Thursday, October 16, 2008

Durga Puja

Monday October 6

Monday at work I try to blow through as much of chapter nine as I possibly can while still maintaining the quality of my edits. Because I fly out on Friday instead of Saturday, I won’t have that day to work, and Thursday is Dusshera, a holiday, and Tuesday is the day the people from London are filming the video of me. This leaves just Monday and Wednesday as full work days this week. I get a fair amount of work done before five o’clock when I leave with Jonaki and Shinjini to attend a Durga Puja celebration in CR Park.

Shinjini rides in a separate hired cab and Jonaki rides with me in Palminder’s cab. The second cab will take Jonaki and Shinjini home when we’re done so Palminder doesn’t have to drive way out of his way.

Jonaki suggested we go to a smaller celebration that Anindo from work invited us to, but Shinjini is set on this one where we hear the crowds can be choking and the queues can be labyrinthine. Jonaki hopes we don’t blow up or get hijacked or have hijinx. Our track record of going out together includes both landslides and bombings. But when we get to the street where the festival is set up, there are no throngs. There are people around, but certainly not long lines for anything. This festival is several days long. We may have missed the crowds by coming the day before the apex of the event.

Soma told me if I didn’t sample the street food tonight, “It would be a culinary sin.” Shinjini leads us straight up to a pushka vendor. Pushka sounds Polish, I tell Jonaki. She agrees. It is decidedly not a Polish food, though. It is a little crusty puff, which the vendor makes a hole in with his finger, then ladles in a spicy, soupy mixture of vegetables. You have to pop the whole thing into your mouth at once, else the soup will get everywhere.

“I’ve never gotten sick from this,” Shinjini tells me, but she has an Indian belly. Mine’s still American. The questionable part is the watery mixture. I don’t think the water’s been boiled, and I don’t think it’s bottled water. They keep it cold by floating a big piece of ice in it. Is that ice made with Aquafina? I don’t think so. No matter. Before I know it, pushkas are being handed to me one at a time in little foil bowls. The vendor passes them out methodically, one to each person gathered around the stand, and we pop them into our mouths, trying to avoid dribbling. I swallow thinking, “I hope there are no parasites. I hope there are no parasites.” We eat three or four each and Shinjini asks if I want more. Nope. That’s enough. She pays the man and we walk on toward the main celebration.

There is a railing made of bamboo that leads into a large tent-like structure that was built for this three-day celebration. We walk through the lane made by the bamboo, obviously meant to contain a long line of people, but now almost empty, then get to the security check at the entrance to the tent. Our bags are searched and we are combed over with metal detecting wands, then we can enter.

Inside there are big screen television sets, a car showroom, a booth selling a sports beverage called Horliks, elaborate chandeliers and, the main attraction, a one-story tall glittering idol of the Goddess Durga and her family. Durga is depicted at the moment she is defeating the evil Ravana, a glowering green guy who is emerging from a bull. Ravana had the power to shape shift, so was almost undefeatable, but Durga killed him as he was in the middle of changing into his human form. As the myth has it, Rama invoked Durga to help him defeat Ravana because Ravana had a wish granted to him that he could not be beaten by any man.

Durga Puja is a Bengali festival. Jonaki and Shinjini are both Bengali, so the celebration reminds them of home. Delhi being a mishmash of Indians from everywhere, you can find Durga Puja pandals being set up all over the place. There’s a large tent and a glittering, many-armed icon in the park by the Ahuja Residency, and many more scattered about the city.

We sit before the pandal waiting for the ceremony to happen. People mill about and find seats behind us. A pair of reporters approaches us and starts asking about the celebration. When do the pujas take place? What is the story behind the pandal? When they leave, Jonaki remarks about how little they knew. Where have they been? Why don’t they have a clue? They were as clueless as me, I offer, laughing. It is only after Shinjini loudly agrees that we realize the journalists are setting up their camera directly behind us. We sit on our hands in momentary embarrassed silence.

The ceremony begins. There is an insistent drum beat and offerings are made to Durga, held up before her then displayed for onlookers. There is food then flowers then fire. Officiators bring pots of fire to the crowd and they stick their hands in it, just as they did at the Iskcon Temple. The drumming goes on and on and soon Jonaki asks if I’ve seen enough. There’s still more to do. We can walk through the carnival area and we still need to eat, then there’s a whole other pandal in B Block that we can look at.

We meet up with a former Pearson employee who now works at Sage Publications and wander through a lane full of food vendors and carnival games and little kiddie carnival rides. Kids shoot bb guns at a wall full of balloons. More kids ride a tiny ferris wheel. There are vendors selling toys, decorations, graphic novels of Hindu myths and other baubles. The streets are lined with endless strings of colored lights. This is much more festive than church bingo, I offer. This is a full-on street party.

The B Block pandal is an elaborate golden wall of gods and goddesses with four-foot Ganesh statues lining the sides of the enclosure. There are the same chandeliers and ceiling fans set up inside this huge building that is erected mostly out of bamboo and fabric solely for this three-day festival. At this enclosure there is also a sound stage with live singers.

At the next food booth I eat momos: little dumplings with cabbage and other vegetables inside. The dumpling dough is thin and delicate and the dipping sauce is sufficiently spicy to clear my sinuses.

By the time we finish eating, it’s almost nine thirty, which is bad because Jonaki told Palminder we’d be done by eight o’clock. I get a little antsy, as does she, yet we still need to stop at a sweet shop on our way back to the cars. The evening wouldn’t be complete without it.

At nine forty, we leave the sweet shop and walk to the cabs, but the party we leave behind looks like it’s just getting started. The band plays on, the lights glow, the vendors hawk, the people munch on street food.

Just when I thought my time here would get boring, with nothing to look forward to but coming home, I am treated to this kaleidoscope of sights and sounds and tastes. I just hope my stomach is sturdy enough to handle those pushkas.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

My Last Sunday

Sunday October 5

The phone rings at five a.m. It’s Mister Kandhari waking me up for our Sunday morning gurdwara visit. I throw on some clothes and walk over to his garden. I’ve beat him getting ready today. He’s still putting on his socks. I haven’t worn socks since I got to India. This is probably why I’m ready before he is.

He calls to his house helper to get the tea ready. It is sweet and milky, and we eat it with biscotti. Mister Singh joins us and partakes of the tea and biscuits, and then we’re off. Today we don’t pick up Poonam. I ask where she is and Mister Kandhari says she didn’t call this week.

My last visit to Bangla Sahib is very routine. Mister Kandhari pops out of the car and heads off to the langar, and I follow Mister Singh to the shoe check. On the way into the temple he introduces me to a friend who is serving a soupy, spicy lentil dish out of an enormous pot in the area in front of the parking garage that is under construction. I don’t quite understand what this extra food is for, but the man is clearly taking pride in dishing it out. He hands me a small bowl made from dried leaves and a chapatti and ladles in the hot stuff. This thing with eating spicy food so early in the morning is something I’ve not quite gotten used to. It is jarring. It’s not even six o’clock and my mouth is on fire and my stomach is saying, “Does not compute.”

We walk inside the temple and sit down to listen to the Japjee being sung. I’m not as tired today as I was last week; I can stay conscious when I close my eyes. So I close my eyes and breathe and think about what Mister Singh said about wishes. I wish, because what can it hurt? I wish Mister Singh’s wife would get better and not feel miserable. I wish Baloo’s leg would heal okay. He’s the dog with one ear who is friends with Acha and Baby. I saw him limping the other day, poor guy. These are my two wishes today. I wish them over and over, and in between I just listen to the singing.

Soon enough it’s time to go downstairs and start serving. I sling out loaf after loaf of bread. The woman passing out too many slices isn’t here this week, so I don’t get in trouble by proxy. I pass out sensible helpings to the people sitting on the grass mats.

When my arm starts to shake from holding the basket, I know it ‘s almost time to go. I follow Mister Singh back to the shoe check and we meet Mister Kandhari back at the car. They would like to take me to Lodhi Garden today. Every Sunday there’s a members breakfast. I can meet the other members and have something more to eat. As long as we get back by eight thirty, I say. I have a scheduled Skype call with Scott, and then I’m planning on going to church. It’s my last Sunday here, so I’ll have to say goodbye to everyone there. They say no problem. We’ll be back even earlier than that.

It’s just about seven thirty when we pull up to the brick wall that runs the perimeter of Lodhi Garden. Mister Kandhari parks the car and Mister Singh walks off briskly. Is he hurrying because of me? Mister Kandhari trails behind.

We walk over a bridge and into a large rose garden where people are spread out on blankets, their heads touching the ground between their thighs. This is a yoga class, Mister Singh tells me. They come here every morning. If I were staying, I could also come. He interrupts the instructor and tells him that I am here visiting from America and I have been doing yoga since the age of five. Mister Singh has misunderstood something I told him earlier this morning, that I’d been in dance classes since I was five and I’ve done a lot of stretching because of it. Now he’s announcing that I’m some kind of yogi to this classful of ardent yogiites. The instructor steps off his mat and motions for me to lead the class. I tell him I couldn’t. I’m wearing jeans. He insists. I am mortified. I sit on the blanket and do a stretch. The whole class follows. I do a second stretch. The class mirrors my motion. I’m teaching a yoga class in India. After two stretches, I stand up and bow. “Namaste!” I fold my hands and say hastily. They clap for me as I step back off the instructor’s mat.

Next, Mister Singh leads me through the roses past a short rock wall to an area where a ring of banquet tables are set up. “Members, members!” he announces. “This is my friend from America! Vicki!” I feel like slinking back to the yoga class and leading more stretches. A man with a curly mustache comes up to me to say hello. Mister Singh tells him how I just led the yoga class.

“Do you know what yoga is?” the mustachioed man asks. I think it’s a rhetorical question, but he waits for an answer from me.

“Um, exercise and concentration,” I venture.

“NOO!” he exclaims. “Yoga is ancient practice from the Vedas. It is the way to unite your body and your mind. What does your mind do?” He wants another answer.

“It wanders?”

“YES!” he exclaims again. “But yoga makes your mind controlled. You overcome. You find peace. You master your mind. And THAT is yoga,” he tells me and bows, hands folded.

Mister Kandhari wants me to eat. He shoves a plate in my hand and scoops some potatoes in a watery sauce into one of the little sections. Then some peas. Then a chapatti. More spicy vegetables before eight in the morning. I dutifully eat my helpings of these foods, then he asks me if I want more. “What do you want? You want sweets?” I tell him I wouldn’t mind some rice pudding since it looks like they have some and he leads me around a loping tree to the other side of the table where they are serving kheer from a giant foil tray.

I eat my pudding and get introduced to dozens of people, one after another extending welcoming greetings. “We do this every Sunday,” Mister Singh tells me.

Soon enough, it’s time to go. I follow Misters Singh and Kundari back to the car and they drop me off at the Ahuja Residency in plenty of time for my Skype call to Scott. He prefers with the bombings that I avoid the auto-rickshaws, but people are expecting me at church and there haven’t been any attacks this weekend. Chances are I’ll be safe.

Chances are much higher I’ll be safer if I just stay home. My mother would like it if I hid under the desk until it’s time to go. It’s safe down there—except for the occasional beetle who can wonder by and leave you a case of necrosis. Safety is not something you take for granted here, but the risk of something happening is also something you can’t let paralyze you. It’s a balance.

I set out towards the market to catch an auto-rickshaw to church, but halfway there a car pulls over. It’s Ursula, the pastor’s wife, with her two little red-headed children in the backseat. “Are you going to church?” she asks with her British accent. “Do you need a ride?”

I certainly do. No risky auto-rickshaw for me today. Ursula is a godsend.

Church goes by quickly and there is much milling about afterwards. Ruth, the woman with eight children, invites me over to her place for tacos while one of her children stands with her head resting on Ruth’s thigh, eyes glazed over. The kids have all been very sick this week. High fevers. Ruth will understand if I don’t want to come over and risk getting sick. I say it’s okay, but later change my mind. I don’t want my last week in India to be spent in bed with the kind of body-wrecking fever I had a month ago. Besides, Mister Kandhari asked me if I want to go back to the orphanage with him today and I told him yes. I catch an auto home and the ride is, thankfully, uneventful.

Back at home, there is nothing much to do. I watch some tv, read some books on Sikhism and generally laze around, procrastinating on my blogging which has become a little tiresome by this time.

I walk to the market and order a dahi vada at Sagar, then walk home, stopping to pet Acha and Baby and Baloo, whose leg seems a little better. Maybe that wishing at the Bangla Sahib worked some magic.

Mister Kandhari never calls, but I talk to Jonaki and Skype with Scott. I’m still trying to get used to the discovery I made yesterday: that I’ll be leaving on Friday night instead of Saturday night. Because my flight departs at midnight I had the days mixed up until I looked at the ticket and figured out that leaving at midnight on October 11th means I need to get to the airport at eight o’clock on October 10th. I won’t have my final Saturday in Delhi as I planned. This day, Sunday, is my last weekend day in Delhi. I am marking lasts: my last visit to Bangla Sahib, my last service at Delhi Bible Fellowship.

The day is over before I know it. Tomorrow will be my last Monday in Delhi.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Way Home

There are just three more hours before I leave the Ahuja Residency for the airport here in Delhi. I have taken copious notes this week in my journal but not had the time to do my daily write-ups. The week has been filled with festivities, busy times at work and sad goodbyes with the thoughtful, intelligent, witty, considerate, soulful and otherwise wonderful people I have been lucky enough to meet while I've been here.

I just got done giving Mira her tip and cried even then.

Even Palminder told me he is "very, very sad" that I'm leaving. Fancy that.

So anyway, I will chronicle my last week in India, but it's a task I'll undertake when I'm back in the United States. The week has been too full to write each night.

To everyone I've met here in India, best wishes and thank you for making me feel so comfortable and so accepted while I've been here.

To my friends and family in the United States, I can't wait to see you all again. Thank you for cheering me on from across the world. I felt your support with me every step of the way.

Check back next week for more entries. I promise to draw this thing to a proper conclusion--or maybe just keep it going. Who knows?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

A Smile Face

Saturday October 4

I was going to be in Jaipur today. I was going to go to Neemrana. All these plans fell through. So I am just spending the day in Delhi, getting some last minute shopping done and relaxing.

I take my copy of Main Hoon Na back to Mercury Audio Video in Khan Market. It doesn’t say anywhere on the package that there are English subtitles. I wonder if I can exchange this copy for one with subtitles. The man at the store tells me he thinks this copy has them. When I question this, he opens the package and tries it out on a mini-DVD player for me. There are the subtitles I’m looking for. Excellent. Flaming auto-rickshaw car chase, here I come!

While I’m there, I wonder if they have the CD of a song I’ve heard on the radio and liked. I sing it for them and they puzzle a bit, then a young guy thinks he knows what I’m singing. He opens the CD and plays it for me to make sure. He’s got it. It’s the song. I thank them and roam around the market a little more, picking up some thank you cards and a package of key chains.

Back in the parking lot, I tell Palminder to take me to the Lotus Temple. There’s a big traffic jam and when we finally get there, the free parking lot is closed. There are busses parked all along the street and there’s a market that’s popped up from out of nowhere: stall after stall of Prasad and burgundy and gold fabric. This is for the upcoming Hindu holiday of Dusshera. I snap a few pictures of the stands and thank the men for letting me photograph them. “Thank YOU,” they say, clearly happy to be my models.

The walk to the temple is crowded, almost shoulder-to-shoulder with people, and it’s hot; like, sweat-rolling-down-my-face hot. By the time I reach the doors, I’m in no condition to meditate, I think. But then I walk inside. The same feeling is there: a palpable and inescapable sensation of complete well-being. I sit down on one of the marble benches and fold my legs. The temple is crowded. Lots of children fail to understand that they shouldn’t make noise inside. A little boy behind me keeps whispering to his mother, who keeps whispering back to him instead of quieting him down. A woman with a Lotus Temple badge around her neck walks by and motions for them to be quiet.

I close my eyes. What should I ask today? What is God? Or did I answer that question for myself the other day? I don’t feel like I did—at least not conclusively. I don’t feel like I know God. I ask the question here but get no answer. I feel rather alone in the big echoing chamber with the high ceiling. Am I? Am I alone here? Is it just me? Or is there something, someone with me making me feel this peace again? I don’t feel anything separate from myself, external to myself. Maybe God is in me. “What is God?” I ask again, but no answer comes, or no answer comes in the brief amount of time I give myself to focus on the question between being annoyed at the crowd and the heat and wondering about other things. The book by Swami Vivekananda that Vivek, the CEO, lent to me said that God is so huge that humans can’t contemplate or understand “him,” so it’s necessary to give him or it human forms. It is only in the human form that we can love God. That’s why we have Jesus and Krishna and the gurus in Sikhism. This seems to me ultimately true. If God is this formless, infinite abstraction, what do we do with it? Still, if God is human, it creates all kinds of problems. We judge him on human standards, expecting him to be just and kind and fair and on and on in ways that specifically make us happy. Then we just get mad at him when it doesn’t seem to work that way. Or, I do.

I get up and walk around the perimeter of the chamber, reading the brass quotes that are so familiar.

“Should prosperity befall thee, rejoice not, and should abasement come upon thee, grieve not. For both shall pass away and be no more.”

“Wert thou to speed through the immensity of space and traverse the expanse of heaven; yet thou wouldst find no rest save in submission to our command and humbleness before our face.”

These words were revelations for me a few months ago.

I round the space and get to the exit but I can’t say goodbye to the Lotus Temple just yet. I stand on the stairs and regard the place, and as I do I feel such a strong lack of any tension or worry in every atom of my body that my fingers start to tingle. I can feel the same vibration spreading up my arms. What is this? Why is it that this place does this to me? How can I carry this with me into my life? I sit back down and close my eyes again to study the feeling. A few moments pass and a line of about seven Indian people with large red folders forms at the front of the temple behind the spray of flowers and clear plexi-glass lectern. It must be three o’clock. It must be time for the Baha’i service. I’ve missed it every time I’ve come, but this time, only because the tingling sensation literally stopped me in my tracks, I’ve stayed long enough to see it.

It begins with a hymn sung in a language I don’t understand. The first man finishes his song, then closes his folder and steps away. Then the next man steps up to the lectern. He also sings in clear tones, the words echoing back and forth inside the dome. He also closes his folder and steps away. Next, a woman steps up and announces, “A Buddhist Prayer.” I get a sense of what is happening only now. This service is seven different prayers from seven different world religions. The Buddhist prayer is in English. The woman says that to give up desire is to conquer all sorrows. So if I give up wanting to posses the people I love, I will no longer be sad when I’m not in their presence. If I give up the desire for perfect health, it won’t be so traumatic when something goes wrong. It will just be a fact, something that happened. The woman continues.

“It is only the fool who thinks to find true happiness through wealth or material pleasures. All these things are temporary and fleeting.” I think of Mister Singh and his ailing wife and the problem of a wish-granting God.

“If you ask for something foolish,” Mister Singh said, “then He won’t grant it.” This is a different definition of foolish than I’m used to. Maybe this finally makes sense. Maybe the Lotus Temple has given me the answer I was looking for even if I didn’t form the question myself this time. Maybe God does grant non-foolish wishes, but those are trickier to make than they seem. Is asking for cessation of someone else’s pain a foolish wish? Or is physical discomfort not the true cause of sorrow at all? Is it only the mind that makes a situation wonderful or terrible? Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so. Here I am again with the lesson of emptiness in this big, empty temple where I was just feeling the expanse of the dome over me and so much nothing. That was what I was supposed to feel here today: emptiness. This is what I need to remember. This is what the Lotus Temple is gifting me with today; this is, perhaps, its parting message to me.

The woman closes her folder and makes way for another woman who announces, “The Lord’s Prayer.”

“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,” she says. I try to listen to the prayer like it’s the first time I’ve heard it. I try to find it as fascinating as the Buddhist prayer, but it is so trodden. It is so rote. I’ve said it so many times without thinking about it, it’s a struggle to hear it anew, even here in the Lotus Temple, in Delhi, in India where day is night and on is off and everything is different. This prayer is still the same.

The service ends with a Baha’i song. A woman sings that nothing can hurt her because she is armed with the name of the Lord. She closes her folder and walks away. All the people with folders have spoken. There is no ritual or ceremony or sending off. The service is as simple as seven read prayers. I stand up and walk toward the door. I hope I get to visit the Lotus Temple again before I leave. I plan to return during the day on Saturday before my flight leaves at midnight.

I return home and spend a little time reading and relaxing. Mister Kandhari says we’ll go out to eat tonight. He picks me up at eight and we first drive around for a bit. “You like my style?” he asks me. “This is how I like to enjoy the city,” he says.

He grabs a bag of snacks from the backseat and something to drink for each of us and he tells me about a meeting he attended in the morning. He’s very excited. Defence Colony has raised fifty crore to turn the nala that runs behind it into a large park. There were lots of dignitaries at the meeting and Mister Kandhari, the “green man of Defence Colony” was invited to help with the landscaping. The project will take a year and a half to complete. He tells me I can see it when I come back. I will come back, won’t I? Do I promise? I will keep in touch, right? I will remember him, yes?

Yes, of course. Yes.

He drives to a park by the Habitat Centre and parks the car. We’re going to eat some paneer tikka. The wala from the tiny slanted shack comes to the car window and takes our order. We’re eating drive-in style tonight. A few minutes later there is a plate of chutney and fresh chapattis and paneer. Mister Kandhari hardly eats any of it. “For you,” he tells me.

He looks out his windshield at the park in front of us and cocks his head. “Vicki, life is whatever you make out of it. You understand me?” he says. I wonder where this thought came from. “This time can be a heaven or it can be a hell. It all depends on what you do, who you spend time with, if you spend time with nice person, good person. You see?”

I see. I think of the desperate Skype conversation I just had with my husband wherein I told him this last week in India was going to seem like it would take forever because all I can think about is coming home. There are no more exciting plans, nothing else to look forward to. It’s going to be hell. But it doesn’t have to be. That’s my choice to make. It can be heaven. Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so. Mister Kandhari reminds me, as the Lotus Temple did today, of emptiness.

I finish the last cube of paneer and Mister Kandhari throws the plate out the door. “Come, I buy you sweets. You like kulfi?” He puts the car into reverse and backs out onto the street.

“I love kulfi!” It’s like ice cream with fruit in it and sometimes it’s served with little vermicelli noodles. “That’s very kind of you. Thank you,” I tell him.

“You have kulfi before? Where?”

“At Mister Singh’s house, one day after dinner.”

“Oh my goodness, oh my goodness,” he says. “You see, you do things so people remember you well. You leave the people with a smile face,” he tells me. “I like to leave the people with a smile face.”

We pull to the side of the street in front of the Defence Colony market. There is a wala set up to the side of Moets. He’s there just to sell kulfi. He dishes up a serving of the ice cream, puts the noodles and some syrup on the plate and hands it over to me. Doesn’t Mister Kandhari want any? He takes one small bite with the spare spoon but tells me the rest is for me.

A good Sikh doesn’t eat much, doesn’t talk much, gets up early in the morning to recite the name of God, and leaves the people with a smile face.

A few minutes later, we are in front of the Ahuja Residency. He’ll see me in the morning, yes? I’ll come with tomorrow to the gurdwara? Of course, as long as I get my wake up call.

“I’ll call you, yes. I’ll call you,” he says and touches my head. What can I do but smile?

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Elephants in Traffic

Friday October 3

At work I finish chapter eight and take on chapter nine which seems less dense, less labyrinthine and less opaque. Work is hopeful.

I take a walk at lunchtime and notice a monkey on the wall by the tea stand. Since I’m all by myself and this monkey seems contented as he rips apart seed pods, I linger and watch him eat. It’s mesmerizing the way he uses his little fingers to split and peel the pods to get to the seeds. In just about a week my lunchtime walks will no longer hold the promise of monkey-watching. I figure I’d better take advantage while I can.

On my way back to the office, I notice two more monkeys shaking the tree above where the first monkey was eating. Three small children are pointing and laughing. There’s another monkey inside a building that’s under construction. I watch him inside the frame of the building, then a dog pops up from out of nowhere and barks at the monkey who is completely unaffected. As I walk down the street, there are more monkeys. Two of them peep into a large jug of water that someone’s left out in the road. Another one grabs the exhaust of a parked motorcycle. Another one hugs a large earthen pot. Two more shake a tree just out of reach of a barking dog. There is a veritable gang of monkeys in the industrial estate today. My lunchtime walk has turned into a safari. Suddenly the monkey that was on the second floor of the hollow building is in the tree right in front of me. It only took one lightning fast jump to get him there. I get a sense that a monkey attack doesn’t happen in slow motion and that it might not be so safe to be standing around gawking at the hoard. Reluctantly, I walk back to work, back to chapter nine.

After work, Jonaki and Shabnum and Soma are going shopping for their maids. They want to buy them saris for the upcoming holidays. Would I like to go with? It’s quite nearby. Of course. I never turn down a chance to shop, plus I told my coworker that I would buy her a sari if I got the opportunity. This may be it.

Shabnum rides with me and we meet up with Soma and Jonaki in the hot night air of the Madhu Vihar market. The first sari shop is too expensive. We try a second one where they are selling for as little as a hundred and thirty five rupees: that’s six yards of fabric for about three dollars. The sari I select for my coworker is not quite that cheap, but it’s still a steal. We part ways with our bargains in hand.

I walk back to Palminder’s car and climb in. He has found a food stand, thank goodness, so he won’t be pouty and hungry now that I’ve kept him an extra half hour. We pull away but are stopped a few hundred yards from our parking spot by two enormous, lumbering elephants festooned with shiny fabrics and tassels. Yes, traffic is stopped by elephants. This would never happen at home, I think to myself. The elephants slowly cross the road and the traffic picks up again, but we have to circle around. It seems that the elephants were the beginning on some parade. There are men with portable chandeliers and men with drums. There are marching bands and floats full of flowers and lights and people dressed up like Brahman the god with three heads and Hanuman the monkey god. Palminder tries to get out of the market before the parade heads us off, but traffic comes to a complete halt in front of us. We’ll just have to stay and watch the parade. There’s no choice. I laugh at the absurdity of it and apologize to Palminder. It looks like I’ll be keeping him tonight for a little longer than I planned.

Palminder and I get out of the car. Luckily, I have my camera with me. You never know when you’ll get stopped by elephants and a parade of lights, so it’s best to always be prepared.

“It’s so beautiful,” Palminder says as a giant pink head with a fairy coming out of it's mouth rolls towards us. The giant pink head and flaming lips and pointy ears look a little dastardly to me, but I suppose this is a cultural thing.

“Sikh people,” Palminder says when a marching band of men in turbans comes past. He actually seems to be enjoying himself. It’s nice to see.

The parade ends and we climb back into the car. He drives us through twisting streets full of shops. This is not the usual route home. I get to see a new part of Delhi tonight. It resembles Amritsar a bit, with the shops right up to the sides of the street. I miss Amritsar. There is a tear in my eye. This place is so vexing. There is garbage in the streets and so much poverty and at the same time it is so mind-bendingly rich in color and culture and faith and joyous celebration. America will seem so boring, I think. I realize tonight that I will miss India.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Accepting the Questioner

Thursday October 2

Today is Gandhi’s birthday, so the office is closed, but because I’m on the U.S. payroll system, I can’t enter it as a holiday. So I either have to take a vacation day or work from home. Since I’ve pretty much done the Delhi tourist scene, I opt to have a quiet day working from home. I told Palminder to pick me up at noon. I figure I can run to Khan market over the lunch hour and try to exchange this movie I bought for one with English subtitles.

The morning passes quickly as I clunk away at chapter eight. At noon, I walk down to the car. Palminder tells me that the markets are closed. So instead of exchanging my movie, I tell him to take me to Lodhi Garden. I figure I should see it before I go, and I’m not sure when I’ll get the chance to go otherwise. Saturday I was planning on doing something with the people from work, and Sunday is the gurdwara and church.

The garden is very close to where I’m staying. We pull up in front of it in about ten minutes. Palminder tells me the car will be in the small lot full of ice cream vendors just outside the gate. I try to find some distinguishing landmarks around this gate so I don’t get lost. I figure there are ice cream vendors everywhere. I’ll just have to remember my path as I walk through the park.

Inside I see a little tubular animal that looks kind of like a ferret but isn’t. Jonaki later tells me this was a mongoose. “There are lots of snakes in there, so you don’t want to sit around too much.” I’m glad to discover this only in retrospect.

The park is large and has nice, paved walking paths that aren’t broken up or filled with obstructions. The main path circles around two large buildings with giant onion domes. These are Mughal tombs. I don’t know why I wasn’t expecting as much, but I am surprised. I thought I’d see a few plants and a few trees. Instead, there are picturesque ruins from the 1400s and 1500s to climb around in. Couples sit by the side of a lagoon, snuggling and mopping sweat from their faces with scarves and clothes. A group of men in white lungi sit cross-legged on several blankets spread out in front of the largest tomb. A little brown dog with wispy ears trots up to me expectantly. I pet it and it follows me around to the third building, another tomb enclosed by a fortress wall. It’s in the high nineties if not a hundred degrees. I am soaked with sweat. I retrace my steps past the couples and families with children back to the gate where I came in. Navigating the park wasn’t so difficult after all. Palminder is waiting in the cool car. I consider buying us both ice cream, but we pull away too quickly for this idea to take full shape. I’m not sure about the ice cream from the street vendors anyway.

I have Palminder drop me off in the market where I grab a quick bite at Sagar. Since it’s so crowded, I’m seated at a table with a woman from London. It’s her first week in Delhi, she tells me. She’s been in Mumbai for several months, though. She’s a consultant. This is as specific as she can get about what she does. She asks what I do. I tell her I’m working on textbooks. She says she’s fascinated with the language here, how it’s changed from British English and become a new thing altogether. I tell her it’s interesting editing because there’s no one style, especially when doing adaptations. If it’s an American book, we use American spellings. If it’s a British book, we use British spellings. And then there’s the house style. It’s like there’s a whole new set of rules for every circumstance. It’s so Indian, I reflect. Nothing is cut and dried; everything is relative. Jonaki even told me there are two versions of the holiday that’s coming up next week, Dussehra. Some people celebrate the victory of Rama over Ravana; others say it was the goddess Durga who defeated the evil ruler of Lanka.

Back at home I hack away at chapter eight until about five o’clock when the phone rings. It’s the guard. He speaks but all I can understand is “eighty two.” This is enough. Mister Singh has called on me.

I walk next door and see that Mister Singh and Mister Kandhari are sitting together. Mister Kandhari rises and shakes my hand when he sees me. “How are you? I lost your number. I was going to call yesterday and I lost your number.”

Mister Singh tells me to have a seat. “We didn’t know if you’d be home since there is a holiday, but I thought we would go ahead and try.” He tells me his wife had to go to the hospital yesterday. Her stomach was bloated and hurting her so much she couldn’t eat anything. They had to do surgery on her because she was retaining so much water. And they may need to do another surgery if she doesn’t recover as expected. I tell him I’m very sorry. I hope she heals soon. He is accepting of the situation. He tells me about it in a matter-of-fact tone without much ado, then we move on to other topics.

Mister Kandhari wants to know if I want to go back to the orphanage. He’s going on Sunday. He’s thinking of giving money and he wants to take a tour. So we’ll go. Okay? He’ll tell his friend. We will go. Yes, he says, answering his own question.

Mister Singh says he knows this couple who tried to have a child. For twenty years, they tried. And the man had a brain injury as well. They came to visit Bangla Sahib and prayed that the man would be able to keep his job and that they would have a child. And do you know that the military gave him a desk job? They let him keep working. And one year later he called and said his wife was pregnant, after twenty years. Can you imagine? If you wish for something, Mister Singh says, God will grant it. He thinks for a moment. Unless, of course, you ask for something foolish like you want to be the king of all the world. Then God won’t grant that, you see.

I think of Mister Singh’s ailing wife. She’s been on dialysis for years now. How can he say God grants wishes when it’s so clearly not the case? If God grants wishes, why do people die? Why are they suffering? Why is their poverty? Have we just not wished hard enough? Or are wishes to end these things foolish?

I know what Mister Singh would say. He would say that his wife is suffering because of karma. He explained this to me before. Her illness is the result of something she did in a past life. There is no escaping karma, so wishing it away, I guess, is foolish. And God doesn’t humor fools. People in India are able to live with all kinds of suffering because they believe it’s their karma and they have to accept it. But this concept doesn’t seem to reconcile with a God who grants wishes. What about the man with the brain injury? Why did he get his wish? Why wasn’t his problem chalked up to bad karma? How is it that only some bad things that happen are the result of bad karma? Are others just bad luck? And wishing to God takes care of those?

I don’t want to argue with Mister Singh, but I don’t think God is a genie in a bottle. I can’t believe in an omnipotent God who lets people suffer when he has the power to stop it, when he has the power to grant wishes. So if I don’t believe in that, what do I believe?

“Of course there are some people who don’t believe in God,” Mister Singh says. Am I that transparent at this moment? “But then who is controlling everything? Hmm? Who is making the sun to come up and the moon? Who is changing the seasons?”

Nature? No one? I nod for Mister Singh, but his question lingers. My question lingers. What do I believe?

I believe in the voice I heard at the Lotus Temple; in a force that grants wisdom when it is sought. But that can’t be all that God is, if he is, because that God would only be a God of humans. And God, if it exists, is definitely not all about humanity. God is in the trees and the clouds and the ocean and the stray dogs who won’t eat my biscuits but allow me to pat their heads. Maybe God is selflessness, but that is too human a concept too. As is love. God is love. It’s all too human and God isn’t that. God is an omnipresent energy. God is life.

Though I don’t see the point in wishing, Mister Singh is hopeful on my behalf. “Who knows?” he says. “Maybe you will go to Bangla Sahib and come back to India in a year with a child.” How can I say I haven’t quite made up my mind about that either?

I had wanted at the end of my three months to hit the buzzer and lock in my final answers to these issues, to answer the million dollar questions, but I can see now that it isn’t going to be like that. The stage lights aren’t going to flash around me and it’s not going to rain money as Regis Philbin congratulates me and sends me off into my neat, new life.

And really, that’s good. I don’t want an answer locked in. That would mean I stopped changing; which would mean I stopped growing. My time in India hasn’t been about finding the right answers. There are no right answers in India, or there are a million and one different right answers that all contradict each other and have six arms and no street signs and faulty wiring. So forget the answers; my time here has been about accepting where I am as the one who asks questions. And I think I’ve accomplished something there.

Mister Singh’s house helper brings cold water, then tea and a large jar of biscotti. “I order these biscuits and people eat them like anything!” Mister Singh says cheerfully, offering me a second one. Then there are pakoras, India’s tempura, basically, fried, breaded vegetables. I eat some cauliflower and Mister Singh puts more on my plate. Then more.

Mister Kandhari drops his keys on the ground. They make a jangling noise and he cocks his head, suddenly looking at me as though this has reminded him of something. “Vicki,” he says, “What has most affected you in India?”

Oh my gosh, I think. How can I begin? I think immediately of the Taj Mahal and then I think of the beggars on the streets. “Everything,” I say. It’s such a lame answer, and I wish I had a better one. I want to ask him, “Can you give me a day or two to come up with a blog entry on that, Mister Kandhari?” But the conversation has already left the subject behind. Mister Singh’s granddaughter and her husband have just arrived, and his daughter-in-law is offering me some puffy-looking lotus seeds. “Zero calories,” she says.

“Come, let’s go,” Mister Kandhari says to me, rising. He wants me to go with him to sit in his garden. We walk to his place, the little black dog finding me and mauling me with affection on the way. He jumps at my ankles and wraps his legs around them to get me to stop walking. I almost fall over. I try to explain to Mister Kandhari that I’ve been feeding this dog biscuits and now he really likes me, but I’m not sure how much of this he picks up.

We sit for a while in the garden. Mister Kandhari asks when I’m going back. Soon. He asks what my work is like in the United States. I comment on his new plants. They’re very nice. This is his weakness, he says. He sees plants and he must buy them. I ask him if he worked today or if he took a holiday. He says he took a holiday but it was boring. He got some plants for the gurdwara this morning, then he came back at about one o’clock and slept. It was boring. There was nothing to do. Then his friend called him and they decided to see if I was around.

The conversation hits a lull. There’s nothing much else we can talk about right now. Mister Kandhari gets up and goes inside. He comes out with a bottle of water and two glasses that he gives to me. “Here, take these. Come, we will go for a drive. I am bored.”

We get into his car and he pulls away. “Here, you can put the glasses,” he takes out the drink holder and shoves the glasses into it, then produces a bottle of vodka from, was that in his pants? I wonder if this is legal in India or illegal. Mister Kandhari seems to think it’s okay. I pour a little in my glass, and he would like three drops in his. He is pretty literal about this. I pour in about three drops when he tells me to stop and fill up the rest of his glass with water.

“How do you like?” he asks me. “I enjoy. Everybody like to enjoy life in a different style. I like to drive and listen to music.” It is a pretty nice night outside, and I do like the music.

“It’s nice,” I say. Then I tell him it’s my dad’s birthday today. Just now I realize that my dad and Gandhi share the date.

“Oh, then I will drive you home soon so you can call him,” Mister Kandhari says, and he does. “I think I am one of your best friends in India,” he tells me after a while. “You will remember me when you go back?”

“I will absolutely remember you,” I tell him as we pull up in front of my guesthouse and he shakes my hand.

Practicing Non-Attachment

Wednesday, October 1

There has been another Hindu stampede, the morning paper says. This time there was a rumor of a bomb when thousands of people were cued up at this temple outside Jodhpur, the town in Rajasthan my coworker invited me to visit with her. I declined because I didn’t want to do another overnight train journey, and that was how she was planning on getting there.

It’s festival time in India and temples everywhere are attracting huge crowds. After the rumor at the temple in Jodhpur, men started running and caused a panic. About a hundred and sixty people died.

The paper has tallies of all the people that have died in temple stampedes versus bombings this year. The stampede deaths outnumber the bombing fatalities. The paper says it happens because there’s not good crowd control at these temples. No one is there to regulate the line. And then after it happens, there’s no good emergency response. People just cart the victims off by themselves, carrying them by their arms and legs, rubbing their abdomens to try to revive them. At least these are the scenes I see on the news.

At work, I slog through chapter eight. It’s taking so long and making so little sense to me. I feel like I’m in eighth grade math again with the teacher who can’t explain any of the concepts I so desperately need help in understanding.

We take a walk at lunchtime and run into a family of monkeys. I’d like to stay and gaze at them but everyone scrambles. It’s not good to hang out with monkeys. They can scrape you or bite you and nobody wants a monkey scratch. Talk about infection.

A lot of holidays are coming up, Jonaki tells me. There’s Durga Puja and Dusshera, then Diwali. The city will be lit up. People will be exploding firecrackers. October is the most festive time in India.

I leave work a little early because I need to get some final souvenirs for people and I’m not really keen with all the recent bomb attacks on visiting the markets now on the weekend. Shabnum says it’s a good idea to go on a weeknight. I figure Wednesday will do. Palminder drives me to Janpath. He is cheery when I tell him I’ll be back at the car in just about an hour and a half.

I run into the Cottage Industries government emporium where I saw the reasonably-priced elephant carvings when I was shopping with Shabnum. I buy up a whole bunch, figuring they’ll make a nice gift for anyone deserving of an India souvenir. I find a couple of OM keychains while I’m at it. At the register while I am waiting for the gifts to be packed, a British woman asks what I’m going to do with all the elephants. I tell her they’re souvenirs. She says I was buying so many she figured I was selling them or something. Exports are a huge business here, just not my business.

I finish with plenty of time and so walk across the street to the little stall shops. There’s a whole strip of Tibetan stores I didn’t stop at when I was here with Shabnum. I get a few bracelets and almost buy a Buddha statue. Then I think to myself, “What do I want with another Buddha statue?” I’m so non-attached, I think, I don’t want anything else from these shops. I don’t need anything else from India. I’m done with shopping. I couldn’t buy one more thing. Then I cross the street to where the clothes shops are.

With the backpack that Amar gave me, I figure I have room in my luggage for a few more things. I find a blouse with silver threads and elephants for a hundred rupees and a skirt full of sequence for two hundred rupees. I get a shirt with a big blue Krishna on it and another sleeveless blouse with flowers on it. The man drives a hard bargain on the last blouse, only coming down about forty rupees in price. It’s the holiday season now, he tells me. Everyone will be shopping. He doesn’t need to make deals to sell things. I’m glad I did most of my shopping earlier. Things were cheaper during the monsoon. The blouse costs me two hundred and fifty rupees, but I like it a lot, and that’s still only about five dollars.

This is a good practice of non-attachment to my money, I think. I had to do something with all those rupees that were sitting in my wallet. It would be a shame to just have to change them back into American money.

At home, I cart my new souvenirs upstairs and assess my luggage space. I may have enough room without even using the backpack from Amar. I think I’ll be fine. Though I haven’t really tried packing yet. I’ll save that fun for later. If I packed now, I’d just have to dig through everything to find what I needed.

I walk to Sagar for dinner where I’ve been going almost every day. On the way I’m stopped by a flash of light and a big bang in one of the building’s courtyards. It happens almost as I’m crossing right in front of it. For a moment I think I’ve survived a bomb attack. I wait for people to yell and scream. Then I realize it was just some firecrackers. In a city of bomb attacks, there has to be a better way of celebrating that that, I think. I don’t want to hear explosions. I’m kind of glad I’m leaving before Diwali. I think it would be rather unnerving.

On the way home, the little black dog finds me. He trots behind me all the way to the guesthouse then follows me upstairs. There’s no guard to stop him, and I certainly don’t. I let him into my room and give him a cereal bar. He munches it up and stands there, scratching. This was a bad idea, I think. I need to let him back outside before he dirties up the place. But how to get him out? The guard wasn’t at the gate when we came in, maybe he’s still not there.

We walk down the first flight of stairs and the dog sees Mira on the phone. He runs right up to her, wagging his tail, looking for food. She gasps. I grab him by the collar and drag him down to the courtyard. His ears flop and he follows me outside. This was a bad idea, I repeat to myself. I open the gate and usher him out as the guard, standing outside, gives me a puzzled look. I don’t pause for explanation but instead turn and run back up to my room. Street dogs don’t make good house guests. If I could only be as non-attached to their brown puppy eyes as I am to my rupees, I’d be in better shape.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

What Won't Kill You

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Since my experience here is nearing an end, Scott asked me yesterday if I feel like I’ve changed. It’s hard to say. It’s not like I’ve grown extra limbs or have anything clear to point to you that I can say is different. Well, I guess I have that curvy scar on the back of my knee from the necrosis, and my bangs are still rather unattractive. But I don’t think that’s what he was asking.

“You don’t feel like you know a new culture? Like you’ve learned something about how other people live? Like the next time you run into an Indian person you’ll have a better basis on which to talk to him or her?” Scott asks. “I always feel like travel makes me grow.”

I’ve been thinking about what I’ve learned and one thing that came to me was a sort of list. I’ve always tended to be a nervous sort of person, the one who worries about everything that could go wrong. I think I’ve learned while I’ve been here that a lot of things can go wrong and you’ll still come out okay in the end. To that end, here is a discovery I’ve made during my tenure in India: worrying about any of the following items doesn’t help one lick. So you may as well not worry.

Things that won’t kill you:
A strange skeleton key
A few ants marching around your bed
The Internet going out
A power cut
The cable going out
The toilet not flushing
A little case of necrosis
A driver who loves you
Your undergarments flapping in the breeze, hanging outside to dry
24 hours on a bus
Slinging over a river rapids on a rickety cable car
Getting your writing rejected
The Internet going out
Running late due to rain
Running late due to traffic
Running late due to someone else running late
A lack of street signs
A lack of street names
Strange beeps when you’re trying to make a phone call
The Internet going out
A power cut
Not having a cell phone for four days
Not talking to your spouse for four days
A lack of department stores
A lack of grocery stores
Dirty feet
Bad traffic
A tragically bad haircut
Time going too slowly
Time going too quickly
The Internet going out
A power cut
A mess of flies landing on the snack you’re about to buy
Some garbage on the street
A busted up sidewalk
Spicy food
Bumpy roads
Witnessing public urination
Smelling public urination
Dirty looks
Getting up at 5 a.m.
The Internet going out
A power cut
Not having plans until the night before you leave for a trip
A sketchy evening on an overnight train
A terrible dinner on an overnight train
The Bubonic flu
Tea at a drain party
Petting a stray dog
Bargaining with an auto wala
100 degree heat
Sweating until your clothes are wet
A driver who dislikes you
Paying more because you’re foreign
Worms in your cauliflower
Not speaking the language
Not seeing your spouse for three months
Not seeing your pets for three months
Not seeing your parents for three months
Not shopping at Wal-Mart
Not watching CNN
Not eating peanut butter
The Internet going out
A power cut

Instant coffee, though, that’ll do you in. Stay away from the stuff.

Bookslides and Cracker Theft


Monday at work there is the afterglow of the book sale. Everybody has a story. Shinjini is the winner with four cartons of books. “You lose your sense of reason,” she says, starry-eyed. Jonaki recalls seeing her pop up from a pile of books in a daze. “I could only see the top of her head and her eyeballs and she was saying, ‘Is Angsuman here? I found his book…’” Daniel was seen sprawling out on another pile of books with his arms out as though he were on a pleasure cruise. Jonaki had a rougher time of it. She got hit in the head by a flying hard back someone in a pile was throwing to someone on solid ground. And someone also stepped on her foot when they were climbing. “I wore my track pants,” she says, not just jeans. It seems like she should have worn a construction helmet and steel-toed shoes as well. Shinjini had a close scrape too. A book pile collapsed around her so she was buried up to her hips. She couldn’t move her legs for a while there. Someone had to come dig her out.

The author of the finance book has finally responded to our query about the passages that are duplicated on the Internet. He is pleasant but somewhat evasive. He tells us that if the passages are similar to what is available on the Internet that we should feel free to re-write them ourselves. He tells us also, perplexingly, that we should “make the sentences more comprehensive.” I have no idea what he means, but Amar thinks he’s telling us, basically, that if we don’t like it, we should revise it. Authors have tried this before, he says. There was one man who requested that two editors be sent to his home in a neighboring state so they could visit with him for several days and then rewrite the book for him. Some authors, it seems, want more than editing to happen to their manuscripts, which is strange. I would think the opposite would be true: that authors wouldn’t want people to change their work at all. I know I would be a little touchy about having people rewrite my material for me.

Amar tells Shabnum she has to call the author and clarify with him that he can’t use more than fifty words without getting permission and he has to go through all the chapters and make sure this isn’t happening elsewhere. I don’t envy her that phone call.

At lunch Amar and I talk about the new bomb that went off over the weekend. It wasn’t as bad as the first attacks, but it was still an attack in a crowded market. “It’s getting worse I think,” Amar says. And people in this country blame Muslims for it. Amar’s wife is Muslim so he must have an informed view on the issue. I think of the survey I saw on CNN IBN last night. I was surprised by the numbers. It said that 58% of Hindus link terrorism to religion. The overall number of people linking terrorism to religion was 39%. I thought the number was low. I think it would be much higher in the United States. But still Amar says it’s a problem here. Muslims have not been made to feel welcome as part of the community in India. You walk into a bank lobby and there’s a big Hindu shrine. Companies pass out sweets to everyone on Hindu festival days but don’t acknowledge other holidays at all. People do this without even thinking about it, and Muslims feel alienated, and it exacerbates the problem.

After work, I go to Mystic in Bali, it’s a restaurant owned by the same people as The Big Chill. This restaurant is covered in colorful masks of gods and goddesses. It’s got a menu full of Asian food from Japan and Hong Kong and Malaysia and about five other countries. There are about six hundred items on the menu. I’m meeting Katie and Susie and Julianne and a few other people here. It’s Katie’s going away party. She leaves India at eight in the morning tomorrow. Everybody’s getting ready to leave. I leave in less than two weeks. Julianne’s friend Roxanne just went back to Hong Kong yesterday. Susie’s selling off all her furniture. It seems like Julianne is the only one not packing up.

I tell Palminder I’ll be done by eight thirty, but we’re not quite finished. We don’t have the bill and people are still picking at their plates. I run outside to tell him it will just be another half hour. He shakes his head and winces and leans forward like I’ve just put a sword in his gut. I tell him it’s just another few minutes but he won’t even make eye contact with me. He just shakes his head. I go in and throw down some money on the table and hug Katie. She’s on Facebook. I’ll have to find her that way. Keep in touch and good luck with your art and travel safe and it was so great to meet you, goodbye. We hug again and I run outside to find Palminder sitting waiting for me. I climb in the car and notice the snack crackers that I left in the backseat are gone. He’s eaten them. If he needed a dinner break, he could have taken one during the hour and a half that I was inside, but maybe he needs to be dismissed by me. I don’t know. I feel bad but I’m also at the end of my rope with his tantrums. People in India eat late anyway. It’s not like I’ve kept him until one in the morning with no food. It’s not even nine o’clock when we arrive at C-83 and he is off duty. And I would have given him the stupid crackers, but I feel somehow violated that he just took them from me. He stole them. If he’ll take the crackers, what else will he help himself to if I leave it in the car? It’s inappropriate.

When I get home, I call Ms. Sonu. “Is it okay to keep the driver after work every once in a while?” I ask her.

“Yes, absolutely. You keep him for as long as you need him whenever you need him.”

“Because he doesn’t act like it’s okay at all…”

She says maybe I should tell him he can take a dinner break so he knows it’s okay, but other than that, he shouldn’t have a problem. She’ll talk to him.

I hate to get anybody in trouble, but every time I go out my evenings end this way, with a Palminder tantrum and me feeling guilty and harried. I don’t want to end my time in India like that. I’ll make sure I tell him he can eat from now on, but I’m not taking his grouching anymore.

Mister Kandhari's Dance Party


The phone rings. I look at the clock. It reads 5:00.

“Vicki, wake up. Are you coming?” Mister Kandhari croons.

“Yeah yeah. I’ll be there in just a few minutes.”

I splash some water on my face and manage to get my contacts into my eyeballs. I throw on the clothes I got ready the night before, grab my keys and head out. The guard is sleeping in a wicker chair inside the gate, which is latched. He’s a light sleeper. He wakes up and springs to his feet as soon as I try to unlatch it.

I walk the block and a half to Mister Kandhari’s place. He’s sitting in his garden, waiting. He has tea and biscuits ready. It’s nice ginger tea, not the plain stuff I get at the guesthouse. “I just got up and thought I would call you,” he tells me. I thank him for the wake up call and sip my tea.

Mister Singh is not far behind. He sits and drinks the cup of tea Mister Kandhari has ready for him. Before long, we are ready to go. We pick up Poonam on the way. The morning precedes exactly as it did the first time I accompanied these men and their friend to the gurdwara.

We get to Bangla Sahib as the sun is beginning to turn the sky from black to blue. The gold dome against this backdrop is piercing. It gleams.

Mister Kandhari disappears into the langar area and I follow Mister Singh into the temple where they are singing the Japjee, the Sikh morning prayer. “Now that you’ve read the book, you know what they’re saying,” he tells me proudly.

I don’t understand the words, per se, but I know they’re singing about how God is Truth, and what was that other line I liked? “The Lord grants virtue to all. Can anyone favor Him in return?” It’s a long prayer and I wish I remembered more of it. There was the part about countless ways to worship. There was the compulsion to meditate on the name of God. I close my eyes and listen to the singing but I’m so tired that I have to keep jerking myself awake. I’m not cut out for early morning meditation. I would make a lousy Sikh.

After a while Mister Singh says it’s time to go. We get up from the floor and walk outside and down the stairs to the langar. Mister Kandhari has a big basket of bread ready and waiting for me. I take it and begin to pass it out. There’s another woman with a basket of bread this time too, and a man ladling out dal. The heavy set woman wobbles down the alleys of people handing six or eight slices of bread out to anyone who will take it. I trail behind her in another row of people, passing out a more sensible two or three slices. The dal man sees me. “Only pass out what people will eat,” he tells me, pointing to a boy with a tower of Wonder on his steel plate. The boy is poking holes in the pieces, making some sort of sculpture. Okay, I tell him, and continue passing out my two or three slices unless there’s a family and they ask for more. We go up and down the rows, up and down the rows and the man runs into me again. Again there is a man with a tower of bread on his plate courtesy of the topsy-turvy bread fairy. Again the man looks at me like it’s my fault. “Only give out two slices,” he tells me, growing a little impatient with the white girl. Okay, I tell him again, and go about my distribution.

I reload several times, getting more bread and chapattis. Mister Singh says no one at langar wants chapattis even though it’s healthier for you and better tasting and fresher than the packaged white bread. I find this to be strangely true. The freshly baked chapattis are harder to give away, and even the teetering lady avoids giving out stacks of them.

On the bottom of one basket I take is a load of rice. I guess I’m supposed to pass this out too, with my hands. People in India eat rice with their hands though I find this strange. I scoop it up and hand it to people though it makes a terrible mess by falling out through the bottom of the basket. One man wants handful after handful, and as I grope for it, it makes a big mess on the floor underneath. A man across the aisle points at it to tell me I’m making a mess. I know I’m making a mess. I don’t know what else to do. I finally give up and bring the basketful of rice back to the station where I trade it in for some normal bread, but now as I walk down the aisles, icky rice is sticking to my dirty feet.

Soon enough we pack it up and I follow Mister Singh back to the shoe check to get my sandals. Back at the car, Poonam has saved me a little cupful of dal and half a chapatti. I am not dying for spicy beans at seven in the morning, but there’s no getting out of eating it. I thank her and eat up.

There are no extra errands to run after temple today, so I’m home by eight o’clock. I wash my feet off in the sink and lay down for a bit. There’s plenty of time to get to church, but I called Julianne yesterday and told her I wouldn’t need a ride, so if I want to go to church today, I have to get there by myself. No Palminder. No friends. Just me and my wits.

I walk to the market and find an auto parked next to some rubble. I ask him, “Siri Fort Auditorium?” He says yes. I ask him “Meter say?” Which means roughly, “Will you use your meter?” He shakes his head, but says, “Thirty rupees.” This is a good price. I climb in and he pulls away. I don’t know if he’s driving the right way. He takes a different route than Susanna does when she drives us. But the road becomes familiar. I recognize the scenery. He’s not taking me down a dark alley where I’ll have to use my pepper spray on him. It’s all good.

I get to church early and make friends with a couple of dogs outside. Susie and Sara show up and I follow them inside. Julianne comes in later with Roxanne, after the service has already started and during an announcement that the resurrected Pastor Robin is making imploring people to show up on time.

His sermon is about being the salt of the earth and the light of the world. He’s a good speaker. Even though he’s the regular pastor here, this is the first time I hear him speak because he’s been convalescing in England. He says salt in Biblical times was used to preserve meat, to keep it from rotting. This is what Christians should do in a decaying world. They should be a preservational force. I always kind of thought the expression “salt of the earth” meant someone was, well, earthy. I like his explanation. It makes sense. He says salt only preserves meat because it is different from the meat. He says Christians need to be different than the world. They need to stand apart in their will to do good works, to preserve. He says one-third of health care in India is provided by Christians. Is this right? It’s amazing if it’s true. Christians are such a small proportion of the population here.

After church, Julianne asks if I’d like to come to her place. She’s making pizza. Sarah and Susie and Katie and Roxanne and her friend from Hindi school are all going. There should be enough pizza for one more person. I don’t have any plans until eight o’clock in the evening when I’m going to a party with Mister Kandhari at the Defence Colony club, so I hop in an auto and join my friends in GK1.

We all help with the pizza, mixing the dough, shredding the cheese, chopping up vegetables, boiling the tomatoes for the sauce. There is nothing pre-packaged about this pizza. It is truly homemade. Julianne is worried it won’t come out, but it’s just fine. The only thing that is a bit off is the cheese. The mozzarella that you can buy in India isn’t much like the mozzarella you get in the United States. Here it’s pretty tasteless and rubbery. But the pizza itself is good. The crust comes out well and the red sauce Julianne makes is the first good red sauce I’ve had while I’ve been here.

Kate, Julianne’s friend from Hindi school, is here on a Fulbright Scholarship to study reintegrating people into society after they’ve been victims of human trafficking. She commiserates with Susie about dealing with the Indian bureaucracy to register as a foreigner and get her Internet set up. Susie says when she had to register at the foreigner’s registration office, she spent every day there from the time the office opened to the time the office closed for an entire week. The employees would share their lunches with her. She had to provide paperwork in triplicate, then they’d lose it and she’d have to provide it again. Finally, they asked her for the stack of work papers she had with her just so her file would appear thicker and they could consider her case closed.

Kate has been calling and calling for someone to fix her Internet but no one comes or calls back. They just write down her complaint, then nothing happens. She says no one cares about you, but then we decide that’s inaccurate. Everyone cares about how you like India. They care about whether you are married and have children and how long you’ll be here for. And when did you get here? And where are you staying? They want to give you tea and biscuits and make sure you’re having a nice time. They just don’t care about getting you what it is you’re looking for. We laugh. It’s so true.

Before I know it, it’s four o’clock. Susie and crew are going to Sarojini Nagar to do some souvenir shopping. Katie leaves on Monday and she wants to get some jewelry for her friends. They invite me to come along, but I haven’t even showered yet and I feel too gross. I have to go home and get ready for the party this evening. I should also catch up on some blogging. I’m rather behind.

Susie mentions the bombings, as anyone going to a market in Delhi nowadays must consider this factor. Sarojini was not hit this last time, but it was bombed last year. Does that make it less likely to be a target this weekend? There’s a feeling that once a place is hit, it’s safe for a while. It seems that Sarojini’s number might be up. They figure it should be okay today.

There was a survey on the tv news saying that 80% of Delhiites are currently staying away from the markets unless they have to go there. From the crowds I see in the Defence Colony market, I think people may have exaggerated their responses when questioned. Nothing seems different to me. The markets are just as busy as they appeared to be before the bombings. I think people are considering the odds. In a city of fifteen million people, only a few hundred have been killed or injured in terrorist attacks this year. What are the chances?

Back at the guesthouse I shower and rest for a while. I’m not feeling that great; I’m a little weak and shaky and very sweaty. I think I may be coming down with something. I call Scott and tell him I may skip the party tonight, but I’ll walk over to see Mister Kandhari anyway.

When I get to his house, he is sitting in the courtyard. He springs to his feet. “Ready?” he says. “I was just sitting here waiting for you!”

I tell him I’m not feeling very well. Maybe we should just stay for a short time or something.

“Fever?” he asks, and holds a hand to my forehead, then grasps my wrist. “No fever. Is okay. Come,” he says, and eagerly leads me to the car with the dents all along the side from when he hit the concrete pole.

We drive the few blocks to the club and Mister Kandhari buys me a guest pass to the event, not allowing me to pay for it. “You are my guest,” he tells me as he shoos my hundred rupee note away.

We walk through the building and into the large courtyard. It is decorated with thousands of little white lights strewn on the surrounding trees. There are wide streamers of fabric that form a colorful canopy. There are dozens of buffet tables set up and all the chairs at them are draped in fabric and large bows.

“It’s so nice,” I say, surprised. It looks like a fancy wedding is about to happen.

“You see? You see?” Mister Kandhari says. “I know.”

He buys drink tickets and food tickets for us, again not allowing me to pay. We go to the bar and get our drinks and I follow him to a seat near the stage setup. There is a large sound system and stage lights. There are smoke machines and confetti canons. Before long, two men in shiny pants come out and begin the show by juggling fire. Then the event host takes the stage in her glittering earrings and ball gown. This event is brought to you by the wonderful, the flavorful Gorbachow Vodka which we should all take the time to enjoy, she tells us. And now the moment we have been waiting for. A hip hop dance team will perform, all the way from Mumbai.

The men who juggled fire are now shirtless and pounding out impressive dance moves in the humid heat like it’s nothing. They are joined by a third man and three women. The lights and the smoke machines and the confetti cannons are all in full effect. It’s an amazing show. I can’t believe it cost less than two dollars to get me in here.

After a few dance numbers, the emcee is back. She introduces the next act, half in Hindi, half in English. I make out that there is a famous singer. A woman in a red dress takes the stage and sings every popular song I have heard on the radio: Higher and Higher, Don’t Look at Me Like That, Boy. One of the most wonderful sights I’ve seen in India unfurls before me during her performance. A very old couple gets up and boogies so sweetly to the Punjabi dance music. The old man shrugs his shoulders dramatically with the beat and waves his arms in the air as his wife, more subdued, sways back and forth. I can’t help but feel overjoyed to watch them having fun. I took some video of this scene. I’ll get it up on the blog as soon as I have a chance.

Mister Kandhari orders some chicken and offers me some. I tell him I can’t eat it. “Oh my goodness. Oh my goodness,” he says. I tell him it’s fine. I’m not hungry, but he says it doesn’t look nice. I have to eat. He orders some paneer and chapattis and I snack on it. He is relieved.

At about ten o’clock we look at each other. It’s time to go even though the party shows no sign of stopping. Mister Kandhari has stayed up late with me again. He usually goes to bed at nine.

I tell him the party was amazing. I wasn’t expecting so much. He says he knew I would like it. “A new experience,” he says.

He drives me home and pats me on the head as I gushingly thank him for the fun time. I’m so glad I didn’t weasel out of the invitation because I was feeling a little sick. Who knew there would be a full-on high production dance party at the Elks Club in the Defence Colony? And he tells me they have these once or twice a month!

Monday, September 29, 2008

A Beautiful Life


Saturday morning I get up at six thirty. I’m going to a yoga lesson at Mister Singh’s house. His daughter-in-law told me to be there at seven o’clock, “on the dot.” I can’t be late.

I put on a t-shirt and track pants and walk next door. Mister Singh sends me to the third floor where his son and daughter-in-law live. We’ll have the yoga lesson in her living room.

His daughter-in-law brings out a blanket for herself and gives me the nice, padded yoga mat that I suspect she uses when she’s not sharing her yoga lesson with a white chick. The instructor arrives and they talk in Hindi to each other, sometimes gesturing towards me. I’ve told her I’ve done yoga before, so I shouldn’t be a burden or drag down the quality of the lesson for her, at least I hope not.

Mister Singh opens the door carrying a blanket. He will also join us for the lesson today. He spreads out his blanket and stretches out his legs in front of him. “See?” he tells me. “You start by stretching, then do like this.” He shakes his legs out.

This man with his long white beard, who has to be in his seventies, then grabs his legs and folds himself up into the Lotus position. “I’ll show you,” he says. “Yog is not exercise. You cannot do it quickly. You have to go slow.” He calls it yog, not yoga, just in case you were thinking that was a type-o.

The instructor is ready to begin. He stands and narrates in Hindi, and Mister Singh and his daughter-in-law do as he says.

“Can you understand?” she asks me.

“No,” I say, but it works for me just to watch them and mirror their actions. We start with some breathing, then do some simple stretches and bends, then it’s onto the mats where our legs get tangled up in front of our heads.

“Nose touch,” the instructor walks over to me and says. Nose touch? I look at Mister Singh’s daughter-in-law. Her nose is touching her feet which are folded up in front of her face.

“Oh no, my nose no touch,” I say, laughing.

I should say now that I am the most flexible person I know. People actually make fun of me for the way I sit with my legs knotted up. I stretch all the time. I’ve had years of dance and lots of yoga lessons where I’m the one that the instructor points at to show everyone else how it’s done.

But not in India. This is one of the reasons I wanted to take a yoga lesson here; to see how different it would be.

It’s different all right.

Next our feet are in the air over our heads. “Floor touch,” the instructor tells me, and takes my legs and stretches them all the way onto the ground behind my head. I think they’ll snap right off. It kills. I can barely sustain the position and my legs begin to shake.

My legs shake for the rest of the lesson as we hold weight-bearing positions that use muscles I’ve let slacken for who knows how long. All the while the aged Mister Singh is pulling and pushing his body into variations of all the positions we are doing with seemingly no problem.

Mister Singh leaves a little early. He’s going to work on food donations for the gurdwara. We wrap up less than an hour after we began, but it’s not soon enough for me. I feel slightly tortured.

“We usually go faster,” Mister Singh’s daughter-in-law apologizes to me. “If you come tomorrow it won’t be so slow. We had to go easy today because Dad joined us.”

Easy? I almost died. “Thanks, but I’m going to the gurdwara tomorrow morning at five,” I tell her.

“Well maybe you’ll be back in time. I’ll send someone over to check.”

I thank her and hobble off down the three flights of marble stairs marveling at how Mister Singh must have just taken this same path.

Back at my room, I try to steady my quivering Jello legs. I call up Mohinder, the man who’s meeting me at the orphanage. He tells me I should have my driver drive towards the Ashram towards Mathura, then we should call him and he’ll give him directions from there. It sounds like a shaky plan, but who am I to dispute it?

I call up Palminder and tell him to come pick me up at noon. Until then, I catch up on some blogging. There’s lots of spare time when you get up at six thirty in the morning on a Saturday.

Palminder arrives on time and I describe my plan to him. We have to go to Ashram towards Mathura then call this man at this number. He gives me a funny look. He wants to call Mohinder before we leave. It seems like a fine idea to me. He dials the number and talks to him, then passes his cell phone to me in the backseat.

“Yes, Vicki? I’ve told your driver how to get there and I’m just leaving, so I’ll see you there,” Mohinder tells me.

Palminder finds the place with no problem, pulling up to a three-story concrete building and pointing it out to me. “Welfare Home for Children,” he says to me, pointing to big red lettering on the top of the building.

There is a large gate around the place and no way to get in. I don’t see Mohinder anywhere. Palminder calls him back up. We should go around the building to the other gate, he tells us. We do. A man opens the gate and ushers me inside. Mohinder isn’t here yet. Can I sit for a few minutes and wait? Sure.

There’s a little plastic molded play set behind the entrance: a few slides and ladders to climb on. That’s a good sign. Inside, the building is very clean and tidy. The air isn’t on, but there is a huge window unit in the room they take me to where I sit and wait. Two women offer me water and I say no, then they bring me water anyway. There is no refusing Indian hospitality.

I’m sitting in a large room with a couch and a table and a fridge. There is a bulletin board full of pictures of children. On one side are the kids who’ve been adopted. They are embraced by smiling parents. On the other side are pictures of kids at the facility. Many of them are embraced by this portly white woman in a sea green dupata who appears in photo after photo.

Mohinder arrives just a few minutes after I sit down. He introduces me to two men. One is the architect of the building. The other is an aging Indian man with a British accent, and I don’t quite catch the reason he is there to tour the facilities. Is it to donate money? From the way Mohinder dotes on him and rather ignores me, it seems this may be the case.

I present my large bag of biscuits. The woman says I can only give two biscuits to each child and they’ll get the rest after dinner. She takes the bag away and comes back with just four or five packs that she’ll allow me to take upstairs to the children. I am not to be trusted with my wealth of biscuits, apparently.

Mohinder takes us around the ground floor, showing us the kitchen and a storage area. The room where I was waiting, he says, is used for counseling the parents and the adoptive parents, he explains. The white woman on the bulletin board is Dutch. She’s not here right now, but she’s the one who’s in charge of the facility.

He shows us the social worker’s office and takes us up to the second floor, pointing out the quality of the woodwork. There was no skimping when this building was erected. It’s of fine construction.

On the second floor landing, there is a large shelving unit full of tiny black shoes and several sets of large blue plastic sandals. We have to take our street shoes off and put on a pair of sandals before we enter the room where the girls are. They take pains to keep it clean and nice.

We open the door to a roomful of bunk beds and little girls. There are three women here who greet us. The men walk off, Mohinder talking about the construction and the capacity of the building. I open a package of biscuits and am swarmed with tiny hands reaching up towards me. I pass out biscuit after biscuit. A woman points to a small girl curled up on the bottom of one of the bunk beds. I figure I should let her sleep, but the woman shakes her awake a little roughly so she can get her treat. Sleepily, she takes the biscuit from me and munches it. A little munchkin about two feet tall wearing a t-shirt and a diaper has decided that she wants to stock up. She holds her biscuits in her right hand and reaches up to me with her left, making insistent noises and grasping the air. She follows me into the second section of bunk beds where another little girl is sleeping and is roused in a similar brisk fashion. Three or four older girls wait patiently in the background while the younger ones flock around me. When I give them their biscuits, they bow their heads and smile and say “thank you.”

The men are back. Are we ready to see the third floor? We get our shoes back on and ascend the staircase. About twenty boys are seated on a big Persian rug. The boys are all older than most of the girls upstairs. No one here is in diapers. I only have about four biscuits left, so I refrain from handing them out. In the back of this room is a quarantine room so when a child gets sick, it doesn’t spread. There’s also a small classroom. The institute brings teachers in rather than sending the children away to school.

We go up onto the rooftop. Here is where they hang the wash. You can get a view of the surrounding buildings too.

I follow the men back downstairs and ask the woman at the desk if I can have more of my biscuits. The boys didn’t get any. She brings several packages out. I go upstairs and see that the boys have been dispersed from their rug. They are now sleeping. It’s one thirty in the afternoon and these little boys are sleeping. It seems there are not a lot of other things for them to do. I wonder how much time they spend merely asleep or laying around.

I ask the woman if I can give the boys some biscuits. She assents and calls them to attention. They jump up out of their beds and form an orderly line, each one taking his treats and saying thank you in turn. When I’m done I have a few leftover. I ask the women in the room if they want them. They are only too happy to accept and nibble the rest of the package away.

I rejoin the men downstairs. They are talking about sponsorships and companies who give money to the facility. I ask if they do adoptions in the United States. “Yes. You can ask my wife all about that.” She works here full-time as a social worker. I don’t know anything about adoption. I don’t know if domestic adoption is cheaper than international adoption, but the plane tickets alone to India for one trip would set me and my husband back $4,000. And I know we’d have to travel here more than once. This may be an utter impossibility. Still, I wanted to see the facility and make the connections while I was here just in case.

I barely sit down when the men stand up. They’re ready to go. I take this as my cue to leave as well. I shake Mohinder’s hand and thank him for the tour. Palminder is waiting for me at the door. I follow him out to the car and tell him to take me to Malviya Nagar. We’re going to pick up Katie at Susie’s place, then head to the Museum of Modern Art. Katie’s a painter, so she’s been eager to see the place.

I call up Susie. “How was the orphanage?”

I was surprised. I was surprised at how nice it was, at how the children there are pretty advantaged compared to the poor kids I see out begging in the streets. These kids have clean clothes and three meals a day. They go to school instead of working. They have multiple people looking after their well-being. It was still sad to know they don’t have families, but it wasn’t as sad as what I see on the way to work everyday: kids in filthy clothes or no clothes at all begging for a few rupees or food, and little boys using every fiber of their will to try and sell useless magazines that they can never hope to read themselves. Those kids need more help than the ones I saw today.

We pick up Katie and find the museum easily. It’s a stately building with a rounded dome just outside of India Gate, probably built by the British because it smacks of the same architecture as the President’s house and government buildings in this same area.

Inside we find a jumble of paintings: portraits and miniatures and sketches and landscapes. The artist’s name is posted next to most of the paintings on a typewritten card, but there is almost never a year given. Some of the pieces don’t look very “modern” at all. I wonder how this collection got assembled: who decided what works got admitted? Where did they come from? They’re almost all Indian artists, but most of the works are in imitation of western art styles. Surprisingly, there are many, many paintings and sculptures in the Surrealist style: bodies with missing pieces and visible, melting bones. I wonder how surrealism made its way to India and why it seems to speak to artists here.

There is one room full of oversized canvasses that makes the place worth the trip. Here there is a wall-sized painting of three Indian bicycles with milk jugs hanging off the handlebars. It’s titled “Three Cows.” The milk jugs look like you could grab them and pick them up, and the background is like a comic book. The bicycles are life-sized, and as you walk past the painting, somehow the front wheels move and are always pointing at you. The effect is mesmerizing. There are also pieces here which blend traditional Mughal painting style with modern art. These artists are using their artistic heritage rather than throwing it aside and their work is all the richer for it.

The museum doesn’t take that long to cover, so about an hour later, we are walking through the little sculpture garden back to Palminder’s car. On our way, an auto-wala stops us. I flag him away thinking he’s bugging us for a ride, but he is insistent. “No,” he says, “Madam, madam, bomb blasts. There are bombs today. It’s not safe. You must go home. Go to your hotel. Go to wherever you are staying and stay in today, madam.”

Being so close to India gate, I wonder if a bomb has gone off nearby. I thought I overheard a conversation about bombs when I was in the museum, but I figured they were talking about the bombs that went off two weeks ago. I guess I was wrong.

I worry that we won’t be able to cross town to get home. I remember Jonaki telling me that they sometimes close down access to roads when bombings happen. But travel is just fine. There doesn’t appear to be anything unusual. The streets are neither empty or closed down. Everything seems normal. I wonder if the auto-wala was just trying to scare us for some reason.

Back at home, I turn on the news. Two men on a motorcycle threw a crude bomb in a lunch bucket in a crowded market. A kid picked it up and died. Twenty-three people were injured in the blast. There don’t appear to be multiple attacks this time. It looks like a much less sophisticated operation than the last attack when the bombs had timers and were planted all over the city.

I’m Skyping with Scott when my phone rings. “Hello. Kandhari. Where are you?” I hear.

It’s Mister Kandhari. He wants to know why he hasn’t seen me walk past his house today. Almost every night I walk to the market at some point and usually stop by to talk to him.

“I’ve been out today, Mister Kandhari.”

“You come and sit and we can talk,” he tells me.

I tell Scott I’m going to go. He is unnerved. Even though Mister Kandhari’s house is only a block away, I don’t think he wants me going out tonight and I don’t blame him. If he was in a city that was having multiple terror attacks, I’d want him to lock himself up in his room and shove a pillow under the door crack, not go roaming around his neighborhood at night. I promise I’ll steer clear of the market where I was planning on going to get some souvenirs. I’ll get them some other time, or I won’t get them at all, I tell him. Mister Kandhari’s house is safe, I tell him. I’ll be fine.

I eat dinner with Mister Kandhari. He asks me what I do in the evenings when I’m at the guest house. I tell him I write a lot. About what? About my time in India. I keep a blog on the Internet. Do I write about him? He wants to know. Yes, I tell him, thinking he might find this troubling. Instead, he is delighted. He smiles broadly. Have I talked about his garden and the gurdwara? Yes I have, of course. “Thank you,” he says.

Who reads it? Mostly just my friends. Does he have the Internet? I can show him the site. Only at the office, he says. But he wants to read it sometime. He wants to read it. We sit for a while then he says we should get to bed. We have to get up early to go to Bangla Sahib tomorrow. Am I still going with to feed the hungry?

“If you call me to make sure I’m awake,” I say. He shakes my hand and smiles. It’s a deal.

The little black dog follows me home again. I run upstairs to get him biscuits, but as I’m coming back down the stairs, I see him in the hallway of the guest house. He’s followed me all the way inside. I think the guard is slacking a little bit. What if this was an intruder instead of a little black dog? The thought is a bit troubling. I share some biscuits with the dog and the guard comes down from the balcony. I think he might be upset that I have the dog inside the gate, but instead he coos at it. “Indian doggie,” he says in a thick accent, smiling and chuckling. The dog trots off and starts drinking out of a puddle, and this gives the guard an idea. “Water,” he says, and comes back with a pot full for our little furry friend. This is the same guard who played so much with Ralphie when he was here. I like this guy. He strikes me as a very kind person. I’m not so sure what kind of a guard he makes, but he’s always sweet and considerate, even to a lowly stray dog.

I’ve met so many people here who have been so kind, I think, and I’ll be saying goodbye to all of them in just two weeks. In just three short months, I’ve discovered a beautiful life here in India with my friends from work and from church and from my neighborhood. I’m fortunate to be staying at such a nice place with such a helpful, sweet and good-natured staff. It’s a beautiful life I will leave behind—or rather carry with me. I’m so fortunate to have lived it.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Not Enough Biscuits


Just when I thought the food was getting boring… I eat a custard apple.

My friend from work and I were discussing seasonal fruits one day. She wondered what we grow in the United States. I talked about oranges in Florida and the apple orchard near my house. She bought some guavas from a cart in the industrial estate and shared one with me. I think it was my first guava. I know I’ve had them in juice blends, but I’ve never just eaten a guava. It was good: sugary with white flesh and tiny, tiny seeds, almost like a kiwi. She had the man at the cart put ashen-looking masala spices on it as he chopped the small fruit into quarters. Spiced fruit is common here. Mister Singh served me spiced apples and pomegranate seeds the night he was planning my Amritsar trip.

As we walked and ate our guavas, she asked me if I’d ever had a custard apple. No, what’s that? It’s in sections almost like a pomegranate and the texture is a little sandy. The next day, she brought some to work for me.

Friday morning I walk downstairs and present my custard apple to Mira. Can she cut it for me so I can eat it? She takes it and walks into the kitchen. In the meantime, there is a Texan on the phone near the kitchen. He’s twanging away and getting nowhere trying to arrange a car service. He passes the phone to Mira. “Here, talk to them,” he drawls and shoves the phone Mira’s way. She takes down several phone numbers and makes a bunch of notes in Hindi script on a piece of paper and hands it to the gentleman. “What’m I spose’ta do with this?” he asks, shoving the paper back at her. I think this man is not going to have a good time in India.

Mira brings me the note and my custard apple on a plate. “Sorry, madam. My English no good. Speak. No write. You write Ashok?” I take the pen and paper from her and write Ashok next to the first number. “Okay, thank you. No English,” she says. “Now Upander, guard.” I write the words down by the second number.

In exchange for this help, she shows me what to do with my custard apple. You don’t cut it. You just split it in half and scoop it out with the spoon. She splits it in half for me and pantomimes with the spoon.

We thank each other for the needed assistance and she shuffles in her aqua and white sari out to the balcony where the large Texan is sitting on the edge of his chair. He looks satisfied with the new note. I think we’re all relieved.

The custard apple looks like it has crocodile skin on the outside and tastes like, well, custard on the inside. It’s like nothing I’ve ever eaten before. It’s fun.

At work I finally finish editing the lengthy chapter seven on currency options. We have two more chapters from the author so far, chapters eight and nine, and I think I’ll be able to complete them both in my remaining time. It’s a goal anyway.

We have yet to hear a response from the author on chapter six and the passages that need to be rewritten. Shabnum is trying to call him as I’m leaving the office for the weekend. We’ll see what happens.

Everyone’s excited about the book sale tomorrow. Shinjini wants to know if I want any Rough Guides. There is always a whole bunch. If I had room in my luggage and the upper body strength to haul books, I’d go scoop up a whole load, but as it is, I practice self-control and turn down the offer.

On my way up to my room, Pachu stops me. He speaks rather excitedly. “Call. Three times. Call six thirty. Six forty-five. Six fifty. Three times.”

Can he tell me who called three times?

“No idea. Boy. Boy. Husband?”

Oh no, I think. Freaki Fredi.

“Did he leave a number?” I ask.

“No. Call again,” Pachu says. I’m sure he will.

I’m not in my room for ten minutes when the phone rings. “Hello. Do you recognize me?”

“Is this Fredi?” I ask.

“Yeah yeah. So did you think about Goa?”

“Yeah and I’m not going to be able to go, but thank you,” I say.

“Okay, that’s okay,” he says. “Some other time when you come back to India.”

At least he finally took no for an answer. But now he wants to go out for a drink. I want to believe that’s all he wants, but I don’t. I think I’m busy next week. And the week after. And then I’m leaving. It’s just too bad we won’t be able to get together. He’s still glad he met me, he wants me to know. It was nice to meet him too.

I remember I need to get the hem of my black pants repaired. I throw them in a bag and walk down to my tailor across the street from the park. This man knows how to sew. I run through the items in my closet and think hard about whether there’s anything else I can have him work on before I leave. That one kurta I bought is pretty baggy on me. I could have it taken in. It’s so much fun to have your clothes tailored.

“Namaste,” I greet him and he bows his head back at me. I show him the pants and ask him, “Kitne?” How much? He examines them and says, “No nothing. Small work.” He doesn’t want to charge me—again. Of course, I’ll pay him anyway. I couldn’t take the work from him for free.

I walk around the corner to the closest thing approximating a grocery store that I’ve seen here. It’s called The Big Apple. It’s lit with fluorescent lights and has wide aisles compared to the other food shops in the market. It even has cash registers. What it lacks is the kind of deep inventory that American stores are packed with. There are just a few items of each kind on the shelves. I’m looking for more biscuits. I want to make sure I have enough for all the orphans I’ll see tomorrow. They only have three packages of the ten rupee kind. The rest of their biscuit inventory is actually Oreo cookies and they’re priced at forty five rupees a package.

I buy the three remaining ten rupee packs and grab a box of oatmeal at the store clerk’s suggestion. It’s on sale, and I need to run up my bill a little bit so they’ll give me change. If I try to buy thirty rupees’ worth of biscuits with a 1,000 rupee note, they’ll throw me out of the place. The clerk takes the box from me and says, “Almost expired, but not yet expired.” I look at the date, which I’d previously ignored, and it says Jan 2008. It’s a strange definition of almost expired. Still, I figure, what can go wrong with oatmeal? I probably have some in my cabinets at home that’s older than this.

The cashier holds my 1,000 rupee note up to the light and gazes at it from three different angles. Then he passes it to the next register where a woman does the same thing. I think, “Please don’t tell me I have a counterfeit bill.” But the gazing seems to satisfy them, and they even give me change. How western of them!

After The Big Apple, I cross the street at the busy intersection to get back to the main market. When I first got here, this would have been impossible for me. I would have needed an escort, a crossing guard. My heart would have been racing. I wouldn’t have even known which way to look for oncoming traffic. But tonight I cross the street without blinking an eye, weaving in an around the stopped cars, motioning with my hand for the oncoming cars to yield to me.

I walk directly to Sagar’s. Since it’s been a day of new food, I decide to try something different on the menu. There aren’t that many things I haven’t yet tried. I don’t know exactly what I’m getting when I ask for the dahi vada, but I order it anyway. Then I ask for a banana lassi. Sweet, I say. “Sweeeeet,” the waiter’s eyes get large and he walks away.

I wonder what that was about until they bring my food. Turns out the dahi vada is covered in sweet yogurt. And a lassi is made of sweet yogurt. Both are delicious, but they’re a little much in combination with each other. "Sweeeeeet." The waiter was right.

On my walk home, the little black dog finds me. I open a package of biscuits and he eats the whole thing. I don’t understand why he’s so skinny. He has a collar on. Someone owns him. Don’t they feed him? Or does he have a bad case of worms? I should slip him some Mebex, the worm medicine Susie recommended I take when I get home.

When the last of the biscuits is gone, his nose finds my shopping bag and nuzzles it. He wants some more. The orphans or the starving dog? Who gets the biscuits? There is never enough to go around in India.

I decide one package is enough for the puppy tonight and walk home. He trails me all the way to my gate.