Evenings at Home

I have switched from the "radio taxi" to the venerable, ubiquitous, and altogether rickety auto-rickshaw. Autos are my favorite mode of transportation of all time, without even the slightest shadow of a doubt. This switch of transportation method has less to do with my love for the auto, however, and more to do with the increasingly-slim wad of bills in my purse: owing to what is called a "signature mismatch," I've learned this week that my bank account will not be forthcoming for another fortnight.

On one hand, I'm thankful for the layer of financial security that arises from the fact that a single misplaced dot requires that all of my bank documents be re-filed, and I'm certainly thankful for the fact that my signature (after some 8 years of practice) now looks consistently the same every time I write it. On the other hand, as my salary can't be given to me without a bank account, and as I have no bank account, I need to be somewhat careful with what I have left. Hence--the auto-rickshaw. The 8 kilometers to work costs half of what I was spending per trip, and if I end up feeling a little bit like I've been put in a blender by the time the journey is over . . . well, that's a small price to pay for being able to enjoy the process of getting to work for far less than I had been spending.

I will discuss the personal security question in a later post; but suffice it to say here that there are, broadly-speaking, no concerns with taking auto rickshaws during the daylight hours and the early evening, at least not at this time of year.

I mentioned Mr. Chhotu, the vegetable-seller, last week.

Mr. Kalra informs me on great authority that this fine gentleman has been selling vegetables from his little cart to the residents of Hauz Khas B since he was approximately six or seven. Hence they call him "Chhotu," which in Hindi means "small." As you'll be able to see when I get around to posting a picture, Mr. C. is not particularly small, nor is he even particularly young. What he is, however, is amazingly friendly, and I'm almost always guaranteed an extra handful of dhania (cilantro) and sometimes a crunchy Fuji apple in my bag when I stop for produce after work.

The young woman who cooks my dinner and does my laundry on weekends almost always precedes me home. Her name is Mumta, and she (insofar as I can tell) is twenty-five years old, Bengali, and has a six-year-old daughter. She also makes pretty stellar roti, even better paratha, and (I'm almost certain) is perpetually laughing at me. However, as I have no proof of this, and am unable to gain any until my Hindi improves to a point where I can do more than squawk an indignant kyaa?! (what?!) every time she shakes her head and grins when we try to converse, the most I can do is inform the world at large that I'm reasonably certain that my cook considers me to be a buffoon.

If Mumta does not beat me home, I usually stop and report that I exist and am in one piece to Mr. and Mrs. Kalra. When I arrive--usually between 6:30 and 6:45--they're pretty dependably sitting on their bed playing a card game called Sweep. The rules make it seem like Casino, but when I look them up online, I can't quite figure what is supposed to be happening. Nonetheless, I fully intend to learn these rules, and popularize the game when I come home. If it's sufficiently diverting to keep the concentration of an old lady who has such bad arthritis in her knees that she can't fold her legs and an old gentleman who's hooked up to a dialysis machine four days out of seven, I imagine it must have some merit.

Mumta usually collects me from Mr. and Mrs. Kalra's room when she arrives after I do, and I say "collect" because there's not really another word for it. In fact, a better word would be "herds"--she usually stops to exchange a few words with Mrs. Kalra, but within two minutes she picks up my bag (behavior to which I am certainly not accustomed, having other people carry my belongings for me when I have two free hands) and, with an extremely peremptory jao, jao (go, go), ushers me up the stairs and into the kitchen.

I'd like to be an unofficial cooking assistant, but after what Mumta appears to have considered an out-and-out cooking disaster (really it wasn't: I just made rice like I do at home, and she apparently decided that having to drain the pot of excess water was nothing less than absolute philistinism), I have been relegated to the role of Kitchen Scribe. This, of course, is for my own benefit, as Mumta's an excellent cook and I want to be able to cook her version of Northie classics like aloo baingan and bindi do piaza (respectively, potato and eggplant curry, and okra and onion curry). It also gives me an opportunity to improve my understanding of the Hindi language, though it does little for my ability to learn to speak anything that doesn't include cooking terms. Above and beyond both of these considerations, though, the truth is that it makes me feel incredibly awkward to sit in my air conditioned room doing not a whole lot more than kicking my heels when I know somebody else is cooking my dinner less than two feet from where I sit. I know that this is exactly what I used to do as a teenager living under my parents' roof, but it feels somehow different to have somebody cooking for you when you're used to doing it yourself, and really, they aren't under the slightest obligation to make sure you're fed.

Thus, I spend my weeknights assuaging my conscience, my recipe-book, and my tastebuds, and by the time the preparation and the eating of dinner are done, there's precious little left to do but turn in for an early night. If you ask me, it's a pretty good trade-off for being laughed at.