Common Unwealth

The Commonwealth Games have been all over international news this week – maybe you’ve seen the embarrassing photos of rooms inside the games village smeared in filth.  It’s a story that’s been bugging me – because of the truth behind the filth and the misunderstandings behind the truth.

Athletes arrived from New Zealand and when they moved into their suites at the village, they found poo in the toilets, sinks smeared with red spittle from paan, the local version of chewing tobacco, and pools of festering rain water.  There were also dirty paw prints on the beds and pillows.

It was a shock for the athletes, who had traveled far and arrived early to acclimate to Delhi and to prepare for competition.

Uproar followed – athletes from New Zealand and other Commonwealth countries (former British colonies) threatened to pull out of the games, or some actually did.   This coincided with the collapse of a footbridge at Nehru Stadium, the main sporting venue and the terrorist shooting of two Taiwanese visitors.

Delhi is also rushing to complete construction of some venues and roads – and there’s a massive effort to landscape the medians and traffic circles.  In three months, when all of those tens-of-thousands of seedlings get leafy, the city will look great… long after the games are over.

It is Delhi’s egregious failure to get this project done on time and to standard.  It’s not that the city isn’t capable – it is.  But corruption and arrogance grow like kudzu here, choking the spirit out of the system and blanketing the bureaucracy with impenetrable graft.  What you get is layers of inefficiency and institutionalized greed.

As for  the poo and the paan, workers building the village used the bathrooms and the water wasn’t turned on yet to wash away the evidence. Few writers have explained why the workers may have needed to use the bathrooms in the first place.

If you live here, you know that the village and the other venues were built by migrant workers – and they come from the countryside with their families to eek out a living that affords them nothing.  They live on the grounds of the construction site, often in tents.  The luckiest workers live in corrugated tin huts, or combination of tin and tent. The contractors don’t provide bathrooms – there’s no place to wash up.  There’s no school for the children and they play at the construction sites, on  sand piles, anywhere.  In august, a two-year-old girl was crushed by a truck delivering construction material.  There’s even rumor of child labor at the sites.

Given these conditions, of course the workers used the bathrooms.  Maybe some of the family members did too.  And during the daily monsoons that have plagued this city for months, everyone – dogs too – probably sought shelter inside.

And who could blame them?


I went out to dinner last night with Jim and an editor from New York.   As we were walking into the restaurant, he asked me how I liked it here.  I’ve answered this question many times, but this time I really really really wanted to say something that I’ve never said:  I HATE THIS !*&#^%$! PLACE – IT’S DRIVING ME BATTY…. (And I wanted to scream and make a spectacle of myself, because everyone here is in such infuriating control of their emotions. Where’s the rage, sometimes?)

Of course, I didn’t.   There’s only a sliver of truth in that imagined response. I do, in fact, enjoy and appreciate my life here and I hope that’s reflected in this blog.  As a trailing spouse you feel a responsibility to buck up and love where you live (especially when where you live comes with staff…)  – but you can’t love it all the time and finding healthy ways to vent is a necessity.   Consider this blog my vent…


It was Ritika’s birthday last week and I surprised her with cupcakes at school.  She is 12 years old:

I met a doctor who volunteers two days a week at the school.  She gives the kids check-ups and handles any general healthy problems.  She told me that she has worked with the director for six years, and that Gitanjali is extraordinarily effective in making money work at the school.  This, she said, is the difference between the Deepalaya organization and so many other NGO’s.  Since I last visited, the school has been wired with internet and now, ten classrooms have smart boards.  Here’s the doctor with a group of students who live in an orphanage and attend the school.

In the photo above, I should have worn a wrap to cover my shoulders, but I  forgot mine at home.  With young children, this wasn’t a huge problem but in other places I would have been more uncomfortable.


Here’s a typical street scene, women working and their children playing nearby.   See the woman on the right painting with her bare hands:

God Bless Soccer.  Eddie will play anywhere, anytime, wearing anything:

For the past year, every few months, I’ve seen  a white horse galloping through my neighborhood.  The sighting is usually a fleeting one – he’s gone before I can register exactly what I’ve seen.  Is he a wedding horse?  A leisure rider?  Finally, last night, I chased him down in the car.  He gave me his card and offered a ride – for a fee…



I’ve never lived in a world where you have to always be cautious.  It scares me.  (Lala, Spring 2010)

I was sitting in Lala’s reading chair in her room tonight, chatting with her as I do a few times a week.  She was on the floor, nestled in her beanbag, playing with her bellybutton as she has done since she was an infant.  We solve many pre-teen woes this way and I get a good share of middle school gossip.

I’m craving a trip out of Delhi, so I asked Lala if she would like to see the Golden Temple in Amritsar with me.  This is the most holy site for the Sikhs.  It’s north of Delhi on the Pakistan border.

She asked if we had to take a train and I said, yes.

No, I don’t want to go there, she said.

How about Calcutta, I offered?  We fly there.

Worse!  She declared.

And then, her kicker:  I’m trying to think of a happy place outside of Delhi that won’t get bombed.

She settled on French Polynesia.   (Save that for your lover, not your mother, I told her.)

The conversation continued:  Lala said that when she sees Indian men on the side of the road carrying a bag, it scares her. I asked her what she imagined to be inside the bag.  “Guns”.

I’m scared of terrorists. (Lala, Fall 2010)

Six months ago, after the bombing of the German bakery in Pune, the embassies here issued repeated warnings, some “imminent” of planned attacks on area markets.  I wasn’t foolish but it didn’t stop me much from my daily activity – but on weekends, when all of humanity hits the shopping centers, I did keep the kids away from the fray.  All three knew about the threats from their friends at school and they came home with the right vocabulary:  bomb, bomb, bomb.  I didn’t tell them much about the situation but they picked up the mood around here.  Drive into any hotel and your car is stopped, the hood and trunk opened, a mirror placed underneath.  Walk into the mall and you enter through a metal detector.  Everyone is frisked.  Rifle toting men dressed in fatigues patrol the perimeter of their school.

Now, with the Commonwealth Games just two weeks away, trucks of military police and security guards line the roads.

And sadly, on Sunday, gunmen opened fired on a group of tourists in old Delhi.  Two people were shot.  Hours later, blocks from the same site, a crude device exploded inside a parked car and it burst into flames.

India has a huge domestic security issue.  There’s the Indian Mujahideen, an internal Islamic terrorist organization, the Maoists who are picking off Indian paramilitary, terrorizing villages and blowing up train tracks.  And of course, you have angry citizens in Kashmir, demanding independence, opportunity, enfranchisement, equality, freedom from years of indecision.  There’s also Lashkar-e-Taiba or LeT, a militant group from Pakistan responsible for the attacks in Mumbai in November, 2008.  That same year, several markets were bombed simultaneously in Delhi by the Indian Mujahideen.

Despite all this, I have never felt unsafe here.  India is poised between doing a pretty good job maintaining security and potential tragedy.  For me, traffic and mozzies and bacteria are the greatest threat.

For Lala, fear is her terrorist.

And that breaks my heart.


Eddie’s teacher asked for a photo of him reading.  We couldn’t resist tweaking the opportunity.

This is the sort of thing that I try to ignore but simply can’t.  If you zoom in, you will see that this guy crouched on the ground is trying to soften-up the end of what appears to be a PVC pipe with a lit piece of paper.  I’m not joking when I tell you that you are looking at one of the most exclusive markets in Delhi:  Khan Market.

My cub scout.  This is the child who has refused to join any group activity but he has taken to scouting like a pig to poop.

And me, still frequenting wine club.  Jim teases me for this “unpopulist” past time.  I am reminding him from where the title of this blog came…  I will never lose the common touch.


September 11, 2010

Yesterday I went to the Meridien Hotel to have my hair cut and the grey colored.  Yes, the streak is natural and I don’t cover that bit.  It surprises me how many people think that it is contrived.  Mine is well-earned and celebrated.

I’ve had one lousy hair cut after another since leaving Beijing, so I decided to upgrade and try a salon inside one of the many fancy hotels in Delhi.  The salon was staffed with men – the hairdressers, the assistants and the manicurists.  They wore khaki leisure suits, except for Saleem, the gentleman who worked on me.  He wore slacks, a tie and a vest;  he was reticent and imperial.  I suspect he was the boss.

Saleem quietly dyed my hair and afterward, trimmed the problem areas.  As he was cutting, I saw him look at his watch and sigh.  We made eye contact.  It was six o’clock, Friday and I was the only customer in the salon.  “I won’t make it home in time,” he said.

Ah, how silly did I feel sitting in that salon, indulging myself and keeping a devout man from evening prayer and the shared breaking of the last day of his Ramadan fast?  He smiled and reassured me – “It would take me a long time to get home in the traffic, anyway.”

I couldn’t sit there in silence.   I asked Saleem if his body adjusted easily to fasting.  He said missing lunch was very easy and that when he’s not fasting, he still takes a light snack only.  A lack of energy was the most difficult part of his fasting though.  He said that he was exhausted in the evenings.

My interest seemed to relax him and he went on to tell me about Ramadan, how he rises very early for prayer and breakfast and how he devotes the entire month to God.  Ramadan is all about prayer, he said.  He continued, offering this – that so many people share a common God and the struggles between degrees of belief are senseless.

He finished my hair slowly – deliberately attending to every detail, never rushing.   As I left, I asked Saleem, “What does one friend say to another on Eid?”  He smiled, slightly and said “Eid Mubarak”  or blessed Eid.  And so, after keeping Saleem from beginning his celebration of Eid, the holiday that marks the end of a  holy month of prayer and devotion – I simply offered back, “Eid Mubarak” and left the empty salon.

Today is September 11th:  Eid here in Delhi, a sad anniversary in the U.S., and George’s birthday.  He is 8.

My children know very little about the events of September 11th.  They knew nothing until a few years ago, when Olivia’s Chinese teacher called the date the “day of death”.  Lala came home from school that day with one question: Why is George’s birthday the day of death?

It’s not a birthday that Jim wanted his son to share.  As the first anniversary of September 11th approached and as I grew ever closer to delivering the nine-and-a-half pound boy in my belly – it became possible and then probable that we would spend 9-11 delivering George.

We all have our memories of our whereabouts on that morning in 2001.  For Jim, it was the day that he left to follow the footsteps of Mohammed Atta through his diabolic path to destruction.  He went on to write a definitive profile of Atta and the months leading up to the tragic flights out of Boston for the NYT.  Crazy anthrax stories followed.

It was a strange autumn for us – Jim was gone a good chunk of it.   And like so many, we were in a bit of a daze from the events.   Georgie was conceived Christmas eve-ish – he was a salve to our own tragedy a year earlier and to a crazy, crazy world that fall.  That he was born on the anniversary of 9-11 is coincidence, of course.  But instead of spending the day reading the papers and watching endless reports on TV, we labored.  Joyfully labored.

And so for us, September 11 is a time to Remember the victims of that fateful day, a time to give Thanks for the many blessings in our lives, and time to Celebrate the birth of our extraordinary son.

Happy and Blessed Birthday, George!


Continuing the birthday celebrations, this time outside of the bubble:  My readers who have been with me from the beginning (http://www-standupcomedy.blogspot.com) will remember that my driver has two sons, one who was born last August 26th and another who turned four on September 8th.  Here they are, Deepu sitting next to me and Tusar on my lap.  I can’t resist yummy baby feet:

On Friday (a school holiday) I took the kids to climb the ruins of Tuqlakabad, an ancient Turkish fort and the center of one of the early cities of Delhi:

It’s still raining here – raining raining raining, always raining – which is why Tuglakabad is so green above.  The rain has swollen the sacred Yamuna river and is flooding villages along its banks in Delhi.  The river is a half-hour drive from my house, but I wanted to see it this morning – a bit of a reminder of the life that swirls outside of my own.  In the bottom photo men are moving plants from a nursery that was flooded.

And finally – I shot this photo quickly from the car on the drive back from the river.   Clearly this is a family living on the street and Delhi is desperate to hide scenes like this for the Commonwealth Games.  This bit of sidewalk is not far from one of the stadiums, so I imagine they will be uprooted soon.  The families that the city cannot make disappear will be housed in parks.  Papers report that these designated safe zones will be hidden behind banners promoting the games.  To make sure that no one leaves, the city will provide tents, food and bathrooms.   It would be nice if Delhi could use this opportunity to organize more meaningful support – to move the homeless from the streets to employment and into schools and real homes.  Notice the tarp rolled up on the back wall.  This is pulled out when it rains.


Living In and Out of the Bubble

We had a busy weekend full of activity that doesn’t separate us much from the middle class  at home:   Friday evening, swimming at the pool;  Saturday, little league, the mall and later a party and dinner;  Sunday, brunch with friends and taxes.  We are being audited.  Sigh…

You can live in a bubble in India or anywhere – isolate yourself with friends who speak the same language, come from the same paradigm, share your interests, know your path.  In China we lived in a compound, a gated community of expats and wealthy Chinese.  I knew families who didn’t live much outside of the gates or outside of their own limits.  It was a shame.

In Delhi, there are no compounds and we live in a neighborhood – a very wealthy community, yes… but still, local.  It’s easier making friends in India because there usually isn’t a language barrier.  And often, with middle class Indians, you find that many have been educated and/or worked in the U.S. Someone I met in the Consular Section at the U.S. embassy told me that India sends more students and workers to the United States than any other country in the world.

My life is dotted with Indian friends and these relationships develop slowly, more naturally.  Expats tend to get cozy with each other pretty quickly because we share lives that are a bit riskier than our lives at home.  We don’t have family nearby or a web of support in crisis – so we weave that web pretty fast after landing in a new place.

I’m rambling a bit and not sure where I’m going with this, but my original intent was to share with you the stories of a few Indian couples whom I met at dinner on Saturday.  We were invited to a friend’s home – Nic is from Mumbai and Kirin grew up in Nigeria, although she is ethnically Indian.   Her family is Hindu from Sindh, a province that is now in Pakistan.  Prior to partition in 1947, a good chunk of the Indian subcontinent (or South Asia, to be more politically correct) was one place.  Now, that chunk is India, Pakistan and the disputed areas of Jammu and Kashmir (administered by India).  After partition,Kirin’s family fled Pakistan and migrated to Nigeria.  I met another Sindh woman at the dinner party whose family moved to Shanghai and later Hong Kong after Mao kicked them out.  She speaks perfect Cantonese.   The modern Indian diaspora is wide and shows the still strong connections between former British colonies.

Our dinner that evening was delicious and included typical Indian fare, as well as treats particular to the cuisine of peripatetic Indians.  For example, one dessert included mung bean vermicelli (asian) boiled with saffron (“from Spain only!”), cardamom and condensed milk.


Earlier in the evening Jim and I went to a goodbye party for a bookclub member of mine who is moving to London with the U.S. Embassy.   How lucky is she to live in London on the generous U.S. dole?  We will miss Eden in book club – her weighty job doesn’t keep her from being a faithful reader and regular attendee.   Here’s a photo of the club members at the party – we are dressed in theme (I’ll let you guess).  Eden, standing to my left, and I are in the minority  – we are the only ones in the photo who are not married to men from India or Kashmir:

We rounded off our weekend celebrating an old friend – China – with new friends.  We are all connected to the middle kingdom and in search of good zhong cai (Chinese food):


Remember  Angle of Repose, the entry I wrote March-February-ish ?  You’ll have to look it up… Isn’t this photo just the perfect metaphor for India?


Our local taxi stand.  That’s the recycle guy picking up empty liquor bottles from the guys who drive the taxis.  The drivers live in a tent at the stand..  In the second photo you can see their “home” and a bed and the table that holds the phone for service.  The beds get put away during the day:

And finally:  this is what they spray outside of our house to combat mosquitos and the spread of dengue.  I’m not sure what, exactly, it is – but it doesn’t smell good.  I’m writing this as Eddie lies  next to me, asleep with a very high fever that hasn’t broken since 5.  It’s now 11:30.  He complained earlier that his legs ached.  I’m hoping this pain was just the onset of fever and nothing more …