Halloween in Delhi

“Yeah so you need to take an auto to Aurobindo market and wait for the shuttle there, he’ll take you to the farmhouse.”

It seemed kinda sketch to begin with, catching a random shuttle to an undisclosed location for a secret halloween party, but the temptation outweighed the uncertainty. So we showed up and followed the costumes, got into a van, and soon we found ourself paying way too many rupees to walk into a field surrounded by a giant fabric fence that was pulsing from the lights inside. There was music and costume, and unlimited drinks. A surprising amount of familiar faces too.

There’s really only one place to go in New Delhi with night life, and that’s Hauz Khas Village, a small strip about 200 yards long of bars upon bars stacked 4 or 5 stories up, all leaning in towards the street fighting for the attention of passerby below. It’s an amalgamation of upper class Indian locals and foreigners from all walks of life dancing to live music, dining, and drinking overpriced alcoholic beverages. We’ve spent a handful of nights there, and what’s truly amazing is that once you meet a few people, you’ve met everybody. Delhi is a small small scene.

So here we were at this Halloween party 10 miles south of the city, running into countless familiar faces from our month.5 of living in Delhi. People know people here. It’s becomes so predictable that no mutual friend really surprises you anymore.

The music kept getting shut off so the party was constantly fluctuating between picnic style grass chillin at 2am and dirty dancing to loud thumping bass. The cops would come about every hour to take a new bribe to allow the party to keep going. I guess that was built into the cost of entry. If all else fails, just bribe the cops.

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The world will level our debts

Oh the things I could say about wealth. The thoughts I have when I guiltily ignore beggars on the street. The puppy eyes I avoid when I refuse to accept an auto driver’s white person offer on principle, despite the fact that this dude probably sleeps in his auto 4 nights a week until he can go home and give the money to his family. It’s really sad, and makes what I’m about to say sound a little ironic.

But there are people who grow up learning to cherish and protect their wealth and there are people who grow up learning to grow and share their wealth. I find that a lot of the people in the upper class here have been surrounded by poverty and prefer to keep their wealth within reach, constantly sweeping it in as it spills back over their flailing arms, unwilling to share with those who really need it. I hope to be an example of a more or less opposite mentality. Someone who is proud of his wealth (whatever combination of spirit and riches it may be), but who is unafraid to let what does spill over fall into the hands of those who need and deserve it. So that when I have something extra to give, there is no fear of sharing with someone in need, and no expectation for anything in return… The world will level our debts.

Intermission

Based on the way Indians behave in traffic I sure as hell was not expecting there to be an intermission when I went to get a Hollywood fix at a local cinema. Halfway through at a very indiscriminate point in one of the more suspenseful scenes, the picture cut and the lights came on and the screen glowed with bright block letters that said INTERVAL. Nobody seemed surprised.

I mean it’s really not a big deal to anyone here who is used to that, but it illustrates a major difference in culture. There would be outrage in the states. Even if people appreciated the chance to piss without missing anything, they would expect a fade out, perhaps a slow ascending dim of the lights, and a chance to get back in the mood by maybe rolling back 30 seconds. But not here, they just started the movie without warning while I scrambled to put my 3D googly-eyes back on, and then casually flipped off the lights about 20 seconds into that scene. Can you imagine what a director would say about that? Can you imagine the film critics who were so busy taking art suteriously who would erupt into a rage if their chance to provide a snarky review was interrupted so the commoners could go feed their fat asses popcorn? It wouldn’t fly. People like the movie format as it is. You sit down and go inside the world. But I kind of adore the fact that nobody in India cares. It’s like “let’s just pause this flick, ‘cuz we all know they’re hungry.” PS even the theaters here sell chicken tikka wraps.

We left the theater with tired eyeballs because the visuals were stunning but with a mind hungry for some human dialog, because Sandra Bullock and George Clooney make probably the worst pair of really unlucky astronauts. I gotta hand it to George Clooney though because he just acts like a fearless boss in every movie and once you see a few you start to admire his consistency across genres and even atmospheres.

On our way out this crazy dude was standing in the driveway clearly wanting us to take a ride in his auto. So I’ve yet to describe the auto-rickshaw experience but I think this would be the perfect time. The first thing I noticed was that his auto was one of the ones with the black top, not the usual yellow vinyl top. I had a feeling we were in for a unique ride. I wasn’t very wrong, mostly right in fact. As soon as he started it up super loud Hindi pop/rap BLASTED from two twelve inch cones right behind our heads. He looked back and literally stuck out his tung, bared his straight but OH so brown teeth and said YAAAAAAAA. 2 minutes later we were cruising through major streets and he had both arms sticking out either side of the tiny little vehicle. He turned around and asked for a cigarette, but since we didn’t have anything to offer he stopped at a roadside convenience shack and picked up a couple. After that he let Isaac drive. This dude was nuts. And his premium for the color of our skin was justified by his erratic behavior and the unique experience he created for us.

While this marks one of the more colorful auto-rickshaw experiences (he had rope lights and strobes tucked into all the corners and tied to the frail roll bars of this tricycle of death), it certainly was not the most dangerous. Lucky for us the road was pretty open so he had open reign to burn away the petrol and cocaine that laced his system as we charged on into the night.

Let me describe an auto rickshaw. I think if you replace auto with motorized you’d get a better idea. It’s basically an open air cab crafted from moped parts with a tightly strung canvas ceiling supported by a frail steel frame. It’s got three baby wheels, and the driver sits dead center with a T-bar moped handle to turn his craft as he carefully negotiates corners without tipping to one side and spilling his human contents. There is no rear view mirror, and the side view mirrors are inside the vehicle and usually only face the passenger which confuses me. I’d much prefer that he keep his gaze trained on the traffic in front of, behind, and on all sides of the vehicle.

There are no rules here. People generally stop at stop lights. But the rare police car would probably never bother pulling someone over for a traffic violation if such a thing is even a word in Hindi. You can pass on urban streets, go 60mph if you feel like it, weave through tight spaces, park on the side of a narrow road and go get milk, ignorant of the backup you’re creating. Really, anything goes. You can NOT let somebody get their way – if there is any rule, it is that YOU matter most. YOU must cut off the oncoming traffic and just pray that brakes won’t fail and you will make it to the other side. Lines are faint reminders that you are in a developing nation, but the paint never grows thick. It’s been covered by dust and burned by rubber for too long and fades from your view until all you see is cars and the zig zagging path you’re about to take. It’s like chess – constantly looking ahead for the next weave.

I’ve gotten used to it: Bikers literally being ignored by cars and auto-rickshaws, squeezing through narrow streets with mere millimeters to spare as if their 1920’s steel frames were engineered with balloon steel, sucking in their extraneous parts and tucking in their belly to fit through unrealistically small gaps at high speeds. Horns piercing the ear from every angle and at every frequency (it’s the most replaced car part in India and some a##holes think they deserve the loudest horn). Reacting on a whim. Screaming. Everything else you can imagine. Driving, particularly in an open air auto rickshaw is like hopping on the edge of a cliff in a potato sack, but without even the slightest regard for the risk you are undertaking.

This blog post is far too long and I’ve spent too much time trying to describe things that just really cannot be fathomed through words alone. That’s why luckily I have a video of the crazy auto-rickshaw guy with the party lights and loud music.

Gotta post this, close this tab, start anew.

Make Me Coffee

It doesn’t feel right to order people around… ever. But when in India, that dynamic changes. Suddenly I find myself as a defensive white man arguing in two or three digit numbers with auto-rickshaw drivers who I know are charging me twice what they would an Indian. It sucks to be a jerk, but as somebody who technically lives in New Delhi, I have to make it clear that I know when I’m being ripped off, and that I’d rather not be treated like a tourist. We often walk away from auto-rickshaw drivers who began their offer too high as they follow us pleading and offering us new prices. But on principle, we don’t turn around, unless a fair price is met, but often we’ll spin off with the next available driver who saw us coming and realized we knew the deal. It sucks, because when it all comes down to it, we’re literally arguing over the equivalent of 30-40 cents, and we feel ridiculous, but it’s the principle. It’s an odd vindictive craving to punish somebody who essentially singled us out for our skin color and thought he could make a few extra bucks. Sad part is, he needs the money, and we deny him of it. But we do tip those drivers who are honest and humble, so hopefully we can encourage them to let us be the judge of how much extra money they receive.

I’ve also briefly mentioned Veejay, the sweetest guy at GMI (GMI btw stands for Global Music Institute, where I teach). He sits by the door, greets everyone, and makes sugary treats like coffee and tea. All I have to say is…. uhmmm Veejay, as I fish for any sort of English word he might understand to show that I really HATE ordering him around but it still just ends up coming out as “blah blah blah blah COFFEE!” And in the most polite spirit he looks at me, smiles, says “yes sir, coffee,” shakes his head in that really smooth Indian flick to the right and whips me up some coffee. It feels weird. Because he’s close to forty, making significantly less money than me, putting in way more hours, and doing such subservient things as making coffee for a capable 22 year old from America. But he’s happy to have the job, and I’m happy to give him as much respect as I can, which seems much deserved, especially noting how poorly they’re usually treated by their employers. I just wish I could hear what goes on in his head. Does he have dreams of freedom and bigger futures? Or has he just settled into the grind, thankful for the clothes on his back and the money he earns for the services he provides?

Then there’s DeeDee, a Bengali woman who comes and cleans our apartment on an almost daily basis. She’s a beautiful middle aged woman with a spirit of gold and a humble aging body who speaks the most basic necessities of English but nothing more. Yet despite her years, she bends 90 degrees towards the floor every day and uses her one handed broom to sweep up †he daily dust, she scrubs away at our dishes, and she even does our laundry well before my clean underwear dwindles (which saves me from any inside-out repeated pairs boxers in desperate times). We don’t have to tell her what to do because she just comes and does it, but that doesn’t really change the fact that we have a maid who picks up after us, which I’m pretty sure is a first for all of us.

Life is different here and being white doesn’t help us fit in at all. It’s nice being recognized more and more as a local by the people who frequent our neighborhood but nonetheless, we are walking dollar signs to most. These are important experiences to have though, because it just hits home the idea that living a selfish and oblivious life doesn’t compare to a life of gratitude and at the very least one must acknowledge their blessings and compare them to the misfortunes of others and hopefully channel that understanding into some sort of positive impact on the world. The earth is our neighborhood, we’ve been growing up here for tens of thousands of years. Yet somehow we haven’t kept very good watch on our neighbors.

Water, Power, and Wifi

India can make one feel small. But no matter how much I pale in comparison to the barreling inertia of human nature that drives this country and it’s 1.2 billion people, I’m still really goddamn lucky. Even though I may not have the usual American luxuries I’m really in no place to complain.

 It’s quite often that either Water, Power or WiFi will run dry. The water runs dry because we only have one large bubbler jug at any given time, and because of the way things work here with the jug deposit, we’re not allowed to have a backup, so every few days when we run out, we are potable-waterless and forced to go out and buy 6-10 one liter bottles of water, none of which will be recycled. We are simply not in control of our water supply. I have no idea where Veejay (the awesome assistant who works for GMI) gets it, and until he brings it, we don’t have it.

 Power is another thing that isn’t exactly synonymous with consistency or trustworthiness. We lose it every few days for an hour or two at a time, but life really carries on. Keep the fridge closed, eat some bread, play guitar, deal with it. Kind of awesome.

 WiFi is kinda LoFi here. Pretty sure we exceeded our bandwidth limit in the first two weeks watching In Bruges and Seinfeld. But luckily the school is right around the corner and they’ve got the big data plan.

I mean really, life is pretty good. Just look at this Puppy video I made! http://youtu.be/_KBWr6HJFEI

 

I’m no Indian…

When I want to buy groceries in the states, it’s as simple as pulling the car out the driveway, cruising down a couple wide streets, avoiding children, usually stopping at stop signs, and smiling as I fill my basket with all the assorted goodies that Trader Joe’s has to offer on their crowded shelves. Once finished, a polite middle class white dude in a silly flowery hawaiian shirt hands me a bag full of prepackaged delights and organic produce that I take home and cook up.

When I want to buy groceries in India, it’s not really the sort of experience that can fit into one fluid sentence. If I want fruit, then I can choose from a number of ‘fruit guys’ scattered throughout these city streets. Perched atop their wooden rickshaws are massive piles of well-organized fruit that somehow never tumble, even when the sucrose fueled fruit guy is hauling his load through crowded city streets, pulling his cart like a human donkey. When I give him 100 rupees for a giant bag of produce I wonder where he’ll sleep that night. For some reason though, there are fruit guys, vegetable guys, and …. banana guys, because I guess that’s a business of it’s own.

Say I’ve zigzagged through the streets of my neighborhood and finished collecting my produce. Then I might find myself asking, but where can I buy ginger? Or mushrooms? Well, the only place that I know of is about 20 minutes via auto-rickshaw (I’ll describe this insane daily mode of travel later) in a market called Defense Colony. They even have spinach! But it’s not refrigerated and it comes in a bundle as big as a mother’s day boquet, and I’ll I wanted was a couple leaves for my eggs… Not quite on the level of a spinach paneer cook yet.

For bread, milk and eggs, I can go to any of the hole in the wall markets on the main road, but they usually don’t have much else. There’s a milk guy in the opposite direction who sells lassie in plastic bags like the kind they switched to in middle school when boxed milk went out of fashion. Each one of those? 15 rupees (25 cents). Loaf of bread? 40 rupees.

But despite myriad options for purchasing said basic necessities, I still lack access (or at least knowledge) to some foods which might be considered basic human rights in America. I still don’t know where to find cheese or meat. Oh my! But for now my groceries can supply me with a diet of yogurt/granola, eggs/veggies, vegetable juice, bread/butter, and all the other 2-3 part combinations that give me body just enough basic fuel to counteract the acid laced Indian food that so often lights my stomach on fire.

Funny though, this might sound frustrating, but it’s really beautiful. I love it.

And just as daunting as it is to buy groceries in this madhouse of a town, equally daunting is the task of writing a blog. So rather than try and give some diary-inspired chronological passage of events about my life in India, I figure I’ll just go about describing my experiences in excessive detail using far too many adjectives and see if anybody listens.

PS the mangoes were amazing. Unfortunately, the fruit guy said we won’t be having any more anytime soon. A gentle reminder that this world still depends on seasons to bear fruit, despite what the guys at Trader Joe’s might be able to wrangle up from remote corners of the world at any given time.

i was asked to play a three hour set of background music for compensation in burritos at a burrito joint on newbury street. this is what i wrote in response. in the email it was mentioned that “[they could] compensate us in the best way [they knew] how…. free burritos!!”

and seriously, i like to write strongly, but this intended to be sarcastic and educational, not cruel. i’m coming from a place of understanding, with no anger involved. just frustration that too few people are standing up for musicians in this sense, and while it references one opportunity in particular, it is in response to the problem as a whole.

and it goes like this:

Hey _____,

I appreciate the offer, but you’re asking us to invest a lot of time and on top of that, some cash (taxis, the gear we own for gigging), to perform for free at your restaurant. As a recent music college graduate trying to make a living playing, recording, and writing music, I feel it’s my duty to stand up for music and work to increase it’s perceived value. So check it out, and from here on out I don’t mean anything personally, just trying to get to the heart of why this sounds unfair to me.

A lot of people seem to think that because we musicians are pursuing what we love as a career we shouldn’t have a problem doing it for free.

I perform for free all the time for the fun of the music at jam sessions, charity events, friendly gatherings, etc. And a free meal is always appreciated! But being asked to perform for free by a profitable major restaurant chain during business hours in exchange for a couple of burritos is a logically defunct proposition, and if you were to take that same sort of payment paradigm to other lines of work that require the expensive tools and education that us musicians have invested in, you wouldn’t get very far. This is a common mindset that equates ‘exposure,’ ‘pleasure’ and ‘free food’ as lifelines for musicians. But, like every other working professional, the real lifeline is money, or at least some sort of equivalent trade that takes into account the industry wage and cost of living. Because while your customers are smiling to our jams and thinking positively about your business, your hired band is sharing their craft for little more than a full stomach.

Musical Thursdays is a collaborative effort between musicians and local restaurants to bolster business and create a weekly destination for music. That’s awesome! But if traffic increases as a result, which it surely will, shouldn’t the musicians earn a share? And if your company gains positive exposure while profiting in cash money, why shouldn’t musicians be able to experience exposure and income simultaneously?

We can earn $20-30/hr/musician in tips by busking on the street corner without worrying about the 70dB limit (trust me that’s not very loud) or the musical limitations set forth in the contract, so it’s tough to give up that sort of flexibility for three menu items for three hours of performance time. And you say this is the best way you know how to compensate us… But I doubt that’s how you pay your employees.

I know the world loves and needs music, and nobody feels the addiction more than the musicians who live for it, but it takes a healthy symbiosis to continue providing music for the world. We can’t get by on our love alone. And while I love burritos, burritos don’t love me quite the same as a stable 3 to 4 digit number in my bank account, at least not as long as my landlord refuses to accept a gift card to your burrito joint in exchange for the roof over my head. Musicians don’t love money as much as they love their job, but they certainly need it if they’re trying to afford an education, housing, and who knows, maybe even the occasional burrito.

With that said, I’d be happy to make you an offer – $50 per musician with the option to have a tip jar or $75 per head without. This is cheap for three hours! I’ve played for much much more at other local restaurants but I’m happy to compromise because that’s the only way we can begin building a healthy relationship between the businesses on Boston’s retail avenue who want good music and those hardworking student professionals who can provide it.

Strong tones aside, I mean well. I’m not trying to bring anybody down, I think you’re running an admirable local business. I’m just working towards a better cross-disciplinary relationship. I want you to know that we would love to play, but a bigger incentive is needed to get this show on the road, and I’m sure I speak for all the musicians in the community and abroad. Thanks for listening! I’ve been meaning to put these thoughts into words for a while, so I apologize for the lengthiness.

Best,
Devon
The Yesberger Band
http://www.yesberger.com