Monday, February 25, 2008

Hindi Fiddler

Check out my story in The Forward about a Hindi version of Fiddler on the Roof.

Friday, February 22, 2008


He begged me not to tell, but I told anyway.

Aliyah was out for a morning run when our newest servant (after Shukti's return last week from a long, muddily-explained absence, we have two servants), knocked on the door. The 12-year-old boy handed me the three newspapers we subscribe to. Then he held up a straw broom.


I nodded, motioned him inside, and walked back to my desk. On the way, I noticed (with a minimum of consciousness) that my wallet was sitting on top of a chest of drawers in our living room.

The boy started taking out the trash and I got back to work. I padded away at the keys and the boy piled dirty clothes on the couch. Then, hunchbacked, he started sweeping.

I was writing a complicated story for the law magazine about rules for foreign investment in India's retail market, and, in between cluttered thoughts, I took a deep distracted breath and looked up. My wallet was no longer sitting on the chest of drawers.

I must have made some kind of a noise. Because the boy's wide-open eyes peeked over the top of the couch and met mine. He tried to bob his head casually, but he looked scared. Then he ducked behind the couch again. He was about seven feet away from me, a wobbly brown couch the only thing preventing me from seeing what he was doing.

I sat still for a few seconds and wondered if I could have made a mistake. In the meantime, I heard paper rustling behind the couch. I got up and walked behind the boy. He was crouched forward on the ground, dirty sweepings at his feet, my open wallet in his hand.

I knew exactly how much money was supposed to be in my wallet because Aliyah had, just an hour earlier, declared that I was rich after she borrowed 100 rupees from my wallet. So I had counted the bills inside (there was 800 rupees, about $20) and announced that I was definitely not rich.

Now, shaking, the boy handed me my wallet. The correct amount of money was inside. I wondered again if I might have made a mistake.

Then the boy incriminated himself. He began blubbering in Hindi. He bowed low on the ground and pressed his forehead onto the tops of my bare feet, his small hands tightly gripping my ankles. I didn't understand the words he said, but the message was clear. He was begging.

Still a bit shocked (We liked this boy! We had given him extra money and sweets! We were the liberal Americans who had treated kindly and respectfully a boy unfairly born into servitude! What the hell sort of repayment was this for our self-righteous benevolence?), I pulled the boy up. His cheeks quivered and his eyes were afraid. He pawed at my shirt and rattled on in apologetic Hindi. His little voice choked as he made clear with pantomimes that he would be beaten if I told. I remain confident that our landlords are not the sort of people who would beat a servant for any reason, but the prospect still unnerved me.

The uncomfortable begging continued, and I didn't say much. I didn't know how to react. Finally, I told the boy to leave. He stood in the doorway for a moment, silently pleading. Then he left.

I started thinking, and remembered that twice in the last two weeks I'd looked in my wallet and found a sum lower than I expected. Nothing much, maybe 500 rupees (less than $13) each time. Both times I had fleetingly considered theft, but had quickly chalked up each instance to me having had too much to drink the night before and simply losing count. I was no longer so sure.

Aliyah returned a few minutes later. "We have a problem," I said.

Obviously, we didn't want this poor boy to be punished too harshly or kicked out of our landlord's house. His life sucks enough as it is, and we have always prided ourselves on trying to treat everyone, but particularly those in lower castes who are unfairly persecuted here, with respect, and on trying to make the lives of people like this boy a little better. The last thing we wanted was to contribute to making this boy's life even harder and lousier than it already is.

Well, the second-to-last thing, I guess. Because it turns out that when it comes down to it, the last thing we want is for a proven thief -- no matter how young or downtrodden he may be -- to have ready access to our home. We realized we'd never feel comfortable leaving the house again unless we told our landlords what had happened.

They were understanding and concerned. They swore up and down that he'd never be allowed in our house again and never be allowed anywhere near a key to our house (which the servants must retrieve from and return to Mrs. Aggarwal when it's time to clean and Aliyah and I aren't here). Mr. Aggarwal let slip that there's a debate in his family about whether to keep Shukti or the thief-child. Mr. Aggarwal said he's for Shukti, even though Mrs. Aggarwal prefers the boy burglar because he's a better cook. I put in my pitch for Shukti.

Shukti came and cleaned our house while I wrote this. He's done a helluva good job since he returned last week. He's been doing it all -- scrubbing the bathroom, washing the dishes, and even scraping the grime out of the inside of the garbage can in our kitchen. Bonanza!

I don't know what will happen to the poor little crook, nor do I know what I hope will happen to him. I'm not really angry at him for stealing a few bucks from me -- inarguably, he needs it more than me. But I do begrudge him putting me in a situation where I was forced to break the code of the schoolyard.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Take my fish, please

I took the fish even though I didn't want to.

I was standing with Aliyah and a handful of her colleagues on an artificial lawn at the Delhi Flying Club, where her friend and coworker Souveek was getting married. The venue was lavishly decorated with colorful floral arrangements and abundantly staffed with bow-tie-wearing waiters. One came up to us holding a silver tray piled with fried fish.

"Fish, sir?" he asked me.

"No thank you," I said, shaking my palm at him. I try to avoid seafood in New Delhi, this being a landlocked city in India.

The waiter ignored me. He stuck two toothpicks into a crunchy piece of fish. Then he drizzled it with white sauce. Then he pushed it toward me.

"No thanks," I said.

The waiter opened his eyes wider and thrust the fish closer to me.

"No thanks," I said again.

"Take the fish," the waiter said.

"Ummm, no thank you," I tried.

"Take the fish," the waiter said again.

I took the fish. And ate it. It was pretty good.

Over the course of the evening, this same waiter followed Aliyah and I everywhere. I was munching on naan near the chicken tikka station when he tapped me on the shoulder.

"Chicken seekh kebab?" he asked.

"No thanks," I said.

"Orange juice?"

"No thanks."

"Coke? Water? Tea?"


Fifteen minutes passed. We were eating syrupy desserts. The waiter's head popped up behind Aliyah's shoulder.


"No," Aliyah said. "We're eating dessert."

Two minutes later the waiter came back with a plate of roti, which we declined.

Later, we were watching the end of the hours-long marriage ceremony. I was squeezed behind several video-camera-wielding Indians in a tight space next to the seated couple. About ten feet away, I saw our waiter elbowing his way passed grandmothers in saris and climbing over a number of small children. He finally clawed his way through the crowd to me.

"Coffee?" he said breathlessly.

"No," I said.

"OK," the waiter said. Then he added hopefully, "Tip?"

Monday, February 11, 2008


I have two nipples now.

I used to make all kinds of third nipple jokes as a teenager before I knew I had one. I don't remember exactly how I realized it, but I think it was either at the beach or a pool that I made a mean third nipple joke directed at someone who didn't have one, only to see that person point out that the small mole below my right man-breast sure looked a heck of a lot like a third nipple.

Over the next few years, I continued to make third nipple jokes, but included the odd brag that I had one. I stopped doing that after someone with a gigantic third nipple asked to see mine and laughed at how small it was.

During my twenties, I rarely made third nipple jokes. But in inverse proportion to the number of jokes I told on the subject, my third nipple grew. And grew. And grew.

It got to be big enough that I worried it might be cancerous. So when I was in graduate school in New York, I went to a doctor. She was rude and said it would cost at least several hundred dollars to get the third nipple removed. "Cancer, shmancer," I thought, and walked out of her office.

Fast forward to India. Cheap medical care. Foreign trained doctors. A lot of time on my hands. That's a recipe for a nipplectomy.

Just hours after I'd called to make an appointment this morning, I found myself lying topless on an examining table in front of the UK-trained Dr. Malik. She poked a needle full of local anesthetic into my chest. It hurt, and my face showed it.

"Don't worry," Dr. Malik said. "This is the worst part."

That wasn't really true.

As soon as the anesthesia set in, Dr. Malik set to work with a small metal blade. I shut my eyes. I had the weird sensation of feeling her painlessly slice into my torso. She kept at it for a good ten to fifteen minutes. She was a careful cutter, but so slow.

"Open your eyes," she finally said. I did. The fingers on her latex gloves were spotted with blood. She was holding my third nipple about eight inches from my face.

She turned it from side to side so I could examine it. There was a cone of subcutaneous fat and other tissue attached to the bottom. She said she'd cut that off to make sure my third nipple didn't grow back.

I started feeling sick looking at my amputated nipple so I looked away, but not before I saw Dr. Malik toss my nipple in a metal dish and hand it to a nurse (who she called "sister") so it could be taken for a biopsy.

Then Dr. Malik set to work stitching me up. Two internal sutures, five on the outside. The only problem was that by the time she got to external stitch #3, the local anesthetic was beginning to wear off. I would have paid more for another dose of anesthesia.

Which brings us to cost. This whole outpatient procedure (and the biopsy) cost less than $100. We should outsource American healthcare to India.

So now I've got a stitched-up hole in my chest where an extra nipple used to be. Decades from now, I'm going to sit back in a rocking chair and say in my most wistful Isak Dinesen voice, "I got a nipple removed in India."

I bet my parents are freaking out reading this.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Bizarro India

I was sure I was dreaming.

I had prepared myself for several hours of Indian frustration. I had to mail a letter. And get extra visa pages added to my passport. This would be not be easy -- maybe an all-day affair. I put four newspapers and Madame Bovary in my backpack and set out for the post office down the street.

I started shaking my head angrily before I even opened the post office's doors. I was sure there would be an unruly, haphazard queue inside whose unspoken rules of common courtesy were abided by fewer than half the people waiting.

But there wasn't a queue. There were four postal employees sitting at the counter behind a glass wall. Three of them weren't helping anybody.

Blinking in confusion, I walked up to the counter and addressed a female worker. "I need to send a letter to America," I said, expecting her to tell me that she couldn't do that in this office, but that if I filled out a form in triplicate, provided six copies of my passport photo, waited three days, drove across town, and donated a kidney, I might be able to mail the letter.

"Regular, registered or speed post?" she said.

"What?" I said. She repeated herself.

"Um, can I do registered and speed post?" I asked. She nodded.

"But that's probably really expensive, right?" I wondered, searching for the bummer of a but that's ever-present in India.

"Thirty rupees," she said. About eighty cents.

I mailed the letter. The woman printed off a receipt with a tracking number. A tracking number! I was in awe, and left the post office three minutes after I'd arrived.

Five adorable puppies were playing outside. One looked like a baby Tonka.

"Wow," I said.

I met Aliyah for lunch. Afterward, I steeled myself again for what would certainly be an exasperating experience at the U.S. Embassy.

Upon arrival, I saw a winding line outside -- perhaps 30 deep and three wide -- and I sighed with familiar resignation.

I signed in at a security desk (where the guards asked if I spoke Hindi, I told them I spoke some, and then they immediately proved my claim false by saying something in simple Hindi that I was totally unable to understand), and then got searched. One of the security guards, still chuckling, directed me to a sign that said "Line 5: American Citizen Services."

I went to the end of the outdoor line and stood behind a short Indian man with a silver beard. There were dozens of people in front of me. I stood there for a minute. The man in front of me kept looking at me, confused. Then he stepped to one side and gestured for me to walk passed him. I turned to a uniformed queue monitor and asked with my eyes what I should do.

"Go inside," said the queue monitor.

"B-b-b-ut the queue," I said.

"Not for you. Inside."

Feeling guilty and a little embarrassed, I walked passed a whole load of Indians and went inside. I got searched again. Then I was led to a crowded waiting room packed with about 50 anxious Indians. "Here it is," I thought, and began looking for a chair.

I hadn't even taken Madame Bovary out of my bag when a man in a uniform came up to me. He led me around the pack of waiting Indians and into a small, comfortable office at the end of the hall.

A woman with an American accent was behind the counter. There was no line. She added 24 extra pages to my passport with no hassle and didn't charge me a cent. When I left the embassy, I immediately caught a rickshaw, and the autowallah didn't try to overcharge me (I'm a white guy leaving the American Embassy! Is there an easier target for minor financial exploitation?).

I started feeling really eerie. What the hell was going on?

I'm sure things will be back to normal soon. I'll probably wake up at five-something a.m. tomorrow to the sound of booming fireworks and a fatuous holy man chanting the neighborhood's wake up call while a rat crawls into our bed and monkeys go through our trash outside. Oh, and somewhere in there I'll get tricked into getting naked in front of a male masseuse.

Now that's the India I know.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Super Blog

I woke up at 4:30 this morning to watch the Super Bowl. It was totally worth it.

The only bummer was that the station that broadcast the game on Indian satellite TV didn't pick up the American commercials. Instead, I saw dozens of lame ads for cricket tournaments, Wrestlemania, an Indian life insurance company and the Dubai Horse Racing Carnival.

But what a game! Even though I hate Eli Manning (his snubbing of San Diego still rankles me), I admit that he played like a champ late in the game. And his spectacular play on that crucial pass to David Tyree on the last drive was legendary.

Aliyah woke up around 8 -- in time for the game's last few minutes. "What about the other Manning?" she said once it became clear the Giants would win. "Has he ever won a Super Bowl?"

"Yeah, Peyton won last year."

"Wow," Aliyah said. "That's so cool. That would be like if you won the Super Bowl one year and Aaron won it the next year."

What a game.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

A servant disappeared

Shakti left without even saying goodbye.

He told our landlord he was going to go visit his family in West Bengal. He said that the government was about to raze his parents' small village home, and that he needed to go there -- armed with cash -- to stop it. Our landlord gave Shakti several hundred dollars. Shakti said he'd call when he arrived at his parents' home.

That was about a month ago. He still hasn't called. A few days after Shakti left, our landlord realized he'd taken every single thing he owned with him.

Shakti was the live-in servant of the family we rent from (as you may recall, we live in a small house on the roof of their large home). The Aggarwals took Shakti in after a nail pierced his eye on a construction site they were managing. He cleaned house, fixed things with Mr. Aggarwal, walked and played with Ryan the dog, looked after Abhishek's 2-year-old son, and watched a lot of TV. Mrs. Aggarwal said he was as close to being a member of their family as a servant can be. He'd been here about two years when he did the old skedaddle.

Shakti claimed to be 17, though I think he was about 25. He's the sort of Indian whose age is difficult to discern -- his slight body looking prepubescent, with his rugged skin, legitimate mustache and winning smile giving a more adult appearance.

Shakti cleaned our house every other day. He took out the trash. He got on his hands and knees and scrubbed our tile floor with a wet rag. Sometimes he transformed our messy pile of shoes into an orderly line. A few times, he dumped the ash from our incense burner into the garbage. When the internet went down, he fixed it. When our water stopped running, he fixed that too. Shakti did a good job, and we liked him.

Housecleaning is included in the rent we pay. But a few times, we gave Shakti a bit of extra money. Fifty rupees when he shouldered my 70-pound duffel bag up four flights of stairs when we first moved in. Ten rupees when I felt guilty that he was wiping the floor around my feet while I sat at my desk and tapped away at my laptop. It always seemed to make Shakti a bit uncomfortable when I gave him money, so I stopped several months ago.

Every Sunday afternoon, Shakti took a semi-clothed shower using the trickling tap at waist level on our terrace. We'd spy on him through the window. Aliyah often wanted to invite him inside to use our shower. We never did.

Shakti slept on the floor of the small office that the Aggarwals built adjacent to their driveway. Some nights, we'd see Shakti walking out to the office with a blanket and headphones in hand. We'd feel bad about this briefly, but quickly realized that this situation was probably downright luxurious compared to the dirt-poor village he came from.

We struggle with the servant situation in India. We feel awfully guilty sometimes that we unnecessarily rely on the ultra-cheap labor provided by a class of supplicant servants who are born into incredible poverty. This country's continued adherence to an antiquated caste system gives people like Shakti almost no chance to be anything bigger or better than a deferent attendant to the rich.

Aliyah and I privately heap disdain on privileged friends and acquaintances who take for granted the shackles of servitude that they help to keep locked tight. We wonder with furious whispers whether a friend of ours even knows his servants' names.

But of course, it's not really that simple. Shakti was inarguably better fed, better clothed and better housed while a servant here than he was, or will be, in a destitute village in West Bengal. Maybe servitude in a cushy home isn't such a bad life for someone who grew up in a village with no water or electricity, in a hut where snakes dropped in through the ceiling at night.

We've talked a lot about servants in India over the last six months. And now that Shakti's gone, we realize just how much we liked and respected him.

The Aggarwals replaced Shakti a few weeks ago with the brother of a servant who works for friends of theirs. The new boy does a pretty good job. He sweeps the floor, and even moves the furniture around to find hidden dust bunnies. Shakti never did that.

The new boy is polite, quiet and usually avoids looking me in the eye. I've never seen him smile. I doubt he's older than 13.