Friday, May 23, 2008

a cup of chai

So I know that last post was a little dramatic, but, well, arriving in India is dramatic. But I'm feeling much, much better now.

After posting that last entry, I decided, with tenuous resolve, to get a few photos of paharganj. So camera in hand, I walked out of the internet sanctuary, braved the street, and snapped a couple shots:

It's madness. It's just madness. (I just looked over this post, and what injustice! The photos capture nothing! The smells, the sounds, the heat and bustle and grime and splashing feet and wheels and cows! Well, you're just going to have to go yourself! It's alive!)

The tiny alleys off the main bizaar (the literal translation of "pahar ganj") split and branch like ivy. A twist and a turn and two cows later, and nothing's changed. Rickshaws squeezing by, honking motos, the smell of incense, chapati, urine. Push on. I found a little sit-down cafe, whose only customers are a western couple. Done and done.

I didn't even chat with them, but it's comforting just to see white people. It's nice to get off the street for a second. Aloo gobi, paneer paratha, rice, and a plain lassi, please. Tons of food. Thai portions, these ain't. Stuffed my belly for 90 rupees. $2.25. The food is delicious. I didn't realize how hungry I was! But next time, sweet lassi. Plain is kinda... needs sugar.

You know how excited I've been for Indian food? It's a vegetarian's paradise! Even the food on the plane! Bursting and dripping with flavor, like the whole market warmed and put on a spoon.

I could eat here forever. But I'm stuffed. Really stuffed.

Keep wandering the alleys, so tortuous! Cows and people, fruit carts and spices and walls. People look at me. Cattle in the marketplace. Maybe it's the third world, maybe it's his first time around. I keep thinking of that song.

On this ledge, next to the motorbike, there's an old man, white hair and beard, with an orange dot on his forehead. He's looking at me, and I smile as I pass. He smiles.

I pass two little kids playing cricket with a tennis ball and a board. A few minutes later, turning from alley to alley, two kids my age, cricket again, but with a real cricket bat. On my right, the same ledge, same white-haired old man. He says hello. I say hello. He sits up, and we start chatting. He invites me in for chai (tea, sorta).

His house is one room. He lives there with his two sons, my age. The ones playing cricket in the alley. Here, I'm sitting on the bed, against the corner.

He's 58, a Brahmin, ex-rickshaw driver. We have chai and talk. The orange dot is for Hanuman. He loves Hanuman the most, and has a little shrine where he prays every morning. Lived in the same one-room house since he was born. He tells me stories. Tells me why Indians always pray to Ganesh first, before the other gods. (That trickster!)

I don't know if this man wants money, or company, or both. I don't really care. It was such a treat to have tea with him, such an experience. He really made me like India, hard, immediately. Do I want to come back for tea tomorrow, or lunch? Absolutely! Whenever you like. 10 o'clock? 10, 10:30, 11, whenever you like.

I'm all smiles.

Back to my room. The guesthouse is funny. Dirty, broken bricks and tiles everywhere, and yet some stairs are made of marble. My room hasn't a modicum of cleanliness. The toilet doesn't have a seat, or a cover. The bed is laden with crumbs, stains. There's no phone, but there's a button for room service. Press the button, and a bell rings, and an Indian boy comes huffing and puffing up the stairs to take your order. Such a mix of cheap and fancy, disgusting and regal. I'll have some plain naan, a water, and chai, please.

There's the photo of me that Mom wanted. (When I'm outside, the camera does not leave my person. No way.) And for some reason in pictures places always look clean-ish. I promise you, it's not.

This morning I woke up, looking forward to chai with the Brahmin man. I bring some rupees, and some cookies I got in Thailand. It's not a good gift, but it's a gift. And really, all gifts are good gifts. Off to find the white-bearded man.

He's there, with one of his sons. What a treat. We all have chai, and they start making chapati. His son is studying English at university, and has really interesting things to say. We're chatting, while the father is squatting on the floor, patting out the chapati dough, which he then hands to his son, who fries them and toasts them on the fire. It's beautiful!

The son, Mukul, is on a scholarship at uni. His older brother works for Benetton, which is a very good job, because he 5000 rupees a month ($125). Mukul's so interesting, and full of smiles! He's just a bucket of smiles. A Brahmin, he thinks the caste system is outdated and silly. Very liberal. 10 years ago, women wouldn't go to school in India, but it's changing now and he's very happy about that. He was so impressed that Mom went to Harvard. So impressed. So Mom, Mukul, who lives in a one-room hole with his brother and father in Delhi, thinks you're a pioneer. And a genius. And he's right.

India gained independence from the British on August 15th, 1947. Mukul thinks it would've been earlier had the US not bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The British were stretched too thin, trying to keep India from the Japanese while holding off the Germans at home. If it weren't for America, the Japanese would've taken India from the British. Would that have been any better? He says the Japanese were very popular in the '40s. Dad agrees.

When the dad leaves to get some more ghee from the market, Mukul tells me quietly not to give money to Dad. He spends it on alcohol. Is that why he invited me in for tea? No, no, Mukul says, he's just friendly. But still, don't give him money. Okay.

When I ask to take Dad's picture, he wants to put on a nice shirt and pose outside with a cow. As you wish.

What a real, genuine treat. An Indian man invites me to his home for tea and chapati and conversation. How wonderful! How friendly and welcoming and different. And such good stories from Dad, such interesting thoughts from Mukul. A real highlight.

But Delhi's incredibly hot, even with the rain. And the size and bustle still overwhelms me. So tonight I'm heading up to Manali on an overnight bus, to the base of the Himalayas.

First though, I'll get something from the market. A little thank you for Mukul and Dad. One last cup of chai, a gift and a warm word. Then I'm off. To Manali.

How one person, one cup of chai, can change your whole perspective on a country! So shines a good deed in a weary world.


Anonymous said...

i'm quite glad to hear india's growing on you; how wonderful to have chai with a local family! (also, for being a science-type, you write very well.) it would be a shame to travel somewhere you hated. however, the nice thing about your trip is that if you don't like where you are, there's nothing keeping you from going somewhere else. for example, if you're tired of walking around in 91-feels-like-100 degree delhi, you can always hop a train to the himalayas (so cool). one thing i've found pretty fun is to check to see what the weather's up in jakeland. it seems that weather underground has a larger database of cities to pull from than i hope you took a raincoat -- it's going to be in the 50's and rainy for a few days. keep your eyes peeled for monks and monkeys in the mountains!

your fan,

Anonymous said...

you have actually made me a bit jealous that i'm not there--but seeing the picts and reading your living words are good enough, believe me
but if new dehli was next to milwaukee, i'd sure want to go for a weekend

mom is going to be VERY,VERY happy that you said what you said about her--she'll be reading it in a bit---she's doing well

i bet they've heard of yale, too

i liked "So shines a good deed in a weary world" thanks willy


Anonymous said...

You are just fabulous!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful nod to Paul Simon!


Anonymous said...

Jake - This post reminded me of a speaker I heard at North Shore Country Day School last week. HIs book is called "Three Cups of TEa", and is the story of how he's helped build schools in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan. The title of the book "refers to a tribal tradition of drinking tea with someone: during the first cup you are a stranger, after the second a friend, and after the third a part of the family who they will protect with their lives and do business with". Sounds like your experience with Makul's father, the retired rickshaw driver!

XOXO, bbb873

Jake Cooper said...

Cammer - I'm off to buy a vest or coat today. Of course, there are worse places to need to buy a coat than in the Indian Himalayas. I can get one custom made for $15, or a prefab for around $8. And they're woolly and nice! Wunderground is a little too informative for me; just give me the gist.

Dad - Delhi is a trip, no doubt. But maybe it'll seem less what you're after if I went into the details of how to use a squat toilet (toilet paper does not exist here), or the truly difficult-to-bear heat, or the obnoxious, aggressive, offensively-loud noise. An experience like no other, but two days was enough for me.

Mrs. Berry - Isn't that something you'd never find in America? I once saw a program on how air conditioning destroyed American communities. Sitting on your porch, saying hi to folks strolling around; but with A/C, you don't dare leave your home! Why can't "progress" be uniformly positive? That's one of the key terms in economics (though never politics): "creative destruction." I love ducking into a fancy hotel lobby for the A/C, but I love being invited in for tea, too!

Thanks for your comments, everyone. It's so easy and nice to check in, if even for 15 minutes, and connect with home.

BAReFOOt said...

Yes, there is nothing more impressive than seeing a completely different world from the inside. I was in New Delhi 10 years ago,and I still can remember that “woah” feeling. So strange. so different. And yet totally normal to everyone there. Like a dream. It brings tears to my eyes. I want to go back. :(

Whenever I want to remember that feeling, I watch the music video to “Laurent Garnier — The Man With The Red Face”. It’s really long (over 9 minutes), shows a restaurant in India, and can make you start to become part of that world.
I really recommend watching it.

Visakh said...

If u are coming to chennai, put an email to me...visakhcr at gmail dot com...

Anonymous said...

it was nice to know that you enjoyed the visit. unfortunately, there are many i`ve known, who have`nt enjoyed their visit to India, mainly because of the climatic and cultural differences.

from a reader who loved this post.

Anonymous said...

If wunderground is a little too much info, try! I like wunderground more actually but don't usually want to type the extra characters.

Ashish said...

that's a terrific post. I love travel stories like this. Hope you enjoy your further travel in India even more.

anomaly said...

your post was recommded to me by zubin71. if you wish to experience a little more pleasant climate, you should consider travelling a little south. it's moderate here and you get to see the coast-line. you also have a lot of weird and mystic customs, not to mention the numerous dance forms and classics. south is a bit more greener and has a lot of mountains and forests unlike the north which has vast plains. and if you are planning to come to kerala(it's a state) mail me at

may be i can offer you a hot chai

Anonymous said...

glad you liked what you saw of india. this is just one of the many such instances i am sure exist in india, but scarecely what is well known to many; even among our countrymen too. hope you have fun on your trip and like. as in another comment, do come down to south specially kerala. you'll find many things ranging from kathakali to kalari to ayurveda to the people fascinating. do try to come down south: atleast it aint so hot as it will soon become in the north. besides kerala is the place to be in the months june to septenber, specially june and july- you'll love the rains. i do although it's sometimes irritating- it's one the best times of the year here and one of the few things i liked after moving to kerala.

Jeffrey said...

I love it, I love it!

While I've never been to India myself, I always enjoy any and all pictures of faraway places (I'm in the Czech Republic)

And while you may not think so, I can imagine the sounds and smells from those first couple pictures...

My only complaint, being a panorama junkie is that these are only "normal" photos. Please let me know when you're interested in learning how to make spherical panoramas :)

If anyone is interesting in seeing some of the panoramas from India on our site, you can see them here:

thanks again for the cool article and photos.

Jeffrey Martin
Founder / CEO
360 Cities . net