Monday, June 23, 2008

Visit the SDA pastor’s house, and experience T. Nagar shopping with Byron

Sunday, May 25

Spent the morning organizing all the little souvenirs we’ve bought thus far, and organizing ourselves to pack up for our upcoming trip to Agra (the Taj Mahal) and Delhi.

We had planned on going to the pastor’s house for lunch today, and afterwards he would go with us to visit the SDA orphanage. This morning we got a call from Israel, the orphanage coordinator. Israel told us the landlord for the orphanage has decided to rent to someone else, and the other tenants had actually moved in already. Fortunately, the new tenants allowed the orphans to live and sleep on the porch for a couple of days while the director scrambled to find new lodging for them!

Apparently the orphanage landlord is Muslim, and the neighbors are Hindu. The neighbors complained about the Christian singing, praying, and stream of visitors at the orphanage. Sadly, after several complaints from the neighbors, the Muslim landlord wasn’t hard to convince that these Christians needed to leave the neighborhood.

Israel explained that this wouldn’t be a good time to visit the orphanage, and asked if we could postpone our visit. He hopes they’ll get settled soon, and that we will still have time to visit before we leave India.

At 1:00, Mani dropped us off at the SDA church to meet the pastor for lunch. Confusion reigned, as we saw a young man, and a 14-ish year old girl there, but the pastor was nowhere to be seen. The young lady (who we’d seen at church often) took Heidi and stood outside the church gate, and kept saying that we were going to her house (but all the children like to tell us, "You come my house," so I didn’t take her seriously). Meanwhile, Dawn, Erin and Lily stepped into the church courtyard, wondering where the pastor was. Finally, Byron, who had been running around following the young man, gestured that we were to leave the church courtyard and walk down the street. That’s where the young lady had wanted to take Heidi in the first place. We discovered that the pastor lived down the street and behind the church, and that this young lady (about 14 years old) is his daughter (who knew?). We still aren’t sure who the young man was, but think he was sent to meet us and take us to the pastor’s house. We are ALWAYS confused here; the only thing that varies is our degree of confusion.

We entered a house that was larger than the other two Indian houses we’ve visited. It had a nice-sized living room with two couches for visiting, and a built-in china cabinet which seemed to be used for storage of toys, knick-knacks, and papers. The living room was large enough for the girls to run around in, and soon our girls discovered that the Pastor had this 14-year old daughter (who enjoyed playing with our girls) and a 9-year old son, and (oh joy!) a mama cat with 3 baby kittens. (Normally, our very allergic family cannot stay in a house with a cat for more than a few minutes before we experience dreadful allergy symptoms. However, Indian houses don’t have carpets, and are very open (we didn’t visit anyone’s house that had air-conditioning, so the houses were very, very open to let the breeze in). Apparently that did the trick—none of us experienced ill effects from the cats.

The girls played with the pastor’s kids and with the cats, while Byron, Dad and I chatted with the pastor. His wife, Ruby, was busy in the kitchen.

We had a delightful discussion with the pastor. Here are a few of the things we learned from Pastor Johnson:
He gave us his opinion of the Jewish heritage of the highest Indian caste, the Brahmin. I believe that his research has shown the similarities between Jews and the South Indian culture, particularly the Brahmin caste. The languages are similar (Tamil, he said, also bears many similarities to Greek, which is where the Jews passed through on their way to south India). The Hindu religion also bears some striking similarities to Christianity, including a Trinity godhead.
The pastor pointed out that Christianity generally elevates people in the Indian culture—and that has been a major draw towards Christianity (for example, among our Indian friends, we noticed that Shaji and Mr. Jacob, who are Christians, are better off financially, for example, than our Hindu friends Chandra-shake-uh, Odyssey, and Mahalakshmi. But in contrast, Mani, our Hindu driver, seems to be in a rather comfortable financial situation compared to the other Hindus we knew.)

In the past three or four years, however, the information technology industry has BOOMED in Chennai, and the number of Indians working in the computer industry has grown by leaps and bounds. Those Indians have found a new level of financial comfort, which has not only made them prosper, but has influenced the whole economy of Chennai, driving up prices in food, rent, and gas particularly. Apparently, the lure of success in business has become more appealing than Christianity, and it’s becoming more difficult than ever to reach the professional working class with the message of Jesus’ love.

This booming I.T. industry has drawn not only Chennai-ites, but also Indians from all over India, and foreigners from all over the world to Chennai. I was very surprised to learn that because so many languages are spoken in India, that when Indians from different parts of the country meet, they reply on speaking English , as that is the one language they seem to have in common. And of course, English is also the language spoken by most foreigners.

Pastor Johnson foresees that the bigger the I.T. industry gets, the bigger the demand and interest for English-speaking churches. Thus, he has set up two English churches in Chennai in the past year, and intends to set up more English-speaking SDA churches throughout Chennai, particularly near the areas with I.T. offices, in the next few years. He has also started a television ministry, which he thinks will be more likely to reach the higher castes (the higher castes are usually the ones who are better educated and thus better employed—often in some capacity related to the I.T. industry) than other evangelistic efforts.

The pastor asked Byron and I if he could interview us for his television ministry our last Saturday night in India (by that point, Dad would be back in the U.S.). We thought about how much packing we needed to do, and how busy we’d be at that point, but agreed that it would be rather exciting and interesting to help out in a television ministry, so told him yes.

The pastor also told me specifically that the women of the church were afraid of me. "What?!" I asked. "Why on earth would I be frightening?" He said that they all felt their English was too inferior, and that I would get very impatient listening to them. I told him that I have been communicating with cooks and housekeepers and drivers with very limited English ever since our arrival, and would find it so enjoyable to talk with women at church. The pastor also admitted that he knew that EDS was taking care of us, and that he told the church people not to call or bother us, as we might find it annoying. That might explain why no one has been over-friendly at church. I am sad that some women might have been much more friendly and nice, but felt that they needed to stay away. Sigh.

Ruby emerged from the other room and announced that the meal was ready (she was very quiet—and seemed either to not know English, or was hesitant to use it. I don’t think she said a word to us the whole time, but would say occasional things to her husband in Tamil.) We found a table laden with plates and familiar-looking Indian food. Thank goodness Sahji has been serving up South Indian food and encouraging us to use our fingers. Otherwise we would have been quite out of our league. I didn’t think a thing about it when I noticed no silverware was available, and after the pastor offered grace, we all dug in with our fingers.

(Later, Dad admitted, "At least one of us at the table went through a momentary, yet silent panic, when no silverware was offered!" I had forgotten that Dad hadn’t been in India as long as we had, and thus of course would be rather confused about what to do. But he did well—and acted as if he’d eaten with his fingers all his life. . . .!)

One thing I’ve noticed about eating in India is that no one seems to wash their hands before a meal, but after the meal the hostess is quick to show you to a sink or to bring out a bucket for handwashing. I’ve never been offered soap nor seen it available near the sink, either. As an extremely germ-conscious mother, I am befuddled. Do Indians get sick less easily? Are their immune systems stronger?

The meal was delicious (even the girls enjoyed it) and we were surprised that the pastor had gone out and bought some pizza rolls, some donuts, and some bread, just in case we didn’t care for the Indian food. As we have found wherever we have eaten in India, ‘way too much food was offered and then the Indians seem to be surprised and almost insulted when you don’t eat it all, nor ask for seconds. But the portions are so HUGE, it’s daunting to eat your way through the first serving.

Again, we found that the host-family did not sit down to eat with us (at Odyssey’s and Mahalakshmi’s houses, part of the reason for that is that there was no place else to sit after the Burkes took up all the sitting space.) At the pastor’s house, there was plenty of room in the dining area, but admittedly no more chairs nor table space for additional people. This time, though, the pastor stood near the table and ate. This was the first and only time a host actually ate with us. It felt terribly awkward having the host stand, though, and we kept offering to put one of the kids on our laps (Heidi was already on my lap) so that he could sit down, but he kept saying he was fine.

Ruby bustled around making sure that we all had enough to eat (!), and offering napkins. She had a gentle, sweet face, and I wished that she would come talk with us. The pastor’s children disappeared during the meal.

After the meal, we chatted a little longer with the pastor, but decided we’d better leave after staying for a total of about two hours.

I really wanted to go to T. Nagar for the afternoon and pick up some jingly ankle bracelets for Heidi at the same store where Lily and I had hung out waiting for Sahji last week. I also thought I could get an inexpensive sari for Erin at that store (Jayachandra Textiles is the name of the store, for the record), as I had seen very low prices on ready-made saris and chudy-das during our long wait there.

Byron was game, as he hadn’t been to T. Nagar with us (he’d only gone fruit-shopping with Sahji that one time, and ended up having to stand in the corner and act like he wasn’t with Sahji so that Sahji could get better prices on the produce!).

The Jayachandra Textiles store is not near any drivable street, so Mani had to drop us off as near as he could get us. We soon discovered the meandering alleys and market stalls of the backside of T. Nagar shopping district, and had great fun wandering through them, shocking store-keepers who were sitting at their stalls when an American family swung around the corner. We were like a carnival attraction—storekeepers and customers would come out of shops, come out of alleys, and just stare at us. Many of the younger ones would holler, "Hello! Hello!" at us, and a few would try to entice us into their stores but they weren’t nearly as aggressive as the storekeepers at Spencer Plaza (either that, or we are learning how to ignore them).

We stopped to watch a sugar-cane machine, as I’ve had a hankering to see how they make the sugar-cane drink (these sugar-cane stalls are all over Chennai) and wondered if it would be clean enough for us to drink. The machine looks something like an old-fashioned clothes wringer. Two metal cylinders roll in opposite directions, and the operator picks up a few 8-foot long stalks of sugar cane and shoves them between the cylinders. Underneath the cylinders is a large metal cup, which catches all the juice that comes from the sugar cane. The smushed sugar-cane stalks come out on the other side, where the operator grabs them and puts them through the machine again, and again, and again, and again, folding them over occasionally until the stalks just disintegrate. By then the cup is full and overflowing with juice. I believe that you are to pay for the drink, then hold that metal cup up and pour the drink into your mouth, keeping your lips and mouth from touching the cup.

After watching the whole process, I found my interest had been fulfilled, and I no longer wished to drink sugar cane juice. We went on.

Byron, who has an uncanny sense of direction, was able to find Jayachandra Textiles, and we quickly located the same floor full of salesclerks who enthusiastically greeted Lily, whom they had all befriended last week. They were so excited to see she had sisters, and happily helped us find ankle bracelets for Heidi. It wasn’t as hard as I had thought it might be to find ankle bracelets for a child who doesn’t actually have ankles. It was hard, though, to decide whether to purchase ankle bracelets that were tight enough that they’d stay in place, or whether to purchase them loose enough to be comfortable, but they’d probably fall off. We ended up purchasing two sets, because we just couldn’t decide.

The clerk asked if we wanted anything else, and I said, "A sari for this child," pointing at Erin. Later, we all wished we hadn’t said anything.

The clerk took a deep breath, and then led all 6 of us out of this particular store, down an unbelievably crowded alley, and into another store which was also called "Jayachandra Textiles." This was the one that sold children’s clothes. We had been at the one that sold ankle bracelets and women’s clothes. The clerk told me that there were five Jayachandra Textile stores in T. Nagar. Now I understand Sahji’s confusion. I think he visited all five of them before finding us.

How can I explain how crowded this store was? The clerk led us in, and took us up to third floor via the stairwell. As we entered the stairwell, we had to wait our turn to take a step. Bodies crushed each other from all sides, and I clung to Lily’s hand with a deathgrip, telling Erin not to let go of Daddy no matter what happened (Byron was carrying Heidi). But after awhile, the crush of the crowd forced us to let go of the girls. But there was nothing to worry about—nobody was going anywhere. Step by step, we made our way up the stairs, desperately trying to keep our clerk in view. (Every head in the stairwell except for 6 of us had very dark, black hair, including our clerk. She was also shorter than average. Keeping track of her was a serious challenge!)

Finally, she squeezed out onto third floor, which was only slightly less crowded than the stairwell, and we followed, popping out of the stairwell one by one like Fritos in a bag that’s just burst open*. We were presented to two clerks who brought out a few saris which looked about Erin’s size. I had learned my lesson, though, and before we proceeded any further, we were going to try on a sari or two to make sure we were looking at the correct size. When I started to put the sari over Erin’s clothes, the clerk stopped me and led me into a crowded storage room with a tiny little dressing room in the very back.

(*Byron says Fritos don't pop out of a bag. Dawn reminds him that they do when she opens the bag.)

We proceeded to try the saris on Erin, all of us roasting in this stuffy, un air-conditioned tiny room. Erin, meanwhile, was not happy to cooperate because she didn’t even LIKE the saris we were trying on. She had her heart set on an orange and white sari, just like the clerks wear at the infamous Saravana Shopping Center.

We tried on four saris, and found problems with each of them. Too small, or too itchy, or wrong color, or not looking "sari-enough." Surprisingly, the clerks tried to convince both Erin and I that each sari was perfect, and it was rather strange to insist with the clerk that we wanted to try different ones, when these so obviously weren’t working. (Also, try explaining "this it too itchy" to someone whose English doesn’t even include the words, "too small" and "wrong color.")

Anyhow, one of the three clerks who were crowded into this tight, hot dressing room finally left and we stood around waiting for her for 15 minutes before she returned with four more saris.
These didn’t work either, and Erin liked them even less than she had the first batch or saris. However, the clerk insisted we try every single one of them on. Twenty minutes later she was also convinced they wouldn’t work, so went out to find more saris. Another 15 minutes passed until she returned with a bunch of festival saris, which weren’t at all what we wanted. Erin wanted a typical sari, which wraps around your waist and hang over your left shoulder. We’ve found that when we ask for children’s saris, clerks often assume we want the festival sari, which looks more like a fancy, beaded shirt and skirt.

Erin definitely did NOT want a festival sari, but the clerks’ English was so limited that she couldn’t understand that we didn’t. Erin was nearly in tears, I was frustrated, and then I wondered what Byron, Heidi and Dad had been doing all this time. (Lily had come in to watch Erin and Mama get more frustrated by the minute.)

We finally found that not even one sari in this whole store was going to work for Erin. I emerged from the dressing room to find Byron holding a sleeping Heidi and surrounded by a bevy of adoring clerks on a floor that was full of people and barely air-conditioned. Byron was not amused that all this waiting had been for nothing. Meanwhile, Dad was interested in shopping for a "Nehru" shirt. We found that the floor selling mens/boys shirts was much less crowded than the floor selling ready-made girls’ clothing.

We emerged with a Nehru shirt and a hot, tired group of Americans. Byron had had enough of shopping, so we walked back through the alleys and backways (I’m telling you, Byron is really good at finding his way around) and somehow found Mani again, who probably wondered if we’d ever return.

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