Thursday, July 24, 2008

Yes. Very. I like Delhi.

Tuesday Sonu lets me into the car and tells me with some urgency, “My mobile. Gone. All snaps. Gone. I hate mobile but I like snaps.”

“Oh no, Sonu,” I say. “Your cell phone is broken?”

“Yes.” he says. I think this is the only way he has of talking to his wife in Punjab, seven or eight hours away. “My wife. She call me everyday,” he says. I wish I could fix his phone for him. “I no like mobile but I like snaps,” he repeats.

Tuesday I eat lunch with Amar and Shabnum. Amar wonders what the first thing I noticed about India was.

The first thing I noticed is that my luggage was taken off the carousel by someone, and it made me think it was lost as I stood in the Delhi airport by myself and began the mental planning of how I’d have to replace everything in it—but Amar doesn’t look satisfied with this answer. Truly, I’m being evasive.

The next things I noticed were the humid, smoggy air, the honking and the traffic.

This is the same thing another American visitor told him, he says. She said she could never drive here herself, but she felt safe with her driver who understood the rules. I tell him I agree with this wholeheartedly.

“Delhi is a hard city to like,” Amar says. I am surprised he says this so frankly. I don’t know how to respond. Agree? Disagree? I don’t feel I’ve been here long enough to have a real opinion on this matter—but I certainly have observed certain impediments to fondness. Take, for instance, sewage corner: the section of sidewalk I must pass to get to Defence Colony Market where all the men insist on peeing. I try to hold my breath when I pass this area but I usually end up gasping in the sewage smell because I’m waiting for a break in the traffic to cross the road. Take the few sidewalks that do exist that you can’t walk on anyway because they’re either broken, full of rubble or being used as a restroom. Take the garbage strewn everywhere. Take the obsessively honking drivers who will blithely come within two inches of you as you walk down the street. Take the beggars who will smash their faces against your window and tap on it for as long as your car is stopped in traffic. Take the frequent power outages and crumbling streets. Take the auto-wallahs who invariably lie about their meters being broken so they can rip you off. Take the extra fees foreigners (i.e. white people) have to pay for everything. Take the inability to break a 500 rupee note. Take the surly monkeys who killed the deputy mayor. Take all of this and still, somehow, I am having the most amazing time of my life. There is no objective reason for me to be enjoying myself, but I am.

Still, Amar is right; there is a lot not to like.

Instead of saying anything, I simply look at him, hoping he’ll say more. He obliges. “I told Debamitra it takes a while to like the place.” Debamitra, the movie buff, just moved here from Kolkatta about six months ago. “When I told her that, she just said, ‘You actually like the place?’” He does. “And for publishing, Delhi is the only place to be.” I tell him that’s like New York in the United States—another city that can challenge your loyalty with its various tribulations.

Shabnum agrees with Amar about Delhi being hard to like. “The people here are rude. They’re not soft-spoken. You have to be assertive,” she says.

That night on the way home, Sonu asks me if Delhi is like Chicago—or at least I think that’s what he was asking. “Chicago to Delhi?” he asks. “Chicago to Delhi?”

I tell him Chicago and Delhi are very different. American cities have taller buildings. I think this is one significant and relatively easy-to-explain difference. I don’t want to tell him that also, we pick up our garbage and don’t pee in public. This comparison I leave out.

“Do you like Delhi?” I ask him, knowing that he is from Punjab and wondering how the two places compare.

“Yes. Very. I like Delhi,” he says, smiling. I wish I could ask him why, but I think the question might sound insulting, like asking somebody why they like their own mother. Asking implies that there’s something not to like.

I wonder how I will feel about the city after I’ve been here for a while. I think of the temples I’ve seen, the beauty of the people here, the elephant ride, the ancient ruins. I’m so glad I had someone who likes Delhi show me all the good things about it. I’m fortunate my first glimpses of this city were largely seen through Sonu’s eyes.

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