Thursday, August 21, 2008

Stealer of Hearts

Pictures: The "very dangerous animal" from the zoo and the garden that Mr. Kundari and his friend Diljesh tend by my guesthouse.
Tuesday at breakfast there is a crowd. The chairs are all pulled out from the dining room table, and breakfast is piled up on it. Pachu tells me, “Breakfast. Take.” Today is buffet style help yourself.

I wonder how long these people will be staying. Most people, it seems, are just here for a day or two—except for the sulky Japanese guy. He’s still here, I think; though most days, he’s late for breakfast.

After breakfast I go upstairs to my room. I have about a half hour until the driver’s due, so I do a little blogging. At 9:04, I pack up and walk downstairs. Palminder should be here by now, but there has been no knock on my door and no call to let me know he’s arrived.

Downstairs I find that Palminder is waiting but no one told me. I get in the backseat and we’re off to work.

On the corner of the block the office is on, there is a tent set up and a bunch of painted plywood. “Caution,” it says, “Deep sewer rehabilitation in progress.” I wonder what this means. It sounds scary. I hope the toilets work. Later, when I’m using one, I glance into the bowl hoping the deep rehabilitation didn’t scare up one of those “very dangerous animals” that Sonu pointed out to me in the sewer at the zoo. All is clear.

The most remarkable thing that happens at work is that I learn about spinach. Just like the Eskimos supposedly have a hundred words for snow, the Indians have over a hundred varieties of spinach. They are shocked when I tell them we just have spinach. We don’t have this kind or that kind? Soma wants to know. Not as far as I’m aware. We just have spinach. There are also all kinds of edible gourds used frequently in dishes here that I’ve never heard of.

At lunch, Amar tells me that the Defence Colony is not as posh as it used to be. The streets are broken up and it’s more crowded. “The shops are still expensive,” he says, and he’s right. “But it’s not as posh as, say, Greater Kailesh.” Ah ha! So Greater Kailesh is posh. That’s where Julianne lives, and also Susie’s boss with the cockroach problem. Cockroaches must not respect poshness.

After work I decide to walk to the market again. I think I’ll eat at Liquid Kitchen again today. I’ll splurge and spend a whole ten dollars on dinner.

I meet up with my dog pals on the way. As I’m squatting and petting Acha, I notice a shadow cast over me. “Is there something wrong with this dog?”

I look up and see an older man in a maroon turban and short-sleeved, blue collared shirt.

“No,” I say. “I just like dogs.”

“This is my house. I live here,” he says, referring to the pink square building behind the stucco wall I am squatting in front of.

“Well I hope I’m not bothering you. I hope you don’t mind,” I say.

“No,” he chuckles. “You really love doggie.”

“Yes, I really love dogs,” I affirm.

“Come,” he says. “I show you garden. Come!” And he teeters off through his iron gate, making sure I am close behind.

“I’ve walked past here many times and admired your garden,” I tell him. It’s true. In fact, his garden and all the discarded, shattered clay pots in front of his wall were the landmarks I first seized upon to help me find my way to and from the market.

“Here, look,” he says, and points to an ornately crafted bonsai composition with rocks and miniature trees all mounted to a curvy flat rock base. His garden wall is lined with dozens of these. “All rocks from mountains. I find all rocks. Look! Looks like animal,” he says and points to a rock that does resemble a hawk or some other bird of prey. “Look! Look like bird.” He points to another one. “Look like leopard.”

“Beautiful,” I tell him. His garden is so manicured. There are red clay statues of dragons and closely trimmed bushes. It is a work of art.

“You come, you sit. Nice to sit in evening in garden,” he tells me. “Gopi! Gopi!” he tilts back his head and yells. A young woman in a flowing yellow sari appears. He speaks to her in Hindi, then tells me to follow him through the open door of his house. We walk into his bedroom, where he retrieves a book on bonsai gardening and opens to a particular page.

“This page here, this man, most famous bonsai gardener. This picture not clear. Come.” He takes me back out to his garden and shows me his bonsai sculpture resembling the bird one more time. “This picture not so clear. This,” he points to his creation, “very clear.”

“Yes,” I say. His rock does more clearly resemble a bird. He is correct.

“Gopi! Gopi!” he yells again, and the beautiful young woman appears wordlessly with a tray of beverages. “You like lemon water?” he says, then hands me a glass. I take it and drink. It’s very tasty.

He’s been to the United States, he tells me. He went to New York then took a week long cruise to the Bahamas. “One week on boat, fourteen stories high,” he tells me. Big boat, I say.

“I am Mister Kundari,” he says, putting one hand proudly on his chest and extending the other to me.

I shake, my hand still dirty from petting the dogs. “I’m Vicki.” I don’t want to try to have him say Krajewski. I think I might be kicked out of the garden for such a puzzlement.

We sit down and talk a bit laboriously in English. He asks what I’m doing in India and has a hard time understanding that I’m working on school books. He is in the garment business. He does trade with people all over the world. He is very excited to tell me he has two international buyer women friends from Iceland who are “just like you.” By “just like you,” I think he means white. They are coming here in September to stay for a month or two. He will introduce me to them, he says.

He also invites me to a kiddie party he’s having at his house on the 24th. “You come. You come. Is food. Is chicken. Is paneer.” I don’t know if the etiquette is to refuse this invitation or accept it, so I’m kind of vague in my reaction. I wonder what a kiddie party is in India. Will there be small children? Can I come without one? This man is too old to have small children of his own. Where will the kiddies come from?

His friend drops by and joins us in the garden. Diljesh, it turns out, is my next door neighbor. He lives in C-82 right behind the Ahuja Residency. He has a blue turban, a fluffy salt and pepper beard, and a rounded, jolly face. He is the president of the horticultural society in Defence Colony. The park that is adjacent to the Ahuja Residency is maintained by these two gentleman. It’s a lovely, very manicured park.

Diljesh tells me his name means “heart” (dil) and “one who steals it” (jesh). He is in marketing and his son shares the business with him. I ask if his son lives nearby. His son, and his son’s family, lives with him. When he was in the United States, he says, a woman was shocked to hear this news. “One kitchen, one house,” he repeats. “One kitchen, one house.” I know it’s common for families in India to share a household—only because Angshuman explained this to me at the Macroeconomics book launch (right after I threw a tampon on the floor).

During my conversation with Diljesh, Mister Kundari’s cell phone has rung. He stands up apologizing. He must go. He has to leave now or else the store will be closed. I can go with them if I like.

That’s okay, I say. I was just on my way to the market.

Then I should come, “day after tomorrow” at eight o’clock. Mister Kundari will show me the club in Defence Colony. “Eight o’clock? Day after tomorrow?”

It’s a date, Mister Kundari. Actually, it’s not a date and I feel, this time, that this is clear. Mister Kundari is fatherly. His wife has been milling around the whole time we’ve talked. He’s used to doing business with women from different countries. I think Mister Kundari is all right.

I walk out the gate and towards the market. Mister Kundari thinks I’m lost. He points the way back to the Ahuja Residency. I remind him I’m going to dinner.

“Okay,” he smiles. “Day after tomorrow.”

I walk to Liquid Kitchen repeating the names of my two new friends. I need to start taking my notebook with me so I can have it for occasions like this. The palace guard opens the door and they seat me at a table set for six. I am the only customer. It’s still early by Indian standards: just approaching eight o’clock.

Sweet incense is burning, scenting the air. A chic Buddha head watches over my table. I go upstairs to wash my hands and the large circle of wait staff again parts like the red sea.

Downstairs I eat my delicately spiced Chinese pickle and kimchee with the chopsticks set at the table, then order a mushroom ravioli dish with eggplant sauce. It comes with grated parmesan over the top. I am sensing a theme.

They bring me little wedges of bread with my main course, and I find myself using the bread to pick up the eggplant pieces. I am eating my pasta like an Indian: with my hands. Your fork! Your fork! I think. Remember how to use a fork? I pick it up and it feels foreign, clumsy. Indians eat everything with their hands, and I guess I’ve gotten used to it. Thanks to Liquid Kitchen, I have not completely lost my western table manners.

I notice crème brulee on the dessert menu. I want to make these guys use a blow torch, I think, and order it. “Madam, we don’t have,” my waiter tells me. He recommends a Chinese tapioca dish instead. I take his recommendation. A few minutes later, he brings me a martini glass full of dessert. The top layer is a coconut sauce with hot rice noodles. Underneath is a layer of chopped cashews and a light strawberry sauce. It is like no dessert I’ve had before, and I’m glad the place was out of crème brulee. This dessert is amnesia inducing. I think I’ve even forgotten Mister Kundari’s friend’s name. I know it means stealer of hearts, but my heart belongs to the Chinese tapioca in front of me.

Maybe I can look up his name in my Hindi dictionary when I get home.

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