Capital Issues (II)


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.

This was an entirely new experience for me. The city’s traffic lacked the unrelenting speed of Tehran, and the homicidal lunacy of Tbilisi, but it more than made up for it in the sheer quantity of vehicles. And urban cattle, just hanging out on the street. In my experience, only Saigon has more vehicles crammed on the road, but most of them have only two wheels and it’s actually a pleasant experience to be part of the slow-moving river of motorcycles there. Delhi’s more about diesel-belching four-wheelers in varying states of repair, and on a pair of 10-inch wheels you feel both insignificant and constantly threatened. Delhi’s roads, too, can conspire against you, and the one time I actually managed to crest 80km/h on the way back from Sunny’s — on a side road leading to a main highway — I rode headlong, in the dark, into a massive, and very unmarked, speed bump. “Bump” is a misnomer in this case; it was more of a smoothly sloping ramp about two feet high, and I and my bike left the ground for a sickeningly long time, Evil Knievel-style. I bottomed out the suspension on the way down and came close to dropping the bike, and while my heartbeat returned to normal I resolved to avoid riding Delhi’s streets after sunset.

Not before taking a quick spin around central New Delhi, mind you. Sir Edwin Lutyens’ 1920s masterpiece of city planning more or less clears out after 10pm on weekends, and I cruised up and down its wide, empty, tree-lined boulevards, through its gently curving roundabouts, and past the colossal red sandstone monuments of the India Gate and the Mughal-inspired Presidential Palace.

They say that New Delhi’s colonial architecture and layout, so utterly different from the haphazard and organic remainder of this vast city, nonetheless exemplifies the spirit of the place; this is a town that loves its fences, its enclosures, its exclusive domains of the rich and well-connected, all in a way that makes the American gated community seem like a pale imitation by comparison. I felt this, in a literal sense, as I tried to find my way south to my guesthouse and kept getting stuck in various ‘colonies’ along the way. It turns out that at nighttime these vast residential tracts comprising much of Delhi have only one guarded entrance and exit, which was something that the CRM-114 GPS unit was totally ignorant of, and as I struggled to find my way out of places with names like “Defence Colony” and “Lodhi Colony” I was left with the sensation of these prosperous enclaves being profoundly undemocratic for a country that prides itself on the very idea. (I’m guessing the guards manning the entrances just waved me on in because I was a white guy. That’s horrible, but for this correspondent, quite convenient.)

The next day, I’d planned to finally do a little sightseeing with Jayoti. First, I had to go meet her back at the Oxford Bookshop, and that meant an hour’s ride through daytime traffic. While the rebuilt engine was running fine, my rebuilt clutch had started behaving weirdly, somehow managing to both grab and slip at the same time. Shifting gears was tricky, but I stuck it out and crawled northward through the Delhi traffic on my unreliable transmission. Sitting there in the gridlock among the fumes of a thousand idling engines, where even two-wheelers and bicycles couldn’t move because of the sardine-like congestion, I did have time to look around at the goings-on on the street. And the things I saw beggared the imagination. There is quite literally never nothing compelling to look at in Delhi. Glance over at the autorickshaw next to you, and the driver stares intently back, shouting “Taxi? Taxi?!” at you even though you’re stuck in traffic with him on your own vehicle. Look over the other way, and there’s an enormous Sikh in an immaculately tailored British-style suit, charging down the street as he hollers into a mobile phone kept firmly planted on his turban, his closed umbrella in his other hand leaping up and down in a perfectly horizontal position like some furious sergeant-major’s pace stick. Shift your gaze across the street, and there your eyes rest upon an emaciated, wild-haired bum reclining on what passes for a sidewalk here, legs akimbo, wearing nothing but a filthy, tattered white bathrobe he’s left hanging wide open as if to air out his considerable genitals. But wait! A bit further down the way, the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen floats along in a sari that’s also the reddest red you’ve ever seen, her makeup and Superman-black hair and and jewellery done up to perfection. As she sails past, somehow managing to swerve around the many little piles of garbage and rubble while maintaining perfect poise, she daintily steps over the lounging homeless guy and all his exposed glory without even giving him a sideways glance. Needless to say, the Indian Ministry of Tourism’s slogan, “Incredible India,” wins serious points for truth in advertising.

Having tired of the sensory overload, I switched off my engine and stared at the idling truck in front of me while filling my jacket with sweat. And then a little kid ran out into the traffic and tapped me on the shoulder. Despite being generally filthy, the boy was dignified in his movements and stood there with his arms clasped behind his back, a look of deep concern on his face. There were some things about my Vespa that didn’t quite fit what he was used to seeing.

“What is your good name?” he said.

“Sean,” I said, shaking his hand.

“What is this?” he said, and pointed at my windscreen.

“That’s a windscreen,” I said.

There was something else he just had to know. “And what is this?” he demanded, gesturing towards the GPS unit mounted next to the speedometer.

“That’s a GPS,” I said. “It shows me where I am. Using satellites.” I gestured upwards, in the general direction of outer space.

Satisfied with that information, he nodded, executed a crisp about-turn, and disappeared back into the roadside crowds.

Once I finally made it to the Oxford bookstore, Jayoti bravely decided to hop on the back of the bike.

We took a tour of Old Delhi’s more famous landmarks. The Red Fort was first, and as the name suggests, it is both a fort, and red. Afterwards, she took me to the nearby Jama Masjid. I poked around inside this mosque, a Mughal-era colossus that, thanks to the influence of the Muslim emperors of the day, afforded it a commanding slice of real estate out of proportion to the actual Muslim population of the city (which today stands at about 12%.)

It overlooked Chandni Chowk, the oldest, biggest, and most crowded market area in the city. The amount of specialization in those teeming alleys was mind-boggling. One very long road was devoted to nothing but bicycle parts, the next one over dealt with only plumbing supplies, and so on, and meanwhile it seemed like every fifth pedestrian in those crowded lanes had one or more goats on a lead. It was a more cramped and chaotic version of something truly astonishing I’d seen earlier in the day, while wandering around my new neighbourhood uptown: a half-dozen streets were lined with nothing but scooter parts distributors, most of whom sold LML and Bajaj Vespa-style parts manufactured in India. I dropped by one shop to ask if they had any P-series rear bumpers to replace mine, which had fallen off somewhere in Armenia, and was given a choice of four different models, all of which were in stock. Having become inured to getting hosed on imported parts — that bumper had set me back about 30 euros back in Belgrade — I braced myself for the bottom line. They ranged in price, it turned out, from $1.75 to 30 cents. After some deliberation I shelled out the big rupees for the deluxe model, and loaded up on spare clutch and gear cables while I was at it.

On the way out of Chandni Chowk via bicycle rickshaw, I spotted a sign that demanded a picture:

My first assumption upon seeing this was that it was some sort of clinic for treating sex addiction. Only much later did I realize my mistake. English in India, spoken by more people than in any other country on earth, is a fascinating animal, sounding at first like some comical trip back in time — to a presuably softer, gentler place — but soon you realize that with its straightforward euphemisms and total ignorance of political correctness, it gets right to the point much more effectively and vividly than modern American or British English. Whereas we saddle this affliction (or, in Indian English, “complaint”) with the most clinical and sterile of terminology — “erectile dysfunction” — the Indians fearlessly use words more in tune with the unpleasant reality. Good on them.

But this straightforwardness in their English also reflects an approach to touchy subjects that most Westerners, this one included, find bracing. Here’s an ad I spotted in the Hindustan Times, the world’s second-largest English-language newspaper by circulation:

It’s hard for any right-thinking person not to feel sorry for the overweight guy, and to want to punch the laughing guy’s lights out. What’s disturbing is that in this ad, the joke’s on our pie-loving friend and not his snickering colleagues. More depressingly, this means that there’s probably a sizeable demand in the Indian stock photo industry for male models who can play the role of “sneering, good-looking man in suit.”

I later learned some other interesting tidbits about Indian English, such as their love of old-timey proprietary eponyms. I don’t think they say “Kleenex” or “Xerox” like North Americans, nor do they still call a hard drive a “Winchester” like the Hungarians do (after the first IBM hard drive from the 1970s), but they do use the word “Stepney” to mean “spare tire.” Once upon a time, the now-defunct Stepney Spare Wheel Company of Llanelli, Wales, shipped their coveted wheels to the furthest reaches of the British Empire, and in India the name stuck. “Stepney,” it turns out, is also a charming euphemism for “mistress.” As in, “I love my wife, really I do, but I keep a Stepney on the side of course.” Classy!

Sometimes, though, Indian English just comes across as unneccesarily archaic.

Nobody says “thrice” any more, folks! I suggest you get with the program.

BECAUSE OF THE CRUSH of out-of-town visitors for Diwali, it was hard to secure acomodation anywhere decent for more than a night or two, and I had to switch places the third time in as many days. Meanwhile, Jayoti was planning on taking me out for a burger that night. (Yes, a burger. Made of beef. In India. Somehow, she knew where to go.) Moving myself and my Vespa and my things two kilometres away to another guesthouse presented a logistical challenge; rush hour traffic in that city is not for the faint of heart, and the journey, Jayoti claimed, could take upwards of an hour. I loaded up the bike, Jayoti shouldered my ergonomic nightmare of a rucksack, and we all hopped on the Hamburglar and wobbled out into the traffic. Already I could tell that whatever was wrong with my clutch was only getting worse.

Delhi, at the best of times, leaves the impression of a place that’s just barely hanging on. Somehow, it manages to work — sort of — but even then only by the skin of its teeth. Throw even the easiest of curveballs into the mix, add some less-than-ideal weather, and the whole thing breaks down in spectacular fashion. This was the situation we rode into as we tried to get to the district of Karol Bagh. The sun went down, it started to rain a little, and we rolled at less than walking pace into the most harrowing traffic jam I’d ever seen — caused, it seemed, by light construction. The road was nothing but dust, a large part of which was airborne and illuminated by thousands of headlights, making it very hard to see. Meanwhile, my clutch grabbed and slipped and made shifting terribly difficult. Jayoti, to her credit, uncomplainingly perched herself on the back of the bike like it was no big deal. In half an hour, we’d made it maybe 300 metres. I had to get off this road.

Up ahead I could see a break in the concrete barrier, marking an intersection, and if I could just get over there and execute an illegal right turn I could, in theory, end up headed in the direction of the guesthouse. I fought my way over there and up to the red light, where there was a very animated and frustrated-looking cop in a tan uniform manning the intersection, but surely he didn’t give a damn what two-wheelers did, right? Motorcycles seemed to do whatever they wanted in this town.

Wrong. The light turned green, I slowly began my turn into a break in oncoming traffic, and the cop — a huge, bearded Sikh with a look in his eyes like he was mad as hell and wasn’t going to take it anymore — leapt in front of us, grabbed my windscreen, and wrenched the whole bike, including me, Jayoti, and all my luggage, 45 degrees back into the traffic. Then he screamed something at me in Hindi. It was something I couldn’t decipher, of course, but it sounded something like:


Right then. So much for turning right. I resumed heading in the direction he’d helpfully pointed me in, and after much trial and error and struggling through traffic, we found the guesthouse. It took an hour and a half to go two kilometres.

This little story has a happy ending, though: Jayoti came through with the beef. We took the metro to an air-conditioned shopping mall in the ritzy south end of Delhi, walked through not one but two sets of metal detectors and bag searches, and then on to this squalid den of illicit meat she’d heard so much about. It was a Hard Rock Café. I’d never been to one of these before, and had my reservations, but when we were seated next to a glass display case containing a pair of green velvet shoes Christopher Guest had worn in This is Spinal Tap, I relaxed a little. And when the food arrived, all of my snooty distrust of heavily-themed chain restaurants disappeared. The burgers were frigging perfect.

THERE WAS STILL THE PROBLEM of my bike’s clutch. A few trips back out to Vespabretta later, we’d reinstalled my old clutch plates and springs in the new basket, and that seemed to work just fine. Meanwhile, Sunny took me out to dinner and introduced me to some of his friends, all of whom harbour great dreams of one day hopping on their Royal-Enfield bikes and heading up to the mountain plains of the Ladakh Desert. Life seems to always get in their way — unlike me, they’ve settled down with wives and children and businesses that never sleep — and while I envy those things, they seem unable to get away for a week or two. I’m not sure if this is because of the day-to-day rigours of life in India, or possibly because of the enormous societal pressure there to not be seen doing something so seemingly irresponsible. (Throughout my time there, most Indians I met were gobsmacked that I would, or could, even think of doing something as reckless and self-indulgent as what I’m doing.) Anyway, I’m guessing it’s a combination of the two things. All I can say is, boys, if you’re reading this, my not-so-responsible advice is to stop thinking about it and just get on your bikes and go. None of us is getting any younger!

The next day, after one more round of testing and tinkering, it was clear that the Hamburglar was as as good as it was going to get. I got a picture of the Vespabretta crew for posterity.

Sunny and the Vespabretta boys

I had some loose ends to tie up before I rode south towards Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, and away from the security and comfort of Sunny’s garage. First order of business was an interview and photo shoot with the Hindustan Times. Shivani had set that up via a friend of hers at that paper. Features editors love nothing more than fluffy filler pieces that practically write themselves, and I was happy to oblige.

I'm (slightly) big in India

Shivani had also invited me to a birthday party being thrown by a friend of hers, which I greatly appreciated. Having been on the road for so long, I hadn’t been to a house party in ages, and everybody knows that nearly all of the world’s fun happens at house parties. It was held at a penthouse apartment somewhere back near Haus Khas Village, and the scene there with the rooftop patio was like an Indian version of the set of Friends. It was a fairly mixed crowd, mostly native Delhiites but with a smattering of Westerners who’d recently resettled there, and I was very happy to be invited.

Partying heartily in Delhi

But enough with the fun and games. I had an International Driving Permit in my pocket, all the appropriate customs officials had been heavily bribed, my bike was chock-a-block full of new Indian parts, and I figured that if I could navigate two weeks in Delhi without too many problems, the upcoming 4500 kilometres across the Indian subcontinent shouldn’t be too big a feat. I got out my maps and started planning my route southwards.


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