Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Saying Sari

Scenes from a bus stop

Gomathi and I met exactly two weeks ago during a sudden, violent rain storm in Vadapalani, a western suburb of Chennai, India. With a quick wave of her hand, she invited me to take shelter beneath the canopy of her giant beige umbrella. I gratefully responded by leaping to join her and offering up my most gracious smile. Together, we two strangers braved the tropical mid-morning downpour, standing silent amid the raucous rat-a-tat-tat of raindrops and ear-piercing cacophony of car horns.

When our smoke-belching bus finally rumbled up, Gomathi motioned for me to follow close behind her; I took her lead as she wedged through the other damp bodies boarding the bus and found us a spot to sit near the back. Within five minutes--with her limited English and my non-existent Tamil--I learned that she was 38 years old, married, and making her thrice-weekly trip to the big city to visit a fertility specialist. She and her husband, Ravi, wanted to add to their family, and after six years of trying to procreate the old-fashioned way, they decided to give high technology a whirl.

Interesting, I thought to myself. She goes to the the same fertility clinic my friends had been encouraging me to visit! What are the odds of that?

As we sped southward down the ECR toward Mahaballipuram (me) and Thirukkalukundram (her), we shared bananas and swapped as much information as possible between two people who don't speak the same language. Toward the end of the journey, she said something I understood completely: "Come stay at my house!" My first thought was, OK: I've decided to take some risks on this trip--to try new things and be adventurous. So, why not? But then I remembered: the deadline.

"Oh, I'd love to. That's so nice of you to offer! But I can't. I have a writing deadline, and I need to send this story off to my editor before the end of the day tomorrow. Can I take a raincheck?!"

It seemed we'd reached an understanding, but as she spoke with her husband by phone, I heard her say "American" and "Mahaballipuram" and something that sounded a lot like "come pick us up." At my stop, she exited the bus with me and bought each of us a fresh green coconut from a roadside vendor. A few moments later, a fancy Toyota SUV with tinted windows pulled up, her husband at the wheel.

"Get in!" prompted Gomathi.

Apparently, we had successfully communicated, because as Ravi headed down the road toward their village, she spoke rapidly in Tamil and suddenly the car was pointed in the opposite direction, heading toward the town I'd be calling home for the next few days. Along the way, we stopped at a restaurant and ate uttapam and sambar together. They insisted on paying.

"Are you sure you don't want to come stay with us? There's plenty of room," said Ravi.

I mustered up my most bummed-out facial expression and apologized for bringing my work on vacation with me, but explained that a deadline was a deadline.

"Well, you're always welcome at our house. Call anytime, whether it's later today, tomorrow, or next week. We'd love to have you over."

Wow! This was sort of overwhelming in a really wonderful way.

We said our goodbyes and I headed off, little black bag in hand, to find a guesthouse--hopefully one situated near an internet cafe where I could, actually, get some work done. I promised Gomathi and Ravi I'd visit, and I meant it. We decided on Sunday, two days away. I'd make the 17 kilometer journey south to Thirukkalukundram, and they'd meet me at the bus stand.

Instead of a bus, I took a rickety three-wheel rickshaw, and it was the right choice. For the next half-hour, the driver regaled me with stories about his busty ex-wife, how he's still angry with her for leaving, and how he longs for the days when he could nestle his head on her big ol' chest.

Tell me more!

Melting (in a good way) in the steamy backseat of a standard-issue yellow rickshaw

Pulling into the dusty temple town, the rickshaw driver offered up his cell phone to call Gomathi. Within five minutes, I was cushioned in the front seat of Ravi's SUV, headed toward their home for our much-anticipated lunch date. As we pulled up in front of their two-story house on a quiet street, A teenage girl ran out to greet us, calling out, "Hello, Daddy! Hello, Auntie!"

Auntie--OK. That's me. But Daddy? Wasn't Gomathi getting treated by a fertility doctor because she couldn't have kids? I'd wrongly assumed they were childless, but turns out 14-year-old Illakiyaa was desperate for a sibling--the main purpose for those thrice-weekly journeys to Chennai--but Ravi and Gomathi were definitely not childless.

Ravi, Gomathi, and Illakiyaa welcome me to their home and surprise me by being three instead of two!

Gomathi's across-the-street neighbors. Daughter Illakiyaa warned me that if we didn't make our hellos and goodbyes snappy, they'd start singing for us

The extended family, 15-and-younger edition

Their home was more like a compound; behind the main house were two smaller houses, and in total, 21 people share the entire space. The family consisted of sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, mothers, and a whole mess of children. I met them all, and failed miserably trying to first pronounce, then remember, their names, which were each polysyllabic and crammed with vowels that crashed together at unfamiliar angles. After introductions, I was invited to sit and watch their big-screen TV and eat sweets, which I've learned is the customary pre-meal starter. Next came a tour of the house, then a tour of the neighborhood, followed by a meal, which we shared while sitting cross-legged on the floor. In the Indian family-dining tradition, Gomathi waited until her husband finished eating, at which time she took his plate, finished what was left there, then, at last, served herself a fresh portion.

I wouldn't make a very good traditional Indian housewife, I thought, watching Gomathi scoop Ravi's leftovers into her mouth. Nope.

The final phase of the afternoon was spent upstairs in the bedroom that Illakiyaa, Gomathi, and Ravi all share (no wonder she can't get pregnant!), where mother and daughter stripped me of all my Western accoutrements and transformed me--physically, anyway--into a traditional Indian housewife.

Down came the hair, off came the dress, out came the earrings, and on went the necklace, sari, and jasmine garland tucked into my hair. Against my fervent protestations, they insisted I accept their gift, generously cooing and oohing about how nice I looked in my new outfit. I didn't have the heart to tell them I'd likely never be able to properly wrap that sari again, or that even if I did, that I really hadn't anyplace appropriate to wear it. But as they bid me farewell, they made me promise to return, and I knew then that, actually, there would be opportunities for me to give that sari another go.

I look forward to them.

Illakiyaa and her American Auntie, who wonders if she'll ever be able to wrap herself properly in that sari again