Monday, September 22, 2008

Prayers and Baksheesh


I walk over to Shabnum’s desk and she has a site up on her computer monitor called Article Checker. It’s a Google service that lets you paste in a piece of writing, then it searches for content matches on the Internet. It’s basically a plagiarism checker. Just out of curiosity I try this with chapter six. It comes up with about a hundred different matches. Just when I thought I was done with chapter six, I find out there is a lot more work to be done. We have to flag all the copied content and send it back to the author to ask him to reword and revise.

Plagiarism is a common problem here. There isn’t the same kind of enforcement of intellectual property rights that exists in the United States. There is a whole market full of dubious DVDs that is affectionately known as “the pirate market,” and the stacks of books peddled in traffic, I’m sure, are unauthorized translations. There is a children’s movie in production right now called Hari Puttar—A Comedy of Terrors. Warner Brothers is suing the Indian producers who say they have no idea why. There is no copyright infringement going on.

Suffice it to say this is not the first time the office here has had to deal with such an issue. No one is shocked or surprised, though they are disappointed. It’s all part of the routine.

After lunch I take a walk with Shabnum and Jonaki and Preeta. Preeta says she’s going to go to the temple. The temple? I follow her. Just down the block from the nala vendors is a building that looks like a tiny version of Iskcon with orange and white spires rising out of it. This is a Sai mandir: a temple to Sai Baba. “You must have read about him,” Preeta says. Yes, I have. I checked him out online after a friend at Pearson told me a story about going to see Sai Baba at a crowded temple where he almost lost his shoes. Sai Baba is an Indian “saint” who is omnipresent, that is, he supposed to be able to appear in more than once place at the same time. But there is some confusion because there is more than one Sai Baba. There’s the one who this temple is to, who is deceased, then there’s the one my friend from Pearson actually saw, who has an afro and is still alive. He’s the one with the mystical powers of appearing all over the place.

Preeta tells me that this Sai Baba was all about unity. He believed in the universality of God and wanted to end the conflicts between Hindus and Muslims. She tells me that the shrine in this temple is open every Thursday. She used to come every week until she got too busy at work. The best Sai temple in Delhi, she says, is in Noida. It’s the biggest one.

We retrieve our shoes at the door under the big brass bell where we left them and walk the two short blocks back to the office. Of course there’s a temple near the office. I don’t think you can be more than a few blocks from a temple or at least a shrine in all of Delhi.

I leave work a little early today in order to go home, pack and pick up my friends on the way to the train station for our Amritsar trip. I am home by five o’clock and ready to go by five twenty. I call Susie and let her know that I’m running early. Is it okay if I hang out at her place for a while? She says sure. I shove the last of my essential belongings into my backpack and tell Mira downstairs I am headed to Amritsar until Sunday. “Come back Sunday,” she repeats. Yes. I think she understands me, but it’s hard to say.

As I’m walking to the car, Mira calls to me over the balcony. “Where going?” she asks me. I repeat, “Amritsar.” She begins talking as she does, in no language known to man. I make out only the words market, bomb and be careful. Was there another bombing? I thank Mira for her warning and walk out to my ride.

We hit such bad traffic that I am not early in getting to Susie’s house after all. I’m glad I allowed so much extra time. Susie opens the door and I expect to see people ready with their bags. Instead, her roommate and her friend, Katie, are lounging on her couch, watching a movie on her laptop. They barely move when I come in. It’s as though the room is filled with Jello and everything inside is happening in slow motion. I realize just how piqued I’ve been when I hit this vibe. Everyone is so relaxed. I am their opposite, not having slept well the night before because I was worried about packing and worried about the train ride, just having downed another shot of espresso before leaving the office. I expect them to spring into action, to grab their bags, to busy themselves with checking if their place is ready to leave behind for their trip, but they just sit. “Hey, Vicki,” Sarah says from her place on the couch. Are her eyes half closed or am I imagining that?

“Was there another bombing?” I ask Susie as I take off my shoes at the door.

“No,” she says, “At least, I haven’t heard anything,” but then she turns on the news. There has been a shootout in South Delhi, it says. Two suspected terrorists have been killed. One cop is also dead. The shootout lasted for several hours. Two suspects were also arrested, and four fled the scene and remain at large. This must have been what Mira was talking about. Bullets were flying in an apartment complex not far from where I stay. Defence Colony is in South Delhi. Anyway, the shootout is over and there seems to be calm in the city at the moment. I am glad nothing else has blown up since last week Saturday. It seems that we can proceed with our travel as planned.

Julianne is at a meeting just across the colony from Susie’s place. We have to pick her up on the way. We all pile in to the Indica and stop at an apartment where Susanna’s banana yellow car is parked. Julianne comes down bearing the bangles I forgot at her apartment when I slept over last week. Somehow we smash four people into the small backseat and head out toward Nizamuddin Station, which everyone tells me is pretty close to where I stay.

It may be close in distance, but it takes forever to get there. The streets are clogged with cars. We are in the evening rush hour. We are parked on a flyover (which is what they call overpasses here) for over an hour. Even though I set out from my office at four thirty, I begin to wonder if we’ll make it to the train station by eight fifteen when our train is scheduled to depart.

Julianne wants to say a prayer for our trip. We bow our heads and she asks God to keep us safe and thanks him for the time we’ll spend together. She asks that the situation with our seating works out too. She is so sweet to be thinking of me in her prayer. Susie bought the tickets for herself and Katie and Julianne and Sarah. I bought my tickets on my own, so the seats are not together. I will have to sit by myself on the train rides unless we can get someone to switch tickets with me. This prospect has been stressing me out, especially since I hear stories of the trains not being the safest place in India. Pickpockets and thieves find trains lucrative from what I hear. They’ll even poison you to get you to pass out so you’re easier to steal from. Then you wake up having missed your stop without your money or you cell phone. Amar told me this happened to a friend of his. He only got home again because he knew the porters on the train and they allowed him to ride for free and pay when he returned. Suffice it to say I would prefer not to be alone on the train, especially on the overnight ride up to Amritsar. This is another reason I didn’t sleep well last night.

We finally arrive at the train station just about twenty minutes before we are scheduled to depart. I’ve already spent over three hours in traffic just to prove that travel in India is always difficult.

We ascend a concrete staircase that leads to the platforms where the trains take off. There are stray dogs trotting all over. Men with suitcases on their heads weave through the other pedestrians. Down the stairs to another platform, a sea of women sits on the ground forming a rainbow of saris. It looks like a painting.

Nowhere are there signs saying which trains depart from which platforms, and we can’t find any attendants either. I am so glad I didn’t just try to meet my friends here as Susie suggested. There are no landmarks, there is no visible organization to the place: just people walking in all directions and a bunch of staircases leading to platforms without signage.

Sarah, Susie’s roommate, goes off to ask some guards in an office where we can find the 8:15 Chattisgarh Express. While she’s away, Susie asks another man who looks at our tickets and simply tells us the train isn’t here yet. An announcement comes on in half Hindi, half English. I hear the words “Chattisgarh Express” and “delayed twenty minutes.” There is a long list of trains and I keep hearing the words repeated, “delayed one hour… delayed one hour.”

“Did you hear that?” I ask Susie, but she wasn’t listening. Sarah returns and leads us past the sea of saris up the stairs again to where the dogs are running around. We walk down the opposite side and wait on a different platform. There is no train here, but Sarah seems assured that this is the place. A rat plays with some paper thrown onto the tracks. A man walks by selling small travel pillows. We stand in a circle and talk about movies. Katie and Susie used to watch a lot of movies in Hong Kong when they were teaching there together because there was nothing much to do in the evenings when they first arrived. They throw out quotes from Meet the Parents and talk about tv series they like: Bones and The Office and a crime drama I don’t recognize.

It doesn’t feel that hot outside, but somehow my hair and back are wet with sweat. “It’s humid,” Julianne says. I guess it is. I feel so gross and know I won’t get a chance to shower until tomorrow since we’re taking an overnight train. Whatever condition I am in now is how I’ll have to spend the night. Eew.

The blue striped train pulls up almost on time. We find our car and enter. It is dirty. It’s been on a trip before us and no one has cleaned it out yet. There are food trays left behind and garbage on the floor. There is a funky smell like rotten celery. I follow my friends to the seats they have and sit down with them even though my seat is several rows away. The seats are blue plastic benches. The car we’re in has an upper bunk and a lower bunk, though other cars in the train have bunks that are three layers deep. This one is supposed to be nicer. We’ve paid extra.

We sit and sit and nothing happens. The train doesn’t move from it’s spot. A porter comes by and leaves pillows and sheets in brown paper bags for each of us. Another man comes by and asks if we’d like to order food. Isn’t it included with the ticket? No. We have to pay extra if we want to eat. Forty rupees. Since it’s an overnight train and I’ve been travelling since forth thirty, I have to order something to eat, otherwise my dinner will be the cereal bar and crackers I packed from home and that doesn’t sound too substantial. I order a vegetarian dinner and everyone else orders the “non-veg.”

It seems stuffy on the train. It feels closed in and dark. I try not to think about the fact that we’re locked into this little compartment until eight o’clock in the morning. I try not to get claustrophobic.

“Is the a/c on?” I ask.

No one can tell. “I can turn on the fan,” Susie says, and she hits a switch that I didn’t notice. Thank God. Moving air. I am rescued from the vague panic I felt creeping up on me. The train feels less like a coffin and more like public transportation.

We talk about my going home. Will Scott pick me up at the airport? Yes. I’ve seen the scene about a million times in my head. I jump into his arms and we kiss. He squeezes me so hard all the air comes out of me. An American Airlines employee yells at me for leaving my baggage unattended because I’ve dropped it all and ran as soon as I saw Scott. I see the scene once more.

We talk about snow. Susie remembers the one blizzard they had in North Carolina. A news crew came out and filmed her and her cousins playing in the foot of snow that accumulated on their street. We had so much snow last winter. I tell my friends about our driveway which is on a slant, so at the least bit of snow or ice, I have to slide up it sideways and shovel before I can get my car into our garage. I had to do that, like, once a week this past winter there was so much snow and ice. I hope the coming winter isn’t like the last one which never seemed to leave either. It didn’t really warm up until July, until I was leaving for India.

Now that I can breath okay, I’m resigned to just sitting in the train and not going anywhere. An hour and a half passes as we sit and talk. Finally, there are a few clanks and chugs and we begin to move, an hour and a half behind schedule. Amar once told me about a train trip from Assam that took him forty eight hours because once you’re running late on a train, he says, they de-prioritize you and make you wait at all the switches. So if you’re late, you’re really late. Sarah tells a similar story. She spent two days on a train once too, only it was in a lower class car so there were beggars all around and garbage and it was filthy. At least they have picked up the garbage on our train. At least there are no beggars here right now.

The porter comes by and we have to show him our tickets. Sarah asks if I can sit with them. He agrees. I can sit in the benches with my friends and when I sleep, I can use the top bunk right across the aisle, bunk 30. I don’t have to sleep in a shared compartment with strangers. I have a little bunk separated from the rest of the car by its own curtain. Julianne’s prayer comes through, or I get lucky, or both. Whatever the case, I am relieved.

They bring our dinners on little plastic trays. Mine is all smeared with white goo from a smashed contained of rice pudding that has leaked all over everything. I eat the smashed container of damp rice, then peal back the aluminum cover of a small rectangular tray. Inside are some wet potatoes. I eat some of these with a miniature plastic spoon. There is a second container full of yellow liquid and two long, skinny, red chilies. I try the yellow liquid. It tastes like bile. I leave it alone and try to eat a few more potato bits. Much like my haircut at Verma’s, even though I’m spending only about a dollar, I still feel ripped off when the porter comes to collect the payment.

I have to go to the bathroom before bed. I hula dance in the swaying aisle off to the front of the car where there is a western style bathroom and an eastern style bathroom (read: hole in the floor that leads right down to the railroad tracks beneath us). Susie says the eastern style one is better, it’s cleaner, but I still choose the western style. I don’t know why because I attempt to stand the whole time without touching the toilet anyway. The seat just makes this harder to do. Standing up and swaying like this makes me a little motion sick and I have to steady myself once I get back to my seat.

After dinner we talk a bit more. Susie mentions something about not oversleeping. We may miss our stop. Don’t they announce the stops? No. They just stop and you have to know when to get off. How will we know when we’re in Amritsar? I ask. We’ll just have to ask a porter or someone else who knows. I picture us all ending up in Pakistan with no way back.

Sarah gets out her book and starts reading. Katie climbs up into her bunk with her book. I say goodnight and crawl across the aisle up the ladder into my bunk by myself. It runs the length of the train instead of going width-wise and it seems narrower. But I’m happy for it; happy not to be in a cabin with the strange snoring man across the way; happy to be able to draw the curtain and be separated, at least by fabric, from the rest of the people on the train. I leave my curtain open for a while so I can read by the light in the aisle. I read about Babur, a Mughal emperor who took his father’s crown at the age of 12. I read about thirty pages then my eyes start glazing over. I put my book into my backpack, which is at my feet, then curl up around my purse so no one can steal it without waking me up. But they wouldn’t have to wake me up because I can’t fall asleep. I face the wall, then I face the curtain. Then I try putting my feet on top of my backpack, then under it, then I hang them off the side of the bunk. I stare at the curtain, then the wall, all the while listening to the two snoring men in our car. At one point, I remember I need to take my medication. I sit up as much as I can in the bunk and take my liter of water and pills from my backpack. As I’m doing this, a man in a turban lifts the curtain and peers in at me. “Hello?” I say and he drops the curtain and shuffles off. All night people shuffle past, I presume on their way to the bathrooms at either end of the car, or maybe they’re just looking for wallets and purses to rifle though. Who knows?

I think I finally get an hour or two of sleep towards the morning because when Susie lifts my curtain I’m kind of out-of-it. “We’ll be in Amritsar in about half an hour,” she tells me. How does she know? Susie just has a way of finding these things out.

I grab my backpack and slide out of the bunk so I can sit across the aisle on the benches with my friends. How did everyone sleep? It seems that everyone but me slept well. Perhaps they trusted Julianne’s prayer more than I did even though it seemed to do the trick for me. All of my belongings are in tact and I got to stay close to my friends so that we didn’t get separated. Or was this just luck?

Either way, we pull into the Amritsar station together, just an hour after the time we were scheduled to arrive. Susie pays off the porter. She apparently bribed him to tell us when we’d be reaching our destination. What prayer can’t take care of, a few rupees can.

No comments: