Monday, July 21, 2008

The Island of Stop

By Friday, I develop something of a routine: get up, shower, talk to Scott, eat breakfast, relax and wait for the car to arrive. I can do this for three months, I think.

During breakfast, I usually try to make heads or tails out of the political stories on the front page of the Times of India. There aren’t two opposing parties here; there are many more. There are the BJP, the UPA, the CPM, the NDA and the NC for starters. One sentence, for instance, states, "Other groups like the TDP were pointing out how BJP had let the anti-UPA campaign down." Figure that one out. Once an issue isn’t left or right, black or white, it’s much harder to track. I'm so used to the polarities of American politics that I'm lost in this complexity. All I can really make out is that there is a lot of wheeling and dealing going on between the parties regarding the impending no confidence vote. People are exchanging money and promising appointments and favors in return for the vote that they want on this measure. Further, the outcome will be a matter or one or two or four votes. It's really close.

Friday at work I wear a warmer shirt. I found myself very chilly on Thursday. We work in the basement, and I guess that’s the coldest place in the building. If they turn the temperature up to make it warmer in the basement, the people on the floors above us complain about being hot. Debamitra, the film buff, tells me to buy a shawl at the market and leave it at work so when I’m cold I can just wrap up in it.

“Good idea,” I say, wishing that sounded like an easy task. I love shopping, but shopping here (at least for me right now) is hard work. The markets are so crowded with sights that I can’t see anything I’m looking for. I’m sure this is another matter of adjustment. And then there’s the white chick factor. Every price triples (at least) when the shopkeeper sees there is a white woman on the other end of his transaction. If you don’t know what something should cost and assertively insist on a fair price, you are liable to pay as much as or more than you would in the United States for most things. It all gets exhausting.

I have a meeting today with Soma, who edits engineering, science and math textbooks. She shows me an immunology text for which she had to work with artists on all kinds of illustrations and photos. She shows me the before and after: what the author originally submitted as art for the text and what finally got published. The change is dramatic and impressive. This is what development editing can accomplish.
Soma asks how I'm adjusting to Delhi. I tell her I'm doing fine, but it is an adjustment. She says it was for her too. She came here from Chandigarrh which is a very well-planned and clean city, she says. When she got to Delhi she was overwhelmed by the dirtiness of the place. But you learn to see in a different way here, she says. After a while, the city has an effect on you and you appreciate it for what it does and what it is.
Soma compliments my shirt. It's one of the kurtas I bought at the market with Julianne over the weekend. "You are totally Indianized!" she says. I find that I suddenly have no concept of what looks "Indian" and what doesn't. The day before I was wearing a market-find that I thought looked totally Indian, and Jonaki was surprised that I had found such a western-looking shirt at Lajput Nagar. This confusion must be what Julianne was talking about on Saturday when we went shopping. You loose track of your American sense of style really quickly in the whirlwind of saris and kurtas and scarves and shawls that swirl around you.

On the way home from work we hit a traffic jamb in front of the Sai Memorial temple. The stinky silver carriage shudders, then goes silent. Sonu turns the key to restart it, but it just whimpers. He tries again. A whimper. Again. Another whimper. Now cars, trucks, motorcycles and cows are swerving past us. We are an island of stop in a river of go. Horns wail. People yell. Sonu turns the key again. Nothing again. I think he should stop trying and we should come up with an alternate plan, but he keeps turning the key.

If I were with just any driver stuck in the middle of India in the middle of Delhi traffic, marooned, I can imagine that I’d feel sheer terror. But I’m with Sonu, and this development doesn’t phase me in the least. I know we’ll be okay.

Sonu says, “Madam, cell phone. Call Ms. Sonu.”

I tell him my cell phone is international and it will cost me big money to call Ms. Sonu. Can we use his?

He says, “No charge.” His phone isn't working. It's not charged.

I look for my cell phone but don’t find it in my purse. “Sonu, I can’t find my cell phone. I don’t have it.” I hope he doesn’t think I’m bluffing after being a cheapskate about the international call.

Now there is an irate Indian policeman in blue pants and a starched white shirt and a blue beret yelling at poor Sonu and flapping his arms like he’s going to take off. Sonu yells back. I sit, mute, in the backseat: the useless American without even a cell phone.

The policeman and Sonu yell and flap, yell and flap, then finally, Sonu gets out of the car and the two of them push it to the side of the road and into a parking space. The officer is satisfied. Sonu says, “I go find phone. Make call,” and disappears off across the street. I sit in the backseat of the car by myself. Beggars begin to knock on the car window. It’s an old woman, a middle aged woman and two small children. I think about the two granola bars in my backpack that I’ve been saving for myself and look at the two small children. The old woman is knocking and making a motion that I should give them money, and I’m trying to look away. Finally, I take the granola bars from my backpack and hand them out the window, one package to each kid. They smile and chew on the wrappers. The old woman motions for more. I have no more, I show her my empty hands, my empty backpack. “Food,” she says. Sorry, I have no more. Suddenly, two more young girls are at the car window. I roll it up, but they press their foreheads on it and won’t leave.

I don’t know what possesses me, but I snap a picture of the girl with her forehead on my window. Her eyes widen. I turn the camera around and show her through the window the image of herself. She points and dances and makes goofy faces. Then she poses. She wants another photo. I take it and show it to her. She laughs and points. She’d like a picture of herself with her eyes closed. Then she’d like a picture hugging her friend. A picture picking her nose. A picture flexing her arms. A picture sticking her tongue out. A picture with her shirt pulled over her head. More pictures of her more demure friend who bashfully smiles. I take as many pictures as she wants, and she wants a lot of pictures. Then the mother of the baby with the granola bar wants a picture of her baby. Then the old lady thinks she might have a go at it. I take the pictures and show them. I roll down the window so they can see the display better. At no point am I afraid these people are going to harm me in any way or grab for my purse or expensive electronic equipment—which they so easily could have. We are all laughing at this little girl’s antics and looking back through the crazy photo shoot when Sonu gets back to the car. He looks frazzled, whereas I had momentarily forgotten we were stuck in traffic at all. Sonu took on all the stress of this situation for me while I literally sat clowning around. This situation that could have been so bad and so scary was absolutely smooth and stress-free. Once again, I owe Sonu a huge debt of gratitude.

He says, “Car madam,” and I see that there is a large white car idling behind us with another driver inside. Once again, whatever I need materializes because of Sonu. I grab my bags, wave goodbye to my granola bar photo shoot friends and jump into the closest thing to an SUV that I’ve seen the whole time I’ve been here.

We are back at Defense Colony in no time. “Tomorrow morning at nine thirty?” I ask Sonu. I plan to go to the Lotus Temple, then pick up my friend Julianne to do some sightseeing at 11.

“Ten o’clock?” Sonu bargains. He doesn’t like getting up early.

“That’s fine,” I say.

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