Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Sangeeta's House

Subtitle: How I almost missed the train to Delhi.

I hovered near Ravidas Gate in Nagwa, south Varanasi, at 5:35 pm, about to return to my group at the NIRMAN guest house two blocks away. At 6 pm we were to leave for the Varanasi Railway Station to take an overnight train to Delhi, about 13 hours away.

After picking up my saris and kurtas, I still wanted to buy a pattern so a tailor in the US could make slim trousers and a kurta out of the material I had bought yesterday.

I entered a fabric store asking to buy a pattern, trying to explain what a pattern is--using my extremely limited Hindi and their limited English.

A kind woman came up to help, discussing the whole thing with me in English and then with them in Hindi. They didn't have patterns, but she offered to take me to a nearby tailor who would draw me a pattern.

"I'd like to make an appointment to interview you," she said. "I'm a journalist working for a newspaper in Mumbai. I'm asking foreigners how they happened to choose to visit India and Varanasi."

"I have to catch a train," I apologized, "but you could interview me for a few minutes right here. Or you could walk back with me to the NIRMAN Centre. Have you heard of the Vidyashram South Point School? My friends and I are here to study women and gender in India for two weeks."

"Women and gender!" she said.

"Yes, women's rights, education. We're visiting universities, homes, groups that work with abused women," I continued.

"I could tell you a lot about abuse of women," she said. "My mother has had such a sad life."

We talked as she led me to her tailor. She holds a doctorate in music and was interested in the classical music performance I told her about at NIRMAN. Her tailor, however, didn't take to the idea of drawing me a pattern for a pair of slim trousers.

I gave up and Sangeeta was about to walk back to NIRMAN with me when she said, "I'm supposed to meet my mother and take her to the Ganga. Just let me call and tell her I'll be late."

"Okay," I said, but she couldn't reach her mother by mobile phone.

"I'll have to go home and tell her, and then we can talk," she said. "I live just five minutes from here. You can come with me, can't you? And then I'll walk to your house." She pointed to where her house was, just out of sight.

I looked at my watch: 5:45 pm. Nervously I calculated five minutes there, five minutes back, then five minutes walk to NIRMAN.

"No, I can't do that," I said.

"Oh, please! It would mean so much to her to meet you," she urged me.

Soon we were seated in a bicycle rickshaw speeding down the divided street away from NIRMAN Centre--exactly the wrong thing to be doing at 5:50 pm.

The monsoon rain that had started and stopped earlier in the afternoon suddenly poured down. I tried to pull out my poncho and cover my knees and bags.

We talked deeply, turning one corner and then another. The road narrowed.

"Where is your house?" I kept asking.

"Right up there. You see that apartment building? It's just after that."

It took 20 minutes to get to her house--an elegant two-story home with large gardens behind a locked gate. We arrived at 6:05 pm.

"I can't stay," I said. "I'll meet your mother but I have to leave."

"I'll politely introduce you to my father," she said. "But I don't like him. My mother is a prisoner in that house, and her health is starting to deteriorate. I come to visit but can't remove her from the situation."

I met Sangeeta's mother and father. Sangeeta and I took photos, exchanged addresses, and then returned to the waiting bicycle rickshaw driver for the mad dash back to the NIRMAN Centre.

Leaving at 6:10, I realized I wouldn't be back until 6:30 pm. Would Nita hold up the whole group waiting for me? Would she be angry? Would they all think I was crazy? Would my carelessness cause them all to miss the train?

I was worried and sorry that my cell phone didn't work in Varanasi--there was no way to call them. But at least the rain had eased up.

I continued talking with Sangeeta as our bicycle rickshaw driver darted through traffic, telling her that there were plenty of American travelers at NIRMAN to interview, even though I was leaving town.

When we reached NIRMAN at 6:30 pm, I paid the rickshaw driver with my next to last piece of Indian money, a 500 rupee bill. He only needed 20 rupees each way, but alas I had no change.

The waiting driver for NIRMAN was very upset. He said Nita had left with the group a half hour earlier, telling him to drive me to the station if I showed up.

In the dark of the guest house (electricity off), I unlocked the padlock on the chain at the foot of the door to my room, grabbed my two heavy bags, and ran back to the waiting car.

On our wild drive through the cows, rickshaws, cars, and trucks to the train station, I tried to look up in my Hindi dictionary the words "sorry" and "apology." I also remembered that the train to Lucknow had left a half hour late--maybe this train would be late too. If I missed the train, I'd just have to spend another day in Varanasi and take the 7:15 pm train the next day.

"What a bedraggled, wet mess you are!" I scolded myself. "You're looking more like a Hare Krishna every minute."

I combed my hair, rubbed the various orange and black smudges off my forehead and threw out the car window the flower chains that temple priests had placed around my neck.

I finally found the infinitive form mafi magna (to apologize) and practiced saying "Mai mafi magna hu," a mangled version of the correct apology.

When we arrived at the train station at 7:08 or so, I emphatically made my apology to the driver, but he was calling a porter and about to help me run with my things to the train on Track 1.

The porter, the driver and I ran through the crowded station like maniacs.

When we reached Track 1 and the train was still there, I thought the crisis was over, but they kept running like crazy. It turned out that the train was about a hundred cars long and my group was in a car toward the front of the train.

Finally we saw Nita Kumar hailing us, and the two men stuffed my heavy suitcase and my other bag into the door of the correct car.

I gave my last cash--a 500 rupee bill--to the driver as a tip (as an employee of NIRMAN, he didn't need to be paid per se), asking him to get change to pay the porter.

Stumbling down the narrow hall to my seat, I sat down as the train pulled out of the station.

On time, at 7:15 pm.

It was a crazy last visit, but I was glad that I had met Sangeeta and her mother.

Photos: Sangeeta and I; Sangeeta and her mother; the bedraggled tourist standing in the garden of Sangeeta's home.

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