Already five days in India and almost everything I have seen so far has been through the grilled windows of a private home or the windscreen of an air-conditioned car.
On these sweltering June days before the coming of the rains it is advisable to rise early, in the relative cool of the morning; to bathe and take one’s first cups of tea with birdcalls and the ringing of the temple bell the only accompaniment. For the first three-four days I was a pampered guest, with special dishes prepared for me and nothing to do but sip tea, chat, and take frequent naps, sleeping in air-conditioned comfort and unconcerned with the work of everyday living. On the fourth day I had to start taking care of at least some business for myself, buying a mobile internet device for my laptop (which I am still struggling to set up) and a SIM card for a mobile phone (still no joy), arranging to get clothes washed and ironed, and venturing out into the pre-monsoon heat on a series of errands.
Today, having eaten breakfast at my youngest atya’s (paternal aunt’s) house, I sit under the fan doing nothing while she cares for her elder sister, now nearly ninety-two years of age and needing almost everything done for her. I recognize all the signs of exhaustion in my youngest aunt, now nearly eighty herself, who does this work out of love, but needs to be persuaded that it’s not more trouble than it’s worth to go through the process of finding a competent and reliable caregiver. Soon I must make my way out to the main road again, to find a coffee shop with wifi (the SIM cards for my mobile internet and phone not having been activated yet) so that I can send an email message to Nikhil before he leaves for the airport and to family members and colleagues in both India and the U.S. who will be wondering why they haven’t heard from me for a few days. I will need to purchase a towel (Indian, not Turkish, so that it can dry quickly), some mangoes while the season lasts (untreated with chemicals—apparently hard to find these days), and sensible sandals that can pound the streets of the city without hurting the feet. I will probably be dissuaded from setting out until after lunch and the hottest part of the day, so that it is likely to be past four pm before I finally manage to get going.
My youngest atya is a fount of folk wisdom. Just now, going into the kitchen to get a tumbler-full of cold boiled water from the bottle in the fridge, she (who takes her drinking water at room temperature) admonishes me, “not to drink while standing up.” But the cleaning lady is washing the floor in the room where I had been sitting, so I sit with my senior atya, who is scratching the prickly heat on the nape of her neck with the tines of a plastic comb. I stop her, blowing on her neck to soothe it, and feeling the skin on my forearms prickling sympathetically.
Atya’s house, which she has lived in for nearly fifty years now, is a many-layered palimpsest (see TMA 219) of family history. Piles of old newspapers, literary magazines, and exercise books (she is a retired high-school teacher), mildewed khadi towels and bedcovers from our family home (sold three years ago), and things I left in her safekeeping six years ago, on my last visit, because I could not accommodate them in my luggage. It is reassuring, if claustrophobic, to be reminded that, in our family as in India at large, nothing ever goes away.
P.S. 6:15 am, Day 6: Against my better judgment I did set out on a quest for a coffee shop with wifi, but returned home defeated, with near-heat exhaustion. (That will teach me not to go out in the noonday sun in June.) However, later, in the cool of the evening, we were successful in a more important quest, finding a reputable dealer with some of the last of the season’s Ratnagiri hapus (Alphonso) mangoes. We returned home triumphantly in a rickshaw, weighed down with two varieties of mango, lemons (for nimbu-pani), small onions (for their cooling properties), and handloom towels (for frequent baths). And I have a “dongle” (a mobile internet device that attaches to my laptop) that is finally registered and coming through with an extremely weak and intermittent internet connection, but a connection nonetheless. Time for my morning tea.
P.P.S. 8:00 am: It’s raining!