NEW DELHI – (Continued from Part I) And so, back to the Couchsurfing. Jayoti, originally from the northeastern Indian state of West Bengal, was happy to meet me at her usual haunt, the Oxford Bookstore near Connaught Place. Like the only other Indian person I’d met on Couchsurfing, she, too, had a background in journalism, and bubbled over with all kinds of fascinating information about her country and its culture. We repaired to a nearby pub — my first Indian pub, which, as I’d discovered, are generally thin on the ground in Delhi — and she continued my education on all things Indian over the din of Pearl Jam records played front to back. (Is anybody else out there weirded out by how Ten is now twenty years old?)
One subject that came up, the persistent popularity of arranged marriages in India, threw me for a loop. We’ve all heard about this Indian custom, of course, and for some reason I filed that away under “quirky throwbacks that surely have no place in the modern world,” but to my surprise it’s alive and well there, especially among the middle class. There’s even a huge matrimonial website employed primarily by mothers and fathers to get their kids hitched. Millions upon millions of unmarried 20- and 30-something Indians are compelled by their parents — busybodies who’ve harnessed cold, dispassionate technology to shortlist potential mates with appropriate linguistic, religious, and economic backgrounds, not to mention compatible castes, blood types, and astrological signs — to show up for businesslike interviews with these presumably ideal specimens. From the sounds of it, the meetings are excruciating, usually kicking off with the would-be husband asking embarrassingly forthright questions of his would-be wife, things like “Do you cook well?” and “What are your goals in life?” Many Indian men and women privately chafe at the indignity of it all and go along with it just to humour their folks, and they resort to increasingly elaborate and hilarious explanations why their most recent introductions just didn’t cut the mustard. What’s remarkable, though, is how there’s no evidence that newfangled boy-meets-girl marriages, which are on the rise in India, are any more successful than the old-fashioned arranged kind.
Jayoti later introduced me to the impressive new Delhi Metro, which, unlike much of the recent Commonwealth Games infrastructure, was completed ahead of schedule and on budget and hasn’t yet killed anybody due to shoddy construction. It’s a marvel of organization in there, when you consider that its 1.5 million daily riders all have to undergo an airport-style security check, and I never waited in line more than a minute or two. The high-security vibe in the metro system, borne of the 2008 terrorist attacks in Bombay, doesn’t stop on the way in. While riders wait on the station platform, a woman’s voice on the PA instructs them, in Hindi and English, to not talk to strangers.
Within a day or two, Sunny back at Vespabretta had the Hamburglar ready to go for its initial test run. Replacing a cylinder and piston and crank in a Vespa is essentially a full rebuild of the engine, and no matter how carefully it was done, the bike needed a thousand-kilometre run-in period of slow riding, a higher-than-normal premix of 2-stroke oil, and a constantly varying hand on the throttle. Sunny had also replaced all my burnt-out clutch plates with modified Indian-made ones, and that needed time to settle down and be adjusted. New brake pads on the front and shoes on the back and new tires and new bearings everywhere also increased the risk of something going wrong, and so I’d spend the next few days tooling around Delhi — possibly the world’s most infuriating city to ride in — making sure everything was hunky-dory. (As instructed, Sunny had also installed a little grocery bag hook under the seat, an incredibly useful accessory that I’d been missing from my first Vespa all those years ago. I looked forward to testing that bad boy out.)
I took another autorickshaw out to Vespabretta, on the western edge of town, and did my meagre bit in putting all the parts back together. Sunny’s crew adjusted the carburetor, I re-installed my windscreen, and I was soon let loose on the mean streets of Delhi.
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