Category Archives: thinking about delhi

Highlights from Bangalore and Delhi (#2) launch events

Bangalore’s traffic apocalypse is very different from Delhi’s traffic apocalypse.

Delhi has epic jams: packed boulevards that stretch to the horizon; masses of vibrating, coughing vehicles; drivers and passengers for whom the queue in front of them dictates exactly what their fate will be for the next hour, but whom will battle each other every single inch anyway.

Driving in Bangalore is different: it’s death by a thousand minor intersections. You finally free yourself after waiting at one eternal red light, you see open road ahead of you, and you think, “Maybe the next light will go in my favor.”

But it will not.

There’s only one man who could overcome Bangalore traffic. And I spotted him as soon as I started walking around.

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returning to Delhi: what change will I see?

How much does a city change in two-and-a-half years? Well, here’s the answer. A few hours ago, I Tweeted that while Tom Cruise, the rapper Pitbull, and I are all reaching Delhi in a few days, only I would be queuing in the taxi line in order to leave the airport.

And then I got this Tweet in response:

THAT’S how much a city changes in two-and-a-half years. Let Tom and Pitbull have their limos. I can take the Metro.

I can’t wait to get back. I wonder what else is new.

Delirious Delhi: a five-page preview

Delirious Delhi is still two weeks away from hitting the stores. To whet your appetite, here’s a brief excerpt. Enjoy!

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Grandpops didn’t know you had cheese fries

Of all the photos that I took in Delhi, this one surprised my grandfather the most.

“This is another one of your jokes, Dave,” he scoffed, turning from my computer screen to glare at me. “Are there really Ruby Tuesday’s in India?”

Grandpops wasn’t alone in his shock at seeing a familiar brand in an unfamiliar place. I myself had no idea Ruby Tuesday’s would be in India until I first set foot in the GK II market.  Which is why, in fact, I took that picture in the first place.

And remembering Grandpops’ reaction reminds me of why I felt the Slumdog Millionaire controversy in 2009 was so misguided. People called it ‘poverty porn, with one blogger chiding it as “a collection of clichés from the Third World’s underbelly for the viewing pleasure of a First World audience.” And while it’s true that Americans are fascinated by foreign poverty (even though we’re blind to it on our own shores), there’s something the critics of Slumdog misunderstood: the movie actually did introduce Americans to a side of India we’d never seen before.

Not the slums, but the skyscrapers.

The modern side of the country. Most Americans had no idea that India had televisions and game shows and popular culture; we certainly had no idea that India has two homegrown Regis Philbins!

I remember one Thanksgiving in the early 2000s, long before I ever visited India, when my grandmother made a “final answer” joke at the dinner table. Every one of us — from nineteen to ninety — laughed at her joke. And then we all marveled that there was an aspect of our culture that all generations could share.

None of us had any idea, though, that 7,200 miles to the east, there were a billion more people who would have laughed along with Grandma — much less that those billion were also discovering that Ruby Tuesday’s “Thai Phoon shrimp” doesn’t quite look on the plate like it does on the menu.

A book. Not THE book, but A book…

I don’t want to begin this essay with a revelation that the publication date for my book has been pushed back again.

So I won’t. Instead, I’ll share this picture with you.

That’s a book. And my writing is contained therein. Close enough, right?

Sure. To North India, With Love is a great book. Published by ThingsAsian Press and edited by Nabanita Dutt, it is a travel book — but not in the Lonely Planet sense. It doesn’t catalog restaurants or hotels or tourist traps; instead, it presents snapshots of moments. It’s a collection of about 40 short essays that together paint an affectionate portrait of North India, presenting experiences that have mattered to the travelers who came before you. And it couples those experiences with just enough information for you to run off to Dehradun or Allahabad or Old Delhi and create an experience of your own.

If you’re in the US, you can buy it on Amazon; hopefully it’s available in Indian bookstores as well. Three of my essays have been re-edited and republished in this book. These include the story of Ruksana, my experience with Karim’s tandoori bakra, and a retelling of the story of our famous Bollywood poster. Here’s an excerpt:

I came back the next weekend with my father and the money for the deposit. Manesh wasn’t there. This time, we sat at the rickshaw stand with a drunk mechanic who kept telling us, “I speak English tutti-frutti,” and “Vijay is my brother,” and “You want some whiskey?” Finally Vijay and Ranjeet, his English-speaking partner, pulled up. We discussed again the poster while the drunken mechanic danced around, sent a peon for soda, and interrupted us with “Vijay famous artist!” and “My cousin-brother!” and yet more “You want whiskey?”

Jenny and I had anticipated a small poster, perhaps two feet in length — after all, our main goal was to reprint it on a postcard. Vijay, however, insisted that his work could be no less than five feet tall. We agreed, the peon returned, and we celebrated with Pepsi and whiskey. As we were walking out, the mechanic turned to me to whisper conspiratorially, “I speak English tutti-frutti.”

You can read the full essay on the ThingsAsian site. And you can see a picture of the poster that I’m talking about in this unrelated article that appeared in the Gujarati newspaper, Divya Bhaksar. Here’s how it looked in print:

After the article came out, the author assured us that it was saying nice things. But is it? As bad as our Hindi is, our Gujarati is worse. Does it complement our writing style? Does it repeat that last February’s denunciation of our imperial arrogance? Does it accuse us a pivotal role in the 2G scam?

Nope. Nice things. We know that thanks to my coworker Pankaj’s friend Vimal, who relieved our fears (Thanks, Vimal!) with an abridged translation that I’ll paste below:

Delhi through the eyes of a Foreigner

One American couple came for 3 years to stay in Dil walon ki Delhi, and what they saw here it is.

The author starts off by writing Osho Rajneesh’s saying: “the best way to hide anything from a person’s eyes is to place it in front of his eyes.” He talks about India in the same way: child beggars pulling arms of the people on the streets, a bridegrooms procession in midst afternoon with the mercury soaring at 42 degrees Celsius, blaring loud speakers in the night enough to tear one’s ear drums, crazy honking vehicles, little boys serving tea in dirty clothes, pirated dvds and cds selling in the open, choked-full buses and trains, cars parked in no parking zones, etc.

Then he goes on to say: Lets meet Dave & Jenny, who came to Delhi in Nov 07. They did not come to see the Taj, but for the work project and to work for an NGO, and chose to see Delhi through their eyes, rather than using a conducted tour.

He talks about their blog and reproduces the same. He begins with the matrimonial ad in Mumbai, and then goes on to their trip to Daryaganj to make a film poster for themselves. How they managed to find Vijay and how Vijay was surprised they managed to find him. Vijay printing a 6 foot poster instead of a 2 foot poster requested by them and how thrilled they were. The poster is reproduced along with the article.

He also narrates how “do one thing” fascinated and amazed Dave and Jenny.

It’s nice to be appreciated. And that warm feeling of appreciation gives me the fortitude to sigh and bare to you the pain I mentioned at the beginning: our book release has indeed been pushed back to April, and possibly later. Apparently there are simply too many books about Delhi on the market right now, thanks to the tourists who failed to materialize during the Commonwealth Games.

Which means the release parties will be postponed. Which means we won’t be visiting Delhi in February. Which means our memories of the hot winter carrot halwa steaming outside the Jama Masjid will, for now, remain just that.

Sigh.

The good news is that we should be revealing the cover soon. We haven’t seen it yet ourselves, but we do know that the publisher was at one time talking to Vijay the Bollywood poster painter about doing the art. And if that’s indeed the case, then here’s a sneak peak at the source material we provided him:

Hopefully Vijay can once again do us justice.

(And if this picture at all convinces you that I’m capable of writing 250 entertaining pages about life in Delhi, then make sure you email us to join our book mailing list. We’re in discussions for something like nine release events in six Indian cities, and we’ll be inviting everyone on the list. Whether it takes place in April or July or sometime in the 23rd Century, you don’t want to miss out.)

Are India’s malls influencing India’s marriages?

“The malls are changing the culture,” our friend Monali told us a few months ago. We’d asked her to describe some of the changes she’d seen in India over the last few decades. This is a question we’ve asked many of our Indian friends; hers was an answer we hadn’t yet heard.

Saket Citywalk Mall in Delhi. Photo by Flickr user nithinkd.

We’d already learned that Delhi’s social life used to revolve almost exclusively around the home. Jenny’s boss Renuka told us of growing up in a Delhi in which there were almost no restaurants outside the fancy hotels, which meant that most gatherings of friends and family took place in each others’ homes. In this situation, children were never far from the watchful eyes of parents and neighbors.

Times have changed, obviously. As the 800+ Café Coffee Day outlets now open across India will attest.

Café Coffee Day in Mumbai. Photo by Flickr user ianjacobs.

And all those coffee shops, restaurants, and malls have made it easier for teenagers to do teenage things without that historically intense parental supervision. Especially the malls, as Monali told us. So now, with teenagers given widespread access to venues for hanging out on their own terms, a sea change could be cresting:

  1. Boys and girls hang out.
  2. They go on dates.
  3. They fall in love.
  4. They fall out of love.
  5. They fall in love again. (In other words, relationships are made and unmade in accordance with the fleeting whims of fickle teens — that is, independent of parental influences.)
  6. Which means teenagers grow accustomed to asserting control over their love lives.
  7. Which means they push back on traditional parental authority in this realm.
  8. Which means that India finds itself on the path to American-style marriage. (And, inevitably, American-style divorce rates.)

There have been many stories about the repercussions on India’s traditional family structure of children now routinely out-earning their parents. With such economic independence, it’s said, the decision-making role of the patriarch is significantly diminished. (And this goes double for women.)

But Jenny and I have only seen this shift documented upon the point of the child entering the workforce — which is, of course, after the child’s schooling. But if Monali and that conjecture above is correct, then the malls are breeding independence into teens during the schooling years.

Which means there are now two forces at work: economic independence in the twenties that builds upon social independence in the teens. So what kind of change will this bring?

pune under siege: a gorgeous indian sci-fi music video

A few months ago, I read Cyberabad Days by Ian McDonald, a collection of short science fiction stories set in the India of 2047. It explores and India of robots and avatars and biryani and chai, of border wars and water rajas, of holographic djinns, of arranged marriage and Nepali child goddesses, of inscrutable Indian politics simultaneously transformed and unchanged by fantastic technology.

It’s far too rare to see India interpreted through the lens of genre — I can only think of Cyberabad Days, Delhi Noir, and Conan O’Brien. Fortunately, BoingBoing recently posted another example: a District 9-esque music video for the band You Say Party. Gorgeous shots of what looks like Pune shattered by menacing mosquito-masked brownshirts chasing a girl and her Macguffin.

If you want to go deeper, here’s an interview with the director, and an interview with the artist who designed the costumes.

Does anybody have any other examples of India through the lens of genre? And I’m not talking about Outsourced.