Everyone is Indian. The very cause for surprise is itself a shameful shock. The first Indian I contact, handing him my visa, spends ten minutes reading through my books and pointing to the pictures. No one in the long line of passengers behind me thinks to complain, we wait for him.
I buy a prepaid taxi and a fat tout takes the receipt, walks me to the airport parking lot, asking: This your first time in India? Where you from? How you like India?
And I: I come here once a year. I am from London, Manchester. India is great but has some problems.
He sees a policeman in the parking lot then gives up his game, leads me instead to the long line of taxi-cabs spewing black exhaust.
In the old city the street urchins fill the streets, their skin is far darker than most other Indians, their hair clumped up, their bodies covered in dirt so thick that when they move a cloud of dust follows. All over the streets are dogs and cows, desiccated with humongous sagging udders. The streets are as dynamic as a Wagner opera; I try to balance every new sight, sound, smell and the scorch off the sun into some comprehendible narrative. A street girl has her hand in my right pocket, loquacious women walk by with their bellies and stretch-marks exposed to the sun, I step over an undulating stream of piss coming from a small boy facing a brick wall, smashed cow pies surrounded by swarms of flies on the sidewalk, the tusk of a bull nearly guts the neck of a man dressed for club hopping, riding a motorbike.
An old woman holding a lifeless infant in her arms slaps my wrist and begs for money. A red jewel in her nose, she speaks in Hindi gesturing for food. I stand awkwardly, as if I had come to a best friend]s birthday party but forgot to buy a present. The eyes of the street urchins burn my back, wondering perhaps Where does he keep his money? How cheap is the American? Her begging has drawn too much of a crowd, I say ceallo and keep walking.
Tai ho, meaning, praise, victory, but according to the Indians, its connotate is closer to “it is written”. In the Philippines, the way to accept one’s fate, no matter how miserable, is bahala na, happen what may. It is written. Sleeping on the sidewalk, Tai ho, bahala na, radical acceptance, it is written, it is written.
New Delhi is no better. Thousands of people living in the slums are displaced and bulldozed in preparation for the 2010 Commonwealth games, the place looks as fake and its people as displaced and desperate as the poor in Beijing a year before the 2008 Olympics. Squatters in boxed houses are at every intersection, new shantytowns spring up overnight to get turned out in the morning. The slums are terrible labyrinthine eyesores to man and God, the people there live in tremendously difficult conditions—but the slums are a community, they have schools, doctors, and some reasonable sanitation. To bulldoze these eyesores for a sporting event is to ferret out the population, to separate the squatters from a way of life they at least find bearable, to cast them under bridges, to divide and conquer.
Renewed, I take to the streets. Dogs, piss, cows, shit, camels, geckos, touts, urchins, legless beggars, singing street children, dancing street children, cockroaches, fleas, dirt, exhaust, heat, the sun, heat, heat so unbearable, heat so inescapable.
I find refuge in a coffee shop at Connaught place. The air conditioning makes my breathing easier. This is what civilization means—air conditioning!
I meet many Indians, most of them named Raj. Raj I invites me for a drink, just before leaving for Moscow to marry his mail-order bride. Raj II is retired but has traveled the world, asks me about massages in Thailand, but I realize he really means sex massage.
Raj III is in the India Gate Park in the middle of the night playing Cricket alongside hundreds of other players and watchers. He tells me that the nightlife in Delhi only exists in parks; it is a city on the verge of change. He tells me the government is getting rid of the cows, gentrifying everything for the Commonwealth games. There is still no where to go when the sun sets.
Even in the backpacker’s district, no stores are open at night and the disposition of the young men sitting about does not seem pleasant. There are very few bars but there are coffee-shops, where I overhear conversations: “Don’t go to study in the United States, all the professors there are Marxist, they only want to take away political rights” comfortably, sipping a mocha latte, breathing easily from the high air conditioning, as far away from the detriment of the slums as one can get in body and mind.
Buying $6 hotel rooms, sleeping to the sounds of bulls mooing, touts shouting and horns honking, waking up covered in sticky sweat, I navigate the traveler’s district of Pahar Ganj. Touts follow me the moment I step out of the hotel room, offering marijuana, claiming they are trying to practice their English, selling marijuana. To them, a traveler who comes to India without hoping to get as high as possible is an anomaly.
The kids here have no idea how to properly jip a foreigner of their money, even the drivers don’t know where the popular places are, and the kids selling drugs lack any tact. Perhaps there is just too many of them. “Sir, sir! Wear your backpack on your front!” is always a dealer. We learn to ignore them, their bedraggled faces become as tolerable as the hum of a refrigerator.
I eat samosas from street stalls wherever possible, I make friends easily; we travel around the Taj Mahal talking politics and romance. We pull pranks on the touts. We sweat profusely, in the rain, marching in the sun, waiting in lines, on the trains. At night urchins are asleep everywhere, on the gravel, on ladders, on rooftops, on the walls that follow the street. We tread very softly, walking among scattered eggshells, stepping on faces in the dark.
I spend a week in Delhi, with resignation and acceptance. July 16 – 24.