Monday, April 11

Cousin Brother

In case it isn't clear yet, I love my family. They are generous, good looking, compassionate and down right hilarious. Like charming Setrawa, my house is a matriarch run by the food preparing goddess, Pushpa. Her husband is a strikingly good looking man with salt and pepper hair.

Their eldest children are teenage boys, one a slightly smaller version of the other. Pushpa and her sons spend much time talking and smiling together. The next oldest is my lifeline, Rakhi. She is beautifully mature for her age (13 years) and her household responsibilities suggest she is next in line to run the family. Her laugh is internationally contagious and often stimulated by the youngest child, Soonu. At ten years of age, Soonu is a bit of a runt but her small size suits her mischief making. Always sucking or chewing on a treat she is a tremendously happy girl.

Family is extremely important to Indians and they're typically eager to explain how they are related to one another, no matter how complicated. In Hindi, there's twice as many words for describing relatives to assist in such explanations. 

When my host parents left for twelve days to the other side of the subcontinent to attend a ceremony of dying, it was for a cousin brother. The children honored him by fasting. When I expressed my surprise in honoring such a distant relative, not even a cousin, but a brother of a cousin, I was assured it was a close cousin brother.

I remained confused about how close a cousin brother living 3 days away can be until I met two young girls at a wedding in Jodhpur. They were identical and inseparable. When I asked if they were sisters they laughed and replied in perfect Indian-English that they were cousin sisters. It turns out one uses the term to describe a friend who is also a relative.

Some of our cousins live in the lean-to of our house and the next house over. Pushpa is a foster parent to the three motherless children in the lean-to. The first will follow her older siblings with an arranged marriage set for the fall. The second is stunning (and tall) enough to be a model. She is my best Indian friend. The youngest is a marvelously affectionate boy of 10 years. 

The cousins in the next house over are the proud keepers of baby Kuishy and her two older brothers. The youngest of which is a definitional brat and the elder is my dear Hindi tutor. I see most of them everyday and watch them share everything from food to the responsibility of parenting. The treat each other ambiguous of which home they are from and I'm not sure they would even draw the line at sharing breast milk as I saw my mum teasingly bring out her nipple to entertain hungry Kuishy.

Saturday, April 9

Circadian Rhythm

Setrawa is at least 400 years old but I imagine the same as always. Many of the first homes are still inhabited. The dessert is stubbornly the same: consistently limiting options for employment, diet, fashion, and architecture then and now. However, despite the monotony, my short experience in Setrawa suggests it is also an eventful place within its persistent rhythm.

Bathed in sunshine, every morning I wake up on the roof to the chaotic summoning shouts of my early rising parents. I am promptly served chai followed by breakfast and then a bucket of water for my shower.

As the daily heat builds, I follow the sandy path to Sambhali. The early afternoon is for instructing the girls of the untouchable caste in very basic English. If they do well or work hard, Sambhali will sponsor them to get a private school education.

We switch gears with a chai break. A student delivers a plastic bag of chai and a pack of 20-20 biscuits from the ancient shack on the corner. 20-20's are small cookies with the perfect balance of sweet and buttery. They are my vice and I am completely addicted.

The late afternoon classes are a joy to instruct. Usha (the Indian teacher) has the juniors, Jen and Mool Singh (the Indian principal) have the advanced girls, and I the intermediates. The girls are attentive and keen. We recently expanded to letting boys in and I find the one or two that show up each day are exploding with eagerness. We finish the lessons with prayers, empowerment activities, and recitation of the school rhymes. Their collective small voices speaking English with Hindi accents is tear-jerkingly adorable.

Afterwards, I walk back along the sandy path past four shops and a handful of homes. The residents spill out of their shops and homes onto their stoops in the cooling evening air. They greet me welcomingly and everyday I feel increasingly attached to them.

In front of my home there is always a small herd of children playing, be it make shift cricket or some other fancy game. I often tease them a little before heading in to greet the rest of the family. The teenage boys returning from the family shop in the market arrive home around the same time as me. Many cousins and customers are always gathered inside our home which functions as a minor shop to support the family business. I take my turn holding perpetually-content-baby Kushi and retire to my room or help with chores if I don't have any invites for chai. Eventually, stuffed with home cooking, I lay a blanket on the roof and fall asleep finding constellations.

A rhythmic routine flows undisrupted by changes; however, everyday is treated with some important development or other. Sunday saw my brother Santosh's last day in Setrawa. He's chasing a job three days train away in Bangalore. Without a week long wedding to send him off, he left his whole world, a place where the bus stop is considered far away, for a chaos he hasn't even sampled.

Monday saw the ferocious attack of two giant bees that stung Jen and Soonu, the latter who is still fighting off an anafelatic swelling of her hand. Tuesday was when the headman paid a visit to Sambhali. Today has only just begun and we have already lost our milk goat and found it. The rhythm persisted without the goat as  chai was made from water (tasting good enough to rival Jesus' miraculous wine conversion). When the goat was found, fur matted with bristles, the milk was harvested for a second celebratory pot of chai.

I'll show you ethical food

Westerners savour 'homemade' bread even if it's just pouring ingredients from store-bought packages into a bread-maker with water from the tap. A month here has taught me to live with very little, which means the only garbage I regretfully discard in shrubs are 20-20 wrappers. Toilet paper, hot water, baby diapers, eggs, meat, and beds all seem like frivolous luxuries to me now. My meal arrives as a sheath of flour and bundle of vegetables.

Today a 10 year old showed me how to remove oil based paints from my hand. The trick is to get your hands wet and rub them in sand. I'm not sure how exportable this knowledge is, given the absence of sand in my front lawn, but it has given me a new way of looking at things.

I have lost access to global news. Instead I heard about the Japanese tsunami from my Indian dad who used very complicated gestures punctuated with the word Japan. I insisted my country was Canada, not Japan, thinking he was confused. It wasn't until he tied 'Japan' to one of his few other English words, 'finished,' that I clued in. When realization hit, Jen and many locals joined me in trying to decipher from the TV the magnitude of the situation. A challenging translation that was only accomplished with the cumulative English fragments of a dozen concerned neighbourhood men.