Tag Archives: old delhi

Dave and Jenny, Bollywood style

If you heard about this on NPR’s Studio 360, you’d like our book! “Delirious Delhi” is a humorous travel memoir of expat life in New Delhi. Learn much more.

There was once a time in Delhi when shining malls and Café Coffee Days didn’t exist as refuges from heat and stench. In this land before liberalization, sanctuary could be found in the local cinema halls that apparently dotted the Indian urban landscape. But multiplexes are driving them out of business — and, as collateral damage, taking with them the Bollywood poster painters who relied on their business.

Every year, Jenny and I send out a photoshopped holiday card to our friends and family. When we found out that some Bollywood poster painters are still eking out a living near Old Delhi, we knew that this year’s card would be hand-made. We dissected a bunch of old Bollywood posters for composition and style, took pictures of our faces in our desired poses, and set out a neighborhood near the Red Fort armed with vague contact instructions: “Find the Darya Ganj fire station. Make a right. Walk a hundred yards and ask the paan wallah for Vijay.”

The paan wallah sent us to a bicycle rickshaw stand, where sleeping rickshaw pullers competed for space with the myriad rickshaw parts strewn about. We sat at the stand and chatted with Manesh, who seemed to manage the rickshaw syndicate, until Vijay Singh pulled up on a rickshaw of his own. Vijay and Manesh then took us up the dirt road across the street to Vijay’s open-air studio. Fading starlets gave us sultry glances from dusty wooden walls as we sat on a wooden charpoy to talk.

With Manesh translating, we told Vijay exactly what we wanted — the composition, the elements, the style, the poses, the title, the tagline. Happy for the business, Vijay was nonetheless confused about how we’d found him. Not sure how to explain that our relationship with the woman on the expat listserv who recommended him, we just told him that he was “very famous.” His smile told us that that was what he was hoping to hear.

I returned the next weekend with my father and 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 in a rickshaw. We discussed again the composition and the poses while the drunken mechanic danced around, sent a peon for soda, and interrupted us with “Vijay famous artist!” and “My cousin-brother!” and “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 our agreement with Pepsi and whiskey. As we were walking out, the mechanic turned to me to whisper conspiratorially, “I speak English tutti-frutti.”

A week later, we returned to examine the work in progress. Five feet had become six.

And then, two weeks after we had commissioned it, Jenny and I came to Darya Ganj to behold our first starring role, captured in perfect 1970s Bollywood style. This poster accurately recreated the most exciting experiences we’ve had in Delhi so far: our spontaneous dances in various grand ballrooms, the time we fought criminals as special investigators in the Delhi police force, and that awful incident when our love of diamonds and danger forced us to turn our commandeered autorickshaws against each other.

And you thought we were working office jobs!

As Vijay and his team presented their work with pride, Ranjeet reminded us that poster painting is a dying art, and that we should tell our friends. So it’s with no hesitation that we recommend Vijay to capture your likeness in archaic Bollywood style. You can find him near the paan wallah, across from the rickshaw stand, down from the fire station; or you can just contact Ranjeet at 99996 29382 or ranjeet_2870@rediffmail.com.

P.S. Guess which one is the drunken mechanic?

If you heard about this on NPR’s Studio 360, you’d like our book! “Delirious Delhi” is a humorous travel memoir of expat life in New Delhi. Learn much more.
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delhi’s sunday book market

You pass the hospitals and cricket stadiums and tree-lined lanes until you reach Delhi Gate: the old stone arch that, fenced off and surrounded by traffic, marks the high-water point of the colonial government’s urban renewal. Hemmed in beyond this point are the alleys and shouts and cows and puddles of Old Delhi. And on any other day, you’d plunge headlong into the narrowest alley you could find, wondering what sights (monkey fight! dismembered goat legs! monk on a cell phone!) you’d see this time.

Except today is Sunday. Book market day.

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The book market stretches westward from this point along Jawaharlal Nehru Marg (the southern border of Old Delhi) and northward on Bahadur Shah Jafar Road (which bisects Old Delhi from Darya Ganj, an open-air exhibition of Indian art deco architecture that we’ve only recently begun to explore). The booksellers line the sidewalk every Sunday, only on Sunday, spreading their wares before them — some in neat rows, some in crazy piles, some in towering stacks.

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The selection ranges from the sublime (The Phantom Tollbooth!) to the bizarre (Bob Uecker wrote a book?); from the obsolete (Windows 3.1 guides) to the obscure (indigenous water management technique in Gujarat). Some are new, some are old, almost all are tread upon by barefoot salespeople shouting dasrupeesdasrupeesdasrupees as they stride from sale to sale.

The smell of old books overwhelms everything else. It’s wonderful.

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You wouldn’t have expected the paperback novelization of The Empire Strikes Back to make it to India. Nor would you have thought there was such demand for torn-up romance novels on the subcontinent. And seriously, Bob Uecker???

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Within the chaos, patterns emerge. One guy only has hardcover Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Harry Potter, all of them missing their dust jackets. Yet another has collected seventies spy novels featuring every James Bond wannabee you’ve never heard of (Johnny Fedora? Harry Palmer? Paul Christopher? Duff?). And good news for students of programming languages nobody uses any more: you’ll find more crumbling manuals than you can shake a SPARCstation keyboard at.

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On this trip, one of the elderly booksellers on Jawaharlal Nehru Marg overheard my rudimentary Hindi. He was standing over a strewn pile of thin nonfiction paperbacks. “You know Hindi?” He asked me. “Main Hindi sihkraha hai,” I agreed, my accent and subject/verb agreement as bad as my spelling. “Then I have something for you,” he said. He walked across his pile and began rummaging, tossing volumes left and right as he burrowed deeper, carving a path this way and that, turning left and right to toss books he’d already tossed in case they’d landed on the one he wanted.

After a few minutes, during which I stood and waited and wondered what he’d come up with, he finally picked up a book of Urdu-English translations. He skimmed through it, muttered, scowled, and tossed it on the pile. “Sorry,” he said. “Can’t find it.”

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Old Delhi at night

Just south of Jama Masjid, this is old Delhi: auto rickshaws and bicycle rickshaws and cars and scooters and people and lights and ads and noise. And above it all, a chaos of wires and pipes and dead kites dangling. Looks best if you see the bigger image.