Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Wardrobe Malfunctions and Truth

Monday at breakfast I have to sit outside on the balcony again because the inside table is rather full. It’s another deluge and I hope I don’t get wet. The rain means it’s a little cooler, though, and the balcony is, once again, a lovely place to eat and wake up.

Monday I’m a little sick of mango, but I eat it anyway. I wonder when mango season will end. I wonder what they’ll serve to me then.

Today, I flip to page three of the Times of India. There is a story about feticide. There has been a controversy in the country that raised a lot of questions about abortion and the right to life. A couple petitioned the court requesting a late-term abortion after finding out that their baby would be born with a severe heart defect. Their request was denied. The baby will have to be born.

This article isn’t directly about that issue. This article describes the situation in India wherein more baby boys than baby girls are regularly born. Further, instead of reversing, this trend has been growing more pronounced since 1998. Contrary to expectation, it’s not a rural problem either. The numbers are worse in Delhi than other parts of India, the paper says, with somewhere around 800 baby girls born for every 1000 boys. The article highlights the case of a woman whose family forced her to have an ultrasound then wanted her to have an abortion when they determined the sex of her twin girls. They shunned her for her refusal to cooperate. There’s a law that is intended to curb the abuse of ultrasounds, but it’s hard to enforce. The woman in question has been in court with her case for years. Some women’s organizations want to do away with ultrasounds altogether, but the article quotes doctors who say that the medical tool is too valuable for diagnosing problems with pregnancies to dispose of it. The doctors don’t offer an alternative solution to the problem.

I think of Sonu and his disappointment with his baby girls.

At the same time, femininity seems so celebrated here. The women dress up so elaborately and decorate themselves and each other with bindis, bangles, henna and all manner of gorgeous fabrics. Women are decidedly not hidden under heaps of oppressive sackcloth as they are in other countries in the region. There are female consorts to the Hindu gods: Lakshmi and Dakshayani embody the female energies of the main gods Vishnu and Shiva. These gods themselves are depicted as thin and curvy and delicate. In fact, until I began investing more about Hinduism, I thought Vishnu and Shiva were females themselves.

It’s one more contradiction to hold in my head about this culture. Women are simultaneously esteemed and devalued.

Monday at work my sleep deprivation catches up with me and I struggle to keep my eyes open, let alone make sense of the higher educational book on financial management I’m trying to tackle. Monday is a slog.

While eating lunch in Amar’s office, Angshuman pops in. He has to leave a bit early today. He has to go to customs. His sister-in-law sent him some poker chips because he likes to play, and they were seized. He has to go explain what they are; he thinks he’ll get them back with no problem, but he has to go to this office between two and five o’clock.

I pray for the welfare of the package my mother sent me. It’s just food. I hope they’ll leave it alone. I think I must have had tremendous good fortune to receive the two packages my husband sent me completely unopened and in tact. I hope my good fortune holds out.

Lunch today is gross. The rice is really dry and the dal is watery and bland, as is the subzi. There’s a hair in my roti. Amar and the others have been heretofore amused that I said the lunch box food from the dabba wallahs is good. They have raised their eyebrows and gasped. But I’m starting to see where everybody is coming from. I’m getting a sense of what actual good Indian food is. And when it’s good, Indian food is really good. This stuff, most of the time, is okay. But it’s certainly not good—not Sagar good, at least.

Monday after lunch I take another walk around the industrial estate, as it’s referred to on Google maps. A stray dog looks interested in me, but when I hold my hand out towards it, it looks panicked and backs off. I wonder why the dogs in Defence Colony aren’t like this. People must pet them and feed them, I think. As I walk around the park, when I make eye contact with the men, I am met with staid glares. They’ll get used to me before I leave, I resolve. Right now, I’m a big oddity hiking my way around these parts.

Tomorrow is the big day: the book launch with the Prime Minister. As I’m preparing to leave the office, Debamitra asks me what I’m going to wear. I don’t know, I tell her. What is she going to wear? She’s been debating about this, too. Everybody has, she says. She’s decided to wear a sari. Maybe I can borrow a sari from somebody? She looks at Shinjini. Shinjini says her sori top wouldn’t fit me, even though we look to me to be about the same size. Anyway, she says, I shouldn’t try a sari for the first time at an event like that. I could come unraveled or trip on it. “I don’t want to have a wardrobe malfunction,” I joke, and wonder if they heard about the Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson story in India. Sometimes my humor doesn’t work here.

I tell Debamitra I have a matching suit that I bought my first week here, but I don’t know how dressy it is. It’s hard for me to tell. “Is it silk?” Shinjini asks. No, it’s cotton. Then it’s not very dressy, she says. “Is it beautiful?” Debamitra wants to know. If it’s beautiful enough, maybe, it doesn’t have to be silk. I love the notion that the degree of beauty is the measure of how formal something is here.

“It’s okay,” I say. “I also have a regular, western business suit,” I say. This prospect does not seem to thrill either of my wardrobe consultants. Maybe I’ll go shopping tonight, I say. I saw this one store in the Defence Colony market that had clothing. Maybe they have something silken and beautiful. Failing that, I’ll bring both outfits to work tomorrow and they can help me pick. They agree that this is a good plan.

After work I tell Balminder to drop me off at the market instead of at home. I find the store with the clothing and walk downstairs. Upstairs they sell t-shirts and collared shirts. Downstairs I’m hoping for something better. They have hundreds of different prints and fabrics folded into clear plastic bags. I can’t tell what they are: are they scarves? Sari fabrics? I hold up a square bag and ask a guy in a t-shirt what it is. He tells me it’s a suit. I might be in luck. “Dupatta, salwar and kurta?” I ask.

“Yes,” he says.

These fabrics are definitely beautiful, delicately embroidered silks. “Where are the sizes,” I ask him.

“Sizes?” he says. “No sizes. All sizes. Suits.”

I try again, “Yes, but are they organized into sizes? What size is this? Small, medium, large? Size.”

A woman folding clothes behind him sees what’s happening. She approaches me. “These suits aren’t stitched,” she says. I am out of luck. Suits are sold like this everywhere here. You get the fabric, then you take it to a tailor who measures you and sews it all up for you. I think of my tailor across from the park. Could I ask him to do a rush order? Could he finish something that quickly? Maybe if I knew the language better and could explain to him about the Prime Minister and everything, but even then, this would be a dodgy plan. I thank the woman and leave the store empty handed. The Prime Minister will have to accept me in my cotton kurta, or my cotton-poly blend business suit. Debamitra and Shinjini will help me decide tomorrow.

Let down, I decide to stop in for a treat at the Defence Colony Bakery, established in 1962. I get a lemon tart, a rum ball, some biscotti and some Indian-looking cookies. All this costs me approximately three dollars, which is probably a little pricy by Indian standards. As I try to check out, two French people block the way. Leave it to the Frenchies to hang out in the only business for miles around that bills itself as a boulangerie and choclatier. I wonder if a lot of French people come here. The other night on my walk to the market a guy trying to sell me baskets off his bicycle asked if I was French.

On the walk home, I see about five dogs sitting and laying on a little patio. I walk up to them to pet them. One of them is very interested in my bakery bag. He even paws at it gently, but expectantly. I try to open the Indian cookies but can’t get the package open and these dogs are looking impatient, excited for some treats. I open the bag of biscotti instead. Finally someone wants a treat from me. I hand over a half of a biscotti and my customer sniffs it, then looks back at the bag. What else do you have in there? But he’s not getting my rum ball or my tart. This is it, and he’s not interested. I should have known. I put the biscotti bits on the ground where they get a more thorough sniffing and walk on.

Back home I eat dessert while my leftovers from Bamboo Garden are warming up in the microwave. I’ve been anxious to eat the rest of the delicious coconut curry all day—especially after that watery, hairy lunch. I don’t plan on eating the whole thing, but I just take a tiny taste of the rum ball. It’s rich and chocolaty—and gone before I know it.

After the curry, I still have room for that lemon tart which is calling my name from its adorable little cardboard box. It tastes like a tiny slice of lemon meringue pie. Under normal circumstances, lemon meringue pie is okay, but no big thrill. But here, in India, this experience elevates me to a level of bliss that no pie has ever achieved. I savor every last crumb. These tarts cost about fifty cents. A girl could get herself into trouble this way.

I’m in bed, talking to my husband on the computer, when I notice an email from the CEO of Pearson in my inbox. He’s been reading my blog, I know, but he’s apparently been reading a lot of my blog. He tells me:
So here's another side benefit of your blog. Naturally I am an infrequent
visitor to the ladies wash rooms, and so had no idea how appalling the condition
of the ground floor loo is. I did an inspection of all the loo's in the office,
and fortunately that's the only one in such bad repair.

The smell has got nothing to do with the air in the estate, it is just a terribly maintained bathroom with water seepage, and I am amazed that everyone has just
accepted it the way it is.

I hope to have it fixed in the next week or so.

I try not to be horrified. I didn’t mean to call Pearson out on a stinky bathroom. I was just trying to describe the office, and an incident that I found interesting, and the industrial estate in which I’m working.

At second glance, though, I am glad to have an Indian audience keeping me on my toes, letting me know when I get something wrong—like attributing the bad air in the bathroom to the neighboring businesses when that is not the case. I certainly don’t want to get anything wrong on the blog, but I don’t want to sugar coat my experiences or censor them either.

I’ve made a promise to myself to be truthful. I couldn’t write this blog any other way.

No comments: