By Marc Kristal
Toward the end of my 17-hour Lufthansa flight to Delhi, an explosion of cheering rolls through the plane. Over the course of the trip, the pilot, in German-accented English, has been delivering updates on the India-Sri Lanka World Cup cricket final, made comic by the fact that he does not understand the game. Now, apparently, the pilot has announced victory; when we finally touch down, not only the passengers, but all of India, remains celebratory.
It is a good start to a singular voyage: a collaboration between the luxury travel company Abercrombie & Kent and India’s Oberoi Hotel Group. The former has, since 1962, been crafting small-group, specially-designed tours of some of the world’s more exceptional destinations, and has developed a bespoke itinerary, overseen by a guide who will remain with us for the entire ten-day, six-city trip. Oberoi, meanwhile, will handle the ultra-luxury accommodations. Begun in 1934 by Mohan Singh Oberoi, the presiding figure of India’s hotel industry, the family-operated company has eleven business and leisure hotels in the country, all recognized for their high level of service.
I confess to being as in the dark regarding the ways of cricket as our pilot. But as, departing customs, we are met by representatives of both organizations and taken to the comfortably appointed minibus that would serve as our trip’s chariot, I remain perfectly clear about finding myself in excellent hands.
Delhi, New and Old
Half an hour later, we arrive at the Oberoi Gurgaon and receive, the lateness of the hour notwithstanding, an exceedingly thorough welcome: several beautifully attired, gracious women greet us; one dabs a bindi on my forehead, another offers a most towel, a third serves fruit drinks. This is followed by a very complete overview of the hotel’s layout from the night manager, after which another staff member leads me to my quarters, which she explains comprehensively. (This entire process will be repeated, virtually without variation, at every Oberoi we visit.)
The big news is that we are not, in fact, in Delhi but rather Gurgaon, which is just outside it and is, in effect, a new city. Once a farming village with little in the way of population, Gurgaon is now a center of business and commerce, and one of the wealthiest enclaves in the country. Here the Oberoi people created a hotel that is a world of its own: The complex is a rectangle nestled in a man-made forest, its built features surrounding a dazzlingly blue, 36,000-square-foot reflecting pool; the 202 rooms are contained in a pre-Columbian-looking volume, which faces an ivy-covered, 50,000-square-foot retail arcade across the water; these two are joined by what the hotel calls the “Jewel Box,” a glass-and-steel structure containing the lobby, restaurant, and meeting spaces, notable for the colossal scale of the public rooms. It is a monumental compound, devoted to the things most people in India, I am to discover, don't have—quiet, space, and water.
In the lobby the following morning, we are met by Bhowani Singh, the A&K representative who will be with us for the entire journey, a dapper gentleman with the melancholy, bloodshot eyes of a Bassett hound. Once ensconced in our minibus, we take off for Delhi, and Bhowani and a second A&K guide—a local specialist, which the tour company provides at every destination—explain that, like Washington, D.C., it is “a state unto itself”; the new city, which the British made India’s capital in 1911 and was master-planned by the classical architect Edwin Lutyens, shows the orderly layout and elegant Indo-Saracenic Revival architecture of a great colonial outpost. I am surprised by the broad streets lined with shaggy acacia and tamarind trees, very well looked-after, and find it hard to believe that this is the sprawling chaotic dystopia of legend.
Our arrival in Old Delhi corrects my impression. In a ten-minute bicycle rickshaw ride along the tumultuous commercial lanes, overhung with vinelike tangles of electrical wire, off Chandni Chowk, the main street of the district, I am exposed to more visual, auditory, olfactory, social, cultural, architectural, urbanistic, historical, and sheer human information than I typically receive in a year; moments later, climbing the steps of the 17th-century Jama Masjid, surrounded by beggars clutching woebegone infants, I am still struggling to process the hallucinatory blur through which I’ve just driven. Half an hour later, exiting the mosque’s holy calm into a nonstop racket of car horns, the unshakable press of peddlers, and people, people, people, I think: This is India.
On day two, we board the bus and begin the ride to Agra, some 200 kilometers south. “Three things are required while driving in India: good horn, good brakes, and good luck,” says Bhowani as we begin several hours of near-death experiences involving hundreds of the country’s ubiquitous colorfully-painted trucks. As we pass through vast fields and ramshackle villages, Bhowani asks about the Western media’s portrayal of India. When we describe reports of great wealth and a booming economy, he proves his value as a guide: by telling us, not only what we’re seeing, but putting it in the context of a subcontinent where 270 million people live on less than a dollar a day, couples have large families to counteract the high infant mortality rate, and the water can be on for an hour or two three times a week.
India is home to 28 World Heritage sites, and three of them are in or near Agra: the fascinating 16th-century Mughal walled city Fatepur Sikri, Agra Fort, and, of course, the Taj Mahal, which I have waited my entire life to visit. Probably jet lag is a contributing factor, but when, shortly before sunset, I step through the soaring arch of the entry pavilion that frames the first full-frontal view of the monument, I cannot control my tears: the phrase “pictures don’t do it justice” was invented for the incomparable Taj.
Amazingly, the hotel isn’t a letdown: The 102-room Oberoi Amarvilas borrows elements of Mughal palace and tomb architecture, and exploits its unique proximity to the Taj by providing each guest room with an unobstructed view. It also benefits from an extremely effective landscape design. Though the property only covers eight acres, landscape architect William Bensley excavated the area behind the building to create a V-shaped space with elegantly terraced slopes flowing down to an expansive swimming pool; this has the effect of making the grounds seem larger, more palatial and, not least, more exotic.
The interior, conversely, has a strongly Anglo-Indian flavor, so that the somewhat space-challenged public and guest rooms feel clubby rather than small. One of the most notable characteristics of the Oberois is the high level of material and craft, and the Amarvilas is enriched by marble and teak floors and walnut doors and trim; bespoke carved and marquetry furniture expressing European classical styles in a Mughal idiom; and bright washes of color in the fabrics. Most effective is the bar, a modern version of a Victorian club room: Winston Churchill, in his youth as a 4th Hussars cavalryman posted to the Raj, would have approved.
Ranthambore: Tigers, Burning Bright
The next afternoon, we continue on to Bharatpur, where the magic bus is to be exchanged for an India Railway car. Bhowani explains that the drive to Ranthambore National Park is many hours long, while the train is relatively quick; the bus, bearing our bags, will rejoin us later that night.
Bhowani, with a look of faint amusement we all come to know well, assures us that it’s for the best, and the scene on the Bharatpur platform instantly validates his judgment. The train in the station is packed so full that people hang out of the open doors, even as women carting multiple children and armloads of canvas bundles are stuffing themselves into the throng. The platform is no less congested, with families sprawled on the ground, naked children toddling unheeded toward the platform’s edge; a man with legs so crippled that he wears a single sneaker on one knee drags himself up and extends a hand. As the train starts to move, half a dozen young men leap off the platform and give chase, scrambling onto the last car and hanging off the sides: according to Bhowani, they’re only going one stop, and it’s worth the risk.
Bhowani has mischievously informed us that our train will be even more crowded, but it proves no worse than an older NJ Transit model and we arrive in Sawai Madhopur more or less on time. From there it is a short drive to the Oberoi Vanyavilas, a resort that, with its twenty acres of landscaped gardens threaded with water features, feels a bit like a hotel in Beverly Hills. The difference is that, instead of bungalows, one finds 25 “luxury tents,” modeled on the ones that 19th-century shooting parties used to stay in, and quite irresistibly sybaritic.
The big attraction here is the park, which, among India’s 21 tiger preserves, has racked up the most recorded sightings. The hotel offers daily game drives, and the morning after our arrival, we set off in a four-wheel-drive along Ranthambore’s rutted roads with a guide. There are seven different zones within the park, each with opportunities for game spotting; the guides search the sites where tigers typically congregate, listen for the distinctive war whoop-sound the sambar deer makes to warn other animals of a tiger’s presence, and exchange information regarding kills (a tiger will feed on a carcass for three or four days). We motor from point to point, pausing for long stretches to listen, scan the area with binoculars, and hope that the Royal Bengal we’ve spotted doesn’t turn out to be a tree stump.
Game drives can be a bit like longterm-relationship sex: brief moments of ecstasy interspersed with interminable interludes of waiting. But we almost immediately get lucky: with a handful of jeeps from other hotels, we converge on a promising spot—and within moments, a 14-year-old female the park stewards have named Machali steps out of the woods and, rather than avoiding the stunned humans with their snapping cameras, walks straight toward us in a wary but leisurely way, passing between the vehicles and within ten feet of us before continuing on her way. The old lady is a star—and we have just been treated to an incomparable turn on the jungle catwalk.
Jaipur, Land of Kings
On the road to Jaipur, we pass people in roadside huts, surrounded by skinny farm animals; inhabited ruins resembling the aftermath of an aerial bombardment; entrepreneurs giving haircuts out of corrugated tin boxes on stilts; camels pulling carts loaded with bags of cement, goats clogging the roads, motorcycles zooming through clouds of red dust. “The real India,” Bhowani says. As we drive, he narrates, pointing out the dhats—stairs leading down to a river—where villagers go to wash, gossip and look for mates, and the Banjaras, Indian gypsies who go from place to place, weaving baskets, doing ironwork, or else busking (the women dancing, the men charming snakes). Bhowani explains that the women of the desert state of Rajasthan (literally, “land of kings”) wear bright colors because the landscape is monochrome, that many Indians cannot get out of poverty because, by tradition, they must pay a great deal for weddings and even more for deaths, that the bud and the leaf make the best quality tea. Mostly mute, entirely mesmerized, we listen, look, and learn.
Jaipur, Rajasthan’s capital, is unique: the brainchild of Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II, its 16-kilometer historic center, dating from 1727, is India’s first planned city, an axial, nine-block arrangement notable for its broad boulevards, unusual observatory, and delightful pink-painted Hindu architecture. The Oberoi Rajvilas, accordingly, draws on the Rajput style—o a fault: the hotel is a perfect replica—only much bigger—of Naila Fort, the roughly 150-year-old walled fortress that Oberoi Group head P.R.S. “Biki” Oberoi converted into his personal retreat some years ago.
Interestingly, the hotel was designed by the same team that created the Amarvilas—the Mumbai firm P.G. Patki Architects, H.L. Lim, a Singapore interior design office, and the Bangkok-based landscape architect William Bensley—and, as at the Amarvilas, craft is king: the gold-leaf wall murals, vegetable dye frescoes, and superbly detailed brass-and-wood doors embed the public spaces with a palpable sense of authenticity, as do such elements as the traditional lime plaster finish on the exterior walls.
The Rajvilas proves also to be a land of abundance: with 32 acres of grounds, the hotel offers 54 guest rooms, arranged in small clusters around traditional central courtyards with fountains, fourteen luxurious tents (identical to the ones at Ranthambhore), and three villas with private pools and gardens. Indeed, the Rajvilas is a destination unto itself, with visitors that spend seven to ten nights enjoying the resort-style amenities and practicing yoga and meditation; though the hotel arranges sightseeing tours, many of these guests never leave the premises.
Last stop, Mumbai
We, however, do go out, and onward, and after a magical night at the Oberoi Udaivilas, a palace-like hotel on the shores of Lake Pichola in Udaipur, we arrive at our final destination: Kipling’s “Mother of Cities,” Mumbai.
Since being attacked by terrorists in November of 2008, the modern atrium-style Oberoi on Marine Drive, with panoramic views of the Arabian Sea and Mumbai’s skyline, has been completely redesigned; resurrected from tragedy, it exudes an air of utter tranquility, exemplified by the live jazz, played on a red grand piano in the lobby, that sends soothing echoes throughout the vast interior space. That peace proves beneficial, because Mumbai represents urban life in extremis: here, Mukesh Ambani’s 27-story, billion-dollar home overlooks slums so vast that they resemble a kind of ground cover; and every manner of human experience seems to lie between the two. As our tour bus navigates the tumultuous streets, we receive a recitation of statistics: During rush hour, a train pulls into one of the city’s stations every 45 seconds, each loaded with 5,000 passengers, for a total of six million people in two hours. 52,000 taxis and 100,000 rickshaws roam the streets. 3,000 new cars arrive in Mumbai every day—as do 300 new families.
Yet as we embrace Bhowani, thank him for his knowledge and good humor, and at long last depart for home, the statistic I find most emblematic is the 200,000 hot lunches delivered every workday, by the 5,000 so-called dabba wallah, to office workers from their homes. Daily, these extraordinary men collect lunch boxes called tiffins from all around the city and, traveling by bicycle, train, and on foot, show up precisely at lunch time, then collect and return them, all by mid-afternoon. The dabba wallahs make fewer than one mistake in every six to eight million lunches delivered—and earn $80 a month for their efforts.
In Joseph Heller’s 1979 novel Good as Gold, the protagonist wonders how his illiterate, penniless grandmother could have made it from the old country to the new world on her own, when he can’t go from one American city to another without a travel agent. Something akin to this has been scratching at my mind since my arrival, via first-class transit, in India. The country has taught me two things. The first is that, when it comes to survival, people find a way, often with imagination, energy and grace. The other is an old lesson, but seldom so indelibly delivered: Westerner, count thy blessings.