India 6: Googling at Gurgaon

Pounding bricks in Gurgaon, IndiaToday I’m going to take you on the world’s shortest sightseeing tour, in which we will cross the street from one shopping mall to another. The shopping malls are located in India Shining, the proud, new, resurgent India out to take over the world; however, the street is still firmly in Bharat, the ageless, eternal land of preordained destiny and reincarnation.

Our journey starts at the DT City Centre mall in Gurgaon. It’s a smallish box-shaped shopping mall, three stories high, with maybe 50 shops, rather cramped, and would be entirely unremarkable in most of the developed world — but it was among the first to open in Gurgaon and is a landmark of sufficient stature that a Metro station planned outside will be named after it. Tenants include Ruby Tuesday, where Indians get to indulge their fantasies of being America (wood paneling, cowboy-themed crap, old Coke ads on the walls) and meals of hamburgers and fries cost Rs.500 (~US$10) a pop. Opposite it is Pizza Hut, in the inner atrium is a Barista coffee shop, and most other tenants are small little shops selling jewelry or scarves or CDs or whatever it is that small little shopping mall outlets sell.

As we step out the door, we can watch the security parade, in which all shoppers are made to walk through a metal detector. As everybody is toting purses or backpacks, the detector duly says “beep”, which the security guards duly ignore as they wave everybody onward. But we’re going in the opposite direction. Outside the shopping mall is a parking lot, with modern, expensive cars (nearly all recently dented, scratched and banged). But between the parking lot and the street, there is a 20-meter strip of rutted dirt, muddy in the rain, dusty in the sun. It’s on an inclined hillside, but there are no steps or stairs, so shopper clambers over it randomly, gingerly treading around cow poop and garbage. There’s no road from the parking lot either, so you can also entertain yourself by watching cars try to avoid the worst potholes and pedestrians try to avoid getting run over by monster SUVs.

The strip has recently been bisected by a strip of pavement, running parallel to the main road, but not connected to the parking lot or the main road. This road is inhabited by a permanent logjam of rickshaw drivers, and the strip of dirt next to it has the guy who sells roast yams for Rs.5 (~US$0.10) a pop, the guy who sells paan masala and a scrum of beggars: the mother with listless rag doll child, the wizened old sadhu who looks at you with sad eyes and wordlessly motions toward his mouth, the aggressive ten-year-old girl with a dusty shock of hair, a permanent coat of grime and bony fingers that she uses to pinch those you who don’t pay up.

If you turn your head left, you’ll see a chunk of land cordoned off with Delhi Metro barriers: they’re doing preliminary drillings for an elevated high-speed mass transit system. On the right side, there is a massive construction site for a new shopping mall, and you can watch men bending steel and women carrying baskets of bricks on their heads as the work proceeds. Once the mall is complete, there will be an unbroken sprawl of malls eastward: DT City Centre, One India Place, Vipul’s Agora, Sahara Mall, CWC Mall, and MGF Mega Mall.

But we’ll keep going in a straight line. Ahead of us is Mehrauli-Gurgaon (MG) Road, one of Gurgaon’s two main links to Delhi. It’s three lanes in both directions and full of cars, autorickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, cows and the occasional bullock cart from morning till night. Unusually, there is a pedestrian crossing with traffic lights here; however, the lights are near-universally ignored, and people can thus only cross on foot by massing into clumps of sufficient volume that their bulk and the messy cleanup that hitting them would require intimidates even the most leadfooted of drivers. In the middle of the road is a median strip and a fence, with a gap here for the crossing, usually inhabited by a beggar lady and her baby, whose shit-streaked, naked, blue behind attracts both flies and alms.

If you make it across without being flattened by a truck (Tata Bye Bye!), you’ll find yourself standing in the busy lanes used by cars driving into and out from the MGF Metropolitan Mall. There are no provisions of any kind of pedestrians, so you just have to pick your way across the lane dividers and traffic wardens towards the stairs that come out of the mall and abruptly terminate on the pavement. MGF is anchored by a big cinema multiplex, and from the outside you can also spot a large McDonalds, a popular TGI Friday’s outlet and a Citibank ATM, which is permanently watched over by a dedicated security guard.

As you enter the mall, through another metal detector whose sole purpose seems to be to provide background noise (beep beep!), you’re greeted by a 10-meter pair of curvaceous breasts, barely contained in a lace top. It’s an advertisement for lingerie, in a country where an on-screen kiss in Dhoom 2 (released Nov 2006) generated outrage and a ongoing trial for obscenity. On the left wall, a Bollywood actress in butt-hugging jeans and a clingy silver top; on the right side, a model shows off her backless dress, two slinky legs and pumps that could also be used to skewer kebabs. At the far end of the mall is Chor Bizarre, where you can pay Rs. 500 (a decent monthly wage in some parts of Bihar) for a meal of Delhi-style street food, served by liveried waiters from an antique automobile converted into a buffet table, and whose general manager wrings his hands in genuine distress if you complain that the golguppa shells are a little too chewy.

Road upgrading donkey style, Gurgaon, IndiaThe laws of writing dictate that I’m supposed to provide some kind of pithy closing statement here, but this is one of those times when India leaves me at a loss for words. Nowhere, but nowhere, in the world will you find the wealth of sheer misery that is India. The slow rollback of Gandhi’s murderously deluded policies of self-reliance and recent surge of economic growth is the best thing that has ever happened in this benighted land, but this distance to be covered yet is dauntingly vast. I’ll be back some day, but for now my quota is full.

And oh yes — do you want to do something? Donate to WaterPartners. Amoebic dysentery nearly killed a friend of mine, but she had the best medical care money can buy: millions of children every year aren’t as lucky, and it’s a terrible, terrible way to die.

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India 2: How are you relaxing?

So my first week in India is coming to an end, and I had the time to take a spin around central Delhi‘s tourist trail over the weekend.

Transportation in Delhi is interesting. I took a taxi from the hotel, one of those ancient Ambassador jobbies that still form the bulk of the fleet, and asked the driver to use the meter. He punched buttons on it around 17 times, grinned a bit too widely, and I watched the numbers spin dizzily upwards as we set off.

– How long in India, sir?

– Four months.

– Oh…

By the time I got to India Gate, some 5 km away, the meter read 350 rupees — quite literally ten times the real metered fare. Now it was my turn to grin and tell him his meter was crazy: he grinned back and said no need to use the meter, why not just charter him for the whole day? I grinned more, gave him the smallest note I had (100 rupees, alas) and sauntered off without even a whimper of protest.

Delhi is not a walking city, to say the least. Footbridges seem to be totally absent and pedestrian crossings are about as useful and protective as the painted little swastikas on the back of cars. Navigating from India Gate thus involved crossing the traffic circus’ (such an appropriate word) lanes of non-stop vehicles the same way I did in Jakarta and Saigon: just step out onto the road, hopefully to the leeward of a few locals, and walk in a straight, predictable line so drivers can try to swerve around you. I stomped my way to Mandi House, where there was supposed to be a Metro station according to my map, but the map was off and it was just a construction site — it was another km to the end of the line at Barakhamba Road.

The sparkling new Delhi Metro, complete with squeaky clean Korean-made coaches, is a technological marvel made only more so by the chaos above. After a quick stroll and lunch at Connaught Place, I took the Metro to Chawri Bazaar (6 rupees), and stepped out of the train onto a cycle-rickshaw to the Red Fort (20 rupees). It was another world: the road was jammed from side to side with bicycles, cyclerickshaws, autorickshaws, three-wheeled trucks, motorbikes, bullock carts, pedestrians all jostling for space.

On the way back to the hotel, I took an autorickshaw and negotiated up front for 50 rupees. The first one refused this, but the second accepted, so I can only presume I was in the right ballpark this time.

* * *

India’s intelligentsia and newspapers bemoan the lack of equality in the country, and print the matrimonial service ads neatly sorted by caste and expected dowry size. At one intersection, a bunch of darker-skinned Indians wearing Vanilla Ice masks were advertising some type of whitening lotion. Chemical trucks careen on expressways, hazmat signs marked with neatly stenciled letters saying “CORRECT TECHNICAL NAME”. But rest assured: a roadside safety campaign proclaims “Accident brings tears, safety brings cheers!”

One day, we went out for lunch in a Gurgaon pizza parlor, curving past a beggar woman holding a baby with a bloody bandaged head and flies buzzing around its bare soiled behind, into a strip mall that wouldn’t be too far out of place in New Jersey. In Ruby Tuesday’s faux-American surroundings, all Texas license plates and old Coca Cola ads, entrees cost 500 rupees a pop (this in a country where income of above Rs.1100/month means you’re not considered poor) and our group of three was fawned over by around five staff. As soon as I’d popped the first mouthful of curry into my mouth, one of them materialized next to me and asked: How are you relaxing, sir?

I could only think of the McDonalds ad in heavy rotation on local TV, where an older Hindu couple jabber away in Hindi for a few seconds. The sari-clad grandmother-type, hair curled into tight gray bun, bites into a crispy McVeggie Burger(tm), then lifts her hands up in the air, twirls her head in the Indian figure eight and proclaims with a lilt: Ooh, I am loving it.

* * *

Next on the agenda: a weekend trip to Haridwar and Rishikesh in Uttaranchal.

Soundtrack: Shoulder Surf, by Sukshinder Shinda feat. Takeova Ent

India 1: First impressions

Twenty-four hours have passed since my passport was stamped into India, and it’s time to distill what I’ve seen so far into a series of witty insights, dodgy comparisons, fatuous overgeneralizations and outright mistakes.

A useful travel skill is not expecting too much out of the places you’re visiting for the first time, as this makes it much easier to be pleasantly surprised by them. (This, for example, is the only way to enjoy the Slovenian coal-mining town of Trbovlje.) For Delhi, this was easier yet: I expected a shithole with absolutely no redeeming qualities, and having now discovered at least three, I’m actually looking forward to the rest of my stay here.

The Expected

India is poor, New Delhi is no exception, and economic pundits who think India will be catching up to China any time soon would do well to go to Shanghai and then compare notes here. It’s not quite as desperate as I was afraid (I’ve yet to see any corpses or people shitting on the street), but beggars and shantytowns abound even more profusely than in my previous benchmark of big-city squalor, Jakarta.

Indian infrastructure is famously bad, and here too Delhi is no exception. Traffic is crazy, with three-wheeled autorickshaws emblazoned with “Horn Please”, sacred cows, clunky old Ambassador cars and crazy bus drivers, jostling for space on unlaned roads. Signage is laughably minimal, traffic lights are rarities and Jakarta’s sweeping elevated expressways shine in their absence. Especially at night, with clouds of dust whistling among the trees, it feels like an unusually busy night back in Chipata, Zambia.

The Unexpected

Delhi is both more flat, more spread out and less congested than I expected: there is so much wasteland and so many derelict buildings that you just don’t get the same sense as in Bangkok or Jakarta that every square inch counts. Then again, I’ve only been in southernmost Delhi and Gurgaon so far, so I fully expect Old Delhi to be much more squished together.

Pollution here is really bad. On Singapore’s PSI index, I have no doubt that every day here is well over 100, although mornings seem to be particularly bad. I woke up today sneezing with a really bad runny nose and a headache, triggered by the double whammy of dryness and pollution — fortunately it seems to be getting better already.

The Positive

After a few too many nasi gorengs, Indian food is excellent. It’s just one of those great cuisines of the world that defies easy description: Khmer cooking can be passably described as “half-Thai, half-Vietnamese”, Korean food is “Japanese with chili and garlic”, but how to describe the country that invented the curry? After a lifetime of eating the stuff only in dedicated restaurants, it still feels weird to actually find myself in a country where it’s eaten three times a day for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I’m loving it — and looking forward to my first McMaharaja Burger tomorrow. (I’m planning to go veggie for the first few weeks.)

Indian music (especially the more dancy styles of bhangra) rocks. And so do the babes in Bollywood music videos. (Unfortunately, and less surprisingly, they seem to be a rather rare species in reality.)

Second impressions to come this weekend, after I actually get a chance to see something other than fancy hotels and data centres…