Tag Archives: india

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.

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?

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.


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.



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.



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.


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.

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.


“My mom has given my matrimonial ad,” my coworker Anurag told me one day. “One of the respondents is an account manager with an ad agency in Mumbai. Drawing seven lahks per annum! That’s double my salary. So I told my mom, ‘I don’t think she’s my type.’”

Not your type…? I was dumbfounded. What could be a more perfect type than a wife who pulls in a boatload of cash?

So I argued with him. I tried to explain the benefits of that arrangement from the perspective of his future financial security, to say nothing of all the extra time he’d get to watch TV. But my arguments of real estate prices, private school tuition, and syndicated sitcoms didn’t make a dent. He wanted to be the breadwinner because, well, that’s what men were supposed to do. “What about my self-respect?”

“My friend,” I said, “you can drive your self-respect around in a gold-plated BMW.”

He laughed. And then: “You have absolutely no male ego. Are all American men like that?”

hot sweaty bribery

Delhi is peppered with small parks — 18,000 of them, if The Hindu’s dubious figures are to be believed. Most of them are small community parks, where any open space is claimed by boys playing cricket and any secluded bench is occupied by young couples trying to escape Delhi’s incessantly prying eyes. But a few are big enough to appear as bright green splotches on the maps of Delhi that hang obligatorily in every expat’s living room. One of those is the Jahanpanah City Forest, adjacent to GK II.

In our time in Delhi, Jenny and I yearned for fresh air and open spaces. But despite the fact that Jahanpanah City Forest had both, we never returned to its 800 acres of scrub forest and meandering paths — not after the experience we had there on Jenny’s very first day in India, when I’d been in the country all of a week.

Only rookies like us would have entered the forest at all, seeing as it was a scorching August Saturday with the sun almost directly overhead, ensuring the trees alongside the path were unable to shade us. We each felt the sweat drip down our backs and refused to admit that this had been a mistake, that maybe we should have waited until the evening to go  hike. It didn’t improve things that we had no water, and it further didn’t improve things when we got a little lost, and any hope for the improvement of things became a forgone impossibility when the policeman appeared on his motorcycle and began to blackmail us.

“Park closed! Park closed!” he repeated menacingly, miming to us that he didn’t speak English but somehow finding words to explain that we had to get on his bike so he could take in to pay a 30,000 rupee fine for being in the park during closing time. Or, you know, we could pay him 5,000 rupees right then and there.

Panicking and terrified (I read Shantaram; there’s no way I’m going to Indian jail!), I called my landlord and asked him to speak to the cop. After a discussion, the phone was returned and my landlord apologized on behalf of his country. “This man is only trying to extort a bribe. I suggest you give him nothing.”

As our understanding of the situation finally clarified, and we started shuffling our feet and edging away, the policeman’s demeanor changed. His glowering was replaced by pleading. “Gift for policeman!” he begged, blocking our way, his eyes tearing up.

I was unsure about the consequences of ignoring him. I worried that not bribing a policeman might be an arrestable offense. And I was totally ignorant of the going rate for a bribe. So I opened my wallet and tentatively handed him 400 rupees.

Suddenly his English seemed to get better. “Please, ma’am,” he asked Jenny as the money disappeared into his pocket. “I beg of you. Double that!” She shook her head warily.

And then his demeanor changed again. He grinned broadly, gave first Jenny and then I a tremendous handshake, and pointed us down the proper path to return to GK II. He watched us to make sure we took the correct fork in the road, and waved happily as we walked down the path towards home.  I deeply regret not taking his picture; I’m sure he would have eagerly posed with us.

a zoning violation

The smell would appear suddenly every two to three weeks, billowing up the stairway from the basement of Jenny’s office building, each time making her think that something had gone terribly wrong and that evacuation of the office was imminent.

“Stench” is a better word than “smell”, Jenny tells me: these were terrible stenches for which Jenny had no frame of reference within an office environment. It wasn’t stagnant urine from improperly-plumbed urinals, as plagued my Gurgaon office’s stairwell; and it wasn’t rot from a refrigerator opened after weeks of forgotten festering lunches. It saturated all four floors of this nondescript four-story building; it crawled underneath her office door and stabbed at her nose while she worked.

But only Jenny seemed bothered. While she coughed and choked, everyone else went about their business.

One day, fed up from mouth breathing, Jenny made some enquiries. While the top four floors of her building were home to one of India’s best-known advertising agencies, the basement housed a distributor of raw and processed meat products. Among their clients, it was rumored, were many of the Subway franchises that had sprung up all around Delhi.

Which meant that the smell was meat-related. Whether it was meat being cooked, strips of flesh curing in the basement heat, or blood being burned off a killing floor, nobody knew; all anybody knew was that it was meat. Which made it all the more surprising that an office of vegetarian Hindus were so complacent about the awful airborne particles polluting their bodies by way of their nasal passages.

One day, on a day I happened to be with her, Jenny investigated. There was no smell this day, but she marched smartly down the stairs anyway, with me following mutely along. We entered into a small office area with a single desk, a solitary phone, and a man in a button-down shirt bent over some papers. Through a door on the right we saw a large room, a half-dozen workers sorting meat into plastic packages, a few red-stained rags on the ground, and a few cardboard boxes that were open to reveal more meat. One man was wiping at some red liquid pooled on the packages.

No refrigerators were in sight.

Jenny walked up to the man sitting at a desk: the one employee in the establishment not wearing meat-stained clothes. Behind us, the workers had noticed us, and had crowded around the doorway to watch.

“Hi!” Jenny said. “How are you! I work upstairs. I heard you sell meat. Do you sell meat?”

The man, who hadn’t seen her come in, looked up sharply. His mouth dropped open. This was a distribution point, obviously; customers were neither expected nor prepared for.

“I heard you sell meat to Subway,” Jenny continued. “Is that true?”

“Yes,” said the man. “No! I mean, can I help you?”

“Do you sell meat?” she paused. “Uh, I’m having a party.”

Behind us, somebody said something in Hindi, and a few guys laughed.

“Yes, chicken and pork products, ma’am. Salami. Pork chops. Sausages.”

“You sell to Subway?”

“I’m afraid I can’t discuss that.”

“Uh… do you deliver?”


“OK! Thank you! I’ll let you know what we decide.”

“But – ” But Jenny was already leaving. I looked at her walking away, looked at the man staring after her, shrugged, and followed her upstairs into her company’s lobby—the owners of which, incidentally, were the one bribing the local authorities not to notice their four-story, fifty-employee violation of the local zoning laws.

the loneliest walla III: the night watchman

Here is my third essay in this series for The India Tube.


The Loneliest Wallah (III): The Night Watchman
by Dave Prager

Originally published on The India Tube

“Up here!” I shout down to the street, waving my phone to get the attention of my party guests. I also get the attention of the neighborhood guard, who looks up from his post across from our flat. He sits next to our street’s iron gate, which is closed because it’s after eleven—the dangers of the Delhi night, you see, can be kept at bay by an unarmed seventeen-year-old guard with a whistle. Which is why this guy is hired by the neighborhood association to sit all night, every night, no matter how cold it may get.

My guests see me and wave back. They file out of their auto and past the guard and into my building. The guard watches the girls pass while I disappear back into the warm yellow light. Then he settles back in his seat, a cracked blue piece of weather-beaten plastic that once stood proudly in a hospital waiting room. He wraps his grey blanket tight against the cold wind, sits under the dim naked light bulb hanging from the tree, and waits for the opportunity to do his job.

His job consists of two tasks: closing the gate at eleven PM, and opening it when cars come by.

I come back to the balcony to guide more friends to the party. The guard has started a fire using scrap newspaper and plastic chai cups as fuel. I watch him stamp his feet and smell the toxic fumes and wonder if he knows they’re toxic. But it probably doesn’t matter to him, because it’s cold in Delhi in the winter, except for in my apartment, where the wine is flowing and the glasses are clinking and the sound of our laughter drifts over the guard’s head and into the night.

Some time later, I return to the balcony once more. The guard is sleeping, his head slumped left and his body cocooned tightly in the blanket, but not for long: my friend pulls his car to the gate and honks twice to rouse him. It’s well after two AM. A stray dog, sleeping nearby, doesn’t even look up.

The guard trudges to the gate. He opens it. He watches the shiny car glide past. He closes the gate. He wraps the blanket around his body. He trudges back to his seat.

Upstairs in my apartment, somebody turns the music louder.

the loneliest walla II: the bank guard

Here’s my second article for the brand new blog/magazine/community called The India Tube.


The Loneliest Wallah (II): The Bank Guard
by Dave Prager

Originally published on The India Tube

Last September and October, Delhi became darker and more disgusting. It was an invasion of leafhoppers: fly-esque creatures that feed on the paddy crop in the rural areas around Delhi. They’d been eating good, and heavy rains meant they were drinking good as well; and one day they took to the skies and headed towards Delhi by the billions with the singular goal of smashing themselves against bright lights until they died.

In Delhi’s glass-enclosed ATMs, garishly lit with white florescent to attract light-walleted passers-by, they became the only real company for the stoic and sleepless bank guards.

These guards’ posts became snow globes that someone had shaken (after replacing the snowflakes with squirming black insects). The poor guards stared without expression as bank customers franticly waved their arms to warn the pests off; but the guards didn’t sympathize for entomological discomfort lasting the duration of a single transaction when they were the ones sitting there all night in their florescent cages, the insects crawling on their heads, landing on their mustaches, mating and dying in the air they breathed while thousands more on the outside slammed themselves against the glass walls and fell into piles on the ground, little snowdrifts of black life now lifeless, waiting for the morning sweeper.

It could be worse than being an ATM guard. There is AC in these vestibules, which is nice. There is protection from the sun and the rain and the cold, which is nice. There are people to watch, which is nice.

Every so often a real sight to see comes through the door: like when our friend Trevor, a six-foot-tall black man with long black dreadlocks, wearing a skin-tight tank top, sashayed into our local Citibank ATM lobby on the first day of his visit with us. The guard stood and stared and walked forward for a closer look, as if in a trance, and stood next to Trevor and scrutinized his face for the duration of the transaction. But the sights are fleeting. And any company a guard may have lasts only as long as it takes the machine to validate a PIN.

The ATM guard: he exists because the sum total of the his labor and his cognitive capacity as a human being is valued to be slightly less than the cost of acquiring and installing a security camera. His job is to sit and watch men and women withdraw more money in one go than he might earn in a month.

And, while there are plenty of low-income workers in this city, but few are forced to earn their pay by watching other people count and pocket theirs.

Photos from our South India trip – Part 2


Old men in a shop in Madurai

Kochi luncheon