All I wanted was to go swimming.
I have done nothing the past two days, and that’s only barely an exaggeration. With everybody gone, I have lacked the motivation to go anywhere or do anything. It seemed like too much work. I thought of calling Aashiq (this being the right English spelling) but kept dancing around the idea, due to the awkward possibilities it could introduce. Then my phone died and I lost the charger, withdrawing the possibility.
So I just wanted to go swimming. I wanted to get out of this house.
Over the summer, some friends had gone to the Ramada Inn nearby and had no problem swimming–they were even given fluffy white towels. I brought my own towel, but met with no luck. After having two doors opened for me to get inside the vast, air-conditioned lobby (far more luxurious than any American Ramada Inn) I explained that I wanted to use the pool. The staff motioned me to a plush beige couch and conferenced. A few moments later I was told only guests could use the pool. “Even if I pay?” I asked. The man gave a graceful bow of the head to indicate apologies. I nodded and retreated back out into the scorching sun.
Returning to the house was disappointing, so less than an hour later I was back out, having decided I would take “A Passage to India” and go to Anokhi, a cafe with comfortable chairs and good food. I would have a sweet lime soda and this tomato-mozzarella pizza-esque thing I’d had in the past. It would be good and I would be spoiled and I would be out for a while.
Anokhi was, embarrassingly, a retreat for a number of foreigners at the time. British accents drifted toward me from different directions. Across from me an American and a British man, both slightly loud and overweight, were engaged in conversation. “Well this is a nice escape,” one pointed out. The American lamented a hair in his food and discussed a similar situation in the U.S. when a hair in the food meant a free meal. These people were irritating me. Their tone of voice was irritating, and suddenly the whole situation was irritating, this Western-modeled, comfortable, organic-food providing, videshi-magnet cafe. I’d had my food and it was good, but now I needed somewhere else. I also needed money. So I went outside and found a napping autowala. I prodded him awake and got him to take me to Citibank on M.I. Road, but he refused to take me to the old city. So I withdrew some money and waited by the side of the very busy street.
A happy-looking cyclewala pulled up beside me and motioned me into the seat. “I need to go to the old city,” I explained. He motioned me in again. “How much?” I asked. “80 rupees,” he said. Several things having annoyed me today, I simply said no and started walking away. He lowered to 50, apparently carefree about the price, and because I still don’t know the layout of this city well enough to know rickshaw prices between many destinations, I gave in. Also because he was so happy. Maybe I would pay extra for some kindness.
After establishing that I could speak Hindi, he decided to become very engrossed in conversation. This happens frequently–because people at the level of rickshawvalas are not usually the highest educated and tend to be very limited in English, and because few Hindi-speaking foreigners ever venture through the city, a foreigner’s speaking Hindi opens up a conversational territory they rarely see. Now he could crane his head around and ask–why was I here? Where was I from? What do I think of India? Do I drink chai?
Answering affirmative on the last question, I suddenly found that we were pulling to a stop alongside the road and I was being ushered out of the rickshaw toward a chai cart and a small congregation of men. One pointed me to a wooden stool and I sat in everyone’s curious gaze. I heard the grinning rickshawvala explain me to the men as well as he could: “She’s a student, she’s 20 years old, she speaks some Hindi.”
People took up stools around me and asked more questions–where was I studying? How is Hindi? A glass of water was offered, but I demured as politely as possible, after having just watched a small child shitting into a gutter. I watched the chaiwala heat the milk and tea in an iron pot and stir with a ladel, and then the chai was distributed, and another man was placing a small glass of the steaming beige drink in my hand. I drank, slightly amused. What if I needed to be somewhere at a certain time? What if someone was in the hospital? Chai waits for no one.
Our drinks consumed and we were back in the rickshaw, him chatty as ever. He pointed out a place where marriages take place. I nodded. He offered free Hindi lessons. I declined. He stopped, turned around, and said that he would take me to the old city, but first he wanted to pick up his children from school. “I have three children! First I’ll pick up my children, then I’ll drop them off, then I’ll take you to the old city. Is this fine?” I suppose I could have said no, but my curiosity was piqued. It’s not like I had anywhere to be, really.
We came near to the old city I’ve been familiar with and he veered in a new direction and stopped. He promptly left the rickshaw without a word. It was a new scene. Men with giant knives were absently slicing at the bodies of chickens. Live chickens, some grotesque and half-plucked, were squeezed into small cages, some with conversational boys sitting on top. Chickens walked in the street. In front of me was a fruit cart and women with covered heads were buying fruit. All around, women had their heads covered and some men wore skullcaps. Political posters–likely not for the BJP–were strung through the alley like Buddhist prayer flags. This was a Muslim neighborhood.
The rickshawvala came back without a word and hopped back on the bike, and then we were on our way toward the school. We went deeper through alleys and turns, vaguely uphill. “This is the oldest part of the old city,” he explained, as the alleys became narrower and I felt like I was going back in time.
Horse- and donkey-drawn carts were sharing the street. A girl was hand-washing a pair of jeans with a cup of water outside her door. Large cast-iron pots sat over fires at the side of the street, preparing food for a restaurant. Carts of bricks and stones passed by. Piles and piles of fabric and shredded old cotton were being examined by groups of women. Two men rode past on a camel. Gnarled old trees rose upward and shaded sections of the street. A man rested on a cot, smoking a cigarette. I wish I could properly describe the architecture–crumbling brick fortifications and plaster-covered walls with old paint in faded blue and yellow and pink hues. Doors were open and inside tiny rooms led into other tiny rooms.
We wound uphill. Slowly a beautiful cream-colored fort came into view on a hilltop nearby and I made the surprising and happy realization that I was in the part of the city that I had viewed with such curiosity only a couple of weeks ago from inside the fort. On the top of that hill, this part of the city–so close–looked like a maze of alleys with the beautiful connected buildings shining in the dusk. It looked like a Middle Eastern desert city, like something from A Thousand and One Nights. It didn’t look much different from the ground.
We came so near to the hill that the we went past some of the fort’s old walls. Finally, the driver stopped and announced it would be “only ten minutes”. He ushered me into a park to enjoy the grass and bushes and trees and there I sat, watching people nap and play and watch me back. When I walked out of the park he came right up with his rickshaw, three tiny people in tiny school uniforms seated inside. He motioned next to the tiniest, a little boy with dangling feet and only one shoelace in one shoe, who stared at the surroundings. He introduced me to the children quickly–I have forgotten all of their names, as I’ve heard a lot of Indian names today–and we went back in the same direction to their house, a little slice in the plaster wall. I managed to get one picture, which of course attracted a great deal of attention. I got the two little boys–the girl was too shy, maybe, and ran inside.
And finally, after maybe half an hour, the rickshawvala dropped me in the old city. I didn’t know where I was, but I wasn’t about to say anymore.. I thought I might end up eating dinner with his family or meeting his parents. Eventually I got to where I wanted to be, a little shop I’d been in once before, down a very narrow alley. The shopkeeper (Devraj, his name I do recall) remembered me and we struck up a rapport–he introduced me to his brother and told me about his family, how long he’d owned the shop, told me his age and about his two sons. A lot of people have one particular thing they’re intrigued about with foreigners, and for Devraj, apparently, it was alcohol. He wanted to know if I drank it, how much I drank, if I drank alone or with friends. I laughed and answered his questions, wondering what he’d heard about Americans. After I bought what I came for, the brothers asked me if I’d like chai. It was about that time. I’ve become just as addicted as the rest of this country, so I stayed on and talked a little more, until a little boy came bearing the glasses and for a second time that day a small hot glass of steaming chai was placed in my hand by someone I barely knew.
Say whatever you want about the Indian people, they do not deny you your chai.
We drank together and across the alley the call the prayer was ending in the mosque upstairs. Down the steep concrete stairs and into the alley flowed a river of men in white kurtas and pants, wearing their skullcaps. Of all the sounds I love in India, possibly my favorite is the eerily beautiful sound of musical prayer drifting from the mosque. I am not religious, but it still sounds sacred to me.
And so I was happy, it was getting cooler and darker, and I caught an auto back to Raja Park, “gurdwara ke pas” as I will only say a few more times. I walked through the park opposite the house and the requisite schoolchildren came to greet me–always all wanting to shake hands, and a particular few going so far as to kiss my hand. It’s a bit silly but not a bad greeting all the same.
And not a few steps from my house I was called back by a few teenage boys who scattered a number of questions over me, the same I’d answered all day, and they answered the same I often asked. (One studies biology and when I asked “To be a doctor?” he answered with a cheerfully blunt, “Oh no, we are poor.”)
The outspoken of the group was 17, a good-looking and outgoing guy, and he introduced himself as “Mohammad Aashiq”.
“Aah, Mohammad,” I said. “We are Muslim,” he pointed out. “Musselman,” I intoned. “Yes!” he said, and asked after my religion. I tried to explain I didn’t have one, but ended up just saying I was Catholic; it was easier, and “I don’t have a religion” doesn’t translate well, culturally speaking. He began to probe at the interesting questions, what do I think of President Bush, how did I feel about 9/11, but the conversation only lasted so long and they had to go for dinner.
The contrast between the coldness of the inside of this house and the warmth I find outside of it is striking. This family has amassed wealth, puts additions on their house, buys the newest cell phones, and displays great resentment in feeding me. Meanwhile, so many that I’ve met–Namak, Ravi, Devraj–have very little money and are still happy to buy me a glass of chai and engage in conversation.
I bet no one in this family knows the name of a single worker creating the precious addition on their roof.