Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Greetings from: Connaught Place, Chanakyapuri

I keep mispronouncing it. The emphasis is on the “naught” rather than the “con.” In a manner of speaking, that is. I got to experience the “con” part earlier, usually in the form of taxis. The Lonely Planet describes different taxi scams—depositing you at certain shops, you pay what you feel, new mysterious “charges”—and I’ve experienced all of those today.

First: Mr. Singh (Cab #2998), originally tasked with taking me to the US Embassy (I was late; they close at 1) then proceeded to drive me to three different souvenir shops. Carved Ganeshas, carpets, pashmina shawls. Look at the quality! Let me unroll one for you! The goods reminded me of things you’d find a flea markets: ties in mylar sleeves, t-shirts featuring camels and the Taj Mahal, pajamas. The shopkeepers followed me, persistent. I was relieved to see some other Westerners there with me; I wasn’t the only one getting the shaft. And I, being of weak-will, broke down and bought stuff. Not regretfully, of course, but more with a sense of let’s get this over with, the first in a series of painful vaccinations.

Then: a different Mr. Singh (Cab #2603) transported me to dinner (the United Coffee House, where I was only one of a few Westerners—does this make it authentic?) and back, and rather than securing the cost beforehand, he simply told me to give him a good price. Fine, then: 200 Rp. Now all I need is someone to throw dung on my shoes and then offer to shine them for me. I could be more vigilant in guarding myself against scams and frauds, but the truth is: I really can’t be bothered. Some people enjoy haggling, of fighting tooth and nail for each last rupee. My mother does it with aplomb. But not me. I’m a walking profit machine. Rupees fall out of my ears. I also had my first beggar experience. An old man and a child came up to the taxi and banged on the window. The man pulled up his sleeve to show how skinny his arm was, how he had a patch of discolored skin on his wrist. The child kept knocking on the window. The second Mr. Singh looked away, and I tried my best to ignore them. But, oh man, did I feel like a bastard. Western liberal guilt for the lose.

Finally: a third Mr. Singh (no cab number given on his card) deposited me at Peg N Pints in Chanakyapuri—south of the embassy district, roughly—for the infamous gay night. Infamous because it’s only advertised by word-of-mouth and surreptitious Google searches. I told Mr. Singh that I’d be there about one or two hours. The bar was dark—so dark that you could barely make out faces except when someone sparked a match to light a cigarette or had his face caught in the light of the mobile texting screen. I guess having smoke-free clubs back in the States has spoiled me; my eyes began stinging almost immediately. From the second level, overlooking the dance floor, burning cherries waving up and around. A man named Irwan—moustache, yellow t-shirt, glasses as round as his face— introduced himself to me, but I could hardly hear him (Everything But the Girl was playing) and when he tried to continue the conversation, I couldn’t understand him whatsoever (the DJ was rough and reckless with the cross-fader). He sat next to me for a few minutes, his arm on the back of my chair. I leaned forward and steadfastly ignored him, and after a while, he left. The crowd seemed in good spirits—a cross-section of the middle-class gay scene in Delhi, I suppose, a mix of ages and temperaments. They drank 1 liter bottles of Kingfisher, which seemed ridiculously large to me (then again, since I don’t drink, it may simply have been a throat soother). The waiters (including one waiter who I could have sworn looked Chinese) picked them up and carried them off, assiduously avoiding contact with the patrons. At first, only one or two people danced (if I were ten years younger, that may well have been me; age has instilled a more thorough sense of shame), but soon the floor was filled. One boisterous man danced in front of me wearing a grey wifebeater—he reminded me of a younger, overweight Ron Jeremy—hooting and having the time of his life. Around midnight, a tall drag queen came in, looking like Lisa Marie from Mars Attacks!, along with some actual, biological women. A drunk in a white silk shirt stumbled down the stairs and out the door. During the day, two men holding hands or walking with their arms around each other would simply be an expression of friendly affection, but here, it developed into full-on snogging. I would have been content to watch the action—the bar had a single, green laser light, but given its size, more would have caused sensory overload—but a young man named Rishi said to me, “You don’t dance much, do you?”— a challenge if ever I heard one. He seemed to be the social director for Peg N Pints; he seemed to know everyone and was happy introducing everyone to everyone else. Through him, I met Rajev, Anut, Derek (who I believe was Japanese) and Robert (a doctor from Philadelphia, Korean). House music is still the lingua franca of the gay world; I never expected, however, that Shakira would be its goodwill ambassador. When the DJ put on popular Bollywood remixes, people cheered and sang along, and even though he didn’t have any idea of how to work a pitch shifter, when he hit pause on the CD player, the crowd roared back, “Om Shanti Om!” At least he knew his crowd. I didn’t leave until 2:30, and Mr. Singh #3 was asleep in the cab. When he finally deposited me back at Le Meridien, he insisted on an additional 200 Rp. “waiting fee” (50 Rp. per hour) even though I’d already given him 400 Rp. for the ride and back—generous fee, I thought. Again, I couldn’t be bothered to argue, whereas Robert, a few minutes earlier, had Rishi argue the cost of an auto-rickshaw down for him to 100 Rp.). I gave him another 90 Rp. “You pay me the other 100 tomorrow,” he said. I’m sure I’ll have a completely different Mr. Singh.

But the fee was almost worth it: on the way back, the windows rolled down so that a cool breeze—in Delhi?—blew across my body, a lone cow walked across an empty street, followed by two forlorn, feral dogs, teats engorged and hanging low to the ground. But the cow seemed not to have a care in the world. It couldn’t even be bothered to turn its head to moo.

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