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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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?

coming soon: Delirious Delhi!

Long-time readers of this site know that just before we left India, we inked a deal with HarperCollins India to write a full-length portrait of the city of Delhi.

This was not a reprint of the blog. Instead, this is a complete narrative examination of the city we tried so hard to understand. And even if you’ve read every page of this website, 90% of the book will be new to you.

Ladies and gentlemen, expats and locals, NRIs and Delhiites: the wait is finally over. Delirious Delhi will be published this in December — just in time for the 100th anniversary of the founding of New Delhi.

And this is what the cover will look like.

If that cover looks like a handpainted Bollywood poster, you’re right. It is. Can anyone name the movie Jenny and I are attempting to recreate with our pose?

I will have information about the publication date, release parties, and much more soon. In the meantime, please do three things:

Want to know what the book is about? Click here to read the blurb.

bicycle rickshaws: Delhi vs. Colorado

Let’s consider a contrast in the economic and social structure of two different countries for a moment.

In Delhi, India, the poorest migrants in the world pedal bicycle rickshaws for a living. It’s a challenging, unglamorous job that’s among the lowest on the city’s totem pole. They barely make enough to get by. Nobody wants to be a rickshaw puller

In Boulder, Colorado, rickshaw pulling is what hippies choose to do.

And doesn’t that color scheme look familiar?

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!!/saroha_varun/status/109539632219299840!/_rhobert/status/109548878692491264

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.

an Indian grocery store in Aurora, Colorado

Though we believe that India’s flag should display the phrase, “Land Of The World’s Greatest Food”, there were still times in Delhi when Jenny and I needed the tastes of home. This inevitable expat longing obviously extends to NRIs as well, which is why, in any American city with a reasonable Indian population, there are a handful of Indian grocery stores.

And in those stores: roasted channa! Frozen chapatis! Dried garam masala! NRIs (and India-obsessed Americans) rejoice!

And because we were always surprised to see which American brands had made the global trek to our local Delhi markets (Lays, yes; Cheetos, sadly, no), we feel that those of you reading these words in India might enjoy seeing what a Stateside grocery looks like.

That’s what it looks like. A generic storefront in a generic strip mall in a generic American suburb.

(Some advice: if you ever find yourself in an American suburb, seek out the older strip malls. These are the ones without Old Navy and Applebees and Office Depots. Look for poorly-designed parking lots and bad line-of-sight to the road. That’s because these strip malls are too unattractive to the chain stores that are choking American suburbs like cancer until every city is identical to every other city; which means these strip malls are the only suburban locations cheap enough for mom-and-pop restaurants and independent retailers like India’s Harvest to survive. These strip malls are the only places you’ll find anything unique in the American suburbs.)

(Also, for those readers who accused this blog of being too critical of India, hopefully this shows that we’ve got plenty to snark about America as well.)

So, India’s Harvest. India’s Harvest! Though it’s less than a block away from Bombay Bazaar, another Indian grocery, it’s distinguished by boasting a tiny restaurant in the back. So when Jenny and I and Little Georgiana pulled up in our Prius (yes, we’re that much of a stereotype), the first thing we did was order a meal, hoping that finally, finally, we’d find some Indian food here as good as what we’d eaten there.

(Up until now, we’ve been 0-for-about-a-dozen Indian meals. My god, do we miss Sagar Ratna!)

The second thing we did was ask permission to shoot. I explained to the owner that my friends back in the Motherland would enjoy seeing what a US-based Indian grocery looked like. He didn’t seem to care either way.

And here it what it looks like: aisles and aisles catering to homesickness and nostalgia!

Packaged meals, snack foods, sacks of rice, bags of lentils, and, of course, spice boxes: everything you need to recreate the tastes of home, all the way down to pre-baked puris for homemade golgappas.

Then we stopped taking photos. Our food had arrived.

What you see here is the thali we ordered. It was good. But what you don’t see here is the uttapam that arrived at the table too tardy for this picture.

It was the single best uttapam we’d had since we left India.

And so, our craving for India momentarily satisfied, we cruised the aisles looking for other joys.

And there — Haldirams!

And baby eggplant! And green mangoes! And… oh, karela. Well, we’ll skip that one, thank you.

Our shopping spree ended with a few bags of snacks, some frozen lotus root, bhel puri mix, and a bag of pre-cooked paneer cubes.

Oh, and this joyful sight we beheld near the checkout counter.

We didn’t buy any spice boxes this time. We probably have too many as it is.

ganga water, far from the source

Jenny spotted this in the baggage claim at the Denver airport.

Denver’s three Hindu temples (and one elected Hindu lawmaker) are exactly 7,944 miles away from Varanasi. I’m sure they’re all very happy at this holy arrival.

their New York struggle, part III: not-so-cheap labor

This is the third interview in our series about those who did the mirror opposite of Jenny and I: New Delhiites who picked up and moved to New York.

In the last two posts (which explored Indians’ first impressions and the idiosyncrasies of American greetings), we talked about what they’ve found.

In this post, we talk about what they left behind.

Labor is cheaper in India. There, you pay people to do things that Americans usually do themselves. We’ve spoken of this before: the fact that our offices had peons, that someone was paid to remove our household trash, and that men were cheaper than machines at the golf range.

(To say nothing of the glory of hiring Ganga to cook the world’s greatest food for us three days a week.)

(Lord how we miss her baingan bharta!)

So what happens when you leave a culture of cheap labor for a culture where help is too expensive to hire? We asked that of Tiya and Divya, the two Columbia University students we’ve been talking to in this series. “What are some daily chores that you find much harder in the US?” Here’s what Tiya said:

“Moving house seems a lot more difficult here than in India. I suppose it’s because labour is much cheaper in India.

“I definitely don’t find the time to cook everyday, though I try to every other day. In India, I wouldn’t even cook as much as I do here because there was always house help to take care of that, so my food habits and meal timings were much more regulated in India.

“Then there are the regular chores like cleaning and laundry that one has to do in the US, whereas back in India I always paid someone to take care of it. But I don’t find these tasks hard at all.

“In fact, when I’m back in India, just because of the way I’ve been conditioned, and because I know help is just a holler away, cleaning and laundry seem like much bigger tasks than they are here.”

We posed the same questions to Divya. Here’s what she said:

“{I’m challenged by} the fact that everything needs to be done by yourself. I am used to a chauffer in India and my Dad’s assistant, so doing simple chores like sorting out bills, paying pills, running errands was something I had barely ever done.

“There is a lot of manpower in India, so small things which I never even realized need being done, suddenly had to be put thought and focus into.”

As always, we want to hear from readers: Indians who moved here, and Americans who moved there. How did the price of labor change your life?

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?