Going off Script


May 5, 2013 by Louis Ritzinger

Its been a while.

It seems that somewhere over the course of re-settling down in Delhi I committed blogging’s mortal sin: saying “I’ll do it next week.” The thing about next week is that its never this week. Its a sticky trap to make for oneself.

In my defense, my work load since arriving in Delhi has made putting off the “non-essential” that much more tempting. Between my research at one of India’s better-known and largest think tanks and Urdu tutoring/homework, it has been rare to find an evening free for myself – let alone the better part of the day that it takes to make these thoughts coherent. The fact that much of my week is spent writing academic reports of one kind or the other makes me less inclined, when there is free time to be had, to fill it by sitting in front of a computer, searching for words.

I have been wanting to get back into that old Sunday ritual for quite some time now, though, and with only a handful of Sundays left for me here it seems that I’ve run out of space for procrastination. I guess next week is finally here after all.

It feels all the more appropriate to choose this weekend to try to start writing again. I’ve taken a short weekend trip back to Lucknow to see some of my friends from the American Institute, most of whom will be heading home (or at least in the general direction of home) in the next few days.

Opening the latch to the gate at the front of the house and hearing the familiar slap of my sneakers on the winding marble stairway after these months took me right back to the fall. The motions of my hands, the distance between the stairs, the six-step-turn-clockwise pattern and the clapping echo of steps off the bare walls all remained etched in my mind from repetition – a process made mundane from habit. And yet the smell of the place – the stubborn, lingering odor of paint and dust kicked up from the street mixed with new books, freshly-laid drywall, and the stale sterility of marble – brought me back to my first time in the place and its newness. Back to when we were strangers eating mangoes with the Captain. To when this was all strange and overwhelming.

In some ways, it still it.

Although I’d hardly consider myself a Delhiite, my day-to-day life in the city is characterized much more by routine than by surprise. The chaos, the noise, the animals, the crowds – these are parts of life. Inconveniences that must be navigated on the way to one place or another, albeit with at least one watchful, wary eye. There is, as I often say, “always something crazy going on” in Delhi. The commute is never the same twice, and you’re bound to see something you’ve never seen before – good, bad, beautiful, ugly, disturbing, or otherwise – just about every day. There’s a certain type of free-form improvisation to the way of life here and the rules that govern it.

Don’t feel like stopping at a traffic light? Go for it.

Don’t have the right permits to build? Pay a few bribes, and you’ve got yourself a colony (that’s what they call a neighborhood around here).

No bathroom? The side of the road looks just fine.

Tired of those pesky U-turns? Driving the wrong way down the road never hurt anybody.

Line? I don’t see a line.

There’s a general attitude that rules are secondary to convenience, and are to be followed when circumstances are favorable. As one might imagine, this has its benefits. Sometimes the rules just don’t make sense in certain situations. The convenience of improvisation, however, comes at the cost of consistency. Autopilot, the state of going through familiar motions without thought, is not advisable. You never know when a driver may find stopping for the red light at a crosswalk to be more of a nuisance than its worth.

The city can still surprise even the most experienced locals. My roommate, Lavy, for instance, is a frequent, yet consistently exasperated critic of Delhi drivers. He bemoans (the relatively infrequent, by Indian standards) power cuts, and, despite being one of the most knowledgeable people I have met about the city and its quirks, still seems to be taken aback by what he describes as Delhi’s “utter lack of management.”

“Its just crazy!” he says.

The unpredictable aside, there are certainly aspects of life in Delhi, as with any other city, that one, with time, adjusts to. Metro rides are a case in point. Delhi, as I’ve described earlier, has recently finished constructing (“finished” may not be the appropriate word, as construction on expanded routes is still continuing) a metro system that, in terms of its facilities and infrastructure, easily rivals any of those in Europe and the US that I have seen. The trains are fast, quiet, air conditioned, and arrive with regular frequency. The stations are clean, and the fares are remarkably cheap. Rush hour, however, will test the patience – and notions of personal space – of anyone not familiar with life in a city of 20 million plus inhabitants. Competition for seats is ruthless, shoving is rampant, and lines are generally ignored. The idea of “waiting for passengers to deboard the train before entering” is quaint, and doing so will likely result in impatient rumblings from the passengers behind you, followed by increasingly forceful pushes on your lower back – especially if there are seats to be had. Even more than the crowds, however, its the vigor, to the point of outright enjoyment, with which people clamor for space that initially struck me as shocking.


Just another day in the Delhi metro…

In my travels as an American, I’ve found that our “personal space bubbles” – the amount of room we prefer to keep between ourselves and other people – tends to be larger than most. Chalk it up to our individualistic tendencies, puritan roots, or the wide open spaces of our homeland. Whatever it is, we generally don’t like being touched, or even getting too close to people. If we see a space where we can be further away from others, we usually take it. Hugs from strangers don’t make us feel welcome as much as uncomfortable. When we talk to each other, its usually from a relative distance. We’re not cold, we just like our space.

I am certainly no exception to this rule. In fact, I may feel it stronger than most. The first few weeks of commuting to work by metro were, thus, as aggravating as they were anxiety-producing. The line cutting, the crowding, and the jostling – from the perfunctory security check to the turnstile to the train and then on the way out – was enough to get my blood boiling and my personal space alarm bells going off at full blast. The worst, however, were the pointed nudges just above my waist from passengers behind me the minute the train doors would open. There are few things more unnerving to a lover of personal space than an anonymous sustained push on the lower back. To be fair, being a foreigner, I suppose people may have suspected that I needed a gentle reminder that “oh yes – I should get on this train. That is, in fact, why I am here.”

As someone used to the relative order of cities like New York, Washington DC, and Paris, I at first felt an inclination to push defiantly against the crushing tide and fight the chaos – to try and keep some semblance of order, if only within my own small area of control. The metro, where I would stand, jaws clenched in a futile effort to stem the flow of jubilantly raucous commuters surging around me is just one example of this compulsion.

I suppose its only natural, in any place so far from the comforts of routine, to form our little buffers of the familiar. To be an outsider is to feel helpless, at times. Our everyday lives follow scripts, although the language and content vary greatly from place to place. Human exchanges, elaborate or fleeting, carry with them expectations: from finding an apartment, to purchasing groceries, hailing a taxi, to ordering food, forming a line, to negotiating space on a sidewalk. In the States, our public exchanges tend to be pretty neatly choreographed. We see a price, we pay that price. We stop at stop signs even when there’s nobody else around. We walk on the sidewalk. Lines are pretty much sacrosanct. We’re a risk-averse, efficiency-seeking people: we like our food fast and our supermarkets well-organized and sparkling clean. We stay in one lane on the highway. We carry hand sanitizer wherever we go. We write to our local representatives about the dangers of potholes. We put up bright neon signs when children are playing in the neatly-trimmed yard. We warn people that their coffee is hot.

Delhi’s lifestyle of improvisation, by contrast, can be a disorienting experience for those (such as myself) used to following the script.

Like I mentioned, however, its not without its benefits. Take my bi-weekly trip to the grocery store across the street. Its a small, dusty, yet very friendly establishment with the same three or four teenagers stocking the shelves every day while the owner mans the cash drawer (this isn’t the kind of place that has registers). Large supermarkets have only recently begun to pop up around major urban areas, and most people here do their shopping at various small stores, such as this one, or street markets (bazaars). Its the type of place I imagine was much more common back home before they were swallowed up by the likes of Stop & Shop, Big Y, Food Lion, etc. – victims of supply chain efficiency and economies of scale.

During my last trip I picked up the usual: a box of granola, a carton of juice, some milk, and a small candy bar for a treat. The owner – an affable, confident man of about 35 with short-cropped hair and a penchant for playfully mocking his customers – chuckled at my stunning lack of diversity in food choices as he quickly added up the total with a pencil and paper. This has been something of a running joke of ours for the past few months. As he read me the total (probably around 300 rupees, or 6 dollars) I realized, to my humiliation, that I had left my wallet back in the apartment. I quickly explained this to him and headed for the door to retrieve it, only to be stopped by the owner, who insisted:

Aray bhai, koi baat nahin. Idhir udhir janay ki koi zururat nahin. Bas agli baar mujhay paisay day do”

“Brother, don’t worry about it. There’s no need to go back and forth. Just give me the money next time.”

Try doing that the next time you’re at the check-out line.

I thanked him profusely – which I think may have actually embarrassed him a bit – and made my way to the door, shuffling to the side to allow a woman and her small child pass by me through the narrow aisle. Glancing up, I noticed a box of juice on a shelf, coated in a thick layer of gray dust, twisted off at an angle – its corner dangling precariously off the edge. Without much thought, I reached up to set the box right, brushing off some of the dust before placing it back square on the shelf. My fingertips black, I stepped outside into the madness of the blaring, hazy evening street before retrieving a bottle of hand sanitizer from the side pocket of my backpack.

What can I say? Old habits die hard.


2 thoughts on “Going off Script

  1. carol says:

    Great to hear from you again Louis! Miss you—Carol and Arthur aka Mr. and Mrs. Upshur!

  2. […] Railway’s – shall we say – unconventional method for purchasing tickets. These include my aforementioned distaste for being manhandled by large groups of strangers; lack of skin pigmentation, which leaves […]

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