"Excuse me, excuse me," they said apologetically but insistently as they shuffled towards their new seats. It was only a six hour flight from Hong Kong to Delhi, but damnit, their new baby was going to get the best seat possible.
As the young couple sat down in the spacious emergency row, the stewardess explained the grave responsibility to them.
"Excuse me, excuse me," they said, with a much heavier dose of the apologetic, as they shuffled back to their old seats.
Ah, middle-class neurosis - India has truly joined the modern world.
You wouldn't know it, though, landing in the dilapidated airport, decked out in moldy 70s drab. A dozen armed guards watch over a handful of kiosks and a broken ATM. It was two in the morning. Outside, taxi drivers and passengers swarmed grudgingly under dim streetlights and a concrete sky.
As I wrote before, there was the usual hoo-har, but by the next morning I was in the diplomatic quarter and Delhi really did feel like a capital city.
On the satellite map, you can see an intricate geometric pattern across the central city, with hexagonal main roads radiating out from the India Gate. On the ground, like other planned capitals, the streets are wide, open, going in very straight lines to nowhere fun. But it was India, after all, and real street life overran those neat SimCity lanes. At the north of the grid was the main shopping district, Connaught Place, laid out like Dante's Inferno, in concentric circles of chaos.
On the very outside was the Stygian circle - a blazing ring of traffic as dense as any in India and twice as fast. Which isn't particularly fast, but an ingenious system of traffic lights and tributary roads manage to keep traffic constantly accelerating until they reach escape velocity, while corralling shoppers back towards the centre.
The next circle was the smelly one. Here, stray dogs, light industry and very public public facilities stream together, only coming up for air when the circle intersects one of the main roads. Internet cafes, travel agents and restaurants have sprung up among the workshops and hardware stores. Pedestrians skirt around rubbish tips pooled with piss while cars skirt around the pedestrians; motorcycles squeeze between them, until the tightly packed flow is released into the crossroads.
Breaking through into the wide open centre, the visitor arrives at the inner circle - bright and shiny shops selling RBK (it's Reebok, but Marketing has decided that they're too cool for vowels now) sneakers, books, jewelery and other shiny things, along with lattes and fried chicken.
But, as this satellite image shows, at the core of Connaught Place, beneath the surface, lies Delhi's best-kept secret: A modern subway system that nobody uses.
The best way to get around Delhi - and indeed, all of India - is still the trusty tuktuk, known in India as the autorickshaw. Riding in anything else is just not the same. In an auto, you get the sounds of India at full volume, the smells, the passing cars and fellow auto-riders just an arm's length away, the constant "Oh fuck I'm going to die" adrenaline buzzes... it's the only way to see India, really.
The vehicle itself is built on top of a moped chassis, with a marginally beefed up engine and a body that consists of a back panel and two side rods, as thick as a thumb, that holds up a canvas roof. It's essentially a scooter with a big bum. It's not designed for battling SUVs, but then again, if it rolls, you just climb out and unroll it.
Drivers in their nondescript brown uniforms are part of the national consciousness - they (well, better-looking versions of them) feature on TV, movies and even music videos. Courageous and full of promise, the auto-rickshaw driver is a perfect everyman that comes with the perfect vehicle for a comedy-adventure.
In reality, they're semi-skilled workers in a developing country. Many barely have enough cash for the next tank of gas, others sleep and eat in their vehicles. In more touristy places, though, our poor bargaining skills fund pimped-up auto-funksters, complete with obnoxiously loud sound systems and epilepsy-inducing disco lights.
They might lack the legendary navigational skills of their London counterparts, but they make up for it with their lightning reflexes, 360 degree vision and complete contempt for death. Death can kiss their asses.
Driving on the wrong side of the road? Who cares? Driving on a footpath? Not a problem! Pushing - literally pushing - pedestrians out of the way? They don't mind.
Sure, the drivers never understand what you're saying, but pretend that they do so you'll get in; they don't know any street names and they've never seen a map of their city before; and yeah, even if they know exactly where you want to go, they'll still need to stop to take a leak, stop to fill up the tank, stop to buy some lollies, stop to ask for directions...
Okay, fine - they're terribly unprofessional and couldn't navigate their urine into a urinal. But they are the workhorse of India, the marginally honest folks who keep the country running. They don't give a shit about airbags, about diesel fumes, about oncoming traffic.
They can't afford our middle-class neuroses. So they don't wear seatbelts - and just don't care.