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The First Morning and Other Mysteries
We knew we would love living in Delhi the moment we heard the door-to-door paella salesman.
Ah, paella! The national dish of Spain. A sumptuous fusion of saffron rice, scallops, prawns, peas, sausage and cuttlefish. We'd expected Delhi to be cosmopolitan, but never did we imagine men would be riding around with giant canvas sacks of paella strapped to their bicycles. In our eight years in New York City, the most exotic street food we ever found was the guy selling gyros on 47th Street. But we had to go to him — nobody ever rode around Brooklyn shouting "fa-laaaaaaa-fel!" and dispensing hummus by the scoop. But after just fifteen hours in our new flat in the Hauz Khas market neighborhood of south Delhi, we already had a guy selling Valencian delicacies right outside our bedroom window.
Lying in our new bed, Jenny and I listened to the cry that was to fill our ears every subsequent morning for the next eighteen months. "Pie-ehhhhhhh-AH!" he hollered, riding slowly by three stories below. "Pie-ehhhhhhh-AH!"
We were already half-awake. Our restless morning had begun at sunrise, when the mosque across Aurobindo Marg cranked up its call to prayer through crackling speakers that were loud enough for Muhammad himself to make no mistake about how reverent they were. Soon after that came the honking, as every vehicle began saying 'good morning' to every other vehicle on the road, a call-andresponse that would end with goodnight honks only around 11 p.m. And just as we began to wonder if renting a bedroom that overlooked a busy road was a bad idea, the paella man rode by and put all our fears to rest. 'Pieehhhhhhh-AH!'
We peeked out the window on his third pass and saw him: thin, wiry, dressed in clothes that had long since been sun-bleached out of whatever shade of beige he'd bought them at, riding a colorless bike with one rag-wrapped bundle strapped behind the seat and another to the handlebars.
"Ah," I said. "That back bundle must be where he keeps the paella." We wondered what the front bundle contained: thyme and saffron shakers? Bottles of 2006 Baron de Barbon Oak-Aged Rioja to pair with the meal? Extra cuttlefish for preferred customers?
And what other culinary delights were to be peddled by? We salivated in anticipation of the crêpe guy. We wondered if the sushi salesman could get fresh ahi this far inland. Oh! Maybe a gazpachowallah would come around during the hottest months!
That morning, our first morning in our new flat but our sixth in the country (we'd stayed in my company's flat in Gurgaon, the tech hub south of Delhi, five days beyond our realization that we didn't want to live in Gurgaon), Jenny and I lay in bed and listened to the sounds of the city outside our window. We were neophytes in Delhi, and the struggles that would soon confound us — where do we go to buy a wireless router? why does every third car have a sticker promoting "Fun 'N Food Village" in its rear window? how do we call an ambulance at two in the morning? — were still waiting beyond our bedroom walls. We would soon explore the streets of a city we'd never imagined we'd actually live in. We would soon see the full gamut of the human experience on those streets, from joy in the most despairing of circumstances to cruelty perpetrated by those who have everything in the world. We would soon watch dogs get beaten. We would soon see children get saved. We would soon meet holy men and unnoticed women who should be saints. We would soon stumble upon hidden treasures and walk past transcendent sights without noticing a thing. We would soon explore as much as we could manage. We would soon learn as much as we could absorb.
But we would barely scratch the surface. Every time we left our Delhi flat, we'd return home with more questions than answers. Which means we never became "Delhi experts." We'll never be "Delhi experts." Even if the city wasn't constantly changing — even if the Delhi we experienced could be frozen in time so that we could explore every inch before its next iteration came along — our grasp of the city would always be limited by the cultural filters through which we can't help but view things. All we know about Delhi is what we saw, what people told us, and what we think we've figured out. No matter how much we would try to immerse ourselves, our Delhi would remain a rarefied one: we were comparatively rich and unmistakably foreign, and the only Delhi we could possibly experience was the one that aligned itself in reaction to us.
This was the third Delhi flat in which we'd woken up, but the first in which the morning symphony was this audible. In the Gurgaon apartment, the only soundtrack had been the howls of wild dogs and the pounding of construction machinery that could induce headaches even from twenty-three stories up. And in the apartment I'd stayed in during the month of August, in a neighborhood called Greater Kailash-II, the morning's sounds were muted, distant and almost tranquil. (That apartment, obviously, did not face the road.)
My August in GK-II had been a test: for my soon-to-be employer, to see if they'd want to commit to me on a longterm basis; and for me, to see if I'd have the cojones to leave the city in which I'd lived for eight years and the country in which I'd lived for thirty. They did, and so did I. And just two days after first landing in the country, I called Jenny in New York from a yellow STD kiosk in the GK-II M Block market and gushed, "I think I could live here forever. I love it here!"
Five months later, I hated it.
Most books about India written by Westerners document an obligatory "personal journey": at first they hate India, but then they "learn to love it." At first they're overwhelmed by the chaos, but then "the soul of the people shines through." At first they're horrified by the poverty, but then they "find spirituality" in every speck of dirt.
Our trajectory in India was different. We loved it instantly and intensely, every bit of it, as frightening and overwhelming and incomprehensible as it was. But then, as novelty turned into routine, we grew disgusted with it all: first the pollution, then the traffic, then the poverty, then the constant fear of getting swindled, and then just about everything that wasn't what we knew back home.
But that wasn't our journey's end. Instead, we were to vacillate back and forth between the two extremes — love India, hate India, love India, hate India — until we found equilibrium. We learned to love the things that should be loved, and to hate the things there are to hate. Most of all, we learned that both these aspects of India — the good and the bad — must be taken together.
We would never describe India as "spiritual," like so many do, because that would mean ignoring all the misery. Nor would we call it "disgusting," like so many do, because that would mean ignoring all its beauty. Our attitude towards India now mirrors our attitude towards our own United States: some aspects turn our stomachs, but others make us soar with joy. India — like all countries — offers both.
* * *
But all these emotions were ahead of us. The love and the hate, the heat and the cold, the sickness and the worry — all these were still to come. We were still aurally innocent as we awoke in our new flat; and as we listened to these sounds without meaning, our only context was the sounds that we'd left back in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York City, where we'd lived the previous four years.
That bedroom also overlooked a busy road. Which meant that mornings there also had a soundtrack. Thursdays began with a garbage truck roaring down the street, inching from house to house on its fifteen-minute journey in and out of earshot while one worker drove and the other two trailed behind on foot, lifting and dumping curbside garbage cans into the back of the truck. When the truck was full, they would pull a lever to compact the trash; and on those unlucky mornings when they did so directly in front of our window, the truck's volume would double — and our sleep would be shattered — as its pneumatic presses ground into action. Monday mornings were worse: the twice-weekly garbage trucks were joined by once-weekly recycling collection trucks as well as by entrepreneurial bottle collectors who raced to collect the weekend's empties before the city could pick them up. They rattled stolen shopping carts down the sidewalk, and the bottles they'd already collected knocked together at every crack in the cement.
The song of municipal sanitation was a biweekly performance. But it came on top of a daily morning soundtrack. Neighborhood cars with poor mufflers roared to life. The guy across the street assured himself that masculinity was both equated with and demonstrated by how loud he could rev his motorcycle. The radio station's traffic copter hovered overhead to visually confirm that, yes, the Gowanus Expressway was jammed once again. In winters, the ancient steam pipes in our hundred-year-old brownstone would shriek and bang as the heat kicked in. Summer weekends often began with our neighbor Hector shouting at Sherlock, his tenant and ex-wife's sister's husband, who possessed the loudest laugh we'd ever heard. ("You know what?" Hector hollered during one memorable morning row, "You're an asshole!" Hector slammed his front door, Sherlock's laugh rattled our windows, and our hopes for sleeping past nine were dashed once again.)
We cursed these sounds at first. Hector and Johnny Motorcycle and the New York City Department of Environmental Protection made us pledge to forever avoid front-facing bedrooms. But we soon learned to sleep through it. And we eventually learned to sleep through Delhi's dawn din.
Not that Delhi's night had been that much quieter. The warbling horns of the trucks on Aurobindo Marg (which were banned from city streets during daytime but free to terrorize after dark) were loud enough to invade our dreams. Worse was when the truckers with knowledge of local streets took the shortcut past our flat. Our window was positioned exactly where they'd switch into second gear; the roar of the high end of first gear rattled the house. And if a single truck could bounce our floors, you can imagine how badly we were jolted by the earthquake that hit a few weeks after we moved in, just as we were growing accustomed to sleeping through the truck noise. It was our first earthquake: a gargantuan fright that began as a distant roar before engulfing our whole building in its terrible vibrating grasp. Jenny and I clutched impotently at each other and whimpered.
In retrospect, there are probably better earthquake-survival strategies than just lying in bed and hoping the building doesn't collapse.
(In the half-hour following the quake, too scared to sleep, I resolved to learn the walking route to the American embassy, in case we ever had to make our way on foot through a post-apocalyptic Delhi to the safety of the embassy's hamburgers, Budweiser, and swift repatriation. But the embassy is in a neighborhood of streets and roundabouts that are indistinguishable and bewildering even when the ground isn't spewing lava, so the route proved unlearnable. If the Day of Reckoning had arrived while we lived in Delhi, we'd have just hoped that autorickshaw drivers couldn't distinguish it from Delhi's everyday apocalyptic traffic.)
Delhi's night had other noises we'd learn to sleep through. Dogs, for instance: not as loud as trucks or earthquakes, but far more frequent. Every square inch of Delhi is claimed by gangs of stray dogs who vociferously defend their turf. There is a whole political structure to their world: the Hauz Khas Howlers guard the market against territory incursions by the Aurobindo Maulers while maintaining a dumpster-sharing agreement with the Green Park Greyhounds; the former are allowed access to the discarded chapattis on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and alternating Saturdays, during which time the latter take over to ensure that no passing autorickshaw goes un-barked at. The stray dogs live, love and lie on the street; but their docile daytime trotting gives way to snarls and warfare at night, and the evening streets echo with their power struggles.
Most stray dogs are ragged and haggard, with patchy fur and the vacant look of the perennially hunted. An exception was the gang of three who lived outside our building: Bruno, Signal and Snoopy, who were stray in name only. They'd been adopted by our neighbor Anya, a single woman in her thirties who lived in her late grandfather's flat on the floor below ours. The only difference between being "adopted" and "owned" was that they weren't allowed inside the building at night. The three were fussed over and fed far too much. Fat from their lavish life, they spent their days napping, waddling from one nap to another, and biting the tires of passing cars. By night, though, the envy of strays who actually had to work for a living meant that their territory was constantly being encroached. So their vocal cords got the workout their scavenging muscles never did, inevitably right below our bedroom window.
But nighttime was serene as compared to morning, starting at sunrise with the mosque, followed closely by car horns and bicycle bells and paellawallahs. After that came less delicious sounds, like the pigeons who had regular sex on our air conditioner, their claws scratching the metal surface of the window unit, the male cooing pigeon poetry while desperately flapping himself into the mounting position. Or like the workers at the ICICI Bank depository across the street who dropped metal boxes out of armoured cars and threw other boxes inside, their hollow booms observed by a dozen guards who stood around fingering ancient rifles. The sweepers then joined the chorus, pushing a day's accumulation of dust into the gutters so that passing cars and passers-by throughout the day would kick it up to coat the sidewalks and driveways, ensuring the sweepers would have something to sweep again the next morning.
A school bell chimes at nine with the sound of an air-raid siren. Doorbells begin ringing as maids begin arriving for their daily chores, and neighbors begin shouting at maids for being late. One of them clatters up metal stairs outside our kitchen to the servants' toilet on the roof above our heads; soon we hear splashing as he comes back down to bathe with unheated water drawn from the outdoor tap. ("You've spoiled your servants," we heard Anya's mother tell her once, "by letting them wash the dishes with hot water.")
The sound of the servant washing finally roused us out of bed and into the shower. Fortunately, we'd known from our Gurgaon flat to turn on the hot water geyser a half-hour beforehand. We also knew that "geyser" was pronounced "geezer" in Delhi, bringing to mind the image of a grumpy old man complaining from his perch on the wall above our toilet about the electricity we were wasting for the extravagance of a hot shower. It was awkward to bathe with the sound of the servant washing himself on the other side of the wall, but it was clear at that point in our first morning that soundproofing had not been the priority in the construction of our building. It was designed primarily for the summer heat: no insulation, loosely fitted window frames, gaps under doors big enough to allow chipmunks to invade, and exhaust fans open to the outside air — all to create that elusive cross-breeze. It's a lovely feature in the spring and fall. In the summer, though, it lets out our air conditioning; and in the winter, it lets in the smell.
* * *
The first time we smelled it was during our first night in Gurgaon. We were jetlagged and bedraggled when we entered Hamilton Court, a massive apartment complex built for the kings and queens of the new Indian economy, where my company had rented a flat to house Jenny and me and all the other expat employees they expected to imminently hire. We dragged our suitcases past the children running about the walled compound and the couples walking laps around the building, through the featureless lobby and up the elevator to the four-bedroom, 4,500-square-foot duplex on the very top floor. The master bedroom, which had been earmarked for Jenny and me, was a 700-squarefoot concrete echo chamber. It was bigger than our entire apartment in Brooklyn. And it was completely empty except for a bed, two chairs, a small television and the smell.
The smell got worse as the evening wore on. It was so bad that I woke in the middle of the night convinced that poison gases were leaking from the pipes. This is no exaggeration: I actually shook Jenny awake and hissed, "That smell! Do you smell it?! I think there's some sort of gas leak!" We were the first people ever to sleep in this brand-new bedroom, and I had visions of Ratan, the apartment's live-in servant, finding us choked to death as he came to deliver our morning mangoes. What else but some sort of terrible plumbing malfunction could explain that enveloping odor of rot and death?(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Delirious Delhi"
Copyright © 2013 Dave Prager.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 The First Morning and Other Mysteries,
2 Delhi: The Sprawled City,
3 Transportation: How to Get Stuck in Traffic,
4 Culture: The Inscrutable Indians,
5 The Food: Oh My God, the Food,
6 Health: That Which Didn't Kill Us,
7 Shopping: Markets, Malls and More for Less,
8 Working (Late, Again),
9 Challenges of a Megacity,
10 Cheap Labor: Their Delhi Struggle,
11 Expat Issues: We'll Complain Anyway,
12 The Change We Wish to See,