24 August 2008

Letter 3.12

Delhi, India -- '66

When I first entered India ever where I looked on the round I saw these red splotches of spit and was wondering if everyone in the country was tubercular or had some other gruesome disease. Actually, they're just addicted to chewing betel nut, which turns their spit and teeth red. When they smile at you they don't look like vegetarians.

India's a tough country. It reminds me of Israel in a way. Both countries are so varied, ancient and modern, with so many different people, religions, climates, madnesses.

Every Indian seems to have a 'thing' and I've begun to find out some of these 'things'. The first was when, seeking a temple, I walked, rucksack on my back, down a street and was stopped by an Indian who demanded to know how much my pack weighed, 'I don't know,' I told him. 'Don't know? But how is that possible? Take it off and I'll tell you. I can tell you within a pound.' 'I don't care to take it off,' 'What's that? But don't you understand? Free! The weight! You must know how much your pack weighs!' 'Why?' 'Why? Here, tale this.' He produced a large sack from beneath his robes and told me to estimate its weight. I declined. He told me it weighed 17 pounds. He changed its weight every day. He could tell to within one pound how much anything weighed, merely by lifting it. He would tell me, free, how much my pack weighed, I didn't care to take it off, though. I wanted to find the temple. 'But you must know how much it weighs,' he insisted. 'Why?' 'Because...because everyone has a burden, and they must know the weight of their burden,'

He was hooked on weights, That was his 'thing' and he felt that everyone must be fascinated with how much things weighed. His life was based on this idea and when he finally left, perplexed at my resistance to his philosophy, I watched him attack other people with his demands. They usually let him tell how much their packages weighed, and he wandered erratically down the street, a human balance -- accurate to within one pound.

I met another Indian whose thing was collecting either -- I'm not sure which -- photos of large animals or large photos of animals. Perhaps large photos of large animals. He had over 10,000. He couldn't believe that I didn't have any. He wanted to take me to his home and show them to me. All 10,000 of them. And he assured me that everyone in India -- nearly everyone in the world -- was interested in collecting either photos of large animals or large photos of animals.

Other people -- many -- have a thing about money. Get-Rich-Quick schemes. They all dream of amazing wealth without work or responsibility. One man wanted to go to every palm reader in Delhi, get their readings and advice, collate them, average them, analyze them, compare them, and, at last, have certain advice on how to become rich. After that the rest would be easy. He wanted to know if I was also interested in having my palm read.

There are a lot of palm readers in Delhi, but even more beggars. Some are dressed in only a cloth a few inches wide and a few feet long. Some never wear clothes. A few of the beggars are quite well-dressed, though. I suppose that even begging has its successes and failures. The most successful beggars in Israel, by the way, were the Jewish beggars. On one corner I saw a group of ten women begging, their copper bowls in front of them, seated in a line and gossiping so much they hardly had time to bless you or Allah when money dropped in their bowl. Any Westerner who contributes so much as a paise will be descended upon by a swarm of hundreds of beggars -- mostly children -- or the most lame and inane -- all screaming 'Baksheesh!' -- gift! -- at the top of their voices and trailing after you for miles. Some of the most pathetic cripples are hired by entrepreneurs in the begging business; they get their cut for making all the marketing arrangements (such as securing the best spots) and see to it that their clients look pitiful but are kept alive in less torment.

The beggars aren't everywhere. You can walk two or three blocks empty of them, then find ten or so working one intersection. They're always in clusters like the shops. Clusters of shops all selling the same products. Walking down a street I might pass 8 bakeries, followed by 17 household goods stores, a dozen fruit sellers, 5 or 6 druggists, 20 shirt stores, 11 shoe stores, 8 tobacco shops, etc., each group of stores in a cluster. Feast or famine. Specialty items can usually be found in only one part of the city, and if you don't know where you're out of luck.

New Delhi is very beautiful -- in Victorian architecture and English-planned parks. Old Delhi is dusty, crowded, and shaking. There are so many contrasts, so many madmen, so many strange things -- it will be a long time before I can begin to understand it better. But somehow there is, in the Hindus, a collection of attitudes -- hopelessness, greed, corruption, stupidity, intolerance, manias, etc. -- which makes me think Pakistan may be a place of promise, a country succeeding, while India merely bumbles onward in a circle.

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