Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Mister Kandhari's Dance Party


The phone rings. I look at the clock. It reads 5:00.

“Vicki, wake up. Are you coming?” Mister Kandhari croons.

“Yeah yeah. I’ll be there in just a few minutes.”

I splash some water on my face and manage to get my contacts into my eyeballs. I throw on the clothes I got ready the night before, grab my keys and head out. The guard is sleeping in a wicker chair inside the gate, which is latched. He’s a light sleeper. He wakes up and springs to his feet as soon as I try to unlatch it.

I walk the block and a half to Mister Kandhari’s place. He’s sitting in his garden, waiting. He has tea and biscuits ready. It’s nice ginger tea, not the plain stuff I get at the guesthouse. “I just got up and thought I would call you,” he tells me. I thank him for the wake up call and sip my tea.

Mister Singh is not far behind. He sits and drinks the cup of tea Mister Kandhari has ready for him. Before long, we are ready to go. We pick up Poonam on the way. The morning precedes exactly as it did the first time I accompanied these men and their friend to the gurdwara.

We get to Bangla Sahib as the sun is beginning to turn the sky from black to blue. The gold dome against this backdrop is piercing. It gleams.

Mister Kandhari disappears into the langar area and I follow Mister Singh into the temple where they are singing the Japjee, the Sikh morning prayer. “Now that you’ve read the book, you know what they’re saying,” he tells me proudly.

I don’t understand the words, per se, but I know they’re singing about how God is Truth, and what was that other line I liked? “The Lord grants virtue to all. Can anyone favor Him in return?” It’s a long prayer and I wish I remembered more of it. There was the part about countless ways to worship. There was the compulsion to meditate on the name of God. I close my eyes and listen to the singing but I’m so tired that I have to keep jerking myself awake. I’m not cut out for early morning meditation. I would make a lousy Sikh.

After a while Mister Singh says it’s time to go. We get up from the floor and walk outside and down the stairs to the langar. Mister Kandhari has a big basket of bread ready and waiting for me. I take it and begin to pass it out. There’s another woman with a basket of bread this time too, and a man ladling out dal. The heavy set woman wobbles down the alleys of people handing six or eight slices of bread out to anyone who will take it. I trail behind her in another row of people, passing out a more sensible two or three slices. The dal man sees me. “Only pass out what people will eat,” he tells me, pointing to a boy with a tower of Wonder on his steel plate. The boy is poking holes in the pieces, making some sort of sculpture. Okay, I tell him, and continue passing out my two or three slices unless there’s a family and they ask for more. We go up and down the rows, up and down the rows and the man runs into me again. Again there is a man with a tower of bread on his plate courtesy of the topsy-turvy bread fairy. Again the man looks at me like it’s my fault. “Only give out two slices,” he tells me, growing a little impatient with the white girl. Okay, I tell him again, and go about my distribution.

I reload several times, getting more bread and chapattis. Mister Singh says no one at langar wants chapattis even though it’s healthier for you and better tasting and fresher than the packaged white bread. I find this to be strangely true. The freshly baked chapattis are harder to give away, and even the teetering lady avoids giving out stacks of them.

On the bottom of one basket I take is a load of rice. I guess I’m supposed to pass this out too, with my hands. People in India eat rice with their hands though I find this strange. I scoop it up and hand it to people though it makes a terrible mess by falling out through the bottom of the basket. One man wants handful after handful, and as I grope for it, it makes a big mess on the floor underneath. A man across the aisle points at it to tell me I’m making a mess. I know I’m making a mess. I don’t know what else to do. I finally give up and bring the basketful of rice back to the station where I trade it in for some normal bread, but now as I walk down the aisles, icky rice is sticking to my dirty feet.

Soon enough we pack it up and I follow Mister Singh back to the shoe check to get my sandals. Back at the car, Poonam has saved me a little cupful of dal and half a chapatti. I am not dying for spicy beans at seven in the morning, but there’s no getting out of eating it. I thank her and eat up.

There are no extra errands to run after temple today, so I’m home by eight o’clock. I wash my feet off in the sink and lay down for a bit. There’s plenty of time to get to church, but I called Julianne yesterday and told her I wouldn’t need a ride, so if I want to go to church today, I have to get there by myself. No Palminder. No friends. Just me and my wits.

I walk to the market and find an auto parked next to some rubble. I ask him, “Siri Fort Auditorium?” He says yes. I ask him “Meter say?” Which means roughly, “Will you use your meter?” He shakes his head, but says, “Thirty rupees.” This is a good price. I climb in and he pulls away. I don’t know if he’s driving the right way. He takes a different route than Susanna does when she drives us. But the road becomes familiar. I recognize the scenery. He’s not taking me down a dark alley where I’ll have to use my pepper spray on him. It’s all good.

I get to church early and make friends with a couple of dogs outside. Susie and Sara show up and I follow them inside. Julianne comes in later with Roxanne, after the service has already started and during an announcement that the resurrected Pastor Robin is making imploring people to show up on time.

His sermon is about being the salt of the earth and the light of the world. He’s a good speaker. Even though he’s the regular pastor here, this is the first time I hear him speak because he’s been convalescing in England. He says salt in Biblical times was used to preserve meat, to keep it from rotting. This is what Christians should do in a decaying world. They should be a preservational force. I always kind of thought the expression “salt of the earth” meant someone was, well, earthy. I like his explanation. It makes sense. He says salt only preserves meat because it is different from the meat. He says Christians need to be different than the world. They need to stand apart in their will to do good works, to preserve. He says one-third of health care in India is provided by Christians. Is this right? It’s amazing if it’s true. Christians are such a small proportion of the population here.

After church, Julianne asks if I’d like to come to her place. She’s making pizza. Sarah and Susie and Katie and Roxanne and her friend from Hindi school are all going. There should be enough pizza for one more person. I don’t have any plans until eight o’clock in the evening when I’m going to a party with Mister Kandhari at the Defence Colony club, so I hop in an auto and join my friends in GK1.

We all help with the pizza, mixing the dough, shredding the cheese, chopping up vegetables, boiling the tomatoes for the sauce. There is nothing pre-packaged about this pizza. It is truly homemade. Julianne is worried it won’t come out, but it’s just fine. The only thing that is a bit off is the cheese. The mozzarella that you can buy in India isn’t much like the mozzarella you get in the United States. Here it’s pretty tasteless and rubbery. But the pizza itself is good. The crust comes out well and the red sauce Julianne makes is the first good red sauce I’ve had while I’ve been here.

Kate, Julianne’s friend from Hindi school, is here on a Fulbright Scholarship to study reintegrating people into society after they’ve been victims of human trafficking. She commiserates with Susie about dealing with the Indian bureaucracy to register as a foreigner and get her Internet set up. Susie says when she had to register at the foreigner’s registration office, she spent every day there from the time the office opened to the time the office closed for an entire week. The employees would share their lunches with her. She had to provide paperwork in triplicate, then they’d lose it and she’d have to provide it again. Finally, they asked her for the stack of work papers she had with her just so her file would appear thicker and they could consider her case closed.

Kate has been calling and calling for someone to fix her Internet but no one comes or calls back. They just write down her complaint, then nothing happens. She says no one cares about you, but then we decide that’s inaccurate. Everyone cares about how you like India. They care about whether you are married and have children and how long you’ll be here for. And when did you get here? And where are you staying? They want to give you tea and biscuits and make sure you’re having a nice time. They just don’t care about getting you what it is you’re looking for. We laugh. It’s so true.

Before I know it, it’s four o’clock. Susie and crew are going to Sarojini Nagar to do some souvenir shopping. Katie leaves on Monday and she wants to get some jewelry for her friends. They invite me to come along, but I haven’t even showered yet and I feel too gross. I have to go home and get ready for the party this evening. I should also catch up on some blogging. I’m rather behind.

Susie mentions the bombings, as anyone going to a market in Delhi nowadays must consider this factor. Sarojini was not hit this last time, but it was bombed last year. Does that make it less likely to be a target this weekend? There’s a feeling that once a place is hit, it’s safe for a while. It seems that Sarojini’s number might be up. They figure it should be okay today.

There was a survey on the tv news saying that 80% of Delhiites are currently staying away from the markets unless they have to go there. From the crowds I see in the Defence Colony market, I think people may have exaggerated their responses when questioned. Nothing seems different to me. The markets are just as busy as they appeared to be before the bombings. I think people are considering the odds. In a city of fifteen million people, only a few hundred have been killed or injured in terrorist attacks this year. What are the chances?

Back at the guesthouse I shower and rest for a while. I’m not feeling that great; I’m a little weak and shaky and very sweaty. I think I may be coming down with something. I call Scott and tell him I may skip the party tonight, but I’ll walk over to see Mister Kandhari anyway.

When I get to his house, he is sitting in the courtyard. He springs to his feet. “Ready?” he says. “I was just sitting here waiting for you!”

I tell him I’m not feeling very well. Maybe we should just stay for a short time or something.

“Fever?” he asks, and holds a hand to my forehead, then grasps my wrist. “No fever. Is okay. Come,” he says, and eagerly leads me to the car with the dents all along the side from when he hit the concrete pole.

We drive the few blocks to the club and Mister Kandhari buys me a guest pass to the event, not allowing me to pay for it. “You are my guest,” he tells me as he shoos my hundred rupee note away.

We walk through the building and into the large courtyard. It is decorated with thousands of little white lights strewn on the surrounding trees. There are wide streamers of fabric that form a colorful canopy. There are dozens of buffet tables set up and all the chairs at them are draped in fabric and large bows.

“It’s so nice,” I say, surprised. It looks like a fancy wedding is about to happen.

“You see? You see?” Mister Kandhari says. “I know.”

He buys drink tickets and food tickets for us, again not allowing me to pay. We go to the bar and get our drinks and I follow him to a seat near the stage setup. There is a large sound system and stage lights. There are smoke machines and confetti canons. Before long, two men in shiny pants come out and begin the show by juggling fire. Then the event host takes the stage in her glittering earrings and ball gown. This event is brought to you by the wonderful, the flavorful Gorbachow Vodka which we should all take the time to enjoy, she tells us. And now the moment we have been waiting for. A hip hop dance team will perform, all the way from Mumbai.

The men who juggled fire are now shirtless and pounding out impressive dance moves in the humid heat like it’s nothing. They are joined by a third man and three women. The lights and the smoke machines and the confetti cannons are all in full effect. It’s an amazing show. I can’t believe it cost less than two dollars to get me in here.

After a few dance numbers, the emcee is back. She introduces the next act, half in Hindi, half in English. I make out that there is a famous singer. A woman in a red dress takes the stage and sings every popular song I have heard on the radio: Higher and Higher, Don’t Look at Me Like That, Boy. One of the most wonderful sights I’ve seen in India unfurls before me during her performance. A very old couple gets up and boogies so sweetly to the Punjabi dance music. The old man shrugs his shoulders dramatically with the beat and waves his arms in the air as his wife, more subdued, sways back and forth. I can’t help but feel overjoyed to watch them having fun. I took some video of this scene. I’ll get it up on the blog as soon as I have a chance.

Mister Kandhari orders some chicken and offers me some. I tell him I can’t eat it. “Oh my goodness. Oh my goodness,” he says. I tell him it’s fine. I’m not hungry, but he says it doesn’t look nice. I have to eat. He orders some paneer and chapattis and I snack on it. He is relieved.

At about ten o’clock we look at each other. It’s time to go even though the party shows no sign of stopping. Mister Kandhari has stayed up late with me again. He usually goes to bed at nine.

I tell him the party was amazing. I wasn’t expecting so much. He says he knew I would like it. “A new experience,” he says.

He drives me home and pats me on the head as I gushingly thank him for the fun time. I’m so glad I didn’t weasel out of the invitation because I was feeling a little sick. Who knew there would be a full-on high production dance party at the Elks Club in the Defence Colony? And he tells me they have these once or twice a month!

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