Dis­or­der in the house

Get­ting to know the neigh­bours in New Delhi

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - MI­RANDA KENNEDY

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)

TOM JELLETT

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