My first morning in India, I rise from my bed at the Kashish Hotel in the Paharganj area of Delhi and do what all we all do: part the curtains to let in a little light. Good morning, world! Hello, new country! What adventures will today bring?
On a rooftop across the street, a tall man shoves and slaps a crying woman while two indifferent boys look on. He slaps her into the little brick rooftop room, and then shoves her out again. He shoves her through the doorway to the stairwell, and then slaps her back into the sunlight. He grabs her arm and throws her to the stairwell.
This is where she makes her stand. Apparently there is only so much violence heâ€™ll inflict, and she knows it. She tries to brace herself in the doorjamb, her arms bowing like a cartoon cat straining to keep itself above the rim of a tub of water. He menaces her with a closed fist. She sits down abruptly. He pauses at this turn of events, standing over her while she dabs at her eyes with the hem of her purple-flowered sari. He raises his fist again, shouting at her. She moves only to put her forehead in her palm. She weeps into her wrist.
He puts his hands in his pockets and looks around expansively, like a man waiting for a train heâ€™s in no particular hurry to catch. Sitting on a pile of bricks, the boys chat like itâ€™s Saturday morning.
A few minutes later, he steps over her and down the stairs, off to work in his crisp blue button-down shirt and shoulder bag probably stuffed with lunch. She dries her eyes, rises, and slowly walks back into the brick room.
The boys begin to play cards.
I spend the day walking around Connaught Place with Alan, a fortysomething Belgian musician wearing the most ridiculous orange hippy pants. If he werenâ€™t so sweet, the pants would be a deal breaker. Theyâ€™re like a beacon for touts and beggars and fashion police.
Delhi is so insanely polluted I canâ€™t stand it. Within hours, I have a lump in my sore, scratchy throat, a nasty nose, a corset-tight chest, and burning eyes. The noise, the smell, the heatâ€”I cannot stay here. Itâ€™s impossible.
Looking for a better map of Delhi than is in our guidebooks, we stop in what deceitfully bills itself as a government tourist office. We leave with two packages for Kashmir. (If Kashmir seems like a step up, you know the place you’re in is bad.) He plans to leave for Srinagar the next morning. I’m waiting until Monday. I think Iâ€™ll see Alan in Srinagar, but I wonâ€™t. After my experience there, Iâ€™ll wonder what happened to him. Those fleece-me pants, his inability to shake the touts and beggarsâ€”Iâ€™ll hope he made it out of Kashmir safely, with money in his pocket.
That evening, I go to Noida, a suburb of Delhi just across the border in Uttar Pradesh, the neighboring state. An acquaintance, Mona is putting me up for a few days until I leave for Srinagar. We are looking for a neighborhood called Sector 31. The autorickshaw driver gets lost, and then more lost. The headlights of the rickshaw tunnel through the smog; somehow it reminds me of the Hale-Bopp comet.
We pull into what is supposed to be the entrance to Sector 31, but itâ€™s blocked with sawhorses and barbed wire. A dozen bored but heavily armed police officers lounge in parts of uniformsâ€”shirt removed here, pants removed thereâ€”who eventually, sullenly, pause their card game to give him directions. This is set-of-directions number four. We cross the road again, find Sector 30, and phone Mona. I put the driver on the phone with herâ€”letâ€™s start this again, from the beginning.
When he brings my bags into Monaâ€™s apartment, he points to a plastic stick-on design on the threshhold. It is a pair of feet and a swastika. He tells Mona she should remove it. A swastika, he says, is a holy symbol and shouldnâ€™t be placed where peopleâ€™s feet, deeply unholy, tred every day. He knows because heâ€™s not only an autorickshaw driver, but a panditâ€”a Hindu priest.
In Sector 31, I relax. Itâ€™s lovely to be in a home, a home with parents; it makes me miss my own terribly. I want to have a bit too much wine with my mom and make bad puns with my dad.
Monaâ€™s mother feeds me vegan Bengali food, which is fiery and delicious, while her diabetic father saws wood in one of the bedrooms. Eventually I camp out in the living room. The room is astir. The air conditioner is broken, so the two ceiling fans are cranked up to helicopter. The elephant-tribal throw rug draping the couch on left, the English-language magazines on the couch to the right, the fabric flowers in their dry vase, my hair, the oxblood curtains as a tall as a teenage giraffeâ€”everything flutters in the fan wind. Only the dozen statues of Ganesh are still.
The next morning, Mona’s mother peels the swastika from the floor as she’s leaving for work at the pharmaceutical company where she met Mona’s father. Though it’s a Saturday, Mona, too, heads to the office to interview a potential hire; an HR manager for a software company, sheâ€™s understaffed. I linger with her father over chai and a bevy of English-language Indian newspapers and magazines; India’s polyglot nature and colonial history have made English the lingua franca.
â€œIndian English is proper English,â€ Monaâ€™s father booms at me, and then offers me a container of biscuits.
What a wonder it is to be able to read so much about whatâ€™s happening in a country right at the moment Iâ€™m there. The media are in an uproar about the week-old decision of the Supreme Court to put a stay on the 27 percent Other Backward Classes (OBC) quota law, which holds spaces in universities for these castes. It’s India’s affirmative action, and reactions to it are just as impassioned as they are in the US. There are protests against the stay and rallies for it on campuses across the country.
When Mona comes back, we head for one of the many malls in Noida. Itâ€™s a Saturday afternoon in a blistering heat thatâ€™s unusually intense for early April, and the Arctically cool malls are the place to be for the Growing Indian Middle Class I keep reading about. Mona and I eat at Ruby Tuesdays and shop for kurtas. I buy one in black and another in orange.
Later that night, we have dinner and drinks with two other Delhi natives. There is a lot of talk of music, and a lot of laughing. The atmosphere changes when they find out that Mona lives in Sector 31. â€œAh, the Killer Sector,â€ one of them says.
â€œThe Killer Sector,â€ Mona repeats ruefully.
Mona explains. It was in Sector 31 that at least 20 children were raped, killed, and partially eaten by a psychopath. They were children from the poor village nearby. They had been lured by promises of sweets and money. Though their parents had gone to the police about their disappearances for several years, they were ignored until bones were discovered in a drain behind a Sector 31 home.
The night before, we had been at the correct turn-off for Sector 31. It was where the police were playing cards.
As we drive back to Sector 31, I think about Alan in his silly orange pants and ready hand in his pocket, handing out rupees. I think about every time I’ve waved away a child asking for baksheesh, tips, pens. If I had given them these thingsâ€”so small in my economy, so cheapâ€”would they have asked just one less other person? Because the next person could be an Alan, or could be a killer.
Most likely the next person could be like me. I tell myself to donate to charity instead, to on-the-ground programs that provide homes and schooling and safety. I tell myself that Indians themselves will tell you not to hand anything out because it encourages begging, and that many of these kids are exploited by adults who force them to beg.
But I know that my hand stays in my pocket because it feels like once it starts, it wonâ€™t stopâ€”as if the floodgates of need will be irreversibly opened, and the masses will collapse on me. I know that it is because I am ashamed that everything I have is everything they need, and I am not generous enough to part with it.
I may be selfish, but I am not dangerous. But does my callousness increase the danger? After all, who is quickest to parcel out what desperate children needâ€”the Alans of the world, or the killers?