Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Sunday, June 8 - Packing-whew! and eat on banana leaves at Shaji's house

Chandra-shake-uh rang the doorbell at 7:00 a.m. sharp, and his usual, cheerful “Good morning!” can’t help but make me smile. I’m going to miss that. After breakfast and worship, we began the arduous task of packing. I have never been good at packing, but Byron is what we call “the master packer,” and he buckled down and worked like a machine. The girls brought all their precious breakable things to him, such as the clay pots they had made on the potter’s wheel at Dakshinachitra, and their Indian dolls they’d been playing with the past few weeks, and he wrapped everything breakable in bubble-wrap.

It looked like we wouldn’t be able to fit everything into our 12 bags, so I started making a pile of things we could leave behind, just in case.

We had decided before we left Kansas that we would take a few toys and leave them in Chennai. The girls decided to split their toys among Mani’s children (a boy about Lily’s age and a girl about Heidi’s age), Somiya and Gowri (Mahalakshmi’s girls), and Sahji’s little girl (Jacqueline Rubeena, about 18 months old). Since Mani had the only boy, we left the Legos with him, and the Fisher-Price Dollhouse figures for his daughter. Somiya and Gowri’s bag had all the crayons, construction paper, regular paper, some glue and a pair of scissors.

Jacqueline Rubeena’s bag had some plastic figurines Heidi had enjoyed playing with in India.

By about noon, Byron had packed nearly everything that he could. What a job! Twelve suitcases packed to the gills, plus a backpack for each child and a couple of carry-on type of bags for us to take on the plane.

Mani showed up at 2:00 to take us back to Hina Collection. Byron stayed home to get some more packing done, while I and the girls returned to that shop in hopes that the shop-owner really did understand me and would have the embroidered Indian girl wall-hangings he had promised. When we walked into the shop, the owner quickly gestured to me and pulled out several framed pictures from under a table. No—they were paintings of Hindu gods and goddesses, elephants, and peacocks. Nothing embroidered, and nothing looking like a child. Drat.

Meanwhile, the girls got excited about buying some more keychains for gifts, and so we about bought them out of these cute little elephant keychains, and we were done.

Mani was quite surprised when we emerged just a few minutes later from the shop, and he asked where we wanted to go next. I was nearly out of rupees, and I was done shopping. For those who think they misread the last phrase, I was done shopping. I had bought Indian dolls, and at least one sari and several chudy-das for each of my children. I had bought everything that I could on my list of things that people had asked us to get for them while in India, and my shopping mission was done.

Alright, I have been asked by many people, “Did you go shopping everyday in India? What is it with you and shopping?”

Perhaps I should clarify that for me, MOST the fun of shopping does not lie in the actual PURCHASING of things, but rather in the thrill of the hunt, which entails finding new shops and incredibly interesting places, and looking, smelling, touching and experiencing these places and their wares. If I’d had NO money to spend in India, I think the fun of shopping would have been decreased by only about 30%. It still would have been awfully interesting and fun to go to shops and just LOOK around, experiencing the difference between Indian shops and American shopping.

I personally believe that one of the best ways to learn about another culture is to go shopping where the natives shop. For example, if you are a foreigner and want a truly American experience, you would have to include several trips to both Wal-mart AND an upscale mall, as well as several strip-malls. These are all part of the American experience. The whole experience of shopping in a different country gives a really good idea of the huge differences between your culture and theirs.

As we drove home, Mani said, “Little shopping today, Ma’am.” I said, “Yes, Mani. I’m sorry that you came all this way for us to just shop for a few minutes.” He was chatty on the drive home, and mentioned that today was his anniversary. I exclaimed, “Oh, congratulations, Mani! How will you celebrate your anniversary? Do you usually get a gift for your wife, such as flowers or chocolate?” He laughed, and said, “No ma’am. No flowers and no chocolate.” Then he looked serious and said, “My wife very angry. I come home late last night, and she very angry. She screaming. This morning not a good morning.”

How guilty did I feel? We were the ones who had kept Mani out till all hours of the night because of our television interview, which kept us out 3 hours past the time we had thought it would. Here we were destroying Mani’s marital bliss! I apologized profusely to Mani for keeping him out so late last night. He looked sad.

We returned home to find Byron had absolutely packed everything except a few changes of clothes for each of us and some toiletries. Wow! Then he said he couldn’t find his work cell phone. Oh dear. Could it be somewhere in the depths of one of these tightly-packed 12 bags, 3 backpacks, and 2 carry-ons?

He said he would look for it at work the next day, and probably it would be there.

Then it was time to go to Sahji’s house for supper (which the Indians call “dinner”). It took us a full hour of driving to get to his house. His house wasn’t so far away physically, but the route there took many twists and turns, and the roads were congested, so we weren’t moving very quickly. No wonder Sahji needed Chandra-shake-uh, who lives a 10-minute walk away from our flat, to fix us breakfast in the mornings. Sahji takes a bus to our flat most mornings, but sometimes he catches a ride with Mani who we understand lives near Sahji’s house.

As we pulled up to Sahji’s apartment complex, we were struck by what looked like a dump in the front yard. There was a cow, a goat, chickens, and several dogs in the dump, eating the trash. The smell wasn’t very pleasant either. Sahji happily waved at us from the top floor of the apartment complex, and came down to lead us to his apartment. He was wearing a tank-top and a skirt, which seemed so unusual, as we had never seen Sahji wear anything but a collared shirt and trousers.

The girls, especially Lily, discovered a Mama dog and several very young puppies at the edge of the dump, and didn’t want to leave without admiring them. A young woman with Sahji said, “Don’t get close to Mama Dog.” Remembering the monkeys in Agra, I quickly moved the girls away from the dogs. We followed Sahji up the stairs, and halfway up we found a well, with a lady actually pulling up a bucket of water from it.

The girls, who have always been interested in American pioneers (Mary & Laura Ingalls of Little House on the Prairie), were very excited about seeing a real well. We stopped to observe the lady pulling up her bucket. She seemed quite self-conscious, and Sahji seemed confused about why we would want to stop and look at a well, so we only watched for a minute or two before going on.

Sahji led us to a 3rd floor apartment with a nice open-air porch, and a good-sized living room that had nothing in it but a long table and two benches on either side. Some built-in shelves featured what looked like knick-knacks, such as a clock, some pretty carvings, and a couple of children’s toys. Blankets hung over two other doors, blocking our view of the rest of the apartment. Drat! I would’ve liked to have seen the rest of it.

Sahji’s wife’s sister seemed to be our main hostess, as she spoke very fluent English. She chatted with us a bit, but it was rather awkward, as she didn’t know us at all, and thus there really wasn’t that much to talk about. Sahji was running around with his arm in a sling, and about 12 people were milling around, but we didn’t know who any of them were. I kept expecting to see Sahji’s wife, but didn’t spot anyone among those present who looked like she was 8-months pregnant (Sahji’s wife is due to have their second child in late July).

Then we met Sahji’s little girl—Jacqueline Rubeena. What an adorable child! She had Sahji’s curly hair, and huge eyes, wore tiny ankle jingle-jangle bracelets on her little feet, and tiny bangles on her arms. She was so pretty that you just wanted to sweep her up and take her home. Sahji had told us often that he and his wife had been married 10 years before they were able to have a child, and thus this little Jacqueline was a cherished little treasure. All 12 of these people at his flat just doted on her.

Interestingly, Sahji and Chandra-shake-uh had told me several times that Sahji had prayed in many different churches for a child over the ten years he and his wife had waited for Jacqueline. They told me that the Hindus do the same thing—the more temples you visit and pray at, the more likely you will get your wish. I was surprised that even Sahji, a Christian, felt that he needed to visit different churches to pray for a child, as if God requires us to travel before He’ll listen to us. I wondered how much the Hindu beliefs influence some of the Christian beliefs here? Perhaps some of the Hindu beliefs are so ingrained into the culture that it’s hard to break away, even if you’re a Christian?

Slowly, we learned who these people at Sahji’s house were, sort of. There were Sahji’s in-laws, who lived just a couple of doors down, and his landlord and his wife, and it seems some other people who knew Sahji’s family well and came to dinner as well. At one point, a very pregnant woman appeared, who was Sahji’s wife. She looked tired but pleasant. I had wondered how a pregnant woman would dress in a sari, but found that Sahji’s wife wore a house-dress, not a sari.
We were ushered in to sit at the table, and there was just room enough for the Burkes. Again, we were not joined by anyone, and all those people standing around just sat on the open-air porch, chatting with each other as we were served up an incredible meal. Someone placed a banana-leaf plate in front of each of us. Then we each got a pile of rice, a mound of pickled vegetables, another mound of a different kind of pickled vegetables, some crispy-corn chip-like bread, bananas, and mangos. Sahji’s favorite thing to do lately at our flat is to select who says grace for each meal. For this meal, I think he chose Lily. Then we dug in, with our fingers, of course.

Lily hadn’t eaten much all day, and she dug in with so much gusto I was astonished. She actually emptied her banana leaf and someone served her up a second helping of EVERYTHING. I was still in my, “I don’t really feel sick, but I just can’t face Indian food anymore” phase, so politely picked at as much food as I could get down. None of the rest of us ate much, but Lily made up for us. All the girls were excited about the dish of ice-cream Sahji served up for dessert. He obviously had noticed how much our girls love our Friday night tradition of ice-cream for dessert.

When we were done eating, Sahji’s mother-in-law and sister-in-law scrambled around and brought a bucket of water into the room where we were eating. They had a dipper, and had us hold our hands over the bucket of water as they dipped water over our hands to clean them. I strongly suspect that there is no plumbing in this house, and wonder if the well we’d seen is their only source of water.

As I was washing my hands, Erin and Lily wandered out onto the open-air porch and Erin reported later that she saw one of the ladies wrap up our banana –leaf plates full of scraps of food, carry them over to the balcony, and toss them into the yard below. Hmmmm. That might be why the yard is full of trash.

It is quite obvious that Sajhi’s family is very tight-knit and close, and that explains why he can work such long hours and not worry about his wife and daughter. It appeared that everyone in that apartment complex knew and loved his little girl, and she seemed comfortable with just about any of the adults picking her up. Sahji told us he plans to go to England in the near future to work for awhile (I wasn’t clear if it was going to be this year or next), and when I asked with surprise, “But who will take care of your wife and children?” He replied, “My family takes care of them.” I can see that he is right.

We had a couple of Christian children’s books we’d brought along to use during family worship with our girls in India (including volume two of Arthur Maxwell’s The Bible Story, which is such a good series), but we wanted to leave the books behind with someone who could use them. Since Sahji is Christian and has young children, we decided to leave them with him. The books are in English, but they have good pictures, so just in case no one can read the English to the children, they could still enjoy looking at the books. When Byron gave the books to Sahji, he looked quite surprised. Then Sahji asked if we would like to visit his church.

Sahji has been trying to get us to attend his church on a Sunday morning ever since we arrived. We followed him down the road for a short walk, and suddenly we were at a very large church. The bottom level features a parsonage and what looked like a gymnasium/family center, where about 15 people, including some young children, were milling about. We met Gloria again, Sahji’s pastor’s wife who had visited with us at our flat a few weeks ago and had told us where to find Indian dolls in Chennai, and her son, Ebenezer. Her husband, the pastor, was gone on a 6-week missionary trip out of town. We greeted Gloria, and introduced Byron to her. She invited us to sit down, and had someone bring a few chairs for us. Then she served up a delightful crunchy, salty snack which she said was “tapioca.” It was something like corn-nuts, and very tasty.

Gloria explained that her family lives in a flat on the bottom floor of the church, and that she raises young ladies who come to her church to attend school (?). She usually has from 2 to 8 teenage girls living with her at any given time. Some of the girls she raises stay around after they are grown and married, helping her with all the work of the parsonage, and helping to raise the younger girls. We were sitting outside of her flat, in a very large cement room—about the size of a gymnasium. Along one wall was a bed with a large mattress on it. Four or five young ladies were sitting on the bed chatting with each other. When I asked Gloria about the girls she had living with her at the moment, she called and the girls sitting on the bed came over to be introduced to us.

I think those girls actually sleep on that mattress, and basically live in that gymnasium. They eat their meals with Gloria. I am still not clear on why the girls need to live with Gloria instead of their own families—perhaps the girls come from small villages that don’t have schools?

Gloria took us upstairs to see the sanctuary, and it was huge. Now I can’t remember which denomination this church is—it might be Assembly of God?

They were very pleasant, and we chatted for awhile, but realized that it was getting late and we needed to get home.

Bidding them goodbye, we walked back to Sahji’s house to say goodbye and discovered that Sahji and some of his female relatives had gifts for our girls. I am not sure that they planned on giving our girls gifts, but might have rushed out to purchase them, since we had given them the books? We certainly didn’t want to make them feel obligated to us just because we gave them a couple of books that we didn’t want have room to pack!

They brought the girls jewelry—a necklace and bracelet for each—and a heart-shaped hair clip for each. The girls were thrilled. Then we pulled out the camera and took pictures of Sahji’s family—wondering who all these people at his flat whom we were taking pictures of were, but figuring they were somehow related to him.

We thanked Sahji and his family profusely for such a nice evening, and loaded up again in the car. It was to be our last night in Chennai. Tomorrow night we are leaving India. We are all a bit sad about that. On the other hand, Mani reports that his wife is happy again. “My wife angry for short time. One hour later, she happy.” Oh good!

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