Sunday, September 14, 2008

Am I Yesterday?


I finally finish chapter five of the finance book. Shabnum sent off chapter three to the author for his approval and gently mentioned the fact that we’re having to reformat all his tables, so it’s taking longer than expected. We believe this may have ruffled his feathers because he sent back a terse note saying to pay closer attention to the new chapter he’s sending. It’s an important one. This author/editor tension is so constant it’s almost a parody of itself. It’s always hard to criticize someone’s baby.

I’ve been looking forward to today because after work we’re going to the Italo Calvino reading put on by the First City Theatre Group. They’re the same group who did the reading I went to with Jonaki two weeks ago. They stage a free reading every two weeks. They make it look easy, but there’s a lot of work that goes into selecting the pieces, making sure they flow, getting the timing right, etc.

We’re standing around talking at about five thirty and Sukanya the intern with the big eyes hears that we’re going. Can she come too? She knows Momo, one of the guys reading. Why not? There’s room in the car. Now we just have to ask Amar if it’s okay if we leave a little early. We decide Sukanya should do it. We follow her over to Amar’s office, Jonaki and Shabnum and I, and we all stand there waiting for her to say something. She doesn’t. So we’re all just standing there in Amar’s office. I feel ridiculous and begin to laugh. Then Jonaki laughs. Then I laugh harder. Amar looks at us expectantly then says, “You are all going somewhere? Then go!”

By the time we actually leave the office, it’s just about six o’clock anyway, so no need for the conga line anyway.

We get stopped by some of Delhi’s famous ten-minute red lights. At one of these, a masculine-looking person sits in the median wearing a purple flowing dupata and kurta. Shabnum sees him and says she’s been seeing so many hijra lately. One touched her on the head the other day when she was stopped in traffic and she got so bothered that she didn’t give him anything.

A hijra is not to be confused with the Joni Mitchell album Heijira. A hijra is a person born with male and female sex characteristics. Or sometimes, they are just cross-dressers: men who feel a need to live as women. In India, these children are given away to and raised in a very hierarchical subculture wherein there are gurus and servants. The hijra consider themselves able to give blessings and will show up at auspicious events, especially weddings, in crowds. There they will dance and sing and demand money for their service. If you don’t pay the hijras a considerable enough amount of money, they will grow belligerent and curse you. No one wants to be cursed by a hijra.

When Shabnum got accosted the other day, she refused to give money. The hijra said, “Aren’t you afraid of being cursed by a hijra?” And Shabnum just said, “No.”

Which leads me to a new ad campaign that is springing up everywhere across the city that seems to be zeroing in on a “new” kind of Indian. It’s for a periodical, Mail Today. The billboards have messages on them like, “I’m not fair, but I’m lovely. I’m not yesterday.” There’s another one that features an Indian man flipping a pancake and wearing an apron that says, “Supermom.” It says, “I’m not just Daddy. I’m not yesterday.” India is changing. Even the billboards say so.

The idea that a man can do domestic work here is new. It reminds me of the 1980s in America. Wasn’t there a movie starring Michael Keaton called Supermom?

So too with the idea that someone with dark skin is as beautiful as his or her fair-skinned counterpart. Didn’t we have a “black is beautiful” movement in the United States in the seventies?

Everyone knows these changes don’t happen uniformly or overnight, but it’s nice to see them coming, even if just in billboard form. Billboards must mean someone thinks there’s a market for this kind of thinking.

Of course, in India, the people who live under these billboards in the road probably can’t even read them. What I’m saying is that these changes are only for the middle class, and, even then, probably only a portion of it. Tradition holds strong sway here. It is hard to break with the past. It is hard not to be yesterday when you’re being cursed by a hijra or when your mother and father want you to marry someone you didn’t choose. I wonder how “yesterday” I would be if I grew up here. It’s easy to say that I’d insist on a man who respected me as an equal and who took equal responsibility in taking care of the house, but how tall an order is that? How long would I be willing to wait? Would I be strong enough to be alone if I never met this man? Or would I cave in? Settle? Compromise? After all my friends had gotten married? After I passed the age when marriages traditionally happen? It’s hard to say how strong I would be if I were raised here, if I were under the pressures that Indian women face to marry and have children—scratch that—boy children. I want to think I’d be a pioneer, I’d insist on the respect I know I deserve, but it’s not so easy here. Nothing is so easy in India.

Past the hijra and the billboards, past the Jumna and the concrete jungle of Patparganj, we arrive at Connaught Place. Jonaki puts Palminder’s number in her cell phone so she can call him later when I need him to go home. Jonaki, Shabnum and Sukanya will be taking an auto back to Patparganj.

Sukanya says she knows Momo from school. She used to do a lot of student films. She actually auditioned for Wes Anderson’s Darjeeling Limited when they filmed it here. She is glad she didn’t make it in, she says. It was so bad. I agree. The film was a disappointment.

Palminder pulls over near the McDonald’s where he dropped us off last time. We find The Attic where the reading is taking place with little searching and open the thick, wooden door. This time we’re early. Sukanya says hello to Momo, who blows her off a little. This will become a great point of ribbing in the ensuing evening.

The reading is good. There is a story about a man who cares for an office plant by taking it outside into the rain. The office plant grows into a giant tree, then loses all its leaves, even the last one, which turns a rainbow of colors before it flies away. It’s a story of nurturing and loss.

There is another story about a husband and wife who work opposite shifts and so only see each other for a few minutes each day. They find intimacy by sleeping in the warmth the other has left in the bed. This story, this aching for love in love’s absence almost makes me cry.

The last story has one of those unreliable narrators. It’s creepy. It’s about a guy who lives apart from society after killing a woman, though he doesn’t say as much. He says the dogs just dig at that place in his backyard because of the moles. But I don’t believe him.

The evening is a crisp hour long. It flies by. Afterwards, we congratulate the readers. They remember me, saying, “Thanks for coming back.” I think I’m easy to remember in these parts.

Shabnum’s fiancée has joined us, and he leads us underground and around a string of shops to a South Indian restaurant where Shabnum recommends I try the mini tiffin: it’s a bunch of different South Indian food in small portions. There is a little dosa, baby-sized idlis, even a helping of a bright orange sweet that tastes something like rice pudding. The dosa is served on top of a bright green banana leaf: a South Indian tradition.

The reading was a great time, as was dinner. We walk out into the muggy evening and Jonaki fishes out her cell phone. There are two missed calls, both from Palminder. I don’t understand why he’d be calling. I’ve only kept him two hours over his normal time and Ms. Sonu tells me that’s fine. Maybe I need to call her back and check on this again. Maybe there is some sort of problem with keeping him later than scheduled. Once again, I feel guilty for having gone out. I wonder why he was calling Jonaki.

Shabnum’s fiancée tells me I should request another driver if this one gives me trouble, but there’s always the chance that I get someone even worse.

Palminder shows up in a few short minutes and we speed off towards home, arriving in record time.

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