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Jan 05, 2012 at 02:15pm IST

Book excerpt: Delirious Delhi by Dave Prager

'Delirious Delhi' examines life in a city that's ecstatic, hallucinatory, mind-boggling, feverish, and vastly energizing - all at the same time. It's a full-length portrait from an outsider's perspective that helps expats demystify Delhi - and helps Delhiites demystify expats. Published by Harper Collins India.

The first morning & other mysteries

We knew we would love living in Delhi the moment we heard the door-to-door paella salesman.

Book excerpt: Delirious Delhi by Dave Prager

'Delirious Delhi' is a full-length portrait from an outsider's perspective that helps expats demystify Delhi.

Ah, paella! The national dish of Spain. A sumptuous fusion of saffron rice, scallops, prawns, peas, sausage and cuttlefish. We'd expected Delhi to be cosmopolitan, but never did we imagine men would be riding around with giant canvas sacks of paella strapped to their bicycles. In our eight years in New York City, the most exotic street food we ever found was the guy selling gyros on 47th Street. But we had to go to him-nobody ever rode around Brooklyn shouting 'fa-laaaaaaa-fel!' and dispensing hummus by the scoop. But after just fifteen hours in our new flat in the Hauz Khas market neighbourhood of south Delhi, we already had a guy selling Valencian delicacies right outside our bedroom window.

Lying in our new bed, Jenny and I listened to the cry that was to fill our ears every subsequent morning for the next eighteen months. 'Pie-ehhhhhhh-AH!' he hollered, riding slowly by three storeys below. 'Pie-ehhhhhhh-AH!'

We were already half-awake. Our restless morning had begun at sunrise, when the mosque across Aurobindo Marg cranked up its call to prayer through crackling speakers that were loud enough for Muhammad himself to make no mistake about how reverent they were. Soon after that came the honking, as every vehicle began saying 'good morning' to every other vehicle on the road, a call-andresponse that would end with goodnight honks only around 11 p.m. And just as we began to wonder if renting a bedroom that overlooked a busy road was a bad idea, the paella man rode by and put all our fears to rest. 'Pieehhhhhhh- AH!'

We peeked out the window on his third pass and saw him: thin, wiry, dressed in clothes that had long since been sun-bleached out of whatever shade of beige he'd bought them at, riding a colourless bike with one rag-wrapped bundle strapped behind the seat and another to the handlebars.

'Ah,' I said. 'That back bundle must be where he keeps the paella.' We wondered what the front bundle contained: thyme and saffron shakers? Bottles of 2006 Baron de Barbon Oak-Aged Rioja to pair with the meal? Extra cuttlefish for preferred customers?

And what other culinary delights were to be peddled by? We salivated in anticipation of the crêpe guy. We wondered if the sushi salesman could get fresh ahi this far inland. Maybe a gazpachowallah would come around during the hottest months!

That morning, our first morning in our new flat but our sixth in the country (we'd stayed in my company's flat in Gurgaon, the tech hub south of Delhi, five days beyond our realization that we didn't want to live in Gurgaon), Jenny and I lay in bed and listened to the sounds of the city outside our window. We were neophytes in Delhi, and the struggles that would soon confound us-where do we go to buy a wireless router? why does every third car have a sticker promoting 'Fun 'N Food Village' in its rear window? how do we call an ambulance at two in the morning?- were still waiting beyond our bedroom walls. We would soon explore the streets of a city we'd never imagined we'd actually live in. We would soon see the full gamut of the human experience on those streets, from joy in the most despairing of circumstances to cruelty perpetrated by those who have everything in the world. We would soon watch dogs get beaten. We would soon see children get saved. We would soon meet holy men and unnoticed women who should be saints. We would soon stumble upon hidden treasures and walk past transcendent sights without noticing a thing. We would soon explore as much as we could manage. We would soon learn as much as we could absorb.

But we would barely scratch the surface. Every time we left our Delhi flat, we'd return home with more questions than answers. Which means we never became 'Delhi experts'. We'll never be 'Delhi experts'. Even if the city wasn't constantly changing-even if the Delhi we experienced could be frozen in time so that we could explore every inch before its next iteration came along- our grasp of the city would always be limited by the cultural filters through which we can't help but view things. All we know about Delhi is what we saw, what people told us, and what we think we've figured out. No matter how much we would try to immerse ourselves, our Delhi would remain a rarefied one: we were comparatively rich and unmistakably foreign, and the only Delhi we could possibly experience was the one that aligned itself in reaction to us.

This was the third Delhi flat in which we'd woken up, but the first in which the morning symphony was this audible. In the Gurgaon apartment, the only soundtrack had been the howls of wild dogs and the pounding of construction machinery that could induce headaches even from twenty-three storeys up. And in the apartment I'd stayed in during the month of August, in a neighbourhood called Greater Kailash-II, the morning's sounds were muted, distant and almost tranquil. (That apartment, obviously, did not face the road.)

My August in GK-II had been a test: for my soon-to-be employer, to see if they'd want to commit to me on a longterm basis; and for me, to see if I'd have the cojones to leave the city in which I'd lived for eight years and the country in which I'd lived for thirty. They did, and so did I. And just two days after first landing in the country, I called Jenny in New York from a yellow STD kiosk in the GK-II M Block market and gushed, 'I think I could live here forever. I love it here!'

Five months later, I hated it.

Most books about India written by Westerners document an obligatory 'personal journey': at first they hate India, but then they 'learn to love it'. At first they're overwhelmed by the chaos, but then 'the soul of the people shines through'. At first they're horrified by the poverty, but then they 'find spirituality' in every speck of dirt.

Our trajectory in India was different. We loved it instantly and intensely, every bit of it, as frightening and overwhelming and incomprehensible as it was. But then, as novelty turned into routine, we grew disgusted with it all: first the pollution, then the traffic, then the poverty, then the constant fear of getting swindled, and then just about everything that wasn't what we knew back home.

But that wasn't our journey's end. Instead, we were to vacillate back and forth between the two extremes-love India, hate India, love India, hate India-until we found equilibrium. We learned to love the things that should be loved, and to hate the things there are to hate. Most of all, we learned that both these aspects of India-the good and the bad-must be taken together.

We would never describe India as 'spiritual', like so many do, because that would mean ignoring all the misery. Nor would we call it 'disgusting', like so many do, because that would mean ignoring all its beauty. Our attitude towards India now mirrors our attitude towards our own United States: some aspects turn our stomachs, but others make us soar with sheer joy at being alive.

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