MASALA DREAMIN’ IV: EARLY DECEMBER IN BOMBAY/MUMBAI

by Jonathan Lyons on September 16, 2012

We’d become recognized neighbors by the time December 2001 rolled around. We had our Friday night rituals: a cold drink and dinner in the blasting air-conditioning at the Oasis, followed by an evening watching Night Shift on Cartoon Network India.

As we made our way back to our flat and the housing society it was part of, we passed the entryway guards, who were always friendly and happy to see us; one stood peering through the ground-floor window of an Indian family in the compound, watching their TV. In Bombay, as I’ve mentioned, one mostly encounters a polyglot of Hindi, the regional Marathi language, and English. The guard who loved us the most spoke instead a highly localized village language. And you know, between the languages he, my wife, and I had between us, we actually managed simple conversations pretty well. He often bragged up the wonders of the lunches his wife crafted and packed for him.

Night Shift was hosted by a desi man in military fatigues (Indian style, of course), who enthusiastically introduced “eh-Night eh-Sheeft-eh!” and who, for comedic effect, appeared during commercial breaks on sped-up video chasing a chicken around the show’s spare set.

Among the many things I did not know how to do in India was the laundry. We took our clothes to a stand across the street from our housing society, run by an older gentleman with a massive, steampunk-looking iron. After a few visits, though, we realized that — though expertly pressed — our clothes did not, in fact, seem to be getting cleaned. We asked the proprietor about this and learned that he only did ironing. So we asked around.

It is customary in Bombay, if one can afford it, to have a bai. We learned that it would be regarded as stingy if we, as “wealthy” Americans, did not hire one. A bai is a cleaning woman, and this turned out to be our best chance of getting our laundry done. I never realized just what Calvinist Midwest-Americans we both were until we tried to wrap our brains around the notion of having someone else around to clean the place up.

Our helpful neighbor next door recommended a woman named Prumela, and the chef from the ground-floor flat across our little yard contacted her and brought her to our place. Haggling just isn’t in my nature, but it is a part of daily life in India, and Prumela was ready to haggle over the terms of her potential employment. At first, she quoted us 350 rupees per month and flat-out refused laundry duty. When I processed the conversion and realized that she was only asking for around eight dollars per month, I double-checked my math with my wife, who confirmed it. Then Prumela went for broke: while the two of us were still recovering from the tiny amount she had demanded, Prumela upped it to 500 rupees and offered to take on laundry duty as well. And so we had a deal, and a way to get our laundry done.

Prumela spoke mostly Marathi, which neither of us knew well — which is to say, my wife (whose Hindi is fluent) had very little Marathi, while I had none. But again, somehow, through both gestural and verbal means, we managed to communicate with her pretty well. Our flat was in an aging building with eroding cement walls that left a fresh — and alarming — coat of sandy dust throughout the flat each morning. Prumela did our dishes, cleaned and hung our laundry, and swept the place. Then, often, she would look at us and raise her hands by her sides, palms up, as if amazed that we didn’t have more for her to do.

The chef from the ground-level flat across our yard was always at the kitchen window, always looking out onto the yard, always but always making something, and it always smelled wonderful! She likewise spoke Marathi with only a smattering of Hindi, but often insisted to my wife that she would teach my Hindi-trained wife Hindi. (It was usually Marathi.)

But the chef also waved us over to sneak us mixed-vegetable pakoras — my favorite deep-fried snack — from her window.

We frequented a few places in the southern, more touristy areas, sometimes stopping at the sidewalk card-table shops to purchase Video CD movies to watch on our laptops. We stopped in at times at Café Leopold, a restaurant — or, as they are called there, a “hotel” — for a quick snack and tourist-watching. Café Leopold was a tourist favorite, which is one reason why it was attacked by terrorists in late 2008.

Getting to this part of town meant an hour in a taxi or on an air-conditioned bus. The bus was quieter, cheaper, and cooler, and the air quality within was much better than in a typical taxi lacking air-conditioning. Across SV Road from the bus stop, an enterprising man-and-wife team staked out a spot on the roadside. They ushered their two big, docile cows to the spot, parked a flat cart bearing a mound of fresh hay, and took rupees for the privilege of feeding one of the cows a handful of grass and taking its blessing. It was brilliant, really — a simple business plan for a Hindu-majority city like Bombay.

By this point, we were getting used to the constant racket of the megalopolis and its siege on one’s senses, but from time to time we simply needed to head for someplace cool and quiet. When we visited New Delhi, we met a Canadian scholar staying at the same guest house as we were. We gathered in the evening before dinner for a drink because, as she put it, she didn’t do drinks before dinner at home . . . “But in India,” she told us, “I must.”

As we arrived home late one afternoon, we unlocked the padlock on our low, wrought-iron gate, closed and locked it behind us, and found the chef from next door at her kitchen window. From what we could make out, she could not understand why we didn’t have children. She asked whether something was wrong, something medical keeping us from doing so, and try as we might, we couldn’t make the notion of just being voluntarily childless for the moment make any sense to her. She paused before us, raised her hands in the air, and said a prayer for my wife’s fertility. Then she laid her hands upon my wife’s shoulders, bowed deeply, and gave her a fertility blessing.

A few days later, around the same time of day, she met us on our way in and announced to us her plan: she would come to America with us, cook and clean for us, and nanny for the child that she now expected to be on the way.

* * * *

Jonathan Lyons lives and teaches and writes strange things in Central Pennsylvania. His latest novel, Signal to Noise: A Novel Infused With Music, is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and cool indie bookstores everywhere.

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