I had written this over a two years ago almost, while I lived in Bangalore. Life was different then, and one day I just wrote a bunch of random observations down. It was fun to read it today.
It’s comically incongruous: a rather portly security officer, complete with uniform and shiny shoes and hat and baton and radio. And on his hip, a cute little shiny yellow canister, with even one of those little easy-spray attachments at its head that brings to mind the spray bottles at salons, resting proudly attached to his belt. The combination of somber grey uniform and shiny yellow pepper spray is striking, hard to ignore once noticed. I kept having images of baby canaries, salon treatments, a child’s toy… as my bus moved and he rolled away from my amused view.
Later that evening, I go to the local crowded café to order a takeout dinner. As I stand waiting for my food, I spot an older couple in the rush. He is dressed immaculately, as men that age somehow tend to be. She wears a sweater over a saree that is worn a tad higher than would be by a younger woman. Women over a certain age always tend to wear their sarees higher than I would wear it. They care less about the fall of a garment than the dust and grime on Indian roads. They carry plates of fried rice, and shuffle about the tiny restaurant looking for a place to eat. A certain type of restaurant in Bangalore saves on space and time by not having seats at all, instead having tall tables that are periodically wiped down by grubby boys. Not finding any free space, they stand and hold their plates in one hand and a spoon in the other. I can’t stop observing them, willing some of the younger people to do the right thing and make room. No one does. My sensible quiet voice tells me this is different from being in a crowded train or bus where it’s almost obligatory to give up your seat. Not so here. Still I feel outrage, and realize I cannot see people who remind me of my parents (minus the manner of saree draping) being placed in a less than desirable situation. I am seized with longing about my own parents as I see these two, and filled with affection for two strangers who order fried rice of all things, at a little restaurant with no seating. Within the next minute, my order is thrust into my hand, they find space on a table, and I walk out.
Almost every day of the week, I buy vegetables and fruit at a lovely little shop. The shop keeper and his helper are young men from Kerala, who are unfailingly gracious to me. They speak in broken English and I reply in broken Malayalam, and we are kind to the others’ mistakes as we carry out our daily transactions. They ask after me if I don’t show for two days, they apologize if the prices are higher than average, try to talk me into buying another fruit here, another one there. It’s a lovely ritual that is so common to a regular shopper in India. Then one day, one of them reminds me to bring my Malayalam-speaking mother to the shop when she visits, as I smile yes. And the other wonders if I am married, and my smile slightly freezes as I nod no. Why do I freeze a little bit? I am courteous but offer no detail. Isn’t it strange how we are comfortable enough to breed familiarity with people, but are jolted into slight unease by the most harmless question? Would I have frozen if a similarly educated colleague posed the same question over a coffee in perfect English? What does either answer say about me?
I return home and see my landlord’s father. An old retired gentle, gentle man. He regularly plies me with food and sweets as only Indian elders can do, and repeatedly makes kind offers of assistance should I ever need help. He makes sure to switch on a light on at the entrance to my apartment so I do not stumble in the dark while returning home late. This is also the same man who called out my name from the upper terrace one night. Inside the apartment, all I can hear is the suggestion of my name being called from outside. I go out but see nothing. While all of a sudden I hear my name again from somewhere above me and am startled pretty badly. He wants to know if I am alright. On so many levels, this annoys me. The excessive worrying about someone who can take care of herself perfectly, the insanity of calling to someone from the terrace while they are unsuspectedly inside their apartments, the whole thing baffles. And annoys. And then the next day he hands me a laddoo with a sweet smile, and says “take it”. What is one to do?
But this is exactly it about India and being here. Experiences linger, make a conflicting impression, make you think. They brand themselves onto your senses here, if you pay attention. And all the time, I am made aware of how very thin that line is between affection, distrust, annoyance.. Sometimes I think India thrusts these daily conflicts onto your face, wondering what you will make of it, wondering if you will see the hypocrisy that is rife in everyone’s lives. It can be alternately disconcerting and liberating, depending on the kind of day you’ve had.