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Saturday, November 27, 2010

Random Thoughts and a start on Happy Anniversary

Saturday, November 26, 2010-Random thoughts…

             Finally, cooler weather, though noontime sun is still hot, need to cover head, etc.
Went to see the campus illumination of a church centenary…on campus of hospital probably older than that…I stayed in quarters in the former nursing superintendent’s home nearby, for a year in the 60’s.  Cannot imagine the life of a woman doctor from U.S. who started the large, lovely hospital and school of nursing that long ago…talk about spunk?!  Sad the the hosp. has fallen into disrepair, though, currently not at all used.
Kingdoms (and institutions) rise and fall…Pay attention to this:  Please pray for the integrity and forgiveness/goodwill that this whole society (world?!) really needs!  Wonder what those early missionaries wrote home about at night....

          Our able cook serves goothi vankayya (poached small eggplants in spicey gravy),
Okra-tomato curry, buttermilk soup (WONderful preparation, like a stroganoff gravy, but made from way-old yogurt.)      Oh gosh, I really must learn to make this one!!  At noon with plain rice, it’s still wonderful with chappatis for supper.

My Telugu skills are growing by leaps and bounds…mainly leaps, and sometimes sideways, to get my English mindset out of the way…haha…but it’s getting better with all the practice, for sure.  I aim to keep singing, reading, and writing back home in the new year...While here, I read some every day for practice.  Even a translation of the story of THE FIVE CHINESE BROTHERS…remember that one??

          My little ‘class’ at Nirmal Hriday is waiting for me today.  Sister Felicitas tells me she saw them waiting for me at 8:30 and shooed them back upstairs. But they crept back down and waited another half hour, were shooed away again, went back up, finally met me at  10:30. These days they are ready and waiting,on a concrete bench w plastic chair for me nearby, under a spreading tree. I am late due to unexpectedly meeting a Dutch lady in town for a week’s visit. She will be interested visit Nirmal Hriday with me next week.  .The ‘class’…has grown from MP and friend, to include a couple of the other inmates who are able…They paid rapt attention to today's book about life cycles of living creatures, presented in a very simple way, with plenty of pictures.  The children listen intently, too spellbound to ask a single question, repeating the names of animals and key vocabulary after me.

Happy Anniversary  (Kugler Hospital Centenary)          Sunday, November 27, 2010

       If there’s one universal truth about India (although, admittedly, a whole lot of things, sometimes in conflict with each other, might be equally true), it is that everybody loves a party.  Life stages, religion, history, politics, education, sports.., you name it, any and everything is an excuse for a party.  Families go into debt to provide unnecessarily lavish weddings.  Schools conduct prize days and students invariably show up in new clothes, bearing candy, if not gifts, for teachers and classmates on their own birthdays. Last year the neighbors celebrated their only daughter’s arrival at puberty on four consecutive days, with a chanting priest, women’s games, two dinners attended by countless guests, and a professional photo shoot.  Politicians are feted and treated  incessantly by fawning and/or hopeful followers.
       So it should come as no surprise that a small church should celebrate its centenary with four days of worship, speeches, music and dinners.  We visit the place at the insistence of a friend who lives near the church and is bursting with pride and joy at the illumination.  Strong lighting brightens the street and campus entrance like day; strings of tiny lights form a canopy from the bird-blessed main driveway, over a crudely improvised roadway of broken brick and crushed stone, for nearly one block’s distance, from the gate to the stage under a large canopy set up next to the church building.  Evidently, as usual, they are expecting a crowd.
          The dark stone building itself is outlined in strings of white and blue lights.  An orchestra with flute, three kinds of drums, keyboard and two vocalists rehearses their special music for the evening on the stage.  The decibel level is deafening…I make a mental note to wear earplugs when we return on the morrow, plug my ears ungraciously but protectively, in the meantime. Through my fingertips, the songs are pleasant, lilting, until the woman vocalist attempts one out of her range of pitch.  I am thankful for my fingertips…We endure for half an hour, chatting with our friend RajaRao, who has walked over to join us in meeting a few old friends who lived near, or worked with my husband in, the adjoining hospital during its heyday.  The mood is relaxed and upbeat.  Important guests are invited to the stage, and the event starts on time (a hospital value!) with an old, familiar Telugu hymn, “Come, good news upon sweet sounding instruments…”
       The crowd continues to arrive on foot, by car, motorcycle, or auto rickshaw, the moderator announcing more important guests as we take leave.  Another friend implores us to claim a place up front; we demur, as very minor figures on the whole scene, and planning to return for worship the next morning, so we ‘namasthe’ and make our way back along the modest road, a bit sorry that we will miss the hari katha/burra katha (chanted story-telling) performances promised, but not likely to start before long after our senior bedtimes...Not to mention a dinner for everyone after that....            ---------------to be continued (getting back to this is proving more challenging than I here is so very full and rich!  If I"ve said it once, then 100 times, 'if my eyes were only cameras...!!')

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Water, Water, Everywhere, Amplified 12-2-10

11-20-10    Water, Water, Everywhere, revised and expanded (Excuse, there's some redundancy.)

          We tend to hold greater appreciation for things that come at a price.  And the price of food and service in India is rising at an alarming rate.  Due to continuing rains, and concomitant damage to near-harvest crops, Guntur area vegetable prices have risen by  twenty to over a hundred per cent in the last two weeks.  Less water would have been appreciated.
          But, 24/7 water non-supply leaves me thinking a rain barrel might have come in handy, instead.  For a four-adult household’s bathing, cleaning (floors are mopped daily), flushing (yes, we have toilets!), cooking, and laundry,  a roof-top tank of water, filled by our private pump from city water supplied at 4 a.m., should be enough for the day.  But, when the assigned person is asleep and/or away from the switch, everyone suffers.  A partial fill is better than no fill at all.  After an hour, the sound of water splashing onto the garden walkway signals a complete fill, reminding someone to turn off the switch on the verandah wall, lest water be wasted.
            So, when he oversleeps by an hour, or, like today, the pump fails, there’s a scramble to bring water in from outside.  Fortunately this is the age of cell phones, and a trio of young men plying rickshaws, each with a large, crusty metal water drum lying in its side behind the seat, soon processes, single file, through our gate.  Red and white paint proclaim the tanks’ contents and their owners’ communist political affiliation from one end of the drums, upon each of which a pair of rectangular tin boxes are set, like modern sculptures of a ponderous animal,.  One cyclist’s radio broadcasts a pleasant cinema tune as the man leads the other two in filling their 5 – 10? Gallon tins, which they carry, one on each shoulder, up the double-angled stairway to the roof.  I can hear their brisk but heavy footsteps through the concrete ceiling of the house.. ---to be continued –
          Prior to the pump, there was a well, from which water was lifted for the family of ten, only two of whom still reside here, year ‘round.  We are thankful for the tank, and four different taps allowing running water inside the house!  But we have no water heater, so bath water vies with the obligatory morning tea and breakfast for heating over one of two gas burners in the kitchen,  before it gets carried to the bathroom.  Who does what, and in which order falls into a regular protocol, the only variations of which are a) get up early enough to circumvent it, or b) wait until everybody else’s everything is covered, and be late for the rest of the day. 
          Cold water shower and hot water mix in a plastic bucket, and are poured over the body, one part at a time, as you soap and rinse.  The pouring vessel is an oversized plastic mug, called ‘chembu,’ after small brass or aluminum pots of days gone by.  I learn this year that one can forestall morning perspiration somewhat by taking a cooler, rather than a warmer bath.  I fudge the question by sloshing my back in fairly hot water, continuing my bath in cooler water.  It works for me, although I am perspiring by noon, regardless.  And the curious thing is, my body doesn’t seem to register the need to drink frequently. 
          Keeping hydrated is a constant concern throughout the day, perhaps more so since having suffered severe dehydration on a couple of occasions.  (Proximity to a ‘western’ toilet, which we, and an increasing number of places, now have, is another.)  Drink a lot, first thing in the morning, and plan accordingly.  Check yourself to see whether a pinch of flesh between one thumb and the pointer finger spring back effortlessly into place:  It takes a conscious effort; I need to remind myself to drink regularly, carry drinking water when away from the house for an hour or more. 
            With tummies more accustomed to the widespread cleanliness of food and environment in America, we choose to drink only ‘packaged water,’ conveniently available in plastic bottles of from  one half- to twenty one-liter capacity.  A common brands are bottled under the auspices of the area Coca Cola or Pepsi companies.  We refill liter bottles from our three or four gallon spigot-fitted reservoir, upon which a larger bottle of water is inverted every few days by the waterman, who delivers the same from his auto-rickshaw-micro truck, for thirty rupees. (75c)  The household is attuned to the sound of the delivery vehicle.   Modern restaurants and relatives use electronic or gravity water filters, when we say we’ll stick to our bottled water, our waiters just segue to the next question:  cooled or plain?.  For travel to a village, we need to carry bottles of our own water along, just in case.  And plain will do, thank you.
           Standard stop for a drink along the road, in town and out, is the coconut stand, coconut water being pure, almost tasteless, and good for most everything that ails you.  Ten or twenty rupees gets you a long cool drink through a narrow straw which, unless you bring your own, you have to accept on the rationale that ‘It’s all relative.”  (Contamination is measured in parts-per-x quantity, right?!)
         And then there are the puddles in the street; standing water anywhere is breeding ground mosquitoes.  The neighborhood and yards are sprayed periodically by a worker who walks around with a fire-extinguisher-like tank on his back, which tank is fitted with a hose and wand for the spraying..  We pay a little extra for him to spray our yard and garden weekly.   Every month or six weeks, a truck ambles along the street, without warning, spraying a dense fog of mosquito repellent in every direction.  I do my best to retreat to the back of the house, or, better, to the small quarters at the back of the compound, until it disperses.A garden of course must be watered, now that the fall monsoon seems to be over.  A thin hose, with no nozzle or sprayer, is carried around three sides of the house  for the purpose, ironically,  in late afternoon, just when we think we’ve fooled the mosquitoes into thinking there’s no humidity around to entertain them…
            Today’s project for a hired, ad hoc, gardener, has been to trim and re-pot and re-place green and flowering plants around the campus.  Sulochana sends over several new plants in pots.  The gardener sets them in a semi-circle, on an apron of stone slab he has just set into sand, on the site of the old well.  (Many bore wells dug decades ago dried up by the time city water was commonly available.  Wells remain, both  used and unused.  It is not uncommon to read in the paper about a child who’s drowned after falling into a well.)  By now the gardener’s swept the walk and the driveway clean, stored his crude tools (adze, clippers, solid metal pole for digging!) and departed for the day
         Maybe you will wonder, along with the housekeeper/cook/laundress, why I don’t give her my delicate clothing to wash; but a glance at my blog entry, “How Manjula Washes Clothes,” may clear your doubts! ….Most of us are no longer able to experience gracious but bygone Indian gesture of hospitable-foot-washing.  (If there is a well, you stand near it, else wherever you are directed to stand, on a wooden stool of negligible height, while your host or hostess pours water over your (usually) hot and dusty feet.)  But I have revived an adapted version of the custom in the form of a clothes washing method, learned years ago from an inventive  Peace Corps friend, vis, the foot powered washer.  I soap the garments with a bit of shampoo and/or a bar of RIN bluing soap, and a few drops of vinegar or lemon juice (a lemon tree is conveniently located outside our kitchen window, its thorns testimony to the lemon tree song that asserts ‘The fruit of the lemon is most difficult to eat.”) as water softener, tossed into the bucket for good measure.
          Drying clothes is a mixed experience here.  On sunny days, when the laundry is hung early enough, it’s wonderfully dry by teatime.  In the order of priority, laundry is not a ‘first thing;’ slight dampness can be dried up on clothes hung and draped around our rooms under the fan, especially in the bathroom, where hot noontime sun on a clear day heats the concrete ceiling into a gentle dryer.  If it rains when things are on the line---unexpectedly, as today, or persistently throughout the monsoon, imperfectly rinsed laundry unable to fully dry develops a sour odor of its own.
         Needless to say, humidity can be a problem.  Even on a dry, sunny, cool-season day, there’s a lull in the afternoon when everyone perspires.  Drinking multiple cups of tea throughout the day is customary:  until this year I’ve resisted, but, this trip, I decide to try it for myself, and see whether the natives, who don’t seem to mind the hot or perspiration as much as I do (I’m amazed and a bit envious of the gals clad in six yards of saree, always neat and  unruffled while I drip and remind myself to 'relax, this is the way-it-is!'), know something I don’t. (Gross understatement.  Of course they do.  Lots.  And lots I have still to learn besides the language, sufficient as it is to describe desi life.)
        Between the paucity of bathrooms (more on that another day) and pentitude of perspiration, one needs to monitor one’s liquid intake and the likelihood of nearby bathrooms closely.  A brotherinlaw advocates drinking much, first thing in the morning, then not at all, or much, during the day.  I plan my moves, remind myself to drink when common sense says to, and not just when I ‘feel’ like it.  Having at least twice suffered from sunstroke (once on the last day of an India stay, granting me an insider’s look at the Frankfurt Airport hospital facility!), I am prone to rapid dehydration.  A quick test is a pinch of the skin covering the joint between thumb and forefinger:  if it snaps instantly back into shape, hydration is ok.  If not, the rate of return somewhat indicates the level of dehydration.  A lifesaver on many a foray away from the conveniences of the house is a long, very mild drink of coconut water through a straw, served handily at the curbside cart of a vendor who lops off and carves a hole in one end of  a large, green coconut, held in his or her hand, with a few deft strokes of a small machete.                      
          No wonder that rivers are subject of veneration in this land, or that large temples traditionally boast man-made ponds.  Indeed, man-made water cachements are making a comeback as people begin to re-learn the benefits of water harvesting:  saving rain water for the dry times.  Witness, the iconic, scenic Hussain Sagar, a man-made lake in Hyderabad, the scheme of a former maharajah, as well as site of boating launches, partner paddle boats, local rowing teams, and annual immersions of representations of a certain Hindu deity.
       Being a peninsula, India is home to long stretches of beach on the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, some of which is still pristine, other parts of which are graying, littered with the leavings of seaside tourists, picnickers, fisher folk, shell hunters, and concession hawkers.  Long stretches of the eastern coast received severe tidal lashings from the December 26, 2007 Tsunami. Yet tourists continue to flock to river and Oceanside spots for fun, relaxation, or perhaps a holy dip, on a night deemed auspicious by the Hindu calendar, phase of the moon, and tradition.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Coming Home from Nirmal Hriday

Coming Home from Nirmal Hriday

          Today brings home new insight about the sanctity of our neighborhood Missionaries of Charity Convent.  I see two pairs of sandals on the single step of the reception room, and enter to find Sister Felicitas concluding a conversation with a young man and woman.  They turn toward the door, visibly pleased with the blessing she has given them.  Sister Felicitas bubbles over, as usual, and confides that the two, young professionals, are of differing religions (the girl’s dress indicates one that many would find restrictive), but that the young woman is especially desirous of marrying a Christian.  An earlier ‘match’ was not successful, because the boy’s parents would not allow it.  (n.b. Though adults, Indians whose marriages are being arranged are commonly referred to as “The Girl” and “The Boy.”)  This is a new ‘friend’ she has brought along, to show the work done here, and, evidently, to find, from his response, that the young man has a tender heart.  I tease Sister F. that she is running a dating or marriage counseling service, at which she laughs outright, assuring me that anyone like them or myself who are interested in coming to see or help with the work must have a good heart, and, as for match-making, well, we don’t know much, they came, they can come and talk some more, we will see.  It's all in God's hands.
       There’s a young girl’s call from the u-shaped ramp outside,  that slopes up to the children’s rooms.  I think it might be my erstwhile ‘student’, grown taller, but the calling girl points downward and I see a head of black hair, just above the railing.  ‘Come down,’ I gesture,in a typical movement that might suggest ‘Bye-bye,’ instead, to an American.  The owner of the hair scoots down the remainder of the ramp with amazing speed, and here is “Most Precious” (meaning of her name), all smiles and resplendent in a worn but still grand gold satin dress with brocade bodice and a faux pear locket, colorful bead decorations clipped in her hair, being lifted, kicking with delight, into the reception room.
        We grin at each other while I try to coax her onto a chair, but she scoots against a wall until Sister F. suggests we sit out under a tree, MP on a concrete bench (“She is used to it, but not you.”), myself on a plastic chair from the reception room.  All smiles, MP denies that she has studied since I saw her eleven months ago, tsks that ‘someone’ has taken, and then discarded, the notebook and marking pens I gave her last winter.  I remember that her ‘locker’ is unlocked, and open, in a room shared with a dozen other special needs children.
     No matter.  I read MP the book of Millions of Cats, that I’ve brought along, translating it into broken Telugu for her benefit (both her Telugu and mine have improved!).  MP expresses amazement and delight, answering my questions eagerly as we look at the pictures together.  There’s plenty of scope for me to study MP’s condition, bones softer, spine no taller (not quite one and a half hand-spans), face a little more serious, albeit joy and curiosity evidently continuing, since last winter.  Another Sister, English speaking, greets and  asks when I arrived in India this year, and tells MP to listen carefully and learn some English from me.  This Kerala Sister is nonplussed when I tell her we have been talking and reading in Telugu, questions me about it, and is happily surprised when I report that MP has followed the story well.
     I tell MP it’s her turn to tell a story to me, but she shrugs and turns away:  “I don’t know any.”  I quietly suggest that she too could illustrate and create stories just like Wanda Gag, author of MILLIONS OF CATS.  Telugu praise hymns flow from a loudspeaker upstairs and, although she will not agree to sing, MP’s body sways and I can hear her singing along softly as she gazes at one of the elder inmates, slowly walking with a walker, across the compound.  We share a few bits of chocolate, mine consumed immediately while MP holds the small piece in her hand, prolonging the relishment by  licking slowly, ignoring my advice to eat it all at once and save her dress.
          Eleven o’clock, her lunchtime, comes and goes. Finally we call her caretaking peer to come and carry Most Precious back upstairs.  ‘Okay, bye, see you next time.’  “Bye—ee,”  follows me out the gate.  I wave.  MP’s bright eyes and mischievous smile will go with me throughout the day.
        Bright sun notwithstanding, I decide to walk the few blocks home and save my auto-rickshaw fare today.  The first block is shady, the traffic sparse but brisk, and I pick my way between it and a muddy right-of-way.  I notice that the CAKE LAND sign is actually only a small part in the center of a large 7-Up advertisement almost as large as the bakery itself.  Mr. Obama, do we really need to sell the Indians more than they need to sell to us??  A youth guns his motorscooter past, flinging an exuberant, “I love you!1” as he passes my left American ear.
         The corner across the street from the bakery sports a broad pile of debris, finally swept together after last weekend’s culmination of the Diwali holiday.  Branches trimmed from a palm tree, food wrappers, miscellaneae.  An emaciated, tallish, gray-haired man pauses in front of the pile, reaches into the waist of his garment, hardly more than a loincloth under a worn, tired-green shirt, and carefully pulls out a crumpled plastic bag, container for any useful or edible things he might find there.
         A few steps further on lies a tiny pile of spent silver firecrackers, another vestige of the holiday past, vigorously celebrated with lights and fireworks throughout the town. (That night resounded no less than a war zone, unlike which it yielded to a happy,  peaceful silence by midnight.).  Much of this very long, sunny block, across from several apartment buildings, is fronted by a concrete curb, knee-high metal fencing, and a double row of flowers and shrubs, some of which may, with care, grow into trees.  This is the back of a large compound belonging to a Lutheran denomination.  Three gates lead in to a driving school, the backside of a large church which, some hope, may one day be rebuilt as a cathedral, and the bishop’s residence.  Nirmal Hriday is, in fact, a section of that land, donated by the Lutheran Church to the Missionaries of Charity.  A far sounder ‘investment’ than others of the church’s expenditures and deals unfortunately storied and perpetuated about town by Lutherans and non-Lutherans alike.
          Power poles are also concrete, as is that bearing a doorless switch box, interior and switches open to the elements.  At the t-intersection is the corner meat market, an open- wooden-doored,  five by seven foot, corrugated metal box only large enough for the butcher to wield his knife and cash box, with today’s raw sides and animals hanging in front of him in the doorway. He runs a brisk business, but now it’s nearly noon, and most of his customers have come and gone home to cook their fare.  No, all Indians, not even all Hindus, are vegetarians, although my husband and I are finding a vegetarian-based lifestyle more and more to our liking, and bodies’ health, every year.  The meat that we do enjoy once or twice a week, mutton, chicken, or shrimp, comes from a larger, though hardly more hygienic, shop in the town’s meat bazaar.  Rigorously sharp-eyed-and-nosed  shopping and careful preparation are musts.  Any of these meats cooked in gongorra, a regional sour green leafy specialty, are mouth watering even to contemplate.
          Next follows the perimeter of the Lutheran English Medium School, which enjoys neither the sanction nor the funding to clear the weeds and prop up the sagging fence that  run along the roadside behind buildings, half of them occupied, half of them fallen into disrepair, whitewashed walls bedraggled by recent rains. Here a rumpled, white-clothed man squats, looking studiously toward the weeds, but I know now not to look, and what he is really doing. He straightens himself and stands as I pass, eyes ahead.
          Actually, I am wearing very dark eyeglasses that clasp my chunni to my head against the punishing noontime sun, which is definitely pouring on the heat.  Few cars pass, several flat bed rickshaws carrying little more than a rope or hopeful tool, and plied by lean, determined looking men, heads wrapped round with a towel, and several motorcycles pass quietly on this shady stretch.  Here’s the nondescript gate of the English Medium School where I will volunteer in the afternoon, and traffic is cooperatively nonexistent as I cross to our lane.  The macadam is breaking up; muddy pools inches deep reflect bushes and trees, as I pick my way around them on drier patches of mud, and cross again to our gate. 

Thursday, November 18, 2010

How Manjula Washes Clothes

11-16-10    How Manjula Washes Clothes
         Amazing, that the most common Indian method of washing clothes should have become a shoppers' by-word in the West.  Watching how our housekeeper, Manjula, does the laundry gives me new appreciation for the supplies and appliances I enjoy back home in the States. 
         Still, I wash my own delicate garments during my turn in our Guntur bathroom, first thing in the morning, super cleaning my feet as I slosh the clothes gently around in a wide, shallow pan..  Sometimes I add my preferred soap –usually shampoo: profligate, but it works!-- along with a squirt of lemon juice (courtesy of the tree outside the kitchen window) or vinegar as water softener, and pre-soak a few items for Manjula to wash, rinse, and hang to dry, later.  Last season, she repeatedly urged me to let her do it all. “ “It’s my work, after all, isn’t it?” she’d say. 
     But years of wardrobe depreciation by virtue (?!) of local laundry practices have made me cautious, erring on the side of preserving my sartorial supply.  Plus, an early start allows them a chance to dry in the span of one day, rather than bringing dampness inside for the night and pre-empting the clothesline before tomorrow’s wash.  Though modern Indian homes boast laundry machines, our Guntur home does not, and runs on the principles of a traditional schedule, which influences when the laundry gets done.  It goes something like this, at least in Manjula’s book.
       The housekeeper will sweep the gateway and sidewalk before entering the house.  Next, morning tea will be served to each family member according to his or her preference and precedence, i.e. seniority, gender  and/or their school, work, or travel  timings.  Two gas burners are used to heat tea, and bathwater for the squeamish, while last night’s dishes are rinsed and washed in cold tapwater, and breakfast is set in motion.  Everybody must be served, and eat, in order of precedence, milk boiled to be, cooled, and set for the day's curd (local term for yogurt), rooms swept and mopped with disinfectant (to discourage bugs), lunch cooked, all interspersed with second and third cups of tea, and by then it’s nearly time for lunch…
         Only then will our dirty clothes be collected and washed for the day.   Manjula carries them to the thigh-high outdoor tap where she sorts and soaks them in buckets and a half-bushel tub, plenty of soap (‘plenty’ being what manufacturers wish everyone would use) and enough water to cover.  Manjula’s usual ‘sorting’ is light vs dark, with brights negotiable, and heaven help any colors that run and mingle in the process.  (Despite our urgings, cautions and catastrophes, white and light items continue to emerge from the wash in marbled shades.)  Tougher spots receive a rub from bar soap containing bluing, before or after she carries them to a patio in front of the old bathing rooms.  There she sits on a low stool, the vessels surrounding her within easy reach, presses everything to be sure the laundry’s thoroughly soaped and soaked, and begins to wash in earnest .
          Lightly soiled items come first; she feels around for an item, lifts and lowers it into the water a couple times, deftly folds it into a forearm-length and slaps it against a large, rough-cut stone that slopes away from her knees.  Okay, slap is an understatement. 
Unless I watch and beg her to be gentler with my own clothing, Manjula has an easy time of venting any pent-up frustration as she whacks each item against the stone.  It looks and sounds more like punishment.  Sometimes she sucks air noisily in between semi-clenched side teeth, a sympathetic percussion to the rhythmic beat.  Twenty, twenty five times if an item is grubby, ten times if there’s a lot to do or the item is small.
          A bucket of plain water stands ready for the rinsing:  dip, lift, dip repeatedly, lifting the garment an arms length from the water and plunging it back in following the water flowing from it.  I’d practiced this motion out of curiosity for several years before recognizing the utility of it: the thrust and flow function like the agitator in an electric washing machine, but with less effort and results better than mere ‘sloshing.’.  The rinse water clouds.  There may or may not be a second rinse, for which I always plead, before the item is, again, deftly, re-folded to a forearm’s length, tightly twisted, and set aside.
           The method is the same.  Dip lift, plunge, repeat.  The linens, which come last, understandably end up thickened with soap residue. Occasionally I am able to inspire a second or third rinse, with or without lemon or vinegar added for softening.  The clean wet clothes are collected, an armful at a time, opened, shaken out, and flung over high clotheslines of wire, strung over one side of the back yard.  Much of the line has been encroached by the three year old mango tree growing in that area.  This year we’ve added new posts of zinc (more impervious to the elements than old bamboo poles, which have long since broken down) and clotheslines on the roof, which is reached by an outdoor stairway.  Good for catching sun and wind, but not so handy to recover should, as in this long end of fall monsoon, a sudden rain catch us by surprise.
          Late afternoons, Manjula will take the things down, whether dry or nearly dry.  Should I suggest leaving anything on the line a little longer, I’ll find it there, absorbing the evening dews, long after Manjula has departed for the day.  In any case, hooks and chairs in our quarters often sport damp clothes overnight, slowly post-drying under a ceiling fan.
          And that’s how Manjula washes clothes.  ‘Gives new meaning to a term many Americans read only as trendy. ‘Stone washed.’          

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Walking to Nirmal Hriday

11-16-11  Walking to Nirmal Hriday.  This morning after an early peek at Facebook, hand-and-foot-washing personal clothing, negotiating kitchen-stove-heated water for a pour-bath, monitoring opening and shutting of adjoining bathroom, kitchen, and bedroom doors and windows for privacy while dressing, I walk a few blocks to Nirmal Hriday ("Sacred Heart," one of Mother Theresa’s ) to schedule meeting with a young resident I’d coaxed into taking her studies somewhat seriously, during last year’s trip. 
     Around a muddy corner from our deteriorating street, the roads are flat concrete, barely  more than two cars wide, concrete extensions, packed dirt, aimless weeds or varieties of debris for about a meter on either side.  Concrete dust and sand from construction encroach here, motorcycles park there, and small groups of people stand talking here and there on the sides of the road; walking, cycling, motoring traffic passes, weaving in and out as needed.  Modest homes, a few two to five story apartment buildings, and a few business offices occupy almost all the space inside theirshoulder-high compound walls…all concrete.
       I walk to the right, facing traffic, cross carefully in front of a small, old bakery, whose new blue sign proclaims Cake Land. Cake Bakery. in bright red and yellow colors. The interior is open to the street, shiny counters and boxes displaying cakes, cookies, and pastries which seem to exhale an aroma of artificial cherry flavoring out onto the street, where several clutches of young men lingering near motorcycles ponder their purchases.
          I cover my head with a chunni (traditional long shoulder/head shawl) more for the late morning sun than their looks.  I reason that I must’ve become a familiar, seasonal sight after so many years of wintering in the neighborhood.  Past the aging yellow walls of Guruviah Chetty High School, I look forth and back, and cross the street again, up a small entry ramp and through the tall but open, brown painted gates of Nirmal Hriday.
This particular Sacred Heart convent cares for retarded and handicapped girl children and indigent old people, while some of the sisters regularly survey the town in search of people in dire need.
     Inside, to my surprise, instead of the usual serene, shady, open compound that is usually occupied by only a few residents and sisters at a time, today there is an almost gala atmosphere.  I greet Sister Felicitas at the door of the simple reception room door in the center of the two story main building.
Clad in the order's traditional blue-bordered, white saree over a long sleeved white blouse which bunches sideways at the narrow-collared neck, she greets me with a bright smile, gestures, and calls out, “Come in, come in,” as she hurriedly gives a chair to a young Indian woman at the door, asking her to sit outside, and me to sit inside the plain room, furnished with a table, a handful of chairs, two calendars, and a few posters and religious wall symbols.
       Unwilling to avail of the class or religious differentiation her invitation and instruction may imply, I linger at the door to view the scene outside, and interview the other woman.  Sister Felicitas, meanwhile, bustles around to locate a children’s school notebook in which she finds and verifies handwritten details with the woman about today’s serving plans.  A young mother with a red bottu on her forehead, she tells me she is from a nearby village and is here to serve a meal to the residents. 
     Serving a meal or treat to ‘the poor’ is a common practice for a number of significant occasions, especially among Hindus.  This time, the meal will be prepared on site. The young woman tells me she does this twice every two years for her sons’ birthdays  (or does she say twice a year, on each of their birthdays – our mutual language skills are not up to the clarification).  The boys are small, maybe four or five years of age; one of them presses against his mother, urging her to come over and let him play in a little playground just behind them, as Sister F. has suggested.
       Meanwhile, fifty or sixty women are ranged in groups of four or five, some sitting on the ground, others clustered around Ramesh, a young man resident, who notes their information in another small, cardboard-covered notebook.  Sister Felicitas does not speak Telugu (in which I am becoming fairly conversant), but enthusiastically answers my questions in her own version of English, words tumbling over one another in a chaotic manner, almost as comical as it is confusing.
     I understand that the Sisters gather information about who is out of work, widowed, and/or otherwise unable to survive without help, and inform these people when food is to be available on such and such a date (today it is godum, wheat flour, good for Indian chapattis), during their daily rounds in the town.  Some of the sisters are dispensing the flour in a room across the compound, from which women emerge, one every few minutes, carrying perhaps two gallons of flour in an 8 gallon sack.  In a far corner of the compound quite a few articles of rumpled clothing are laid out, evidently distribution as well.
      Sister Felicitas is clearest when she tells me that Ramesh is unable to walk without a walker, “that is why his people have left him here.  But he is very good, he helps us a lot.”  A former school teacher, one of his responsibilities is to tutor my charge.
     As for my erstwhile student, whose section of the convent takes an early lunch, today is not an option. I am told by Sister that I cannot come tomorrow:  the sisters with whom I should talk first are going to another town, not the day after:  it will be a day of prayer after morning chores, so please to come on Friday.  Or, start next Monday.  Ten o’clock, because she’ll be at lunch at 11. And so we agree, smiling and nodding and repeating the details to each other to be sure we both have got it:  Friday.  Saturday.  Or Monday.  Okay. Sister Felicitas points to dates on the calendar, the numbers arranged from top to bottom.  Good.  Goodbye then.  Thank you.  Thank you.  Good bye.
      I exchange smiles and waves with Ramesh as I crunch across the finely-crushed-gray-rock compound to the gate…and will describe the walk home another day.  OK.  Good bye.  Thank you.  Okay.  Thank you.

Monday, November 15, 2010

As dandelion wisps fly

An little puff, and dandelion wisps fly.  A big Eeyore-like sigh instead of writing amounts to even less.
A two week whirlwind, a long weekend of upsets (tummy and housekeeping) await blogging, so
let me get on with it.  A blog, "The Lit Coach's Guide to the Writer's Life" provided today's needed
'mommy talk' to stop making excuses.  The blog's focus for November is on discipline, the 'lack' of
which I've bemoaned for years.  No more.
Before embarking on this year's India trip, I prepared and challenged myself for writing about this year's
India trip by initiating this blog site, determining to limit reading and writing practice to the task at hand,
and carefully selecting a paperback (bought with  a bookstore gift certificate, prize for the best senior category poem in a Ramsey County Library Poetry Slam earlier this summer) on the genre,
appropriately entitled TRAVEL WRITING, by L. Peat O'Neal.  (Shirley, you are fluffing.  Get on with 
the writing! = self editorial comment)
Today's description practice...from our back yard::
The ____________ is a curious flower…two mottled, cream and pink bi-partate petals in clusters ranging from one to ten flowers on a thick, unforgivingly thorny stem , the upper part of which is crowded with long sausage-oval leaves of a sturdy green.  The buds, yellowish green, open along relatively soft, smooth twigs containing a sticky milk-like substance.   Full-blown flowers are one or two inches wide, pairs of the rounded petals surrounding a quarter-centimeter center of five-scalloped yellow bumps from which three fine pistils protrude.  Sometimes two smaller flowers, instead of the yellow budlets, burst from the center of another.  On this sunlit morning, a black butterfly knits the clear air around the edges  of the flowerbed.