Many of the other tourists we met in Myanmar are ethnically Burmese foreigners, returning to Burma for the first time in their lives, now that the junta is slowly liberalizing and Aung Sung Su Kyi has lifted her tourism boycott. Jeffrey, who we met at our hotel, is an American, whose father was apparently a high-ranking politician in the early years after Burmese independence. His father recently passed away, leaving to Jeffrey his mansion, the last standing on what was once Mansion Row, in Yangon. Today the father’s family still lives in the rambling home, which is crumbling down, a relic of more prosperous days. Jeffrey invited us over to see the home as well as his father’s collection of books. We met his family, and his half-sister Su Ky was so kind to present me with a gift of a traditional longyi and showed me how to tie it. It’s quite ingenious — just a cloth tube that you fold and tuck in — and comfortable, too!
This Christmas was the first that Brian and I have ever spent together, and an unusual Christmas it was. Christmas Eve, we feasted on Kentucky Fried Chicken. Yes, you can get KFC in India, but instead of providing mashed potatoes, gravy and biscuits in the “Family Feast” menu option, the chain offers saffron rice, salsa and “Indian” gravy. To top it off, KFC sells mojitos (not sure why, since mojitos are neither Kentuckian nor Indian) with REAL mint and lime. Holiday joy in a cup.
On Christmas Day, Brian and I went to surrogate-mom-in-Delhi Christine’s house, where she and her family threw an absolutely delicious holiday luncheon, complete with a Western meal that nearly made Brian cry with joy. (Plus we tried our first Christmas pudding, which Christine rechristened as Brian’s birthday cake.)
Once back at home, we exchanged presents, some which Brian had brought back from the U.S. and some from Lajpat Nagar. The jug of peanut butter filled pretzels from the Cook side of the family and the peppermint bark from the Wardell side also almost made us cry with joy. For dinner, we had yummy and cozy mutton stew and broccoli, prepared by Erica, a Fulbrighter visiting for the holidays. For dessert, we celebrated the most important holiday of all…Brian’s birthday….with birthday-candle topped donuts. Brian donned a very becoming Spiderman birthday hat.
While there was no snow, no apple pie, no “It’s a Wonderful Life” (which Brian was happy about), no illuminated tree, our Indian Christmas made for a memorable first noel together.
Yes, I’ve been a delinquent blogger! But my excuse is that Brian and I have been on the road for almost two weeks. So before I get to those adventures, here is another snippet of the wedding story…
So when my noisy, crowd-sourced alarm clock of hosts went off at 6am, I woke up crankily. As soon as I stirred though, a piping hot cup of milky chai appeared by my cot, and this sweetened me right up. After a breakfast of aloo paranthas, I took a quick bucket shower in the bathroom, a rather grimy cement closet with a drain in the floor. In the meantime, Anita’s older son Sunni arrived, and while the family ate, Sunni and one of his friends paraded me around the neighborhood to meet locals.
After much selecting of saris and jewelry and belongings to take to the wedding, six of us, I a full head taller than my five Indian companions, left the house and headed down the road, attracting ongoing stares as we went. We hailed an auto rickshaw and headed directly to the train station, swerving to avoid pigs, cows, stray dogs, and people as we went.
The railway is a key feature of the Indian way of life. Tracks zigzag across the country, trains feature heavily in Bollywood movies, and Indians seem to book their tickets weeks in advance (which I have learned the hard way). The wedding journey would be my first train experience in India, and it would prove to be a much more “authentic” experience than I would have ventured on alone.
As soon as we clambered out of the rickshaw, the havoc began. People jostled their way into the station, crowds thronged the platform to buy fried pakoras and wait for their trains, ragged children collected refuse thrown from train windows, and men urinated on the tracks. Trains to Delhi arrived so packed with people that boys traveled on the train car roofs, and individual bodies could not be discerned from the tangle of limbs that stuck out of the windows.
Our train was delayed, so to pass the time, I took out my Hindi book and practiced reading to the family. The concept of a white girl reading Hindi aloud on a train platform was just too compelling for passersby to ignore, however. I looked up from the book to find a crowd of twenty people had gathered around me to listen to story time. “Put the book away,” cautioned Anita.
After waiting for over an hour, Anita posed a question, “Sou-sou? Sou-sou?” “Kya?” I asked. “What?” “Sou-sou?” she asked more adamantly and began gesticulating. I realized she was asking if I needed to “pee-pee.” Accepting the indignity of being asked if I needed to “pee-pee,” I had to admit that yes, I did. But Anita deemed the train bathroom too dirty for me, the guest, to use, so the adults discussed an alternate solution. Finally, Suresh and his wife led me like a duckling following its parents down the platform, past crowds of stares. They marched me up to a small building, adjacent to the platform but separate from the station, where three uniformed officials sat, fenced off from the general population. A rapid Hindi discussion of my bladder and foreign fragility ensued, the result of which was that I was allowed to use the official cleaner squat toilet, while the officials and Suresh continued their conversation outside. When I sheepishly shuffled back out, the officials asked the requisite “What country from?” question, and I was on my way.
The train finally arrived, and after the requisite pushing, shoving, rushing to board, we squashed into some available seats. People covered every available surface. Men stretched out on top of bags on the luggage racks above our heads, and other passengers in the row facing us stared at Anita’s family and their strange white baggage. Anita shared the now familiar information about me with anyone who showed an interest, while vendors hawked their wares from the crowded aisle, child-performers beat drums and back flipped, and blind singers sang and paced the train with their palms outstretched.
We arrived at our station, where I was informed for the first time that we had to transfer trains. Unfortunately, due to the delayed first leg of the journey, we had missed our connection, and we spent four hours waiting in an empty train.
At this point in the trip, I was feeling some wear and tear. Since the beginning of this adventure the previous night, I had been stared at incessantly. I was not free to make even the simplest of my own decisions. I rarely knew what was going on. My night of frequently interrupted sleep was starting to catch up with me. But I reminded myself that as a Fulbright scholar, my duty is to be a “cultural ambassador”, to learn as much about Indian culture as I can. So I stopped my internal whining and reminded myself that the wedding experience would make this all worthwhile.
After another crowded train trip, we finally arrived at Anita’s mother’s house, a brightly painted blue maze, covered with red, white, and wedding lights. This was the site of the wedding, and it was bustling with activity. A crowd of people, Anita’s extended family, greeted us noisily. A pack of kids ran throughout the house and its many rooms, which were connected by winding staircases and passages. A small room across from the house’s entryway was filled – literally filled with barely any floor to walk on — with elderly women crouched on the floor and singing songs.
Once the first round of greetings was over, Anita’s mother emerged. She was an imposing matriarch with a gravely voice and a dominating presence. As I had been instructed, I folded my hands and said “Namaste.” I also bent to touch her feet, a sign of respect. As per usual, this exchange was merrily observed by twenty-five people. (Are you starting to notice a theme?)
This crowd then led us upstairs to the kitchen and the bedroom/living room, where three sullen young women about my age held their infant children and watched their toddlers roam around. (During the entire thirty-six hours of the wedding, I don’t think they left this room.) Various other people congregated there, and to be honest, I have no idea who anyone was. So in the middle of this crowd of strangers sitting on cots and on the floor, a plastic chair was placed, and I was told to sit in it. Surrounded by people watching, someone served me dinner, and I ate with at least a dozen adults and an uncountable number of child onlookers.
After dinner, I got into full cultural anthropologist mode. The young bride appeared, and she showed me the intricate henna designs drying on her arms and legs and extending past her elbows and up to her knees. The women singing on the first floor was the main wedding ritual of the evening, so two girls, who turned out to be Suresh’s daughters, led me downstairs by the hand.
When we entered the room, filled with women, everyone stopped singing and looked up from their low vantage point to stare at me. I waved and offered an awkward “Namaste.” A particularly feisty, skinny old lady with several teeth stood up and started yelling merrily in Hindi, prompting much laughter from the group, likely at my expense. When the women started singing again, I crouched in the corner to listen to the music. I began attracting a crowd of children, who chattered and giggled at me.
I’m not sure exactly how it happened but suddenly all eyes in the room were on me again. A voice rang out. “English songs!” A murmur went through the crowd. Soon every woman and child in the room started chanting “English songs! English songs!” Despite my protests, their stares and relentless chanting made it clear that I didn’t have much choice but to be the evening’s entertainment. So I cleared my voice, swallowed my pride, and started singing the only song that inexplicably came to mind.
“Sugar pie, honey bunch. You know that I love you. Can’t help myself. I love you and no body else….da da da dum! “
Yes, I vocalized the instrumental section. And yes, I made a failed attempted to get people to clap in time to the music. Everyone preferred to listen in awed silence. When I finished my paltry rendition of American Motown, there were murmurs of approval, and then…..”more!” So I launched into “American Pie,” then “My Girl,” then “Jingle Bells,” to which some of the Hindu kids finally started singing along, ironically.
But I hadn’t yet completed my duties as court jester. The next demand was “DANCE!” So I stood up in the middle of this sea of forty crouching women and children, stuck my hands in the air, spun in a circle, and sang four verses from “Under the Sea.” (My repertoire is small.) One of the old women took out a ten rupee note, waved it around and then handed it to me. For my finale performance, what song did I select? A LNDP college classic: “Take Me Home Tonight.” I danced and sang Eddie Money during a pre-wedding ritual in rural India in front of forty elderly, Hindi-speaking women. How’s that for cultural ambassadorship?
September Fourth will mark the beginning of a new adventure. Brian and I will be married, and nine days later, we will move to India. For the first time in almost five years, I have the amazing opportunity to live each day like I mean it. The best year of my and Brian’s life is about to start. It’s not often a person gets the chance to say that!
“The world is a wonderful place when you’re young.” – Goose, Charlotte’s Web
P.S. Brian points out that I do not have an old husband.