Expat lives: Heat and very little dust

We had a hard landing in New Delhi. Within days of arriving in September 2008 a string of bombs went off across the Indian capital, blamed on a mysterious extremist group called the Indian Mujahideen. We felt one blast in the comfort of the Imperial Hotel, near Connaught Place, a central shopping district.

That September was also memorable for the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the US banking group, and the deepening of the global financial crisis.

There was no question of easing myself into a new job. The dateline sprung uncontrollably alive. I filed news stories to London from our hotel room in front of a flat-screen TV showing the carnage in markets and the chaos of the emergency response. My four-year-old son, sharing the room, learned to mouth the word “bomb” early in life.

On our first evening we were encouraged to attend a dinner with the finance minister and prime minister Manmohan Singh’s top aides. News anchors wanted me on their shows to explain what was going on in New York. I grasped quickly the relentlessness Mark Tully, the veteran BBC correspondent, hinted at by calling his book No Full Stops in India.

My office in the diplomatic enclave of Chanakyapuri had a wonderful view of rooftops and nit-picking monkeys; my desk was, however, without a computer amid an atmosphere of old-world journalism that reminded me of A Year of Living Dangerously, a film set in Indonesia in the 1960s.

When the desktop computer finally arrived from London, a mobile internet technician installed a programme that cut me off from my employer’s intranet for three years.

Our air freight, when it caught up with us, had been plundered by customs officers. The movers had no explanation. That and the bargaining to claw back the Financial Times’ digital cameras and satellite phones with a shifty character who turned up in my office were sobering reminders that after five years in the UK I was back in the developing world. The rules of engagement were different, and I had grown soft.

Then there was the bureaucracy in the still sweltering September heat and the enervating first bouts of gastric flu. We had to part with the nanny, who wasn’t that enthusiastic about her charges. She had the weary air of someone for whom expats worked for, not vice versa. To cap it all, my BlackBerry vanished in the heat-induced confusion.

In those first two months, as much went wrong as right. For some that never changes in India, even after the six-month breaking-in period that usually decides whether you can cut it or not. Expectations somehow never moderate; little frustrations multiply, and the sense of being an outsider is aggravated by fear of being constantly overcharged or misunderstood.

Some reminisce about careers in Hong Kong or Singapore, recede into diplomatic compounds to improve their tennis game or consign themselves to extolling the American Embassy School, unfairly running down the British School or carping about congested roads or the recalcitrant house staff.

Some of this, plus the fearsome summer heat, goes to explain the modest expatriate community in New Delhi for an emerging power of 1.2bn people.

What turned everything around for us was our house, one of the best addresses in the city. Even more importantly, our landlord, an octogenarian writer of Sikh history, and kindly landladies drew us into their network of high-brow friends. They took us as their own and helped mediate Delhi into one of the most treasured episodes of our life.

Our early hiccoughs were soon behind us.

The parents of our son’s best friend at the British International School also merit a mention. They had a Gone with the Wind-style white wedding cake of a house, in a south Delhi suburb called Chattarpur, renowned for farmhouse properties, with rolling lawns and a pool around which we made other friends on Sunday afternoons.

My counterpart, never out of a pair of shorts, was put on “gardening leave” by a Danish construction company that failed to make headway in the fastest-growing economy after China. Thereafter, he trained his structural engineering skills on pulleys and walkways for a jungle gym while plotting a new job in Australia.

These, combined with a better understanding of how things get done, opened a “can-do” world of almost infinite possibilities and abiding friendships of the kind you usually make much earlier in life.

In time, everything began to work a lot better, and we learned to anticipate problems. In particular, our household – including a cook, housekeeper and gardener – began to work as a team. Another bonus, for the children, was precious-as-gold access to the Canada Club swimming pool in the summer months.

Expatriates live in a handful of what are called “colonies” in New Delhi. These are within easy striking distance of the luxury hotels and the government complexes where most business is conducted.

The choicest are Vasant Vihar, Defence Colony, Golf Links, Sunder Nagar, Jor Bagh and New Friends Colony. Some choose to live out in Gurgaon, a new IT city beyond the airport that has sprung large shopping malls, apartment blocks and corporate offices over the past 20 years.

Housing of the kind foreign executives like to live in with their families is in short supply, and rentals in both Delhi and Mumbai are sky-high. Rent for a quality house or an apartment in south Delhi ranges from Rs200,000 to Rs500,000 (£2,460-£6,140) a month. Occasionally, a good two-bedroom apartment can be snapped up for under a lakh (Rs100,000).

With the exception of non-resident Indians, foreigners are not allowed to own property in India. So most rent, and sometimes encounter requests for what is called locally “black money”, where landlords insist on being paid in cash once a year. Even long-term Delhi residents, such as Scottish author William Dalrymple, rent.

We are fortunate to live in the part of New Delhi designed by Edwin Lutyens when the British opened a new capital for business in 1911 after abandoning Calcutta in West Bengal. Its wide tree-lined boulevards edged by white bungalows are some of the most gentle, stately and evocative of any national capital. They are an unusual picture of order in a country whose cities often appear unplanned and chaotic, and are not found in other metropolises such as Mumbai or Chennai.

We live in a self-standing annexe to a family house on Amrita Shergil Marg, formerly Rattendon Road, and renamed after a Punjabi-Hungarian painter who died in her thirties. Neighbours include the US deputy head of mission, a big telecoms magnate and the Indian Leprosy Mission.

Our spacious two-storey house, with two ground-floor wooden French windows in what once must have been a double garage, fronts a small courtyard. The upper floor, with a large living room area and a fluted open fire for winter, looks out on to our landladies’ garden. In March, it is ablaze with yellow, red and blue flowers.

The garden backs on to Lodhi Garden, the Hyde Park of New Delhi. This park is filled with Mughal tombs and is looped by a walking track favoured by my wife and two children and members of the cabinet at dawn and dusk. In broad daylight, it offers private solace to canoodling couples.

The canopy of trees over this low-rise triangle of Delhi keeps out the dust, the pollution and the noise of urban India. Instead, the air is filled with birdsong like the sanctuary it is.

Not far away is Khan Market, a boutique and café shopping magnet for expatriates reputed to command commercial rents similar to Oxford Street. But most of our household shopping is done in A-1 Store, a nearby mom and pop store where we run an account and have small deliveries made by bicycle. It sells one brand of almost everything, and slips chewing gum to the children. Another nearby more lowly market serves as a place to get clothes stitched and things fixed.

Delhi rewards time. The roof of our home used to spring leaks in the monsoon and the boilers burn out when the water pump breaks down. Mosquitoes creep through the netting on the windows and the beds. But these are hardly noticeable now amid the vibrancy of our Delhi lives. It’s definitely home. It’s too bad that we have to move on.


Buying guide

Pros

● Fast-growing economy

● Domestic help

● History at your fingertips

● Adventure – one weekend you could be on a camel safari in Jaisalmer and the next sipping tea on a houseboat in Kashmir overlooking the Himalayas and Dal Lake

Cons

● Don’t drink the water

● While India has some of the best and cheapest medical care, waterborne ailments like typhoid are a risk

● The weather. It gets very hot in summer, and polluted in winter

● Grinding poverty

What you can buy for ...

$100,000 A 550 sq ft apartment in Dwarka, a dusty suburb, near the airport

$1m A villa in Sushant Lok in Gurgaon or an apartment in Nizammudin in south Delhi

Contacts

Settlers India

www.settlersindia.com

Shainex Relocation

www.shainexrelocation.com

Writer Corporation

www.writercorporation.com

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