Monday, September 1, 2008

A Classic


I wake up on Julianne’s couch at eight o’clock. Julianne wakes up at eight thirty, gets dressed and walks down to the road with me to help corral an auto-rickshaw. I could call my driver, but I only get him for eight hours on Saturday and I’m planning on being out late tonight with the people from work.

It’s always an adventure taking an auto. They never know where C-83 Defence Colony is, so they typically have to pull over and keep asking guards outside different buildings until they actually get the right directions from someone.

This time, as we near the guest house, I recognize the drain. It’s a big ditch with walls on both sides that runs the length of the road that leads to C-83 if you come in the back way. I’m able to direct my auto wallah down the block past the misleading address signs to the place we need to turn to find the Ahuja Residency. He seems to disbelieve me. I doubt myself as well at first, but tell him, “Straight. Ceda.” He eventually listens to me and drives all the way to the end of the street before turning left. We arrive with no problem. I even have thirty rupees change to pay him.

I confess to hoping that someone at the guest house would have cared that I didn’t come home last night, so when no one bats an eyelash as I walk in, I get a little alarmed. I feel a little alone. If I had disappeared, if I had been kidnapped, no one would be looking for me. It’s a frightening feeling.

Back at home, I have plenty of time to set up my computer and eat breakfast before my Skype appointment with Scott. I find Marie out on the veranda. She asks me to join her and even pours me a drink from her teapot. “I hate waiting for tea in the morning,” she says.

She tells me about an old, restored fort that you can stay in. It’s half way between here and Jaipur. It was purchased and renovated by a Frenchman who came here with his wife and family, then fell in love with India, then fell in love with an Indian boy, then sent his family back to France without him. The fort is no luxury experience, she tells me. There are no phones and no tv, and some of the bathrooms are still outdoors, but it is amazingly decorated with local handicrafts. I think I’ve had enough of the unplugged experience, but I act interested anyway. She seems so excited about the place.

She likes the kurta I have on today. Where did I get it?

Lajput, I tell her. She widens her eyes. That place. She can’t find anything there. It’s too much. Even though she’s lived here, she says, she can’t find her way around Lajput. It makes me wonder what some of the other markets I haven’t been to yet are like. Are they better? Lajput is certainly a zoo.

I tell her I had a friend show me where to shop when I went there. I didn’t tell her my friend has only been here for six months and seemed to know the place inside and out. This amazing fact I keep to myself. Go Julianne!

Marie with her smile and her diamond stud nose ring and her Indian husband says I’m lucky to be here at this time of year. The weather is only going to get better. I’ll be able to eat breakfast on the veranda and sit out evenings on the balcony. I’ll be sad to leave, she says. I think she is projecting. “I have to go back to cold London,” she says. She takes off after dinner at 2 a.m.

I’ll be waiting for the weather to improve. The last forecast I saw predicted highs near 100 for the next seven days.

Upstairs, I finish Friday’s blog entry and complete a paint-by-numbers puzzle that Scott created and sent to me. He also sent me a little portable watercolor set as something to occupy my time in moments just like this.

When I’m done with the puzzle, I walk to the market. I’m not so much hungry as bored. I go to Sagar and order an uttapam and eat the whole thing. When I’m done, I decide to try out the Baskin Robbins. I just want a single serving of ice cream, but the woman sells me a 190 rupee container of Jamocha Almond Fudge. That’s four dollars worth of ice cream. It feels exorbitant, especially since my whole lunch just cost less than that.

She packs the ice cream into the little plastic container and covers it with tinfoil. On my way out of the market, I see Palminder standing around in his grey shirt and grey pants in front of Colonel Kabab’s. I’m a little overly excited to see someone I know in the market.

“Palminder!” I exclaim. He looks slightly embarrassed. I tell him hello and I think I’ll be needing him around four o’clock.

I walk home with my ice cream, resisting my urge to stop and pet the dogs who wag their tails at me.

As I walk up the stairs, Mira stops me. She is speaking English but I only understand when she says, “Jonaki.” Jonaki must have called while I was out. I call her back and she says I can meet her at four o’clock at the British Consulate Library. We can meet Shabnum for shopping after that.

I call Palminder and ask him to pick me up at three thirty. He obliges. We have a hard time finding the British Consulate building. He has to stop and ask directions three times. At one point, Jonaki calls his cell phone to see if she can help him find the place. We finally pull up to a large grey building with black stripes snaking up the façade. There are guard posts outside. Jonaki stands in front of them.

She laughs about calling Palminder. “I think he is like my reluctant cousin,” she says. She has had many communications with the poor man between our adventurous trip to the Himalayas, our outing to the reading last week, and now today.

We make our way through the security check, getting searched with a wand and putting our bags through an x-ray machine.

The library is up a flight of stairs. It is one half of one floor of this large building. We browse for a bit, then Jonaki decides to check if they have any Calvino, the author that the theatre group is reading next. They don’t. I wish I could loan her my books. “I’m going to send you some Calvino when I get home,” I tell her. I take it for granted that I can get any book that occurs to me that I want. If there’s an author I want to read, I can do it. But not here. The books in this library are mostly British, and understandably so. It is the British Consulate Library. Even then, it’s a collection of limited size that you have to pay to access. Even then, the number of books you can check out is restricted. No dragging out laundry baskets full, like I am apt to do when I’m really researching something. If you have the more expensive family membership, you can check out eight books at a time. A single membership has a lower limit.

Jonaki chooses about seven books, and we walk outside where she calls Palminder to come pick us up and drive us to Connaught Place, or CP, where Shabnum is waiting for us.

We walk through the searing heat to the government emporiums off the main circle. I find a number of beautiful clothes in the first store we visit: a reversible, flowered silk skirt and an elaborate mirrored outfit called a lehenga and choli. I’m not sure when I’ll get to wear the lehenga and choli, but I am so bewitched by it, that I’ll just have to find an occasion. These purchases are expensive by Indian standards. The emporia we’re shopping at have higher prices than the daily markets. Marie told me that often what happens is traders shop in markets like Lajput, then mark up what they find and sell it for much higher prices in the boutiques. I wonder if any of this stuff came from Lajput. I think it’s probably different when you’re shopping at a government emporium. These goods are supposed to come from the different regions of India that the emporia represent.

The silk skirt I buy is 650 rupees (around thirteen dollars), and the lehenga and choli is 1700 rupees with ten percent off, so I wind up paying around twenty five dollars for it. I think it’s the most expensive thing I’ve purchased while I’ve been here—more expensive than my bus tickets and my doctors visits by far.

The next store we visit is a Rajasthani emporium. There are statues and tables and chairs and vases and seat cushions and rugs and blankets. There is fabric and clothes and jewelry, all of which looks like it could be in a museum. I’m sad that I had to leave my camera at home so I can’t take good pictures of all the things I can’t buy. I take a few snaps with my cell phone, Sonu style, but I’ll have trouble getting these low resolution photos onto my computer. I don’t have the cable to do it with.

While we’re shoe shopping, all the lights go out and the air turns off. The experience gets uncomfortably hot in a matter of minutes and I have an urgent need for water. Thankfully, there is a vendor just outside.

We call Palminder again and he drives us around to a restaurant that is done up to look like a tube station in London. This is where we’re meeting up with Shabnum’s fiancée. The four of us walk to a Chinese restaurant called Flavours. In the meantime, Jonaki’s received a slew of calls from Amar and Tehseen. They are debating whether or not they will go to Haze tonight to hear blues music. Amar likes the place. Tehseen thinks it’s a little boring and quiet. Finally a plan is hatched. We’ll all meet there around nine o’clock.

I mention at dinner that I watched Main Hoon Na. “Oh, with the bicycle rickshaw chase?” everyone laughs and wants to know. Yes. That’s the one. It’s apparently infamous, the most Bollywood of Bollywood movies. I’m glad I’ve seen it. Now I can definitely say I’ve seen a Bollywood movie.

We find Palminder again and Jonaki tells him in Hindi where we need to go to find the bar where we’re meeting Amar and Tehseen. I’m glad she can describe it, because I certainly can’t. It feels like we take forever to get there; we just keep driving and driving. “This is where all the embassies are,” Jonaki tells me as we drive down a wide, dark highway. She recalls driving down this street on the back of a photographer’s motorcycle when she was on assignment for the Times of India.

We finally come to the market that the bar is in. Palminder looks exasperated. How long are we going to be? He wants to know. Jonaki tells him we’ll be inside until 10:30 or 11:00 at least. I think my eight hours with him ends at 11:30, so I can’t be much later than 11:00.

We wander into the market and ask a few restaurant attendants where Haze is. One points us in the wrong direction. The second guy points straight up. Haze is on the second floor, but there doesn’t appear to be a staircase leading to it. “How do we get there?” Jonaki asks me. I point to a ladder comically propped up seemingly just so I can make this joke. We ask a few more people. We have to walk around the back of the building.

Thankfully the alley we need to traverse is short. We’re still a little uncomfortable standing outside the bar, two women by themselves, in the dark. We don’t wait long, though. Amar and Tehseen appear and lead us inside, where Tehseen has reserved the best seats in the house: right in front of the band.

Inside there are several Jimi Hendrix posters, as well as posters from 1940s American movies, such as Gilda starring Rita Hayworth. It’s a strange combination to say the least. Three guys are warming up on the drums, a bass and a lead electric guitar. They sound groovy.

Tehseen introduces us to an Indian woman wearing a wide headband and a white tank top with light blue rolled up jeans and camel colored boots. She sits with us as we order drinks. I want a Bacardi Breezer, but they’re out, so I settle for a rum and Coke. The coke is flat and tastes different because they sweeten it with sugar rather than corn syrup. Everyone else has Kingfisher beers.

The guys finish warming up and the woman sitting with us gets up and takes the stage. She gets out a large acoustic guitar and sits on a stool. “This is a song called ‘Imagine,’ by John Lennon,” she announces, then starts playing a series of chords that I don’t recognize. I think, “Maybe it will sound better if I don’t try to think of it as the song called ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon. Kind of like that pizza that we got up in Manali that tasted better with the spicy oil on it but no longer resembled pizza at all.” This doesn’t work.

She finishes with “Imagine,” then says, “Here is a Cyndi Lauper classic.” She plays some chords and sings “Time After Time,” getting most of the words right. She flips through her folder full of chord progressions. I think she must be getting them from a bum website or something. She belts out the classic “Proud Mary,” and the part about pumping a lot of gas down in New Orleans brings into relief how foreign this music is. It’s like when I found that freezer burned container of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream in the market for fifteen dollars.

She sings the Jim Croce classic, “Cats In the Cradle” in the style of Alanis Morissette, even growling at one point. Then she says, “Now I’d like to do something a little different.” Everything she’s done already has been a little different. I am curious to see what’s next, and just how different it is. She sings an Alanis Morissette song. She’s got one hand in her pocket and the other one is giving a peace sign. No one can fault her for going half out. Every word of every song is a conviction; a loud, screaming conviction.

It’s getting uncomfortably hot in the bar as the crowd grows. It’s smoky and my eyes sting. The songstress leading the festivities sings “Everybody Hurts,” and it’s so true. I wonder how much longer she will go on. I wonder what happened to the guys with the electric guitars.

She finishes her set and bounces over to take her seat next to us. “It’s so smoky in here,” she says. “I had to keep drinking water. It’s bad for my voice!”

The guys take the stage. They play like they are weaving a collective spell. It’s slightly Jimi Hendrix-inspired, but also a style of their own making. I don’t recognize the tunes, but they sound good. The lead guitarist’s fingers slide up and down the frets and he leans back and lets the notes waver. The music is easy to listen to; I forget about the smoke and the heat completely.

It seems like just a few minutes later when Jonaki tells me it’s eleven o’clock. I have to go. My car is going to turn into a pumpkin. I’m going to leave a slipper behind as I run for my ride.

Amar and Jonaki walk me back to where Palminder parked. Jonaki calls him one more time. We’re ready. Can he pull the car around?

He does. Amar offers to drop me off. I can send the car away and they’ll drive me home when they leave. But I really should be going anyway. I’ve still got that cough and my infected eyes, and the bar probably isn’t doing these waning maladies any favors.

Jonaki gets her library books from my back seat. She’ll stay at Amar’s tonight instead of going back to east Delhi by herself.

Even though it’s over a bit too soon, it’s been a great night. A classic, to be sure.


It's me mom said...

Sounds like a fun weekend, with different music. A smokey bar though, that's very normal. Glad you had fun.

auntlinda said...

"groovy?" fun fun go out more often groovy!!!!!!!!!!!!ha
as for being missing i missed you was hoping you were out having fun and you were groovy!!!!!

GrandTrunk Road said...

I love reading your blog. You have a style that is rare in writers visiting a foreign culture ---open, funny, nonjugmental and insightful.

I landed on your blog through a friend who used to work at Pearson (Boston). I was at Pearson (Boston) in the School Division for over 15 years. And, I'm from India. Went to undergraduate school in Delhi.