Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Getting Bombed

Forgive my brief hiatus. It's been a stressful and then busy few days with the bomb blasts and a visit to the Taj Mahal as well. All is well and I hope to get caught up here in the next few days. I will also be loading pictures tomorrow from work where the connection speed is better. Please read on about:


Saturday I wake up on Julianne’s spare bed. It is hard like a rock, but still somehow comfortable.

She makes spiced Indian chai and oatmeal with brown sugar for us to eat before Palminder arrives, right on time, to take us to pick up Susie and Katie on our way to Chandi Chowk to explore the huge marketplace in Old Delhi.

We load up the car and drive past India Gate, past Janpath, and into the narrow, clogged streets in front of the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid. Palminder turns up a long street that is lined with shops on both sides. There are lots of jewelers on one side and lots of temples on the other: a Jain temple and two gurudwaras where people cue up to wash their bare feet before entering.

Palminder announces, “Chandi Chowk,” then pulls over. But this isn’t quite where we want to be dropped off. We want to check out the spice market first. However, we don’t exactly know where the spice market is. Neither does Palminder, apparently. He insists we get out where he stopped, but Susie tells him to get out of the car and ask where the spice market is. After this direct instruction, he begrudgingly obliges. He drives back to the beginning of the street of shops and makes a u-turn, leading back up the far side of the street. Here he pulls over and tells us, “spice market.” We don’t see anything that looks like a spice market. Susie jumps out of the car this time to ask somebody where it is, but in the intervening moment, a cop tells us we have to pull out of the way of the auto-rickshaws behind us. We leave Susie behind as the car pulls up about 500 feet. Had I been left behind in such a fashion, I probably would have totally panicked and started digging though my purse for Palminder’s card while sitting on the curb and shaking. But not Susie. She finds the car with no problem amidst the crammed sea of auto-rickshaws and trucks and bicycle rickshaws and cabs, ducks her head in and tells us we’ve found it. The spice market is right around the corner. We get out of the car and tell Palminder we’ll call him when we’re done. He has to go park by the Red Fort, he tells Julianne in Hindi. There’s no parking nearby. You’re barely allowed to stop your vehicle to let people in and out.

We climb out of the car into a smash of saris and salwar and lungi. Susie walks quickly between the shoulder-to-shoulder people and crosses the street which is full of bicycle rickshaws. No engine-powered vehicles can even fit down the road we’re crossing. I try to take a few pictures but don’t want to get separated from my friends. I don’t want to be alone in this market.

Across the street and around the corner, I see piles of nuts and roots in burlap sacks and metal dishes. “This is the spice market,” Susie announces. In her two years of living in India, she has been here before. She just didn’t quite remember how to find it. I can’t fault her. The streets are a jumble of shops too numerous and chaotic to even be able to find a landmark. If there is a shop, there are ten more just like it just up the street. There are booksellers and jewelers and sweets shops and electronics stores and stores that sell random items like brooms and string and toys.

Once we find the spice market, though, the cacophony gives way to stall after stall of powders and chilies and roots with little price markers shoved into them. Every tenth person is sneezing—and that’s a lot of sneezing.

Susie stops us at a guli, an alley, and gives a little warning. If anybody is sensitive to smells, they may want to wait outside. We all brave it, following her down the narrow twisting path between buildings where men walk with great burlap sacks of chilies balanced on their heads calling to the people in front of them to make way. The smell is not so strong today. Last time she was here, Susie says, her eyes were watering. We make it out of the guli unscathed and walk back down the row of vendors. The street is jammed with bicycle rickshaws that can’t go anywhere because there are too many people and wagons full of burlap sacks. And this is the non-crowded time of day that the guidebook told us to visit during. I can’t imagine this place with more people in it, but, then again, I’ve seen a lot of things I couldn’t have imagined on my own in India.

We decide to try to find the Paratha Wali Guli, or the Alley of Bread. Several of my coworkers have described this place to me and told me I should go there. We use the patented Indian method of navigation and stop by a sweet shop, asking the friendly vendor if he can point us in the right direction. He says we can take a bicycle rickshaw or we can walk. It’s about a kilometer straight up the road, then turn right. We decide to hoof it. A walk is always a nice thing, and this way we can stop and look at the shops along the way.

Susie stops and bargains hard for a handful of watches with beaded bands. She gets five for four dollars. We come to a street where Susie decides we should turn right, and we do. The sidewalk is starting to get so crowded that we can’t negotiate, so we step into the road where no cars can go anyway. Food vendors line the walk and shops with the brightest, most glittering fabrics you can imagine: bright pinks and oranges and blues and greens. I snap photo after photo. I could take a thousand pictures just standing in one spot and each one would be different.

We walk and walk until finally Susie decides we should turn around. I decide to help out with navigation, asking every few stores where the Paratha Wali Guli is. “Famous place,” a shopkeeper tells me. “Turn right.” But no one can tell us exactly where to turn right. At the sari shop? There are hundreds. At the food vendor? There are hundreds of them too. I resolve to just keep asking. “Paratha Wali Guli? Paratha Wali Guli?” The shopkeepers dutifully point their fingers. Just to the right. Just to the right.

We finally find a narrow twisting alley that not even the bicycle rickshaws can make it down. This is strictly a pedestrian experience. You can almost fit your arms across the alley and touch the stores on both sides simultaneously. We have to be getting close. If I were an alley of bread, this is where I’d be. We walk down the row of never-ending sari shops with an occasional jewelers thrown in and everyone tells us we’re going in the right direction. We just need to keep walking. I feel like we’re totally leaving civilization behind. I wonder how we’ll ever find Palminder again, but I trust that with the power of the cell phone, we can just call him up and describe where it is we’re standing and he’ll magically appear. I hope. That is, if we ever see a street that a car can drive on again.

We take a turn to the left and it’s clear we’ve found it: shop after shop of bread and food. These places give a new meaning to holes-in-the-wall. They are tiny shops fighting for space. I leave it to Susie and Julianne to choose the one we’ll eat at. If I look too hard at any of them, I’ll chicken out completely. Men sit on the ground and rinse dishes at faucets coming out of the wall. Great pots of vegetables boil. And giant pans of fried bread fill the air with a savory scent. Susie wants to eat somewhere we can sit down. We find a place with a waiter who points us up a narrow marble staircase to a second floor eating area with a ceiling that barely allows us to stand up straight. There is a menu on the wall, but it is completely in Hindi. I am so impressed that both Susie and Julianne can read it. I have to rely on them once again to pick out something good. They come through. But, then again, I have a feeling that all the food here is good. We each get a metal plate divided into four sections. The sections are filled with different subzis: there is something sweet that’s maybe pumpkin, there is cauliflower, and there is a potato dish. There is one more section with a sweet-looking liquid and bananas, but Susie says not to eat it. If it’s not hot, it may not be safe. The heat kills the bacteria. We don’t want to take a risk of getting sick. We’re all planning a trip to Armritsar in less than a week.

We take pictures of each other in what feels like a little secret clubhouse above the bubbling crowd of Chandi Chowk. Katie asks the waiter to take pictures of the four of us with his camera and he kindly obliges, even turning off a light in the background so there’s less glare. He brings up fresh, hot parathas: stuffed, fried bread that we use to mop up the vegetable dishes we’re served.

When the meal is done, we’re all as stuffed as the bread. People start fishing for change but I decide to treat. For all four of us to eat this amazing lunch, it cost four dollars. No sense in breaking up the bill.

Afterwards, we stop at a bakery that boasts it has been there for a hundred years. All these shops are that old or older. Chandi Chowk market has been here since the Mughul Empire and some of the same families are in the same trades they have been in since the 1700s. Needless to say, they know how to make good food.

As we leave the bakery, we notice that we were just a few hundred yards away from the main road. We certainly took the long way around to find the Alley of Bread, but I’m glad for it. I loved the feeling of walking into centuries old Delhi, far from the gas powered engine and electric lights of modern society.

Julianne says we should walk down to the gurudwara. It will be a recognizable landmark that Palminder can pick us up in front of. We call him and he arrives on the spot in less than ten minutes. He has yet to fail me.

It’s getting on near three o’clock. We decide to stop by the gallery where Katie’s artwork is on display on the way back from the market. It’s a workshop-like space behind the Siri Fort Auditorium complex, full of paint and paintings and painters. The piece Katie painted at the Let My Country Awake event is here. I can see it in it’s finished form. She’s also done a companion piece: one with violent figures inside a lotus flower. There’s a lot of motion and dripping color in this second piece. They are both beautiful. Katie’s work is impressive.

Susie and Katie take an auto back to her place, and I drop Julianne back at her apartment in GK1 before going home.

At home, I call Jonaki. We were supposed to go out tonight. She has hatched a plan while I’ve been out playing. Here it is: she’s going to take an auto over to my place around seven. She’ll get ready when she gets here, if that’s okay by me. Then, around eight or eight thirty, two friends are going to come pick us up in their car. They’ll take us out to some bars, and they can then drop us back home when the evening’s over. It sounds perfect. I tell Jonaki I’ll see her soon.

I’m Skyping with Scott when I get a text message from Susie. “Are you there?” she asks. “Yep. Just talking with hubby,” I type her. Then my phone rings. I pick up but leave the Skype call with Scott going in the background.

It’s Susie. She wants to know if I’ve heard. Heard what? About the bombs. Three bombs have gone off in the city, in GK1 and Connaught Place and Karol Bagh. She wanted me to know because she heard I was going out tonight. I shouldn’t go.

GK1? Connaught Place? These are places I go all the time. I just came from GK1. Julianne lives there.

Scott wants to know what’s up. I tell him that bombs are going off. In places that I frequent.

The phone rings again. It’s Shabnum from work. She wants to know if I’m okay. She wonders whether I’ve heard about the bombs. I tell her I’m fine, but I’m worried about Jonaki. Jonaki is on her way over here right now. She told me she was taking an auto. Autos are notorious targets for bombings in India. Shabnum hangs up with me and says she’ll try to get a hold of Jonaki.

I turn on the news. Pictures of puddles of blood and crying people fill the screen. There is a repeated close up of a black puddle in the bottom of an auto. Scott is still on Skype. I don’t know what to tell him except that I’m fine and I don’t know if my friend is.

The phone rings again. This time it’s my boss from work. Amar wants to make sure I’m okay. I’m fine, I tell him. He says he got busy working around the house today and it’s good. We had made tentative plans to go out and do something, but now it’s best just to stay in. He tried to call earlier and couldn’t get through. The phones are jammed and not working right. Amar says to take care.

I tell Scott who was on the phone and why. Scott says there are a lot of people looking out for me here. I tear up. There are. I am so lucky. I have met so many kind people in my short time here.

Just then there is a knock at the door. It’s Jonaki. Thank God. “Thank God you’re here. Thank God you’re okay,” I tell her. She looks at me kind of cocking her head. Why am I acting so strangely? She hasn’t heard about the bombs. I have to tell her about the bombs. They’ve gone off all around the city. People are dead. People are injured. We can’t go out tonight. Obviously, we can’t go out tonight.

I hang up with Scott and try to get through to Julianne. She was supposed to go out with her friend, Carmen. I don’t think she was supposed to be in GK1, but I want to hear from her to make sure she’s okay. I can’t get through. There’s just a constant beeping. I don’t know if it’s a busy signal or something else. I call Susie. Has she heard from Julianne? Yes. She’s okay. I’m relieved. Very relieved. It seems that everyone I know here is accounted for. Everyone is home and okay. I tell Jonaki she has to spend the night. I don’t want her travelling across town tonight. She’s fine with this plan.

A sleepover party it is.

Jonaki calls her friend Kartik. He still wants to do something. His cousin is winding up four years in India. He leaves this Friday for the states, so he doesn’t want his last weekend here to be a bummer. Is it okay if they come over? They can bring some drinks. We can hang out, have an almost-party.

It’s fine with me, if they think they can get here. It’s unclear whether or not the police will be blocking roads and closing off sections of town. They say they’ll be over in a little bit.

Jonaki and I watch the news. They show victims on stretchers and always return to the close up of the puddle of blood on the green metal floor of the auto-rickshaw. Over and over. The puddle of blood. The body count is at ten, then it is at twenty. Forty people are injured, then it is 100. I have to turn off the television. There is no new information. Just that puddle of blood and now an exploded garbage can in the park near Connaught Place. Jonaki says that’s why there are no refuse bins in Patparganj where the office is: they’re great places for bombs. I think at first she’s joking because there’s so much garbage on the streets around the office, but she’s not. Terrorism is a serious problem here in India: a big one. I think of that article I read in that magazine at breakfast after the blasts in Jaipur that said that India is second only to Iraq in the number of terrorist attacks per year. It was one thing to understand that as a concept, but another thing altogether to feel this reality closing in around me, to wonder if my friends were safe, to have to change my plans because the markets we were planning to go to were attacked. Thank God we hadn’t set out earlier. It was just chance that kept me safe tonight, but I guess that’s the same as every night.

Jonaki says Delhiites are hardy. They’ll take this hit and bounce right back. It’s happened before and it will happen again. Unfortunately. That is the way with these attacks here. Bombs will go off, the headlines will feature police tracking down suspects for a few days, then the idea of the bombs will recede along with the immediate feeling of being threatened, along with the heightened security, until things are back to the same way they used to be before the bombs went off. I’ve seen this already with the bombings that took place in multiple cities just about a month earlier.

It’s nine thirty and still no sign of Kartik and his cousin Raj. Jonaki and I are starving. I don’t have any food in my place and it’s too late to ask Mira to cook for us. We decide to see if we can walk to the Defence Colony market. Just there and back. Real quick. We’ll order it to go. Downstairs, a woman puts a quick stop to our plan. She carries a white plastic bag full of food. “Everything’s closed,” she says. “But you can have some of our food. We’ll cook enough for you. I had to go all over just to get this. You won’t find anything else. It’s okay.” But she doesn’t know that we have two hungry men about to show up.

Then the guard tells us that it’s possible that one of the restaurants is still open. He gives us a menu for Swagarth. We try to call but can’t get through. Pachu dials the number for us and this does the trick. We order some okra, a shrimp curry recommended to me by some woman at breakfast one day, and a mixed vegetable dish. They’ll deliver it in twenty minutes. We won’t have to go without dinner tonight after all.

Kartik and Raj get here around ten o’clock. Jonaki has done well in describing them as not quite the everyday Indian type: they are both stout and their heads shaven. They look almost as if they could be twins in their t-shirts and blue jeans.

They bring in a giant load of booze and soda and chips. There’s beer and two kinds of wine and liquor. Two kinds of wine?

The food arrives just shortly after our guests. I start serving it up. Raj asks if I’m a big drinker. I say no. “You must not be,” he says. “You’re just all, like, let’s get the food.”

But it’s ten o’clock at night. I’m starving!

Raj isn’t hungry. He fixes himself a mixed drink and sits on the couch smiling. His cousin follows suit. I ask Raj what he’s been doing here in India for the last four years.

“Yoga,” he says.

His broad frame and booze-hounding demeanor make this answer sound all the more improbable, but what follows makes more sense.

“I’m done with yoga,” he says, smiling a half-baked smile and slowly, peacefully nodding his head. He is of Indian descent, but born in small-town Pennsylvania, where he’ll return in just six days after four years of living in India. What will he do? Get a job, probably. Probably doing something techie. But first he’ll spend some time at home, peacefully nodding his head and half smiling.

He wonders if I have any music. I play the limited selection I have on my laptop. It’s mostly a Rolling Stones box set that I borrowed from someone at work one day. Raj gets up and checks out the selection, double-clicking on Outkast. He wants to hear some hip-hop, he tells Jonaki when I leave the room for a moment.

The evening is a blur of Indian wine and quiet laptop music. For a while we take our tiny party out to the balcony where the night air is cool enough to be comfortable. Outside is quiet. It seems so safe. It’s hard to believe what happened tonight. It’s hard to believe it happened so close to here. GK1 is the colony right next to mine. But we don’t talk about the bombs. We talk about books and music and movies. We have something amounting to a hurricane party, defying the terrorists to ruin a perfectly good Saturday night for us in Delhi.

At three a.m. Jonaki hints to her friends that it’s time to go. She can tell I’m fading and she is too. Raj and Kartik gather their leftover booze, shake hands and take off into the night, apparently fearless.

I loan Jonaki some shorts and a t-shirt to sleep in and we crash in my king size bed. If anything could help me shake the image of that puddle of blood in the auto-rickshaw, an evening like this could. I sleep, and sleep well, if not a little too well.

I haven’t been a Mother Teresa tonight, running out to help those in need. I’ve been thinking of my own safety, leaving the aid to the locals. I wouldn’t have known where to begin helping anyway. But that is how I so often feel here. I don’t know where to begin. Give a leftover banana from breakfast to a beggar on my way to work? It’s a drop in the ocean. What difference has it made? What difference have I made?

Sometimes it seems like there is so much need in India. There is so much suffering. It is suffocating. It is insurmountable. Hunger and disastrous flooding and now terror. What else?

Sometimes a few glasses of Indian wine are all I can manage.

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