About maegan23

A freelance writer, Maegan came to India to work with Tara Books in 2010, and has been living between the UK and India ever since. Together with Bijal Vachharajani she runs the Instagram handle BAM! Books, which curates children’s book recommendations with a South Asian focus.

A Suitable Tailor

Last weekend, sitting on the floor of my living room, drinking tea and attempting to gain a little respite from the sun, my friend received an email:

‘A friend back in the UK is planning a low-budget wedding, and needs to get a wedding dress made. She’s asking my advice on whether to get it made up here. What do you think?’

A good question. Getting clothes tailored has been a re-occurring theme during my two year stay in India. The concept of affordable, personalized tailoring as an everyday service – completely unheard of back in the UK – has always appealed to me. So why was my gut reaction to the email to think ‘don’t do it!?’

My quest to find ‘the perfect tailor’ has been something of a holy grail. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in those early days in Noida, I reveled in the whole experience: trekking off to the fabric shops, browsing through colours, patterns and designs with friends while sipping on chai, choosing a neck design from a well-thumbed brochure and finally being measured. What’s not to enjoy?

When a week later the day came to pick up my clothes (a full kurta churidar set) I could barely contain my excitement. Nor was I disappointed when I reached the shop – it was ready! Only when I arrived back home with my friend did the realisation set in. While her suit fit like a glove, mine was near ridiculous: the top half sagging off my shoulders and wide around my chest, but tight around my hips, and the churidar barely able to be squeezed over my feet.

‘Maybe the tailor got confused’ my friend helpfully pointed out, ‘you do have quite thick calves … and your hips are wide in comparison to the rest of your body …’

Hmmm, not exactly music to my ears, but perhaps true. Three repeat visits back for alterations and I had a kurta that was perhaps passable. Strike one.

Eager to try again, a friend suggested that I had a much better chance if I found a shop-bought item that I liked, and then had it copied. Fab India kurta in hand, I optimistically returned. This time the results were admittedly better – this time it was uniformly large, as if made two dress sizes too big. ‘It will shrink in the wash, madam’. Yes, but sadly not that much …

Then came a bit of a lull – I got busy with my Hindi course, and moved across town to south Delhi. But for Diwali and my trip to Lucknow I decided to try my luck with my new local tailor, with similarly disastrous results (extra sad considering the lovely polka dotted silk I had purchased for the purpose). With a heavy heart, I decided that perhaps tailoring and me were not meant to be. What are we on now- strike three?

Only when I received three (lovely) sets of fabric as a Christmas gift did I get myself back into the game. This time I wasn’t taking any chances. A trip was made to INA market, and I purchased a few metres of cheap fabric for experimental purposes. With this in hand I made my way to the swankiest tailor that I could see in Green Park Market.

With high expectations (I’m an eternal optimist) I returned after the prescribed four days, only to find it wasn’t ready. I went back again after a week and then again a few days after that, and on both occasions was greeted with closed shutters. These posh places don’t have a lot of holidays. Between shop closures, my trip to Chenani and the three alterations needed to make the kurta fit the entire process took around six weeks. Thwarted again.

By this point I really had given up (I’m an optimist, but I’m not stupid – maybe I really am just a bizarre shape that no tailor can contend with). Perhaps unwisely though, when buying some leggings in a cloth shop in Green Park Market a few weeks later, I couldn’t stop myself asking the million dollar question: ‘I don’t suppose you know a good tailor?’
At this, the shopkeepers eyes lit up, and he clicked his fingers, beckoning his young son towards him:

‘Madam – I have one. You won’t find it going alone. Follow my son.’

Completely wrapped up in the intrigue of the situation, I duly followed the small boy, negotiated my way through the residential streets behind the market, and came to an unmarked door, where I was unceremoniously deposited.

Feeling slightly giddy by this time, I rang the doorbell, and was greeted by a friendly looking auntie type, who ushered me inside. Slightly skeptical of the fact that it just looked like someone’s living room, but reassured by the experienced-looking tailor she introduced me to, I nevertheless decided to try my luck, and left one of my suits to be made up.

What beautifully tailored suits, madam ...

Result! Can you believe it? Three days later I picked up a beautifully stitched kurta set which (wait for it …) actually bore a perfect resemblance to the shape of my body. Since then I’ve had Auntie-ji’s tailor make three suits, all of which have been great, and she’s even taken on the task of altering my previous disasters. When on occasions something isn’t made quite right the first time, the changing area (read: family bathroom near the living room) means that it’s easy to show the problem, and adjust things there and then, without multiple trips home. I haven’t tried any western clothes yet, but that might just be the next experiment.

So, in answer to my friend of a friends question … maybe you can get your wedding dress made in India. But you might have to wait for a few years before you find the right fit …

Cheap Eats in South Delhi?

Last month when a friend visited me in Delhi, we had a rather delectable brunch at Elma’s in Hauz Khaz Village. Freshly baked bread in different hues, a German-style handmade sausage roll, and olive oil and sun-dried tomatoes for dipping purposes. All washed down with Darjeeling tea (served in china cups and saucers, naturally) and carrot and cheesecake cake. The bill was Rs.1200.

Tea & Cake at Elma's - yes that is cheesecake!

While permissible as an occasional indulgence, forking out at this level just isn’t possible on a student budget. Luckily for me, my daily expeditions to North Delhi for college take me into the realm of Rs.30 thalis and Rs.5 cups of chai. But what happens when you want to eat local? Six months after moving into Safdarjung Enclave, here is my round-up:

Tiffin in the Village

If you find yourself in Hauz Khaz Village on a sunny day, then you can have the most delicious aloo gobi without breaking the bank (in fact, even if you order it with curd and roti, you’ll still have change from a Rs.50 note). This tiffin-wallah extraordinaire(who also sometimes has rajma, rice & aloo matter) is located just behind the newsagents on the left hand side of the main drag, just before you reach the entrance to the small park/historic monuments. Taking your lunch into said park means that you can enjoy not just delicious food, but also a lakeside view. What more could you want.

Aloo gobi in the village

Bengal Sweet Corner

In the same complex as Kamal Cinema in Safdardung Enclave, and rightly famed for its delicious sweet dishes, The Bengal Sweet Corner also does a rather wonderful thali. Rs 100 for delicious dahl makhani, a paneer dish, raita, tandorri naan, rice & sabzjie, it never fails to sate me. And for just another twenty rupees they’ll deliver it beautifully packaged to your door, with the added bonus of a desert dish (often gulab jamum – yum).

Madras Café

Whenever I find myself in Green Park Market, I always nip into the Madras Café for my fix of South Indian food. Whether you want a cup of chai (served so that you have the added challenge of pouring it back and forth from the metal cup to the metal bowl without scalding yourself) a dosa or a full blown thali, it’s the place to go. The thalis are particularly noteworthy for coming with poori rather than roti, which always goes down well with me. You need to get your oil fix somehow, nah?

Madras Cafe chai, served the south Indian way

Baker’s Byte

Sometimes only pizza will do. On such occasions in the past, I have relented and called Dominoes or Pizza Hut Home Delivery, forked out a large sum of money, and invariably been disappointed by the fact that the pizza claiming to feed two actually barely satisfies one. That was until discovering Baker’s Byte! A small chain of bakeries (with my local being a stone’s throw away in Arjun Nagar), it does very passable large pizzas for between Rs.100 and 150, in a range of (vegetarian) flavours.  Their personal pizzas (the same size as dominoes medium) come in at Rs.55, and they also have a great selection of toasties, pasta, and of course cake. Fast-food fix sorted.

Happy (cheap!) eating.

The Streets are Paved With …

Those of you living in Delhi will I am sure empathise with me when I say that it’s become very hard to get out of bed these days. No, not because I’m lazy (or not any more than usual) but because inside my bed, under two double duvets and a wool blanket, is the only place I’ve been able to achieve anything resembling warmth.

The thought of stepping out of this mini haven onto the icy cold marble floors or worse still into the bathroom is all just a bit much. Anything that can be done from bed is fine – eating, drinking tea, chatting on the phone, working on my laptop … all possible. Getting dressed and going outside? Not happening.

The Arts Faculty bathed in the winter sunlight

It’s a good job that I’ve got more than Hindi class to tempt me towards North Delhi on a daily basis, or  I’d have a serious problem sitting the exam come March. Luckily, the streets around Delhi University’s north campus are paved with – if not gold – the best array of street stalls you could wish for.

First stop – momos (choose from chicken, vegetable or paneer) from the Nepalese family near the metro station. Lunch? Tick. Need a notebook? A brightly coloured pen? Or a plastic folder with Sponge Bob Square Pants on the front? The stationery wallah has it sorted. Then for the ten minute walk down Chaatra Marg towards the arts faculty. The incentive? A steaming hot cup of chai from our favourite Uncle-ji, delivered with a smile, all for the bargain price of Rs.5.

Chai!

This chai has to provide sustenance through the first two hours of Hindi class. There is just about enough caffeine and sugar to last through revision of the present continuous tense and a lesson on when to use ‘apna’ before it’s back to the same hut for another cup and a freshly-fried samosa. For the last hour of class it’s the sheer amount of oil that you have consumed that’ll see you through.

The scrum at our favourite jewellery stall

Post-college, a reward is required. This comes in the form of the jewellery-wallah, perfectly positioned between the faculty building and the metro station. Even better, his stall is a bit up-market. Rather than his wares being laid out on a sheet on the floor, he has a giant tray attached to the back of his bicycle, making it all the more browse-able. Genius. You want glass bangles, a novelty bear or a Minnie Mouse mobile phone case? He’s got it covered. Even better are the beautiful wooden carved earrings in all colours – just like the ones in Fab India, but for a fraction of the price.

Finally, it’s back on the metro, but not before picking up an aloo tikki. I maintain that nothing can make you feel as good as fried potato inside lightly fried bread.

Aloo Tikki, fried with love

A good routine, no? The only problem being those days when it all goes to pot. Like yesterday: chai accidentally made without sugar, aloo tikkis finished before we reached the stall, and the jewellery wallah on holiday. It better get warm soon, because if things carry on being this unpredictable I’m going to need another reason to get out of bed and go to University …

Cooking up a Storm

From time to time living in India I find myself faced with the question: “Can you cook?”

No, I didn’t make this …

Well, that really depends on what, exactly, you are asking. Following tried and tested recipes from my Dad I can turn out some (if I do say so myself) fairly yummy puddings: treacle sponge, chocolate brownies, fruit crumbles and the like. And while not exactly gourmet cuisine, my shepherd’s pie is pretty passable.

“But”, as my boyfriend’s sister probed me, “can you cook actual food – you know: rotis? Sabji? dahl?”

Hmmmm, perhaps not.

How many cheesecake girls does it take to make a roti? All three!

Part of the problem is my inability to recreate home dishes on Indian soil. With ovens few and far between in Indian kitchens (most of the cooking is done on the stove top) whipping up a pie or a cake just isn’t going to happen. When a familiar dish can be created on a gas ring – treacle sponge (which is steamed) or spaghetti bolognese, it’s often ingredients which throw a spanner in the works. Golden syrup is not on the shelves of any of my local shops, and for pretty obvious reasons I haven’t even attempted trying to find minced beef in the markets near my house. All of this, perhaps, reinforces the belief that foreigners are not very domesticated. “In your place everything is pre-prepared, isn’t it, beta?” a not entirely mis-informed auntie recently clucked.

Well, action has now been taken, and on two fronts: learning some Indian staple dishes, and brining a little bit of the west east. While learning how straight-forward it is to prepare rotis has been a revelation and I have discovered a love of shelling peas, I’m perhaps more excited my recent acquisition of an OVEN! (disclaimer: an oven in the loosest sense of the word as it is about the same size as a standard toaster, and doesn’t have a temperature dial)

One batch of crumble emerges from the tiny oven

Acquired from a charity shop back in the UK for the bargain price of ten pounds, it made it’s debut this weekend as a group of us joined together for a Saturday cooking party. With matter paneer courtesy of my friend Sangeeta, and an apple crumble & biscuits courtesy of said oven it was a truly multi-cultural feast. Just a shame that it took three batches of crumble through the teeny-tiny oven in order to feed five people …

Thanks to Susanna for the lovely photos from Saturday, more of which can be found on flickr.

Curd, Lemon Juice, and Mustard Oil

However much I’d like to think that I completely fit in, there are several things that single me out as a foreigner. Granted, I’ve been blessed with a strong constitution when it comes to street food and tap water (God, please don’t strike me down with food poisoning for that comment!) but India – I have found – will catch up with you in other ways.

Have you ever witnessed a conversation between two ex-pats who’ve been here for more than about six months? The cliché would be that we’d reminisce about things we miss from home (turkey dinners, snowy winters, pub lunches etc) but the reality is somewhat different. Within five minutes the conversation will have turned to ailments – yes ailments:

“Oh my God, you have a weird skin rash under your armpits too? Apparently it’s the humidity”

“Don’t feel too bad – it could be worse -I have a friend here who literally cannot eat food outside anywhere without being sick for three days afterwards.”

“Ah! My hair is falling out in lumps too! What’s the deal with that?!”

You get the picture? My latest ailment has been my scalp, of all things. Having been through the wars with psoriasis supposedly triggered by Chennai’s humidity, I thought that I might be more suited to a dry, temperate Delhi winter. Conversely, it turns out that this is not the case – apparently my scalp responds to dryness by giving up the ghost, falling off & becoming incredibly itchy. Not good. Clearly I can’t cope with either extreme.

Fear not though – help is at hand! Almost everyone I’ve spoken to has had a simple (yet bizarre) solution to offer. My boyfriend remembered his mother massaging mustard oil into his sister’s scalp at this time of year – had I tried that? Friends from college poo poo-ed the mustard oil idea (too difficult to get out, apparently) but swore by the application of fresh curd.  Feeling very confused by these pieces of conflicting advice, I turned to (who else) Udita, who rubbished all of the above suggestions, but thought that lemon juice could help, and be a lot less messy.

I’m personally up for trying all three (perhaps not at the same time) and will report back on their relative merits. I’d rather that than carry on popping anti-histamines like smarties, which is clearly not a sustainable solution.  It’s funny – adapting mentally to a new culture and way of living can seem in the abstract like the most difficult thing to achieve, but it seems in many cases that it’s the body lagging behind the mind. Ah well, hopefully with the help of curd, mustard oil and a dash of lemon juice I can persuade my fragile gori physique to step up to the mark. I can hope, anyway.

(Photo courtesy of Michael Foley Photography, via flickr)

A Room of One’s Own

I’ve always been a bit of a nester. I was one of those people who arrived in my college room, and had to sting up fairy lights, make home-made cushion covers and arrange my books by size and genre before I could feel truly at home.

The last few months in Delhi, therefore, have been a bit of a trial. Who knew that finding a room would be so difficult? The plan was to live in a girls’ hostel (abundant as they are in Delhi) while looking for something more permanent – preferably a room in a shared house. Having been moved on from my first hostel when the landlady’s (absent) husband decided that he didn’t much like the idea of a foreigner living in his house, I found another, and the real hunt began in earnest.

A series of rooms found in north Delhi near to the University were vetoed by friends more streetwise than me – “not safe for foreign women to live alone in that part of Delhi.” Plans to live with Udita were sadly brought to a halt when we were not able to find a mutually convenient location, so that she could get to work in Greater Noida, and I could commute to North Campus. Susanna? Super keen, but tied into a six month contract she couldn’t escape from without losing her deposit.

Both however took turns to accompany me on a search around the city which ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. The room in Vasant Kunj? Great, except the living room didn’t have a roof. Hauz Khaz? Lovely, but the landlady lived on the floor below, and wanted to impose curfews and ban guests. The one near GK? Wonderful on paper, but would have involved living with two Indian boys who gawped at me as if they had never seen a girl before, and (judging by the house) seemed not to have been introduced to the concept of cleaning. And the hundreds of rooms that came up in Defence Colony? Too, too lovely, but viable only if you have a spare Rs30,000/month floating around.

Meanwhile, the hostel situation started to take its toll. People at home assumed that it was the privacy – “how can you share a room with two other girls?” that would be the issue. Funnily enough, that was never really a problem. My room partners were laid-back, friendly, and we developed that easy type of female companionship that you can only really get when living in such close quarters. Priyanka would ask me to paint her nails, Mridu would help me with my Hindi homework, we’d moan about the food together.

No, what got me – I guess – was the lack of autonomy. The inability to deal with situations – to think for yourself and solve problems. When it became clear that one washing line for thirty girls just didn’t work, stringing up a new line caused political discussions the like of which I’d never experienced. When we found ants in our mattresses, putting them out in the sun engendered the sort of telling off I’d not encountered since childhood, as Aunty explained how I was defacing her house. When mice and cockroaches became a problem, we couldn’t authorize pest control to come ourselves, but had to hand the issue over to another’s judgment. My habit of working at the upstairs dining table rather than on my bed (our ground floor room had terrible internet signal) was vetoed, and I developed the expensive habit of spending my mornings in Coffee Day with my laptop. Something had to give.

Luckily, it did. A room in a shared flat, on the edge of (but not in) a pretty salubrious area came up. The perfect mixture of privacy and company, home-comforts and affordability. I share a bathroom, kitchen and living room but can retreat  to my own room at any time. If I fancy splashing out on Costa I can walk to a swanky market within twenty minutes, but within a five minute radius of my house I have a reasonable vegetable wallah, a small tailor, and a selection of street food.

So here I am, sat on a chair (no less!) at a desk. To my left sits a set of fully categorized books, and to my right the best closet I have ever had the good fortune to call my own. Yesterday, and after only limited chasing, the Holy Grail arrived. A hot water geyser! Yes, after three months in Delhi, I had my first hot shower. And not even from a bucket – an actual showerhead. What can I say? Utter bliss. All that remains now for the house to be truly christened is for cheesecake to be consumed here. Susanna? Udita? Come on over!

Dancing in the Street

Isn’t it funny that it’s often the best laid plans that come to nothing, while spontaneous excursions are unexpectedly wonderful? A bit like how meticulously coordinated nights out can be a bit of a flop, but if you drag your weary bones out to a nightclub at the insistence of your friends when all you really feel like doing is slouching around at home in your jim jams, it’ll all too often turn out to be a mind-blowingly awesome night.

Anyway, I digress. What I’m trying to say is that last Thursday was one of those days. I was in Mumbai for the week, making the most of my mid-semester break from college. Since arriving, I’d caught tantalizing glimpses of people practicing Dandiya dancing in the street as part of the Navrati festival that was going on. I was determined to catch a proper performance, and a friend of a friend promised passes to see what was billed as a spectacular demonstration at a swanky location – it was going on nightly for the entire duration of the festival, and she was entitled to apply for tickets via her office, so we had a good chance of getting hold of them on at least one night.

A whirl of colour - dandiya dancing in the street

The days – as they have a nasty habit of doing – swept by in a flurry of shopping, sightseeing and water park-type adventures (perhaps more on that later!) until it dawned on me that we only had one night left before Navrati – and therefore the Dandiya dancing – finished. Phone calls were made to said friend, who promised that tonight would be the night. She’d confirm by seven and the performance would begin at nine. Planning accordingly, we grabbed an early dinner, put on our best India finery and waited for the call. Seven o’ clock came and went. Then seven thirty. By eight fifteen when the call finally came, I was getting decidedly restless. It wasn’t good news – she hadn’t been able to get tickets.

What to do? Tucked away in the north of the city and at the peak hour for Mumbai’s notoriously heavy traffic I guessed that we didn’t have time to get anywhere. And anyway, where would we go? Not knowing the city, we didn’t have a clue where to start in finding an alternative performance. Finally, a decision was reached. Forget the time – we’d take the train to Victoria Terminus on the other side of Mumbai, and then wander around the Gateway of India/Taj Hotel area. However late it was, they couldn’t close that.

A ride on a beautifully adorned (tinsel and everything!) suburban train later, we passed through the gothic splendor of Victoria Terminus, took one of the ubiquitous black and yellow cabs and found ourselves outside the Taj Hotel. Having spent a touristy hour ‘clicking pics’, admiring the horse-drawn carriages and generally enjoying the laid-back atmosphere, pangs of hunger began to strike. Simultaneously, we remembered hearing anecdotes about Mumbai’s best eatery – Bademiya –  being a Mughal street stall behind the Taj hotel. We’d heard that people paying thousands of rupees to stay in one of India’s finest hotels would slip out the back entrance to enjoy seekh kababs and mutton rolls. Mumbai’s elite would roll up in their Mercedes, procure food and then slip back into the air-conditioned comfort of their vehicles. Perfect.

Ten minutes later we’d ordered a ridiculous quantity of food and bagged one of the plastic tables lining the pavement. No sooner had we taken our seats than a band arrived, and people carrying the traditional Dandiya sticks thronged into the cordoned off area of the adjoining road. A local dandiya celebration was starting and we were, quite literally, inadvertently in the front row. The music started, and hundreds of people – from toddlers to elderly aunties – began to dance, beating the sticks against those of their partners, before moving along in a circle and beginning the routine with the next person. Mesmerized, we drank it all in, while one-handedly devouring mutton kebabs, butter chicken and fresh romali rotis. What can I say? Couldn’t have been better if we’d planned it …