Thursday, July 31, 2008

All You Need is Love

Wednesday morning I awaken from a great dream. I am singing “All You Need Is Love” and dancing and putting on stage makeup with one of my theatre friends. There is a feeling of pure bliss. I think we are dressing up like hobo clowns because my friend is putting dirt on her face with a big powder puff.

No beetle has attacked me during the night. I think I can safely blame my infamous Friday night rickshaw ride for the brush with the offending insect instead.

I shower, talk to Scott, eat my breakfast and catch my ride to work.

When we catch a red light at the market, a man walks up to the driver side window of our car. Sonu rolls down the window a crack and talks to him. The market is where Sonu’s taxi stand is. The man, I think, is from the taxi stand. Another man tries to open the front passenger side door. Sonu says something in Hindi, and this other man goes away. I can’t make out what’s going on.

Sonu tells me, “Ma’am, maybe tomorrow different driver.”

“What? Why?” I ask.

“You call boss,” he says. “Mrs. Sonu. Different driver maybe tomorrow. I like you. Mrs. Sonu. You call boss.”

“Okay,” I tell Sonu. “I’ll call Mrs. Sonu. I don’t want a different driver. I want you to be my driver.”

“Yes,” he says. “You call boss.”

At work, I ring up Mrs. Sonu. I want to know if she received the payment from Finance that she called me to ask about yesterday, and I want to know about the driver situation. Sonu is working out so well for me. I don’t know why they have to change the arrangement.

“Don’t tell him this,” she says, “but there is some question about the gas. He is only driving so many miles but the gas that is gone is double, you see? We don’t know if it is a car problem or if he is selling this gas. So my husband is checking on this and we will do the needful.”

Stealing gas? I can’t imagine Sonu doing such a thing. “Well, I’d really like to keep the same driver,” I tell Mrs. Sonu. “Sonu’s helped me so much, well beyond his job requirements, and he’s always on time and he knows the way to my work. He’s a very good driver.”

“If we send someone else, he also will be good,” Mrs. Sonu assures me. I tell her thank you, but I’d really like to keep the same driver. She says she’ll see what she can do. She has to protect her profits, she says, and she wouldn’t want to have to charge me more. Is this a veiled threat?

I suppose I don’t know the reality of the situation. I try to imagine Sonu siphoning off gas and selling it, but it’s difficult to do. The guy who helps me cross the street? The guy who sits next to me in the Lotus Temple and takes care of my shoes when we check them in and out? The guy who wrangled me an elephant ride? I guess I don’t really know him, but he seems like such a fundamentally good person.

I guess it could be happening, but I feel more like he’s being unfairly accused. And why would Mrs. Sonu tell me not to tell him about her concern? Are they going to fire him without telling him why? Doesn’t he have a right to know? The whole thing sounds shady. Mrs. Sonu seems shady to me. I don’t trust her. I’ve been trying to deal with her to arrange payment for the hotel and the terms have changed countless times. They don’t accept credit cards, then they do. The price is one rate, then another. We can pay upon checkout, then we need to pay right away, and if everything isn’t settled before I check out, I won’t be able to leave. Another threat.

There is no central truth. I hear Susie’s words again. Indians are okay with shifting ground, the lack of a definitive answer, but it’s maddening to me, especially when I’m caught in the middle between Finance and Mrs. Sonu.

“Well I would be really disappointed if I had to get a new driver,” I think maybe an interpersonal appeal might work.

“I will see what we can do and let you know,” Mrs. Sonu says, but I know she doesn’t mean it and I know I’m not getting a straight story either, but I am powerless to do anything more.

At the office, I work on tweaking the layout plan I created yesterday. Because of costs, we are restricted to a black and white layout that is no more than six pages. We need to somehow fit over 5,000 words into these six pages. How small can we make the font and still retain readability? I experiment to see.

At lunch I ask Amar about the history book launch. Can I still go to that? Of course, he says. He wants to know if I’m still coming to the Macroeconomics launch on Saturday. Of course, I reciprocate.

I ask him about a photo he took of the Mumbai skyline that was used on a book cover. On Tuesday the head of the design team, Madhur, had done a brilliant job of showing me scads of book cover designs that he and his team have created: some basic, some beautiful. On several covers, they’ve used photos taken by staff members. Amar pulls up the picture on his computer. “This one?” he asks. Yes, I recognize it from the cover. “I took this at the National Sales Meeting when we had it in Bombay,” he says. It’s a beautiful picture. Impressively done.

I notice that Amar refers to Mumbai by its old name, Bombay. I ask about the name change. When and how did that happen? More recently than I thought. About four years ago, he says. He says the Hindu nationalists in the government want to pretend like the British colonization never happened. They want to rename everything. But Amar sees these British names as part of the history of his country. It’s there. You can’t change it. There were the Mughuls, the Persians, the Portuguese, the British. All of these conquerors served to make India what it is today. There is no use in pretending like some of them were never here.

Back at my desk, the Sonu vs. Mrs. Sonu situation is really bugging me. I compose an email:

I just want to reiterate what a helpful and good man my driver, Sonu, has been
for me the whole time I’ve been here. He has helped me above and beyond the
requirements of his job, showing me shops and talking to the salespeople for me
if they don’t speak much English. He helped my friend at the chemists when she
cut her toe and was even offering to bandage it up for her. He has been a
treasure for me during my first weeks getting adjusted in this country.

I know you need to settle your business, but I just thought it
might help to hear a little more about Sonu’s character. As far as I am
concerned, he is a very, very good man. I would be very upset to lose him as my

Thank you for your consideration,


This email will fix the problem, I fool myself, then hit send. I get a message right back: it’s undeliverable. I try again. Undeliverable. Mrs. Sonu’s email account isn’t working. I call her up and tell her email account isn’t working. She doesn’t care. She asks why I was emailing her. I tell her I wanted to reiterate how helpful Sonu has been--and try not to feel like this is an exercise in futility.

“Okay madam,” she says. “I will talk to my husband.” They’re going to fire Sonu.

After work I see Sonu in his orange shirt and khaki pants. I tell him he looks nice. I tell him I called his boss—twice—and that I told her he is a good man. He wants to know what Mrs. Sonu said. I tell him she wouldn’t tell me anything, whether or not she’d let him continue to be my driver. “I don’t know, Sonu. I don’t know.”

“Oh,” he says, deflated.

Should I tell him about the accusation? I consider him a friend, but Mrs. Sonu confided this fact in me and told me not to tell. I don’ t really want to piss off the woman who is in charge of where I’m living. I go back and forth. Tell him. Don’t tell him.

“Sonu, can you take me to a store and help me buy some Punjabi music? Can we do that before we go home today?” In case I don’t see him again, I want this souvenir to remember him by. I don’t count on a new driver being willing to do this for me.

“Yes,” he says.

“Sonu, you speak Punjabi?”


“And Hindi?”


“And English?”

“Yes, but not very. English is very nice language.”

I tell him his English is good, especially seeing as it’s his third language. I tell him most people in the United States barely have their first language down.

“Ma’am, you send snaps Mrs. Sonu.” He wants me to email the few pictures I took of us to Mrs. Sonu so she can print them out and give them to him, since all his many snaps are lost in his broken phone.

He asks about Mrs. Sonu again. “Mrs. Sonu. What tell?”

“She wouldn’t tell me anything, Sonu.” I want to ask him if he’s been stealing gas. I want to see his eyes when he says he has no idea what she’s talking about. It’s a lie. “She said there’s a problem with the car. Did she tell you that?”

“Yes, problem,” he says, but I don’t get a feeling like he understands.

“She said there’s some gas missing.” Screw you, Mrs. Sonu and your crazy, circular riddle talk. “But she told me not to tell you this. She thinks you’re taking gas.”

“Yes, problem?” he says. Damn it. He doesn’t understand the big revelation, and what could he do if he did? Argue with Mrs. Sonu and her husband? If my pleading has no effect, his surely will not. I let it go.

“Lodhi Gardens? Go?” Sonu says.

“Sometime, yes,” I say, “But not now.” Lodhi Gardens is where people go on dates according to Julianne and Susie. It’s not good to go there by yourself, they say. I think if I want to see it, it would probably be good to have Sonu with me. I realize he’s asking me to go because this may be the last time we have the chance to go, the last chance we have for snaps, but I realize this after I’ve already said no. It's probably for the best.

We pass the signs for Khan Market, where I figured we’d go to get the music, but then I think maybe Sonu knows somewhere else. When we come up on the Defence Colony Market, I realize he’s just spaced off the music thing altogether. I decide to press the issue, as it’s probably my last chance to have a guide to Punjabi music shopping. “Sonu, can we go get some music?”



“Okay,” he says, and pulls into the right lane so we can make a U-turn. The light turns green but the car just sits there. Traffic whizzes past us and honks, but Sonu just stares off into space. I wonder what he’s waiting for. Finally a pedestrian waiting to cross the street bangs on the window and Sonu emerges from his trance. He laughs. He notices his friend from the taxi stand saw the whole incident. He will be teased about this later. I wonder what he was thinking about: probably losing his job.

At Khan Market, Sonu parks the car and makes sure the doors are locked before we leave. My backpack is in the back seat and he wants to be sure it’s safe. We go to a store that has DVDs, CDs and video games. A man checking out has about five James Bond movies. Octopussy. Goldfinger. Etc. Sonu speaks with the shopkeepers in Hindi, and they pull out about four discs. Sonu considers each one. He puts one aside right away. It’s a good one. “Like you play in the car?” I ask. “Yes,” he says. He wants to know if I want one or two. Two, I say. He finds a second one that he recommends. The bill comes to 200 rupees, or about four dollars. I wonder if they have cell phones at this store. I still think it might be a nice idea to buy one for Sonu since he can’t afford one until next month. It might be a nice way to thank him for all he’s done for me. I find no cell phones in the store and decide not to ask.

On the way back to the car, I ask Sonu how much cell phones cost here. 5,000 rupees, he tells me. This is more than I expected. It’s about $125. Maybe I can just give him a big tip today. Or maybe I should give him the whole $125. But that would be inappropriate, wouldn’t it? It’s really a lot of money in India.

We are almost home and I’m trying to close this debate with myself when Sonu ends it for me. It comes to a shattering stop like a crash test dummy flying through a windshield at the moment of impact, car crumpling up underneath him.

“Madam, I hope you don’t mind. I love you,” he says.

He doesn’t mean that. Maybe he means love in a broad, humanitarian way, I think. All You Need Is Love. God is Love. That sort of thing.

“You love your wife,” I tell him.

“My wife. She no. No babies. No boys.”

What is he saying? He doesn’t love his wife because they have two baby girls? Doesn’t he love his baby girls? Doesn’t’ he love his wife? What kind of character is this guy? What is he thinking? I want to jump out of the cab. I hope he is fired and I never have to see him again.

Then our weeks together flash through my mind’s eye and I see myself leading him on. “You look nice today, Sonu. I want you to be my driver. I don’t want a different driver. I like you.” I see myself letting him take all his snaps of us. How could I have been so stupid? How could I have done this to him? How could I have thought he was doing all he did for me just because he was nice? People aren't that nice. He loves me.

“Madam, do you love me?” he asks, about two blocks later.

“I love you like a friend,” I tell him. I can’t believe I’m having this conversation. I wonder if this most crushing, dreaded bullshit line will translate for Sonu, if it will make sense. I hope he doesn’t get angy. I hope he doesn’t try anything.

“Oh,” he says. “Okay, madam. I see.”

We pull up in front of the guest house in silence as he prepares the day’s receipt and I get out my standard daily tip for him: 100 rupees. At least that settled my quandary, I think.

This moment might be goodbye for us. I still want to thank him for all he’s done for me. “If I don’t see you again…” I say, but he interrupts me.

“Okay, happy new friendship,” he says. He is nodding and smiling from embarrassment. He wants me to stop talking. He wants this moment to end quickly.

“Okay,” I tell him. “Goodnight.”

In my room, I stare at the ceiling. I stare at myself in the mirror and exhale. I can’t believe what just happened. Why? Why did it have to go there? This is why all my male friends are gay, I think. Otherwise, it’s just too confusing.

I feel bad for Sonu. Of course he’s confused. I’ve been acting like a complete idiot. I’ve been going on dates with the poor man, riding in a paddle boat and walking around ruins. I just didn’t realize.

“We have the same problem, madam. Your husband too far. My wife too far.” This wasn’t commiserating, maybe. Maybe this was a come on. And he wasn't thinking about losing his job when he spaced out at the green light, was he? He was thinking about telling me he loves me, wasn't he? I spend about an hour replaying scenes of Sonu and Vicki and second-guessing all we’ve done and said. I’m glad I didn’t offer to buy him a cell phone. I’m glad I didn’t go to Lodhi Gardens with him.

I want to call my husband. I want to go downstairs and see Mira and Pachu who don’t give a damn about me one way or the other. I want to go stand next to somebody with whom I have a professional relationship. I want to feel that utter neutrality--the opposite of love or lust or whatever it is that Sonu's feeling. I want to wash away this icky feeling.

I so wish this didn’t happen, but it did. I want Sonu to be the good person I had constructed in my head: the crossing guard, first-aid giving, selfless driver with angel wings on the back of his t-shirt, not a gas-stealing horn dog who’s disappointed with girl babies and willing to cheat on his wife with the first white girl who comes along. Maybe he is both of these things. Maybe he is neither.

All You Need is Love. The love part is simple. It's the relationships that mess it up.

I wonder what will happen tomorrow morning, and tell myself I need to be more careful with Indian men.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Pearson India Blog

I finally got up the courage to write something for the official Pearson India blog. It's posted there live now, under the date July 30 and the title "My First Experiences in India - Vicki Krajewski" (spelled with a w--not a double u). You can read my post (and others) at:

A Quiet Night In

Nothing much to report on Tuesday, July 29th, except that Monday night I didn’t sleep very well, feeling every little twitch and itch as the possible venomous beetle that ate the back of my knee.

I’ve gotten into a morning routine where I wake up around 6:30 and shower, talk to Scott at 7:30, eat breakfast at 8:00 or 8:30, then leave for work around 9:00. I’m not usually big on routine, but the structure feels good here where so little else happens as expected.

I am so happy to have my Internet service working so I can “schedule” my Skype calls to my family. It feels like an entirely different experience when I can talk to them regularly without worrying about paying over a dollar a minute in long distance fees.

Tuesday morning, I don’t even get into Sonu’s cab before he asks me about my leg. Is it pain? Is it better?

It’s better. It’s less swollen, at least. And the lesion doesn’t seem to be spreading. It’s just a big “c” shape on the back of my knee. I’m just hoping it doesn’t turn into an open wound, because then I need to worry about the water coming into contact with it. If I have an open wound, because of the bacteria in the water, I’m going to need to take showers without getting my leg wet—and that will be a trick and a half. For now, I’m just crossing my fingers that my latest Indian souvenir won’t blister and seep.

At work, I design a prototype layout for a study card that will accompany a graduate level textbook on supply chain management. The CEO also invites me to contribute to the Pearson India blog. I have to think of something good enough to say. I decide to let some ideas brew in my brain until later in the week (read: procrastinate).

Sonu drives me home. As I am getting out of the car he looks at me and says, “Smile, ma’am.” Of course I do. In fact, I laugh. But the moment feels a bit odd. I wonder what made him say that. Was I looking glum? Does he just like seeing my front teeth?

For dinner, I microwave my leftover pasta from Liquid Kitchen. Most evenings I find some excuse to go to the market. I need Scotch tape. I wonder what’s at the bakery. But this evening I stay in and catch up on my blogging.

After my necrosis diagnosis, a quiet night in sounds lovely—and is. Now if I can just convince myself that the poison beetle isn't crawling around in my bed, I should be able to get some good sleep.

Ma ma ma My Necrosis

At work on Monday morning I see Debamitra, with whom I had tentative plans to meet at the Lajput Nagar market. She asks if I called her. I tell her yes, but I missed her. She didn’t remember seeing any missed calls. I wonder if I dialed correctly.

She did go Lajput Nagar. She shows me her very cute sandals. “200 rupees,” she exclaims. “No!” I exclaim back. She was disappointed, though, that she couldn’t find the 100 rupee kurta man. I tell her we’ll have to go back there sometime together—and just to be sure, we’ll have to take my person shopping shirpa, Julianne with us. Julianne knows that market inside and out. Better than my Indian friends at work, apparently.


I talk to Shabnum about her weekend too. She had some men work on a window that wouldn’t close on her house. She didn’t have a very thrilling time, but it’s good to have the work done.

I tell Shabnum about the bite on my leg and ask what she thinks I should do. She says she had a bite once that kept spreading, and she had to go to the doctor for it. It took about a month to go away and left a scar. She says I should have my leg looked at.

I was hoping she’d tell me it’s nothing. Ignore it and it will surely get better. Instead I have visions of tiny flesh-eating worms making themselves at home in my knee pit.

Later I visit Amar in his office. He’s talking with Shabnum. How was his weekend? He ended up not seeing The Dark Knight because there were no tickets available on Sunday. Had I tried to call him? Yes. He didn’t see any missed calls from me, but that could be because of his wireless network. Shabnum had problems with that until she switched networks.

As I’m sitting in the office, Shabnum asks me if I’d like her to arrange a doctor’s visit for me. I’m so thankful for the offer of help. She calls and gets an appointment for 3:15 at “Max’s” near the office. So, shortly, I will be able to tell you about my experience with the Indian health care system.

Amar says Max’s isn’t very good, but it’s the only place near the office. Shabnum agrees. They’re not very good, but they’re close. I wonder what “not very good” means. They say the same thing about lunch all the time, “It’s not very good,” and lunch always tastes fine to me. I hope it’s the same kind of “not very good” at the doctor’s this afternoon. I hope it’s fine.

I still have no rudder here for the Indian concept of quality. People have to tell me I’m in a nice neighborhood. Otherwise, I don’t know it from the other neighborhoods I’ve seen. People have to tell me the food is good, otherwise, it tastes like all the other food I’ve tasted.

I wonder if I’ll get a better feel for this before I leave. I wonder if there are mites burrowing into my leg.

This may sound very bad, but I’m not alarmed; I’m more interested. Everyone seems assured that the doctor will be able to give me something that will fix the problem, if there is one.

I feel about my predicament just like I feel about the Indian traffic. It looks terrifying on the surface of it, it sounds awful when I describe it, but if I have someone I trust to get me through it, I’ll be fine.

Three o’clock rolls around and Shabnum comes to my desk. It’s time to go. We walk outside and try to find Sonu. "Roti," the front desk guard says, motioning to his mouth. Sonu’s off having lunch somewhere. It’s okay. We can take a bicycle rickshaw to the hospital as it’s just outside of the industrial park gate and across the other side of the highway from where we are.

Shabnum calls, excusing herself for having to yell, “Rickshaw! Rickshaw!” The man peddles off without stopping. We find another rickshaw driver. He doesn’t want to take us.

As we walk further toward the industrial park gate, I thank Shabnum again for going with me and helping me. She says she knows what it’s like to be in a new place and not know how to do even simple things. She went to Canada a few years ago to visit her sister.

We walk almost to the gate of the industrial park before we find some more drivers. This one will take us there for ten rupees. We jump in and he pushes his bike up the bridge. I suddenly feel like a Big Fat Westerner crammed into this little carriage. I think most Indians are smaller in stature than I am.

“This place must seem filthy to you,” Shabnum tells me. I laugh nervously. It does seem filthy. I think if I lie about it, I will not sound genuine. “It’s not one of the nicer places,” she says as we pass by a busted up, rubble-filled sidewalk.

The rickshaw driver finally starts pedaling and I don’t feel as bad—until he grunts. Then I feel bad again. As we turn out onto the highway and begin biking into oncoming traffic, my guilt is replaced by trepidation. Busses and autos and motorcycles are headed straight for us.

Shabnum says, “Now we’re on the wrong side of the street.”

I consider some responses: “Yeah, holy shit.” No, that’s not good. “This would be the right side of the street where I come from.” No, that’s lame. How about, “Um, are we going to live?” Once again, I decline to comment. If I didn’t need a doctor when we set out, I think, I’ll surely need one by the time we get to the hospital.

But, once again, the rickshaw driver gets us through the traffic safely. We don’t tip over when I think we’re going to tip over. We don’t get sideswiped when I think we’re going to get sideswiped. And apart from the metal bar that hit me in the back when I leaned against the cushion, I am completely unscathed. Shabnum’s apartment is right across the street from the hospital. She gets to and from work via bicycle rickshaw every day.

Shabnum gives the man ten rupees even though I offer to pay, then we walk into the hospital. There are rows and rows of people patiently waiting in the main lobby (no pun intended). The hospital lobby looks like a hospital lobby: wooden paneling and a religious medallion, only this one is Hindu. I think it might be Vishnu the Sustainer. I'm glad it's not Shiva the Destroyer. I wouldn't want to go to that hospital.

I give my name to the woman at the front desk, spelling my last name: K-R-A-J-E-W-S-K-I. She gets to the “W” and types in “UU.” I try to correct this, but have no way of explaining that “double ewe” doesn’t mean two U’s. I figure it’s no harm done.

She types in my information and sends us to a second desk around the corner where another woman asks for my birth date and marital status. She then leans back and says, “Four hundred rupees.” I wonder how they know how much to charge before the appointment happens, but four hundred rupees is about eight dollars, and who am I to argue with an eight dollar doctor appointment?

The woman behind this second desk tells Shabnum in Hindi that there will be a wait. Shabnum asks how long, and the woman tells her the doctor has a list and will take people in the order their names appear on the list. We sit down in a warm roomfull of people. A giant banner says, “The best thing you can do for Mother Earth is to plant a tree.” There are many such ecological messages scattered about the city.
I ask Shabnum more about the work she’s having done in her apartment. There are termites in the window frames, she says. She’s been waiting forever for these guys to come fix it and hoping the bugs don’t spread to her new furniture. “Couldn’t you get your landlord to pay for that if it happened?” I ask, knowing that the Indian legal system is labyrinthine and not good at ensuring anybody’s actual rights.

“I could,” she says, “but there are all kinds of loopholes.”

“Victoria,” a man steps out of the door and calls my name.

Shabnum stands up with me. “Do you want me to go in with you?”

“Would you? Just in case?” I ask her, then tell her I feel like a baby.

Inside the office Dr. Mukesh Girdhar tells us to have a seat, then he takes a gander at my name. “How do you say your surname?” he asks.

“Krajewski,” I say.

“Krajewski,” he repeats, then takes a big, deep breath, staring at the name. “Double ‘u,’” he says, “very unusual.”

“No,” I tell him. “It’s a W.”

“Yes,” he says, “double u.”

I give up.

“What is the problem?” he asks me. I tell him I think I have an insect bite, then I roll up my pant leg, stand up and show him the back of my left leg.

“Your diagnosis is correct,” he says, smiling. “But that is not why you came to me. I need to add something more.” He tells me the name of the bug that he thinks is the culprit. It’s a beetle with very venomous wings. So it’s not actually a bite. The irritation comes just from contact with the wings. I’m glad this thing only crawled across the back of my knee.

He says I have necrosis (or cell death) in the tissue that came in contact with the beetle.

Whatever you do, don’t Google necrosis or look it up in Wikipedia. You will throw up.

The doctor says it may take a month to heal, and it will likely scar. But he says it won’t scar as bad on fair skin as it would on darker skin. If I have to have a scar, I tell him, I guess the back of my knee is a good place for it. He laughs.

He tells me to take Allegra and an oral steroid. He also prescribes a topical steroid that I can use twice a day. He writes this all up in a legible prescription, and we are on our way. Shabnum says he was a good doctor. He seemed like a good doctor to me, but again, it's India; it’s hard to tell.

We stop at the chemist counter on the way out of the hospital. I hand over the prescription and they begin pulling pill packets from their shelves and counting them out. I rifle through my wallet and count the 500 rupee bills, hoping I have enough cash.

“124,” the man behind the counter says.

I think he may mean one thousand and twenty four rupees. That would be about twenty five dollars. I ask Shabnum. “No,” she says, “one hundred and twenty four rupees. Do you need to borrow some money?”

That’s two dollars and fifty cents for all the medicine.

“No, I’m fine. But thank you,” I say and fork over the two fifty. I tell Shabnum how cheap that is. Sadly, she says, a lot of people living here still can't afford medical care. "People like us can," she says, but not others. Many others. They have to go to government hospitals where the care isn't so good.

Outside we have trouble with the bicycle rickshaw drivers. They want to charge fifty rupees to drive us across the street, which is ridiculous in Indian terms. We go from driver to driver and they all refuse to take us or ask too much. I tell Shabnum it doesn’t help to have a whitey with her. They’re probably hiking their prices because of me. She says they do it to her too, though, because she is from Assam (another Indian state). Her native language is Assamese and she speaks Hindi with an accent. “They can tell I’m not from around here,” she says, and they charge accordingly. It’s not just because she’s got a white friend today.

We finally find a driver who will take us back for 20 rupees. Shabnum climbs into the little carriage. I follow close behind and bang my head on the way in—but not too hard. Just enough to feel awkward and dippy.

Back at the office, I email my friend who works in an ER about my adventure in Indian health care. He spreads the story around the ER and emails me back. I should take an antibiotic, too, to prevent infection. No problem, I tell him. You can get antibiotics at any chemists here without a prescription for a little over a dollar.

After work, I tell Sonu my story as well. “Madam, what time?” He wants to know when I went to the doctor. “About three o’clock,” I tell him, and he starts touching his forehead with his fingers over and over. He wrinkles his eyebrows. He’s upset. “Only five minutes I gone. I eat. Only five minutes all day.”

“It’s fine,” I tell him. “The hospital was close. We just took a bicycle rickshaw. It’s fine.” He looks a bit relieved.

“Is pain?” he asks about my bite--or whatever it is.

“It hurts. Yes,” I say. “But I have a lot of medicine for it. It will be okay.”

“Okay, good,” he says, and smiles.

Back at the Defence Colony I decide to walk to the market to get my antibiotic. I walk into the chemist’s and am greeted by the doorman. “Ma’am?” he wants to know what I want.

“Cipro?” I say. He points me toward the back counter. “Cipro,” I tell the two men there. They take out a packet of about ten pills. It’s marked 68 rupees. About a dollar fifty. I look at the packet for dosage information, but there is none. I remember the last time I took antibiotics. I had to take them twice a day, twelve hours apart, a breakfast/dinner kind of thing. I decide to do the same with my Cipro.

Because I have to eat a good dinner in order to prepare my stomach for the drug bomb it’s about to get, I decide to check out a restaurant I’ve had my eye on. It’s called Liquid Kitchen. I’ve been staying away as the place is intimidatingly nice. The guard outside looks like he got picked up at Buckingham Palace and dropped off here. The host outside stands behind a dark wooden podium. I ask him if I can see a menu. He shows me two. One is Asian fusion, the other is Italian. I wonder if the Italian will be any better than the stuff I tried with Susie on Saturday night. We ate above this bakery called “Angels in My Kitchen.” I ordered “Pasta al Fungi” and got rotini noodles in a thick, tasteless floury paste. It was a sad tease for someone who is addicted to Italian food.

The prices here are exorbitant compared to the prices at Sagar. Dinner will likely cost me ten dollars. I decide to splurge. Inside I ask for the bathroom so I can wash my hands. They send me upstairs where there is a staff of about ten people standing in a circle. They part like the red sea and make a path to the washroom for me.

Downstairs I find my booth which is set for six people with regular silverware and chopsticks. I order my pasta with my fingers crossed. Please be good. A chic Buddha looks over me and the walls are done up in bamboo. Chic music plays: slightly techno, slightly emo. Two men stand nearby at the ready with fresh, filtered water. I am the only patron in the joint. But it’s early by Indian standards. Only about 6:45.

Before the pasta arrives, they bring me kim chee: a Chinese cabbage salad. It has a light sesame sauce on it. It’s delicious. They also bring me a small dish of Chinese pickles: pickled carrots and cucumber. I almost don’t try them because of the terrible, acid Indian pickle I had with my lunch the other day, but I decide to hold my nose and give it a go. These Chinese pickles are nothing like Indian pickles, to my delight. They are delicate and fresh and crunchy, also with a hint of savory sesame. I finish and the waiter wants to know if I want some more. I forego second helpings. The food is so good so far that my hopes are really up for my pasta.

The pasta arribiata arrives and I am heartened. The presentation is detailed, with a halved grape tomato placed just there, a parsley spring here and one ring each of green and black olive.

This is posh—and I don’t need anybody to tell me so, probably because it is posh in western terms, terms I understand.

The dish tastes like something I might get in the United States. Better than the Olive Garden. There’s even garlic in it. It’s heavenly.

I finish half of the large helping and ask to get the rest to go. They want to know if madam wants dessert. Madam saw the dessert menu and it looked marvelous. Madam says yes. She’d like to try the tekko. It was one of the desserts on the Asian menu. Something having to do with pineapple and banana in coconut sauce.

The tekko takes some time to prepare and two people come in to do some business while I wait: a young woman and an older man. She’s trying to talk him into buying whatever it is she’s selling. He doesn’t like her price.

The tekko comes on a platter and the waiter serves me my first helping: one breaded pineapple wedge and one breaded banana slice. The pineapple has rice noodles around the outside and is in a sweet, white coconut sauce. The banana has an orange caramel-tasting sauce on it. It’s dastardly delicious. The waiter asks me how it is and I can’t even think of words. “It’s definite… it’s definitely good,” I tell him as though English were my third language.

He waits while I finish this first helping, then dishes up a second, then a third, until the dessert is gone.

When I am done, they give me a comment card. It asks for a lot of personal information. I just fill out the rankings. “Extremely good, extremely good, extremely good.”

Eight people thank me for coming on the way out, and the host smiles at the podium as I leave through the door being held open by the palace guard.

I may have necrosis, but I also just had one of the best meals of my life. It all balances out, I figure.

Before I go home, I decide I’m going to visit a chemist in hopes of finding the one necessity I have yet to run across here: feminine products. If I can’t buy these, I’ll have to ask someone to send them to me, and that could take a while. This is something I need to figure out in advance. I walk into the nearest chemist and gaze up at the shelves full to the high ceiling. There’s hair dye, diapers, cigarettes, in no particular order. The men behind the counter ask me what I’m looking for. I know Indian men are pretty shy about matters like this, and I was hoping I didn’t have to ask. I laugh a little as I think about how to ask for this in basic English. Will any of our euphemisms work? Feminine hygiene products? Napkins? What do I ask for? Finally I just say, “For ladies…” and look embarrassed. Thankfully, this does the trick. They point at a shelf right in front of where I’m standing. If I’d only looked down instead of up I would have found it.

I’m so glad to know I can buy this stuff here and I don’t have to rely on the postal service. “Thank you,” I say, grabbing a package and heading toward the front counter.

“No, madam,” they say, reaching their hands out for my “product.” They take it and furtively place it in an opaque black bag to hide the contents from sight, as though I were purchasing a snuff movie or a dead puppy. I thank them again, unable to keep from laughing. They laugh too and nod. The man at the counter takes my money none the wiser for the illicit goods I am buying.

I walk home with my leftover food in a monogrammed plastic container, my bag of “supplies,” and my Cipro feeling pretty accomplished. It’s been a long day and I’m ready for some drugs.

On the way, I run into one of my dogs and offer her a piece of bread from Liquid Kitchen. As per usual, she looks at it like it’s garbage and lets it drop to the ground.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

National Museum (un)Authorized Photos!

Dilli Haat

The Basics

Sunday I sleep late—right through church, not because of any nightmares or fear hangover, but just because I’m darn tired. I’ve been going to bed around midnight and getting up at 6:30 in the morning. I think I’ve racked up a little sleep deprivation.

Since I don’t have Sonu on Sundays, I resolve to just poke around at home and be lazy. I haven’t really taken a day “off” since I landed here. I’ve been running about and seeing everything and getting myself filled to bursting with new experiences.

Also, there have now been two spates of bombings in two days in two Indian cities. I wonder, on this third day, if Delhi is next. It is the capital. There are plenty of easy targets. I decide it’s best to steer clear of the crowded markets and auto-rickshaws, where it’s rumored that some of the bombs that went off in the other cities were planted.

After breakfast, I laze around in bed, watching the BBC World News until noon. Then I get up and read one of the plays Scott sent me, The Laramie Project. It’s good, but depressing: the story of the town where Matthew Shephard was killed.

I decide to check out what’s on the Hallmark channel, not because I would ever do this at home, but because it’s one of the only English language tv channels I get here. Hallmark and BBC World News. I get the Disney Channel, but it’s dubbed into Hindi, which is always amusing for about three seconds, then gets old.

We Were the Mulvaneys is on. I know it as a novel by Joyce Carol Oates, one that I’ve never read, so I figure I’ll watch. It might be good. And it’s okay, but depressing. It’s about this picture perfect family that totally falls apart. “Mom always said it’s nature’s way to scatter,” the narrator remarks.

Between the play and the movie and feeling a bit stuck inside my guest house and alone, I am utterly depressed. The first three weeks went so fast, but this day alone is an eternity. I tell myself to buck up, but on top of everything else, my leg hurts. That scratch is really bad.

As though he had ESP and could tell I was about to fall into a pit of despair, Scott rings up my computer via Skype. We talk for a while. I tell him I read the play. Thanks for sending it. I whine to him about my leg. He wonders if it’s not a scratch at all but a bite. I try to take a closer gander at it, which is difficult. Darn if he’s not right. There’s a circular lump on part of it. If it’s a bite, that would also explain why I didn’t remember scratching myself. But it’s no mosquito bite. It’s nasty. Scott wants me to ask the people at the guest house about it, but they speak so little English I doubt they’ll be of much help. Plus it’s getting a little late here. I tell him I’ll ask Sonu or someone at work tomorrow. He guesses that’s okay.

He’s going to go mow the lawn.

Okay, I say, but start to cry. I’m not so good with being alone, despite all my discoveries at the Lotus Temple. I miss him terribly. His smile. His warmth. His caring.

If he were here, he’d be nursing my wound and I could be the baby I want to be about the whole thing. But it’s no big deal. It’s good that I can’t be a baby. It’s good that I have to figure this one out by myself. Just like the tv and the door lock and the microwave and my alarm clock. This is another exercise in patience with myself, in confidence in my ability to handle things. It will be okay. I will be okay.

And all this despair is about my needs anyway, not a wish for the well-being of anyone else. All this despair is selfish. If I can just stop thinking about my needs so much and focus on others, I’ll be closer to feeling love anyway. How is my poor husband who I abandoned on the other side of the planet. Did I even ask? Or was I too wrapped up in the fact that I spent the day alone? It was probably closer to the latter than the former. I need to practice this wishing for the well-being of others in times when I am feeling sorry for myself. My voice was right. I wasn’t ready for a more complex answer. I need to get the basics down first.

All You Need Is... a deep wish for the well-being of others

Saturday morning I feel beat. It’s 9:30—later than I’ve slept the whole time I’ve been here.

I roll out of bed and notice a pain in the back of my left knee. It looks like a scratch, as far as I can see. Try looking at the back of your knee. It’s not easy—even if you do practice yoga. I don’t remember scratching my leg on anything, but it was quite an evening. I can imagine having scratched myself and not realizing it at the time.

Sonu arrives promptly at ten o’clock. The problem is that the technician from the hotel who has come to check out my wireless issues also arrives promptly at ten o’clock. And I’ve just gotten up anyway, and I’m shuffling around in a bit of a stress hangover.

I tell Sonu, “One hour, okay?” He hangs out downstairs with the guard at the gate while the tech works on my computer and I get ready for the day.

The tech runs a few diagnostics, then says there is a problem with the router. He tells me he’ll go downstairs and fix it, and I should have no further problems with the Internet. He turns out to be right—at least for the time being.

Downstairs I ask Sonu if he knows where Dilli Haat is. It’s a “somewhat contrived open air market” according to my guidebook, but all the locals (and the expats I’m hanging out with) tell me I should go there. They have crafts from all over India. Can Sonu find it?

“Yes madam,” he tells me. “Dilli Haat.” We pull away and Punjabi music fills the car. One of Sonu’s favorite songs these days is “Rambo Rambo.” The song is half in Hindi, half in English and some of the words I can make out include, “Like Sly Stallone I’m bringing the pain. The only difference is I got a Singh in my name.” I like Sonu’s music not just because of culturally mashed up oddities like this, but also because it’s just good music. I tell him he has to show me where I can buy some before I leave.

Then for some reason I tell him there’s a lizard in my room. I wonder how he will react to this news since he tends to be protective of me. I hope he doesn’t think the lizard upsets me.

“You like?” he says. “I like.”

Sonu and me. Compatriots. “Yes, I like them a lot,” I say. “They’re cute.”

“Cute,” he says, then laughs—either at me or at the thought of a cute lizard. I’m not sure which.

Shortly thereafter, we pull up to Dilli Haat. Sonu gets out of the car and points the way. “I stay?” he asks. I think he doesn’t want to go shopping with me. Especially without his phone to take snaps.

“It’s fine,” I say. I walk through a metal detector and a man behind a table says “Tikka,” which means okay, but he’s also motioning for me to stop. “Tikka,” he says, “Tikka,” and points. I’m confused.

“English?” I say. The man points me to another man who is sitting beside him.

“Tickets,” this second man says.

“Oh, tickets! Not tikka,” I feel like a dufus.

I walk to the front of the adjacent brick building and purchase a ticket for fifteen rupees. I return to the guards, laughing. “Tickets!” I say. And they laugh back. “Acha,” I say. Good.

Inside I realize what the guidebook meant by contrived. There is no garbage or rubble here. There are no men peeing. There are no scurvy lemonade stands. This market is maintained for tourists, but because it’s so nice, locals like to come here too.

I also find that the prices seem a little more fair and a little less prone to wild fluctuation. Shoes will cost you about 250 rupees unless you get the really fancy ones with lots of stitching. Jewelry is about 150 rupees. The blouses are around 300 rupees. There’s not such an exorbitant white tax here, which is a relief, as is the lack of the pushing, surging crowd you have to constantly battle in the regular markets. If it wasn’t 100 plus degrees, this would be downright nice.

You can still bargain a bit, and the shopkeepers still kiss the money you give them and bow their heads if you are their first customer. It’s not like this market is some kind of frosted flake commercial franchise. It just isn’t a daily market that is part of a neighborhood. It’s strictly souvenir-type goods.

I buy my sister-in-law some great bracelets. I buy my niece a cute little change purse (even though she can’t have change yet because she’ll eat it. It can wait.) I buy myself a pair of shoes and am convinced by the vendor to buy one more pair for good measure. His wife made them, you know. I get some kurtas and a suit I can wear to the Macroeconomics book launch next Saturday. The woman who designed the suit (and all the beautiful clothes in her booth) sells it to me. Here you can see the designers and craftspeople sitting in the booths making the amazing things they are selling. Dilli Haat is a real kick. I’ll have to stay away lest I fill my suitcase to bursting and have to leave behind my treasures or ship them home at ungodly prices.

I walk back to the car with my many bags. “I bought too much, Sonu,” I say, and he smiles.

“Where next, ma’am?” he asks.

“There’s an art museum by India Gate,” I tell him. “Can we go there?”

“Yes ma’am,” he says, and we pull out of the market, Punjabi music playing as it always is in Sonu’s car.

We near India Gate and Sonu starts speaking a bit excitedly. “Madam? India Gate?” He says a lot more that I can’t quite make out. Sometimes Sonu’s English confuses me, but he always seems to be able to understand me pretty well. I finally make out that he’s asking if I want to walk around India Gate. “Sure,” I tell him. I hadn’t really walked around it the first time I saw it. I just kind of popped out of the car, took a snap, and popped back in.

Sonu parks across the street and is careful to make sure I cross when he does. In addition to my driver, he is my trusty crossing guard. The heat is searing, so our pace is leisurely. Vendors approach, “Madam! Madam!” They have little airplanes that slingshot into the air, and bobble-headed dogs, and balloons. There is a Mother Dairy ice cream stand. Mother Dairy sounded gross to me when I first got here. I don’t really want to associate my dairy products with mothering (i.e. breastfeeding), but now I’m used to this ubiquitous brand.

“Sonu,” I ask, “did you get a new cell phone?”

“No madam. There is a money problem. Wait until next month. Next month cell phone,” he says.

I wonder how much a new cell phone costs here. I consider offering to take him to a cell phone store and buying one for him, but I think that might be crossing a line. Without a cell phone, I wonder how he talks to his wife and kids who are seven or eight hours away in Punjab. I know from my first day or two in India when I couldn’t even figure out the hotel’s phone how much being incommunicado with your family hurts.

I feel like an idiot for parading around and laughing about all my crap from the market when Sonu has to wait until next month to talk to his family. I don’t know why he isn’t completely annoyed by me. I think I would be if I were in his position. I think I will slip him a little extra money in his tips, and maybe that will help.

After we walk around India Gate, I ask Sonu about the museum again. There is a museum of modern art somewhere off the circular drive around the India Gate structure. Sonu doesn’t know where this is. He knows where the National Museum is, though.

We’ll go there, then.

I’m afraid I’ll be a bit bored at the National Museum, but it turns out to be fascinating: full of beautiful, ancient carvings of Hindu gods and Buddhas, and impressively refined Mughul miniature paintings in which the faces seem to have been painted with one hair of a brush.

They charge Indians ten rupees to get in and foreigners have to pay 300. If you want to take pictures, you have to pay an additional 300 rupees. I don’t pay admission for my camera and kind of regret it. The sculptures are beautiful, and I’d like to take some record of them home with me.

I get an audio tour for my three hundred rupees, and it’s actually pretty good. It tells me about a sculpture of Ganesh, the elephant god. Ganesh is the oldest son of Vishnu, the sustainer, part of the trilogy of gods I learned about before I came. Hindu gods have families, wives and children, and that’s where part of my confusion has been coming from, I discover. The gods aren’t necessarily willy nilly, at least Ganesh isn’t. He fits within the trilogy as a family relation.

Ganesh is good luck, the man selling baubles at the market outside the Red Fort said. Ganesh is the most intelligent god, my audio guide adds. He is celebrated as the remover of obstacles.

The audio tour then tells a story. Ganesh’s parents, Vishnu and Lakshmi, posed a challenge to their sons. Whoever would be the first to circle the universe would win. His brothers took off, but Ganesh simply walked a circle around his divine parents and, in doing so, won the contest.

I later try to check the particulars of this story online, but find when I visit Wikipedia that Ganesh is the son of Shiva and Parvati—at least according to Wikipedia, he is. Did I remember the story wrong from the museum, or is there a conflict here? An error?

India is famous for getting tourist information wrong, or making it up. At the Old Fort, for instance, there’s a plaque touting it as the ancient site of the Indraprasthan civilization—even though there’s absolutely no evidence of this.

Is my audio guide another case of bad information? Or is this a case of conflicting “truths” in Hinduism? Do some people think Ganesh is Shiva’s son, while others think he is Vishnu’s?

Just when I think I’m making some sense out of Hinduism, it all gets muddy again.

I walk past a Mughul miniature painting entitled, “Drunkard and faithful wife,” dated 1740. In it, a man lays passed out on a cot and a woman fawns over him. It looks to me like an early Saturday Evening Post cover, everything bathed in a soft light. Like the scene is supposed to be quaint. It still strikes me as strange subject matter. The rest of these miniatures are scenes of royal weddings and king’s courts. But not this one: a drunk guy and his faithful wife. Hank Williams could write a song about this one.

Another interesting stop on the audio tour is a series of illustrations of the Gita Govinda, a hot love poem that tells the story of the romance between the lord Krishna and the goddess Radha wherein they incarnate as a cowherd and a milkmaid. Hot.

Krishna, I learn here, is said to be the ninth incarnation of Vishnu, who is also called Narayana. So gods have different names and multiple incarnations in addition to whole families. So this explains a little more of the multiplicity I’ve seen here in the temples.

The audio guide tells me that this love story between Krishna and Radha is an allegory about the love between god and man. Coming from a tradition in which the model of love between God and man is paternal (God the Father), I find this interesting and somewhat disorienting. The notion of romantic love and the notion of divinity couldn’t be farther apart in my head. How could these two things possibly go together? Romantic love is dirty and sinful, isn’t it? Sex is bad, but we must endure it under special circumstances (i.e. marriage) because it’s our duty to maintain the human race. We can’t get romantic with God.

I finish looking at the sculptures and decide to forego the other open exhibits (many are closed for repairs). There’s an Indian navy exhibition and one of Indian coins that I’m sure my dad would like, but he’s not with me, and they wouldn’t photograph well as they’re all under glass.

On my way out, I decide to sneak a few snaps. What could they do? Kick me out? Make me pay the stinking 300 rupees? I decide to play stupid like I didn’t see the sign if anyone catches me. But no one says anything, and I come away with a few stolen photos.

After the museum I tell Sonu we need to go back to Defence Colony. I have to make a few phone calls. I’m supposed to meet Susie for dinner and I was going to see a movie with Amar. I get hold of Susie. She’ll meet me in the Defence Colony market at 7 p.m. I’m glad because I can’t stand the thought of another rickshaw ride home alone from Malviya Nagar where she lives.

I walk back out to the car thinking it would be nice to walk around Lodhi Gardens, but it’s threatening rain. I need another plan.

“Sonu, let’s go to the Lotus Temple,” I say, and he points the car in that direction and pops in another CD as the rain washes down around us.

Because the sewer system is so inadequate here, when it rains, the streets quickly fill up with water. Parking at the temple is difficult. I tell Sonu maybe we should turn around, but he guns it through a big mess of muddy water.

We get out our umbrellas and walk down the manicured path to the shoe check and the entrance. As always, Sonu takes my shoes for me and takes care of the little token that will get us our shoes back when we are done.

Inside we sit in silence. I close my eyes and think about the paintings of the Gita Govinda. I think about love, how the concept of romantic love is so very different from the concept of paternal love. Is it even the same thing? What do we mean when we say love? What do I mean when I say it? And, finally, what is love? We say it all the time. We sing about it. But what is it? What is love?

The question floats through the air of the temple and hangs there for a while. What is love? How can I not know? But I don’t. I can’t nail it down, put my finger on it, say it in ten words or less. It’s too big to define, too nebulous. But that’s a cop out. That’s an easy way out.

What is love?

More silence. A bird cries. The sound of clothes rustling. Then, I get an answer.

“It’s a deep wish for the well-being of another.”

Who said that? Was that me? This question/answer thing is getting weird. I think this answer came from me, but I want to argue with it. It’s too simple. Love has to be more complicated than that. I want a better answer. So I put the question out there again.

What is love?

This time I get something more like, “I already told you. It’s a deep wish for the well-being of another. Before you decide you don’t like the answer, think about it for a while, would you?”

I oblige this voice-from-wherever. I think about it for a while. Then I make a deep wish for the well-being of my husband. Then my mother. Then my niece. Then I tear up.

As comes naturally to me in the Lotus Temple, I then ask why. Why am I crying? Because I can wish all I want for the well-being of these people, but I can’t do a thing to ensure it. My niece could fall and skin her knee. My mom could get sick. I am powerless, especially all the way in India.

I get a little mad. I tell my voice it must be wrong. This can’t be love; it’s making me sad and frustrated. But my voice straightens me out. It’s not about achieving the well-being of others, it’s about thinking of them before or instead of or more than thinking about yourself: a deep wish for the well-being of others—as opposed to the self.

Do you get it yet?

Yes, I think so.

Good. Maybe we’ll do more next time, then.

Okay, I say, then just sit there in peace with a still mind, wishing for the well-being of those who I love. “Wait a minute,” I say. “What about all the different kinds of love?”

You have different kinds of relationships, my voice says, not different kinds of love. Love is love.

I open my eyes and nod to Sonu who is sitting patiently beside me. We can leave, though I could probably sit here all night.

Outside the rain has all but stopped and it feels cool for the first time since I’ve been in India.

“Ooo. Nice,” Sonu says.

I agree.

We pause, and I look at the aqua pools of water that surround the ground level of the temple. I feel like the water: serene, unperturbed, a world away from the anxiety hangover with which I began the day. I tear up again but this time it’s from happiness or beauty or peace.

I follow Sonu down to the shoe check, and we are on our way home with our soundtrack of Punjabi music.

We pull up to Defence Colony and before I get out of the car Sonu says, “Ma’am, you and I have the same problem.”

“What’s that, Sonu?” I ask.

“Your husband too far. My wife too far. Seven month,” he says.

“We do,” I tell him. “It sucks.” (I’ve asked him if he knows what this means before, and he’s assured me he does). I so want to buy him a cell phone. I so have a deep wish for his well-being, and I know he has the same wish for mine by the way he has helped me through my first weeks in India.

“Have a good night, Sonu.”

“Yes, ma’am. Good night.”

Amoebas and Dysentery and Worms, Oh My!

Before dinner at Susie’s place on Friday night, I asked her what got her friend Maggie so sick. Poor Maggie had to take a train trip through the countryside of India with only a hole in the train floor to use as a restroom while she was dealing with a severe case of the Delhi belly.

Susie says most of the time it’s impossible to tell what specifically gets you sick because it can take over a week for the symptoms to appear. So it’s not necessarily the last thing that you ate that is giving you grief. So, in my case, it wasn’t necessarily the idli I ate at Sagar that made me sick. This is good news, as the idli at Sagar was very delicious. I'm going to continue blaming the McDonald's in light of this discovery.

In Maggie’s case, however, it is abundantly clear what made her sick. She drank street lemonade. This is lemonade sold by men with little carts. It comes in dingy green bottles full of tiny lemons. They don’t necessarily use filtered water to make the lemonade, they don't necessarily clean the lemons, and they clean the bottles right there on the (very unsanitary) street.

“It was sealed,” Maggie said. But they also seal the bottles on the street. It’s clear Maggie exercised some bad judgment. But who am I to point fingers?

Even in this scenario, Maggie didn’t get sick until three days after consuming the nefarious bacterial brew.

I’m confused as to why I’m not just constantly sick. Don’t they wash the dishes in the bad water? Why don’t the dishes themselves get me sick?

Susie explains that once the dishes are dry, the water-bourn bacteria can’t live on them any longer. But if you get a wet dish in a restaurant, she says, send it back.

Still, there’s only so much you can do to be careful. One of Susie’s friends back home asked her how she takes showers. “Do you, like, shut your eyes and your mouth real tight the whole time?” he wanted to know.

We laugh. Susie says she obviously doesn’t drink the water in the shower, but you can’t be ridiculous about it. If you’re going to get sick, you’re going to get sick. You can be sensible and not drink scurvy lemonade, but being careful past a certain point probably won’t help you anyway. It will just make you miserable.

After Nepal, Susie shares, she had amoebas, parasites, and some stomach condition beginning with a “g” that made her whole midsection swell up.

“Oh my god!” I am horrified, but she is taciturn. No big deal. She had to take so many antibiotics that the medicine wound up making her even more sick on top of everything else. I try not to imagine what that must have been like. I try to imagine myself signing up for another extended trip overseas after such an incident. Maybe it’s like child birth, I reason. The pain winds up being worth it?

I resolve not to get amoebas or parasites—not that I know how to avoid getting amoebas or parasites, let alone the “g” disease. I’ll just keep eating at my posh guest house and the posh restaurants in the Defence Colony market and hope for the best. Susie was living out in rural Nepal with Shirpa families. It was a totally different situation, I tell myself.

Then she mentions de-worming. “Like we do to my cats?” I wonder. Yes. Like that. She’s got her de-worming medicine, but she’ll wait to take it until she gets home. There’s no sense in taking it here because she’ll just have to do it again when she returns to the States.

"You have to de-worm?" I ask.


Her sister-in-law (who she’ll be living with when she returns) is freaking out. She wants Susie to de-worm before she gets back to the United States. She doesn’t want her family catching Susie’s worms. Susie says they’re not contagious.

How do you get them, then?

“Oh, from anything,” she says. “From food or from walking down the street.”

I ponder how I can avoid food and walking down the street between now and October.

The University Travel Clinic didn’t mention de-worming, I tell her. Maybe this is just a Susie thing. Maybe I won’t get worms because I’m Vicki Krajewski, and I’m working at Pearson in the New Directions program. The worms will recognize that I’m special and steer clear, right?

“Should I de-worm too?” I ask Susie.

"Yes," she says unequivocally. I should. She’ll show me the stuff at a chemist’s some time. It’s just three days of pills. It’s no big deal. Or I can just visit the vet’s office with my cats when I get back, I think. In which case I’ll make Scott sneak the medicine to me in pats of butter while I squirm and meow. And he’ll have to rub my throat to get me to swallow it.

I pretend I’m not horrified by all this. I pretend I’m cool. I’m down with amoebas and parasites and the “g” disease and dysentery and worms. No big deal. No problem-o. Nothing a stiff course of antibiotics can’t take care of. Sometimes pretending helps make it so. They say if you’re sad and you smile, you become less sad. If you’re scared and you pretend you’re not, I hope you become more bold.

Then I think to myself, “You might as well not worry about it. Be smart about what you eat and don’t eat, but don’t worry. If you’re going to get sick, you’re going to get sick, and then you cross that bridge when you get to it.”

Whatever tendencies toward hypochondria I might have harbored are somehow banished. It just doesn’t make sense to worry about possibly being sick. When you’re sick here, I have a feeling, you know it. Amoebas and dysentery and worms, oh my!

Monday, July 28, 2008

Roti and Religion

Friday night after work, I tell Sonu to take me to Susie’s place. She’s invited me over to hang out.

We get to the Malviya Nagar market by Susie’s apartment with relatively no trouble (save a hairy traffic jamb that takes about 20 minutes to get through), but Sonu can’t find number 79A to save himself. We circle past her street about five times. I think I recognize it, but I’m not confident enough to tell Sonu for sure.

He stops innumerable times to ask passersby where is M Block? Where is 79A? We find 78A and 80A, but 79A is nowhere in sight.

After another half hour of circling, we find the place. I thank Sonu and tell him I’ll see him tomorrow. He can pick me up and ten and we’ll do some shopping or something. I get Sonu’s services for eight hours a day, Monday through Saturday, so he’s officially off the clock once he drops me off at Susie’s.

I open a big metal gate and climb the stairs to the first floor (which is really the second floor) where Susie’s apartment is.

She welcomes me inside and we wander into her kitchen where she has some hot chai on her camp stove. Camp stoves are standard issue here, even if musical refrigerators are not. It’s rare to have an oven, as Julianne does.

We talk about Susie’s experiences living overseas. She tells me about the 100 page paper she wrote about the Shirpa people when she lived in Nepal her junior year of undergraduate school. The Shirpas are a people and a culture separate from the mountain climbing guides as we in the west know them. In fact, until it became a popular thing to hire trekking guides, the Shirpas never climbed the mountain because they considered it sacred.

Shirpas have a kind of communal family system, Susie says. Each family optimally has three brothers. The first brother runs the mountain climbing business, the second brother becomes a Buddhist monk, and the third brother stays home and tends to the family. These three brothers share one wife.

I’m fascinated by the stuff Susie knows. I ask her if she’s ever thought about publishing her paper. I’d read it, I tell her.

“No,” she laughs self-consciously. “I don’t express myself very well in writing.” She pours our tea and puts the mugs on a little plastic tray like I’ve seen in the markets here. We walk into the living room where we chat some more about where and how to shop and who sells what. If I want to get a larger container of water, I need to find a neighborhood stand. They’ll deliver it for me. It might be better than using the hotel’s one liter bottles. Cheaper. I’ll see if I can check it out.

We sip our tea, then Susie asks if I’m hungry for dinner. “Of course,” I tell her. In a country where dinnertime is 8:30 or later, I spend a lot of time hungry for dinner.

We go back into Susie’s kitchen where she has a wall full of spices. She takes two large Tupperware containers from her fridge. Her “guy” made enough food on Wednesday to last for Thursday and Friday. She shops for him, buys all the ingredients he’ll need, then he cooks for her. What he’s made this week is a sabzi and a dal. The sabzi is a bunch of mixed vegetables cooked with spices. The dal is lentils in a gravy mostly made from tomatoes.

Susie has dough sitting in a bowlful of four. It’s for the roti, puffed bread that you use to scoop up the sabzi and dal. We’re going to roll out the roti and cook it fresh. You can’t really warm up roti and have it be good. You need to make it fresh for each meal.

She starts rolling and frying the roti, then taking it out of the frying pan and throwing it directly into the gas flame, where it magically puffs up like a balloon. It looks like no effort is involved until she asks me if I’d like to try. First you have to make a ball, then flatten it, then roll it once across in opposing directions, length-wise and width-wise. Then you have to do this kind of angle rolling to get the dough flat, thin and round. Then you have to slap it back and forth between your hands. Susie doesn’t know why. She just knows this is how the Indian family with whom she lived for two months did it. Even if you do all of this perfectly, if the roti is not perfectly even, it won’t puff.

I have to start my first roti over about three times because first I tear it, then I get it stuck to the rolling pin, then it gets stuck to my hand and creases. When I finally throw it into the fire, it ripples a little bit then deflates. Try again. This second time goes better, and my roti actually puffs. My third attempt, which I have to redo again because of problems with my technique, also puffs. To quote Meatloaf, “Two out of three ain’t bad.”

When we sit down to eat I make sure to pick the roti that I made. It tastes good, but I tell Susie she did the hard part. Making the dough is just as touchy of a process as frying it up—if not more so.

Over dinner the subject of religion comes up. I am having trouble trying to make heads or tails out of what I see over here, even though I did a little reading about the religions before I arrived. I thought I understood that in Hinduism there is basically a trinity with Brahman the Creator, Vishnu the Sustainer and Shiva the Destroyer. But I see so many gods and temples here that I don’t understand. “Who is Ganesh, the elephant god?” I want to know, “And how does he relate to the trilogy?”

Susie says I’m confused for a good reason. Even Hindus are confused about all of this, she says. She says if you ask them to explain why they’re doing something, their answer will be, “because that’s how we’ve always done it.”

I tell her we’re the same way, really. Every year I wonder why I’m putting up a Christmas tree, then I Google it to find out, then I forget again because it mustn’t make a lot of sense.

Susie says Hinduism and Buddhism are religions with no central truth, that the practices are contradictory, that there is no one text that everyone shares, that people have family gods and personal gods on top of the mess of other gods. Everybody makes it up as they go. She says the greeting “namaste” refers to the belief that there is a god in every person.

I know this phrase from my yoga classes at home. We end every class with the salutation. The way it was explained to me, I understand it to mean, “The sacred in me recognizes the sacred in you.”

Susie says that’s a watered down Americanization. That Hindus believe there is an actual god living inside every person—not a figurative “element” of the sacred, of the one true god. Buddhists think this, too, she says.

I tell her that’s not what the Buddhists in Iowa think. I feel absurd and somewhat defensive.

Susie wants to know about these “Buddhists in Iowa.”

“Are they culturally Buddhist, or did they choose the religion?” (Read: “Are they white kids who thought Buddhism sounded cool and exotic?”)

They are white kids. The Buddhist monk that I’ve been known to hang out with is my age, and he is from the suburbs of Chicago just like me. I know him as Wangden, obviously not the name he was born with.

Susie says that American practices of Hinduism and Buddhism have little resemblance to what actually happens here. I can see she has a point.

She has a friend, for instance, who tells her she’s going to a Hindu church. Susie says, “You can’t be going to a Hindu church because there is no such thing. You can go to a Hindu temple, but it’s not the same as a church. They don’t have ‘services’ for starters.”

Susie’s friend’s reply was, “I don’t care. I feel good when I go there.”

Is that what a church service is for? Being raised Catholic, I would tend to think otherwise. I would sometimes argue the opposite, in fact. “I feel bad when I go there,” could aptly describe more than a few services I’ve attended. So why was I going? From duty. From the ever-infamous Catholic guilt. To avoid damnation. Is that why you’re supposed to go to church? Or is feeling good okay?

I’m resistant to just dismissing these cultures, these practices, these traditions on the basis that they have no central truth. I think there is truth in these practices; I think I’ve glimpsed it, felt it—or am I projecting my American, Christian understandings of the universe where they don’t belong and make little sense? Because what I see here makes little sense to me.

Susie’s friend is searching, she says. She’s been trying out a bunch of different religions, sampling from them and seeing what works. She has another friend, though, whose been a little more serious about her search. She spent several months in an ashram, but now she’s Christian again. I think Susie may be telling me a cautionary tale.

She says Buddhism came out of Hinduism—a fact I realized without realizing the reality of what that means in practice. In practice, it means that lots of Hindu culture and practice seeps into Buddhism. And then there’s the issue of territory. There are different “Buddhisms” depending on the locale. Nepalese Buddhists, for instance, eat meat.

I am shocked. I thought all Buddhists were vegetarian. “The Buddhists in Iowa are all vegetarian,” I think, but this time I’m cool enough not to exclaim this out loud and sound like a total provincial wannabe dork.

The difference in diet is largely due to climate, Susie says. Buddhists in Nepal live in a cold climate where they need a lot of protein to keep them warm, plus the growing season isn’t long enough to grow good vegetables. They eat yak butter in their tea and eat yak meat. So do Tibetan Buddhists.

The Dalai Lama is a carnivore!@*?#! Okay, he’s an omnivore, but still. The Dalai Lama eats yak. It sounds like the end of a game of telephone—some message that started out making sense and got twisted into something random and in error.

I can’t believe it. I want to argue, but there’s no arguing with someone who’s been there and seen it. Susie’s not making any of this up.

Nepalese Buddhist kids, she says, wear a charm on their neck, in which they believe their personal god resides. But then, in Buddhism itself, there is no belief in a central creator god. Some people don’t even regard Buddhism as a religion because of this.

“Buddha was just a guy,” Susie says, “and he wanted to seek enlightenment, and he even told people that he didn’t know the way for them to find inner peace, he was just seeking it himself. And then he died and people venerated him; and now people worship him.” I never understood it in those terms. I understood that practitioners demonstrate respect for Buddha as an esteemed teacher of wisdom—not that they worship him as a god. Here it seems like both things happen, or neither, or something else altogether. As I started the conversation with Susie, it’s confusing. As she started the conversation with me, there is no central truth.

But there has to be. I feel like there are several truths at the core of all religions, regardless of all the trappings that go with them. All religions set out to answer our biggest questions: where did we come from, why are we here, and what happens to us when we die? We can start with at least those common questions, and then the fact that we, as human beings, deeply need answers to these same questions. There’s something universal about that search, about that longing to know.

Susie and I talk more about the wild diversity of beliefs in this country. There are the Sikhs who believe that everything is god, that god is the universe and everything in it. Then there are the Jains, who, Susie tells me, are like really strict Hindus. I think of our Amish population in Iowa.

There are some Jains who sweep the sidewalk as they walk so they don’t smash any bugs and accidentally kill them. They wear masks outside so they don’t inhale gnats and destroy life that way. They don’t eat the roots of plants because that would be like killing the plant.

Susie talks about another paper she wrote in college. She wrote way deeper papers than I ever did as an undergraduate. This other paper was about belief systems. In Hinduism, she says, they believe if you please the gods enough, you’re good. So most Hindus focus heavily on making offerings and worship, and don’t worry so much about their everyday deeds, i.e. how they treat each other.

This explains the Delhi traffic, I comment. But then I remember the concept of moksha from my visit to Akshardam Temple. “Don’t Hindus have the same concept of reaching enlightenment (i.e. salvation, loosely) as the Buddhists do? And to reach enlightenment, don’t you have to worry about how you treat others? Don’t you have to show compassion and exemplify good acts in the world?”

“Yes, but everyday Hindus don’t even hope to achieve anything like that. They don’t see themselves as anywhere close to it, so they don’t even try. It’s not possible. Just look at how they live their lives.”

I think of trying to “achieve enlightenment” while living in a hovel on the side of the road, possibly dying from the sometimes 120 degree heat. Again, it comes down to practicality. You can’t respect all life when there’s nothing to eat but yak, and you can’t ponder rising above this world when your basic needs for food, clothing and shelter are a constant struggle. Even religion is a privilege.

Before I know it, it’s quarter of eleven. Susie asks if I want to stay overnight, but I haven’t brought any of my things with me and I figure I’ll get home okay. She and her roommate walk me out to the main market and help find an auto-rickshaw that will drive me home for an agreed upon 50 rupees.

I tell myself this is a good plan. I tell myself everything will be fine. Susie tells me to call her when I get home. I say ok, and we’re off.

Everything seems to be going along fine when the driver suddenly slows and pulls to the side of the highway in a place I don’t recognize. “Defence Colony,” he says, and points at a locked gate past a median with three men in blankets sleeping on it.

I am having a harder time convincing myself this was a good decision. In fact, I admit this was a very horrible decision. One of the worse I’ve made to date, and possibly my last.

“NihaN! NihaN! Defence Colony! C-83 Defence Colony!” I tell the driver, praying that he’ll get me where I need to go and not leave me lost with these sleeping men in the middle of Delhi in the middle of the night. I look around, wondering if I should hail a different driver, but there don’t seem to be other rickshaws in the place he’s stopped. I could call Susie on my cell phone, but her number’s tucked away in bag and what good is that going to do anyway? I could call 100—that’s like the Indian 9-1-1, but I wonder if this number will work on my international cell phone. I wonder if 9-1-1 will work. But what good would that do? As I’m trying to come up with an alternate plan, he hits the throttle and the rickshaw slowly begins to move.

Troublingly, though, the driver takes me down what I think is a dead end that Sonu once drove down trying to find a shortcut. The rickshaw, though, rambles through a narrow gate where Sonu’s car couldn’t go. It appears we are actually en route to Defence Colony.

I am rattled but surprisingly assured, save the tremor in my left leg that has started to shake and won’t stop. I think, “Poor Michael J. Fox. He has tremors like this all the time.” Then I think, “Why the hell am I thinking about Michael J. Fox? I need to be thinking about how to get home.” Then I think, “If I survive this, my mom and my husband are going to kill me.” Then I think, “How could I do this to them? Stupid move, Vicki. Very stupid move.”

I notice we pass a police stand with police in it. I make a mental note in case I need to run out and find it again.

The driver is lost. He doesn’t know where C-83 Defence Colony is, and he’s trying to ask me which way to go. I can’t tell him exactly, but I know we’re getting close. Thankfully, there are guards sitting outside some of the buildings that I vaguely recognize. When the driver stops to ask them which way to go, I suddenly know I’m safe and he’s not out to kill me, but to get me home.

I realize now that I don’t have any change, but I consider paying this guy 100 rupees instead of the agreed upon 50 just as a tip for not killing me or leaving me to die somewhere.

When we finally pull up to my guest house I feel like I could melt into a puddle. I give him my 100 rupee note and wait for change. He says he has no change. I figured as much anyway. He asks the guard at the Ahuja Residency if he has change. The guard says no.

The rickshaw driver gets his 50 rupees and 50 more, and I have never been so glad to see C-83 Defence Colony.

The guard at the gate follows me into the building where he opens the door and turns the hall light on for me. Back in my room I feel like I'll throw up. I come close to crying, but I don't. A letter from Scott is waiting for me on my coffee table. More than reading it, I kiss it and hold it in my hands against my face.

Given the grace to have survived this incident in one piece, with no bumps or bruises, considering all that could have gone wrong, I promise myself on behalf of everyone I love to never, ever do anything stupid like that again.

I call Susie and let her know that I'm okay, then I crawl into bed and have a nightmare about losing my purse and my passport. All that anxiety had to come out somewhere.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Friday's Invitations

I was just bemoaning the fact that I hadn’t received any invitations from my Indian friends to do things with them; that, while I was very glad to have my Gringo Girls to hang out with, I wanted to get to know the people at work better as well. Am I doing something wrong at work? Is there something wrong with me that makes no one want to spend time with me? Am I offending the Indians in some way (perhaps my using my left hand too much, or perhaps by adopting Indian dress too quickly or not quickly enough)? Maybe I'm just unappealing overall. Boring. Or maybe it's my bangs. I am sure I have some kind of problem.

Then, over lunch today, Amar asks if I would like to go see The Dark Knight with him. He lives by the Lotus Temple and there’s a theatre nearby. I tell him certainly.

Amar also tells me a little about Indian etiquette. Do I know it’s impolite to do anything with the left hand? Yes, I tell him. I’m trying to eat with only my right hand, but it’s kind of hard. He chuckles. There’s also some confusing bit about the first floor being called “z” and the second floor being called the first floor.

“There are also some things about here that I don’t like,” he says. “When I first came here, this man, he was inviting me to his house for dinner and all these things and I thought, ‘Why are you inviting me when I just met you?’” This is a nicety only—and you’re supposed to refuse such invitations.

He also says in south India, when people shake their heads from side to side, it means “yes” although even to North Indians, it looks like “No.” This drove him crazy when he went down there for vacation a few weeks ago.

After lunch, I take a walk with Jonaki, the woman with the T.S. Eliot quote on her cube wall. The horn on her car is broken, and she’s taking it down the road to get it repaired. It’s dangerous to be on the road without a horn here. It’s more like both headlights going out would be for us. The horn is a navigational device.

Jonaki tells me she’s just returned from a trip to Dharamsala with a friend. This is the seat of the exiled Tibetan government where the Dalai Lama lives. She says she got to meet the Dalai Lama. I ask if they planned this in advance and she says no; it was just chance. They had just returned back from a four hour hike in the mountains; she was tired and hot; she hit the elevator call button and this pushy guy came out, telling her to step back. She was busy scowling at the man when the Dalai Lama walked right out of the elevator, right past her. She shows me the face she was making when she saw him. Her eyes narrow. Her head bows. She says once she realized what was going on, she smiled, but it was too late. She’d already scowled at the Dalai Lama.

They also went to a prayer service where the Dalai Lama said a prayer. She was halfway sitting, halfway standing, trying to decide what she should be doing when the Dalai Lama walked past her a second time, figuring, she says, “Hm, isn’t that squatting woman the same person who gave me the dirty look the other day?”

“Great story,” I tell her. I think of meeting the Prime Minister with my bad hair. It will be a similar affair, I’m sure. The mundane always rises to the absurd in moments like these.

Jonaki says she remembers seeing this old Japanese man in Dharamsala, all bent over, walking past the prayer wheels and turning and turning them. “Too see faith like that is amazing,” she says. I know what she’s talking about. Faith like this is on display all over India.

She says she’s taking a holiday next month and wonders if I’d like to join her. “No way!” I think. She’s going to a hill station and has reserved a double room. Would I like to come along? I tell her I’d love to (though I wonder if I should refuse this invitation out of etiquette), and I’ll ask Amar to see if it’s okay. I hope it is. I’d love to see the Himalayas.

Here’s the link to the place that Jonaki made her reservations at and the place I’ll be staying if I get permission to take a short leave from Amar:

Back at my desk, Angshuman’s phone rings off the hook. He is not at his desk. Debamitra answers it for him, but she is a bit too late. The caller has hung up. Here people regularly pick up each other’s phones. There is no voice mail. Or there is voice mail but no one checks it. I think I remember Amar telling me that on my first day in the office.

Debamitra sits down. “Why am I drinking coffee?” she asks. “This is supposed to be tea.” I agree. Why am I drinking this gas station syrup again?

The funny thing is when I finally got the food service guys to bring me plain, black tea for a day, I found myself missing the disgusting gas station syrup coffee. You become accustomed pretty quickly to different foods—like Julianne and the watery brown ketchup. I notice in the mornings that the jam I put on my toast now tastes normal and I’m not wishing for something else. I am becoming “totally Indianized,” as Soma told me the other afternoon.

I ask Debamitra what she’s doing over the weekend, and she says she might do a little shopping. She’s been inspired by my hundred-rupee kurtas (Indian-style blouses) and wants to find the shop that sells them in the Lajput Nagar marketplace. She gives me her phone number in case I go back there. I should call her and we can go together.

By the end of the day, I have three social engagements lined up with my Indian friends, and I didn’t even try to make any of this happen. It just did.

As a slightly socially awkward person who makes most of her friends by acting in theatrical productions with them, this has been a positive development.

I’m thankful for the kindness and caring I’ve been shown here by so many people from my driver to Julianne and Susie to my coworkers. And I’m slightly amazed at how easy it’s been to make friends.

I always feel slightly unworthy of being someone’s friend, so I come with bribes like McVittie’s biscuits. But here I’m learning I don’t need bribes and inducements. Not even for the dogs. Just showing up and scratching their necks is good enough. Just being myself is all I need to do.

On Security

In case you missed the news, there have been over a dozen bombs set off over the past two days in two separate citites in India. A group calling itself "Indian Mujahadeen" has claimed responsibility. They're a relatively new and unknown group of terrorists here in India.

To anyone wondering, I am fine. The targeted cities are far from Delhi. That doesn't mean, though, that Delhi is "out of the woods" so-to-speak, so I have been laying low a bit, steering clear of the crowded markets and public transportation. I needed a day to just rest anyway.

Because of the bombings, Delhi is on high alert. I'm not quite sure what that means, but I saw a lot of security here even before the recent attacks. At almost every tourist site and temple, you are asked to open your bag and walk through a metal detector. The Lotus Temple is the lone exception to this rule. There is no security check there, though there are guards at the entrances.

At many sites there is an entrance line for ladies and one for "gents." I wondered why they'd sort people like that until I had to go through one of these lines. These are full-contact security checks where metal-detecting wands go where no metal-detecting wand should ever go, where a woman will ask you, "What in there?" referring to your bra, just before frisking you in that general area.

Delhi's landmarks have an obvious security presence, but it would be hard to secure, for instance, the auto-rickshaws that course about the hundreds of miles of city roads. It would be hard to secure the busses onto which masses of people crowd. It would be hard to secure the messy markets. These are the security risks, and the places I'm avoiding for the immediate future.

Friday and Saturday saw attacks on opposite sides of India. The terrorists either took Sunday off or are done for the time-being. I'm hoping it's the latter but being extra cautious just in case.

By Popular Request

Here is Acha. Baloo was sleeping under a car and wasn't available for photographing on this day. I never leave home without my camera, though, so keep your eyes peeled for him!

Reality and Surreality Revisited

So I mentioned that I'm starting to believe the giant snail beast I saw on the night when I landed in India was a hallucination.

On the other hand, I'm finding some things I thought I hallucinated are real. Take, for instance, the shadow I saw out of the corner of my eye in my kitchen. A closer glance revealed that, yes, there was something in my kitchen: a lizard clambering behind my fridge.

And speaking of my fridge...

The other night I was working on my computer at the little bar in the kitchen and I opened up the fridge just to stare at its contents and see if anything looked appealing. After an interval, I heard a little electronic song, "Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home..." I closed the fridge and the song stopped. Isn't it crazy, I thought, how someone's cell phone from outside seemed to coincide with the moment I closed the fridge?

I hadn't given the moment another thought until the other night when I was, once again, gazing into my fridge considering, at some length, its contents. Out came the song, "Be it ever so humble there's no place like home..."

I wasn't crazy. My fridge was playing music. I tried it again just now, just to make sure. You have to wait a minute, but then, there's the little song, "Be it ever so humble..." It sounds like there's a tiny cartoon bagpiper in there, running out of air. It makes me want to leave my fridge open all the time (though I believe it's supposed to have the opposite effect).

I asked Susie if her fridge plays music to her, figuring this was some kind of Indian thing, but she said she's never heard a fridge play music to her anywhere in the world, and she's lived in Nepal, Hong Kong and India. It must just be the really posh fridges that play music.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Monopoly Hats, Lessons from Dogs and Dessert

Thursday’s paper has two articles of interest. The first one says “Pray this doesn’t happen in your city!” and discusses how the incidence of miscarriages has increased in Mumbai due to the bad roads. Yes, the roads are so bad in Mumbai that women are losing their babies.

The second article is a graphic box with text that reads, “Expect long power cuts today in east, west and south Delhi, basically all of Delhi. 6-8 hours. Workers will be repairing parts of the wiring. Make sure your inverters are charged.” Power cuts are quaint and all; I just hope the hotel has an inverter, which, I think, is like a generator—because without air conditioning or even a fan, the heat quickly becomes choking. This may be another meaning of the word posh in Delhi: “has an inverter.”

After breakfast I get in the cab. Sonu says, “Very old snap, this one,” and hands back a tattered and folded picture. “My wife,” he says.

It’s a picture of the two of them. He is smiling and has a crimson scarf draped over his head and shoulders. He looks straight at the camera. His wife is wearing muted pastels, has her hands folded and is looking down so much that her face is barely visible.

“Beautiful,” I tell him. “Thank you for showing me.” I hand the photo back.

At work, I get word that the CEO liked four of the phrases that I supplied for the Pearson India website. It will say: Live and learn, Learning for life, Chart your course, and Learning matters. There will be a piece of me on their new website. I’m flattered.

I meet with Vikesh from Marketing who wonders why we don’t try to sell some of the training we create in our department. “You should market the things with wide relevance and application, like email training.” He asks if we’ve talked to the folks at eCollege. They might be able to help. His marketing mind is at work. It’s more of the “make it happen” spirit I’ve seen so much of here in India. Whatever you’re interested in, you can do it, said Angshuman. And he wasn’t kidding.

At lunch, Amar gives me more of the history and geography of Delhi. We are in east Delhi right now (I make a mental note of this in light of the power outage article in the paper). Then there’s Lutyen’s Delhi: Connaught Place, India Gate, Janpath. Lutyen is the British architect who planned and built the colonial areas of town. These places have wider, tree-lined avenues. They are less crowded—or they were less crowded when they were planned. Some of them have been crammed up with just as many vendors as you’d see in an east Delhi neighborhood market. Some of them you can’t tell from the rest of the city.

After lunch I go for a walk through the streets of the industrial park that surrounds the office. I pass by food vendors. Some of them are fanning hot coals and roasting ears of corn in them on the ground. Others, many others, sell little packages of a chewing tobacco—I think it’s betel. Turns your teeth brown and spits out red on the ground. One cart has plastic containers of cookies. “Not even a morsel,” said the University’s Book of Dread when it cautioned against eating from street vendors.

I try to discern what the businesses around Pearson are—what they do—but it’s a challenge because of a conspicuous lack of signs. Pearson Education is the only large business sign I’ve seen in our development.

I pass by a mechanic’s shop and a truck full of oscillating fans, but that’s all I can make out on this, my first walk around the place.

I think I’m the only woman walking out there, and certainly the only white person. And I notice that whenever I look at someone, they are staring back at me. I smile, but they don’t always return the greeting. It’s rare that they do. I try to remember what the guidebooks say on this point. Should I make eye contact? Avoid eye contact? Did one book say that eye contact and smiling is provocative? I’ll have to check when I get home.

Either way, this minority feeling is a bit unnerving, especially coupled with the language barrier. I hadn’t counted on feeling uncomfortable in this way—and I have to say it’s really not that bad. It’s hard to describe if you haven’t found yourself in this situation. There’s no good parallel. It’s a vague feeling of being without a tribe, a family, a shared identity. They showed Barack Obama on the news speaking in Germany last night, and I looked at all the Germans and got a bit homesick for Iowa. It’s like everyone here is a piece in a puzzle and I’m the top hat from the Monopoly game. It’s a missed fit. A disjunction. And there is some discrimination that happens too, mostly by way of surly looks and exorbitant “white taxes.”

What is not at all parallel with the minority experience in America is the sense of disempowerment. I am not disempowered. I am not “stuck” here with no way out. I am not trapped in a lower social stratum because of the way I look, the color of my skin. If that were the case, I wouldn’t be feeling a vague and passing discomfort. I’d panic.

When I return from my walk, people are gathered around Angshuman’s computer. He is playing a news piece from IBN Live. They are profiling Upinder Singh and the history textbook Pearson is launching on August 5th. They show Singh in her personal library at home, looking very scholarly. They discuss how this is not a history of kings and nobleman, but a profile of the lives of everyday people including women. Singh discusses how it was important to her to incorporate themes of gender and document matters of the household. The narrator tells us that the book has no political agenda. “I see myself as a liberal historian,” Singh says. The narrator tells us Singh's students call her “U Singh.” She seems like quite an impressive woman. Amar told me that Pearson was going to fly her somewhere and she insisted on going economy instead of business class. The profile concludes by saying that the book took four years to create and is the only history book of its kind in existence, with photographic documentation of many archeological sites that are now destroyed.

I want to clap and cry when it ends. I am moved and proud to be part of a company that invested in something like this. “We took a risk on this book,” I’ve heard more than once. And it’s true. Publishing in India is notoriously a reprinting business: get titles from the U.S. and U.K. and print them on cruddy paper in black and white for cheap prices. Even the Brit at breakfast yesterday said this when he asked what I was doing here in India and I told him "publishing." Pearson Education is trying to buck the reprinting trend and bring solid, relevant Indian content to the students who buy their textbooks. This is an experiment. I hope it works.

In the afternoon, I finish the layout for the preface of International Financial Management and send a picture of an elephant to a friend back home.

In the evening, I walk again to the market, this time taking with me a piece of nan (Indian bread) that was leftover from lunch. The dogs will like Indian cooking, I figure. When I find them today, they seem no happier to see me than the first time we met. This is good, I think. They are wiser than I am. Everything in India is wiser than I am—probably even that enormous slug-snail I saw the night I landed here and haven’t seen since. These dogs know I’m not here for good. They know attachment isn’t useful. If I show up, that’s nice. If I don’t, that’s nice too.

They’re not even attached to food. They are so uninterested in the nan I can’t even get them to take it into their mouths. There is no feeding these dogs. I’ve never seen anything like this in my life! Dogs who don’t like to eat, but somehow aren’t skinny or starving? I think maybe the Indians are worshipping the wrong animals as I see a cow grazing beside a No U-Turn sign. These dogs are some kind of miracle: a model of Buddhist asceticism.

At the market I hope to find some Indian sweets. I go to Nanthu’s Sweet stand, but what is behind the outdoor counter looks suspiciously like street food. All dirty with flies in it. Not even a morsel, I think.

Then I find the Defence Colony Bakery. Promising.

I walk inside and am greeted by a giant shelf of Ferraro Roche chocolates. Not what I was hoping for. A man behind the counter repeats, “Cha bat a. Cha bat a. It’s Italian bread.” He holds out a tray for another man. “It’s crusty bread made with olive oil. Cha bat a. Cha bat a.” This must be a new attempt for the bakery.

Behind the glass I can see some homemade confections (in comparison to the imported, pre-packaged chocolates). There is a fruit cake and a tiny fruit-glazed tart. They’re not Indian, but they look really good. I remember the warning about not eating fruit with the skin on it, but, for some reason, the treats look okay. It’s probably all imported, I reason. Everything in this place is imported, including the box of Sour Jacks candies at the check out counter.

In addition to good restaurants, Defence Colony Market is the place to go for expensive imported items, I discover. English tea and biscuits. American Cheetos and Doritos. The boxes and bags are always a little smashed and dirty by the time they get here, but the stuff inside pretty much tastes the same (if it’s not too stale). I’m slightly disappointed by un-Indian character of my market, but it’s nice to know I can get some comfort food if I want it—I’ll just have to pay through the nose for it. The other night, two boxes of tea and a box of granola bars cost me upwards of ten dollars. That hurt. But I’m getting used to being overcharged in India anyway, being a white chick and all.

I return home with a cute little bakery box containing a fruit tart and a piece of fruity cake, which I devour for “dinner.” Finally something I don’t want to share with the dogs. Finally something better than digestive biscuits. I wait to see if a backlash ensues, but I’m fine. It’s strange here how you can operate on hunches once you get the knack. This food looks okay. That water seems fine.

Julianne tells me she eats at Subway all the time, even the lettuce, which I am told is a big no-no. “I don’t know,” she says, “I figure they have to keep their food clean because of Subway standards.” She’s been right so far. Or maybe she’s been lucky. Hard to say. I think it mostly all boils down to luck and the strength of your stomach/immune system. I think of the lime-scaled glass my Uncle Joe offered me water out of one time at his house and how I shrunk back in fear from it. “That’s okay; I’m not thirsty.” I told him. I should have taken the water. I should have eaten the dirty dishcloth that he wiped it with. I would have been better prepared for my Indian odyssey.

After I eat, I jog in place in front of the BBC World News for about thirty minutes, pretending I’m on my treadmill. It’s not the same, but it will do for the time being to help me “keep my thin.”