Monday, September 29, 2008

A Beautiful Life


Saturday morning I get up at six thirty. I’m going to a yoga lesson at Mister Singh’s house. His daughter-in-law told me to be there at seven o’clock, “on the dot.” I can’t be late.

I put on a t-shirt and track pants and walk next door. Mister Singh sends me to the third floor where his son and daughter-in-law live. We’ll have the yoga lesson in her living room.

His daughter-in-law brings out a blanket for herself and gives me the nice, padded yoga mat that I suspect she uses when she’s not sharing her yoga lesson with a white chick. The instructor arrives and they talk in Hindi to each other, sometimes gesturing towards me. I’ve told her I’ve done yoga before, so I shouldn’t be a burden or drag down the quality of the lesson for her, at least I hope not.

Mister Singh opens the door carrying a blanket. He will also join us for the lesson today. He spreads out his blanket and stretches out his legs in front of him. “See?” he tells me. “You start by stretching, then do like this.” He shakes his legs out.

This man with his long white beard, who has to be in his seventies, then grabs his legs and folds himself up into the Lotus position. “I’ll show you,” he says. “Yog is not exercise. You cannot do it quickly. You have to go slow.” He calls it yog, not yoga, just in case you were thinking that was a type-o.

The instructor is ready to begin. He stands and narrates in Hindi, and Mister Singh and his daughter-in-law do as he says.

“Can you understand?” she asks me.

“No,” I say, but it works for me just to watch them and mirror their actions. We start with some breathing, then do some simple stretches and bends, then it’s onto the mats where our legs get tangled up in front of our heads.

“Nose touch,” the instructor walks over to me and says. Nose touch? I look at Mister Singh’s daughter-in-law. Her nose is touching her feet which are folded up in front of her face.

“Oh no, my nose no touch,” I say, laughing.

I should say now that I am the most flexible person I know. People actually make fun of me for the way I sit with my legs knotted up. I stretch all the time. I’ve had years of dance and lots of yoga lessons where I’m the one that the instructor points at to show everyone else how it’s done.

But not in India. This is one of the reasons I wanted to take a yoga lesson here; to see how different it would be.

It’s different all right.

Next our feet are in the air over our heads. “Floor touch,” the instructor tells me, and takes my legs and stretches them all the way onto the ground behind my head. I think they’ll snap right off. It kills. I can barely sustain the position and my legs begin to shake.

My legs shake for the rest of the lesson as we hold weight-bearing positions that use muscles I’ve let slacken for who knows how long. All the while the aged Mister Singh is pulling and pushing his body into variations of all the positions we are doing with seemingly no problem.

Mister Singh leaves a little early. He’s going to work on food donations for the gurdwara. We wrap up less than an hour after we began, but it’s not soon enough for me. I feel slightly tortured.

“We usually go faster,” Mister Singh’s daughter-in-law apologizes to me. “If you come tomorrow it won’t be so slow. We had to go easy today because Dad joined us.”

Easy? I almost died. “Thanks, but I’m going to the gurdwara tomorrow morning at five,” I tell her.

“Well maybe you’ll be back in time. I’ll send someone over to check.”

I thank her and hobble off down the three flights of marble stairs marveling at how Mister Singh must have just taken this same path.

Back at my room, I try to steady my quivering Jello legs. I call up Mohinder, the man who’s meeting me at the orphanage. He tells me I should have my driver drive towards the Ashram towards Mathura, then we should call him and he’ll give him directions from there. It sounds like a shaky plan, but who am I to dispute it?

I call up Palminder and tell him to come pick me up at noon. Until then, I catch up on some blogging. There’s lots of spare time when you get up at six thirty in the morning on a Saturday.

Palminder arrives on time and I describe my plan to him. We have to go to Ashram towards Mathura then call this man at this number. He gives me a funny look. He wants to call Mohinder before we leave. It seems like a fine idea to me. He dials the number and talks to him, then passes his cell phone to me in the backseat.

“Yes, Vicki? I’ve told your driver how to get there and I’m just leaving, so I’ll see you there,” Mohinder tells me.

Palminder finds the place with no problem, pulling up to a three-story concrete building and pointing it out to me. “Welfare Home for Children,” he says to me, pointing to big red lettering on the top of the building.

There is a large gate around the place and no way to get in. I don’t see Mohinder anywhere. Palminder calls him back up. We should go around the building to the other gate, he tells us. We do. A man opens the gate and ushers me inside. Mohinder isn’t here yet. Can I sit for a few minutes and wait? Sure.

There’s a little plastic molded play set behind the entrance: a few slides and ladders to climb on. That’s a good sign. Inside, the building is very clean and tidy. The air isn’t on, but there is a huge window unit in the room they take me to where I sit and wait. Two women offer me water and I say no, then they bring me water anyway. There is no refusing Indian hospitality.

I’m sitting in a large room with a couch and a table and a fridge. There is a bulletin board full of pictures of children. On one side are the kids who’ve been adopted. They are embraced by smiling parents. On the other side are pictures of kids at the facility. Many of them are embraced by this portly white woman in a sea green dupata who appears in photo after photo.

Mohinder arrives just a few minutes after I sit down. He introduces me to two men. One is the architect of the building. The other is an aging Indian man with a British accent, and I don’t quite catch the reason he is there to tour the facilities. Is it to donate money? From the way Mohinder dotes on him and rather ignores me, it seems this may be the case.

I present my large bag of biscuits. The woman says I can only give two biscuits to each child and they’ll get the rest after dinner. She takes the bag away and comes back with just four or five packs that she’ll allow me to take upstairs to the children. I am not to be trusted with my wealth of biscuits, apparently.

Mohinder takes us around the ground floor, showing us the kitchen and a storage area. The room where I was waiting, he says, is used for counseling the parents and the adoptive parents, he explains. The white woman on the bulletin board is Dutch. She’s not here right now, but she’s the one who’s in charge of the facility.

He shows us the social worker’s office and takes us up to the second floor, pointing out the quality of the woodwork. There was no skimping when this building was erected. It’s of fine construction.

On the second floor landing, there is a large shelving unit full of tiny black shoes and several sets of large blue plastic sandals. We have to take our street shoes off and put on a pair of sandals before we enter the room where the girls are. They take pains to keep it clean and nice.

We open the door to a roomful of bunk beds and little girls. There are three women here who greet us. The men walk off, Mohinder talking about the construction and the capacity of the building. I open a package of biscuits and am swarmed with tiny hands reaching up towards me. I pass out biscuit after biscuit. A woman points to a small girl curled up on the bottom of one of the bunk beds. I figure I should let her sleep, but the woman shakes her awake a little roughly so she can get her treat. Sleepily, she takes the biscuit from me and munches it. A little munchkin about two feet tall wearing a t-shirt and a diaper has decided that she wants to stock up. She holds her biscuits in her right hand and reaches up to me with her left, making insistent noises and grasping the air. She follows me into the second section of bunk beds where another little girl is sleeping and is roused in a similar brisk fashion. Three or four older girls wait patiently in the background while the younger ones flock around me. When I give them their biscuits, they bow their heads and smile and say “thank you.”

The men are back. Are we ready to see the third floor? We get our shoes back on and ascend the staircase. About twenty boys are seated on a big Persian rug. The boys are all older than most of the girls upstairs. No one here is in diapers. I only have about four biscuits left, so I refrain from handing them out. In the back of this room is a quarantine room so when a child gets sick, it doesn’t spread. There’s also a small classroom. The institute brings teachers in rather than sending the children away to school.

We go up onto the rooftop. Here is where they hang the wash. You can get a view of the surrounding buildings too.

I follow the men back downstairs and ask the woman at the desk if I can have more of my biscuits. The boys didn’t get any. She brings several packages out. I go upstairs and see that the boys have been dispersed from their rug. They are now sleeping. It’s one thirty in the afternoon and these little boys are sleeping. It seems there are not a lot of other things for them to do. I wonder how much time they spend merely asleep or laying around.

I ask the woman if I can give the boys some biscuits. She assents and calls them to attention. They jump up out of their beds and form an orderly line, each one taking his treats and saying thank you in turn. When I’m done I have a few leftover. I ask the women in the room if they want them. They are only too happy to accept and nibble the rest of the package away.

I rejoin the men downstairs. They are talking about sponsorships and companies who give money to the facility. I ask if they do adoptions in the United States. “Yes. You can ask my wife all about that.” She works here full-time as a social worker. I don’t know anything about adoption. I don’t know if domestic adoption is cheaper than international adoption, but the plane tickets alone to India for one trip would set me and my husband back $4,000. And I know we’d have to travel here more than once. This may be an utter impossibility. Still, I wanted to see the facility and make the connections while I was here just in case.

I barely sit down when the men stand up. They’re ready to go. I take this as my cue to leave as well. I shake Mohinder’s hand and thank him for the tour. Palminder is waiting for me at the door. I follow him out to the car and tell him to take me to Malviya Nagar. We’re going to pick up Katie at Susie’s place, then head to the Museum of Modern Art. Katie’s a painter, so she’s been eager to see the place.

I call up Susie. “How was the orphanage?”

I was surprised. I was surprised at how nice it was, at how the children there are pretty advantaged compared to the poor kids I see out begging in the streets. These kids have clean clothes and three meals a day. They go to school instead of working. They have multiple people looking after their well-being. It was still sad to know they don’t have families, but it wasn’t as sad as what I see on the way to work everyday: kids in filthy clothes or no clothes at all begging for a few rupees or food, and little boys using every fiber of their will to try and sell useless magazines that they can never hope to read themselves. Those kids need more help than the ones I saw today.

We pick up Katie and find the museum easily. It’s a stately building with a rounded dome just outside of India Gate, probably built by the British because it smacks of the same architecture as the President’s house and government buildings in this same area.

Inside we find a jumble of paintings: portraits and miniatures and sketches and landscapes. The artist’s name is posted next to most of the paintings on a typewritten card, but there is almost never a year given. Some of the pieces don’t look very “modern” at all. I wonder how this collection got assembled: who decided what works got admitted? Where did they come from? They’re almost all Indian artists, but most of the works are in imitation of western art styles. Surprisingly, there are many, many paintings and sculptures in the Surrealist style: bodies with missing pieces and visible, melting bones. I wonder how surrealism made its way to India and why it seems to speak to artists here.

There is one room full of oversized canvasses that makes the place worth the trip. Here there is a wall-sized painting of three Indian bicycles with milk jugs hanging off the handlebars. It’s titled “Three Cows.” The milk jugs look like you could grab them and pick them up, and the background is like a comic book. The bicycles are life-sized, and as you walk past the painting, somehow the front wheels move and are always pointing at you. The effect is mesmerizing. There are also pieces here which blend traditional Mughal painting style with modern art. These artists are using their artistic heritage rather than throwing it aside and their work is all the richer for it.

The museum doesn’t take that long to cover, so about an hour later, we are walking through the little sculpture garden back to Palminder’s car. On our way, an auto-wala stops us. I flag him away thinking he’s bugging us for a ride, but he is insistent. “No,” he says, “Madam, madam, bomb blasts. There are bombs today. It’s not safe. You must go home. Go to your hotel. Go to wherever you are staying and stay in today, madam.”

Being so close to India gate, I wonder if a bomb has gone off nearby. I thought I overheard a conversation about bombs when I was in the museum, but I figured they were talking about the bombs that went off two weeks ago. I guess I was wrong.

I worry that we won’t be able to cross town to get home. I remember Jonaki telling me that they sometimes close down access to roads when bombings happen. But travel is just fine. There doesn’t appear to be anything unusual. The streets are neither empty or closed down. Everything seems normal. I wonder if the auto-wala was just trying to scare us for some reason.

Back at home, I turn on the news. Two men on a motorcycle threw a crude bomb in a lunch bucket in a crowded market. A kid picked it up and died. Twenty-three people were injured in the blast. There don’t appear to be multiple attacks this time. It looks like a much less sophisticated operation than the last attack when the bombs had timers and were planted all over the city.

I’m Skyping with Scott when my phone rings. “Hello. Kandhari. Where are you?” I hear.

It’s Mister Kandhari. He wants to know why he hasn’t seen me walk past his house today. Almost every night I walk to the market at some point and usually stop by to talk to him.

“I’ve been out today, Mister Kandhari.”

“You come and sit and we can talk,” he tells me.

I tell Scott I’m going to go. He is unnerved. Even though Mister Kandhari’s house is only a block away, I don’t think he wants me going out tonight and I don’t blame him. If he was in a city that was having multiple terror attacks, I’d want him to lock himself up in his room and shove a pillow under the door crack, not go roaming around his neighborhood at night. I promise I’ll steer clear of the market where I was planning on going to get some souvenirs. I’ll get them some other time, or I won’t get them at all, I tell him. Mister Kandhari’s house is safe, I tell him. I’ll be fine.

I eat dinner with Mister Kandhari. He asks me what I do in the evenings when I’m at the guest house. I tell him I write a lot. About what? About my time in India. I keep a blog on the Internet. Do I write about him? He wants to know. Yes, I tell him, thinking he might find this troubling. Instead, he is delighted. He smiles broadly. Have I talked about his garden and the gurdwara? Yes I have, of course. “Thank you,” he says.

Who reads it? Mostly just my friends. Does he have the Internet? I can show him the site. Only at the office, he says. But he wants to read it sometime. He wants to read it. We sit for a while then he says we should get to bed. We have to get up early to go to Bangla Sahib tomorrow. Am I still going with to feed the hungry?

“If you call me to make sure I’m awake,” I say. He shakes my hand and smiles. It’s a deal.

The little black dog follows me home again. I run upstairs to get him biscuits, but as I’m coming back down the stairs, I see him in the hallway of the guest house. He’s followed me all the way inside. I think the guard is slacking a little bit. What if this was an intruder instead of a little black dog? The thought is a bit troubling. I share some biscuits with the dog and the guard comes down from the balcony. I think he might be upset that I have the dog inside the gate, but instead he coos at it. “Indian doggie,” he says in a thick accent, smiling and chuckling. The dog trots off and starts drinking out of a puddle, and this gives the guard an idea. “Water,” he says, and comes back with a pot full for our little furry friend. This is the same guard who played so much with Ralphie when he was here. I like this guy. He strikes me as a very kind person. I’m not so sure what kind of a guard he makes, but he’s always sweet and considerate, even to a lowly stray dog.

I’ve met so many people here who have been so kind, I think, and I’ll be saying goodbye to all of them in just two weeks. In just three short months, I’ve discovered a beautiful life here in India with my friends from work and from church and from my neighborhood. I’m fortunate to be staying at such a nice place with such a helpful, sweet and good-natured staff. It’s a beautiful life I will leave behind—or rather carry with me. I’m so fortunate to have lived it.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Not Enough Biscuits


Just when I thought the food was getting boring… I eat a custard apple.

My friend from work and I were discussing seasonal fruits one day. She wondered what we grow in the United States. I talked about oranges in Florida and the apple orchard near my house. She bought some guavas from a cart in the industrial estate and shared one with me. I think it was my first guava. I know I’ve had them in juice blends, but I’ve never just eaten a guava. It was good: sugary with white flesh and tiny, tiny seeds, almost like a kiwi. She had the man at the cart put ashen-looking masala spices on it as he chopped the small fruit into quarters. Spiced fruit is common here. Mister Singh served me spiced apples and pomegranate seeds the night he was planning my Amritsar trip.

As we walked and ate our guavas, she asked me if I’d ever had a custard apple. No, what’s that? It’s in sections almost like a pomegranate and the texture is a little sandy. The next day, she brought some to work for me.

Friday morning I walk downstairs and present my custard apple to Mira. Can she cut it for me so I can eat it? She takes it and walks into the kitchen. In the meantime, there is a Texan on the phone near the kitchen. He’s twanging away and getting nowhere trying to arrange a car service. He passes the phone to Mira. “Here, talk to them,” he drawls and shoves the phone Mira’s way. She takes down several phone numbers and makes a bunch of notes in Hindi script on a piece of paper and hands it to the gentleman. “What’m I spose’ta do with this?” he asks, shoving the paper back at her. I think this man is not going to have a good time in India.

Mira brings me the note and my custard apple on a plate. “Sorry, madam. My English no good. Speak. No write. You write Ashok?” I take the pen and paper from her and write Ashok next to the first number. “Okay, thank you. No English,” she says. “Now Upander, guard.” I write the words down by the second number.

In exchange for this help, she shows me what to do with my custard apple. You don’t cut it. You just split it in half and scoop it out with the spoon. She splits it in half for me and pantomimes with the spoon.

We thank each other for the needed assistance and she shuffles in her aqua and white sari out to the balcony where the large Texan is sitting on the edge of his chair. He looks satisfied with the new note. I think we’re all relieved.

The custard apple looks like it has crocodile skin on the outside and tastes like, well, custard on the inside. It’s like nothing I’ve ever eaten before. It’s fun.

At work I finally finish editing the lengthy chapter seven on currency options. We have two more chapters from the author so far, chapters eight and nine, and I think I’ll be able to complete them both in my remaining time. It’s a goal anyway.

We have yet to hear a response from the author on chapter six and the passages that need to be rewritten. Shabnum is trying to call him as I’m leaving the office for the weekend. We’ll see what happens.

Everyone’s excited about the book sale tomorrow. Shinjini wants to know if I want any Rough Guides. There is always a whole bunch. If I had room in my luggage and the upper body strength to haul books, I’d go scoop up a whole load, but as it is, I practice self-control and turn down the offer.

On my way up to my room, Pachu stops me. He speaks rather excitedly. “Call. Three times. Call six thirty. Six forty-five. Six fifty. Three times.”

Can he tell me who called three times?

“No idea. Boy. Boy. Husband?”

Oh no, I think. Freaki Fredi.

“Did he leave a number?” I ask.

“No. Call again,” Pachu says. I’m sure he will.

I’m not in my room for ten minutes when the phone rings. “Hello. Do you recognize me?”

“Is this Fredi?” I ask.

“Yeah yeah. So did you think about Goa?”

“Yeah and I’m not going to be able to go, but thank you,” I say.

“Okay, that’s okay,” he says. “Some other time when you come back to India.”

At least he finally took no for an answer. But now he wants to go out for a drink. I want to believe that’s all he wants, but I don’t. I think I’m busy next week. And the week after. And then I’m leaving. It’s just too bad we won’t be able to get together. He’s still glad he met me, he wants me to know. It was nice to meet him too.

I remember I need to get the hem of my black pants repaired. I throw them in a bag and walk down to my tailor across the street from the park. This man knows how to sew. I run through the items in my closet and think hard about whether there’s anything else I can have him work on before I leave. That one kurta I bought is pretty baggy on me. I could have it taken in. It’s so much fun to have your clothes tailored.

“Namaste,” I greet him and he bows his head back at me. I show him the pants and ask him, “Kitne?” How much? He examines them and says, “No nothing. Small work.” He doesn’t want to charge me—again. Of course, I’ll pay him anyway. I couldn’t take the work from him for free.

I walk around the corner to the closest thing approximating a grocery store that I’ve seen here. It’s called The Big Apple. It’s lit with fluorescent lights and has wide aisles compared to the other food shops in the market. It even has cash registers. What it lacks is the kind of deep inventory that American stores are packed with. There are just a few items of each kind on the shelves. I’m looking for more biscuits. I want to make sure I have enough for all the orphans I’ll see tomorrow. They only have three packages of the ten rupee kind. The rest of their biscuit inventory is actually Oreo cookies and they’re priced at forty five rupees a package.

I buy the three remaining ten rupee packs and grab a box of oatmeal at the store clerk’s suggestion. It’s on sale, and I need to run up my bill a little bit so they’ll give me change. If I try to buy thirty rupees’ worth of biscuits with a 1,000 rupee note, they’ll throw me out of the place. The clerk takes the box from me and says, “Almost expired, but not yet expired.” I look at the date, which I’d previously ignored, and it says Jan 2008. It’s a strange definition of almost expired. Still, I figure, what can go wrong with oatmeal? I probably have some in my cabinets at home that’s older than this.

The cashier holds my 1,000 rupee note up to the light and gazes at it from three different angles. Then he passes it to the next register where a woman does the same thing. I think, “Please don’t tell me I have a counterfeit bill.” But the gazing seems to satisfy them, and they even give me change. How western of them!

After The Big Apple, I cross the street at the busy intersection to get back to the main market. When I first got here, this would have been impossible for me. I would have needed an escort, a crossing guard. My heart would have been racing. I wouldn’t have even known which way to look for oncoming traffic. But tonight I cross the street without blinking an eye, weaving in an around the stopped cars, motioning with my hand for the oncoming cars to yield to me.

I walk directly to Sagar’s. Since it’s been a day of new food, I decide to try something different on the menu. There aren’t that many things I haven’t yet tried. I don’t know exactly what I’m getting when I ask for the dahi vada, but I order it anyway. Then I ask for a banana lassi. Sweet, I say. “Sweeeeet,” the waiter’s eyes get large and he walks away.

I wonder what that was about until they bring my food. Turns out the dahi vada is covered in sweet yogurt. And a lassi is made of sweet yogurt. Both are delicious, but they’re a little much in combination with each other. "Sweeeeeet." The waiter was right.

On my walk home, the little black dog finds me. I open a package of biscuits and he eats the whole thing. I don’t understand why he’s so skinny. He has a collar on. Someone owns him. Don’t they feed him? Or does he have a bad case of worms? I should slip him some Mebex, the worm medicine Susie recommended I take when I get home.

When the last of the biscuits is gone, his nose finds my shopping bag and nuzzles it. He wants some more. The orphans or the starving dog? Who gets the biscuits? There is never enough to go around in India.

I decide one package is enough for the puppy tonight and walk home. He trails me all the way to my gate.

Friday, September 26, 2008



Thursday I have an email in my inbox from the newdirections program home office. They can’t put a link to my blog in their newsletter in light of recent entries. I understand, of course. My blog has been more personal than business-oriented from the beginning. Still, if I had written about breaking a leg or having chest pains or any other number of physical conditions, I don’t think there would have been an issue. No one was embarrassed on my behalf when I told them I had necrosis. The email was very kind, but still I feel a twinge of shame.

I debated about whether I should disclose the information about my health or not but finally decided that if I didn’t, it would be the end of my blog as we know it. How could I take this most important piece of information and pretend it didn’t affect me and my experience here and what I was thinking and seeing and doing? It’s certainly not the most glamorous or funny or intriguing part of what’s happened to me while I’ve been here, but it happened, and it’s part of my story, and that’s what I’ve been putting on my blog the whole time. My story. If I stopped telling my story, I don’t know what I’d post: a list of foods I ate and places I went? Why bother? We’ve been there already and had the meals together. A pancake at Sagar. A pasta dish at Liquid Kitchen. It’s all pretty routine by now.

Am I apologizing? I suppose I am, in case I’ve offended anyone or made them uncomfortable. I didn’t mean to do so. That being said, I’m going to continue to tell the truth, or at least try. It’s not worth the time and the energy it takes to write otherwise.

Thursday at work I get very close to finishing chapter seven. We have two more chapters from the author, and I’d like to finish editing them before I leave. I think I’m on track to do so. Then at least I will have handled half a book on my own while I’ve been here. I wasn’t here long enough to edit an entire volume, especially since at the beginning of my assignment I was working on multiple projects and meeting with people and learning about the editing process in general.

We’ve sent chapter six off to the author and asked him to revise the passages we found on the Internet, though we haven’t heard anything back from him. We’ll give him another day to respond.

“Good evening,” Palminder greets me on my way to the car. The drive has become so familiar and, unless it rains and causes havoc, it is routine and uneventful. We don’t pass any elephants or see any monkeys. The boys sell the magazines at the red light by Indraprastha Park. I am home in about forty five minutes.

At the gate the guard bows his head to me. “Good evening, madam,” he says. I don’t see the little black dog around anywhere.

“No dog today?” I ask.

“No, madam. Eighty two. Eighty two.” Mister Singh has stopped by. I go up to my room and drop off my bag. I take the book he lent me on the Golden Temple and the bag of scarves he gave me for our trip, then walk over to my neighbor’s house, wondering why he called on me.

Mister Singh is sitting in his bedroom on his couch watching tv. He wanted me to see this. There is a broadcast everyday live from the Golden Temple. It’s on from four in the morning until six a.m. and from six in the evening until eight p.m., the times when they “wake up” the holy book and put it back to sleep for the night.

“You reach home late,” he says. It’s already after seven. “Long work day.”

“And I’m the first one to leave the office each night,” I tell him. My colleagues work incessantly. Speaking of whom, I tell him, my boss has decided he wants to visit Amritsar. He heard me talk about it and it sounded so good, he wants to see it now too.

Mister Singh smiles. “Tell me when he wants to go and we can fix it for him.” He’s offering to set everything up again like he did for me. He’s a regular ambassador to Amritsar.

We watch the broadcast and listen to the hymn for a bit. He gets up and gets several books from the shelf behind his bed. One is wrapped in an orange bandana. Sikhs do this as a sign of respect for their holy books, Mister Singh explains to me. So this is what I saw everyone carrying around at the temple. He hands the wrapped up book to me and tells me to open it. I untie it and see that it is still shrink-wrapped. He tells me to tear off the packaging. I do. This is the Japjee, the Sikh morning hymn. The book’s in English so I can read it.

Poonam walks in clapping her hands, delighted to see me. I am likewise delighted to see her. She sits down next to me on the couch and says how much she enjoys listening to Mister Singh when he explains things to me. “I learn from him too,” she says.

Opposite the table of contents, there is a verse written in Punjabi. Mister Singh tells me this is the heart of their religion. It begins with a symbol that is like Om, but means more specifically that God is One. It continues with a symbol that means God is Truth. “God is the only truth,” Mister Singh says. “Man is never true. There is always something. But God cannot be untrue.”

I think of my dictum to be honest when I write. Am I? Can I be? It’s true that however much I disclose, there is still more that I keep to myself. Am I even honest with myself? Mister Singh is right. However true I try to be, it feels like an onion and I am never at the center, I’m always just peeling back layers. If I ever got to the middle, what would be there? Nothing? God? Some essential version of myself?

Mister Singh flips through the pages. The book begins with a short introduction, then has a verse about what makes a good Sikh.

“Read it out,” Poonam says.

I read aloud and surprisingly my voice cracks a bit in places because in reading this description, I very much recognize my kind neighbor, Mister Singh:

A true Sikh rises before the night ends
And turns his thoughts to God’s Name,
To charity and holy bathing.
He speaks humbly and humbly he walks.
He wishes everyone well and he is content to
Give away gifts from his hand.
He sleeps but little,
And little does he eat and talk.
Thus he receives the Guru’s true teaching.
He lives by the labor of his hands and he does good deeds.
However eminent he might become,
He demonstrates not himself.
He sings God’s praises in company of holy men.
Such company he seeks night and day.
Upon the Word is his mind fixed
And he delights in the Guru’s will.
Untempted he lives in this world of enticement.

Mister Singh shows me the rest of the introduction to the prayer. There is a brief biography on each of the ten Sikh gurus. He tells me the holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, was put together by the gurus and they took hymns and wisdom from all over the world.

Verse 17 of the Japjee says:

There are myriad ways to worship the Almighty—whether they be through rituals,
self-abnegation, the practice of austerities, exaltation or contemplation.
Limitless are the scriptures and their elucidations. Numerous are the devotees
and their ways to attain self-realization.

Sikhs don’t try to change anyone’s religion, Mister Singh says. They believe, like the Japjee says, that there are multiple routes to God. Another large quote precedes the prayer in the book:

Some call him Rama, others know him as Khuda.
Some serve Him as Goswami,
Others remember him as Allah.
Some bathe at Hindu temples, others go on Haj
Some recite from the Vedas, others from the Quran
Some wear the blue robes, others are clas in white
Says Nanak, he who obeys His command,
He alone understands the secret of the Lord
Raga Ramkali V (Guru Granth
, 885)

Mister Singh tells me the story of the ninth guru who was beheaded at the gurdwara in Chandni Chowk when he refused to convert to Islam, the same gurdwara where Palminder picked us up the day we went to the spice market.

I could stay and listen to Mister Singh all night, but I tell him I have to leave. Mister Kandhari has invited me over to his house at eight o’clock tonight. I’m going to meet his daughter who lives in New York.

Okay then. I should go. I should tell my friends they can see the Golden Temple on tv whenever they want to, though. And he’ll ask his daughter-in-law about yoga on Saturday.

He gives me the Japjee. I can take it home and read it. I should also take the book on the Golden Temple that he lent me before. I can give it to my boss. As I’m leaving he asks if I’ll put the books in my room before I go to Mister Kandhari’s so they’re safe. Of course. I shake his hand and thank him. It’s so nice to have such pleasant company in the evening. Normally I spend the nights alone. He says he’s happy to have my company as well. He enjoys talking with me.

I take the books home and walk over to Mister Kandhari’s house. He’s in his living room talking to a business associate. Mister Kandhari is always working; his cell phone is always ringing or he’s always off to somewhere to meet somebody. He works six days a week, he says, then on Sundays, he runs the kitchen at the gurdwara. And everyday, he works for two or three hours on his gardens. I don’t know where he gets the energy, except that he seems to really enjoy whatever it is he’s doing.

His daughter is heavy set. She’s dressed in black western clothes and wears an enormous rock on her left hand index finger. It could be a diamond from how successful Mister Kandhari has described her as being. “Would you just give me two minutes?” she says and walks away into the house.

Mister Kandhari asks if I’d like to sit inside or outside. Outside, I say. It’s pretty nice and his garden really is beautiful. He has his house helper set up three chairs.

We chat about how things are going. I might go to Jaipur. There’s a place about two hours past there that’s good for meditation. He’ll tell me all about it if I go.

His daughter sits down with us. They talk in Hindi, or is it Punjabi, about what I can’t make out. She asks me some questions. What am I doing here? How long am I here for? What do I do back home? Her cell phone rings. “Take him to the Cheesecake Factory,” she says. Just hearing Cheesecake Factory sounds so funny in India. It sounds so out of place. She’s clearly talking to someone back home. Always working, just like her father.

She wishes she could stay longer, but she has to go. Maybe I could stop by tomorrow if I get the chance. She leaves on Saturday, so it’s pretty much her last day here.

“I hardly get to see her,” Mister Kandhari says. It’s a real Cats in the Cradle moment. I feel bad for him.

He asks me to stay for dinner and I do. We eat in a little sitting area in the corner of his bedroom. He turns on the tv news. There is more investigation into the Indian Mujahidin. It’s sad that there’s so much terrorism here, I tell Mister Kandhari. I didn’t know it was such a problem before I got here. “Yes,” he says. “They hate anyone who is not a Muslim.” They learn from a young age that people other than Muslims are evil, then they go out and kill.

When we’re done eating, Gopi brings two large containers of ice cream. “Take,” Mister Kandhari says. I do. Like his rice pudding, it’s made with less sugar than usual, but it’s still good.

We walk out into the garden and sit for another little while. It’s almost ten. It’s past the time when Mister Kandhari goes to sleep. I tell him I’ll be going. “Will you come on Sunday?” He wants to know if I’ll go to Bangla Sahib to feed the hungry again.

“If you’ll call me to wake me up,” I tell him.

“Okay. Okay,” he says, and shakes my hand on the deal.


So here are some videos of the border ceremony and the parade we saw in Amritsar. There's also a link to my pictures of The Golden Temple and surroundings which completely don't do the place any justice.

Photos of Amritsar:

Thursday, September 25, 2008

On Unaccepted Charity


As if something or someone were trying to prove a point to me, I spend Wednesday sweating my brains out. Is it hot in the office, or is this a symptom, a sign?

Palminder drives me home and as I walk into the Ahuja Residency, the shaky feeling is less bad than it has been. I’ve looked the thing in the face and told it, “I know what you are and you’re not going to scare me.”

Up in my room, I decide to test out the pepper spray my sister-in-law sent me to have when I walk to the market by myself at night. Comically, it has “American Defender” emblazoned on the side of its casing. She said it has a kind of safety on it like a barbeque grill lighter, but I can’t find it. I depress the pump and push hard. A little burst of red liquid issues forth. I’m hoping it doesn’t drip down onto my purse when I realize I’ve sprayed it in front of the air conditioner—and the air conditioner has an oscillating vent in it—and it’s about to blow my way. I can feel it when I aspirate one or two tiny drops. The pepper spray works.

I run into the next room and stick my head in front of the other air conditioning unit trying to breathe in as much fresh air as I can. I think it’s going to get worse and start burning and making me cry, but it doesn’t. You must have to use a lot of it. I’ll make sure to be generous should the occasion arise.

After recovering from this small incident, I dig out the business card of Mohinder Singh, the man I met at Mister Kandhari’s kitty party who deals in international adoption. He told me at the party that he would take me to see an orphanage if I wanted to while I was here. I think I’d like to go.

I stare at the card for a while, debating whether I should call him. I wonder if he’ll remember me. He does. I ask if the offer still stands. He says we can go on Saturday. I should call him around ten o’clock. My plan is to buy up all the five rupee packages of biscuits that I can get my hands on from the drain vendor at work and bring them to the kids. I concocted this plan last night before I fell asleep.

After we hang up, I grab my pepper-sprayed purse and head out towards the market. I only get a few feet past the Ahuja Residency gate when I see this small black dog with white feet trotting its way toward me. I stop and pet it. It looks young, maybe seven months old, and it’s so skinny. It must have worms or just be underfed. It’s loving the attention I’m giving it when a man walks up to me and says hello. Where am I from? I tell him I live about four hours from Chicago. Telling someone here you’re from Iowa typically doesn’t mean that much.

He wants to know what I’m here. How long have I been here? How much longer will I say? What do I do with my evenings?

“Pet stray dogs,” I say.

“But you must do more than this,” he wonders. I acquiesce. Yes. I walk to the market sometimes. I read. I write.

Don’t I get lonely, he asks.

I’m okay, I say. I’ve met a lot of nice people while I’ve been here.

Well we should go out sometime, he says. He can show me a nice club near here. He travels a lot for his business so he knows it can get boring; it can get lonely, especially in the evenings. He just spent three days in Duseldorf. There was nothing there to do, but he met a woman and became great friends with her. They will keep in touch now. She lives in Toronto.

He didn’t catch my name.

I’m Vicki.

I’m Fredi.

We shake. Do I want to join him for a walk in the park?

It’s nice outside and there are plenty of people around. Plus now I’m confident in my pepper-spraying skills, so I figure I’ve nothing to lose.

I met the gentlemen who maintain this park, I say. He doesn’t know them. Too bad. They’re very nice. We do a few laps around the little paved pathway and the little dog scrambles behind us, ears flopping happily.

Have I gotten to see much of India? Yes. I’ve been to Agra and Himachal Pradesh and Amritsar. What about Mumbai or Goa? Maybe next time, I say. I’ve had no time to make it down there.

Well I should go before I leave. He’ll take me. He has an apartment right on the beach in Goa. He’ll pay for everything. I’ll be his guest. It’ll be a great time. Three days right on the beach. He has speakers outside so there’s music. The whiskey will be flowing. It’ll be crazy. It’s freaky. He’ll show me a freaky time, he says. Freaky. And I won’t have to worry about any expenses. He’ll be my host in India and when he comes to the United States, I can be his host.

“Well I don’t have any apartment on the beach,” I tell him.

Where do you stay? he asks.

“Me and my husband have a townhouse,” I specify. He is not discouraged.

“If God gives you a good life, you should enjoy it, you know? Let’s go to Goa.”

I tell him thanks but I don’t think I have time.

Time? What time? It’s just three days. What’s three days? I should do it.

I tell him I can’t, but thanks.

Why not? I should at least think about it.

Okay, I say because I am so bad at just saying no and I’ve already tried two times. I’ll think about it.

He is finally satisfied.

I tell him I have to go, but it was nice meeting him.

He says he’ll take me out to dinner tomorrow night or Friday. He’ll give me a call at the guesthouse. I might just be busy when Freaky Fredi calls back. I shake his hand and walk out of the park. “I feel lucky to meet you,” he tells me. “I really mean it. It’s just too bad we didn’t meet sooner.”

Well it’s not every day a girl gets an all expenses paid vacation offered to her, even if it is from Freaky Fredi.

The little black dog follows me out of the park and rubs its head against my leg. I can’t say I feel unloved tonight. The dog looks so starved I decide to feed him my leftovers. I walk the half-block back to the guesthouse and the dog follows me. I tell the guard and his friends that I’m going upstairs to get some leftovers for the dog. The guards say, “Already lunch here today.” They fed the dog lunch at the guesthouse. I ask if they think the dog will stay while I go upstairs. “Yes, yes,” they say, “two days already.”

I get the Swagarth leftovers from the night of the bombing. They’re pretty tired but still okay to eat, especially for a stray dog. I go downstairs and the dog and the guards are all waiting expectantly. I put a little food down and the dog actually eats it. The guard finds an old board that I can put the rest of the food on without making a mess of the pavement in front of the guesthouse.

We all watch as the little dog has its dinner. He likes the mixed veggies and paneer, but only picks at the okra. One of the men makes a joke about the dog not being a vegetarian. They chuckle.

I walk off toward the market hoping to avoid Freaky Fredi, and I do. Mister Kandhari is sitting in his courtyard. He waves for me to come talk to him. I ask him how the election went. He was elected to the committee, but Mister Singh and his other friend were not. It’s too bad. Mister Singh seemed so excited about it. That stinks.

“How is everything going,” he asks me.

“It’s going good,” I tell him. Just then a car with two old men pulls up.

“My friends are here,” he says. He has to go. I get up to leave and ask him if his daughter is in town. “Yes,” he says. “You should meet her. Come tomorrow. Come tomorrow morning or evening… Come tomorrow evening,” he finally decides.

“What time?” I ask him.

“Eight o’clock,” he says.

His friends are walking into the courtyard as I’m leaving.

“Hello, American Beauty,” says a smiling old man in a blue turban. His comment isn’t creepy. It’s grandfatherly, like he could pinch my cheeks if I let him.

If a girl needed her ego stroked, tonight was the night. With an offer of a free trip to the ocean and a salutation like that, how can I feel like less than a woman? I fold my hands and bow my head in greeting, laughing and saying hello, good to see you.

At the market I figure on another veg burger and rose milk soda. As I’m walking to Kent’s, I see this little blonde dog with his tail tucked between his legs cowering between the moving cars. He looks so lonely. I walk behind the car he’s hidden behind wondering if he’ll be scared or if he’ll want some attention. He acts like he was just waiting for someone to notice him and love him. He presses his head against my leg and follows me every time I try to walk away. I feel like the patron saint of stray dogs tonight. I think I’d like to round them all up and get them the veterinary care they need and give them a huge, green farm with plenty of food and nice places to play.

At the outdoor stand, I order a rose milk soda and a veg burger and ask for two pieces of bread for the dog. “There is no charge for the bread,” the man at the register tells me. I feel like I’m having one of those Pay It Forward moments where an act of kindness begets another one. Only here they call it karma.

The men hand me two pieces of bread in a little plastic bag. I break it up and hand it to the skinny dog whose ribs and hips are sorely visible. In typical Indian starving dog fashion, he refuses. He just wants me to scratch his head.

After the men were nice enough to give me the bread, I feel slightly embarrassed. I hold it out for the dog who just yanks his nose away from it. I wonder if this is something how Freaky Fredi felt when I told him I wouldn’t go to Goa. Why won't you go to Goa? Why don’t you want this bread? It’s perfectly fine bread!

I thank the men anyway and tell them I know another dog who will appreciate it, so their gift won’t go to waste.

On the way back to the guesthouse, the little black dog is hanging out with the guards who click at him and talk to him. I offer him the bread but he refuses it too. The mixed veggies must have filled him up.

As a last resort, I break it up for the birds and put it out on my balcony. Somewhere, somehow, something will eat this bread. I refuse to let it go to waste.

I hope the kids at the orphanage will eat the biscuits I’m bringing them on Saturday. If not, there are going to be some really fat birds at the Ahuja Residency.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

I Have India


Tuesday nothing happens again.

Nothing has happened since the beginning of July, reproductively speaking. I have not had my period since the week I arrived in India.

I’ve been nagged by this fact but choosing to ignore it, put off thinking about it, worrying about it, but on Tuesday there is nothing else to think about: nothing but this lack, this emptiness, this maddening nothing. I keep waiting and waiting, but nothing happens.

I tell Scott about this on our morning Skype call. It’s nothing, he’s sure. It’s just my body freaking out because of the time difference and the travel. It will all be fine once I get home, but I’m worried it won’t be. What if it’s not?

By the time I get home from work, I’m shaking like I was the day before. I can’t name the reason, but I know it in my heart. It's a dark shadow that's been tracking me at a distance. It's a diffuse cloud of anxiety that is now seeping into my room. I try to think about something else. I try to read, but I can’t concentrate. I think today is the day I need to face this thing down. It’s been coming to get me and now it’s here. I need to acknowledge its presence in the room. I remember my mother telling me something about early menopause years ago, but it can’t have been this early. It can’t have been. Or can it? I should call her, but I don’t want to know. I don’t want to hear it. It’s just a few missed periods. Everything will be fine. But I’m afraid that it won’t be.

I look up the symptoms of menopause on the Internet. For the first time ever, it doesn’t seem like I have what I’m afraid of--or is that just a refusal to admit what I'm afraid of? I haven’t been feeling hot flashes, or have I? How would I know in the hundred-degree heat and humidity of India? I have had spells where I begin to sweat profusely in the air conditioning. But that can’t be a hot flash, can it? I look up the consequences of early menopause: more years spent with an increased risk of heart disease, osteoporosis, gum disease, incontinence, forgetfulness. I can lose my teeth and my hair will grow thin. Basically, I’ll be the crypt-keeper a year from now. Basically, I’m drying up from the inside out and getting ready to die.

What kind of cruel joke is being played on me that I just start beginning to feel like I could handle having a child and the physical capability to do so is taken away from me? Why does every baby I see suddenly look at me with adorable, longing, big wet eyes and wait for me to smile at it? How could this have happened?

Maybe it didn’t. Maybe Scott is right. It’s nothing. But it doesn’t feel like nothing. It feels like Nothing.

I decide to walk to the market, and maybe I’ll see Mister Kandhari or pet my dogs on the way. Maybe they’ll make me feel better, or at least distract me. Mister Kandhari isn’t home and the dogs are busy getting fed by a boy on a bicycle with a metal can full of something they apparently love.

I’m not hungry so I do a few laps in front of the shops. I go to the chemists and buy a pack of Mebex: the medicine Susie told me to take for worms.

A voice inside my head repeats, “Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so. Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so,” and I feel better. I feel the kara on my wrist and think, “How can I be so worried about myself when there are so many other people in the world? Why don’t I just think about others?” I am comforted just by looking into the faces of the people passing me by. Things could be so much worse. I am so privileged. But even if I weren’t, I would still be me. I would still be okay.

I think of this book I read by the Dalai Llama on a plane trip down to Florida. It said the human condition is one of suffering. Every human being suffers, and every human has in common with every other human the want to escape this suffering, the want of enjoyment and happiness. I feel bound in this way to everyone I walk past. We are all bound.

The lump in my throat smoothes itself. I walk to Sagar and the doorman greets me. The waiter seats me. I start to order but the waiter interrupts and asks me how I am. It’s the same waiter I had yesterday. He smiles when I tell him I’m good.

I order a sweet lassi and paper masala dosa. It’s the giant, crispy pancake that comes with all the dipping sauces. It’s not my imagination that my pancake is extra big today, like three feet long. The woman sitting next to me orders the same thing and hers is only two-thirds the size of mine. I think they made me an extra special pancake. I feel bad when I can’t finish it.

I buy some paan at the counter that I figure I can either share with or drop off at Mister Kandhari’s place on the way home.

The dogs aren’t out tonight for me to pet, and Mister Kandhari isn’t home. His daughter-in-law is on her way out of the house as I walk past and she tells me I can just give the paan to the guard. It was sweet of me to bring it.

Back at home I think of calling my mother, but my computer is ringing before I have the chance. She tells me all about how the cousins from Texas were staying with her because they were evacuated in the wake of Hurricane Ike. Their kids are so cute, she says. And so polite. She tells me about my niece, Kathryn, and how much she’s eating now.

I tell her I have a question for her.

“Uh oh,” she says.

“When did you get menopause?”

Really early,” she says.

“When?” I say.

“Why?” she asks.

“How old were you?”

“Thirty two,” she says. Thirty two. That’s two years younger than I am right now. I tell her what’s happening to me and she says that’s exactly what happened to her. Her period just stopped. She’d get it once every couple of months, then it just stopped altogether. But it was kind of nice not to get it, she says.

“Yeah, but you already had kids,” I say.

“Oh, did you want kids?” I’d always said I didn’t, but lately I’ve been thinking about it. I’ve always kind of envisioned myself adopting, but I thought as a back-up I could have my own kid. Now I have no back-up plan.

She says they can do things. They can give me hormones. I should just see a doctor when I get back. I’ll be fine. And I will be. But I’ll be different. When people told me India would change me, this was not one of the changes I had in mind. But at least I’ve been able to make an occasion of it. At least I have this wealth of new experiences to enrich me instead of just feeling impoverished, instead of just feeling grief and loss.

So I may not have a child, but I do have India.

Gopi and Worms


There are two people in the car this morning. Palminder sits in the passenger seat and a bearded young man with fluffy hair, Gopi, sits behind the wheel. He explains to me he’s driving today because Palminder is very sick. Poor Palminder. He can’t just stay home and sleep. He has to ride along with us, presumably to show Gopi the route.

At work, Amar asks me how my trip was. I tell him it was wonderful. The Golden Temple was amazing. He recalls being a child in 1984 and hearing that two Sikhs had assassinated the prime minister. At the time, Sikhs were fighting against the Indian government for independence. He says there were some terrorists who took over the Harmandir and the Prime Minister sent the army up to disburse them. In return for what the Sikhs saw as an attack, the Prime Minister’s two Sikh bodyguards turned on her and killed her. Amar remembers his school principal crying.

This is certainly a different view of the Sikhs. I have to make room for this information in my schema. Things are peaceful now, it’s clear. But at one point, not so long ago, certain Sikhs were regarding themselves as freedom fighters and others were regarding them as terrorists. “We are a martial people,” Mister Singh told me. I wonder how the peace was made, if the horror of this assassination was enough to quell those clamoring for their own state.

At lunch there is a cauliflower and potato subzi. I don’t think it’s bad, but Amar says it’s undercooked. After lunch, I’m talking to Shabnum and Yajnaseni walks up holding her stomach and whining. Lunch was so bad. It wasn’t cooked. She hopes there were no worms in the cauliflower. At least if it’s cooked, the worms are dead.



We take our post-lunch walk as I ponder what I can do at this point to kill the possible worms in my stomach. How about a lot of hot coffee? How about some of that Indian after-dinner chew stuff? It’s supposed to be good for the digestion. I admit to myself that if there were worms, I probably can’t kill them on my own. I’ll probably need drugs. I'll have to email Susie and ask her for the name of that medicine when I get back to my desk.

Shabnum’s excited about the Pearson book sale coming up this Saturday. Am I going? I probably won’t, I say. I don’t have any room left in my luggage as it is, let alone the prospect of stuffing heavy books into it.

You should go anyway, Shabnum says. It’s really something to see, Jonaki agrees.

Maybe I’ll just go to browse then, I say. But Shabnum says there is no browsing. There’s climbing and yelling. The sale takes place twice a year in a warehouse where a giant pile, a heap of unsold books, is unloaded onto the floor. You get there at about nine in the morning and you have to climb up the side of the pile and start digging for books that look good to you. Last year Jonaki took off her shoes so she wouldn’t harm the books and then almost lost them in a landslide as she scrambled up the side of the pile.

Angshuman usually gets there early and digs a hole for himself in the pile. He picks up good books and calls the titles out to see if anybody wants them. The books are all, like, fifty cents a piece.

This sounds like an interesting event: something that might be the bonus round on a Japanese game show. I still don’t know if I’ll go, though. I wanted to sit in on Mister Singh’s daughter’s yoga class this Saturday morning. Yoga or book diving? It’s a tough choice.

I thought that Gopi told me he was going to drop Palminder off during the day, and he’d be driving me home by himself in the evening, but Palminder is still sitting in the passenger seat. I get in the car and we take off. I can see that Gopi, like Palminder and Sonu, is a Sikh. He seems to have pretty good English, so I tell him about my weekend trip. “I went to Amritsar,” I say. “And I bought a kara!” I hold up my arm and show him my bracelet. He seems excited about it. How did I like it? he wants to know. Did I go to the Wagaugh Border too?

Gopi is chatty all the way home. He tells me he lives in Punjab about 30 kilometers from Amritsar. His father farms wheat and rice. He has three sisters and a brother. He’s not married, but his number is up. It’s his turn. He points out sights as we pass them. This is the Akshardam Temple. It’s beautiful. Very beautiful. And here is a Sai Temple. Sai Baba.

I wonder how sick Palminder is and if Gopi will be my new driver for the rest of my stay. Not that I want Palminder to be sick, but Gopi is so much more friendly and helpful. Through all our conversation, Palminder sits silently with a familiar blank look on his face.

Gopi drops me off and I give both him and Palminder a tip. “Thank you, madam,” Gopi says and smiles, like he’s totally surprised to get a tip at all. Palminder just grabs the money and says nothing.

Gopi tells me tomorrow it will just be him picking me up. I say that’s just fine.

I spend the evening petting my dogs and having a mixed veg uttapum at Sagar. I think they finally recognize me when I walk in. It only took about three months.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

God Versus Pizza


Our wake up call comes right on time. Katie and Julianne don’t exactly jump out of bed. I can’t let myself lay back down because I know I’ll fall back asleep. This was the first sound sleep I’ve had since Wednesday night. Thursday night I was all worried about the trip and Friday night was the long, sleepless train ride.

We get ready and make it down to the lobby by four thirty. Our driver is waiting with the brown Vanagon. Susie and Sarah are nowhere to be found. We sit and wait. I’m antsy. We didn’t leave ourselves a lot of extra time. I wonder if I should go upstairs and check on them. I check the time. It’s just four thirty five. Still, we need to catch the train by five. Julianne says it’s fine. They’re coming. The driver says, “Late?” and this is all I need. There is no way I’m missing this train because I was being patient. I jump out of the van and run up the stairs. As I ascend to the second floor, I see that Susie and Sarah are on their way down. It’s okay. We won’t be late.

The driver drops us off at the station. We really were only ten minutes away from it like Susie said. The ride seemed so much longer to me yesterday morning for some reason. Maybe it was my lack of sleep the night before.

The Amritsar station actually has signs above the platforms, so it’s easy to find our train. Once again, my seat isn’t with my friends’ seats, only this time it’s worse. I’m not even in the same car. The place I’m supposed to be sitting is all the way down on the other side of the long train. My friends are in car twelve; I’m in car forty three. I decide I’ll just follow them into their car and sit by them, then when the porter asks for my ticket, I’ll ask if I can switch like I did before.

This train, the Shatabdi, is much nicer than the Chattisgarh. The seats are plush and clean and recline. I sit down next to Susie and the next thing I know, I wake up with a little tea service in front of me. There is a thermos and cream and sugar and a little package of biscuits. The tea even tastes good. I barely finish it when the porter comes by to clear it. I fall back asleep and wake up again when they are bringing us breakfast. There are little potato puffs and green beans with carrots. They pass out more tea and liters of water and mango juice. This train is nice. We should have taken the Shatabdi to get there too, but my friends wanted to save the money on a hotel for Friday night by taking the overnight train, and I joined the trip after these plans were already made. Who knew the Chattisgarh would be such a clunker anyway? I guess you just have to go to find out.

The trip is six hours total and we arrive right on time in Delhi. Susie stays behind in the station with Sarah and Katie. She needs to buy a ticket for something while she’s here.

Julianne and I walk out front. We’re going to try to split an auto-rickshaw ride since Defence Colony is pretty much on the way to Greater Kailash. There are all kinds of taxi and auto wallahs asking us if we want rides. Julianne says no to all of them until we get to the lane of green auto-rickshaws. They’ll take us for 120 rupees. Sounds good to me, but Julianne says no. They’ll take us for the metered price, but they’ll start the meter at 20 rupees. Sounds okay to me, but Julianne says “Why? There’s no reason they should start the meter at 20.” She walks to the prepaid auto booth and tells the man we need a ride to Defence Colony and Greater Kailash. He says, “No. Only one place.” So she tells him Greater Kailash since it’s farther. He writes up a bill for 68 rupees. We worry that the auto wallah will harass us when we try to go to two places instead of one, but he drops us both off without any problem. It pays to be persistent. So it only pays, like, the two American dollars we saved by going through the extra hassle, but still, it pays.

I am so relieved to be back at the Defence Colony. Even though it’s two in the morning back home, I call Scott. He told me to call him when I got back so he’d know I was okay. I surprise myself by getting totally choked up when I hear his voice. I can barely speak to him. That someone would want to talk to me at two in the morning is so sweet. And he’s not even groggy or crabby. He wants to know how my trip went and what I saw, and all I can do is bawl because he’s so caring and I’m so thankful for him.

I hang up with Scott and compose myself. I unpack my bag and flop down on my bed with the book on the Golden Temple that Mister Singh lent to me. It’s even better to look at the pictures and read about it now that I’ve actually been there. I didn’t have time to read a lot of the history before I went, so I’m catching up, getting the details of the Sikh’s struggle against the Mughals, then against British rule and finally against the Indian government.

I’ve only read a few pages when the phone rings. It’s Mira. She says, “Mister Singh call.” I thank her. I figure I’ll walk to the market and get a thank you gift for him, then stop by on my way home. I walk out and see Mister Singh standing outside my gate. Oh. He was calling in person. I’m glad I decided to come out.

He wants to know how the temple was. And the hotel. And the driver. Did the owner take care of us? He was supposed to take care of us. Did we have everything we needed? Were the rooms okay?

Yes, everything was wonderful. It was a perfect weekend trip, thanks for Mister Singh. I can’t thank him enough.

Good then. He is satisfied. We shake hands and he walks off back to C-82 while I go to the market. I find a basket of biscuits at the Defence Colony Bakery and buy a little decorated envelope at the stationery store. I think the envelope comes with a card, but when I get it home, I find there is none. I have to cut up a bag I got from a boutique to make the thank you card, but when I do, it’s cute. It looks like expensive paper. I thank Mister Singh for sharing his faith with me and for planning the trip for my friends and me. I tell him I will remember it for the rest of my life.

I will.

I take the basket and the card and drop it off with his guard, then return home where I watch a bad American movie about some college students who build a nuclear bomb. I had planned to catch up on my blogging, but this is just the brainless respite I need.

I’m about to take a shower when the young guy who helps clean my room knocks on my door. “C-82,” he says. I lock my door and walk outside. Mister Singh’s guard is waiting in the street for me. He ushers me into the courtyard. From the entrance I can see that Mister Kandhari and another man are sitting in Mister Singh’s living room.

“We have just been to the gurudwara for the election,” Mister Singh tells me. I see that my card is sitting out on his couch. They are all three running for some committee. They’re waiting for the results. They should receive a call in about an hour.

Mister Kandhari is beaming. “So?” he asks. “How was your trip? You didn’t come see me to tell me. I introduce you to my friend and you didn’t come see me!” I didn’t know I was supposed to. I tell him the trip was wonderful and the temple is amazing. “Is there anything like it?” he asks. No. There isn’t. It is one of a kind.

“Yes, she has given me a certificate,” Mister Singh says, referring to the thank you note I wrote him. He has already shown it to his friends.

His daughter-in-law brings us tea with ginger in fancy little cups and serves some of the biscuits I bought him. They tell me about the election. The third man’s son was just elected president. They are all very happy.

Mister Singh gets out another large picture book on the Guru Granth Sahib. Would I like to borrow it? Do I have time to read it? I actually do. I am interested in learning more about the hymns Sikhs sing. He tells me not to keep it with my shoes. To keep it nice. It’s a nice book. I assure him I’ll treat it well. He gets out another book that he’s sharing with his friend. It’s entitled “Essays on Sikh Values.” He says he reads it for about ten minutes each morning. There’s an interesting piece on Sikhism and yoga. Most Sikhs don’t practice yoga as part of their spirituality, but this piece talks about how the ancient practice and the religion are compatible. His daughter-in-law takes yoga classes. Am I interested in coming? A man comes to the house to teach her every morning at nine. I could come on Saturday. I wouldn’t have to pay or anything. They already take care of the fee.

That would be wonderful. I’ve been wanting to take some yoga classes in India but when I called the yoga centre, no one spoke English. “Hindi, madam. Hindi, madam,” was all I could make out.

“I have made some three new gardens,” Mister Kandhari tells me. I tell him I thought he had no more space, which is what he told me the last time I asked him if he was going to make something new.

“I know,” he says, smiling. “No space, but I just get in my head and I have to make. I have ideas in my head and I must make them. What can I do?” he asks.

“We’re going to go to Mister Kandhari’s house. Would you like to come with us?” Mister Singh asks. Okay. Why not.

Even though it’s just about a block away, we get into Mister Singh’s car and drive over. We sit in Mister Kandhari’s courtyard and he shows us his new compositions. There is one with a pine-looking tree in the middle and three straight rocks that rise up around it. He is fond of these rocks because they look like animals, especially the one on the left. You can see it has two eyes and ears and a nose. “Very clear. Very clear.”

He gets up and waters his garden, aided by his house helper who untangles the hose for him. He finishes and tells his house helper to move this newest piece with the animal figures in it up against the wall. I think to myself it seems to be balanced quite precariously on a tiny bucket. Just after I have this thought, it falls, mud going everywhere and the rocks falling out of their places. This is much like the moment when Mister Kandhari rammed the whole side of his car against that concrete pole. He is completely un-phased. He just tells his house helper to scoop up the dirt and stick the rocks back in the way they were. He steps away to water some more.

Just then I notice a flyer laying on his garden table. It’s for Dominos Pizza. I haven’t tried Dominoes yet, and pizza sounds kind of good to me tonight. I pick up the flyer.

Mister Singh says there’s a raga, a hymn, and the words to it are, “God, how can we know all your virtues?”

I’m looking at the flyer and noticing that the Dominos number is really easy to remember. It’s four four’s and four eights. Four four’s and four eights. I can remember this and order pizza tonight.

“God, how can we know all your virtues when we know our own faults? We know our own faults.”

Four four’s and four eights. A fault of mine would be that I’m totally obsessing about pizza right now. I guess it’s true; we do know our own faults.

Mister Kandhari returns to the sitting area. The men have to leave. They are going to the gurudwara to find out about the election. If they were meant to serve God in this way, they will win. If they were meant to serve in some other way, they will not win. Either way it’s fine.

I shake their hands and wish them luck. Mister Singh says, “I’m not worried,” and offers to drop me off at home. I can walk. It’s okay, I tell him. His friend wonders if I know how to get home. It makes me feel good that I do. Even if it’s only a radius of a few blocks, I have the Defence Colony C Block all figured out. Amritsar, now, that's a different story. I would have been lost without my friends of superior navigational prowess. But the rickshaw wallahs would have helped me out. There's always someone around to help, it seems.

I return to my room and decide not to order pizza after all. I’m in the mood for a rose milk soda and a veg burger from Kents. I can get pizza any time. The days are numbered when I will be able to enjoy my rose milk sodas.

The Golden Temple


We climb off the train and into the station at Amritsar. In the middle of the platform are large piles of burlap sacks and black metal trunks. Freight cargo. I walk behind Susie and Sarah. They seem to know where they’re going. How, I have no idea. But they walk quickly and with purpose. We come into a large room in the middle of which is a scale model of the Golden Temple, just like Mister Singh described. Standing right next to the model is a man in a turban holding a sign: “Mr. Vicki,” just like Mister Singh described. We greet him and he turns and walks quickly across the street. Outside there is a large red billboard that reads “Welcome to Amritsar.” There’s no thinking we’ve gotten off at the wrong place.

There is some discussion about what we want to do. I’d like to go to the hotel and check in. Susie and Sarah don’t know if we can, but they say we can try. Most places won’t let you check in this early, but this is what Mister Singh told me to do. “You can reach there, then go to the hotel to wash up, then go see the temple right away.”

The driver leads us toward a large brown van that looks a lot like a Volkswagen Vanagon. There is plenty of room for the five of us to climb in. There is no air conditioning, but it’s improbably not that hot and the breeze from the open windows more than suffices.

Ten minutes later, we are at our hotel: the Sitara Nawas. There is a lobby with wooden doors and flowers and a marble front desk. The clerk gives us two keys and leads us to the third floor. One room has two beds and the other room right across the hall has three beds. It’s perfect.

The rooms are neat and clean and have fans and air conditioning that works quickly. There is a proper shower and a toilet “sealed for your protection” just like a hotel in the US might have. It’s a nice place. The sign in the lobby posted rates of four thousand rupees per night. Mister Singh told me we’d be paying eight hundred. I can hardly believe it. In fact, I’m ready for the bait-and-switch like Raju gave us, with the magically raising rates at the last minute. Only time will tell.

We go down to the lobby and begin the laborious check in process. We each need to fill in a page in this large book that asks for our address, our passport number and all the details of our visits to India. How long have we been here? When are we leaving? Why are we here? It feels like it takes an hour just to complete this, but it can’t have taken that long because we’re off towards the Golden Temple by ten o’clock.

We can see the temple from around the corner of the hotel. We’ll be able to walk there from here, which is a good thing because our driver seems to have vanished when we walk out front to find him.

Susie and Sarah walk out front again, leading the way down Amritsar’s narrow streets through shops and shacks set right up against the road. Amritsar is a very different city than Delhi. It’s a lot smaller for one thing. The roads are so narrow that cars don’t really drive on them save for the occasional taxi. This makes it nicer to be a pedestrian here. You can walk on the paved roads without much dodging and without getting stuck in piles of rubble at their sides. There are no sides of the roads; the shop fronts come right up and stop at the drains. It also seems, as Amar was saying, that men don’t pee in public here. The only time I smell urine on the streets is when we pass the “public convenience,” a public bathroom set in from the road.

Susie takes us to Lucky Tea Stall, a place I would never have occasioned on my own, but it seems okay once we sit down. The parathas we eat are so hot that, like the surface of the sun, no bacteria could survive there. Everybody chows down, but I can’t finish. I’m just not hungry. The chai is excellent, though, and mine is gone as quickly as I can drink the steamy, sweet drink.

The Lucky Tea Stall is just a block away from the Golden Temple’s gate. We snap some pictures of the proprietor and each other, and walk off toward the gate. I take the orange bandana that Mister Singh gave me from my purse and tie it over my head. The rest of the girls are wearing dupatta, and they wrap these around their heads. Once they do this, they look so Indian it’s hard to keep track of them in the crowd, especially from behind where I invariably find myself trailing along.

We find the shoe check and pass in our sandals in exchange for a token with a number on it. Next we walk through the footbath which is constantly fed with clean water. Unlike the one at Bangla Sahib, this footbath seems to be doing its job. It’s a bit dangerous, though, to walk on the solid marble with wet feet, and Susie almost looses her footing. We pass through an arch and see the glistening golden building appear before our eyes. “Oh my gosh,” I say taken aback, “It’s so beautiful.” I have to stop for a moment just to take it in, but my friends are moving on and I can’t get separated, so I move on as well.

The gurudwara is framed by an external gate that is all white marble with arches and domes. This white marble building is huge. It easily spans a full kilometer. Inside, the ground is solid white marble with varied geometric patterns of black and brown inlaid into it. This walkway around the temple is also easily a kilometer. The Golden Temple itself rises out of a square salowar, or bathing pool, in which you can see its reflection from any vantage point.

We walk along the white marble pathway towards the entrance of the Harmandir, the gleaming building in the center leafed in real gold. For all the conflict that the Sikhs have seen, threats of extermination from the Mughals and freedom fighting that culminated in an ugly assassination of the prime minister in the 80s, this place exudes a true majesty and peace.

If I have ever seen a palace built for God, it is it. The reverence that Sikhs have for their one true deity finds a sublime expression in the architecture here, its design and art and opulence. There are other temples I’ve visited where I feel like the money spent on the temple has impoverished the spirit of the worshipping done there, that the contrast between the richness of the building and the poverty of the worshippers is a sin in itself. The Golden Temple doesn’t feel this way, for although the building is ornate and exorbitant, the Sikhs give shelter to the homeless and feed the hungry three times a day at the huge langar where the metal plates never stop clanking. Thousands of people of any caste or creed eat here for free every day. Hundreds of people sleep here. And it’s all staffed by volunteers.

People bathe and wade in the salowar, which is supposed to have the power to heal lepers. Men stand at the corner with skimmers and clean the pool. We round the far corner and get in the long line of people waiting to enter the Harmandir. Susie and Sarah somehow take the express lane and blow past Julianne and Katie and me. We see them in the stream of people coming out of the temple before we even get in. They’ll wait by the exit, they tell us, as they walk past.

A beautiful baby with big, dark eyes is really interested in me. He smiles every time I look at him and wave. He stares at me and stares at me from his mother’s arms, waiting for me to look back and smile.

Women push past with browned leaves. I suppose these are offerings of some kind. I can see the man at the exit with a big bowl of Prasad (a.k.a. the brown goo), handing it out to everyone who walks past.

Finally, the man at the entrance lifts the orange cord and lets us enter. The inside of the building, impossibly, is more ornate than the outside. I don’t even know where to look.

Sarah said I shouldn’t take pictures inside, so I have only my recollection and the book Mister Singh lent me to furnish the details. Here’s how the book describes the inside. It does a better job than my memory could.

The lower floor “is faced with marble panels inlaid with exuberant and whimsical designs and motifs—from geometrics and abstracts to arabesques, flowers, foliage, fish, animals and a few human figures. Onyx, mother-of-pearl, lapis, lazuli, red carnelian and other semi-precious and colored stones are used in the inlays.” There are 300 fresco paintings. The walls are covered from top to bottom in detailed gach and tukri work. In gach, artisans crush gypsum and water and fry it into a paste. The paste is then applied to the wall and designs are etched out of it. Next, the designs are filled with gold leaf. In tukri, pieces of colored or mirrored glass are cut and laid into the gach to form patterns and reflections.

The first floor walls are marble, but from the ceiling up, the walls are gold-plated copper with jewels and mirrors and intricate patterns carved into them. Gold, silver, copper and brass are all used in the designs. It is the most ornate and intricate building I’ve ever seen. Every square inch is covered in some sort of wild design and color. There’s no way to take it all in, but the total effect of it is staggering. I think it’s the most beautiful building I’ve ever seen.

On the ground floor in the center is the Guru Granth Sahib, the enormous, handwritten Sikh holy book. There appears to be another copy of it on the second floor, and also in the small shrine on the roof. Lyrics from this book are sung constantly. All of the versus contained within are set to song and sung in the classical raga style at appropriate times of day.

The Harmandir is crowded on the inside. It’s hard to find a place to sit, but we do. The baby and his mother sit right in front of us, but the baby is no longer interested in me. There’s too much else to look at, I guess.

I am simply overwhelmed. I can’t concentrate. There’s too much gold and jewels and people and inlaid marble. Mister Singh said maybe I could sit here for an hour and meditate, but even if I didn’t have my friends with me, I’m not sure I could meditate here. It’s just too much. I wave goodbye to my baby friend and his mother and we walk up the second set of stairs onto the roof. We look around a bit here and decide we’ve seen enough. We walk down the marble stairs and out past the man handing out Prasad. None of us take the offering.

We walk out and meet Susie and Sarah who have been patiently waiting for us back at the marble walkway. On the way out we pass the 400-year-old Beri tree that Mister Singh told me about. It’s a huge thing and who cares if it isn’t really 400 years old. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. It’s a good story. Baba Buddha, the first head priest of the Harmandir Sahib, sat under this tree while he supervised the construction of this temple that was first built 400 years ago, but has been razed three times only taking its present incarnation in the 1800s.

We get our sandals back and walk out into the streets. Susie buys some water and Katie and Sarah get lime sodas. I find a booth selling karas, the metal bracelets worn by Sikhs to remind them to do good works. This tradition, unlike the “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelet fad, is 400 years old. I buy a kara for ten rupees. I figure I can use a reminder myself.

I follow Sarah and Susie through the streets of Amritsar. We’re walking next to Jaliwanwagah Bagh, the site of a British massacre of Indians in 1919. The British killed over 300 unarmed Indians amid a climate of gathering political tensions and Sikh threats of self-rule. They wanted their gurudwaras back.

This site is only a few blocks from our hotel as well. We walk the gardens, look at the Indian Oil-sponsored eternal flame and read the short biographies of some of the freedom fighters featured with their portraits in the Hall of Martyrs. These are people who attempted or carried out political assassinations in the name of independence. The deeds are dark. These are not simply victims. They are murderers who believed they were killing in the name of justice. The Hall of Martyrs is a complicated place.

At the front gate I find a kitten. I’m attempting to approach it when Susie and Sarah go running off down the alley that leads back to the street. There is a parade complete with a marching band of sorts. There aren’t really any floats. It’s just people in trucks and people on foot with drums and horns. We walk off after the parade ends. I’m not sure where we’re going, but I’m following. Finally I stop and ask. What are we doing?

We’re trying to retrace the path the taxi took in the morning. We passed a restaurant called The Brothers and Susie and Sarah think we should go there for lunch. I try to tell them that the restaurant Mister Singh recommended was called Two Brothers, but they’re not interested. They want to find this place. We walk and walk and I lose track of where exactly we are when we emerge from a narrow road into a traffic circle that I remember from the morning drive. They’ve found it. The Brothers restaurant is just up the road from here. We actually catch back up with the parade in time to see people standing on rooftops throwing showers of flower petals.

The restaurant says it’s dhaba food—not synonymous with haute cuisine—but I guess it’ll do, especially since we don’t have a driver to take us to the destination of our choice, which would be Two Brothers.

We order thalis, platters of food that come with a variety of subzis and dals. It’s like its own mini-buffet. The food’s okay, but really oily. This is a chief complaint among the people at work: Indian food is oily. Now I know what they’re talking about.

We eat and split the bill. Outside we debate: should we walk back or hire a rickshaw to drive us? The rickshaws in Amritsar are larger than the ones in Delhi. The five of us could fit into one quite comfortably. We decide to take the rickshaw. The auto wallah will drive us back to our hotel for thirty rupees. I show him the business card that the manager gave us when we checked in, and he knows exactly where to go.

We have a few hours to kill before we go to the Wagaugh Border ceremony, the next thing on Mister Singh’s list of things for us to do in Amritsar. There’s apparently some kind of changing of the guard every night on the India/Pakistan border, which is just thirty kilometers from where we are. He said the car he hired would take us there.

I take a shower and we watch tv and take naps. Then there is a knock at the door. It’s the owner of the hotel, Mister Narander Singh. He tells us that Mister Diljit Singh has called three times today to make sure we arrived safely and to see that the car service is okay and we have everything we need. Mister Narander Singh would like to make sure we are having a good time. Is there anything we need? He tells us that the car will be ready to take us to the border at four o’clock, then he offers us each a Coke. He says we should eat dinner at Crystal. The car will take us there after the border ceremony. Then when we come back, we can go see the Golden Temple all lit up and night. He’ll go with us if we like.

Our driver reappears at four and is ready to drive us to the border. We drive through lush green farmland: wheat and rice crops. There’s also a park with go-carts and water slides and several “palaces,” giant halls for weddings and other parties.

We park in a lot that is three inches thick with fine dust. It clouds up under our feet as we walk toward the gate to the border crossing. Dozens of vendors are hawking freshly popped popcorn, sodas and water. We get to the gate and are turned back. We can’t bring any purses or bags in. We have to leave them in the car.

We make our way back through the dust bowl parking lot and stow our purses under the seats in our brown Vanagon, except I can’t leave my wallet or my passport unattended. I don’t have any pockets and I don’t want to hold it loose, so I shove my passport down my shirt to keep it safe. This is fine except that I also start sweating buckets and I can feel its pages curling. As long as it gets me through the security at the airport, it doesn’t matter what it looks like or where it’s been.

There is stadium seating around the wide gate that marks the border with Pakistan. The India side is packed full of revelers. The Pakistan side has about twenty people sitting there. We think this is because it’s Ramadan and the Muslims in Pakistan are all waiting to break their fast. That or they just aren’t interested in this little border ceremony at all.

There is a street party going on. A crowd of young people dance to Punjabi music, waving their hands in the air and jumping up and down. It’s a wonder they have the energy to move at all in this late afternoon heat. The dancing goes on until the ceremony begins, when the children are ushered back to their seats and a line of guards dressed like peacocks in flood pants stomps out in front of the small brick building at the front of the bleacher seating. There is am emcee with a microphone. He chants “Hindustan!” and the crowd yells something back. A line of men at the back of the bleachers waves a row of large Indian flags. “Hindustan!” chants the man in the pink shirt that is drenched in sweat. “Hindustan!”

Then there is something of a shouting contest. The man in the wet pink shirt holds the microphone to the mouth of the first guard who lets out a yell for as long as he can sustain it. During this, there is a horn that comes from the Pakistan side. The Indian man yells a bit longer than the Pakistani can sustain his horn note. This happens a second time and a third. The crowd cheers wildly. Little boys walk through the bleachers selling DVDs of the ceremony.

Suddenly, the yelling man snaps into action and does this crazy, straight-armed power walk towards the gate that marks the border. Halfway there, he stops and kicks himself in the head. The crowd cheers. He stomps hard with his feet a few times, then continues his power walk toward the gate. I feel like I’m at a zoo trying to decode some strange animal behavior. What does it mean when he kicks himself in the head? Is this a display of authority or just of flexibility? One things for sure, it is one of the oddest displays I’ve ever seen.

The whole line of guards takes turns yelling and power walking and kicking themselves in the head and stomping, the crowd cheering and yelling the whole time. Eventually, the gates are opened and a giant, exaggerated handshake takes place between the guards of both countries. Then the Indian and Pakistani flags are lowered simultaneously. Then the Indian guards close the gate and do their crazy power walk back to the little brick building.

When the ceremony ends, people flock to the guards to get their pictures taken with them. There are so many people around that we can’t even get out of the crowd for a while. We just have to stand and wait.

Soon there’s a path we can squeak through and we make our way back to the car through the three-inch-deep dust. I have chosen to wear black pants and I can see the dirt just caking onto them.

The driver is waiting for us at the car where our purses are all completely safe. I take my wet passport out of my shirt and stick it back in my bag.

There is a little bit of a breeze as we drive through the dusky night back past the farmlands and the wedding halls. We all concur: the ceremony was not what we expected. But what ever is expected in India? If it wasn’t a surprise, that would be a surprise in and of itself.

We eat dinner at Crystal, the place the hotel owner recommended. It’s really good food at reasonable prices. There are large paintings that look something like copies of Toulouse Lautrec works: close ups of slightly garish people in bars holding beers and ordering waitresses around. Katie, our resident artist, says they’re interesting. She says the people look so awkward and uncomfortable. She laughs and says she’s inspired; she’s going to do a whole series of awkward paintings. “But who will buy them?” Susie asks. They’ll have to be for a gallery show, Katie says.

The driver takes us back to the hotel and I pick up the tab for his services. It only costs about twenty US dollars for all the schlepping he did for us all day: picking us up at the airport and taking us to the border and dinner and back.

We have to settle the bill for the hotel tonight as well because we’re leaving at 4:30 in the morning and none of us are prepared to get up even earlier than that to mess around with payment.

This is where I expect our bait-and-switch. I expect to find out that we will be paying thousands of rupees instead of the hundreds that Mister Singh promised. But the manager on duty writes up our bills for 800 rupees. Actually, for the room with three beds, they charge 1,000 rupees, which is even cheaper when split three ways. I can’t believe we actually got this enormous discount. We’ve paid less than a third of the posed rates for our rooms.

Sarah has been sneezing like crazy since the ceremony at the border, and she decides to go upstairs to bed. The rest of us take a walk over to the Golden Temple to see it at night. We check our shoes and walk over to the langar to see the large scale cooking operation going on. It is crammed with people coming for their evening meal. The metal plates clank and clank as people come and go.

Now that the sun has gone down, the evening has a slight coolness to it. It’s a beautiful night outside. We walk through the footbath and up to the arch that leads to the Harmandir. We take a few more pictures and Susie says, “Ready to go?” But I’m not. I say I’d like to walk around the perimeter. It’s so nice outside and the place feels so peaceful. I’ll never be here again. I’d like to enjoy it. Susie says help myself. I can meet her back at the stairs. But Julianne says she’ll walk with me and this seems to change Susie’s mind. We walk the kilometer or so around the cool marble balustrade, stopping to talk to friendly Sikhs and their wives who wonder where we’re from and what we’re doing in India.

Back at the hotel, they ask if we want a wake up call. I didn’t count on this convenience, but am glad for the offer. We need to get up at four in the morning in order to catch our train, which leaves at five.

Just in case, we all set our cell phone alarms as back-ups, then fall quickly asleep in the soft beds with the thick, fuzzy, flowered blankets courtesy of Mister Singh. Our visit wouldn’t have been so easy, so smooth and so enjoyable without him.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Prayers and Baksheesh


I walk over to Shabnum’s desk and she has a site up on her computer monitor called Article Checker. It’s a Google service that lets you paste in a piece of writing, then it searches for content matches on the Internet. It’s basically a plagiarism checker. Just out of curiosity I try this with chapter six. It comes up with about a hundred different matches. Just when I thought I was done with chapter six, I find out there is a lot more work to be done. We have to flag all the copied content and send it back to the author to ask him to reword and revise.

Plagiarism is a common problem here. There isn’t the same kind of enforcement of intellectual property rights that exists in the United States. There is a whole market full of dubious DVDs that is affectionately known as “the pirate market,” and the stacks of books peddled in traffic, I’m sure, are unauthorized translations. There is a children’s movie in production right now called Hari Puttar—A Comedy of Terrors. Warner Brothers is suing the Indian producers who say they have no idea why. There is no copyright infringement going on.

Suffice it to say this is not the first time the office here has had to deal with such an issue. No one is shocked or surprised, though they are disappointed. It’s all part of the routine.

After lunch I take a walk with Shabnum and Jonaki and Preeta. Preeta says she’s going to go to the temple. The temple? I follow her. Just down the block from the nala vendors is a building that looks like a tiny version of Iskcon with orange and white spires rising out of it. This is a Sai mandir: a temple to Sai Baba. “You must have read about him,” Preeta says. Yes, I have. I checked him out online after a friend at Pearson told me a story about going to see Sai Baba at a crowded temple where he almost lost his shoes. Sai Baba is an Indian “saint” who is omnipresent, that is, he supposed to be able to appear in more than once place at the same time. But there is some confusion because there is more than one Sai Baba. There’s the one who this temple is to, who is deceased, then there’s the one my friend from Pearson actually saw, who has an afro and is still alive. He’s the one with the mystical powers of appearing all over the place.

Preeta tells me that this Sai Baba was all about unity. He believed in the universality of God and wanted to end the conflicts between Hindus and Muslims. She tells me that the shrine in this temple is open every Thursday. She used to come every week until she got too busy at work. The best Sai temple in Delhi, she says, is in Noida. It’s the biggest one.

We retrieve our shoes at the door under the big brass bell where we left them and walk the two short blocks back to the office. Of course there’s a temple near the office. I don’t think you can be more than a few blocks from a temple or at least a shrine in all of Delhi.

I leave work a little early today in order to go home, pack and pick up my friends on the way to the train station for our Amritsar trip. I am home by five o’clock and ready to go by five twenty. I call Susie and let her know that I’m running early. Is it okay if I hang out at her place for a while? She says sure. I shove the last of my essential belongings into my backpack and tell Mira downstairs I am headed to Amritsar until Sunday. “Come back Sunday,” she repeats. Yes. I think she understands me, but it’s hard to say.

As I’m walking to the car, Mira calls to me over the balcony. “Where going?” she asks me. I repeat, “Amritsar.” She begins talking as she does, in no language known to man. I make out only the words market, bomb and be careful. Was there another bombing? I thank Mira for her warning and walk out to my ride.

We hit such bad traffic that I am not early in getting to Susie’s house after all. I’m glad I allowed so much extra time. Susie opens the door and I expect to see people ready with their bags. Instead, her roommate and her friend, Katie, are lounging on her couch, watching a movie on her laptop. They barely move when I come in. It’s as though the room is filled with Jello and everything inside is happening in slow motion. I realize just how piqued I’ve been when I hit this vibe. Everyone is so relaxed. I am their opposite, not having slept well the night before because I was worried about packing and worried about the train ride, just having downed another shot of espresso before leaving the office. I expect them to spring into action, to grab their bags, to busy themselves with checking if their place is ready to leave behind for their trip, but they just sit. “Hey, Vicki,” Sarah says from her place on the couch. Are her eyes half closed or am I imagining that?

“Was there another bombing?” I ask Susie as I take off my shoes at the door.

“No,” she says, “At least, I haven’t heard anything,” but then she turns on the news. There has been a shootout in South Delhi, it says. Two suspected terrorists have been killed. One cop is also dead. The shootout lasted for several hours. Two suspects were also arrested, and four fled the scene and remain at large. This must have been what Mira was talking about. Bullets were flying in an apartment complex not far from where I stay. Defence Colony is in South Delhi. Anyway, the shootout is over and there seems to be calm in the city at the moment. I am glad nothing else has blown up since last week Saturday. It seems that we can proceed with our travel as planned.

Julianne is at a meeting just across the colony from Susie’s place. We have to pick her up on the way. We all pile in to the Indica and stop at an apartment where Susanna’s banana yellow car is parked. Julianne comes down bearing the bangles I forgot at her apartment when I slept over last week. Somehow we smash four people into the small backseat and head out toward Nizamuddin Station, which everyone tells me is pretty close to where I stay.

It may be close in distance, but it takes forever to get there. The streets are clogged with cars. We are in the evening rush hour. We are parked on a flyover (which is what they call overpasses here) for over an hour. Even though I set out from my office at four thirty, I begin to wonder if we’ll make it to the train station by eight fifteen when our train is scheduled to depart.

Julianne wants to say a prayer for our trip. We bow our heads and she asks God to keep us safe and thanks him for the time we’ll spend together. She asks that the situation with our seating works out too. She is so sweet to be thinking of me in her prayer. Susie bought the tickets for herself and Katie and Julianne and Sarah. I bought my tickets on my own, so the seats are not together. I will have to sit by myself on the train rides unless we can get someone to switch tickets with me. This prospect has been stressing me out, especially since I hear stories of the trains not being the safest place in India. Pickpockets and thieves find trains lucrative from what I hear. They’ll even poison you to get you to pass out so you’re easier to steal from. Then you wake up having missed your stop without your money or you cell phone. Amar told me this happened to a friend of his. He only got home again because he knew the porters on the train and they allowed him to ride for free and pay when he returned. Suffice it to say I would prefer not to be alone on the train, especially on the overnight ride up to Amritsar. This is another reason I didn’t sleep well last night.

We finally arrive at the train station just about twenty minutes before we are scheduled to depart. I’ve already spent over three hours in traffic just to prove that travel in India is always difficult.

We ascend a concrete staircase that leads to the platforms where the trains take off. There are stray dogs trotting all over. Men with suitcases on their heads weave through the other pedestrians. Down the stairs to another platform, a sea of women sits on the ground forming a rainbow of saris. It looks like a painting.

Nowhere are there signs saying which trains depart from which platforms, and we can’t find any attendants either. I am so glad I didn’t just try to meet my friends here as Susie suggested. There are no landmarks, there is no visible organization to the place: just people walking in all directions and a bunch of staircases leading to platforms without signage.

Sarah, Susie’s roommate, goes off to ask some guards in an office where we can find the 8:15 Chattisgarh Express. While she’s away, Susie asks another man who looks at our tickets and simply tells us the train isn’t here yet. An announcement comes on in half Hindi, half English. I hear the words “Chattisgarh Express” and “delayed twenty minutes.” There is a long list of trains and I keep hearing the words repeated, “delayed one hour… delayed one hour.”

“Did you hear that?” I ask Susie, but she wasn’t listening. Sarah returns and leads us past the sea of saris up the stairs again to where the dogs are running around. We walk down the opposite side and wait on a different platform. There is no train here, but Sarah seems assured that this is the place. A rat plays with some paper thrown onto the tracks. A man walks by selling small travel pillows. We stand in a circle and talk about movies. Katie and Susie used to watch a lot of movies in Hong Kong when they were teaching there together because there was nothing much to do in the evenings when they first arrived. They throw out quotes from Meet the Parents and talk about tv series they like: Bones and The Office and a crime drama I don’t recognize.

It doesn’t feel that hot outside, but somehow my hair and back are wet with sweat. “It’s humid,” Julianne says. I guess it is. I feel so gross and know I won’t get a chance to shower until tomorrow since we’re taking an overnight train. Whatever condition I am in now is how I’ll have to spend the night. Eew.

The blue striped train pulls up almost on time. We find our car and enter. It is dirty. It’s been on a trip before us and no one has cleaned it out yet. There are food trays left behind and garbage on the floor. There is a funky smell like rotten celery. I follow my friends to the seats they have and sit down with them even though my seat is several rows away. The seats are blue plastic benches. The car we’re in has an upper bunk and a lower bunk, though other cars in the train have bunks that are three layers deep. This one is supposed to be nicer. We’ve paid extra.

We sit and sit and nothing happens. The train doesn’t move from it’s spot. A porter comes by and leaves pillows and sheets in brown paper bags for each of us. Another man comes by and asks if we’d like to order food. Isn’t it included with the ticket? No. We have to pay extra if we want to eat. Forty rupees. Since it’s an overnight train and I’ve been travelling since forth thirty, I have to order something to eat, otherwise my dinner will be the cereal bar and crackers I packed from home and that doesn’t sound too substantial. I order a vegetarian dinner and everyone else orders the “non-veg.”

It seems stuffy on the train. It feels closed in and dark. I try not to think about the fact that we’re locked into this little compartment until eight o’clock in the morning. I try not to get claustrophobic.

“Is the a/c on?” I ask.

No one can tell. “I can turn on the fan,” Susie says, and she hits a switch that I didn’t notice. Thank God. Moving air. I am rescued from the vague panic I felt creeping up on me. The train feels less like a coffin and more like public transportation.

We talk about my going home. Will Scott pick me up at the airport? Yes. I’ve seen the scene about a million times in my head. I jump into his arms and we kiss. He squeezes me so hard all the air comes out of me. An American Airlines employee yells at me for leaving my baggage unattended because I’ve dropped it all and ran as soon as I saw Scott. I see the scene once more.

We talk about snow. Susie remembers the one blizzard they had in North Carolina. A news crew came out and filmed her and her cousins playing in the foot of snow that accumulated on their street. We had so much snow last winter. I tell my friends about our driveway which is on a slant, so at the least bit of snow or ice, I have to slide up it sideways and shovel before I can get my car into our garage. I had to do that, like, once a week this past winter there was so much snow and ice. I hope the coming winter isn’t like the last one which never seemed to leave either. It didn’t really warm up until July, until I was leaving for India.

Now that I can breath okay, I’m resigned to just sitting in the train and not going anywhere. An hour and a half passes as we sit and talk. Finally, there are a few clanks and chugs and we begin to move, an hour and a half behind schedule. Amar once told me about a train trip from Assam that took him forty eight hours because once you’re running late on a train, he says, they de-prioritize you and make you wait at all the switches. So if you’re late, you’re really late. Sarah tells a similar story. She spent two days on a train once too, only it was in a lower class car so there were beggars all around and garbage and it was filthy. At least they have picked up the garbage on our train. At least there are no beggars here right now.

The porter comes by and we have to show him our tickets. Sarah asks if I can sit with them. He agrees. I can sit in the benches with my friends and when I sleep, I can use the top bunk right across the aisle, bunk 30. I don’t have to sleep in a shared compartment with strangers. I have a little bunk separated from the rest of the car by its own curtain. Julianne’s prayer comes through, or I get lucky, or both. Whatever the case, I am relieved.

They bring our dinners on little plastic trays. Mine is all smeared with white goo from a smashed contained of rice pudding that has leaked all over everything. I eat the smashed container of damp rice, then peal back the aluminum cover of a small rectangular tray. Inside are some wet potatoes. I eat some of these with a miniature plastic spoon. There is a second container full of yellow liquid and two long, skinny, red chilies. I try the yellow liquid. It tastes like bile. I leave it alone and try to eat a few more potato bits. Much like my haircut at Verma’s, even though I’m spending only about a dollar, I still feel ripped off when the porter comes to collect the payment.

I have to go to the bathroom before bed. I hula dance in the swaying aisle off to the front of the car where there is a western style bathroom and an eastern style bathroom (read: hole in the floor that leads right down to the railroad tracks beneath us). Susie says the eastern style one is better, it’s cleaner, but I still choose the western style. I don’t know why because I attempt to stand the whole time without touching the toilet anyway. The seat just makes this harder to do. Standing up and swaying like this makes me a little motion sick and I have to steady myself once I get back to my seat.

After dinner we talk a bit more. Susie mentions something about not oversleeping. We may miss our stop. Don’t they announce the stops? No. They just stop and you have to know when to get off. How will we know when we’re in Amritsar? I ask. We’ll just have to ask a porter or someone else who knows. I picture us all ending up in Pakistan with no way back.

Sarah gets out her book and starts reading. Katie climbs up into her bunk with her book. I say goodnight and crawl across the aisle up the ladder into my bunk by myself. It runs the length of the train instead of going width-wise and it seems narrower. But I’m happy for it; happy not to be in a cabin with the strange snoring man across the way; happy to be able to draw the curtain and be separated, at least by fabric, from the rest of the people on the train. I leave my curtain open for a while so I can read by the light in the aisle. I read about Babur, a Mughal emperor who took his father’s crown at the age of 12. I read about thirty pages then my eyes start glazing over. I put my book into my backpack, which is at my feet, then curl up around my purse so no one can steal it without waking me up. But they wouldn’t have to wake me up because I can’t fall asleep. I face the wall, then I face the curtain. Then I try putting my feet on top of my backpack, then under it, then I hang them off the side of the bunk. I stare at the curtain, then the wall, all the while listening to the two snoring men in our car. At one point, I remember I need to take my medication. I sit up as much as I can in the bunk and take my liter of water and pills from my backpack. As I’m doing this, a man in a turban lifts the curtain and peers in at me. “Hello?” I say and he drops the curtain and shuffles off. All night people shuffle past, I presume on their way to the bathrooms at either end of the car, or maybe they’re just looking for wallets and purses to rifle though. Who knows?

I think I finally get an hour or two of sleep towards the morning because when Susie lifts my curtain I’m kind of out-of-it. “We’ll be in Amritsar in about half an hour,” she tells me. How does she know? Susie just has a way of finding these things out.

I grab my backpack and slide out of the bunk so I can sit across the aisle on the benches with my friends. How did everyone sleep? It seems that everyone but me slept well. Perhaps they trusted Julianne’s prayer more than I did even though it seemed to do the trick for me. All of my belongings are in tact and I got to stay close to my friends so that we didn’t get separated. Or was this just luck?

Either way, we pull into the Amritsar station together, just an hour after the time we were scheduled to arrive. Susie pays off the porter. She apparently bribed him to tell us when we’d be reaching our destination. What prayer can’t take care of, a few rupees can.