coming clean in Bhang galore (a story)20-Jan-2002
"Pears Soap, eeeeze ah PEARS SOAP!" is all I hear amid other foreign-language chatterings as I'm whisked into this South Indian restaurant that I just chose. Now THAT was odd. Usually I don't so much as listen to people speaking in their native Indian language (in this case they speak "Kanata") but these two unusual words, Pears Soap, really stuck out. Indians have a funny way of talking about you in their native language when you're right there. Sometimes they even point too, it's a little rude. Anyway, sure, I happened to be carring a brand new bar of Pears Soap ("Pure & Gentle" says on the box) in my hand as I had just bought it next door due to losing my pinkish (this is India) soap bar that morning, but why on earth would anyone care enough to say it out loud, never mind exclaim "PEARS SOAP!" out loud like that? Then all the staff stared at me like I was really weird, some of them were smirking. It really got me thinking.
So I ate my meal, a delicious Alu Paneer, perfectly spiced, yummy paneer though just ever-so-slightly overcooked. Two butter nan bread (I am a pig), and a chai afterwards to wash it down. Yum. Afterwards the waiter comes over to chat and he speaks remarkably good English. This is after days and days in Bangalore with surpringly bad English spoken all around, as compared to other, smaller parts of the state I mean. Not even "almost-English," I'd call what they were speaking, "barely English." Anyway, we get talking about my travels, where I've been and where I'm going and we start talking about Bangalore. He's from Mangalore, and he describes its location in excruciating detail and then pauses, like I didn't already know where it was (I almost went there first, instead of here), but we talk just about Bangalore. Because he knows and loves lots about Bangalore, he says. I know it as the famous Indian version of Silicon Valley but he doesn't know it as such. I proceed to tell him that I'm leaving tomorrow, for Mysore (another city three hours away) where I'll stay about a week. Twice as long as I'm staying in Bangalore. And then he starts listing off famous building after temple after park after garden of all the things I'd read in a guidebook about Bangalore, but for the most part have not actually seen or wanted to see, really. Well, I've seen a few of them. The Botanical Gardens, today, the City Market (and got some great photos at both of them), MG Road of course, a few pubs, and the big Isckon Krishna temple, which wasn't even in the guidebook but I knew from chatting with locals in Hampi that it was here. But the rest [sigh] just didn't really interest me all that much.
Or they would have, if I had an infinite amount of time and wasn't in a hurry to get out of here, to travel and see the sights, keep looking, keep meeting, keep on truckin' and rollin', eatin' and sleepin' and dreamin' about somethin', well many things actually. Traveling is just one of them; finishing my first novel in the next few months (and getting it published, BIG, when I return) is another. All of which will come true too, dreams can be made to do things you want, they're yours after all yet they're really hard to get, mind you, sort of like trying to hold onto a wet fish with your bare hands, or sometimes a hot potato, you can have them and keep them for as long as they're still a dream, and the cool thying is that some dreams last forever (or almost forever, in terms of your lifetime). You just have to put your mind to it. That's all. Make it real and it's real. It's as easy as that.
Oh, so anyway I had finished my meal and my chai had arrived along with my suddenly-friendly waiter, and now the chai sat getting cold as we discussed all the things that I haven't done in Bangalore. Point well taken. I'll think about it, but I have to m-o-v-e...
So finally, as he's about to leave I call him back with a question about soap.
"What's the big deal," I ask him, pausing and then continuing, "about a guy carring around a bar of Pears Soap?" He doesn't understand. I illustrate, pulling a shiny-new bar of not just any soap, but Pears Soap out of my bag.
"Ahh." he says. "Pears Soap. Someone was talking about you because it's V.I.P."
"You mean it looks like I'm a V.I.P. (Indians love this term) just because I'm carring a bar of Pears Soap?" I ask.
"Yeah, the common man doesn't buy Pears Soap because it's much more expensive. You look like V.I.P. when you come in." As if me being a whitey among 950 million brown Indians staring at you everywhere and everyday didn't make me stick out enough already. I try to conform, try for fun to act a little like a typical Indian, and here I can't even buy the right kind of soap. Sheesh. (As a footnote: I don't try to conform at all really, of course, but this makes for a better story)
What followed was a short discussion on price. Regular bar of soap, 8 to 10 rupees. Pears Soap, 19.5-/Rs. Ah, I get it. Double the price. (And yet still, remarkably, only about 60 cents total.) Here I was, all along and all through supper wondering what it was about Pears Soap that was so strange. Do men in India never buy Pears Soap because it's only for [gasp!] women? India is funny with their weird gender issues that way. The soap's slogan is, after all, "Pure & Gentle." Sounds like something a woman wants, if you ask me. Or, "Hard & Fast," depending on the need for cleanliness. But I haven't seen a soap like that yet.
Maybe "Pure & Gentle" means that it's extremely weak and mild, though. That's a possibility. I've heard about soaps like that. They put a nice-smelling perfume on your hands, all over in fact, but they do little to wash off the bacteria, filth and grime and feces stuck under your fingernails (if you go to the toilet Eastern-style, with your left hand, I mean). And so here is some guy laughing at me, knowing full well that I can wash and wash and wash and never come clean, a dirty Westerner as they say, then get sick later from my own dirty hands after eating fine food at this fine restaurant, get sick for days at least or maybe a week or two or longer, get sick a little bit here and there. He's laughing at my stupidity (something I take great pleasure in laughing at too, mind you), well no tip for him, I'm thinking. Crap, nobody tips in India anyway.
It was only about the money, the expensive bar of soap I bought. That's what the whole surprisingly big commotion was about. Spending too much money, frivolously. Funny to be able to joke about that, and only because the exchange rate is so incredibly good for me here, 30 rupees to the Candadian dollar, and I never thought I'd laugh about having spent waaay too much money on something only to realize that it's still but a pittance to me as well. I feel a little bad about that, actually.
I finished my now lukewarm chai and paid the bill, leaving a 10% tip to boot. Remember, common people never tip in India. So probably only a V.I.P. or even a V.V.I.P would leave a tip... I thought I'd run with this illusion of me for the evening and whisk my way back onto the dark busy crazy so-alive Indian street and be gone. They'd remember me, oh yeah. Conversation about Bill Clinton in Jaipur, my hut on Om Beach for 30-/Rs., and a 6 rupee (20 cent) big tip. Oh, the big tipper. Watch me VIP out of here, I smile to myself...
But I can't leave without telling you about the food, however. I have one word for you. Thali. Remember that word, for those of you doofuses who don't know what it means. (I was a doofus not all that long ago, despite a love of Indian food.)
You can get thalis all over India and they're usually just called "meals." That's right, you can go in and sit down and just ask for "a meal" and you will get served a meal and like it or not, you're going to eat that meal (whatever it is) until you're full and you're damned-well happy about that fact too.
"I'd like a meal please." is all you need to say. It's better sometimes to not have too much choice, easier on the mind. (You can also order a "special meal" which comes with extra things but I hate having to ask for a special meal because it makes me feel like one of Jerry's kids.)
Thalis come with a mixture of food, different everywhere you go but some common themes: usually served on a giant green leaf (very cool!) or a metal tray with rice, three or more kinds of foods in little bowls, some spices over herer, salt over there, maybe a pickle if you're lucky, sometimes curd, and one or two kinds of bread. It's always a surprise if you know where to look for surprises, in how they're subtly different from place to place, sure, but also different in different parts of India where they cater to slightly different taste buds and put in completely different kinds of food.
(I actually had a thali the previous night, but I shall describe it here anyway. There's only so much to be said for delicious Alu Paneer that I had the evening I wrote this). How are the thalis? Well, that depends. On this occassion it was hot. Very hot. So hot it'll light your hair on fire, your clothes, your skin too, your lips, your throat, make it hard to breathe, well easy to inhale, cool, but hard to breathe out, hot, very hot, so hot there's no stopping you just have to eat through it, no use in drinking water, no use in gulping curd, you're in the here, today, the now and you just have to go, go and take the bull by the horns, remember to breather, and swallow your torture hard. Man, it was hot. Swallow your pain and smile. And don't forget to wipe your nose, now flowing like a river. Order some cucumber if you must (sissy! it takes away the pain!). Wipe your eyes, tears streaming from your face. Oh, you baby. Baby. Poor baby. Too much for you, was it? You asked for extra-spicy, after all. And you call yourself an Indian. An almost-Indian. A thali conisseur, a thali guru, a thali master, a thali-man. "A thali-man me banana... daylight come and me won' go home..."
Sagar Veg & Non Veg Restaurant on SC Road, across and down from the Royal Lodge, near the bus stand. Ah, the food here is so good...
But now I shall end my little disertation (hardly a blog of a travelogue, today) with a list of foods that I am missing/will miss. I think about them every day, so you should too:
FOODS I LOVE IN INDIA (thus far)
I use the above to reassure me. It's amazing food here. But here's what I crave from back home. Some of them surprise me too.
FOODS I MISS FROM HOME (many not listed still)
As you can see, there are seven foods from back home that I miss and only six foods here that I can't live without. It is unbalanced. I am working on balancing this out again, soon.
Of course, I cannot end this email just yet.
"And speaking of hemmorhoids..." (not that we were, but I thought that we should.)
If you ever get hemmorhoids (I wrote this down on paper in the dark, appropriately enough) all you have to do with the pain is to will them away with your mind. Some people get really mad when I talk like this, like I am the Zen Master of all things including hemmorhoids. Will them away like you can retract those huge hemmorhoid bumps, those huge heavy things hidden in the dark creavace of your ass. Retract them (at once!) like you'd retract a giant erection, once you've calmed down after a while, after you're spent or simply foolishly believe that you're spent, tantric-style, and now it's time to go home. "Come home to pappa!" And retreat, you can rest easy and free and just hang around for a while with the boys now.
Shit, a 3-hour bumpy bus ride from Bangalore to Mysore (appropriately named) today, at the BACK of the bus no less, is enough to drive you kind of nutty when you're in pain with every little jiggle.
Maybe next time I will write a real blog travelogue instead of a story. Your choice. (Actually, I lie. You are my victims. Insert evil laugh.)
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