We arrived in Delhi at dusk, the plane sinking through what we were sure was a heavy plume of fog. A car from the guesthouse waited for us, a luxury we afforded ourselves when the prospect of chumming the waters of an airport taxi-stand on our first night in India seemed too bleak.
We were shaky, anxious, a little gun-shy. India was a legendary travel beast, a basilisk in the deeps, a white whale out on the horizon. Far-away looks gathered in the eyes of weary travellers when they described India, as though trespassing its borders would require weapons of old, the Golden Fleece maybe, a medusa’s head as the case warranted. People described a vacation in India the way they described serving in the Vietnam war. It was difficult to separate fact from fiction, self-aggrandizement from harsh truth, actual difference in culture and language and life from fatted, imperialist visions of a mystical, spiritual theme park for wealthy, spiritually-inclined adventure tourists. We drove out from the airport, into New Delhi, with our eyes as open as we could make them. I could feel my pupils dilating.
It was cacophony, at first, a blast of sound and sight and smell. Everything was so loud and so bright and so strong that it washed into me in a wave of synaesthesia, of tastes trickling into my ears, of smells passing through my eyes, of sounds running across my tongue. Honks and wheels and shouts. Hindi, Bengali, English. Animal noises: the cow goes moo, the goat goes baa. The smell of spices, the smell of flames, the smell of people. At the side of a busy street I saw a cow, wreathed in flame, its horns buried into an incinerating mound of refuse, ferreting scraps of food from the embers.