Archive for August, 2008

M for Metro

Delhi Metro does not simply move in space, it moves in time.

You leave the semi-contemporary locations of New Delhi, and get underground. Everything is made of steel and glass, there are escalators and displays that announce when the next train will arrive. And they are on time.
Very few things remind you of where you are: the instructions along the escalator to teach how not to get stuck in it (not that obvious if you have never seen and escalator before and you are wearing a saari), the advertising for a younger and healthier Delhi that advises to use the stairs, the ladies-only sits in the train cars.

In the Metro station you can also get a little brochure that explains to you how they built the train, how you should use it, and which rules you should respect. On the last page, it lists penalties for breaking those rules. For instance:
▪ Traveling on the roof: Imprisonment upto (spelt like this) 1 month or fine upto Rs. 50;
▪ Traveling without ticket: Fine of Rs. 50 plus the single fare of the distance or imprisonment upto 1 month;
▪ Misuse of alarm: Improsonment upto 1year or fine upto Rs. 1000;
▪ Walking on the Metro track: Imprisonment upto 6 months or fine upto Rs. 500.
It goes on like this, including serious crimes (sabotage: Life imprisonment or rigorous imprisonment for 10 years or death sentence), giving almost a conversion chart between money and lives: one month of your life, here, is worth between Rs. 50 and Rs. 170.

The metro in Delhi is clean, goes fast and you have good cellphone reception underground.
Welcome to the future.

So if you want to experience traveling in time, what you have to do is head North; and if you want to experience the ultimate time trip, what you have to do is get off at Chawri Bazaar, and exit the station by escalator.

Slowly, while you emerge, the past enshrouds you – your head, shoulder, legs – and when it gets to your feet you are walking somewhere in the past, it could be fifty, it could be a hundred years ago. Cycle-rickshaws, crowd, cows, goats (yes, goats), smell of food, of pee, of animals, of human sweat, of chai, of spices, noises, voices, horns, bells, muezzins singing.

It’s India at the nth degree, India as it was, and as – so it seems – it always will be, hidden in the alleys of the Old Capital City. The Metro station, in the middle of it, just looks paradoxical: it is the only stain of a never-coming future.


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L for Language

Along with other 22 official languages, India is an English speaking country.

The problem is that Indians are not an English speaking people. Signs are in English, money are in English, documents are always also in English. Clerks in the grocery store only know rice, bread, how much? and some numbers. Rickshaw drivers only know left, right, straight, meter, how much and numbers. Taxi drivers might eventually know the difference between madam and sir. The painters only know the English name of the brand of paint they are using, and stool.

Then when you meet someone that speaks English, the pronunciation problem kicks in. Indian accent is quite heavy, and most of time it is very hard to understand a whole sentence. There is always something you miss, for a combination of the usage of obsolete British terms and the way they say them.
But then: English speaking population in the US is 300 millions, in the UK is 60 millions, in Australia is 20 millions. Indians are 1 billion 129 millions and counting, so their English totally sets the standard.

So most of time you just must forget about talking and try to communicate with the good old universal gestures. Good luck, because here you will discover that they are not that universal. If you need someone to do something for you, they will begin, naturally, by asking in Hindi (at least in Delhi, Hindi works). But you don’t speak Hindi, so you will ask for English. But no English that side: they will repeat the same thing in Hindi, only faster, this being a thing that, all over the world, only them and French do. You will repeat what you need in slow simple English, this time trying to make it clearer with hand gestures. Let’s say you need something to be carried away from where it is, you’ll point it and move you hands in a way that means “this has to go”. The guy will say something back pointing at the object, doing your same gesture, and you will nod. “Okke”, he will say, and right when you thought you got it done, he’ll leave without moving anything.

What really is universal, though, is what I call the “bubble head”: a circular movement of the head that can mean yes, no, thank you, please leave me alone and much more. I think you can understand its exact meaning from the situation, but most of time you have no clue of what is going on, so you’ll probably get it wrong, and get inside a rickshaw when the guy just told you he is not taking the ride.

It takes about three months of that for you to find a solution to the misunderstanding and sign up for Hindi lessons.

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Things in my South Delhi flat divide in two big groups: those that I changed, or fixed, and those that I just had to accept.
They were equally hard, the fixing part and the accepting one.

To begin with, as my postmodern self learned with a bit of a shock, there is no Ikea in India. Or no similar thing, for that matter. No place where you can get everything done. Here you must understand who does what, where they sell what. You must find it out without looking it up on the Internet, because that doesn’t work. And without speaking the language, because to fix a house you need workers, and workers don’t speak English.

You find wall painters, and they come one or two days after they were supposed to: three little men, a ladder and a lot of painting, all carried by a cycle-pulled wooden cart. The three of them, sometimes bringing a couple of friends, take ten days to slowly paint the whole house. Only the green kitchen is not quite as green as you wanted. The shade in different, but you don’t know how tell that to the painters, so the kitchen walls leave the “changed things” group and become part of the “accepted things” one.

You have to buy new cushions, because the ones you have on the couch are about one millimeter thick and full of holes. And it takes a couple of days to find the right shop in the right market (if there is one think your Italian pride can’t accept, here, is to be ripped off…). Then curtains. Dishes. Bed-sheets. Towels. Pots. Pillows. Everything is a search, everything a slow conquer that happens at a rhythm of one thing almost-done a day, because it’s over 40°C outside and you really can’t do more.

At the end you make it. You fix everything you can.

And then you realize there is still a bunch of things to accept.

For instance.

You have two showers, and zero shower unit. The shower head (changed group) hangs from the wall and there’s a drain on the floor. Forget the ceramic, this is the Indian way.
Two big metal supports coming out of the walls are clearly visible on the side of the washing basin. They are rusty. To cover them, you have to buy another washing basin. So they go in the “to accept” folder where they will stay. No “accepted” for them.
Oh, and there is no way you will have a washing machine. No way.

Then there is the kitchen.
I don’t think kitchens are considered an important part of the house, here. They are the servants’ domain. The owner is only needs the fridge, which in many houses is in the living room.
So when the kitchen is the the part of the house you like best, when you don’t have servants and actually like to cook, well, all you can do is accept. Accept that you will never dare opening the cupboards under the counter. That there is nothing under the sink, just the drainage tube, hanging en plein air. That you will buy a small gas stove whose brand doesn’t match neither its box nor its warranty.
The kitchen is no longer your favorite part of the house but you hang a Hindi world map and you accept it.

And after two full months of complaining and fixing, compromises and breakdown you put some pictures on the walls, you call your friends over for dinner and you accept that you feel home.

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J for Jugaar

Jugaar is a Hindi word that doesn’t translate. And it doesn’t need to, because it wouldn’t make sense in any place that I can think of. Instead, it makes all the possible sense in India, and I am lead to think that jugaar is what India is based on, what gives it its ultimate energy and its hopeless optimism.

Jugaar is the art of making things work.

Jugaar is keeping together a scooter engine with little iron pieces taken out from the old fence behind the mechanic shop. Jugaar is delivering a king size mattress with an auto rickshaw. Jugaar is using electronic devices where there is no plug, but only wires. Jugaar is turning three wrong-sized pieces of wood in one: not one that looks good, but one that is exactly the size you need. Jugaar is turning old things into other working things, to recycle without caring about the appearance. It is all functionality without any aesthetic.

Jugaar is the art of being creative and finding solutions. Always. With complimentary smile and bubble-head.

We have abracadabra, in the fairy tales. They have jugaar in every single day of their -oh, so real- life.

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I for Imperfection

Almost two years ago I moved to Paris. I thought it would have been the most inspiring place for a wannabe writer, but it turned out to be a little too wonderful to be written about. There is a mistake, I discovered, in the syllogism at the basis of my happiness: I love living in places that I find – at some level – perfect. I want to write. I can only write about imperfect places.
Well then, if Paris would do for the living part, Delhi is doing for the writing.

India is the land of imperfection. Everything, from small to large scale, is built in a way that isn’t quite right. On the floor of every room there is at least one tile that is not cut straight, the baseboard always is too short and leaves a empty inch in the corner, the steps are not of the same size, the broom handle is too short and forces you to bend your back to clean (causing rapid and severe ache), the hole they drill in your wall is – always, always! – too big for the light fixture, the mattress slightly too small for the bed. And so on, and so forth.

I’m actually being a bit unfair here, because not everything is like that. It is just everything that tries to be western that is not done quite right. Traditional stuff works fine, it has done so for centuries, and one should be happy to stick with it. The problem is that this New India thing is out there, with all the promises of western-like development that it carries along, and it is just very hard not to try and get what you are used to. It will – no exceptions here – turn to be just looking like what you are used to, and so you will constantly end up very, very disappointed.

I tried to understand the reason behind this incapacity of being exact when it comes to “westernized” stuff, and the only explanation I could think of has its roots way back when the Brits were still around.

When India was a colony, western stuff would somehow be cool, because it would belong to the boss, it would be what the boss liked, and everyone always wants what the boss likes. As the British finally let the country free, people kept liking what the old boss liked, and, now that they could, they begun making it by themselves for themselves.

Which is way everything always looks like a counterfeit bag: the general shape is ok, and it looks authentic, but you can’t ask for refined details.

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H for Hello?

At the age of eleven, following the adventures of the Dover-based Smith family in my English textbook, I learnt that when English-speaking people pick up the phone, they say “Hello”.

Almost fifteen years later, following my own personal Delhi-based adventures, I learnt that in India when people pick up the phone, they don’t simply say “Hello”.
They play the “Hello” game.

The “Hello” game is quite easy and provides a lot of fun or frustration, depending on which side of it you play. All the game needs is a telephone and two players on opposite sides of the phone line. The game begins as one calls the other needing some sort of service such as a cab, home delivery, shopping, or simply information. He composes the number and the recipient picks up and answers “Hello!”. To that the caller replies explaining which is he reason why he called, and when he has finished the person on the other side says “Hello?”. That is the most intense moment of the hello game, because at that point the person who called normally checks if the reception is working by trying: “Hello?”.

“Hello!”, the recipient would say, in a perfectly clear I-can-hear-you tone, and then the one who called repeats what he needs, now that the line is finally working.

But his problem is not the line, he is simply caught in the middle of the “Hello” game and he doesn’t know. At least not until the end of his second speech, which will be followed by a long silence and he’d have to ask “Hello?”, to check if anyone is still on the other side of the phone.

“Hello!”, yes, of course the person is there.

At that point two things can happen:

The first is that there can be a third, or even fourth, match of the game.
The second is that the doubt of being stuck in the “Hello” game rises in the caller’s mind.

“Do you speak English?”, he’d ask.
“No sir”.

Game over.

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G for Gai

Here we are, to probably the favorite and certainly the happiest letter of the alphabet. G for Gai, which is Hindi for, oh yeah, cow.
Coming to India you expect cows to be hanging around in the streets, blocking the traffic and what not, well, that is exactly how it is.
I will begin saying that, thanks to a late but still effective baptism in the countryside culture, I find cows to be the most beautiful animal. They are so big and sweet-eyed, and they carry around their fat and smelly body in a way that makes me smile, especially when they are big milk cows with their udders hanging under their belly. At one point in my life I had, together with one quite bizarre and inventive mind, the plan of buying a cow and putting it in a courtyard. Luckily the courtyard happened to belong to a grandma that, much wiser than us, simply said “you girls must be insane” and closed the issue forever.
Anyway, my passion for our big fat milky friend didn’t really fade, to the point that I followed to the other side of the world the first and only guy who ever promised to buy me a cow. No, in the end I didn’t get one, that “you must be insane” is still in my ears and somehow makes me doubt that getting a cow as a pet would not exactly be the best of the ideas.
What is great, though, is that there’s no need to have a cow all for yourself here, because they are everywhere. One can easily have a close look at them just driving on the back of a scooter as I do: so many times I end up looking one of them right in the giant eyes, being less than a meter far from her!
Today, for instance, I was walking in the streets of Mc Leod Gang when I heard, very loud, one of those prayer chorus that it’s common to hear in town, amplified by the speakers on top of the Namgyam Monastery (where the Dalai Lama lives), where monks pray non-stop in this month of the year. Its intensity was growing as I was walking and I began to wonder if there was another monastery nearby, because the sound of the prayers was really quite loud to be coming from the monastery at the end of town. But, ever so disrespectfully ignorant, I was wrong: it was not the monks’ chorus, but just a huge cow mooing very loudly and walking down the road. Everyone stepped back to let her walk, some scared, some worshiping, some, like me, simply amused. All the cars stopped, and stopped even honking, which is a true rarity.
I live in a country where a big black and white cow causes the same effect that some Hollywood movie star would create somewhere else. Can it really get any better?

This is for the only cow-lover who will follow the cow-lover who followed the guy who promised to buy the cow. And to the world on top of the hill.

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