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.