Yesterday in pictures

Bicyclist

 

 

 

 

 

 

I looked out the window and I saw the first cyclist I have seen so far in Pune. A serious athlete and the fastest one able to navigate the clogged traffic. Is this the future of cycles in India?

Billboard Pune

Whoaaaaaa! Did that billboard actually say what it did? An ad for a housing expo and it is advertised to target all the upwardly mobile  supposedly into living in together and presumedly also unable to find housing?

Berk T shirt

Walking by a store, I stopped to take a picture of this t-shirt. Ah Berkeley! Sometimes I miss home.

Beneath the perfect life

I have a recurring nightmare. In it, I am not a writer, I am not a dancer, I am nothing. A couple of months ago dissatisfied and disillusioned with my job as an administrative assistant in an exclusive private school, nestled in Berkeley one of the most beautiful places in the world, I complained about my job to a well known writer in  San Francisco . ” If you leave your job and you tried to write and if you found you could not or nothing came of it, what is the worst thing that can happen? You will stay at home and bake cookies with your children? That is not too bad a life is it?” he asked me.  I shuddered inwardly at the thought while I demurred.

Do not take me wrong, I love my girls. There is nothing in me that doubts that. I have birthed them and loved them with a ferocity that has far outlived any passion I have felt for any man. There is a problem though. A home baked cookie does not give me joy. I often wish it did, it would make me a woman more content. I have a husband who would support anything I wanted to do including baking cookies all day long. I am blessed with enough resources to do that if I desired. Roosevelt once said, ” Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” Being a mother to my girls, making sure to the best of my ability that they will be kind and strong women in a tumultuous world are indeed work worth doing and I will do it. The problem again?

That little part of me that is beneath my role as a mother is sadder every day that I do not write or dance or walk or balance on a yoga mat. And on days like today which was great – swimming classes, a half hour on the treadmill, a buffet lunch fit for a king, hot chocolates under the rainy skies, but,  with almost no time for myself, I can feel her sadly murmuring in a corner of the heart. And on less than idyllic days, on days when the children haven’t been on stellar behavior, when I have been unwell, when I have pushed myself to live up to my ideal of the mother I must be; she shrieks and screams in my heart, she beats at the walls. My thoughts turn murky, gloomy, grim and dark.” Is this why Sylvia Plath put her head in the oven? Is this why Virginia Woolf walked into the pond with stones in her pockets?” I am under no illusion that I am a writer of their stature. But I am a writer and I am a woman and I can be as imaginatively doleful as I like. This one place I have freedom.

So every day that I agonize over clothes left lying around, socks and underwear under the feet, counter tops littered with left over food, unwashed faces, unbrushed teeth, fights, tears and an overflowing sink- all of which require my supervision and skills, I tell that little voice in the heart to hold on and be patient. These sweet little girls and this home needs me. When they are grown up, when they will know how to bathe, when they have learnt how to choose and how to live their own life, when this house will be quiet and no squabbles require my judgement,  when that day comes, I will be an old lady. Perhaps by then I would have given up coloring my hair, perhaps by then my skin will glow a little less, I am not worried about that (ok,maybe just a little) but really, I am more worried about the voice in the heart. ” I must do this work,” I tell it, ” Hold on, hold on. I promise to give you voice today, tomorrow and the day after. I promise to keep trying as long as I live.”

Between two worlds

Old man rain

Everything has changed. Nothing has changed. I vacillate between the two every day I am here. We have a cook and two kindly women who come to clean. There is a Sephora and even a Wetzel’s Pretzels in the mall we visited yesterday.I have seen ordinary looking people spend more money than I earned in a month when I worked in television eleven years ago. We buy what we need, secure in the rate of dollar conversion. I have tired myself out as the family communicator, often people cannot understand a word my husband speaks. He is busy learning Hindi on Rosetta Stone.Our home has the bare minimums required to live. How much does a man need? The monsoon mornings are cool and windy. I do yoga on a mat before the children wake. The winds, the birds, the open patio doors- this I love. I write when I can. India has skyscrapers and malls. India has children knocking on your car window asking for food. My husband went back to the doctor for a follow up today. She charged him nothing for the visit. “Why?” I wondered. An old man sleeps in the rain under a covered bus stand. “Does he sleep soundly?” The rains in Pune keep this city cool. I have carried myself here, to my country, I say. I am Indian but then really I am not anymore. I am an American now. The conundrum continues, I am looking for the key.

Two roads become four

“In India two roads become four.” That is what my husband and I talked about on our way back from the hospital where he underwent an endoscopy this morning. It was a test our doctor in Berkeley had recommended before we headed to India but the co pay for it with our health insurance was almost three thousand dollars there,and, two days before our departure from Berkeley, that was a bit hard for us to rustle up on short notice. So when the doctor in Pune suggested the same test, we decided to just get it done. A friend of a friend of a friend offered to watch the children for us. I did not just make that sentence up. A friend of a friend of a friend watched our children for almost three hours when my husband and I were in the hospital.

The hospital was at the end of a cul de sac. He had to be admitted at the emergency ward which was a little unnerving. Of course my husband is a curiosity in India bigger than I am in America. Everyone in the hospital was kind to us even the orderlies who I sensed bit back sharp words when I asked too many questions. After waiting for a half hour we were escorted up to the operation theatre where I was asked to remove my shoes and then asked to wait outside. I peeped through the window at Tom sitting in pajamas and a shirt too small for him. I don’t think there are many 6ft 3′ wearers of that uniform.

OTWhen the doctor came, I was summoned in and he explained the procedure to both of us before taking him away. I looked around me at the beds covered in blue tarps apparently clean though all of them seemed stained in orange hues, a line of thought I did not want to pursue when I was sent back to my waiting post.

The results were important enough to warrant a detailed explanation from the doctor post procedure and not scary enough to detain or hospitalize him. The cost- eight thousand six hundred and forty rupees.  In other currencies that would be one hundred and fifty dollars.

On the way back from the hospital, my husband and I talked about Indian roads and how four rows of cars managed to drive parallel to each other in spaces meant for two. I was thinking about these roads, when it struck me-  a friend of a friend of a friend whom I had never met watched the girls this morning. Maybe India is like that-  space on the road, in a heart, in a home, always, for more even when it is the unknown.

 

Pune- Day 3

I stood this evening and watched the life in the ten storied apartment that faces our hotel in Pune. Very few curtains were drawn and I wasn’t sure if I breached any etiquette by looking at their lives. The lady  in the apartment directly opposite our room who cleaned her kitchen every night was there tonight too. I wondered who lived with her and why they never helped. Televisions were on in many rooms, couples sat on couches, in many houses fans whirring wearily from the ceilings. The monsoons are almost here in this city. I can feel the promise in the wind. The dampness in the air.

I am tired this evening. The logistics of settling us down here have been mind numbing. A friend who was in the writing workshop with me and has two published books to her name called up some friends she knew and I had some virtual hand holding. I needed it so I could hold my family’s hand. This was my country, I wanted so badly for them to love it the way I did and every day the logistics fray away at my optimism. This community of women friends is growing out largely from the UEA writing workshop in Kolkata and it is something I missed in my life in America. It seems that women here somehow have more time to support each other even if they hold full time jobs, write books or have children and families they care for. The landlord’s wife came to help me set up the television, find a cleaner and even arranged to have supplies sent over to the house, the head of HR in my husband’s company accompanied me to the market place so I could avoid the malls and buy kitchen utensils at cheaper prices, my writer- friend’s friend spent a lot of time on the phone with me to see  in what ways she could help. And so as I stood this evening gazing out at the road in front of this hotel, I think back to this women and feel a moment of gratitude. I am a story teller and India is full of stories. For now though I must acknowledge that I am tired and must rest. Tomorrow we move into our house.

Landed

The first thing we saw when as we came out of the airplane in Pune was a dog. He looked lost and a little bewildered but no one seemed particularly worried as he headed out towards the runway probably trying to get away from all the airplanes standing on the tarmac. I would have taken a picture but I was carrying my smallest one who had fallen asleepcat on baggage. My brother meanwhile sent me a picture of a mother at the baggage claim in Guwahati. A mother cat holding her baby in her mouth jumping over an empty baggage claim belt. He describes her as very self- assured.

That is more than can be said about me at this point. As we pick glasses, plates, trash cans, beds, beddings and register as foreigners in my country of origin, I have moments of extreme self-doubt. “WTF! What are we doing here? And really buying house wares again, like really for the zillionth time in my adult life???” If there is one thing that does not appeal to me,  it is domesticity. Of course the events of my life belie this, but, really I am one of those women who hopes that her home will run magically on invisible and well oiled wheels, and,  then is constantly surprised and chagrined when it doesn’t. When I left my ex husband I had carried NONE of my domestic belongings. He had the privilege to keep them all. I left with two suitcases. And when Tom and I had met, we had picked up one set of used plates and glasses. For many months we had eaten off the same plate.. I remembered those days when we packed up our house in Berkeley and put our belongings in storage. Such little hoarders we are. Or is it just us? Or is it because we have children and must needs be domesticated? Even the mother cat does what she needs to for her children.

So it is we head into our second day in Pune. I have promised the girls a visit to a coffee shop or a book store. The vibrancy which is what India represents for me whether the dog on a runway or the workshop in Kolkata is what brought us in part to India and we must live it every day. My three daughters, lovingly named Sleepy, Sneezy and Dopey for their colorful personalities eye my early morning enthusiasm warily.

A lesson in vigilance

This morning my three year old took the hand of one of the housekeeping staff at the upscale hotel we are staying at and went to find balloons. I have often let the children run around in the corridors outside our room because we are on a higher level in the hotel and it would be hard to get lost unless… Her older sisters came back to report that their little sister wanted a balloon and so she was taken away kindly by a hotel staff who asked the older sisters to stay behind. My husband, brother and I ran in crazy circles trying to find her and she was returned to us in a few minutes by the contrite person concerned. Those minutes were long ones.

We complained, we were angry, we spoke, we vented, we asked for explanations. The hotel has apologized, we received flowers, a cake, a bottle of wine, a hand written note. The manager went through security cameras to follow the sequence of events and so far the story of the balloon is straight forward and holds true. So should end the story and I wish to see things in perspective and not over react. Only in my mind, this event has thrown me down a dark rabbit hole. I have been molested as a child, I know that sexual abuse can take a moment to occur, I know that you carry the scars always and I know that I would never forgive myself if… So I have complained, I am upset, I do not want the most probably kind lady to lose her job but for the first time after our arrival I am scared.

This incident has been indicative of many of our experiences here in these ten days in Kolkata.  Strangers take pictures with our children without asking us, people have gone out of their way to help us or to pamper our children, we have experienced great hospitality, someone also walked away with our child today to give her a balloon. A giant decanter, a million ingredients shaken and mixed together, create this life here. As parents we are always concerned for our children. As parents this work is going to be more of a challenge when we are traveling with them on unfamiliar terrains. This evening as I sit here and write this piece all I can think of is how grateful I am that I can hear the laughter of my children as they play in the room next to me.

sorry

Workshopped

finally

Today is the last day of the writing workshop. I feel a sense of a loss I can’t define. Amit Chaudhuri and Ian Jack shared in degrees measured and unmeasured parts of themselves with us  writers published and unpublished. We were workshopped like metal or pieces of wood using words of praise, words of censure, erudite criticisms in colorful ink. Two groups created through an alphabetical coincidence (Our parents were solely responsible for this). “Why were we here? Why did we come?” Words used to discuss and analyze,  “The austere is beautiful, restrain admirable, writing is thinking…”

The roads are filling up with water inch by inch. With one hand I have held a paper and pen, with the other I have held on to this family of five. Some said, “I like what you say.” Some said, “I do not like it.” Some said, “You should have used this word.” Some said, “You should have packed and unpacked.” I wrote these down on a piece of paper and this morning I made a paper boat. I set it floating down a rain clogged road. I have spoken of anger, I have spoken of race, I have spoken of being a woman in my own ways. I have said what I have, I hope, with candor and grace. Off to the world now to do our work, I carry some words, I carry some people and some of both I must leave behind.

 

City of Joy

 

Rains 1

I stepped out of the hotel yesterday morning and for a long time sat under a balcony watching the rain pour down ceaselessly. The effect was like buckets being emptied in endless succession. I remember fifteen years ago in Bangalore, pushing my scooter through water that was waist deep. I lost my shoes, the scooter had to be repaired. I remember the hot bath when I came home, the pleasure in washing the mud off my body.

The rain waters on the roads in Kolkata did not reach waist level though some people did have to wade through waters half way up to their knees. A baby was washed away while their family slept on a narrow platform on a slighter higher level. Taxis refused to bring my colleagues doing the UEA writing workshop and one girl wrote of wanting to cry on the side of the road as she could find no transport. Another girl doing the workshop could not meet her husband who had flown in specially for their wedding anniversary.

Rains 2

What is it that has changed in India? People speak of modernity, it is a word thrown around in conversations;  women smoking in groups, torn jeans, swanky malls, high-rises, swimming pools, conversations in English. The news about the baby who died that night had a small mention among all the other reports. Where is the modernity I ask when a sleeping baby can float away in the night and no one gives voice to the loss of his parents- these pavement dwellers in the city of joy?

 

 

The gods in the hotel

When people ask me about why we have moved to India, I sometimes tell them about the deities in the hotel. The boutique in the hotel is a small one full of shimmering and over priced fabrics. When I am unable to take walks in the monsoon rains, I compensate by walking in circles around the hotel corridors and have stopped occasionally at the boutique to look at the displays. One morning a few days ago, I saw them-  a row of deities on a shelf close to the ground. “That is funny. I wonder how I never saw them.” I thought. I walked closer to inspect them and they were all there- saints, gods and goddesses, the symbol of  a cross, a statue of Christ.

A hotel employee dressed in his uniform sat kneeling on the floor and one by one he picked up the statues and pictures, washed them with a wet tissue, dried them and delicately adorned them with vermilion before placing them in a row on a shelf in a cupboard that I had never seen open until then. The roses he placed at the feet of the deities were the same roses I had seen in the flower arrangements in the hotel lobby.

I sat next to him on the ground and watched as he continued his prayers in silence. “Is this your altar?” I asked him. “No.” he replied, “It’s everyone’s altar. All the employees in the hotel come here to pray. Once a week one of us bathes and feeds the gods.” He placed little balls of sugar candy on a plate, he lit a small lamp and incense sticks.

I got up to leave and wondered about the fire hazards of lighting a lamp inside a wardrobe but surely the gods must be pleased at such devotion. It has stayed with me since- this devotion in a corner of a hotel boutique and sometimes during my walks now I am tempted to open the cupboard to peep in on the gods and see how they are doing.  And now sometimes when people ask me about why we came to India, I don’t tell them about my home sickness, I don’t talk to them of alienation in exile, I tell them about the gods in the cupboard.

An American family moves to India for a year.