Friends who are going to India ask me for advice. I make lists – where to eat, where to stay, where to shop, what to do. I suggest restaurants and museums, hotels and trains. I am flexible. I offer options. But if they are going to be in the Delhi area for even a day, I tell them to go for a walk in Lodi Garden. On this, I am insistent.
Lodi Garden might be called the Central Park of New Delhi – if Central Park surrounded a group of centuries-old tombs, as Lodi Garden does.
In New Delhi, Lodi Garden is one of the best places to stroll, to stretch in the sun, to watch hordes of uniformed schoolchildren cavort and shriek in the familiar way of children on field trips, children sprung free from school for a few hours.
It is the place to observe informal cricket matches and family picnics of the most elaborate kind. It is the place – if you are a young Indian couple with nowhere else to go – to cuddle discreetly on benches and beneath trees.
For me, Lodi Garden is the place, perhaps above all others, where I trace the history of myself in India. During my first visit, when I was just out of college, I spent my first month in Delhi at the lovely home of a professor's mother on a posh street that bordered the garden.
I took my first tentative forays alone into Lodi Garden, using it as a shortcut to get to nearby Khan Market or the Lodi Road post office. In a city that felt not just foreign but impossible to fathom, Lodi Garden felt at least a little bit familiar.
Amid all the other devotees of the garden, Indians and Westerners both, I could be, to some degree, inconspicuous – at least when I was walking. Once I tried to sit under a tree with my lunch, only to realize that, within moments, five men had appeared under five nearby trees and were all watching me. I fled.
But I couldn't stay away from the peace, the palm trees, the winding paths, from the joy of having a clean, green place in which to walk in the middle of such a dusty and polluted city.
When I returned to India a few years later, on a Fulbright, I no longer lived in the neighborhood of the Lodi Garden, but I visited as often as I could.
One New Year's Day, I went to the garden in the company of two charming Hungarian musicians and a fellow Fulbright scholar. When we had woken up that morning – after a New Year's Eve party that ended with all the remaining guests crashing on the floor of the Hungarians' apartment – we tried to think of where we should spend the first day of the New Year, and, once fortified with an enormous Chinese lunch, Lodi Garden was our choice.
We strolled its paths, chased each other like children. In the tombs, my musician friends yodeled and scatted, their voices echoing through the dim chambers. I have fuzzy photos of us, standing on the steps of one, our arms linked.
In the years since then, each time I return to India, I have returned to Lodi Garden, alone or with any company I could persuade to join me.
I have sat and watched a friend's fair, redheaded grandson play, slightly incongruous amid the scores of small black-haired children similarly engaged.
I have been conked on the head by a ball thrown by an overenthusiastic child and I have enjoyed the gardens on a lazy Sunday afternoon, the day's papers spread out in a fan on the lawn around me.
I have watched flocks of birds swoop and dart, and I have taken slow, meditative walks, pausing for a moment of contemplation beneath one of the majestic trees that line the paths. I have cut across the corner of the gardens en route to elsewhere, going out of my way for a glimpse of palm trees and flowers and red sandstone against the blue sky.
It has been almost 18 years since my first glimpse of Lodi Garden, but when I am there, the years all seem to collapse into themselves. Sometimes I am even convinced that the elderly men and women I see on their fitness walks – arms pumping and athletic shoes peeking out from beneath saris and salwar-kameez sets – are the same people I saw walking five, 10, 15 years ago.
I have watched India change dramatically over the past 18 years, but Lodi Garden has remained the same. It feels, in its way, timeless, which makes sense, given that it's been around in some form or another for more than 500 years.
And when I am so insistent that friends and acquaintances go to Lodi Garden, it is not because I expect them to have the same sentimental attachment to it that I do. But in a hot, dusty, crowded city, a city that's easy not to like, a city that's often seen as a place to leave as soon as possible, it's nice to have a green and lovely place to walk and sit and think. It's nice to have a reason to stick around another day, or, at least, to wish you didn't have to leave quite so soon.