Postcards from India, Part II

Dear Friends,

Let’s recap what’s been going on near my home in India.

I’ve got half of the country squatting on my block with no Porta-potties; goats being sacrificed; cannons blasting throughout the night; a Muslim conversion at my bedroom window; braying water buffalo clogging the streets and a stench enveloping me and permeating my clothes. Want some ice cream for your cake? Water buffalo are not good swimmers. Yes, that shocked me too. They tend to get mired in the muck of Ulsoor Lake (so pretty from the penthouse, so foul from the ground) and die. I don’t think this is good for the local aquatic life. Given what else is being thrown in there, well, it’s a potluck of flesh, bones and vegetables.

And the sweet part is that the bloated water buffalo carcasses float to the top of the lake like big black tarps bobbing up and down. The scavenger birds, falcons I think, then have their own little circle-of-life party on top of the water. I’m down with the whole Disney version. I liked the Lion King. It’s just that I never equated Bangalore with the Serengeti at feeding time. It’s all just far too “natural” for my taste.

The best part is that at sunset whole flocks of birds (think Alfred Hitchcock) are peacefully chowing down when – “BOOM!” – massive fireworks go off unannounced and send them scattering and circling. It’s very disturbing. There must be some kind of symbolism involved, because the Hindi priests start beating drums and Bedouin yells erupt from the crowd.

Under normal circumstances I could deal with all of this just fine. Actually, my voyeuristic and superior nature, where tailored, can observe this kind of festival with cool reserve. Unfortunately, they have stopped the sale of beer and wine during the festival. This is deeply disturbing news when you come from a culture that calibrates its festivals based on how drunk the general population gets. Okay, so maybe not the whole culture, and not drunk, but certainly we expect to celebrate each holiday and milestone with a nip or two.

Sai Mohan, who works in my office and would make an excellent New Yorker, except for the fact that he’s polite and prone to wearing colors, took me to buy bootlegged beer. There were no future Kennedys operating on Mahatma Gandhi Road. Once again, I contributed to child labor as we forked over 200 rupees for beer. There’s something about giving beer money to a 7-year-old that makes you feel immoral. It was an exciting adventure though. It felt very roaring-’20s and wicked. There was no secret knock and, unfortunately, no speakeasy, but I feel very bad in a way I haven’t felt since I was a teenager. (Mae West, eat your heart out.)

As Sai explained it when I asked if we could get in trouble for this kind of Prohibition-jumping, I was in the clear. He, of course, would go to jail, but they would send me on my way, beer in hand, and remind me not to let the naughty Indian boys lead me astray. How delightful to find a culture that still thinks I’m innocent enough to be led anywhere.

I have learned another valuable lesson about dogs this week as well. I found another skinny whippersnapper puppy that pegged me for a bleeding heart. I tried to point him towards Ulsoor Lake but he knew I had better grub. He was a baby! Eight weeks old, tops, and cute, cute, cute. I caved. I picked him up and gave him the snuggle he so richly deserved for being so cute. I did have a moment of fear that he would rip open my cheek with his baby teeth, but I got over it.

What did I learn? Puppies have fleas. More importantly, India does not have flea powder. A big lesson and hard lesson. The maid brought me some hideously stinky leaves called Neem to rub all over me and that did the trick. She has now asked for a raise, and after a day of armor-plated Indian fleas running rampant on my body, I’m giving it serious consideration. I think this may start a bad precedent, however, and she could infest me at will in order to extort raises.

Smiley, our driver, is going the way of the water buffalo. He’s become insolent, and this is a bad sign. My husband is angry with him though, and there’s no turning back. He has stopped opening the doors for us and has asked to come to work a half-hour later, because we are never ready on time. Now, to us, these things aren’t big deals. I can open my own door and, let’s be real, I haven’t been ready on time since I was six. The locals, however, believe this behavior is indicative of a kidnapper. I’m not kidding. Apparently a lot of drivers kidnap their passengers. So I’m looking for a new driver. I’m going to have to come up with a test for hiring domestic help. Perhaps I’ll review old copies of Emily Post. There must be a formula for getting good help somewhere.

I’m off to Delhi on Friday, and I couldn’t be more excited. It seems like such a wonderful place. The architecture is supposed to be fabulous. I also feel like it’s a cosmopolitan city, and I miss that. Bangalore, for all its technology and promise, is still kind of provincial. I miss the sophistication of the big city. I’m sure there are water buffalo in Delhi too, just a better breed. – Meredith

Meredith Billman-Mani was married earlier this year and moved to Bangalore, India with her husband. She’s a former staff writer for the Hudson Reporter.


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