Thursday, September 21, 2006

the guy who runs the internet cafe is singing along to hindi movie songs

Priy dost,

I saw my first Hindi movie of the trip before I landed in India, flying over the Black Sea, historic Armenia, and Iran - something called "Alag" ("Different"), which is a sort of odd cross of Travolta's "Phenomenon" and "Superman." The aptly named Tejas was born after his mother was struck by lightning and has various powers (can speak to animals, conduct electricity without being harmed, is hairless, etc.) which involve a special effect that looks something like lightning. Shut away from the world in a dark basement for 18 years for fear that he would accidentally injure someone years, he is taken in after his loving father's death by a girl and her stern (but actually sympathetic) father. Though until now he knew the world only through books, now he discovers, y'know, flowers... peer group anxiety... of course love. A (white) mad scientist tries to perform experiments on him and havoc ensues. I've rarely seen a movie so completely uncompelling. (Perhaps we will escape the midday sun tomorrow and see - I for the second time - Omkara, the Bollywood Othello, which is another kettle of fish entirely.)

Anyway Air India has my loyalty for life, which they won when a handsome flight attendant named Chandra started pouring my (free) Scotch and waited for me to say when he should stop. Flight attendants in saris; spicy potato puffs instead of the proverbial peanuts (now, of course, mostly stale pretzels); chapatis with breakfast and (instead of "chicken or beef?") "veg curry or lamb?" On the way to Delhi from London I sat next to a girl named Lakshmi, a computer programmer in the UK, flying back because her father had just had a heart attack - a would-be humanist who never got to study what she wanted (philosophy and art) in school, translated ghazal lyrics for me ("Take my money - take my fame - take my house - take my possessions - but give me back a moment of my childhood") and invited me to visit her and her family in Bangalore and Mysore.

Indira Gandhi Airport is not the madhouse it is said to be (at least not at 11:30 PM) - in fact it reminds one of nothing so much as the 'second' airport of a big American city - Oakland, maybe, or Midway - small, but charming as a result and rather clever. Indian passport control was shockingly casual - at least for someone expecting the legendary 'Third World bureaucracy' - if only getting back into the US were so little hassle.

Yesterday (and to some extent today - although we saw only a few shops closed in presumptive solidarity) Delhi was struck by quite major riots provoked by slum clearance attempts. "They are trying to make it like Paris," said the man at the desk of our tourist hotel in Paharganj - of course he is quite right - but the Haussmannization of Delhi faces severe political opposition. For in this country the politics of strike and protest ('bandh') is not yet past. Of course a lot of the typical nonsense is being thrown about - BJP have jumped on the issue as a way to gain the support of what are ingeniously called 'traders,' police officers are suggesting that the neighborhood where the stone-throwing started (Seelampur, on the other bank of the Yamuna, in northeast Delhi) is a haven for Lashkar-e-Toiba (one suspects the bugboo of all unrest in this country - insanely, police are still trying to suggest that Muslims might be responsible for the blasts in Malegaon a few weeks ago), Congress ministers are clamoring (in a completely formalistic and insincere way) for the constitution to be amended - but politics here are still harder and more sincere than I'm used to. Where else do they burn effigies of the prime minister to show their discontent?

Of course business has continued perhaps not quite as usual but still at a breathtaking pace and one I'm unaccustomed to. Everywhere Brian and I go we seem to cause a miniature trade crisis - we of course are taking money out of ATMs, which give Rs. 500 and 1000 notes, but Rs. 50 (about a dollar) is the going daily wage and so no one has change for us. When I paid Rs. 3 for a Times of India today and the news-seller didn't have 50 paise change (about one cent), I realized exactly how low the capital-labor ratio is here. Walking down the street here you pass seven different stores, lined up one next to another, making marigold garlands - or three manufacturers of refrigerated display cases - or three workshops making large marble devotional statues - each under different ownership. Every enterprise seems to employ about five times as many people as they need, and enterprises not only double up in storefronts (engraver and tourist agent; a bulk tea store full of people peeling potatoes) but spill out onto and saturate the street. Every business that people have yet contrived is underway on the streets of Delhi, packed tighter than I could have ever guessed, in a thousand tiny alleyways and chowks - silversmiths, epiceries, upholstering, electronics, wire cutting, single women peeling shallots (!) by the side of the road, every conceivable kind of snack - chai, bhelpuri, Pepsis, sweet funnel cakes, popcorn, eggs, kebabs, paan...

And, of course, the continuo line in this incredible frenzy of activity at the very thinnest margin of profitability and possibility, textiles and clothing. Sometimes I think being a Marxist just means giving fashion its proper weight in world history, and never more than this morning, on our way through the Muslim neighborhood of Old Delhi that surrounds the Jana Masjid, have I been more struck by a vision of human life as just an endless struggle for the right thing to wear. We must have passed hundreds of tailors - one fabric is more beautiful than the next, and while a hideous type of stonewashed (or perhaps sandblasted) jean seems to be the thing among fashionable young men, one woman more gemlike and better dressed than the last. Even the women in purdah (though we saw few women on the street - perhaps 20 men for each one - and not many of them, even near the mosque, were veiled) are out shopping for the most extravagant bangles and earrings I've ever seen, and their piety is betrayed by the smoky, seductive glances they are sure to throw your way.

Of course they are not the only ones. Say what you will about the custom of the country and so forth, but there are faggy little boys holding hands and touching each other everywhere, many of whom went out of their way to introduce themselves ingratiatingly to Brian and myself today. It's hard to interpret the body language, the looks, and so forth - but I think I know my people when I see them, and while there may be a fine line between fashionable and gay there is a line and I'm pretty sure there's a lot of boys in this city on my side of that line.

It's late and I'm tired - and so I know already I'm bound to fall behind here - so perhaps I should permit myself the few comments that Shahjahan obviously thought he was really hot shit (and perhaps he was - he certainly had impeccable taste), Jains bring tears to my eyes, and there is nothing more bracing and heathful for we intellectuals, we decadent souls, than commerce at its very highest pitch (I am a flaneur in New York, I am a flaneur in Delhi: imagine Canal Street everywhere, all the time, with cows and autorickshaws and five times as many people and no rules). Hopefully tomorrow or the next day I will be able to expand; we are staying in Delhi another day and then leaving for Haridwar in the foothills of the Himalaya early Saturday morning, so I should have a solid five hours to catch up to the present on the train. Anyway if it isn't obvious I'm in love.

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