Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Baskets of Bread


I’m waiting at a bathroom stall. I’m the next in line, but it seems to be taking forever. There is a long cue of women behind me. I decide to use the toilet that is not inside the stall because I can’t wait any more.

I sit down to go when a large lizard swaggers its way up to me. It has huge googly eyes that look like they’re made of plastic. I get scared but I can’t run away. A woman tells me it’s okay. He won’t hurt me. Just then, he opens his mouth to reveal a huge gaping maw like a crocodile’s. He snaps his mouth shut with such force that I feel the ensuing wind. The second time he opens his mouth, he’s going for my arm. I’m sure he can snap it right off. He begins to clamp down with lightning speed when I wake up swallowing a huge gulp of air.

I’m in bed. The googly-eyed crocodile lizard is nowhere to be found. I look at the clock but since it doesn’t light up, I can’t see what time it is. I turn on the light. I need to know what time it is because today is the day I’m going to the gurudwara with Mister Kandhari and Mister Singh. I need to get up at five o’clock to go with them. My clock says 12:01 but for some reason I wonder if it’s wigged out again. I get up and check my cell phone, which says the same time. I have five more hours to sleep. I close my eyes and drift off.

The phone rings. I look at my clock again. It’s 5:15. “Are you awake?” It’s Mister Kandhari with a friendly wake up call. I lie a little, telling him I’m up. Thankfully, I picked out my clothes and got everything ready the night before. All I have to do is get dressed and grab my purse. I’m out the door in less than fifteen minutes, walking through the drizzle to Mister Kandhari’s house.

As I approach Mister Kandhari’s gate, I see him sitting by his wicker garden table under the awning of his house. “Come in! Come in!” he says. “I have made you some tea.” He lifts a metal lid to reveal three tall, thin white mugs. I am so pleasantly surprised. It is the good kind of tea, not too sweet, spiced with ginger. I sit out of the rain and sip. There is also a tin full of five different kinds of sweets. Mister Kandhari recommends the biscotti, so I have one.

Mister Singh arrives just a few minutes after me and takes the third mug. He wonders if I’ve tried the biscotti. Yes. It was good.

They drink their tea in seconds flat, and I am still sipping. There is not a lot of time. We have to go. I take a few gulps and catch up to the men. We get in one of Mister Kandhari’s cars and drive a few blocks. We are picking up Poonam, the woman I met at Mister Singh’s house the other night at dinner. She is standing in the rain in front of her house.

“I was waiting and waiting,” she croons after she climbs into the car. We drive past India Gate which is still lit up against the purplish dawn. Mister Singh tells me some of the history of the Bangla Sahib gurudwara. It is one of the largest in Delhi. The gurudwara is built on the site of a house where Guru Harkishen Dev, the eighth guru of the Sikhs, had stayed when he visited Delhi in 1664. The tank, which you can still see in the compound was blessed by the Guru and is said to cure people of small pox and cholera. The tank’s water is changed completely every few days, and people volunteer to clean it. The entire site is maintained by volunteer labor. Mister Singh is a fountain of information and very generous in sharing it with me. Mister Kandhari fiddles with his car stereo and puts on some music. Mister Singh tells me they’ll be playing the morning raga when we get to the temple. I’ll be able to listen to it. He passes an orange scarf back to me which I tie over my head to cover it so I’m ready to enter when we get there. He tells me when I go to Armritsar I must also bring something with me to cover my head, and be sure to wear long pants that cover my legs. Poonam says what I’m wearing would be a fine outfit in which to visit the Golden Temple.

We pull into the dirt parking lot behind a large white building with golden domes reaching up into the inky sky. There are tent-like canopies surrounding the building so it’s hard to get a good picture. Poonam says we should leave our shoes in the car, but Mister Singh says it’s okay to leave them on for now. We’ll check them at the stand inside.

The rain is thankfully tapering off. I was afraid it would pour on me; I didn’t bring my umbrella. We walk through the parking lot and onto a white marble walkway. At each set of stairs that leads up into the temple, there is a two-inch deep, square pool of water. This is so no one can enter without washing their feet. The first pool we see is a little muddy. I wonder how clean my feet will be after I “wash” them in this way.

We check our shoes and walk into the line to get inside the temple. I can hear the raga being sung and drums being played. There are a lot of people here cueing up along the metal railings running the length of the stairs for crowd control, but the line moves quickly, not like at Kalkaji Mandir. Aside from the muddy footbath, the place is spotless, courtesy of the volunteers who sweep and clean constantly.

People bow down at the entryway and touch the stairs, then their foreheads. Mister Singh explains this is to benefit from the qualities of the pious people who have walked on these steps.

Inside there is a golden shrine that I can’t get very close to because of the crowd. Offerings of food, prashad, are placed in the shrine, and the clean tones of the raga ring out. Poonam, in her aqua green sari, walks away from us, sitting down on the floor on the far side of the shrine to hear the raga play.

Mister Singh and I sit cross-legged on the plush, flowered carpeting. He says they change the carpet every six months to keep it clean, and it’s all done with donations.

We don’t sit for long. There is work to do downstairs for the free breakfast. We rise, me much faster than the aging Mister Singh, and walk to the exit past a glass room where an enormous copy of the Guru Granth Sahib is kept when it is not on display in the main shrine.

Poonam stays behind as we walk outside and down the stairs to a covered area where the food is prepared. Heaping piles of vegetables lay on enormous metal surfaces. Mister Singh points to a large metal apparatus. It’s a chapatti machine for making the flat bread North Indians eat with most every meal. Women sit cross-legged and roll out little balls of dough. Pots you could cook a human in line the wall. They are full of dal. Four long narrow rows of grass mats provide the seating that people are beginning to fill. At a table full of baskets and bread stands Mister Kandhari. He has been down here since we arrived. He asks if I’d like to help. Certainly. He gives me a basket lined with leaves the size of garbage can lid. It is full of sliced white bread. He shows me what to do. Walk up and down the rows holding out three or four slices of bread at a time for each person. They will hold their hands out and I just need to place the bread into them. Okay? Can I do it? I think so.

Not everyone wants three or four slices of white bread. Some people hold up two fingers, or one. Some wobble their heads and smile or hold up their hands to indicate they don’t want any. I walk up and down waiting for a response from each person. Some appear to be in fine condition. Others appear to be in greater need. One man takes his bread with four oozing bandaged fingers. A few boys in blue jeans flirt with me. “Madam, where you are from?” they want to know.

I return to the table for a bread refill. Mister Kandhari hustles, busting open the packages and stacking them into my basket. Mister Singh is passing out chapattis. Another man has a giant kettle of milky tea and little plastic cups. Yet another man comes around with ladles of dal.

I walk up and down the rows with my magic, always refilling basket, giving people as much bread as they want. It feels great. Even though it hurt to get up at five this morning, I don’t feel tired now. I just feel busy. I just feel helpful. I fill up my basket and fill up my basket again. My arm is starting to hurt from holding it at an odd angle for such a long time, but it’s nothing too much to deal with. I think I could keep going for another couple of hours. The people keep coming. Hundreds of them. Men, women, families with children, all sitting on the narrow grass mats, reaching for bread with which to mop up their dal. As good as I feel, it’s hard for me to imagine doing this every morning for twelve years running, which is Mister Kandhari’s track record. The man is impressive.

Now a whole other crew works to clean the dirty metal dishes as they stack up by dozens. I return for another basket refill but Mister Kandhari says it’s time to go, but first, they’ll take some pictures of me if I’d like. He gives my camera to Mister Singh and refills my basket with bread. He wants me to pose with the people I’ve passed my bread out to. I feel a little fakey, but figure I’ll play along. Mister Singh takes my picture a few different times and it comes out looking awfully cute. Who knew an orange handkerchief could be so flattering?

Even though it appears that the meal is still in progress, we are ready to leave. Mister Singh takes me upstairs into the temple again. We need to look for Poonam and, he tells me, I can take pictures inside. Are you sure? Yes. It’s fine. We walk over the lush carpet once more, but there is no sign of the aqua green sari. Poonam is nowhere in sight. On the way out of the temple, people are holding out their hands and getting a little brown chunk of something. I hold out my hand and a man puts some glop in it. I notice people seem to be eating this glop. I’m not sure if I should. I hold the glop nonchalantly hoping for a discrete way to dispose of it. The place is so clean it would be crazy to try to drop it on the ground. A crew of volunteers would flock to the site with baskets and brooms and I’d definitely be caught. Mister Singh walks down to a railing overlooking a construction project. “You can take a picture. These people are all volunteer labor. They are building parking garage.” People walk with large bowls on their heads and move earth. More importantly, there are two trash cans by the railing where I quickly dispose of my brown goo as I reach for my camera. I know the goo is probably something holy. What I’ve done is probably akin to spitting out a communion wafer. In retrospect, I should have just eaten it, but at the time, it seemed like a bad idea. Maybe if there wasn’t so much goo… Maybe if it had been a smaller glop…

Mister Singh says we should go get our shoes. At the shoe check, we discover Poonam has already picked hers up. She must be waiting for us at the car.

It’s fully light outside now, but it’s still just seven thirty in the morning. We find Mister Kandhari and Poonam and drive away. “Well, how did you like?” Mister Kandhari asks.

“It was beautiful,” I say.

We need to drop off Mister Singh. He’s going to Lodi Gardens. Would I like to go with him to see? It’s the biggest garden in Delhi. Truthfully, I would love to see Lodi Gardens, but my friends are coming to pick me up to go to church, so I’ve got to be home by quarter after nine.

Mister Singh gets out on the side of the road and we pull away. Mister Kandhari says he’s going to stop at a garden on the way home. It won’t take long. It’s the place where he gets all his bonsai gardening supplies. It’s a huge place. People come here from Mumbai to get plants. It won’t take long. It will be a new experience for me.

Everything is in India.

He drives over the Jumna River and turns left onto an unfamiliar highway, then he turns over a curb and off the highway altogether. The car bounces along a narrow dirt path with random bricks in it. I think he may be taking me somewhere to dump my body, but he’d also have to take Poonam, unless she’s in on the murder ring. I could see her cheering him on. She’s so encouraging.

Then I realize the fields on either side of us look cultivated. It is a garden center after all. And it is huge. We drive with the fields on either side of us for a good half mile before Mister Kandhari stops the car at a shack. A snarling German shepherd with one floppy ear is chained to a post. A man comes out and holds the dog back so we can pass. Mister Kandhari talks to the man and considers the bonsai trees. Poonam sits down. Her knees are bothering her. She wants to know how old I am. 34. She is twice my age, she tells me. She is 68.

Mister Kandhari is done picking out his tiny trees. Now he digs through a pile of rocks, considering each one. He also buys two stone slabs that he will use as the base of his mini-garden.

Two men in dirty clothes carry the plants and rocks to the trunk. Mister Kandhari has to rearrange all the stuff from the gurudwara. He has giant metal pots and leftover roti packaged in aluminum foil. He gives a pack of roti to the men who somehow fit his purchases into the trunk, and we are off. It’s almost eight thirty now and Mister Kandhari is concerned about getting me back in time.

The car sideswipes a giant concrete post that is concealed in thick greenery. It runs across the whole length of the passenger side, making a grinding noise. His side view mirror is gone. This is a bad accident. But he doesn’t even stop. “We will get you home on time. When I say I will do something, I will do,” he says.

Poonam has been speaking to him in Hindi. He translates for me. She wants to be dropped off in the opposite direction, but he tells her he can only take her as far as the stoplight. She should be able to catch an auto from there. He once again pulls over to the side of the road and drops off another friend.

I feel so bad about his car and about not having time to take Poonam and her bad knees to where she needs to be. If I had Julianne’s number with me, I would just call and cancel, but I don’t, so I can’t. I need to be back on time, and I am.

Getting out of Mister Kandhari’s car, I can assess the damage. The trim is gone and there are streaks of dents along the length of his entire car. He seems unconcerned, much more concerned with the fact that he’s kept his promise and gotten me home on time.

He wants me to come see a movie tonight at his friend’s house. They’re showing Singh is King, the movie that was so popular when I first arrived here with the theme song that was inescapable. It played everywhere I went. Three times a day in the cab, when I walked into McDonald’s, everywhere, all the time. I would love to see the film, but I have to finish the monologue I’ve been invited to write for the Let My Country Awake event. I tell Mister Kandhari that I might be able to come, but I’m not sure. We shake hands and I run out, hoping for enough time to Skype with Scott and grab a quick bite before church.

I do get to say “hello” to Scott, and I’m downstairs scarfing some cornflakes when Julianne arrives apologizing for being late. It’s no problem, I tell her. I’m a little off my schedule today too. The real shame here is that Kim had real coffee at breakfast and she offered me a cup that I again find myself gulping down instead of enjoying. It’s not frequent that I get to enjoy real coffee with breakfast. She offered it to me that way, too. “I have some real coffee if you’d like some.”

Church is abysmal after my adrenaline-filled morning. We sit next to a man with atomic body odor, and the regular pastor is too sick to give the sermon. It’s the repetitive man again, who talks about walking with God because it’s good to walk with God and just what does walking with God mean? It means walking with him. I fight to keep my eyes open, then give in to the need to close them. When will the man yield the floor? We are all at his mercy until he does.

We finally hear our last about walking with God, and church concludes with an instrumental song. We mill around talking with people, then Suzanna, Julianne’s roommate, says she’s going to the Hong Kong restaurant if anyone wants to go with. I take her up on the invitation, as does this woman Rhonda, and Julianne. She drives us all there in her little banana yellow car. Then she drives us each home.

At home, I finish my monologue in a few hours. I am able to recycle some old blog entries and repurpose them, so it’s not like I’m starting from zero. I finish with plenty of time to join my neighbors for the movie, but I feel strange about the invitation. It’s at Mister Singh’s house, but Mister Kandhari invited me. I walk over to Mister Kandhari’s, but his staff tells me he’s not home. I decide I shouldn’t crash the party at Mister Singh’s house and instead walk to the market where I pick up a few take-out menus and buy a foot file. I haven’t been able to get my feet clean after my visit to the gurudwara, so I figure I’ll just file the dirt off. It wasn’t the gurudwara where my feet got dirty. The building itself was spotless, as were the walkways around it. It was the dirt path to the area where we served the food that did it.

Back in my room, I spend some time on Skype with my parents and order delivery from a new fast food place I found in the market: Kents. I can get a veggie burger and aloo tikka (little potato patties) here for cheaper than I can get McDelivery. And at Kents, I can order something called a Rose Milk Soda, which sounds compelling, and is. I think it has real rose petals in it. All this delivered to my door in about fifteen minutes costs less than three dollars.

1 comment:

It's me mom said...

Can you post your picture with the bread basket and the orange handkerchief?