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Why am I here?
If you've ever visited Delhi, you won't be surprised that I ask myself that question often: If some glossy magazine ever does one of those “most livable cities” features for the world, I'm pretty sure my adopted town will be toward the bottom, somewhere between Lagos and Mogadishu.
Like most of the places I've lived — I've spent 13 of the 15 years since I graduated from college in Asia — I wound up here by accident. I was working in Hong Kong for an outfit someone once (charitably) called “the slave ship” of a news empire that shall remain nameless and trying to find a decent gig after I landed an article in The Atlantic. Eventually, I decided that the only way it was going to happen was if I struck out on my own as a freelancer. I had proven myself to be very good at quitting jobs, so that part was no problem. I'd also fallen in love with another journalist, so my impending poverty wasn't a big stopper. Once we were both unemployed, though, we couldn't stay in Hong Kong (high on my list of livable cities, but one of the most expensive in the world). Though I'd gone to the trouble of learning Mandarin, China was out because of its restrictive visa policies. The girl I'd fallen in love with — Shailaja, now my wife — is Indian. Delhi was cheap. So here we are, six years later, just in time to catch (perhaps) the biggest story of the next decade: the rise of India. It ain't so bad, I tell visitors.
As I wrote awhile back in Time Out Delhi:
I'm not an expat. I'm a white Indian. I don't brunch at the Hyatt. I don't skip town every June. I don't have kids enrolled in the American school. I don't have a housing allowance, driver or a cook. I don't say, “India is a difficult place to live, but frankly I don't know how I'm going to survive without all the help when we go back.”
It's not a point of pride. I'm just broke. I drive an eight-year-old white Maruti 800 with a massive dent in the driver's side door (don't get me started). I drink IMFL. I pay a little more than 10,000 rupees ($200) a month in rent. I wobble my head and say yaar. I know a shameful percentage of the lyrics to “Mindblowing Mahiya.” I even have the Person of Indian Origin card. Designed for non-resident Indians, it's made me a resident non-Indian. Sometimes, in the depths of despair, I contemplate buying property in some wasteland on the road to Faridabad or beyond Ghaziabad or Rohini — places I've never been. I may never leave.
And I do love the place, albeit in a repressed, white Indian kind of way. There is something wonderful about the smell of Delhi's burnt air in the summer, something inspiring about the street kids who laugh and smile when they see my newly shaven head. Indians are much wittier than Americans, whose humor relies on a sarcasm that belies an essentially naive view of the world. I revel in snatches of overheard conversations: “He is a sportsman ... but only at night!” I like running red lights, driving like a prick and cursing at the other drivers for driving like pricks. I enjoy Delhi pastimes like drinking late night whiskey in a car parked outside Salim's and booking future drinks at happy hour prices just before deadline. I “white guy” my way into things — a variation on the old Delhi version of the “do you know who I am?” I earn in dollars and spend in rupees. I ask you: For a hack, what could be better?