Sunday, August 23, 2009

What I Found When I Was Lost

An Unseemly Love : Notes On Returning to Delhi

(Delhi, Aug 17.09)

From this rooftop the main bazaar appears a ruin. Or at least, the mud has won -- the details of the surrender are still being worked out. Meanwhile a gang of boys (blue, pink, orange, red shirts) have climbed to the highest crumbling rooftop and they are flying kites.

People told me, when I said I hadn’t seen Delhi in eleven years, that it had changed immensely. I’d hardly recognize the place. I braced myself accordingly, put my nostalgia on a leash. Well, I’m sure it has changed immensely and that everyone, out of regard for me and my fine feelings, worked overtime to put it back almost exactly as it was before, the last time I was here.

Of course, the sacred word internet is painted on every other wall and Pahar Ganj now sports more ATMs than chaiwallahs. The TVs are all flat screen and everyone who appears to eat regularly, and some who do not, is holding a cellphone and talking to it continuously in a loud authoritative voice. But to me it still seems the same Delhi, with new and glittery earrings. The new Metro must be truly significant. The middle-class may now teleport from place to place.

I was told auto-rickshaws had recently been banned. Cycle-rickshaws were banned some time ago. The streets are full of both. Last night I stumbled out of my hotel at midnight to find no one but the omelet-wallah and a man feeding his two camels. “Dude.” I said to myself. “I told you I was not making this shit up!” Camels, of course, are also banned.

Obsessing about camels, about cows and monkeys and elephants, about saris and sadhus – this is what foreigners do in India. We patronize, we exoticize, and we miss the point entirely. I am a recalcitrant repeat offender, shackled as I have been for almost twenty years with an unseemly love for India. Foreigners should come, and spend, and then go home again. It’s wrong for us to come back again and again, and involve ourselves, and pretend to appreciate things that are obviously beyond our comprehension.

The main bazaar looks as it did in 1991: as if a skinny cycle rickshaw wallah, stiffed on a fare, might bring down the entire district with a single well-aimed kick. In the rain the road is bubbling vat of brown mud. Even the elegant young ladies, who ordinarily walk around all day without a spot, as if defended by the god of hygiene, stand now at the edge of the street, peering out, figuring in advance exactly where they will step.

To tell the truth, it is quieter than I remember. The hassling seems less intense. I used to say “No thank you” 150 times between the gate of the railway station and my hotel. Now one refusal is often enough – what India is this! There was a time when, if I was accosted by a dreamy green-eyed Kashmiri carpet salesman, I’d laugh and wave and start to run. They’d pursue you for half a mile – until you had no choice but to go with them, drink six cups of tea, book a houseboat and buy a carpet. Now the merchants hardly try. Perhaps it just doesn’t work anymore: these travelers seem to move in sealed containers.

I have a fear -- maybe I’m paranoid -- but I worry people will think I love India because it’s spiritual. Let me make clear: I love India because I love Indians and this is where they live.

So often – crossing the street, peering from a rooftop, crammed onto a bus – a stranger meets my eye and shrugs and grins, as if to say, “It’s a madhouse isn’t it? But you and I will keep our sense of humor.”

And there is the way that questions are asked in a way that includes the correct answer: “You come to my shop yes you would like to buy something.” Last night, when I gazed longingly toward a South Indian snack shop, the cook just beamed at me and said, “Yes!”

Or this: today I went the ITDC office to book a city tour. The amiable young man wrote a ticket and passing it to me said, “Sir, I am asking you seriously -- if this tour is no good -- that you will not complain to me, sir – and that you will not let small money come between us -- because this is only one chicken, sir -- and I must eat this chicken every day.”

Reduced to a small puddle of language joy, I gazed at him adoringly. (The above is only a ham-handed approximation of his freewheeling spontaneous improvisation.)

“That was beautiful,” I said. He proudly raised his hand and we high-fived each other.

This afternoon, sitting on the rooftop at Sam’s Caf√©, watching the boys fly kites, I came upon a poem by Elizabeth Bishop titled “Arrival at Santos”. Here’s a little of it:

. . . oh tourist
is this how this country is going to answer you

and you immodest demands for a different world,
and a better life and complete comprehension
of both at last, and immediately,
after eighteen days of suspension?

Finish your breakfast. The tender is coming,
a strange and ancient craft, flying a strange and brilliant rag.

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