Get it Done in Delhi: The How-to guide for settling down in India’s capital city

Along with my fellow fellows, I too have had my fair share of adventures and frustrations,  heart-expanding and patience-trying moments. As a message to those who are planning on moving to a major Indian city sometime in the near future, let me introduce to your new home via some small tips. I affectionately call this:

Get it Done in Delhi

The How-to guide for settling down in India’s capital city*

Let us begin.


Time needed: 1-2 weeks

Situation: Your landlord gives you a copy of the key to your new flat. Actually, he gives you about 12 keys because there is one for the downstairs, two for the front doors, and then one each for each room, plus the drawers in each closet.  Great, except there are 3 of you and you each need your own key – at least for the 3 doors to get in the flat, but your landlord tells you this is your responsibility.

  1. Take the original key to the Chabi-wala (the person who makes keys – most likely this will be a “stand” on the side of the road with a couple of men and some rusty tools. This “stand” may or may not be here tomorrow, so better go when you see it).
  2. The Chabi-wala will look at your, then offer you two different kinds of metal. Choose the more expensive one.
  3. He will next bust out some saw-like tool items and he will begin to literally carve the metal so that it matches the shape of your original key
  4. Bargain and then pay him some money and take the key home.
  5. Test the key to see if it works. If you are lucky, the key will work. If not, no worries, you are in good company because about half the time the key won’t work.
  6. If your key doesn’t work. Well then simple as pie. Go back to your chabi-wala and have him fix it.
  7. Repeat as necessary. And if he isn’t there, just find another one and pay again and again and again until you have a key that works.
  8. Oh, and if you have an unusual type of key, well, so sorry about that. You have to go to another market. Yes, there’s a special market for your special key – even if it is far far away (see “how-to successfully arrive anywhere in delhi” below for details in getting there.
  9. And if you are doing this for about over week and have to coordinate your comings and goings from your house with 2 other people because you only have one key that works, well then, all the more reason to engage in group activities!


Time needed: 20 min – 3 hours (depending on how “successful” you are)

Situation: You are going to a new place you’ve never been. All you have is the name of a neighborhood.

  1. Get  an address  or a specific landmark and carry it with you, even if the address itself makes no sense to you.
  2. OPTION ONE: Take an auto.
  3. Stand somewhere prominent (like out in the road just enough so you don’t get hit), and wave your hand out and loudly say “Auto” every time one of those yellow and green auto rickshaws pass you.
  4. Tell them where you are going. Watch for signs of understanding or acknowledgement. A slight head bobble. A subtle hand gesture towards the seat. A simple drive away (this one essentially means, “no way will I take you to that place even if you pay me a bazillion dollars”).
  5. If it seems affirmative, DON’T get in. Decide on a price. If you know how much it should be, negotiate for that. If not, ask for the meter. If neither of those things work, see “how-to bargain for things as a foreigner to get what you want”.
  6. Cross your fingers that he knows where to go and sit back and relax. Get cozy with the dust and the very nearby cars.
  7. When he starts asking your questions about where to turn, say something, and hope he pulls over and asks someone.
  8. If you speak Hindi, well then you’re just the bees knees, and you can maybe have some sense of what is happening or where you are, but if your Hindi is limited to “tikke” and “bahut acca”, then just look confused and repeat the address over and over and over again.
  9. Chances are that if he’s asked someone at this point, they’ve either given him wrong directions or purposely vague directions, so you should probably ask  2 or 3 or 6 more people before going on.
  10. Follow whatever half-formed directions you have until to arrive directly in front of the place you are going  (note: if your driver stops before you get there and tells you that you are close, DON’T get out – you will then be repeating steps 7-9, only this time walking)
  11. If you still don’t get their, call the person/place you are trying to go (if you can) and put them on the phone with the auto driver to explain where to go.
  12. Marvel at your ability to arrive – even if you are hours late at this point because of traffic and getting lost.
  14. Find the stop closest to where you need to go. Take an auto there, and then when you arrive. Take another auto to where you need to go (see instructions above).
  15. Get your token, go through the ladies only security line, and ride in the women’s car (unless you are a man, then you’ll get kicked out if you try. If you are trans or otherwise genderqueer, I suggest opting for the ladies version of all of this – which even with the problems of gender binary will still be much more pleasant).
  16. Push your way out.
  18. Let me know if you figure out this one. My way is to just get on any bus and see where it takes me and then explore that neighborhood – not so good for getting where I need to actually go.


Time needed: however long it takes you to readjust your brain

Situation: You want people to know what day you are talking about

  1. Reconsider your US-centric habits and join the majority of the rest of the world that writes the day first, then the month, then year.
  2. That’s it.


Time: 1 – 10 seconds

Situation: You want to do a jumping jack in a park in India

1. Set photo in this post

2. Ummm . . then what? Not sure. Jump back with feet together?


  1. When you see something you like, or you want something specific, act like you don’t. Just be generally indifferent.
  2. Look shocked and appalled when you are quoted a price, and suggest something much lower.
  3. Smile and laugh and say whatever you can in Hindi and whatever you can in English and name your “best price”. (Note: if it’s not a price you are bargaining for, then just name/claim what you want eg. To get into the club, or to not have to wait in line)
  4. If none of this works, you have two options: Give up and walk away OR try one of the following lines/approaches (best when done in the language of the place and not in English):
    1. “I’m a guest in your country and you are going to treat me like this?”
    2. “If I was in the United States, I would never have to deal with this.”
    3. “President Clinton sent me here”
    4. “We are academics and we are writing about this and need to see it”
    5. Simple flaunt your US privilege (even better if you are from the US and white, and even better if you are a man) and demand what you need/want

Note: I am not advocating for using any of these approaches, especially not for those without a comprehensive understanding of US imperialism, the history and impact of colonialism on Indian culture, the economic structures and caste systems that drive this country, the internalized racism and desire for light skin.  However, I am appalled to say that these do indeed work, and I know this because I have seen it happen, and felt my stomach turn inside.

Note: For those of you who are interested in discussing this for real – please let’s do, because the complexities of it are many – ok, all the sudden my light-hearted and bantery post just got serious. . . moving on.


Time: 1 week – 1 month  plus ?

Situation: You want to cook food.

  1. Start by negotiating with your landlord to see if he (or she, though chances are your landlord is a he) will simply give you one.
  2. If he can’t get it, go on a wild goose hunt to try and get one. I’ve only heard stories of this, so I can’t report from experience but I’m pretty sure it involves passport photos and lots of documents and talking to multiple different people with multiple different ideas as to how to do it (but then again this just about sums up getting anything done here so it’s not surprising).
  3. If he can get it, pay a deposit or something to make sure you get it.
  4. Wait until he delivers it. Don’t ask too much because he might decide you are being too pushy and he is doing you a favor so you simply should be grateful even if you don’t get it for a long time
  5. Try and hook it up to your stove range (which he also should bring with the cylinder).
  6. Fail.
  7. Ask your landlord to do it for you.
  8. Wait.
  9. Once he hooks it up, turn it on. If it works, great! If not, just keep trying.
  10. If it still doesn’t work even though you’ve spent an hour cleaning it and messing with it, just try and cook anyway even though you only have one burner that works at about 25% and goes off randomly.
  11. Keep talking about how you have to take the stove to someone to fix it, but don’t actually take it because nobody can tell you where to go and you’re too busy with other things to keep asking, and your landlord is now out of the country.
  12. Eat peanut butter and bread for every meal.


Time: 1-2 weeks

Situation: You want to be able to drink water in your flat without purchasing (and wasting) bazillions of plastic bottles

  1. Try to find a decently priced used water filtration system through online ex-pat networks
  2. Go look at it.
  3. Buy it then and there if it your like it or else someone else will snatch it up in a second
  4. Wait until the person who is selling it find someone to unhook it from their kitchen (1 day to 1 week)
  5. Go pick it up, carry it home and get really excited about finally having water to drink
  6. Find out it doesn’t fit with your hook up.
  7. Read all the instructions twice. And have your flatmate sleep with the instructions under his pillow in hopes that it might work through osmosis.
  8. Buy a new connector tube thingy.
  9. Hook it up. Press the on button. Listen to the nice song. Turn on the faucet. Wait for  the red button to turn green, then  . . fill up your cup!
  10. Repeat when you want to drink water, and then panic when it doesn’t work next time, and the next  time and the next time.
  11. Go to sleep parched. Buy more wasteful plastic bottles.
  12. Scratch you head as to why there’s no water to drink for 4 days.
  13. Finally talk to your landlord and learn that in order for the drinking water to come out, your landlord has to turn on a special pump.
  14. Every time you want to drink water (or wash fruit or cook), simply walk down 4 flights of stairs, knock on your landlord’s door, hope they are home, ask them to turn on the water and then repeat when you are finished using the water.
  15. OR, just try the faucet every time you walk in the kitchen and if it’s working fill up as many containers as possible with water in case a hurricane comes – I mean in case you miss it the next time it’s on.

THE END (for this installation) Stay tuned for more “how-to’s” and remember: When in Rome . . .

Let me just say one thing. I am from New York. I don’t have a car there. Getting stuff done is frustrating, time consuming, and often humorous. In fact, I could probably write an equally ridiculous How-to guide for that city as well. But dear friends, I must confess, that getting things done here is on a whole other level in terms of the time, round-about ways of doing things, and clarity. In NY, it is a hassle, but everyone is in a rush to make it happen. Here, people somehow have all the time in the world to expand, extend, put off, and confuse. Yet the reality is, so what if I don’t have a stove for a month, or a key for 2 weeks? This makes for a lovely experiment in creativity and in finding wisdom in the mundane. It allows for lots of human interactions, cultivation of patience and flexibility, and offers an opportunity for putting into practice a Buddhist sense of  being present to each moment and to trusting each and every part of the process. And also, it makes me smile. All of it. Truly. This is actually the stuff I love about India. The messy bits of being human transposed onto the simple tasks of setting up a home. There’s no easy way, no clear path, you need lots of help, it doesn’t always turn out how you think it should, and the work is never quite finished.


True in the home that you reside in physically . . . .and the home you reside in spiritually. The metaphor is apt.

*Contents of this How-to Guide are based solely on my own experiences and by no means reflect the dominant experience of everyone who moves to Delhi.  Furthermore, I do not recommend actually following any of the advice given, as chances are it is much more fun to discover these things on your own. If you surrender to time and space, I guarantee you’ll enjoy the ride and find lots of laughter and smiles along the way (okay . . and maybe some tears as well – but tears as we know as good).


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4 thoughts on “Get it Done in Delhi: The How-to guide for settling down in India’s capital city

  1. Excellent, excellent post M. You truly capture our experience to a tee. Thank you for reminding me to take this experience with an open heart and mind; concepts we lose sight of when consumed in the frustrating particulars of our life here.

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