Saturday, August 30, 2008

Main Hoon Na


When I get onto Skype with Scott he tells me that Barack Obama is getting ready to speak. I turn on the BBC World News. They’re going to show the speech live. Scott hangs up so he can go watch. I stay in my room a little longer than usual absorbed in the speech.

Downstairs at breakfast I tell Marie I’ve just watched Barack Obama accept the nomination. She asks me if I think he can win. “There are a lot of rednecks,” she says. I’m afraid, I tell her, that the general masses of individuals might be afraid to vote for a black man for president. There are still rumors abounding that he’s a Muslim. When this is the fear, John McCain doesn’t even have to campaign. He just has to be white and Christian. Still, the speech was rousing. It was a historic moment and I am excited to have been able to watch it live.

Pachu serves me the icky red mango for breakfast, although I’m getting used to it. It seems mango season is still on, at least for the red kind, at least for the time being.

At work, I want to talk to people about the speech. What did you think? What were your favorite parts? I liked the line about the ownership society. The Republicans tell you you’re on your own. That was good. I know if I were at home I could hash over all these points with my coworkers, but here it’s just another morning. No one else tuned into the speech. My excitement is mine alone.

I once again ask Shabnum if she’ll make a doctor’s appointment for me. My eyes have been red and stinging for the past five days, and today was the worst of all. I have a suspicion that the situation is connected to the bubonic flu I’m still getting over, since it seems to have arisen at around the same time. I recall writing an email to a friend about how I looked like a meth addict while I was at my sickest, with sunken, red eyes. Still, I figure it’s safer to get it checked out rather than let it go, especially since it doesn’t seem to be getting better on its own.

Shabnum asks if I have a doctor in South Delhi. She’s concerned that the doctors at this hospital aren’t always the best. But it’s so close to work and so convenient. I tell her not to worry. If I think the doctor is no good, I can always make another appointment in my neighborhood later.

The subject of the movie comes up. Amar doesn’t like the singing and dancing, he says, as he always does when the subject of movies comes up. “Our heroes are stronger than yours,” he tells me, then describes a few of the most ridiculous Bollywood moments he can muster. “One guy had to stop a bullet, so he held out his hand like this,” he illustrates. “And then another time there were two bad guys and only one bullet left, so the guy takes out his knife and cuts the bullet in half, then shoots them both.” There is a healthy sense of the absurd in Bollywood.

Three thirty rolls around and it’s time for me to run across the street to my appointment. This time there is no fear and no worry about being alone. This time the visit is totally routine. Palminder knows how to find the place, and, at the front desk, they find my name, Vicki Krajeuuski, in their system in seconds flat.

“I have a four o’clock appointment with Dr. Rakesh Gupta,” I tell the young woman at the front desk.

“Will you be paying by cash?” she asks me. I nod yes. “Two hundred rupees,” she says.

Two hundred rupees? This is half the price of the normal doctor. I’m seeing an ophthalmologist today. I expected the cost to be the same or possibly even double. Instead, I get a half price sale. My visit will be approximately four dollars.

She gives me the room number: 2228. This is right next door to the doctor I saw for my upper respiratory infection. He was in room 2229. I walk right past the security guards at the stairs and to the reception area on the second floor. As I wait, I notice that each office in the small area has a very different specialty. The guy I saw was internal medicine. The office next to his is the eye doctor’s, and, on the other side is a door labeled, “Dr. Arun Garg, consultant, neurology.” There are no such things as departments here. I’m used to the University of Iowa Hospital where neurology would be a ten minute walk or a half an hour drive from the internal medicine specialist. But this is a small place.

I think this must be something of the reason that Shabnum suggested I try a different doctor, but I figure, “How bad can it be?” If I don’t like what the guy tells me, I’m only out four dollars and a half hour of my time.

The doctor walks past me and into room 2228 carrying a black leather medicine bag. Shortly thereafter he pops his head out of the room and calls me in. He looks at my eyes, shining lights into them and pulling at the lids. He tells me what I thought was the case: that the irritation is due to the illness that I have, and it should clear up when my cough abates. The bad news is that he says I should keep wearing my glasses until this time. So between my bad haircut and and my glasses, I look like Ugly Betty. The only things I’m missing are the braces. Oh well. At least it’s a step up from my previous incarnation as a meth addict. Dr. Gupta wants to see me back at 4 p.m. on Monday. I tell him that’s no problem.

He gives me a prescription for eyedrops: one to keep my eyes moist and the other an antibiotic just in case there’s a bacterial infection going on. I get the prescription filled downstairs for sixty rupees (just over a dollar), and I’m out the door in less than half an hour.

On the way back to the office, I look at the box of eyedrops. It’s labeled: “FMLT – Tobramycin Sulfate.” Shit. I’m allergic to sulfa drugs. I think I have two options. I could just not use the drops and see if my eyes clear up by themselves, or I could go back and ask for a different prescription. I tell Palminder, “We have to go back.”

He turns the car around and has me back at the hospital in just a few minutes. I climb the stairs and knock at the door of 2228. Dr. Gupta tells me I don’t have anything to worry about, that lots of antibiotics have a sulfate in them. I press him. “Are you sure?”

He pauses. “Okay, I will just take the antibiotic out. This way, you can be sure. I will just write it for FML, no ‘T.’” He writes me a new prescription which I also get filled. I’m still back at the office in less than an hour from the time I left.

Back at my desk, I do a little research. I’m curious now as to whether the doctor is right and I can take the antibiotic drops. I’d rather use them if they’re safe, just to be sure I’m treating any possible infection in my eyes. I want to get back to wearing my contacts sooner rather than later because, although my glasses complete my Ugly Betty mystique, it really irritates me to have something sitting on my face. I’m very unused to them.

After some poking around, I find this on a message board:

Sulfa is short for sulfamethoxazole. Some people are allergic to sulfa
antibiotics such as sulfamethoxazole, which is found in the combination
antibiotics Bactrim and Septra. Sulfate, also spelled sulphate, is a chemical
term that identifies specific salts containing sulfur. Sulfur is a mineral
that's found naturally in animal protein (including meat, poultry, fish and
eggs), dried beans and other vegetables. Sulfa antibiotics don't contain

So it is safe. I feel kind of bad that I doubted the doctor, but, hey, I didn’t want blisters on my eyeballs on top of everything else I’ve had to deal with. I open up the container of drops only to find that they are completely sealed. I’ll need a needle or a pair of scissors to pierce the end of the dropper before I can take my first dose.

After work, I stop by Defence Colony to get my cell phone charger. We make a quick pit stop in the market to buy some two-liter bottles of soda, then Palminder drives me off to Julianne’s for movie night.

Palminder has a bit of a challenge finding the place, and when we finally pull up at what appears to be the address, it looks completely unfamiliar. There is a name plaque that says “Freedom Fighter” in black marble on the front of the gate. Was that always there, or have we found the wrong place entirely? I make Palminder wait in the car while I knock on the door.

After a few seconds, I hear Julianne’s perky voice. It is the right place. I guess I just didn’t notice the freedom fighter plaque before. I get my soda from the car and give Palminder his tip. I tell him I’ll call him tomorrow, and he says, “Goodnight madam.”

Inside, we look at Julianne’s movie collection. She has a bunch of Hindi films with English subtitles. It’s hard to pick which one to watch. Susie sends a text message. We shouldn’t wait for her to order food. She’ll be over with her friend Gloria in just a bit. We order two pizzas from Pizza Hut: one spicy veg, one chicken Hawaiian.

Julianne’s roommate just got back from Hong Kong. She has friends over, one of whom is just getting over something that sounds very familiar: she was shaking with cold when the air wasn’t even on. They eat Chinese noodles at the kitchen table and talk quietly.

Susie arrives before the pizza does. She is wearing the cutest skirt with big flower appliqués on it. She got it at Sarojini Market. I think I’ll have to go there sometime.

Her friend, Gloria, from Texas, is staying with her for the immediate future. She has small eyes and a tight ponytail and speaks so quietly she almost makes no sound at all. She has just been evacuated because of the flooding in Bihar, where she has been working as a nurse for a year and a half. We ask what kinds of cases she sees. “Mostly childbirth,” she says, then adds, “Snake bites. A lot of snake bites… tuberculosis…”

Childbirth, snake bites and tuberculosis. She says she can’t wait to get back. I am in wonderment.

We decide to watch Main Hoon Na. It means something like, “I am here.” It’s a complicated movie, but then, when you have three hours to develop your storyline and characters, you can get as complicated as you like.

There is going to be a prisoner exchange between India and Pakistan, but a rebel in India wants to put a stop to it. He threatens to harm the head of the military’s daughter, who is in school at Darjeeling (a film location that looks absolutely beautiful). “I have to go there!” Susie exclaims when she sees the white peaks in the background.

The hero of the film is sent to the school to go undercover and protect the military head’s daughter. While he is at the school, he also tries to make amends with his estranged mother and half brother, but they don’t know who he is. You see, he is a bastard child and his father left his mother and half brother to raise him. His father dies in the beginning of the movie and it’s his dying wish for the hero to unite the family. I told you it was complicated.

The best part of the whole film, hands down, is a high action chase sequence in which the hero chases an SUV full of bad guys while driving a bicycle rickshaw that starts on fire. There are a few shots reminiscent of ET when the rickshaw jumps through the sky in slow motion.

Runners up to this scene are the slow motion fights in which the hero flys and, yes, dodges bullets much like the Matrix; and, of course, the big dance numbers in which the hero falls in love with the sexy new chemistry teacher at the school. The way in which the heroine is lit and the fans blow her hair every time she appears on camera seems to show that the film makers are wise to the cheese they are purveying. There is a nice sense of comedy in the storyline, as well as action and drama.

Despite, or perhaps because of, its cheesiness, I am completely drawn into the movie. Like most things Indian, it is a project, an effort. You don’t just sit lightly down to a movie. You need to invest three hours of your time. Just like you don’t just take a little trip to the mountains. You need to be ready to sit on a bus for a day. A whole day, if need be.

Time here stretches on. You need a lot of it. But I have a lot of it right now, so it suits me.

I stay overnight at Julianne’s because it would be too late to go home by myself once the movie is through.

She is the sweetest host, digging out clean sheets and pajamas and even an alarm clock so I don’t miss my Skype date with Scott in the morning.

One more day in India done.

Friday, August 29, 2008

A Night On the Town


This morning on Skype, Scott delivers the news. 44 more days. At the time this sounds great to me. I am chipper. It sounds like it will fly by. It sounds easy. I can do it.

George and Marie are at breakfast again. Marie describes an Italian restaurant over by D block in Defence Colony where a girl can get some wine. I still don’t think I can find it on my own, though. I wish I had better spatial orientation.

Marie reads the paper. George asks her what’s happening in the world. She’s concerned about a hostage situation in Pakistan. Who do they negotiate with? Musharaff, the former president, is ousted and there’s no one in his place yet. Pakistan is bad enough when there’s a stable government, she says. Now there’s an unstable situation, and a little thing like a hostage crisis could lead to war. They could get the military involved and it could flare up.

I walk outside to find the nice, white car back to drive me to work. Inside, Palminder sits unceremoniously, with no sign or mention of Sonu. Sonu, like I thought, is not coming back. And though that is probably good, I still miss him. It’s nice to have a personal tour guide to a strange city. And while I didn’t love him, I certainly did feel cared about while he was my driver. And who wouldn’t miss that, especially while 7,000 miles away from their friends and family?

At work, Amar stops by my desk. He tells me about a campus visit he made to discuss the Macroeconomics book. He asked a professor how his students would react to the book. The professor told him that his students don’t like it if he recommends Indian authors. They assume books by Indian authors are substandard. And here’s another problem with getting the book adopted. It’s organized in an alternative fashion. Instructors want to teach the subject in the way they learned it. They don’t want to do anything new. They don’t want to re-learn. So Amar is trying to write up responses to these objections for the salespeople to use in the field.

Trying to finish up my second chapter in the finance book, I break out my iPod. The Eagles sing about a peaceful and easy feelin’ and it is about as dissonant an experience as I’ve had here. It’s like putting peanut butter on filet mignon. The Eagles and India don’t mix. It’s been such a long time since I’ve heard those laid back guitar chords. Indian popular music is all complex angles, driving percussion and tortured sounding wailing. I listen to U2 and Bob Dylan and Jack Johnson and Stevie Nicks and get a little sick to my stomach. 44 days. It sounds like forever. Maybe I will go back to counting in weeks. It’s a smaller number. There are just six left after this one ends, and it’s already Thursday.

But where did my emptiness go? This is a perfect example of one fact that I’ve now reacted to with polar emotions: glee and dread. Still, the whole time, the fact of the 44 days remains. It’s just a fact. I may as well make the most of this time rather than belabor every moment in some kind of drawn out count down. I only have 44 days left to learn about India. 44 days left to learn about myself while I’m here. 44 more blog entries. 44 more breakfasts. They will go by one way or another. Why not remind myself that each of these is an opportunity that I will only have once? 44 more opportunities. Now that’s something I can deal with.

I run into Jonaki in the hallway and we talk about our plan to go to the Sue Townsend reading tonight. She’s a British novelist who writes in the voice of the fictional character Adrian Mole. He is a precocious thirteen-year-old with a comically epic crush on a girl at school and a dysfunctional family that complicates his tortured adolescence at home. The First City Theatre Foundation stages readings of different authors’ work every two weeks in this little space called The Attic in Connaught Place.

Connaught Place is the closest thing Delhi has to a downtown. It is made up of two large traffic circles filled with stacks of shops and restaurants and street vendors and offices.

We will have to take two separate vehicles to get there. But how will we each find the building? Then how will we find each other? And where will we park? Jonaki says we should be prepared to get caught in traffic both on the way there and on the way home. Six o’clock and eight o’clock are both rush hours with tons of people leaving the office. It would be so much easier not to go. “I hope this thing is worth it,” she says, as she walks back to her desk. I agree.

Outside with Jonaki and Shabnum after lunch, we talk about Bollywood. The whole office is getting ready to go out and see this movie that premiers tomorrow, Rock On, so there is an air of excitement buzzing about. Yajnaseni and Shinjini have collected 140 rupees from everyone going, and they’ve just set out to get the tickets and some ice cream while they’re at it. I was invited to the extravaganza, but had to turn it down because I’d already made plans with Julianne for the evening. I’m somewhat relieved I’m not going when I discover that the movie is three hours long, so it would have gotten over after ten o’clock at night, then I would have had to find my way home somehow. I probably could have shared a cab with someone, but still. One of the problems with India is it’s always easier not to go. It’s hard to get anywhere and do anything. You have to be up for a challenge.

Jonaki and Shabnum laugh at the kinds of dances they do in the movies. Jonaki describes this one particular scene and mimics it reservedly, worried about passersby thinking she’s “crazy.” I shudder to think what passersby might think of one of my arm-waving storytelling episodes. I have noticed that my general demeanor is what Indians would call “very dramatic” in comparison to that of my peers, as if I didn’t stick out enough.

We talk about how male Bollywood heroes appear feminine in comparison to their Hollywood counterparts. They have long hair and soft features. Then they mention Salman Khan. He’s an aging hero with an alcohol problem who, while drunk, ran over four sleeping street people. For his crime he had to pay something like a thousand rupees (twenty dollars) and spend six months in jail. Before coming here I read somewhere that life in India is cheap, but four deaths for twenty dollars puts a new perspective on that statement for me.

In the afternoon, I finally finish my 66-page finance chapter and transmit it to Shabnum for her review. We’ll have to go over the notes I took since I compared the changes the author made to the ones that the reviewers requested and they didn’t match up one-to-one.

At six o’clock, I walk over to Jonaki and Shabnum’s desks to find them and Soma wrapped up in their shawls, shivering. It is freezing by their workstations. I fold my arms and try to slough off my own goose bumps. Jonaki wants to organize a complaint. She wants everyone to send an email at the same time about how cold it is. But there are general mutterings that this will be of no use anyway. Of course there is the hope that if I put their complaint in my blog, something will magically happen. I tell them we can only hope.

Jonaki passes off her leftover sprouts from lunchtime to Preeta, and we pack up and go. Outside in the searing heat, Jonaki talks to Palminder in Hindi, explaining our plan and the location we need to find. Palminder knows how to get there. He will lead, and Jonaki will follow in her car. Jonaki gets his cell phone number just in case we get separated, and we take off.

We get separated immediately because he doesn’t wait for her to get into her car. She calls us just as we’re headed toward the gate. Palminder is busted. He pulls the car to the side of the road and waits for her to appear behind us. A family of monkeys strolls down the sidewalk on their knuckles. Jonaki appears behind us and we pull away, proceeding a little more slowly than usual. As we’re driving I pay attention to who’s behind the wheels of the cars around us. I’d say that maybe one in every thirty drivers is a woman. Jonaki is a brave soul and a pioneer of sorts.

Just past Akshardam World, Palminder pulls the car to the side of the highway. He looks at me in the rearview mirror and grins. “Very slow driver,” he drawls. We are waiting for Jonaki to catch up with us. She eventually does, and we pull into the flow of traffic again.

We have to do the same thing just past the radial road around India Gate, only Jonaki doesn’t appear. We’ve lost her. Palminder’s cell phone rings. He gives her directions and hangs up.

“Tikka hay?” I ask. Is it okay?

“Tikka,” he says, “No ma’am, no problem. Circle is round.”

Yes, most circles are round, I think, wondering what he means by this last comment. As long as he thinks Jonaki’s going to find us, I’m happy.

We wait for, maybe, five minutes and she appears behind us again, gripping the wheel and peering out from over it. Jonaki is about four feet, eleven inches tall, but she is behind us again and we are underway.

We get to Connaught Place at about ten minutes after seven and turn down a twisting, narrow alleyway behind the shops. There seem to be only men and barking, stray dogs back here. It doesn’t look to be a good place for two women to hang out. Palminder stops the car and gets out to talk to Jonaki. She gets out of her car and gives him the keys. He backs up and parks her car for her, then returns to the taxi.

I tell him we’ll meet him here in about an hour and a half, but he interrupts me and tells me to get back in the car. He’s going to drive us both to the front of the shops, and he’ll pick us up there too. This is a relief. I don’t like the alley.

We get out of the car in front of the Connaught Place McDonald’s. It’s a recognizable landmark we’ll be able to use as the place to get picked up as well. Now we just have to find the address: 36 Regal Building. There are no signs on the businesses. Men come up to us and shove packages of handkerchiefs our way. Jonaki approaches a table lit up by a gaslight where vendors are selling jeans. She asks them in Hindi for the place. They tell us it’s around the corner. We wander. “We are so late,” she says.

“Maybe they’ll start late, too,” I say hopefully.

“That’s Indian time,” she says.

We ask more people for the building. We find a bank labeled 30 Regal Building and a restaurant labeled 57. We think we’re going in the right direction when the buildings end altogether and the alleyway opens up. I forget that in India, the addresses don’t progress logically in a line. My building, for instance, C-83 Defence Colony, is down a block that is labeled “47-58.” We return to Jonaki’s method of asking strangers for directions.

Finally two gentlemen point us up a marble staircase. There are no numbers posted, but we do see the playbill for the event at the base of the stairs. This must be the right direction.

At the top of the stairs is a large, carved wooden door with a giant iron handle. It looks like the door was stolen from the Tower of London. Jonaki leans into it and it gives way. Inside it is dark. We hear a voice. This is the place, and the reading is well underway.

A series of wooden folding chairs are set into rows, with an area of cushions on the floor at the front. All the seats are taken except the cushions at the front, which we don’t want to crawl over to in the middle of the reading.

A young man sits with photocopied pages stapled at the corner in the middle of a white brick proscenium arched opening. A single stage light hangs behind him. He reads in the voice of thirteen-year-old Adrian Mole a series of diary entries about how his best friend stole his girl. The actors are Indian, but the audience is surprisingly white. I feel like I am entitled to make friends with everyone here by virtue of this fact, and by virtue of the fact that we are at a theatre event, and I am a bonafide “theatre person.”

The reading is funny. Adrian Mole is comically tortured by all the typical adolescent woes (e.g. bad skin, disappointed parents and a galloping sex drive), and he writes tortured poetry with bad rhyme to commemorate his struggles. The readers do a nice job of creating the character. They are sincere, not clowning, and so let you grow fond of the mislead A. Mole (as he signs all his poems). When they finish a brisk 40 minutes or so after we arrive, Jonaki asks if we should go up and congratulate them. Why not? We walk onto the big Persian rug in the stage area and shake Momo’s hand. He says to come back in two weeks. They’ll be doing another reading, this time of Italo Calvino’s work. I’ve read Calvino and found it beautiful. I hope I can return to hear them again.

Jonaki wants to know if I want some tea, but I’m concerned with getting home in time for my evening Skype call with Scott. I don’t think I’d mentioned going out tonight to him, and so wouldn’t want him to worry if I just suddenly wasn’t there for our daily date.

We walk back to the McDonald’s just a few doors away from where we saw the reading. Jonaki calls Palminder on his cell. While we wait, more men want to know if we want handkerchiefs. Vendors spread out on the sidewalk with leather belts and t-shirts and lemonade and food, illuminating their merchandise with naked bulbs affixed to red gas tanks. Palminder pulls up right where we’re standing and we hop into the taxi for the ride back to the alley to fetch Jonaki’s car.

Two geometric turns into the narrow alley, it appears that a truck is blocking the way. It is broken down and there is a tow truck in front of it. Palminder backs up and somehow squeaks our car around the obstruction, but when we get to the other side, we see that this scene is unfolding right in front of where Jonaki’s car was parked. She hops out of the car. Palminder follows her. There is a parking attendant who took her keys. Her car has been moved. It is actually free of the broken down truck, down another bend in the alley, by a food vendor set up on the ground. It strikes me as a small miracle that she finds her car and it is there, in tact.

Palminder gives her some directions so she can get home okay. She will be able to follow us out of the alleyway and through the confusing inner and outer circles of Connaught Place.

It isn’t easy, and I know it’s even harder for Jonaki than it is for me. All I have to do is sit in the back seat and gaze out at the night. Jonaki has to drive. Still, I hope she feels like it was worth it. It was a fun cultural event.

If we come back for the Calvino reading, I’ll make sure to tell Scott about it so I don’t have to worry about getting home early. It would have been fun to grab a bite to eat afterwards, or mingle a little more with the audience and the actors. They seemed like friendly people.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

How's My Emptiness?


Wednesday breakfast, George is downstairs again. This time his colleague, Marie, joins us. Though she is obviously also British, she wears Indian dress and speaks to Mira in Hindi. Turns out she used to live in Defence Colony. She recommends Swagarth, a restaurant I haven’t been to yet, for their prawn curry. It’s owned by the same people as Sagar’s, my favorite place, so it’s probably equally good.

Palminder shows up in a silver car that looks like it’s driven to Mars and back and not done a good job of avoiding the meteor showers along the way. When I get in, the cab is full of exhaust fumes that get me feeling sick to my stomach. Once we get underway, I either get used to the fumes or they disperse. I wonder if I’m getting carbon monoxide poisoning but think since I don’t feel like I’m going to pass out or fall asleep that it’s probably fine.

At work, I start feeling antsy and hungry before lunchtime. Sucking exhaust must stimulate the appetite, so I decide to walk out to the nala vendor and buy some biscuits. When I get there, the little ledge that is usually filled with packages of biscuits is empty. I ask for biscuits anyway, hopefully, but the wallah holds out empty hands. No biscuits. I buy a package of salted peanuts instead. These will have to do.

I wait until almost one thirty and wander over to Amar’s office to have lunch. We usually eat between one and one thirty. I peak my head in and he says, “Come in. Come in.” But when I look to the bookshelves where our lunch buckets usually are, I see they are bare. Amar dials up the pantry. Where are our lunches? The daba wallah has set out late. He has just left. Lunch will be late today.

I’ll have to get by a little longer on my bag of peanuts. Amar goes out to smoke and I return to my financial management chapter that, even on a full stomach, takes all the effort and sometimes even more concentration than I can muster.

At two o’clock Amar calls my name. “Vicki! Come. Eat.” Our lunches have arrived. We spread out the sheet of newspaper and begin spooning out our subzi when the lights go off. I feel destined not to eat today. Usually the lights blink right back on, but now, because the darkness is standing between me and my late lunch, it seems to take a full minute for the power to come back.

Finally, the lights blink back on, the computers all begin to buzz and I can eat. Amar talks about places he’d like to travel: Greece, Turkey, Egypt, the Serengeti. He shows me pictures of the trip he took to Nanital over the Independence Day holiday. The landscape looks familiar because of the trip I took to Raju’s Cottage: many verdant green hills. The only difference is there are lakes in Amar’s pictures. There are also tons of pictures of Sukanya making faces. Sukanya is the young editor who started here as an intern. She went on the trip with Amar and his wife and her friend, iPod Girl (so named by Angshuman because she was one of the first people around to have an iPod).

Late in the afternoon, Shabnum and Jonaki call me. Jonaki holds up ten rupees, Shabnum waves her hand. “Vicki! Drain party! We are eating nala food.” A whole group of people walks out to the little tent where they make samosas and intermittently sell biscuits. Amar, Preeta and Jonaki get samosas on little silver plates. Shabnum gets a coke and passes it to Sukanya. They eat and share. Preeta offers me some samosa, but Jonaki says I shouldn’t eat it. It’s not clean. I don’t feel hungry at all anyway. I’m actually feeling weak and shaky and tired out by my virus. It doesn’t help that it feels to be about a hundred degrees and dusty outside. We stand in a circle and talk. I sweat and wonder how much longer the drain party will be. Amar wants chai. Does anyone else? Yes. Preeta does. They get little glasses of hot, milky tea and hold it delicately between their fingers. I watch a young boy crouching on the ground amidst the discarded plates and dirt peeling small potatoes with his fingernails. He puts the peeled potatoes into a metallic bowl where flies land, and passes them onto two older boys who mash them up for filling in the nala samosas. Amar and Preeta finish their tea and we all walk slowly back toward the office. “We don’t have coffee shops,” Amar says, “so we have to go here for a snack.” He says it’s probably not the cleanest, but he’s built up immunity, and laughs.

Back at my desk I feel the damp hair on the back of my neck and try, for the last half hour of the day, to get through as many pages as possible of my chapter. I thought I might have been able to finish, but looks like I’ll need more time. The air conditioning feels good, but I still feel shaky from the heat as I pack up my computer and head out for the evening.

In the car, Palminder rolls the window down instead of turning on the air. This isn’t necessarily an emergency, I think. I’ll give him some time before I ask him to turn on the air. Maybe he’s just trying to air the car out. Maybe he thinks it’s cool outside? I wait patiently for a long time. We travel almost three whole blocks before I lean forward and ask him to turn on the air. He turns the dial but nothing happens. He turns the dial again and again. “It’s broken?” I ask, feeling a momentary panic. To think about my hour commute through Delhi traffic and heat and smog with no air on a still day with a wheezing chest cold almost smothers me. But I tell myself I will be fine. I will not pass out.

“Is very old car,” Palminder says. Then he tries it one more time and the fan whirs weakly. He rolls up the window. The air is kind of working. Even for this, I am thankful. “Tomorrow, same car. New car. Same. White car.” For this, I am even more thankful. I also realize that tomorrow is August 28th, the day that Sonu told me he is coming back. I wonder if along with the old car, I will get my old driver back, though I have doubted this story from the start.

As we pass the Buddhist stupa in Indraprastha Park, I have this loud thought, “How’s my emptiness?” Kind of like “How’s my driving?” but more Buddhist.

Emptiness is the realization that nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so. It’s a useful concept when “bad” things happen because we can realize that it’s only our perception that makes them “bad,” then we can mitigate our reaction. Everything doesn’t have to be such a tragedy.

So I should have this bumper sticker on my posterior today. “How’s my emptiness?”

There are no biscuits. How’s my emptiness?

Lunch is late. How’s my emptiness?

I feel sick and sweaty at the nala party. How’s my emptiness?

The air in the car is broken. How’s my emptiness?

And I’m happy to report, my emptiness is making some good progress. So much so that when I get home and flip on my air conditioner, only to find the Ahuja Residency has lost power, I still do not have a panic attack from thinking that the oppressive heat will smother me. I take a breath and walk downstairs where I ask Mira if the whole Defence Colony has lost its power, or just us. It’s just us. Perfect, I think. Then I’ll walk to one of the air conditioned restaurants in the market and eat slowly while someone comes out to work on the power at home.

The plan works out just fine. But even if it didn’t, I would have been okay.

I’m not saying I can handle major disasters and remain unruffled. I know the things that happened today were simply minor annoyances. But in the past I think I would have let them ruin my day or viewed them as some big accumulation of Bad Day, and today I did not. I just went about my business as best I could.

I had a perfectly fine day.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A McAmerican Day


Today a grey-haired British man chats me up at breakfast. His name is George. He is, of all things, in the assessment business. He’s consulting with one of Pearson’s competitors, ETS. He says I should have dinner with him and his colleagues sometime, but we shouldn’t talk about anything confidential. Then he hears me cough.

“Did you pick that up over here?” he asks, looking frightened. I tell him yes. “Well then I’m staying away.” Apparently, he would have welcomed a good old American virus aboard. On his way out, though, he offers his assistance. He’s staying in room five if I need anything. He knows a doctor in the area. Not that there are room numbers on any of the doors.

Today there’s a story in the paper about dengue fever. How timely, I think. It seems there’s an outbreak in Delhi, where 60 cases have been recorded. They think it’s particularly bad this year because of the early monsoon season which left a lot of standing water around. Dengue is transmitted by a particular kind of mosquito that feeds during the day. You’ll know if you have it because you’ll be bleeding out of your eyeballs. Okay, that’s only the dangerous strain III, but still, it had to be said. That and God bless DEET, of which I still have an ample supply.

On the way to work, Palminder sneezes at least three times, and coughs more than five. I wonder if this is the same virus I have or a different one. If Palminder gets me sick again… I figuratively wave my fist in the air at him. Of course, there’s the possibility that I got him sick. But I was never sneezing in the car. Chances are it’s a different virus. I need to start carrying my antibacterial gel with me. It’s such a big bottle, though. I should have brought a small bottle too. I should have brought a space suit with its own little sterile environment inside.

At work I have email from Susie. She wants to know how I’m doing, and she’s also excited that she finally got her rat problem fixed. They found a dead rat and several live ones in her ductwork and blocked off the hole that gave them access. So now it’s rat free living in Malviya Nagar: nothing but the finest.

At lunch I’m talking with Amar about different places in the city that I’ve yet to see. There’s Nizamuddin, the grounds of a famous Sufi saint. Amar got married there. I ask Amar how he met his wife and he pauses. “I told you this story, yes?” I didn’t think so. “She was walking and she got some paan spit on her.” They did tell me the story about Tehseen getting spit on in Delhi, but I didn’t realize this was also the story of how they met. The notion makes me laugh uncontrollably. I have to apologize. I think it is one of the best wife-meeting-husband stories I’ve heard.

All morning I’ve heard strange banging noises and kind of tuned them out. In the afternoon I figure out where the noises are coming from when I go upstairs to wash my hands after lunch. There are handwritten signs affixed to the bathroom door with packing tape: “Out of Order” “No Entry.” I fold my arms. Here it is. The fruit of my blog. The ladies’ restroom is getting repaired because the CEO read something I’d written about the state of it in an earlier entry. People are jokingly coming up to me like I’ve got Aladdin’s magic lamp. “Write in your blog that I get too much glare on my computer screen!” “How about a total revamp of the air conditioning system?”

I tell them I’ll see what I can do.

In the afternoon, Jonaki is excited to find a book rental service online. You have to pay to rent books. And the more books you rent per month, the more expensive it is. I just now realize that the public library system is an American thing.

What if we didn’t have libraries? I’ve never thought about life without them. I’ve never thought about people who don’t have them. How different my childhood would have been. All that summer reading. All that learning and discovering. Unlimited books. I remember taking them home by the armful. I remember Mrs. Senders the librarian asking me if I needed a bag. I was a book hog. The library was Mars and the ocean and the 1800s and a science lab and whatever else I was interested in that week.

After work, I step out of the office and it’s hard to breathe. The air is thick and my chest is congested. I think for a second I’ll have to run back inside. It feels like I’m breathing dust through a straw. I seriously wonder if I’ll pass out on my way to the car (which is about fifteen total steps from the air conditioned front lobby).

As we drive home, I can see that it is one of those ozone warning days—only here there is no warning. People are walking about in the thick haze that blurs buildings in the near distance. I was planning on walking to the market today for dinner, but now I’ll need another plan. Even if I were feeling well, I wouldn’t want to spend any time outdoors in these conditions.

I remember seeing a commercial for McDonald’s delivery service. I call Julianne to see if she might have the number. Coincidentally, Julianne is at McDonald’s when I call. She walks home while we talk, then digs out the number from her collection of to go menus. She’s not sure they’ll deliver to my neighborhood, but I should give it a try.

I call the number and it is staffed by an entire call center operation. “What city are you calling from?” the operator wants to know. I tell him Delhi. “Where in Delhi?” Defence Colony. I kind of grit my teeth waiting for the news that they don’t deliver here, but he doesn’t even pause. He asks for my phone number, my address, then wants to know what I’d like to order. I’ll have the McVeggie combo meal with no mayonnaise. He repeats this back to me in perfect English and tells me the order will arrive in about thirty minutes. It will cost me 149 rupees.

Astonishingly, the order does arrive in about thirty minutes, and they even get the mayonnaise thing right.

I sit on my bed and flip on the tv. Seinfeld is on.

I watch Seinfeld and eat my McDonald’s suddenly feeling more American than I do when I’m in America. Comfort food and comfort tv: good ways to get me over the remaining ick of my bubonic flu.

On the floor of my bedroom, the ants are having a bad night. I think Pachu’s sweeping must have been a little too brisk today because there are dead ants. Two carcasses, specifically, that these other ants keep carrying around in circles. They look lost. I feel sorry for them. They just keep circling and circling. I wish I knew what they were looking for; I’d provide it for them. Do they need somewhere to bury the dead ants? Somewhere to hide them? I don’t understand. They are still circling when I turn out the lights and go to bed. Maybe they’ll go to bed too.

Do ants sleep? I think. And do they have libraries? What about McDonald’s deliveries? My roommates lead mysterious lives.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Pest Control & the Proverbial Woods


I wake up at 6:30 and turn on the hot water heater a/k/a geezer. Then I fall asleep until the phone rings at 7:38. It’s Scott. He tried to Skype me and I wasn’t there for our usual 7:30 call. Am I okay?

I’m fine. I just fell back asleep. But I’m okay. We hang up quickly and he calls me back on Skype. I tell him about the ant army marching across my floor. Are they regular size? They’re a little chunkier than normal, I say.

I’m trying to decide if I should go to work today. I think I’ll call Susie and get her opinion. She seemed so authoritative on the matter yesterday and what she’s told me so far has been spot on. The fever did come back, but not as bad, and I have had several smaller sweating episodes, and I do believe I am getting better instead of worse.

Susie tells me I should stay home today if I can. It’s easy with a fever to over do it, then it can come back. She’s right. I could have made this decision on my own, it just feels good to run it past somebody who’s seen some Indian viruses and the way they act in a westerner’s body.

I go downstairs for breakfast and the place is put back together. There are no piles of bananas on the table; there is no map blocking the clock; the chairs are all pushed in. The college kids left on a bus one day and it doesn’t look like they’re coming back. Studying abroad apparently involves a lot of travel. They all had a lot of stuff to lug around too. There were stacks of trunks. I guess when they said they’ll be here through December, they meant that figuratively. They meant they’ll be away from home through December, not that they’ll be here in the Ahuja Residency through December. Or maybe they’re coming back. Who knows? Either way, it’s nice to have a quiet breakfast again. And what’s even nicer is when Pachu brings me the juicy mango I love. I scarf it up even though I am challenged to taste it through my sinus mélange.

As the day wears on, I am so glad I didn’t go to work. I planned to work from home, to get a little blogging done, to do some reading, to shower. I do none of these things. I turn on the BBC World News and veg out in bed. I get up a few times and stand around, looking out at the balcony, but I don’t have a lot of energy for this and soon find myself on shaky limbs crawling back under the sheets. I think about breaking up some of the old loaf of bread I have in the fridge and putting it out on the ledge for the birds, but this task seems too strenuous and demanding. I decide: maybe later.

At about noon there is a knock at the door. I open it. Pachu and his helper are standing there with smiles and a stack of clean towels and sheets. “Madam, clean. Yesterday we no. Clean today.” It’s true my room hasn’t been cleaned since Friday, so I welcome them in, grabbing my What Religion Is book and sitting on the couch out of their way. It will feel good to have clean sheets after all the sweating and coughing I’ve done on the ones I have now. I feel bad for them, afraid they’re going to catch this horrible virus, but they seem happy in their work, which they carry out quickly. They probably have immunities developed that I don’t have. Even if they catch this, it probably won’t be this bad for them. People at work have little sniffles and coughs, but none of them have missed any work because of their symptoms. I’m thinking I have the white girl version of their sniffles, and an immune system that is too baffled to fight back.

Half way through the cleaning, Pachu picks up a hand made broom and begins sweeping the floor, carefully pushing the ants out into the hallway. So that’s why it seems like there are fewer ants here after they clean and why, if they don’t clean for a few days, I have an ant army to entertain me during my Skype calls with Scott. Organic pest control at its finest.

My tired brain only makes it through about four pages of the Vivekananda book, but they are an interesting four pages. He says that all pain is due to attachment. This is a concept I’m familiar with from Buddhism, but, as I’ve learned, Buddhism grew out of Hinduism and so shares many of its tenets. I understand this concept when it comes to psychological pain. For instance, I understand that my attachment to the stray dogs and my attachment to the idea of having a friendly neighbor is what made me tear up the other day in the taxi. Where my understanding stops, however, is at the concept of physical pain. The discomfort I am feeling in my own body. How is that pain due to attachment?

The end of section one in the book is a reiteration of Vivekananda’s answer to the title’s question. What is religion? He says religion is “not talk, nor doctrine, nor theories, however beautiful they may be. It is being and becoming…” Religion is realization. It hits me that this is the difference for me in hearing that prayer about acceptance and feeling slammed by it on my 24 hour bus ride. That was a becoming for me. That was a realization. Before then, I was just reading the words or seeing them or hearing them. I like this distinction. It strikes me as truth.

But Pachu and his helper are done cleaning my room, and that’s about all the energy I have for intellectual pursuit today. I close the door behind them and sniff out my clean room. It smells slightly of cinnamon, which is strange because I didn’t see them use any actual cleaners, just some dirty rags. It’s also strange because I didn’t think I could smell anything. The Tylenol Cold must really be working.

The clean sheets feel so good. I spend the rest of the day napping and watching tv. At one point, I do a puzzle that Scott created and sent to me, but I get all sweated up in the process and have to rest afterwards. I watch BBC World News until I’ve seen every story and they start to rerun, then I find four episodes of Friends on Star World, a station that has random American tv shows on it that Julianne just told me about.

Shabnum, my friend from work, calls at about seven o’clock. She heard I wasn’t feeling well, and they were feeling sorry for me at the office because I’m all alone. Am I doing okay? Do I need anything? Am I getting enough food?

I am fine. Still under the weather, but fine. I’ll see her tomorrow at work.

In the evening I do manage to blog a little, and to put some bread out for the birds. So what if birds don’t eat in the evening? The bread will still be there in the morning when they show up hungry.

A day that I thought would feel interminable has passed quickly and without my accomplishing anything except, perhaps, for getting better by undetectable degrees. I’m glad to be out of the proverbial woods.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Bubonic Flu

Saturday and Sunday

I am finally able to get a little sleep in the morning, but I feel miserable. Scott Skypes me around eight o’clock and I have no voice to talk to him. He tells me I need to eat and drink a lot of fluids. We hang up just four minutes into our call. I intend to go downstairs to eat, but fall asleep instead.

I have to call Julianne and cancel our plans for the day, but I can barely keep my head up to manage dialing. I can’t get through to her number and I can’t keep trying. I figure she’ll see the missed calls and call me back.

I have to call Palminder and tell him not to come. It feels like I use the only energy I have to find my purse and get his card from it. He answers the phone, “Yes madam.” I tell him I’m sick. He shouldn’t come today. “Okay madam,” he says.

At eleven thirty I get a call from the guard, “Madam, your driver. Car for you.”

I guess Palminder didn’t understand. I tell the guard, “Tell him he can go. I don’t need a driver today. I’m sick.”

“Okay madam.”

Five minutes later, the phone rings again. “Madam, your driver. Car for you.”

“No. No car today. I’m sick,” I squeak, then hang up the phone.

Five minutes later, the phone rings again. This time it’s Ms. Sonu. She wants to tell me my driver is waiting for me. What the heck, I think. Does anybody understand the word no?

I tell Ms. Sonu that I called Palminder and told him I’m sick. I won’t be needing a car today. She asks if I need to see a doctor. I told her I’ve already seen one, thanks.

I’m relieved I won’t be getting any more phone calls on that matter. I sleep a while longer, then Julianne calls. I tell her I’m sick and I have to cancel our plans for the day. She asks if I’ll be going to church tomorrow. We decide she’ll call in the morning to see if I’m up for it.

The fever today feels severe—worse than I can ever remember having a fever, except maybe when I had chicken pox in fourth grade. I curl into the fetal position trying to get warm but fail. I wonder if the doctor’s diagnosis was totally wrong and I do have the plague after all. I have developed a bronchial cough and this, to me, seems to complete my cornucopia of symptoms of the pneumonic plague I read about on the web. Fever, chills, cough. I certainly feel more like I have the plague than a cold today.

I spend the day in bed, waking and sleeping. I don’t turn on the tv. I don’t read a book. I don’t have the energy. I sleep and wake with a metallic taste in my mouth. I drool on my pillow because I can’t breathe through my nose. I tremble from cold and somehow wind up sweaty. I manage to shakily walk to the bathroom and take some more Ibuprofen, almost overturning the bottle with my trembling hand.

The Ibuprofen makes the shivering stop so I can at least rest. Just as with the necrosis, I wonder how much worse it is going to get before it starts getting better. “Will there be a rotting hole in my leg?” I wondered with the necrosis, which is now reduced to a large pink scar. “Will this kill me?” I now wonder about my new predicament. I envision myself having to fly home to the States for medical treatment in a space suit that keeps me quarantined on the plane, air marshals all around me. Then I envision myself in an Indian hospital freaking out about needing new needles. Neither of these visions are appealing. Why do I bother putting myself through these scenarios? For the sport of it?

At dinnertime, I microwave a packet of pasta that Scott sent to me in a care package. Then I Skype with Scott. This time my voice has come back a little and I have enough energy to carry on a conversation. I still don’t feel like I’m out of the woods, though. I feel like this disease could slam me back on the ground any second and I wouldn’t have a word to say about it.

I’m too sick to spend too much time worrying, though, and I roll back into bed after hanging up with Scott. I highly doubt that I’ll feel well enough to go to Mister Kundari’s temple with him and Diljesh tomorrow morning, but I still have to wake up and give them my regrets. I can’t just ditch an invitation to feed the hungry.

Rather than fool with my incontinent alarm clock by resetting my wake up time, I decide to rely on my internal alarm clock. I have this strange ability to name a time in my head, then wake myself up at exactly the time I’ve named. No alarm: just this weird internal alarm clock. I can’t think of a time when it’s failed me.

I just tell myself as I’m falling asleep, “Wake up at 5 a.m. Wake up at 5 a.m.” I have to keep repeating it and focusing on it, otherwise it might not work. I can’t let other thoughts intrude. I have to concentrate.

And when I open my eyes, it’s dark outside. Something tells me I should look at the clock. When I do, I notice it reads 5:06. Six minutes off, but still not bad for an internal alarm clock. No battery required.

As I suspected, I still feel horrible. I lay around for a few minutes then put on a pair of pants with the t-shirt I slept in and walk outside my gate where Diljesh told me he’d meet me. The guard at the gate greets me, “Good morning, madam. Madam, walk?”

He thinks I’m going on a morning walk, which is apparently a popular thing for the ladies to do here, but I am in no condition for such sport. I stand in the street for maybe two minutes waiting for Diljesh and my legs begin to wobble under me. My arms feel heavy. I am considering going back inside when I see Diljesh in an orange turban. He walks brisky, “Come, let’s go!” I tell him I can’t go. I’m sick. He says Mister Kundari is sick too. He has stomach problems. Maybe I’ll come and feel better later?

I tell him I have a fever. “Oh, well, then you can’t go. Maybe some time. Maybe next Sunday you come,” he says, and springs off into the dark dawn.

I drag myself back up the marble staircase, put my pajamas back on and land in bed again where I sleep until it’s time for Scott’s Skype call. What little voice I have I’m making work this time. As I’m talking to him, I notice I’m drenched. My shirt is wet. My undershirt is wetter. There are drops of perspiration running down my arms. My hair is wet.

“That’s good. Your fever is breaking,” Scott tells me.

“How do you know?” I ask skeptically, interpreting this as just one more horrible symptom to add to my tally, wondering if I should go to an emergency room.

“I don’t know. My mother told me?”

He tells me I should see if my friends from church can bring me anything I might need. Do I need food? How about some antibiotics? Why don’t I take some antibiotics? The guesthouse phone rings. It’s Julianne calling to see if I’m going to church. I tell her I’m still sick. She asks if there’s anything I need. I ask if they would be willing to get me some antibiotics. I remember the name of the one they prescribe for plague and tell her that one. The report on plague said that people who are treated early have a mortality rate of fifteen percent, as opposed to people who are treated after the disease has progressed—who have a mortality rate of sixty percent. Why do I ever read health information online? When will I learn?

Julianne says she and Susie will come over after church with antibiotics of some sort for me. I thank her profusely.

Scott wants me to drink more fluids and eat breakfast today. Eat eggs, he tells me, even if they’re gross. I should go eat breakfast and take a shower and he’ll call me back at 1 a.m. his time to check on me. I tell him not to be silly, but he doesn’t listen. He’s calling me back at one in the morning to see if I’m okay. He might be cranky and tired, but he’s calling.

I stop to think. I must be better today. I am standing up instead of lying down. I can think about getting breakfast, whereas yesterday, this wasn’t even a near possibility. Though I’m shaky, I walk downstairs and ask for my naash taa with egg this time, but no onion.

They bring me a red mango, a banana, toast and the omelet. I can’t find the morning paper, so I pick up a magazine with a cover article about terrorism in India. The editor’s note at the front says that India isn’t doing enough to fight terrorism and that since 2003, it is second in body count only to Iraq. I wish I’d chosen another article. How about that friendly issue of Expat? It will tell me all about the Indian handicrafts of some random southern state here.

A friendly man all dressed in white sits down at the table and starts asking questions. He has the voice of Morgan Freeman. Am I here on business? Oh, so I wanted to have the Asian experience, did I? How am I finding it?

I want to tell him I’m finding it hard to keep my head from falling into my plate of eggs right now, but I manage a smile and some friendly banter until he excuses himself. “Sorry I have to rush off,” he says. He leaves his room keys on the table and is gone.

Upstairs, the salty eggs execute a similar quick exit. So much for my protein. I take a hot shower, thankful for the hot water, as I am every time it comes out now. It’s just an hour or so before Scott said he’d Skype me back, so I take a nap.

Scott wants to know if I ate. I did, but it didn’t go very well. Did I drink? Yes, I’m drinking right now. I’ve almost had a whole liter today. Okay. That’s good. Keep drinking. When are my friends from church coming? Soon. After church.

He starts to hang up but hears me choke up when I say goodbye. I’m scared. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I feel okay as long as I’m talking to him, but when he hangs up, I’ll be alone again. He lets me cry and stays on the line until I’m reassured. It’s okay. I’m okay. I finally let him go to bed.

A short while later there is a knock at the door. It’s Julianne and Susie. They look so happy. I am so glad to see them. They thought they would stop over here and see if there was anything else I needed before they went to the chemists for me. Also, they don’t think I should just take some random antibiotics. They also talked to Ruth at church who has some nursing experience and, like, eight kids who have all gotten weird Indian diseases. Ruth says that if the fever doesn’t break in three or four days, then you should go to a doctor, but otherwise, you should be okay.

I tell them about sweating this morning. Susie, whose mom is a nurse, says she can tell I’m better by looking at my eyes and just from seeing that I’m up and walking around. If I had something like dengue fever or malaria or something, she says, I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish even this. She tells me with a sense of authority that I’m on the mend. The fever might come back and break again, but it shouldn’t come back as bad as it was, as high as it was.

She says when you travel thousands of miles, your immunity system can’t combat the viruses around you, so this sort of thing happens. Her roommate just had a temperature of 104. They were getting ready to take her to the hospital. Then she was better the next day.

Julianne announces that she’s come bearing gifts. She takes out a Ziploc bag of Tylenol Cold, Tylenol, “And I gave you some band aids, just in case,” she smiles. The gesture is so thoughtful and caring it almost makes me tear up.

“And, I got this for you,” she hands me gold-leafed Bible. “I thought since you’ve been coming to church every week with us, you might want one.”

Susie and Julianne tell me they know it must have been scary being that sick and being alone. They tell me I can call them anytime, day or night. Julianne can come over here and do her studying to keep me company, she says. And Susie knows a good doctor. If I still have the fever or it comes back really bad, I should call her tomorrow. She can make an appointment and go with me. She’s taken many people to the doctor here, she says. And I should call them just to check in. They might hesitate to call me because I’ll be sleeping, but I should call them. I tell them I would love some phone calls from them. I’ve been doing nothing but sleeping, and a little interruption by a friendly ring would be welcome.

We talk a little while longer, then they leave to meet some friends in the Defence Colony for lunch. I feel so relieved to have had someone look at me, size me up, and tell me I’m definitely getting better. I’m definitely going to be okay. I’m so happy to have band aids and Tylenol and a Bible and friends I know I can call on if I need them.

I’m so happy I think I’ll take another nap.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Kitty Party

This morning I awaken and feel sick. I only talk to Scott for about four minutes, then flop back into bed where I stay until 9:30. The guard calls down to tell me my driver has arrived. “Tell him to wait until ten o’clock,” I say, hoping he understands. I don’t want to miss the whole day of work, but I do need a little extra sleep.

Downstairs I miss the morning rush and the table is already cleared from breakfast. Pachu brings me a banana, an apple and toast. The mango season must be over. I’m sad.

A woman about my age in a pink sari walks up to me. “Hello, I’m Ms. Sonu.”

Ms Sonu!

She’s not as evil as I pictured her. I had this vision of Ms. Sonu in a severe, black business suit with dyed black hair and a giant fake smile. This Ms. Sonu is just a friendly Indian lady. She sits down. She’d like me to look over the invoices before she sends them to finance and make sure all the charges appear correct. There is a charge for parking that I don’t understand.

“So this is because your driver paid for parking these two times for whatever reason, and he needs to be reimbursed.”

Parking mystery solved. Sonu wasn’t ripping me off when he had me pay for parking. Palminder billed me for the two times he paid.

At work, I Google “diseases fleas carry,” and find that fleas convey three types of plague. The symptoms are headache, fever, chills. It doesn’t say anything about a sore throat, but it does talk about swollen glands, and I figure that could be causing my sore throat.

I see Debamitra in the bathroom. She asks how I’m feeling. I tell her I might go to the doctor and get some drugs.

“Do you take drugs so easily?” she asks me. I don’t know. Do I? “Don’t take drugs. You should just rest and see if you get better.”

She is the first person I tell about the flea bites.

“Oh,” she says. “That’s different. You should get that looked at.”

As always, I take Debamitra’s advice and have Shabnum make an appointment for me. She calls the hospital and gets an appointment for 4:30. Is this okay? Can I go by myself this time, or should she come with? I can go by myself, I tell her.

I have to tell Palminder how to get to the hospital and am somewhat proud that I succeed in giving him directions. As we pull up, I feel a bit of dread. Should I tell the doctor about the fleas? What if they quarantine me, lock me up? It mentioned quarantining online.

At the front desk, the clerk can’t find my name in her records. I have to fill out another intake form. I spell my name “Krajewski,” and she enters it in the system, “Krajeuuski.” It seems the “w” is not a concept in this hospital.

She points me upstairs to room 2229. There are guards every few feet that help me find my way. I feel a little lonesome here by myself, but I also feel good that I made it this far on my own.

As I sit outside the room, I run through a few scenarios in my head. What if they want to draw blood? I’ll make them show me that the needles are new. I’ll have to see them come out of some kind of packaging. That’s what the Travel Clinic recommended. I don’t want to get HIV while I’m trying to discover whether or not I have the plague. HIV is rampant in India. In fact, some of the Google searches I did on plague turned up articles on AIDS. I don’t care if it’s rude or ridiculous to freak out about the needle. It’s my life and I need to defend it.

The doctor calls me in and asks what the problem is. I tell him about the flea bites and getting sick. I tell him my symptoms.

“You don’t need to worry about these bites,” he tells me. “You have an upper respiratory infection. They’re endemic this time of year in Delhi. It’s partially due to the population density, partially due to this wet weather.”

He seems pretty sure it isn’t Bubonic Plague.

He writes me a prescription for some cold medicine and a fever-reducer/pain reliever that I get filled downstairs for two dollars. Outside I wander around looking for Palminder. He finds me and waves.

I was lucky this time. I didn’t get any strange disease from the dogs. But I know my relationship with them should end. I know there’s a reason I’m the only one petting them. The locals know better. Poor Acha and Baloo and Baby. They won’t understand why I just walk past them now instead of stopping to give them attention.

In the taxi, I tear up. My friends are dangerous. I just want to pet dogs. I just want to meet my neighbors. But these things are not so simple here. Why can’t they be simple? Why can’t they be safe?

Back at home, I pop open the daytime medicine the doctor prescribed and get a new bottle of water out of the fridge. I take two of my limited supply of Ibuprofen to help with the fever. I know I’m sick because the air conditioning has been off all day in my little room and I’m still freezing, full of goose bumps. I have to climb under the covers to stop from shivering.

I sleep until eight thirty. I wake up feeling better with enough time to get ready and go to the kitty party at Mister Kundari’s house. Julianne was going to go with me, but she called and said she has a Skype date that she can’t miss. Still, I figure it’s safe to go because there will be plenty of people around—and plenty of women.

A servant lets me in and points me toward the living room that has a marble floor and lavish décor. There are embroidered draperies, colonial-looking chairs, and tables with intricate inlaid marble patterns. The walls are lined with family photos and a large Chinese watercolor.

Two little girls in matching dresses and pink sweaters act shy and mill about.

Mister Kundari stands up and shakes my hand. “Vicki! Hello!” He shows me where I should sit. There are two circles forming: one of men, one of women. As people arrive, they press their hands together and bow their heads in greeting, then they take their seats on their respective sides of the room. The men drink bourbon and water and laugh jovially. The women drink lemon water and speak seriously. Servants in black bowties bring out food on gold and silver trays: paneer tikka, chicken, fish, corn, breaded vegetables. The food keeps coming. The ladies are surprised when I tell them I’m a vegetarian. Two ladies have a conversation about it in Hindi. I only make out the repeated word “vegetarian.”

Mister Kundari wants to know, would I drink some red wine if he has it? Certainly. His servant finds a bottle, uncorks it and pours me a glass.

The ladies are mostly older, in muted-colored saris, though there are two younger women who talk with each other as the evening wears on. Much of the conversation is in Hindi, except when someone wants to talk to me. They ask where I’m from. They ask if I’m a buyer. I guess these are the sorts of white people they’re used to having around because of Mister Kundari’s garment business. They are somewhat puzzled when I tell them I work with textbooks. Why am I at Mister Kundari’s party, then? Because I live in the neighborhood, at least for the next few months.

I am prepared for an onslaught of questions about why I don’t have children, but this never comes. These ladies are polite and reserved. They don’t pry into my personal life. One grey haired woman asks half way through the evening if I have children, then tells me she has a daughter married since 2002 who also has no children. “I tell her she should adopt,” she tells me, then says that Achla, sitting across the table from me with the nose ring and the jeweled bindi, is a social worker and does adoptions. Her husband is a lawyer who also specializes in adoption.

Several of the ladies get up and come back with plates full of food. Dinner is served, buffet style, on the glass table in the adjacent room. I’ve eaten so many appetizers I don’t think I can eat much more. I get up to get some food and Mister Kundari asks how I’m doing. He’s sorry he can’t look after me.

“I’m great. I thought we were done eating!”

“Oh no. Have some dinner,” he says.

The table is full of food: dal and two different vegetable dishes and mattar paneer and more chicken and more fish and a few dishes that I can’t identify and avoid because they might have meat in them. I eat with my plate on my lap next to the grey haired woman on the couch. She tells me about the times she’s been to America. They were in New York on 9/11, she says. Her husband went out for a walk and they thought he was a Muslim. They were screaming at him. They were supposed to go to California but instead they cut their trip short and came back to India.

As we finish eating, the bowtie men take our plates from us. Dinner is cleared from the table, and now it is full of dessert: gulab jamun, apple strudel, banana chocolate pudding and ice cream. The woman wearing a western-type shirt who arrived late and looks like an Indian version of Meryl Streep wants to know if I take eggs. Yes, I tell her. Then the desserts will be okay for me, she assures me.

We eat and the bowtie men clear our plates. It seems less than five minutes after we finish that a man walks over and says to his wife, “You feel like you want to move?” She gets up. They are leaving. Then everybody stands up. Everybody is leaving. I hate to eat and run, but it seems that is the way it’s done—at least at this party, it is. It’s probably because we started so late. The party didn’t begin until nine, then it was at least ten o’clock before we ate dinner.

On my way out the door, I thank Mister Kundari. “Happy?” he asks. Yes. It was a very nice party. I'm glad I went. “What about Sunday?” He wants to know if I’ll go to the temple with him and his sister and Diljesh. I tell him okay.

Outside, Diljesh tells me to wait, he’ll drive me home, even though it’s just about a block away. I am surprised that Diljesh and his wife drove to the party. They are my next door neighbors, so also live little more than a block from Mister Kundari’s house. It seems that pedestrianism is not a concept here, and I understand why. The roads are very difficult to walk on. There are piles of dirt and broken up building materials everywhere.

Back at home I lay in bed, unable to sleep. My stomach is so full that it’s uncomfortable. I’m not used to eating so late at night. And I think my fever is coming back. I’m shivering again. I take some more of my limited supply of Ibuprofen and try to sleep but have little luck. I finally give up and turn on the BBC World News.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Food Turns Into Energy

Breakfast is its new usual frantic scene. It seems like there are 20 students here today instead of 13. I try to find the morning paper; they’ve taken it. I try to get some mango; they’ve eaten it. I try to glance at the time on the only clock in the whole place; they’ve hung a large map of India over it. They are not so adorable this morning.

Again, I receive no call telling me my ride is here. I think the Ahuja staff must be busy and overwhelmed with their new guests. Even my bedspread has been removed, probably to make one of the cots they’ve set up more comfortable.

I’m not feeling so great. Maybe it wasn’t the spices that had me feeling woozy last night. My head hurts, I feel in a fog, and I’m getting a sore throat. I hope I’ll shake it off during the day, but it just seems to be getting worse.

At lunch, I ask Amar about the kitty party. Was it a lady that invited me? No. It was Mister Kundari. He thinks it’s a ladies’ thing. I should ask Jonaki and Shabnum about it.

Shabnum knows what it is. It’s a party for domestic ladies when they get bored with themselves. They play cards and other games. Sometimes they go out for food, sometimes they have a potluck. They’re boring. Shabnum wrinkles her nose. She’s a bit surprised when I tell her I’m invited to one. These are for traditional people, usually older people too, wives who are subservient to their husbands. I will likely stick out like a sore thumb, and not just because I’m white.

After lunch, my vision blurs as I try to edit my new chapter on financial management. My throat gets worse. Is it closing up on me? I have to go home and lay down. I tell Amar. He is concerned. Do I need to go to a doctor? If I do, I can ask at the guesthouse and they should be able to help me. If I’m not feeling better, I shouldn’t come in tomorrow. I can call him if I need anything.

I find Palminder and he asks if I’m okay. I tell him I’m sick, but I don’t think he understands. He turns up his Punjabi music and we speed off. It is not a restful ride home as we bump along the broken up roads and weave in and out of traffic.

Back at the Ahuja Residency I find my door wide open, and the door to my balcony wide open as well. Pachu and another staff member are out there folding laundry. I tell Pachu I’m sick. He looks at me perplexed. I tell him I don’t feel good. He is even more puzzled. I tell him I need to sleep, so I need to close the doors. “Oh, a sleeping. A sleeping!” he says, glad to finally understand something. Then, “Close. Close,” he tells me, and motions that I can close my balcony door. I wonder how many bugs have made their way in while the door was wide open. I draw the curtains and hit the bedspread-free sack.

I’m so uncomfortable that I can’t exactly sleep. I toss and turn and feel my head. It feels hot. I think back to the bite I got the other night while I was petting Acha. It was a flea bite. Fleas transmit plague. Did I get a vaccination for plague? I don’t remember one. I scratch my ankles and turn on the ever-distracting BBC World News. It seems that Olympic competitors are not only drugging themselves; they are drugging their horses too. Or maybe they’re taking their horses’ drugs? I’m not really paying that close of attention.

I wonder if I should cancel my evening with Mister Kundari, but I don’t have his phone number so I can’t call him. I’ll just make it a short night, I figure.

By the time eight o’clock rolls around, I am a little stir crazy in my room, so it feels good to get out. I freshen up my makeup, retrieve the cake from the fridge and wait for my little digital clock to say something like 7:57. I don’t want to be early.

It feels a little strange to be venturing out in the darkness. I am usually on my way home at this time of the evening. Still, it’s only a block away and the hired guard from C-83 can see me almost the whole way to Mister Kundari’s house.

When I get there, the gate is open and there’s a servant in the courtyard. He nods and motions for me to take a seat. Mister Kundari wobbles out. I wonder if he remembers about the invitation he extended. I wonder if he was serious or if I wasn’t supposed to actually show up.

“I was waiting for you!” he exclaims. “I just went inside for minute!”

I give him the cake and he passes it off to his silent wife who makes no eye contact with me but seems to shoot me a sideways glance as she walks away. I assumed she’d be coming with us, but Mister Kundari retrieves his car keys from his pocket and says, “Come! Come!” as she makes her way inside with my gift.

We get in his car, and a slightly more mellow version of Palminder’s music is playing; there’s more melody, less backbeat. “Next time you come, you no bring anything. It is ok this time, but we are neighbors. You will be coming a lot. It is not practical to bring gift every time. You come tomorrow, you no bring.”

Tomorrow is the kitty party?

Yes. Nine o’clock.

And I can bring somebody?

Yes. One friend, he says, holding up an index finger.

He drives me past Diljesh’s house and tells me he is his best friend. “We share. If I have extra dal, I call him for dinner. He is good friend. Best friend. We do this park. He does money; I do plants.”

A few short blocks later, we are pulling up in front of the Defence Colony club. “It hard to find good friend. Good people. Most people selfish. Want money. You understand me?” He is emphatic about this point.


A parking attendant opens my car door and we walk toward the building’s entrance. “This is called Defence Colony because retired military people live. You understand me? Colonels, military. You understand me?”

I think of the illuminated address sign across the street from me that announces that Colonel such and such lives there. Duh. Yes, I understand. Don’t know why I didn’t figure that one out on my own.

The building we walk into, then, is just like a VFW hall. It’s got a reception area with people milling around, a bar and a restaurant area, all modestly decorated, modestly priced.

We approach a conversation nook. Mister Kundari sits on a brown pleather couch in front of a coffee table; I take the adjacent chair. He motions for me to sit on the couch with him. I oblige, sitting at the far end.

He tells me he doesn’t come here as much as his wife does. The people here get offended too easily, and he is very honest, very straightforward.

A man approaches us and wants to know what we want to drink. “They have everything,” Mister Kundari says. “Whiskey, beer…” I’m waiting for him to say wine. I shouldn’t drink, feeling as icky as I do, but my opportunities to enjoy a nice glass of wine are so few and far between that I figure I’ll take advantage. “Whisky, beer, wine..” he says. Jackpot!

“I’d love some wine,” I say.

The waiter has laminated plastic menus for us. Mister Kundari asks what I like. Chicken? I tell him I’m “veg,” as they say here. “Veg?” he says, surprised. He has a confusing conversation with the waiter. I pick up the words crispy and Chinese. He asks me if that’s okay. Sounds good to me. He asks me if it’s okay that we have wine. He doesn’t want to force me. He never forces anybody. “It’s not good to force, especially alcohol,” he says. He tells me he never drinks very much. He has so much liquor at his house, but he only drinks it maybe once a week. He has no bad habits, he announces.

“Everybody has bad habits,” I challenge this notion, then regret it for the rest of the evening.

“You see,” he says, “Let’s leave sex out.” Then he proceeds to go on and on about the topic. I can’t believe he’s talking so loudly in the middle of the Indian Moose Club to a young white woman about sex. I expect someone to shoot a shocked glance our way, but no one does.

Sex is man’s one fault, he says. Men were made that way by God. If they didn’t have this fault, they would be perfect, then they would be a god too, but it’s not the case. Every man has the problem of wanting sex, even the Prime Minister who was caught in an affair. Even Jawaharlal Nehru. Do I know Jawaharlal Nehru?

I do. He was India’s first prime minister. There’s a poster of him above the phones on the second floor of the Ahuja Residency.

It doesn’t matter who you are. God gave you this fault. And it’s natural, and you can’t control it. You eat, and the food turns into energy and the energy turns into sex. It’s natural. You can’t control it. You understand me?

I don’t understand you at all. Are you saying you’re going to rape me tonight after we eat? I begin to calculate ways in which I can extricate myself from this situation. I don’t know that I could find my way home by myself. Defence Colony is a bunch of angled roads and circles that make me dizzy if I get more than a block away without leaving a breadcrumb trail.

“Me,” he says, “I no just have sex with any person. I need to get to know a person. To love them. To make relationship. I need love to sex. You understand me?” he says with his legs crossed and his arm propped along the top side of the couch.

I wonder how long his getting-to-know-you period lasts for Mister Kundari. Will crispy Chinese vegetables and a bottle of wine do the trick? I wonder if he is expecting payment for his generosity tonight. He is waiting for a reply. Do I argue with him? Do I tell him I don’t understand? Do I excuse myself to the bathroom and hide in there until he leaves?

“Yes,” I say, and shove a piece of cauliflower into my mouth, staring squarely at my metal plate full of vegetables.

“Okay,” he is satisfied. “Now you tell me about you. I told you about me. You tell me about you.”

“Oh, well…” I don’t have much to say after this. I consider telling him that in my culture we believe that men can control themselves, and men do control themselves, and when men don’t control themselves, it’s a crime and they get in big trouble. I consider telling him that I only have sex with my husband, but I can’t even bring myself to say the word out loud in public. It’s none of his business anyway.

Perhaps he senses my discomfort, because he finally changes the subject. How long will I be in India? What do I do with my evenings? I should come sit in his garden sometime. It’s very nice.

He is full of invitations. He will drive me and a friend to the Taj Mahal. I should come over for breakfast sometime. He will give me some garments before I go home. He has so many extras from his factory. I should go see it. I should also go with him to his temple on Sunday morning. He used to go every morning at 5 a.m., but now he only goes on Sundays. They feed the poor. He wants to show me what kind of man he is. This is an important thing I will remember for my whole life. Anybody can invite me for drinks. It’s nothing great. But I should come with him to his temple.

I go to church on Sundays, I politely decline his invitation.

“You will be back by seven thirty,” he says. “So you’ll go?”

“We’ll see,” I equivocate.

I ask about his children. He has two girls, and he registers no disappointment at that fact. They have done very well for themselves in business. They are scattered, he says: one in Estonia, the other in New York. He has travelled so much. He has been to Norway a hundred times. Very soon he will give me his mobile number so I can call him if I ever need anything.

I ask about the women from Iceland with whom he does business. I’m perplexed by his relationship with them. They must think he’s okay, if they exist, that is. He says they tell him, “Mister Kundari, you have to take us to the mountains!” He says they stayed over at his house one time because his whole second story is vacant and they hated the hotel they were at. They are coming the first week of September, he says. I can meet them.

I so want Mister Kundari to be a harmless, jolly old man who wants to make a foreigner feel welcome in his neighborhood and not a sexual predator. Why did he have to say those things? Why can’t I just make friends with men here? It seems this is a foreign concept. Or is it? Am I making too much of his explanation of man’s essential flaw? This is probably an everyday fact of life for him. It’s probably no big deal. It’s part of his religion, the way he grew up. That still doesn’t mean he regards me as out-of-bounds. That still doesn’t mean I’m safe with him. That still doesn’t mean his intentions toward me are platonic and not sexual, regardless of how badly I wish that were the case.

We walk out to his car and the attendant opens the door and closes it once I’m inside. Mister Kundari fumbles with some cassette tapes. “Tell me if you like this music,” he says. “You no understand the words, yes, but you may like music.”

I tell him it’s nice. I like a lot of Indian music that I’ve heard while I’ve been here.

“This is a love song,” he says, and begins to translate for me. “When we are in a room full of people, you don’t need to say anything to me. You tell me with your eyes. You tell me with your eyes. You understand me?”

Is he addressing this song to me, or is he just making sure I understand his English?

“We take a little drive,” he tells me, and I tell him I really have to get home. He has to get home, too, he says. He goes to bed at 9:30. It will just be five minutes. He will go to the end of the highway and make a u-turn.

I should tell him if I’m uncomfortable. He doesn’t want me to be uncomfortable. He is very straightforward, very honest. If I never want to see him again, I should just say so and he will never talk to me again. I’m not uncomfortable, am I?

I could just say I’m fine and then never talk to him again. That way there’d be no confrontation. But I still want Mister Kundari to be my friend. I want to have someone in the neighborhood who looks out for me.

I am uncomfortable, I say. We don’t talk about sex where I come from, and we certainly don’t have sex with people other than our spouses. There. I’ve spit it out.

“This was nothing,” he says. “I was just explaining to you, food turns into energy, energy turns into sex. This is how we believe. We were talking about bad habits and you said everybody has some.”

I’m not satisfied by his explanation. I’m not settled with the situation. I wish he’d brought his wife with us. I wish we could just be friends, but I’m not sure that’s a concept here.

We turn a corner and Mister Kundari asks me if I know where I am yet. I don’t. “Oh,” he laughs. “We are right here!” We are less than a block from the guest house. I recognize it only after we are almost pulling up beside it.

I thank him and tell him goodnight. He will see me tomorrow at the kitty party? I tell him yes, though I’m torn. I can bring a friend, so I wouldn’t be alone. Plus there will be other people around for the party. I would like to meet his wife and give him another chance.

Maybe everything will seem normal when there are other people around. Maybe I am making too big a deal out of what he said. Maybe I’m reading into everything too much. Maybe he has no idea how creepy he’s coming off. Maybe he is a nice man, the neighborhood horticulturalist, who just wants to be hospitable to the foreign girl.


Thursday, August 21, 2008

We Don't Need No Biscuits

At breakfast the whole place is taken apart again. All the chairs are pulled away from the dining room table, and it’s filled with piles of bananas and bowls full of chopped mangoes—the red kind, again, the kind I don’t like. I hope the season isn’t ending for the juicy ones I love, but I fear it is.

Milling around the coffee tables are thirteen college students here for a study abroad semester. They will be staying at the Ahuja Residency until December. So this is the new way I will eat breakfast. Pachu seems a little concerned about me. He comes to the table to explain I should help myself, “Banana. Cornflake,” he says and smiles somewhat apologetically. This is fine. There’s everything I need right at my fingertips, and if I don’t feel like mango one morning, I can eat cornflake now instead. In fact, I do. The milk tastes strange, almost like it’s malted milk, but at least it’s not the icky red mango.

I overhear a few students ask the others what they’re doing today. One girl says she’s going to “explore.” I ask her if she’s been to a market yet. No. They just got here. They’re just going to walk around the Defence Colony today. They have wide eyes that say, “I can’t deal with much more than I’m already dealing with.” The hot water switch, the strange locks on the doors, the lack of clocks, the giant slugs and house lizards: all these things are still very new.

I tell them once they get settled, there’s a really great market nearby, Lajput Nagar, and they can take one of the autos to get there. “Are those those little green things?” they ask.

No, those are lizards, I think.

“Yes, the auto-rickshaws are those little green and yellow things.” I tell them the drivers know where to take them if they know the name of the place, and they’ll try to get more out of you, but the ride to Lajput is really cheap, so you have to bargain.

“How much should it cost?” they lean in with raised eyebrows.

“About 20 or 30 rupees,” I say. They are amazed. They gasp. They are adorable with their books and their trunks strewn about the balcony. They’ve pretty much taken over. There aren’t that many rooms in the Ahuja Residency. They’ve got to be pretty cramped.

I offer to take them to the market sometime if they want. I offer to show them how to deal with the auto-wallahs. And I say if they have any questions, I’m just upstairs. They can knock on my door any time. I get up to leave and about four of the girls ask my name at the same time.

“It’s Vicki,” I say. Vicki the house frau.

At lunch Amar and I discuss India’s Olympic coverage. Amar doesn’t like the Hindi commentators. They just describe what you’re seeing. “Here is a gymnast and now he’s slipped and fallen… I can see that,” Amar says.

It was like that at the monuments, I say too. The Hadimba Temple just said, “Here is a four-tiered structure with four roofs.”

Amar asks if I’ve heard of the story of the police accusing a man of murder and an affair and being wrong about it. This man’s daughter and servant were both killed. They came out and accused the man and arrested him the next day. They had no evidence. The man didn’t even get to participate in the funeral rites for his daughter. Then the equivalent of the FBI stepped in and exonerated the man, but it was too late. The press had already convicted him, Amar says.

They will print your name and the victims’ names with no hesitation.

I recall an article I saw in the paper a few weeks ago about a university president. The students at his college requested a co-educational dormitory and his response was to say that if they put in a co-ed dorm, they’ll need to build a maternity ward next to it.

The article had his picture in it and was on the front page of the Times of India. It was presented as a huge scandal, with quote after quote from disgruntled student saying how objectionable his reaction was. There was no voice given to the side of the university president. The article was pretty much an editorial on the front page, as was the photo and caption I saw two days ago. It showed a broken up street and was captioned in huge block letters, “You call this a road?” Underneath was a sentence about where the road was and how horrible it is. There is no line between editorial and news content here, not that there is much of a line in the United States, but we are much more subtle about presenting opinion as fact. Here, in India, there is no pretense.

I take a walk after lunch and avoid eye contact with everyone except the dogs. It is easier than I thought. I still can feel people stare at me, and see some strange looks out of the corners of my eyes, but it’s not as bad. Very near the office I see a little skin and bones dog who’s obviously just given birth. Her nipples are swollen. I wish I had some extra lunch to share with her. She looks so malnourished. I see a man sleeping in the back of his auto-rickshaw. He is resting his head on a metal pole. It looks so uncomfortable. Not to mention that it’s near 100 degrees today. These sleeping wallahs are a common sight, though. It seems people can sleep anywhere in India. Yesterday as we were turning into the Defence Colony, I saw a man on the side of the road, pavement all busted up around him, just lying there, resting.

At home, the college kids are congregating inside the front gate. There is an Indian man looking like he’s in charge. They are all going somewhere as a group. They are being taken care of. They don’t need a house frau. Their experience will be organized, guided, administered. I am jealous of the guidance they are receiving, of the company and companionship they have, but I have other things. Freedom, for one. A sense of accomplishment at managing on my own, for another. And time to think and write about my experiences. It’s a trade off.

In the market I buy a cake for Mister Kundari at the Defence Colony Bakery where I get my rum balls and lemon tarts. I figure it will be polite to present him with something tomorrow in exchange for his invitation to the club.

I walk over to Moets where Amar likes to eat. In front of the restaurant there is a sign, “Have your kitty party here.” Kitty party? As in cats? Now I am even more confused by my invitation. Moets’ prices are even more expensive than Liquid Kitchen, so I decide to try the North Indian version of my favorite place: Sagar. There are two Sagars within a few doors of each other in this market. The one I always eat at is South Indian. I’ve never tried the North Indian until now.

At Sagar, I order malai kofta. It is nothing like the malai kofta I know from the restaurant in Iowa City. Troublingly, it has the appearance of dog vomit: partially digested and reconstituted dog food. It is a tribute to its taste that I eat every bite of it despite its appearance.

There are two couples dining together next to me. They talk about their driver listening to Punjabi music and bopping his head around while they were driving over a landslide. “Just drive the car, buddy,” the Asian man with the American accent says. It seems I’ve had a quintessentially Indian experience with my 24-hour road trip.

After dinner, they present a hot bowl of water with a lemon in it to me. It takes a second, but then I figure out this is to rinse my hands in. I wish this happened to me after every Indian dinner because when you eat with your hands, they get gloppy.

I’m still hungry, so I order the only dessert I haven’t yet tried at Sagar. I try to ask the waiter what it is, but I know I have to try it to understand. “Like Jello?” he says.

When it comes, it is not much like Jello at all, and I’m glad. It’s more like a very dense cake, filled with aromatic, sweet spices like clove and bits of fruit. Even though I’m quite full about half way through, I eat the whole thing. Another hungry day complete.

I walk out of the restaurant into the warm evening woozy from all the spices, carrying Mister Kundari’s cake with me.

As I near his house, I start looking for Acha, Baby and Baloo, then I spot them. They are lined up outside his garden wall eating on three large piles of something that smells like corned beef hash. I smile knowing they’re not going hungry tonight.

No wonder they don’t like my biscuits.

Stealer of Hearts

Pictures: The "very dangerous animal" from the zoo and the garden that Mr. Kundari and his friend Diljesh tend by my guesthouse.
Tuesday at breakfast there is a crowd. The chairs are all pulled out from the dining room table, and breakfast is piled up on it. Pachu tells me, “Breakfast. Take.” Today is buffet style help yourself.

I wonder how long these people will be staying. Most people, it seems, are just here for a day or two—except for the sulky Japanese guy. He’s still here, I think; though most days, he’s late for breakfast.

After breakfast I go upstairs to my room. I have about a half hour until the driver’s due, so I do a little blogging. At 9:04, I pack up and walk downstairs. Palminder should be here by now, but there has been no knock on my door and no call to let me know he’s arrived.

Downstairs I find that Palminder is waiting but no one told me. I get in the backseat and we’re off to work.

On the corner of the block the office is on, there is a tent set up and a bunch of painted plywood. “Caution,” it says, “Deep sewer rehabilitation in progress.” I wonder what this means. It sounds scary. I hope the toilets work. Later, when I’m using one, I glance into the bowl hoping the deep rehabilitation didn’t scare up one of those “very dangerous animals” that Sonu pointed out to me in the sewer at the zoo. All is clear.

The most remarkable thing that happens at work is that I learn about spinach. Just like the Eskimos supposedly have a hundred words for snow, the Indians have over a hundred varieties of spinach. They are shocked when I tell them we just have spinach. We don’t have this kind or that kind? Soma wants to know. Not as far as I’m aware. We just have spinach. There are also all kinds of edible gourds used frequently in dishes here that I’ve never heard of.

At lunch, Amar tells me that the Defence Colony is not as posh as it used to be. The streets are broken up and it’s more crowded. “The shops are still expensive,” he says, and he’s right. “But it’s not as posh as, say, Greater Kailesh.” Ah ha! So Greater Kailesh is posh. That’s where Julianne lives, and also Susie’s boss with the cockroach problem. Cockroaches must not respect poshness.

After work I decide to walk to the market again. I think I’ll eat at Liquid Kitchen again today. I’ll splurge and spend a whole ten dollars on dinner.

I meet up with my dog pals on the way. As I’m squatting and petting Acha, I notice a shadow cast over me. “Is there something wrong with this dog?”

I look up and see an older man in a maroon turban and short-sleeved, blue collared shirt.

“No,” I say. “I just like dogs.”

“This is my house. I live here,” he says, referring to the pink square building behind the stucco wall I am squatting in front of.

“Well I hope I’m not bothering you. I hope you don’t mind,” I say.

“No,” he chuckles. “You really love doggie.”

“Yes, I really love dogs,” I affirm.

“Come,” he says. “I show you garden. Come!” And he teeters off through his iron gate, making sure I am close behind.

“I’ve walked past here many times and admired your garden,” I tell him. It’s true. In fact, his garden and all the discarded, shattered clay pots in front of his wall were the landmarks I first seized upon to help me find my way to and from the market.

“Here, look,” he says, and points to an ornately crafted bonsai composition with rocks and miniature trees all mounted to a curvy flat rock base. His garden wall is lined with dozens of these. “All rocks from mountains. I find all rocks. Look! Looks like animal,” he says and points to a rock that does resemble a hawk or some other bird of prey. “Look! Look like bird.” He points to another one. “Look like leopard.”

“Beautiful,” I tell him. His garden is so manicured. There are red clay statues of dragons and closely trimmed bushes. It is a work of art.

“You come, you sit. Nice to sit in evening in garden,” he tells me. “Gopi! Gopi!” he tilts back his head and yells. A young woman in a flowing yellow sari appears. He speaks to her in Hindi, then tells me to follow him through the open door of his house. We walk into his bedroom, where he retrieves a book on bonsai gardening and opens to a particular page.

“This page here, this man, most famous bonsai gardener. This picture not clear. Come.” He takes me back out to his garden and shows me his bonsai sculpture resembling the bird one more time. “This picture not so clear. This,” he points to his creation, “very clear.”

“Yes,” I say. His rock does more clearly resemble a bird. He is correct.

“Gopi! Gopi!” he yells again, and the beautiful young woman appears wordlessly with a tray of beverages. “You like lemon water?” he says, then hands me a glass. I take it and drink. It’s very tasty.

He’s been to the United States, he tells me. He went to New York then took a week long cruise to the Bahamas. “One week on boat, fourteen stories high,” he tells me. Big boat, I say.

“I am Mister Kundari,” he says, putting one hand proudly on his chest and extending the other to me.

I shake, my hand still dirty from petting the dogs. “I’m Vicki.” I don’t want to try to have him say Krajewski. I think I might be kicked out of the garden for such a puzzlement.

We sit down and talk a bit laboriously in English. He asks what I’m doing in India and has a hard time understanding that I’m working on school books. He is in the garment business. He does trade with people all over the world. He is very excited to tell me he has two international buyer women friends from Iceland who are “just like you.” By “just like you,” I think he means white. They are coming here in September to stay for a month or two. He will introduce me to them, he says.

He also invites me to a kiddie party he’s having at his house on the 24th. “You come. You come. Is food. Is chicken. Is paneer.” I don’t know if the etiquette is to refuse this invitation or accept it, so I’m kind of vague in my reaction. I wonder what a kiddie party is in India. Will there be small children? Can I come without one? This man is too old to have small children of his own. Where will the kiddies come from?

His friend drops by and joins us in the garden. Diljesh, it turns out, is my next door neighbor. He lives in C-82 right behind the Ahuja Residency. He has a blue turban, a fluffy salt and pepper beard, and a rounded, jolly face. He is the president of the horticultural society in Defence Colony. The park that is adjacent to the Ahuja Residency is maintained by these two gentleman. It’s a lovely, very manicured park.

Diljesh tells me his name means “heart” (dil) and “one who steals it” (jesh). He is in marketing and his son shares the business with him. I ask if his son lives nearby. His son, and his son’s family, lives with him. When he was in the United States, he says, a woman was shocked to hear this news. “One kitchen, one house,” he repeats. “One kitchen, one house.” I know it’s common for families in India to share a household—only because Angshuman explained this to me at the Macroeconomics book launch (right after I threw a tampon on the floor).

During my conversation with Diljesh, Mister Kundari’s cell phone has rung. He stands up apologizing. He must go. He has to leave now or else the store will be closed. I can go with them if I like.

That’s okay, I say. I was just on my way to the market.

Then I should come, “day after tomorrow” at eight o’clock. Mister Kundari will show me the club in Defence Colony. “Eight o’clock? Day after tomorrow?”

It’s a date, Mister Kundari. Actually, it’s not a date and I feel, this time, that this is clear. Mister Kundari is fatherly. His wife has been milling around the whole time we’ve talked. He’s used to doing business with women from different countries. I think Mister Kundari is all right.

I walk out the gate and towards the market. Mister Kundari thinks I’m lost. He points the way back to the Ahuja Residency. I remind him I’m going to dinner.

“Okay,” he smiles. “Day after tomorrow.”

I walk to Liquid Kitchen repeating the names of my two new friends. I need to start taking my notebook with me so I can have it for occasions like this. The palace guard opens the door and they seat me at a table set for six. I am the only customer. It’s still early by Indian standards: just approaching eight o’clock.

Sweet incense is burning, scenting the air. A chic Buddha head watches over my table. I go upstairs to wash my hands and the large circle of wait staff again parts like the red sea.

Downstairs I eat my delicately spiced Chinese pickle and kimchee with the chopsticks set at the table, then order a mushroom ravioli dish with eggplant sauce. It comes with grated parmesan over the top. I am sensing a theme.

They bring me little wedges of bread with my main course, and I find myself using the bread to pick up the eggplant pieces. I am eating my pasta like an Indian: with my hands. Your fork! Your fork! I think. Remember how to use a fork? I pick it up and it feels foreign, clumsy. Indians eat everything with their hands, and I guess I’ve gotten used to it. Thanks to Liquid Kitchen, I have not completely lost my western table manners.

I notice crème brulee on the dessert menu. I want to make these guys use a blow torch, I think, and order it. “Madam, we don’t have,” my waiter tells me. He recommends a Chinese tapioca dish instead. I take his recommendation. A few minutes later, he brings me a martini glass full of dessert. The top layer is a coconut sauce with hot rice noodles. Underneath is a layer of chopped cashews and a light strawberry sauce. It is like no dessert I’ve had before, and I’m glad the place was out of crème brulee. This dessert is amnesia inducing. I think I’ve even forgotten Mister Kundari’s friend’s name. I know it means stealer of hearts, but my heart belongs to the Chinese tapioca in front of me.

Maybe I can look up his name in my Hindi dictionary when I get home.