Friday, December 28, 2007

Five Mumbai Scenes

1. "Let's get mutton leg," Aliyah said.

Knowing that in India mutton often means goat, I double checked the menu before replying, "But that's goat."

"So?" Aliyah said.

I hesitated. "Well, after we saw them slit that goat's neck today..."

"Don't be a baby," Aliyah said.

"Could you really eat goat leg after that?"

"Sure, I could eat goat leg," Aliyah said. "I just don't want to eat its neck."


2. They seated us on the rooftop terrace at Indigo, a chic restaurant in south Mumbai. Before handing us each a menu, the waiter slipped a piece of paper inside that listed the day's specials.

The title of the specials menu? Dinner with Ben Foumin.

"Oh my God!" Aliyah said. "That's amazing."

"Yeah, it's pretty funny."

A half hour or so passed, during which they brought us three baskets of bread (we'd eventually get two more, for a total of five). "The bread service here is terrible," Aliyah joked. "I know," I said. "What does a guy have to do to get some complimentary focaccia around here?"

We soon opened our menus again to order dinner.

"It's so weird," she said.

"What is?"

"The chef's name."

"What's the chef's name?"

"Ben Foumin," Aliyah said. "What a coincidence!"

"No," I said. "Ben Foumin is my name."


3. "Are you Jewish?"

The question from the Indian security guard at the old synagogue in south Mumbai caught me a bit off guard. I replied with a truncated Larry David-esque soul-searching stare.

"Are you Jewish?" The guard said it louder this time.

"Yes?" I squeaked.

The guard turned to Aliyah. He didn't ask her anything, but he did offer her a cookie.


4. Our eyes were turned skyward to watch the monkeys in the trees when I heard a small splat.

I looked in front of us. There was a small pile of monkey poo no more than a foot away.

I stared at it for several seconds. Then I looked up at the monkeys. Then back at the poo. Then back at the monkeys. Then at the poo. I thought some more. Then I looked at the monkeys again. Then at the poo. Then at Aliyah, with whom I shared this revelation.

"Those monkeys just threw their poo at us!"


5. The Muslim man skinning the dead white goat in a dirty alley of Dharavi slum smiled and pointed his knife at me. Then he pointed his knife at the goat, then back at me.

"Same same," he said with a head wobble.

"Um," I said.

"Your shirt," Aliyah said.

"Oh yeah," I said, realizing that I was wearing a Thai-bought shirt bearing the strange message "SAME SAME."

The man pointed at me again with the bloody knife, then back at the dead white goat and started laughing.

"White, white," he said. "You are brothers."

"Ha ha," I laughed very uncomfortably. "Yes, we're the same color, me and that goat."

"Same same," he said, pointing the knife again.

"Bye bye," I said.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

mmmutton


It took six men to hold the goat down. They laid the animal, no bigger than an adult sized golden lab on its side, his neck hanging over a makeshift stone hole. Around us, there were several skinned goats hanging in the alleys of the Dharavi slum—Asia’s biggest—in central Mumbai.

The men were sweating as they held the goat down, their lean biceps bulging as they pressed the animal’s legs on to the ground. With one fast slash, a slit was made across the goat’s neck. Blood poured out, its color greatly contrasting to the animal’s snow-white fur. The goat screamed a guttural shriek and tried to wriggle out of his position. It was no use; the men were too skilled and the goat too dumb. Both the men and the goat remained in their positions. A thick, lime green paste, which was likely part-digested food, came up through the goat’s esophagus and out through the goat’s neck as it attempted to vomit. Even when the goat should have been dead, it continued to shake and scream. After what seemed like a week, both the men’s muscles and the goat’s muscles relaxed as the animal seized all movement. The whole procedure lasted two minutes. The image and sounds, however, are burned in my brain.

This isn’t unique of Dharavi slum—we just happened to be there during the ceremony. Many goats in India and elsewhere were sacrificed for Eid. In Delhi, many of the goats had decorations around their necks and painted horns of green and yellow. Children paraded their temporary pets around on leashes. Muslims celebrate the festival as a commemoration of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, Ishmael, under the order of God.

After watching the goat, we walked through the rest of the slum, partly in a daze. We learned that the annual turnover of work from the slum is approximately $665 million every year, with most of its workers earning less than two dollars a day. In this slum is the city’s recycling center, pottery factory, bakery, soap factory and many, many small scale industries that support India’s economy. Not one person asked us for money. The adults and children looked relatively healthy and happy. While the people in Dharavi slum do lack basic infrastructure facilities like sanitation and healthcare, maybe they do have reason to celebrate this year, with mutton, of course.

Baby monkey

Also from Elephanta Island...


Indian Mother

Mom does her best Indian dance at Humayun's Tomb during their visit to Delhi in November.


Monkey fight

From our recent visit to Elephanta Island off the coast of Mumbai. No elephants, but plenty of bold monkeys.


Thursday, December 13, 2007

Ratbird seat

The pigeon has been flapping around our office for nearly 24 hours now.

It arrived yesterday just a few minutes before I left. I'm pretty sure it came in through a (carelessly left open) window on in the stairwell between the first and second floors, and then somehow managed to fly its way up to our fourth-floor office.

Perhaps thirty people work in the office area on this floor, which is divided into four sections by clear glass walls supported by white wooden frames. The design of the window walls is strange. Some reach to the ceiling. Others do not.

This is a bad place for a frightened bird to get stuck. Its wings flapping madly, the pigeon first flew into the glass-walled section where I work and tried to turn left. It bounced off the window wall like a tennis ball hurled against a garage door.

The pigeon fell in midair a foot or two before righting itself and continuing its flight. It flew over a glass wall that doesn't reach all the way to the ceiling, and into another glass-walled section of the office. Within seconds, it had slammed full speed into at least two more glass windows. It was like a game of Pong gone bad.

Of course, the employees were all freaking out. Several people screamed. One woman hid under her desk like this was an earthquake drill. I put my glasses on to make sure the pigeon couldn't peck out my beautiful eyes.

One man did try to capture the bird. He stood on a chair and jumped in the air as the pigeon flew by. The man missed and fell to the ground.

After banging hard into a few more windows, the pigeon momentarily perched on top of one of the glass walls that doesn't reach to the ceiling. I was quite pleased that the pigeon was no longer hurtling itself into windows, as I had cringed in empathetic pain each time this happened. However, I was quite displeased that the perch the bird had chosen was directly above my desk. Worse still, its back was facing me. It was barely five feet away from me, and I could easily imagine the direct diagonal line from its tail feathers to my face. I drew my lips together tightly as I pictured the possible bird poo shower I might soon receive. I silently wished that my glasses had windshield wipers.

It was about this time that I decided to take off work a little early.

When I came back today, I assumed the pigeon problem had been solved. The morning passed uneventfully. And then, a few hours ago, a pigeon flew through the office and slammed into a glass wall.

"Holy shit!" I shouted, trying to gather the words back in as soon as I'd said them. "Another pigeon got in here?"

"No," one of my colleagues said. "It's the same pigeon."

Apparently, the bird had found a dark, shallow alcove high on one of the walls and had spent the night there, only to resurface this afternoon.

"He's going to die in here," I said. "How is he going to eat? Someone should get him out of here."

My colleagues nodded in agreement. Someone should, but we all knew none of us would be that foolish someone who would grab the bird with our bare hands. Hello, we've all heard of Avian Flu.

Aliyah asked me what the bird's name was. I said "Rat," for two reasons. The first is that this pigeon is like a rat stuck in some awful man-made maze. The second is that pigeons remind me of flying diseased rats.

Everyone in the office seems to have quickly grown accustomed to the doomed bird flapping and bumping around the office. No one but me even seems to look up when he circles just a few feet above our desks.

Rat has spent the last few hours flying laps over the short glass wall between my section of the room and another. He's passed above my desk at least twenty times. And when he stops flying laps, he picks just two spots to rest. One is the poo perch above my desk. I'm clean so far, but the day's not over yet.

Crash

The autowallah smiled when he motioned me toward his autorickshaw. His brown teeth gave him a mouthful of what looked like soggy cigarette butts. The same guy has driven me to work at least twenty times this year, so when I hopped into his autorickshaw this morning, there was no need to tell him where to go.

I like this autowallah. He drives a bit slow, but he's pretty reliable and never claims to lack change of a 100-rupee note ($2.50) the same way most of his colleagues do. I've never had to raise my voice to this autowallah, which is saying something.

Barely fifty meters from our house, we approached an empty four-way intersection of two equally-sized roads at the corner of a small park. Just as the autowallah began braking into a right turn, a silver Honda Accord (a luxury car in India) began racing through the intersection from the road we were turning right onto. The guy behind the wheel of the Accord looked neither right nor left as he tore through the intersection at a perilously high speed.

The autowallah turned right hard and slammed on the brakes. The idiot driving the Accord didn't even see us until we smashed into his rear left bumper.

The autowallah and I were both OK, and a quick examination of his vehicle showed only a minor dent. The Accord squealed to a stop and the fool driving it jumped out, surveyed the significant scratches and dents on his bumper, and started yelling at the autowallah.

The brash boob driving the Accord wore a navy blue sweater with the collar of a button-down shirt poking out. His shoes were shiny and his hair combed with precision. This rich fool sneered at my autowallah, heaping disdain and blame on the rickshaw driver's brown teeth and ratty ski cap.

They yelled at each other in Hindi for ten seconds while I continued to examine the damage to both the autorickshaw and the Accord. When I looked up again, a crowd of twenty people had gathered. A man in a dirty blue sweatshirt and unhealthy-looking red goop in his right eye appeared to be trying to mediate the argument.

I strode into the fray. Everyone but Goopy Eye ignored me. So, raising the volume of my voice as much as I tried to lower its pitch, I turned to the fool who caused the accident and said, "This was completely your fault. You didn't look right or left before you blew through the intersection. This is your fault."

Everyone looked at me like I had just spoken Swahili. The autowallah and the wealthy dope began yelling at each other again. Goopy Eye looked at me and shrugged.

Perhaps fearing the mob of poor people that was gathering around (because he certainly didn't seem troubled by my proclamation of blame), the rich fool soon scuttled to his car and drove off, without any information being exchanged. This was surely a victory for my autowallah, whose vehicle was virtually undamaged compared to the Accord.

The rest of the drive to my office was accident free. When we arrived, I tried to give my autowallah a big tip, but he refused, instead giving me a big brown smile along with the proper change from my 100-rupee note.

"You did great. That guy was a total idiot," I said to the autowallah. "That was all his fault. You did a great job."

The autowallah corrected me with a cluck. "God is great," he said.

"Whatever."

Monday, December 10, 2007

My First Thong

You'd think I would have learned my lesson.

Not a month had passed since I'd given that strange little dilettante masseuse at the Sheraton a free X-rated show. And yet here I was, at an upscale spa in Panscheel Enclave, ready to be oiled up once again.

It was Aliyah and I's one-year anniversary (Now that we are no longer measured in months, I demand that you all take us far more seriously), and amusingly oily Indian massages (that I've been assured are authentic) were on the celebration menu.

It was a Saturday morning and we sat inside a small but delightfully-heated office while a mustachioed doctor from Kerala engaged us in a plodding pre-massage interview. This session had been pitched as a helpful introduction to the foreign treatments we were about to receive. It was no such thing.

"Where are you from?" the doctor asked gravely.

"I'm from California and Aliyah's from Ohio. We used to live in New York together. But we've been living in Delhi since the summer."

The doc thumbed his stethoscope and inhaled deeply.

"And what is the weather like in this Ohio?" he intoned seriously.

"Ummm, it's cold," said a clearly-confused Aliyah.

The doctor -- who at this point we'd both silently decided should probably be referred to as a "doctor" -- allowed the non-existent gravity of this irrelevant detail to sink in before moving on to his next question.

"Now, what do you take for dinner?" he said, holding up both hands, a gesture that implied all possible responses were held in his two open palms. "Rice or chapati?"

This is akin to asking someone in America what they eat for dinner -- crackers or breadsticks. Aliyah and I laughed through this and the rest of the "doctor"'s questions, which continued to focus on weather, diet, the popularity of Indian massages in Ohio, etc...

Eventually, we were escorted into separate massage rooms. Strange but authentic-looking wooden apparatuses hung from the ceiling. A long wooden table with a small raised lip stood in the room's center. Next to it were two small but very strong Indian men who wore matching shirts, aprons, mustaches and smiles. One of them told me to undress.

It was about here that I began to have a somewhat unnerving sense of deja vu.

I slowly stripped down to my boxer briefs while one of the Indian men stood no more than six inches away. I hesitantly moved toward the massage table. The masseuse shook his head. He pointed to my underwear. And then he held up an article of cotton clothing that looked like some sort of thin, diaper-like thong.

Sighing with resignation to the inevitable, I took off my underwear. And then this little Indian men dressed me in the skimpiest undergarments I ever have, and ever hope to, wear. I looked away from him while he tied tight bows with the bikini-like strings that dangled from my hips.

Ready for the prom, I was instructed to sit on the edge of the table. Both men started oiling me up. One worked on my back while the other rubbed (the contents of an industrial-sized bottle of) oil into my hair.

It was about here that I realized that two men would be massaging me, not one. And it is at this point in the retelling that I must admit that the four-manhand massage they gave was probably the best professional massage I've ever received.

The two men were powerful and in-sync -- like rowers on a professional crew team. A four-handed massage can be a lame novelty if two people are simply giving the recipient two separate but simultaneous massages. But not these guys. It was like they were sharing the same brain. What happened to my right arm happened to my left. The pressure and timing were in lockstep.

The massage was so good that I momentarily forgot I was wearing a thong diaper. I only remembered again when the flimsy undergarment became so soaked with oil that it flapped uselessly at my side and had to be retied.

("My thong kept falling off," I later told Aliyah. "Did yours?")

After the massage, there was an odd procedure where I laid still while a gold vessel dangling above my head dripped "medicated" oil onto my forehead. This must have gone on for 45 minutes, and was just about as strange as it sounds.

The massage resumed after this drizzling, and I was so caught up with the powerful synchronization with which the masseuses were beating the hell out of my tense and tired muscles that I almost completely forgot about the oil-soaked loincloth barely masking my nether regions.

When the massage ended, the lead masseuse led me to a large cabinet in the corner of the room. He instructed me to sit inside, and warned me not to touch a metal pipe running along one of the cabinet's interior walls. I sat down, my neck fitting comfortably into a groove carved in the cabinet's top. The masseuse then turned a nozzle, and shut the cabinet doors. My entire body was inside, with only my head and neck sticking up out of a hole in the top. And then the cabinet began to fill with steam.

Apparently, this spa could not afford a steam room. They've settled for a steam cabinet.

As excellent as this massage was in many ways, it was exceedingly strange in others. I've decided that for the rest of our time in India, I'll only be patronizing spas that have a BYOU policy -- Bring Your Own Underwear.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Shaken

I was shaking like a Parkinson's patient in an earthquake.

My left foot was pointed south and planted a meter and a half away from my right foot, which was pointing west. My right knee was bent at a 90-degree angle, my right tricep was touching the inside of my right thigh, and Sukant Tiwari was pushing my upper body toward the ground. My calves throbbed, my groin was on the verge of snapping,
and my quadriceps were shaking harder than a maraca held by an exonerated Barry Bonds.

"Ahhhhhhhh," I groaned. Aliyah, who was in a mirror position (minus the shaking, pain and monumental effort), laughed. Sukant Tiwari let up on my back and looked at my purpling face.

"Are you OK?" Sukant Tiwari said with genuine concern.

"Ye-es?" I squeaked.

"No, you are not OK," he said, gently easing me out of the pose. "Do not fight with your body."

We were on the rooftop terrace outside our home on a Sunday morning. As a (very thoughtful and appreciated) anniversary gift, Aliyah had hired Sukant Tiwari to give us a private yoga lesson every Sunday at our home. We were skeptical when he showed up on a motorcycle, wearing jeans, and without a yoga mat, but Sukant Tiwari turned out to be a killer yoga instructor.

I like to pretend that I'm good at yoga. I've taken at least a few dozen yoga classes over the years. Plus, I eat granola and listen to Bob Dylan. So when Sukant Tiwari asked us whether we'd practiced yoga before, I answered with ill-advised hubris.

"Oh yeah," I bragged. "We've done some yoga."

And to show him I really knew what I was talking about, I pressed my palms together in front of my chest and said, "Namaste." And then I winked.

As soon as our private lesson began, I realized this was going to be far more difficult than any yoga class I'd ever taken. When there are twenty people in the room, I don't really have to push myself. It's unlikely that the instructor of such a big class will correct me more than a couple times. But there was no escaping the watchful eyes of Sukant Tiwari. When he thought I could go farther, he adjusted my body the same way he would a Gumby doll. This hurt. A lot.

Poses which had always seemed simple were suddenly a struggle. For instance, I pressed my palms together, raised my arms above my head and, following Sukant Tiwari's instruction, leaned slightly to the right. "No problem," I thought. Then, from behind, two hands gently grabbed my armpits and dragged my upper body down and to the right, at least tripling the degree to which I was leaning. Muscles (whose existence I had previously been unaware of) on my left side quivered and screamed.

"Ahhhhh," I grimaced.

The class continued like this. I initially thought every pose was easy until Sukant Tiwari adjusted me into a far more demanding (and correct) position. Each pose then ended either with me bailing prematurely or shaking like a tambourine played by the Micro Machines Guy after six cups of coffee.

The class ended after an hour. My three chanted "Om"s, which I think is a mantra meant to represent a vibration that yogis say pervades the entire universe (or something else I don't believe in), sounded more like the last croaks of a dying frog than a powerful finale.

Over glasses of water afterwards (Sukant Tiwari, like many Indians I know, prefers room temperature water to the chilled stuff we keep in the fridge), we realized that despite the strenuous workout we'd just had, we actually felt great. Next week, same time, same place, we told Sukant Tiwari.

"Good," he said. "Next week we'll start trying hard stuff."

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

These People

Roger Rabbit flashed a goofy smile as he handed over the pizza.

"Extraaaaaa pepperooooooooooooniiii," Roger Rabbit said, adding with a flourish a limber time step. I nodded hungrily. And then the cartoon rabbit did something strange. He started chanting fast and loud in a deep and distinctly Indian voice.

"Hooooooooooooooo! Do my do be do ba do ha do bo do bi, hoooooooooo!" Roger Rabbit chanted.

I opened my eyes. The chanting continued. The clock by the bed read 5:51. That's 5:51 a.m.

The chanting Hindu was several blocks away, but his voice was amplified by a megaphone that seemed to be of cosmic proportions. It sounded like he was standing right next to the bed. With a microphone.

Such has been our wake-up call for most mornings over the last two weeks. The time varies slightly, but it's almost always on the wrong side of 6 a.m. Finally, I asked our landlord a couple days ago what was going on.

Mrs. Aggarwal rolled her eyes at the question. She was clearly annoyed too.

"These people," she said, shaking her head.

Apparently, "these people" are members of a sect of Hinduism that Mrs. Aggarwal couldn't name, and that dutiful Wikipedia searches by me could not turn up. For a few weeks in the fall, when the weather in Delhi, in its transition from uncomfortably hot to uncomfortably cold, is somewhat pleasant, these people believe that they should enjoy as much of the beautiful day as possible. That means getting up very early. But they don't just think they should wake up early to enjoy the entire day, Mrs. Aggarwal said. They think everyone should.

It's thus no accident that it sounds as if there's a voice of god (absence of capitalization is deliberate and intended as mildly provocative, believers) alarm clock next to the bed. That's the whole point. It's not as if I'm accidentally overhearing one of these people's important ceremonies. The whole point of these people's important ceremony is to wake me up.

This strikes me as unfair, and really only a watered-down version of the sort of western proselytizing that so riles me. Who are these people to tell me when to get up? Who are these people to make me enjoy the beautiful day? If I want to lay in bed all day with the blinds drawn, eating Cheetos and watching reruns of My Wife and Kids, well that's my right, dammit!

Taking my cues from the great Mahatma Gandhi (wasn't it he who advised that opponents could be thoroughly vanquished by taking an eye for an eye?), I'm considering forcing some of my own habits on the neighborhood.

You see, to me, 8 p.m. on a Friday night is a really great time to eat bacon cheeseburgers. Why should I keep this knowledge to myself? After all, bacon cheeseburgers are delicious. But because the many cow-revering, meat-spurning residents of our neighborhood might disagree, I think it may take a bit of prodding to convince everyone. So I plan on hand delivering these artery-cloggers to homes throughout the neighborhood every Friday. If necessary, I'll shove them for several long minutes under the nose of whoever answers the door. Or, maybe I'll rent a van, park it near a school, sit in the back of it, and subversively hand out cheeseburgers to young kids.

Or I could just wait the whole thing out. After all, Mrs. Aggarwal said that within a week or two, it will have gotten cold enough that even these people will want to sleep in.

Monday, November 19, 2007

McIndia

On a recent Sunday, Ben and I went to Lajpat Nagar market to buy a few belongings for Aaron’s visit. We made a copy of our house key, tried our meek bargaining skills for a sofa bed, and bought new sheets for the arrival of Ben’s younger brother. By 1 p.m. we were hungry, and our eyes caught glimpse of the golden arches at the same time

By lunchtime, McDonalds was filled. Thirty or so patrons nibbled on french-fries, sipped on milkshakes, and one or two kids even pointed at Ben thinking a real live Ronald McDonald had walked into their favorite restaurant. One woman tried to get a ketchup stain out of her cream-colored sari by spitting into her napkin and assiduously rubbing the paper cloth against her knee.

We were shocked to see that there were no super-size-me options. Ben immediately began to scan the menu for the biggest looking item. He found it: the Maharaja Mac, a double decker chicken sandwich. In India, we realized, there’s something missing at the world’s largest fast food giant: hamburgers. Besides chicken, India’s burgers are 100% vegetarian. A “burger” comprised of a deep fried patty is filled with potatoes, peas, carrots, and some sort of anonymous spice (It’s called the Mc Aloo Tikki burger). The cost: 50 cents.

Fast food here, is not so fast. We waited at least 15 minutes for our sandwiches (I settled for the paneer (cheese) salsa wrap). The meal also comes complete with security guards. When a barefooted child approached Ben for a McHandout, a guard quickly escorted her out of the restaurant. He seemed to appear out of nowhere.

Apparently, McDonalds is a popular place to go on a date. The few McDonalds that I’ve been to are teeming with 20-somethings holding hands, nestled in a booth while staring lovingly at each other over their sesame seed buns and vanilla ice cream cones.

Overall, the paneer salsa wrap tasted like cardboard food product, but maybe I need to give it another chance. Afterall, McDonalds has only been in India for about 10 years.

Searching for Steve Carell

We'd been trying to watch The 40-Year-Old Virgin all day.

Aliyah had been proclaiming for weeks that this was one funny movie. So I downloaded it. But this being India, we were unable to play the downloaded film on either of our computers, despite multiple hours of me trying to come up with slapdash solutions like some sort of techie-Macgyver. No matter how much I threw around words like "codec" and "defrag," the movie still wouldn't play. I was stumped.

As day turned to night, our hunger for The 40-Year-Old Virgin still unsatisfied, we set off for Palika Bazaar, where we'd heard bootleg movies could be bought cheaply and easily.

We arrived at the (literally) underground market and began squishing our way through the crowded subterranean passageways as hawkers tried to coax us into stalls boasting electronics, clothes, jewelry and perfume -- all of it, we assumed, either stolen, counterfeit or defective.

"Hey buddy," one Indian said, "you come look store me."

Without slowing my stride, I peeked into his store, which had on display a stack of belt buckles, a rack of colorful shawls, and a whole lot of out-of-the-box electronics. "No thanks," I said. "I don't want."

Narrowing his eyes, lowering his voice and somehow retracting his neck like a turtle, the tout then tried this simple lure: "Porn." It was a sales pitch I'd hear a dozen times during our short visit to the bazaar.

Finding a stall with 40-Year-Old Virgin cousin The Wedding Crashers on display, we stopped to search. This, however, proved to be more difficult than using the handy layout of most American video stores, where separate film genres are further organized alphabetically.

"40-Year-Old Virgin?" Aliyah asked. The guy behind the counter nodded and slapped a pile of 100 or so disks in amateurishly-labeled plastic sleeves down on the counter. We looked through them all. Nothing remotely close.

While I'd heard of many of the big-name movies presented to us (X-Men, The Bourne Ultimatum, and Transformers) some were laughably unfamiliar. At the top of that list was something absurdly claiming to be Jurassic Park 4, and even more ludicrously subtitled The T-Rex Complex.

Many of the disks were compilations, boasting as many as a dozen different films on one DVD. Some were thoughtfully arranged. A Will Smith collection, for instance, or eight boxing movies on one disk.
The composition of others was beyond confusing. A handful of Superman films on the same disk as the Saw series? The Sound of Music sharing digital real estate with Hellboy? Even a DVD of wedding-themed films inexplicably contained Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle.

We looked through a half dozen stacks of pirated movies -- hundreds upon hundreds of films -- without finding 40-Year-Old Virgin, though we did find a handful of movies
(Rocky Balboa for me, The Holiday for Aliyah) that we bought at about $2 a piece.

We went to another stall. Aliyah began flipping through movies while a smarmy shopkeep tried to sell me a fancy-looking, feature-laden, box-less Samsung DVD player for about $30.

"Is this a real Samsung?" I asked.

"Yes," he smiled.

"How can you sell it for $30?"

"Eh?" he said.

"If it's a real Samsung, how can you sell it for $30?"

He still didn't answer. I tried another approach.

"Is it stolen?"

"No," he shook his head. "It's not a real Samsung."

I went to look through DVDs with Aliyah. We easily flipped through more than a thousand. We bought Dreamgirls and The Godfather trilogy. No sign of 40-Year-Old Virgin.

We were starting to get tired of looking through DVDs, and were definitely tired of being offered pornography. A boy in a green shirt and hat dragged us to another stall, promising that they had 40-Year-Old Virgin. We told two guys behind the counter what we were looking for. They sped through stacks of DVD sleeves like automatons on speed. Ten minutes passed, during which I'm sure these robots looked through at least three million movies. No luck.

We were leaving the bazaar, mildly disappointed, when Aliyah decided to try one last stall. "40-Year-Old Virgin?" she barely managed. The guy behind the counter smiled. He gestured for her to wait as he loped off down the crowded corridor.

Still dispirited, we browsed through the DVDs at the now-abandoned stall while a nearby tout tried to sell me a gallon jug of perfume. A couple minutes passed. We started walking away.

And then, like some sort of comedy-carrying angel, that smiling Indian salesman
came running toward us with his arm raised high, clutching a copy of 40-Year-Old Virgin. We were thrilled. Finally. We could go home.

"How much?" Aliyah said.

"150," the salesman said. About four dollars.

"What?" an outraged Aliyah said, pointing to the other disks we'd already bought. "We got these for 100!"

"Let's just buy it," I whispered.

The salesman smiled. "150."

"Is that your best price?" Aliyah demanded with the toughness that can only come from spending several months in Delhi, before laughing and forking over the cash.

We began walking away, Aliyah a few steps in front of me. The perfume salesman waited until she was out of earshot and then grabbed my wrist. "Porn?" he asked.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Toxic Fog

Aliyah was reaching out to pet the puppy when the machine gun fire started.

The pup -- an adorable little stray too young for the typical Indian canine affliction of mange -- ran. We screamed. "Tat-a-tat-pat," went the machine gun.

Of course, the machine gun was not really a machine gun -- something we realized when we saw a handful of Indian tweens laughing near the source of the noise and smoke. These were simply firecrackers -- or crackers, as they're called here -- being set off in celebration of Diwali, a holiday which, as far as I can tell, commemorates the return to India of an ancient murderous god after his rout of an island king. Or something. I think the myth also includes a bit about the god getting a group of flying monkeys to build a bridge from India to Sri Lanka. Or something.

We spent the day of Diwali simply (a run in Lodhi Garden and lunch at the All-American Diner), and were on our way to dinner at a friend's when the kids began shelling Kalindi Colony with war-like sounds and explosions. I started making lots of bad jokes about how I felt like we were in Baghdad/Dresden/Grozny/etc.

The street in front of the kids' house was literally covered for tens of meters with ash and other remnants of hundreds of exploded crackers. The air was heavy with poison. As we passed the boys, I coughed loudly on purpose. Then I hurried by before they could fire at us in retaliation.

After a delicious Diwali dinner, we decided to go native and do our part in violating the Kyoto Protocol. We stopped at a roadside cracker stand. This was not like sneaking M-80s across the U.S.-Mexico border. There were racks upon racks of industrial-strength explosives, all of them being eagerly purchased by pyromaniacs-in-training. There were grenade-shaped explosives the size of cantaloupes. Rockets the size of my arm. And one piece of merchandise disturbingly called a Weaponized Nuke. Many of the cracker packages prominently displayed half-naked white women in the foreground.

With a huge sack full of ammunition, we headed back to Kalindi Colony. Meeting up with a couple dozen Indians, most of them our age or older, we staked out a spot in the middle of a wide residential street and began blowing things up.

Being a coward (and notably one that was particularly concerned that his beautiful, beautiful hair might catch fire), I hung back as several twenty-something Indians gleefully launched showers of colorful flame into the air, and set whirling galaxies of sparks spinning at our feet.

I was soon dragged forward, handed a sparkler (the firework's gay cousin, as it's been said), and nearly taken by the hand to the middle of the street, where I skittishly lit a few crackers of my own.

"Aiieee!" I screamed.

Around this time, the noise and the smell became overwhelming. The air was so thick with smoke, ash and innumerable pollutants that it was difficult to see more than a few meters ahead. It smelled like a lethal bonfire, and toxic fog hovered all around us.

"I feel like we're in downtown Baghdad!" I shouted to no one in particular.

The shouting was necessary because of the near-damaging level of noise. Every second or two, the trees shook with a booming explosion, or with the automatic-fire of several small crackers exploding in sequence. Half our crowd had their hands covering their ears at all times. The blasts were constant, deafening and a bit scary.

"I feel like we're in downtown Baghdad!" I yelled to the guy next to me.

"Yes, you've said that," he replied.

"Oh," I said. "Right."

Soon I started wondering about the very real danger of Delhi burning down. One guy in our crowd began lighting crackers that he held in his hand (Brilliant!) and throwing them onto someone's front yard, where they burst apart with a shower of fiery sparks that landed on grass and bushes. A couple other guys began shooting off fireworks that, once they reached their apex in the sky, opened into a burning ball of green flame attached to a parachute. The parachute slowly lowered the fireball down, often into a tree. I hoped our house would still be standing when we got home later.

After a couple hours of cracker attacks, we were finally out of ammunition. One of our new friends invited us over to his place for a quick Indian nightcap. Juice boxes were served. I had a sweet lime and a mixed fruit. About 10 adults stood in a circle sipping juice from little boxes through small straws. Outside the circle, someone's four-year-old son searched desperately among the juice boxes for more firecrackers.

Check out the photos here.

The Office



A couple photos from a little party at work in September.


Thursday, November 8, 2007

Dussehra in Delhi

A few weeks ago, we celebrated Dussehra, the ending of a 10-day festival commemorating the forces of good over the forces of evil.

My Australian neighbor, Danielle, Ben and I went to the park where huge effigies of Ravana (the evil force) were burned. Ravana was the ruler of Lanka who abducted Prince Rama's wife. Prince Rama (the good force) was eventually victorious after praying and fasting for 10 days. The holiday is now known as an auspicious day to start new things in life.

Several hundred people gathered in our neighborhood park to listen to drummers, light firecrackers and watch the large mannequins burn to the ground. At one point a tree in the park caught on fire. At one point Ben went home. At one point my right ear stopped working from all the noise.

Take a look at the photos.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Full Monty

I was ready to relax. My parents were in town, and Aliyah and I were about to experience luxury.

I stepped out of the shower (Hot water! So much pressure!) in the men's locker room at the upscale Sheraton in Saket, and towel-changed back into my underwear. A small Indian man dressed all in white had been waiting for me, and now beckoned me into the massage room adjoining the locker room.

He shut the door of the small room behind us. I started to climb onto the massage table.

"Wait," the little man said. He pointed to my boxer briefs. "You take those off, too."

A veteran of many a massage, I wasn't unnerved by this request. What was strange, though, was that the masseuse didn't leave the room. He just stood there. Facing me.

I'm still not exactly sure why I didn't say something, though I recall thinking that I did not want to be seen as squeamish in the face of a foreign custom. After a couple seconds of internal struggle, I thought, "Well, what the hell?" and took off my last article of clothing. I made sure not to make eye contact with the masseuse.

"Start face up," he said, patting the table.

"Ummmm...OK."

I (nervously) climbed onto the table and lay there, naked and face up. I waited for him to cover me with a towel. Too many seconds passed. I shut my eyes. Then I felt two hands starting to oil up one of my legs.

I don't have any Costanza-esque hangups about male masseuses. I like to think of myself as open minded. But what followed can only be described as two to three minutes of muted panic. I gnashed my teeth. I squirmed. I frantically wondered whether I could beat up the little masseuse, if things took an even more uncomfortable turn. I opened one eye, and squintingly appraised him. Clenching my fists with absurd bravado, I decided that I could take him, if he made the wrong move.

Thankfully, the masseuse's hands came nowhere near restricted airspace, and my panic soon subsided. I spent the next couple minutes quietly laughing about what a strange custom these Indians had, and how this would all sound in the retelling. Then I resolved to enjoy myself as best I could, considering the unsettling circumstances.

About twenty minutes passed. I was just starting to relax. Then the masseuse announced he was going to get a hot towel. Before he left the room, he covered me from chest to toe in a long, sheet-like towel.

Apparently, it was only when I was alone in the room that the masseuse thought my private parts might want, well, privacy.

The masseuse returned, and replaced the first towel with the hot one he had just retrieved. Then he told me to flip over onto my stomach. I did. He resumed the massage. He did not remove the towel.

Yes, that's right. For the remainder of the massage, I remained covered. It was only when I was laying face up on the massage table like a tray of cold cuts that the masseuse did not cover me with a towel.

When retelling this story over dinner with Indian friends that night, it became immediately clear that such bare-all massages are most certainly not common here. I had been duped! Many a joking suggestion was offered as to the masseuse's motivation. Of all people, my mother had the best line.

"He'd probably never seen someone with red hair before," she said, "and wanted to find out if you were really a redhead."

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Family album

My parents are in India. Check it out.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Identity crisis

Earlier this month, before I contracted, suffered from and eventually beat malaria, Aliyah and I spent a few days in Mumbai. I was on business -- a delegate for my employer at a national magazine conference at a fancy hotel by the sea there.

The conference was fascinating and fun, and the trip, overall, was wonderful and, perhaps best of all, essentially free. However, during the run-up to the trip, I encountered a frustrating obstacle as a result of subtle and benign racism.

The day before the conference, I still hadn't been given plane tickets and was starting to get anxious. Finally, about 20 hours before my plane was to leave, a woman who I'd never seen before, but had apparently handled the bookings, approached my desk. Speaking frantic Hindi to a couple of my colleagues, the woman meekly handed me two plane tickets. I began examining them. The dates and times were right. Everything appeared to be in order. But then a problem jumped out.

"Brian Escochar," I said, reading the name on the tickets.

"This might be a problem for you," one of my colleagues said.

"Yes," I nodded. "I imagine it will be."

I approached a senior colleague to ask about the mix up. He assured me that the company would fix everything. And for the record, it did. The name on my Delhi-Mumbai ticket was quickly changed to my own, and when the airline adamantly refused to change the name on the Mumbai-Delhi leg, the company bought me a replacement ticket.

But how, I wondered, had the mix up occurred in the first place?

"Well," a coworker told me, "the order to buy a ticket for Ben Frumin somehow got misinterpreted, and instead they bought a ticket for Brian Escochar."

"Who is Brian Escochar?" I asked.

"He works downstairs."

"But he's not a gora, right?"

"No," my colleague said, "he's Indian. But he does have a Christian name."

This confused me even more. "But I'm not Christian."

What had happened, of course, is that to the well-meaning Indian employee who'd booked my tickets, the foreign-sounding names Ben Frumin and Brian Escochar are very similar. I made a lot of hay about the subtle racism in this confusion ("It would be like if I confused the names Jose Garcia and Juan Gonzalez!"), but really, the mistake was harmless. And not one that I'm above making. After all, wouldn't it be conceivable for me to confuse two Indian names like Suvrokamal Charkravorty and Sukumar Choudhury? Of course. So, no harm, no foul.

This is Brian Escochar, signing off.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Five game scenes

1. Yash's drawing looked like some sort of deformed sock puppet. He moved his pencil slowly and deliberately, drawing the ambiguous object while his teammates bellowed harried guesses.

"Oven mitt!" Amit shouted.

"Bread!" Dave tried. "Loaf of bread!"

"Oven mitt! Oven mitt!"

"Meatloaf!"

"Time!" Anant screamed with glee. I looked at the small plastic Pictionary timer. All the white sand had collected in the bottom half.

Yash threw his pencil down and looked at his teammates as if they were fools.

"Shoe!" he yelled. "Shoe!"

Dave leaned over the drawing and squinted. He shined his headlamp more directly on the sketch. He spun the paper 180 degrees. He looked at Yash, puzzled.

"Shoe?"

Amit stood up and pointed an accusatory finger at Yash and the drawing. He wagged it back and forth and screamed louder than the Ganges whitewater that would thrill us all the next morning.

"How is that a shoe?" Amit screamed, so loud that my own throat seemed to hurt. His finger wagging intensified, and Amit grabbed his hair with his other hand.

"HOW IS THAT A SHOE?"

2. "Strawberry."

"Apple."

"Mango."

"Papaya."

"Blueberry."

"Guava."

"Kiwi."

"Tomato."

"No!" several of the Indians seemed to yell in unison. "No!"

"Yes," I said. "Tomato."

"Tomato is not a fruit," Yash said.

"Tomato is a fruit," I said.

"No!" one of the girls chided. Her voice took on the sort of condescension usually reserved for children. "Tomato is a vegetable."

Soon there was a chorus of Indian voices trying to drown Aliyah's and my calm, reasonable and, most importantly, undeniably correct assertion that a tomato is a fruit.

"No! No! No! Vegetable! No!" the darkness along the river seemed to echo.

"Indians, Indians," I said, finally getting them all to quiet down. "Apparently, the news has yet to reach your country. So please, let me be the first to tell you: Tomatoes are fruit."

Devyani laughed and conceded the point.

3. "Bird! Bird!"

Puja waved them on with her free hand, continuing to point at the sketch (which barely resembled a bird) with the pencil.

"Songbird!" Devyani screamed.

"Nightingale!" Anant shouted.

Puja gave a thumbs up sign. I cringed.

"Florence Nightingale!" Anant screamed.

I stared at Puja's mediocre drawing of a quasi-bird.

"Yeeeeeeeeeesssss!" Puja delighted. "Yes! Yes!"

"Oooooooh, yes!" Anant shouted.

I looked at the picture again before offering a carefully considered comment.

"What the fuck?" I said.

4. "OK," Amit said. "Animals."

"Dog," Dipika said.

"Bird," Aliyah said.

"No!" Yash shouted. "Bird is not an animal!"

"How is bird not an animal?" I said.

5. "Puja and I will go make some tea," Anant said. "Anyone else want some?"

After a chorus of "No"s, the pair trudged off along the river sand toward the surprisingly good kitchen.

We were quiet for a few seconds. I looked at the Pictionary board. The quiet continued.

"So..." I finally ventured. "Are we just supposed to wait?"

"I guess so," Amit said.

"What the hell?" said the Irish river guide.

"Can we just go and skip their turn," someone suggested.

"Yeah, they forfeit their turn," someone else said.

"What time is it anyway?" I asked.

Amit checked his watch. "Almost midnight."

"What?" I jumped up. "Screw this. Let's go to bed."

We gathered up the game, drew a pictorial note that, we thought, conveyed our victory and the tea-makers' forfeit, and left for our tents.

I am told that a few minutes later Anant showed up with tea for everyone to find an extinguished lantern and abandoned game.





Saturday, October 20, 2007

indian flu

I woke up sweating one morning to find that the air conditioning was turned off (It’s still hot in Delhi--in the 90’s on most days, so AC is a must, especially at night).

I wandered into our living room to find Ben sitting on the couch wearing sweatpants, a thermal shirt, sweatshirt, socks and winter ski hat, all bundled under a thick blanket rubbing his hands together.

“It’s freezing in here!” he exclaimed through chattering teeth.

That’s when we discovered Ben has malaria.

Okay, well not really. But he’s been showing symptoms all week: fever, vomit, chills, cough, headache, and orthostatic hypotension. We don’t know what that is, but we’re sure he has it. Luckily, I’m not working this week, and Ben was able to take the whole week off to recuperate, which means I got to play nurse.

We quickly ran out of the American medicine we brought with us. After scrounging around in our medicine cabinet for a stray Airborne, Advil, Day/Nyquil, or Motrin pill, I knew I’d have to make a visit to the pharmacist (which they call chemists). I walked across the street and downstairs to the small dark store to describe Ben’s symptoms to the chemist. “Coughing” <>, “Fever” <>, “chills” <>>, I told her.

She said something in Hindi, and a man went scrounging through several boxes until he found the one he was looking for. He took a paper towel to rub dust off the box, and cut off a strip of medicine containing 6 tablets. “Take one morning. One night,” he said. “Sixteen rupees.” Only 43 cents. I asked for some other options and went home with four strips of medicine.

Upon returning home, we googled the name of the medicines to see which ones would best fit Ben’s symptoms. All of the medicine required prescriptions from a doctor, but not in India. One type of medicine was for HIV. Another was for hay fever. One was an antihistamine. One strip, however, was for the common cold. It was our golden nugget.

We’ve spent the week watching old movies like Sneakers and reruns of TV shows like Seinfeld, Full House and Who’s the Boss. There’s no such thing as chicken noodle soup, so we’ve been living off of hot and sour soup from an Indo-Chinese restaurant that happens to deliver. We’ve also been drinking a lot of orange juice, sprite and tea.

We’ve been making progress. The AC was on when I woke up this morning, and Ben made two eggs for himself for breakfast. I know we’ll be all better by the time he’s eating four.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Dead fish

Gluttony, it seems, is indeed a deadly sin. Ben Fish, that pig of a fish who inhaled every food pellet in sight before his bowlmates even managed to digest a bite, died Thursday.

We had returned two days earlier from a short business trip to Mumbai. While we were away, our landlord fed our three fish. All seemed well to me when we returned, though Aliyah insisted in hindsight that something about Ben Fish's behavior had seemed, well, fishy.

"I suspect foul play," she scowled. "I think Ben Fish was poisoned."

"Why would our landlord murder Ben Fish?" I asked.

Aliyah looked at me as if the answer was obvious. "Because he's not paying rent," she deadpanned.

Time-lapse poison or no, two days after our return from Mumbai, I found Ben Fish floating belly-half-up on the surface of the dirty water (in my opinion, the real cause of death) filling their bowl. I tapped the glass. Aliyah Fish nibbled at Ben Fish's tail. He didn't move.

"Uh oh," I said.

I called Aliyah over and shared my morbid discovery. In between brief but passion bouts of sadness ("We couldn't even keep our first pet alive for a month!") she hatched all manner of conspiracy theories ("I'm sure Ben Fish was poisoned. There's no other explanation."), and searched the internet for specific causes of death (She googled "fish dying.") and for local veterinarians who might be able to perform a late-night fish autopsy ("I have to know what happened to Ben Fish. I don't care what it costs.").

It soon came time to dispose of the body. Perhaps too callously, I suggested flushing Ben Fish down the toilet. Aliyah reminded me that our toilet suffers from weak plumbing that sometimes prevents immediate, thorough disposal of waste. The toilet is prone to stragglers, and we did not want a dead fish floating there any longer than necessary.

"Get a shovel," Aliyah said. "We'll bury him in the park."

I shoved a spoon in my front pocket and gingerly placed Ben Fish inside a plastic bag.

"Now," Aliyah instructed, "we each need to pick something that's important to us to bury with him."

This proved tricky for me. I slowly walked through our house, but discovered that any object which meant anything to me was also something I was unwilling to bury next to a dead fish.

After several minutes of unsuccessful searching, I approached our medicine cabinet and pulled out my bottle of malaria pills. About 50 small pink pills rattled around inside. I began removing one. Aliyah narrowed her eyes.

"A malaria pill?"

"I don't want Ben Fish to get sick in the afterlife."

Aliyah graciously agreed that the green, white and orange wristband she'd selected (an office gift she'd received on the sixtieth anniversary of India's independence) could suffice as both our objects. Dropping the nationalistic accessory in the bag with Ben Fish, we began our funeral march.

Several Indian men were sleeping in the park. We tiptoed around them. Aliyah pointed to a spot beneath a tree. I stuck the spoon into the dirt. Hard as a rock. We continued looking, but found the park earth unforgiving.

Finally, we found a large pile of dead leaves and other dried brush. The pile reached nearly a meter high, and scooping out a deep crevice, we placed Ben Fish deep inside this once-verdant cave. After thoughtful eulogies ("I've never met a fish with such a strong personality," Aliyah said), we headed back upstairs to mourn with the survivors.

We walked from the park in silence for about three seconds. Then Aliyah looked at me with wide and excited eyes.

"Can we get a dog now?"

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Of fish and meat

The fish are alive. Ben Fish continues to eat every pellet dropped in the bowl. Aliyah Fish is still an incompetent eater who regurgitates every bite she takes. Amazingly, she lives. Maybe she's sneaking cookies and chocolate from our fridge in the middle of the night.

And that all-too-sober, protein-deficient month of September is, thank Vishnu, over. We're proud for having achieved our perplexing goal of abstinence, and have vowed never to make such a foolish commitment again.

We broke the fast on a Sunday. I drank whiskey and beer on the wrong side of noon. We ordered two greasy pizzas -- pepperoni and chili chicken -- from a delivery joint called Smokin Joe's. We sat on our terrace with our Aussie neighbor Danielle and reveled in sun and meat. I never thought flesh could taste so good.

And, of course, by 3 p.m. we felt ill. It turns out that returning to action after a meatless month can even make the most ravenous bacon-scarfing cheeseburger fiend sick. My stomach roiled. I belched more in an hour than I had all year. I could almost hear the pig oinking and the chicken clucking from the dark recesses of my churning abdomen.

Nothing a little nap wouldn't cure. By dinner I was back. We ordered way too much meaty, oily, gooey gloop from the Om Hotel, and I washed it down with a cold beer.

Ah, success.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

give a dog a bone

New Delhi is teeming with homeless hounds. The dogs spend their days trotting through the dusty streets and their nights scraping out a living in India’s capital. Many of the females have sagging nipples that nearly drag on the ground, the product of being a puppy factory most of their lives. Several have small patches of fur missing from scratching away their fleas or duking out their territory. They really are quite perfect.

And, like most of the poor in India, they are largely ignored, including the five or six pups in our neighborhood that always congregate outside of our grocery store, Hawker’s House. They sleep under cars and keep at respectful distances from humans. One recent evening Ben and I decided to walk to the store for an ice cream when I came up with, what I thought was a genius idea.

“We get a treat, why shouldn’t the dogs?” I asked Ben as I put a bag of dog bones on the cashier’s counter. He gave me a funny look and reluctantly paid for the 60-rupee bag of raw hides.

“These dogs are going to be so happy,” I said as we walked out of the store, opening the bag, thinking it would be a sort of trick-or-treat holiday for our neighborhood pets. I saw my first dog, a brown dog so skinny you could see his ribs poking out through his fur. I set a bone in between his paws. He sniffed the bone and then meandered to a garbage pile of onion peels, fruit scraps and plastic bowls that once held street vendor samosas and panipuri.

“These dogs are stupid,” said Ben. “They don’t even know what bones are.”

It turns out, he was right. After attempting the same routine with several other dogs, we decided they had never had a bone in their lives. One dog pawed at the bone, unsure what to do with it, another ignored it completely. The next morning, the bones lay in their original spots.

I recently read that over 2,000 dogs are born in India every hour. Someone should inform them about bones.

Next time, I think we’ll skip the bones altogether. Double ice-cream for the both of us.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Chak De India

The explosions rattled the windows of our little house. We hurried outside.

Don't worry. This was no Baghdad moment. India had just won the inaugural Twenty20 World Cup of cricket, narrowly knocking off Pakistan in the finals in South Africa -- a match with so much baggage that one of my Indian friends had likened the India-Pakistan cricket rivalry to a war between the two nuclear powers.

The Indian victory won the celebrating team a full-page photo on the cover of today's Hindustan Times, knocking to page three the very important appointment of Rahul Gandhi (son, grandson and great-grandson of Indian prime ministers) as general secretary of the All India Congress Committee.

Cricket is really important here.

I watched the last forty minutes of the match, during which any doubts that cricket might be as interesting as baseball were incinerated. And within two seconds of the last out, the explosions started.

From our terrace, we watched the otherwise dark sky illuminated by explosions of red, green, blue and white. The fireworks came from all directions, and continued blasting every few seconds for hours on end -- at least until the wrong side of midnight.

"This is crazy," Aliyah said as we watched our typically slumbering neighborhood spotlighted by sparkling rockets several times each minute. It seemed that most of the fireworks were coming from the rooftops of residential buildings. We laughed as we pictured a blue-collar Indian man skipping most of the match so that his pyrotechnic setup would be ready for launch within seconds of India's victory. We imagined him standing on his scummy roof, waiting, waiting, waiting, until the moment when his stodgy wife yelled up to him that India had won, and he could set his display alight. We laughed even harder at the past possibility of India losing, causing our roof guy to sadly gather his unlit fireworks for potential use next year.

After about 15 minutes of watching the sky's seemingly ceaseless celebration, we went inside. We started reading, but were soon interrupted by what sounded like machine gun fire coming from the park across the street from our house.

"Aiiieeeee!" I cried. "I feel like I'm in Baghdad."

Aliyah patted my knee comfortingly.

"Nah," she said. "Just India."

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Dunce Fish

Aliyah Fish is still alive. And she seems to be making progress on the food front. That's the good news.

The bad news: I'm pretty sure she's retarded.

On the fourth or fifth day in our house, we put a huge excess of breakfast pellets in the fishbowl. Ben Fish didn't have time to gobble up all 40 pellets before Aliyah Fish had her shot. She swam to the surface, closed in on a pink pellet and opened her mouth wide.

The real Aliyah gripped my arm tightly, her eyes alight with excitement.

"I feel like I'm watching my child take her first steps!" Aliyah cried. "Oh, Aliyah Fish!"

That euphoria was short lived. As we watched more closely, we noticed that each time Aliyah Fish took a pellet in her mouth, it would pop out a second later.

While Ben Fish was doing his best Hoover impression, Aliyah Fish's failure to seal the deal repeated several times.

"At least she's getting to lick the food," Aliyah said.

We have several theories regarding the cause of Aliyah Fish's ingestion malfunction. It's possible the pellets are too difficult for her to eat. Or that she prefers algae. Or that she's taking bites so tiny they're too small for us to see.

I'm convinced, however, that Aliyah Fish is some sort of mental defective who's too dimwitted to master the basic act of consumption. I think we're going to have to instruct Servant Fish to chew Aliyah Fish's food for her and feed it to her baby-bird style.


Wednesday, September 19, 2007

American fish

I’m afraid the Ben Fish is slowly killing the Aliyah Fish.

Those aren’t strangely aquatic pet names. They’re the names of our new aquatic pets.

It began when one of the writers I recruited for Caravan sent me a link to an excellent New Yorker story by Adam Gopnik that reflects on the trauma of dealing with the death of a pet—in this case, Gopnik’s 5-year-old daughter’s goldfish Bluie. Aliyah and I soon decided to get fish of our own.

So on a Sunday afternoon trip to Bhogal Market to buy, among other things, pistachio nuts and eggs (I wound up breaking all but one of the eggs when, in my hurry to get inside our air conditioned house, I roughly threw the bag containing the eggs down on the concrete terrace outside our front door), Aliyah spotted a sign for a fish store. Following the arrow on the hand-painted sign, we tiptoed down Fish Alley. Twenty yards in, we were lost. A man in a turban poked his head out of a small shop.

“Fish?” Aliyah asked. With my right hand, I offered a terrible impression of a swimming fish. The man in the turban invited us in.

We walked through the store (where most items looked as though they’d been picked up second hand at a Jaipur garage sale), and entered a dark room in the back. Our guide turned on the lights, revealing a dozen fish tanks, which he quickly began wiping dust from. I’m pretty sure we were the aquarium room’s first customers in months.

Aliyah quickly spotted her fish: a small white one with a big tail and a bright orange splash on its forehead. “Ben Fish!” she cried, directing our guide toward her chosen fish.

Ever chivalrous and compassionate, I knew I must reciprocate. “I’ll name my fish Aliyah,” I said, sweetly taking the real Aliyah’s hand. I turned toward the man in the turban. “Anyone of those fish will be fine,” I said, as he thrust his net into the tank.

The Fish Guy, who, for purposes of humor, I’ll assume is a vegetarian, then took the netted Aliyah Fish out of the tank, let her suffocate for several seconds, then grabbed her with his bare hand and shoved her into a plastic bag of water. Alert PETA.

We began loading up on accessories: a magnified fish bowl, colorful marble-like pebbles, a plastic palm tree, food and a net. I asked about cleaning the tank. The Fish Guy pointed to a small, dark fish sucking the aquarium wall, and explained that such a fish would eat any algae or poo in our fish bowl.

“So we’re getting three fish now?” Aliyah asked.

“No, no,” I said. “This is India. Two fish, one servant.”

So off we went with two named pale fish who were already the subject of much personality projection, and one Servant Fish.

We set up a home for our new fish and started to get them settled. We had a brief scare a few hours in when we thought Servant Fish, immobile on the bowl’s floor, was dead. I jabbed him with a ballpoint pen. Waking up with a start, he did several high-speed laps around the bowl. I jumped two feet in the air and screamed like a soprano (not the cool capitalized crime family Soprano. The girlie singer soprano).

“You’re a girl,” Aliyah said.

Our real problem surfaced the next morning when we fed our fish breakfast. The Fish Guy had instructed us to give them two pellets of food each. Generously, we assumed we should include Servant Fish in this calculation, so Aliyah dropped in six pellets. Ben Fish ate them all in about two seconds.

Aliyah rounded on me.

“Hey!” she said. “Why’d you eat my breakfast?”

We put six more pellets in. Ben Fish ate them all. Aliyah berated me, the real Ben, again.

“It’s not my fault,” I said, grasping at straws. I pointed at Aliyah Fish, who was dully gazing at the side of the bowl. “If Aliyah Fish would stop staring at her reflection for a second, maybe she’d get some food too.”

After discussion of numerous hypotheses (Aliyah Fish is anorexic. She’s a slow digester. She can’t swim up to the surface. She’s blind.), we decided to let the matter rest until dinner.

When it was time to feed our fish that night, Aliyah dropped in a generous dozen pellets. Aliyah Fish didn’t move. Ben Fish gobbled up all the food within five seconds.

“Hey!” Aliyah said. “Stop eating my dinner!”

I sputtered in protest.

“And what about Servant Fish?” Aliyah said. “He hasn’t eaten yet either.”

“Don’t worry about Servant Fish,” I scoffed. “He’s a servant.”

It’s been the same story the last three days. We overfeed the fish, making sure to put pellets directly above Aliyah Fish. We try to distract Ben Fish. Nothing works. Ben Fish eats all the food. Aliyah Fish hasn’t had a pellet since she moved in with us.

I was relating our fish woes to friends at dinner last night. Puja asked what kind of fish Ben Fish was. "American," I said.

I’m worried that Aliyah Fish’s days are numbered. And that Ben Fish will be blamed. I’m already planning a cover-up. I just pray that obstruction of justice as it relates to fishicide isn’t a felony here.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

AutoManiac

Our most loathed autorickshaw driver looks a bit like an Indian Santa Claus, only less jolly.

A bushy salt-and-pepper beard covers a round face topped by a turban. His forearms are huge and somewhat frightening. He wears the loose-fitting, drab blue-grey pants and shirt that compose the typically-ignored uniform of the hundreds of thousands of auto drivers in India's capital. He smiles a lot, but in a demented, screw-loose sort of way. He’s there most mornings at the informal auto stand around the corner from our house, where he can often be found urinating facing the street.


I'm pretty sure he's a lunatic.


“Mmm hmmmm KG Marg, hmmm,” he’ll say, sounding like some sort of Sikh Slingblade. He speaks in an incomprehensible but disconcerting gravelly rumble, his crazy eyes darting from the road to the rearview mirror.


We try to avoid this maniac whenever possible. But sometimes we’re in a hurry to get to work and he’s the only guy waiting at the auto stand.


The Maniac can’t believe his luck in such cases, and starts rushing toward us (usually, but not always, before he finishes urinating).


“Hmmm, come, come,” he hums, beckoning us with pee-stained hands toward his green and yellow auto.


With no other options, we reluctantly obey. Invariably, once we’re inside he looks over his hammy shoulder and tries to rip us off.


“Hmmmmm, KG Marg, Fifty!” he says, pointing enthusiastically at Aliyah. He turns to me, bouncing in his seat. “Jhandewala, hmmmmm. Eighty!” His eyes light up with insane glee as he imagines how many more crazy pills he’ll be able to purchase after this haul. “One-thirty!”


After complex negotiations (during which I say “No” twelve times), we settle on our destination and price. He revs the engine and drives away, a phlegmy tune soon spilling out of his big chest.


“Hmmmmm, oh, ho, hmmmmmmmmm,” he sings.


“I’m scared,” says Aliyah.


I nod.


“Let’s not go with this guy again.”


I nod.


Soon Cuckoo starts speaking loudly in a language that I don’t understand. After five or six seconds of Indo-jargon, he looks at me in the rearview mirror, his mad eyes open wide, awaiting my reply.


I squirm and smile awkwardly.


“Yes,” I nod.


He erupts with a booming laugh, as if I’ve just said the funniest thing in the world.


At a stoplight a few minutes later, Aliyah gently nudges me to look at our driver, who’s quickly descending from irritating wacko to potential sex criminal. The Maniac’s lips are slightly parted as he stares at a white woman’s uncovered calf in the auto next to ours. He stares for several seconds, looks away for a beat, and then stares for several more seconds. This repeats for the duration of the red light. When traffic finally starts moving, our mental driver hunches over and guns the accelerator, feverishly weaving in and out of other vehicles in an attempt to catch another glimpse of ankle (which is apparently an arousing body part here).


“Hmmmmmmmmmmmmm,” The Maniac hums in harmony with the overtaxed engine. All for naught, though, as The Calf's auto takes a turn and is lost to him forever.


He looks at me in the rearview mirror, his fanatic eyes plaintive and seeking some sort of male empathy over this loss. This madman looks at me as if were brothers, as if only I could truly understand the depth of his suffering. And then he says this:

"पिटी उस बोथ एंड पिटी थेम अल व्हो वैन्ल्य थे द्रेंस ऑफ़ यौथ रेकाल्ल. फॉर ऑफ़ अल साद वोर्ड्स ऑफ़ तोंगुए एंड पेन, थेसद्देस्त अरे ठेस: इत मिघ्त हवे बीन."

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

itchy and scratchy

My feet look like they have chicken pox.

Saturday night Ben and I met up with some Columbia alums and went to a new lounge, “Tabula rasa” in South Delhi. I convinced everyone to sit outside on the over-sized beanbag chairs amongst lit pools covered in rose petals. It was the kind of lounge where a drink costs more than adopting a small cat.

The next morning I woke up to a fire—that is, on my legs. It was a burning sensation that all the hydrocortisone cream in the world could not quench. And there’s not even hydrocortisone cream in India. I counted: twenty-five mosquito bites on each foot. My initial reaction was that I’d rather my feet bleed than be itchy, so I scratched until both my feet were raw. But the itching did not go away.

My feet swelled from all of the itching. They looked like pregnant woman feet, with scabs. Good thing I’m taking malaria pills.

On Monday I had trouble conducting interviews, eating, and even carrying a conversation at work. The itchiness was beyond unbearable. More than once I spotted colleagues staring at my feet in disgust and wonder. “I swear, I’m not diseased!” I said.


I tend to diagnose myself on wikipedia. I’ve diagnosed Ben with strep throat and an ear infection more than once. It’s quite a handy tool. It was at work, that I found the answer on the net: toothpaste.

As soon as I got home from work, I slathered my feet in toothpaste. It quickly dried, and alas, the itching had stopped. It was a miracle.

Later in the evening I found benadryl in our medicine cabinet. After taking it and adding another layer of toothpaste on my feet, I went to bed. The next morning, the itchiness was mostly gone. I’m not sure if it was the benadryl or the toothpaste, but I’d like to think it was the latter.

Sunday, September 9, 2007




This weekend I got an e-mail from my college roommate, Lisa. Among its sweet inquiries about my life in India, she also mentioned, "Ben's blog is so funny." That's when I decided it was time to write a new entry.

This week was India's fashion week in Delhi. I've never been to an event like this before, so I didn't know what to expect. It was pretty ridiculous. I found the designers to be quite pretentious, and it was kind of disappointing that most of the clothes were all western. The highlight: watching men in pink and purple flowered suits walking the catwalk to Will Smith's "Welcome to Miami."

It was the first event in India that I covered with lots of press. There were 30 catwalk shows, and the schedule many of the journalists went as following: come in around 11 a.m., go to the 15 entree buffet, go the the designer show (where there were numerous gifts awaiting the press on their seats, including a teapot, chiffon tote, and chocolates), run back to the press room where press releases of the show would be waiting, file based on the press release as soon as possible.

It must be because of this whole vegetarian thing, but lately all I can think about is food. I think that's part of the reason why I decided to write a story about the food at fashion week and what models were eating. Let's just say I got some funny looks from the models when I snuck upstairs to their banquet room and said, "Uh, can I take a picture of you while you eat that butter chicken?"

Fashion weeks was fun. But now that I've done it once, it's enough for a lifetime.

Food at fashion week article

Preview fashion week

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Stamina

The Sikh farted.

I was stretching on the blue mat next to the leg press being used by the flatulent elderly man with a long silver beard down to his flabby nipples. I heard another noise come from the general direction of the short turquoise shorts he wore.

I crinkled my nose and stole a glance at the Sikh in the mirror. He didn't look the least bit embarrassed, and continued his gastrointestinal symphony by belching loudly.

I got up and walked to the other end of the gym. There, I found four young Indian men lounged comfortably on three blue benches. One was laying down with his square head resting on his fat, interlocked fingers. Another had his legs crossed as he clumsily worked his thumbs over the small buttons on his cell phone. The other two were sharing a bench and talking, the shorter (and fatter) one shaking his head to the rhythm of a Shakira song blasting from the speakers. Coach, smiling, stood over them and watched it all.

None of them were lifting weights, nor had they for the last ten minutes.

I approached tentatively. "Excuse me," I said to the prostrate man. "Can I use that bench?"

The man, a bulky twenty-something with a small belly and George McFly hair, looked at me with utter confusion, which was strange, because I knew he spoke English. I asked again. Lazily, McFly swung his legs over the side of the bench and, very reluctantly, stood.

Most of the young, affluent Indian men who go to our gym barely exercise. I'm pretty sure they assume that just being at the gym will balloon their muscles. It certainly seems to have that effect on their egos.

As for us, it's before 7 a.m. most mornings that we arrive at Stamina, the ritzy (for India) gym on our corner. It's in the basement of a residential building, behind a frosted glass door that's dotted with muscled silhouettes. The gym is modest in size, perhaps 60 feet long by 15 feet wide. The ceiling is bright yellow with a wavy blue line running down the middle. Three evenly-spaced pillars in the center of the gym are painted a fiery, almost flagrant, orange. Which is to say that the decor is tasteful compared to the laughable nouveau-cool standards of many South Delhi locales.

Coach, who we think is our gym's owner (or at least its pushy-but-pro-bono personal trainer) wears the same thing everyday: a red, white and black Adidas windbreaker and matching black pants. Does he have six matching outfits or does he wear the same one everyday? I can't stop thinking about it. How one becomes fixated on such things while lifting weights and listening to Les Miserables on an iPod.

But the outfit. It's tight enough to make Coach's shoulders and chest look huge, but baggy enough to allow me to wonder if the get-up isn't simply a way to hide a telltale belly lurking underneath. The outfit is made out of the same sort of glossy, synthetic material that I suspect Coach sprays on his head each morning to supplement his thinning hair. His scalp looks like it's been airbrushed, then applied with a Photoshop blur filter.

There are two more regular employees. First, there's the boy. He looks about 15. Coach calls him "Guy," or sometimes "The Guy." The Guy's job is to make sure no gym members have to rack or re-rack their weights. The Guy wears the same blue, pink and white striped Polo shirt every day. He has a faint mustache. The Guy looks like he doesn't get enough to eat.

There's also a paunchy older man with a thick mustache. He wears the sort of pants-and-tucked-in-shirt combo that would be more appropriate to an accounting firm than a gymnasium. He seems to really like loading the bar I'm lifting with more weight than I can handle. His name sounds something like Bareezbadoo or Beezbabadoo or Beezeebeezeebabaloo. Aliyah and I refer to him as Beelzebub. Neither Beelzebub nor The Guy speak a word of English.

Besides the see-and-be-seen members of the Boys Club, the oddball employees, and the digestively-challenged Sikh, some of the regulars at the gym include:

-A middle-aged woman who wears either a conservative sari or a Hard Rock Cafe: Kuala Lumpur t-shirt.
-A well-fed man with the mustache of a government bureaucrat who I've caught more than once looking in the mirror, grabbing his belly with both hands, shaking it violently, suddenly realizing he's not in private, letting go of his belly, shifting his eyes back and forth, and then nodding and smiling in the mirror like everything is cool.
-At least two really fat guys who do nothing but sit around breaking equipment and trying ever-so-hard to be accepted by Coach.

Have I mentioned I'm hungry?