Chapter One: Pondy Bizarre
You know that little voice—the one that whispers, “Don’t go down there!” when you hear a spooky noise in the basement? Does yours work? Mine seems to be broken. Oh, I get warnings—they’re just so damn cryptic. Take India, for example.
It was four a.m. I’d been standing by the baggage carousel in the Chennai airport for two hours and had just learned that my suitcase was circling a carousel in Beijing. I heard my little voice. Now, if it had said something like, “Flee—before you lose half your life savings and two-thirds of a major muscle group!” I’d have been on the next plane to anywhere in a heartbeat. But it said, and I quote, “Well, this sucks.” What kind of a dire warning is that?
Three hours later I stood in the bathroom of my hotel suite sponging cheese sauce, courtesy of turbulence over the Atlantic, off my sweat suit. I had a decision to make: crash or go shopping? On the crash side there was exhaustion, jet lag and the general grumpiness that follows loss of luggage. On the shopping side there was the ninety-degree temperature, the ninety-five percent humidity and the fact that my wardrobe for the foreseeable future consisted of one rancid sweat suit. I decided to go shopping.
When I chose India for my vacation, I had no desire to shuffle around the well-worn tourist trails of the Taj Mahal and Red Fort with thousands of other camera-clicking tourists. To ensure a less commercialized holiday experience, I chose to visit the southern tip of the subcontinent, where tourism had yet to become a major industry and I had a better chance at an authentic Indian experience. So for my first foray into what I hoped would be the real India, I asked the clerk at the front desk where she bought her clothes. She recommended Pondy Bazaar.
As my car and driver weren’t due to arrive until later in the afternoon, she walked me to the entrance of the hotel and pointed out a cluster of bright yellow vehicles parked just outside the hotel gates. They looked like a failed mating between the front end of a motorcycle and the back end of a minivan, with one wheel at the front, two wheels at the back and no doors or windows. She told me they were called autos and advised me not to pay more than seventy rupees each way. This was just pure sadism. The price may have been seventy rupees for a cute young Indian desk clerk in a tight pink sari, but the going rate for an old tourist in a gamy sweat suit was two hundred rupees.
I climbed into the first auto in front of the gate, feeling cheated but too disoriented to haggle. There were no seat belts or handholds. I was forced to clutch the metal bars forming the back of the drivers seat as he careened off into oncoming traffic, dodging livestock, buses and pedestrians with millimeters to spare, while I bounced around on the hard bench in the back of the vehicle, wondering, in the intervals between trying to prevent my breakfast from joining the cheese sauce, how a country could claim to drive on the left if direction of travel in all lanes appeared to be optional.
Five minutes and ten cc of adrenaline after leaving the hotel, we stopped in front of a large granite building. I paid the driver and staggered up the steps. A uniformed doorman ushered me into the blissfully air-conditioned store, where a charming young man added new dimensions to the term excess baggage by attempting to sell me a five-hundred-pound bronze statue of the god Shiva, half an acre of silk rug and a nearly life-sized teak elephant before admitting that this was not actually Pondy Bazaar. I was in the Government Craft Store. I may have said some uncomplimentary things about his mother before stomping out to say something much stronger to the auto driver, who, of course, was long gone.
One hour, two autos, three hundred rupees and a quart of adrenaline later, I finally made it to Pondy Bazaar, a kilometer-long stretch of clothing stores and street vendors. At noon on Saturday it was a heaving mass of bargain-hunting Indian families. I struggled through the crowds, looking for something even remotely wearable. Indian fashion seemed to rely heavily on sequins, beads and ornate embroidery, none of which enhance the mature female form. Eventually I found a black T-shirt sedately declaring “whose yo moma” across the chest in hot pink. Not exactly my style, but by then I’d figured out there wasn’t going to be anything more appealing at Pondy Bazaar and decided to buy it.
I reached into my front pocket for money. My hand poked back out through the neat little slit razored by the thief who had removed my wallet. About thirty seconds after that, I slipped in a cowpat and fell heavily on my right hip.
I’d like to think that under normal circumstances the good citizens of Chennai would have flocked to my aid. But lets be realistic here; there are no circumstances involving theft and cow dung that fall remotely within the bounds of normal. By now the combination of adrenaline and jet lag had raised my mood meter to the spontaneous-combustion mark. I yelled out a few tension-relieving scatological opinions on Indian bovine hygiene. The good citizens of Chennai backed cautiously away from me. I had personal space again for the first time since getting out of the auto.
I closed my mouth and limped off, intending to put considerable distance between myself and anyone who may have witnessed my little temper tantrum before I asked for help. My hip hurt. Cow dung squelched its way deeper into my shoe with every step. Id been walking for about twenty minutes when I heard a high-pitched voice call out, “Madam! Madam! You problem?”
I looked up. My first sight of Santoshi was through tears. I hadn’t realized I was crying.
Chapter Two: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
After six hours of sweeping hospital rooms and scouring pots, Santoshi’s back hurt more than usual. She had not eaten since the previous day and it was a long walk back to the shelter. The warden saved no food for latecomers. She hurried through the crowds of Saturday shoppers in T. Nagar.
She spotted the white tourist the instant she rounded the corner of Rangoli Street. White people were a common sight in Chennai nowadays but not in the parts Santoshi inhabited. After a short inner battle between curiosity and hunger, she slowed down to get a better look. She saw a stocky older woman with short gray hair wearing a dark blue sweater and pants. Santoshi did not approve of women displaying their bottoms in men’s clothes. The woman walked stiffly, head down, hands fisted, arms slightly bent at the elbows. She favored her right foot. Perhaps she was in pain. Everyone knew white people were rich and generous. This one might need help, might give her a reward. Putting aside her hunger, Santoshi crossed the street.
“Madam!” she called out. “Madam! You problem?”
The woman stopped and lifted her head. Her face was streaked with tears. Santoshi could see they were not from pain. This woman was angry.
“Madam,” Santoshi repeated, “you problem? Foot bad?”
The small muscles under the woman’s eyes relaxed slightly. She took a deep breath to suppress the tears. “My wallet was stolen,” she said. “I need to find my hotel. I don’t know where I am.”
Santoshi did not understand most of what the woman said. She did recognize the words “hotel” and “where” and responded to the easiest word first. “Madam, this T. Nagar district,” she said, then moved on to the more difficult task of forming a question. “Name hotel, madam?”
“Taj something. I don’t remember.” The woman’s face brightened. “Wait! I have the key!” She reached into the pocket of her sweater and pulled out not a key, but a small plastic rectangle. “Here, this hotel.”
Santoshi had never learned to read English, but she recognized the hotel’s pink palm tree logo printed on the plastic. “Madam, very far, madam. Take auto.”
“My wallet was stolen.”
“No understand, madam.”
The woman raised her voice and spoke each word individually. “I. Have. No. Money.”
No money. Santoshi sighed. Although her hope of reward had evaporated and her conversational ability was strained to the limit, she could not just walk away from the situation. She thought. An auto to the hotel would cost at least fifty rupees, much more money than she had. She could walk the distance easily, but this overweight, overdressed foreigner with a bad foot would never manage it. It would have to be the bus.
“Madam take bus. Six rupees. I give.”
The woman squinted, as though she had never heard of such a thing. “The bus?”
Describing in English how to take the number 59A bus from T. Nagar to the Thousand Lights district defeated Santoshi’s linguistic skills. “Madam ask.”
“I’m asking you.”
Obedience to authority fell somewhere between breathing and eating in Santoshi’s survival strategy. With her limited understanding she heard an order in the woman’s words. She resigned herself to the loss of half a day’s wages and a long, hungry afternoon on the bus. Maybe the gods would remember this day. “Madam, come. I take madam.”
The woman wiped her eyes and then her face with the sleeve of her sweater, straightened her shoulders and said, “Okay. Thank you. Thank you very much.”
Santoshi led the way along the main road to the bus stand. They made slow progress because the white woman, instead of walking on the road like a normal person, insisted on using the sidewalk. Santoshi did her best to steer her limping charge around the piles of garbage and the carefully piled offerings of the fruit vendors. As they threaded their way through a cluster of parked motorcycles, Santoshi tried her English again.
“I’m from Canada. Where are you from?”
The woman put her palm on her chest. “Canada. My country.” Then she extended her hand toward Santoshi, palm up. “Your country?”
Santoshi looked sharply up at the woman’s face. Was this woman stupid or crazy? The woman raised her eyebrows and smiled. She’d made a joke! For the first time Santoshi saw a real person beneath the swollen eyes and sweat-soaked hair. She smiled back. “India, madam.”
Santoshi stepped over a sleeping dog and tried again. “Husband, madam?”
“Not anymore,” the white woman replied, studying the dog’s scabbed back as she skirted around it. “I’m divorced. Do you have a husband?”
The woman palmed her chest and held out her hand again. “No husband. You husband?”
“No, madam. Sorry, madam.”
Edging gingerly around a cow browsing through the garbage, the white woman contributed her own question to the conversation. “What is your name?”
“Santoshi, madam. You good name, madam?”
Neither woman could pronounce the other’s name. They walked in silence until they came to a pile of sand blocking the sidewalk in front of a construction site. Santoshi stepped into the road to walk around the sand. She looked back and saw that Kiria intended to walk between the sand and the building.
“Madam! No!” she called out. But it was too late.
Kiria, focused on watching where she placed her feet in the slippery sand, did not see the man urinating against the wall behind it until she bumped into him. They stared at each other, mouths and eyes wide with shock, for the few seconds it took Santoshi to scramble around the sand pile. She grabbed Kiria’s arm and pulled her into the road.
“He peed on me! Did you see that? You incontinent degenerate!” Kiria called back over her shoulder.
But at least she was willing to walk on the road now. She limped along, grumbling and holding the fabric of her pants away from her legs. When they finally reached the bus stop, Santoshi, exhausted from steering her unwelcome charge through traffic, prayed for the bus to come soon.