Category Archives: living in Delhi

Delirious Delhi: Publishing globally. TODAY.

This blog began in 2007. We left India in 2009. HarperCollins India published Delirious Delhi within India in 2011.

And now, finally, reverse globalization has taken effect: what began in India is finally available worldwide. Arcade Publishing has just released Delirious Delhi!

Delirious Delhi side-by-side

If you’ve been reading this blog as long as I’ve been writing it, then I think you’d really dig this book. It takes the best of what was written here, weaves it into a seamless narrative (NOT a bunch of posts reprinted) and then adds a couple hundred pages of content that are ONLY available in the book.

Now that it’s everywhere—the US, the UK, Singapore, Australia, you name it—I’d be honored if you’d give it a read. You can buy Delirious Delhi on Amazon or find it globally.

Lutyens’ Delhi survival guide (my article from Indian Express’ Eye Magazine)

This article was originally published on Dec 11 in Indian Express’s Eye Magazine.

An expat’s guide to surviving Lutyens’ Delhi

by Dave Prager

Lutyens’ Delhi was built for expats. British ones, specifically: those early 20th-century genteelfolk who knew exactly which fork was meant for eating crumpets while riding down the Rajpath in a horse-drawn carriage, and for whom the word “genteelfolk” was surely invented.

Because these expats had made a long ocean journey from home, Lutyens’ job was to make them comfortable in this strange land. Which is why he gave them so much room for strolling under lace parasols, for fanning themselves demurely, and for beginning every complaint about the weather and the natives with the phrase, “I daresay.” In other words, Lutyens built New Delhi specifically to insulate his expats from the actual Delhi around them.

Today’s expats are different. They come in varieties far beyond Lutyens’ imperial mandate: they’re bhang-dazed hippies, budding middle management, Rhodes scholars, and grandmothers on packaged tours. They come to India for India, not for the Crown. And when they go to Lutyens’ Delhi, they generally go as tourists.

This article, then, provides the tips they need to survive their visit. (There are still expats who live in Lutyens’ Delhi, but this survival guide isn’t for them — if they can afford to live there, they probably don’t need much help surviving the city.)

Watch your wallet. One hundred years ago, Lutyens’ Delhi was built to facilitate the extraction of wealth out of India and into England. Today, it exists to extract wealth out of your wallet into everyone else’s. Hotel rooms, bottled water, taxi rides — anything paid for here comes with a surcharge.

Shortly after my wife and I moved to south Delhi, we saw an ad for a street food festival at one of Lutyens’ Delhi’s fanciest hotels. We hadn’t lived in India long enough to have braved actual street food, so we headed to this hotel, hoping to discover this chaat thing we’d been reading so much about. We had expected the hotel to have handpicked Delhi’s finest street vendors, transplanted them to its manicured lawn, with filtered water and organic vegetables for them to make their magic. What we got were the aloo tikki and gol gappas we’d soon learn to enjoy at Nizammudin Railway Station, except for 20 times above the market rate. That’s Lutyens’ Delhi for you.

Have an exit plan. We didn’t own a car when we lived in Delhi; for us, autos and taxis sufficed. This arrangement failed us only when we’d visit Lutyens’ Delhi. That’s because everyone else there has a car, a driver, and a second driver to drive the first one to the car — which means autos and taxis don’t ply there looking for fares.

Those are long, empty, lonely boulevards when you’re searching for autorickshaws to take you home, and all you can hear in the quiet of the night are the solitary autos put-putting half a mile away. When they finally chug into view, the dark shape in the passenger seat reminds you that next time, maybe you should remember to pay the driver who dropped you off, to wait.

Don’t try to walk. Expats love to explore cities on foot. But don’t try it here. Lutyen’s boulevards are mathematically precise and horticulturally identical, which means every street looks like every other street, with every roundabout offering five other directions of the same. Even the trees seem strategically placed to avoid shading the sidewalk. It’s pleasant to look at from the back of a speeding vehicle, but it’s a long and blistery walk between any two points.

Don’t assume ‘historic’ means ‘good’. The marble and granite that Lutyens laid over 10 square miles of farms, villages, and bits of the Old City may be aesthetically pleasing, but expressly imperial: it’s specifically intended to intimidate anyone not travelling in a gold-plated, stallion-drawn carriage. His goal was to insulate the powerful from those over whom they have power. What could be more undemocratic than a capital designed for an empire? And how is the world’s largest democracy impacted by centring itself in 1911’s equivalent of Mordor?

Fortunately, the expats for whom Lutyens built his Delhi no longer run the show. Those who go there today are driven by cultural curiosity, not by imperial decree. So if you decide to go for high tea to one of its fancy hotels, have some fun with history: deliberately eat your crumpets with the wrong fork. And then get very quiet. You hear that faint whirring sound? That’s Lutyens, spinning in his grave. You’re not the expat he wanted there.

Dave Prager is the author of Delirious Delhi: Inside India’s Incredible Capital.

Highlights: Delhi launch for Delirious Delhi


The first wild sighting of Delirious Delhi!

Two years after leaving our Delhi home, I’ve returned for the publication of my new book about life in this city of sixteen million.

And returning after so long has brought a strange mix of nostalgia and immediacy.

It’s joy and melancholy combined: it’s magnificent to be back, it’s depressing to have left, it’s sad to be away from where life is now.

I arrived on Thursday night. I slept, I recovered, and then I dove into this newer Delhi, where a spotless shining South Delhi Metro now deposits me under the havelis of the 19th century. Amazing to begin here…

… and then so quickly be eating here.

Old Delhi always used to evoke a sense of unknown—a sense that I’m seeing centuries of history I can’t comprehend. Now there’s a new emotion: wistfulness. My memories are now part of the cacophony. Walking through the lanes, the things I see remind me of the life Jenny and I lived here, too.

And here’s what’s more amazing: as many times as we came in the past, there are still countless sights I’d never before seen.

And then, from the old to the new: off to the American Center the book launch, where somewhere between 75 and 2,500 people gathered to celebrate the release of Delirious Delhi.


(Crowd estimates may vary.)

I was joined on stage by Sonal Shah, an editor at Time Out Delhi. Together we discussed the book, my post-Delhi hairline, my secret food-hoarding habits when I was at work in Gurgaon, and why the greatest thing to ever happen to Delhi may or may not be Big Bazaar.

It was a great event, with laughter and only a few awkward moments. If you missed it, good news: there will be an encore event Thursday, 8 December at Olive Beach restaurant in Chanakyapuri! Details have been posted here.

If you’re in Mumbai and Bangalore, we’ll see you on Dec 5 and 7! If you’re in the US or elsewhere it the world, pre-order your copy now!

Finally, cheers to Sushobahn from Singapore for buying six copies. Let’s hope everyone else follows his example.

move over, Fun ‘n Food Village

I’d like your thoughts on this marketing idea that I’m working on for the book. I see this as a sticker; and I have a dream of seeing this sticker in the rear window of every car in Delhi.

Your thoughts?

P.S. Why do so many cars have Fun ‘n Food Village stickers in their windows? I know that Fun ‘n Food Village is awesome, but there are plenty of awesome places in the area. What makes their stickers so eminently stickable?

are autos actually on the meter now?

The first round of edits for my book have finally been completed. As I’ve been reviewing them, I read a comment from my editor Ajitha that I couldn’t believe. In my chapter about getting around Delhi, I said that, “Any driver who agrees to go by the meter is probably planning a route from GK-I to GK-II via the Taj Mahal.”

Here’s what Ajitha said: “No longer true, I think. Meter rates have gone up dramatically and autos actually go by meter!”

Could that be true??? I haven’t been in Delhi for a while, but I can’t imagine such a seismic shift. The only time autos would go by the meter for us was if the driver thought we wouldn’t know the proper route, or if there was a cop watching us negotiate.

Last week, I asked Twitter for other opinions.

And here’s what Twitter had to say.

One of my theories about Delhi is that it exists in a kind of quantum state, because everything about Delhi is true at once. The answers above reinforce that theory.

Still, I’d like more input. Has anyone else seen a change in the ways autorickshaws charge you in the last couple of years?

Update: more responses have poured in from Twitter!

http://twitter.com/#!/saroha_varun/status/109539632219299840

http://twitter.com/#!/_rhobert/status/109548878692491264

their New York struggle, part II: American pleasantries

Last month, we began a series exploring the initial impressions of Delhiites as they land in the US for the very first time.

That series was derailed a bit due to a sudden and wonderful addition to our family; fortunately, life has finally settled down enough for us to pick up where we left off.

As foreigners adjusting to life in a megacity, Jenny and I originally created this site to record the challenges we had adjusting to simple things about life in Delhi. You know, like power outlets with on-off switches or the fact that we had to monitor the water level in our rooftop tank in order to ensure a steady supply of showers.

So when we interviewed Tiya and Divya, two students who recently moved from Dehli to New York, we asked them to describe some of the things that initially confused them about their life in the New York. And Tiya had a very interesting response about Americans’ penchant for pointless pleasantries.

“The way people talk here. They ask how you’re doing without really caring about how you’re doing. And some are excessively polite and/or diplomatic, so, many times I find it difficult to discern what the person’s real intention is.”

She’s not alone. On our last post, many comments were posted about the same subject, exploring what Americans would consider politeness and non-Americans apparently consider insincerity.

Lakshmi said: “When I set foot at the Dulles airport in DC, the immigration/customs guy asked me how I was doing — and I was taken aback. Am I supposed to know this guy? Does this guy know my cousin? And so, is that how he knows that I would be here at the airport today? Did my cousin ask him to take care of me until he could pick me up at the airport? If so why didn’t my cousin tell me? I looked like a deer facing headlights.”

DyslexicHippo said: “I forced myself to quickly learn to say, ‘You are welcome’ in response to ‘Thank you’s.’ People rarely verbalized their thankfulness in India, but when they did you knew for sure that they meant it, and that those were not empty words. Here it was rude not to say “thank you”, but it meant nothing much at all when said.”

Sandhya said: “The way people smile at you in trains or streets… I would be halfway forming a smile in response but by that time they are already looking somewhere else… and I look like an idiot smiling at no one!!!”

Priyanka said: “I found it strange too that everyone from the cashier to the cab driver will ask you how you are; however, soon enough I realised that it wasn’t from the heart, so why ask???”

Judging from those comments, it would suggest that people in Delhi only present such queries when they genuinely care about the answer.

But I remember many times when friends and co-workers would begin a conversation with me by asking, “Have you eaten?”

I always took this as an Indian twist on the standard banal pleasantry, a conversation starter for which the actual state of my stomach was irrelevant.

But given what we’ve learned from Sandhya, Lakshmi , DsylexicHippo, and Tiya, should I have taken those questions more seriously? If I had said that I hadn’t eaten, would I have immediately been taken down to the canteen and present a bowl of dal?

their New York struggle, part I: impressions on the ride from the airport

For three-and-a-half years, this site has viewed Delhi through New York eyes. It’s time for the opposite: New York as viewed by Delhiites.

Because for every planeload of Westerners desperately memorizing the Lonely Planet as they fly east, there’s an equal and opposite jet heading west. One such recent plane contained Tiya and Divya, two students at Teachers College at Columbia University, one of the city’s most prestigious institutions. And their experience mirrors ours: wide-eyed wanderers in a foreign culture, with camera in tow.

“Wall Street Area”, photo by Tiya

We have never met either girl. Tiya recently wrote in to join the mailing list for our upcoming book, mentioning in her note that she was living in New York. We responded by asking her for an analysis of our culture to contrast with our analysis of hers. Tiya drafted Divya to add her thoughts; and in the first part of our interview, we focus on first impressions.

Specifically, the drive home from the airport — the journey during which so many first impressions are formed, and so many minds are made up.

I initially arrived in Delhi a week before Jenny did, so our first impressions are not shared. (Her impression, as recalled over instant messenger a few moments ago: “Over-stimulated, overexposed. Dry, pungent, bumpy, crumbling, chaotic, thrilling!”) My first impression involves flashes of landscape snatched during my conversation with Mahua, my company’s HR representative, who picked me up at the airport and instantly became the only human being I knew in all of Asia.

This was before NH-8 was complete, so our route to my temporary home in GK II took us through Mahipalpur. Like Jenny, I recall flickers of imagery more than any one image: bright signboards with unfamiliar script; painted walls; flashes of bright saris; and a road that seemed far too narrow for all the cows and people and cars and bikes and rickshaws simultaneously traversing it.

Mahipalpur at sunset, off the main road. Photo by Flickr user SteelboneLex.

As the picture makes it clear, first impressions often don’t entirely reflect reality. For instance, Divya debarked the plane and drove directly to the relative tranquility of New Jersey. So her first impressions of the US were pastoral.

“I landed and went straight to New Jersey with my family, which seemed like a beautiful countryside somewhere in the Northern part of India. This was extremely amusing for my family, who was nervous about me feeling unsettled and alienated.”

I imagine Divya is referring to this aspect of New Jersey…


Photo by Flickr user carroll.mary.

… and not this aspect of New Jersey.


Photo by Flickr user jeremylogan2.

Tiya, on the other hand, drove from the airport directly to Manhattan, so her first impression was quite different. And what she told us reflects an immediate insight into our city that’s far deeper than our first thoughts of hers.

“My friend came to pick me up; and between all the chatter, I struggled to focus on what we were driving past. But I distinctly remember hundreds of little rows of houses that looked exactly the same. ‘Organized, yet lacking identity,’ is what I thought. Which is ironic, considering the culture is all about individualism.”

For some perspective, here is an example of the kind of housing Tiya probably saw on her way towards Manhattan:


Photo by Flickr user Rego-Forest Preservation Council

And here’s the building in GK II where I spent my first month.


Photo by me

Comparing those two pictures, Tiya is right: which architecture seems more at home in a culture that’s supposed to be renowned for its rugged individualism?

Tiya and Divya will share other observations in the next installment of this interview. (A preview: “The way people talk here. They ask how you’re doing without really caring about how you’re doing. And some are excessively polite and/or diplomatic, so many times I find it difficult to discern what the person’s real intention is.”)

But first, I’d like to open this up to Indian readers who landed in the US, or Americans who have visited India. What impression did  you receive from that first drive home from the airport? Please add your comments below.

If you like this post (and the reader contributions below) you’d like our upcoming book: a humorous travel memoir of expat life in New Delhi. Send us your email or follow us on Twitter so we can add you to our mailing list!

house of the holy cow poop

Editor’s note: we’re reposting some of our early essays, from when we were first opening our eyes to India. It’s interesting to read now what we wrote then. Here’s the original.

The stereotype of India is true: cows wander the streets with impunity. They block traffic, they sleep on the sidewalk, they eat food scraps and plastic bags off the ground. Indians don’t eat beef because they consider cows holy, but just because they’re holy doesn’t mean they’re not an annoyance. In an upscale market in Delhi last December, I was passing a group of about thirty people waiting outside a restaurant when a cow came wandering by. It was a narrow lane with a small sidewalk, and the people waiting had spilled into the street, leaving barely enough room for cars to pass. Just as the cow came from one direction a car came from another, its horn blaring. The cow dodged away from the car and directly into the group of people. There were shouts as the crowd surged back into the unyielding wall, and the panicked cow bore down on the panicking people.

In cases like this, even a holy incarnate needs a little prodding. The day was saved when a parking attendant dashed up and slapped the cow on the side, hard, angrily, repeatedly, until she turned around in her confusion and returned the way she came.

Why would Indian society put up with these giants that obstruct their streets, nose through their garbage, and menace their restaurant patrons? Because for the hundreds of millions of Indians who will never have enough money to even visit a restaurant, the cow is truly a gift from god: from its udders comes food, and from its ass comes fuel.

The prevalence of cow poop as a fuel becomes clear the moment you leave the city. Lining the roads in the countryside — in fact, lining any available space not already given over to crops or housing — are row after row of circular foot-wide cowpies drying in the hot Indian sun.

cowpoop

One blogger describes how the cowpies are prepared and what they’re used for. “I would then help my mother to make sheni from the heap of dung collected in the field. Sheni is/are about 30 cm in diameter, 3 cm thick disc made by mixing water, rice husk and chopped rice straw, pulverized by feet, and the balls of mix are pressed flat by hand, and sun dried. These were stacked and stored mainly for monsoon. It was a ‘free’ energy — fuel — for cooking; this practice still continues.

“The cow dung helped us to help grow food in the farms, helped to cook our food, and helped us to maintain our mud house; thus helped us to sustain. And finally the used cow dung in — all forms — went to the soil.”

Even in Delhi itself, it’s not surprising to see cowpies drying on sidewalks and embankments. Two months ago, however, on a trip to the rural Indian village of Karanpur, I noticed a new manifestation of cow poop: cow poop houses.

house

house2

The monsoon is coming. In fact, it might already be here — a downpour this morning turned the road outside my flat into a two-foot deep lake. The rains in India fierce enough to destroy any cowpie left unprotected, melting cowpies into mud, fertilizing the ground but destroying the chance at a hot meal. To protect against this, rural Indians spend the months leading up to the monsoon building huts to store their cooking fuel.

The huts, of course, are also built out of cow poop.

While in Karanpur, we stumbled upon a group of villagers in the process of building a cowpie house. The women laughed at themselves as we came upon them — they were clearly a little embarrassed to be seen by foreigners as they kneaded the poop like bread dough. But it wasn’t a humiliated kind of embarrassment — rather, it was an acknowledgment that we caught them in an awkward moment. It’s how you’d feel if a political candidate dropped by on a door-to-door and caught you mowing the lawn in your rattiest t-shirt.

women

women2

Building the huts seemed like a straightforward process. Dried cowpies are placed into stacks numbering into the hundreds. Wet poop is then molded around them. The poop is presumably mixed with a higher concentration of straw than normal, probably to function much like rebar would in cement. The exterior poop is spread thick and strong to keep the interior poop dry through the rains. It’s doubtful that the houses can survive much more than a few weeks of rain, but that should be enough to keep the fuel flammable until the weather clears up enough to dry more cowpies.

women3

This is why the cow is holy, and why Indians are so accommodating of them. Not because the Indians arbitrarily worship what we see as dinner, but because the cow provides so much required for sustaining their lives. Cows need to be revered, because they’re far too valuable to eat.

the meals we (almost) couldn’t eat

There were times in Delhi when eating out required steeling ourselves against sights that made us want to run with waving hands for the first flight to Paris.

There were times we’d see a cook’s sweat dripping into his mixing bowl. There were times when we’d enter restaurant bathrooms so dirty that we’d curse our bladders for forcing us to see such a sight before we ate.

There was even a time at a trendy restaurant in Basant Lok when a mouse ran across the feet of the four people seated across from me; the impromptu chorus line that occurred as they all kicked would have been funny if I hadn’t been so busy jumping up on my own seat as well.

But a cook’s special seasoning or a four-legged foot massage would not deter us from enjoying our meals.

We’d adapted to Delhi’s culinary landscape, which sometimes required relaxing our sanitary standards a bit. Because through the moistest of alleyways and upon the greasiest of tabletops awaited some of the most unforgettable meals we’ve ever had.

We learned to follow the reaction of people around us: if nobody else seemed bothered by what was revealed when the kitchen door swung open, why should we worry?

Still. Sometimes our eyes saw sights that were too much for our hungry stomachs to bear. On one of our last nights in India, our friends took us to a set of competing storefront kebab stands near Nizamuddin (immortalized by my friend Sam Dolnick in the LA Times), where grease from daytime auto repair mingled on the cement with that of nightly mutton burra.

This was our fourth eatery of the night but the first to give us pause, even though two of the preceeding three weren’t quite models of salubrity themselves. First had been a paratha stand across from the Times of India building, where we’d enjoyed stunningly delicious stuffed bread from a stand built on cracked pavement; though cockroaches darted about, they were far enough away that we could pretend they always kept their distance from where food was stored.

The second stop was a perfectly hygienic restaurant in Old Delhi. But the round of parathas after that came from a vendor outside the Nizammudin Railway Station whose stand would have been far too close to the public urinal for nasal comfort had the breeze not been so favorable.

At this kebab stand, though, Jenny and I exchanged looks as we watched an employee stomp through puddles of black water on his way to a basin of steaming brown liquid in which he started dunking dirty plates. As we stood around in a circle as we waited for them to hose off a table for us, our friend Supratim idly rocked back and forth on a poorly-fitted manhole; though he didn’t notice it, his absent shifts on the unbalanced lid caused bubbles of black liquid to gurgle forth from the loose seal.

We could smell the kebabs cooking, but we could also smell something else.

We had full trust in our friends, and we reminded ourselves over and over that they’d never steered us wrong before. But we couldn’t do it. Suddenly I loudly realized that that very last bite of that very last paratha had, amazingly enough, been exactly what it took to make me completely full, and Jenny took the opportunity to remind everyone that she was a vegetarian but no, she didn’t want any paneer tikka because she wasn’t hungry anyway.

winter in delhi

We didn’t expect there to be winter in Delhi. Delhi’s climate surprised us by existing.

fog
Winter morning fog in Gurgaon. Photo by us.

The thought that Delhi might be anything other than hot never crossed our minds as we were packing our suitcases back in Brooklyn. Knowing only that there was a monsoon season, we expected eleven months of unbroken heat and one month of unbroken rain.

Midway through our first December, we knew we were wrong — a fact proven by the two electric heaters we’d purchased, along with two thick wool blankets to wrap around our shoulders for the moments we’d have to exit the narrow arc of air that the electric heaters kept warm.

fog2
Nighttime winter fog outside our flat. Photo by us.

Even then, the blankets barely compensated for the drafts that radiated through our loose-fitted windows and wrapped their icy grips around our very souls.

The marble floors that promised to echo the air conditioning in the summer were like a barefoot trek across an ice-covered lake, even while wearing three pairs of socks.

Going to the bathroom made us wish we’d moved into a flat with a squat toilet — anything other than sitting on that icy seat.


Photo by Flickr user Mayank Austen Soofi.

The dropping temperature had been a gradual revelation. At first, we’d needed only a comforter for the bed. Then we needed sweaters to wear around the house. Before long, we were buying hats, and then scarves, and then gloves, and then jackets, and then those electric heaters that we’d turn on in the bathroom ten minutes before shower time to blast away the walk-in freezer now attached to our bedroom.

Late night rides in open-air autorickshaws made us regret not leasing our own car; huddled together in the back seat, staring at the driver’s back through our own fogged breath, we’d envy his sweater and his surreptitious warming sips from the small bottle hidden in his breast pocket.


Photo by Flickr user Sunil D

But winter also brought splendor to Delhi, fleeting though these moments were. On the coldest mornings, getting up early to beat the traffic let me appreciate the magnificence of Delhi’s fog; on MG Road, segments of the Metro would disappear into of the vanishing point, majestically suspended in the sky, more massive and beautiful than they ever seemed on a clear day.


Photo by Flickr user Rohit Markande

The air on MG Road was thick and still, broken only by brilliant flashes of blue as kingfishers flitted across the roadway.

Passing through Gurgaon, the skyscrapers were hidden behind grey clouds, an invisible presence somewhere beyond the black silhouette of the electrical towers that abutted the street.

The weather never went below freezing in Delhi, so it never snowed, which meant Delhi had all of the misery of winter but none of the fun. But its winter was relatively short, and by February the nights were comfortable, the days were pleasant, and the winter fog was no longer delaying midnight flights until six AM. And another summer was about to begin.