Friday, October 3, 2008

Accepting the Questioner

Thursday October 2

Today is Gandhi’s birthday, so the office is closed, but because I’m on the U.S. payroll system, I can’t enter it as a holiday. So I either have to take a vacation day or work from home. Since I’ve pretty much done the Delhi tourist scene, I opt to have a quiet day working from home. I told Palminder to pick me up at noon. I figure I can run to Khan market over the lunch hour and try to exchange this movie I bought for one with English subtitles.

The morning passes quickly as I clunk away at chapter eight. At noon, I walk down to the car. Palminder tells me that the markets are closed. So instead of exchanging my movie, I tell him to take me to Lodhi Garden. I figure I should see it before I go, and I’m not sure when I’ll get the chance to go otherwise. Saturday I was planning on doing something with the people from work, and Sunday is the gurdwara and church.

The garden is very close to where I’m staying. We pull up in front of it in about ten minutes. Palminder tells me the car will be in the small lot full of ice cream vendors just outside the gate. I try to find some distinguishing landmarks around this gate so I don’t get lost. I figure there are ice cream vendors everywhere. I’ll just have to remember my path as I walk through the park.

Inside I see a little tubular animal that looks kind of like a ferret but isn’t. Jonaki later tells me this was a mongoose. “There are lots of snakes in there, so you don’t want to sit around too much.” I’m glad to discover this only in retrospect.

The park is large and has nice, paved walking paths that aren’t broken up or filled with obstructions. The main path circles around two large buildings with giant onion domes. These are Mughal tombs. I don’t know why I wasn’t expecting as much, but I am surprised. I thought I’d see a few plants and a few trees. Instead, there are picturesque ruins from the 1400s and 1500s to climb around in. Couples sit by the side of a lagoon, snuggling and mopping sweat from their faces with scarves and clothes. A group of men in white lungi sit cross-legged on several blankets spread out in front of the largest tomb. A little brown dog with wispy ears trots up to me expectantly. I pet it and it follows me around to the third building, another tomb enclosed by a fortress wall. It’s in the high nineties if not a hundred degrees. I am soaked with sweat. I retrace my steps past the couples and families with children back to the gate where I came in. Navigating the park wasn’t so difficult after all. Palminder is waiting in the cool car. I consider buying us both ice cream, but we pull away too quickly for this idea to take full shape. I’m not sure about the ice cream from the street vendors anyway.

I have Palminder drop me off in the market where I grab a quick bite at Sagar. Since it’s so crowded, I’m seated at a table with a woman from London. It’s her first week in Delhi, she tells me. She’s been in Mumbai for several months, though. She’s a consultant. This is as specific as she can get about what she does. She asks what I do. I tell her I’m working on textbooks. She says she’s fascinated with the language here, how it’s changed from British English and become a new thing altogether. I tell her it’s interesting editing because there’s no one style, especially when doing adaptations. If it’s an American book, we use American spellings. If it’s a British book, we use British spellings. And then there’s the house style. It’s like there’s a whole new set of rules for every circumstance. It’s so Indian, I reflect. Nothing is cut and dried; everything is relative. Jonaki even told me there are two versions of the holiday that’s coming up next week, Dussehra. Some people celebrate the victory of Rama over Ravana; others say it was the goddess Durga who defeated the evil ruler of Lanka.

Back at home I hack away at chapter eight until about five o’clock when the phone rings. It’s the guard. He speaks but all I can understand is “eighty two.” This is enough. Mister Singh has called on me.

I walk next door and see that Mister Singh and Mister Kandhari are sitting together. Mister Kandhari rises and shakes my hand when he sees me. “How are you? I lost your number. I was going to call yesterday and I lost your number.”

Mister Singh tells me to have a seat. “We didn’t know if you’d be home since there is a holiday, but I thought we would go ahead and try.” He tells me his wife had to go to the hospital yesterday. Her stomach was bloated and hurting her so much she couldn’t eat anything. They had to do surgery on her because she was retaining so much water. And they may need to do another surgery if she doesn’t recover as expected. I tell him I’m very sorry. I hope she heals soon. He is accepting of the situation. He tells me about it in a matter-of-fact tone without much ado, then we move on to other topics.

Mister Kandhari wants to know if I want to go back to the orphanage. He’s going on Sunday. He’s thinking of giving money and he wants to take a tour. So we’ll go. Okay? He’ll tell his friend. We will go. Yes, he says, answering his own question.

Mister Singh says he knows this couple who tried to have a child. For twenty years, they tried. And the man had a brain injury as well. They came to visit Bangla Sahib and prayed that the man would be able to keep his job and that they would have a child. And do you know that the military gave him a desk job? They let him keep working. And one year later he called and said his wife was pregnant, after twenty years. Can you imagine? If you wish for something, Mister Singh says, God will grant it. He thinks for a moment. Unless, of course, you ask for something foolish like you want to be the king of all the world. Then God won’t grant that, you see.

I think of Mister Singh’s ailing wife. She’s been on dialysis for years now. How can he say God grants wishes when it’s so clearly not the case? If God grants wishes, why do people die? Why are they suffering? Why is their poverty? Have we just not wished hard enough? Or are wishes to end these things foolish?

I know what Mister Singh would say. He would say that his wife is suffering because of karma. He explained this to me before. Her illness is the result of something she did in a past life. There is no escaping karma, so wishing it away, I guess, is foolish. And God doesn’t humor fools. People in India are able to live with all kinds of suffering because they believe it’s their karma and they have to accept it. But this concept doesn’t seem to reconcile with a God who grants wishes. What about the man with the brain injury? Why did he get his wish? Why wasn’t his problem chalked up to bad karma? How is it that only some bad things that happen are the result of bad karma? Are others just bad luck? And wishing to God takes care of those?

I don’t want to argue with Mister Singh, but I don’t think God is a genie in a bottle. I can’t believe in an omnipotent God who lets people suffer when he has the power to stop it, when he has the power to grant wishes. So if I don’t believe in that, what do I believe?

“Of course there are some people who don’t believe in God,” Mister Singh says. Am I that transparent at this moment? “But then who is controlling everything? Hmm? Who is making the sun to come up and the moon? Who is changing the seasons?”

Nature? No one? I nod for Mister Singh, but his question lingers. My question lingers. What do I believe?

I believe in the voice I heard at the Lotus Temple; in a force that grants wisdom when it is sought. But that can’t be all that God is, if he is, because that God would only be a God of humans. And God, if it exists, is definitely not all about humanity. God is in the trees and the clouds and the ocean and the stray dogs who won’t eat my biscuits but allow me to pat their heads. Maybe God is selflessness, but that is too human a concept too. As is love. God is love. It’s all too human and God isn’t that. God is an omnipresent energy. God is life.

Though I don’t see the point in wishing, Mister Singh is hopeful on my behalf. “Who knows?” he says. “Maybe you will go to Bangla Sahib and come back to India in a year with a child.” How can I say I haven’t quite made up my mind about that either?

I had wanted at the end of my three months to hit the buzzer and lock in my final answers to these issues, to answer the million dollar questions, but I can see now that it isn’t going to be like that. The stage lights aren’t going to flash around me and it’s not going to rain money as Regis Philbin congratulates me and sends me off into my neat, new life.

And really, that’s good. I don’t want an answer locked in. That would mean I stopped changing; which would mean I stopped growing. My time in India hasn’t been about finding the right answers. There are no right answers in India, or there are a million and one different right answers that all contradict each other and have six arms and no street signs and faulty wiring. So forget the answers; my time here has been about accepting where I am as the one who asks questions. And I think I’ve accomplished something there.

Mister Singh’s house helper brings cold water, then tea and a large jar of biscotti. “I order these biscuits and people eat them like anything!” Mister Singh says cheerfully, offering me a second one. Then there are pakoras, India’s tempura, basically, fried, breaded vegetables. I eat some cauliflower and Mister Singh puts more on my plate. Then more.

Mister Kandhari drops his keys on the ground. They make a jangling noise and he cocks his head, suddenly looking at me as though this has reminded him of something. “Vicki,” he says, “What has most affected you in India?”

Oh my gosh, I think. How can I begin? I think immediately of the Taj Mahal and then I think of the beggars on the streets. “Everything,” I say. It’s such a lame answer, and I wish I had a better one. I want to ask him, “Can you give me a day or two to come up with a blog entry on that, Mister Kandhari?” But the conversation has already left the subject behind. Mister Singh’s granddaughter and her husband have just arrived, and his daughter-in-law is offering me some puffy-looking lotus seeds. “Zero calories,” she says.

“Come, let’s go,” Mister Kandhari says to me, rising. He wants me to go with him to sit in his garden. We walk to his place, the little black dog finding me and mauling me with affection on the way. He jumps at my ankles and wraps his legs around them to get me to stop walking. I almost fall over. I try to explain to Mister Kandhari that I’ve been feeding this dog biscuits and now he really likes me, but I’m not sure how much of this he picks up.

We sit for a while in the garden. Mister Kandhari asks when I’m going back. Soon. He asks what my work is like in the United States. I comment on his new plants. They’re very nice. This is his weakness, he says. He sees plants and he must buy them. I ask him if he worked today or if he took a holiday. He says he took a holiday but it was boring. He got some plants for the gurdwara this morning, then he came back at about one o’clock and slept. It was boring. There was nothing to do. Then his friend called him and they decided to see if I was around.

The conversation hits a lull. There’s nothing much else we can talk about right now. Mister Kandhari gets up and goes inside. He comes out with a bottle of water and two glasses that he gives to me. “Here, take these. Come, we will go for a drive. I am bored.”

We get into his car and he pulls away. “Here, you can put the glasses,” he takes out the drink holder and shoves the glasses into it, then produces a bottle of vodka from, was that in his pants? I wonder if this is legal in India or illegal. Mister Kandhari seems to think it’s okay. I pour a little in my glass, and he would like three drops in his. He is pretty literal about this. I pour in about three drops when he tells me to stop and fill up the rest of his glass with water.

“How do you like?” he asks me. “I enjoy. Everybody like to enjoy life in a different style. I like to drive and listen to music.” It is a pretty nice night outside, and I do like the music.

“It’s nice,” I say. Then I tell him it’s my dad’s birthday today. Just now I realize that my dad and Gandhi share the date.

“Oh, then I will drive you home soon so you can call him,” Mister Kandhari says, and he does. “I think I am one of your best friends in India,” he tells me after a while. “You will remember me when you go back?”

“I will absolutely remember you,” I tell him as we pull up in front of my guesthouse and he shakes my hand.

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