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What I see from the car windows as I'm being driven along the main highway leading to India's capital has me slack-jawed. Given the many news articles I'd read about India's becoming a global economic power I had expected to see skyscrapers overhead, brand new roads, the sparkle of newness and modernity to all sides.
Instead, I am assaulted by a maelstrom of surreal images of desperate poverty. At the very edge of the road, a shallow section of concrete sewer pipe has been laid flat in the dirt and serves as a communal bathtub. A young woman in a dirty sari has placed her two young children within and pours water over their heads from a gallon plastic jug. Muddy water runs out the bottom of the "tub" and into the road.
Though it is midday, people sleep beneath bushes. They must work all night. Overpasses are prized housing sites, the bridge keeps out the rain during the monsoon season and gives shade from the heat of the day when it's clear. A mile on I see a roadside barber shop, both barber and client oblivious to the heavy traffic rushing by mere feet away. The client sits on a rickety wooden chair in the open air, his beard covered in foam. A broken mirror has been nailed to tree next to the chair, allowing clients to check the quality of the work performed.
I try not to stare and I don't take photos because I don't want to insult Nagendra or his country. When we pass a particularly desperate scene I sometimes catch Nagendra furtively looking at me, assessing my reaction.
I'm taken to a ramshackle hotel where I'm checked in, taken upstairs, and then ordered to get some sleep. Nagendra says he'll pick me up in a few hours. I try to protest, saying I'm ready to get to work, since it's full-on day, but Nagendra will have none of it. "There's a twelve hour time difference," he says. "You need some sleep. We'll work after."
I don't have much choice and give in. Nagendra and his wife, Rituu, leave, I'm not at all sleepy and turn on the TV. I find a Eurosport channel, lie back on the bed ...and am out like a light in seconds.
Seemingly only minutes later there is a knock at the door and I awake groggily. It's Nagendra and his helper, Rais. "Where's Rituu?" I ask, noting her absence.
"She won't be coming with us because the shop we're going to visit is in a not so pleasant part of town," Nagendra replies.
Rais nods his head. "Very bad," he confirms. In the coming days I would never hear Rais say more than two words of English in succession. After a while, it became a game for me--my attempt to get Rais to stitch together three words in a sentence. But I always failed. Not one, not three, only two words ever came out of his mouth. I liked him immediately, and he, me--proving that communication is not really all that important to a relationship (Are you listening,, ladies?).
Nagendra and Rais lead the way outside where an afternoon sun beats down oppressively on us. The space between my shoulders quickly becomes irradiated. I wonder if, come the night, I will glow with the residual energy my body is storing. This is worse than Texas.
We walk two blocks and descend into what appears to be a bunker, but is the subway. The air is cool here, very pleasant. I follow Nagendra to the platform where two soldiers with machine guns stop us and begin to aggressively frisk Nagendra and Rais. Wow, shades of Belarus!
The soldiers eye me warily, distrust in their eyes, and allow me to pass through with a sharp jerk of the head and pointing with the machine gun's barrel. They're all business and not to be trifled with.
"Why did they frisk you and not me," I asked Nagendra when we stepped into the crowded metro car.
"It's because you don't look Pakistani," Nagendra replied. "America has had one terrorist attack, we've had hundreds, and more all the time. The subways are regularly bombed."
"Pakistan is behind the attacks" Nagendra continued, a statement which would be confirmed by the U.S. State Department afterward.
The train starts and I grab hold of a metal bar to steady myself. I's
suffocatingly hot inside the car and crowded. More people enter at the next stop, and within a few minutes I find myself sticking to my neighbor.
Nagendra is caught at the center of an extended family, all holding onto the same metal bar he holds--or in the case of the younger children, Nagendra's legs. Nagendra consults the chart hung above the door and holds out three fingers for me, indicating three more stops. I look for Rais, but can't find him through the press of bodies, understandable as he is a bit short. After a bit of "Where's Waldo" type effort I located a tuft of hair that might be him.
The subway ride mercifully lasts only ten minutes more and I enthusiastically unstick myself from the congealed mass I've become part of and follow Nagendra and Rais up a set of stairs and out into a street unlike any I've ever seen.
The street is quite narrow. Buildings rise to five stories on all sides, giving me the feeling that I am walking through a deep trench.
Every single doorway or alcove we pass houses a business of some sort. Never in my life have I seen so much economic activity crammed into such a small place.
A man sits on the stoop of a building, coils of copper wire around him. That is his business. That is his inventory. Next door a butcher chops away at a large piece of (unrefrigerated) meat. What I take to be steaks have been placed on torn pieces of cardboard laid across the dirty floor.
No matter where I look, commerce is taking place. People have spread blankets out into the street, bananas and mangoes heaped on them. People sell boxes. Alarm clocks. Cutlery. All spread out into the street.
This makes for some delicate walking, not helped by the ample contributions made by the sacred cows, which is left lying in the middle of the street. This is perhaps perverse of me--but could it perhaps be holy too?
Above us, thick stands of electrical wire run helter-skelter from building to building, up and down, back and forth. One gets the idea that much of the electrical power in the city is being poached, which turns out to be the case. The very thought of having electricity switched on by the power company would have an Indian bent at the knees with laughter. Doing so would require myriad trips to the power company, the paying of bribes, and the waiting, the long waiting (sometimes as long as two years) before a connection is made.
It's much easier to call on someone sitting in the street who has a pair of pliers and knows where copper wiring can be found. You'll be in good shape as long as you don't mind a few sparks now and then, and can learn to look past a bit of smouldering.
It's hot. It's noisy. It's indescribably filthy. I dodge a pedicab, make a misstep, and step into a pile of cow manure--turning myself partially holy in the process, I suppose. A few minutes later, in dodging a child, I venture my way toward sainthood. No wonder Rituu refused to come. She's an intelligent woman.
Nagendra turns into a side street and then up a set of dirty concrete steps. We've reached Nagendra's warehouse.
A quick glance at the back of my Subaru will confirm that I am not the cleanest person in the world. That's where I throw my bike, my surfboard, and lots of other stuff. I shame myself in admitting this. But even someone like me has standards, and India is not meeting them. Why is it so dirty?
Can't one be both poor and clean? Or am I just being
insensitive, that poverty does crush all ambition? Who has time to sweep a step or pick up trash when every waking hour is spent with work? And yet, as I travelled I saw people everywhere: relaxed, chatting, happy, enjoying life. Perhaps cleanliness is just not something that is deemed of primary importance. In any instance, the question would not be answered during my stay in India.
"You must be starving." Nagendra said as our meeting ended. "Let's find Rituu and get something to eat."
I follow Nagendra down the stairs and step out into the street----where we almost crash into four men carrying a dead body on a litter.
The four men hold the litter high on their shoulders and walk briskly down the street. We follow in their wake (perhaps not the best choice of words), immediately behind.
The body is wrapped tightly in white sheeting and freshly dead. Its neck bobs and moves with every jostle.
Do I dare take a photo? It would be great for the newsletter. The street, the wires, the cows, the wares, the dead body. But upon reflection, I decide not to. Respect needs to be shown.
The four men make their way down the road, bobbing and weaving through the crowd. This would be traffic-stopping stuff back home but no-one gives them a second glance. I am impressed with the speed at which the litter bearers are able to keep up in such dense traffic. They must be professionals.
A block later they take a sharp left turn into a narrow alleyway and disappear from view, leaving the three of us to deal with the press of people and the ever present holiness lying in the street.