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.


auntlinda said...

wow!!! did not see that coming!!! how naive are we? well good luck with the dehli pickle your in put a lid on that sexy white chick thing

Nelle said...

You are such a kind,warm, wonderful person. Who wouldn't fall for you?

It'll be all right.
Your Friend,

Vicki said...

Aunt Lin! So you didn't see it coming either? Good. I don't feel so bad.

Ellen, you're a sweetheart. Thank you =) And thanks for keeping up on my adventures =)