Thursday, September 4, 2008

Lime Pickles and Philosophy


There is a quiet Indian woman at breakfast. She says only “hello” to me and spends the rest of the time reading the Hindustan Times. I think at the time that she mustn’t speak much English, but I realize afterward that she was reading an English language paper. She just wasn’t feeling very social, I guess.

On the way to work, Palminder cuts through the parking lot by the market. There is a new pile of rubble in the middle of it, and a woman works to fill some large potholes with the pile of cracked bricks and rocks. It strikes me that one of the only jobs I’ve seen women working in public is construction. I was just uploading a slew of pictures and came across the one of the women working in a highway median carrying big pots of dirt on their heads. I would guess that this would be one of the last jobs that women would have, but it doesn’t seem that way here. Manual labor is not strictly men’s work, though shop keeping is.

At work, I open my Lonely Planet traveler’s guide to the Corbett Tiger Reserve page and march over to Jonaki’s desk. “We should go on a safari,” I tell her. I’ve only got five weekends left here in India. If I want to see more things, I have to start making some plans. The Corbett Tiger Reserve was one of the things I found online before I ever got to India. It’s not very far from Delhi, so it seems a feasible thing to do.

I’m not sure how Jonaki will react to my invitation to go roam around the jungle on the back of an elephant. There are three hour elephant safaris at this park. I present the invitation almost as a joke just in case she thinks I’m crazy. But she takes me seriously. She’s got friends who have actually been there. She’ll ask them about it. She thinks we can go, maybe the weekend of the 20th. So there. Done deal. I may be going on a safari with Jonaki.

At lunch, I tell Amar about our tentative plans. He says the roads are very bad this time of year because of the monsoon rains. He says the best way to get there is by rail. The guidebook says there’s a train that leaves at ten at night and gets there at five in the morning. Amar thinks this is a better idea than hiring a driver. He also says there’s a different park, about seventeen hours away, that’s a lot smaller where you’re much more likely to see a tiger. “This Corbett Park is too big,” he says. There’s too much land where the tigers can hide. I’m not sure I’m up for another seventeen hour trip, though. I may take my chances with the park that’s closer.

Lunch is gross today. It’s some watery squash-like vegetable with no flavor. Tomorrow is the day they serve the weird vegetable protein balls called kurry. Amar and I are hatching a plan to cancel our regular daba lunch and order something better. The daba wallahs are famous in India. They mass produce and deliver lunches to business people for just three dollars a week. Amar says they were recently featured in a business textbook as a case study. I don’t mind the daba food usually. Sometimes, though, it can be a little less than wonderful. And every Thursday they serve kurry in a thin yellow gravy. I ate it and tolerated it for many weeks. Then, when I was so sick with my bubonic flu, Mira made the same dish at Ahuja for me. I tried it and it turned my stomach. I haven’t been able to eat it at all since then. Project Sink the Kurry launches tomorrow. I’ll let you know how our operation goes.

After work, we get stuck in the jamb by the river where the traffic usually piles up. A man walks by flashing orange towels he’s trying to sell. Then a man walks by selling water in little sealed bags. I wonder if it’s safe to drink, not that I want any. I just wonder. There are two men walking by holding metal trays full of coconut wedges. These guys are ubiquitous. I’ve seen them climb onto busses stopped at red lights. There’s the guy with the steering wheel covers and the car chargers. I take out my journal and start taking notes on all the vendors when a man with a stack of books comes up on my window and starts tapping. He’s got Paul Cohello and William Darymple. I assume these are bootleg copies, bad translations. Perhaps because he sees me writing, he is encouraged. I must want to buy a book; I’m writing in one. He knocks and knocks until Palminder says something to him in Hindi. He walks away. On his heels, a boy of about thirteen arrives at my window. He holds a filthy white rag and knocks and knocks. I shake my head at him, but he just continues knocking without pause. It goes on for over a minute when Palminder opens the door and says something to him in Hindi. Since he doesn’t say “good, okay, breakfast,” or “How much does it cost?” I don’t understand him. Whatever he says, though, does not immediately dissuade the boy, who puts his hand to his mouth repeatedly. Maybe he tells him, then, that this white lady is stingy and never gives up any cash, because he finally leaves.

Next we pass the dirt embankment where the pigs hang out along with a group of people who, I think, tend to them. Last week at this place I saw two naked little boys playing with an unwound cassette tape, tying each other up. It was that day that I thought about an international adoption. If I can’t feed and clothe everyone here, maybe I can help just one child.

We catch a red light and outside the car on the ground is a flyer. It says, “Manifesto for Election: Study, Serve, Struggle.” There is a list of about twenty points underneath the header. It sounds so good and Marxist, I want to reach out and grab the flyer, but I think this would just be too much for Palminder to take. He already acts as though I’m the strangest thing he’s ever driven around. It didn’t help that his introduction to me was the last day I spent with Sonu, in which Sonu was asking him to take snaps of us as we posed together.

I resist my urge to grab the flyer, and we next drive past the Old Fort and the paddle boat pond in front of it as we do everyday. I wonder what ever compelled me to think it was a good idea to go paddle boating with my taxi driver. I feel like it was a different person who had that particular adventure. Still, I’m glad she did, crazy as it was.

Back at Ahuja, I wait for Alok to come and check out my Internet problem. There is no sign of him, so I finally call him up at about twenty minutes to eight o’clock. He tells me he came earlier in the day and my Internet is working. This is infuriating. I feel like replying with the title of Judge Judy’s book, Don’t Pee on My Leg and Tell Me It’s Raining, but with all the public urination that happens in Delhi, I fear he might take this literally. Instead, I’m polite. I tell him that my Internet isn’t working now and it hasn’t been working for the past three days. He says maybe he’ll come tomorrow to look at it. Maybe? I press him and finally get him to commit. He will definitely come tomorrow to look at it.

By the time I get off the phone with Alok, it’s eight fourteen, one minute before I’m supposed to meet Mister Kundari at his house. I scramble down the stairs and up the block. Everyone says that Indians are late for everything, but Mister Kundari seems to be incredibly prompt. I arrived just five minutes late for his kitty party and drinks were already being served.

As I round the corner, I see him in his maroon turban, leaning on his car, talking on his mobile phone. “Come,” he says, and begins walking back the way I came. “I have a friends to have to have dinner at my house. We will go to my friend’s house who you met. Diljit. You can call him Mister Singh. I can only stay few minutes.” I’m being passed off for the evening.

Diljit is the Sikh man who lives right next door to me. In fact, it appears that his building is connected to the Ahuja Residency. We walk through a lush entryway. A pink and green lizard scampers up the white plaster wall. The inside floor is made of white marble with light grey veins running through it. The door is wide open. We enter and approach a sitting room with a closed door. Inside three women sit: one old and infirm, one middle aged, and one young. “Come,” says Mister Kundari as we pass through the dark wood carved doors.

The young woman is Mister Singh’s daughter-in-law. She asks if I’d like something to drink. “Beer? Whiskey?” I tell her beer would be nice.

The sick woman in pajamas, thin with thin grey hair, is Mister Singh’s wife. She takes dialysis up to four times a week. While I wait for my drink, a young girl comes in and gives her a shot.

The middle aged woman in the white kurta and salwar (baggy pants) introduces herself as Poonam. She is a neighbor and a good friend, she says. She lives in one thirty six or some such number, in D Block. “Isn’t it so important to have good friends?” she asks, with great sweeping gestures and a whimsical smile. “This is what life is about!”

Mister Kundari agrees. Good friends can make your life good; and bad friends can make your life bad.

Mister Singh’s daughter-in-law pops back in. The beer is warm. Is whiskey okay? Whiskey with soda?

Why not?

She fixes a drink for me, and one for Poonam. Won’t Mister Kundari have some? No. He’s got to be on his way and he has his limits. He doesn’t even want a drop.

Poonam speaks slowly and with joy. These people are the best people, she says of the Singhs. And they do such good things with their lives. She points to Mister Singhs’ quiet wife. This lady is so loving. Her touch is so nice. I was not going to stay. I was just going to stop for bit, but then you never know what life brings. Now I stay for dinner and talk with you. That’s how life is! She scoops the air again with her hands.

Before long, Mister Singh joins us and fixes himself a drink.

Mister Kundari invites me again to his temple to feed the hungry at five in the morning: “So you will come on Sunday? You will see what good people we are? You will bring camera. You will remember for rest of your life.”

I tell him I’ll see him on Sunday and he smiles. “Happy?” he asks. This is a habit of his.

“Yes, I’m very happy. Thank you,” I tell him. He must be going. He will see me on Sunday. And I should bring my friend to dinner at his place on Friday. I should let him know if I can by tomorrow. He says goodbye to Mister Singh and disappears down the marble hallway.

Mister Singh with his great white beard and eyebrows joins me on the couch. His house helpers begin to bring in snacks. There is salad: little slices of cucumber, carrot and radish. Then there are chips and cheese puffs in little bowls. Mrs. Singh happily munches away on these.

“You will see on Sunday that the Sikhs feed everybody. Hindu, Muslim, it doesn’t matter. Anybody who needs to eat can come. One thousand people we feed,” Mister Singh explains.

“What is religion?” Poonam adds, hands waving again. “I think religion is love. Isn’t it? Isn’t that what religion is? Whatever it is you love, how you love? You love your friends, your daughter, your sister. Whatever the relationship, it is still love.” Her face is beatific with the thought as she gazes upwards, lost in this thought.

Only in India can a girl be treated to such philosophy over salad and chips with relative strangers, I think.

Mister Singh fetches a photo album. There are pictures of the dedication party of the garden that he and Mister Kundari maintain across the street from his house. The high commissioner of this and the minister of that were present to give out awards and dedicate the park.

Next, there is an album full of photos from an eighteen day European tour that Mister Singh and his wife took several years ago. There are the Swiss Alps. There is the Leaning Tower of Pisa. “We saw the Mona Lisa.” It is the first thing Mrs. Singh says all night.

Then there are two large, framed photos of Mister Singh’s family with Bill Clinton. These are displayed prominently in his sitting room, but he carries them over to me for closer inspection.

The girl who gave Mrs. Singh the shot brings out more snacks. There is a delicious whitefish with a mint sauce that Poonam makes sure I try. Then there is a crispy round bread called papadum, I think.

Then there are more pictures. Here is an album full of people who attended Mister Singh’s twenty fifth anniversary party. This person is dead now. And this one. And this one. “That is how life is,” my host says.

Next he brings out a book about the Golden Temple at Amritsar and tells me the story of Sikhism. The Sikhs are a marshal people. They rose up to fight against the tyranny of the Mughal Empire and, even though they were vastly outnumbered, drove them out of India. They rose up to fight because the Mughals wouldn’t let others practice their religions freely. They wanted to convert everyone to Islam. But the Sikhs took up arms and fought for their freedom. They created an army out of the downtrodden caste that no one else would allow to fight. Sikhs don’t believe in caste, Mister Singh explains. They believe that everybody is created equal.

He pages through the book and tells me that thousands of people volunteer to keep the Golden Temple at Armritsar clean. There’s not even a speck of dust in the place.

There is a picture of a man with a giant book atop a pillow. At the temple, each morning, they bring in the 300-year-old handwritten copy of the Guru Granth Sahib. This is the Sikh holy book, written in a common language, the language of the people. This is another way in which Sikhism differs from the Hinduism that it arose from. In Hinduism, the holy texts were traditionally in Sanskrit and relegated only to the Brahman caste, much like the Christian tradition of saying mass in Latin when no one understood it. He tells me a story about a man who came to do a ceremony and sang the completely wrong song but no one even knew.

Even Poonam is interested. “You are telling things that even I do not know. It is interesting for me. I am Hindu, you see,” she tells me. She tells Mister Singh he should take me to Amritsar when he goes. Mister Singh doesn’t seem too excited to be volunteered for this schlepping, but he is gracious all the same.

At about quarter to ten, dinner is served. We turn the lights off in the parlor and Mrs. Singh lays down in the cool darkness on the couch. Her dinner was the potato chips and cheese poofs, I guess. “Come,” Mister Singh says as we walk into the dining room. There is an okra subzi and a rice dish with peas. There is chicken and, of course, a dal (the bean or lentil dish that is served with every meal). He offers me chicken but I tell him I’m a vegetarian who occasionally eats fish. He immediately has more fish brought to the table.

Poonam decides she’d like some Indian pickles. Have I ever had them? Yes, I say, but don’t add that I’m not terribly fond of them. I notice, then, a buffet full of big jars of dead-looking dark things. It could have been the shelf in my junior high biology classroom where Mrs. Leistikow kept all the souvenirs of her dissections, but instead it was Mr. Singh’s store of Indian pickles. Poonam chooses a jar of onions and a jar of limes. She dishes me a lime pickle and three onion pickles. The onion pickles aren’t too bad. The lime, though, stops me in my tracks. I eat a small corner of the brown shriveled thing and can’t go any further. It stays on my plate and luckily no one makes an issue of it.

Just when I think we’re done eating, a young man brings out three dishes of homemade kulfi for us. Mister Singh tells me how it’s made. You keep boiling milk until it condenses, then you add dried fruits, then you freeze it. He shuffles off and comes back with the little cones that you use to make the distinctive shape of kulfi. Then he’s off again to get a whole file full of papers he’s accumulated organizing massive blood drives for disasters in India.

Poonam decides she’ll have another lime pickle. She fishes it out of the big jar and dunks it into her water glass, accidentally dropping it all the way in. It begins to make the water brown and cloudy as she jambs her fingers into the narrow drinking glass and fails to retrieve it.

Mister Singh is still trying to find his Red Cross file to show me about his blood donation work, but I ask Poonam if she needs a spoon or something.

“No. It will come. Where there is will, there is way,” she says like this is a revelation, and finally gets hold of the saturated, brown lime, pulling it out, dripping.

Mister Singh is back with his file. He’s got lists of donor’s names and piles of thank you’s dating all the way back to 1994.

Poonam is barely done with her sopping brown lime when she places both palms on the table. “May I be excused?” she says, as she rises to leave. I forget that it’s proper form to run away immediately after eating.

But Mister Singh tells me to stay a bit. I should see an Indian household. I should see how he lives. He takes me upstairs and shows me the room where his granddaughters grew up. He shows me the spacious and well appointed second story living room that belongs to his son and daughter-in-law. He takes off his slippers and opens the door to a small roomful of pictures of the Golden Temple. On the floor there are two decorative daggers and a small temple-shaped structure. This is the family’s meditation room. The second floor also has a small kitchen, “for making tea and coffee and snacks,” but the main kitchen is downstairs and is shared by all the families living in the household.

Mister Singh wants to know if I’d like to stay and sit for a while, but it’s nearly eleven o’clock by the time we finish our tour of his home. I thank him for the lovely evening, and he walks me out past his garden. I'll see him on Sunday when we go to his gurdwara, his temple, to feed the hungry.

I get home just in time to catch Scott on Skype at his lunchtime and tell him about the lime pickle and the cloudy lime pickle water. It’s the most comic moment of the evening and worth a little narration.


It's me mom said...

Roaming around the jungle on elephants looking for tigers, and taking the bad roads to get there !! Sounds like you're setting up another great adventure.

auntlinda said...

wow safari!!! on an elephant!!!! in the jungle!!!!!!!! in search of tigers!!!!!!indiana jones meet your match!!!!!!
good luck with project "sink the kurry" .. the stuff sounds bad.
every time you mention the mughals , i think you are in a harry potter movie.
hey wait .. adventures ..mysterious ghostlike internet service... creatures showing up on the walls at any given time ..pickled limes.. dissapearing roads... mughals... name your little house guest DOBBY and its a book waiting to be written!!!!!!