Capital Issues (I)


NEW DELHI — Sunny the Sikh, the affable owner-operator of Vespabretta, met me at his family home before giving the truck driver directions to his garage. The middle-class prosperity of his neighbourhood quickly gave way to the crushing poverty evident the next colony over, and we chugged down rutted macadam roads alongside gag-inducing open sewers lined with shanties and cows and throngs of people. Dust churned up by the traffic hung in the air, stinging the eyes and reducing the winter sun to a wan little white disc. Things brightened a bit by the time we reached his garage, and it was obvious that what was once a desperately poor neighbourhood was quickly gentrifying: between the hovels and garbage-strewn empty lots, new construction projects were in progress, and the main roads were laid with fresh tarmac. Sunny’s crew got the crate off the flatbed, and they tore it all apart as I, standing to the side with a cup of milky tea like some colonial nabob, oversaw operations. The bike was wheeled inside, I paid the truck driver, and Sunny’s crew went at my Vespa with a vengeance.

Next up came some top-down diagnostics. As I explained in a previous post, the clutch was indeed in a bad way, but I’d also managed to strip out the teeth of the brake drum yet again as I approached the airport back in Dubai, which handily explained why the bike wouldn’t, you know, go. For some reason, that big nut holding the damn wheel in place kept coming loose, no matter how much I tightened it, and it only took a few thousand kilometres before the main shaft churned through the weaker steel of the drum. Thankfully, Vespabretta had plenty of spares on hand. Sunny’s boys then listened to the engine, and it was immediately obvious that it had problems. Big problems. I was so exhausted from the day’s exertions back at the cargo airport to stick around for more investigation, though, and I just asked Sunny to do what he had to do and that I’d be back after Diwali. This was fine with them, and I hailed an autorickshaw and enjoyed a bumpy ride back to West Patel Nagar.

That night, I decided to get out of my room and go for drinks with a recently transplanted Delhiite I’d found via Couchsurfing. Shivani, currently an interior designer and formerly working for NPR‘s South Asia bureau (yes, American public radio actually maintains a network of international bureaux) suggested we meet at The Living Room in Haus Khas Village. This combination restaurant/bar/art gallery was a revelation: there was a delightful rooftop patio, imported Brooklyn Lager, and a menu of international and Indian food. Four Tet’s hauntingly beautiful track “Angel Echoes” played on the stereo as a funky and cosmopolitan crowd quietly mingled, and I marveled at how it was a world apart from the hellhole I’d been staying in for the past week. Of course, the prices on the menu were chastening. India, land of contrasts.

As I hungrily sucked back my third Brooklyn Lager, and fireworks set off by dozens of neighbourhood boys exploded in the air above the patio, Shivani inquired what I was doing for Diwali. I got nothing, I said. She explained that she was far away from her family in the southern state of Kerala, and she was thinking of skipping town for the day. The city turns into a madhouse, she claimed. She knew of a good, quieter alternative, the town of Baggar, about a 4-hour drive west of Delhi just across the Rajasthan border. It’s full of derelict colonial mansions, one of which had been spiffed up and transformed into a hotel, and that hotel allegedly made the drive worthwhile in and of itself. Long ago I learned to never say no to anything on this trip, and Shivani seemed like she was very likely not an axe murderer, and so I agreed to join her.

The next day I checked out of the excruciatingly awful West Inn, but not before the concierge demanded a tip and expressed his disgust at my 1000-rupee offering, and I headed over to Shivani’s. She’d arranged for our own private driver and car, which seemed to me like a huge indulgence, but then again this was India and it was ridiculously affordable. We cruised out of Delhi on National Highway 8 heading southwest, which was built to a fairly high standard, but the many, many sacred cows wandering across its eight lanes precluded us going at highway speeds. (I still have no idea how those cows managed to climb over the concrete barriers.) Slowly, the highway tapered to six, then four, then only two lanes, which periodically went from gravel to dirt and back to asphalt again. The rural stretches between towns up here in the so-called Hindi Belt, one of the most heavily populated patches of the earth’s surface, were short. It left the impression of a single vast conurbation punctuated by brief stretches of miserable-looking farmland, and the scenes on the main streets in even the smaller villages was mind-bending. Rush hour in Manhattan can’t hold a candle to the intensity of a north Indian village on the eve of Diwali. Traffic was stop-and-go, and our car was engulfed by people who were more or less milling on the street as opposed to actually crossing it. Camels loped past, brightly-clothed women hauled pails of water on their heads, and fancifully-decorated Massey-Ferguson tractors (built under license in India under the TAFE badge) sped down side streets. And amid all the colour and noise and general chaos, there was dust. Lots and lots of dust.

Not a Massey, this one, but a Ford

I have to say, I hit paydirt in finding Shivani on the Couchsurfing. With her background in journalism and ability to jump from topic to topic with a speed and ease that made my head spin, she tutored me in recent Indian politics and history as our car rumbled westwards. To take one example, food in India isn’t just something that comes from the supermarket — and that’s putting it mildly. The hot-button issues of debt-addled farmers committing suicide en masse, and the persistence of child malnourishment rates nearly twice that of sub-Saharan Africa, are jolting and irredeemably sad to any purblind first-time visitor from the West (much like, now that I think about it, pretty much any other hot-button issue I heard about in India.) Despite all this, I couldn’t help but notice the bright side of the larger picture. Rolling through that intensely populated countryside — and it’s hard to put it into words, the sheer vastness of this ocean of humanity — you can see living proof of all those Malthusian doomsday predictions from the ’60s and ’70s never having come to fruition. Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb predicted the deaths of hundreds of millions in China and India due to famine; meanwhile, American agronomist Norman Borlaug selflessly toiled to engineer India’s (and Pakistan’s and Indonesia’s and Mexico’s) so-called Green Revolution, averting mass death on a scale that the combined efforts of Messrs. Hitler, Stalin, and Mao couldn’t come close to touching. The Republic of India today is a net exporter of food while still managing to feed an astonishing 1.2 billion mouths — which, according to the experts not so long ago, just wasn’t possible: hundreds of millions had to die.

It’s very easy to forget just how apocalyptic the future was meant to be, back in the day. India’s isn’t a perfect story with a Hollywood ending, though, and isolated bungling of pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, drainage, crop rotation, no-till farming (or lack thereof), selective breeding, and crossbreeding — all those wonderful things that, when carefully managed, led in the last century in North America to a quintupling of yields, a net decrease in cultivated acreage and total inputs, and a massive lowering of food prices — has led, in parts of India, to something approaching a disaster, something many alarmed critics are calling a “Second Bhopal.” Water tables are a mess, soil is deteriorating, and yes, many farmers are being crushed under insurmountable debt and are offing themselves in alarming numbers.

Confronted with this, Shivani explained, many well-meaning middle-class Indians blame the science. (And Monsanto.) Like so many of my cohorts back in Europe and North America — most of whom have never set foot on a farm — they love the word “natural.” They long to wind back the clock to some pre-industrial bucolic idyll that never existed, a mythical, mist-shrouded paradise where locavorism, organic farming, and other modern idiocies are the order of the day, and everybody’s a socially conscious hipster who picks their own fruit while wearing fashionable shoes. That this sort of wilfully stupid and shortsighted thinking has actually made its way all the way to India, of all places, came as a huge and disappointing surprise. All I can say is, good luck with all that. You’ll have to deal with shriveled, blight-ridden, insanely expensive produce, no access to foreign markets when you have a bad growing season, and the disappearance of whatever remains of your forests — you’re going to have to plant on every square inch of arable land.

Moving right along! As the sun set, we pulled into the town of Baggar and found the Piramal Haveli Heritage Hotel. It was fantastic. The other gilded-age colonial mansions in town were in various states of neglect — from “real fixer-upper” to “Detroit City rubble” — but not this place. It had recently been spiffed up and modernized, but without scrubbing it clean of the immense store of character it had acquired over the years, and it was still rough around in the edges in parts. The best part was the frescoes. Painted in a sort of naive magical 1920s style, they depicted all manner of bemused Hindu deities going about their business in entirely understandable ways for the Jazz Age. Ganesha, the elephant-god of success, that great remover of obstacles, made repeat appearances both flying a biplane and driving a convertible Duesenberg, his trunk flapping in the wind behind him.

The Piramal Haveli in Baggar. I can't recommend this place enough.

Before settling down for dinner, Shivani and I were invited by friends and employees of the hotel into the Piramal’s smaller first courtyard for a Diwali puja. Up to that point in my life I’d only faintly been aware of this Hindu ritual, and certainly never taken part in one. I felt like an impostor, more ill-at-ease than a Protestant in a confessional booth, sitting there among the devoted while various offerings were made to the gods and the pujari chanted and I was invited to flick water at a pile of tropical fruit with a paintbrush.

I had little to fear, though, because this Hindu ceremony evidently has no problem at all with bringing nonbelieving tourists along for the ride. Much to my surprise, I was even adorned with a tilak on my ample forehead. That was nice.

The next day, we wandered through the neighbourhood, popping in to the dozens of derelict and semi-derelict mansions that stood incongruously among more modest village buildings. The ones in better shape were often inhabited, with a family living in a small portion of the once-opulent pile, paying rent to a faraway landlord, and keeping the whole edifice from collapse. One such family invited us in for tea.

Later, they brought us up to the roof of their palatial home. I couldn’t quite figure out what these mini-turrents up there were for, other than decoration.

The view from up top was great. It was clear that the once well-manicured and aristocratic enclosures of the havelis had had their gates thrown open long ago, and modern village life had slowly overrun them. Goats and other livestock grazed among the geometrically perfect gardens, laundry hung on lines strung between Arabic arched windows, and a few tinsmiths hammered away in the half-enclosed space of a colonnaded walkway nearby.

Back down on the ground, we visited a few more estates. One in particular was in great shape, but nobody was home. Shivani took the opportunity to demonstrate some of her yogic skills…

…and then we took a breather at one haveli that had apparently been used as an infirmary at some point a long time ago. We used it to stage an Indo-Canadian Peace Summit.

As we made our way back to the Piramal, Shivani pointed something out as we passed the local barber shop: Indian barbers, it turns out, are all experts in head massage, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be the icing on the cake of a shave and a haircut. You can opt for the massage only! I couldn’t help myself. Finally, I was starting to see the point of this India. The good stuff is all there right under your nose — you just need to know exactly where to look.

Afterwards, we were mobbed by a gang of local nogoodniks who’d been terrorizing the neighbourhood with M-80 firecrackers, which are evidently a Diwali staple. Once I brought out my camera, though, they quieted down and were easily corraled for a picture.

S. Diddy and the Baggar Massive

Later on it was hard to ditch them. They tailed the two of us as we tried to find our way back to the hotel, and lobbed their surpisingly loud bombs after us like it was no big deal. Punks!

Somehow, I don’t remember myself or any of my neighbourhood friends being nearly as fearless with explosives as those kids in Baggar. These Rajasthan boys are clearly made of sterner stuff.

BACK IN DELHI, I LEARNED that the Hamburglar’s problems did indeed extend to the engine. Sunny had examined the piston — it was bone stock, put there 40,000 kilometres ago back at Vespa HQ in Pontedero, Italy — and it had seen better days.

Sunny had somehow managed to source a new 200cc piston and cylinder in a country that had never produced 200cc Vespa clones — 150cc was the biggest 2-stroke Piaggio engine mass-produced in India — and he insisted that I green-light the installation of these hard-won parts pronto. The crank also needed serious help, and the Vespabretta crew needed more time to get everything rebuilt. I deferred to Sunny’s authority, moved to a much more amenable guesthouse across town, and started planning how to fill my time for another week in Delhi.

Continued in Part II


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