Vijayawada: Goodbye was the shortest and hardest of those ten

We went back for a last cup of chai.

We had already had three, that is, at the neighbors’ houses. We had followed the children. They each led us to their proper homes as we descended from the shrine. In another singular room empty but for a bed and a giant Samsung TV, a woman served me the best cup of the thick, brown drink I have ever tasted in my life. I later learned she was feeling fairly ill. Still she had invited us in.

We went back to Haritha’s home, we seemed to have exhausted all our words. They chatted in Telegu and we smiled as freshly as when we had arrived, though with more comfort. So, Anna did what she loves to do at any hour: sing. She sung the national anthem. One more, again. So, I added my coarse, stunted voice so together we could croon the only song we could think to: I’m a Little Tea Pot. We laughed the whole way through but they didn’t care about the hiccupped notes.

Then, it was her turn. Richie sang for us holding her wrists with elbows on her knees. As she leaned forward her slender voice threaded us to her eyes, which never broke our gaze. She sang a high, soft melody. The bony notes fought nothing with their delicate fists for attention in the hushed air. Prianca looked between us and Richie with a wondering, engaged face. I am sure our charmed faces gaped even more than her little mouth.

She ended the looped vocabulary, we clapped, and suddenly it had been five hours. We had spoken not more than ten mutually-understood words in this whole afternoon. Yet, I knew their names and much more about one little room, the address of which was on a loose page now in my pocket. We tried to extract ourselves from it. Although at least ten people were sitting on all kinds of surfaces – stools, the bed, the table, the cabinet – it didn’t feel crowded. Somehow its rigid walls had expanded to hold us all in the burden.

Sleep here? But it was getting late and the bed would not hold us. Tomorrow you will come? We crushed ourselves more than them in apology; our train was leaving early. Okay, we had one final, final cup of chai. They walked us back to the temple. We said a long goodbye at the base, which Prianca and Patush continued to shout after we started back down. The raised palms of Swamy and his two wives seemed to be waving an enduring farewell, too, as we descended the striped steps.

My professor also said of India, It is about space and who inhabits those spaces. As we walked back steady and divine down the raw streets that had scared us in the coming, I knew homesickness does not have a place but a people.

I turned back to wave at them, and then I didn’t anymore. We couldn’t bear it to linger, impossibly, deeply stirred by the ordinary.

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Vijayawada: All India

Hemabindu! She kept saying. Hemabindu, my niece! She pulls out a picture from a drawer of a young dark girl, dressed from head to toe in formal wear. She points to the picture and then to me. I am Hemabindu, at least in hair color. Yet, I began to believe it in what followed.

From another neat, deep corner of the room Haritha pulled out her wedding album. We slowed turned its pages. My father! My father! Patush, who was sitting against my left leg, exclaimed every time the man who was sitting in a chair next to the desk in a white lungi. Potina, the man who had not said much.

As we were looking and learning, the woman who lives next door, Richie, stopped by. Her baby son had finally fallen asleep and she happened in while he napped. She, too, brought her wedding album. The faces began to take on a familiarity as we saw them repeated among the jasmine flowers, shouting fabrics, and endlessly populated wedding parties crammed within each frame. My mother, my sister, my brother-in-law. Rarely me, though. We pointed it out: This is you? You are so beautiful! Really, their slightly younger faces were the most beautiful looking steady and serious through the kaliedescope surrounding them.

Then the whispers began and the fabrics of the pictures appeared in our hands. Wedding sarees, Harith said. You put on? She and Richie shooed the men and children out of the room and shut the green door on their grinning faces: They knew what was up. I did to when Anna’s shirt came off and out came the petticoat.

I had put on a camisole underneath my button-up that morning. As a result, I wasn’t wearing a proper bra other than its built-in elastic band. When it became apparent that I would have to de-robe to put on the kurta I tried to explain. I would just roll up my shirt underneath, no? No. The whole thing came off in a flurry as Richie placed a sheet around me for discretion and turned me to face the open balcony door, quickly clasping and unclasping the things that needed so to make the transition. That is how I stood: with a half-wrapped sari being pleated around my waist by a stranger, flashing the city of Vijayawada.

When the endless blue and gold peacock-printed fabric had been properly tucked, swooped, and pinned to us (or rather we had been properly attached to it), Richie pressed a maroon bindi to my forehead with her thumb. Haritha gathered my hair back and finished the job wooden beret. No one had done my hair in years. I haven’t forced a comb on the messy curls for about as long. She gently tugged them like my own mother did when I was younger. My forehead stretched comfortably back in the memory.

I looked across the room at Anna. She smiled at me and shook her head slowly in disbelief in the orange chiffon Haritha had fixed her around her. She moved Anna’s bangles to her right arm, the marriage arm. Okay? Haritha and Richie punctuated. We nodded and they opened the door to the curious eyes.

Whoever we hadn’t attracted with our arrival now peeped out from their concrete porches as our sari-ed selves took pictures with the family. Its no good, Haritha disapproved of her green printed day sari when we asked for a family photo. No, you look beautiful, you do. We tried to tell her. Eventually, she conceded but first Potina put on a nicer shirt, a Hawaiian print.

Can you believe that both of our cameras died after this moment? At the time we lamented it and quickly snapped what we could with Anna’s remaining battery power. But I know fate stopped us from being spectators or thieves of memory; without the usual pen and lens, we entered their lives in the complete.

The hike was also a surprise. The hill clamored higher up behind their house and after the camera died everyone started moving. I had brought my waterproof Keens. Although they could withstand the monsoon, their webbed straps and thick, muddy black soles didn’t quite compliment Indian formal wear. I kept tripping on the long skirt clumsily as we climbed up the steep dirt path past where the houses ended. I thought I would tear it underfoot at every moment, exposing the rest of my body to the city and ruining the best clothing Richie owned. Sari down Haritha directed though. Propriety even in the face of hazard, this whole country says.

The children reached the top first. A little further than we could climb a small white statue of Swamy had drawn the mountain down around him in a clearing. The oldest girl held the youngest in her arms, touching the baby’s head to the Swamy’s foot. I leaned forward and let him punt my forehead in blessing too. Unlike the temple a kilometer below, this shrine was a simple white.

We sat on the rocks sticking out like black pearls from the abrupt cliff. The clouds clung to the branches, mostly bare at this altitude. One tree had a red and orange flower blooming, just one though. Vijayawada’s painted concrete body seemed to run right from our feet to the edge of the horizon.

All India! Haritha motioned towards and out at the neat white city, the river’s embroidery of it, and beyond the azure haze of the mountains. I looked at her earnest, open face. I felt deeply ashamed at my initial thought that she might have wanted money. She had folded us into her life seamlessly like the silk sari I was certainly dirtying with my shoes and my perspiration. I knew I didn’t quite understand her meaning as she repeated it, but with few words we had understood each other for hours. It was all of India I did not expect, but could ever have needed.

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Vijayawada: Auspices

You are in India, how exotic! I read in e-mails and messages. The elephants and the dancing and the colors!

But it is true, what my professor said on the first day, “If you ask me to produce a snake-charmer, I couldn’t do it. If you ask me to produce an IT technician, no problem.” You begin to differentiate between the cotton saris and silk ones and don’t I already know there’s more sweat than transcendence in yoga.

Our trip to Vijayawada wasn’t a search for the fictional exoticism, but we had hoped that by moving through the typical life in a new place we would find adventure. Our affection for this country had been turning fallow in the weeks before we left, and we ready to reseed it. However, by noon the second day, we had dosed ourselves thoroughly in the typical. We had seen the temple and taken a boat ride to the island in the river. We had just tried to see the Ghandi Memorial. The men sitting at the gate told us to come back in three hours. So now what? We were sick of over-paying for autos and our ad hoc ignorance of this town. We were tired. We were vaguely hungry. We were tourists.

So, we decided we would venture to the Jain temple. We walked back to the main road and hailed an auto. After pointing vigorously to the paper on which I had written the unpronounceable temple name, the man wobbled his head. We got in and he started shouting questions at the other auto drivers as we pulled away. They gestured forward, which either meant that way or ask someone else that way.

He weaved through the streets we knew and then ones we didn’t. He stopped abruptly when the when the road hit a wall at the foot of a hill. He pointed up. We craned our necks. All the way up there? Through a white concrete gate a staircase, painted in alternating red and white stripes, cut through a residential area on a hill like a zipper. At the top, the bright green and pink of a Hindu temple peered over a stack of equally colorful apartments. Oh well, we thought. Why not?

Shutters started opening as word spread that two white girls were making the trek up the staircase. The young children waved, the older ones lingered bashfully in doorways. When we reached the top, a bolt of bright green and yellow radiates from the interior.

Off! a voice came, as we begin to climb the abandoned steps. A woman and small girl with a strict middle part waved hello and motioned for us to remove our shoes.

Inside, listless bodies sprawled on the dirt floor beneath the rainbow arches. I walked so not to wake them for both of our sakes. This temple contained even more colors and shrines than the Kanaka Durga, but a strange quiet balances its flashy hues. Clearly, we were the only visitors. Taking the opportunity of the sleeping souls, we snapped a few forbidden pictures. Then we saw the woman and her daughter curiously peeping around the corner. We were immediately wary, thinking they might ask for money. We are the top of a hill on their domain. Those are a lot of steps for open, extended palms to chase us.

Instead, she approached and led us through the three floors each brighter than the last. She scrunched her face in front of each statue, trying to think of the right words to explain the complexity of Hinduism to us. She just smiled when she knew we don’t understand her small English, and we nod to make her feel as if we do to substantiate her efforts. She rubbed some red kumkum from the foot of Swamy, to whom the temple belongs, and placed it on forehead.

As we were leaving, two old men approached us and asked the requisite questions in strung words: Name? What country? Married? Obama?

Obama! TV! the oldest man, who was the temple priest, said enthusiastically. Then he began swatting at the air. Anna smiled wider but her brows furrowed in confusion. I said, Yeah, yeah…..wait…yeah! Fortuitously, my brother had sent me this link days before. In a temple high above an obscure city, this man and I made a holy connection over youtube.

You will come to my house? Eat? The woman said, already halfway down the stairs. I cannot believe myself, that I almost said No. Instead, we followed tepidly without a word of discussion between us through an alley and stop in front of a large concrete block. Three dark rectangles open into it. The girl stepped over the orange and white diamonds painted on the otherwise green door frame of the first. We entered slowly.

A tucked twin bed, a large green file cabinet, in-set shelves, a jumble of pots and burners divided from the bed by a sheet, and a stripe of floor between it all – one room for four. In the middle the woman stood. One room for four we would later discover. At home the room I share with just myself is double the size if not more. Still the small lamp with pink fringe, the religious emblems over the tv, and the small hanging plants on the porch marked every space as an entire, personal universe.

We washed our hands on the even smaller balcony. As the woman poured water from a pump onto my hands, which is surely giving them a new turn of dirt, I look over the concrete ledge. This tiny hard square commanded multiples below – this was the best view of the whole city I saw during the whole weekend. The woman sat us on the bed and soon heaping steaming pile of rice and pickle curry were on my fingers and lips.

This is an instance when she will keep giving us food when we finish it. And sure enough, another and another came. I rolled the rice and sopped it in the sage juice. Out of safety we refused the tap water. We took everything else offered. The only remedy after three servings of curry, with less pickle and more spice, was another ladle of rice. When that disappeared, the saccharine materialized from the matchbox kitchen. The balled laddu and long, flat brown ariselu extinguished the flames of some taste buds by distracting the sweeter ones.

The girl, her daughter, is Prianca. How many years? 8. And the shirtless boy still with his baby chub, Patush, her son, age 4. A man who looks like my Uncle John but with a thicker black mustache lounges in a chair. Potina, he writes later we ask for their address. He says nothing but to clarify at times. Unlike the streets, we have entered a woman’s world. Haritha’s world we can say when we learn her name.

All the children – a girl, probably a pre-teen, two boys about her same age, and Prianca and Patush smile at us as we eat. The long black curly hair of a slightly older man, married but not beyond me in age, shook when he laughed at everything when we finally got the meaning of each other. Somehow we braided the conversation with two languages understood only in short strands. Yet, I learned of their relation to each other and we told them what we could about ourselves.

The jovial long haired man brought out a deck of cards. Magic trick, he glinted. He flipped the cards, hide the cards, confused us with the cards. He obliterated and then conjured the chosen ones and did the same with the quarter we produced to show them. It was the only tangible America we could give in return.

The man’s grin consumed his large almond face after each trick. We had seen them all before and I knew all his ploys, but his delight was ours, too. As we all laughed, I thought of the events that conspired to bring us here. They had seemed so puncturing at the time – our boredom, getting in the wrong rickshaw, going to the wrong temple, that long hike up the hill. I believed in the fortune of these places. They weren’t exotic at all. Still, they had a simple magic in their unexpected combination.

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Vijayawada: Undavalli Cave Temple

When we arrived, my hair had flattered the unruly palms shooting up from the surrounding rice paddies in imitation. After escaping the Kanaka Durga Temple throng, we had taken a rickshaw the 6 km out of town to see these 4th century cut-outs in the rock. The ride had been worth it. Across the river the small town had quickly dissolved into tropical farmland. After the human heat and noise of the temple, we were glad to breathe the fresh air rushing into our faces as we whizzed along roads winding through coconut groves.

A bored, older gentleman took our admission at the gate, and up the sidewalk and stone steps we went. Unlike the Kanaka Durga, the site was all but abandoned. Stripped of color and ceremony, the bare brown stone looked more habitable despite its age. Anna and I wandered freely among its four stories. Bats suckered to the walls among the carvings and at their backs an everlasting guard of six statues looked out from a platform. We climbed close to their stern, brooding gazes which extended over fields marinated with greenery, unchanged since their hard eyes were first carved.

In the cool dark womb of the temple, a giant statue of Vishnu reclined behind a gate. Our rickshaw driver had taken the liberty to transform into our tour guide. He beckons us in, opening the gate. Now, this man who had just tried to cheat us out of $5, closes his eyes and said a long prayer. I hope it wasn’t for the $5.

A candle burned and Vishnu’s face, red from the kumkum, puckered at me. Around him reliefs danced like the rising octaves of the man’s soft voice. I wish I had the words myself. I touched Vishnu’s arm softly instead, turning slowly to remember the stone faces of all his eternal worshippers.

Sit, the driver said, pointing to a slab in shade by the thick pillars. So we sat there, Anna, me, the driver, and some small boy who has appeared from who knows where. You can hear nothing of the city but see it all in miniature beyond well-organized fields. The Kanaka Durga flashed just above the palm line, blinking at the eye of its diffident ancestor. Our eyes took it in too, each in our own, incomprehensible, calm way.

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Vijayawada: Kanaka Durga Temple

We weren’t wearing shoes and I was trying not to think what I have stepped in. The surface has been wet and hot and at times curiously sticky. Forget hot coals: walking on bare concrete at noon requires the most divinity and I don’t have it. Perhaps it was fortuitous that our destination was a temple.

In Christianity, God reveals himself through your trials and troubles. In Hinduism, all the problems come as an advance. Usually the temples sit on top of a hill. The gods power seems directly correlated to the amount of sweat he/she/it can extract from you in the process. The higher the hill, the more powerful the God, the more sweat drips on the pavement as you climb, a physical testament of your pilgrimage. By the time we reached the shoe check at the Kanaka Durga we had left a snail’s trail behind us and were trudging up the road with an equal pace.

At the top, we took some time to snap a few photos of people spilling out of tour buses like foam peanuts, of women cooking hotter meals on the scorching pavement, of the men shouting Shoes Madame! at us as we shoved them in our bags to avoid paying the charge, of the river plain below. I have passed the most memorial moments of my trip like this – arms extending my arms, camera in hand, saluting India with my sweaty armpits.

You can’t take photos in temples which is a particular disappointment because temples are far and away the most ornate, theatrical sites the country offers. In America, religion fits in the trim order of Sunday worship, a cross necklace, or rosary. In Hinduism, religion adorns every surface that hasn’t already been covered in an outdated political poster: At the front of each rickshaw, each driver carries with him an eternal passenger in sticker or mini-shrine form. Sometimes they’re illuminated by fluorescent lights like the display case I saw once behind a hotel desk, alternating flashing neon red, yellow, and purple. Mr. Das, our hostel manager, has covered his computer with psychedelic god decals. In America, arms are thrown at simple stone tablets of the ten commandments in front of courthouses; in India, the Lord Krishna Express departs at 10:42 am from platform 2. Hinduism appropriates any possible transgressors. This adaptability explains its stronghold over Islam and Christianity and longevity on the subcontinent.

Temples are the zeniths of this intrusion. Color splashes every inch of its surface. Green, yellow, pink tiles of the temple shot up like fireworks from the open pillars, also yellow. A bright enameled gold topped this one like a wrapped Ferrero Rocher chocolate. Inside, the bulbous and excessive appendages of the deities twist into impossible dancing and prayer poses. I have given up at memorizing them, because each deity comes in at least 5 forms. People crowded in everywhere. At the Shri Radhakrishna Temple in Kanpur, I was surprised to find hoards of families lounging on the cool marble, children running around, women chatting among the gods. We hurried past each roped-off shrine as Rabha said quick prayers to each.

As such, Hinduism hardly gathers self-reflection. I had been captivated earlier by the women who touched every step on the way up the walkway to the Kanaka Durga, saying a blessing on each one. I nearly collided with a thousand backsides attempting to reach enlightenment. In front of the shrines, you’ve got a snapshot moment to make an offering before some old woman is jabbing at you with her elbow trying to cut in line. Visiting the temple is more like a vacation than a vocation.

“Oh yeah, the temple is one of our favorite places to go on our day off!” a young girl we met later that day told us.

After we got past the shoe-check, we moved between two narrow metal railings which direct our path to some indeterminable end through other lines of people. We climbed up and around the bowels of the temple which weave between rock and climb up higher and higher on the hill. We passed a ticket office and pay our admission fee. Someone shouted directions in Hindi over a loudspeaker above the chatter of the waiting patrons, giving the whole experience the exact anticipation of waiting for a roller coaster. I played these back in my mind in English: Keep hands and feet inside the railings at all times. Dispose of unnecessary belongings. The wait time for this temple is currently 2 hours.

Come on! Someone said when we round the corner of the little shrine of the Goddess Durga, which I guess is what we have paid to see. The guard blows the whistle and wheels his arm to turn the crowd forward. We discovered we have paid for the line that only passes by the front of the shrine: the high-rollers in the adjacent line moved directly through to the inside. I see a burst of color eclipsed by a lot of backs. Behind me, the entire trunk of a tree has been covered in the red kumkum powder that I was now paying a man 5 rupees to apply to my own forehead. I pinched the powder and attempted to place it neatly, squarely in the center of my eyebrows.

“Did I put it on right?” I asked Anna.

She scrutinized my face. “Uh…its good enough” she said, mostly because we were being drifted away in the wave of human bodies towards the exit.

We felt a tap on our arm. The uniformed woman monitoring the lines is gesturing for us to come back. She grabbed Anna’s hand as we fought back the opposite way through the line while the second uniformed man, the one selling the kumkum blessings,  panted into his whistle at us and scowls. The woman placed a blessing on our forehead. Now I had six eyes – two brown, two glass, one red and one gray. For a moment, we contemplated the backs again, somehow more pious in reflection. She motioned her hands in an elaborate prayer and bows to the shrine to show us how. I turned my wrists in imitation and then just forfeit into the sign of the cross. I ended with a namaste, and bowed my head. I didn’t know what I am looking at, but I was grateful for her attempted explanation. Later, I learned via Wikipedia that I had been praying to a statue “with eight arms, each holding a powerful weapon, in a standing posture over the demon Mahishashura and piercing him with her trident. The goddess is the epitome of beauty.” Forget that Lakmi eyeliner I bought at RelianceMart – where can I find a trident?

After pushing out of the crowd, we exited past a family throwing their plastic bags of coconuts and flowers into a gated-off area full of mounds of identical offerings. Small chalk designs covered the ground surrounding each corner of the temple. Incense sticks exhaled over these drawings, protruding from their bases which were, economically, bananas lain on their side.

Temples are places where religious respect intersects an equal retail fervor and deference transforms into a picnic. As we had walked up a covered stairway to get to the road, vendors sold offering bags, bracelets, watches, strings of jasmine, and shoes. The exit of the temple led to a holy gift shop – tents bursting with plastic bangles and jewelry, hats, children’s toys, prayer cds, and deity playing cards line the corridor next to a restaurant. Clogging the hallway were whole families loafing on the ground, eating their lunch out of that omnipresent Indian tupperware, the metal tin.

We tried to find the holiest of gift shops,  the one with the lowest prices. We bought some cheap jewelry as souvenirs and fought back through the crowds to the shoe check. Coming back down the hill, we focused less on our burned feet and more on the scenery. We peered over the barely blocked edge of the highway. Below, the Krishna River exposed a long, skinny leg of its path between two mountains. In the distance, the mountain’s hazier cousins swelled.  I didn’t see any demons that were said to taunt the natives on its wide tan shore. The Goddess had taken care of all of that business a while ago. I did see a sprinkling of people bathing and washing their laundry on the bank left of the bridge as long boats passed.

Durga must have been fairly stern with that trident, I think, to win such a view.

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We have reminded them of the circumstances of our migration and settlement here

The occasion appropriated my wardrobe

headband earrings red-neck cut off

to travel back through the city for the cake

infinite-in-one what now?

Where the oxen forded not the river but the highway

pulllll!

And the rickshaw interior was fated for the day.

Patriotic Padding

At the bakery they wondered if every American dressed for their pastry.

This was confusing as is so why a picture? they thought

but we soon assimilated them to our spirit

good riddance, he says

It must be the only one in the city of its kind.

Sweet freedom!
We didn’t have a mit or a pigskin, so we played cards instead. Get those redcoats out of here! Kelly proclaimed.

P1080106

6 lungs inflated 70 balloons; a mosquito held them; a tailor’s string shared with all.

my bed is America for scale P1080028

We requested a special dinner themed America.

bland

3/4 of it required salt so we knew they had succeeded.

Cake realized

When I said Americans weren’t louder than us I was lying, Norwegian Ann admitted over her green beans when we sang the anthem. It’s manifest destiny, I replied. We had so much more space than you to fill.

America!

But as soon as we shouted at everyone for fireworks, rain threatened to deflate us

what now?

but we paused with the clouds to scare the neighborhood.

lungis and fireworks

That’s not supposed to look like that! she said in this moment. Neither was the messy white ground flame that followed, but it glowed better and brighter.

futile

Is it a war? the ghostly congregation at the boy’s hostel wanted to know.

curious

Still the rain pixeled the air in white dots all around us, the callous sky collapsing in downward arrows as we fixed to send the biggest sparks higher.

damper P1080072

In the end, two managed an opposing current.

finally P1080067

When they burst low and fast, we danced and danced and danced in the sand turned mud.

reach

It wasn’t the explosion we loved, but the lighting of it. We saluted the floating ashes and shouted freedom! as the monsoon fell into our open, wild mouths.

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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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