Posts Tagged ‘Panduranga’

Dreams of an Everyday Housewife

by Pam

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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

and

B) Our refrigerator hasn’t worked for more than a month now.

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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.

rattrapLast 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.

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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.

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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?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“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.”

“Tomorrow, ma’am.”

“Do you have the needful part with you?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“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.”

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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.

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“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.

“Okay, okay.”

As if on cue, the electricity goes out.

He picks up his tool bag:

“Tomorrow, ma’am.”

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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.

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Morning Raga For Woodwind And Cow

by Phil


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Every so often we hear this crazy whining jazzy music in the mornings, moving from one end of the neighborhood to the next and then vanishing. One or both of us will mutter, “What the hell IS that?” and either go back to sleep or run to chase it, inevitably being too late.

Well, today we finally caught the guy and cow you see above, playing a crazy tune for our neighbor across the street. The neighbor gave the gent a bit of money for himself and some food for the highly decorated cow. We called the guy, horn and cow over for some of the same treatment, and did as the neighbor did.

It’s always something here…

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Enfield Puja Mojo

by Phil

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Before we started riding the Enfield for real, we took some local advice and brought it around to the nearest Hindu temple for a puja. This is very common here; people bring bicycles and motorcycles to the temple all the time for a ritual blessing. Given the traffic and driving conditions here, we’ll take any advantage we can get.

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The temple holy man had us park the machine in the proper spot, and purchase some flowers, floral garlands, coconuts and limes from a nearby vendor. He lit a spoonful of something on fire and wafted the smoke about the bike; we warmed our hands over the flame and then placed our hands over our hearts. Then, chanting all the while, he strung the garlands onto the front of the bike, and made various marks on the bike’s frame with kumkum. He placed the limes underneath the front wheel and instructed me to run them over, while he continued chanting.

Finally, he blessed us, placed a lotus blossom over the speedometer, and sent us on our way, with his business card and a request that we e-mail him the photos we had been taking throughout.

True: On the way home, we ran out of gas…

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Kumkuma

by Phil

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Venu came running up the front steps with a handful of red powder and a wooden stem broken from a stick of incense. He went around to the side of the porch and ran some water from the spigot there into his hand and came right back, looking like he was bleeding from an artery, speaking at me in rapid-fire Telugu and pointing frenetically at my forehead with the stick.

This could only mean one thing: it’s time for a makeover !!

He dipped the stick into the thick red goop in his hand; then deftly pressed it to my forehead and removed it again in a single motion, leaving behind this perfectly vertical red mark.

The red stuff is a powder called kumkum, but Venu and his family call it “kumkuma” as they speak Telugu. These marks are, as I understand it, primarily a Hindu custom, and it originated long long ago with blood sacrifices. As messy animal sacrifices became less fashionable, the powdered kumkum eventually took its place; serving the same wide variety of purposes, but without making so much noise. The velvet adhesive dots of various colors and the jewelesque adhesive Bindis are also descended from the same origins. Anyway, these particular kumkum marks indicate to which of the many manifestations of the Hindu goddess you are devoted; in the case of this single vertical line, I think it indicates devotion to Shakti and/or Lakshmi. And though this is a primarily Hindu thing, forehead decoration in general here is for anyone to enjoy.

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Your Cheatin’ Help

by Pam

I’ve never looked into someone’s eyes and unabashedly said, “You are lying to me,” unless I was sleeping with them and they were sleeping with someone else, or I suspected they were.

Venu, the guy we inherited to clean the pool and feed the dog, is a tricky one. He is small and delicate, with green eyes and a smile that would, somewhere else in the world, get him anything he wanted; and right now he wants 300 rupees. Around six bucks. But instead of just asking for a loan, or a gift, he has made up an elaborate story about buying milk for the dog while we were out of town last month.

“Venu says ma’am owes him 300 rupees,” Bhaskar translates.

I laugh. It is true that we often feed the dog yogurt, for his digestive problems. Yesterday, I accidentally fed the dog milk, thinking it was yogurt, and he spent the morning throwing up all over the lawn. “Kaiser doesn’t drink milk,” I say, “it makes him…” and I act out throwing up because my translator is an unreliable resource.

Bhaskar pretends to speak and understand English as well as the next Indian, but yesterday when he answered the question, “What is this neighborhood called ?” with the words, “Yes ma’am, we’ll go on the weekend,” I became concerned that his daily translations of more important matters might be causing more problems than they are solving.

“How much did he spend ?” I ask.

“300 rupees.”

“Okay, let’s see: one bag of milk costs about twenty rupees, right ? That’s fifteen pints of milk, and we were gone for maybe five days. So that means Venu fed Kaiser one pint of milk, which by the way, makes him VOMIT, three times a day, for five days, and that adds up to – he’s LYING.”

I lost both of them a long time ago and I know it, but I take advantage of the fact that they can’t keep up with me, and just blow off steam. I want to let them both know that I am not just the nice white lady who kisses babies and gives out money – I am also the crazy white lady who has lived in India for long enough to know when she’s being taken advantage of.

“Why is Venu lying to me ?” I ask.

“He is telling lies, ma’am,” Bhaskar shrugs.

Venu stands there trying hard to look innocent. He sticks to his story: “Three hundred rupees. Mil-ik. Kaisher.”

I stick to mine: “You. Lying.”

I douse Venu with badly translated logic; he wobbles his head and chatters emphatically to Bhaskar, who chatters back with words that sound like Count Dracula with a stammer: “Blah blah, blah…” I have no idea what is transpiring between them, and at this point Bhaskar’s explanations are of little help.

“Venu says he tell sir of the necessity to purchase mil-ik for Kaisher.”

It takes a few seconds for the meaning of this sentence to sink in. “I need to talk to sir for a minute,” I say and go upstairs to the air-conditioned cave Phil calls home.

“Did Venu tell you of the necessity to purchase mil-ik for Kaisher ?” I ask. Phil is in his signature position, half sitting, half lying down on the bed, his head and shoulders nestled into pillows with a computer on his lap. He looks over the screen and wobbles his head, “Maybe. Maybe not. I’ve never actually understood a word he’s said.”

“You are no help.”

“I’m beddy beddy sorry, ma’am,” Phil chuckles, and goes back to pimping our blog.

I’m torn. I hate being taken advantage of, I also hate the idea of having an unhappy employee who has access to our house and everything in it.

The owners of the house, from whom we inherited this drama, had warned us not to let Venu’s wife into the house, as things tend to disappear in her presence, a rumor which has earned her the name, “Klepto-bride”. Also, last month Venu’s brother, Hari, disappeared with three thousand rupees the maid had given him to deliver to her daughter in their native village. He never arrived, and hasn’t dared show his face back around here.

Apparently the family isn’t as concerned about their karma as their red dotted foreheads imply and the locks on all the cupboards and drawers in the house are starting to make more sense.

I go downstairs; Venu and Bhaskar are still standing in the dining room. I really have no idea where to go from here, so I say the same thing I said to the last cheating bastard who lied to me: “I really don’t want to deal with this right now,” and I walk away.

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There’s a Place in Hell for People Like Us

by Pam

It is Saturday morning, and the baby at the construction site next to our house won’t shut up. OK, maybe that’s an exaggeration: he’s not baby, he’s a toddler.

They’re building a three-story shopping center in our quiet, by Indian standards, neighborhood. The site has been a riot of chaos for a month now. Overlords in mirrored glasses overseeing a sari-clad chain gang. On most days the hideous grind of the cement mixer drowns out the crying children. Toddlers. Whatever.

At night, most of the workers go home, but dozens stay and crowd into the pair of cinder-block shacks that were built when the construction first started. I’ve heard that these builders are nomadic families who travel from one project to the next for six months or a year at a time. The children play in the sand piles until they are old enough to carry cement on their heads; apparently around age four. The ten-year-olds cook for the families on open fires, inside the shacks, breathing in black smoke… while my husband and I lay in our canopied bed, in our air-conditioned bedroom, complaining about the crying baby, and trying to forget that it looks like a UNICEF commercial is being filmed next door.

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