Thursday, August 21, 2008

We Don't Need No Biscuits

At breakfast the whole place is taken apart again. All the chairs are pulled away from the dining room table, and it’s filled with piles of bananas and bowls full of chopped mangoes—the red kind, again, the kind I don’t like. I hope the season isn’t ending for the juicy ones I love, but I fear it is.

Milling around the coffee tables are thirteen college students here for a study abroad semester. They will be staying at the Ahuja Residency until December. So this is the new way I will eat breakfast. Pachu seems a little concerned about me. He comes to the table to explain I should help myself, “Banana. Cornflake,” he says and smiles somewhat apologetically. This is fine. There’s everything I need right at my fingertips, and if I don’t feel like mango one morning, I can eat cornflake now instead. In fact, I do. The milk tastes strange, almost like it’s malted milk, but at least it’s not the icky red mango.

I overhear a few students ask the others what they’re doing today. One girl says she’s going to “explore.” I ask her if she’s been to a market yet. No. They just got here. They’re just going to walk around the Defence Colony today. They have wide eyes that say, “I can’t deal with much more than I’m already dealing with.” The hot water switch, the strange locks on the doors, the lack of clocks, the giant slugs and house lizards: all these things are still very new.

I tell them once they get settled, there’s a really great market nearby, Lajput Nagar, and they can take one of the autos to get there. “Are those those little green things?” they ask.

No, those are lizards, I think.

“Yes, the auto-rickshaws are those little green and yellow things.” I tell them the drivers know where to take them if they know the name of the place, and they’ll try to get more out of you, but the ride to Lajput is really cheap, so you have to bargain.

“How much should it cost?” they lean in with raised eyebrows.

“About 20 or 30 rupees,” I say. They are amazed. They gasp. They are adorable with their books and their trunks strewn about the balcony. They’ve pretty much taken over. There aren’t that many rooms in the Ahuja Residency. They’ve got to be pretty cramped.

I offer to take them to the market sometime if they want. I offer to show them how to deal with the auto-wallahs. And I say if they have any questions, I’m just upstairs. They can knock on my door any time. I get up to leave and about four of the girls ask my name at the same time.

“It’s Vicki,” I say. Vicki the house frau.

At lunch Amar and I discuss India’s Olympic coverage. Amar doesn’t like the Hindi commentators. They just describe what you’re seeing. “Here is a gymnast and now he’s slipped and fallen… I can see that,” Amar says.

It was like that at the monuments, I say too. The Hadimba Temple just said, “Here is a four-tiered structure with four roofs.”

Amar asks if I’ve heard of the story of the police accusing a man of murder and an affair and being wrong about it. This man’s daughter and servant were both killed. They came out and accused the man and arrested him the next day. They had no evidence. The man didn’t even get to participate in the funeral rites for his daughter. Then the equivalent of the FBI stepped in and exonerated the man, but it was too late. The press had already convicted him, Amar says.

They will print your name and the victims’ names with no hesitation.

I recall an article I saw in the paper a few weeks ago about a university president. The students at his college requested a co-educational dormitory and his response was to say that if they put in a co-ed dorm, they’ll need to build a maternity ward next to it.

The article had his picture in it and was on the front page of the Times of India. It was presented as a huge scandal, with quote after quote from disgruntled student saying how objectionable his reaction was. There was no voice given to the side of the university president. The article was pretty much an editorial on the front page, as was the photo and caption I saw two days ago. It showed a broken up street and was captioned in huge block letters, “You call this a road?” Underneath was a sentence about where the road was and how horrible it is. There is no line between editorial and news content here, not that there is much of a line in the United States, but we are much more subtle about presenting opinion as fact. Here, in India, there is no pretense.

I take a walk after lunch and avoid eye contact with everyone except the dogs. It is easier than I thought. I still can feel people stare at me, and see some strange looks out of the corners of my eyes, but it’s not as bad. Very near the office I see a little skin and bones dog who’s obviously just given birth. Her nipples are swollen. I wish I had some extra lunch to share with her. She looks so malnourished. I see a man sleeping in the back of his auto-rickshaw. He is resting his head on a metal pole. It looks so uncomfortable. Not to mention that it’s near 100 degrees today. These sleeping wallahs are a common sight, though. It seems people can sleep anywhere in India. Yesterday as we were turning into the Defence Colony, I saw a man on the side of the road, pavement all busted up around him, just lying there, resting.

At home, the college kids are congregating inside the front gate. There is an Indian man looking like he’s in charge. They are all going somewhere as a group. They are being taken care of. They don’t need a house frau. Their experience will be organized, guided, administered. I am jealous of the guidance they are receiving, of the company and companionship they have, but I have other things. Freedom, for one. A sense of accomplishment at managing on my own, for another. And time to think and write about my experiences. It’s a trade off.

In the market I buy a cake for Mister Kundari at the Defence Colony Bakery where I get my rum balls and lemon tarts. I figure it will be polite to present him with something tomorrow in exchange for his invitation to the club.

I walk over to Moets where Amar likes to eat. In front of the restaurant there is a sign, “Have your kitty party here.” Kitty party? As in cats? Now I am even more confused by my invitation. Moets’ prices are even more expensive than Liquid Kitchen, so I decide to try the North Indian version of my favorite place: Sagar. There are two Sagars within a few doors of each other in this market. The one I always eat at is South Indian. I’ve never tried the North Indian until now.

At Sagar, I order malai kofta. It is nothing like the malai kofta I know from the restaurant in Iowa City. Troublingly, it has the appearance of dog vomit: partially digested and reconstituted dog food. It is a tribute to its taste that I eat every bite of it despite its appearance.

There are two couples dining together next to me. They talk about their driver listening to Punjabi music and bopping his head around while they were driving over a landslide. “Just drive the car, buddy,” the Asian man with the American accent says. It seems I’ve had a quintessentially Indian experience with my 24-hour road trip.

After dinner, they present a hot bowl of water with a lemon in it to me. It takes a second, but then I figure out this is to rinse my hands in. I wish this happened to me after every Indian dinner because when you eat with your hands, they get gloppy.

I’m still hungry, so I order the only dessert I haven’t yet tried at Sagar. I try to ask the waiter what it is, but I know I have to try it to understand. “Like Jello?” he says.

When it comes, it is not much like Jello at all, and I’m glad. It’s more like a very dense cake, filled with aromatic, sweet spices like clove and bits of fruit. Even though I’m quite full about half way through, I eat the whole thing. Another hungry day complete.

I walk out of the restaurant into the warm evening woozy from all the spices, carrying Mister Kundari’s cake with me.

As I near his house, I start looking for Acha, Baby and Baloo, then I spot them. They are lined up outside his garden wall eating on three large piles of something that smells like corned beef hash. I smile knowing they’re not going hungry tonight.

No wonder they don’t like my biscuits.

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