Sunday, September 28, 2008

Not Enough Biscuits


Just when I thought the food was getting boring… I eat a custard apple.

My friend from work and I were discussing seasonal fruits one day. She wondered what we grow in the United States. I talked about oranges in Florida and the apple orchard near my house. She bought some guavas from a cart in the industrial estate and shared one with me. I think it was my first guava. I know I’ve had them in juice blends, but I’ve never just eaten a guava. It was good: sugary with white flesh and tiny, tiny seeds, almost like a kiwi. She had the man at the cart put ashen-looking masala spices on it as he chopped the small fruit into quarters. Spiced fruit is common here. Mister Singh served me spiced apples and pomegranate seeds the night he was planning my Amritsar trip.

As we walked and ate our guavas, she asked me if I’d ever had a custard apple. No, what’s that? It’s in sections almost like a pomegranate and the texture is a little sandy. The next day, she brought some to work for me.

Friday morning I walk downstairs and present my custard apple to Mira. Can she cut it for me so I can eat it? She takes it and walks into the kitchen. In the meantime, there is a Texan on the phone near the kitchen. He’s twanging away and getting nowhere trying to arrange a car service. He passes the phone to Mira. “Here, talk to them,” he drawls and shoves the phone Mira’s way. She takes down several phone numbers and makes a bunch of notes in Hindi script on a piece of paper and hands it to the gentleman. “What’m I spose’ta do with this?” he asks, shoving the paper back at her. I think this man is not going to have a good time in India.

Mira brings me the note and my custard apple on a plate. “Sorry, madam. My English no good. Speak. No write. You write Ashok?” I take the pen and paper from her and write Ashok next to the first number. “Okay, thank you. No English,” she says. “Now Upander, guard.” I write the words down by the second number.

In exchange for this help, she shows me what to do with my custard apple. You don’t cut it. You just split it in half and scoop it out with the spoon. She splits it in half for me and pantomimes with the spoon.

We thank each other for the needed assistance and she shuffles in her aqua and white sari out to the balcony where the large Texan is sitting on the edge of his chair. He looks satisfied with the new note. I think we’re all relieved.

The custard apple looks like it has crocodile skin on the outside and tastes like, well, custard on the inside. It’s like nothing I’ve ever eaten before. It’s fun.

At work I finally finish editing the lengthy chapter seven on currency options. We have two more chapters from the author so far, chapters eight and nine, and I think I’ll be able to complete them both in my remaining time. It’s a goal anyway.

We have yet to hear a response from the author on chapter six and the passages that need to be rewritten. Shabnum is trying to call him as I’m leaving the office for the weekend. We’ll see what happens.

Everyone’s excited about the book sale tomorrow. Shinjini wants to know if I want any Rough Guides. There is always a whole bunch. If I had room in my luggage and the upper body strength to haul books, I’d go scoop up a whole load, but as it is, I practice self-control and turn down the offer.

On my way up to my room, Pachu stops me. He speaks rather excitedly. “Call. Three times. Call six thirty. Six forty-five. Six fifty. Three times.”

Can he tell me who called three times?

“No idea. Boy. Boy. Husband?”

Oh no, I think. Freaki Fredi.

“Did he leave a number?” I ask.

“No. Call again,” Pachu says. I’m sure he will.

I’m not in my room for ten minutes when the phone rings. “Hello. Do you recognize me?”

“Is this Fredi?” I ask.

“Yeah yeah. So did you think about Goa?”

“Yeah and I’m not going to be able to go, but thank you,” I say.

“Okay, that’s okay,” he says. “Some other time when you come back to India.”

At least he finally took no for an answer. But now he wants to go out for a drink. I want to believe that’s all he wants, but I don’t. I think I’m busy next week. And the week after. And then I’m leaving. It’s just too bad we won’t be able to get together. He’s still glad he met me, he wants me to know. It was nice to meet him too.

I remember I need to get the hem of my black pants repaired. I throw them in a bag and walk down to my tailor across the street from the park. This man knows how to sew. I run through the items in my closet and think hard about whether there’s anything else I can have him work on before I leave. That one kurta I bought is pretty baggy on me. I could have it taken in. It’s so much fun to have your clothes tailored.

“Namaste,” I greet him and he bows his head back at me. I show him the pants and ask him, “Kitne?” How much? He examines them and says, “No nothing. Small work.” He doesn’t want to charge me—again. Of course, I’ll pay him anyway. I couldn’t take the work from him for free.

I walk around the corner to the closest thing approximating a grocery store that I’ve seen here. It’s called The Big Apple. It’s lit with fluorescent lights and has wide aisles compared to the other food shops in the market. It even has cash registers. What it lacks is the kind of deep inventory that American stores are packed with. There are just a few items of each kind on the shelves. I’m looking for more biscuits. I want to make sure I have enough for all the orphans I’ll see tomorrow. They only have three packages of the ten rupee kind. The rest of their biscuit inventory is actually Oreo cookies and they’re priced at forty five rupees a package.

I buy the three remaining ten rupee packs and grab a box of oatmeal at the store clerk’s suggestion. It’s on sale, and I need to run up my bill a little bit so they’ll give me change. If I try to buy thirty rupees’ worth of biscuits with a 1,000 rupee note, they’ll throw me out of the place. The clerk takes the box from me and says, “Almost expired, but not yet expired.” I look at the date, which I’d previously ignored, and it says Jan 2008. It’s a strange definition of almost expired. Still, I figure, what can go wrong with oatmeal? I probably have some in my cabinets at home that’s older than this.

The cashier holds my 1,000 rupee note up to the light and gazes at it from three different angles. Then he passes it to the next register where a woman does the same thing. I think, “Please don’t tell me I have a counterfeit bill.” But the gazing seems to satisfy them, and they even give me change. How western of them!

After The Big Apple, I cross the street at the busy intersection to get back to the main market. When I first got here, this would have been impossible for me. I would have needed an escort, a crossing guard. My heart would have been racing. I wouldn’t have even known which way to look for oncoming traffic. But tonight I cross the street without blinking an eye, weaving in an around the stopped cars, motioning with my hand for the oncoming cars to yield to me.

I walk directly to Sagar’s. Since it’s been a day of new food, I decide to try something different on the menu. There aren’t that many things I haven’t yet tried. I don’t know exactly what I’m getting when I ask for the dahi vada, but I order it anyway. Then I ask for a banana lassi. Sweet, I say. “Sweeeeet,” the waiter’s eyes get large and he walks away.

I wonder what that was about until they bring my food. Turns out the dahi vada is covered in sweet yogurt. And a lassi is made of sweet yogurt. Both are delicious, but they’re a little much in combination with each other. "Sweeeeeet." The waiter was right.

On my walk home, the little black dog finds me. I open a package of biscuits and he eats the whole thing. I don’t understand why he’s so skinny. He has a collar on. Someone owns him. Don’t they feed him? Or does he have a bad case of worms? I should slip him some Mebex, the worm medicine Susie recommended I take when I get home.

When the last of the biscuits is gone, his nose finds my shopping bag and nuzzles it. He wants some more. The orphans or the starving dog? Who gets the biscuits? There is never enough to go around in India.

I decide one package is enough for the puppy tonight and walk home. He trails me all the way to my gate.

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