Day One: Chapattis, Chips and Polychrome Chaos

Fighting for curry and setting up shop, my first taste of combat and sensory shock.  My first day on the ground brings fear and fascination, exhaustion and new shirt and colour and spice.

I’ll be in this room for the month so I dusted shelves, spread clothes on one and stood books on another. I untied the mosquito net – considerately equipped with holes so I can reach through and swat any bugs – and pushed my bed under the fan.  No sign of mossies last night, mesh on windows looks intact, and I will drape my untorn Bivouac net over the bed frame if needed.  The bathroom “hot” tap is warmest on sunny afternoons – its water comes from a solar panel and tank on the roof.  In the small library I discovered daily print editions of the papers I’d perused online from Auckland, and I met the Ecumenical Christian Centre director (he graciously dismissed the wake-up call last midnight) I’d been emailing for months – wow, I’m really here!

Right now I’m the sole white face, but ECC staff are preparing for the 30 American students to arrive on Thursday.  Women are in colourful saris, men mostly grey shirt-and-trousers uniform, some with a turban.  They swing sickles to cut the grass and sweep with twig-bundle brooms that seem to work well. Some are climbing ladders to clean windows.  I waved to one and he brought his hands together in respectful greeting, almost losing his balance as he let go of the rung. I was about to shower when another began scrubbing at the skylight above.  A maid carried a pile of sheets on her head between rooms.

At breakfast the cooks delivered 4 sausages, 3 eggs, a bowl of porridge, 4 pieces of white toast, butter and jam – no risk of starving here!  I only managed half.  As I left the refectory, staff kids were heading off in the van to school.  At lunch, the workers tucked into rice and vegetarian curry, but I was ushered to a table with a mince dish, boiled cabbage, white bread, packet potato chips, rice, and a symmetrical platter of fresh sliced vegetables.  The care is touching but embarrassing – it made me stand out, I left the veges untouched, not knowing how they were washed, and the staff curry looked yummier!

At dinner, I took a plate of their chapattis and rice, but was also given toast and potato chips again, cooked potatoes and chicken (which seemed kind from the vegetarian Hindu cooks) and warned their food would be too hot for me.  I left the bread and chips untouched and hoped they’d notice that, however clumsily, I was indeed breaking bread, gathering rice and curry with my right hand, and not exploding with the heat!  The water is filtered with a faint chemical taste so is probably fine, but until I see the Americans’ policy, I’ll continue purifying it.

Before dinner I checked email at the “Communication Centre” and started this missive.  Battery and generators maintained the PCs when power cuts interrupted the internet.  Then Jabaraj walked me into Whitefield’s main street and India’s “assault on the senses” attacked  (see my Whitefield shots here).  It’s overwhelming, too much to process, like the “one great blooming, buzzing confusion” that psychologist William James said babies experience, “assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once”, before the infant brain turns down the sensory volume and shoves it all into boxes so we can cope.  I kept one eye on the ground avoiding potholes and litter, several eyes evading push- and motorbikes, cars, trucks, buses – footpaths barely exist.  It took my whole concentration to follow Jabaraj without being hit and, like a toddler, I was terrified of being left behind alone.  Little energy was left to observe the people: some in leather shoes, smart trousers and collared shirt, others barefoot in a lungi waist wrap-around.  Women’s saris were monochrome or multi-hued, pastel or dazzling, like all the spectrum of light swirling around me; plain or floral, striped, chequered or polka-dotted; silver-threaded or begemmed.  A few wore Muslim headscarves.

A large white bullock pulled a cart past churches and shrines.  Behind waste-filled gutters, walls guarded manicured gardens and elegant houses or multi-storey flats.  Overgrown sections in between are littered with tin shacks or tarpaulins – apparently not mini-slums, as I first thought, but temporary abodes of itinerant construction workers on the many building sites.  In a small store stacked floor to ceiling with clothing and trinkets, small statues of gods stood next to Western lingerie: Brahman nudged Bendon.  The proprietor offered me a tiny plastic cup of steaming sweet chai tea, and Jabaraj helped me buy a cool cotton shirt with a retro look.

One hour “in town” was enough.  Drained and bewildered, I stumbled back to the ECC grounds, a tranquil haven of trees, verdant lawns, and fresh air after the churning dust and fumes.  I cleaned out gobs of black from my nostrils.  After my first glimpse of the “bracing, or exhausting, anarchy of Indian streets” (Michael Palin, Himalaya), I can see this country could be bracingly exhilarating, but I was thinking: “two months to survive – what have I got myself into?” and hoping I’d not forgotten to pack anything important – I doubt I’d manage to find and purchase the simplest item.  I felt more positive after a refreshing shower and dinner and more smiles from the staff.

I recalled that night falls fast in the tropics, when it did about 6pm.  More brief power-offs required the headlamp torch from my local NZ hardware store to navigate my room and the two-minute walk to the refectory for dinner.  Reading at night, my bedside light often alternated bright and dim every few seconds, rather like my alternating feelings of fascination and fear about India so far.  The fluctuating power levels mirror my morale.  I switch off the erratic illumination and drift off, soothed by the lullaby of the fan overhead, speeding and slowing, whirring up and whizzing down, now eager, now dismayed.