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.

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