“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.
“Not all,” Anna helped. “We don’t even need stars, really.”
“Little dots okay,” I said trying to strike a compromise with him.
“Yes. If that is easier?” Okay, he shook his head.
“What size?” I inquired.
“1 kg 2 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.”
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.