Tag Archives: Delhi

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.

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!

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

http://twitter.com/#!/_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.

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 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.

in Saket, the impossibility of unsanctioned chickpeas

Two weeks ago, Jenny and I attended the local premiere of Rajinikanth’s spectacular and ridiculous new movie, Endhiran. This was our first Rajinikanth experience, but we were quickly initiated into the ritual: cheering and confetti when Rajini makes his entrance, whistles and hoots when the leading lady appears, and applause and shouting and screaming in direct proportion to the creativity of the violence of each scene.


It’s also called “Robot.” Go see it!

Jenny and I attended this showing because we’re exceedingly nostalgic for India right now. And our experience with Endhiran did indeed bring back memories of good old Saket PVR, where we saw Om Shanti Om, Jab We Met, and, alas, Marigold, that east-meets-west, Salman-Khan-meets-the-blond-from-Heroes flop that is easily one of the worst movies ever made.


Don’t. Just don’t.

The audience at our Denver showing of Endhiran was as participatory as they are in Delhi. And the intermission was similarly jarring. But one significant aspect of Delhi movie-going did not make it across the Atlantic: the theater security. Here, the usher simply took our ticket and let us pass, as they do in most American theaters.

In Delhi, the ushers search you before letting you in. And they search you good.

We assume that Delhi’s ushers were originally deputized with patron-groping powers in order to prevent cinemaphobic terrorists from recreating scenes from Inglourious Basterds. But it seems that their mission has crept from stopping bombs to stopping bon-bons: while Delhi’s theater ushers may be protecting their patrons, they’re equally aggressive in protecting their snack bars’ bottom lines.

In America, Jenny and I usually attend movies with sandwiches, sodas, and bags of already-microwaved popcorn stuffed into her purse. That’s because theaters here believe it’s a battle not worth fighting: anyone cheap enough to sneak food into a theater would never pay five dollars for thirty cents’ worth of carbonated corn syrup anyway.

But in Delhi, anything entering a theater was deemed game for inspection. First they ran their hands up and down the contours of our bodies; then they manhandled the contents of our pockets; and then, having violating our persons, it was time for our possessions. And when they opened Jenny’s purse on that lamentable Delhi evening when we decided to subject ourselves to Marigold—our first visit to a movie theater in India—they immediately spotted our digital camera.

The men who craft security policy for PVR have determined that cameras are just as forbidden as bombs.

And though no rational human would ever want to pirate Marigold, rules are rules, and the busy hands guarding Saket PVR would not let us proceed with a camera in our possession. Our only option was to avail the services of the vendors selling water bottles and mobile phone talk time outside of the theater. We handed one our camera and he handed us a claim receipt, which is how our camera was spared the wretchedness of enduring Marigold.

Lucky camera.

We walked back into the theater. The ushers repeated their desecration of our bodies and Jenny’s purse. But this time they dug deeper and discovered what had been hidden beneath our camera: a bottle of water, a bar of chocolate, and a bag of Haldiram’s roasted chickpeas.


Al Qaeda could not carry this into a theater, either.

The ushers looked up at us from our cache of culinary contraband. Their faces showed neither anger nor disdain, but bewilderment: why would we even attempt to bring food into a theater? Didn’t we know we’d be searched? Didn’t we know we’d be discovered? Didn’t we know that the same rules empowering ushers to save lives also extend to preventing unauthorized snacking?

And so we were again turned away. And while we should have realized that Fate was trying to tell us something (specifically, that Fate was shouting at us in 48-point type: “DON’T SEE THIS AWFUL MOVIE!”), we’d paid our money, and we were going to see all the movie.

But we’d also paid for these chickpeas. And we thought we could still salvage them. As I abandoned our chocolate and our water in the market, Jenny surreptitiously folded the Haldiram’s bag and hid it in the sleeve of her sweatshirt. And then she folded her sweatshirt into a ball. And then we approached the ushers once more.

They found the chickpeas immediately. This time, as they looked up at us, I’m pretty sure they were trying not to laugh.

Jenny guiltily handed over the bag. Only then were we finally allowed to proceed into the theater—where, for the next two hours, Jenny and I endured Ali Larter overacting an affirmation of every conceivable negative American stereotype. She was immoral, hyper-sexual, rude, uncultured, uncouth, uneducated, underdressed, loud, loutish, lewd, and capable of downing an entire bottle of vodka in a single night—which she did. Which caused her to pass out on Chowpatty Beach. Good thing for her that Salman Khan had convinced himself that she was a diamond hidden under all that make-up and loose morality. He decided to stand guard over her until morning, presumably not to protect her honor so much as to protect Mumbai from being wantonly ravaged by this insatiable American caricature. And when the sun rose, he began to transform her into a proper and honorable woman.


Don’t get us wrong: we didn’t hate the movie because it offended us as Americans. We hated it because it offended us as human beings with active brain cells.

We emerged from the theater almost grateful for the nausea the movie left us with, because at least it masked our hunger. We’d refused to buy concessions, of course. Which was too bad, because it would have been great to have had popcorn to throw at the screen.

a one-minute visit to Delhi (Colorado)

On a road just east of Colorado’s Comanche National Grassland (which is as beautiful and as dull as you’d imagine), a small green sign announced to Jenny and I that we were back in Delhi.

A few hundred feet down the road was the exact same sign, facing the other direction. It informed our mirrors that, even before we finished braking, we’d already exited Delhi.

Back in India, it once took our chartered bus four hours to travel from Gurgaon in the south to Delhi’s border in the north. Colorado Delhi’s transit time was slightly more than three seconds.

So we turned the car around and returned to the Western edge of this new Delhi. And as we balanced our camera on the car to document our visit, our eyes landed upon a granite monument in the weeds. Its faded inscription offered few details beyond the vague promise that, some time in the past century, Colorado’s Delhi was a bit more lively than it seemed today.

Once our visit was duly immortalized, we ventured back into city limits. No Hauz Khas, no Saravana Bhawan, no Red Fort in this Delhi — just a boarded-up general store with a detached outhouse that speaks to the building’s age.

Behind the house, the requisite detritus of rural America: skeletons of cars, piles of wood, a fence that may have once enclosed livestock. Not a soul to be seen.

Not that we went to investigate. This is rural America, and it’s written in the Constitution that the moment you step onto private property, a man in red flannel long-johns must appear to spit and holler and shoot a shotgun into the air. We contented ourselves with admiring the faded Pepsi billboard on the side of the store from the safe side of the property line.

The paint is bleached, the windows are plywood, the lot is overgrown. But there is history here: some time in the past, this Delhi had traffic. People stretched their legs, admired the monument, and presumably bought Pepsi, although not enough to keep the store in business. And then, thus fortified with enough sugar to survive the coming federal grasslands, the bottles were tossed in the weeds, the kids were coaxed back into the cars, the Studebaker kicked up dust, and Delhi was forgotten.

Feb 25 update! As you can read in the comments below, a reader named Magnezzeron discovered that Delhi, Colorado was featured in 1973 in Terrence Malick’s Badlands — back before the town had been abandoned. Watch this clip to see what the Pepsi mural looked like when it was fresh painted, what that brick structure was originally intended for, and what 40 years of sun and neglect can do to a building. Thanks, Magnezzeron!

How National Geographic saw India: May, 1963

A recent weekend holiday took us to the mountains of New Mexico where, among the scrub bush and bear scat, is a cabin built decades ago by Jenny’s friend’s grandfather.  At the time of construction, Grandpa Zahm stocked the cabin with reading material, and its library hasn’t shrunk since. Dusty piles of archaic prose begged to be read: Eisenhower-era National Geographics kept pristine by the arid air, breathlessly taking us to Manchuria, Zanzibar, Rhodesia, and Siam, complete with ads extolling the technological marvel of “long-distance telephoning”.

Among the yellowed pages were some of our favorite places as they were before we knew them. Like the  Singapore River in the 1960s, when the Clarke Quay steps — which are today crowded by the young and hip licking ice cream and watching drunken expats across the river — was a stagnant chaos of fishing boats and standing puddles and floating trash.

We also rediscovered Delhi in the 1980s, immediately after the Asiad Games. No pictures of the Lollipop building, alas, but the article sang the glories of the new flyovers and a presented an image Chandni Chawk so familiar as to be proof that the street is ageless.

And then there was a May, 1963 cover story. “India in Crisis” was the headline, referring to a historical fact of which we were previously unaware: in 1963, apparently, all of India expected to be invaded by the Chinese.

Here’s how the author justified his title:

Even as we talked, Communist Chinese troops forced their way deeper into Ladakh and the North East Frontier Agency, and India’s ill-armed jawans fought desperately to hold the world’s loftiest battlefields. Towns along the Himalayan border blacked out; home-guard forces in Calcutta and New Delhi frantically dug trenches and put up air-raid defenses. India’s cherished neutrality lay shattered—perhaps forever—and the nation was united as never before.

Despite the ominous title, though, the “crisis” question quickly takes a back seat to the author’s deep love of India and its people. Throughout his piece, he wrestles with a  singular question: how do you define India to those who have never experienced it? The article begins with this very challenge:

I met him one night in a Banaras hotel. Quite by chance, we had walked out together onto the darkened veranda after dinner. Now we stood chatting and listening to the nighttime sounds of an Indian city.

He was about eighty—a retired lawyer from Calcutta—dressed in an old-fashioned way and with an old-fashioned manner of speaking. We talked of the difficulty of explaining his country to anyone who had never been there.

“Look here,” he said suddenly. “Suppose all Europe could somehow be united under one government, with one parliament and one prime minister.

“Now, take away two-thirds of Europe’s area and three-quarters of its wealth,” he said “but leave most of its people. Let Spaniards speak Spanish and Bulgars speak Bulgarian. Let Turks mistrust Russians and Russians bluster at Englishmen. In short, leave everything else just as it has always been.

“Now,” he asked in his courtly, rather Victorian manner, “what would you have?”

He paused impressively.

“Why, my dear sir,” he said, “you would have something very like modern India.”

Then he bade me goodnight—“Old men must have their sleep,” he said—and left me alone to ponder his words.

From that introduction, the author journeys across the country. And it was as fascinating for us today as it must have been for subscribers forty-seven years prior. Varanasi, for instance, had fewer space invaders, but was otherwise as we know it.

And while we never made it to Kolkata, we instantly recognize this icon of the city.

And of course, here’s Chandni Chawk in 1963…

…and then as we first encountered it 44 years later.

A few more cars, a few more colors, but otherwise an ageless street indeed.

Throughout the article, the author attempted to understand the country in which he traveled. He summed up his attempts to do so in a way to which we could easily relate: “I was sometimes angered by my own inability to understand one aspect or another of this most complex of all nations.”

Complementing the article was a report from the battlefields of Ladakh, where India was defending its border three miles high in the Himalayas.

The highlight of the article was the quote that introduced the gallery of India’s diverse people. We reprint it below for its poetry and insight, and for how it amplified our longing to return. Soon, India, soon…

India presents a sample of its 440 million faces

People are India’s pride—and problem. The nation’s myriad faces all have mouths to feed and eyes that look questioningly for what the future may bring to a land that mixes automobile factories and wooden plows with jet aircraft and crossbows.

India is atomic physicists at Bombay and Naga tribesmen in Assam. It is ruby-decked maharajas and ragged street sweepers, Oxford-trained philosophers and unlettered farmers. It is tough Sikh soldiers, peace-loving Jain monks, Hindus, Moslems, Zoroastrians, Christians, Buddhists, and Jews. India wears fedora and fez, turban and Gandhi cap, the latest London fashion and the simplest loincloth. It speaks more than 800 languages and dialects, ranging from the Hindi of millions to Assamese tongues used by as few as half a dozen.