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.