Monday, August 4, 2008

Am I Blue?

Saturday I set out later because I only have my driver for eight hours and the book launch tonight starts at 6 p.m. I’ll need him until at least 8 o’clock, so I tell Balminder to pick me up at 1:30. He arrives at 1:26, and I’m totally unprepared to leave. I can’t stress how unusual being early is in India.

I show Balminder the notes that Jonaki made in my notebook about where to go to get our bus tickets for the trip we’re taking next week. “We have to find the Himachal Pradesh tourism office on Janpath across from the Imperial Hotel. Balminder nods like he knows where this is. I am relieved. We set off in silence; there is no Punjabi music playing. It’s relaxing for a change.

We drive for a while then Balminder says, “Ma’am, Chandralock Building. Imperial Hotel.” He’s found it. We have to circle around to park.

“I will find you here?” I ask. I’m always a little nervous about leaving my car and not being able to find it when I need it again. Balminder nods.

The building is tall and made out of marble. The first floor is a foyer with offices on either side. I ask a guard sitting out front for the office I need and he points me the way.

This is the official state tourism office. I trust Jonaki to have sent me to a reputable place. I wouldn’t trust myself to find one. The guidebooks are full of admonishments about “touts” who run tourism scams. They’ll take your money then stop the bus halfway to the destination for an extra charge, a “toll”. Or they’ll just take your money and not get you where you want to go.

I buy one overnight bus ticket to Aut. It costs about twenty dollars. From Aut, we’ll have to take a taxi the rest of the way to Gusaini, where Raju’s Cottage is. I try to buy our return tickets, but the woman and man in the tiny office tell me I can’t purchase them. I’ll have to buy them in Manali. They get out a map and show me where Manali is. They say it’s two and a half hours by taxi from Gusani, which they can’t quite find on their map. Jonaki told me I could buy the return tickets. She even gave me money to purchase hers when I came. I press the people, but they are firm. No. We’ll have to go to Manali. The bus will leave from there on the 13th of August at 5:30. I hate to leave without tickets back, but the couple assures me it will be find. They are the official state tourism representatives. They seem very sure of the plan they’re advising me of. I think I’ll have Jonaki call back or come back later. She seemed to have a different result in talking with them. Maybe I’m getting the white girl run-around.

Outside the tourism office I take a few photos then I notice Balminder in his aqua blue shirt, standing right beside me. No worries about finding the car this time.

He walks me back to our dented silver chariot and I explain to him I’m meeting a friend at McDonald’s. He only understands McDonalds and tries to take me to the one in Connaught Place. Shabnum told me this might happen. “No. Janpath. McDonald’s at Janpath,” I tell him.

“No parking, madam,” he says.

“I have to go there,” I say. “Meeting a friend.”

He pulls up to the correct McDonald’s (the one next to the Cottage Industries Emporium that Shabnum mentioned). I ask him how I’ll find him when I’m done. Does he have a cell phone? No. I tell him to park the car where he’s going to be so I can find him when I’m done in a few hours. He thankfully understands and obliges.

I’m almost a full hour early to meet Shabnum because getting the bus tickets didn’t take nearly as long as I’d expected, and also because Balminder was early. So I decide to get some food.

At two o’clock in the afternoon there must be a lunch rush, because the McDonalds is packed. I stand in line shoulder-to-shoulder with a crowd of people for thirty minutes before I order my Big Cheese combo without mayo. When I finally get my food, there is nowhere to sit. I stand, holding my tray and picking at my fries for a bit, then two women invite me to sit at their table with them.

Without the metric ton of mayonnaise, the big cheese veggie burger is almost good. I dip my fries in the chili sauce and try not to feel too weird sitting so close to two other people. They go merrily about their animated Hindi conversation.

Shabnum finds me sitting inside. She, too, is a few minutes early. She decides she’ll eat a little something while we’re here. She gets a chicken sandwich and fries but doesn’t touch the fries. I have an idea how Shabnum keeps her thin. We talk a bit. She’s from Assam but she’s lived in Delhi for nine years. She’s getting married pretty soon. March, I think.

We start our shopping at the Cottage Industries Emporium, a great, gleaming concrete building across the street from the McDonalds. This is a government-run establishment, Shabnum explains. The government runs a lot of stuff here, I think. I understand the concept of socialized healthcare, but the government-run souvenir store concept eludes me a little. I guess such stores help keep the craftspeople employed gainfully. I’ll have to inquire about this.

The Emporium has all the standard Indian fare: beautiful wood carvings, inlaid marble carvings and boxes, fabrics, furniture, handbags and jewelry. I buy a bunch of little elephants that will make great souvenirs.

The somewhat laborious checkout procedure is a clue to the fact that we are in a government establishment. There is one counter where the items are inventoried and a receipt drawn up. There is a second counter where you pay and get your receipt stamped. Then there is a third counter where, magically, all your merchandise is wrapped and bagged and handed over to you. Finally, a man at the door checks your receipt, and you are free to go.

The shops at Janpath are a little more spread out than those in the regular markets. The shopkeepers are a little more laid back as well. Shabnum helps me bargain a bag down from 585 to 300 rupees and talks about how much shopping her sister and her family like to do when they come here from Canada. I don’t blame them. The shopping is a sport with a technique all its own.

There is a downpour and we find ourselves dodging puddles, trying to find the car. Shabnum wants to show me Fab India, a shop down by Connaught Place just a few blocks away, but it’s still better if we take the car. It’s a big parking lot and just when I start to fear we’ll never find Balminder, he faithfully pops out from the sea of Marutis and Indigos. As we pull out of the lot, he gives the attendant 20 rupees.

“Are the drivers supposed to pay for parking?” I think. Sonu always made me pay for parking, save the one time we were with Balminder. Was Sonu letting me pay and getting reimbursed from the taxi service when he gave them the parking receipts which he always kept? Maybe he was stealing gas.

We get to Fab India, which everyone at work talks about. It’s vaguely reminiscent of The Gap, but Indian. It’s a little loft store with hundreds of folded up shirts and kurtas and dupatas. Some of the clothing is more western in its style (e.g. many of the shirts have collars on them). I find one or two cute pieces, but they are very pricy compared to the clothing I’ve been finding in the markets. Shabnum agrees. She says everything here is at least 200 rupees more than it was just a short time ago. Inflation has hit India hard.

We walk around a few more shops in Connaught Place, a great circle of commerce in the city, then find the car. Balminder one again pays for the parking and keeps the ticket. So my boyfriend was ripping me off.

Shabnum speaks to Balminder in Hindi and they determine the best route to get to the Macroeconomics book launch, which is being held in one of the large buildings in central Delhi not far off Lodhi road. I try not to be too sweaty and gross from the shopping we just did, but I mostly fail. It was hot outside and I’m sure I look the worse for the wear.

We pull into the parking lot of the building and I tell Balminder I’ll meet him outside in a few hours. The lobby is pretty nondescript save a three foot statue of Shiva. Our event is down a winding staircase in the basement. We are early and things are running a bit behind schedule. Amar is waiting for the people in our meeting room to clear out. Angshuman says there was a meeting about the Ramayan’s relevance in India today.

“Cool,” I say. I am suddenly stricken with ineloquence. Cool?

The dupatta I am clumsily wearing makes me feel like a fraud. Who is this white girl trying to dress up like an Indian? I pull at it and rearrange it, but it persists in looking goofy--chiefly because I have my stupid polka-dotted purse slung over my body like I’m a crossing guard. With nothing else to do and nothing to say, I reach into my purse. “Ooo, I better turn my cell phone off!” I say, as if someone from the United States is going to call me during this event even though it’s the middle of the night there. As I grab for my phone, a tampon falls out of my purse onto the floor. Cool, I think, as I bend over and try to nonchalantly stick it back from whence it came. I am a goon amongst gazelles.

Besides my classy coworkers, the gazelles include the economic adviser to the Prime Minister and the advisor to the Finance Minister. There is also Professor Partha Sen from the Delhi School of Economics.

It is an understated, decidedly intellectual affair in which well-deserved praise is heaped on the book in question, and the author in question and the publisher in question. This is the first book on macroeconomics with Indian case studies in it; the first book that doesn’t ask Indian students to learn about its subject matter by studying the United States social security system, for instance. This book is a big deal.

Once we are seated and the guest speakers begin, a photographer and a videographer. Am I imagining that the photographer is taking more snaps of me than the other audience members? Probably. But you’d understand if I were a bit paranoid about this matter.

Afterwards, copies of the book are for sale at a table in the lobby and there is tea, coffee, pakoras and sandwiches with the crusts cut off. Once I have something to do with my hands and something easy to talk about (i.e. how well the event went), I’m a little more at ease.

Angshuman and Amar want to know if I want to go out after this and get some dinner and drinks. I would, but I am like Cinderella, I explain. My car is going to turn into a pumpkin at eight o’clock. I only get my driver for eight hours on Saturday, and I am coming to the end of that stretch.

I come home anxious to try on the new “sleeping suit” I bought at Connaught Place. It’s a hand block painted pajama set made out of fine, lightweight cotton. It’s beautiful and you would have thought I paid a hundred dollars for it from the looks of the store and the expensive, chic bag they packed it in. It cost me about twelve bucks.

As I’m changing, I notice that the kurta I wore bled and turned my whole torso blue. I look like something you might see on an autopsy table in an episode of CSI, but I’m way too tired to shower.

I’m supposed to talk to Scott at 10 p.m. my time. I get on the computer and see he’s left me a note: “I ran to the store to get some Frontline for Gilda.” I start to cry. To distract myself, I soak my feet and put lotion on them. Then I blog a bit.

Soon, Scott is back and I try not to pout about being temporarily stood up. I should be happy I get to talk to him at all; happy my Internet connection is working; happy he’s home in time to catch me before I go to sleep.

As we’re chatting, I notice a small beetle on the wall in front of me. I smash it then look it up in Wikipedia. Does it look like any of the blister beetles they show? Kind of, but there are too many varieties of this bug to be sure. I turn around and find another one in my bed. Are these the bugs that gave me the huge welt on the back of my leg? How many more of them are crawling in my room?

I say goodnight to my husband and take my Smurf self to bed, trying to shake off the feeling of being so socially awkward at tonight’s event, trying to believe the bugs in my room are not poisonous, and trying not to feel too blue… literally.

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