Thursday, May 1, 2008

Greetings from: South Extension, Humayun’s Tomb

Ordinarily I’m woken by:

morning call to prayer
clattering dishes
goats braying
strange dreams
people talking loudly in the hallway.

Today, none of those stirred me. I slept until almost noon. My plan for today: Humayun’s Tomb, then the South Extension for more shopping. So, to avoid any confusion, I wrote down my destinations on a piece of paper. I was warned by my pal Matt Gross, however, that even though many Indians will nod and act as if they know where they’re going, oftentimes, they don’t. So even after showing my semi-neatly written instructions, my auto-rickshaw driver nonetheless had to pull over to ask someone else for help. To make matters worse, this third person still had no idea where I was going. It dawned on me: writing those names on atop the other, my driver believed Humayun’s Tomb to be a proper name, somewhere in the South Extension. Okay, then. South Extension first.

I don’t see shopping as a competitive sport. I see something I like; I buy it. No hassles, no fuss. I know deep down that I should comparison shop, but it seems like an awful lot of trouble. First, I was lured into a Louis Phillipe shop by a blue linen suit with green pinstripes. The staff fell over itself helping me out. Try the jacket. If you have the jacket, you must try the trousers. Here’s a shirt to complement everything. But I’m a difficult fit in the United States, and it holds true in India. Luckily, there are tailors can make custom suits for you -- in dark beige linen, for example, with widely-spaced blue pinstripes. Or they can make sportscoats -- dark brown tweed, say. This is all theoretical, of course.

I made it to Humayun’s Tomb later in the afternoon, near sunset. The Tomb seems to have a higher percentage of Western tourists than the Red Fort, but this may have been a result of being the weekend. Indians have a tradition of memorializing death. That doesn’t mean just Humayun’s Tomb and the Taj Mahal -- people buy ad space in newspapers to commemorate death anniversaries. The newspapers have the ad rates right there. It seems like a touching gesture, but it also strikes me as slightly tacky; the American equivalent of putting an IN MEMORY OF decal on the tinted back window of an SUV. It’s one thing to remember someone’s passing, but to make a show of it? Is one more proof of love than the other?

On Sundays, Asif Ali Road becomes a street-wide book fair. Books of all types are laid out on the sidewalk: trashy paperbacks, children’s books, and regrettable hardcovers, smoldering in the sun. This is where old textbooks went to die. Although I would have loved to browse, the mass disorganization proved too much for me. I like books sorted into their proper categories, their discrete sections.

Finally, in Delhi -- the city of sleeping dogs -- I finally saw my first kitten. I heard it first, mewing with all its strength, behind the potted plants in front of the hotel. It was bony and skittish, hiding as it made its way to a sewer grate. My first reaction was to try to find it some milk. There was a milk stall maybe two long blocks away. I wondered what I could feed it. But then it hit me: I was a bad Westerner. I was willing to help a kitten, but unwilling to give a beggar one measly rupee. You’re screwed in this life, but hopefully you’ll be born cute and furry in the next one.

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