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


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.


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.


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


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."