She used to teach in Kolkatta and she’d get off work at 2:30, 3:00. It would be raining like this, but pleasant. Humid. She’d go down to the banks of the Ganges and cross the river in the rain. It was really lovely.
“When I first came here I thought the Jumna was something nice, then I find out it’s an overgrown nala,” Debamitra says.
Jonaki comes over to my desk. She wants to go over things to pack. We should take band-aids and medicine for motion sickness. She looks at my face and asks me if I’m okay. I’m trying not to tear up, but it’s not working very well. I’m chatting with my husband on Skype. Did I tell her yet? Did I say I’m not going? Grr, he growls. I tell him to hang on for a second.
I tell Jonaki I’m scared. People keep saying the roads are bad and, to me, this means the roads are sliding off the sides of the mountains. I don’t understand what “bad” roads are, just like I don’t understand what “formal” dress is, or “good” and “bad” food. I don’t understand anything. She wants to call her friend who recommended this trip to ask him what he thinks. She wants to call Raju, the owner of the place, so he can assure us that it’s safe. She wants to call the Himachal Pradesh tour company to make sure we can get the return tickets we need. I say okay.
Scott is curt on the chat. “Do you have anything new to tell me?” No. Jonaki is making some phone calls. He says, “I told you this would happen. Everybody would try to convince you it’s fine. Be true to yourself. Tell her ‘no.’”
She makes the calls and her friend even calls a third party, a man who makes the drive from Aut to Gushaini frequently. Everyone says the roads are okay. It’s safe. There hasn’t been that much rain. In my head there are still mountainous landslides sweeping away whole swaths of primitive, rocky roadways. But there is also the prospect that this is probably the only chance I will ever get to see the Himalayas, and the nagging feeling that I’m being too paranoid ,too worried about all this. I tell Jonaki I have to think about it. I don’t know if I’ll go. She says okay, she can wait. She doesn’t want to pressure me. She thought about it from my point of view and she understands how it would be scary. Indians are hearty, she says, curling her arms to show some muscle. I am not, I say.
Scott sends me an email with the subject line “This is maybe what I should have said.” He says:
It is okay with me if you go on a trip to the Himalayas. If something happens, I
will be sad, but I will not be mad or hold anything against you for your decision. If you decide not to go, that is okay with me too.
He is so selfless and supportive. I tear up.
I eat lunch with Amar and Jonaki. Jonaki lets me try some of her eggplant subzi. It’s good. Amar has a story. They have fooled Sukanya the intern into thinking they are replacing the copy editor with a piece of software. Amar took the joke too far, though, when he said now they’re looking into hardware: a machine where you put the author in one end, and a finished book comes out the other.
Now Shinjini has sent an email saying Amar accidentally shaved his moustache and is wearing a fake one. She attached a doctored photo showing Amar scowling with no moustache. Sukanya spread the email around and was staring at Amar earlier. “Is it that obvious?” he asked her. “No,” she says. “I can hardly tell.”
Amar asks if I will be here for Diwali. I tell him I don’t know exactly when it is. I expect him to speak fondly of it, but instead he matter-of-factly states, I hate Diwali. I think this is tantamount to someone saying “I hate Christmas.” Amar is a Diwali scrooge. Everyone I’ve ever heard talk about it says how beautiful the city is, full of lights, but not Amar.
It’s a filthy festival and loud, he says. They never stop with the firecrackers and the air gets so polluted. Another filthy festival is Holi where they throw dye on you. And because it’s religious, the police don’t want to interfere, because there’s so much religious conflict in the country. People build temples on government land, and the government won’t interfere. In this way, they get free land for their temples.
Amar says there’s a law in Delhi that says you’re not supposed to play loud music after eleven o’clock at night, but these temples, they can do whatever they want. They blare their religious music at all times of the day and night, through loudspeakers. And it’s not even beautiful music, Jonaki adds. It’s some screeching trash based off of the latest Bollywood movies. And if you complain, people say you should be at the temple. You’re a bad Hindu if you don’t like this screeching, loud music at two in the morning.
“So you know what I did the other day?” Amar asks. “I put on the Eagles as loud as it would go on my computer, then I put on this same song on my surround sound system, all the way up to ten. And I couldn’t hear the temple music. Then, after a while, I turned off my music and noticed the other music had stopped a long time ago.” He laughs.
I keep thinking, don’t ask me if I’m going on the trip yet, Jonaki. I can’t answer you. After lunch, we take a walk and she points out an office where a competitive publisher is building. She asks me when I’ll be able to let her know whether I’m going or not, because it will affect her plans. I know it will, and I feel bad. I’m so indecisive, I tell her. I have to call my husband when he wakes up, I say. About six o’clock p.m. our time? Is that okay? Or does she need me to just make a decision by myself? After all, it’s my decision and mine alone, ultimately. My husband can’t make it for me. I just have to go back to my desk and make a list of plusses and minuses. That’s what I’ll do, I decide.
Six o’clock is fine, Jonaki says. She is so patient with my waffling.
Back at my desk, I open a Word document and make two columns, one positive and one negative. There are all kinds of reasons to go. It’s a good chance to relax. It’s probably my only chance to see the Himalayas. There’s basically one repetitive theme in the negative column: it’s dangerous, it’s dangerous, it’s dangerous.
Then I get to a row where I type in the words “Lifelong regret?” I think of all the times I’ve been too cautious and what I’ve missed because of it. I didn’t go on the high school Spanish field trip to Pilsen because there might have been gang violence. Everyone came back fine. I didn’t see Clockwork Orange in English class because it was too disturbing. I still want to see it, just to see why everyone still talks about it. And then there are bigger things. I never tried to pursue a career in theatre even though, for a long time, it was the only thing in my life I was passionate about; even though, for a long time, my failure to try doing this sent me into a hopeless depression where nothing seemed worthwhile and I viewed myself as a failure. There were all these very sensible reasons not to pursue acting: it’s too competitive, the money is bad, you wind up doing silly things for money instead of the high art you’re thirsting for. But none of these reasons satisfied my soul. Still, I was too afraid to fail to even set out trying.
I think of the name of my blog “My New Direction.” The name of the program I’m participating in, “newdirections.” In the plus column I write, “I didn’t come to India to be safe. I came here to explore and to learn.” If I wanted to be safe, I wouldn’t have been here in the first place.
But then in the minus column I write, “I don’t want to be ‘that story’ on the news. Is going selfish? Is it stupid?”
Thomas comes to meet with me. He is the head of the commissioning editors in engineering, science and math. We walk to the Longman conference room, the same room in which Vivek gave his open house speech. This time I realize that the wooden paneling isn’t dirty. It’s moldy and there’s a damp smell. Thomas coughs. Everyone gets sick this time of year in the rainy season, he says. He flips the window air conditioner on and looks around for a marker for the whiteboard. There isn’t one in the room. He calls the front desk. She will have one sent over. While we wait, Thomas asks what I’ve seen in India so far. Qut’b Minar, the Old Fort, the Red Fort: I run through my list. I should travel, he says. I should see Agra and Jaipur, but wait until it’s not so hot.
One of the pantry workers in the blue collared shirts with a Pearson logo on them comes in. He has a marker. Thomas can begin. He scribbles out the four phases of production here: commissioning, development, production and manufacture. Then he goes to erase his scribbles. They don’t erase. He coughs and beads of sweat pepper his nose. He looks at the marker. It says “permanent.”
“ShiiT,” he says, and calls the front desk back. Can they send someone with spirit to clean it up?
A Hindi-speaking man in a blue shirt appears holding some paper towels and glass cleaner. They spray the board with the cleaner and rub the towels over the immovable scribbles. “Spirit,” Thomas says, then a bunch of Hindi. “Spirit. Spirit. Spirit is the best.”
Two more men show up. They take the board away. Thomas is silent. I ask him a few questions, which he answers. Finally, the men come back with the cleaned board and with some dry erase markers. Thomas can begin again. He explains how commissioning editors identify what books to pursue and find authors for these projects. He explains the paperwork that gets completed as a book goes from the idea phase through initial reviews. Then it’s time to go. He has a meeting. We’ll meet again to talk about finances sometime. He’s very busy these days. He wants to hire ten more people by January. But he’ll find me when he finds some time and we’ll talk.
Back at my desk I stare at my list. There is no clear answer. I have more negatives than positives, but the positives seem to weigh more. I send some emails to friends: one to Julianne to see if she knows anything about it, and one to Anindo who got me scared in the first place. Anindo emails back almost immediately. The road all the way up to Aut is a major highway, well maintained by the government. Between Aut and Gushaini, he doesn’t know as much about. We should ask the guy at the hotel. He’ll be honest with us, Anindo assures me. He says the Gushani road is in a valley; it’s not as mountainous. It should be fine.
At ten to six in the evening here, it’s a little after seven o’clock in the morning. I call Scott on my cell phone. I’m pacing around the courtyard in front of the office. “I’m still agonizing,” I tell him.
He can’t make this decision for me. I have to make it. He doesn’t know why I’m making this about more than whether or not I go on a trip to the mountains. It’s just a trip to the mountains. And this is just three months in India. But it feels like so much more.
I shouldn’t go to please my friend at work, or because I’m afraid to tell her no. I shouldn’t stay because I’m afraid to put stress on him or my mother. There is no right or wrong decision. There is just a decision and I have to make one. Now.
I tell him it’s not about being afraid to say no. I tell him about all the phone calls and emails I’ve had from people assuring me the trip is safe.
Then you have enough empirical evidence to tell you that the trip is okay, he says with his super lawyer logic.
I tell him, tearing up, about how I’m tired of making the easy decisions, the safe decisions, and missing out on life because of it. If I don’t start taking of advantage of my opportunities now, then when will I?
He tells me I’m overtired.
He’s probably right.
I tell him I’m going. I love him. And I’m going.
He tells me his love will go with me. I hang up and walk through the lobby to the downstairs, feeling light, feeling about three feet taller than usual.
Inside I walk over to Jonaki’s desk, but she’s not there. Two minutes later, she’s at my desk. Was I looking for her? Yes. I’m going, I tell her, then my eyes well up again.
“Are you sure?” she asks. “You’re crying. If you’re scared you don’t have to go.”
I tell her it’s okay. I’m not scared. I’m just…
“You had an emotional talk with your husband?” she asks.
Yes, I say. “It’s just that this is a pretty big deal for me.”
She tells me I’m going through all this and I’ll probably be bored out of my mind once we get there. We laugh. I thank her for being so patient.
At home (as I actually call the Ahuja Residency now), I pack. I do a word search puzzle that Scott made for me and sent to me. It’s so creative. It took so much time. He’s so wonderful that I cry again. Now I can’t bear the thought of not being in touch with him for five days. Now I’m not afraid for my life—I’ve been assured by too many people that this is a safe trip. Now I’m just homesick. I’m homesick for the comfort and the routine that I’ve established here in the Defence Colony. Wake up, talk to Scott, go to work, blog, talk to Scott. This disruption has me feeling Autistic. Don’t change a thing and I’ll be fine. I’m used to my life in India now. It’s working for me. And just when I get used to it…
But this trip is something I have to do—whether I’ve created this as an illusion for myself or not. It’s symbolic of something larger for me. It is my new direction.
Just then, the phone rings. “Hello madam. I am Sonu.”
He wants to know if I’m okay, three times. Three times I tell him, “Yes I am.” Then I tell him about my trip to the Himalayas.
“The HimALayas,” he corrects me. “Himachal Pradesh?”
Yes, that’s the state where I’m going.
“Verrry nice,” he assures me. He tells me goodbye, then he mumbles, “Okay, I love you madam.”
This time I’m ready. This time I confront him. “No no no, Sonu!” I tell him. “You can’t tell me that. We are friends. Friends only.”
“Okay madam,” he says, and hangs up.
I feel like I’ve accomplished something small, but significant. I’ve made a choice for myself, by myself, on my own. I’ve confronted Sonu again, as clearly as I could.
Now if I could just stop missing Scott so much. But this is a good—no, great—problem to have. I think of Diane Keaton’s lines in Marvin’s Room: I am so lucky to have had so much love. I am so lucky to have someone I love so much.