No kidding, this is the doorbell that came with our house.
No kidding, this is the doorbell that came with our house.
I came to India to write. Somehow, over these past six months, I seem to have instead exchanged vows with a house. I’ve gone from being an adventurous citizen of the world, boldly throwing myself into the unfamiliar Indian landscape, to being an everyday Indian housewife. This, I imagine, is a lot like being an everyday American housewife… circa 1959… but without the cocktails or the dependable appliances.
In Bangalore, as you know by now, we live in a big house. A big house that looks like it was built for a Columbian drug lord. A house that we now know costs ten times what a house in Bangalore ought to cost, and probably twice as much as an actual big drug lord house.
We’d be willing to accept our financial folly and suck up the high rent, as it is still lower than we’re used to in the Bay Area, if it weren’t for the fact that the drug lord house was apparently built by crack heads.
The house is beautiful, to be sure. Stunning modern architecture, and more of a compound than a residence – a place you don’t need to leave to get air or light. On the ground floor there’s a built-in swimming pool where I swim laps every day, a climbing wall, and a treadmill that we never use. There are two living rooms, a media room, and four bedrooms, each with their own bath, a giant kitchen and a dining room. The place spans five levels – plus a rooftop where I watch eagles swoop overhead while I hang my laundry. One side of the house is open from the swimming pool to the roof. A bridge walkway connects the center bedroom to the marble hallway. When a breeze blows outside you feel it ripple through the house.
The place is well appointed with shiny modern appliances and fixtures, but the behavior of these things is unpredictable: when you turn a faucet, the handle is just as likely to come off in your hand, as it is to produce water. The pool’s pump leaks, creating a permanent mosquito pond in the basement; the toilet in the guest room stands in a lake on the stone floor; the media room with the giant projection screen reeks of mildew; the kitchen sink drips something that looks like blood; and the air conditioner in the master bedroom sometimes pours water on your head.
In India, the renter is expected to pay for the repairs on their landlord’s house.
All of this internal household chaos is set to the external soundtrack of a symphony of cement mixers and crying babies at the job-site ten feet below our window. The same architecture that lets in air and light now also lets in dust and noise – copious amounts of both.
Still, these annoyances are minor compared to the facts that:
A) Giant rats run wild in the house after midnight
B) Our refrigerator hasn’t worked for more than a month now.
The rats have chewed holes through the window screens to get into the house, and I can hardly blame them: Rathnama tosses food scraps in the floor as she’s cooking; onion peels, butter wrappers, rejected green beans and hot chilies. In the beginning, she swept up after every meal, but these days we’re lucky if she kicks the big pieces to the corner by the overflowing trashcans. No matter how many times, or how loudly, I explain to her that she has turned the kitchen into a nightclub for rats, she just doesn’t get it.
Still, after every conversation, I walk away convinced that I’ve made my point clear. Mostly because I as I talk, she nods her head and smiles and says, “Yes, yes, yes, rats, chchchchch,” in something that sounds like English. But every time I am fooled.
Last week I set out rat traps, and caught two big juicy brown rats the first night. When I came downstairs in the morning Rathnama, apparently unclear on the end goal, was sitting on the floor next to the trap feeding the rat pieces of chapatti through the bars.
I finally decided to call a real pest control service. The next day they came and set out massive, messy, glue traps, with poison cake as bait.
Phil and I went on a long motorcycle ride for the weekend, and returned late on Sunday to find a white plastic bag on the floor in the hallway.
The bag was moving.
“Rats!” Rathnama said, proudly, and held up nine fingers.
“Get them out of here!” I screeched. “Out, out! Rats, bad!”
Rathnama picked up the bag, giggling, and launched it over the fence, to the construction site next door.
The refrigerator is still not working.
The latest “repair people” promised to come this weekend; this has been going on for more than 4 weeks now. I waited five days for their initial visit, which yielded three small brown men looking at the black monolith like they were auditioning for 2001. Or maybe Zoolander.
After some serious gastronomic frustration during our first month here, we asked Rathnama to cook for us, in addition to her extant cleaning duties. Initially we had loved her food, but over time she has stalled out at a rotation of three meals. Lemon rice, cauliflower with caramelized cashews and chapatti, dosa and chutney. And now, after six months we are SICK OF INDIAN FOOD.
When I cook, which is more and more often, the menu is limited by the availability of ingredients, the lack of an oven, and the fact that cooking bores me. I make college student dinners; Top Ramen glammed up with vegetables; spaghetti, sans parmesan, olives, sausage, etc.; when I run across chicken that doesn’t look too scary I make fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and carrots. With quite a lot of effort, I can fake Mexican food, though we have to blanch the salsa so it won’t make us sick.
On Monday morning the repairmen show up at the door. By the time I come downstairs in my bathrobe there are three men in the dining room, plus Moustaq, our driver. The fridge men leer at me, practically drooling. Moustaq steps between them and me, in a protective gesture. He hands me a bill.
“Is it working?” I say as I scan the handwritten invoice.
“No, Medam. This is charges for last time visiting.”
In India, finding a new American family is like catching a Leprechaun. There is a three- or four-month window when we still think in dollars and translate to rupees and every purchase feels like you are kicking ass at a Monopoly game. Money falls out of your pockets as you walk down the street, you don’t care because the denominations are so insignificant. It doesn’t even seem odd that there are three different 2 rupee coins. This is all tremendously beneficial to the lucky locals who stumble upon the leprechaun. But after a while, you just can’t help but catch on.
I laugh. “I’ll pay when the fridge works.”
The man, who is in fact dressed like an actual repairman, is talking to Moustaq.
“Medam,” Moustaq translates, “He come today after four. If he cannot arrive after four today he will arrive the next day after or before at eleven itself.”
Moustaq’s English is much better than most, but he tends to get some of the basics mixed up – “before” and “after,” “inside” and “outside,” “come,” “go.”
“Why can’t he fix it now?” I ask.
A question of that complexity, in my foreign English, threatens to make most Indians’ heads explode, so I simplify.
“Fix now,” I say.
“No, ma’am, is not possible. Bad smell,” Repairman says.
“You’re not going to do the repair because the fridge smells bad?”
“It smells bad because it has taken a month for you to fix it,” I explain.
“Just leave the door open one day, I come back.”
“Are you fucking joking? I’ve been waiting for you to come back for the past eight days.”
“Do you have the needful part with you?”
“So it is possible for you to fix today?” I’ve learned to always ask what I would have previously thought of as ‘stupid questions’. I assume nothing.
“Just one day, ma’am. Open door one day, I come back.”
Rathnama is already cleaning the fridge, though with a dirty rag and cold water. There is no hot water in the kitchen. I hand her a bottle of something blue, because it reminds me of Windex, and mime spraying the inside of the fridge and then scrubbing.
I’ve been trying in vain to get her to do this for the past month. Each time I illustrate my request, she takes out another jar of something, rinses it off, and leaves it on the counter. Last week I pulled everything out of the fridge, left the door open, and had one last go at charades before giving up completely.
“After one week, ma’am, worms arrive,” Repairman continues.
“Yes,” I growl. “We know.”
“We are cleaning it right now,” I say. “It’ll be done in two minutes.”
I can’t believe I just said that. I hear that phrase, “Just two minutes, just two minutes ma’am,” several times every day. Ordering lunch, at the pharmacy, the tailor, everywhere.
And it is never, ever, two minutes.
“Tomorrow ma’am, I come back.”
“NO.” I say a little too loudly and a little too quickly.
There is no way I’m letting this man out of my house before he has repaired the refrigerator. I am prepared to duct tape him to a dining room chair if that’s what it takes.
“I’ve put up with rotting food for a month, waiting for you to fix this damn thing,“ I say, “You can put up with a bad smell for a few minutes.”
Finally, he wobbles his head in agreement, and sets his tool bag on the floor.
As if on cue, the electricity goes out.
He picks up his tool bag:
Sometimes you surrender, sometimes you just give up. I’m not sure which I’ve just done. They say when you surrender, you open yourself up to the next layer of India, the good one, the magical one, the layer that contains trace elements of enlightenment.
“Bring it on,” I say.
“Just two minutes, ma’am,” India replies.
I douse myself in my favorite perfume, Tom Ford’s Black Orchid, in an attempt to remind some part of my brain that there is another world out there…somewhere, though right now it seems very far off. After having been here four months, I’m hitting that place where I really can’t really imagine another eight months of this hellish surrealism.
“I want to go home,” I say to Phil, who is still in bed at 2 p.m. on this Saturday afternoon.
Sleeping is part of his new regimen for quitting smoking. Actually, it’s the whole thing: staying in bed, sleeping it off. Any of the triggers that would normally cause him to chain smoke three cigarettes now cause him to fall asleep. He’s been narcoleptic for the past six days, twelve hours and twenty-seven minutes. I’ve been an official non-smoker for two weeks now and my new vice is complaining.
“Home just for a couple of weeks,” I clarify. “Just to push the reset button.”
“I don’t know,” he says, skeptically, “It sounds a bit like cheating. We said we’d be here a year.”
“I didn’t know it was a contest.”
“Honey, you can do as you like, you’re not my prisoner in India,” he says, as he rolls over and continues to Not Smoke.
His reaction, of course, infuriates me, and makes me want to smoke. I’ll never understand why men can find communicating so difficult, and by communicating, I mean: quietly listening to me complain, then saying in a gentle loving tone, “I’m sorry you feel bad sweetheart. Come here, let me give you a hug.”
Depression is an all too familiar state for me, and one that I’ve learned to push up against in different ways. Today my plan of action is to lie on the rooftop in a bikini and listen to my iPod like I’m fifteen.
I listen to a playlist from my first radio show, “Sad Guys with Guitars,” from back when the radio station was still in the closet of the Dark Room Theater. It has been years since I’ve heard a lot of these songs, and the memories come flooding back. The first thrill of pumping my favorite music out over the airwaves. My wavering voice, leaving the mic on at inopportune times and playing a whole set on mute. Deconstructing every show after the fact and learning to be better. I learned to speak, and not to giggle, to not get too close to the mic, and to act as if I’m talking to just one listener on a lonely midnight road trip.
Radio is addictive. After Sad Guys with Guitars, I started Pixie’s Bordello, which ran for two years, then came two years of Thursday and Friday morning smartassery with Suspect Advice with Pixie and Maggie. After a short-lived attempt to walk away from the radio station, Maggie and I started doing Charm School on Friday nights, which quickly turned into a great excuse to ruin everyone’s weekend by staying out till 4 a.m. I can’t believe that something so deep in my blood is now just a part of my past. I miss radio. I miss burritos. I miss Maggie, and my family. I miss the smell of ocean in the air. I miss soymilk and Brazilian dance. I miss San Francisco. I miss home.
I stare at the blue sky and feel like I could be anywhere, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Bangalore, Santa Cruz. I close my eyes and see an animated movie of myself in bold flat colors. A cartoon bikini-me floating, being stretched in several directions until I split into five small versions of me amidst a frenzy of squiggly lines and wobbly hearts that pulsate getting larger then smaller in heartbeat time. “Jesus Etc.,” by Wilco, becomes the soundtrack to my private movie.
An obscure song by Aidan Hawken, an obscure San Francisco musician, comes on and I open my eyes. There are two spectacular dragonflies dancing in the air three feet above me. Beyond the dragonflies there are eagles. Two beautiful brown eagles with five-foot wingspans carving giant arcs in the blue sky. Damn, I love this song, I love all these songs. It’s been ages since I’ve taken the time to listen to my music. I watch the creatures flying and the palm trees moving in the wind and my fresh laundry drying in the sun, and I think that I’ll stay right here and listen to my three-thousand, four-hundred and seventy-two reasons to stay in India.
In India there are as many distractions as there are people, and most of the time the distractions are the people.
Every morning I wake up early and launch myself out of bed to write before the house swirls into chaos. Writing is temperamental business and requires hours to stare into space, usually cyberspace – Facebook, MySpace, the New York Times, the Huffington Post, the Times of India, BoingBoing, etcetera – before getting started in earnest. After checking in on the Somali Pirates, and what the first lady is wearing and seeing if my people have anything interesting to say, I can become one with language and ink.
On a normal day, usually before the alchemical process of writing can actually begin, someone – could be anyone – will come walking into the room I’m hiding in that day.
Today I kissed Phil goodbye, made a pot of tea and crept back up to my bedroom, firmly committed to feigning malaria if that’s what it took to be left alone to write. Two minutes later Phil popped his head through the door and said, “You have to come see this.”
Reluctantly, resentfully, I head downstairs, as he’s not taking “piss off” for an answer.
Our driver, Bhaskar, is standing in the entry, beaming, with three children in front of him. “This is my family,” he announces. “Jashoria, Cynthia, and my nephew, Joseph,” he says, tapping each on the head with his oddly expressive hands. They are beautiful children – well dressed, mannered, and clearly excited to be meeting the white people that daddy babysits. Phil and I fawn over them and ask their ages: 17, 11 and 9. We take pictures and giggle. I am smitten; if I had planned things a little better, or even planned things at all, I would have had several more children.
“Okay, nice to meet you kids! I’ve got to get to work now,” Phil says.
“Okee okee,” Bhaskar says, and heads for the door with Phil, leaving the children behind.
I sit down at the long dining room table and open my laptop, hoping to indicate that I’m going to work now. Jashoria sits down beside me and stares at me with deep brown eyes. She is adorable.
“I want to study computer science,” Jashoria says.
“What sort of computer do you use?” I ask, just to be polite.
“I’ve never used a computer, Auntie.”
Rathnama comes into the kitchen, her face puffy and pale. She is clearly ill. I put my hand on her forehead and it is scorching hot. We have no understanding of the other’s language, but somehow we find it fairly easy to communicate, and in any language, sick is sick. “Doctor,” I say, “We’ll take you to the doctor when Bhaskar gets back.” It has been an hour and a half since Bhaskar left to take Phil to work.
“No, Bhaskar driving sir.” I often speak like a toddler these days.
“Bhaskar asleep.” She points to her apartment.
The maid is sick, the driver is asleep in the maid’s bedroom while his kids are in my swimming pool, the house is filthy, I am starving and I still haven’t written a damn thing. I see my day melting before my eyes. This pull between Western ambition and Eastern confusion lives in me daily. The more I push to write, the more India pulls me to live.
Bhaskar staggers sleepily into the kitchen. “We need to take Rathnama to the doctor,” I say.
“Okee okee,” he says, just like he always does. Phil and I have started to pick up on this strange verbal tick, “Okee okee,” along with shouting, “Baa! Baa!” when we pass cows on the road, and launching into, “No-no-no-nonono,” when what we really mean is, “No, thanks.” Aside from these verbal paroxysms in my daily struggle to communicate, my speech has developed an odd cadence and structure. The longer I’m here, what passes for normal becomes stranger and stranger.
I routinely say things like, “What is your age?”, “Cooking tonight for dinner, yes?” while holding up a head of cauliflower, and, “It is working now that I must do.”
I fear that after the year is out and I head home, I’ll be stuck with this mutant form of English painstakingly developed by necessity here, and the only place my language skills will make any sense at all will be at a call center.
I walk Rathnama to a chair and sit her down. I run upstairs and change out of my dressing gown. When I come back downstairs everyone is in the car: Bhaskar, three kids, the maid and me. There is no such thing as alone in this country. I travel with an entourage wherever I go; a trip to the drugstore for nail polish or to buy water becomes a social event. Normally it is Bhaskar and Rathnama. He walks in front like a bodyguard sweeping away autograph collectors. She walks behind and insists on carrying my bags. I am uncomfortable with this set-up, but they are even more uncomfortable when I venture out on my own. We have been given strict orders not to go out past 10 PM and not to ride in tuk-tuks. We routinely do both and lie about it.
The eldest daughter has positioned herself in the front passenger’s seat, cranks up the music and sings Hindi songs with the radio. The 9-year old boy, who’s been staring lustfully at my computer all morning, is now eyeing my iPod with that same desire. I cave and hand it to him, then show him how to play the Bubble Wrap game. I’m glad he doesn’t ask any questions because I’d have a hard time explaining why the game is fun.
We arrive at the local clinic and all six of us walk in. They bring Rathnama into the examination room and take her pulse. She won’t let go of my hand, so I stand between her and the doctor and three nurses who are evidently being paid to look concerned without actually doing anything. Two more nurses are standing by to replace two of the nurses who aren’t doing anything, when they get tired…of doing nothing. Doctor and patient can’t understand each other, often a problem between Indians. He speaks Kannada, but Rathnama speaks Telugu. From where I’m standing I should be translating but I don’t understand either.
After a brief examination the doctor sends the busload of us away with three prescriptions. The consultation fee is 60 rupees, about $1.20. At home this would have cost about $120. I pay 80 rupees for $80 worth of medicine.
I pay for everything, nearly all the time. Things are cheap here, but I am breaking all the rules. I buy my maid new shoes and saris; I suspect that I am feeding her whole family. I also suspect that I am creating more problems that I am solving. Rathnama had to hide her new sari from her nephew, who cleans our pool and feeds the dog, so he didn’t get angry at her for getting special treatment, and her husband insisted she buy him new shoes when he saw that she had a new pair.
We get home and I put the maid in the guest room, another clear boundary breach, but it is sweltering in her tiny cement room. Two of the kids jump back into the pool and the teenager gets back on the phone. The dog steals a chapati off the counter, next door the cement mixer grinds and the workers shout to each other in several different languages. The house is dirty, I am hungry, I try to call Phil but my phone is out of juice and I still haven’t managed to write.
After the swim and the 14th phone call of the day the sisters find me in my bedroom, where I am once again trying to write. “We need to wear your dresses,” the older one announces. Her words are delivered with such certitude that I’m sure it is I who is lacking knowledge of local Indian customs, and not these pint-sized cherub-monsters who are lacking in manners. I ask why, and suddenly they don’t understand my English. “Your clothes Auntie. We need to wear your clothes.”
Again, I ask why and they just look bewildered. But instead of pushing deeper, or standing my ground, or just saying, “No you can’t wear my clothes. What the hell are you thinking?” I simply open my closet doors and start pulling out dresses. I dive in to the game of “white lady dress up” fully and with fervor. This is a blast. I feel like Auntie Mame, or the big sister in a huge family, like I am the fun-loving mother of many, many children. I slip and button and tie. I teach them both to balance in heals. I take the jasmine out of the 17-year old’s hair and tussle it to one side so she looks like American jail bait. I stop short of slathering them with lip-gloss and nail polish before the spell wears off.
I send them downstairs to show their father (who is again napping in the maid’s room) their Western makeovers. I assume they will come back upstairs, change back into their own clothes, and if I’m really lucky, go home.
A few moments later they burst back into my bedroom, where I am again trying to write. “Auntie, we’re spending the night to take care of Rathnama!” This one sentence changes everything. Within the span of ten words these adorable girl children who call me “auntie” are now the only thing standing between me and literary world domination. In my head, they incur the wrath of three months worth of South Asian interruptions. They are horns and smog, belching shoppers, suspicious water bottles, those infuriating guys who try to sell you tiny drums. They are garbled English and misspelled names. They are the lying, cheating tuk-tuk drivers. They are EVERYTHING that is wrong with this country!!!
I’ve never been good with boundaries. I am, however, quite good at seething silently while people run roughshod over my life. I don’t know how to say no and I can’t stop saying yes. I look back over the past months and realize piece by piece that I have made this happen. Sure, I mentioned to our driver that we’d love to meet his children sometime. And yeah, when they arrived I was all smiles and, “Sure kids, play in the pool,” and “Let’s figure out what you’re going to be when you grow up.”
The next day the girls get up before me and eat last night’s leftovers for breakfast. And from the cookie and candy wrappers scattered in the entry hall and on the front porch, it appears they have done a fine job of cleaning anything edible from the cupboards as well. They are both still wearing my dresses, now wrinkled from sleep and splotched with food and soda stains.
There is nothing cute about any of this anymore. I force a smile and apologize that I won’t be able to play with them today, explaining that I have a ton of work to do. I then lock myself in the soundproof room until late in the afternoon and finally manage to get some work done while they tear apart the house, the maid sleeps medicated in the guest bed, and Bhaskar sleeps out the heat in the maid’s bed.
So this time we made it up to the dark and spooky third floor of the giant City Center Market in Bangalore. Unbelievable! Any kind of machine tool you ever wanted – springs, files, drillbits, bearings, anything. Nice people up here, too :)