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


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


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?

Wednesday, September 5, 2007


"I'm so hungry."

Aliyah laughs. I guess she thinks I'm trying to be funny. I repeat myself, this time a little whinier.

"I'm sooooo hungry."

Aliyah stops laughing. She looks confused.

"You're hungry? Are you serious?"

"Yeah. I feel like one of those African kids with parasitic tapeworms swimming around their empty, bloated bellies."

"You just ate a four-egg omelet."

"Yeah, but it didn't even have meat in it."

I'm hungry all the time now. All the time. It doesn't matter how many mango milk shakes I down at breakfast, how many eggs I put in my omelet, how many bags of muesli I munch at work, or even the amount of fried cheese and greasy vegetables I eat for dinner. That stuff just isn't filling. Especially if you're used to eating four bacon cheeseburgers a week.