Friday, May 04, 2007

The Delhi, April 2007

I had one of those “stop and think” moments recently. I’ve had the opportunity to visit some interesting and exciting places over the past couple of years. We’ve been to Egypt, Morocco, Barclona, Prague and Budapest. In each place I’ve explored it with the perspective of somebody visiting for the first time, soaking up all the experiences. But I suddenly realized that I’ve also visited most of these places for the last time. I’m not likely to go back to most of them. Considering all the hundreds of places left to see on the planet, it’s more than likely I’ll get to see some of them at least once, but that once will also be my last time. In fact many experiences are probably our “last times” but we don’t always realize it.

You wouldn’t expect such deep thinking in Delhi, but indeed it’s here that I realized this for the first time. This is the first time I’m spending a whole month in Delhi, but equally it’s probably also the last time. It’s the first and may be the last time I’m spending a whole month in a hotel (this is what you call tempting fate). Nonetheless, it’s a sobering thought. So let me tell you about the last time I’m spending a month in a hotel in Delhi.

But first a story. On the second day of our being here, the car came to pick us up at the appointed daily time of 12:30 PM, for office. On the way out of the hotel, we encountered a typical Indian city scene, where somebody, attempting to get into a car park had managed to block off the exit gate and was holding up all the out-bound traffic. The guards wouldn’t let him into the reserved car park but it was bang in front of the gate that they chose to have this discussion. We suggested to our driver that he back up and go around the car if possible. This he did without looking behind – and in doing so rammed into the car behind us. If you know Delhi, the rest of this story won’t surprise you. Out came Mr. Angry Dilliwalla, a swarthy man, with his veins popping out of his forehead. He yanked open the driver’s door, hurled a stream of abuse at him, his mother, sister and much of his clan. And then he slapped him. Hard. Our driver, being a slight man, and in the wrong to start with, was still apologizing. I jumped out at this time to soothe the situation and asked Mr. Dilliwalla to calm down and let it go, wondering how I’d react if he picked a fight with me (was I secretly hoping he would? Probably not). He stormed back into his car, but then came straight out again and this time picked a fight with the guards and their insistence on not letting the original transgressor to get into that car park. He ranted, swore, and kicked over the cones that blocked the way into the car park. In the scuffle that ensued we were able to make our way out, leaving irate guards, Mr. D and a bunch of now involved people in a melee.

This is Delhi. Aggressive, abrasive and a law unto itself. And feudal to the core. In the first moment, people size each other up. Mr Dilliwalla knew in that first moment that the driver of our car was physically weaker and in the deeply stratified social structure, many rungs lower. In Delhi, everybody has a servant, a flunky, a somebody to do the jobs you don’t want to do. Armies of servants with their own hierarchy work in mansion like houses. They occupy the same spaces you live in, only not. There are people to open the gate, people to cook, people to keep watch on other people (Avirook insists that one of the people working in his house has an “intelligence” portfolio). People to look after your kids. Sonia says when she takes her children to the park, she’s the only one who’s not a maidservant. When she goes to birthday parties, all the mothers eat and chat while the respective maidservants feed the kids. It’s common in Delhi to see families come out to restaurants to eat with a maidservant in tow. I personally don’t like the word servant, and it takes dignity out of the equation. Besides neither K or I are too comfortable with somebody living in our space. But, in Delhi, you have servants. Don’t get me wrong, this is not about oppression and most people look after their household help in the best possible manner. But the lines between the classes is deep indeed.

I thought about that driver incident later. Initially I was stunned – not because I didn’t know how Delhi works, but it’s always the shock of re-entry into a different culture. Later I thought that in the US or other parts of the world, you would have had insurance, legal action and effectively a long drawn out process where a few third parties would have made money. On the other hand, here, its one slap and its over. Both sets of people have accepted the crime and the punishment. And as Sinha argued later in the evening as we sat in the Smoke House Grill, it’s the law of the land and it works.

So with that rather blunt introduction to Delhi, we’ve settled into our pattern. Both of us are continuing to work, K on her job, me on my current project, both of which require working closely with people based in London. Her organization has been gracious enough to offer me a desk to work out of, and the march of technology means I can call and receive calls from people in London at local rates and a London number (with a VOIP phone – which uses a dedicated internal line to carry the voice from here to London at little or no cost, and then initiates an external call there). This is also my first (and probably last) time working in a call centre. I’m probably the oldest person in the office by a mile. The biometric security and sobriety of the place apart, it could be a college campus, with a canteen and hundreds of twenty-somethings. Working to UK times means we get in early afternoon and then work through to late evening.

The New and improved Delhi is cleaner than most Indian cities and has smoothly flowing traffic for the most part. Flyovers and bypasses have already been built. Suburban developments such as Gurgaon and Noida have taken care of urban overspill. The new subway system is much talked about – I’m yet to experience it first hand. Quality of life can actually be better in Delhi then currently in some of the other metros. Although as Bhaskar and I were discussing last night, one’s enjoyment of Delhi is steeply correlated with affordability and status – true of most cities in the world, but dramatically so in Delhi.

Gastronomically, of course, Delhi has always stood out – Delhi’s Kababs probably contribute as much to its importance as it’s political or business clout. Be it Kareems or kabargas cooked at home – with hundreds of variations and more nuance than a raag rendition, the Kabab has pride of place in Delhi. Avirook toiled for 3 hours to put together his masterpiece version – which he claimed was direct bequest of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, and the taste of which I’ll probably carry back to London. It’s not just Kababs though, Delhi is the epicentre and embodiment of North India – where as much as the aggression, people revel in the earthly pleasures of food and wine. It is impossible not to indulge yourself. Cosmopolitan food abounds as well. With the “Oh Calcutta” restaurant tucked away at the back of our hotel, and hundreds more to discover at the drop of a hat, and plenty of people who indulge in culinary pastimes, you can safely conclude that we’re well fed, in Delhi. I have to say at this point, that my steely resolve (a largely under developed aspect of my personality) to not put on weight in Delhi means life is a constant struggle. I have to pass through the valley of temptation every morning at breakfast and pass up the parathas, breads, doughnuts and croissants, and restrict myself to fruits, cereal and juices. If somebody up there is in the least bit concerned, I hope I’m getting some brownie points for this. Most days I’m even able to slip in a swim before work, in the very pleasant outdoor pool that stares invitingly at me whenever I look out of the window of our room. In short, I’ve not resorted to my usual pattern of ordering club sandwiches via room service as a staple and staring concernedly at my expanding waistline in the mirror every morning.

As I write this, I have Madhushala playing on my laptop, a gift from Kavita which arrived yesterday. Karuna has been trying to educate me about Harvanshrai Bachchan’s poetry for ages now and this version, performed by Manna Dey is mellifluous to say the least, although I can’t follow the all the words at first pass. I’ll probably be singing it with great feeling but completely ungrammatically at some point till it’s kindly pointed out to me that a glass is female or that the tumbler is male and my “ka”s will be replaced with “ki”s or vice versa. C'est la vie as they say in the Delhi.