Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Little Purse That Could

Tuesday morning I sleep a little late. I’m usually showered and dressed by 7:30, when I make my Skype call to Scott, but this time, I’ve just rolled out of bed. We talk briefly, then he tells me to go, get ready for my day with the Prime Minister.

I jump in the shower which is warm for less than a minute, then cold again. It’s a struggle to stick my head into the ice water to get the conditioner out of my hair, but it must be done.

I decide to wear my Indian suit and take my western business suit to work with me as the alternate option. I don the aqua kurta and matching drawstring trousers. I put on my embellished, bedazzled golden slippers. I struggle with over a dozen bangles, jamming them over my right fist, then my left. Finally, I drape the chiffon dupatta over my shoulders. “Is it beautiful?” I think. Yes, it is.

At breakfast, Mira brings out my mango and smiles. She usually does not speak to me, but today she is gushing. “Nice matching,” she says. “Nice bangles,” she says, and examines them closely. “Nice shoes. Nice nice!”

I am heartened. I want to tell her I’m meeting the Prime Minister today, but I’d probably just confuse her with my three Hindi words.

At work, Shabnum tells me I look very nice. She even goes and tells Jonaki that she should come see me. Debamitra approves, but wants to see my other outfit just to be sure. I take out my taupe pinstripe suit, so boring in comparison. “This is okay,” she says, poking at it, “but it is too okay. You understand?” I totally do.

She definitely thinks I should wear what I have on, but, she suggests, I should go shopping. I should get some earrings and maybe a nice bag. I wonder if I’ll have time. She says I should leave early. When is the next chance I’ll have to hang out with the Prime Minister? I should do it right.

Shinjini sees my outfit: my aqua suit with red and golden ribbon trim. “Hm. It is okay.” I tell her I don’t have a good sense of what’s dressy and what’s formal. “This is not formal,” she says, “but it’s okay.” I’m a bit deflated, but I know what she’s saying. I think a sari is the only women’s clothing item that’s considered truly dressy here, and that wasn’t an option for me this time around. I didn’t plan well enough.

Angshuman spends the morning with Shinjini right behind me, writing and rewriting the introductions of the various speakers who will be at the event. They wonder how to introduce the Prime Minister, or if they should introduce him at all. He has made it clear that he is not to be featured at this event. He is coming strictly as an audience member to support his daughter. In the end, they decide to thank him personally and the “other distinguished guests” for their attendance.

I go upstairs and ask the receptionist if she could help me send a letter. I bought a card for my sister-in-law and needed some help sending it. She gives me a glue stick to seal the envelope (which I tried to lick to no avail). Stamps and envelopes don’t come with any kind of adhesive on them here. She tells me she’ll look into sending the card from the office.

I get a call from her just a few minutes later at my desk. If I want to send it courier, it will cost 800 rupees. Speed post, which isn’t track-able, is 500 rupees. Ten bucks! Is it reliable? Yes, she says. She sends things to her sister speed post all the time. I am astounded and will never complain about the U.S. Postal Service raising the price of stamps again—that is, unless they raise it to ten dollars.

If I was having any doubts about my outfit for the day, the women on my lunchtime walk pump up my ego again. Bless their hearts. They fuss over me and my bangles. I think it’s something of a novelty to see the white girl dressed up so “Indian.” Preeta wants to take some pictures of me with her camera phone. I smile and she shows me the snaps. I do look rather cute after all, if I say so myself.

As the day wears on, the office begins to buzz and people grow restless. Debamitra helps Daniel tie his tie. Shinjini gets ready to leave. She’s going home to change clothes. Debamitra takes off too, but not before encouraging me once more to go shopping. “Go to Janpath,” she leans forward and says, eyes widening. She describes the exact place that I should find my earrings—and I know where she’s talking about because I was just there on Saturday. She calculates that if I leave here at four o’clock, I’ll have plenty of time to shop and get to the Taj Mahal Hotel where the event is taking place.

Amar and Angshuman debate over what time to go. Amar wants to leave at four. Angshuman says five o’clock is plenty of time. Amar already shut down his computer. He needs to leave. He has to set up all the audio visual displays at the event. Angshuman says, “Bah.” They leave shortly after four. As do I.

We don’t get to Janpath until almost five. There were several traffic snarls on the way. It’s a good thing Debamitra told me to leave so early. I should still have plenty of time. Balminder parks the car and gives me a landmark to find him back at: The Maruti Suzuki dealer. I think he can tell I’m paranoid about not finding his car when he drops me off somewhere. I grab my purse and wade through the traffic, hopping a small fence on an island in the middle of the highway, and remembering the orange soda vendor as the place I cross the street to get back to the car. I only walk past a few shops when I see a huge pile of purses on the ground: little chic beaded affairs with mirrors and fringe. “Kitne? How much?” I ask in two languages just in case I get the Hindi all wrong.

Two twenty five, the man tells me.

I shake my head like this is no good and look down at the purse. I remember Angshuman telling me at the office, “Offer them one third, then bargain up from there.” He learned from his mother, he said. He used to be embarrassed that his mother would bargain at the markets until he had to buy things for himself. Now he bargains like no other. “Offer them one third.”

“One hundred,” I tell the man.

“Two hundred,” he says.

“No,” I say, slightly insulted. “One fifty?”

This is okay. Tikka. I get the purse for about three American dollars. This has only taken me about five minutes. I’m on a roll as I walk past the tapestries and scarves and shops full of Shiva statues and boys selling strands of beads, “Only a hundred rupees, madam.”

I find the place with the jewelry stands. I find a pair of earrings that I like. The man has me try them on in front of a mirror. I ask how much. “Expensive,” he says. “Two twenty five.”

“Ridiculous!” I say and walk away. He wants to bargain. This is how the charade goes. But he’s named a price too high to even bargain with and I’m walking away for real. I’m spoiled by my ten rupee earring guy in Lajput Nagar market. Granted, these earrings are a lot more elaborate, but this wallah’s still crazy. He’s charging white girl tax.

I go the next stand but don’t find anything.

The next stand has some cute stuff, including some brass bell-shaped, dangly earrings, but the guy’s asking two hundred rupees. I tell him I don’t want to spend more than fifty rupees on earrings. What does he have for fifty rupees? He points to a bunch of stuff I don’t like, hammered metal-looking things. I’m about to leave when he says, “Okay! Fifty rupees!” in a tone like he’s yellilng “Uncle!” Like I have his arm twisted up behind his back. I wonder if I’m hearing right. Yes, he’s going to give me the earrings for a quarter of his asking price. I’m sold.

I take my earrings and bag and head back to the car, the whole successful excursion having taken little more than ten minutes. I drive a hard bargain when I’m on my way to see the Prime Minister. Get out of my way; I’m coming through.

Back inside Balminder’s cab, I transfer the contents of my polka dotted dirty Target purse into the beaded bag I’ve just bought, pausing when I get to the emergency roll of camper’s toilet paper and the tampon. You are not even coming with me this time, I say spitefully and Velcro my old bag shut. You are not invited.

Balminder pays for the parking again. Either this is the way that Balminder shows his love for me, or Sonu was ripping me off. I suspect the latter.

The traffic has abated and Balminder finds the hotel with no problem. Outside there are vans with tv channel logos on them. I wonder what Balminder thinks when security stops our car on the way to the hotel lobby drive. We have to pop the hood and the trunk and wait while they search.

Balminder gives me his (new) cell phone number. I’ll call him when I’m done. I take my little beaded purse and set off in my golden shoes up a set of marble stairs. A hoard of men in fancy turbans and embellished suits stare straight ahead and open the wide glass doors. Inside there is a huge plush carpet and a grand staircase wrapped around a fountain with hyacinths floating in it. It’s all marble, including the railing which is carved in an intricate design.

Downstairs I find Amar smoking a cigarette out by the pool. Do I know what Diwan-i-kahs and Diwan-i-Aam are? I’ve been to the Red Fort. It takes me a second, then I remember. Yes. These are buildings inside the Fort’s grounds. One of them was where the Emperor took public audiences, the other was where private audiences met. The banquet rooms we are using at the hotel are named after these two structures, Amar explains. I always appreciate his explanations of Indian history and culture.

Outside we can see more security guards donning bulletproof vests. “If anything happens, they’ll encircle the Prime Minister and take the bullets,” Anindo explains. Like our Secret Service, I say.

“Let’s go inside,” Amar says, as he sucks down the last of his cigarette. We walk through a metal detector, then I’m shuffled off behind a tri-fold wall to get groped by the lady security guards.

At the front of the banquet hall is a stage with an elaborate set up. Two projector screens built into a white facade show the movie that Amar put together of images from the book; shards of ancient pottery, coins, carvings of Hindu gods and maps zoom in and out. On the center wall is a huge picture of the book cover, A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India, lit with a focused yellow spot that makes the carving on the front of the book look almost three-dimensional. Equally impressive matted photos on tripod stands line the perimeter of the room.

I see Vivek and Srinivas. “Totally ethnic!” Vivek comments on my outfit.

“Yeah, I ditched my business suit,” I tell him. Then he introduces me to the photographer for the book. “Such a pleasure to meet you,” I tell him. “Beautiful work. Amar tells me you took some photos of sites that don’t exist anymore?”

The photographer is almost bashful. He tells me most of the pictures were taken in museums, but, yes, he did visit some sites that are now spoiled. He bows his head slightly.

“How long did it take you to do all this?” I ask. I know the book itself has been in development for five years.

He spent days and days on end with museum collections. They’d close down the museums for him and Upinder, the author, and they would spend the whole day inside, getting the lighting just right, photographing the objects.

A man in a white chef’s outfit comes by with drinks on a tray. I take a pineapple juice. Life at a party is so much better when you have something to do with your hands.

Another man comes by with a glass tray of tiny appetizers. “Heart of palm,” he says. I take a piece.

I see Anindita from the office. She wasn’t feeling well when I left. She didn’t know if she’d make it, but here she is. She went home and took some medicine and rested for a while, she tells me.

Then Shinjini arrives with a haircut and a beautiful sari that changes color depending on how the light catches it. I admire the fabric. Jonaki is also wrapped up in a tightly wound affair. “I like your sari,” I tell her. She says I should compliment Preeta who wrapped it for her. Preeta tells me I should wear a sari sometime. “I would love to!” I say, thinking how nice it is that an article of clothing should require teamwork, camaraderie, sisterhood to pull off properly.

There is much more milling around and chatting, but this time, I can participate by saying more than just “Cool.” I have things I can chat about: the fast bargains I got at Janpath, Amar’s slide show, the security, the music that is playing. It’s Indian classical music, Amar started telling me before he ran off to test the AV equipment. Anindita kindly explains more about it to me as we sit down and wait for the proceedings to begin and more men thrust more trays of goodies in front of our faces: wild mushroom this and salmon that.

Somewhere near seven o’clock, Angshuman taps the microphone at the front podium and asks everyone to be seated. There is a holy hush in the room. Is the Prime Minister coming? Slowly people begin to whisper again. Then a door at the front left of the room opens, everyone stands, cameras flash and I see the patented blue turban atop the man with the teddy bear face. The PM has arrived. He greets his daughter and sits down in the front row.

Angshuman, suave as ever, takes the floor and welcomes the guests. He says:

Five years in the making, this book is the crystallization of the
dreams of the author and publisher to create a new kind of text, one that
seamlessly combines archeological evidence, scholarly depth and scope,
scientifically developed learning tools, as well as unprecedented research for
the visuals. There is no doubt that this book will transform notions of the
academic study of history, and the manner in which learning can take place,
already evidence by the praise pouring in from across the world.

Vivek speaks, then a professor who has known Upinder for some years endorses the book. She talks about the Upinder’s expansion of the notion of history in India beyond dates and battles to the particulars of a love note written on a cave wall and an emperor’s beloved parrot who was eaten by the pet cat and given a royal burial. Upinder has brought life and narrative to the distant past.

The photographer with his slight build and gray, curly hair speaks passionately about the need to visually catalogue and document India’s museum collections before items are lost or destroyed. Thousands of years of history need to be preserved.

Then Upinder, Dr. Singh, takes the stage in her modest black sari with red ribbon trim. She speaks about wanting to write a different kind of book. She speaks about the snobbery encountered by people who choose to write textbooks rather than research books. She spent five years of her life on this project because she wanted to prove that a textbook can be scholarly and rigorous and worthwhile. She thinks her students, and all undergraduates, deserve to learn from books that do the subject of history its due justice—not just some low price edition second-hand photocopies. With this project, she wants to support and enhance the teaching of undergraduates, a profession that has a transformative power she can attest to, because she taught undergraduates for twenty years. She says she couldn’t have written this book without them. She also mentions her approach. It is data-driven, with no political or religious agenda, with the only agenda being faithful to the facts she can document from primary sources.

Her book breaks new ground in this country on many fronts.

Afterwards, her father hugs her and the cameras engulf them in a hale of flashes. I drift out to the table and buy a copy of the book since they mention she’ll be signing them in a bit. I am a little surprised to find out it costs 2500 rupees; roughly sixty dollars—and that’s with a discount. It will be an uphill climb to sell many copies of this book in India, where most books cost between three and ten dollars.

Oh no! Why did I buy the book here? Everyone wants to know. I could have gotten a bigger discount at the office. But I wanted Upinder to sign it, and the books have been so scarce around the office, I didn’t know when or if I could really get my hands on one. I didn’t want to go home without it. This way, I won’t.

I head to the bar in the neighboring room. I’ve heard there might even be some wine available. It has been a month since I’ve had any, and I’m quite looking forward to the prospect. The bartender tells me I have to wait. Something about the guests in the next room; perhaps they cannot serve alcohol in the Prime Minister’s presence? Or perhaps the first drink has to be his. I glance into the main hall and he is still there, surrounded by people. I consider trying to navigate the crowd with the hopes of shaking his hand, but find Jonaki and Anindo chatting and join them instead. Men circle past with hors d'oeuvres, and I try not to look like I’m gobbling too many up. Just then, Vivek approaches us. He’s got two glasses of white wine. He offers them to Jonaki and me. Do I want one? Yes! I shake my head. It’s a lovely, dry Riesling that makes me feel almost home, close to my Sunday night play reading parties where I share good wine and good theatre with my friends on an almost weekly basis.

Anindo is the guy who first replied to my post on the Pearson India blog by saying he just concluded spending close to five years in Indianapolis. He wanted to welcome me to his country because he felt so welcome in mine. He even brought home a dog and a daughter who were both born in America. He is easy to talk to and between the conversation and the libation, I completely forget about my quest to meet the dignitary in the next room.

He wants to know what I’ve seen of Delhi so far. I rattle off the sites: the Red Fort, the Old Fort, Humayun’s Tomb, Qut’b Minar. Have I been to Paranta Wali Gali, he wants to know. I make him repeat this three times then conclude I mustn’t have been there. No.

It’s the Alley of Bread in Old Delhi. I should go. Jonaki says she’ll take me sometime, maybe when we get back from our trip. She wants to go.

Where are we planning on travelling?

Gusani or Gushaini or Goshani, depending on the map you’re looking at. The place doesn’t even have a definite name. Anindo is excited. He’s been there before. It’s seriously beautiful, he says. This place is in the middle of the Himalayas. It’s God’s country. Or perhaps gods’ country, depending on your point of view.

“It’s not a hill station?” I ask. I thought we’d kind of be skimming the side of the mountains, not careening around perilous peaks.

No. It’s a serious adventure. It’s not a luxury vacation. How are we getting there?

By bus.

Anindo’s eyes pop. Oh. Well. The roads aren’t so good. It’s been raining a lot and the roads get soft. Raju’s Cottage is in a river valley and there are only two bridges into it. About a month and a half ago, someone drove a heavy truck onto one of these bridges and it snapped.

No bridge inspections in India, I think. A man comes by with another glass of wine for me, and another man has fresh mozzarella and a grape tomato on a tiny skewer. I help myself to both.

No matter, though. Going to the Thirtan Valley was the best vacation Anindo’s ever had in India. He’d go back in a heartbeat. There’s trout fishing and trekking. Or you can just sit around and be bored.

Are there poisonous bugs, I ask him, and tell him I’m not looking for any more necrosis.

No bugs to worry about, he says. This time of year in Delhi, in the heat and the damp, the worst bugs of all come out, he says. Up there, it’s cool. It’s, like, 65 degrees during the day.

Just the thought of this is a relief.


The bugs are huge, he says, and makes a softball-sized circle with his ring fingers and thumbs, but they won’t hurt you. Spiders and moths. Big, but harmless. It’s the plants you have to worry about. Don’t touch the plants.

It’s always something in India, I think.

Around about nine o’clock, I ask if I can borrow someone’s cell phone to call Balminder. Anindo volunteers his. Balminder tries telling me something I don’t understand. “Pick me up? Ready to go. Hotel lobby,” I say, hoping this will work. I say goodbye to Anindo and a few other people from the office and follow Jonaki and Preeta up the grand marble staircase.

The turbaned guards are at the doors, standing at attention, ready to release us into the humid night air. Cars drive up one by one and pick up their fares. It takes a while but Balminder shows up too. “I’m sorry madam,” he says, “have fare hotel.” I don’t understand, but he’s here and that’s what counts.

He drops me off in less than a half hour at the gate of C-83 where the guard bows his head and says, “Good evening, madam.” On the way in, I see a brown slug creeping across the stone tiles, only this slug looks shrunken, only about an inch long. I recognize him, though, as the same kind of slug I saw out here upon my arrival. Instead of looking like a monster, though, this guy is kind of cute. And he is certainly not the size of a brick. Not what I remembered or hallucinated after my fifteen hour plane ride.

Back up in my room, I am a little tipsy. I read the inscription Upinder wrote in my book. I check myself out in the mirror, marveling at the difference a little bag and some earrings can make to an ensemble. I flop onto the bed congratulating myself for not throwing tampons or toilet paper or spilling or saying, “Cool.” I breathe deeply, thinking, “I had a great day.”

Then the lights and the fan and the tv and the air all turn off. Then the lights come back on, but the tv doesn’t. I unplug it and plug it in again, as is my way of fixing complicated electronics. This fails. I walk downstairs hoping to find a breaker box to see if a switch is tripped. I do find the box and even pry it open, but Mira and Pachu see me doing this and speak to me from the balcony.

“Hello. All your light and power gone. All Defence Colony,” they motion to the street which is completely black. “Just a one light. Just a one light,” they say. This is what Susie told me about inverters. They have enough power to run one light for about four hours.

Back upstairs, I realize that the air conditioners are also off, and my room quickly gets sticky and hot. It doesn’t help that I’m working with my hot laptop on my lap. I’m glad my alarm clock is battery operated because this blackout looks like it’s going to last a while. That means no hot water once again. I’m growing weary of cold showers. It’s not a nice concept to awaken to.

The one fan that is working is in the living room area. I take a cue from Susie and go out there to try and get some sleep on the tiny, one-person couch. This is what she did when her air conditioning was out for several days. My legs dangle over the arm rest and I try to get comfortable.

I lay there wide awake for about ten minutes, then the air conditioner hums back to life. I am almost disappointed. I was all ready to camp out and endure.

The tv blips back on, and I can watch the end of Judging Amy on the Hallmark Channel. I’ve missed the part, though, where she decided whether or not to run for Congress. Too bad. I bet there’ll be a re-run, though.

I’m too tired to watch anything else; and too tired to finish blogging about the long day. I’ll leave it ‘til tomorrow. Tonight I’ll enjoy the leftover effects of the Riesling and drift off to sleep under the cool air stirred by my electric ceiling fan.

There’s hope yet for a hot shower tomorrow.


K said...

Now I am sure that I am not the only one that want's to see you dressed up in your new finery. So if you could a copy from the person that took the 'snap', please show it. Also, next time Ellen & I see you, I would mind taking a look at the new book, sound interesting. I have following your blog almost daily, and I can certainly say this: Your a braver man than I Vicki K. ;-) -Kurt

CBrinson said...

HI Vic! I too would love to see your outfit.....remember a picture is worth a 1000 words.....and can't wait till you wear it to the office when you get back and we can all see it up close and personal! And, homesick is for sissy's! Used to tell the girls when they went off to college...home was always going to be there, enjoy the moments you have now. Take care!

Vicki said...

Kurt and Cindy!

Always so fun to get comments on my blog and know people are actually reading it =)

I'm working on getting the picture of my dress up party. The woman can't quite get the pictures from her phone to her computer. I might just have to have a fashion show when I get home =)

Thank you both for your encouragement. I'll take it with me on the way to the Himalayas!