Friday, September 5, 2008

End Toe Violence in India


Thursday at the office Amar comes over to talk to me. He says, “So you like The Big Chill, huh?” He’s been reading my blog.

Even though I just re-read my passage about Project Sink the Kurry, it slips my mind. But Amar remembers. He’s got two take-out menus: one from Pizza Hut and one from Nirula’s. Pizza sounds great to me, but Amar says he doesn’t like it. He’ll order pizza for me and something else for him, right after he calls to cancel our daba lunch.

A few minutes later, Amar returns to my desk. They had so many complaints about the kurry that they’re not serving it anymore. We’ll have okra today instead, or lady fingers as they call it here. Having just had okra for dinner last night, I am less than thrilled about the prospect, but, hey, it’s not kurry. At least it’s edible. We don’t have to order something else today after all.

At lunch, from out of nowhere, Amar says, “You know, don’t assume that everybody is limbless.” It takes me a second to realize he’s referring back to my blog again where I talk about the limbless beggars.

He tells me that Tehseen was giving money to a one-armed kid one time, then they noticed that the kid had just stuffed his arm into the back of his shirt. “They’re very good at it,” he says. “I’ve been ripped off so many times,” he says. There was another time when he was a student and a very pregnant woman came up to him and told him she needed cab fare; she had to get to the hospital right away. He was a student with little extra cash, but gave her 100 rupees. When he walked away, he saw her laughing with a friend.

I must say most of the amputees I see are clearly amputees. You can see their stumps very clearly. They are not hidden by clothing. And I maintain that anyone attempting to make a living by begging, fully limbed or not, likely could use a few extra rupees. Still, it’s somewhat dangerous to give. Once one person sees you’ve handed out money, you can become swamped with a crowd. Then it’s just reliance on their kindness and good nature that keeps your wallet and everything in it from being swiped. Anyway can happen when you’re so outnumbered.

Amar tells a story of a friend of his who had to carry a lot of cash for his job. His friend remembers being at a train station in Delhi, then waking up at a different station three hundred kilometers away without his watch, his wallet or his mobile phone. He remembers nothing in between. Thankfully, the conductors on the train knew him and allowed him to ride home for free and pay when he reached his destination. Amar says never to take food from people on trains. It could make you sleepy. Then there are the kids who throw crap on your shoe, right down the street from the next kids who coincidentally offer you a shoeshine. “You will meet these kinds of kids too.” He says there are good people and bad people here. These things don’t happen all the time, but they do happen. You just have to be careful.

At home, I call Alok to fix the Internet. He says he’s been waiting for my call and he’ll be over in just fifteen minutes. A half an hour passes and the power blinks off. Even if he does show up now, he won’t be able to fix anything. The router is useless without power. The room quickly grows uncomfortably hot.

While I’m waiting for Alok, I call Julianne. She can’t go to Mister Kundari’s house for dinner with me on Friday night, but she can go sightseeing on Saturday. I ask if she wants to go to the gurdwara on Sunday morning at five thirty, but she declines this invitation as well. She’s already been to a gurdwara. But I should go, she says. It’s very interesting to see. And the food is good. Anyone who wants to can eat.

Then she mentions she’s going to the Golden Temple at Amritsar with Susie. I ask if I can go with. The Golden Temple was one of the places that I saw online before I came to India. In fact, my friend Ryan at work Photoshopped a picture of me floating in front of it. How cool would it be to actually take a real picture of me at the Golden Temple? Julianne says she’ll ask Susie if I can tag along. The only problem is that they’ve already booked the train tickets.

As I’m talking with Julianne, Susie calls. She just ran into a woman named Sarah Larsen at an art gallery. Sarah is working on putting together an event that will be an artistic response to communalism in India, the religious discrimination and violence that’s taking place specifically in Orissa and Kashmir right now. She’s looking for all kinds of artists: musicians, painters, writers. Susie wants to know if I’m interested.

Um, yeah.

I just hope I’m up to the task. On one level, I feel I’m not at all qualified to speak on these topics. But, I figure, the values of peace and acceptance and unity are universal, and I’ve certainly been writing about them already in my time here in India.

She gives me Sarah’s number. She also tells me I’m welcome to go to Armritsar with them, but I should see if I can have a travel agent book my tickets for me. She says someone at work should be able to help me with this. The only problem might be that my seats may not be by their seats on the train. She says I should be able to switch seats, though, once we board.

I call Sarah. She’s got an untraceable accent. I wonder where she’s from. She asks what kinds of things I like to write. I tell her nonfiction and drama. I write a lot of monologues, I tell her. This is great, she says. They could use a monologue. Something on the theme of love and unity. Something about three to five minutes long would be great. She has to go. She’s in a meeting. But I should email my piece to her when it’s done. She’s throwing this event together really quickly. It will be next week Wednesday at the amphitheatre at the India Habitat Centre, very near the Defence Colony.

Since I’m having such a good time on the phone, I ring up Jonaki. I had also asked her if she’d be interested in having dinner with me and Mister Kundari. She also declines the invitation. It would take her over an hour to get home from where I live, and she doesn’t want to drive home alone that late at night. I can’t blame her. It’s probably not a good idea. Jonaki tells me, though, that there’s a travel agent at Pearson who can book my tickets for me. She’ll give me the number tomorrow at work. So maybe Armritsar is a go after all.

Alok finally shows up, sweating. I let him in but tell him the power’s out. There’s nothing he can do. I ask if he asked Pachu when he thinks the power will be back on. Pachu usually knows. He said it will be another hour and a half. So there’s no use in waiting. Alok stands around for a while in awkward silence, sweat beading up on his nose, then determines that he’ll come back tomorrow.

When he leaves, it’s already eight thirty. I walk over to Mister Kundari’s. I have to let him know that I can’t find a friend to have dinner tomorrow so we’ll have to cancel. His guard knocks at the door several times but no one shows up. Finally a young girl lets me in. She knocks on his bedroom door and after a minute, Mister Kundari emerges in a long white top and white pants. He was asleep. “I go to bed very early,” he says. “I get up four, five in the morning, so go to bed around eight.” I apologize for disturbing him but he smiles and finds my hand to shake it. He keeps shaking, “It is no problem. You come anytime. No problem,” he assures me. “Five thirty on Sunday I will see you!” he says. Yes you will. Five thirty. “You will remember rest of your life,” he tells me as I walk out into the night.

I remember the tailor wallah still has my skirt and walk over to fetch it. No matter the time of day, it seems my little tailor is in his shack. As I round the corner near the park, I can see by the warm glow coming from his shop that he is there once again. I pay him fifty rupees (about a dollar) and he hands over my skirt in a little plastic bag from some shop in Connaught Place. The hem is narrow and perfect. “Namaste!” I tell him. “Namaste,” he replies as he walks back behind his shop wall.

Next to his shop, a pile of sand taller than me has appeared. This happens all the time here. Big piles of building materials appear all over the place, then nothing seems to happen with them. The pile of broken bricks and concrete that I noticed in the parking lot that we cut through in the morning is now just sitting there and will probably remain there for the rest of my time in India. I don’t know if they drop too much off then never come back for it, or if the projects just get put on hold or take a long time to finish. I must say I am a bit baffled by all the piles everywhere in the Defence Colony.

When I’m done at the tailor’s, I walk to Archie’s Paper Rose, the Hallmark-type store in the market. I buy a thank you card for the Singhs and walk home.

At home, I’m walking up the stairs and I see Mira. “Power come,” she tells me and laughs.

“Oh good,” I exclaim. “Very hot upstairs. Very hot.”

“Yes, warm,” she says. This is perhaps the biggest, and definitely the most successful, conversation I’ve had with Mira. Most of the time she starts off talking and I can’t make heads or tails of what she’s saying.

Back in my room I feel a little hungry. Even though it’s already nine o’clock, I decide to order some McDelivery. I dial up the McDonald’s number and press one to place an order. A man reads from a script and asks for my phone number. Once I give this to him, he tells me my name and address. I am in their system. I order a McVeggie with Cheese Combo. He tells me it will arrive in approximately half an hour, depending on traffic conditions. That means I will be eating dinner around nine thirty. This is very Indian of me.

I watch a little television: “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader.” Then I write out the thank you to the Singhs. I walk down to deliver the card to the guard, but on my way, I run into my McDelivery guy. He takes my food out of a McDonald’s backpack and makes change for the two hundred rupees I give him. The food, with the delivery fee included, costs three bucks. He puts on his red helmet and jets off on his matching red motorcycle.

As I’m walking next door, I stub my toe on the road. It hurts. I look down and notice a lump of blood pooling. I’ve pulled a Susie, but without even the excitement of falling off a pillar. It’s a drag when you bleed here because you can’t rinse your wound off with the tap water. You have to wash it in bottled water.

I give the card to Mister Singh’s guard who recognizes me from dinner the other night and walk back with my McDonald’s and my wounded toe.

At home, I smear a big helping of antibiotic ointment onto my left big toe and cut up more gauze and tape to bandage it. I think, at least my first aid purchases are getting put to good use. I think, what the heck with me and India already? Could I just stop with the minor calamities? There’s a chunk of toe that’s gone, and, what’s worse, I’ve totally messed up my pedicure. A chunk of the nail is also broken off. So now I have to grow back my bangs and my toenail. I’m going to need a lot of vitamins.

Speaking of vitamins, I enjoy my McDelivery. Just as I’m finishing up, I receive my evening Skype call from Scott, but only because I’m able to steal the Internet from an adjacent network. Hopefully, the stars will align tomorrow and Alok will be able to fix my connection.

I lie down to sleep but my toe throbs like there’s a heart inside of it. I also have visions of this jumping spider that I was unable to smash earlier in the evening jumping all over me as I sleep, leaving a little necrosis everywhere he lands.

Needless to say, it is not the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had. That’s okay, though. It gives me a little extra time to ponder what I’m going to write my monologue about. I don’t come up with any good ideas before I finally fall asleep, but hopefully this weekend I’ll have my Internet back and benefit from a little research on the subject of communal violence in India. Right now the only violence I really know about is what I've inflicted on my poor toe.