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June 19, 2008 / calebdresser

On closer inspection…

I was out on my walk through the colony, enjoying air that had cooled from inferno to sultry evening breath on the cheek. Turning a corner, I found myself face to face with a group of policemen. Using my best “namaste” (roughly translates as hello), I smiled and began to walk past. A man with a submachine gun lounging under a roadside tree asked me to come sit, his voice curious and friendly but clearly not to be disobeyed. I ambled over trying to look dignified, and was confronted by a stream of forceful Hindi. I slowly explained that my language skills were poor, and he pointed to another policeman sitting in a green lawn chair on the far side of the street. I walked over, the first man following, and thus began one of the most improbable interactions of my life. The new man was named Virender, and he knew a few words of English, which I later realized must have been picked up watching cricket on television. He was initially a bit guarded, very interested in what this stranger was doing in Modipuram outside the house of a parliament member. I told him I was here for international research collaboration, which must not have been part of the cricket commentary, because it left him a little confused. As my visa says “tourist,” I couldn’t very well say I was a student, and of course saying I “worked” for IRRI would probably have raised more eyebrows. I took off my hat and pointing to the IRRI logo said firmly “for official purpose.” Thinking it high time to change gears, told him Bharat (India) was very beautiful. He smiled and asked if I thought Indian people were beautiful; I said of course, very beautiful! The first man carried over a chair, placed it by Virender’s, and asked me to please sit. This time there was no hint of command in his voice.  Another man sat down on my other side in a third chair, placed his gun across his lap, and offered me a plastic-wrapped breath mint. He waited for me to say “dhanyavad” (thank you), which got a laugh – I can only imagine how bad my pronunciation is. Once the mint was safely in my mouth, he leaned in close and, with an expression of intense interest, asked “Free sex America?” There were roars of laughter. By this time there were five or six chortling policemen crowding around, all trying to ask questions in halting, broken English, or simply firing away in Hindi regardless. Someone asked me if I liked chai, and soon enough I was part of an extremely heavily armed tea party – keep the muzzle down and your pinky up!

 

As this was going on, I began toying with my sunglasses, and was asked “kitnaa paise” – how much money? I divided the sticker price by four, converted to rupees, and told him. Oops – not quite a low enough figure. The man on my right promptly asked me how much money I was carrying. Shit. Mindful of my friend Kushadr’s advice, I had split my money between my passport belt, my wallet, and an exterior pocket containing $1.25 US in small rupee notes with a larger bill around the outside, in order to look like a decent sum of money for situations such as this. However, rather than move in potentially hazardous directions, I told the policeman that I carried no money because I was not working, and had no pay. Skeptical, he asked me how I ate, and I told him in a friendly but firm voice that Cornell University paid for my food and my other expenses through “official means.” A stretch, perhaps, but effective; he smiled and asked me if I had any brothers or sisters. I relaxed. Everywhere I have been, it seems that things are going well once you begin talking about your families. I need to find a place to print pictures – learning about another’s family is an important part of becoming friends here, from what I’ve seen, and photos can help a lot. Thanks for sending yours, Winslow. I’ll print the one of you with our new cousin!

 

A senior man drove up at about this point, and after his initial suspicion was allayed by my new companions, he became very excited to hear about life in America. The conversation seemed to revolve around sports, guns, girls, and money – go figure. As with every other group of men, they wanted to know what I thought of Indian girls, whether I was married, whether I had a girlfriend, whether “love” (read sex) could be had in America as easily as in the movies. I heard a LOT about the test match with Sri Lanka, including a very passable facsimile of a Hindi newscast, which I enjoyed immensely. Hockey is also popular here, and they were all highly amused to hear that I had grown up playing on frozen (!) lakes with my friends from home. You guys get double gratitude on this one, because the next thing they wanted to know was what kind of guns the US police carried, and thanks to you I was able to intelligently discuss combat handguns. One of the men with less English made the gesture of drawing a pistol from his empty hip, and I nodded. The group looked pouty, wistful, and jealous at the mention of sidearms, which I secretly found hilarious given that they were all holding enormous automatic weapons. Asked if I could shoot (picture, if you will, the sign language involved with that question!), I told them I shot high-powered rifles with a friend who is joining the Army, and somewhat to my surprise they looked at me with new respect. I noticed they stopped laughing as visibly when I mispronounced words in Hindi, and from then on I got to ask as many questions as I answered. This place certainly seems to draw on a diverse and unpredictable skill set.

 

By and by, as the light faded, they began to look tired of trying to talk in what can only be called Hingrish, and I sensed it was time to continue my neighborhood stroll. With smiles and waves and handshakes, I excused myself. I spent the next half hour chucking to myself and smiling at strangers in the local market. Altogether an entertaining evening.

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4 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Shubh / Jun 19 2008 5:23 pm

    HI Caleb!

    I just wanted to say that your writing is really awesome! For anyone who hasn’t been to India it must be weird to imagine these situations but I have been faced with a lot of them so don’t worry! I’m glad you are enjoying India and if you ever need any help in Hindi or want some good restaurant names feel free to email me!

  2. calebdresser / Jun 20 2008 4:27 am

    Many thanks! My Hindi is always in need of improvement… 🙂

  3. CaitlinCD / Jun 23 2008 8:35 pm

    Caleb you are amazing. I would have had a panic attack/tried to over explain myself and gotten into a mess. Way to rock the fake work visa! and make friends with police

  4. mbutler / Jun 25 2008 2:33 pm

    I am enjoying being an armchair traveler with your travelogue. What an adventure! Pictures are fabulous, too!
    namaste

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