Strange Overtones

I return to the hotel after visiting Agra Fort, and Salim and Jagdish are sitting on the front steps of the hotel.  Sitting in chairs, watching the road, the people pass, the cars drive by, the motorbikes, the camels, the donkeys.  I look around.  It’s “man time” in Agra.  Every day after sunset, the men just sit outside and watch the world in front of them, speaking with each other.

Salim pulls me up a chair.  I sit with them and participate in “man time.”  It’s just their social outlet.  I speak with Jagdish for a while.  We talk about his hotel.  He has had it for years and this past year decided to remodel it, to knock the old to the ground and to rebuild it.  He designed the entire hotel.  He is proud, but humble and quiet in his pride.  His energy is soft and safe.  He feels like family. And I feel protected.

Jahanvi's sister, Jagdish, and Jahanvi in front of Daawat Hotel

He takes me into the hotel and shows me all of the special things.  He explains where the front desk will go once complete, where the couches and chairs will be placed in the foyer.  He tells me that the room on the right will be the non-vegetarian restaurant and the room on the left will be the vegetarian restaurant.  He shows me the light fixtures that he specially chose and had brought in.  “You won’t see these anywhere around here,” he says.  They are simple pendulum lights with colored glass that glow beautifully when turned on.  He is an artist and a businessman.  A beautiful combination.  And his new hotel, Daawat, will be a testament to that.

After the tour Salim says, “Go change.  We go.  We go to Big Bazaar.”  I hurriedly change and go back downstairs.  I am so hungry as I did not eat lunch today, but I am sure there will be street stalls and food at the Bazaar.  I am looking forward to seeing the Bazaar, the market.   Salim isn’t here.  “He is coming back,” says Jagdish. I hang out once more in front of the hotel, feeling almost a member of the mafia.  Salim is gone for about forty minutes.  He drives up on the motorbike and nods for me to get on.  “Where were you?”  I ask.  “Went to get shave, but they closed,” he says.  I suddenly want to smack him, and I’m not sure why.  I think the hunger has gone to my head.   I climb on the back of the bike.

And I feel it.  His energy is a little bit different.  Oh my God, I think this is his idea of a date.  Oh no no no.  Okay, I tell myself.  Just relax.  Let’s see what an Indian date is like.  It’s an experience.

He pulls into traffic.  He almost runs into another man on a motorbike.  They begin speaking back and forth.  I don’t know what’s happening.  Is this bad?  Is this typical?  Are they going to fight?  They have slowed down and are going to same speed, driving side by side.  Eventually Salim turns back to me and says, “This my friend.”  Wow.  Small world, I think – literally almost bumping into his friend.

We pull into a large complex behind his friend.  We park the motorbike beside his friend.  And I realize it isn’t a coincidence that his friend met him on the road, it was planned.  His friend is hanging out with us.  Cool.  We walk into the complex, and I am searching for the stalls, the arts, the crafts, the colors, the noise that accompanies a Bazaar.  Nothing.  Just a half empty mall sort of.

We walk into a store. It’s called the Big Bazaar.

Oh. . . .

And it’s like a rotten K-Mart.   We browse through, Salim and his friend chattering away and me pulling up the rear end.   Salim picks up a t-shirt with a man on it and steam coming out of his ears; the t-shirt has the words “Dad is more than a money machine” printed on it.  “You like?”  Salim asks.  “No,” I state. He points to another one, just as tacky with some sort of kitty cat on it.  “This one?”  he asks.  “No,” I say.  “But I want to buy you a gift,” he says.  And I flashback to my 4th grade Christmas, the Christmas when my Dad bought my Mom a yellow jumpsuit and her response was, “Buddy, don’t ever buy me clothes again.”  I suddenly understand that.

His friend picks up some soap and shoves it under my nose.  “Yes?” he says.  “It doesn’t smell,” I say.  It smells like a plastic wrapper.

They walk me to the chip aisle.  “You like chips?”  “Yes, chips are good,” I respond.  Salim’s friend hands me a bag. “Gift.  Take it.”  Salim picks up a pack of cookies.   Salim’s friend pays for it at the checkout.

I’m baffled, but I just go with it.

We go back out and get on the motorbikes – hopefully heading to dinner, I think.  We drive about twenty steps and park in front of the McDonald’s.  Oh no, I think.  How do I politely tell them that I don’t even eat this crap at home unless it’s before 10:30AM and it’s an egg and cheese biscuit?  I still can’t understand that whenever an Indian wants to take me somewhere, it’s somewhere Western.  I’ve given up on this one and simply accept it knowing that no matter how Western the place, it will always be an Indian experience.

We share a thing of fries, and the guys get ice-cream.  I drink a Sprite.  This cannot be dinner, I think.   The only thing I had today was a muffin at 10 this morning.  Salim mentions something about his friend cooking dinner.  Thank goodness, I think!

We leave McDonald’s. I ride on the back of his friend’s bike after much confusion on my part.   We drive about 10 miles per hour, side by side of course, so they can talk.  Suddenly we stop, and I realize his friend is waiting for me to get back on Salim’s bike.  “Dinner tomorrow,” he says.  “I make veg for you.” And he drives away – along with my hopes for dinner.

Salim starts driving.  “Where are going?” I ask.  “Just around.  You can look.”  He drives.  I look at Agra.  It’s not a beautiful city, not inviting really.  Busy roads.  Hot.  Dusty.  Dirty.  Agra is about the Taj, about the Fort, about the history, and about family.

He suddenly turns around, “You want something eat?” he asks.  “Yes,” I say.  We find a packed little place by the side of the road and pull in.  It’s filled with locals – a good sign.  He orders dosa and I order stuffed naan.  It’s the biggest dosa I’ve ever seen.  I drink a chai.  I drink his chai.

Salim and his dosa

We go back to the hotel.  “See you tomorrow,” I say as I walk into the hotel clutching my Big Bazaar bag.  And thus ends my Indian date.  If that’s what it was.

The power is off.  I can’t sleep.  It is so dreadfully hot.  I think I am melting.  Eventually, the power comes back on, and I am grateful for the fan.  I still can’t sleep.  Finally, at 3AM, I get up, go outside and turn off the hall lights.  I find my white cotton scarf and soak it down with water.  I cover myself with it, turn the fan on high, and crank up my IPod.  Finally, I drift to sleep – my head sweating into the pillow.

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~ by Dana Childs: Intuitive on June 4, 2010.

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