Daily Archives: July 4, 2009

Articles of Confectionation

“What country?” The question always interjects from the madness. It catches me off guard and I look for the face of the inquirer – people passing by on the train platform, school children crammed in the adjacent auto, the auto driver.

“America!” we chirp. Reaction prize goes to the young boy in the auto who repeated “America?” with wide wondrous eyes as if the word itself surprised his mouth with delicious enunciation. Most people just grin and then walk away, apparently edified that they’d discovered the whole of us.

This simplicity precisely explains my intense admiration for the 4th of July. I don’t especially enjoy lighting fireworks or grilling or Old Navy shirts, but I do appreciate the holiday’s theory. It celebrates a premature victory. Thomas Jefferson stood up and  said, “Okay, guys, we decided are free. Now, corroborate that.”  We don’t mark the end of the war, when all the great minds argued in Paris and then in Philadelphia and then until they formed the Constitution which formed SCOTUS, and they could properly continue the arguing in D.C. We celebrate our imminent victory over everything.

Our celebration, too, will precede action. We are 10.5 hours  in the future here. By the time the tailgates pop in parks all over the homeland, the guards will have swept up the remnants of the ten fireworks we can scrape together. The barbeque paneer, the closest analog to meat we could find, will have been long devoured. We’ll become those people who set off their poppers too early at party and start eating their cake before everyone’s received a piece.

Still, we had an obligation to spit watermelon seeds and nearly light someone’s hair on fire with a sparkler, I said to the group. And being beyond America’s borders, I had found quite a bit to appreciate about it. I valued paved roads, tall men, and jumbo-sized Doritos bags. If we couldn’t eat them, we could at least celebrate their memory.

At breakfast, I made my own declaration: I would find us a flag cake. I set myself to it – our dutiful but ultimately deflated celebration required one. The task required all the fibers comprising my American spirit – enterprise, navigation, neurotic time-sensitivity and forcefulness covered with a Midwestern smile. I didn’t even know where to find a bakery or how I planned to carry this dumb thing back in a rickshaw, but God bless America when I did.

So, I made a black-and-white print out of a flag, in turn using that to flag down a rickshaw at the front gate. After ten minutes, we stopped in a promising area on the busy highway. Anna, Isabelle, and I bummed around until we found KS Bakery. KS for the Wheat State. Perfect.

The bakery pleasantly displayed rows of trays of Indian sweets. Sweet shops are the nail salons of India – every corner, basement, and chat stand sells gulab and ice cream. Coinci(dental)ly, the city owns nearly equal numbers of dental clinics.

I tracked down someone behind the counter and showed them the print-out with my best “Howdy!” manners.

He shook his head. “It’s not possible.”

“Why not?” I inquired, deflated. I wasn’t about to admit defeat on the day America swore itself against the idea. “No American flag?”

He shook his head again, and walked through the swinging door to the kitchen. The customer at the counter was looking at my print-out and snickering. Then the employee returned hanging onto the arm of his coworker, laughing even harder than Guy 1.

I repeated the request, unfolding the print-out. “Can you put this on top of a cake?” I mimed icing with my hands like an umpire making a safe call on a base. The lethal, flailing arms seemed to hack off words from their matching sentences. We spoke in a parsed-down pigeon English.

“Cake?”  he said.

“Yes, yes. American flag.” I looked up, doe-eyed and eager.

“No stars,” he said when scrutinizing the black-and-white design.

“Five at most?” I said, smiling.

“No stars.”

“Not all,” Anna helped. “We don’t even need stars, really.”

“Little dots okay,” I said trying to strike a compromise with him.

“Dots?”

“Yes. If that is easier?” Okay, he shook his head.

“What size?” I inquired.

“1 kg 2 kg?”

“One cage?”

“Kg”

“How big is a cage?”  I thought “cage” might be a nuanced baking unit of measure. I am always willing to concede I know less than an expert when any misunderstanding occurs, bakers included. This time, cage sounded about as accurate as the rest of our conversation.

“1 kg,” he said writing it down. “Oh no, no. I said.”  I still didn’t know how to judge this cage.  I pointed to a square cake of an appropriate size in the display case. “That size?”

“Rectangle,” he insisted. “3 kg”

“Kg!” I realized finally. “Kilograms!” I said with laughing with Anna.

“Only rectangle,” he insisted. “3 kg”

“Oh no, it doesn’t have to be a rectangle. We aren’t that patriotic.”

“Rectangle!”

“Square?”

This reciprocal geometry lasted at least five minutes. We couldn’t find the straightest path to understanding. Finally when Anna physically folded the print-out into a square did we calculate a hypotenuse together. We wrote down the colors on the black-and-white print out, and he wrote down our order on a receipt. He dashed into the back. “Saturday morning?” I suggested. Stale cake might indicate our mood, but I wasn’t paying 400 rupees for us to chuck it. If you’re forbidden to drop a flag on the ground, I’m pretty sure you can’t throw its more delicious forms into the trash. Another head wag, and I paid the advance.

On July 4th 1776, the conglomerate colonies awoke to find themselves suddenly lumped together by freedom because some guys spit, shook on it, and whipped out their quills.  The new nation waited for the new patriots to open fire with their arms against the British. Come July 4th, 2009, I will awake to find a cake decked out in stars ‘n stripes, smelling of fresh butterscotch and patriotism, waiting for my open arms.

I think.

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On the L14

Of the course the metro would be a railway train. I was expecting a subway. The whole day I had told the autos, “No, no, no, no train. Metro!” Usually they shook their head and sped away. “50 rupees was a rip off anyhow!” I shook my fist until the next instant another yellow auto appeared to bumble me away. One call to Satish and we had the name of a station. Kukatpelly unlocked the language coffer and soon I found myself on my tiptoes, waving my rupees above the heads of the other women in the inquiry line, and heading back through the useless metal detector to the train platforms waiting for the intra-city line to Lingampalli.

I sat down next to a pillar. “Welcome on to Indian Railways!” I said to Isabelle. She hadn’t yet ridden the train. I revealed in part at the initiation. I enjoyed delivering inflated assertions: “This way to the platform!” I said. “There is the waiting room!” “Here is your ticket!” “We need to get on this compartment!” “That is a train!” I filled our wait with the proclamations to cover the nagging feeling that at any moment, IR would best me and, after all these confidences we’d be stuck on the wrong side of this metropolis.

But the train came on time, and we alighted to the general compartment. We had to stand in the crowded car. On the wall, a ripped advertisement: Improve your height! 3 to 4 inches in 3 months! The product placement succeeded well – I could barely reach the handlebars on the ceiling. My shopping bags hung from both my arms like a painted clown frown, which my face also made. Lingampalli was the train’s last call, and we had already spent the whole day marbling through the Lad bazaar.

Then two boys, about our age, struck up a conversation with us through the ubiquitous “What country?” greeting. Wary in this male-centric train, we kept the small talk the smallest. “How do you like the water in Hyderabad?” one asked. I rummaged for the water bottle out in my backpack, held it with the label turned towards them, and took a swig. “It’s good,” I smirked. This elicited a row of genuine smiles. Everyone knows the city water’s polluted, terrible.

The boys exited a short time later. They had given us their seats. They waved goodbye, it was nice to meet you. Not seconds later, Isabelle had shoulder-turned to address the man behind her. Her light hair got another one, I thought.

We passed by the stacked white geometric apartments that meant we were anywhere in the city. We should have eaten dinner before we departed, I sighed. Then Isabelle’s unraveled face bent toward me. That man hadn’t asked her country. He didn’t need it.

“He just told me the whole train is talking about us.”

“Because we are white?”

“Because we are too friendly.”

“What are they saying?”

He had refused to tell her. “Oh no, it was too crude to repeat,” he had shaken his head and left quickly at the next stop. He had waited until his exit to tell her. He couldn’t risk fraternizing, either.

Without pausing, we had both lied to the boys and our location and our exit stop in synch for protection. We had talked about cricket and the iMax theatre, fields of study. We asked no questions in return. While the boys had laughed at the water bottle trick, we sent the passive observers into another kind of hysterics. Our look, our skin, our gender had implicated us without our words.

“Welcome to India,” I truncated my initial greeting into a flat warning. We said little the rest of the way home, even to each other.

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