Saturday, August 2, 2008

Of Poori and Professionalism

Friday morning there is a crowd of people around the breakfast table. I have to sit on the veranda to have my toast, tea and mango. Thankfully, yesterday’s rains have a lingering cooling effect. There is even a little breeze, and breakfast on the balcony is lovely.

At work I get a little bogged down in chapter three. The author seems to state and restate himself in slightly different ways so that trying to remove redundancy is a dizzying effort. I feel like I’m editing a house of mirrors. Didn’t I just see this sentence over there? Where is the real fact in the jumble of reflections all around it?

Vivek, the Pearson India CEO, drops a book at my desk. He’s been reading my blog and he thinks this might help me learn more about the religious traditions I’m so interested in here. “It helped me to understand my own religion,” he says. The book is yellowed and worn, and it’s missing both the front and back covers. The title page reads, What Religion Is: In the Words of Swami Vivekananda. It’s clear the book is well loved. “I’ll be very careful with it,” I tell him. This is the perfect reading for the vacation I’ll be taking with Jonaki to that hill station in a couple weeks.

I have a short lunch with Amar today. He’s very busy getting ready for the history book launch with the Prime Minister. The police have to have the names of everyone on the guest list. They want pictures of everyone who will be in the first two rows. There are other preparations to be made.

After lunch, I take a walk with Jonaki and Shabnum and a few other women. We are nearing the corner when a five-inch long lizard clumsily scrambles right over Shabnum’s toes. She laughs from the surprise of it, then everyone wants to know: did it lick her? Did it bite her? No. She’s fine.

The lizard is standing by the side of the road. I go touch its tail. It lets me pet it. “Vicki!” my companions exclaim. They have told me how surprised they are that I “just have no hang ups.” I eat the food; I wear the clothes. “You’d make a good Indian girl,” Jonaki tells me one day at lunch.

I think twice about petting the lizard, but only after I’ve already done it. “This is probably how I got the necrosis, huh?” I laugh. No one else does.

I need to remember I’m in India. There’s some dangerous stuff over here. I remember the lizard Sonu pointed out to me at the zoo: “Very danger. Very danger.” I know this isn’t the same kind of lizard, but still, I didn’t need to commune with it in such an intimate fashion. I’m not the freaking Crocodile Hunter. It sure was cute, though. Green and black: different from the little pink guys who hang out in my apartment.

Shabnum tells a story about a monkey who grabbed her shawl and pulled on it with both hands, staring her right in the face. She screamed. The monkey screamed back, then ran off. Jonaki tells a story about sitting outside her house and feeling watched. She saw a set of eyes in her periphery vision. She looked and saw it was a snake. She went one way, the snake went the other. “Thank goodness,” I say. I really wouldn’t want to run into a snake in India. At the zoo it said there are over a hundred different kinds of snakes here and over 70% of them are poisonous. No snake petting for me.

After work, Balminder is waiting for me. I get in the car and tell him it’s not too hot today. It’s nice outside.

“Thank you,” he says.

I wonder what he thinks I said.

I hope he doesn’t think I was flirting with him, especially after the photo shoot with Sonu yesterday. No more snaps with drivers, I think. At least he hasn’t asked for any yet. He looks too scared. Maybe it’s good that he’s not great with English. I just hope he knows enough to get me where I need to go. That’s all I need my driver to do for me: just be a staff person, an employee. It was fun having a friend, but it was also too messy, too confusing for poor Sonu.

We drive on, a little slower than Sonu would be going, but with plenty of horn blaring. I’m trying not to feel like Balminder is sub-par.

The car comes to a stop at the overpass where the kids sell magazines and bum copies of bestsellers. They see I’m a white girl and run to my window, tapping on it, smiling for me, nodding their heads. Yes, they know I want what they’re selling. It’s so hard not to hand over my wallet to these people and everyone I see on the streets. I feel depleted by the energy it takes to look away.

I think about the Sonu situation: how it went wrong and how it was mostly my fault. I think of a comment a friend left on my blog: “You are such a kind, warm, wonderful person. Who wouldn’t fall for you?”

Mine is a legacy of being too nice, too eager to please, even compromising my own well-being sometimes to make sure people like me—not out of any altruism, but more from a lack of confidence, from a disbelief that people will like me otherwise. Where did this come from? I’ve been like this for as long as I can remember, I think.

At the next intersection, a man with no arms stands in the median. I remember my Uncle Joe telling me to be thankful that I had a roof over my head and all four limbs. I was little. I was throwing a tantrum about not getting something, I don’t remember what. I do remember thinking it was the strangest thing to say. Strange, old Uncle Joe. Why would I not have all four limbs?

A high percentage of the beggars on the streets here have some kind of deformity: misshapen or amputated limbs. I think: these are the people who have to go to the free government hospitals when they need some kind of care. I think: amputation must be a common “treatment” in these hospitals.

I am thankful now, Uncle Joe. I am thankful.

The car feels quiet and empty. I realize Sonu had been with me from the moment I arrived at the Delhi airport until today. He made me feel safe in a country and a city where so many things seem so unsafe for a solitary white girl. I suddenly feel alone. I miss Sonu. Tears start to well up in my eyes.

We pass the stuppa where we took our last snaps. What was I supposed to learn there? You can’t go inside because it’s empty (and the guard will laugh at you to boot). But seriously, the Buddhists say that the ultimate nature of all phenomenon is emptiness. Or maybe it’s simpler to understand the way Shakespeare said it, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

My tears abate. Anyway, in Sonu’s religion, we are all one, so we are never really absent from one another. I realize that all of these thoughts are jumbles of first impressions and Wikipedia glances at world religions, but somehow, for a moment, it makes sense. It comforts me. God is one, said the graffiti on the sun visor in the car that broke down. We are all one in God. What does that mean to me in Balminder’s cab on Friday afternoon in the Delhi traffic by Indraprasthra Park? It means I feel a palpable connection with and a simultaneous presence of everyone I know. They are with me, part of me, in me. My husband, my mother, my Uncle Joe, Sonu, Balminder, my brother, my sister-in-law, my father, my aunt, my niece. Everyone.

I tell myself I am just as safe with Balminder as I was with Sonu, and we finish our journey back to Defence Colony.

“Same time, ma’am,” Balminder asks.

“No, tomorrow different,” I tell him using as little and as simple language as possible. “Tomorrow 1:30.” I plan on buying my bus tickets for the trip Jonaki invited me to take, then meeting Shabnum for a little shopping before the Macroeconomics book launch at 6:00.

At home I decide to walk to the market. I need to get some cash for Saturday’s shopping, and I might get myself a proper dinner while I’m at it.

This time at the ATM, I don’t freak out. I use the right card, and I request the money in an amount that the machine accepts. There’s a moment where the machine asks me to put my card in a second time. “Here we go again,” I think, but before I have reason to dread being cut off from my cash once again, money is spitting out the bottom of the machine.

I decide to go to Sagar’s and check out their full dinner. Dosas and uttapum are kind of like snacks. They serve something called thali, which comes with all kinds of vegetable dishes and even a sweet. I order the thali.

The food that comes out surprises me. There is a pile of bread surrounded by little metal cups of assorted vegetable dishes. The bread, though, looks like balloons or UFOs. This is poori, I guess. The troubling thing is that I don’t know what to do with it. Do you pour the stuff from the cups onto it? Or do I remember Susie saying something about smashing poori and putting the stuff inside of it? Do you break it up and dip it? Do you use it like roti and scoop up the food with it?

Should I ask? I can’t ask. I ordered this. Ordering something implies you know what to do with it. This will be funny for the five staff people standing two feet away from me, I think. It will be like someone asking for a spoon at a restaurant and then sticking it in her ear. It might be the steroids I’m on, but I work up a good deal of anxiety over the situation.

Suddenly I know what to do. I take a picture of it. The flash goes off and now I really have the attention of the staff. I look over at them and laugh. They laugh back. Wait ‘til they see me eat.

Eventually, I decide to break up the bread and use it to scoop up the vegetable dishes, like I would with the other food I’ve been served here, the same way I eat lunch every day. It seems to work. No one’s staring.

I’m glad I got over myself even if it took a minute because this food is so good. And there are so many different flavors: coconut and cucumber and spices that I can’t even name. As I shovel the delicious vegetables into my mouth with the delicate fried bread, I suddenly realize why that woman at the office cautioned me to “keep my thin.” This stuff is good. Really good. And it costs about two dollars for all of it. And I eat almost all of it.

On the way home from Sagar’s, I decide to check out a little store that looks to have some bracelets in the window. Once I get inside, I realize it’s kind of like a Hallmark store. There are cheap bracelets up front, pencil boxes, oodles of tiny statues of Ganesh, religious medallions including a few featuring Jesus, and greeting cards. I try to find a sympathy card for my sister-in-law who just lost a dear uncle, but there is no sympathy card section. There is, however, a giant section of Rakhi cards. I consider choosing one with a swastika on it, but decide against it. Have I mentioned that swastikas are everywhere here? Painted onto trucks, onto building facades. The symbol has some religious significance, though I haven’t figured out exactly what it means yet.

I select a card and a little bracelet that I can mail with it, and check out. On my way out, I notice a staircase leading down. I follow it. Is there another level to the Hallmark-esque store? No. There’s a hip little English language bookstore down there. Why don’t these people put up signs? I would have been at this place ten times by now if I would have just known it was here. There are piles of books on religion and philosophy. I find a Penguin reader that is the collected writings of some swami that looks interesting. I wonder if it is the same author as the book that Vivek lent me. I’ll have to check when I get home. I leave the book at the store for the time-being, but I will be back.

It’s dark outside when I emerge. I start walking home but remember Debamitra’s admonishment. “You shouldn’t walk about in Delhi by yourself. Take a rickshaw.” I try to find a bicycle rickshaw driver, but they are scarce. This is the way it is here. When you don’t want a ride, the rickshaw wallahs practically run into you trying to pick you up for a fare. When you need one, they’re all coy and hard to get. I find a wallah at the entrance to the market. “C-83,” I say, but he doesn’t even look me in the eye or stop. He just shakes his head.

I start walking home. A man in a minivan rolls down his window and issues forth a great burst of chew and spit. It almost hits me. I decide to try harder to find a rickshaw. Just as I’m stepping around the chew puddle, a prospect approaches.

“C-83 Defence Colony?” I say. “Ten rupees?”
He nods. I crawl in and he begins pedaling. I think he mutters “twenty.” We’re really only two blocks away from where I live. Twenty rupees for so short a ride would be ridiculous.

He drives right past the turn he was supposed to take. At the last second I stop him and point. “NihaN!” I say. “Here, here.” I wish I knew the words for right and left. I’ll have to look those up.

For the rest of the ride, I have to point out each turn he should take.

“Tori dour hay,” this time I remember how to say “it’s close.” And when he turns the right way, I remember how to say yes. “Ha gee,” I tell him.

As we’re approaching the guest house, I hear a loud pop. I think way too late afterwards, “Hey, that kind of sounded like a gunshot. Maybe I should duck or something.” His tire blew out. He pushes the carriage to the front gate. I give him ten rupees. He says, “Madam, twenty.” He gestures to the popped tire. I say, “No, very close. Ten.” I hand him the bill and back away. He gestures to the popped wheel again. I feel terrible, but I also know this is their “racket” so-to-speak. I know that twenty rupees can get me all the way to Lajput Nagar market in an auto-rickshaw and it’s not a fair price for two blocks on a bicycle. “Ma’am, twenty,” now he is sounding angry. Pachu is sitting at the gate with a few of the other staff. He stares straight ahead staying out of the debate. I walk away while the rickshaw driver goes on. “Twenty, madam. Twenty!”

My heart is pounding. I wonder if Pachu thinks I’m a jerk. I wonder if ten was an unfair price. I wonder if he’s following me up the stairs; if he’ll be waiting outside to conk me in the head and get his other ten rupees the next time I’m out here by myself. I wonder if I have bad karma now. I had ten more rupees. I could have given it to him. I should have given it to him, I think. But I stuck to the deal I made with him. I told him ten when I climbed in.

I’m in bed blogging when my hotel phone rings. There is a brief moment of static, then I hear, “Madam, this is Sonu. I am on my way Punjab.” Horns honk in the background.

I feel vaguely alarmed.

“How you?” Sonu asks.

“Good,” I tell him, disbelieving I’m actually having a phone conversation with him.

“You okay?” he wants to know.

“I’m okay,” I tell him.

“How driver? Driver okay?”

“My driver is good,” I assure him.

“Okay. I miss you,” he says.

“I miss you too, Sonu,” I say against my better judgment.

“Okay I love you, too,” Sonu says very rapidly, then hangs up.

Damn it. A drive-by I love you. I’ve been sideswiped and the culprit didn’t even stop to trade insurance cards.

It’s clear the next time I talk to Sonu, if there is a next time I talk to Sonu, that I’ll have to establish some unequivocal boundaries. This “happy new friendship” isn’t working out too well. Boundaries are long overdue.

It’s like reverse Stockholm syndrome, my husband suggests when I relate the situation to him. Where normally the vulnerable person taken hostage feels a strange affection for her captor, in this situation, it’s the captor feeling the affection for the hostage.

The truth is, I was vulnerable: plopped down in a city across the world by myself. The truth is, I did feel a kind of attachment to Sonu—not romantic in any way. I felt gratitude, indebtedness for the help he provided to me. And this must have confused him wildly.

And then there’s the matter of the social mores that I violated.

I think in India the domestic help aren’t quite treated as equals; there is a real feeling of “rank” here. This is probably true in the United States as well, but I wouldn’t know. Here, though, you would never hang out with your cook. There’s a class difference that keeps people apart. With my egalitarian American ways, I totally treated Sonu as an equal.

In addition to this, I’ve never had domestic help and have no idea how to act in a situation where I do. It’s strange to have to be “professional” with someone in a domestic setting; it’s a contradiction to me. I want to be familiar with people I’m relating to in my home. But these aren’t familiar relationships; at heart, they’re professional ones. These people are doing their jobs, and their jobs are not “being your friend.”

Treating Sonu like a friend was all the more exceptional, then, and all the more confusing for him.

I wish I could rewind, but would I want to give up the sweaty paddle boat and the elephant ride? Would I want to give up following those angel wings up the steps of the Purana Quila fort and having Sonu point out to me the many temples that constitute the closest thing to a skyline that Delhi has? Not for the world. I would just want to avoid hurting Sonu.

His exile in Punjab is fortuitous. I hope he falls in love with this wife while he is there.


Nelle said...

Ya know, I didn't say that about you so you could use it to beat yourself up with it. ;-)

Vicki said...

LOL! No, it was very sweet and it did really make me feel good--except for that one moment in the car when I thought to myself, "Vicki, this whole pickle is your fault."

You are a sweetheart!