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.