Lowering the Learning Curve (Pondicherry)

If only in babysteps, and only tentatively, I can see some movement towards acclimation to India. This morning, for example, I didn’t think twice – or once, even – about going barefoot out to the garden for breakfast. We leave our sandals at the guestroom entrance, but I’ve always been painfully aware of the millions of footsteps that have gone before mine, and I don’t mean that in a nostalgic or pleasant sense. But today, I was well into my second cup of Nescafe, pleased that I knew how to order that second cup, before I looked down and thought about my bare feet. An Aside: To order a second cup of coffee, I have learned to catch the eye of the lovely, sari-clad servant — not difficult, as she stands roughly 5 feet away watching me eat. Then I point down at the 1st cup and say, “Same-same” or sometimes this variation, “Same? Same? ” Eventually, she moves just her head; it goes left, then right Think “bobblehead” — and I don’t mean that disrespectfully, but simply as a way to describe an Indian gesture that defies [my] experience . In this instance, the head movement means, “Gotit. You want another one of those.” And about 3 minutes later I have a just-boiled cup of Nescafe. The first couple days, she and I would go through a similar ritual about milk, but lately, I’ve begun to give up, which quite honestly seems to be simpler for both of us.

This morning after breakfast I took yet another successful step, this one occurring as I began my daily toilette. . Ever since we’ve been at the guest house, I have taken a cold morning shower. The climax came yesterday, when I performed a fairly hair-raising hair wash. Elizabeth had casually explained, “You start at the top of your head, and as water trickles down, it becomes warmer.” She was right, of course, and I am on my way to an ashram, for God’s sake, so a cold shower is good. Besides, I thought of all those people in the midwest and east and even on the west coast who aren’t stepping outside into sunshine and 80F after their morning shower…

Then again, I thought, this morning, really, I am NOT at the ashram yet, am I? Subsequently, I flipped a switch near a small tank affixed to the wall, a tank I really hoped was a water heater, in an area of the bathroom that serves as the shower: no door, no curtain, but home to a large dark drain with creatures who skitter into it whenever I turn on the water. ( Rule #1: If it moves away from you, don’t worry about it).

Voila, warm water!

That’s not yet all the learning curve reduction I have to report. This morning, Atul, who has visited us probably 5 times, maybe more, trying to help me get a cell phone, arrived with a v. basic Nokia, and Simcard, which Elizabeth inserted for me. The process, which Terran had warned me about, went something like this:
Day 1: Sure, I can get you a cell phone,no problem.
Day 1.5: You want a Smartphone? No? OK, very basic, I can get you very basic phone.
Day 2: I need your passport photo. No passport photo? We can use your daughter’s extra passport photo,then.
Day 2.5: I must have a Xerox copy of your daughter’s India visa
Day 3
: Your daughter’s passport address must match the address on her visa. It does not. Send out one of the servants to get a pencil [check]. Now, I will take out my knife and sharpen the pencil [check]. Your daughter is resting? YOU MUST WAKE HER UP! You will sign in these two places for her, matching her signature [broad smile]? OK. This paperwork is important, you understand for terrorist security reasons.
Day 3.5: You are sure Basic Phone is OK? For more Rupees, I could…No? OK [by implication, “It’s *your* funeral, Ma’am.”].
Day 4: [Elizabeth has asked for the paperwork/the Guarantee, in case something goes wrong with her-my phone] Oh, no paperwork, no-no. I got this phone from my friend’s shop; my friend does not do paperwork. You want paperwork [Elizabeth says, “Yes” and stares at him]. That will cost more Rupees [E. does that beatific smile]. Well, ok, I will try.

As I say, I now have an Indian cell phone. I see that there are already twopre-programmed numbers: I can dial in for Cricket Updates and I can dial my Daily Astrologer. Atul’s friend must have interesting customers.

One final example of my Indian Progress:
When I could leap out of the autorickshaw, through the police barriers, past the beggars (don’t ask), my kameez billowing in this morning’s breeze, as I headed for my goal, I knew I’d made another breakthrough. I decided this morning that I would go visit Ganeesh, the Elephant God, or anyhow the incarnation of a god; he stands – looms, really – in his temple’s courtyard. I’d read essays about him, and the section in Elizabeth Gilbert’s book; I’d seen photographs, and of course watched Julia Roberts’ visit in “Eat, Pray, Love”. More recently, I heard him bellowing next door to our Pondicherry guest house. At first I thought it was one of the cows I stumble on and over everytime I step outside, but as it went on, rising like a trumpet trying for the right noteand just missing it, I knew it was Ganeesh. Anyhow, there I was, a .5 km ride away from where we are staying, standing in the courtyard of the temple of Ganeesh.

He slowly lurched, not his body but just his colossal head, back and forth, waiting there very patiently, surrounded by children and camera-snapping parents. It was fun, almost hypnotic, but also a little sad. I think the only break the poor animal gets is for lunch, then he is back at it until dark. You put money or food near his trunk, he takes it, swings what you’ve given him towards his keeper, who makes a deft grab, then comes back and pats you on the head with the end of his trunk. Of course, if he is an incarnation of Shiva, maybe he doesn’t feel the fatigue? Or maybe he offers it up (no, wrong image, too Christian)? Or maybe he just takes deep breaths all day, and the bellowing is actually his mantra.

In the end, I just couldn’t do it, though; maybe another time. I took some photos, and I’ll walk back there before catching an autorickshaw to the guesthouse, but no pat on the head from Ganeesh today.

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