I Live in a Treehouse

2:49 AM Friday, October 29, 1999

I titled this, "I live in a treehouse" because it was way past his bedtime and Brian was setting up the digital camera to shoot the album covers of old Hindi movie soundtracks and we were listening to Rush and we knew the lyrics to all the songs and we both stripped down to our underwear first thing when we got home tonight and I looked up at Brian from my laptop and said "Brian, we live in a treehouse".

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Brian's renting this treehouse. We were comparing rent earlier and he let me know that his rent was around 300 bucks and that he'd paid about 46 thousand dollars down payment. (Well, his company paid the down payment, they also pay the rent. It's part of the deal here in India.) I guess that makes getting an apartment around here kinda tough. I think there's something like 8 million people waiting for apartments. There are ways to get moved up the waiting list however. Wonder what it's like to be on a waiting list where you're number 7 million. In case you're wondering, they make you pay approximately what the apartment is worth in down payment so if they can't kick you out, they just figure they sold it. The following hypothesis is probably bullshit: I get the feeling that they do that so that they can avoid ever having to appear "pushy" and evicting someone or, god forbid, face a confrontation. 46 thousand dollars. That's how polite people are here.

At about 10 tonight I told Brian that I wanted to go out. We got in his "Indica" car (the first car to be manufactured in India) and headed north to the neighborhood of Breach Candy, of which we are on the border. We went to a nice little Indian restaurant and had pretty good byriani and masala. I was telling BriBri about the dhobi ghats (ghats are a series of big steps) near there. I'd read in my guidebook that about 5000 dobi-wallahs work there. Apparently there's space for 5000 washer people to spread their washing and let it dry in the sun. They rent a little stall from the government. It's supposed to be quite a sight and we started driving over that way to catch a glimpse. Seemed like a nice night to randomly choose a direction and just drive and see what we saw. It was midnight but the streets were still thronged with men. We remembered that in Bangalore the streets would have been deserted at midnight. It seemed everyone was walking somewhere - like a movie had just got out. Oh, I know, they close the bars at midnight. Maybe that's it.

I'd also read that the slums were starting to creep in on the dhobi-wallahs washing area and we were soon encroaching on the slums. (I found out when we got home that we were near the Mahalaxmi train station.) We came to a big roundabout circle and Brian randomly chose one of the spokes of the wheel - a side street that was just wide enough to fit two tiny sub-compacts and a human laying on either side. Until now, I'd only imagined what the slums were like in the big cities in India. I went through them every day in Bangalore but Bombay is rather severe because it's a peninsula and I've already told you about the housing crisis. Delhi is huge also but it tends to sprawl outwards instead of piling up like Bombay does.

Incredible. Your average household situation is not so average. They build little shelters attached to a fence or building with walls of corrugated steel and clothes that stick out about the width of the sidewalk. They're about 5 feet wide and then there's another, and another, and another. Brian looks over at me and says, "These people pay rent. Slumlords run this whole mess." The shacks are so tiny I think most of the people have to sleep outside. With their feet at the curb, head sticking out into the street, they're lined up like sardines. These are the families. In most other places I've seen in town they're just single people. Lumps on the sidewalk. Most people are asleep or going to bed. We're driving through their bedroom. They're living on top of one another but everything seems so peaceful - the way it is when people are sleepy.

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Suddenly I realized that Brian and I were a couple of white guys with stuffed bellies in a brand new red car on a kind of "poverty safari" and I wanted to get out but the street was so damn long and just then I saw a little boy sleeping in the road with elephantitis or something horrific. It really startled me because his jaw was about the size of his chest. There is a lot of deformity here and you get used to limbs where they don't belong and even half-people but that one was just too much. If he lives he'll probably be sold to the beggar racket. We were coming to the end of the street. There's taxi's parked everywhere 2 or 3 deep in the road must be where the drivers live. I was kinda pissed that my taxi driver tried to weasel an extra 10 rupees out of me today. We both knew he was overcharging me but as I got out in a huff he reached out and gave me his hand. I shook it.