Posts Tagged ‘Rathnama’

Fire Sale

Recently there was a fire where Rathnama and her husband live. Rathnama has worked for us since we arrived. She is good and kind and someone I trust completely.

When I heard what happened, I went to the house to check the damages and see what I could do. Rathnama was beside herself and sobbing. Some newspapers caught fire from a pooja candle, and half the house went up in flames. Charred cloth and rice were spilled across the room. The metal skeletons of a suitcase and an umbrella lay on the floor. They lost their entire supply of rice, their cooking appliances and all of Rathnama’s sarees. She was heartbroken. I sat with her in her tiny room and we drank tea. Then I took her shopping for new sarees.

To help with the replacement of her clothing and the household goods, I’m having a Fire Sale at my website.

For the next month I’ll give 20% of all my proceeds to Rathnama.

If you’re interested in contributing, feel free to pull up a chair and go shopping. Or, you can also make a donation of a few dollars through my paypal account and I will see that it gets to her.

Dreams of an Everyday Housewife

[audio:Glen Campbell – Dreams Of The Everyday Housewife.mp3|titles=Glen Campbell: Dreams Of The Everyday Housewife]
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.

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.


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?”

“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.”


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.

“Okay, okay.”

As if on cue, the electricity goes out.

He picks up his tool bag:

“Tomorrow, ma’am.”


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.

We Are Not Rich, We Are Stupid.

About a month ago, around the time Bhaskar’s two daughters were headed back to school, I asked what was happening with Harish, our maid’s young son, and why he wasn’t returning to school as well.

“Essaaa… probably next week, ma’am,” Bhaskar answered, unconvincingly.


Harish is our maid Rathnama’s son. During the school year he lives in this native village in the next state over, with his aunt and uncle, while his parents work here in Bangalore. Harish just turned 13, but we don’t actually believe it. His mother Rathnama doesn’t know her own exact age, but thinks she is around 30. Harish’s sister Gotimine is either 17, 18 or 19, depending upon who and when you ask. And Gotimine’s baby doesn’t yet have a name, but they are quite certain that he is six months old.

I know all this because all summer long there has been a revolving collection of Rathnama’s relations bouncing in and out of our lives. There were a couple of weeks when there were six people in her quarters, which are criminally small for even one person, and a few more sleeping on our kitchen floor.

I can’t explain how this happened, or why we allowed it, or why I bought them sleeping mats so they wouldn’t have to sleep curled up on a cold stone floor. This whole mess is just one of the many cross-cultural mistakes we’ve made so far this year. By the time Harish was the last remaining guest, we were so happy for the decrease in population that we just let it slide.


Now, another month has passed, and I am weary of seeing Harish’s grinning face peeking at me around corners when I least expect it. “Can I watch TV, auntie? Can we swim now, auntie?” Phil and I are both very fond of the boy. He is sweet, well-mannered, and like all the Indian children we encounter, undeniably adorable. But what started out as a pleasant visit has turned into a haunting. When I finally realized I was spending half of every day hiding on the roof in a lean-to I’d made by pinning a bed sheet to the clothesline, I knew it was time to cowboy up and reclaim our territory.

I thereafter made it clear to Bhaskar, who then may have made it clear to our maid, that no more guests were allowed to stay in her quarters. No friends, no family, no one. We did everything short of posting house rules on the fridge. The message seemed to get out, and Bhaskar even stopped napping in our TV room when I was on the roof.

Yet, another week went by and still Harish was in our house.


“So, Harish,” I said. “When do you go back to Puttaparthi for school?”

“Um, Tuesday or Friday I think, madam,” he says.

I know this means that he has no idea. I pull Bhaskar aside and ask him if he knows what’s going on with Harish and school. I say this in a tone that I hope will clearly convey that we are really and truly done having people in the house: drivers, children, the drivers children, the maid’s children, everyone.

He rattles off an incomprehensible sentence:

“Essaaa… Money pdom delations dey adr waiting podr.”

I know Harish’s family is in a grave financial situation. A couple of years ago, back at his native village where his family owns farmland and houses, his father had co-signed a loan that the other party apparently defaulted on, and now the lenders are after them. Harish’s parents have moved to Bangalore to take jobs to repay the debt: Rathnama, as a maid in our house, and her husband as a night guard at a construction site up the street. The best we can tell, it will take them years to earn enough to pay what they owe.

“How much does school cost?” I ask Baskhar.

Instead of just answering me, he calls Rathnama, her husband, and Harish into the dining room. A ten-minute mystery conversation takes place between the four of them, periodically punctuated by them each briefly looking over at me.

“Baskhar, how much do you pay for your children’s school?” I ask, trying to clarify my original question.

Bhaskar plays an important role in our India life. He’s not just our driver, he is our self-appointed nanny, guardian, and translator. The problem is, he doesn’t really speak English. He does, however, speak the local languages of Kannada and Telugu, which the maid and her family speak; and, as limited as his translation skills are, they are indispensable.

“Ma’am,” Bhaskar says, “They bring you billett with itemization.”

I tip my head like a dog trying to understand.

“Okay…” I say, tentatively. “Maybe we can contribute for his books, or uniform, or something.”

The way this whole thing is unfolding sends up a thousand red flags and I am extremely uncomfortable.

“Okee, okee. They bring bill. If you and Sir want to pay a portion, you pay.” He wobbles his head in a dismissive way.

The matter is forgotten by morning, and we take off traveling for a couple of weeks.


We arrive back home from our travels, happily exhausted, in the pre-dawn hours of a Monday morning, to find Harish in the entryway, standing at the ready, smiling wide.

“Good morning Auntie, how are you Auntie?”

“Harish, what are you doing here?” I try my best to sound cheerful.

He hands me an envelope.

“Here is billett for my school, Auntie.”

I am so not ready to be thrown into this pool yet. I’ve just spent ten days decompressing from the dramas of my de facto household, and enjoying the lush freedom that comes when your every move isn’t being observed. I have a chest cold, and there is no caffeine in my blood stream.

I take the envelope from Harish and open it while my tea is brewing. He watches me as I pull out two letters addressed, “To Whom it May Concern,” out of the envelope. I scan the letters and see that they are from two different schools. One is an invoice for 160,000 rupees, (around $ 3,400) and the other for 120,000 (about $2,500).

They are invoices for three years of boarding school.

I am too shocked to edit myself:

“We can’t pay this, Harish, it’s too much money !”

I feel terrible. And to make it that much worse, I can see from the look on this child’s face that he fully expected me to whip out my wallet and hand him the cash. He’s putting on a brave face, but I can tell he’s hugely disappointed. My stomach is tight and I can feel my swirl of confusion threatening to turn into tears.


I walk upstairs, lie on the bed, and stare at the ceiling. These people have so little, and this child has no future without an education. I see it all around me every day: promise turned sour and a life spent in resignation pushing a mango cart or smashing granite into gravel at the side of a road somewhere. These people want the same thing anyone wants: for their children to do just a bit better than they did. But here in India, the infrastructure isn’t keeping up with the population. This is a country where still only 17% of the population has access to a toilet, where 42% of the children are under nourished. 70% of the marriages are arranged, and the people in villages, which is 80% of India’s population, still think it is okay to marry your first cousin.

“What are you doing ?” Phil comes in and sits on the edge of the bed.

“Harish just gave me these,” I say, and hand him the letters. “It seems they think we’ve offered to pay for three years of boarding school.” Again, I’m on the verge of tears.

“And did we?” Phil asks.

“I don’t think so. All I did was ask how much school costs. I didn’t offer to pay,” I say quietly. “We can’t pay that. We can’t afford to pay that even if we wanted to.”

Phil reads the first letter out loud, and pauses.

Does anything seem strange to you about these letters ?
“Does anything seem strange to you about these letters ?” Phil asks.

“Let me see those again.”

I scan through the letters, and it becomes perfectly clear that the two invoices are suspiciously similar. There is slightly different formatting but with the same comically garbled English and the exact same misspellings. In fact, if I’m honest, these letters look a lot like Nigerian spam.

“These are totally forged,” Phil says, smiling.

“No… !” I say. “They wouldn’t do that.”

The thought that these people, who we have come to trust, are trying to scam us, is hard to swallow, and I spend the afternoon on a mission to prove that we are paranoid freaks. I try to get through to the phone numbers on the letterheads. Four out of four do not work. I read both the letters over and over again and try to find something, anything, believable about either one.

I speak again with Rathnama, Harish and Bhaskar, trying hard to find some scrap of mitigating clarity: I ask, as clearly as I can, where Harish would go to school if we could not pay for one of these places, and suddenly, between the boy and the driver and the maid, a fact spills out: the child is already enrolled in another school. This tiny, though meaningful, item serves to solidify what I’ve been trying hard not to see for the past several hours; my disbelief drains out of the equation and it becomes all too obvious.

“Oh, my God… this whole thing is just a fucking con,” I shout, clutching the letters in my hand like an irate newscaster.

“You think you can just type up some letters in bad English and we’ll hand you four thousand dollars ? In America when people pull crap like this we call the Hell’s Angels – or the police !”

I storm out of the room, but keep shouting, off-camera.

“Do you people really think we are this stupid ? We are not giving you a goddamn penny, or rupee, in fact you’ll be lucky if you still have a job and a place to live by morning !”

I stomp upstairs and look at the letters again, without filtering the words through my white guilt. And it becomes obvious that his ham-fisted con has all the craftiness of a fifth-grader forging a report card.

The whole situation has knocked the wind out of me. For the next three days I hardly leave the bedroom and I barely speak. I am devastated. I cry on the phone to my dad like a homesick seven-year-old at summer camp. I want to go home. I want to be someplace that I understand.

I fantasize about sitting the whole group down and telling them the story of the goose that laid the golden eggs, and explaining that sound they hear… that is a goose’s death rattle, and the sound of my wallet not opening.

Rathnama plays dumb. She swears she doesn’t know what is on the fake letters, but the way she is shamefully moving through the house cleaning things she never seemed to even notice before, tells me she knows exactly what’s up; although, I doubt her knowledge really makes her complicit, because, as an illiterate Hindu wife, she doesn’t wield much power.

While sulking, I replay the events of these past four months and realize that it is our good nature that has made us such easy marks in the first place. These people truly think that we are rich, and arguably it is my fault for giving them that impression. If I were from a village that raised goats and grew peanuts, and just stumbled into our house and saw the swimming pool and climbing wall and three extra bedrooms, I might come to that conclusion as well. The fact that I took the whole family to the zoo for Harish’s birthday, that I’ve bought the baby some clothes, and Rathnama saris and sandals, and Gotimine an armful of sparkly bangles, just helped to paint a certain picture.

The fact is, we are in India to save money for a down payment on a house when we go back home to San Francisco. Even though Phil and I have little debt, we actually own nothing, have nothing saved, and there is one more child to get through college.

We are not rich: we are stupid.


A couple of days later, the cement mixer at the job site next door fires up under our bedroom window at 7 a.m. and wakes me out of a sound sleep. I’m pissed because right now all I want to do is sleep. I pull on a robe and march downstairs. I lean over the fence and look for the guy in the sunglasses talking on the cell phone. He’s promised to move the mixer from under my window three times now, and I am ready to rain crazy white lady all over him.

Four women are carrying cement on their heads from the mixer to the foundation they are building. A small child follows one of the women, pulling on her sari and wailing mournfully. She keeps walking, balancing her load while she climbs barefoot through rubble and dirt, ignoring the child until she dumps her cement, then picking him up and carrying him back to the mixer where she waits for the boys to shovel more wet cement into her head-tray. She sets the child down and he wails and tugs on her sari. They repeat this routine over and over.

The woman works this way every Monday through Saturday. On Sunday, she does her family’s laundry. Scrubbing and smacking the cloth against the cement wall that her sisters have already built, then drying it across pieces of rebar. She and several other people, with several other children, all live on the job-site in a cinder-block shack with a corrugated metal roof held in place by large rocks. The children spend their days playing in piles of sand that will soon be turned into cement.

I watch these women working harder than I’ve ever worked in my life, and know that if I were in their situation, I would absolutely do anything I could to get my child an education, with the hope that someday they may be able to rise above this grueling life.

Rathnama and her family, though slightly better off than these laborers, are no different. And I realize that I’ve been taking this whole thing way to personally. I did everything short of thievery and extortion to get my own daughter a good education. If I were in their situation, I might have done the exact same thing.

I do like to think I’d have forged more convincing documents.


Days have passed by now, and Harish is still lingering around the house, though less omnipresent than before. I hazard the same question to Bhaskar that started this whole mess:

“Why isn’t Harish in school yet?”

“They waiting por monies from relations before to send him on bus for school in native place.”

Pause. Thinking.

“Bhaskar… How much does Harish’s school really cost ?” I ask.

“Just ten thousand rupees ma’am, for one year.”


“Honey,” I say to Phil later that night, in that tone that means I am about to say something unreasonable. “Guess how much school really costs for Harish?”

“How much?”

“Two hundred dollars a year. Bhaskar told me.”

“And how do we know he’s not lying too ?” Phil asks.

“We don’t.”

Sadly, this is true. Both Phil and I now suspect that all of India is lying to us all the time. There’s always the chance that Bhaskar was in on the con as well: after all, he and Rathnama are thick as thieves; they chatter endlessly in their bouncy languages; she even cooks for him and washes his clothes. If this weren’t India we’d suspect impropriety, but things like that just don’t happen here.

Finally, we decide that ensuring Harish gets his education this year is worth a two hundred dollar investment, especially if it means getting our privacy back.

But we won’t get fooled again:

We confirm that the school is real; we confirm the costs of books and lodging; we confirm that the phone numbers work and that the people who answer do in fact work at the school answering phones.

To further ensure everything is on the up-and-up, we arrange to have Bhaskar personally deliver Harish to his new school in Andhra Pradesh. We give him five thousand rupees, enough for six months’ tuition, which we instruct him to pay to the school’s headmaster directly. We will return to the school ourselves in six months to pay the balance in person.

Bhaskar and Harish leave at 6 a.m. the next morning for the four hour drive to Andhra Pradesh. The following evening, Bhaskar returns, sleepless, unshaven, and thankfully, alone. He places a signed receipt and a payment booklet from the school on the table, tossing us a tired smile and half a head-wobble.

“Beddy good school, ma’am. Harish beddy happy.”

He really better not be lying.


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.

I’m shocked.

“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.

Puttaparthi People

We are off to Puttaparthi for the weekend. We are traveling there with the people in the picture above: our maid, Rathnama (at right), her daughter, and grandson-with-no-name, plus our stalwart driver Bhaskar. Their native village is close by there, and Rathnama’s 12-year old son Harish (not seen in this pic) goes to school there at one of Sai Baba‘s facilities. Will we see the man they call Swami? You will be the first to hear if we do.

If you want to learn a bit more about Sai Baba, a strange, powerful, and controversial figure here, I did a little writing on the subject awhile back.


[audio:Janes Addiction – Superhero.mp3]
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.

The next thing I know I’m pinning the two younger ones into our swimsuits so they can play in the pool, and counseling the 17-year old on her college plans.

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.

“Bhaskar asleep.”
“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.