NEW DELHI — For what must have been the seventh time since I’d left the Taj Mahal Hotel 20 minutes earlier for an afternoon walk to the nearby Lodhi Gardens, a turbaned tuk-tuk driver pulled up next to me and politely asked where I was going. I just smiled, looked straight ahead and kept walking. He caught up with me a few seconds later and inquired again; I ignored him. “Don’t be afraid. I’m a Sikh,” he persisted. “What country you?”
“USA,” I responded, hesitant for some reason to mention Israel. “Oh, America very nice,” the turbaned man in the auto rickshaw replied. “My brother drives taxi in Brooklyn. Where you go?”
That I was in India at all was something of a small miracle. In late March, the Ananta Centre—a well-funded think tank I’d never heard of—had offered me an all-expense-paid trip to New Delhi. This would allow me to cover its 2nd India-US Forum—during which a select group of politicians, diplomats, academics and military strategists from both countries would cloister themselves at the five-star Taj Mahal for two full days, analyzing everything from radical extremism and terrorism in South Asia to the looming U.S. trade war with China.
There was one catch: to allow frank discussions of some very sensitive topics, the forum would follow the Chatham House Rule, meaning its proceedings were strictly off-the-record unless the speakers themselves gave permission to be quoted.
Actually, there was another catch, too: my own paranoid fear of getting sick from India’s food, its water or both. I had already traveled to Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the Maldives without incident. But having never met a single person who’d been to India and not fallen victim to the dreaded “Delhi belly,” I decided this time to err on the side of caution.
I accepted the Ananta Centre’s offer and obtained a journalist visa at the Indian Embassy fronting Tel Aviv’s HaYarkon Street. On April 5, the day of my flight, I loaded up at the nearby Shufersal: six half-liter bottles of Mei Eden spring water, four cans of sardines packed in tomato sauce, dried apricots, matzot, a sealed plastic tub of ready-to-eat gefilte fish and three bags of gluten-free Osem crackers kosher for Passover.
All this went into the suitcase that I checked at the Air India counter, eager to fly business class on a route—inaugurated barely a week before with much fanfare—that would take us directly over Saudi Arabia. Yet the Boeing 787 Dreamliner was strangely empty; I counted fewer than 40 passengers occupying the aircraft’s 256 seats.
VIP treatment and tight security
Twenty minutes after we took off from Ben-Gurion, the bright lights of Amman appeared directly below us, quickly receding as we tracked east across the Jordanian desert. I followed our progress on the video screen in front of me; by the time we were 41,000 feet over Riyadh an hour later, dinner had already been served and nearly everyone was asleep.
We briefly crossed into Omani airspace and then banked out over the Arabian Sea, staying well to the south of Iran and Pakistan. At precisely 9 a.m. the next morning—seven hours after takeoff—Flight #139 touched down at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport.
Outside immigration and customs, a uniformed driver with my name on a signboard was waiting for me; he quickly escorted me to a VIP parking garage with its own aquarium, and into a 2018 Jaguar equipped with WiFi and a music-on-demand system—neither of which worked.
No problem, I told Sukhdev, my driver; I was thrilled just to be in India.
The Taj Mahal Hotel, a tightly guarded establishment on Mansingh Road, sits smack in the middle of Delhi’s diplomatic enclave. Armed security personnel thoroughly checked our Jaguar at the entrance, and all arrivals were required to pass through metal detectors—a reminder of India’s constant battle against Pakistani-inspired terrorism.
Two hours later, I found myself in a conference room, seated next to Kenneth Juster, the Trump administration’s new U.S. envoy to India, and Harvard foreign-policy expert Paula Dobriansky, a former U.S. undersecretary of state for global affairs. At the next table over, Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin was talking shop with former White House chief of staff John Podesta—chairman of Hillary Clinton’s failed 2016 presidential campaign.
Also present was Kenneth Weinstein, president and CEO of the conservative Hudson Institute think tank; Steve Herman, the Voice of America’s White House bureau chief; and Daniel Blumenthal, director of Asian studies at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute.
It occurred to me we had more than enough Jews in that room for a minyan—leading me to wonder if any of my fellow tribesmen had also brought gefilte fish and matzohs to India.
From Capitol Hill to India Gate
Opening the official conference agenda, I was amused to find myself listed alphabetically between Mark Lippert, vice-president of Boeing International, and Munu Mahawar, joint secretary for the Americas division at India’s Ministry of External Affairs.
Also on the roster were seven members of Congress including Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, one of four Indian-American lawmakers on Capitol Hill. The Democrat from Illinois joked that back home, people mistakenly call him Roger Christian Murphy. “It’s nice to be in a place where people know how to pronounce my name,” he quipped.
Alabama Rep. Terri Sewell, whose 7th congressional district includes parts of Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, Montgomery and much of the state’s so-called “Black Belt,” said India is more important to the United States than ever before.
“The American-Indian relationship truly has bipartisan support, irrespective of who’s in the White House,” said Sewell, a Democrat and Alabama’s first black congresswoman ever. “Congress may move slowly, but the shared opinion of both Democrats and Republicans with respect to this relationship is solid.”
Even so, the mood at the forum was clearly pro-Trump—a sentiment shared by several Indian officials who praised the administration as well as Washington pundits who clearly approve of the 45th president’s worldview.
“America is serious about the notion of a strategic partnership with India,” said James Carafano, vice-president of foreign and defense policy at the hawkish Heritage Foundation, praising Trump’s appointment of Mike Pompeo as secretary of state and John Bolton as national security advisor. “I don’t think Bolton or Pompeo were hired to rewrite foreign policy. These guys were brought in to move on Trump time. That’s good, because if anything needs Trump time, it’s the U.S.-India relationship. We are simply moving too slow.”
Lunch with a Hindu who loves Israel
Sneaking away from the conference for a few hours, I arranged to meet Arjun Ramesh Hardas, the American Jewish Committee’s representative in India. By that point, I’d also concluded that all the processed, tasteless Jewish food I’d brought with me from Israel was actually making me sicker than the tempting Indian cuisine I was trying so hard to avoid.
Arjun invited me to lunch at the prestigious 105-year-old Delhi Gymkhana Club, where I quickly filled my plate with masala potatoes, jackfruit and other vegetarian delights as this gregarious Hindu—an advocate for Israel since 2011—explained his love for the Jewish state.
“It’s hard to believe we’ve only had 25 years of diplomatic relations. I was really appointed to this job at the right time,” said the former TV journalist, who’s been with AJC since December 2014 and previously worked for The Israel Project. Over the years, he’s taught himself Hebrew, has visited Israel six times and peppers his conversations with expressions like “this is really meshugah” and “what a balagan.”
Arjun says his goal at AJC is to strengthen Indian-American and Indian-Israeli ties, to encourage democratic values, and to promote a better understanding of Israel and Jews among India’s 1.35 billion people. Before dropping me back at the hotel, Arjun parked briefly in front of the Teen Murti Chowk, an impressive memorial to the Indian fighters who captured Haifa from the Ottomans in 1918, paving the way for the Allied victory in World War I.
The decision to rename Delhi’s famous landmark the Teen Murti Haifa Chowk was taken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who in July 2017 became the first Indian head of government ever to visit Israel. He officially dedicated the monument this past January during Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s historic six-day trip to India.
“Modi is probably the only leader in the world who has friendly relations with all people—Israel, the Palestinians, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, China, Russia and the Americans,” Arjun declared with obvious pride. “Air India’s direct flight to Israel over Saudi Arabia was thanks to his initiative and his excellent personal relations with the Saudis.”
‘Shalom Tel Aviv’
I thought about that my last day while passing an Air India billboard advertising the new route on my way to the airport. I had spent exactly 55 hours in Delhi, managing in the last four of those hours to see both the crowded downtown market of Chandni Chowk (also known as Delhi 6) and the upscale shops of Connaught Place, whose Central Park boasts an enormous Indian flag that puts even Mexico City’s famed Zócalo to shame.
My journalist colleague Sunny Verma of the Indian Express also took me to Noida in the adjacent state of Uttar Pradesh, home to more than 200 million people.
Driving along the eight-lane DND Flyway back from Noida, Sunny and I stopped on the bridge over the Yamuna, one of India’s most sacred rivers—and by far its most polluted. I climbed out to snap a photo of the hundreds of apartment buildings under construction along the river’s shore but had to hold my breath; otherwise I would have gagged on the stench. It was a stark reminder of the enormous environmental challenges still faced by India, which in 2024 will surpass China as the world’s most populous nation, with 1.45 billion inhabitants.
Unlike my near-empty flight to Delhi barely two days earlier, Air India Flight #139 was packed. To my left in business class was a retired electrical engineer named Menachem on his way home from an expensive journey to the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. On my right was Sundar, a Bangalore software executive flying to a meeting with his Israeli partners. I slept soundly as we silently crossed the night sky over the deserts of Oman, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
In fact, it wasn’t until we were strapped in our seats for the final descent into Ben-Gurion Airport that I suddenly noticed the latest issue of Air India’s in-flight magazine, Shubh Yatra, tucked into the seat pocket in front of me. On its cover was a photo of Jaffa’s famous Clock Tower and a headline at the bottom: “Shalom Tel Aviv! Air India Lands in Israel.”
What an appropriate ending, I thought, to a trip I had never expected in the first place.