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August 28, 2008 / calebdresser

A day in the life, part one: Morning on Sunday, August 24th

Morning was only partially welcome, when it finally arrived. Harsh sunlight creeping in through the screens on my windows slowly dragged my out of whatever muddled dream I was having. My alarm clock read nearly nine-thirty, which meant I had just accomplished the equivalent of sleeping until three in the afternoon in the States. Even though I’d woken up late, Mrs Mittal served me breakfast just as she always does. Before I could finish lacing up my boots, I was sitting down to a plate full of piping-hot paratas with stewed capsicum and chutney. The milky chai was too hot to drink, but I could tell by the aroma that I had been switched back to regular tea leaves; during a brief illness last week she had made me chai dood brewed with a mixture of tulsee, ginger, and assorted masalas, but apparently I was now off the sick list.

As it was the Sunday holiday, I left my laptop and papers at home, picked up a rumpled wad of rupees and my sunglasses, and set off for work. The first few hundred yards took me through the colony, past the mall, and out to the main road via a muddy, trash-strewn cowpath. After that I dodged the bicycles, bullock carts, rickshaws, and blundering buses on the hot, dusty, diesel-laced main road for perhaps half a kilometer before turning left onto what appears to be a country lane. Roughly a kilometer away, on the far side of the railroad line, was the university and the bio-assay experiment I had to water.

This shouldn’t have been particularly draining, but it was too bright to go without sunglasses, and it was so muggy that every time I bent over to water a plant droplets of sweat plopped onto the inside of the lenses, rendering me half-blind after a few seconds. To add to the difficulty, someone had made off with my empty plastic bottle, so I had to water each of the plants with a piece of PVC tubing. I would immerse the tube in the water fifty yards away, press my palm over the bottom, and run along the paddy-bunds to the bioassay, where only a fraction of the water trickling through my fingers finally made it onto a plant. I was perfectly happy when, after a dozen trips and a thousand drips, I was able to head back toward my house.

The university students have a small temple near the road out of the university, and as this was the second day of the celebration of the lord Krishna’s birth, the place was in full swing. A priest was chanting in a sonorous if unending voice that seemed hardly to need the microphone he held to his lips. I smiled at the students and began to walk past, only to be stopped by a kaleidoscope of girls in fluttering saris. They wanted me to go in to receive a blessing and some prasad (temple food that is a “gift from the gods”), but I was reluctant and had already been to the much larger temple in Meerut the day before. They finally gave up on that, but insisted that I take some of the prasad they had just gotten. I accepted and continued my walk, nibbling the fatty sweets and listening to the giggles of the girls as they watched me go. That seems to be their standard response to any interaction with the foreigner. Within a few yards they were drowned out by the still-chanting priest, and soon he too faded into the stifling white noise of the road and the rice fields.

As I tried to force a break in the traffic so I could sross the main highway, a little silver car suddenly swerved and came to an abrupt halt, the driver waving frantically. Much to my delight, the beckoning figure was Dr. Vivek Baliyan, a jovial agricultural engineer who puts in sporadic appearances at the IRRI site office. Dodging bicycles, scooters, and a wild-eyed man driving a small horse-cart filled with bricks, I reached the window of the car and got the same exact greeting I get every time I see him: “WHAT are you DOING!!??” Mopping the dribbles of sweat from my sunglasses and pushing my matted hair from my eyes, I said I was walking for my health, but he was insistent, and so a kilometer was shaved from my walk. It developed that Dr. Baliyan was going into Meerut with his younger brother to visit an old man from his village who had landed in a hospital because of some heart trouble. That hit a little to close to home, so I declined his offer to come along for an afternoon in the city. With an appropriately drawn-out thankyou, I hopped out into the chaos of the intersection by Johan Market and wove my way through the crowds on the road in front of the mall.

Melange Mall contains everything frivolous, wasteful, and offensive about American consumer culture. I love it. Between the air conditioning, open atrium, clean floors, and functional escalators, I can almost imagine that I’m back in the States. Beyond that, it is one of the only cool places in the entire town, and is for some unknown reason blissfully free of aggressively inquisitive strangers; perhaps they are on their good behavior. The children certainly are – a couple of months ago, I found myself quickly becoming pals with my only other companion in the sweetened biscuit section of the Big Bazaar, a smiling boy of seven years who spoke surprisingly good English and wanted to know all about America. At the end of our chat, he gave me a handful of namkeen and asked with huge-eyed solemnity if I would please give him my cell phone number and agree to be his friend. We shook hands on it like men. I’ve never seen him again.

Chance occurences and the some vauge sense of atmosphere aside, there are three main reasons I enter this bastion of first-world lifestyle: the mall has a McDonalds, the McDonalds has a soft-serve machine, and the soft-serve machine has a backup generator. The result is that amidst the slow-moving unpredictability of rural U.P, there is one place I can go with complete confidence that within 45 seconds I will be holding a cone filled with cool vanilla ice cream that is actually safe to eat. Like almost every other student living within a three kilometer radius, I felt personally hurt and offended when they raised the price from ten to twelve rupees.

In recent days, I’ve also been flirting with the “Mexican” chicken wrap. The Mexican flavor is apparently supposed to some from the mayo, ketchup and capsicum they stuff in along with the chicken and lettuce, which has given me a source of fruitful if uncharitable contemplation on globalized multiculturalism and its attendant homogenization of all that is unique. Still, I can’t really argue, as its one of of two non-vegetarian options on the menu, the other being a blob of chicken dipped in mayonaise and placed between two buns along with a sprig of lettuce. I haven’t screwed up the courage – or desperation – to order that one yet.

The simple reality is that I need the protein. I’ve lost a fair amount of weight since I got here, thanks to my much-changed diet and lack of exercise. The heat and humidity combine with the sedentary culture to reduce all physical activity to the barest minimum. Add to that the fact that a half-cup of dhal in the evening is the main protein source, followed by whatever is in the wheat chapatis and vegetables, and one begins to see the problem. The thinking on diet is just really different. A lot of thought goes into eating “light” versus “heavy” foods in a given situation, and people are particular about which foods and spices are appropriate for which times, but there is little if any talk of what I consider basic nutrition. Potatoes count as a vegetable, so I’ve had a lot of meals that consisted entirely of bread and seasoned potatoes, which has led me to coin the phrase “Some starch with your carbs?” to describe the backbone of the day-to-day diet. It keeps you running and it tastes good, and thats about it. I’ve seen a whole lot of really skinny people and a certain number that are fat, but very very few that are well-muscled by American standards; I’m no expert but I’m guessing that has something to do with the low-protein, high carb diet. Most people are getting barely enough to eat, and those who can afford more just get fat because they don’t exercise and don’t eat much protein. India may well find itself trying to deal with obesity and malnutrition crises simultaneously if the trends I’m seeing here continue.

I handed my messy tray to one of the hovering (thats right, hovering) McDonalds staff, folded up the newspaper, and wiped the grease out of my patchy beard. I’ve been growing it out for the last few weeks in an effort to piss off my clean-cheaked conformist compatriots. Just kidding. Kinda. The more practical reason is that when I shave regularly and have what scientist-class Indians consider a proper haircut I look like I’m about twelve, which has tremendous disadvantages in this cultural context. I’ve noticed that strangers approach me in a slightly different manner now, though I’m not sure whether they are more respectful because I look older or because they’re scared I’ll try to give them mange.

The blast of heat when I walked out of the mall was ferocious, and within seconds my still-damp shirt was saturated once again. I dropped a five rupee coin in the hands of the toothless beggar with the shrunken, deformed legs; he is as much a fixture of the scenery as the brush-and-palm-leaf shanties across the road or the golden arches that rise skyward in a brazen glowing gloat, a taunt to the impoverished masses for whom fast-food is a distant, out of reach dream.



Leave a Comment
  1. Winslow / Aug 28 2008 2:43 pm

    I’m gonna cook you steak and eggs when you get home.

  2. calebdresser / Aug 29 2008 5:18 am


  3. Amy / Aug 30 2008 8:20 pm

    So what time to you normally wake up?
    By the way, I like the beard 🙂

  4. Amy / Aug 31 2008 3:59 pm

    So I went to my first sporting event ever – football. And all I could think about was this blog entry … and how this is a normal thing to do on the weekends, but how Ithaca was somehow so distinctly unusual I could escape the craziness. They gave out t-shirts, charged lots for snacks, and had their little game traditions. Normal, American culture, right? Then why did it feel so weird?

  5. becky / Sep 5 2008 3:30 pm

    Wait, so there are only two meat items on the mcdonalds menu?

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