I like to think of free writing as soul vomit. You can’t help but be slightly repulsed by it, but you find yourself examining the contents to see if what came out looks any thing like what went in. It’s like playing peek-a-boo with a train wreck. Frankly, it just feels good to get it all out there. ‘Better out than in,’ the non-repressed would say.
My boss is apparently not repressed. During our very first conversation about life in Delhi, he pretty much gave me the same ‘better out than in’ throw up speech your mom gives you when you ate too much sour cream dip and now your insides would like to see the sunset; or the same thing your best friend tells you when she’s holding your hair back while you pray to the porcelain God of alcohols past or before he places you on your side in the bed to make sure that you don’t choke on the yack that comes from too much ‘gnac. My boss meant it in the context of my getting out and exploring Delhi, rather than retreating into the safe spaces of American familiarity and my securely alarmed home. Why would anyone want to hole themselves up around Americans while they’re in the middle of Incredible India?
If you have yet to notice, I did just liken Delhi to vomit. It’s in my face. It smells. It’s dirty. I am curious as all hell about where everything came from and why it looks like that. It is not easy to sort out the origins of anything, but it’s been hard to stop myself from asking the questions anyway. I really want to understand everything, but then I feel a little bit like the new mom who checks her baby’s poop for irregularities – a little too over eager to know things any normal person would have no use for.
You, naïve reader friend, might think I’m over reacting or I am struggling to settle in. Let me be clear (Obama thumb pointed at you), I ain’t never scared. I am loving the grit. If the Western Sahara and New York City had a baby, they’d name their androgynous child New Delhi. Everything is so cheap here that figuring it all out doesn’t cost much except time and patience. The food here tastes good; I just have to beware of the microbials. When someone tries to rip me off, usually we’re duking it out over a whopping 50cent and principle. How many wild animals have I seen in Delhi today? Four! ‘Were they in a zoo?’ you might ask? Silly rabbit, that was in fact a very dumb question. (I know you didn’t know that dumb questions existed, but there are a whole host of them and now that you know Santa’s not real it’s time to recognize ‘Can I touch your hair?’ is one of them.)
Answer: A camel, an elephant, a wild boar and a bull, oh my. This place can be shocking in an awe-inspiring way and also in a gut wrenching way. It’s hard to see so many hungry, dirty, poor street children and to have to ignore them. Is it hard because they’re kids? No. Is it hard because they’re dirty? Nope, dirt is gross. It’s hard because these are not the first street children I’ve been around. These are just the only ones that I knew I couldn’t help. From Brazil to Ghana to DC and back, I’ve never seen this level of desperation before. The last time I was in Bahia (Brazil) I bought 5 working, street kids (between 8 & 10 years old) kids meals when I came back from the mall. They said thanks, went back to work and waved every time they saw me after that. These Indian kids are super human with their begging, and they are met with inhumane responses. It’s a chicken and an egg situation – and somehow it makes wild animals of us all.
So, Delhi is vile and voracious. It is wild, but selectively sophisticated. Very successful office buildings are flanked by slums, and not just favela community slums; I’m talking Kingston aluminum & tin slums. If an Indian doesn’t speak English, his generation, class, caste, education level, status, earning potential, options for mobility are clear. People try to appear whiter, because they believe it to be more beautiful or advantageous. It is reminiscent of Brazil in the way that the majority of light skinned people are not rich, but the majority of rich people are light skinned. Well, in Delhi it’s not one hundred percent true, but I do think Amitabh Bachchan wakes up in the morning and models his image around what he thinks Sir Richard Branson will look like in 15 years.
If that’s not enough to make you vomit, then why am I giving myself carpel tunnel syndrome for the sake of highlighting the obvious? Delhi is not for the faint of heart or the weak of intestines. Every day there’s something new to discover. Last Saturday it was the Institute of Liver and Biliary Sciences (word, India? Really? Biliary?) and the town of Gurgaon. This Saturday I learned that the Institute of Tuberculosis & Respiratory Disease Research is located adjacent to a large, open air crafts market (word, India? Really? Tuberculosis near an open air market?).
It’s not clear if what is coming up for me looks anything like what I started with, but DC’s tuberculosis situation is nothing to cough at either. A re-examination of Delhi’s contents has proven to be an exciting process, even if the answers give me an MSG headache. No place is perfect. But Delhi is a real city — unlike that unnamed (but didn’t I just name it?) big small town that they call the capital city of a country, located in the Western Hemisphere, where the people like their opinions heard, their corn syruped, and their fries Frenched. Delhi is not DC. It’s simultaneously exceeded my expectations and underwhelmed. Either way, I’ve learned that it’s my expectations that need managing, not Delhi. And that, my friends, is a liberating feeling. It’s like telling your best friend, ‘you’re the one who gave me that drink. Any iced tea from Long Island has to yield violent results. Don’t do it again!’
Every time I find myself believing that I’m getting a foothold and that in the future I should expect consistency in this city, I have to re-adjust my expectations. No experience is ever just the sum of its individual parts. There’s so much that’s left to chance, Bhagwan’s kismet and one’s attitude. And that’s the stuff you can’t identify when staring straight into the remnants of Delhi belly left behind from a bad case of street food or when staring into the face of a barefoot, crying 7 year old begging for money and selling balloons in the middle of oncoming traffic.
There must be something to this process of discovery that’s transformative. By getting it all out, my hope is that I don’t just feel better in the end, but that – in fact – I am better. Which of the Hindu Gods should I pray to for that? Yes, that was a stupid question. Everybody knows I can just make one up. Let’s call her ‘Soul Glo,’ and see how things come out in the wash.