Friday, October 29, 2010

Piecemeal thoughts: Indian ishtyle

One: Halloween party at school today. I’m so happy for the boy. He gets to wear his Swamp Fire costume and bake pizzas at school. Sweet.

Two: As I leave said party, I hear the teacher say, children, its time for the school prayer. This I must see. I watch as the children gather around in a circle--witches, Spidermen and fairies, join their hands together and thank God, yes God for all good things from food to friends and family. How easy it is. And how nice. So few things are nice these days. I wonder then how sad it is that school prayer has been banned in the States. Why has God become a bad word? If one is concerned about religious freedom, let the child replace the word with Allah or Vishnu or Yaweh or nature or anything they like. Even atheists must believe in the power of nature and plain old Karma. Interesting thing…most kids in class are Hindu barring two kids, both of whom supposedly actually pray to the deity commonly known in the Western world as “God.” And yet all these children, Christian and not, with eyes tightly closed, all send thanks to this God. Hmm…

Three: We have hired a private taxi here, which is costing us an arm and half a leg but is a convenience. The driver they sent us is a Tamil ex army fellow who has a smoking habit that I can unfortunately smell on him. But he’s punctual and well behaved. A bit too feudal—good morning madam, salute…that sort of thing I never was very comfortable with and now having lived in the “free, classless world” for so long feel positively put off by. For all his feudal behavior though it’s strange how easily one can get familiar. In the States, one can meet someone chat even intimately for a few minutes, and walk away, no strings attached. But here it’s not so. No sooner than he finds that I am a Tamilian and my bad that I asked him many questions about himself, he starts giving me advice, making borderline inappropriate comments--for a hired underling, that is. “Let me show you where you should live. Don’t bother looking at these apartments. Why are you not checking these out.” Shaking his head every now and again. And so on and on and on. My solution. I don’t speak to him anymore. He opens the car door, salutes and says good morning. I wish him back. My son and I get in the car and we keep quiet. It’s such a handicap now not having a language no one understands. Quite a pain actually. We cannot make comments, remark rudely on anything without being understood. Dang it. And my husband doesn’t speak Tamil. Not that it would make any difference with the driver who speaks it. Checkmate. Time to start learning the French I always wanted to.

Four: Men don’t shake hands with me here. Real estate agents, contacts we need to cultivate in high places. I’m starting to feel offended. What is this? The 12th century? Just because I’m a woman, why don’t they—but hey, wait a minute, I think then. Heaven alone knows where your hand has been, stranger. Hmm. This could be a win-win situation. I fold my hands in the traditional Indian greeting and smile with no qualms any longer. This isn’t an issue about feminism people, just plain health.

Five: So I bullied my son for months before landing in India into doing sums and words of various levels of difficulty hoping he would not fall behind in the more trying Indian education system.

Now, they had this nice open house kind of thing in his class—transportation is the subject. Tables with various charts with kids talking about aspects of transportation. Somehow the teacher manages to involve my son too with about three minutes notice. I am impressed. After, the kids stand in two rows to sing some songs. They sing a couple. For the final one, a sort of tongue twister, the teacher stands a tiny cherub of a girl in front of the other kids and hands her a sheet of paper. The girl starts to recite, “The creepiest creep wears his shirt…”something…something. She is looking at the sheet intently. The coin drops. I ask the mother seated next to me. “Is she actually reading?” I say incredulously. “Oh yeah,” this mother says as if it’s the most ordinary thing.

Gosh, I hope these guys don’t grade on a curve with this girl at the top. My son may be a bright spark but he ain’t no match for this kind of superior skill set.

Six: Did I mention the traffic? Unbelievable. Erratic. Cars miss touching each other by inches, no one stays in a single lane. Positive of this anarchy? No one on Indian roads will ever sleep at the wheel.

Seven: Indians just cannot develop dementia. The brain has to always be working here. Or you’ll be parted with your money or worse, a leg or arm in traffic. Did I mention how horrid it is? Once or twice already? Ok I’ll stop. Anyway, lets say you take a rickshaw in the city I am in. The meter reads 3:10. Ok that isn’t the rate you pay. You could just trust your driver and pay what he says you should pay. Or you can multiply that number by 8 and add 3 to that result. And that is what his rate card should say. Some creative Johnnies have been known to print “special” rate cards for trusting na├»ve tourists.

Next, say you’re at a store. Be sure and check the MRP—or maximum retail price on every single product you buy or unscrupulous sellers in small stores might tag on one or two rupees here and there, rounding off as it pleases them thus lightening your load of cash by a few bucks, and you’re none the wiser. And while buying veggies from the bazaar make sure the brain is kept charged--you have bought one kilo tomatoes, two kilos carrots, half a kilo onions, the first at 50 rupees a kilo, the second at 100 rupees a kilo, the third is 65 rupees…are you keeping track? For at the end you will have a bag full of veg and the shop keeper will have a total for you. There will be others clamoring for his attention so make sure you have been totaling the amounts accurately and if you have bargained and been given a small discount (indicated by a bob of the head), make sure to account for that discount too in your calculations. No time to bring out your calculator, right? You are too busy holding bags of veggies as he hands them to you. Maybe you have a child pulling at your side.

See? No chance of dementia.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Beginning

I am up at dawn. Prayers from the local mosque sounds loud and clear. I switch on the water heater. No continuous heating of water here. That is not done. And if you think about it, it is rather a waste of energy. So basking in the warmth of my forced eco friendly bath, I try the water five minutes after I switch on the heater. A trickle of scalding water emerges, I jump aside, add some cold water. Now it’s freezing. Using some deft maneuvering and jiggling of taps, I manage a half-inch thick stream of lukewarm water from the shower. Half of my right shoulder gets a great shower, the rest of me must just wait. That or…I just turn on the cold water full blast. I don’t have the time to wait for this heater to do its thing. Best if I get used to showering in the cold. Will wake me up good, I tell myself.

I have been here six days. Every sense has been assaulted pleasantly and otherwise.

This is the India I conveniently forget when I am not here.

The ultra cool and absolutely un-cool collide with one another leaving one confused.

Bombay was where we first landed. 3000 degrees in the shade. I lost my appetite, quite literally. Figuratively..well, we'll see.

But I haven’t snacked foolishly for days. Hopefully have lost five pounds or on well on my way. Cool.

A young man pushes a vegetable cart across busy highway. Manages to notice old beggar woman and without so much as a glance in her direction hands her some of his produce. She thanks him. He doesn’t acknowledge it. He has a heavy cart to quickly push across the highway before the signal turns and someone in a car or scooter collides with him. Uber cool.

We arrive at Pune. I am buying my son his school uniform at a store. Of course my son wants to use a toilet. Badly. I ask the store manager who is juggling three phone lines, four servants, three languages and my son’s uniforms. No toilet here madam, she says. We use the one at the McDonald’s. Fine. I’ll go there, I say between gritted teeth to my poor son who is now buckled forward holding everything in. We start walking. And we walk and we walk and we manage to cross the road. An aside here. Another aspect of India I also choose to forget. The insane traffic. It stops for no one. If there isn’t a signal at a crossing, cross at your own risk. If there is a signal, its merely considered a suggestion. I carry my son so at least I have some control of the crazies coming at us from both directions and we manage to make it across. Where is the McD’s I ask. A block away, it turns out. We go there. There are washrooms in the adjoining mall. It smells like disinfectant. So strong I think I might faint. But the bathrooms look clean enough. I sit my son atop one. No water!! Oh my goodness. No toilet paper even. I curse under my breath. This is the reason I hate I start to think, feel close to tears…my son starts to laugh. Ok, we step into the next stall and clean up. I try one wash-basin. No water. I am going to panic now. The next one does have water. Both of us start laughing. My son concludes. No one follows the rules on Indian roads, the toilets are a toss up but the McDonalds serves pretty tasty meals--their veggie burgers are really quite yummy.

After that harrowing incident, ok well, not so harrowing but a little, given my OCD issues, we go in search of a backpack for my son. This is a city that takes its siesta very seriously. We are looking around at 2:30. Most shops were closed since that is what they do between 1 and 4. Take a nap. Nice. No backpack today son.

That was yesterday. Today was a good school day. And our first day looking for an apartment. We start at what is a prime location, Boat Club Road. Nice, regal looking building. Four bedrooms, spacious, they said, a duplex. We step in and back. In time that is. The place is a colossus, space wise but really. Dingy, dark, bathrooms that have seen better days in the sixties and even then they were in poor taste. We leave. The next three or four places we see are not exactly a significant improvement on the first. One is promising until I open the kitchen drawers. Rusty steel everywhere. I might get tetanus just looking at it. Right. Large though. Nice building, park outside. Marble floors. Bathrooms could be better but then one needs to compromise somewhere, I suppose.

Looks like we need to up our budget somewhat. For the budget we are offering, one could get nice digs in Chicago but obviously not so here. At least not what we label nice. Champagne tastes, beer budget is what it is starting to look like. But tomorrow is another day. I have so much to be grateful for. My in laws place to stay in for now.

The fact that my boys have adapted like a dream. But I don't know where I stand yet.

Am I happy? Am I disgusted?

I left India swearing never to return. I had my reasons then. Are they valid now? Will I ever be content? Does place even matter to be content?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


OMG. Have been up since forever.

I know I said I'd write the next entry from India but this doesn't count as US soil either. I am in the twilight zone. It's dark out and I am surrounded by more bags than the luggage department at Macys.

I have organized this move badly. Talk about penny wise and pound foolish, monetarily and weight wise, I have been an idiot. A container load of our stuff went out the door days ago and to save money I let "some" stuff stay behind for us to take along with us.

"Some" stuff has quickly morphed into 11 suitcases which are so bloody full that if I even so much as approach them with a sharpened pin they might burst.

What do I have in them? Dashed if I know anymore. A couple jars of almond butter and three boxes of cereal and clothes have grown into stuff that can cause suitcases to break at the handle when lifted. That happened at 9 pm last night. My husband lifted one to weigh it and like glass, I kid you not, the handle shattered at the seams like glass. Bloody hell. What a CF!

More than half of what I have in the suitcases could have been brought later by hubby who will frequently travel. But where will the stuff stay is the question? With sweet younger sibling of course. And sweet younger sibling has a sweet bachelor pad-one bedroom I might add that is also bursting at the seams with stuff I plan to bring over time. My poor brother's face grew more and more tense as he saw boxes and suitcases of stuff piling up in our dining room for him to "store" for us. At first I tried reassuring him saying I'd buy those fancy under bed thingamajigs. I did but hey beds are only so wide. After a while I gave up trying to minimize. So piece of advice Don't attempt to visit said sibling for at least six months. You may not see much beyond the door. Six months should give him enough time to find a place for all the stuff I've piled upon him. Or lose them conveniently, whichever comes first.

I need coffee. My baby will be up in about thirty seconds and I know I am not going to get much sleep on the plane, business class or not.

Oh yes we are traveling business. Its not our usual style. Haven't quite got around to that yet. No we usually travel what my brother refers to as kutta class or dog class or in more refined terms, Economy. No eleven suitcases or free champagne for you there, my friend. International Economy is where they offer you meals thus, "Veg or non veg madam?" Err...I know I have six seconds to respond before she will make the decision for me. Lets see I like beef (but not airline beef for that can be tough. Once ordered a steak that wouldn't cut with the sorry excuse of a knife they provided. I don't eat chicken. This lot wouldn't offer shrimp and the fish if any would be something they found fishing in open drains someplace. Veg, I say before she can make a face. Then I venture to ask. What meal is it? Politely I might add. She shrugs as though I have slighted her. "I don't know." As if to say, we might feed you lot this junk, doesn't mean we eat it.

That's fine. Veg it is. How bad can their creamed peas be huh?

So we have coughed up a small fortune for business and will thus enjoy our pain among the more privileged and in style.

I just hope they agree to check us in first.

Now where is that coffee...

Monday, October 18, 2010

Cold feet

I sat in my older son's now empty room feeding my younger one. The slightest sound either of us made echoed back to us from the picture less, sterile walls, the empty closets, the noiseless corridor.

I felt a chill run down my spine. This is a mistake I told myself, panicking. Why am I leaving a country and home I love? This is my home, it is the place that has made me the wiser, tough, sensible person I am today. Why? why? why?

Ok Ranjini, this is nothing but a case of cold feet. Natural under the circumstances, I tried to tell myself.

That night I promptly fell ill, got chills, body, random flu-ish symptoms. I was going from room to room like a zombie, not able to get organized. There was little stuff everywhere. A rattle here, a stapler there, some coins, a set of headphones, unmade beds, old nail polish, mis matched socks, broken toys. So much junk, I thought, wincing every time, yet unable to pick stuff up and throw them away. Unable to do anything more than stare at the objects and walk on to the next room only to find more.

Once more I sat down and asked myself what we were doing and why? Everyone keeps saying we are so brave. I wish they wouldn't. I don't feel at all brave. And why is it a brave thing what we're doing?

The only encouragement I got was from my babysitter. She came to pick up her last check and wasn't sentimental in the least. Done packing, she asked? Some, I said.

She looks around raises her hands to her face and says with child like glee, "Ooh Exciting!"

Hmm I didn't think of it that way. It was all gloom gloom so far.

Exciting? Sure. An adventure. India. Hell yeah! In more ways than I care to mention.

Today the cold feet has passed. Or more like reality has set in.

Now this is a reversible action. In every single way. We wouldn't attempt it if it weren't. We aren't that brave.

One thing is for sure.

We will find out exactly how brave we are in oh.....about 48 hours.

Next post from India. Stay tuned.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Today I refused to say goodbye to my sister

The image of her standing with her face to the wall, her silky black head bent low, her back to me as she softly cried will be stained in my mind forever.

I was leaving her house, my hand caressing her beautiful daughter's soft cheek. That was when she realized that I won't see her daughter for a long time. She gasped. The enormity of it all had hit her and she began to cry. I began to cry. Until then it was okay, I was visiting them as I usually did. We were able to be ourselves, laugh, talk, act as if nothing was about to toss our lives in a different turn forever.

Now I couldn't bear it. I hugged her quickly, not wanting to see her tear streaked face and I left the warmth of her home.

About five years ago I met a young woman at a mom and tot class. She was pretty, cheerful, smart. Mother of a 9 month old. My son was 9 months old also. Turned out our kids' birthdays were two days apart.

I knew as we interacted that first time that I wanted to be friends with her.

I thought her so outgoing, so laid back. She said that that wasn't her at all. She said she didn't normally let her guard down and get too close to people but seeing as we were going to be moving to India soon it would be a risk free friendship.

Boy was she wrong. My husband and I didn't make concrete plans to move because year after and year something kept preventing us from doing so. Bad real estate market, our business needed to be more established, we didn't feel ready...blah, blah blah.

And so in the meantime, we just kept getting closer. Her son was born, her kids started calling me Maushi (aunty in Marathi). I started to see her as the sister I never had.

It wasn't hard to get close to her. She is funny--the best story teller, charming, sweetly silly.

An absolute darling.

I'm not one for idle banter and usually get bored by ordinary chatter. Maybe it's the elitist in me, maybe it's the loner. But with her, I can yak about next to nothing for hours and hours. And enjoy it no end.

I fell in love with her. And now the once risk free friendship has become fraught with more emotion that either of us ever imagined it would. But I am so glad it became what it did. For she will always be the little sister I can chat with, hang out with, the little sister I can spoil. I just LOVE getting her things.

Thank you my dear for giving me that joy. I look forward to many, many years of that joy.

And in return give me your clever jokes, your gossip, your banter, your charm, your friendship.

Dear sister, I am grateful to the forces that brought you into my life.

I will see you soon. Very soon. I refuse to say goodbye.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The beginning of the end

We leave Chicago in 11 days. The house is a mess, boxes are everywhere, suitcases lie all over with mouths wide open, clothes spilling out.

The house has suddenly become different. Everything has become different.

I feel as though I am detaching myself from things that have been familiar for almost a decade now. People, favorite places, trees, parks, quiet walks.

Even the air is starting to feel different. Its like visiting a new place. Everyone around you has been there, is there all around you functioning, living, being, almost not noticing all that is around them because it has been around them and will be around them always. But you are a tourist. That paneled railway station ceiling that everyone else ignores looks fascinating and you want to know everything there is to know about that obscure little church around the corner from the hotel. You are removed from the local masses, but only just. A thin film of air surrounds you making you aloof from the everyday of that place.
You are after all a tourist, a visitor.

I am starting to feel this way now. Sort of.

I am trying to stay busy, horribly busy so my mind focuses on the task of moving and only moving. I will start to "miss" soon enough. Why go through that pain now?

Most times I feel enthusiastic, excited about a new future. There is something to be said about purging all things old and making room for the new. I am a wanna be minimalist and it is therefore a wonderful feeling throwing away stuff, clearing out the cobwebs in my life and as a result in my mind. I am amazed that I am feeling this way. I had anticipated going to pieces, breaking down every now and then but that hasn't happened. Haven't shed a tear. Can't afford to as it happens, since I get blinding headaches whenever I cry. Even when friends get teary I am staying strong. It is hard, so hard but I am able to prevail without letting a single tear slide out.

It is time, I am able to say loud enough for my inner most fears to hear and believe. And also to mean it.

For it is. Ten years in one place, albeit lovely and idyllic is good enough. The mind needs to explore more, seek more, adventure more.

Yes it is time for change and for the first time, I actually feel prepared for it. Of course this minute, all is peaceful. The sun is setting, the breeze blowing in my direction is a cool one, the kids are behaving themselves.

Tomorrow promises to be another super busy day, filled with more boxes, more bags, more junk to have dilemmas over.

Heaven knows how long this feeling of serene confidence will last.

I give it 48 hours. The packing will be all done. Then I'll go ballistic.