Friday, August 1, 2008

Goodbye Sonu

Thursday morning, a brown-haired woman approaches me at the breakfast table. “Are you English?” she asks in a wonderful British accent.

“No, I’m American,” I tell her.

“Yes, but you speak English,” she says, sitting down, looking relieved. She just arrived at three in the morning. She asked for a wake up call at ten, but found herself wide awake having received no call at all. That’s how the jet lag works when you come in this direction. You are wide awake in the early morning, regardless of how much sleep you’ve had, or haven’t had.

She didn’t know what time it was because her cell phone ran out of charge and there are no clocks anywhere. She says this with a hint of desperation.

My cell phone ran out of charge, I want to tell her. I didn’t know what time it was either. I woke up early. It’s like I’m talking to myself four weeks ago. The recognition makes me jubilant. I want to hug her. I want to tell her it will be okay. She hasn’t fallen off the planet.

I can’t quite figure out the deep need to have a clock, to know what time it is, but it was one of the most disorienting aspects of my own arrival at the Ahuja Residency. I needed those little square red numbers glowing at me, keeping me company, telling me where I was. You are at two o’clock. You are at three thirty. Without them, I felt lost, blinded.

I remember pleading with Sonu, “Watch, clock, store, please!”

My breakfast companion looks pretty good for having just been reborn, India-style. I ask her if she’s been here before, and she hasn’t. She’s been to some places in Asia, but not to India and not alone. I ask her if she’s figured out the hot water switch yet. No, she hasn’t, but her shower was warm. “There must have been enough leftover,” she laughs. It’s true. The same thing happened to me. There was hot water the first time, and then it was gone.

These are the things, she says, that the hotel should have written down on a sheet. I tell her to check her desk. There is a sheet inside, but they don’t mention the hot water.

She sees that I’m eating a mango and wonders if it’s safe. She wonders if the bottled water the hotel provides is safe because it just says “drinking water” on it and not “spring water” or “filtered water.” I never even looked that closely. Yes, I can assure her. Everything at this hotel has been very safe for me so far, and the mangos are delicious. She should have one.

“Are there many English speaking people here?” she wonders. Not that many, I tell her. She says there was a Japanese-looking man here earlier who looked all bleary-eyed and was throwing his head back and yawning and would only grumble “morning” to her. She grumbles “morning” just like he did, only with an English accent. He must have just arrived, she figures. No! I tell her. He’s been down here every day for more than a week. I know exactly who she’s talking about. It’s not jet lag. Our Japanese friend is just not a morning person.

She relates an anecdote about how she couldn’t get her key to work in the door last night after she arrived, so she got the man and showed him the problem. I think it was the grey-haired, skinny Pachu. Anyway, at three in the morning, Pachu wordlessly demonstrated that she should latch her door from the inside instead of locking it with the key. So that is how she slept last night, with an unlocked door, held closed by a latch.

Yes, I’ve been there. Yes, that happened to me too. I feel strange being the “experienced” one in the conversation for the first time in a long time. My life for the last four weeks has been me needing help, me asking questions. But today at breakfast, I can finally help someone else a little bit, even if it’s only to offer commiseration in a common language.

My breakfast companion is in India to visit her brother and his family. They are living in one room up in Dharamsala. Her brother is teaching there. She is very curious to see how he is living. She is only at Ahuja for this one day and will take an overnight train to Dharamsala tonight if all goes well. She’s been on a foreigner’s wait list for three weeks to get the ticket, but she says it’s much easier to get a first class ticket than anything else because nobody can afford them. First class is nice, she says. You get clean sheets and everything. The ticket will cost about twenty dollars. She was going to take a bus, but someone told her they can go off the road. Trains stay on their tracks.

She wants to know how long it will take her to get to the station. I’ve seen it on local maps and it’s close by. I tell her a half hour is plenty of time. She can either call Mrs. Sonu for a cab or just get an auto-rickshaw. In case she wants to take an auto, I show her how to walk to the market, pointing down to the street below us. Take your first right, then your first left. “Your first right, first left,” she repeats. I can tell her head is spinning a little bit. I hope her journey is safe.

I wish she were staying on beyond today. I wish we could swap a few more Ahuja Residency stories, but I have to go get ready for work, so we say goodbye.

I go up to my room and take my steroid and my antibiotic. Finally, today, my necrosis looks like it’s abating. It appears that my leg won’t rot after all. I’d been worried about the flesh turning black and seeping like I saw in the Wikipedia entry for necrosis, but my necrosis is not nearly so severe. I didn’t realize how worried I was about this until I was off-the-hook and it was definitely getting better, but I am hugely relieved.

The guard knocks at my door. “Madam, your driver.” I walk down the smooth white marble staircase wondering what will happen when I get outside. Will there be a stranger there? Will Sonu be back after all? Did he get fired?

Outside I see Sonu standing next to the white Indica. I feel a mixture of discomfort and relief. “Sonu!” I say. “I am happy to see you,” but then I think perhaps I shouldn’t be so eager. Perhaps this is confusing. Perhaps I should scowl just to be clear. But I scowling isn’t my style.

“Madam,” Sonu says, and opens the door for me on the left side of the car. He also gets into the left side of the car—the side without a steering wheel—and motions to a man sitting in the driver’s seat. “This driver today. He driver. Me, no.”

Sonu will ride with us just for today, but Balminder Singh with the fuzzy little mustache will be my new driver. “Hi, Balminder,” I greet him and he nods nervously. He looks all of nineteen years old. I’m glad Sonu is accompanying us on our first drive so we don’t experience a replay of my first excursion to the office (which took an hour and a half and included some of the, shall we say, less touristy areas of Delhi).

“Ma’am, I go back Punjab,” Sonu tells me as we approach the market then turn left instead of right at the highway. They fired Sonu.

“Different way?” I ask.

“Yes,” Sonu says, as Balminder drives. I don’t mind the alternate route—until we run into a mash of traffic. The Ring Road looks like a parking lot.

“Oh no,” I say. “Bad traffic.”

“What?” Sonu asks.

“Bad traffic. Many cars,” I clarify.

“Yes, very. Very many cars,” he agrees.

Sonu takes out a silver flip phone and tells me, “Friend. Phone. I call you. Punjab.” He’s going to call me from Punjab? “Number,” he says. He wants to give me his phone number. I find a scrap sheet of paper and pass it up into the front seat. I wonder where this cell phone came from if he was having the money problems he explained to me.

Then we pass a billboard for a cell phone. The price is listed at 1390 rupees, though Sonu told me a new cell phone would cost 5000 rupees the night before when I asked him. Was he lying? Did he think he’d get the money out of me?

“And what about that day when Sonu was wearing different clothes when he picked you up from work?” my mother wondered over Skype with me. She’s been combing the blog for clues like it’s a detective novel. Where did he go? Maybe he’s picking up other fares. Maybe that’s where the gas is going.

Or maybe the advertisement I see is for a really cheap cell phone whereas Sonu is saving for an expensive one that takes snaps. Hard to say what the truth is, if there is one.

Sonu passes the scrap of paper back to me and looks at the darkening sky. “Rain,” he says. A few moments later, there is a deluge. The men on motorcycles are instantly drenched, their collared shirts going transparent and sticking to their bodies. The streets quickly fill up with water. The traffic snarls worsen.

Despite all this, I am only about fifteen minutes late. As we pull up in front of Pearson, Sonu turns around. “Umbrella?” He wants to make sure I have one so I don’t get wet on my way in. I know he keeps one in his trunk because he used it the last time we went to the Lotus Temple. Now he’s ready to jump out into the torrential rain and get it for me so I stay dry on the way into my office.

Maybe he is just that nice. Maybe he wasn’t trying to rip me off. Can he be so kind and mature that even after getting rejected by me and losing his job on the same day, he treats me with the same loving regard as before? Or is he hoping I’ll change my mind about him?

“I have one,” I tell him, and hold up the tiny polka-dotted folding umbrella that I’ve just dug out of my backpack. “But thank you.”

“Same time, madam?” he says, as he asks every day when we arrive at my office.

“Yes,” I’ll be leaving work at the same time as always. Six o’clock.

Whatever Sonu’s business dealings or misadventures may be, things are okay between Sonu and me. I smile and duck into the rain.

At work, I edit a chapter from a book on finance and learn about the Haridwar pilgrimage from Amar at lunchtime while eating from our lunchboxes, newspaper spread out underneath to keep from slopping our eggplant subzi on his desk.

Midday I go outside for a walk and see Sonu standing outside his car. He is ready. Do I need to go somewhere? The doctor’s, maybe? No. I’m just taking a walk, but the streets are too filled with water from the morning rain and after about fifteen yards, I have to turn around unless I want to wade.

In the afternoon, I’m working and I see an email from Marjorie Scardino pop into my inbox. She’s the CEO of all of Pearson: a very busy woman. She wants to tell me she read my Pearson India blog entry and it made her day. I am elated. I’m happy I get a chance to thank her personally for the most challenging and amazing experience I’ve ever had, and I send her a reply telling her as much. Between this and attending the event with the Prime Minister next week, I’m starting to feel a little like Forest Gump.

After work, I climb into the car with Sonu and Balminder. “What will you do in Punjab?” I ask Sonu as we pull up to the crumbling industrial park gate plastered with tattered postings. I think maybe he’ll get a different job.

“I no no. Babies,” he says.

“Your babies,” I say, “That’s good.” I think of Saturday at India Gate when we saw a bunch of kids playing in the green gook fountain. My first thought was, “How dangerous, they might slip on that slime and hit their heads,” and he smiled hugely, “Childrens!” he said. I think he must like his babies, even if they’re girls.

Sonu turns around and holds up his new cell phone. He asks very seriously, “Ma’am, snaps? Indraprasthra Park. Only five, ten minute.” Indraprasthra Park is on the way home. It’s where we stopped one day at the Buddhist stuppa and I learned about emptiness.

All of our other snaps, of the elephant ride, the paddle boat and the Lotus Temple are lost in his broken cell phone. Even though I rejected him, he still wants my picture. He still wants to be friends. He is my friend. I probably should, but I can’t say no.

On the way to the park, he helps Balminder honk at the appropriate times. He tells him when to pass and when to speed up. He’s really an interfering backseat driver. Balminder is very patient. I ask if he’s from Delhi. I wonder if he knows his way around okay. Sonu answers for him, “From Punjab, like me.” I wonder if Balminder speaks English at all. Sonu hasn’t given him the chance.

We park near the stuppa, and Balminder stays with the car. On the way in to the park, Sonu tries to explain what happened with my driving arrangement, but his English fails him. “You call my boss. On yesterday. My boss. Ms. Sonu. Problem. Gas. Problem. Yes.”

I don’t understand. I tell him so. He changes the subject. He tells me he’s going to Punjab for one month. He’ll be back on August 28th, when he’ll be my driver again. “Just you, ma’am. Your driver.” I don’t believe this will actually happen, but Sonu is clearly counting on it.

He tells me he got the cell phone from a friend. It’s his friend’s phone. And he gave his friend his old phone, or he’ll give his friend his new phone when he gets it. Again, it’s hard to say just what is the case, but then there’s the question of how much it really matters.

We reach the stuppa and I take out my camera as well. I show Sonu a picture of my husband (just to remind him), and of my house (“Your house? Nice house. Verrry nice.”) Then I show him a movie I took out the back window of his car while we were driving home the other day. I point at the men in orange at the side of the road, “Haridwar,” I say, proud of my newfound knowledge about what was going on. “Haridwar.”

“Yes,” he says, then “Fast!”

“Yes,” I agree. “You are a fast driver, Sonu.” The other day in the car I asked him how many hours away Punjab is. For most people, he said, eight hours. For him, six or seven.

We take a few pictures then walk back to the car. He tells me he will miss me. I tell him I’ll miss him too. “Balminder is probably a really good driver,” I say, “but you’re the best. The best driver.” I stress the driver part as opposed to, say, a best friend or boyfriend. At the time I think I’m making myself very clear.

Back at the car, Sonu asks Balminder if he’ll take one more photo of us standing together. Balminder quietly obliges. I wonder what he’s thinking about this whole shenanigans.

A man approaches the car with a ticket. He wants ten rupees as a parking fee. I start getting out the money but Sonu has his wallet out before I can even grab my purse from my shoulder. “Sonu, I can pay.”

“No ma’am,” he says. “Okay,” and smilingly forks over the cash. Ten rupees is so much more to him than it is to me.

In the car, Sonu reviews his snaps, showing each one to me. “Nice,” he says.

“Nice,” I say.

Then he mashes a few more buttons and an animated graphic appears on the display screen. It says, “I… Miss… You!” He holds it up for me to see in the backseat, “Ma’am?”

“Oh, Sonu, I’ll miss you too,” I tell him. He smiles. I hope I’m not confusing him.

There are more animations for me to see on this new phone: a baby doing push-ups with one arm, two babies kissing, then three pictures of Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th and final Sikh guru. “This is my god. One god. My god,” he tells me. I tell him I’d like to see a Sikh temple when he comes back in August. Can he take me to one? “Yes, madam. Yes.” I don’t count on this ever happening.

Back at the Ahuja Residency, Balminder gets the receipt ready and Sonu says goodbye. “Tomorrow, I, Punjab. Tomorrow, 8:45? Driver.” Balminder is slower, he’s telling me. I should leave earlier.

I think if we use Sonu’s old route we’ll be fine. “Same time tomorrow, Balminder,” I say. He nods in silence.
I tell Sonu to have a safe trip home to see his babies.

“Yes, safe,” he says. “Goodbye madam. I miss you.”

Goodbye, Sonu.

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