Friday, August 29, 2008

A Night On the Town


This morning on Skype, Scott delivers the news. 44 more days. At the time this sounds great to me. I am chipper. It sounds like it will fly by. It sounds easy. I can do it.

George and Marie are at breakfast again. Marie describes an Italian restaurant over by D block in Defence Colony where a girl can get some wine. I still don’t think I can find it on my own, though. I wish I had better spatial orientation.

Marie reads the paper. George asks her what’s happening in the world. She’s concerned about a hostage situation in Pakistan. Who do they negotiate with? Musharaff, the former president, is ousted and there’s no one in his place yet. Pakistan is bad enough when there’s a stable government, she says. Now there’s an unstable situation, and a little thing like a hostage crisis could lead to war. They could get the military involved and it could flare up.

I walk outside to find the nice, white car back to drive me to work. Inside, Palminder sits unceremoniously, with no sign or mention of Sonu. Sonu, like I thought, is not coming back. And though that is probably good, I still miss him. It’s nice to have a personal tour guide to a strange city. And while I didn’t love him, I certainly did feel cared about while he was my driver. And who wouldn’t miss that, especially while 7,000 miles away from their friends and family?

At work, Amar stops by my desk. He tells me about a campus visit he made to discuss the Macroeconomics book. He asked a professor how his students would react to the book. The professor told him that his students don’t like it if he recommends Indian authors. They assume books by Indian authors are substandard. And here’s another problem with getting the book adopted. It’s organized in an alternative fashion. Instructors want to teach the subject in the way they learned it. They don’t want to do anything new. They don’t want to re-learn. So Amar is trying to write up responses to these objections for the salespeople to use in the field.

Trying to finish up my second chapter in the finance book, I break out my iPod. The Eagles sing about a peaceful and easy feelin’ and it is about as dissonant an experience as I’ve had here. It’s like putting peanut butter on filet mignon. The Eagles and India don’t mix. It’s been such a long time since I’ve heard those laid back guitar chords. Indian popular music is all complex angles, driving percussion and tortured sounding wailing. I listen to U2 and Bob Dylan and Jack Johnson and Stevie Nicks and get a little sick to my stomach. 44 days. It sounds like forever. Maybe I will go back to counting in weeks. It’s a smaller number. There are just six left after this one ends, and it’s already Thursday.

But where did my emptiness go? This is a perfect example of one fact that I’ve now reacted to with polar emotions: glee and dread. Still, the whole time, the fact of the 44 days remains. It’s just a fact. I may as well make the most of this time rather than belabor every moment in some kind of drawn out count down. I only have 44 days left to learn about India. 44 days left to learn about myself while I’m here. 44 more blog entries. 44 more breakfasts. They will go by one way or another. Why not remind myself that each of these is an opportunity that I will only have once? 44 more opportunities. Now that’s something I can deal with.

I run into Jonaki in the hallway and we talk about our plan to go to the Sue Townsend reading tonight. She’s a British novelist who writes in the voice of the fictional character Adrian Mole. He is a precocious thirteen-year-old with a comically epic crush on a girl at school and a dysfunctional family that complicates his tortured adolescence at home. The First City Theatre Foundation stages readings of different authors’ work every two weeks in this little space called The Attic in Connaught Place.

Connaught Place is the closest thing Delhi has to a downtown. It is made up of two large traffic circles filled with stacks of shops and restaurants and street vendors and offices.

We will have to take two separate vehicles to get there. But how will we each find the building? Then how will we find each other? And where will we park? Jonaki says we should be prepared to get caught in traffic both on the way there and on the way home. Six o’clock and eight o’clock are both rush hours with tons of people leaving the office. It would be so much easier not to go. “I hope this thing is worth it,” she says, as she walks back to her desk. I agree.

Outside with Jonaki and Shabnum after lunch, we talk about Bollywood. The whole office is getting ready to go out and see this movie that premiers tomorrow, Rock On, so there is an air of excitement buzzing about. Yajnaseni and Shinjini have collected 140 rupees from everyone going, and they’ve just set out to get the tickets and some ice cream while they’re at it. I was invited to the extravaganza, but had to turn it down because I’d already made plans with Julianne for the evening. I’m somewhat relieved I’m not going when I discover that the movie is three hours long, so it would have gotten over after ten o’clock at night, then I would have had to find my way home somehow. I probably could have shared a cab with someone, but still. One of the problems with India is it’s always easier not to go. It’s hard to get anywhere and do anything. You have to be up for a challenge.

Jonaki and Shabnum laugh at the kinds of dances they do in the movies. Jonaki describes this one particular scene and mimics it reservedly, worried about passersby thinking she’s “crazy.” I shudder to think what passersby might think of one of my arm-waving storytelling episodes. I have noticed that my general demeanor is what Indians would call “very dramatic” in comparison to that of my peers, as if I didn’t stick out enough.

We talk about how male Bollywood heroes appear feminine in comparison to their Hollywood counterparts. They have long hair and soft features. Then they mention Salman Khan. He’s an aging hero with an alcohol problem who, while drunk, ran over four sleeping street people. For his crime he had to pay something like a thousand rupees (twenty dollars) and spend six months in jail. Before coming here I read somewhere that life in India is cheap, but four deaths for twenty dollars puts a new perspective on that statement for me.

In the afternoon, I finally finish my 66-page finance chapter and transmit it to Shabnum for her review. We’ll have to go over the notes I took since I compared the changes the author made to the ones that the reviewers requested and they didn’t match up one-to-one.

At six o’clock, I walk over to Jonaki and Shabnum’s desks to find them and Soma wrapped up in their shawls, shivering. It is freezing by their workstations. I fold my arms and try to slough off my own goose bumps. Jonaki wants to organize a complaint. She wants everyone to send an email at the same time about how cold it is. But there are general mutterings that this will be of no use anyway. Of course there is the hope that if I put their complaint in my blog, something will magically happen. I tell them we can only hope.

Jonaki passes off her leftover sprouts from lunchtime to Preeta, and we pack up and go. Outside in the searing heat, Jonaki talks to Palminder in Hindi, explaining our plan and the location we need to find. Palminder knows how to get there. He will lead, and Jonaki will follow in her car. Jonaki gets his cell phone number just in case we get separated, and we take off.

We get separated immediately because he doesn’t wait for her to get into her car. She calls us just as we’re headed toward the gate. Palminder is busted. He pulls the car to the side of the road and waits for her to appear behind us. A family of monkeys strolls down the sidewalk on their knuckles. Jonaki appears behind us and we pull away, proceeding a little more slowly than usual. As we’re driving I pay attention to who’s behind the wheels of the cars around us. I’d say that maybe one in every thirty drivers is a woman. Jonaki is a brave soul and a pioneer of sorts.

Just past Akshardam World, Palminder pulls the car to the side of the highway. He looks at me in the rearview mirror and grins. “Very slow driver,” he drawls. We are waiting for Jonaki to catch up with us. She eventually does, and we pull into the flow of traffic again.

We have to do the same thing just past the radial road around India Gate, only Jonaki doesn’t appear. We’ve lost her. Palminder’s cell phone rings. He gives her directions and hangs up.

“Tikka hay?” I ask. Is it okay?

“Tikka,” he says, “No ma’am, no problem. Circle is round.”

Yes, most circles are round, I think, wondering what he means by this last comment. As long as he thinks Jonaki’s going to find us, I’m happy.

We wait for, maybe, five minutes and she appears behind us again, gripping the wheel and peering out from over it. Jonaki is about four feet, eleven inches tall, but she is behind us again and we are underway.

We get to Connaught Place at about ten minutes after seven and turn down a twisting, narrow alleyway behind the shops. There seem to be only men and barking, stray dogs back here. It doesn’t look to be a good place for two women to hang out. Palminder stops the car and gets out to talk to Jonaki. She gets out of her car and gives him the keys. He backs up and parks her car for her, then returns to the taxi.

I tell him we’ll meet him here in about an hour and a half, but he interrupts me and tells me to get back in the car. He’s going to drive us both to the front of the shops, and he’ll pick us up there too. This is a relief. I don’t like the alley.

We get out of the car in front of the Connaught Place McDonald’s. It’s a recognizable landmark we’ll be able to use as the place to get picked up as well. Now we just have to find the address: 36 Regal Building. There are no signs on the businesses. Men come up to us and shove packages of handkerchiefs our way. Jonaki approaches a table lit up by a gaslight where vendors are selling jeans. She asks them in Hindi for the place. They tell us it’s around the corner. We wander. “We are so late,” she says.

“Maybe they’ll start late, too,” I say hopefully.

“That’s Indian time,” she says.

We ask more people for the building. We find a bank labeled 30 Regal Building and a restaurant labeled 57. We think we’re going in the right direction when the buildings end altogether and the alleyway opens up. I forget that in India, the addresses don’t progress logically in a line. My building, for instance, C-83 Defence Colony, is down a block that is labeled “47-58.” We return to Jonaki’s method of asking strangers for directions.

Finally two gentlemen point us up a marble staircase. There are no numbers posted, but we do see the playbill for the event at the base of the stairs. This must be the right direction.

At the top of the stairs is a large, carved wooden door with a giant iron handle. It looks like the door was stolen from the Tower of London. Jonaki leans into it and it gives way. Inside it is dark. We hear a voice. This is the place, and the reading is well underway.

A series of wooden folding chairs are set into rows, with an area of cushions on the floor at the front. All the seats are taken except the cushions at the front, which we don’t want to crawl over to in the middle of the reading.

A young man sits with photocopied pages stapled at the corner in the middle of a white brick proscenium arched opening. A single stage light hangs behind him. He reads in the voice of thirteen-year-old Adrian Mole a series of diary entries about how his best friend stole his girl. The actors are Indian, but the audience is surprisingly white. I feel like I am entitled to make friends with everyone here by virtue of this fact, and by virtue of the fact that we are at a theatre event, and I am a bonafide “theatre person.”

The reading is funny. Adrian Mole is comically tortured by all the typical adolescent woes (e.g. bad skin, disappointed parents and a galloping sex drive), and he writes tortured poetry with bad rhyme to commemorate his struggles. The readers do a nice job of creating the character. They are sincere, not clowning, and so let you grow fond of the mislead A. Mole (as he signs all his poems). When they finish a brisk 40 minutes or so after we arrive, Jonaki asks if we should go up and congratulate them. Why not? We walk onto the big Persian rug in the stage area and shake Momo’s hand. He says to come back in two weeks. They’ll be doing another reading, this time of Italo Calvino’s work. I’ve read Calvino and found it beautiful. I hope I can return to hear them again.

Jonaki wants to know if I want some tea, but I’m concerned with getting home in time for my evening Skype call with Scott. I don’t think I’d mentioned going out tonight to him, and so wouldn’t want him to worry if I just suddenly wasn’t there for our daily date.

We walk back to the McDonald’s just a few doors away from where we saw the reading. Jonaki calls Palminder on his cell. While we wait, more men want to know if we want handkerchiefs. Vendors spread out on the sidewalk with leather belts and t-shirts and lemonade and food, illuminating their merchandise with naked bulbs affixed to red gas tanks. Palminder pulls up right where we’re standing and we hop into the taxi for the ride back to the alley to fetch Jonaki’s car.

Two geometric turns into the narrow alley, it appears that a truck is blocking the way. It is broken down and there is a tow truck in front of it. Palminder backs up and somehow squeaks our car around the obstruction, but when we get to the other side, we see that this scene is unfolding right in front of where Jonaki’s car was parked. She hops out of the car. Palminder follows her. There is a parking attendant who took her keys. Her car has been moved. It is actually free of the broken down truck, down another bend in the alley, by a food vendor set up on the ground. It strikes me as a small miracle that she finds her car and it is there, in tact.

Palminder gives her some directions so she can get home okay. She will be able to follow us out of the alleyway and through the confusing inner and outer circles of Connaught Place.

It isn’t easy, and I know it’s even harder for Jonaki than it is for me. All I have to do is sit in the back seat and gaze out at the night. Jonaki has to drive. Still, I hope she feels like it was worth it. It was a fun cultural event.

If we come back for the Calvino reading, I’ll make sure to tell Scott about it so I don’t have to worry about getting home early. It would have been fun to grab a bite to eat afterwards, or mingle a little more with the audience and the actors. They seemed like friendly people.


auntlinda said...

hate to break it to ya kid , but its not just the indian people who (affectionately) call you " very dramatic"! love you

It's me mom said...

Hey, ditto, I can't top Aunt Linda's comment.
So happy you got to go to a theatre/play type event.

Vicki said...

Har de har har. Verrry funny =)