Faces of India

The giggly, beatific smile on a bedraggled beggar girl on the steps of the Jama Masjid Mosque in Old Delhi. Three eager children bounding up to their cow for an impromptu snapshot in the backstreets of New Delhi. A red-eyed, dye-smudged wise man looking meaningfully into the distance in Udaipur.

They’re but a few of the images I snapped some years ago while traipsing about northern India, including Old and New Delhi, Agra, Jaipur and Udaipur. During the long days of corona cocooning, I recently flipped through travel albums and found a theme: wondrous, troubled India — and its magnificent people, so kind, polite, funny and alive. These are some I met:

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Beggar girl, Old Delhi
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Women just outside of Taj Mahal, Agra
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Tough girl, New Delhi
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Religious man, Udaipur
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Random woman near orphanage, Jaipur
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Woman, Old Delhi
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Woman peddling water, Jaipur
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Kids and cow, New Dehli

The cafe’s human carnival

It is on Saturdays in the teeming cafe that the grasping hodgepodge of humanity is on circusy show, performing a bustling if familiar boogie starring tip-tapping lap-toppers, laughing friends, wailing toddlers, softly groping couples and expert baristas, frenzied, always frenzied, deploying tentacles behind the long curving counter, confecting elaborate beverages for the restive masses. 

It’s not quite as crazed as it sounds — well, it kind of is — yet characters abound, vivid regulars I see several times a week. Like:

The frowzy old codger, pants up to here, who shuffles through the cafe, pacing to and fro, issuing random quack-quacks like a grizzled duck. Or The Wayward Whistler, who sort of bops in, sunglasses on, whistling blithely, lost in his own groovy cosmos, loud and vexing. He’s like the guy strutting with a boom-box on his shoulder, self-awareness at zero, tweetling away through lips like a Cherrio.

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And let’s get her out of the way: one of the most unfortunate stars of the show, a barista I’ll call C. (as in Crazy). She is the worst kind of “funny,” the aggressive kind. She inflicts her humor on you, weaponizes it. She uses her post behind the counter as both launchpad and stage.

C. is loud — screeching jetliner loud. And she weirdly believes that feistily abusing customers and colleagues is a hoot. “Every single last one of you, even my coworkers, gets on my nerves!” she booms in a strangled bray directly at a customer whose icy, confused half-smile makes you want to shrivel up and die. Hilarious!

Another time, C., a squat, stout woman, waddles up to the register and thunders: “DO I HAVE TO RING THEM UP? THEY DRIVE ME CRAZY!” She is pointing at two customers. She is smirking, this distaff Don Rickles. They don’t know what to do. Hysterics!

One day C., a dumpling of ear-shattering zingers, actually starts barking like a dog. “You all right?” a coworker quietly asks, eyebrow cocked, embarrassment flooding the room.

The cafe, much like C., is a frequent shambles, with boxes scattered across the floor, unkempt bathrooms, backed-up orders. That said, many of the baristas are pros: efficient, conscientious, polite and often doting.

Yet it’s the people-ly parade that’s most engaging, the variety of voices, the panoply of personalities that eddy through what is, at its best, an aromatic oasis from the familiarities of home.

It’s the nebbishy white guy with the foot-tall afro of such fluffy resplendence it could be a follicular monument. It’s the pretty, modish woman with the irresistible bangs and regrettable tattoos who consorts with a dubious bearded fellow in too-short skinny jeans.

It’s the gabby, globular ex-cop who wears black and yellow Steelers regalia — cap, jacket, shirt — everyday and clearly doesn’t know what an “inside voice” is. His guffaws are small earthquakes registered as far away as Idaho.

It’s the just-retired mailman who looks roughly 90 and has the ashen, cadaverous facade of a slain vampire, yet is endlessly friendly, despite the fangs. It’s the knots of teenage girls who come in giggling and gabbing, texting the entire time, mad multitaskers who have this smartphone shit down.

Amid all this, the chatty din, the roiling throngs, I read and write. Inconspicuous as I am, head buried in the computer, I’m not quite invisible. A few baristas know my name, including cackling C., who has unleashed her corrosive humor on me to no effect, except my urge to barf.

Yet I lay low, tucked in, watching the human carousel, that merry microcosm, by turns fascinating, alarming and heartening, spin on.