August 2006
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The scene of the crime: The International Society of Krishna Consciousness temple on Janmashtami. Click on a picture to enlarge.

Hare Krishna detective (August 31, 2006)

Lately all sorts of things have made me think there must be a higher power making things happen. And sometimes its sole purpose is to take me down a peg or too when I am smug. Yes, I do know that is very narcissistic.

moths around a tubelightToday I was driving back with my dad from looking at a possible place to rent in the south of the city. The traffic was moving excruciatingly slowly – it took 1.5 hours to travel about eight kilometers (five miles). At one point it became clear that this was partly due to the fact that there were an inordinate number of breakdowns of cars in the middle of the road. One brave gentleman was pushing his car all by himself with one hand and with the other making some sort of unintelligible gestures towards the oncoming traffic. I, having just taken my car in for servicing, exclaimed, “Why don’t these people take better care of their cars!” I went on to say that it was very unlikely that a car would just break down if was being serviced every six months and my dad said, very philosophically, “Anything can break down any time.”

Half an hour later, our car sputtered to a halt in the middle of the Nizamuddin Bridge. People honked at us, gesticulated at us, cursed at us and eventually drove around us. Between the three of us (driver included) we pushed the car two miles, with a little help from the occasional passerby, all the way home.

Now just to allay doubts that I am the sort of person who thinks that the universe is out to get them all the time, I should mention the Hare Krishna detective.

This is a man who called New York City, who searched for me in France while on work there, who Googled me on the Internet and who finally tracked down my home phone number all with one purpose in mind: to return my wallet to me. Last week he came to my office and returned the contents of my wallet including one 500-rupee bill. He was a charming gentleman, festooned with diamonds, including on an enamel pendant of Krishna wearing a crown of gold and diamonds. We had a nice chat. It’s true that I was not able to ascertain how he got my home phone number – I couldn’t find it online myself – and he did not return to me the actual wallet itself, but it seems too churlish to quibble over these minor points. I feel like I was supposed to learn something from this but what? Well, at least I did make lots of photocopies of my recovered driver's license right away.

playing cricket outside JaipurSometimes whatever it is out there listening to you acts not only unequivocally on your behalf – but astonishingly swiftly. Like when I went to a bar/club here called Turquoise Cottage that is beloved by many of the more gregarious youth in the city, but what there is to love in a place whose band has a passion for covering mostly Billy Joel, I can’t see myself. One Wednesday night I went there since it was free for journalists and cursed myself bitterly. It was wall-to-wall people, many already feeling (and acting) very hostile because of the crowding. After struggling through the crowd and ending up penned in one corner of the room, I wanted nothing more than to leave but could see no way out. Suddenly it was announced that a fire had broken out (no one was hurt) and a locked door beside me was opened – lo and behold, the club had a fire exit and I was next to it.

Thieves in the Temple (Sunday, August 20)

So I can confirm. There are indeed thieves in the temple. And they picked me.

I went to the Hare Krishna temple here on Wednesday to take photographs since it was Krishna's birthday and I thought they'd throw a good party, which they did, with frenzied dancing and all. I was going to make a donation before leaving and when I put my hand in my bag, there was a big slit (and a small one) and no wallet. And I was frisked like six times going in. One policewoman literally just squeezed my um, upper anatomy and did nothing else. Huh? What was she searching for -- my heartbeat? So clearly I bear all the hallmarks of a potential terrorist, but meanwhile pickpockets with razor blades are welcome.

It took me two hours to find a station and file a police report and all the police were like, how could you get robbed, didn't you see anything? It was seriously "you shouldn't have worn that dress." Well, they have clearly not been to an inner sanctum of a temple in one of the world's most populous countries when a festival is in full sway. One word: sardines. And then the police took back the report I filed, threw it away and said they would send a "better report" to my office in the morning. At three in the morning I got several phone calls from a police inspector to ask me my age and if I was married. It was required for the report, but couldn't he have called at say, eight in the morning?

Fortunately since I was too scared to look at my accounts in July because of holiday-related expenses, my bank card expired unnoticed and I was unable to pay American Express so my charging privileges were suspended on that card as well. So I didn't have to worry too much about cancelling those cards -- and people say you shouldn't procrastinate! But when I called my Indian bank and pressed the button to report a stolen card I got this message: someone will be with you in 11 minutes and 56 seconds. Eventually the next day I got through to someone and was told my card would be cancelled between one and 24 hours later. Not reassuring.

Yesterday I went to the DMV-equivalent to replace my driver's license but they only computerized records back to '99 and my license is from '93 so they can't find a record of it or issue me a duplicate. So I have to get a learner's and then take the test again. I got to say, I don't think India could be much competition for China yet.

And I am apartment-hunting as you cannot be depressed and cry yourself to sleep in peace and quiet over your lost wallet when you live with three relatives (though actually my parents are in the States and only my off-kilter grandmother is here) and three maids and one of them is secretly calling China and you have to entrap her into confessing it by revealing the existence of something called a phone bill. But I have only seen hovel after hovel that I try to pretend are nice but actually they are not. Fortunately my aunt dragged me ashen-faced away from one that I put a deposit on in a fit of desperation and rosy-colored-glasses-inspired profligacy.

Still, I did cheer up thinking I might finally incur some good karma, say, if my pickpocket bought food and medicines and schoolbooks for his little girls and they go on to do well in school and in life. But then my sister asked pointed out that the money might all be spent on glue-sniffing. I didn't think I should incur bad karma from his unfortunate choices and she pointed out that that wasn't very consistent of me. So I guess nothing the pickpocket does rebounds on me and having my wallet stolen was just the result of some bad karma I incurred along the way, perhaps for going and being a voyeur at other people's relgious occasions and thereby diluting the spirituality of the occasion by not being an active participant. I have to say, once you start playing the karma game, it is awfully hard to come out ahead.

Little Tibet (Wednesday, August 9)

From left to right: Prayer bells in New Delhi's Little Tibet, one of the neighborhood's oldest residents, a rose-hued Jaipur building, a Shiva devotee, the Eros cinema sign in Delhi's Jangpura Extension neighborhood. Click on a picture to enlarge it (not all enlarge).

I went to Majnu-ka-Tila two weeks ago, which is the city's Little Tibet. To get there you take the metro from Connaught Place to Kashmiri Gate (there is actually a medieval gate there that must have been an entrance to the city at one point) and then you take an autorickshaw. As soon as you get there you have a sense both of being somewhere that's not quite part of the city and of being in a tourist spot, because of all the backpack-clad westerners alighting from buses coming from Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama lives. Except for the flies, the neighborhood is surprisingly pretty, with little temples and houses that are vaguely pagoda style. Everyone there is Tibetan and some have been there for decades. I was there because supposedly the neighborhood was going to be torn down and the residents evicted. Of course, that is its status legally but India's beneficence towards the Tibetans is an immense public relations tool in its relations with China and India wouldn't want to give China the satisfaction of being able to tell the Tibetans, "See, they don't care about you either!"

But still, at least for a while people were worried. But that worry is not so much about what India might do but because of how much work people there know they've done and the realisation that they could never repeat the effort again. Even just thinking about having to pick up and start again is frightening. It's not easy to make a life. Some people who had been living there from the 1950s had only just completed their houses a few years ago, painstakingly adding a floor every couple of years. Some people still lived in the shacks that they built when the area first came up and you could see by the juxtaposition how much labor and material it took to convert a shack into a house. Being there also brought home how strange the city's housing policy is, and how difficult it is to distinguish between who lives legally or illegally.

The Tibetans were settled in that area with the express permission of the city, but they don't have title to the land. So legally, if the city wants to tear down their houses and send them elsewhere, the Tibetans couldn't make a legal claim on the city, only an emotional one. If the city gives them land elsewhere, it's in the nature of a favor, not an entitlement. But the city wouldn't pay for the cost of rebuilding their houses, even though that's a great loss to them. It would only have to do that if they owned the land. Similarly with slum dwellers, they pay for the right to a "leasehold" of the land for a certain period of time. The city is entitled to take back the land at the end of that period if it wants. And because the slum dwellers don't own the land either, they don't get reimbursed for anything they've built either. It's all money down the drain. And when they get resettled elsewhere, it's again a leasehold and if they get moved again, the city still doesn't have to pay them the cost of rebuilding. It's worse than renting, because with renting someone else has already built the house and when you move, you have the cost of moving and your new rent, but you don't have to build the house from scratch.