India: Crash landing!

Coming up on 24 hours in India and already time has sort of taken on an irrelevant dimension. Everything here takes either five times longer than you think it will or is completely simple and straightforward. Street signs exist or they don’t. People are kind without expectation of recompense or they trail after you for blocks, demanding rupees, chocolate, attention. It’s never what you expect. Except when it is. Etc.

Last night, on the way to the hotel from our airport, we embarked on a 2-hour taxi-bus mission to locate our crumbling, colonial digs. It was wild, on account of it being New Year’s Eve, and perhaps this just generally being India. Traffic snarls like you’ve never imagined, horns and fireworks and everybody shouting “Happy New Year” and “Happy Christmas” into our windows, rolled down to let in the cooler nighttime air.

And, yeah. The smells. Intense, mostly sulfur and fish and burning rubber and rubbish heaps afire.

We spent a good 10 minutes in one particular traffic snarl, sort of stalled out in a busy ten-way thoroughfare. I watched a homeless family of probably five or six kids and the two parents, squatting in the gutter, eating the remnants of a birthday cake. Untouchables. They were filthy and brown and very ragtag, perched at the edge of the road, right outside this huge, clean, well-lit pizza parlor filled up with rich, drunk Indians smoking cigarettes and shaking hands as the new year began. It was called “Pizza By The Bay.”

I watched the father carefully pick bits of dirt and trash out from the mangled cake, then lovingly feed the pieces to a tiny girl seated in his lap. The mother was holding a very naked, very bald, very filthy little baby and the older ones sat in a loose circle, feeding themselves. I watched them scooping up tiny fistfulls of chocolate cake and white frosting and stuffing them into their mouths with a universally recognizable gusto.

Cake is cake, after all, even if it comes from the trash. Even then.

They were eating and eating and the crumbs were getting everywhere and I was just staring at those brown, sticky smiles, that little family welcoming in a new, bad year without thought or ceremony or self-pity. All of it just was. Them, and those self-same skinny pups limping along the edge of the streets behind them, searching for scraps, or shade, or something. Them, and the mange-pigeons building nests atop air-conditioning units covered with white, dried-up shit, and the Mumbai upper crust in the pizza joint beyond, loosing their belts and blowing little party whistles and cooing at the fireworks out over the bay.

I think if you looked too long or too hard at much of anything around here, you’d probably cry. India will break your heart.

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