straw brooms—and set litter afire.

We turned a corner—motor puttered—ignition cut, we rolled to stop. My driver pointed to a dusty sign, hid twined vines—electric cables. The address matched, deliverance at last. There slim alley eeled an ancient street, shops and hostel, across from shrine. We unloaded and parted ways. For the first time since I’d landed, I felt honest offering someone their due tip. I knew ten dollars was awfully generous, but so is karma, and I was truly grateful.

“Were you closed last night?” I asked innkeeper.

“Of course not, sir.”


“Look, sir,” he pointed to the “24/7” sign on the door. “We are always open.”

All the lies confirmed, anger reboiled.

“We worried for you, sir. Was it trouble with your flight?”

“I was detoured. Scammed last night.”

“Why didn’t you call us before you came? We’d have sent a driver.”

“I know that was an offered service, but I never thought it would be so necessary.”

“Always better to call a driver from the airport, sir. You cannot trust the Government Taxi.”

“Well I’ve learned that lesson. Please tell me you still have my room reserved?”

“Yes sir, of course, sir. Come this way.”

The tall thin man with T-shirt tucked slim pleather slacks and hair slicked back, led me iron winding stairs. Three rooms first floor, he handed me a weighty key attached to wooden block.

“Pleased to leave your key with the concierge when you go out, okay?”

I nodded.

He showed me inside. Tight quarters, clean enough and cozy. The Turkish toilet in the orange tiled bathroom doubled as the shower drain. “If you want hot water, sir. Please, ring bell,” he pointed buzzer switch. “I will bring your bucket sir. Fifteen minutes. Okay?”

I nodded.

When my host reached over the bed to open the shutters, “Please don’t,” I said.

“Good air this morning.”

“Yes, quite. But I want to rest.”

“Very good, sir. I’ll leave you then.”

“Thank you.”

I offered dollar tip.

“No sir, no need,” he shook his head. “You must sleep, sir. Please, remember the key. You must ring for water.”

“Yes, I will. I understand. Thank you.”

The door closed. I turned the lock and fell to bed with my guitar beside me.

I must have snoozed an hour. Stomach settled from rough ride, hunger returned, acidic scythe. Odd chimes and moans, met coughs and chatter in the hall, the wafting scent—burnt sandalwood. I stretched and fiddled with the zipper on my guitar case, curious if the instrument remained in tune.

Of course, it wasn’t.

But I could still pick notes and find odd vibes. Strings soothed renewed impatience, scratched melodic itch with every pluck. Lute mystic mime, my church inside, echoes of yoga: Into the Delhi-slop, bound for a jolly hop, pity Larkson had the runs. Those lines breathed clearest scene, summoning my old wild, the start of a new novel. I saw a character entirely reduced, the essence of surrender.

Fictions aside, I remembered my essential mission: to find my wife in this strange land. The truth of chance is choice becomes illusion. Faith lured lairs loops leaps. Rhythmic chanting caught my ear. I sat up and opened the shutters. My room looked over the alley to the Hindu shrine. There was a man on the rooftop praying with his child. They’d spread sesame and millet. Jungle Babblers swooped and flocked. Om hymns led waltz. Feathered shadows danced angelic. The man stood, and searched the sky. Then he raised a water jug above his head and poured from sacred vessel.

saintly spilt
sunshine splits will
thrills again to change one’s mind.


Avatar photo
Jeffrey F. Barken

Jeffrey F. Barken is the author of All the Lonely Boys in New York and This Year in Jerusalem, collaborating with Irish artist Diana Muller to illustrate his fiction. Barken is the founder and Chief Editor of Monologging.org. This colorful publication and small press connects writers with artists around the world, encouraging collaborative multimedia projects and providing regular arts-related reporting. Barken received his Bachelor's in English from Cornell University and his Master's of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Publishing from the University of Baltimore. Now based in Ithaca, New York, Barken was recently elected to serve on the City Council as Alderperson for Ithaca's Third Ward.