Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Two Gentlemen of Baroda

Weighted down by sleep but kept conscious by hunger and the three hour nap I’d apparently just finished, I groped for the remote and turned on the TV to find Braveheart.

Half an hour later, when the cute chick’d been murdered and I was more hungry and less sleepy, I groped for the room-service menu. Its terminal hour was 11. My clock read ten minutes past. Summoning energy that can only be mustered when one has already verified that the minibar has nothing but water, I grabbed my card from the let-there-be-light slot and made my way to the front desk.

Doubtful that I could get something from the kitchen, thinking maybe a nearby restaurant would be open, and confident in the reserves of the well-stocked vending machine I’d noticed when arriving, I addressed the kids working reception.

“Hey, is there anywhere I could get food here?”

“Sorry, sir. The kitchen is closed.”

“Any restaurants?”

I pointed at the door, but, in a way that, I knew, indicated I meant “beyond the door”.

“No, all closed.”

“Oh. Ok. Well, how about the vending machine?”

“Vending machine is closed.”

What? Was I in one of those Kafkaesque novels by Kafka? Was this some kind of comedy of the absurd? For what purpose vending machines, if not to vend? And to vend like hell, as long as there be electricity? And preservatives?

I stared at him with unbridled contempt saturating my glare. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been so angry. Not irritated, but angry — usually, I just get irritated. And frequently. But this was something else.

Typing a text message on my cell phone, I walked to the door that leads into the accommodation area, having just finished keying in ‘the vending machine is closed’ — for those were to be my motivation — as I turned around and headed for the door.

“I just hope it’s not raining,” I thought as I exited through the thin, motion-triggered, sliding double glass doors.

The drops fell steadily and confidently upon my head and shoulders, and I quickly realized that if I didn’t find an eatery shortly, I’d be soaked. I headed toward a top-of-the-building sign a few doors down that looked to advertise a food-provisioning facility, but the illuminated sign proved to be the sole source of light in the building. Seeming to have reached the end of the road in terms of nourishment possibilities in that direction, I continued on without altering course — I'm nothing if not hesitant to backtrack over verified food-free territory when seeking immediately sustenance.

However, just then, by me passed two gentleman of Baroda who seemed tentatively interested in offering help, so I asked the less tentative and more interested-looking one where I could find food.

This more-bold one simultaneously pointed in the directions whence they’d come and whither I headed.

“No food that way,” he said.

Duh, I thought, I could’a told you that…

“We are going to the station for food. (He pantomimed feeding himself some granola mix, for clarity.) Would you like to come?” (He tilted his head, presumably, stationward. For clarity.)

“Yeah. Sure. Thanks.”

As I accompanied them, I twice learned and forgot their names. One may have been Arjun. I think the other’s name began with an “A” and ended with a “J”. I learned that they were firefighting trainees from Gunjapuh.

I later learned they were firefighting trainees from Mithapur who looked at me with confusion when I asked questions about Gunjapuh.

I decided the less bold one, AJ, was only necessarily less confident with English. I appreciated him because he, as I, lacked any kind of rain barrier like the mackintosh Arjun wore.

We walked in a row along the empty, dimly lit streets, collapsing into a column along the left side of
the road as cars approached from behind.

Arjun motioned toward the lights above the wall we approached that ran perpendicular to our direction of travel.

“Station,” he said, as we followed AJ to the left.

Here, there was some activity — some buildings; hotels, mostly; had lights on inside. Roadside vending carts were often attended by their roadside vendors, and the street-center lights were more-closely placed.

As I sought to avoid an approaching bus, I followed Arjun’s lead and realized we’d be exiting the edge of the right lane for the middle of the left, which was submerged in water.

As we waded back toward the recently departed shore of the right lane, I asked Arjun and AJ why only Arjun had rain gear.

“Yes. Raincoat.” Arjun said.

Sensing a hint of miscommunication, I amended my query to something resembling Hindi.

Uske pas raincoat nahin hai,” I think I said, motioning toward AJ.

A murmur went up.

I tried again.

Uske pas…

“Uske pas…no. No raincoat,” said Arjun, motioning toward AJ.

Kyun?” I asked, asking why.

“No, no raincoat,” repeated Arjun.

Kyun nahin?” I asked, asking why not.

We collectively moved closer to the banks of the left lane to avoid an approaching truck.

Reconvening back at the right lane, Arjun explained.

“In Gujarat, in the barish, in the rain, many people like to…” (He motioned with open arms toward the sky. The water.)

“Walk in the rain?” I asked.

“Yes.”

And then we had arrived.

In front of the Indian railways interstate railway station, which, as luck would have it, was celebrating 150 years of service, as noted on its facade, many people, mostly men, gathered at food stalls, huddled under the upward-opening sides of the stalls like prospective entrants to a 1940s proto-DeLorean.

AJ pointed out a vegetarian pav bhaji place where he and Arjun set me up with some bhaji, buttered rolls, and chopped onions before walking over to Naseer’s Omelet cart. I ate the hot, spicy bhaji as quickly as possible, asked for some napkins or water with which to clean my hands, received newspaper, thanked the bhajiman, paid him 20 rupees, and forded the parking lot over to A&A, trying to stick mainly to an impromptu stone bridge-path.

As I arrived, Arjun received his egg fried rice from the chef, who was aided, I noticed, by a man wearing a black, collared shirt with MTV written in shiny yellow-green on the left breast.
Arjun several times forcefully encouraged me to order some rice for myself, but it looked hot, I’d just eaten, and I didn’t want to wait for it to be made. He offered me some of his, to which I began to accede, then hesitated, asking if it was hot.

“Yes,” he nodded, as if it were a desirable quality under the circumstances.

I spooned a forkful, tossed it into my left hand to avoid dirtying his fork with my mouth, then, wondering if everyone watching me (and, yes, everyone was watching me) would think me uncouth for eating from my traditionally rear-end-wiping hand, quickly tossed it into my mouth.
It was hot. Instinctively, my tongue, cheeks, and the roof of my mouth retreated from the hot rice, but it followed my tongue and mouth-bottom unfailingly. All there was left to do was open my mouth and try to let the stream outward flow.

Eventually, I swallowed and assured Arjun that I’d found it very agreeable, though, in truth, the intense heat of it had burned from my memory any taste that may have registered.

At one point, as they ate and I waited, AJ disappeared to another stall and came back with three half-litre, clear, polyethylene sachets of water.

When Arjun and AJ had finished, they used some of the water from the sachets to rinse their hands, then drank most of the rest, throwing the bags on the ground. I fished my sachet out of my pocket, where I'd stored it, and tore at the corner with my teeth, managing to rip a hole but failing to severe any plastic, so that the water just dripped down the stretched plastic corner as it would a melting icicle. After a bit of moral debate and level-headed reasoning, I figured this wasn’t too much worse than anything else I seemed to be consuming, so I held the plastic icicle over my mouth and squeezed the sachet.

Folding up the empty sachet and shoving it in my pocket, I followed A&A. We went to a chai stand, where I think I was successful at communicating my ambivalence towards tea. As always, that required an explanation, and a lengthy one, if my hosts were to not be insulted by my refusal. Then arose the inevitable coffee question, to which, as usual, and because I do, I said I hate it.

Let me tell you, friend — a foe of coffee is understood and respected. An enemy of chai can find acceptance. But a friend of neither — well, there's a man without a beverage, and such a man just isn’t to be trusted.

“What do you drink?” they’ll usually ask.

My reply of “water” is met with skepticism, as if, fine, water, yeah, but, wouldn’t you really, in your heart of hearts, prefer it to be heated to very high temperatures and flavored using either beans or leaves?

If the conversation continues, I’ll be asked if I smoke. Since I don’t, the next question is (and, why wouldn’t it be?) whether I drink. Sometimes the gesture of “thumb to mouth, little finger in air” is exhibited in order to make sure I understand the implication is alcohol, although I don’t know that I drink other beverages any differently than placing them in containers whose bottoms I proceed to tip above mouth level.

When I tell them I don’t do drink, either, there’s really nothing to save me. If they somehow find out I’m a vegetarian, it only confirms what they already know. I’m given a knowing nod and told I’m “a good guy”.

This vexes me, mainly because I’m not. But is such a situation either the time or place to delve into an unsolicited list of my vices, shortcomings, and failures? I almost always find myself deciding that it’s neither. I offer a simple, “Well, no. Not really,” and leave it at that.

Luckily, this conversation lacked the steam to surpass non-alcoholic beverages, transitioning to where I was from in the U.S. soon after I made eye contact with the pair of guys who were sitting next to us under the tea cart-rain tarp, and they inquired as to my origins.

Having finished the chai (they, not I), I waved goodbye my new friends — the pair of guys, and kinda the chaiwalla — and we hit the road.

Asked by Arjun if I wouldn’t like to take something back to my room with me, I said I could probably handle some jalebis. We went to the jalebi cart, and Arjun ordered me what looked like a typical order. I looked in my wallet and was reminded by the sight of the 500-rupee note there that all I had was a 500-rupee note, which, while sufficient, probably wouldn’t sit too well with the jalebiwalla, who was probably going to charge 15 rupees.

He charged twenty, and I looked guilty and showed Arjun the 500-rupee note. He waved it off and paid for it himself.

The rain had all but ceased, and our walk back was quiet and pleasant. I tried to explain what it is I do in Mumbai, and why, and I asked them a few questions about their hometown. When we got to my hotel, I gave them my card, telling them that if they’re ever in Mumbai, to tell me so I can pay them back for the jalebis and we can hang out. They thanked me several times, said “Goodbye,” and walked on.

I re-entered the hotel lobby a little after twelve a.m., happy that I hadn’t shouted at or assaulted the desk clerks over the whole vending-machine debacle. As that occurred to me, I turned to the source of my earlier frustration to see it there, shining bright as the midday sun, happy orange and yellow wrappers half-full of preservative-laden food staring welcomingly out at me.

I thought, “Oh. Maybe the vending machine reopens at midnight.”

As I walked past the front desk, the clerk told me that the machine was now open.

“There was a problem with the machine, but we fixed it.”

I wondered if they’d fixed it just for me, and I felt a bit guilty.

“You can use it now,” he continued.

“Thanks,” I said, nodding sheepishly, and sidestepping toward the hallway door. With a pocket full of jalebis, I didn’t see much need for the vending machine at the moment.

Plus, I only had a 500.
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