Old Delhi Memories

By Raajeev Aggerwhil

I was born in India. I grew up in Old Delhi. It is different from New Delhi because it is old. Growing up, we didn't have Toys R Us. We had Cows R Us. Goats R Us. Stray Dogs R Us. Old Delhi is an ancient city like Venice with narrow streets and lots of people. We didn't have gondolas but we had cows. It is less romantic to propose on a cow which is why we have arranged marriages.

Old Delhi is also like Jerusalem with different religious groups living next to each other; not necessarily in harmony. We didn't have Macy's but we had our own H & M — Hindu and Muslim riots. It also served as our Netflix. It was entertaining binge watching them from the safety and comfort of our own home.

Our house overlooked a crowded bazaar with merchants selling fruits, vegetables, milk, yogurt, fast food and services like hair cutting, palm reading and ear cleaning on the streets. We would get our milk from the milk vendor. We would carry our own steel utensil and order 1 or 2 liters. There were no pre-package plastic containers. Let's say that we were environmentally responsible out of necessity.

As a kid growing up in a crowded environment, I never had to deal with loneliness or depression. I was not a latch-key kid – there was no latch. Actually, there was one but it was a dinky little thing with a lot of rust. When we went on vacation, there was always someone who stayed behind, either a helper or a distant relative.

Since we had so many people, we had no privacy, which offered an advantage. There were no serial killers. Serial killers thrive on privacy and without it they can't survive. There was also an advantage growing up in a not so -hygienic environment. No allergies. I think allergies are primarily 1st world problems. You clean everything around you to the point of insanity and your antibodies get bored. When my kids get bored, they start playing video games. When your antibodies get bored, to keep themselves amused, they start playing Pac-Man, attacking the good stuff, wheat, milk or nuts. Allergies are also God's way of telling you that you have too many food options. Growing up in a modest middle-class, our only choices were food or no food. You either say yes to yellow lentils with rice or you stay hungry.

I also remember on one occasion a wedding procession was going by. They were sprinkling rose water on the people, including the groom who was riding on a horse. I thought it would be fun to sprinkle some of my own rose water on the wedding party. It was dark in the balcony and through the space between the metal bars, I was able to aim and shoot.

As kids, we didn't know if we were rich or poor. We didn't have a refrigerator but we had a cook. We didn't have a dining table, but we had a butler. We didn't have a car, but we had a driver. Actually, it was all one person with the ability to multitask.

Growing up in a merchant family, frugality was in our blood. Actually, the main reason was that the labor was cheap and appliances were expensive. Even now when I visit India, at most houses, they have a dedicated person to open the gate but they don't have a garage door opener. Why invest in innovation or artificial intelligence, when you can get a real intelligence at a cheaper price?

My father belonged to a liberal sect of Hinduism where they would question myopic thinking and judged everything based on logic. He discouraged us from going to Hindu temples to worship statues believing instead that God is everywhere. It made sense because even if God were not ubiquitous, with 33 million Gods, one of them was likely to be close by.

We grew up less religious and more spiritual, mostly reciting Sanskrit mantras as a form of prayer. It was similar to TM – Transcendental Meditation. With that practice, I never felt the need for drugs or alcohol. As a child growing up in a merchant family, the message was very simple: You can save a bunch of money by switching to meditation.

At our high school, we celebrated the festival of Raksha Bandhan when sisters would tie Rakhi, an ornamented thread, onto the wrists of their brothers. The symbolic gesture of tying the thread around the wrist means this boy is going to protect this girl.

At our school, sometimes you would get paired up with somebody you didn't want to see as your sister. You wanted to see her as your sweetheart rather than your sister. Most guys were thinking, “I can't be paired with you. You are way too hot to be my sister."

Meanwhile the really hot girl is walking around thinking, “No guy wants to protect me. I am just a target." This was the one day when the “ugly girls" in the school were the most popular. All the guys wanted to be the ones to protect them from uncouth advances.

We couldn't date. All we could do was set up study nights because nothing turns a girl on like doing geometry problems. We would come up with corny messages like “Hey, when is your line going to intersect my line." The bolder kids would come up with more suggestive messages. “I want to figure the area of your conical shapes.

Can you guess the size of my hypotenuse? I want to get to the apex of your pyramids." You tell a girl she is “looking too obtuse" and the date is over.

I still have fond memories of Old Delhi. Whenever I visit the walled city, I enjoy walking through the narrow streets and the crowded bazaars with street vendors selling chaat. Sometimes I can't resist the temptation and try a little bit but it is always too risky for my kids.

I do have a solution for that. Next time, I'll bring some dust, or desh-ki-matti. Along with salt and pepper, there would be a third dispenser on our dining table, labeled, “Old Delhi Dust". It will help my kids build immunity for their next visit. And for me, it will feel like home.


Los Angeles-based comedian Raajeev Aggerwhil has starred in Nickelodeon's TV show 100 Things to Do Before High School and also acted in the film based on the television series. See his videos on YouTube.