The Dogs of Delhi

New Delhi,  4:AM

Day two –or is it three?– in Delhi.  I woke up, extended my stay in the hotel, ordered breakfast, then promptly went to sleep again.  It’s almost as if my body clock is experiencing some sort of LAG caused by my transcontinental journey via JET.  If only we had a word for this phenomenon.

It may shock some of you that I’ve come all the way to India to spend the entire day sleeping in a closed-off, airconditioned room.  Well, I don’t really care what some of you think.  The reality is that this is a business trip, not a holiday.  And even if it were a holiday, the one thing that I crave, that seems to elude me in my regular life, is SLEEP.  Oh how I loved it today.

Then, when the sun went down, I trekked out again to Connaught Place to meet a friend for dinner.  I tell you, the subway has really transformed this visitor’s experience with Delhi.  What would have ordinarily been a stressful experience finding an auto-rickshaw, negotiating a price, then surviving the terrifying nighttime half hour blast through the streets of Delhi is now an effortless 8 minute walk to the subway station and a five minute subway ride, all for the nighttime fare of 10 rupees (about 20 cents).

Is it my imagination, or are the cities of India disproportionately populated by men?  Are the women all at home, or is there really a young woman shortage, as in China?  The subway was packed with that particular brand of young, skinny, greasy, squirrely Indian man, reminiscent of so many of my cousins.  In fact, add the chinstrap goatees and that ludicrous hip-hop swagger, and the Delhi subway scene could have easily been Scarborough Town Centre on a Saturday afternoon.

Delhi is a place of weird sights, and, like other places in the world, there are few things less ridiculous than Japanese tourists.  (I’ve commented about the delightful weirdness of Japanese tourists in India before.) This time it was a couple dressed in pyjamas and wearing surgical masks.  The girl even had on her little anime backpack: perhaps the height of chic on Tokyo streets, but yet another token of weirdness here in India.  As a Facebook friend would later comment, “wearing a mask in Delhi is like frying bacon in low fat oil.”

An interesting development has befallen my middle-aged ass.  In previous visits, like all my visits to pretty much everywhere else in the world, I would spend my time checking out the few pretty girls that would wander by.  This time, instead  I spend my free moments checking out the two-wheeled vehicles,  as I am a new scooter owner myself.  I couldn’t figure out if most of them are manual or automatic; I suspect the latter, as no gear shifter is in sight.

Then I saw a scooter being ridden by… a pretty girl.  She struggled to push her bike from the sidewalk into the very very very busy road, almost toppling it twice.  Then she struggled again trying to start it, eventually succeeding.  (I believe she had the engine kill switch on the whole time.)  The interesting bit was that a crowd of onlookers observed this happening, and no one stepped up to help.

Now, at this point I’m sure some of you will point out that I didn’t step up to help, either.  You must understand that when traveling alone in non-Western countries, it has become my hard-earned policy to keep my distance from unaccompanied local women, except in the most extreme of emergencies.  Intentions can easily be misread.  Trust me, I’ve been there before.

The segue here is back to the subway.  Yesterday I mentioned the “ladies only” seats in the subway car.  Today I noticed those seats occupied by men.  I also noticed the seats marked “elderly and infirm only” occupied by the young and the spry.  So much for signage.  And so much for a culture of civic responsibility to one another, at least in this extreme urban context.

I must say a few words about the dogs here.  I’ve watched India’s relationship to dogs evolve over the course of the last 15 years.  (Check out what I wrote about Indian dogs four years ago.)  What were a wretched, hated, abused and flea-ridden lot are now a cute but largely ignored flea-ridden lot.  All over the Connaught Place construction site there are dozens of the most adorable stray puppies hanging about.  In most other places in the world, people would gather to gush at the little cuties.  In India they are brushed aside to make way for the scores of pedestrians who need to get past them.

A remarkable thing happens to Indian dogs after hours, however.  As night falls, they gather in packs and rule the streets.  It was dark when I exited the Urban Coffee House, a little tipsy, and stumbled in the dark (through the unprotected construction site) back to the Rajiv Chowk subway.  In daylight they pressed out of the way, but in darkness, the dogs pressed against the thighs of me and my dinner companion.  One of them even nipped at us!  In the slums, the night packs have been known to attack and  people, especially drunks (ahem) and children.

In Mumbai next week I might have a chance to visit a friend’s cat sanctuary.  I’m sure that will give me a whole new insight into Indians’ relationship with animals.

I have to say something about my decision not to bring a camera on this trip.  I’m fighting the urge to become a tourist.   As I’ve mentioned, I’m here to give lectures and to explore long term research partnerships.  With the exception of Goa and Kakinada, I’m going to places I’ve traveled to before, so I don’t feel a need to record the same sights again.  More importantly, I’ve already noticed that when I’m not stopping to click photos and to wonder whether or not a particular sight is worth recording, I actually enjoy myself more.  I highly recommend this tack to the rest of you.  The internet is already overloaded with everyone’s identical vacation photos.

The down side is that it puts a bit more pressure on me to record my experiences in words.  During my last trip here in 2006, I invested many hours writing detailed travelogues.  I’m glad I did, as I re-read them now and realize how much I did and how much I’d forgotten— with a lot more poignancy than mere photographs could have offered.   (To access those older entries, select “india” and “travel” from the categories list.) Weirdly, this writer just isn’t up to it much anymore.  I think I’m fatigued.

It’s now 4:AM and the monsoon rains outside my window are keeping me awake.  I think that if a lull in the rains appears this morning, I’ll try to take a quick stroll through Old Delhi, along the fabled Chandni Chowk.  And sometime in there, I must find a moment to prepare my lecture for Friday morning!

Oh crap… I think I have a cold!  Damn air conditioner 🙁