In my Indian neighborhood pesky little three-wheel auto rickshaws, elderly bicycles, l950's-style Ambassadors, the matronly car of India's bureaucracy; sputtering motorcycles carrying entire families, and the middle class' favorite auto, the zippy Maruti, yip and moo and bellow of the karma of spending their lives in a perpetual traffic jam. Along with pedestrians, tourists, beggars, cobras in baskets, fortune tellers, crows, touts, ear cleaners, shoe shiners, peddlers, and dogs, they scrabble for every atom of free space.
The York Hotel rests one story above this show, but it does not attempt to remove itself from the bustle below. It is a wise decision, for nothing in India is isolated from life's mayhem, and its mystery.
Many years ago my reservations at another hotel with peace and a name not suggesting the War of the Roses were muddled, and I found myself needing a place to stay. Having learned that there is often wisdom behind India's cosmic or comic--I have never decided which--design with its mission of unerringly scrambling my careful plans into chaos, I accepted my mishap good naturedly and ended up at the York.
The match with the hotel has been blessed. Staying there has drawn me to the street, where much of Indian life, from hawking to bathing to peeing, unfolds and has included me in the neighborhood's pulse, which in spite of the street frenzy, is slow, stretched out to encompass the living and dying of endless generations. And most of all, it has ceased being just the hotel in which I stay during my frequent trips to India and become, instead, my Indian home.
On its two-story perch above Connaught Circle, New Delhi's heart, the York boasts cherry-red carpets, massive gray granite tubs inviting long soaks until you find it takes an hour to fill them, and bulky furniture with faux wood veneer. Its best rooms face away from the street and have no windows. But I always know the time of day by the sounds of traffic leaking in, in spite of the rooms' resolute backs to the downtown. In the cool gray Delhi mornings noises are soft, like prayers. By l0:00 they have become fierce as Indian summers. Mid-evenings they subside into the hush of the dark.
The York has all the middle class comforts--television, telephone, and air conditioning, but something usually breaks down. Part of the rhythm of life there is to phone in the complaint several times, listen to promises to send a repairman up "in five or ten minutes," the Indian euphemism meaning any time between now and eternity; and finally watch with admiration as our hero arrives, jiggles wires, and shakes ailing instruments, coaxing them back to life with string and a prayer.
In this country where many branches of families live together, staying at the York is like being an arm of one of India's extended families. You learn to accomodate one other's bad moods and foibles. The bearers know to get a move on when dealing with this impatient American, and I to ignore the blatant hints for backsheesh, especially from the beady-eyed bathroom cleaner who eternally stations himself outside my door panting to be tipped for unrequested and unwanted services.
But all is forgiven when I return from California and instead of inquiring when did I arrive, someone asks in gentle accusation, "Madam, where have you been?" hinting that the York has felt an emptiness that only I can fill.
Every morning the dobie-wallah, or laundry man, bicycles in to collect laundry. I have long since stopped asking that my clothes return unironed. This nation with its exquisitely silken sari-swathed women does not appreciate the natural look.
He delivers my garments, crisply pressed and fresh-smelling, the same evening except when the monsoons pelt Delhi. During the rainy season it takes several days to dry pieces. Those times even the hotel's towels come back soggy.
But I don't mind. I savor the idea of my things being dried in old-fashioned sunshine (laundry draped over fences and lawns is a common Delhi sight) and enjoy the novelty of my cushioned life's bow to nature.
The York is on the outer circle of Connaught Place, a series of neat concentric circles laid out by the British, no doubt to impose a sense of order on the pandemonium of India. Today the white paint of its stately pillars has sunk deep within the wood into a patina of timelessness, and the once glistening marbled walkways dulled by a half century of grime. Connaught Place wears the look of India, always crumbling away, but never changing.
On the York's block are a tiny mosque atop a Muslim food stand, two tailors who ply their trade with antiquated sewing machines, and Rajinder's, a shop supplying car seat-covers and radios. Men from Rajinder's work on the sidewalk, snipping and hammering and never cleaning up after themselves, but in this crowded country where any empty space is fair game for colonization, no one complains.
Across the street businesses such as Bhandari Homeopathic Stores, Alankar Shirtswala, and Moonlight Tailors and Drapers occupy molecules of storefronts. Most have been owned by the same family for generations and in India's ancient linkage of lifetimes will be passed on to the sons of the current owners.
But many do not have even slivers of shops and exist only from the uncertain gifts of the street. I met 9-year-old Sanjoy several years ago when we chatted while I waited for a bookstore to open. "Madam," he purred in the prim Indian English that seemed at odds with his merry hazel eyes, "if only I had a shoeshine box to make my way in the world."
My American respect for initiative promptly gifted him with l00 rupees.
Of course, Sanjoy never bought his box; but since I had already fallen in love with his snappy repartee and mop of sandy curls, we became friends. Later his pal Deepak, less clever but gentler than Sanjoy, peered at me with brown soulful eyes and also crept into my heart.
The boys live in a peculiar world, half adult, and half child. They spend their days conning tourists, handing over half of their earnings to policemen in order not to be hassled, and playing. Bequeathed by generations of their families, their inheritance is the street, their dreams dependent on the discards of others.
I bring them presents with each visit. The kids whoop with delight. I feel pangs of guilt that I cannot do more.
Sanjoy and Deepak are a cut above the beggars who work the area. One filthy family often turns up in the next block. The granny has honed one mean sales pitch. Having discovered you can get almost anything by hounding your quarry into submission, she follows me for blocks moaning, "Chapati! Chapati!" ("Bread! Bread!") until I cave in with a few rupees.
At the corner weaving in and out of cars waiting for the light to change are a beautiful young woman with luminous eyes and a thick plait of black hair falling down her back and a man who looks you in the eye with alert intelligence. Both are as clean as you can be if your home is the street. Her lower body is paralyzed. She drags it along behind her as she pulls herself with her hands into the road soliciting motorists. He has no legs at all.
I often bring them food from Nirula's, the fast food restaurant in the next block. Although I am curious about these two attractive, intelligent people, I have learned from the helplessness that my involvement with Sanjoy and Deepak often stirs up to keep my distance. I have begun to understand why most of my Indian friends steer clear of the poor. The more you enter their lives, the more you feel powerless to fill their enormous needs.
Sprinkled throughout the neighborhood are the large, old-fashioned restaurants that were formerly Delhi's most glamorous eating places. The York itself has such an establishment, a cavernous place manned by elderly, gentle waiters with sloping shoulders.
As do most Connaught cafes, the York restaurant probably spans at least half a century. My friend Vijay remembers eating there forty years ago during excursions from his home in the state of Rajasthan. In Vijay's boyhood eyes, the York was the epitome of sophistication.
Today, though, with the advent of private clubs and five-star hotels for the elite, the York and other Connaught Place eateries are merely bastions of basic Indian cuisine and sweet, but unpolished service. They cater to large families and the lower echelon of businessmen. I retire to them when I want to be alone. Losing my procession of touts and beggars at their doors, I become the fly on the wall, eavesdropping on the buzz of the politics of the BJP, the Hindu-revivalist party, at the Embassy; or the humdrum of business-speak at the Volga, or the jabber of mom and pop and babies at the York.
But it is to Nirula's that I go when I long for a bit of americana. Years ago Papa Nirula sent a son to Cornell to study restaurant management and has been raking in the profits ever since. Nirula's was a pioneer in take-out food and salad bars.
During my frequent Nirula fixes, I met Kasim, one of the hosts. The soft-spoken, middle-aged Kasim traveled the hefty journey from his home in Old Delhi by motorcycle six days a week to work l0-hour days. He arrived at work early and stayed until the last diner dribbled out, often at midnight. Always sensitive to his customers, he knew your routine after only a couple of visits. I had only to walk through the door for a fresh orange juice and pot of tea to appear at my favorite table, which had been saved, even though Nirula's has no reservations, because Kasim knew it was my breakfast hour.
Over the years Kasim's story unfolded. He had worked in an Arab country, saved a nest egg of thousands of dollars, and spent almost every bit of it throwing his brother a lavish wedding--not a strange deed in India, where the family is sanctified almost as much as the gods.
Still, Kasim often regretted his extravagance as he struggled on his meager Nirula's salary. He was forced to dip into his small remaining savings to send his younger children to private schools and the eldest son to university.
Three years ago I returned to India, expecting Kasim's big smile of welcome, only to find that he had been fired. The waiters said that the owner had chosen him as the scapegoat for an innocent misunderstanding.
In India jobs are hoarded like the rare treasure they are. Kasim has been unable to find another one.
His son has dropped out of university; his younger kids no longer go to private schools.
The last time I saw him he had landed a one-night waiter's job and talked about it throughout the summer, the one claim to productivity this once proud man could chalk up.
Not long ago I tried to avoid the pain caused by the Kasims and Sanjoys by staying in a hotel far away from Connaught Place.
My trip was peaceful, painless--and vapid. The York had made me grow too accustomed to real life. The visitor's shield I had thought would protect me from the Connaught Place dramas had long ago fallen away, probably becoming a part of the neighborhood's abundant garbage, waiting to be recycled by another traveler who wanted to take pictures, have a few safe adventures, and return safely to her native land.
I wish her well, but I don't envy her. Like it or not, the York and environs have become part of who I am.
Through India's strange alchemy, my secure, strong American self has been vanquished by a fragile world perpetually teetering on the verge of collapse and sorrow. It is a world I worry about, suffer with, and miss when I am away from it. Maybe that's what having a home is all about.