Disorder in the house
Getting to know the neighbours in New Delhi
EIGHT months after I arrived in India, I moved into Nizamuddin West, a residential neighbourhood j ust outside British-built New Delhi. It’s a leafy little enclave, a world apart from the poverty and tumult of the area around the New City Palace. My neighbours were pilots, engineers, and government employees whose iron gates protected their carefully swept patios from stray dogs and beggars.
A cobbler, an electrician, some convenience shops and several press-wallah stands crowded the market, at which the concavechested wallahs bent over the planks of wood that served as ironing boards. They used old-fashioned irons filled with hot coals.
In Nizamuddin, as in the rest of the city, the bustees, or slums, are strictly segregated from the wealthier areas, but they are never far away, because they house the maids, sweepers and drivers essential to the middle classes.
Although I tried to ignore the servant and caste system as I set up my home in Delhi, I couldn’t shut it out for long.
I moved into the top floor of an old house with lopsided floors, overlooking a quiet alley and a small park where the local kids played cricket every afternoon. The rent was less than $ 100 a month, shockingly low to my New York-trained eye. The landlord called it a barsati, after the Hindi word for the rainy season, because the top floor is considered the best place to watch the monsoon.
The entire place was, in fact, a celebration of the great Delhi outdoors. To get to either the kitchen or bathroom, both separate outhouses, I had to go out on to the patio and into the rain, or whatever was going on outside. During the hot season, which is interrupted only by a brief monsoon and a cursory cool winter fog, dust blew in through the cracks in the windows. There was no point in installing an air-conditioner since the cold air would have j ust leached back out. In the monsoon season, the walls of the dank cement staircase literally perspired moisture.
The plaster peeled off my apartment walls in giant chunks, and the doors and windows swelled up, so I had to use my shoulders to shut them.
I’d made sure to check that the bathroom outhouse was fitted with a Western-style toilet. The ad had boasted of a pukka — real, or genuine — toilet, meaning one including a seat, cover and flush. After months of adopting an athletic squatting stance over Indian-style toilets — holes in the ground lined with ceramic — this felt like a great luxury. It had not occurred to me to make sure there was a tank to heat water in the bathroom, so it wasn’t until my first morning in my new place that I realised there was neither shower, bath nor hot water, just a single tap of cold running water.
Standing on the cement floor of the bathroom, I tried to mimic the bathing technique I’d witnessed at public taps: fill a plastic bucket with water, scoop it out with a smaller bucket, dump it over you and scrub furiously. Within minutes, the whole thing was over. Washing, I decided, is one of the few activities consistently more efficient in India than in the US.
My apartment was invaded by critters as well as the weather. Geckos claimed corners of the rooms; multicoloured bugs and cockroaches scuttled across the floors; sparrows sometimes landed, confused, on the tiny kitchen counter. In the mornings, I’d take in the cacophony of Delhi life from the patio as I drank my milky instant coffee, the only thing approximating the stuff that I’d found in the local market.
The hoarse cries of the vegetable sellers competed with the screech of the trains pulling into the nearby station; there was always chanting and drumming at a temple somewhere. Much closer were the intimate sounds of my unseen neighbours in the next house over, performing their ablutions: the woman hawking into the sink, her husband hollering at their maid to heat up water for his bath. Layered over their human noises was a rich bed of animal sounds: the cartoonish squeak of the jewel-green parakeets dancing through the trees; the persistent, head-knocking cuckooing of the aptly nicknamed brainfever bird; the Hitchcockian cawing of the wicked black crows that ruled the neighbourhood. One morning I watched an aggressive flock of them intimidate two chattering monkeys out of a neighbourhood tree.
I hadn’t been in my barsati long before word of a new tenant spread to the nearest slum and the first aspiring maidservant tripped up the stairs in plastic chappals. I opened the door to an underfed woman, her hands already folded at her chest in respectful greeting, her face twisted into a plea. She launched into a fast-paced Hindi description of her skills. I could pick out some familiar words — clean, fast — from the torrent, but I couldn’t imagine trying to talk to her every day. In any case, I wasn’t yet convinced I needed a maid, despite everyone telling me it was inevitable.
Every middle-class household I’d seen had at least a couple of part-time servants. The idea still made me uncomfortable, though: not only would I lose my prided American privacy, but I imagined that the acute imbalance of power might quickly transform me into a haughty duchess. So I shook my head apologetically, chanting no at the woman until she gave up and flip-flopped down the steps, leaving a frustrated trail of Hindi behind her.
By sundown, I’d had half a dozen depressingly similar interactions with aspiring employees: drivers, gardeners and garbage collectors.
A few days later, I heard male feet stomping up the stairs. A short, dark-skinned man paused to catch his breath before he announced himself as ‘ ‘ Joginder Ram, building caretaker’’.
He used the English words with relish, although his responsibility extended only to myself and one other tenant, a senile old lady I’d seen through her open door on the floor below mine.
As proof of his stature, he handed me a business card with his name printed across it and the words: work, paint, polish, ‘‘piope’’ repairing etc.
Joginder’s self-satisfied smile revealed a wad of paan lodged, chipmunklike, in his cheek, spreading a red stain from his gums to his lips. He sported a proud paunch over his carefully ironed trousers, and his hair was henna dyed to hide the grey. All of this imbued him with an energetic and self-congratulatory air. He occupied the back porch of the house next to mine, which was also owned by my landlord, Arun Mago.
Since Mr Mago lived in Mumbai, I couldn’t understand why he had granted Joginder squatting rights to no more than the tiny back porch of the house in Delhi.
Later, the landlord told me he was reluctant to surrender more space because city law favours the tenant, and he was afraid he’d never be able to evict him. This is an edited extract from Searching for Women who Drink Whisky: Life and Love in India by Miranda Kennedy (HarperCollins, $35)