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Delhi: The Lament of the Hungry Expat (my essay from The Book Review India)

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This essay was originally published in The Book Review India

If you’ve read Delirious Delhi, then this essay is essentially an epilogue: a postscript about the expat’s post-India life, and what it’s like to have lived in India and miss it so very much.

Delhi: The Lament of the Hungry Ex-Expat

By Dave Prager

I spotted the Indians entering Denver’s Botanic Gardens about fifty feet ahead of us. It was their clothes that got me excited: both ladies in the family wore saris.

I nudged Jenny with excitiment. She sighed. “Dave, this is getting creepy.”

Creepy? Since when is it creepy to follow strange Indians around a park hoping to catch their eyes, start a conversation, win their trust, become friends, exchange numbers, and accept an invitation to dinner—all because I want to eat homemade Indian food again?

I mean, doesn’t every American who once lived in Delhi do that?

*  *  *

The year-and-a-half my wife Jenny and I lived in Delhi’s Hauz Khas Market neighborhood changed me forever. Not just because of the career boost from my promotion to the Gurgaon office. And not just because the book I wrote about Delhi is spinning through HarperCollins India’s printing facilities even as this essay goes to print. No, it’s mostly because now that I’m gone, my stomach forces my brain to view every Indian I see as a potential conduit to the food I miss so much.

I’m not trying to be creepy. I just miss the food.

Before we moved to Delhi, I had no appreciation for the dynamics of the cuisine. I was perfectly content with the cheapest Indian buffet serving the stalest garlic naan and the driest tandoori chicken. In those innocent times, every dish on every menu sounded equally exotic and exciting; I’d order whatever I didn’t recognize and, with full ignorance as to both the quality and the composition of what I was eating, enjoy every bite of it.

But in the years since we’ve left Delhi, not a single Indian restaurant has achieved even the standards of my office canteen’s watery dal. I’ve yet to taste a paneer as milky and smooth as that from Saket Select Citywalk Mall food court. And even Singapore’s top-rated Indian restaurants were just a distant echo of what was, to me, the gold standard of Indian food: the meals our maid Ganga would cook for us three times a week.

(Wikipedia tells us that Annupurna is the Hindu goddess of food; experience tells us that Ganga is her earthly manifestation.)

We’ve tried the trendiest Indian restaurant on Denver’s South Pearl Street, the Singapore branch of Saravana Bhavan, and a dhaba in the back of a suburban Indian grocery in Aurora, Colorado; I’ve departed them all with my belly full but my heart empty. I’ve even purchased the same MDH spice boxes that Ganga used to cook her heavenly meals for us, faithfully following the recipes printed on the back and failing each time to come anywhere close.

Which is why I stare so hungrily at every Indian that I see.

*   *   *

We’re in a restaurant in Estes Park, Colorado, a mountain town near one of America’s most spectacular national parks. A bagel is in my hands but my tongue is tasting creamy dal makhani, because all I can focus on are the unmistakable accents emanating from the couple at the table next to us. They’re discussing hiking routes and camping spots; I’m hearing menu plans and cooking instructions.

“Where are you from?” I ask, leaning towards their table, hoping the answer is “Nizamuddin East” so that our conversation flows easily to kebab stands and butter chicken.

The man looks up. “Seattle,” he tells me, curtly. He turns back to his map.

I return to my bagel. Now it just tastes like a bagel.

*  *  *

After leaving Delhi, Jenny and I spent a year in Singapore and then returned to the States to start a family. Success: our baby daughter Georgiana is sweet, adorable, and the perfect tool to aid my quest to ingratiate myself to Indians.

She first played her part at the San Francisco airport. Approaching the gate for our flight back to Denver, I spotted an Indian couple and their infant son. Bells clanged in my head: she was wearing a salwar. Which meant she was born and bred outside the US.

I innocuously steered George’s stroller toward them.

Jenny rolled her eyes and walked off to get coffee.

I sat a few seats down from them, removed George from her stroller, and engaged in a deliberately-conspicuous bout of tongue-waggling and noise-making. Sure enough, George’s irresistible smile drew their eyes; and that was the opening I needed.

“How old is your son?” I asked. I didn’t actually care how old he was; I just wanted to confirm their accents. And as they proudly boasted that Nikhil or Naveen or something was a year or eighteen months or seven or whatever, all that my brain registered were pronunciations that implied a childhood immersed in sambar.  With chicken biryani clouding my thoughts and phantom thalis teasing my nostrils, I exclaimed (loudly, to mask my stomach’s rumbling): “Oh! You’re from India! We lived there for eighteen months!”

And from there, the conversation progressed just as I’d hoped. They were from Chennai, but they knew Delhi, and together we grew pleasantly melancholy reminiscing about places and tastes that were, for both of us, equally dear and equally far. By the time Jenny joined us with her coffee, we were chatting about old days like old friends, contrasting our transitions to each other’s cultures, recalling the restaurants we missed the most, and jointly lamenting the fact that nobody knows how to cook an uttapam west of Chowpatti Beach.

*  *  *

My nostalgia for Delhi generally fixates on food, but it can go deeper. At three o’clock on a workday, for instance, I’ll look blearily up from my computer and fantasize about the chaiwallah outside my Gurgaon office, just seven thousand miles to my left. Had it been three o’clock in that office, Dipankar and Murali and I would have paid him a visit and enjoyed his five-rupee respite from our responsibilities.

(Although this moment of freedom, too, leads my mind back to food. Because here in America, as I stand by the coffee maker, the nearest snack is at a convenience store a mile away. How can my country be considered a world leader when we’re so lacking in sidewalk samosa vendors?)

At these times, when I’m missing the camaraderie as much as the cuisine, I turn to the Internet. I vicariously join my Delhi friends as they motorcycle to Leh or eat parathas in Old Delhi. I toast the country on Republic Day. I cheer cricket players on a first-name basis. And I join them in experiencing the changing capital city—like when my former coworker Nobin switched from the office cab to the Delhi Metro for his commute to Gurgaon. From his seat, he Tweeted praise at the shining municipal infrastructure that warmed me in my chair half a world away.

I’ve even grown nostalgic for Delhi’s traffic, of all things. Imagine getting misty-eyed for MG Road! But it’s happened: though there was nothing in Delhi I hated more than my commute to Gurgaon, the traffic in Denver is, in a way, worse. Because when I descend the on-ramp into four orderly lanes of vehicles in which nobody honks, nobody jostles for advantage, and nobody takes to the shoulders to jump the queue, I realize that Delhi’s traffic, for all its misery, also contained a kind of freedom: the skill of the driver could alter the course of the jam. A good driver could seize ephemeral opportunities revealed by shifting vehicles to shave seconds off the commute, or to cross the Ring Road before the light turned red.

But Denver’s traffic is egalitarian in its oppression. Once you’re on the highway, you’re committed to the collective fate. Delhi’s traffic allows for individual heroics; Denver’s traffic is entirely communal.

*  *  *

But I live in America now. I accept it: derivative restaurants, watery tea, non-negotiable traffic, and streets that are empty of samosas.

Which is why I can’t imagine that I’m the only American creeping around Indians to spark culinary connections. Because those of us who left our stomachs in Safdarjung know that expat Indians must be coping with the same emptiness—except that expat Indians possess the wisdom to transform frozen okra and boxed spices into a glorious bhindi masala. They can tease bhangan bharta out of the most stoic eggplant. Their kitchens are their link to Delhi, and we former residents—or, at least, this former resident—want in.

So far, though, I’ve had no luck. At the San Francisco airport, for instance, our connection to that Indian couple was severed when boarding began for the Denver flight: only we stood up. Our new friends were waiting for a flight to Arizona, which meant that no dinner party was imminent.

Nor could I make any headway at that restaurant in Estes Park, where I looked up from my bagel with one last desperate attempt: “No, where are you originally from? India? Because we spent eighteen months living there!” To which the woman smiled gently and said, with finality, “Your daughter is beautiful.” Her tone left no further room for discussion.

Nor could I make it work at the Denver Botanic Gardens, where I’d spotted that Indian foursome entering ahead of us. Our meandering paths had crossed theirs a half-dozen times, despite Jenny’s best efforts to steer us away from them. Finally, near the Lilac Garden, I spotted my opening: the patriarch of the family was posing his wife, daughter, and son-in-law for a photo. I quickly offered to snap the four of them together.

He declined. In accented English. To which I replied in my own terrible Hindi, “Aap guessa hai!?”

The four of them looked at me.

“Hindi bollna?” I asked.

“Are you speaking Hindi?” the father finally asked me.

“Yes!” I beamed. “We lived in Delhi for a year-and-a-half.”

“Oh. We don’t speak much Hindi.”

They turned back to their photo. I turned back to my wife. And that night for dinner, I sautéed some onions and tomatoes, emptied a can of chick peas into the pan, and dumped in a few tablespoons of MDH channa masala mix.

It was not like Ganga’s at all.

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portraits from Bangalore’s Krishna Rajendra Market

On my visit to Bangalore last month (as part of my Delirious Delhi book release tour), I wandered into the Krishna Rajendra Market. This multistory concrete structure, I quickly realized, is among the most picturesque markets in Asia.

I immediately reverted to Western Tourist Mode: I glued my camera above my gaping jaw and clicked my way through the drying chilies and pedal-powered sewing machines and the massive flower market on the ground floor.

And as I wandered, a vendor beckoned.

“Take my picture,” he said, smiling.

I did.

Other vendors and laborers watched. And then they waved me over with the same request.

Downstairs in the flower area, the same thing happened: one man beckoned…

…and then everyone else wanted their turn.

I have their addresses. The prints are in the mail.

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.

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!

———————-

Continue reading

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.)

it’s official: Our Delhi Struggle will be a book!

It’s finally official. The blue ink is dry and the envelope is closed and the contract is airmailing its way to Harper Collins. Now all that awaits is a manuscript.

The book will be part memoir and part guidebook: an in-depth exploration of the Delhi we lived, the lessons we learned, and the funny things that happened to us. It’ll be like this blog, only much longer, much more detailed, and much funnier.

Writing has begun, and will continue for the next six months. We expect to release the book next April July, just in time to channel the excitement of Delhi’s Commonwealth Games into fame and fortune.

If you want updates about the book’s progress and an invitation to the big release party next April July, send your email address to ourdelhistruggle AT gmail dot com. You can also follow us on Twitter: mmmmdave and JennySteeves.

This blog will be an integral part of the writing process. We’ll rely on readers’ opinions and insights to add detail to the book. Right now, for instance, we’re writing the section on getting around Delhi, and all the white-knuckled moments we’ve had in the back of an autorickshaw. Our question to you: what was your scariest auto-related experience?