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White Christmas.

I cannot find any record of it snowing on December 25, 1987 in San Diego, California. But I know it snowed.

My grandfather was a force, loud and lovely. He would sit in an orange corduroy chair and smoke his pipe and wear flannel button-down shirts and yell about Reagan. He would make us recite Robert Frost. He grew up in the hills of Hollywood where there was never a white Christmas. He would ditch high school and make $40 playing an injured solider moaning for help as Scarlet O’Hare rushed to find Dr. Meade. He was a captain in the Pacific during the war. He carried a knife and taught my dad how to shoot rabbits. He built a kidney-shaped pool and would carry me on his shoulders into the deep end. He bought everyone in his family tape recorders in 1970 so they could all send each other tapes. His voice booms out 39 years later, alive and curious and egotistical and loud. He was fat. I could never reach my arms around him.

It was different in 1987. For Christmas he drove from Los Angeles to our house in San Diego. When I hugged him, I could feel bones through his flannel shirt. I could reach my arms around him. He didn’t smell like tobacco.  He didn’t get on the ground and play with us. He didn’t drink his whiskey. He sat on the couch and spoke softly or not at all.

We were kids. We didn’t pay attention to the adults. Santa brought new scooters and we rode them around our driveway. It was another San Diego Christmas, warm, sunny, happy. At noon, the wind shifted. White flakes started to fall. I don’t remember who noticed it first, but we ran down the stairs and danced in the snow. We were laughing and spinning and saying, “What is this!” I was wearing a black and white button-down shirt and black shorts. There are no photos, but I know I was wearing that. And I know it was snowing. It lasted for five minutes.

My grandfather watched us from the window. He was laughing too.

Fourteen days later, he died.

Twenty-two years later, we’re eating breakfast in our courtyard. It’s blue sky and palm trees and warm sun on our backs. I keep looking at the sky, hoping it’ll snow.

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I’d rather be in Sri Lanka.

It rained the day I arrived there. A lashing, beating, tree-tossing rain over the Indian ocean. Waves swelled and crashed outside the Galle Face Hotel. The air was hot, sticky hot. Tiny signs stuck to the windows of my room: “Do not open the window.” I opened the windows all the way. I lay beneath one of them on a stiff bed covered in a cotton sheet. The rain felt cool on my face.

Window

In 1864 the hotel opened for the well-heeled in Ceylon. Ceylon, so long. It must have been grand. The Emerald on the Green. Danish princesses drank tea and Pakistani prime ministers bustled about. That was then. That was when the owner made jokes with astronauts and hosted parties for his author friends. That wasn’t when planes fell out of the sky and fell into nearby hotels. That wasn’t when men and women were cattled off into camps in the north and editors of newspapers were killed for taking a stand against a government. That wasn’t when the price of bread skyrocketed and you could hardly afford to buy an egg. Times change, though.HallwayIt is a little less well-heeled these days. But I liked the carpet zig-zagging through the hall. And I didn’t mind so much the water-stains on the ceiling. No war had been fought for four months. Four months without bombs and checkpoints and suicides. Four months was long enough for hope to set in.

Night fell and the rain stopped and a four-man band played songs from Old West movies at the SeaSpray Restaurant. Two guitars, a rubber band attached to a box, a tambourine and a guy who whistled Rawhide. There was a seafood buffet. Japanese businessmen drank beer and smoked cigarettes. European families compared sunburns. I drank white wine that went to my head and I felt light and lovely and happy. A white-bearded, German man stared out to sea. He stared. And stared. Forlornly over his Irish coffee. I wanted to say, Come drink your coffee with me, but it didn’t seem right to interrupt his sorrow. I looked to where he looked and an army boat floated off-shore with machine guns peering over the side. I felt very tired all-of-a-sudden.

The next morning, without a look back, I jumped a toy train and headed south.

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It was a holiday weekend. What holiday? Who knows! It could be the full moon (the Buddhists love that). It could be a Hindu holiday (they have 3,000 of them). It might just be a government-sanctioned day (for any reason, they won the war!). No one knows. But everyone knows, they were getting out of town.TrainWindowThat meant there were no seats left on the bus. I mean, on the train. The toy train. The rattling, clattering, wonderful toy train. So I squeezed in tight next to a small Sri Lankan man squatting at the open door and watched the world pass by.

Four years and eleven months ago, on this very same track, the ocean picked up a very similar train to my train. It picked it up and it tossed it about and it tore it up and 5,000 people died right there. Cars. Vans. Homes. Shops. All washed away.

But on my trip on that very same track, people waved from plastic chairs outside wooden huts built over the foundations of their old homes. Palm tree groves grew. Children dressed all in white left a temple. Two sisters in braids traded candy. Bridges spanned rivers. The ocean lapped peacefully along the shore.

Train

I named my hotel the Sinktree Inn. The owner’s baby girl was four months old when he had to pick her up from her blanket and run from the wave. When I first arrived, she was scribbling in crayons on a sheet of paper underneath a twisted bough of branches, her bare feet kicking in the sand. “Hello! Hello!” she shouted.  He wants to sell the hotel. Move away from the sea. Just across the road, at least. He looked at his little girl. She grinned up at him.Sinktree

On a rented scooter, I flew down the coast at sunset. Cows grazed on the beach. The sun loomed heavy over the sea. To another Galle. This time the real Galle. The port of Galle. Where Dutch boats and Dutch soldiers once looked out west toward another tiny country on the other side of the world. Now boys played cricket in the overgrown grass and lovers held hands in the old bastions.GalleI spied on Muslim boys offering their prayers and I broke my shoe and drove barefoot through the cobblestone streets. I got tired and drank a gin fizz in the Aman Galle and pretended to be very wealthy, or perhaps a spy waiting for my next directive. Until the full moon rose over the lighthouse and I drove home to the SinkTreee Inn. I chased storm clouds and caught up with them. And lighting shot through the sky and I got home soaked to the skin.GinFizzI read and slept and ate rotties filled with cheese and onions and full cloves of garlic. I stumbled down the stairs and into the sea every morning and every night. I tried to ride the waves and I tried to float on my back. But the sea churned and boiled in front of my hotel. It’s too dangerous there, a man told me on my last day, after battling with the sea every day. There is a ondo there. An ondo, a current. It wanted to drag me down and pin me against the rocks. I thought it was dangerous everywhere here. But I walked down 100 yards and the water waited patiently, calmly for me. I floated on my back out to sea.

The beach was the road. I walked down it to the village. I walked up it to the fish market. Every day hiking in the sand. Every night playing in the surf under the stars. At 4 every afternoon the men pushed their boats out to sea. Eight to a boat until it floated in the surf, and then two board it and revved a motor. They would float all night with their nets wide open and then drag their haul in just before the sun peeks through. They hung a lantern from the stern and at night a ring of lights danced over the ocean, a necklace of lights wrapped around the island. I wondered if the two men talk all night. Or if they sit quietly smoking bidis and chewing paan. They made me feel snug; I’m wrapped up in their light’s embrace. A wall of fisherman guarding the beach.Fishing BoatsTwenty-something-year-old boys hung out at the beach shacks with their beautiful bodies and their sinews and muscles roiling beneath their brown skin. They wore board shorts and long hair and slapped each other high fives. At night they broke out drums and beat a rhythm into the night as they smoked Sri Lankan tobacco and drank Arrack. They surfed in the spray and it looked almost like a Sri Lankan Gidget movie. Only there were no girls. Until night fell. A few women appeared on the scene. Beer-glazed. Blond. Forty or older. Sunburned red skin. They gazed at the boys with hunger. And the boys lit their cigarettes and smiled bright at them.

RickshawSurfAcross from the highway, across from the beach, was where it all happened. Life lived across the street. I crossed the street and families gossiped, three generations thick, on their front porch. Men fished off the train tracks into the rivers. Stores sold yogurt and soup. Children flirted. The homes were fairy-tale beautiful. Picket fences and smiling grandmothers and vines over vistas and life was good. There were crumbled down homes and the jungle was eating it all up again. And there were big, long homes with hammocks filled chock-o-block with giggling kids.

My friend turned to me: They want to leave this, this!, for America. And they do. They ask, Can I get a job in America? Can you help in America? But I don’t want to help them. I want them to help me. It was more perfect than perfect there. It was a winding path in green-grown glory there. And they want to leave? For traffic lights and citations and fluorescent-grocery-store shopping? It was too confusing.

Old houseI felt very small and the world very big on this island in the middle of the sea.TinyIsland

One Comment

  1. Odd Jobb says:

    Loved it!
    The description of your vacation in SL flows like poetry.
    I miss it too much, but I hope to go back this winter (Dec. 2010).
    Hope you made it back there again or better yet, hope you live there now.

    Cheers.

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The Great Cat Caper.

I have a broken foot, a body covered in scratches, outstanding debts in my name to three Indian companies and a week of my life wasted in tears, sleepless nights and fits of anger.

That was fun.

I grew up, as many Americans do, believing I’m the master of my own universe. The bestselling book The Secret tells us to predict our own future: imagine, and it will be. Oprah encourages women to make visualization boards: paste, and it will be. The Horatio Alger stories insist we pull ourselves up by our own bootstrap: work, and it will be.

These are lies.

I learned many things in India: Indian buffalos make fantastic mozzarella; the word “prepone” is a necessary and intelligent addition to the English language; always carry small bills.

But the greatest lesson of all: things happen, but on no real account of me. Illusions of control lead only to humiliation and defeat.

A recent NYT article explains why so many Western-trained Indians flee the mother country after attempting to work there. It quotes a partner at a global executive search firm as saying, “India can seem to have a fairly ambiguous and chaotic way of working, but it works.” It’s because Americans don’t like ambiguous. They expect things to work if it is planned, organized, scheduled, structured. India laughs at that Western structure.

My Indian friends hate expat pow-wows where everyone gets together and tells their “I Hate India” story. There was the time I basically folded over into a fetal position, sobbing hysterically in a fabric store when my white curtains came back slightly tinted brown; the time my friend tried to pay his electricity bill and, through a sequence of small, inconsequential events, couldn’t, so he wound up driving his motorcycle into a wall; and the time another friend tried to lead a revolution in a cell phone store, jumping on top of a chair and screaming, “How can we put up with this? We have to protest!” as the Indian customers looked on in amusement.

The point isn’t that India is a frustrating, maddening place. Or that my friends and I are Mommie Dearest crazy (maybe a little). It’s not India that’s insane, but we are for trying to control it. I have to tell the story to remember that temporary loss of sanity, otherwise I will be doomed to repeat my mistakes.

So, my final (looong) swansong India meltdown, for your reading pleasure:

It was my last week in India. I had spent the prior two weeks playing and partying and enjoying the frequent farewell soirees. But it was time to get down to business. I was moving, closing down three and a half of the happiest years of my life: selling off the furniture I designed; gifting friends with the plants I cultivated; closing down the accounts of the work I loved.  I planned to wander the city and drink it in, have chai in the flower market, listen to the peacocks mew in the gloaming at the tombs, tie a red ribbon at the dargah as my final prayer. I had big plans.

Looking back, this was my first mistake. Never have plans in India.

On Sunday night I hosted my final, final goodbye party. All my furniture would be sold or given away, and whatever remained would be burned. It seemed like a smart concept at the time, especially since most of my furniture was made out of bamboo.  Until, that is, we ran out of furniture and a friend found the fireworks.

It turns out cats do not like loud explosions. My landlord didn’t like it very much either. Unfortunately, she didn’t run away. One of my cats did.

The first night I didn’t worry. Reynolds would often go out and hunt and come back a day later. But she didn’t come back. A day passed. My bed was moved out. I slept on a charpoy, waiting to hear her cry at the door. Another day passed. Everything else was moved out. My house was empty and still. I sat on the cold marble floor, hoping for a familiar scratch. And, daily, my departure date loomed.

I couldn’t imagine leaving the country to have my cat finally wander back a day later to an empty house. My landlord might call some butcher company to haul her away.  A street dog pack might catch her.

To make matters worse, after a heart-wrenching, agonizing decision, I had found a sweet, young couple to adopt both of my cats. I couldn’t justify putting them on a 24-hour plane flight stuck in cargo, only to wind up in a small, basement apartment in cold DC, where they couldn’t go outside and play and hunt and live the leisurely life they had in India. I had hoped for at least a couple days to say goodbye to the little furball.

I was mildly concerned.

I started stalking the neighborhood, a handful of dry cat food in my pocket. “Reynolds, come here kitty!” I shouted. For three days nary a whisker was spotted. But finally, on the fourth day, a guard rushed up to me: “Billi!”—cat in Hindi.

Every home in Defense Colony, my neighborhood in Delhi, has a guard ensconced in a tiny gatehouse out front. There isn’t much crime in Defense Colony. The extent of the guards’ job consists in milling around, playing carom with each other, and staring at the women who walk past them.

After three days of my fruitless searching, I had become rather well acquainted with about 20 of the guards. “Billi?” “Nahi, madam.”

Finally, things changed. The itinerant cat had been spotted slinking into a nearby power station. The guards were in a tizzy.  All 21 of us rushed over to the station. They did their level best to help call for the cat: “Ranads!” “Roonolds!” “Renens!”

I think they freaked her out more than anything else. She didn’t come out. At least I knew she was alive. A few more days of fruitless searching led to a growing cat fervor on the street. Maids were brought in. The power station employees all knew about the plight of “poor madam and her billi”.

Reynolds was spotted, ran away; she came by to eat food I left out for her, escaped before I could be called from down the street. The guards were happy to look for her, but terrified of touching her. They don’t exactly like cats. They would see her, jump back a few paces and then shout “Renens!” and “Madam!”

By this time, my last week in Delhi had evaporated. The errands I needed to run filled two pages of a yellow legal pad, and not a single one got crossed off.

The day before I was to fly away, I returned to my empty house at seven in the morning. All my co-conspirators had canvassed the streets the night before. The cats were supposed to meet their adopted parents that night. I hadn’t told the parents that only one cat was around.  I sat on my cold marble floor in my empty apartment, filled with nothing but ghosts of the past, and waited.  At 10 a shout rang up from the street. “Billi!”

I ran downstairs; finally the guards had cordoned her off. She trembled under some plants. No one dared get too close. I crouched down and cooed.  After five long days and nights, my kitten stumbled into my arms. The guards all grinned and shook hands. Mission accomplished.

Reynolds was not so happy. Shivering and petrified when I took her upstairs, she bolted for the last hiding spot on the terrace. I put out food and water for her, closed the door tight behind me and collapsed in a pile of relief.

Before I could pack her up in a carrying case and take her to her new home, I had to finalize a couple of projects, close out my house with the landlord, and pay an electrician making a few last adjustments on the house. I may have wasted a week, but I thought, I have nearly 48 hours of Delhi left. That should be enough. Things may just work out. For the first time in a week, I felt relief, the beginnings of happiness.

I headed downstairs, admonishing everyone to stay away from the terrace door. I could have locked the door. I could have put her in her carrying case. I could have snatched her up and jumped in the first taxi home and come back to close up my accounts later.

I could have, would have, should have.

The electrician opened the door. The cat ran. I cried. I yelled at my sweet, old electrician. I stomped around banging doors. Everything was ruined! I turned to a brick wall and with my blood seething and my mind racing, I kicked it. I wanted to kick the electrician. I wanted to kick the cat. I wanted to kick myself. I kicked a wall instead.

The wall broke my foot.

Okay, fine. I broke my foot.

Catless and now crippled, I finally remembered the lesson India had been trying to ram down my head for three years: trying to force things to happen in my way, on my time schedule was as stupid as kicking a wall.

I called my friend. “I need to go to the doctor.”

She had just fallen off a treadmill the week before, fracturing her ankle. (Our common klutziness is one of the many reasons we love each other so much.) She was well acquainted with the orthopedic wing at the hospital. In her walking cast, she pushed me in a wheelchair around the joint and a couple hours later, I was free to go, cast and elbow crutches and all.

Back at my house, the cat was waiting for us, perched in a tree with a score of guards and maids all underneath her.

“Madam! Billi!” They shouted in unison. Once again they had found her.

The cat was terrified. The guards were terrified. They didn’t want to get any closer to the animal. And the animal didn’t want to get closer to anyone.

I sighed, threw down my crutches and climbed the tree.

My friend—the good, lovely friend that she is—hobbled over with the carrying case.

The crowd became cricket commentators. “She’s going up the tree; she’s got a hold of the neck; she’s pulling the cat down. Oh! It’s wriggling away.”

“No, no, she’s got it! It’s in the bag!”

“They’re zipping it up. Oh, no! The cat’s out!”

“The other madam has it! She’s got the cat! They’re putting it back in the bag. Look, look… It’s in! The cat’s in the bag!”

Reynolds

Reynolds is now happily in her new home, already figuring out a way to sneak out at night. And I, well, if I had just waited a few hours, given up my stranglehold on the situation, I wouldn’t have bruises on my palms from the dumb crutches. Lesson painfully learned.

Thankfully, India, in her ever generous way, may have given me a broken bone to remember her by, but it padded my fall with another gift: wheelchair service and a bump up in my plane seat all the way home. With two huge, over packed bags, the help came in handy. So handy in fact, I may just need to be kept from the vicinity of any walls before my next trip back.

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2 Comments

  1. Sarge says:

    Renens is a naughty, naughty pussy.

  2. [...] want kids right now. (Doth the lady protest too much? NO! Look at how I managed with a couple of kittens. How’d I do with a couple of [...]

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The smell of mothballs.

There is a bar, a bungalow, an old pink tent. There is a cat with a diseased face, bloated to unproportioned places, a dog so skinny you can see more than his ribs, a big lawn with plastic furniture and pink checkered tablecloths. There is Jaspreet, the manager, snazzy in his matching turban and tie. There is an upstairs balcony and a downstairs terrace. There is a photograph of Sonia and Rajeev eating ice cream at India Gate. There is the snooker table that started it all.

In the bathrooms, there is the smell of mothballs.

I lived in India for 1,277 days. I never saw the Taj Mahal. I went to the Foreign Correspondent’s Club a few hundred nights.

It is a prime piece of real estate in the center of the city, though no one can ever find it. It cozies up to the Supreme Court where men mill about in wigs and robes. You tell the driver, Bagwandas! And he drives and wants to stop. Sieda, sieda! He thinks your crazy. Right, here. Turn right! And then you’re there.

There’s the strangest painting of a woman on the wall going up to the first floor. I wonder who she was. The bar has a plaque that reads “Aristocratic bar”. There’s ping pong out back.

Once upon a time my friend told me of a place that had a snooker table. I don’t know what snooker is, I whined. I want to go, I pleaded. He rolled his eyes and gnashed his teeth and finally said, “Fine, I’ll take you.”  We went on a Thursday evening.

Two girls wound up a few hours later, wearing tiaras. It was then that we knew: Tiara Thursdays. It was a God-ordained holiday.

We went every Thursday. We sat on balconies in misty night air. We talked about the drama of the world and it’s existence. Or, they talked. I said yes!, really!? no?, exactly!, a lot. We came and came and came.

It went from six of us. To twelve. To a hundred. I didn’t know everyone there anymore. I wanted it to be my Cheers. Hey, Cliff! No one shouted that when I walked in. We had created a monster.

But it was still a lawn and a bungalow and a lot of mothballs. I was still in love.

Once, there was a wedding. The bride rode in on a elephant. The groom was decked in a necklace of ten-rupee notes. Once there was a fight. Okay, more than one. There were elections to fight, blustering ministers to interview, stories to angle for and contacts to make. We fell in love there. We fell out of love there. We regrouped. We ran away. We hung out. It wasn’t much more than a rundown bungalow anyway.

It’s a spoiled bunch; a rotten, egotistical, wonderful bunch. They work too hard. They drink too much. They smoke Indonesian cigarettes. Once a week they come to hang around a lawn. Eye each other up. Gossip about each other. Relay stories. Size things up. Mock each other. On a lovely lawn. In a rundown bungalow. Sprinkled with swollen cats and shriveled dogs and, always, the smell of mothballs.

3 Comments

  1. Tron says:

    The FCC may have a ping pong table out back, but Jess and I have a ping pong table IN OUR DINING ROOM. (It’s one of the few pieces of furniture we have, actually.) When are you coming to visit?

  2. Line says:

    Very eloquent. Will miss you miss, next time I get to go. /L

  3. Melissa says:

    Tron, you always have to one up everything, don’t you? As soon as my foot heals, I will come dominate Ping Pong in Pittsburgh, which would make a good sitcom title.

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Our town.

Outside the Adidas store, two stray dogs lick each other, graphically, until the one covered in red sores nips a little too close. The love turns to rage and a savage fight erupts. In an underground walkway, a thin man hustles to sell red-faced tourists motivational posters where eagles soar and babbling brooks run past cottages.  His wife and child curl their bodies together and sleep on cardboard behind him. An old man limps in circles, squeezing a squeaky plastic toy, advertising his colorful wares. All day long, limping and squeaking. Squeaking and limping. A six-year-old asks to shine my shoes. A toddler waddles through a construction site, her eyes ringed in kohl. She’s looking for her mother, a wisp of woman in a green kurta totting a basket of rocks on her head. The orange sun hangs pregnant and low in a polluted sky.

Sometimes it overwhelms me.

Most days, I hardly notice it at all.

3 Comments

  1. Daemian says:

    Every day I head into this perceptual overload (surreal India) there is a mixture of courage, fear, exhaustion, wanderlust, thrilling danger, delicate pathos.

    The wildness of India leads a dual existence in my mind: intense absurdity, and, knowing it as ‘my home’.

    As your poem-like close captures, Melissa, what’s marvelous about living in India is how it emboldens one’s sense of reality to the point that the INCREDIBLE can sometimes seem familiar. But we’re always liable to get a broken heart just walking down the street, seeing that deformed puppy wagging its tail (or a million other ephemeral shocks). That risk is part of India’s profane allure.

    I’m now a fan of your perceptions.

  2. Melissa says:

    Daemian, thank you! And I agree about the perceptual overload. Think it’s one of the reasons we stop looking around. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to actually do much more than look at it all. All best, m

  3. Your klutzy sister says:

    I just read this. And realized how similar we are in that. And, thus, are the reasons I can’t even comprehend leaving it. Sometimes it defeats me. But mostly, it heartens me.

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I am not a war correspondent.

Last night I hugged my friend goodbye in the night mist. A bat swooped overhead. He went home, slept a few hours and boarded a plane for Afghanistan. He’s been shot at there. He missed an explosive blowing up a car in his caravan by just a few hundred meters. He makes jokes about having PTSD. He’s excited to go sit in the snow with the troops in mountains far from the flat Midwest towns they were born in. He takes photographs of the soldiers. They are young and uncertain and tough and beautiful. I think he is too. I ask him questions, What is it like there? But I can’t understand the long quiet marches he walks, sleeping in shelled out homes for a few hours, smoking cigarettes just to pass the time, and then quick sudden blood and injury and tears.

Another friend I hugged hello in the garden a few hours earlier. He had come from Pakistan, where a military guard escorted him from his hotel room, drove him in an armored car and put him on a plane back to Delhi. The US government had gained intelligence that he was under threat of kidnapping and possible death. A Pakistan newspaper published my friend’s name. He’s a journalist, but the newspaper said he was a spy, a CIA op, a Blackwater guy, and possibly Mossad. His wife is pregnant with a baby girl. They haven’t decided on a name yet. Daniel Pearl’s wife was pregnant with a baby boy when he chose to go on that one last interview. My friend calls me whenever he’s bored in a taxi and makes jokes about himself until he gets to whatever destination he’s going to and then promptly hangs up on me. He wasn’t doing much joking last night. He misses Islamabad.

Another friend I haven’t seen since the night he got engaged to his blonde, petite wife. She is a journalist in Kabul and she wears blue burkhas to report on stories in the villages. Her fixer tells her she looks beautiful in the burkha because it matches her eyes. My friend was born in Afghanistan, before the war with the Russians, and left it as a teenager. When the Taliban fell, he jumped on the first flight to his home. He had plans. He had farmland to sow and companies to start and a government to participate in. Instead, he watched the country slip away from him. The farmlands of his neighbors grew poppy flowers instead of crops. The companies faltered and the government shook. He wants to take his wife and move to Turkey. He says there’s nothing left for him; he has no home.

I’m proud of my friends; I’m scared for my friends. I’m scared for this war that has been so messy and so poorly wrought. I sit on my balcony and parakeets tweet and not-so-far away, just a two-hour plane ride away, a stupid, ugly war is raging. And I’m scared.

One Comment

  1. Tron says:

    Those are beautiful pictures.

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Street rats.

I am officially an old cat lady.

I didn’t mean for it to happen. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

I blame it all on my evil friend, Chewy. He seems to gain no greater joy in life than to make me miserable. He’s a good friend like that. So when he found four kittens in his storage closet, he called me over in a tizzy. He was scared of the two-week-old mewling little things. We called the Indian equivalent of the Humane Society, Friendicos, and they whisked them off to the pound.

A week later, I went to check on them. The two cute orange rolly-polly kittens had been adopted. The two mottled, skinny, strange little black cats were left in a wire cage with dogs howling all around them, curdled milk and bread in a bowl and fear plastered on their face.

I took them home.

Since then, they have been nothing but trouble.

One kitten Chewey and I dubbed Bat because it looks like a Bat. Shrunken head, huge ears. She likes to bite everyone. The other one is overweight, hisses at strangers and jumps on my back leaving large scratch marks down my arms.

My landlord, who on our best days simply dislikes me immensely, insists the cats are omens of death. Every time they meow, it heralds her doom. Or her next-door neighbor’s doom. Or my doom. Whose doom it is varies depending on the day.

It turns out older Hindu women do not like cats. One friend said this was thanks to the old religious divide: Muslims are not supposed to have dogs, so they have cats. Hindus and Muslims agree to disagree on most things. So some Hindus–particularly my landlord–loathe cats. I love that even the most seemingly innocuous things have the weight of years here.

One night, the fat one decided to climb the window screen with her claws. It didn’t work. She fell, broke her leg. At 1am. We took a taxi an hour outside the city to an all night clinic. Her screeching was so loud, the poor taxi driver got so muddled up, he drove down the wrong side of the freeway for about ten minutes.

I took the cats to be neutered. The veterinarian left an ovary in the broken-leg one. He didn’t feel the need to mention that the operation had failed. It came as something of a shock when, a few weeks later, the cat still, well, you know.

That may be why she’s a bit on the chubby side. It’s the Italian mother in me. Though I’m neither Italian nor a mother. You feed the things you love to make up for the fact that you stick it under a knife, not once, but thrice.

The cats are annoying. They want love and affection and food and shelter. They wake me up at 5 every morning so I can watch them wrestle. They bring me gifts of dead pigeons and lizards. They destroy my newspaper every morning before I can read it.

But, what to do?Snapshot 2009-10-30 08-57-12

_RIM0030And now I’m writing blog posts about them. Sigh.

4 Comments

  1. Tron says:

    You should spray your cats with a spray bottle when they’re bad, and feed them Fancy Feast when they’re good. That’s what I do with Jess.

  2. raju says:

    having once had six, i can see where you are going with this…but where are the cats going, now that you are going?

  3. Anne & Sophia Park says:

    Your street rats are cute… Cant wait to see you!!

  4. Melissa says:

    Raju, six!?! They’re coming with me… Capital cats henceforth.

    Anne, nice try. Sophia did not comment on this blog. Sophia does not read this blog. Sophia does not know what the word “blog” is. But I can’t wait to see you!

    Tron, you light up my life.

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Obama lit a candle and so did I.

The blasts start around Tuesday. They sound like gunshots. They scare me. They terrify the animals. My cats cower under the bed. The parrots flock and flap and screech in the sky. For the next five days the firecrackers will burst around every corner. Smoke will slowly settle over the city. Ripped shreds of cardboard will pile into corners.

My office has giant sand drawings of peacocks and flowers decorating the floor. Carnations fill the hallways.

Friends drop by my house, bringing candy, cakes, candleholders, oil. Christmas lights—called fariy lights here—twinkle on the houses.

I go to my friend’s apartment. She feeds me fruitcake and chai tea. Her mother and her sister and I all pile on a bed to gossip. We make our own sand design on the front stoop. We outline the pattern first with her mother’s silver eyeliner. Then we get yellow and blue stains on our fingers from the powder.

It looks like this:

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We light diyas filled with mustard oil. We set candles around all the edges of her house.

It looks like this:

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The sky is alight with green and red and white explosions.

My friend’s mother pulls open a closet and digs through piles and piles of blue and orange and black glittered saris. I spot a purple one, edged in rhinestones. I want it. I say nothing. She pulls out a blue one.  She holds it up to me. I say I like it. She can’t understand my accent. I speak too fast. She tilts her beautiful face to one side, trying to decipher my rambling words. She never asks me to repeat myself. She just smiles and keeps pulling out saris. She grabs the purple one. “This one, you must wear this one.” I grin.

She swathes me in the shimmery cloth. She twists and turns me, folds and tucks. And I feel beautiful. I feel like she’s lit me up, decorated me for Diwali. I thank her. She says, “You must keep it. It is my gift to you.” I thank her again. “No, no, you do not thank me. It is my happiness only.”

I want to tuck her in my pocket. But saris don’t have pockets.

She is my happiness only. The sari is my happiness only. The lights are my happiness only. The night is my happiness only.

(P.S. I stole the photos from award-winning Remi.)

3 Comments

  1. Loony says:

    Beautiful.

  2. Anne says:

    Very beautiful. One question, how many cats do you have?!

  3. Melissa says:

    Technically, they’re street rats, and there are two of them. But cats sounded prettier.

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Back in the saddle again.

Sometimes in Delhi it feels that there is nowhere to turn  except toward everyone else. The guards know when I come in at night. The gardener wakes me in the morning. My landlord peers out her window every time the gate clangs. A man watches me from the construction site next door as I sit on my roof to type this. I walk into a secluded tomb in a park and interrupt a couple’s stolen kiss. A cow bellows. The maid yells at her husband. The subzee wallah shouts his wares. Everyone is everywhere around me.

But sometimes, on a Sunday afternoon, I let my friend kidnap me and whisk me away down the most choked city street, beyond buses and ambassadors, over flyovers and across highways. And then we make a left turn under a decaying railway bridge, skip along a dirt path and then, it is there: stillness.

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She plops a too-tight cap on my head and tells a boy to bring a horse to the stairs. I boast I know what I’m doing. ‘But the damn saddle is English and I’m from the West!’ I shout when I almost fall off. The boy stifles a laugh and I’m up. She springs up on her horse and we canter out slowly past riding rings and men swinging polo bats and children trotting in a row. And then, past ivy creepers and acacia trees, we’re suddenly lost in a forest. I ask if there are tigers there, half-joking. She says, no, but there may be leopards still. Just as she says it, the bushes start to sway in front of us, and a flash of white streaks the path. I nearly scream. It is not a leopard. It is a pig. Not even a wild one at that. It ambles off in another direction.

I can’t even hear cars honking anymore.

The horses start to gallop through branches and brambles and I’m almost positive my horse is about to twist her ankle. I don’t know how to hold on. We’re flying over dirt canyons and across tangled weeds. My friend looks back at me and grins, “You don’t like trotting, do you?”

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She slows down. She lets her horse amble, eating the weeds. I like this pace. My horse hasn’t noticed once that I am the one holding its reins. But at this pace I can pretend like I’m in control.

Peacocks mew their mating call. The tree branches slice the setting sun into orange beams. It’s shady and silent and still. We do our best to break up the quiet by gossiping loudly. It’s allowed. We haven’t seen each other in months. I gobble up her summer dramas. I tell her of my silly tragedies and triumphs.

The world seems very far away. I wish it were 1920. I wish there were a stately old bungalow we could trot back to for tea and gin fizzes. I picture the riding outfit I would wear. I wish I had a horsewhip.

It is twilight and I am happy.

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3 Comments

  1. raju says:

    evocative
    i am also noticing how clever you are getting on this blog at using images of yourself that don’t show you. smart, mel. and effective.

  2. Melissa says:

    Good to see you paying attention!

  3. Sarge says:

    bramble and amble … if you were walking on a revery, i would open up my doors and feed you tea and cake for weeks, no months, no years.

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Road block.

Ever since they put in a bus line down the middle of Mathura Road (cutting off half the street in the process), the traffic has been one giant organism, slowly inching its way forward. The ever benevolent city government thought to add a walking and bike path on the opposite side of the road from the bus stations, disregarding the possibility of walkers actually wanting to take the bus. That lane, of course, ate further into the road, exacerbating the traffic problem it was supposed to fix.

In the great Indian tradition of making do with what you have, Indian motorcyclists, the occasional rickshaw, and the daring car or two decided that the term “bike lane” included them as well. Driving over a four-inch curb, they merrily speed past the traffic. I suppose I shouldn’t say speed. There are plenty of law-breaking motorcyclists. Steady crawl would perhaps be more fitting.

In the face of such blatant disregard for signs, that benevolent government stepped in again and hired an army of guards to stand literal gate keepers along these paths. Lanky, young men in uniform stand next to flimsy, plastic barriers, menacingly waving their batons in hand.

These obstacles mean that every hundred yards or so, a veritable roadblock of motorcyclists gather round the guard and his solitary wall of defense. What usually occurs is the motorcycles gradually pour over the curb back into traffic and then clamor up the curb a few yards onward to get back on track. Every once in awhile the guard lazily allows a small gap, just big enough for one motorcycle to drive through the defense.

During a particularly gnarled point in traffic, as a wave of riders waited their turn to pass through that single slot, one man decided to take matters into his own hands. Disregarding the rather large baton in the hands of the guard, he kicked out at the road block. It clattered to the road. The flood gates opened. Bikes poured through. The guard, twirling his baton, looked at the onslaught and decided gossiping with his friend was far more a priority. When the sea of bikes trickled down to a stream, he ambled onto the road, picked up the road guard, and set it back into place.

A few minutes of bikes meandering off the walking path into traffic passed. And then a motorcyclist yelled at the guard. “Move that, please!”

Another great Indian tradition? Hospitality.

The guard promptly broke off his conversation and tilted the road block just far enough to let one motorcycle through.

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