This is a sad day, our last day in Chennai. Chandra-shake-uh seems distracted and sad from the moment he greets us with his usual cheerful “Good morning!” He emerges from the kitchen to talk with us over breakfast, and announces, “I America coming. I go in suitcase!” and he gestures to our mountain of bags sitting in the living room.
We hadn’t planned on going anywhere today, as Dawn needs to pack up the last few things while Byron is at work. I rushed around, packing up, and the doorbell rang. Mani stood there, and walked in, sat on the couch, and just watched us sadly as I packed and the girls played. Sahji came in after breakfast, and looked sadly at us, too. Then Mahalakshmi arrived and cleaned, dabbing at her eyes with the edge of her sari.
I talked to her and Davey (the new housekeeper) and asked her a few questions that I’d wanted to ask an Indian woman. Mani had told me last week that the Indian woman wears her wedding ring on her 2nd toe (the one next to the big toe), and sometimes another wedding ring on her 3rd toe. He also said the women wear a wedding pendant on the chain around their necks. (I’d also heard that the red stripe or dot that women wear on the top of their foreheads, up where their hair is parted, signifies that they are married women. However, not all married women wear these red marks at their hairlines). Men, on the other hand, wear nothing to show that they are married. Isn’t that curious?
Mahalakshmi confirmed that yes, Indian women do wear a toe-ring to signify that they are married. She also reached down into her sari and pulled up her gold chain necklace to show us the marriage pendant she wore—it was a simple piece of metal—reminded me of something you’d put on a charm bracelet. It was there amidst several beads and safety pins. The gold chain appeared to be where she kept things, since saris don’t have pockets.
Mahalakshmi told me that in Tamil Nadu (the south Indian state where we live), girls begin to wear saris and their hair back in a braid when they turn 15 years old. That is also the time they begin to wear the nose ring, but that is optional. Before age 15, girls wear western clothes, and they generally wear their hair in two long braids that are looped with a ribbon tied at the top of each loop. We saw lots of school-girls wearing uniforms with their hair done this way. Apparently they weren’t 15 years old yet.
I saw many, many teenage-looking girls in groups walking from a nearby school wearing chudy-das, so I wonder if the sari is giving way to the chudy-da among some groups of girls? I hope not. Although I think chudy-das are lovely, they don’t have quite the beauty of the flowing sari on women, in my opinion.
Interestingly, I slowly became aware of a few other social customs in Tamil Nadu. I noticed that if I accidentally brushed my hand or elbow against a male, such as Sahji when we were in the kitchen, or Mani when I was gesturing with my hands when I was talking to him, that the man would act as if I’d done something rather dreadful. I didn’t understand until I got home and googled a few things—that it’s socially unacceptable for men and woman to touch each other. Isn’t that interesting?
However, it didn’t seem to be a problem at the SDA church. The men elders and pastor and deacons shook my hand as readily as they shook Byron’s.
Anyhow, I also noticed that among young people (teenagers and young adults)—the young women would run in “packs,” and the young men would run in “packs,” usually the girls would walk down the left side of the street, and the boys would walk down the right side. Never, ever did I see mixed groups of young people. If I ever saw a young man and young woman together, it was always one on one, and I assume they were married. In retrospect, I should have looked for the toe-ring to confirm that fact!
I found it interesting that the two genders don’t mix, at least not in public.
Also, near the end of our time in India, I suddenly noticed one day that all the men wore mustaches. In fact, when I realized this, I started looking everywhere, and every single man had a mustache. It seemed to be a requirement for all males.
And one more thing—I had often heard about the long fingernail on the pinky finger of Indian men. Mani wore his pinky fingernail long. I never did work up the nerve to ask him why he wore it long.
And I’m still baffled at how Indians clean themselves off in the toilet with a bucket and cup when no toilet paper is available (it usually isn’t) and no running water. And how do the women handle this long sari wrapped around them from shoulder to ankle when they’re in the bathroom? It’ s just a mystery.
Another tidbit of information I’ll just stick in here. Mani explained to me one day that I needed to be able to tell the difference between coconut trees and palm trees. “Palm trees,” he said, “have short leaves—it looks like a bush at the top.” On the other hand, “Coconut trees have very long leaves that hang down low.” We had coconut trees around our flat. In fact, Mr. Jacob installed a hammock (which he was very proud of) directly between two coconut trees, which seemed like a rather foolish place to place a hammock. When I mentioned this to him, he agreed, and said that he had hired a man to come later that day to climb the tree and cut down all the coconuts. He said he would call us when the man arrived. Unfortunately, we were not home when that happened. However, the girls and I did notice that several baby coconuts remained in the tree. Wouldn’t it just be a matter of time before someone was relaxing in the hammock and a coconut knocked them senseless?
And one more little incident that made us laugh that happened a couple of weeks ago but I forgot to mention it, so I’ll mention it here. When Mani drives us around, the girls and I are forever looking out the car windows. There is NEVER a moment when there isn’t something very, very interesting to look at as we drive around. Once Lily had been looking out the back window, and she started to laugh. She reported, “I just saw an auto-rickshaw driver stick his foot out of his auto-rickshaw as he drove down the road, and kick another auto-rickshaw out of his way!” This is not hard to believe at all, since vehicles drive within inches of each other. I know that auto-rickshaws are light enough that Mani partially lifted one and moved it out of our way once when we were trying to get out of a tight parking space.
Besides asking a lot of last-minute questions about India to Mahalakshmi, I did run one errand—to the nearby photo-shop. Byron and I had decided to give our Indian friends copies of some photos we had taken of them, and hadn’t yet shown to them. I ran over to the photo-shop in the morning, and they told me to return in an hour and the copies would be made.
Meanwhile, I was having a terrible time packing as the doorbell kept ringing with Sahji, Chandra-Shake-uh, Mahalakshmi and Mani coming and going and coming again to hang out with mopey looks on their faces. Our girls weren’t doing much better. Lily and Erin were close to tears much of the day, and Heidi kept saying, “I am sad, Mama!”
Byron was at work, and I kept wishing he would come home early to either help me with the last of the packing or to comfort three sad little girls. I rushed over to the photo-shop, passing a moping Mani on the way. “Where go, Ma’am?” he asked. “Just to the photo-shop, Mani. I can walk.” It literally is a 3-minute walk from our flat. The pictures STILL are not ready! They tell me to come back in 2 hours.
More packing. Sahji and Chandra-Shake-uh bring some chai to the girls, which cheers everyone up. Who couldn’t be cheered up by a sweet, hot drink?
I also determined to videotape our apartment (yes, I waited until the last day), and so was trying to do that when no one but the girls were there, as I felt a little silly walking around narrating myself, “Here is the bathroom, notice the hose hanging near the toilet.”
I also videotaped out in our courtyard, and videotaped during my walk down to the photo-shop yet again. The photo-shop is on just around the corner down the main street that leads to everything within walking distance, including Spencer’s grocery store, Odyssey bookstore, the drugstore where I’ve bought adult-dosage ibuprofen twice, and the two jasmine-flower ladies who sell us our jasmine on Friday afternoons. The photos still weren’t ready. Sigh.
As we were walking back to our flat, Heidi noticed a butterfly flitting by. It was swelteringly hot, and she asked, “Mama, do butterflies get hot?” I had to tell her that I really don’t know. Anyone?
After 4 trips to the photo-shop, Mani (who had been watching me walk back and forth), told me that he would go pick up the pictures when they were done.
It was so clear that Mani was so eager to take us for a drive SOMEWHERE, that I finally told the girls, “Let’s go buy some potato chips for lunch!” and we asked Mani to take us back to the shop with potato chips. Last week I had had a hankering, and he had rushed across 8 lanes of traffic, on foot, to purchase a large bag for me. (Having potato chips for lunch does not feature nutrition, I know. I just couldn’t face any rice dishes today, and the girls don’t want to see a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich for a very long time. There wasn’t much else left to eat!)
Today, Mani parked closer to the shop, and we accompanied him on foot. Again, we had to walk single-file down a narrow, crowded street, and I urged the girls, “Follow Mani!” I felt sad that I wouldn’t be saying that again.
We arrived in a shop that seemed to make chips out of everything. There were sweet potato chips, regular potato chips, and other chips that looked quite spicy with the hottest of spices wafting from the bins. Mani recommended some chips that he said children always like, and we bought some spicy ones and regular ones.
As soon as we got home, the girls and I discovered that the chips that children always like are not something three American children like. We put that snack in the bag containing the toys we were going to give Mani for his children.
That afternoon, the girls presented Chandra-shake-uh with the world map. They were so thrilled to give it to him, and he looked quite embarrassed yet excited.
I will just copy and paste what I wrote in the blog during our last couple of hours in Chennai. Here goes:
It's our last day here in India. Everyone is moping around. We kept getting visits from Mani, Mahalakshmi, and Sahji in our apartment, and Mr. Jacob (landlord) engaged Dawn in a long conversation about fruit that grows on the trunk of a tree here, and the fish in his fishpond that eat mosquito larvae. It's the longest conversation I've ever had with him.Mahlakshmi and our new maid, Davey, said goodbye and lingered for an extra 20 minutes pinching the girls' cheeks and Mahalakshmi kept dapping her eyes with the edge of her saree. Mani has given me his address twice and wants us to email photos of our family to him. Sahji has asked me twice for our home address and says he's accompanying us to the airport to help us with our bags (even though he has one arm in a sling--from a mishap on Saturday morning when he fell off a ladder while cleaning a ceiling fan). We presented our world map to Chandra Shake-uh, our beloved asst. cook, who used to stand and exclaim over various countries while we would eat our meals. He seemed embarrassed and surprised and rather ecstatic to receive the map. He has been in a mopey mood since Saturday, saying that we shouldn't return to America and saying that he was coming to America with us. Today he was snapping at Sahji and then he left as soon as supper was ready. We expected him to come back to say goodbye, but Sahji says that Chandra-Shake-uh has gone home. Lily started to cry, and the other two girls were astonished that Chandra-Shake-uh wouldn't say goodbye, but from the way he was acting, I think he just found it too hard to bid us farewell. I think we'll be sending several postcards to India as soon as we get home. So, we're both looking forward to coming home, and already missing India. Pray that we will survive this very, very long airplane ride (stopping for a day in Paris), and that our dear Indian friends will stop being so sad, and will find comfort in knowing that we are just as sad to leave them.
Sahji fixed supper, and he did his best to make it absolutely delicious. But this was a nerve-wracking day, and I couldn’t eat much. Byron came home right on time (about 8:30 p.m.) and had a huge supper, as the girls and I hadn’t eaten much of it.
He said he hadn’t been able to find the EDS cell phone at work, and so it must be around the apartment somewhere. Sahji and his brother were in our apartment by now, and Mani came up to hang out until we were ready to go, so they began an all-out search for it. When no cell phone appeared, they were ready to search every one of our bags. We balked. We phoned the cell phone, but none of our bags rang, so we were in a quandary about where on earth (literally) that cell phone could be?
Oh well, probably it will show up in Kansas when we unpack. We actually ended up having to rush to get ready to leave the apartment by 10:00 p.m. Mani had called his company to send another vehicle, as we couldn’t take all our bags, our family, and Sahji, and his brother all in one vehicle. The girls and I were choking back sobs as we closed the door to our flat for the last time, and walked down the stairs to the courtyard.
But we all had a good laugh when we saw the vehicle that Wheels, Mani’s company, had sent for us. It was a very large van/small bus. The Burkes do NOT travel light! The van was a bit of overkill, but Mani said it was the only large vehicle his company had had that evening to send for us.
During the 20-minute ride to the airport, I was busy comforting sobbing children, and then we arrived at the airport where chaos ensued. Getting 12 bags, three kids, 2 American adults and 3 Indian adults arranged and through an incredibly congested crowd was a feat I wasn’t sure I was up for, but Sahji’s brother, Mani and Byron all seemed energized by the challenge and got our bags loaded on three carts while Sahji stood around clutching his sore arm. Then our carts headed towards the gate, and for one last time I screeched, “Girls! Follow Mani!” as we struggled to keep up with him. Mani turned and grinned—I think he enjoyed my little mantra but only just now let on that he liked it!
Suddenly, we were at the gate, it was time to go in, and we had three carts full of suitcases and a stroller to push, and we were needing to say goodbye to our Indian friends. In the scurry and hurry we had to make hurried goodbyes. Sahji disappeared in the crowd for a moment, then we found him again and shook his hand. The girls started sobbing afresh, and Mani shook each of their hands, looking rather surprised and saying, “Don’t cry.” That made me start to cry, and then the crush of the crowd pushed us away from our friends and we were in the airport, looking for the counter to check in.
This was my last chance to look for the elusive Indian lapel pin, and I rushed into an airport shop when I had a moment. No lapel pins, but I turned around in one shop and saw the most beautiful Indian dolls I had ever seen. My jaw dropped. These dolls looked so south Indian—they even had henna on their hands, nose-rings, beautiful dresses—they were EXACTLY what I had been looking for! Who knew that what I wanted all the time had been in the AIRPORT, of all places, just 20 minutes away from our flat? I asked the shop-keeper how much, and he said, “700 rupees.” I sighed, as I only had about 70 rupees left anyhow, and how could we possibly pack dolls into our already-stuffed suitcases anyway. Seeing my hesitation, the shopkeeper said, “Okay, I give you good price. 600 rupees.”
When I started to walk away, he said, “Okay, 500 rupees!” I am pretty sure I could have gotten him to come down to 200 rupees apiece, especially if I’d bought several dolls from him. Sigh. If I ever get to Chennai again, I am going directly to that airport and buying those beautiful dolls.
I went into every single shop in that airport, asking for lapel pins. No one had them. Later, my dad said that what I should have asked for was “Indian flag pins,” as he asked for that and they showed them to him, and he had told them, “My daughter is coming in a week, she wants these.” Drat!
We stood in long lines several times, and at one point Byron ended up helping a whole counter full of Indians fill out their customs papers, which I found humorous. While we waited, the girls and I noticed a couple of Muslim women walking around following a man. We knew they were Muslim because they were covered from head to toe, with only a tiny eye-slit so they could see. While we had seen women who had had their heads covered (whom Mani had identified to us as Muslim women), we had not yet seen women who were quite so covered up. They followed their man all over the airport, and I wondered if they were his daughters, his wife and daughter, or possibly his wives? The man wore a white turban and a full beard.
We also noticed a Caucasian women with two little girls, about Lily’s and Heidi’s ages. I wanted to rush up to the woman and say, “Where have you been for the past two months? Have you been in Chennai? You mean to tell me that WE weren’t the only Caucasians in this city with little girls? Did you get stared at as much as we did?” But I didn’t, partly because I was so hungry.
Not eating much supper was catching up with me. I was dying to get something to eat, but Byron didn’t want to open the suitcase with the granola bars in it until we had gone through security and customs and all that. It took FOREVER to get through customs. Thank goodness there was a large fish-tank near the longest line—we had to separate into male/female lines (like we had at the Taj), but these lines went very, very slowly. On one side was a line of men. On the other side, the line was full of strollers, moms, and kids. We saw lots of Caucasians here, and tried not to gawk. What has happened to us—that WE are the ones gawking at westerners now?
Finally we got through customs, I had visited every shop on every floor of the airport looking for lapel pins without success, and I HAD to eat. Byron located the granola bars, and I wolfed several down just in time to stand in line for boarding our plane. The flight attendants let us board first, with the kids. I found out that the other Caucasian woman with the two little girls was speaking French, and deducted that she might not have been in Chennai, but rather in the nearby town of Pondicherry, which is a French settlement about an hour and a half (I think) from Chennai. We had never gone there, since we knew we would be going to Paris, and that was probably enough “French,” for us for this trip.
We got settled, and as I expected, this is the best leg of the trip, because the flight between Chennai and Paris features individual screens at each seat, with a wide variety of movies available for viewing. The kids were excited to watch Disney’s “Mulan,” and even though it was 1:30 a.m. Chennai time, they stayed awake (and probably kept the plane awake) with their shrieks of laughter at the antics of the movie characters. They watched it again and again, and finally at 4 a.m. I had to get very firm and insist that the girls take a nap. “But I’m not tired!”
I told them that we were on our way to Paris, and that if they stayed up all night watching movies, they wouldn’t be able to see the Eiffel Tower or anything else. “I don’t care!” Sigh. Lily and Heidi fell asleep, but Erin probably slept only an hour or two. This would cause problems in Paris.
I also found it almost impossible to sleep in the plane, so wondered how I would function in Paris for our one day there. We would soon find out