Thursday, January 31, 2008

Wax on, wax off

For the past five days I haven’t been able to hear out of my right ear.

Yesterday, I had enough. I went to go see Dr. Bobby, a sweet man with less hair than someone his age should have. He was reliable though. He even cured Ben when we thought he had malaria. After all, Dr. Bobby did receive his M.D. from Hungary, which is printed in big block letters on all of his medical stationery and business cards.

I told Dr. Bobby that I hadn’t been able to hear out of my ear in days, that I just got over a cold, and subsequently had migraine-like headaches and jolts of pain that ran through my jaw.

His diagnosis: rest, drink warm liquids, anti-biotics, soniwax (ear drops to loosen up any wax in my ear), and some sort of deluxe pain killer.

We bought my new medication and headed home. Ben dropped the Soniwax in my ear. I tried to use a Q-tip to scoop out the wax, but only once or twice did a smidgen of wax appear on the cotton bud.

“Wax is not the problem,” I said matter-of-factly. “My ears are clean as a whistle.”

The next day, my ear felt worse. During the elevator ride up to the 12th floor, my ears and head felt like they were ballooning. All of my co-workers declared that I must go to a hospital. Get a second opinion, they said. “An ENT!,” “an ENT,” they chanted.

One-and-a-half hours later (and after a call to Dr. Bobby who recommended I take a different type of anti-biotic—whose advice I decided to ignore) I found myself in the dentist-like armchair of an ENT. I looked on the silver tray in the room and there was someone’s blood, snot-like substance, and other “used” tools sitting in the tray. I glanced at Ben, and mouthed “LOOK AT THE TRAY.” He tried to hide his horror and shrugged.

Dr. Tripathy was all business. However, I found his jiggly cheeks, bureaucrat mustache, and sweater vest (which tried to hide his American stomach) quite endearing. . He looked in my ear, and declared there was no bacterial infection, but there was a wax buildup. “Nonsense!,” I thought. He pulled out a metal, tubular vacuum-like utensil and asked if he could clean out my ears. I thought I’d play along. “Okay, but this better not hurt.”

After twenty or so seconds of vacuuming, he pulled the utensil out of my ear. A dirty brown colored--tinged every so slightly with burnt red--piece of wax, the size of a large corn kernel, was resting on the tip of the utensil.

“WOW!!!” the doctor, Ben and I said in unison. This machine was incredible.

“Now the other ear!,” demanded Ben, curious as much as I was.

A similar sized piece of wax came out. Unbelievable.

I could hear better already.

As I walked out of the office (depleted of 1,400 rupees—about $35 dollars), I couldn’t stop smiling.

“Ben, you have to get this procedure. It’s just amazing,” I said. "I feel ten pounds lighter."

“No way,” he said.

“Then we are so buying one of those machines.”


Before bed a few nights ago, Aliyah put on my down jacket. And a ski hat. And gloves. And thick winter socks. And a scarf. Then we double-mummied her in two big blankets.

"My face is still cold," she said.

It's arctic in India.

A lot of people assume it's unbearably hot here all year. I was once such a person. When we moved here, I brought one thin sweater and a light jacket. "Who needs a winter coat in India?" I wondered with silent sarcasm.

Answer: Everyone.

December and January in Delhi have been numbing. Temperatures this week have hovered around freezing. That's not so bad, I suppose, compared to our winter last year in New York, or the winter before that I spent in Colorado. But at least in those places, I had central heating. No such luck here.

Our house, like many here, is built to breathe. The tile floors remain cool even when it's sweltering outside, and the house's thin wood walls don't trap much heat. That's great in August. It's awful in January. When I work at my desk, I routinely lose feeling in several toes. Some nights, it seems as if it's colder inside our house than it is outside.

We do still have hot water (though because it only comes out of a waist-level tap, to use it we have to fill up a big bucket and shower by scooping small buckets of hot water out of the larger one). And the sun is still shining. And the cheap heater we bought from a nearby market raises the temperature in our house at least a few degrees.

But make no mistake -- winter in New Delhi is freezing. I'll probably eat these words when I'm languishing in 120-degree weather in June, but here it goes anyway. I wish it were summer.

Trick and Treat

Aliyah tricked me.

This is probably the best she's ever gotten me. Better, even, then the time she convinced me on Election Night in 2006 that she was a closet Republican.

Days before my 27th birthday, Aliyah told me that she'd be giving me a series of instructions on my birthday about which I would not be allowed to ask any questions. I agreed.

After lunch on my birthday (I demanded that we go to Ruby Tuesday or T.G.I. Friday's so I could get a cheeseburger and chicken wings), Aliyah sent me the no-questions-asked instructions via e-mail. The subject line was "TOP SECRET: birthday toolbox." Among other things, I was told to pack a bag with running shoes, a Swiss army knife, a t-shirt, and a stuffed malaria doll that Aliyah's sister had sent us for Christmas.

I was confused.

"I wonder where we're going," I said to Aliyah when I picked her up at work that evening, making sure that my sentence ended with a period so as not to break my no-questions promise. After a few minutes of toying with me, Aliyah spilled the beans.

"First we're having dinner at The Imperial Hotel," she smiled.

"Awesome! But why do I need a Swiss army knife?"

"Because afterward we're going camping."

"Oh," I said, pulling my down jacket tighter around me in the icy January air as I feigned excitement. "Cool."

"I'm glad you brought that jacket," Aliyah said. "I'll want to wear it when we go to sleep outside later."

I continued to pretend like I was excited by the prospect of sleeping outdoors in below-freezing temperatures, and wondered aloud where the campsite was.

"You know, I could be lying about the whole thing," Aliyah said.

"Yeah right," I countered. "Why did I have to bring a Swiss army knife if we're not going camping?"

"Maybe it's a decoy," she said a bit too defensively. I was sure that Aliyah felt a bit of regret that there were no surprises left, and was trying to re-introduce doubt into our after-dinner plans. Using my finely-tuned bullshit detector, I was certain that Aliyah was bluffing and that we really were going camping.

We went to The Imperial Hotel -- which is Delhi's finest -- and had a fantastic dinner at a beautiful Southeast Asian restaurant. Near the end of our meal, Aliyah started giving further instructions.

"Before we leave," she said, "you have to go into the bathroom and change into your gym shorts, running shoes and t-shirt. Then we'll go catch a cab."

"OK," I said slowly. "Can I wear my jacket too?"


I paused and rubbed a stomach that was full of curry, noodles and beer. Doing anything that required running shoes sounded highly unpleasant.

"And, um, we're not doing anything too athletic, right?" I asked hesitantly.

"Of course we are," Aliyah said. "Don't be such a baby."

We left the restaurant and walked to the bathrooms in a hallway near the hotel's lobby.

"OK," I said. "Let's meet here after we change."

I started to walk into the bathroom. Aliyah stopped me.

"Let's sit down first, and I'll tell you exactly where we're camping," she said.

We sat down on an absurdly comfortable leather sofa.

"You want to know?" Aliyah said.

"I want to know," I said.

Aliyah handed me a small envelope. Inside was a keycard. That opened the door of a room at The Imperial.

I laughed for about three minutes. I had had no idea.

I'm pretty dumb for a smart guy. Or maybe it's pretty smart for a dumb guy. Either way, it was a fantastic surprise, and the most comfortable night's sleep we've had in India.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Five family scenes

1. While a nasty shoe vendor demanded that we pay him 200 rupees for the privilege of using our cameras inside Jama Masjid mosque in old Delhi, a little girl touched my butt.

I almost didn't feel it at all. It was like a feather running over the outside of one of the back pockets of my jeans.

I turned around. A little girl, no more than seven years old, stared up at me as if I'd caught her with one hand in the cookie jar. A minute or two earlier, we'd chatted with this girl on the mosque's front steps. One of her friends had told Aliyah she had a beautiful name. Aliyah's father Agha had received a similar compliment. The little girl had said my name was "not so nice."

Now I put on my best scolding face as I looked down at the would-be thief, at the same time patting my front pocket to make sure my wallet was still there.

The girl scurried away toward a group of old British tourists wearing fanny packs.

2. "Jalebiwala?"

I asked the question shyly. The greasy-haired street vendor, who was selling nuts in a dirty alley where at least one man was urinating on a wall, pointed to a storefront a few feet away.

The shop he'd indicated was shabby and had no English signage. It hardly looked like the place Lonely Planet described as hawking India's finest jalebis ("deep fried squiggles").

"I think this is it," I said.

"Really?" Aliyah wondered as she squinted at the awful-looking shop.

We continued on through the smelly, crowded, confusing alleys of Chandni Chowk.

When we finally found the place -- several "I think this is it"s later -- Aliyah had just one word for the artery-clogging syrupy squiggles.


3. "Wow," Aliyah said.

After a four-hour drive and a long walk down a tout-littered street, we'd just gotten our first glimpse of the Taj Mahal. The whole structure wasn't visible yet, but the largest of the Taj's white domes loomed large above a red brick wall.

"Wow," Aliyah said.

Aliyah's mother Lani looked up at the white dome and sighed slightly.

"I thought it would be bigger," she said.

4. They were exploiting foreigners at Humayun's Tomb.

Ten rupees for a local to gain admission. Two hundred and fifty rupees for a foreigner.

"This is outrageous!" I said, offering a well-worn and slightly unfair comparison.

"Can you imagine if Disneyland charged Americans $20 and demanded $500 from foreigners?" I said. "This is outrageous!"

Agha turned toward us, smiling.

"Stay away from me," he said to us. "I want to try something."

Agha approached the ticket vendor and handed him a ten rupee note.

"Where are you from?" the man said in Hindi.

"I am from outside," Agha replied in Urdu.

The vendor gave him a locally-priced ticket.

5. Lani bravely reached for the paan.

The Indian digestive, which is basically spices, fruits and sugar wrapped in a triangular betel leaf and held together with a toothpick, had come on a silver tray after dinner at a fancy restaurant at the Sheraton here. Agha was already popping pieces of paan into his mouth like they were candy.

I had had paan once before, and almost immediately felt ill.

"Try it," Aliyah said to her mother.

Lani picked up a piece of paan and put the whole thing into her mouth. She had chewed no more than twice when her eyes scrunched up with disgust. With admirable open-mindedness, she continued to chew the paan, even as her struggling eyes revealed how much the digestive disagreed with her.

Three more painful chews and Lani spit the paan out.

"Wow," Aliyah said.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


The ceiling started to fall.

On Monday, my co-workers and I were editing a television news piece at a rental studio in south Delhi. Because our company’s studio was still under construction, it meant going to a rental space nearby. After a long day, we were finally finished. We began transferring the piece onto a CD, when one of the studio’s employees entered the room, waving his hands frantically in the air and shouting some sort of command in Hindi.

Mehak, my co-worker turned to me. “Quickly, Aliyah…Let’s go!”

“Huh?” I said. “What’s going on?”

“The ceiling! The ceiling! I’ll explain to you once we’re outside the building,” she said.

I was convinced the ceiling was about to cave in. I quickly put on my shoes and gathered up all of my belongings, knowing it would be the last time I’d set foot inside this building. It was going to crash, 9/11 style, I told myself. Unlucky for us, the studio was on the 5th floor of the building—without an elevator.

Safely across the street, Mehak pointed to a truck full of policemen who started filing out of the vehicle. Out of breath and full of panic, I asked what was going on.

“The sealing act. They’re sealing up the building,” she said matter-of-factly.

Apparently, since last year, the police had taken action to close down commercial units in all residential areas. Our studio, illegally, had been jumping place to place to avoid climbing rent costs. But someone, probably a competitor, had tipped off the police.

After realizing the building was not going to collapse, I asked how we would finish our project.

“The studio will probably just open in another house tomorrow,” said a co-worker. Naturally.

Sunday, January 6, 2008


The child sitting next to us on the metro looked like a puffy ball of pink cotton candy.

Sitting on her grandmother's lap, the child was wearing a bright pink down jacket and matching pink pants both dotted with Teletubbies. The kid's socks were electric yellow and beneath her pink winter coat was a knit sweater in pastoral pink.

The little girl looked to be about 18-months old. Beneath each of her small eyes was a thick, shadowy line of makeup -- eyeliner, I think. Sitting on the lap of her bindied grandmother on the crowded metro train, the little girl kept clutching at my arm with her little hand.

I smiled back at the girl and waved cartoonishly. Then I looked at the little pink harlequin's grandmother and said, "She's a very pretty little girl."

Grandma smiled and shook her head. "He is not a she. This is my grandson."


I laughed uncomfortably and turned my back on the he-she child and its grandmother. Making sure that the old woman and her strangely-dressed grandchild couldn't read my lips or hear our conversation, Aliyah and I whispered quickly.

"I thought it was a girl, too," Aliyah said. "It's an honest mistake."

"There's no mistake on my part," I whispered furiously, only barely noticing a woman standing over Aliyah's shoulder eavesdropping on our conversation. "They dressed that boy in all pink and put makeup on him. They're the ones who made a mistake."

Smirking at me, the eavesdropper then reached across Aliyah and I and took the cross-dressed child off its grandmothers lap and held it as only a mother can.


Friday, January 4, 2008

No cuts!

A balding man in an unflattering flannel jacket pivoted his bony elbow into my ribs while his wife ran over my foot with her wheeled suitcase.

"Jesus," I muttered as I hip-checked her into the metal rail on our left.

We were waiting on line -- or queuing, as it's colonially called here -- for a taxi outside the domestic airport in Delhi upon our return from Bombay. Most everyone in the crushing line was gripping a prepaid taxi voucher, and all seemed to be jostling and shoving for better position in the three-wide and twenty-deep line.

I placed my feet as wide apart as I could comfortably stand and hung my backpack over my right shoulder, and Aliyah's over my left, making it awfully difficult for any Indians to get passed me without shoving me, or my luggage, aside.

A fat man in a sad-looking suit shoved me and my luggage aside, waving his ticket in the air in a way that said, "I'm not just a V.I.P. I'm a V.V.I.P. Get out of my way."

"Hey!" I yelled as he wrestled passed the backpack on my left shoulder. "We're queuing here."

He looked at me as if what I had said was obvious.

"Yes," he said. "I know."

Such is the strange experience of queuing in India. The only really accepted rule appears to be that there are no rules. In any number of settings, I have watched with furious silence as an Indian man walks along the length of a somewhat-orderly line, elbows his way in front of whoever is waiting at the head, and rudely demands to be served.

Sometimes, but not always, I'll call the line jumper out on such behavior.

"Pardon me," I'll say, as if I somehow need this miscreant's pardon. "But we're all queuing here."

The result is basically a coin flip -- half the time, the man, who obviously knew he was bypassing the line, will look at the queue with false realization ("Oooooh, so that's why you're all waiting here.") before nodding in agreement and trudging to the back. The other half of the time, he'll look at me with disdain and continue on as if I'm the one who doesn't understand the rules.

This common attitude among minor reprobates is so commonplace that it's no longer surprising, particularly when all those waiting on line are strangers who will never be called to task for a violation of social courtesy. But what continues to amaze me is when people consistently hop lines in which they know everyone waiting.

This was a common situation at the office of my former employer here in Delhi. Employees were required to check in each morning, and out each evening, by fingerprint scan in front of the security desk on the ground floor (a fairly high-tech embodiment of an antiquated labor practice). There were only two scanners for an office of hundreds of employees, so there was typically a line of two to six people waiting at each scanner, particularly when the clock's hands were close to the company's official start and stop times.

I knew, at least by sight, every person who ever waited in this line. We all worked in the same building six days a week. Everyone knew each other. And still, several employees, both male and female, would often walk straight passed everyone in line and shove their way into the front of the queue.

On my second-to-last day of work, I watched with frustration as a young woman walked around seven people waiting in line and needled her way directly behind the person using the scanner. It was just too much.

"Excuse me," I said, fed up, "but we're queuing here!"

"Yes," the cutter said. "I know."

And everyone else looked at me as if I'd said something rude.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

La Bamba

An Indian band butchers La Bamba at the swank restaurant where we spent NYE.

Crab Grab

Aliyah demonstrates at NYE dinner.