Tuesday, August 19, 2008


Today is Rakhi, a traditional Indian festival wherein girls tie bracelets around their brothers’ wrists and the boys promise to protect the girls in return for the gesture.

I told Palminder to pick me up at 11 today. I’m not sure why, or where I’ll go. I just thought it would be good to get out of the house for a bit. I consider calling him up and cancelling, though, just staying in and chaining myself to my computer. Although, wouldn’t a little break at the Lotus Temple be restorative?

I roll out of bed and Skype with Scott. His microphone keeps going out. We bemoan the inconstancy of our technology. How is it that a machine can work one second, then not the next, then suddenly repair itself and work again? It’s a machine. It’s not supposed to have mood swings. It’s supposed to either work or be broken.

Downstairs I am served the icky red mango once again. Once again, I don’t have much of an appetite, but force it down just for the calories’ sake. I should’ve packed some multivitamins with me for occasions like this. Actually, I think I’ve been eating healthier in India than at home. There are so many vegetables. I told Jonaki my nails have been growing faster since I’ve been here. She said, “Of course they are. You’re full of beans.”

I’m full of beans.

An article in the paper features a Bollywood sweetheart and a giant quote, “I won’t tie a rakhi bracelet.” It’s an interview with her where she roundly rejects the tradition. She doesn’t need the protection of any man, she says. She’ll never tie a rakhi.

Back in my room, the computer is ringing again. It’s Scott calling back. He didn’t want me to think he was crabby with me. He was crabby with the computer. I tell him I knew that. Then I tell him I’ve got a big blister on the back of my ankle. Sitting on my knees I can see that it’s bleeding and raw. In addition to not packing multivitamins, I also neglected to bring band-aids. I never need band aids. But now, suddenly, I do. I’ll have to tell Palminder to take me to the chemists, I tell Scott. I can’t just wash the wound in tap water, I learned from Susie’s Qut’b Minar toe incident. I’ll have to get betadyne. If Sonu was my driver, I tell Scott, he’d go the chemists with me and make sure I got everything I needed. He’d probably even bandage my foot for me.

Yeah, because he loves you.

Point. Counterpoint. Forget I mentioned it. I can manage my own bandage.

When I’m done discussing my wound, I tell Scott that my time here is almost half over. I’m half way home. He says I can’t think like that. I have to enjoy myself while I’m here or it’ll end up feeling like torture. Time will drag on. I’ll be miserable. I know this is objectively true, but I still cry when he says goodbye. Then I feel like kicking myself in the ass. Buck up already. It’s getting old.

When we hang up, it’s 11 o’clock, but there is no call from downstairs to let me know that Palminder is here. I wait until about twenty after, then call Palminder’s cell phone. “Madam, I am at guest house waiting for you!” he tells me.

“Nobody told me, Palminder,” I tell him.

“Sorry madam,” he says. I didn’t want to make him apologize. I walk downstairs to find him patiently waiting, parked by the white metal gate of C-83.

“Palminder, I’d like to go to the Lotus Temple, but we have to go to the chemists first,” I tell him. We take the short drive from the Ahuja Residency to the Defence Colony Market and Palminder stops in front of a chemists, parking the car just a few spots away.

Inside the cramped little store, I walk to the back counter and ask for band-aids. There is a pause. The two men look a bit confused until I whip out my bloody ankle. Then they know what to do. The first man fishes out gauze. I ask for something to clean the wound with. He produces a tube of betadyne. Then I ask for something with which to stick the gauze to my leg. He produces a roll of Johnson and Johnson’s medical tape. He writes up the prices of these items on a small paper bag and sends me to the front counter to pay. Notice I do not say register. There are no cash registers in India: only drawers with dubious amounts of change strewn and folded haphazardly in them. Thankfully, this time, I have the exact amount: 107 rupees.

On my way out of the store, there is a woman with a little girl, all dressed up with bows in her hair and a little ruffled dress. Another woman tells her now nice she looks. “Thank you,” the mother says. “She’s all dressed up for Rahki.” I want to tell the little girl, “You don’t have to tie a rakhi! You don’t need a man to protect you! I just read it in The Times of India.” Instead I just walk past.

I find Palminder’s car outside. He tells me, “Ten rupees.” There is a man standing there, waiting for payment. “Ten rupees. Park.”

I am now thoroughly confused. I thought Palminder was paying for my parking. I consider asking him about this, but I don’t want to make a big deal in front of the insistent man waiting for his ten rupees. I guess Palminder only pays for parking sometimes, like my clock only works sometimes and my Internet only works sometimes and my hot water only works sometimes. I wonder if he’s just gotten wise to the scam of having his fare pay for the parking and keeping the reimbursed cash. I wonder if Sonu wasn’t ripping me off after all and the times that Palminder paid for parking were some strange case. Then I think: the times Palminder paid, I had an Indian friend in the car with me. Shabnum was with me. The one time that Sonu paid was when Palminder was in the car with us. I think this scam must be reserved for when the white girl is alone and doesn’t know any better than to protest. I think: next time, I will ask Palminder to pay. And if he doesn’t, I’ll call Ms. Sonu and ask her what the case should be, not that she’ll tell me the truth.

As we pull out of the market, it starts to rain. I tell Palminder we have to go back to Ahuja and get my umbrella. I’ve left it at home. He tells me, “Madam, this car, umbrella.” I can use the umbrella in the trunk of the cab.

“Okay,” I say, and we proceed in the direction of the Lotus Temple. On the way, I puncture the tube of betadyne and dop the orange glop onto my ankle. I tear off some gauze, quite unevenly, then I try to tear off a piece of tape. It won’t come apart. I have to gnaw at it with my teeth. In addition to not packing multivitamins or band-aids, I didn’t bring scissors with me. The list of missing essentials seems long today.

Eventually, I tear the tape and plaster it to my foot. Had I been raised by Frankenstein or wolves, this would resemble a proper band-aid to me. As such is not the case, it doesn’t look so good to me, but it is functional. It keeps the back of my shoe from further irritating the blister.

At the Lotus Temple, Palminder starts to pull up to the side of the road where the man charges for parking. There’s free parking behind it, I tell him. “Free parking?” he asks, then pulls the car into the free parking lot. Did he know it was there? He didn’t need my directions once I told him about it. These games are so tiresome.

He pops out of the car and fetches the large umbrella with the wooden handle from the trunk. It’s not raining, but it might start again, and the temple is a long walk from the free parking lot. As I swing the umbrella and walk between the small, manicured bushes, I realize this is my first time at the Lotus Temple alone. I take off my shoes and give them to the shoe check guy alone. I get the token that will allow me to get my shoes back and, this time, I have to keep track of it. Sonu has done this for me each time I’ve been here.

At the entrance, a long line of people forms and the attendants give their speech in Hindi, then English, even though I am the only white person there. I want to tell them, it’s okay, I know the drill. You can’t talk at all once you are inside. You can’t take any pictures. You have to turn your cell phone off.

This time I get to pick my seat instead of following Sonu to where he thinks is best. I sit where I sat the first time I came and heard that bird that I thought was a recording and felt that cool breeze. Today, there is a breeze as well. It comes from between the marble steps and hits the benches on the far side of the temple.

I fold my bare feet into the lotus position and close my eyes. I am relieved to be here. Relieved to feel the sense of well being I’ve felt each time I’ve visited. I’ve been so frayed and unraveled from the experience of my trip, and now I can let all of that go.

I halfheartedly form the question about my soul that I thought of while I was at Raju’s. What is my soul? Where is it? What does it look like? But I am too tired. I don’t want an answer right now. I just want to sit and feel the Lotus Temple around me. I just want to sit and feel… good. I feel embraced, peaceful, filled up instead of empty and searching. There is more time for bigger questions. Today all I need and all I get is one word: acceptance.

More than the issue of control or non-control of events, acceptance is necessary for happiness. Acceptance is what the lady from Mumbai was smiling about, not a lack of control. We can make the best possible choices for ourselves with the limited information we have, we can control what we can, but whatever the outcome, wherever we find ourselves, we need acceptance. Without it, life is struggle. Life is only longing. Life is painful.

I accept that I just spent 24 hours on a bus. I accept landslides. I accept rain. I accept that it is mid-August and I won’t be going home until October. I accept that I won’t see my husband or my family or my pets for many more weeks. I accept my situation. I accept my life, and suddenly there is peace. No struggle. No fight. Just peace.

This is that mantra they make alcoholics repeat, isn’t it? “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

It’s not just about rolling over and accepting everything, but it is about not causing yourself undue grief in the face of unchanging circumstances. It’s about not wasting time and effort on worrying. It’s about being deliberate and rational and working to change things you don’t like instead of fretting about them.

I’ve seen it a million times. I think they even put it on coffee mugs at the Hallmark store. So why does it make sense to me only now? Why did I need my head squeezed like a depressurized saline bottle for this to have real meaning for me? Because words are only words until they’re lived and felt.

I hate when I feel the limitations of writing. I felt it when I was at Raju’s and Jonaki started painting the hillside. I felt it when I looked at the pictures I was taking and couldn’t come close to describing them in any detail. Rocks and sky and water. My words were so clunky compared to what I saw and breathed and heard and smelled while I was there. It’s okay, though. If one mode of expression were sufficient, we’d have a boring world. It’s the shortcomings of every art form that lead to the creation of others. There was a letter at the Roerich museum reflecting upon this phenomenon, and now I feel it’s truth as well.

On my way out of the temple, I notice that they’re in the middle of changing the brass plaques that hold the quotes. I’m so glad I copied down the quotes I saw on my earlier visits. I had no idea they changed them out. It seems that the way those quotes spoke to me on past visits is even more fortuitous than I thought.

The only plaque installed on this visit seems also to speak directly to the homesickness I’ve been dealing with as a result of my trip to the mountains and disrupted routine. It says, “Oh son of man, Sorrow not save that thou art far from us. Rejoice not save that thou art drawing near and returning to us.”

I think about this for a while. It’s hard not to think that the “us” are some little green aliens of someone else’s very different belief system. But if I can get past that, the question of distance is one that I’ve been tripping on. What if I think about distance from God instead of distance from my family? If I think about this, I realize that there is no distance at all. Distance is moot. God is with me and in me, as he is with and in my family as well. We are all “drawing near” in this way. And if it’s not God the guy in white robes on the ceiling of the Sistene Chapel, it’s surely some common human experience that rises above the level of the mundane. It’s spirit. It’s soul. The unity that Vivekananda was talking about, perhaps? This is the question that I have remaining; the question that was too big to ask this time. This is bigger than I was ready to think about today. This is one more reason to return to the Lotus Temple.

Outside the temple I swing my borrowed umbrella and fish the metal token from the back pocket of my jeans. I’m dressed like a real westerner today, wearing a t-shirt from a band of some former students of mine. I think they’d get a kick knowing their band name made it all the way to India. I haven’t gone out for quite some time in western clothing. It’s somewhat relieving, comfortable. I retrieve my shoes and walk back down the manicured pathway.

I find Palminder waiting with the car doors open and give him back his umbrella. “C-83?” he asks.

I think, wait a minute, I have you for eight hours on Saturdays. Why are you so anxious to get me home? When I had Sonu on Saturdays, if I didn’t use the whole eight hours, he’d get anxious and tell me I didn’t use up all my time. Wasn’t there somewhere else I needed to go?

I consider attempting to slog through one of the markets I haven’t visited yet, but I feel so nice and tranquil and the markets are so crowded and dirty that I don’t think it would be a positive contrast. “Yes, C-83,” I tell Palminder.

Back at home, I blog and watch BBC World. At about five o’clock I decide to walk to the market. Pachu is downstairs in his signature blue cotton shirt making a bed in another room. When he sees me, he springs to his feet. “Madam, madam! Your BBC? Your BBC?”

“Yes, BBC is back. Thank you,” I tell him. I feel like such a whitey having freaked out at the momentary loss of my BBC. It’s nice that he asked, though. It’s nice that even Pachu cares a little bit about my comfort here.

In the market I eat at Sagar’s again. I consider going someplace else, but this is the place my Indian friend in the United States recommended, and I love it here. I order an uttapum: a pancake, really, with vegetables cooked inside. They bring their chutneys and coconut dipping sauces. I dip and dip until there is nothing left to dip. Then I order a dessert by pointing to something I’ve never heard of before. It comes wrapped in paper. I unwrap it. It is a rectangular yellow piece of dough or paste. It’s very sweet, maybe almond flavored. I eat the whole thing, whatever it is, and pay my three dollars for the whole meal when it is done.

After dinner, I walk to the grocery store where I thought I remembered seeing scissors for sale. I’m tired of chewing medical tape to make band-aids. I can’t find the scissors where I thought they were. A man asks me, “Madam?”

“Scissors,” I say, and make the international sign for scissors with my fingers.

“Here,” he says. I think he would have understood without my lame sign language. He shows me pinking shears, suitable for cutting hair. I wish I would have made this purchase before having my tangle with Verma’s High Quality Beauty Salon, but I accept my bad haircut.

As I walk out the front door of the grocers, my purse strap snaps. It did this once before and I repaired it, apparently, not good enough. I accept my broken purse, but think I might just buy a new one rather than try to have the tailor repair this one a second time. This purse has seen better days.

I decide that tonight is the night to see if they have real coffee at the Barista’s coffee shop across the way. I walk in, hopeful. I order a latte. They seem to know what I want. They even have a to-go cup, contrary to what Susie and Julianne said. They prepare my order and refrain from filling the cup with sugar. It is not the best coffee I’ve ever had. In fact, it’s pretty flavorless. But it is real, not made from dehydrated crystals. It’s made from beans. It’s wonderful.

I walk with my coffee to the shop where I tried to buy a suit the night before the history book launch. I think they might have some purses. They do. They have one that is a near Indian cousin of the purse I have that just broke. I buy it. It’s way more expensive than I would pay in the daily markets, but there’s also no hassle, no crowd, and it’s here right now. I can use it tonight. Instant gratification, unlike instant coffee, pleases me.

I walk home past Acha’s hang out. She scrambles out from under a car and greets me. I pet her and talk to her a bit, telling her she’s acha. It’s dusk, though, and the bugs are coming out. I notice a bite on my ankle and head home, where I take the last Allegra I had leftover from my necrosis diagnosis.

I turn on the BBC and prop up some pillows to lean on while I write. The rest of the evening passes quickly.

Tonight, I talk to Scott over his lunchtime and say goodbye without crying.


auntlinda said...

you're right buck up already... it is getting old and there is no ANSWER... answer to what? you're thinking between the lines ... it is what it is ... it is you around the world .. THE WORLD in a new culture not deeper or better than the one you come from ... its a time in your life you will refer to for the rest of your life ... loving us and missing us is a tribute to our love for each other ... a deep profound inner love... now is that better? ... we miss you too but girl we're here for you .. you go enjoy EVERY minute no more tears .. you cant be two places at once... thats what always makes my computer crash... please plan another adventure .. you have only limited time to embrace the personality that is India... you dont need to become part of it just enjoy it and come home to a family who supports you and admires your courage... we can wait while you add to who are .. if the shampoo that makes you smarter works than i am sending you NO MORE TEARS by johnson and johnson!!!!!

Vicki said...

No More Tears! I love it. Leave it to the beautician to make the best shampoo joke I've ever heard.

I am feeling much better and take the days of homesickness I went through as another necessary part of this experience. Tears and laughs. Both are significant. But I am glad to be out of that funk!

It's me mom said...

It's okay to miss your family, it shows how close you are and how much love you have. Scott is a wonderful person to be missing, don't blame you. Just enjoy your adventure.

Hey, Linda stold my catch-phrase "It is what it is".

As far as your sole, God, acceptance, I don't think there is one clear answer, if there was there would only be one religion. Just live your life as a good person.

Vicki said...

That's beautiful... and true about one religion. Thank you =) Love you. Miss you =)

It's me mom said...

Must've been an interesting entry this day, I have another comment. I think Rakhi isn't such a bad custom. I always wanted by big brother to protect me instead of push me into puddles on the way to school.