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Sunday February 29 - Saturday March 6, 2004 - Last report from India.
This is my fifth day in the village. I'm virtually a prisoner, albeit a
willing one. Except for yesterday, when I went into town to do some
e-mailing and Grandma cried because she was convinced I was never coming
back, I have not left the little brick and cement house (The window and
door frames and the doors are the only wood; even storage shelves and
ceilings are made of cement. I don't know why the cement shelves stay
up.). The house consists of five rooms (kitchen, prayer room, two
bedrooms, dining area), a porch, an area outside near the well for
washing, and an enclosed squat toilet that flushes when you pour water
into it. The kitchen and dining area have cement floors; the floors in
the rest of the house are hard- packed red dirt and stone with maybe a
little cement mixed in.
Since I arrived, there have been two temple ceremonies with wonderful
frenetic drumming and percussion music blaring through the village, loud
speakers chanting prayers, probably decorated elephants and people
dancing, and who knows what else. No one in my family went, nor did
anyone ask if I wanted to go. They are keeping me in the house. I would
have thought that the girls would be pleased to walk around with me,
showing me their world and their world, me. But no one is taking me
Every day Grandma goes off with a bag of vegetables to a market
somewhere, smiling her toothless smile and hobbling off on her bad
knees, vegetables on her head. I thought the market was somewhere in the
village. But this morning I asked if I could go and everyone said no. I
think it's because the market is somewhere else, far from the village,
but I am not certain. Maybe I would be an embarrassment. They don't even
want me to walk around the village. How I wish I could have a
conversation with someone.
Zero language communication makes it pretty hard to ask questions. I
know nothing about life in the village except what I can see and hear,
and all I've seen is this house. I haven't gone anywhere else. Is it
unique or typical? I haven't a clue. No one in my family except Dad, the
flower merchant, has gone anywhere either. All day every day they stay
in the house. Well, Unni, the eleven-year-old, has gone to his tutor
several times. Both here and in the Delhi jhuggie they call it "tuition"
and apparently it is a part of most students' education, a necessity,
given the quality of teaching in the government schools. This has been
vacation week. I guess when school resumes, the kids will go off, but
last week, they were very much at home.
Oh, hey, there's the doorbell. No one has ever rung it before. I didn't
even know there was one.
Two hours later.
I got visitors....Abdulla, Katalin, and Leon (see my last entry.). We
walked around a bit, talked, drank chai that Shyla brought us, and best
of all, I got Abdulla to ask a few questions. Like, how come Unni
wouldn't come with me toVarkala yesterday. I had wanted him to help me
find the right bus to come back to the village. Going was not a
problem....but I can't read the letters on the many buses that pass. I
knew I would have to take an auto rickshaw home if he didn't come with
me. 2.5 rupees versus 50 rupees. When he heard I was going to Varkala he
asked me to buy him a pair of flip-flops (cheripoo). They cost about 40
cents a pair. A fair tip for an 11-year-old guide.
My conversation with Unni went like this: "Unni come Varkala with
Aunty." Unni shakes his head no. "Aunty needs guide. Please Unni come
Varkala." Unni shakes head again. "Unni come, cheripoo (flip-flops). No
come, no cheripoo." Unni shakes his head. "Unni plays with Aunty's
computer. Unni eats Aunty's oranges. Unni reads Aunty's books. Now Unni
help Aunty. Aunty cry Unni no go Varkala." I charade tears coming down
my face. Everyone laughs. Unni, shaking his head, says "Ama (mother)
no." I look at Ama. She just smiles. No head movement. I look at
sisters, "Ama no? Or Unni no?" Sisters in unison, "Unni no." Then we
go back and forth. Unni, "Ama no." Me, "Unni no." Unni, "Ama no." Me,
"Unni no." We shout at each other for about ten rounds, the girls
joining me in "Unni, no." The mother, Shyla, stood there the whole time
smiling. Finally I went off on my own and took a rickshaw home.
But I was disappointed in Unni. He and I had been pals....through
Solitaire and Pinball and Painting and designing names with different
fonts and art letters. So when Abdulla arrived, I asked him to find out
why Unni wouldn't go with me.
The surprise answer when Abdulla asked was that Unni's mother wouldn't
let him! That's what he had tried to tell me. I had to apologize to my
young friend. Sisters will be sisters, wherever they are. But Shyla must
have known what we were shouting about and she didn't try to explain
that it was her edict that prevented him from going. She could have
gotten it across through the girls. I guess I will buy him those
flip-flops when I go do e-mail two days from now.
Interesting the priorities. Apparently Shyla felt Unni wouldn't be able
to guide me because he didn't know Varkala. All I needed him for was to
get us on a bus. And I was planning to introduce him to the magic of the
Internet. On the other hand, last night I watched Unni sit on the
ground, hold a coconut in his feet and swing a machete at it about 20
times until he got the hull off. The final step was to stand up and
push the machete into the coconut hull. He could have ended up footless
or a eunuch (which, by the way, still exist in India).
Abdulla also thinks that maybe the reason the girls have not taken me
around the village could be because being with a westerner might suggest
that the girls are somehow polluted and it might hurt their chances of
finding a husband. I have no idea if he's correct. I do know that
Indian mothers are incredibly protective of their daughters, to the
point, I think, of stifling their curiosity and development. The girls
have never been to the nearby cities, though they have been to the
doctor in Varkala. I suspect that there are no fun family excursions
into the nearby areas of interest. To the doctor yes, but not to the
beach. They've never been swimming, that I do know. The father is the
only one who has been to a beach. (It's 15 minutes away.) I found the
same thing in Delhi with the jhuggi girls, but it's one thing to keep
the girls off the streets in Delhi where rape is common, but in the
villages and small towns? I guess they fear that if a girl sees the
bigger world, she won't be happy in the village, and if the family of a
future spouse knows that she's seen more than her immediate environment,
she might be a demanding and less desirable mate.
I should add that this is a very happy household with lots of laughter
and love. There is actually a feeling of joy here, a lot of touching,
draping arms around each other, putting heads on laps, etc. Again I ask,
is it unique to this family or common in villages down here. I have no
I've decided to leave in another four days (nine days in all instead of
two weeks). Abdulla is going to pick me up on Thursday in an
auto-rickshaw. Katalin brought a box of paints (poster paints, water
color in tubes, pastels, and about ten paint brushes). She left it for
the family. The kids wouldn't touch the paints while she was here, but
after she left, the family dived in and everyone except Shyla painted
for the rest of the day. (Shyla, the 33-year-old mom, won't try the
computer either.) Even Dad got into painting when he got home. Like many
Indian people I have met, the family is very self-conscious about what
others think of them, and the idea of strangers watching them trying
something new was inhibiting. I'm happy to know that I am no longer a
stranger. I'm Aunty.
Because I have lots of time, this is turning into a journal...and it
will probably prove to justify the decisions of most publishers not to
publish journals. The pacing is impossible to set up because I don't
know what will happen tomorrow...and the details are most likely more
than anyone wants to know. But I am here in this village with nothing to
do. Besides, this is my website and there is no editor around to censor
or cut or criticize or improve my entries. ("It's my bat and if you
don't want to play by my rules, I'll go home and take the bat with me.")
I got a letter about a month ago from a reader who hollered at me
because I hadn't done a journal entry in a while (I didn't have anything
new to add). She insisted that I had to understand that there was this
Rita-cult out there and I was letting them all down. Her subject line
was, FINALLY! Then she said she wasn't about to send money to my
tutoring project because she didn't like that I was asking people to
contribute to the jhuggie. (I wasn't forcing anything. Just offering an
opportunity. Some readers have asked how they could help!). Then she
basically told me that I was "taking" all the time and she wanted to
know what I was giving back! For a few days I was pretty upset by her
note; clearly we didn't see things the same way and I was annoyed and
hurt. Then I decided that this is my website...and I can write when I
want and what I want. And if I choose to invite people to help my cause,
I can. And....if I want to provide more details than anyone wants about
this village visit, I will.
I have never written a journal before. When I chose to write the Nomad
book, I wished I had. Instead, I decided to write in the present tense
because it helped me to relive and therefore write about the experiences
which had happened years earlier. I also thought it would make the
adventures more immediate for the reader. But I think the book works
because I did have the perspective of knowing how the stories would
end...and also I had long forgotten the many boring details and I wasn't
at all tempted to find them. I remembered only the stuff that told well.
There's one reviewer on Amazon who suggests I hardly remembered anything
and she found the book a total bore. There are many different kinds of
readers and many kinds of memory. In both categories, I have problems
with minutia. But here you have it...the only daily journal I have ever
Yesterday afternoon's activity, besides the painting, was showing me
off. We went nowhere, but there were at least 15 mothers and kids who
came by. I would be stretched out on my bed writing when someone would
call, "Aunty, look." It was the closest they could come to, "Someone
would like to meet you." When I appeared, they prompted me to recite.
How are you? What is your name? My name is. In Malayalam (fyi: a
palindrome!). I could only half remember how to say, I write books for
children, and I could tell they were disappointed when I consulted my
paper. It was hard to fit dog, cat, elephant, sun, and lizard into the
"conversation." Sometimes they would quiz me for the amusement of the
neighbor. When I was finished with my couple of sentences and words, my
"looker" usually stood there for about five or ten minutes, looking. I
also had to access the computer pictures of my family....around ten
Late in the afternoon the lookers were able to watch Unni playing
Solitaire or Pinball. The computer was the object of the looker instead
of me. The celebration of cards when he won at Solitaire was a big hit.
I have Unni singing, Daaaa da da daa daa daa daaaa! just before the last
king gets clicked up. (We're playing the one-card- turnover game. It's
so much more satisfying when you win a lot.)
This morning, like all the other mornings, at 6 AM Grandma began talking
loudly, the light went on, Unni and Grandma began poking the girls...and
the day began. There is also school today, and final exams. Shyla came
in scolding for about five minutes straight as usual. The girls sat up
on their plywood-board bed (no padding) and opened books. One of the
exams is in Malayalam. Tomorrow's is English. Whatever could they be
learning in English. They cannot do more than speak words, probably
about 20 of them and they've been studying English for several years.
A note: the women wear long house dresses when they are at home....and
the girls have skirts and house dresses too. I never saw that in the
villages up north. I wish I'd known...I do have a long black skirt that
I could be wearing. They did wear salwar kameez when they went to school
today; and Shyla put on a sari when she went to the doctor yesterday.
To those of you who have asked what I take with me.a full cotton skirt
is a good thing. So is a sarong. I also have a travel towel, a sheet
bag, and a pillow/blanket a little bigger than an airline blanket but
fleecier. The blanket folds up, tucks into a pocket, and becomes a
pillow. Melissa and Mitch gave it to me and I love it. A flashlight. A
little alarm clock. Itch cream. Sun screen. Insect repellent....and I
have used them all. I'm also pulling a small carry-on suitcase and not
a big backpack. It's easier on my back and I can find things in it. (I
have another suitcase in Delhi.)
Tomorrow I will head to Varkala in the morning to do e-mail, buy some
more oranges, get some paper for my budding painters, and some
flip-flops for my young maligned friend Unni.
This is not a great place to wake up in. Grandma was again up (from the
floor in my room) before 6. It is still dark out and she again turned on
the light and made lots of noise folding mats and putting them under the
beds. Then she shouted at everyone who is still sleeping or pretending
to be, words I don't understand, but in a harsh tone that is the same in
any language. (Last night there were six in the room, the 5-year-old son
of Grandma's bad son, the one who screamed at her the other day and made
her cry, spent the night on our floor. I think his father had hit him
and he ran away to his aunt's house; but of course, I'm not sure that's
what they said.) Shyla followed her mother into the room a few minutes
later, screaming, as usual, in a loud, abrasive tone, as if warning that
there is a disaster approaching. Three or four times within a half hour
Shyla came screaming into the room, patting, no, slapping the sleeping
girls and Unni and leaving. The girls just rolled over. Finally kids
began peeling themselves out of bed and off the floor.
Now it is seven and I am sitting in a red plastic chair on the porch.
Loud speakers are blaring the Hindu chants that I have sung in the
various ashrams I've stayed in. A few minutes ago Shyla brought me a
chai (tea) which I am sipping as I write. This morning I bathed and
changed my clothes. We all sleep in our clothes and wear them until we
bathe and put fresh ones on. Shyla was in the room observing as I pulled
my fingers and a brush through my very short hair wet hair (no one here
has short hair). I usually comb my ragged bangs and sides toward my
face.....they hate that look. Shyla makes me comb everything off my
face, which of course makes my hair stand up straight. Actually, they
only like it when it is wet and lies flat on my head, and back. I
actually have a tube of stuff that I use sometimes to spike my hair; but
I left it in Delhi. It would be a useful thing to have here; I could
flatten my hair against my head and it would stay down. Instead, it just
pops up. They are also of the opinion that I should be wearing a
housedress instead of pants and t-shirt, and small gold earrings instead
of the one-inch hanging silver-and-stone ones I have on. They have been
putting a red dab of paint on my forehead every morning and firmly
telling me not to wash it off as I did the first day (I forgot it was
there!) They clearly do not approve of my look. And can't understand
why I am not wearing a gold jewelry. India is nuts about gold..there is
actually more gold in India than in any other country in the world.
Uncharacteristically, I am not interested in working hard to look
appropriate. My enthusiasm is at an all-time low.
The village speakers have finished the chants and now the music is
Bollywood, loud and clear. Or maybe it is what they called in Suriname,
Chutney music. I doubt they call it that here. The crows are cawing all
over the red hills that are covered with coconut palms. Very red hills.
They are the color of bricks and look like New Mexico. It's the kind of
soil that usually produces the clay that makes pots and containers and
other ceramic stuff. But there are plants growing all around the house
and along the path that leads to the house and most of them are growing
in plastic or those burlappy rice bags. I haven't seen any potting
activity around. Perhaps the soil only looks like clay. The coconut
palms, on the other hand are made use of from top to bottom...thatching,
brooms, rope, food, fuel.
Well, I'm off to the kitchen where I'm hoping to get an egg from one of
the hens. One hen has just clucked its way onto the porch, wandered into
the open prayer room, and now has entered the house. Unni just chased it
Something to eat and off to Varkala for a few hours. Ciao.
I went to the little temple just across the way tonight. Shyla thought
it was very amusing that I wanted to go, but she said OK. When I took
out my salwar kameez, they were all very happy. They combed my hair,
dotted my head, arranged my dupata (scarf) and pinned it in place. They
put a gold necklace around my neck and debated about whether to give me
gold earrings. (They decided not to.)We used my flashlight that has two
beams, one forward and one down, to make our way along the sometimes
difficult path. The flashlight is fantastic for two people walking along
a path. The visit was short. Drummers, cymbalists, a man dancing and
then the priest who blessed us all as we put a few rupees into his dish
and ashes on our heads. Everyone, of course, watched to see what I would
do...and I just did everything Shyla did. We got home in plenty of time
for a few Pinball and Solitaire games.
More lights, shouting, slapping, and noise at 6 AM. Again, last night
there were six of us in the room.
I got a look at Susha's English exam. I could barely do it. There is no
way she could have answered the questions or written the essays. She can
barely say Good Morning. One question was, "Fill in the proper verb
form. If I .....(arrive) at the party earlier, I...(meet) my friend." So
many hours wasted in classes where useless things are taught.
I've spent the last couple of hours trying to decide what to do for the
next fifteen days. I tore the Kerala (the state I'm in) pages out of my
Lonely Planet India guidebook before I left Delhi and now I'm finally
reading them. It's strange, but nothing appeals to me. Fabulous temples,
museums, beaches, historical sites...I feel no enthusiasm at all.
There's a boat trip into the backwaters that appeals to me a little but
I'm not very excited about anything. Is it India? Is it time to leave?
Am I ready to settle somewhere for a while and take a break from
nomadding? Even the fact that I haven't wanted to dress for the village
My back's been bothering me ..maybe that's the problem. I don't know.
Maybe I'm transitioning. Mitch and Melissa are adopting a baby in
Guatemala in the spring. Maybe I'm preparing myself to spend a few
sedentary months in Atlanta being a grandma. Hmmm. I don't know what's
going on, but I'm not into this road trip. I may go straight to a
village in the north of Kerala that an e-mailer/friend Candace has asked
me to visit. I'm not feeling like a very good tourist.....nor
I guess I'll pick up some Tylenol and/or Ibuprofen when I leave tomorrow
and go back for a night to Katalin's. She, Leon, and I are going to have
dinner at the restaurant where Abdulla works.
OK. That's it from the village. Unless something exciting happens, I
think I'll take a break from this daily journaling. I'll write again
before I leave India on the 27th of the month.
At Katalin and Leon's again.
It feels good to have a room and toilet of my own.
I went into town today to buy a train ticket and ended up at a
procession of 62 elaborately decorated elephants. That was fun. Tomorrow
morning I leave for that village where Candace did field work. I hope I
can get into it.
To be continued.