Saturday, April 26, 2008

Greetings from: South Delhi

Can I call it? A different Mr. Singh. Today, at least, I’ve learned (by learned, I mean “finally read through my Lonely Planet”) to speak confidently and to pretend that I’ve been here before.

The designated day of shopping with Rishi and Robert. Robert wanted “authentic Indian” gifts to bring back home. Do Indians import their cultural souvenirs from China? In any case, our first stop: Dilli Haat, in South Delhi. From my new digs in Old Delhi, an auto-rickshaw ride to Dilli Haat cost 80 Rs., which stings because you can mentally deny you’ve been ripped-off until faced with the real cost of things. Alas. The auto-rickshaw does leave you exposed to the heat, but the moving air kept oppressiveness. Without humidity, the heat is simply… hot. Small constellations of sweat formed and faded on the driver’s gray shirt. As well, the rickshaw also leaves you more open to being approached by beggars. At times the road swarmed full of these green-and-yellow auto-rickshaws -- the world as ruled bye 7Up.

Dilli Haat is an outdoor bazaar featuring handicrafts -- think a flea market where each stall tries to lure you in with the promise of pashmina. Robert had some difficulty making up his mind; he wanted saris for his friends, yet didn’t know what color, what material, what cost. “As cheap as you can get it,” he said, which meant that Rishi assumed on the role of official tourist bargainer. One dealer explained the difference between needlework and hookwork in decorating the saris, and Rishi, a fashion stylist, pointed out flaws (uneven edges) and steered Robert away from dreadful color choices. Rishi demanded that a vendor bring out the Indian color combinations, rather than the European palette. So away went the grays and metallic edges; in came the saffrons, the turmerics -- piles and piles of them as the dealers unloaded the saris out of plastic bags, unfurled them, and showed us the careful stitching that Indian children’s hands can do. An emaciated British gent sat haggling for a sari, a skill that I leave -- for better or worse -- to my mother.

Rishi then took us to Greater Kailesh (commonly referred to as GK), home of the Fabindia store. Robert decided that he wanted some Indian clothes for himself, so Rishi and I watched as he tried on shirts of different sizes and clothes, pajama bottoms with extra cloth meant to gather at your ankles like bangles, regular straight leg pajama bottoms. The small, slim fits -- even in India -- are too big on me. Upstairs from a trendy clothing store was Le Café, where, Rishi informed us, the socialites and Page Sixers of Delhi liked to congregate. Indeed, at one table, a large group of Indian women (of a certain age) had gathered, as if they were the steering committee for a charity event. We met two of Rishi’s friends at the café (a young woman in a bright yellow dress that showed off her décolletage and a young man who could only be described as a prototypical stoner), and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the young, upscale professionals of Delhi are no different from those in the United States. They’re always looking for diversions. And they find them: drinking, marijuana (which I understand is illegal to sell but not to smoke or possess in small quantities), art, drugs, sex. The favored catchphrase: “What’s our POA (plan of action)?” Urban malaise: the new global phenomenon.

Finally, with Robert shuffled off to the airport to catch his plane to Dubai, Rishi had business of his own to conduct. He took his hired car (cost $100 a month, including driver) to Lajpat Nagar, a street in which I was the only Westerner. Both sides were lined with clothing stores, women in bright saris walking in and out of them. Rishi and I walked into one, and the variations of colors were overwhelming. You know how, as a child, you’d buy the biggest box of Crayolas, then tilt back the cardboard top simply to take in the chromatic assortment before you? You’d pull out certain colors just to learn the names: periwinkle, cornflower, terra cotta. Imagine that, but with silk, the colors so varied that they no longer have names, but rather numbers on a swath card. As we walked back to his car, my first adventure with street food: a green coconut, its top hacked off to expose the sweet water within.

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