Friday, January 20, 2012

A morning in India

Thomas Friedman's head is flat

Elsa, our 15-month old, is up soon after 5AM. She is calm, so I keep hoping she will go back to sleep, but after an hour of her tossing and turning next to me, raising her head up to check if I am awake, I pick her up onto my chest, where she starts patting me. The light is now coming in, our jet-lagged 6-year old is up too, up to going for an early morning walk up to the gate defining this gated community.

Elsa sits in a sling on my hip, we draw a lot of curiosity – very few men can be seen carrying a child. Unlike in the U.S., where strangers compliment me essentially for doing my job, here the curiosity is silent. Elsa warbles and barks at birds in trees and dogs being walked by their owners' servants. Maya plucks a flower off each tree and names some – powder-puff , hibiscus, pomegranate – that she has learned from my mother and sister. I show her the yellow bougainvillea sprawling 25' up the silver oak and the tamarind with unplucked fruit only on the higher branches. Isa points upwards into a bamboo grove and we see the double hole of a half-finished baya-bird's nest, abandoned.

On the roads in the society, we pass domestic maids in 9 yard saris on their way in to work, gardeners on bicycles, the newspaper deliveryman and the milkmen on their motorscooters. From the main road a 100 or so yards away, we can hear the near-incessant high-pitched braying of the auto-rickshaws and the insistent baritone of trucks' horns. If you filter out the distant sounds of traffic, you can hear numerous birds – a flock of “seven sisters” exchanging family gossip, totas – the ubiquitous long-tailed green Indian parakeets, various finches and flycatchers and others unknown to me.

The air is still cool as we spot the sun glutinously disconnecting itself from the horizon, orange-red from the dust ¾ ever-present. Soon we will rotate further under it; freed of the dust, it will regain its familiar white and the silent heat will beat down. Just outside the gate, we see cowherds pulling out the neat garbage bags from the trash container, ripping them open and tossing them to their cows, who will munch the previous days Sensex numbers and produce milk to feed the kids of the global Indians – both NRIs and RNIs.

Further along, we see a couple of donkeys browsing the dry brown grass of the posted army land between our society and the village. Isa pulls out the camera and manages to frame a donkey between the scraggly branches of a thorn tree, cutting out in the foreground the man squatting in the drain and in the background the shiny glass buildings of the local outsource city – software complexes and call centres – filled with the appropriately accent-corrected, newly upper middle class “Sid” and “Angie”, gorged and pudgy from burgers and pizzas like the Americans whose jobs they are in-draining.

As the day warms up, you can hear a one-per-second “twoop-twoop-twoop”, the meta-period is: on for a few minutes, off for a couple. I imagine the chakki, the flour mill in the village, its canvas belt a little loose, slipping regularly on the pulley, women bringing in their grain bought in bulk to be ground to order, queueing up, getting a light coating of the flour as they wait their turn. It is a sound I have heard seemingly all my life in the towns of the plains and plateaus of India. Later, at home, I ask my mother about it, thinking it would be nice to show Maya a flour mill. My mother looks at me with a quizzical smile and says, “That's not a chakki, that's a woodpecker!”

What else am I so grossly mistaken about?

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