Padmini Parthasarathy

West of East is still East of West.

SUMMER BABE (WINTER VERSION)

Sometimes, in the hour or so between awake and asleep, I can hear the thrumming of a ceiling fan. That’s all I remember from India unless I put my mind to it. The consistency of the fan. It cuts through the spitfire caws of crows and ambient buzz of fruit flies. It harmonizes with the slow chop of vegetables and circulates our sweat, around and around and around the room. It harmonizes with the television, the angry television. We eschew quiet for that damn breeze. And we only realize it’s there when our hair is ruffled.

We have to stop the fan occasionally, for some activities. Baiyee turns it off, room by room, when she sweeps. We wouldn’t want dust kicked up. We switch it off when we have to fetch this pillow or that suitcase from the high cupboards in paati’s almirah, for fear of hitting our heads.

On the nights when sleep escapes me, I lie on my back, left leg dangling off the small bed, feeling the fan hit me, beat after beat. I think, how wonderful it is I have a country. I slowly make circles with my big toe, feeling for the marble floor that I know is there.

And I wake up the next morning, coffee in hand, reading the Mumbai Mirror. The fan can’t get enough of those pages, rifling through them, forcing me to turn to the pages it feels good about.

There’s something ancient about that fan, that motorized thing that can’t be older than electricity. It has always been there and it will always be there. It’s a beat. It moves so fast, but so evenly. In its movement, in its oscillation, it is steady. It is a top. It is white noise that we can trick ourselves into believing is not there. A whitewash over the dreadful silence of our lives, of radio silence from something bigger. A ticking down. You’re one rotation closer to a more sinister silence.

There’s a certain complacency hidden between its fins. The fan seems to be telling me, it’s ok, there’ll be another rotation. This is temporary, this is inevitable. I wonder for a moment why I’m hearing an inanimate object talking to me, but then it says, It’s ok because you’re in India. You go a little crazy in India.

I go a little crazy in India. The plodding consistency and the bat-shit crazy of the street like oil and water. People keep their heads down, their eyes averted. They carry om around in their hearts, or at least they try to. They’ve been told to do this. Something, anything, to anchor themselves. But in Mumbai, money is religion. Maybe this is just a product of urbanization. Maybe in the village you can find some peace. But I suspect that those are just the pipe dreams of educated men, of the high-caste, of the 1 percent who have the cache to find peace in the village.

Another property: things dry when you put on the fan. Our bodies out of the shower, and the floors after they’re wiped. Everything wet and heavy evaporates eventually. Everything desiccates.

HIATUS

This project is not dead. This project is fallow. I left India with fragments and photos and feelings, which I am in the process of piecing together. Now that it’s hot again, it might be time to rig up an irrigation system and nurture those saplings. More work to come.

SARIS

I wore a sari on three occasions in my time here. Saris are six yards of material that are draped and pleated to create a garment. This is what it looks like:

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This means that I can wear my grandmother’s sari though we are different in size. She still wears some of her mother’s saris. Wedding saris are re-used. When draped correctly, it is a beautiful, shapely garment. They are multi-purpose. The long, trailing end that drapes over the left shoulder (the pallu) is used as a blanket, a hankie, a shawl. It is used to shade, to cover. It is sometimes wrapped around the waist and tucked in when work is about to be done. When the pallu is particularly exquisite, it is flaunted. Once you get over the initial feeling that it’s going to fall off, it’s a pretty awesome garment. When my mother was here, we pulled out her nine-yard wedding sari. In South India, it was tradition for married women to wear the madisar, or the nine-yard. That tradition has mostly died. We decided to turn the madisar into a usable six-yard. Before we did, we decided to play dress-up:

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CHARACTERS

I am going home on Wednesday. Over the last four months, my concept of home has become both more fraught and more simplified. In this case, home means the east coast of America. And yes, that certainly is my home in the sense that I will slip back into my American accent easily, that I can take my car and go, that I’ll be able to eat a bagel for breakfast and have a drink with my friends. But I will miss the red carrots doused in lime and cilantro that I’ve here almost every day. I will miss my shared brown-ness with all the others. I will miss the political screaming matches that my grandmother and I watch on the television every evening. I will miss the Worli Seaface and vada pav and the impossibly intricate (and hilarious) politics of the colony. And most importantly, I will miss the people I see everyday.

In India, hiring domestic servants is common in the middle class. The average household will have a maid, a cook, and a driver. The population is extremely high, so instead of buying an appliance, you hire someone. Sometimes this tendency borders on parody. You will see three people crowding a toll booth- one is there to count and collect money, the second is there to pass the money from the driver to the toll collector, and the third (from what I’ve gathered) is there for moral support. Once, I went to a restaurant where a man had been hired to hold a tray of paan. Anyway, the lengths that people take to create jobs is striking. The relationship between the working class and the middle class is complex. It is a world away from the professionalism of comparable relationships in the U.S. It is so much more than an exchange of money for a service. I can only describe it as personal. Maids will cook the child’s favorite meal. They will go fetch eggs and laundry. Gardeners will fix the dent in your car. (True story: The bottom corner of the car door had been bent upward in an incident a few days earlier. I woke up one morning to a loud thudding noise. One of the gardener’s assistants was fixing the nick with his rusty old tools. And then he ran away when my grandmother tried to pay him for his troubles.) Drivers will come in the middle of the night to drop you off at the airport. These acts of goodwill are paid in kind. The maid’s child’s school tuition will be paid. A loan will be given to the driver for a down payment on a new flat. The gardener will be admitted to the hospital on the employer’s dime. They are invited to each other’s weddings. The exchange is silent. It is an attempt to silently bridge the yawning, un-bridgeable gap of class.

I wanted to dedicate this last post to the people I spoke to every day (whether in my limited Tamil or my broken Hindi). So here is the cast of characters:

In Chennai…

Prema: Prema works as a maid in Padmalaya. She is whip-smart.  I will always remember being part of her assembly line, parceling sweets and fruits for the various festivals that were held in the house.

Ruben: Ruben is the official driver at Padmalaya. He is originally from Assam, a north-eastern state in India. He immigrated to Chennai five years ago looking for better job opportunities. He is loyal and exceptionally sweet. He was the one who taught me the roads in Chennai. I will always remember lighting really huge, really dangerous firecrackers with him during my first official Diwali. And also him laughing at me when I was too chicken to light the 5000-walla.

In Pondicherry…

Kasturi: Kasturi is my great-aunt Renuka’s longtime cook and maid. She was sporting a new, short haircut when I went this time. I honestly can’t believe that she remembers me, considering that I go to Pondicherry so infrequently, but she did, and she was thrilled that I remembered her too.

In Bombay…

Nirmala baiyee: Baiyee means “lady” in Marathi, the local language of Mumbai. Nirmala sweeps, cuts vegetables, makes rotis and does odd jobs for my grandmother. When we first interacted, she thought I was a complete idiot and would exaggeratedly mime things to make up for my lack of Hindi. I thought this was hilarious. She has been a fixture in my time in Mumbai. Just as she marvels at my laziness, I marvel at how hard she works for her family. All four of her children are in school or college.

Pratibha baiyee: Nirmala has mostly taken over for Pratibha baiyee, who is getting on in years, but Pratibha still comes and cleans the kitchen. She is a very sharp lady who loves dressing well and looking polished. I still remember when she came and saw me off at night the last time I left Mumbai.

Nirmala baiyee (the maalish waali): Maalish means massage in Hindi. That’s right, someone will come home and give you a deep tissue massage here. Nirmala comes home about once a week for massages. She also has a business on the side selling nightgowns. I think she secretly comes to our house more often than others because she loves the south Indian food my grandmother cooks. She always leaves with a request for the next meal. I would describe her as a foodie. She and my grandmother have a great rapport. She is always a fun guest for a cup of tea and gossip.

Laxman: Laxman runs a small car-washing business in the colony. He has a full-time job as a driver for another family in the colony and he drives sometimes for us. He has maybe taken two days off the whole time I’ve been here (he works seven days a week like all these people). He’s a frenetic character who constantly seeks to amuse. He stole my phone and took a picture of me.

I took it back and took this picture of him:

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Mandokar: Mandokar is the colony gardener. He does odd jobs for my grandmother and maintains her little garden. He’s always game to help rearrange furniture or climb up into the mini-attic above the bathroom to fetch something. I will always remember vacuum-sealing all of my grandmother’s cushions and blankets with Mandokar. They’re weirdly flattened and lying in one of the high cupboards in her bedroom. She’ll probably make me climb up on the high stool and get them down the next time I come…

SPIT

People have a tendency to spit on the sidewalk here. Chennai rickshaw drivers, naked to the elements on either side, stick their heads out of their vehicles in stopped traffic to empty their mouths of paan-stained dribble. People hock loogies on the street regularly. Gargle and spit. The frothy saliva glints in the sun, a marker.

Someone once told me this theory about Indians: every space that is one degree separated from his person is one degree less clean. So an Indian will be impeccably clean and showered. His house will be slightly dirtier. The gully outside of his house will be a bit dirtier. The street is too far removed for anyone to care. Even someone like me who has been taught better is tempted to throw my wrapper onto the growing pile.

Today, the 26th of January, is Republic Day, the day the Indian Constitution was ratified and India officially became a republic. It is clear that Indians love their country very much. They defend it to the teeth. They willingly give their sons to protect the borders, to be scattered in parts across Kashmir, which, according to my grandmother, is the most beautiful place in the world.

Indians love their country very much, but are in a mutually abusive relationship with it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of the Rooster Coop. The cage isn’t necessary. The jailer is the prisoner. In politics, it’s called a collective action problem. We spit on the road to make a mark. We monitor and attempt to control the behavior of the people around us because our lives seem so out of our own control. We teach each other to oppress. We stay compressed.

Indians love their country very much, but are often fed up with it. They expel their bitterness that onion prices have increased by nearly 300% in the last 10 years. They spit and shout and protest and yell at the television, and then eventually realize that noise is futile and their voices are hoarse. And when this and this and this  happen, they hold candlelight vigils and marches and debates in the press. And then this happens.

And when it happens, I’m disappointed that things are this way. And the disappointment doesn’t quash my anger that things are this way. And my anger doesn’t shut out my hope for things not to be this way anymore. And maybe one day, the Indian pill will not have an aftertaste too bitter to swallow.

 

 

IT IS

an OCI card stuck

soundlessly inside an American passport.

 

latent Tamil muffled with English and

early memories

of rotis and Amitabh Bachchan

on Saturdays swallowed whole

by Chipotle and Mad Men.

 

mango-flavored ice cream

concentrated kulfi,

Kohlapuri chappals worn

with jeans.

 

It looks like a coconut.

 

tearing a roti with one hands not two

hands manicured with Lakme

polish, good for Indian skin.

 

neem mask

for blemishes

on the face

wiping it clean.

 

picking the brown spots

off my rotis, spots

that look like scabbed over

blemishes.

 

a potted jasmine starved

for the sun.

 

RESOLUTE

This is more of a note to myself than anything. But I also feel that all of writing is generally more for the writer than the reader, so blah.

I put a lot of stock in New Year’s Resolutions (yes, I know I’m two weeks late. Sorry.). I realized a couple years ago that each year is an opportunity to improve one small aspect of my life. Instead of choosing large, sweeping resolutions that I am unlikely to self-enforce, I pick small, everyday motions that could possibly lead to larger positive outcomes. I usually shortlist a few and then decide upon one, achievable goal. Then, I come up with a few reasons why this goal will improve my life and a few tangible results of the goal.

In 2012, I decided to start eating breakfast every morning. I had realized that the best days I had had thus far had started with a full breakfast. So, on the first of January, I set out to achieve this goal. The only sacrifice was 15-20 minutes of sleep and the benefits were enormous. I found myself waking up earlier because I savored that time with myself, just reading a book with a plate of eggs and a cup of tea. I ended up giving my brain at least two hours to start before class and inevitably made healthier choices during the day. It felt like I was giving my body a hug every morning.

Last year, I decided to target discipline, which I felt (and still feel) I lack(ed). I decided that I was going to start making my bed every morning, no exceptions. My decision coincided with my reading of The Power of Habit, which makes the strong case that it is the small habits that need to be broken for patterns of behavior to change. (My favorite example from the book is one about a square in Egypt where protests were common and sometimes unruly. Rather than increasing security in the square, the police took the expedient measure of banning food carts in and around the square. People dispersed more quickly when there was nothing to eat or drink in the vicinity.)

Small changes make the biggest waves. Since I started my day in an act of organizing and uncluttering, I felt that my productivity increased throughout the day. I was more compelled to pick up a book or stick to a study schedule. The act of making my bed every morning was also a reminder to myself to value what I had and treat it with respect.

Both of these habits have stuck. So moving on to this year’s resolution. Of course, I have been influenced by my last few months in India. It is impossible not to see the deficits and the great need of a great many people here. And it is also impossible not to admire their common-sense thrift. If you buy a glass bottle of soda from a local vendor, you must stand there, finish the bottle, and then return it. That is recycling. Water conservation means filling a small bucket with water and using only that much to bathe. Clothes and toys are passed from person to person. Plastic bags are used several times over. You’ll be hard pressed to find a piece of paper that doesn’t have writing on every inch of it before being thrown out. Conservation is not a fad here; it is an unspoken reality.

So I’ve decided to try and implement this attitude in my life in small ways. Turning off the shower while lathering and using perfectly good scraps of paper are small things I can do to remind myself that I am not the only person in the world that needs and uses these resources. I think I need to remind myself more often that I am not the only person here.