Monthly Archives: August 2012


A creative public restroom on a Chennai beach.

Indian megacities struggle with delivering a lot of public services. Corruption is endemic, poverty is rife, and large chunks of public infrastructure—sewer systems, for example—were sometimes never built in the first place.

But here’s one arena where Mumbai, in particular, trumps most cities in the States: The availability of public restrooms, some of which require a rupee or two to use, and others which are entirely free. I’ll never learn to love the squat toilet, and they’re not nearly as ubiquitous for women as for men, but they’ve made my ramblings through the city a heck of a lot more comfortable.

In American cities, we’re forced to piece together a mental map of available facilities: Starbuckses, big grocery stores, fast food restaurants, places where they are provided grudgingly, if at all. In an Indian city, your mental map of private-public bathrooms has a lot fewer obvious landmarks on it. That, coupled with the huge population people who lack any toilet of their own, makes the provision of public ones a vital sanitation issue (now, if only they could potty train the cows, goats, dogs, and chickens).

A newspaper reading center!

Many of the toilets, of course, prominently display the name of the city councilor who secured this neighborhood asset for his or her constituents. The same is true of small parks, new temples, and more original amenities, like open-air study centers and newspaper reading sheds. Self-congratulatory service delivery may well be a way of keeping voters happy even while the electeds fail to solve the big problems. But it’s at least why Indian cities can have a few moderately nice things.


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One of the awesome things about Indian cities is that at any given moment, somebody is getting down. Usually, it’s a local political office blasting music, or a wedding, or a temple celebrating some religious holiday.

Yesterday, the party rocked all of Mumbai. Wandering through a central neighborhood, I happened upon what I thought was a local contest of teams trying to outdo each other in the building of human pyramids. Turns out it was the annual celebration of Hindu deity Krishna’s birthday, shutting down whole streets at a time as the cheering mobs paraded from place to place, sprayed by water trucks and pelted from above by water balloons (I’m pretty sure I was a prime target as well). They were still dancing and piling on top of each other, playing to indulgent crowds, well after dark.

Slideshow above, live action after the jump! Read More

Equus immobilis.

All across India, I’ve been absolutely astonished at the ability of man and beast to sleep, apparently soundly, on the ground amidst the ungodly racket of traffic. They often seem to make no effort to rest someplace more peaceful, passing out in the middle of sidewalks and train stations, on bridges, or in the case of this Bengali pony, in the path of oncoming cars. Perhaps if one lives in that environment one’s whole life, it becomes possible to just shut it all out. For my part, I’m still in the process of being slowly deafened.

Above: A dinnertime walk through Dacres Lane. Apologies for shakiness.

The production and consumption of food in Kolkata is radically public. There are essentially no grocery stores; all produce and staples are sold on the street. Sidewalk chefs dish up the most delicious meals and snacks all day, at a maximum price of fifty cents each—after a while, it seemed odd to me that one would actually go inside to dine at all, when the city is an open kitchen.

And all of this makes for a constant buzz of preparation, service, and cleaning up, in what starts to feel like a routine. Here’s my sense of how things work, from a few days of observation.

This is not a crack-of-dawn kind of city (the McDonalds on downtown’s Park Street proclaims itself to be “open early” at 8:00 a.m.). It shuffles awake at about 7:00, when traffic is still quiet; most shops won’t open until 10:00. Breakfast is usually something simple: A shot of the milky, sweet coffee that gives no discernable jolt of caffeine, and a biscuit or cake slice of the sort that fills jars in tea stalls all over the city. It might also be a sweet little folded pancake filled with squash, or toast with an omelet, perhaps while reading one of the dozen or so Bengali, Hindi, and English-language newspapers that circulate in the state. Read More

Even the monsoon has an upside.

I have reached Kolkata! Kol-ka-ta! Like the grand but creaky corpus of Victorian bricks left to it by an empire at its height, now growing plants out of every orifice. Truly, this is the most astonishing metropolis I’ve wandered in my short life, very old world in its sophistication, almost ordered in its chaos.

Here’s what I mean: Commerce oozes from every crevice, but industries have clustered to a degree I’ve not seen anywhere else, with jewellers, instrument-makers, mobile phone repairers, shoe stores and bookstands all clumped in certain spots. Food is dished up on every sidewalk, but each operation is highly precise, with piles of certain vegetables and rows of shaped dough ready to be fried. Refuse—including the little clay pots that hold shots of coffee-ish milk—is simply thrown on the ground, where thousands of people sleep every night. But when the campground comes to life every morning, trash is swept into piles and taken away in wheelbarrows. People scrub themselves clean in water gushing from pipes into the street, and for a while, the world is clean. Read More

But not as much as I apologize for these girls’ knees.

Every tourist guidebook about India will tell you that the country is “extremely conservative” about dress. In particular, women are expected to keep their shoulders covered, and their legs down past their ankles. Conformity is universal: Older ladies wear saris, even when doing manual labor, and the sauciest club-goers will still at least wear leggings or jeans under short dresses.

The tourists I’ve seen are pretty good about this too, if slightly inelegant in their hippie pants and t-shirts. I covered up in Chennai, mostly because the smog and the dirt, and it was cool enough in Bangalore and Munnar to wear pants. Cochin and Pondicherry are beachy vacation tourist towns, so shorts and skirts felt acceptable.

Kolkata, not so much. Women are rare on the streets to begin with—it’s a much more dude-heavy city than other places I’ve been. I’m reliably informed that this is because Kolkata is culturally more Northern, more heavily Muslim, and women are generally expected to stay at home. Foreigners are conspicuous, and one in a shapeless, sleeveless yellow dress that stops just above her knees is like an entirely alien creature (nevermind one running in the morning in shorts and a tank top). Everyone stares, children shriek hello. Sometimes people yell at me. Usually-silent dogs bark threateningly.

Am I being terribly rude and disrespectful by exposing my American shins and shoulders to the world? Is this basically a giant “fuck you” to a society that I have no desire to offend?

I’ve decided to take that risk. It’s entirely too hot and too wet to wear even light cotton pants in this city. I tromp around all day, gathering a film of grime; my feet will never be clean again. This is the Olympics of touristing here. Covering up just slows you down.

Besides, I rationalize: Men get to wear whatever they want, often going shirtless with just a cloth lungi to stay decent. Women expose other parts of their body, like their midriffs, which are apparently not considered erotic. Meanwhile, it’s not like there’s any lack of access to images of the female form. Advertising is advertising, after all. And statues of goddesses all over Hindu temples leave very little to the imagination.

I realize there’s a tug-of-war in India between the traditional older generation and a massive youth population with a more global sense of style. If my culturally insensitive bare knees end up pulling for the kids’ side, I don’t think I’ll have done any harm.

Still, my apologies.

I’m still figuring out camera issues, so more illustrative posts about Kolkata will have to wait, but a few bits in the mean time….

I don’t usually think of myself as someone who’s easily conned. When people come asking for “just enough gas money to get home,” I never have any change. And e-mail scams? Don’t even try.

Well, I think I just handed over about $6—not much to me, but a good day’s earnings for most laborers in Kolkata—because of a well-told lie.

It started out like a few interactions I’ve had so far on the street: Guy sidles up, says “Hello, where are you from?” Most of the time I’m fine telling them, and maybe chatting a bit about Kolkata, what they do, what I think about India, before going on my way. Bengalis have so far only been helpful to me, gladly giving directions when I’m lost. I might as well give them a positive impression of Americans as well.

This one, as I was wandering around the vast New Market bazaar just after dark—it’s kind of like the city’s Walmart, composed of hundreds of small merchants—came in the form of a skinny kid named Steven in a dirty purple polo shirt and flip flops. Eighteen years old, maybe 20. Just like usual, he asked where I was from, and what games are popular in the U.S. Read More

I didn’t make up the tagline—the southwestern state of Kerala itself clams the divine’s exclusive favor, all over road signs and tourist materials. It’s actually somewhat apt, given the strength of four major religions here, and their relatively peaceful coexistence. Less literally, Kerala is quite the tropical paradise, and might rank second only to the Taj Majal in the number of visitors it attracts within India, both domestically and from abroad.

That’s partly why the state appears astonishingly prosperous, with a notable absence of slums in the urban cores and along the highways. It’s not the only reason, though. A lot of the money flowing through Kerala comes from overseas: Somewhere down the line, the state became a leader in the number of young folks it sends to the Gulf states, where they work on oil tankers or as domestic servants. It’s also got the highest literacy rate in the country, creating a strong educated class that contributes to the skilled Indian population in America and Europe. All the while, they’re sending money back, or coming home to retire (the banks have signs that say “welcome back NRIs!” or non-resident Indians). Read More