Tuesday, August 5, 2008

A Hate/Love Relationship

Sunday morning I wake up after only about three hours of sleep. There is no hot water again in the shower. The water isn’t even warm enough to wash away the blue dye from my clothing the day before. In fact, it’s turning me even more blue from the cold. I emerge from the shower shivering, Smurf-like. Delhi is a lot to deal with when you’ve only had three hours of sleep, I think. Today, I miss my husband terribly and it’s all India’s fault. Today, I hate India.

Thankfully, I don’t feel any new welts anywhere. Maybe the bugs I smashed last night were not the poisonous blister beetles after all—or maybe I luckily smashed the only two that were creeping around my bed. Hard to tell.

Julianne and Susanna arrive just a few minutes late. In addition to me, they have Roxanne and Alicia in the car: two more people who’ve recently arrived in Delhi.

We get to the Delhi Bible Fellowship while they are singing the second song—not too late. There is another guest speaker today; the pastor is still in England convalescing. They still don’t know what’s wrong.

The dark-skinned guest speaker in a crisp white shirt starts off with a story about how he went shopping for some cologne and got ripped off. Figures. The packaging looked the same, he said, but it was basically water inside. It’s so easy to get fooled by appearances in India, he says. I think of Julianne’s 100 rupee sari which was full of stains when she unfurled the fabric. I think of the stinky shoes I bought, and all the parking that I paid for and, apparently, shouldn’t have. It is easy to get ripped off here, especially when you’re a foreigner.

The speaker says we are fooled by appearances, but God isn’t. We need to see with God’s eyes to see past appearances. He says God is like the sun: you cannot look at it, but without it, you cannot look at anything else.

It sounds good and I love the poetic analogy, but I wonder what it really means. Was I looking at Sonu with the benefit of the sun? Or was I in the dark? He duped me into paying for parking. Ten rupees here, twenty-five rupees there, for a whole month. Does that matter? Did I see that he was a good person at heart, or was I only seeing the results of his attraction to me? Is he really a rotten guy who cheats on his wife, hates his daughters because they’re girls, and steals from his employer? I wonder how it’s ever possible to have the kind of wisdom of “seeing” that our speaker is talking about today. I feel very far from it.

Regardless, our guest is a good storyteller and church goes by quickly today. There is much milling about afterwards. Susie is supposed to meet these people from Hong Kong who just got here. They are friends of a friend from when Susie taught English in Hong Kong. Turns out the women are the ones I kept turning around to look at during the service. They talked the whole time. I kept wondering how anyone could have that much to say. They never stopped. And they are still talking incessantly. This must be a cultural thing, I figure. Maybe in Hong Kong they don’t go to church, or everyone talks during church, and then they keep talking without stopping after church. While the Hong Kong people talk, I mill about and talk to one of the daughters of a large family—like, they take up a whole row at church. They’re getting ready to return to the United States tomorrow. She is sanguine. I am jealous. We talk about receiving packages. The Indian post office, apparently, likes to open up packages, and the employees help themselves to whatever looks appealing—and this is given over to random tastes. The daughter tells me she once got a package from which the socks were extracted, but all the DVDs and CDs were left in tact. I guess this kind of tampering is not a federal crime like it is in the United States. Or maybe it is but people just don’t care because to enforce something, you’d have to go to court, and that could take an indefinite length of time. So just take the socks if they look good to you. Nothing will happen. I hope the Defence Colony post office is classier than this. I hope this is another meaning of the word “posh” that everyone uses to describe Defence Colony.

I ask Susie if her rat smell is cleared up. She sent me an email earlier in the week saying she couldn’t get together on Saturday because she was waiting for the rat guy to come and hopefully get rid of the fetid smell saturating her kitchen and bedroom. “It’s really bad in the kitchen,” she says. The rat guy didn’t show up. He was supposed to come Friday night, then Saturday, and now it’s Sunday and no rat guy. I wish her well getting the situation fixed and am grateful I’m staying in a place where I have a staff to turn to if something goes wrong. Otherwise I’d have to wait on rat guys and hot water guys and tv guys and who knows what else could possibly break.

Over an hour later, the Hong Kong guests are finally convinced that they can keep talking if we just pause for a few minutes to dismiss to our second location, Nirala’s, for lunch. It’s the same good Chinese restaurant we ate at two weeks ago after church. The Chinese restaurants here are far better than the Chinese restaurants I know in Chicago and Iowa. I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s the proximity, or the availability of ingredients. Either way, Nirala’s doesn’t disappoint.

After lunch, Julianne walks down with me to help me catch an auto. Her roommate is going to drive the Hong Kong people home instead of me, and I tell her that’s fine. The first wallah wants fifty rupees. She says it’s too much. We wait around for another auto, but there aren’t that many coming by. The second wallah, as if in conspiracy, wants fifty rupees. His meter is broken, just like the first auto-wallah’s meter was broken. Julianne says, “Tori dour hay.” It’s very close. It should only cost 30 or 40 rupees. The wallah laughs at her and repeats, “Tori dour hay.” I think he thinks it’s funny that a white girl is speaking Hindi to him.

Tired of fighting, I tell her it’s okay. I’ll pay the fifty rupees. I just want to get home. I’m supposed to give Amar a call about seeing a movie tonight and it’s getting late on in the afternoon. I climb into the rickshaw, wave goodbye to Julianne, and we take off.

The driver laughs. “Your friend?” he asks. “Your helper?” he laughs and laughs some more. He’s making fun of me. I am so sick of crazy drivers.

“Yes, my friend,” I say.

“You married?” he asks. Here we go.

“Yes, I’m married,” I say.

“Your friend married?”

“Yes,” I practice a little Indian deception.

“Babies? You babies?”

“Yes,” I lie again, hoping my driver cannot see with God’s eyes.

“How many?” he wants to know.

“One,” I say. Seems like a good number. “Do you have babies?” I ask, hoping to shift his focus.

“Yes,” he says. “One baby only have? One only?” This is occasion for a barrel of laughs. He is like some crazy Indiana Jones character. I wish I had a whip that I could do a trick with and shut him up.

The rest of the way home he laughs, occasionally peppering his laughter with short phrases, something about “two babies” and “enough” and “Indian babies every year, one, two, three, enough!” With this he chops the air and laughs so hard he can’t speak for a while, which is a relief. Then he begins again, “Two babies. All enough. Two, one, five, one in blanket hold. Fifteen year. Two babies.” He makes the okay sign and, of course, laughs.

I’m glad I could provide so much entertainment, and very relieved when we get to C-83.

Inside, I call Amar. He was able to get tickets for the 5:30 showing of Dark Knight, so they’ll come pick me up in the Defence Colony market at about 4:30. That should give us plenty of time to get there.

I have about an hour, so I decide to go pick up my pants at the tailor. I’d dropped them there the day before when I realized there was no drawstring in them. He said, “Small work,” and told me they’d be ready by the evening. I approach his booth and, this time, he is a little more alert. He sees me and smiles and begins digging through a bunch of clothes he has folded behind him. He pulls out my pants folded neatly in a bag and says nothing about payment. “Take,” he says. I think he’s done the work for free, but I give him twenty rupees just on principle. A dust-coated woman with a beautiful smile emerges from the alley behind his shop. The tailor says, “Ready for work,” and gestures to her. She looks at me hopefully. “I’m sorry; I don’t have any work,” I say. Everyone smiles and I walk home. On the way I pass a dog picking at an empty corn cob and a lemon rind in a sewer. I pass a second, golden lab-esque dog with a head like a lunchbox. This dog is wearing a collar and a smile, but he’s also full of bugs and lesions just like the strays are here. No Frontline and heartworm pills in India, at least not for this guy.

Before I know it, it’s about quarter after four, so I head out to the market to wait for Amar and his wife. Four thirty rolls around, then it’s quarter to five, then five o’clock. Finally, Amar pops out of a black jeep-type taxi. “The regular taxi did not show up.” He is so sorry. I climb into the black box of a vehicle and hit my head on the way in.

We get close to the theatre and there is a traffic jamb. Amar and his wife talk to the driver in Hindi. “We’re going to get out and walk,” they tell me. Otherwise, we’ll be late. We cut through a parking lot, then a vacant plot strewn with trash. There is a pile of trash as high as my head and several people sit picking though it. The dirt plot opens into a pedestrian mall where several white cows are loitering. The stores here and the architecture are rather western, and it’s funny to see the cows in front of the Reebok, Levi and Benetton shops. They’re just hanging out like kids at the mall waiting for their moms to come pick them up. I take a few snaps.

There is a long line for the movie and it seems that everything is conspiring against us getting to see it in time. Amar picks up our tickets and we pass through a metal detector at the outside door. A man has seen me snap a photo of the cows. “Do you have a camera, ma’am?”

“Yes,” I say, before I think to lie.

“You can’t bring a camera in here. You have to leave your camera.”

Amar snaps into action. “We will have to leave your camera somewhere,” he says, and takes it from my hands before I can really think about where my $300 camera will be for the next two and a half hours. I follow his wife through the next security checkpoint where women are rifling through purses. My purse doesn’t get rifled though. If I would have just not taken a picture of the cows, everything would have been fine. These damn snaps have gotten me into more trouble…

We walk into the theatre. It looks large enough for a rock concert and the seats are giant, plush, reclining affairs. Amar’s wife uses her cell phone to light the way as we scramble for our assigned seats. Amar isn’t far behind. He checked my camera and we’ve just missed the first few seconds of the movie. Not too bad for the odds we faced: missed cab, traffic jamb, camera incident.

Watching Christian Bale and Morgan Freeman and Heath Ledger in the dark theatre, I almost forget I’m in India—until the movie suddenly stops and big white letters come on the screen: “INTERMISSION.” A slide show starts: “Now is the time for Pepsi and popcorn!” Amar goes out to get some snacks. Another slide comes up: “If you see an unattended object, don’t touch it. It could be an explosive.” This message comes courtesy of the Delhi police. Security here is a bit higher than it is in other cities as Delhi is the capital. And even then, security here is higher than usual because of the recent bombings in other cities.

The movie ends and we walk out into the night. It’s relatively cool because it’s rained again. I ask Amar where my camera is with a slight feeling of dread. We walk to a cigarette stand outside the show. Amar speaks in Hindi to the man behind the counter. I think, my camera got hocked. It’s not there anymore. Amar hands over some bills to the guy and the guy motions to a second guy standing behind him. Hands wave and Hindi is spoken. Finally, the guy pulls out my camera. I am rather astounded. It could so easily have been stolen or sold. I really don’t understand why it wasn’t. It comes back with a number written on the front face in oil pencil, but otherwise completely in tact. Not even any questionable snaps have been taken. I resolve to be more careful about where I take my camera. For instance, I can’t take it into the event to see the Prime Minister, Amar cautions. I won’t even try, I promise.

We eat a wonderful meal at the Bamboo Garden, a Thai restaurant, and Amar insists on treating for this too. Afterwards we walk out to find a cab. There are stalls lit by naked bulbs: this one selling wallets; that one selling shoes. Amar’s wife, Tehseen, asks me if I’ve ever tried a paan. She said she gave it to some Japanese clients once and they made goofy faces. She demonstrates. She buys a piece for us to share. The vendor plies it with honey. “This is a good quality paan,” she says, and points out the silver leafing on it.

Amar thinks it must not be silver. That can’t be good for you. But Tehseen says yes, it is silver, and silver is good for your digestion. No, Amar thinks, this has to be wrong. No, Tehseen says, it’s silver.

Whatever its disputed toppings, the paan consists of a betel leaf, wrapped around a sweet mixture of spices, ground Areca nut and coconut served on a little square silver tray. Good paan wallahs are considered artists, and I believe we’ve just stumbled upon one.

Tehseen tells me how to eat it. “Just take a small bite at first, then, after a while, you will think of it again and you will want more.” The first bite is jarring. The leaf is bitter and woody. Then, sure enough, after some time, I want more. She takes a bite, then I do. It’s very aromatic, almost soapy, but calming, refreshing. That’s why it’s chewed after dinner as a breath freshener.

Some people chew betel that is stuffed with tobacco. That’s what you see people all over Delhi spitting. This is a Delhi thing, Amar and Tehseen explain in the cab on the way home, people in other places in India don’t spit like that.

I tell them about almost getting spit on the day before while I was walking home from the market, and Amar says he can tell me something even worse. When Tehseen first came to Delhi, she and her friend actually did get spit on, right in their faces. She says she hated it here for a while, but now she misses it when she leaves. In other places, they don’t pee on the streets or spit, but, she says, only in Delhi do they celebrate festivals with such enthusiasm. She says I’ll get a chance to see this coming up on August 15th for Independence Day. The skies will be full of kites, she says. Only in Delhi. And if a kid cuts another kid’s kite loose, he will scream “Independence!” as the kite takes flight. It sounds like fun.

As we pull up to C-83, I thank my generous hosts for a very fun evening. Tonight, I still miss my husband, but me and India, we’re okay. Hot water or not. Spit or no spit.


auntlinda said...

happy/sad felings? which do i have for your being there? i love you and want you to enjoy the whole India experience, but i love you and wish you were not so lonesome . I have learned from and enjoyed all of your stories so im happy . i miss you and wish you were here to hug so im sad. i guess life is up and down, good and bad , happy and sad and it is how we handle it that makes the difference so ...i am happy you are happy with india i am happy India gets to experience you . you are awesome and brave and are doing better at adjusting your expectaions than anyone i know. India will miss you when you leave , somehow i dont feel sorry for them because then america gets to experience you and it better adjust its expectaions HIGHER!!!!!

Vicki said...

Oh Aunt Lin! I love you! And I love finding comments on my blog. It really helps me feel like I'm connecting with everyone I miss and love. You are in my heart always and I have your little tag on my wallet to let me know I am in yours as well--your heart, not your wallet. Har de har.