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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

"We are Andhra women, and we know how to ad-JUST!"

                                                                                                           Guntur, A.P., India
                                                                                                           Last week in January, 2016

Five decades ago (can you believe it?!) this was the cheerful mantra of my Indian teacher friends when faced with incredible amounts of correction work (like, sixty students per class), frequent unexpected school closings, or a strict headmistress's order to forego lessons to prepare for special occasions and visitors.  And adjust they did, while I, young and ?perhaps? idealistic, spluttered in the wake of their self-talk, positive-think.

This frequent testing of one's ability to adjust is definitely a factor in the incredible resilience evidenced every day across every age group of India's diverse population.
Not long after things settle down following the maddening soundscape of our first week here in December, our son calls to see how we are doing.  I comment on how freely and frequently family members move among the three brothers' apartments in our almost-new building (Mary Shree, named in memory of my mother-in-law). 'Of course,' I say, 'We can adjust And, at the end of the day, we each have our own separate place, right?'

Are             --             you             --             kid             --             ding             ....    ?

"This is India," a refrain repeated like a mantra whenever (like, frequently) plans go awry. It is not long before the ability of all of our families, who have lived all of our adult lives separately, to live and interact as a joint family is tested.

A major remodeling of a sister- and brother-in-law's house has stalled; it won't be ready for visitors expected a few days hence.  Her daughter and a British colleague, along with his family, and a Belgian priest, are due in ten days for a three and two week stays, including a formal engagement party for the young couple. Where to host them? Time for group-think.

Three brothers and two sisters meet to confer on the most culturally appropriate way to provide comfortable hospitality.  Too banal and inconvenient, a nice, nearby hotel is out of the question. Not enough privacy and also inconvenient: to disperse the family among apartments of three brothers who already live at Mary Shree and the other sister's apartment a mile away.  How about utilizing one of the two vacant Mary Shree apartments?  It's a 'no-brainer; the obvious best solution is to host the family in the apartment of one of the two brothers and families still to come on holiday from the states, just before the guest family is due to depart.

Fine.  We can adjust.

There's just one thing: the apartments are unfurnished. Beds? Frig? Curtains and linens? No problem. Move things over from the house under rehab.

There's just one more thing: sister-in-law moves into our own guest room to better be able to direct logistics of cleaning, moving and meal planning.  Here she will stay, with her daughter in another bedroom, for the duration of the run-up-to and including their guests' India stay.  Another opportunity to adjust.

Cooking will occur in our apartment, with additional input from the two brothers already resident in their own apartments in the building. My hubby suggests his sister take over our cooking planning and supervision, in favor of her guests (and us too).With help:  Our driver/cook and cleaning gal, full and part time, respectively,  have only agreed to work for the two of us, that too, for only a few months a year.  Suddenly they are being pressed into intense service, preparing the dinner and doing doing the laundry for

Every day becomes an exercise in determining and moving furniture, curtains, living room, minimal kitchen utensils, bedroom and bathroom furnishings, some from apartments of three brothers already living in the building, some from her or her sister's house. Frequent conferrings add more ideas to the list of what might be wanted or needed. Tea?A hotplate so as to have it ready in the morning? Stocking up on supplies for the duration.

Now, more than ever, you never know who's in which apartment or serving which meal or item to whom.  But everyone is behind the project, and it falls into place.  I have relatively little to do: just basically stay out of the way. Thinking that the British are likely to be extremely polite,  I check my laid-back mid-western manners, wondering whether I might say something offensive or commit a blunder, whether they'll find our hospitality appropriate or presumptuous.

Suddenly, they are here, our niece a tiny, beaming young woman, her beau tall, shy, and soft spoken. But it's his parents who blow us away.  They are as casual and unassuming as ever guests could be. Conversations warm up, cameras are at the ready, meals--and shopping--begin.

The young man's mom, Rosemary, and I have a practical and sisterly gabfest while shopping for suitable Indian garb to wear to the engagement. Each of us confesses to feeling awkward about wearing a saree (for me, a change from my youthful eagerness to try just that), as cheerfully expected by the women of the family, and our helper, Pushpa.  The saree is undoubtedly the garment of elegance, but the clumsiness of age and lack of practice leave me feeling awkward in one, and it's too late to order the obligatory, tailor made, close fitting, matching blouse.  We're under a time crunch. Other dresses we see are over-the-top gaudy or ill fitting.  I am about to give up when Rosemary points out nice features of a Punjabi dress ensemble, which I try on, and finally buy. She remains undecided whether to try 'dressing Indian' for the engagement, or just be herself.  We relate.

Back at home, hubby and I cling to our nap schedule, followed by tea.  The Brits do too, seating themselves at table for tea as well as meals.  Usually.  They eat what they are served, happily including the stronger spices over which my stomach has begun to protest. They are prompt and proactive for whatever is to come up next on their trip agenda.  So, not to worry, they can adjust.

There's the engagement event, Christmas, two more brother-in-laws' families coming by New Year, they and the "Brits' staying for a couple of weeks, and then the approving and interviewing of possible 'matches' (candidates) for marriage with another niece or two, a family reunion, for good measure.  While we try to gain some momentum on nonprofit work we are here to do.

The young people of the families visiting from USA show decidedly independent preferences in their activities, not all of them pre-approved by their 'elders,' who in turn are equally eager to settle in to their apartments for the first time.  The young cousins revel in each others' company, and are on their best while just hanging out at home, or while at church, or on field trips organized especially in honor of the British visitors by the brother-in-law who is their erstwhile host.

Not to worry, everyone seems able, on some level, to adjust.  As each day continues to unfold in unexpected ways, the question is, can we?

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Source of Our Joy

Source of Our Joy, by Shirley Smith Franklin                                                                 
                                                                                               Last week in December, 2015

In this mixed up and topsy-turvy world, full to bursting with hopes and fears, migrations, mountains quaking, icebergs and oceans melting and heating, how and to whom does Christmas come?

Does it come as strong arms lifting a frightened child from the tired arms of a parent clambering out of a boat onto firm ground of uncertain refuge? Does it come in the form of barbaric acts and sweeping migrations in the name of God and freedom?  A volunteer chatting the evening away with a stranger who has outlived all her relatives and friends.? Children’s memorized recitations and role-play? Amplified voices exhorting the faithful to praise or to pray, now and forevermore? School children decorating place mats and singing for senior citizens? Worshipers streaming to and from the church (ten thousand is a modest estimate of the crowd at our neighborhood church despite wearying sixty minute sermons, and ear-splitting audio-over-amplification) during five hours on Christmas Day? In the form of a skinny teenage mother nursing a toddler at the street corner, resting, along with a few more beggars, in the glare of the noonday sun from their holiday windfall from door-to-door canvassing for a few rupees, ripe fruit and old clothes? A child asking the origin and meaning of the word Christmas? Does it come on the wind as music, old familiar or shrill new, songs in so many languages that only God could understand them all? As instantly translated high level talks among world leaders in well lit, lofty chambers? In an outdoor, candle and moonlit circle of worshipers with a background of gently throbbing drums?  Crinkle and crush of bright wrappings  tossed aside from gifts of more or less thought and value, given out of duty or love?  In three family members rushing another to the ER, or the medical team bending over him or her, just as the angels once bent low to sing their song of life-giving love?

How has Christ come for you this Christmas?

And where will you seek Him in the year to come?


Sunday, December 20, 2015

Seven Days and Counting, Part Two

We sleep.  And sleep.  As we emerge from the disorientation of long travel and topsy turvy timing, new and remembered details of people, place, and thing slip through consciousness like details of scenery viewed from a moving train.

Half a dozen bright parrots tumble into the neighbor's wild-branched jaama-kaya (guava) tree, thrash about in pairs. fly swiftly off. Is the guava tree their home? Or just a trysting place? Another day, a solitary red-beak contemplates the concrete dominated neighborhood from a window ledge on the back of the house, flies away when I move closer for a better look.

Pushpa and Raghava, our cleaning/assistant cook and cook/driver/"local yellow pages" are back to help us five and eight hours a day, five or six days a week.  'Hard to find words to explain to folks at home in US how and why we employ people here to do things we do ourselves in the 'states. I'll tell you after thinking about it some more.

We listen and try to re-orient ourselves to old and new details about people, places, things. The first one up unlocks the front door, opens casement windows for cooler air, makes a cup of tea.  Raghava slips in, greets us in a hush, makes more tea.  Murmured conversation.  Pushpa arrives: ditto, as she sets to work on breakfast or chopping veggies for lunch. She giggles at the prospect of learning to cook from Raghava, our usual cook cum driver, and is amused at my renewed attempts to teach her to sort the laundry by compatible color.

Our elevator has been kept in good repair, glides and stops smoothly, even sounds quieter than a year ago when it was new. Our elbows are exercised (Arya will know what I mean) as we drag the heavy, double grilled doors open and shut, but before we ever can, a recorded, annoyed woman's voice scolds from within the elevator shaft, "Please shut the DOOR!!"

In that first week,  I’m awakened from nap one afternoon by a rush of young chatter...A single line of white and blue uniformed school children and pairs of saree clad teachers from a nearby school stride along two sides of the block, heading, I learn, for an annual government school census.  (Echoes of Bethlehem?!)  No doubt it’s a welcome diversion from the relentless study and schoolroom life of both teacher and child.  An hour later they come chattering back. Next day’s Deccan Chronicle compares the states’s school enrollment with actual attendance: both abysmal.

Voluntary demolition of modest homes and the building of apartments in this mid-city neighborhood are in full swing.  Concrete apartment buildings are currently under construction in front of and behind us. This seems to be the week for workers to custom-cut the ubiquitous tile, the flooring of choice (and of necessity: trees are a protected species in India), and saw they do, on site, from breakfast until bedtime. Conversations are dropped or shouted while relentless tile cutting  continues. In the early  morning, grinding of condiments and soaked lentils in a mixie (heavy duty blender)  for the day's meals is nearly as loud.

The drilling ricochets against concrete walls, competes with loudspeakers blasting street hawkers and leaders of neighbourhood events, all of which proceed with great gusto, if not finesse: music, chanting and preaching of revival, wedding, worship, housewarming, or annual festival – Christian or Hinldu, all punctuated by the Muezzin calls-to-prayer from two directions. The over amplified finale of a Bollywood movie in a theatre a little over a block away. The beeps and motors of late night traffic. This frenzied soundscape continues like never before, and well past midnight, for the first few days of our visit. What have we gotten ourselves into???  I toy with the idea of going back home.

 In contrast, the usual silence from midnight to four thirty a.m. is near absolute. Then, a bucket being set down on tile, water splashing, birds chirping, the click of microwave opening or the starter over the gas stove, the patient swish, swish of street and doorway being swept with grass brooms, unique tunes of cell phones and cars backing out of parking spaces, all gradually crescendo long before the typical nine o’clock breakfast, by which time the elevator, traffic and construction are in full swing again.  A quiet hour between noon and two is soft and gentle on the ear.  Miss it and you will have a harder time napping when noises start up again.
It takes a few days to make out new and more robust cries of peddlers making their way along the street throughout the day: “Ooraguy! Oy, ooraguy!” (vegetables), or “Kamalaalu, appel, appel, kamalaalu” (“loose- jacket” sweet oranges, apples). Gone is the bulk salt seller with his near-regurgitating cry ,”Oop-poo (uppu means salt)!!”  Free flowing salt is now one of the multiplying packaged items flooding the market, replacing some of the peddlers. The paper collector adds his loudspeaker to the mix as he wheels his cart past: “Paper, bring out your paper stuff! Sell your old paper and gain a few rupees! Come and bring your useless paper, notebooks, newspapers, old books, school books  old God’s words (scriptures.)”  Really?  God’s word gets old?  I don’t think so.
Every morning, singing a hymn or two and reading from our tiny, worn, travelling new testament, given by friends for an anniversary, refresh me enough to face a new day.  Whether I read at random or continuously, there is always a word of narrative, exhortation, or consolation that stands out, surprises even, in its relevance to these days. 
But we long to hear our own children's voices, and phone them each, both to touch base and to update them and ourselves on relatives and friends.  Our daughter talks about her school going children. It's hard to believe we were at 'Grandparents' Day' with our granddaughter in Minnesota just a few days ago. Our son gives an update on their newborn, then asks how things are, over here.  I describe the frequent comings and goings of four local families of in-laws, two of whom live the same building, and walk freely in and our of our open door for a chat.  He asks pointedly, on the basis of his own experience, "Are you able to maintain some privacy for yourselves?
"Sure," I reply, "of course! We have our own separate place now, right?" Right...

Friday, December 11, 2015

Seven Days and Counting, Part One

If half a day is lost in travelling eastward over the date line, does it count as one day? As my dad might’ve said, “You tell me and we’ll both know.”                                                      
Our early December fourteen hour Houston-Dubai flight drags on...The traveller in front of me leans back, putting the screen too close for me to pass time with a movie.  I doze. Chat with Indian nurse in next seat. Eat. Walk the aisles to limber up. Doze.  Eat. Muscles cramp. 'Can’t wait to arrive in Dubai.   
Our pilot tips the plane this way and that for a dark-night view of the Dubai’s Palm Island, a glittering fairytale work of urban art inscribed on the ocean. The air is clear and city lights lend a soft glow to ultra modern skyscrapers and more modest whitewashed neighborhoods. In a group of older passengers, we are shepherded through security at the huge shiny airport, while young men recheck endless lists and tickets, and deliver passengers to various gates along the way to ours.  It appears that we are a practice batch for young airport personnel.                                                                  
The three and a half hour Dubai-Hyderabad flight is more bearable.  My seatmate is a tall man with remarkably long and slender hands.  I ask politely about his destination.  Impassive, he does not reply. He checks out flight information, murmurs something to a portly passenger by the window, but most of the time sits quietly, hands folded in his lap. I guess that he might be a musician or artist. He seems to own the arm rest between us.  I lean toward the aisle, and watch “A Walk in the Woods” and part of the Hindi movie, “Bajrang Bhai Jaan.” ‘Sorry the flight ends before the movie, I make a note to see it later.  Our nieces have said it’s a must-see.
 Claiming luggage among our airbus crowd after quick immigration and customs clearance at 3 a.m. in Hyderabad's modern Rajeev Gandhi International Airport is predictably chaotic but polite. Everyone has too many overloaded bags, too many look alike.  Cell phones are out, for those lucky enough to have prior connectivity to local lines. Luggage carts and attentive porters help everybody sort things out, and soon we are claiming three hours’ respite and breakfast at a tiny, dimly lit, tranquil transit hotel in a lower level of the airport. (The bed fills our room, the bathroom is barely more than a pocket, but it's quiet!, clean, and more than adequate.) Time flies. The phone alarm seems to ring even before I've fallen asleep.                                                              
I want to stay longer, but my husband, understandably eager to reach home, hires a government licensed airport taxi, a red SUV, for the five hour drive to Guntur.  Most of this trip is along a six lane national highway, with new bougainvillea plantings in the center of the black and white striped medians, periodic truck stops, toll booths, international brand gas stations and bucolic, “meals-hotels” (we lunch at one) along the way. Heavy traffic and congested, restricted lanes in the nearby city of Vijayawada, on the banks of the Krishna River, take an extra hour, but we know Guntur is close by, and we are glad. 
  Dusk falls as we reach our gate.  Old and new apartment staff greet us warmly, and whisk our luggage up in the elevator. Everything in our quarters is as we left it last spring. Tickled to be at home, but surprised by unprecedented surround-sound of nearby building construction, we laugh and shrug at the ironies of ‘progress.’ Smiling relatives who have apartments in the building drop in to say hello, and bring us a bit to eat. before we drop into exhausted but sound and satisfying sleep. 
Evening and morning, and that’s the first day.