Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Initial thoughts on Delhi (I'm a jerk edition)

We've experienced a lot while here in Delhi and have been keeping notes to help with our blog posts, but as I was reviewing my notes I found it difficult to find a thread to tie the experiences together. Often, our posts are chronological recaps intertwined with related insight (read: crass humor), and a flowing theme. As I went through my notes this time, I didn't feel a theme was coming through in our experiences, but I did notice a tone. It's kind of a nasty one too. Maybe it's from the coffee detox, but my initial thoughts on India were written with the voice of a cranky pants. Rather than rewrite my notes to reflect a more nuanced and in depth description of our experiences, I'm letting the freak flag fly in the name art, humor, and curmudgeons the world over (read: too lazy to edit). Here now, are my INITIAL thoughts on India (I'm a jerk addition)...

Slum dog Millionaire
A staffer was aghast when we told him Americans think all of india is like slum dog millionaire. After a week here I'd say the movie was dead on. Notwithstanding that our host family (who are upper middle class with a nice house in a nice neighborhood) watch WWTBAM every. single. night... Every ounce of the city feels like a landfill. Even the entire road to Agra is covered in rubbish. Picture the now legendary streets of Napoli with their mountains of trash... Now, take away the trash bags, spread the trash around, mix it up with some rubble, repeat for over 80 miles, and then cover it all in feces (human, cow, whatever). The never ending pile of trash is only interrupted briefly by charred remains of trash that had been burnt earlier in the morning. The worst was, we passed through the birth place of Krishna (he's a BFD here) and there was no letting up. People keep saying that India will surpass China as the worlds largest economy by 2020, and I laugh a little on the inside. That the poverty here is so overwhelming and the attitude towards it is predominantly one of acceptance instead of outrage is comical. Our program director even admitted the problems of this country could easily be fixed if the politicians had the courage to stand up for what is right rather than fear of losing an election. Sound Familiar?

The Taj Mahal is imperfect. 
I'm not saying that it isn't beautiful and deserving of its status. Its a magnificent building that stands as a testament to enduring love and unrivaled craftsmanship throughout the ages. However, according to Muslim tradition, you're not allowed to build anything perfect so as not to strive for godliness. Therefor, you must intentionally include an imperfection. In the case of the Taj Majal, it is the inclusion of the second tomb. The first tomb is of Shah Jahan's wife which is perfectly centered in the structure, Shah Jahan's tomb is to her left. It turns out he wasn't exactly role model material. The Taj Majal was built on the backs of slave labor, by a foreign ruling power, who spent more money on his own throne than he did on his wife's tomb. I'm not kidding you, go look it up on Wikipedia. Plus, Shah Jahan supposedly designed it himself. Hmmmmmmmmmmmmk. If it weren't for the white marble, all the Mogul tombs in I've seen pretty much look the same: Persian influence, five domes, "webbed" windows, etc.  It's said that the architect's intention was the placement of the second tomb as the imperfection, but I choose to live in a world where the architect had a sense of humor and the content of the tomb is the imperfection :)

The Gandhi Smriti
Everyone in the world who is capable of doing so should visit this site. It was here that Gandhi spent the last 144 days of his life and it is a very moving experience.  I remember seeing the Gandhi movie as a kid and believe to this day it planted the desire to see india in me. The  grounds contain a path illuminating the struggle for Indian independence and his role in it. Additionally, the house itself hosts both an interactive installation upstairs, and hallway after hallway downstairs of walls lined with every ounce of truth the man ever spoke. This leads you to the room in which he lived in with nothing more than a few personal effects, a bed and his spinning wheel. All still exactly how he had left them.  

The grounds are also where he was assassinated by some fongool who reassures us that the world is going to hell in a hand basket. It'd  be easy to mention Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King, or even John Lennon amongst others, but none of them lived in Delhi and I'd prefer to stay focussed. The universe blesses us with treasures and we as a species invariably wipe our ass with it and leave it on the side of the road to burn. Well, that's how they do it in Delhi, in the west we'd wipe our ass with it, flush it down the toilet and claim moral superiority based on our excrement disposal habits. I sometimes wonder what monkeys must think of us (especially cause there all over the place here)... I'm completely convinced if you could translate monkey, their word for human would equate to "insane", "bat shit crazy" or "hairless assclowns". It makes perfect sense that they throw poo at us, It's probably out of outrage.

The food
I thought I could eat Indian food all the time... Until I did. After a week straight of some of the most delicious food I've ever eaten, it was time for a break. Busting out the "stick with what you know" directive, we headed to Pizza Hut. Surprisingly, it was pretty good. I don't usually endorse chain restaurants or fast food, but if I didn't live in Brooklyn, I would consider their pizza top notch. Now, it's hard to say if this is the Indian food binge talking, but it was better than any non gourmet pizza we'd had since we've been on this trip... I say "non gourmet" because our friend Davide also happens to be a pizza chef and his pies are bangin. All that, and they served beer. It was only king fisher, a low alcohol Indian beer the German girls referred to as "piss beer", but it's so good when it hits your lips. We hadn't had a beer in almost two weeks as we only drank wine in Paris and Tangier. We're not supposed to drink or at least not come home drunk while with our home stay, but we already have day dreams of going there bright and early, drinking king fishers all day over cheesy bread pizza and jerk chicken skewers, then sobering up over cheese cake and scrabble at the local coffee shop. That's how our last Sunday evening went, but next time we want to make it a marathon session. Especially cause they play late nineties pop rock and slow jams on the radio. The highlight was watching Claire realize that the 19 year old German girl we were eating lunch with was only a child when these songs came out. It's a scenario we've been through together ourselves with 80s music, so watching her cringe for a change was epic. (Editors note, we had gone back to Pizza Hut twice more in the span of seven days since first writing this.)

Volunteering day one
the volunteering turned out to be exactly what we were afraid of. It's basically baby sitting. This is the exact experience we had with New  York Cares back home, but for some reason we thought it would be different here. You think we would have learned our lesson... The irony is, we had been learning a lot about the similarities between Delhi and NYC, we just never put two and two together.

Volunteering day two
We arrive about 20 minutes late as it took longer than expected to get there.  What we didn't expect, is that none of the adult staff had arrived yet either. Benefit of the doubt, they probably take the bus. We specifically know the head of the Kamal Nayan society lives 45km away and is handicapped. He looks young, but is skinny and walks like an old man; hunched over, small steps and seemingly non fully functional legs. My initial thought was maybe MS, but without a speech impediment I can't tell. Nor do I have any desire to ask. What I do want to ask, is where he gets his clothes from. We're talking Saturday night fever snazzy. Big, and I mean BIG wing tipped collars, shiny pants, and conservative James brown hair replete with neatly trimmed sideburns. He's a pair of Elvis glasses away from being awesome. Don't get me wrong, a crippled man who grew up in the slums of Delhi who now spends his life dedicated to other slum children is awesome in it's own right, but his sense of style is the kind of awesome that makes you believe he could be a character in a Tarantino film.

Speaking of the handicapped, we also have a new fan at the "school". When a little 14 year old  kid serenades your wife with hindi folk songs, it's something special. When said kid was born with no forearms, backwards hands, a missing thumb, a hunch back, an extra ear pinna and only one incisor, it's super special. He's one of my students, and remarkably one of the more well behaved, inquisitive, attentive, and eager to learn. Claire originally wanted to nick name him crooked hands a la the Sopranos  but immediatley acknowledged how much of a bad idea that would be. We've  settled on calling him Jimmy until we can learn how to pronounce names in Hindi better. Did I mention he doesn't have any shoes and wears the same clothes everyday. Think about him next time you think your life is tough, then go complain to someone else, I don't want to hear it.

The  people here are really nice
Like the way Californians are nice for no reason. If someone says hello to you, it's not because they want something from you (a natural NYC reactionary thought), but it's because they are simply saying hello. Even the touts are friendly. They don't give you a dirty look or curse you under their breath when you ignore them or say no. They simply say "maybe next time" or worse, "have a nice day". I really hope it's the thousands of years of Dharmic living that's has made people here so friendly because I'd hate to think it's from something in the water (see initial perceptions above).

I know what you're thinking
That it sounds like I'm having a horrible time here. On the contrary, we're having a great time here. In fact, we're having a better time here than we did in Berlin. Not to say that Berlin is worse than a city drowning in landfill, it's a little more complicated than that. Without going in depth, we're chalking it up to being here with a purpose. When we went to Berlin, we had no plans, no itinerary, and it rained all the time. Now that we're in Delhi, we have our volunteering, our tour of Kerala, and four straight weeks of 95 and sunny. The rest is apples to oranges.


  1. Wow! Really liked your write-up on Delhi. You mentioned a lot of things I can relate to and remember when I was there last year. Definitely got sick of Indian food (the best I've ever had) after having it straight for 3 weeks... first thing I went for was Domino's Pizza!

  2. "Claire originally wanted to nick name him crooked hands a la the Sopranos but immediatley acknowledged how much of a bad idea that would be. We've settled on calling him Jimmy " well in her post she decided to go with it and called Sanu (not Sono) "aka Crooked Hands Jimmy". This is really disappointing. Typical white people just giving names to kids just because you cant take the time to learn the hindi names (I actually learned a lot of their names). While I know this may have not been your intention please be more considerate. I'm sure this name would make Sanu sad.