September 2005
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Monday, September 26, 2005

For some months now, I’ve become increasingly convinced that the ideal of beauty in India is embodied by the drag queen. Leafing through the pages of women’s magazines like Femina and the Indian version of Cosmo, as well as the new Sunday supplements to newspapers, I can’t help but notice that the style of makeup and dress adorning the cover girlsis one that I’ve associated with the hyper-stylized femininity of female impersonators in New York. Often times I’ve thought that I could never be as “womanly” as a well-turned out drag queen with his/her brazen combination of fabulous eye make-up, skintight clothes and stilettos. But I would never have tried seriously to mimic the look nor would I have thought to see it on the cover of mainstream magazines, mainly because it seems difficult and time consuming to emulate. And a little over the top. Okay, a lot over the top.

I don’t know if the drag queen aesthetic that seems to predominating here is a conscious or unconscious choice but I have noted that Indian magazines are crazy about M.A.C. cosmetics and gush about them at every turn, and most of the cover looks are carried out with the help of M.A.C. products. Now, if I’m not mistaken, wasn’t that fairest drag queen of them all, Ru Paul, the ambassador for the company when they first launched? And I’m quite sure that I have seen people I have seen perform in drag shows manning the M.A.C. counters in places like Macy’s in New York.

If you have a way with sparkly eyeshadow, it’s as good a look to aspire to as any, but there is something quite amusing about women impersonating men who impersonate women.


Lunchtime dosa demanding crowd

Wednesday, September 21

It’s funny -- though not surprising -- how people and things change class as they move across borders. For instance, people from other countries who immigrate to the United States generally drop down a class, or several, no matter what they were in their previous lives. But in India, many things that one would associate with being lower class in the places they originate from, go up in status. Specifically, I’m thinking of TGIF or McDonald’s.

There’s a McDonald’s near my office that I’ve taken to frequenting with greater regularity than I ever did McDonald’s in New York. There it just seemed so depressing. It smelled of stale deep-fried oil. Everyone in there looked fat and depressed. And the food was nasty.

This McDonald’s, though, is so chi-chi. They separate their waste into biodegradable and non – doesn’t it all just get mixed up again when it’s taken away? I can’t imagine that waste stays sorted here – and is full of hip kids and middle class men and women talking on cell phones and giggling. Once I saw what looked like an entire cadre of lower-level political party members dressed in trademark white pajama and kurta.

You can drink cappuccino there. Or a blended iced coffee. In fact, you can have all sorts of interesting things, including some things that look more like paninis or pizza than burgers. If you're very very lucky you can take home a platinum-haired barbie. But you can't have a quarter-pounder with cheese.

The only thing on the menu that is the same, thankfully, is the fries. And they really do taste the same as the ones in New York.

In a complete non-sequitur, for anybody who read the article on traffic and flyovers, you might be interested in a post by an Indian journalist about how disconcerting it is when a familiar city becomes unfamiliar. And on this page you can see a picture of the nine-lane clover leaf flyover on Ring Road by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.

Sunday, September 18

Lots of anniversaries this weekend: my sister’s birthday, three months to the day of my arrival in India and one month to the day of my parents arrival.

I’ve started driving, sort of. I’ve been driving back and forth to Connaught Place with my parent’s driver, Prem, who is an excellent driver and very calm. The only sign of him getting perturbed is that he’ll start repeating “Aaram se, aaram se” (Take it easy).

The car is compact but high so you can get a good view of all the other cars, and its gears are really easy. Maybe too easy -- you can practically start the car in fourth gear.

But, even so, driving here is such a nightmare.

Sometimes I just feel like taking my hands off the steering wheel and letting the car go. In fact, keeping my hands on the steering wheel is very deceptive because it gives me (and my passengers) the idea that I have some control about what’s going to happen. And really I have none.

I am the first to concede that I am not a particularly good or predictable driver. My spatial perception is very poor. And I’m very variable – I tend to speed up and slow down and wobble in my lane. But at least I try to keep to a lane.

It is very stressful to have to adjust for people who overtake from the left as well as the right, or cut across three lanes diagonally without indicating. But the worst is the people, including kids, who will run from the median and cross three lanes of traffic going at 50 kmph or more. It just makes me want to cry.

But since I've been learning to drive for only about 12 years, come what may, I have to leave India this time knowing how to drive well. Correction. Make that knowing how to drive fearlessly.

Having been both a driver and a pedestrian under difficult circumstances, I am struck by how easily it is to change teams and forget one's former allegiances. Whenever I walk anywhere, I feel angry when cars don’t slow down when they see people crossing. When I’m feeling particularly feisty, I dawdle in front of them. (Actually, to be honest, I’ve only ever done that in the U.S., not here. Once I tried to do this “talk to the hand” tactic that some people use here to stop traffic and cross but a big orange truck was coming towards us and it sped up and I panicked and almost pushed my father under it. He was very angry.) Also, when I walk, I feel the people in the cars are alien beings, and the cars themselves are hostile beasts – don’t they sometimes look like sharks when they’re all lined up at a red light?

But as a driver, I don’t remember every had a sense of kinship with the crazy people darting out of the bushes and in front of high-speed traffic. Don’t they know they could get run over? I feel like they’re trying to do me an injury, or being willful, by crossing like that. And they never look around them to see if cars are coming, or walk on one side. Why don’t they just keep out of the way?

Speaking of driving, and commuting, I realized that after years of avoiding suburbs all over the world, even in the United States, I now live in a suburb in India. Here is what gave it away:
1. It takes an hour to get to work by car.
2. To go to a movie you go to a m
3 . From my parents’ retirement complex you can see the lights of Delhi glittering in the distance. If you look right down, you only see highway and fields.
4 . When I drive home from work I pass a sign saying “Thank you for visiting Delhi.”

In fact, I have a strong suspicion we live in Uttar Pradesh, the poorest, most populated state in the union.

Wednesday, September 7

Every city has a time of day when it’s at its best and for Delhi that time is 7 a.m. I would never wake up at this time of my own accord, but now that I’m being forced to, it's a revelation. The streets are blissfully empty, the air is fresh, there’s no traffic and all the freshly scrubbed schoolchildren in their school uniforms make the city somehow seem old-fashioned and much more peaceable than at any other time of day. It reminds me vaguely of a city I used to know and like.

I have departed completely from my New York work self, when in spite of having no time and plenty of access to very good takeout, I used to insist on cooking and taking food to work. Now, even though there is cheap labor to cook for me, I’ve become a takeout queen, eating McDonald’s, nan, Chinese food and even donuts for lunch. Sometimes the packaging is quite odd. Yesterday, with my Chinese food, I got a bag of rice. Which cost almost as much as the main dish itself.

I went to visit my parents in their retirement neighborhood over the weekend. On the way I passed a white horse being transported to a wedding.

My mother is very depressed about her neighborhood because it is on the other side of a very polluted river and located next to refugee colonies she had only ever come across in the newspaper. Also, the local markets are unpaved and quite different from the upscale markets she used to frequent. To wit:

Saturday, September 3

One must be a very dedicated lover of the arts here to attend plays, concerts and the like. I went to see an opera at Siri Fort Auditorium on Friday and hope not to return very soon.

I had already been forewarned that if you have a cellphone on your person you will not be allowed in so I had left all my phones at home (I now have two, one personal and one for work, and I can’t quite figure out how to juggle the two). This policy might seem draconian but really, like the two-foot high pavements that are mean to deter drivers from parking there or running over poor people, it is just a nod to the realities of life in Delhi. If cellphones are allowed in people will use them.

Program for "The Pearl Fishers"After getting out of the insane jam caused by cars holding up traffic so they could get into the auditorium’s parking lot, we had to join a mile-long line to be frisked and pass through a metal detector. Not only are cellphones not allowed, nor are cigarettes, lighters or matches. The lady who went through my bag tossed my lighter into the bushes behind her and was about to do the same with my new pack of cigarettes but I demurred.

“Since I have no lighter, can’t I take in the cigarettes,” I asked.

To which the woman retorted, “You can always ask for matches from someone.”

Um … haven’t they all being confiscated? I posed this question to the lady and lacking a reply she glared at me but let me keep the pack.

My fears that I would be shut out of the first act of the 7 p.m. show because I had arrived at exactly seven were completely unfounded. I had plenty of time to look around for my friends. Peering down from the elevated Rs. 300 seats, I spied them in the Rs. 500 section, which was far from being sold out as we had told. The show didn’t get under way till about 7.45 p.m., after a severely admonishing message directed towards those who had managed to smuggle cellphones in and begging the rest of us not to hop around from seat to better seat during the performance.

At the best of times I tend to get distracted during performances, but this time it was especially hard to know what to watch: the epic drama on stage or the one going on in the aisles. All through the first act people kept coming in. Barely having sat down they would up and change seats, at which point the intrepid ushers would dart forward and try to force them to sit down again. These pitched battles went on for the entire three hours, often entirely blocking the audience’s view of the stage.

The leisurely pace at which people occupied their seats was matched inversely by the rapidity with which they departed them at the end of the performance, with the result that when the curtain rose for the last time and the cast came forward expecting a rousing round of applause, the theater was almost empty.

If the theater was empty, naturally the parking lot must be full, thus we had a 20-minute wait to get out again.

how I spent my summer vacation
summary of last two weeks of august

Electronics at Yusuf SeraiEven if I had had Internet access, after my parents arrived in Delhi life became too busy to do anything but comparison shop for refrigerators, washing machines and air conditioners. My mother is nothing if not thorough when it comes to the acquisition of electronic goods. Here she is, surrounded by a sea of refrigerators and other gadgets.

Chicken dumplings on a bicycleI took notes and refrained from chicken dumplings off the street during the excursion. I am trying to keep my good health so that I can be helpful to may parents in their time of need.

We also spent a great deal of time looking for cars, both at showrooms and second-hand ones, where I found that being a woman makes it harder to buy a car.

In between all this, I managed to enter the corridors of power. After days of phone calls to officials dealing with transportation went unanswered (I was working on an article on Delhi traffic which you can read here), I realized that I would have to spend a few days roaming around the Delhi Secretariat where the city’s government officials sit. Incidentally, they have a very nice cafeteria where idlis can be had for Rs. 10.

The Delhi Developmental AuthorityMy hunch that going in person would have better results proved to be correct. After all why should a busy important person answer the phone call of someone who doesn't care enough to take a personal audience? After kowtowing to several ranks of secretaries, and coming back at the indicated time, I engaged in an elegant minuet of ascension.

I was ushered from the outer waiting room to an inner waiting room, then to the further seats in the minister’s own office and finally to a chair right in front of him. The interviews themselves only lasted about five minutes, but during the waiting I was able to overhear some interesting conversations, including one where the minister in question paled at being asked to appear in front of a live audience on a television show to be held in an empty field in a neighborhood that is having electricity problems.

“What sort of audience? Not people off the street?” he asked the television crew, in horror.

Window at the School of PlanningI also visited the School of Planning, which to my layman’s eyes looked distinctly unplanned in parts, as well as the Public Works Department and the Police Headquarters. The one building I quailed to enter was the Delhi Developmental Authority, the Mother of all bureaucracies.

After spending my last two weeks of unemployment in this fashion I realized that as long as I am in India, there is only one place where I can really put up my feet with a nice cup of tea and read the newspaper from cover to cover: At work.