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.

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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.