Friday, September 19, 2008

A Room or No Room?


By Wednesday, the subject of the bombings has been exhausted. It comes up no longer in conversation, though it still appears in the headlines. The police are tracking down suspects, the paper says, though it’s a little vague on the specifics.

The larger headline today, the one that takes up almost all of page one, is about Lehman Brothers going bankrupt and how that will impact the Indian economy. India stands to lose 25,000 jobs because of this event, the article says. Banks, apparently, do a lot of outsourcing.

At about quarter to nine, I walk over to Mister Singh’s house, as per Mister Kandhari’s directions last night. Mister Singh’s guard is outside polishing a posh sedan. He ushers me through the marble foyer and into Mister Singh’s sitting room. He turns on the ceiling fan for me and goes to tell Mister Singh he has a caller. I hope I’m not intruding. I don’t usually just show up at people’s houses.

Mister Singh walks into the room and sits down on the couch opposite me. He’s dressed in earth tones except for his blue turban. His shorts bear his skinny legs. How am I doing? How did I like the dinner the other night at the gurudwara? The Sikhs are nothing like the Hindus, he tells me. Hindus divide society into four castes: the warriors, the holy, the workers and the untouchables. Sikhs think caste is wrong.

His house helper brings a large framed piece of art into the room for me to see. It is a painting of Guru Gobind Singh on horseback holding a sword and a falcon, pointing at a large floating book: the Guru Granth Sahib. Beside him are some versus about Sikhism. Mister Singh reads them aloud to me. The same versus appear on the back of the frame handwritten by the artist.

This artist, Mister Singh tells me, painted a map of India with a naked woman on it to represent Mother India. For this, he was thrown out of the country. It was very controversial.

What would I like? Chai? Coffee?

I tell Mister Singh I can’t actually stay for tea. I have to leave for work at nine o’clock. He looks at his watch. It is five minutes of nine.

He goes to his bookshelf and takes out the book on the Golden Temple that he showed me the evening I had dinner with him and Poonam. He’ll loan it to me this time. I should take it and read it before I go. It tells all about the temple.

I ask him the name of the hotel he’s called and made reservations at. We leave in two days and I’m getting antsy to finalize our plans. He tells it to me but it’s hard to pronounce. The first syllable sounds like “shit” and this throws me off completely. He says he’ll get me all the information I need. His daughter-in-law is on the Internet right now printing out some things. He’ll have them brought over to my guesthouse. What room am I in?

Room ten.


Room ten.


Ten. Sometimes Mister Singh’s English just turns off and he suddenly can’t understand what I’m saying at all. He finally gets it. Room ten. Okay. He’ll have the information sent over.

He walks me out and shows me his little courtyard garden. There are two busts of Roman gods and lots of potted plants. There is a bonsai garden that is unmistakably Mister Kandhari’s work. “It’s beautiful,” I tell him. He tells me again how he is responsible for the rock wall that laps around the park across the street from him. When it was windy, it would blow the dust into everyone’s houses, so he had this wall built in front of his house, then everyone else wanted it too. They had to pay just two thousand rupees a piece for it. Everyone did.

I’m anxious I don’t miss my ride. On Monday when I went to the Taj Mahal, I forgot to call Palminder and cancel my cab for the day, so he ended up sitting and waiting for me until he asked the guard and they told him I’d left in a different car. I don’t want Palminder to think I’ve ditched him again and just leave.

I don’t want to be an ungracious guest, but I need to go. Mister Singh finishes his little garden tour and bids me goodbye at his black metal gate. Outside I see Palminder parked and waiting for me. I jog back up to my room to grab my backpack and purse.

Amar stops by my desk early in the day and asks me what I think about the American economy. It’s in a frightening state, I say. We talk about the headlines, about job losses. We talk about how the banking system in India is different than that in the United States. There are hundreds of small banks here, as opposed to the few giant corporations that have swallowed up all the neighborhood banks in the US.

I tell Amar I tried to open a banking account when I first got here. Finance wanted me to pay for my taxi fare with a check they cut for me. I was trying to cash it and open an account with it, but they asked for so much information I didn’t know where to start. They wanted a passport, two additional passport photos, a statement from work, a statement from the place I was living. The list went on and on. I figure this is different if you live here. It’s probably not so difficult, but Amar says it is. Indians have no social security number, so to do anything, you have to find different ways of proving your identity. This explains some of the famous Indian bureaucracy I’ve seen. The government doesn’t necessarily know who lives here, who exists. So it’s more difficult to get a passport, a utility set up, even a credit card.

At lunch Amar talks about the literacy rate in India. It’s something like sixty percent. This is better than Pakistan, which is like forty nine percent. Amar says there’s free public schooling here, but parents still won’t send their children because to keep them out of school means they can work and earn money for the family. I think of all the little boys selling magazines I see in traffic almost daily and the little boy running the ride at the small carnival outside Kalkaji Mandir. Amar says there are organizations that try to help with this. CRY is one. CRY is a good organization? I ask. Because there was a man from CRY who came up to me one day last week when I was petting Acha, Baby and Baloo. He wanted me to donate money but I couldn’t write him a check and he wasn’t supposed to take cash donations. He wanted to follow me back to my room so I could get my wallet and give him cash. He could go the bank with it and get a draft, he said. I told him I would donate online, but he wouldn’t get credit for having solicited my donation that way. He gave me the hard sell. He said people are so willing to waste their money on expensive dinners and drinks, but nobody wants to give a little bit to help others. I told him I want to help, I just don’t want a strange man to follow me back to my room so I can get my wallet. He said he wasn’t strange. He was my friend. He showed me a badge and a business card. I wasn’t sold. I told him I just couldn’t give that day, but thanked him for telling me about CRY. He didn’t care about educating me. He wanted to list my donation on his pledge sheet and I wasn’t helping him out. He finally walked away, disappointed. But Amar says CRY is a good organization to support. They have education programs for the underprivileged. Pearson also has a foundation where in exchange for learning a trade, people also have to learn how to read. They come because they want to know how to sew, which will make them money, but before they learn that, they are taught some basic literacy skills. How good. Pearson is just a good company.

In the afternoon there is a strange rushing noise and everyone gets up from their desks. It is pounding down rain outside. Arani returns from the nala vendor. He is drenched. He’d just walked out to get some tea when the sky broke open. This isn’t the change of season rain that Shinjini was walking about last week. This is monsoon rain, so thick it doesn’t even look like there are any drops, just solid water. Someone forgot to tell it that the monsoon season just officially ended. It didn’t get the memo.

Thankfully before I leave work, the rain abates. It is dark and stormy looking, but there is just a sprinkle as I walk out to the car. I get inside. “Lots of rain,” I tell Palminder.

“Yes, very rain,” he responds.

I know rain like this means bad traffic. The already narrow roads will pool up with water which will close half the lanes. Tomorrow, there’ll be a headline about it. “Rain Halts Delhi Traffic,” or something like that.

At one point, Palminder nudges his way into the middle of an intersection against the flow of traffic. There are cars pointed at us from all eight cardinal and ordinal directions. Sixteen headlights light up the car. Men shout and wave their arms. Palminder mumbles. The whole time, he is playing this peaceful chanting music with birds in the background, like something you’d use to meditate. The music goes on unaware of the chaos surrounding it. Two pedestrians in t-shirts appear and begin directing traffic. This happens in India. Anyone can direct traffic. They wade out into the water and tightly packed vehicles and begin pointing and waving. Cars inch past each other, and soon, there is a narrow gap between two of them that we can fit through. We are again underway without a scratch, though it was a close call.

We arrive home and it is again raining pretty hard. The guard meets me at my car holding out an umbrella for me. He follows me to the door holding the umbrella over my head as I walk. I thank him profusely.

Inside there are a few papers on my end table. There is a puzzle from Scott. A numbered code that I have to crack to figure out the messages he’s sent me. The last message is “Bye Bye,” and I cry as I finish it. I don’t want him to say goodbye to me. I want to keep playing this game with him, but it’s over.

Also on the table are some papers from Mister Singh, with his business card folded inside. It reads: Diljit Singh, chief executive, Herald Advertising Agency. The papers are general printouts of things to do while in Amritsar. He’s placed checkmarks next to everything on the list. We should go to the Golden Temple, then the site where the British killed hundreds of Indian soldiers, then see the changing of the guard.

There is no information at all about the hotel or the cab service he keeps talking about. I start to wonder if there is a hotel, if he does know a cab service, or if this is just some cultural miscommunication, if this is just a polite thing that he’s been making up the whole time. I start to wonder if it’s a good idea to go to Armritsar at all, especially if we have no hotel or cab lined up. I don’t want to travel without having these arrangements made.

I decide I’ll stop by Mister Singh’s place again tomorrow morning. I hate to bother him, but tomorrow is the drop dead date. I need to know if I have a place to stay in Armritsar or not.

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