Friday, September 12, 2008

The Worst Tragedy of All


Wednesday morning at breakfast, Kim from California’s four-year-old boy is running around. “Ralphie,” she says. “Ralphie, sit down and have some milk.” Ralphie ignores her completely. Ralphie has been naughty since they moved here from Pakistan, she tells me. Ralphie is rebelling. She doesn’t know what to do.

Mira brings me an apple and, as she’s setting it down on the table in front of me, Raphie runs up and grabs it. He runs off with it.

“Here, take this one,” says Kim from California, holding up her apple. “I’m not going to eat it. Ralphie’s not going to eat it either.” Just to prove her wrong, Ralphie runs up and grabs the apple she’s offering me and sinks his tiny front teeth into it, then spits out the bite he’s taken. After this, he gives me my original apple back.

The staff here love Ralphie. They stand outside the door and play with him and his little cars for hours. The other day as I was coming home, Mira was telling me a story about Ralphie running up and down the stairs. “Up, down, up, down, all the day,” she laughed and repeated, “Up, down, up, down.”

I finish my breakfast, and when I go out to my car, Ralphie is sitting in the front seat, on the lap of the guard. They will miss Ralphie when he leaves on Monday to go live in his new home. Me: not so much.

At work I come close to finishing chapter five but get hung up near the end when I realize the author has built all the tables using the space bar. This will screw up the typesetting. I have to build actual tables. It will take some time.

Today, I receive a happier email than yesterday. The newdirections administrator says my revised newsletter article will work. I am relieved that I didn’t get a note saying my time here has been for naught, I’m being sent home or fired or other such bad news. I know I made a bigger deal out of this than it needed to be, but there are no clear guidelines for this program because every experience is different. You have to feel it out for yourself. Working within this nebulous framework is both liberating and worrisome. It is refreshing to basically be able to create my own expectations for the work I’m doing, but for someone who tends to need approval and affirmation, it’s difficult because those things basically have to come from within. Nobody is holding my hand telling me what to do, and telling me “good job” once I’ve done it. Just like I had to negotiate my way through my first days in India on my own, finding my ride at the airport, figuring out how the lock worked on my door, besting the hot water switch on my shower, I have to chart my own path through the work I am doing in the office, making sure that both the Indian and Iowan offices are taking the most value they can from supporting me in this endeavor. I’m glad I got my first newsletter article rejected. It gave me the chance to check in and make sure what I’m doing here really counts, is really making a difference.

Susie emails me as well. She wants to know if I’m going to the “Let My Country Awake” event tonight. I tell her I can’t stay the whole time. I can’t keep my driver too late, and I have to go home and get a little work done on my blog, but I’ll go for at least a little bit, just to check it out and see what it’s like.

I tell Palminder, “India Habitat Centre.”

He says, “C-83?”

I tell him, “No. India Habitat Centre. Just one hour.”

He tries again, “C-83?”

What is it with him? He never wants to take me anywhere and I’m getting a little tired of it. I know he can understand what I’m saying, but it’s like he pretends he doesn’t in hopes that he will get out of working. And it’s not just when he’s had a long day. That one Saturday all I did was go to the Lotus Temple for an hour and he was still anxious to get me the heck out of his car afterwards. And two Saturdays ago when I went to the blues bar with my friends from work, I only had him for four hours when he started sighing and asking Jonaki how much longer it would be at each new stop we made. He makes me feel guilty for going out. I know, I know. Eleanor Roosevelt would say that no one can make you feel inferior without your consent. But I have a problem withholding my consent. Go ahead, Palminder. Make me feel anxious and guilty and ultimately, make me go home early. It is getting old, though. I’m not going to continue to let a pouty driver ruin it every time I go out somewhere by making me worry about him. Pretty soon, I’m going to withhold my consent. I swear.

He finally concedes and says, “Ok.”

The India Habitat Centre is a huge complex of red brick buildings very near the Defence Colony where I stay. The event is outdoors, in a little amphitheatre between the buildings. We pull up past a guard booth and into a circular drive. I ask Palminder how I’ll find him when it’s time to go. He says he’ll be out on the street, to the right of the guard shack. He can speak English when the subject matter is about his getting off work.
I walk through the four and five story brick buildings past a restaurant and people in business clothing milling around to where I see stage lighting set up and easels with artwork. The first painting I see is of a banana and an orange floating above and below a martini glass. I am perplexed as to how this is about unity and love, or against communal violence. There are more pieces here, though, and they look the part. One is a crowd of people reaching their hands towards the viewer. Near this one there is a sign: wet paint.

I find Susie on stage with her friend Katie. Katie is a professional painter and will be painting live during the show. There is a huge canvass in front of her, and she is mixing paint: blues and browns. Susie is helping her try to steady the easel, but it’s not working. She runs off and finds an event organizer who gives Katie a different easel that doesn’t wobble.

Susie shows me where she’s sitting. Gloria, the displaced nurse from the Bihar flooding, has come with and is saving us places.

I sit next to her and make small talk. Then some people start playing a guitar and a flute. I think the show’s starting, but this is just a sound check. The real show starts a good Indian fifteen minutes late. It stinks because that’s fifteen minutes of it I won’t get to see. I told Palminder I’d be back to the car by eight.

The show begins with no introduction. A woman sings the words to Rabindranath Tagore’s poem, “Let My Country Awake” accompanied by a violin and a guitar. Susie tells me this was written and rehearsed in a week. It sounds good, especially considering the speed with which it was produced.

After the song, a guy in a brown t-shirt takes the stage. He talks about all the violence in India, Muslim against Hindu, Hindu against Christian, and says that if anyone came here to be entertained or amused, “It would be the worst tragedy of all.” Really? Worse than the flooding in Bihar or the murders in Orissa?

I understand immediately why my monologue was rejected. I wrote it with the intention of being both entertaining and amusing. Instead, I guess, they were looking for something strictly serious, something that nobody could laugh at.

The ensuing acts fit this bill. A man with a guitar sings about burning tires getting put around people’s necks. “The most dangerous place in the world is in a womb in India if you’re a girl,” he goes on.

Susie’s friend Katie paints two figures inside an eyeball. One is hitting the other with a stick. Above the eye she paints the Hindi word for justice.

The man with the guitar goes on with his assorted atrocities, then finishes with a song full of forced rhymes and the repeated line, “Keep goin’.” So the words are something like, “When your car is in a crash and you’re feeling just like trash, keep goin’.”

Next, a theatre group takes the stage. They are dressed in solid black and each has a red scarf on. Their piece is in Hindi, so I don’t understand, but it’s visually interesting and creative. The scarves become nooses at one point and they make a human pyramid to form a gallows. Then the scarves serve to bind the wrists of several of the actors. At the end they use them for a sort of maypole effect.

Katie has plastered white over her painting. She’s starting over. This time she paints two figures in an embrace inside a lotus flower. She sticks with this image, adding color and texture to it as the night wears on. It’s hypnotizing to watch her paint.

The next performance is another theatre group, but this one is led by a guy with a bad lisp who screams angrily the whole time. This one is in English, but I kind of wish it was in Hindi. I might think it was better. As it is, it’s a lot of yelling about different terrible things that could happen. They hold up a sheet that gives a shadow effect and make it appear that a woman is being beaten and raped behind it. A man on stage screams, “Raped! Raped! Repeatedly raped! And now she’s dead. Dead! OH THE BRUTALITY!”

I wonder how this is a positive message about love or unity. Actually, it’s not. Their message is about how people sit idly by while terrible things happen. I know they’re trying to accomplish something with this evening. They want to motivate people to go out and do something that will change India, that will make it a better place. I can’t fault them for good intentions, but this kind of didactic art is really not my thing. It also seems that they’re preaching to the choir, so-to-speak; that anyone who’s already come out for an evening like this is probably doing what he or she can to help. There is not much need in India to be beaten about the head with terrible news. You can see it on the corner of every street.

It’s eight o’clock. I have to go. I say goodbye to Susie and inch my way out of the amphitheatre, retracing my steps back to the circular drive. I walk to the guard shack at the front of the drive and look around for Palminder. I don’t see him anywhere. I stand there for what feels like five minutes, hoping he will pop out and find me as usually happens, but to no avail.

Don’t panic, I tell myself. I’m not alone here. At worst, I will have to go back and watch this whole show, then ride home with Susie afterwards. I walk back up to the circular drive, thinking Palminder maybe pulled up there, but no luck. I decide I’ll try to call him on my phone even though it will be an international call. Do I remember the country code for India? I don’t think so, but maybe I won’t need it. I can always try. I dig and dig in my purse, bringing up little bits of paper. There is Sonu’s sister’s address in New York. There is the handout I took at the British Consulate Library. There is everything but the business card with Palminder’s freaking number on it.

Now I sit down on the curb and start emptying my purse. I take out my wallet, my camera, the roll of camper’s toilet paper I keep with me, a maxi-pad. It’s all spread out on the ground in front of me as I squat on the curb. Just then, I hear, “Madam?” I look up and Palminder is standing there, thinking God knows what about his strange fare. I scoop up the contents of my purse and he walks me to the guard shack and just beyond where the car was apparently parked the whole time. He was right where he said he’d be. I just didn’t see him because I was looking for him instead of the car, and he never popped out.

I stop shaking.

Why was I shaking?

Everything was fine. The India Habitat Centre is a safe place. It wasn’t late at night. I had a solid Plan B. But I was still alone. And things still weren’t going exactly as I’d expected them to go. It’s my (not so) secret fear to be marooned somewhere and not be able to find my driver. Since I don’t have a local cell phone, it’s pretty much up to me and me alone to locate him after he’s left me somewhere. I can’t just call him up and tell him where I’m standing or ask him where he’s parked. I just have to find him, which can be tricky in India’s crowded streets.

Still, I’d like to be more comfortable when things go awry. Getting nervous and worrying doesn’t help. It’s that attachment again: attachment to the exact way that I want things to be. It’s hard to shake. It’s like the guy tonight saying the worst tragedy of all is if people were entertained by the show. It’s a loss of perspective on what really matters.

Palminder drives me home. We arrive safe and sound in less than fifteen minutes. I put my initials in his book to keep track of my hours and give him his hundred rupee tip.

“Madam same time tomorrow? Nine o’clock?” he asks me, as he asks me every weeknight on the way out of his car.

“Yep, same time. Good night.”