Saturday, September 6, 2008

You Get What You Need


Friday is George’s last day. He asks me if I’m fully recovered from my cough and shakes my hand in parting. Maybe he’ll see me in the States some time. He’s working on an assessment that my company is involved with as well.

There’s a new woman at breakfast this morning as well. Another very friendly American: Kim from California. She’s here working for Unicef. She has a young son with her. They’ll be staying at the guesthouse until she can find a permanent place to live, so maybe ten days or so, she says. She wonders where her son is while we eat. She says she’s sure the people around are looking after him. “You can do that here. It’s so child friendly,” she says. “You could never do that back home.”

Palminder is right on time as usual, though I get no phone call today telling me he’s arrived. Maybe the guards were too busy looking after Kim’s son. Who knows?

I walk down at nine o’clock anyway to find the old, clunky silver car waiting for me: the one that sounds like a teakettle boiling when it idles. I get inside and notice a terrible exhaust smell. I lean my head back and close my eyes. When I open them again, we are stopped on the bridge over the river. Palminder says, “Just a moment, madam,” then he gets out of the car and removes a plastic bag full of something from the hatchback. He drops the plastic bag over the side of the bridge and gets back into the car. We drive off.

I am perplexed twofold. First, I must have fallen asleep, like, dead asleep, and I’m hoping it’s not because the car fumes knocked me out. I’m hoping I was just that tired from my restless night with the jumping spider and throbbing toe. Second, what just happened? Is it routine to throw garbage into the river? Or was this special? What was in the bag? Evidence? A human head? At least it wasn’t big enough to be a whole body. I’m so groggy I don’t even make an effort to ask about what happened, not that Palminder’s English would allow him to explain anything. I just lean my head back again and close my eyes, hoping I don’t wake up with my head in a plastic bag, hoping the fumes don’t also knock out Palminder. He seems spry enough.

At work, I hear that it’s Debamitra’s last day. She’s going back to Kolkata to teach full time and be nearer to her family. I’m happy for her but sad to see her go. I tell her as much. She was my trusted advisor, recommending earrings and a bag for the book launch, telling me I didn’t need to fear for my life on the Himalayan trip, fetching extra tea for me when I was still feeling sick. She sat right next to me, so I could always take a little break and talk to her if I felt a bit lonely. I’ll miss her. She seems surprised. “You’ll only be here for another month,” she says.

“Yes, but I’ll still miss you!”

Jonaki gives me the number of the travel agent at work and I dial him up. I ask for train tickets. I give him the name and number of the train that Susie and Julianne are taking to Armritsar to see the Golden Temple. He speaks to me in Hindi, then says, “Tikka?” It is the only thing I understand.

“English?” I ask. He says a bunch more in Hindi. So I guess that’s a “no” on the English.

Debamitra hears me struggling. She asks if she can have the phone. She speaks to the man and asks me for information. What time am I leaving? Who is going with me? How old are they? What class car do I want? There are too many questions. I can’t answer them all. I have to call Susie for more information. The question of age is a strange one. Indians seem to have to supply this information on all trips. I had to write down my name and age on the bus to the Himalayas. It seems a bit morbid, like this is information they’ll give to the reporter when the bus or train crashes, but I go with the flow. I figure the travel agent is asking about my friends’ ages so he can search for them in his database and get me seats close to them.

Susie supplies the necessary information and Debamitra calls the travel agent back. They’ll get the tickets for me. Debamitra says I’ll need to bring money to pay them on Monday. I’ll need 600 times three for the trip going up, then 900 times three for the trip coming back. Times three? Why would I need times three?

Didn’t I need tickets for my friends?

No! I just needed a ticket for myself. I just wanted the ticket to be near my friends.

She scrambles to call the travel agent back. He already sent someone to the train station. He has to call him on his cell phone to cancel the other two tickets. And there’s no guaranty that I’ll be able to be in the same car with my friends. Just the same train.

I consider cancelling altogether on this count. I don’t want to be by myself on an overnight train. Debamitra says I should make my friends get refunds on their existing tickets, then buy them again all together, but I don’t think everyone would be willing to do that for me. Who knows if they can get their money back?

Once again, it would be easier and safer not to go on this trip. But then I wouldn’t get to see the Golden Temple, the site that heretofore I have only been Photoshopped in front of. I want to make that Photoshop photo real. Plus the Golden Temple looks like one of the most beautiful places in India.

Debamitra says the sleeper car I’ll be on is an expensive one; it’s nice. It shouldn’t be a problem. I shouldn’t have to worry about it. Anyway, I might be able to switch tickets with someone once I board: her last bit of counsel and reassurance for me. She’ll make an excellent teacher, I think. She is diminutive, but large in spirit, always willing to help out, always concerned about others. Plus, she doesn’t let anyone push her around. I hope she’s happy in her new life in Kolkata.

At the end of the day we have samosas and jalebis to celebrate and I take a few snaps to remember her by.

At home, I feel particularly lonely because all my plans for Friday night were thwarted this week. Jonaki couldn’t go to dinner, Julianne already had other plans. I won’t even be talking with Scott tonight because he’s going out to lunch with his friends. It’s just me, myself and I until I go sightseeing tomorrow at one. I know it’s just a few hours on my own. I know I have plenty to keep me busy. I can read, I can write, I can watch tv, I can paint. But I just want to be with people. I just want to talk tonight.

I’m not feeling hungry, but I decide I’ll walk to the market to get a little something to eat: maybe a salad at Angels in my Kitchen where I ate with Susie that one time. As I pass Mister Kundari’s house, I see that he’s outside talking with his daughter-in-law and granddaughter. I fold my hands and tell him hello. He tells me to come in, come in! I say that’s okay, I’m just on my way to the market, but he insists. I walk in through the big iron gate and sit on a molded plastic garden chair.

His daughter-in-law must be off. She’s dropping the kids at a friend’s house. There’s a fan going overhead and Gopi offers me a cold glass of water. Mister Kundari’s bonsai garden is lit with little solar lights. It’s a lovely place to sit. He asks me how I’m doing and if I’m meeting friends in the market or whether I’m going there alone.

“I’m just going there by myself,” I say, but he doesn’t understand this. “Alone,” I say, and this satisfies him.

He’s going to change his clothes, you see, and then we will have a beer together, you see. This sounds pleasant. I refuse at first, but he insists again. “Gopi! Gopi!” he yells, and his young, thin house helper brings out an ice bucket and a tray with two glasses.

While Mister Kundari is inside, two women in their twenties appear at his gate. They smile bashfully and are welcomed inside by the guard. Gopi brings out more chairs for them. They used to work for Mister Kundari as fashion designers, and they are here looking to work for him again.

Mister Kundari comes out in the all white outfit I saw him wearing yesterday. It looks cooler and more comfortable than the dress pants and collared shirt he had on just a few minutes earlier.

He talks at length to the two young girls about their prospective employment with him—but he talks in Hindi so I don’t understand any of it unless they say good or okay, which they do a few times.

He pours me a beer and puts ice in it. I think it’s the first time I’ve ever had beer over ice. But it’s Kingfisher. It’s pretty strong, so the ice is okay.

They talk on and on then Mister Kundari says, “Let’s go. Let’s go to the club where we went.” He wants to take us all there for dinner. The girls protest. They can’t go. They have to meet someone at nine; if they go to the club they’ll be late. They talk a little more, then leave.

I ask Mister Kundari who lives in his big house with him. Does his sister live here? No. She just comes to help with the house sometimes. His son’s family lives upstairs, “But I let them be. I don’t bother them. They have their own lives. I am alone. But I am very happy. Very happy. I have travelled the world. I have seen so much. I have been to Norway fifty times. I have been to United States. I have everything I need. Five cars I have. These cars are all mine.” He points to a slew of cars parked outside his gate then has his guard open a garage just behind us that houses a Mercedes. “I am very happy,” he says. “I have everything I need.”

“Come, have some food with me,” he says. I follow him into his house where Gopi has placed a buffet of dishes on an end table near a couch and chair which are covered in stacks of magazines that he gathers up quickly. “Here, read. I am well known in Defence Colony.” There is an article about him in a Defence Colony newsletter. He’s won fifteen different awards for his gardening. It says his wife used to be a doll maker and he ran a successful doll making business for a while, until he turned to the garment business because it would be more lucrative. It mentions how he helped with the free breakfasts at the Bangla Saab Gurudwara for twelve years. It says he’s a good and accomplished man. I notice I’ve been spelling his name wrong. It’s Kandhari.

I ask about his wife. She made dolls? “She has been gone now many years.” Mister Kandhari doesn’t say much more. There is a large picture of her on the far wall.

He digs out photos of his gardens and himself being presented with awards by various important people like the mayor of Delhi and a member of parliament. I ask how long he’s been gardening. Three years. Three years? He’s done all this in three years? It occurs to me I am in the presence of a talented man who can do whatever he puts his mind and attention to.

Dinner is good. There’s paneer and okra and dal and chapattis. There is also a dish of kurry that I notice Mister Kandhari leaves untouched. Why does this food exist if no one likes it?

We finish eating quickly and when we’re done, there are two cups of rice pudding. “I hope you like. I put less sugar.” It’s nice to have something that is not super sugary for a change. Indians call their desserts “sweets” with good reason.

I figure I should do the running away thing after I eat, but Mister Kandhari says I should stay. We can sit outside for a bit. His delicate bonsai garden is lit up with little solar lanterns. Lizards scamper up the walls eating bugs. An almost cool breeze blows. He asks me about my friends. Do I get to see them during the week? I should bring them over some time. We can go to the club, the Indian Moose Lodge, where we went before. I get the sense that Mister Kandhari is a little lonely. I also appreciate that he doesn’t ask me to go to the club with him alone. I think he respects that fact that I felt strange about it last time and doesn’t want to put me in that position again.

I tell him I should be going. “Will you still go to the market?” he asks. Yes, I tell him. I need to go to the ATM because I’ll be doing some sightseeing tomorrow. “Okay, then. You go,” he smiles and shakes my hand. “You come, five thirty on Sunday? You bring your camera. You will remember for life.”

I set off for the market but turn around half way there. It’s dark out and I don’t want to go to an ATM this late at night. I can go tomorrow. As I walk home in the warm night, it strikes me that I too have everything I need. It amazes me how India has provided for me. There is good, healthy food and kind people to share it with everywhere I turn. Every time I need help, I get it. Every time I just want someone to talk to, someone appears. In case Mister Kandhari wants to know, I am happy. Very happy. And I'll see him on Sunday at five thirty.

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