I came downstairs last Friday afternoon to find Rathnama with Klepto-Bride and her child at the side door talking to Venu, who was outside. They were all whispering.
“What’s up?” I ask.
Rathnama points out the window, and then puts her hand to her throat; I’ve come to know this hand-to-throat gesture generally means that someone is ill.
“Wow, now the neighbor is sick too?”
A nasty virus has moved through all of us in the past couple weeks. Venu and Rathnama have been popping our Tylenol like Pez for the last three days, and I still have a lingering cough that isn’t really digging the Bangalore pollution.
“Neh, neh,” Rathnama points to the ceiling fan.
I’m confused, as usual. Our communication really hasn’t gotten any better over time. Rathnama prattles on in Telugu and I prattle on in English. We act like we each know what the other is saying, but we don’t. I leave her what I think are clear instructions to cook scrambled eggs, come back into the kitchen ten minutes later and see that she has tossed the eggs in the trash. I say, “It is such a beautiful day today,” and she sprays the house with Lysol.
I give her the confused puppy head tilt. She comes to the other side of the table and now wraps her hands around my throat.
“Someone was strangled ?”
“Neh, neh, neh,” she points again at the ceiling fan.
“By a fan ?”
For five months now Phil and I have been trapped inside a marathon charades game. Earlier today I decided to start asking people to draw things to help me understand what they are talking about. Unfortunately the first time I tried it was with Venu, and he categorically refused to participate. It later became clear he was trying to tell me that the dog had diarrhea. I’m still laughing.
Rathnama holds one closed fist above her neck, slightly tilting her head to one side; clearly making the international symbol for:
“The guy who lives next door hanged himself.”
“Holy crap…” I sputter, and hold my fist above my own neck, confirming.
“That is so sad,” I wipe away imaginary tears, like mime.
He was a twenty-seven year-old software engineer, part of the new up-and-coming India. This area is full of men who, like him, have left their families and villages to come to the city to work in Bangalore’s burgeoning high-tech industry. This part of the city is being ransacked by developers building gigantic apartment complexes right next to slums: the vacant lot next to our house is being turned into a three-story shopping center, and a sparkly new glass-front “Mommy and Me” department store for expectant mothers is nearly complete now, directly abutting a tiny tent-city where half-clothed children run, play, cry, and beg. But while all this progress is going on, no effort seems to be made to update the city’s infrastructure. The roads are mostly dirt, and sewage runs through the trenches that run beneath the sidewalks, and the sidewalks are indiscernible from the rubble, which is often indiscernible from the shops. The majority of the new apartments already built in South Bangalore stand vacant for miles around.
This sad event painted a cloud over the entire block. We all tried to politely ignore the sobs of his family as they cleared out his possessions the next day. Apparently the sister found a diary that helped explain the situation, as much as anything like this can ever really be explained. This was his fourth and final attempt, so he really must have wanted out.
That evening Venu came to our door requesting our help in finding a new job; the roommates of the departed came too, to translate. It seemed Venu and his family no longer felt comfortable being in their little caretaker’s apartment, knowing the young man took his own life just one floor above them. And being the caretaker of the building, Venu seemed to feel some personal responsibility for the event. We expressed our sympathies to the two shell-shocked roommates, and could see the trauma on their faces. I know that trauma; it’s something you don’t really ever get over.
We agreed to help Venu, and Phil promised to talk to the people at his office the next morning. Three days later, Venu started his new full time job with Adobe’s maintenance department.
My sympathies go out the family and friends of this young man, and this experience confirms what I already know to be true: life is short and precious, and if you can have the grace to appreciate as much of it as you can, it really is worth the ride. And the cloud that still lingers makes me very, very conscious of all we have. These people, Bhaskar, Venu, Rathnama, Harish, Hari, Klepto-Bride and the skinny baby, even Rathnama’s conniving husband; these infuriating and beautiful people who surround us, and the thousands of years of culture I pound my head against every day, have become a family to us, and the swirling chaos of India, a home.