July 8 - 14, 2005
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From an e-mail sent Sunday, July 10

I've been getting around most days (except weekends when I have to sponge off other relatives) with my uncle's driver Ali, which is always a little bit of an adventure. He doesn't know how to get anywhere and neither do I so every instance of going everywhere is a very collaborative and long-drawn-out experience. He also has very definite ideas about things. Like he'll complain to me about people not knowing traffic rules, while driving in the center of a lane into an oncoming truck. Suddenly seeing the truck he'll decide this is a good time to fasten his seatbelt (as opposed to getting into his own lane) -- which I've noticed seems to hang rather slackly, that mechanism that locks it into place having long given way. Or maybe it's a fake seat belt.

The car we're driving around in is an old monstrous tank-like thing called an Ambassador. It's a government-issued car so it's got tinted windows and lace curtains in the middle of the windows. As a result of traveling in this hearse, which I think is taking the "bubble" concept too far, I still have no idea where anything is, since I cannot see out of it. On the flip side, since the street kids can't see into the car, they tend not to ask you for money or try to sell you newspapers.

In other news, I went into my aunt and uncle's kitchen at night once and there were loads of GIGANTIC brazen cockroaches running about. I say brazen because I yelled and stamped my foot and they ran towards me not away. I had to go there because I need to have a bottle of water with me at night otherwise I just lie awake thinking how thirsty I am. I didn't want to get into the killing business though since I already had spent an evening swatting some hybrid between moths and mosquitoes that got in through an open window my aunt's 82-year-old mother (my then room-mate, but now I am staying with my more youthful cousins) had left open in a misguided quest for fresh air.

In other news: Everyone wants me to be an intern! I am being offered the grand total of $250 a month! How did my life come to this? So I am not in the apartment-hunting business as a result. I should I supposed I should consider it a small blessing. I do have to buy a car though, which I'll have to do with what's left of my savings. Then I'll really be at the end of my money.

Next week I am going away to the South. I'm trying to refrain from reading my guidebook this time, and therefore avoid the inevitable gap between expectation and reality. I was on the verge of canceling my tickets after the last travel experience. But my boundless optimism has prevailed and people do say the South is much nicer.

Monday, July 11

I nearly lost my mind today. I was borrowing a bit of space at relative’s office, doing some work for a previous employer. But while I was there, the entire staff decided to rearrange the office. As I struggled to keep abreast of world news, office furniture was hurled across the room, phone books and heavy boxes were dropped from great heights, cupboard doors were opened and banged shut. In short, everything that could be rattled or shaken or dropped was. And once that the computers and phones were reconnected, they began testing the office phone system AND playing music that sounded like a cross between techno and elevator music. ON A LOOP. Are Indians just addicted to making noise?

Tuesday, June 12

Today I walked to the eloquently named E-Block Market in Vasant Vihar, where I am now staying, to buy cigarettes, a pumice stone and bleach. I know, it sounds like a memory exercise. I was also going to investigate the idea of buying tofu to make a stirfry for my cousin and his wife, whom I am staying with, but I dropped that idea when I got there.

I went the wrong way, since I was trying to avoid some construction workers, and ended up having to cut across a very muddy lane, where I saw a very upsetting sight. A large mouse (or a rat??) had died and there was a swarm of flies over it. What was upsetting is that there had been a crow by the mouse a few minutes before, but it had flown away when I approached, and it had clearly plucked out the eyes of mouse because there were two dark holes where its eyes should have been. Horrible.

And yet, since I’m in such a documentary frame of mind, I was going to take a photograph, except I didn’t have the camera with me. Here's a picture of some other flies.

It’s not related but I feel a bit bad now for being shirty with the pharmacist for showing me something that was clearly not a pumice stone when I asked to see a pumice stone. But in my current frame of mine, it just seemed to me further evidence that no one can be bothered to do anything right.

After the market I kept walking and found myself wandering to my grandmother’s house (she doesn’t live there now; it’s being rented out) where I stayed a lot when we were in Delhi on holidays. All the houses in that block have been built up – they were little one-storey brick structures before. Some of them are not bad to look at on their own, but taken together it’s a very strange amalgamation of architectural styles and colors. I feel so sad to think that the lovely lime tree at the back, that my cousin and I used to play under, was cut down when the house was expanded.

The headquarters of the P.L.O. is still near my grandmother’s house too, though the heavily armed guards were not in sight. They have also changed their name and they are now the embassy of the State of Palestine, which seems to be evidence of some sort of optimism.

Apropos of nothing, some thoughts on advertising

Everywhere there is a large gulf between the actual world, and the world as advertising depicts it, but I wonder if that gulf can be as large anywhere else as it is in India. I’m thinking specifically of a car ad that has been airing a lot since I’ve been here. A pretty girl with curly hair and her consort park a car at a dock. He produces a picnic hamper and champagne glasses and one single red rose and they picnic outdoors under the stars. I'm perfectly willing to suspend some disbelief, but in this case, the advertising people aren't even meeting me halfway. They know and I know that that scene, with all its clichéd images of romance could NEVER happen anywhere in India.

First of all, where could you go and park with someone in Delhi, or another city, without there being half a million people around? Even if by some miracle you found such a deserted place, given the general state of hygiene in this country, would you really want to pitch a tent and eat and drink there? And, given the accounts one reads in the papers, I can’t help but imagine the police turning up and wanting to know what the young couple is doing there, and trying to extort a bribe or arrest the young woman for prostitution. Or worse.

The tag line for the ad is “Because we want to carry our world with us.” Which just makes me think of the bubble people are always talking about. Ever since I’ve been planning to come to Delhi I have been told how important it is to have a bubble and how difficult it is to survive here without one. That basically means having lots of money, perhaps a salary in foreign currency and an air-conditioned car and driver. But bubble or no bubble, somethings are just not possible here, not matter how arctic your air-conditioning or how much money you earn. And so the idea that one could possibly take off in a car and have a quiet time with someone in some corner of an Indian city just makes me infuriated.

The other ad that bothers me a lot is one that insists that mothers who truly care for their kids will only buy milk in a carton (as opposed to getting it from the dairy in a container of their own, which many people still do). The first time I saw that ad, I had a vision of the entire population of India drinking milk from cartons and then going to some place like Ranikhet and tossing the empty cartons down a hill. Imagine: A billion people, a billion cartons. Where could they all go?

It’s very hard to live in a place where you see every day that really is no “away” to throw things away to, without starting to feel apocalyptic about the environment. I wonder if it would do any good to write to the milk company and ask if it has any plans for all those cartons when they’re empty.

And some thoughts on spirituality

I’m starting to understand that India is a actually a very spiritual place, or rather a place that induces a form of spiritual thinking. Or at least meditative thinking. Whenever I’ve traveled outside of India, people have always asked me if India was a spiritual place and over the years I’ve given different answers. Most recently, I used to tell people, no, not at all, because it seemed to me that all anyone I knew was interested in was buying things or being a model.

But being here necessitates the ability to shut out things, sometimes in a way that comes very close to what, if you were doing it on purpose, could be called meditation. When it’s hot and the electricity goes, and the warm, still afternoon magnifies the buzzing of flies into an oppressive hum, the discomfort is so very extreme that you have to beat a retreat. But the only place left to seek a refuge is in some cool, dark recess inside yourself. It’s like trying to trick yourself into feeling that moment so very intensely that you experience a sort of vertigo, and the physical reality itself drops away.

At other times, plagued by other discomforts, whether visual, olfactory and auditory, you find yourself learning how to let your mind slide around things and develop only a dim awareness of some of them – just enough to know that you must walk around that clearly human turd, but not enough to let yourself note its size, shape or smell, or wonder how it came to be on the pavement where you’re walking. These are not very good skills for a journalist, I admit, but in India I find there there are many occasions when it is better to see things and not really see them at the same time, to hear them and not hear them. Slide around them, elude them.

And an explanatory note

I am trying to write a little bit everyday, but I'm not managing to get online everyday. For both local and global (PC-Mac compatibility problems) reasons. Sufffice it to say, that makes it a little bit hard to keep an online journal. But I think I'm more likely to write about being here if I think that my friends who are comfortably ensconced in America are getting some little enjoyment (but not schadenfreude I hope) out of my travails. So I am going to try to continue with this online journal in spite of the fact that it is very far from "real-time." But if there are large gaps in new material, and then lots of stuff at once, that's why.