My first impressions of India have been colored by two things: the stack of cultural etiquette books I’ve poured over for the past six months, learning that if you accidently run into a cow while driving there is a high probability that you’ll be lynched on the spot (the official recommendation is to run,) and the fact that my only experience has been the Oberoi Hotel where they actually have a pillow menu and wake us up with tea and peanut butter cookies.
If it weren’t for intersecting with our friends Aaron and Melanie who happened to be in Delhi for a wedding, I’d have thought all those romantic Indian stories of choking traffic, vast slums, bountiful bureaucracy, squat toilets and untraceable smells were things only of legend.
We met Aaron and Melanie at the Chandni Chowk Market in Old Delhi: ” Chandni Chowk, Chandni Chowk …” It sounded so innocent, like a place that would have glistening candy stores and sugary gumdrop architecture. And It was kinda like that…if you replace the candy stores and gumdrops with carts of deep fried sugar knots and stall after stall of people hawking plastic colanders, silver jewelry, pointy camel skin slippers, saris, dozens of filthy gorgeous children playfully seeing what they can get you to hand over, candy, cash, handshakes, smiles. A sea of men, goats, tuk-tuks and urine. I was Snow White trying to avoid poison apples. I was Grace Kelly in a Hitchcock film. I was Sally Field in “Not Without my Daughter.”
I wanted nothing more than to slip my arm into Phil’s or thread my fingers through his but I’d learned from my book-reading that any display of public affection was not only a vile insult to both the Hindu and Muslim cultures, but actually against the law. I wasn’t seeking affection but rather protection. Protection from a thousand pair of leering eyes, I wanted to make a statement that in my world would have said “back off I’m taken” but would have meant the opposite in this environment. After an hour or so I started to feel the same sort of safe I always felt on the Mission 14 bus I used to ride in San Francisco, where my willingness to be there cancelled out the color of my skin.
I couldn’t help remembering the passages of one of my books that explained that women, especially blonde pale-skinned ones, should not go out into the world unescorted, and apparently even if escorted, are deemed to be prostitutes or porn stars.
We wove through the market and bought Viagra and Valium from the drug store…because we could. Men called out, “Undertaker! Undertaker!” to my husband as we passed their shops. Finally we asked why they kept saying that and found out that apparently he looks like a WWWF wrestler called The Undertaker.
Along the way I had my first experiences with an Indian public squat toilet, and true rockstardom. The public toilet with four stalls and half a dozen woman who clearly knew how to elbow their way past a white girl, was as vile as a fleet of porta-potties at Burning Man on Sunday morning. I stood there, trying not to breathe and struggling to decide if this experience could possibly be any worse than having to pee really bad for the next six hours. Toss up. When I finally got to step back out into the Delhi version of fresh air I groped in my handbag for a package of moist towelettes. By the time I retrieved them I was surround by five children with filthy hands grabbing at mine, then five more, then ten more. Old women, midgets…everyone wanted a moist towelette, maybe they thought I was handing out American money and were tricked into temporary sanitation. Through the crowd an elegant teenage girl in a bright pink sari extended her delicate hand toward mine, and looked me in the eye as she shook my hand and smiled. I smiled back, then wiped myself down with the last towelette as I walked away.
We walked through a security gate metal detector that looked like as if it had been built by children on acid, and it occurred to me that this was the exact sort of place we’d been warned to stay away from in the barrage of security alerts that Adobe Systems (Phil’s employer) had been sending since we’d agreed to move to India six months ago. Market. Crowded. Mosque. Etc. We climbed the steps to the Jama Mosque, where the groups of worshipers and visitors took in the sight of us with the same hunger as we were taking in their thousands of years of culture. Amazing.
On the other side of the Mosque was the Muslim market where men sat on the ground offering bowls of mystery food with a melodic chant of what to American ears sounded like, “Cholera, Typhoid, Hep A, Amoebic Dysentery…Jenny Craig,” I figure I’m about two spells of food poisoning away from my ideal weight, but wasn’t prepared to break my vow to never ever visit an Indian public restroom again.
After dinner, which at first seemed like an assassination attempt by the lovely Aaron Green, but ended up being delicious, we headed back to the oh-so-modern Le Meridian Hotel (eye-poppingly designed by Philip Starck) where Aaron and Melanie were staying, for a much needed cocktail.
I don’t know if this makes me a terrible person, but I didn’t feel a stitch of the white guilt I’d anticipated. I could still feel the stares of a thousand dark eyes, and was exhausted from my ambassadorial stint from the porn industry; but at least for today, the porn star and the Undertaker earned their places in the low light of the lovely lounge.