Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Passing Through -- A Day in Delhi

            After Christmas my parents and my other brother Erik and his family arrived in New Delhi. This required a bigger van and our visit definitely bumped up a notch in style. My parents are troupers, but need their naps and a few comforts like some heat and a bathroom where they have somewhere to sit so they won’t topple over. Erik and his wife, Shona, were carrying around their year-and-a-half old son who also needed naps and places where he could topple over. 
            Thus began the portion of the trip that was characterized by loading eight adults and four kids into a van that Keir valiantly drove through traffic that made Hollywood freeways look like child’s play. The chances of our being sideswiped by an indifferent driver or of us completely rubbing out a family of four on a motorcycle seemed incredibly high.
            Our first day out, we started with breakfast at the Imperial Hotel in New Delhi. If you want to impress the folks, the Imperial Hotel will definitely do it.  It’s a gleaming example of Raj imperialism, replete with framed prints of colonial rule lining the vast, long hallways.  Restaurant 1911 is one of several in the hotel. 1911 is the year that George V and Queen Mary were crowned Emperor and Empress of India. It was also the year that New Delhi was designated India’s new capitol city. If you’re somewhat dubious about why this period of history is being celebrated in a hotel built during India’s occupation by her occupiers, you’re not alone. It felt something like eating breakfast at a beautifully restored slave plantation in the south. That said, the scones and to-die-for Indian fare are not to be missed. And I could hold a business meeting in the bathrooms. Members of my family kept popping up and down to visit the imperial loo whether the need was pressing or not.
            After lingering in the halls for a bit, we jammed into the van and headed to a stepwell (this one called, Agrasen ki Baoli).  As it’s name implies, a stepwell is a very large well with steps leading down into the water.  Agrasen ki Baoli was built in the tenth century and people have been bathing in it for centuries. Only when we visited it, it was dry. As our four families climbed around on the steps, I looked down to the bottom of the empty well.  What must it have been like, say, five hundred years ago when families gathered on the steps to pull water, while the young ones splashed each other? A simple thought occurs to me in historic spots like this – we human beings have always needed the same things and have sought to fulfill those needs in similar ways throughout our short time here on the planet. In this case, we’ve needed to cool off, come together, and relax. These days my family does the very same thing in the two saltwater infinity pools on our housing complex in Los Angeles. Those Indian folk, five hundred years ago, could not envision the palm trees and automobiles whizzing past outside walls of our private pools. But the desires that drew us to water are the same.
            With our Imperial breakfasts still heavy in our stomachs, Keir walked us down an alley from the stepwell to a hand laundry. Drying sheets anchored to wires flapped in the drizzling rain as we approached. The laundry was open air, which was probably practical when it was hot. But today was cold and watching the men scrub clothes and sheets in tubs made my hands sting. We walked up and down a bit, smiling to the workers. The work looked hard and boring. Thinking of myself doing the same work made my stomach sour. The collective mood in the place, however, seemed more practical than joyless.  Keir stopped to ask a few questions.  Spencer and Murphy somberly took in the scene. Pat stopped to talk to a gentleman who spoke a little English.  The boys and I stopped to listen. The man said that he worked from 5am to 10pm. Answering Pat, he said that they took breaks and that they sometimes sang as they worked. His father had been a washer, and so had his father, and his father, “Five generations, we wash."
            “You have a son?” Asked Pat, indicating both our boys.
            “Oh yes,” the man smiled, acknowledging Spencer and Murphy.
            “Is your son here?” Pat asked.
            “Oh no.”
            “Did he wash when he was a boy?”
            “Oh no.  My son…school.  My son, very…” he tapped the side of his forehead indicating ‘smart’, “My son work job.  Never wash.”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a worn business card and handed it to Pat.  “My son in tech.  He will have better life.”
            Pat looked at the card and started to hand it back to the man who shook his head, smiling again, “You keep.”
Pat smiled politely and put the card in the pocket of his jeans.  He stuck his hand out to shake and said, “So nice to meet you.”
The gentleman took Pat’s hand in both of his and said, “So nice to meet you. Yes.”
            Later, as we walked down the alley outside the laundry, Spencer started to cry. The others were walking ahead of us. I stopped and put my hand on his head, “What’s the matter, my love?” Spencer shook his head.  “You don’t want to talk?”
            “That’s OK,” I said.  “It’s OK not to talk. But remember that sometimes talking makes you feel better and I might be able to help you work things out.”
            He paused for a minute to consider this or perhaps, simply, to find words. I stayed still, looking down at him. I slid my hand from the top of his head to his cheek and held it there. Most of the others were still walking.  Pat had turned and was watching us, Murphy hanging onto his hand. Tears trickled down Spencer’s cheeks into my palm.  Slowly, deliberately, he said, “I can’t believe that people live like this.”
            “I know,” I said, mentally searching for something to say that would be comforting. But all I could come up with was something that was true, “But some people do live like this, honey.”
            “It’s so sad,” he said, scrunching his eyes.
            “Yes,” I said. I threw Pat a look of appeal and he quickly walked back toward us, Murphy trailing.
            I said to Pat, “Spencer is sad because people live like this.”
            Murphy hung behind Pat, looking at Spencer with concern. Pat inhaled, took a moment and then said, “I know it’s sad, Buddy.  And I’m sure that those men would like to have easier jobs or better conditions.  But we shouldn’t assume that they are unhappy.  They have families and whole lives.  Remember that man I was talking to?  He was really proud of his son.  And when he was talking about his son, he sounded happy. Just like I sound when I talk about you.  We shouldn’t assume that people who have a lot less than us are miserable.”
            I wanted to tell Spencer that just because human beings are resilient doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t sympathize with those who have less or work to make the world better for everyone.  But I could tell that he had a lot tumbling around in his head. I’ve learned to trust the workings of his mind and heart. He had what he needed. He would find his own answers, not mine. I also knew that the answers would change over time. My ten-year-old answers are not my fifty-year-old answers. That too, however, was his to discover.
            So I said nothing more, but slipped my hand into his and we started to walk away from the laundry, back in the direction of the stepwell and the van.  In one day, I thought, we had walked through the distant past, the recent past, today, and tomorrow. “My son in tech.”  I had a powerful sense of passing through time. I squeezed my son’s hand, hearing the words of Carl Sagan in my head, “We have traveled this way before, and there is much to be learned.”

Spencer reading at breakfast at the Imperial Hotel
The Imperial Hotel

Spencer at the stepwell

An image of the stepwell a couple of years ago
Pat and Murphy outside the Hand Laundry
The Laundry


  1. Man, your writing packs a punch. This is a travelogue of the soul. And what good parents you are.

  2. Brett- this is the first moment I have had to read any of your postings, and am so glad I did. I was moved to tears. We have been fortunate enought to do quite abit of traveling as well, and had a similar experience with our daughter in Turkey many years ago. But what a wonderful experience it is for them to see these things first hand. I truly believe it helped to create the "socially conscious" young adult that she is. Please keep writing. You have a new loyal reader :) Hi to Pat!