Words by Chris van Ryn
“You could have told me!” I bleated.
I was on the phone to Adeela, who was in Auckland.
I had been taxied in one of India’s ubiquitous Tarta cars, a time warp from the 60s, to Pune, the industrial town about a two-hour ride from Mumbai. Pune is considered the cultural capital of the state of Maharashtra. Home to 4.5 million, it is the second largest city in the state.
I was lying on my back on the hotel room bed, strategically positioned directly under the rotating blades of a comforting fan, kneading my swollen abdomen after a dinner with Adeela’s relatives. I was recovering from culture shock.
Pune was the “in” place for the British, not too far from the thriving Mumbai, and having a cooler and thus more palatable climate. Pune’s claim to fame is that Gandhi was interned there for nearly two years by the British after his “Quit India” resolution. His wife Katsurba died there and was cremated on the back lawn of his “residence”, the glorious Aga Khan Palace, boasting a multitude of Italian arches, now a museum and testimony to Gandhi.
Adeela’s response was pragmatic. “It’s like that only,” Indglish for, “That’s how things are done there”.
Her brother-in-law had kindly extended an invitation to dine with his family. I was looking forward to sitting around the family table and getting to know Adeela’s in-laws, despite their limited English and my absent Hindi.
On arrival, after formal greetings of multi-lingual grinning and sideways head bobbing, we move to “the drawing room”, a colonial hangover in terminology. I am placed near a small coffee table while the rest of the family squeezes into the remaining space, several more than three of them occupying the three-seater.
I sign how much I am looking forward to moving into the dining room for dinner and a long ‘chat’. Food. Ah. Three woman leap to their feet. I smile broadly. For a while there is nothing much to gesticulate about. Poised to move through to the dining room, I am surprised to see the women return to the lounge and stack an impossible amount of food onto the tiny coffee table.
It’s like that in India - super-size-me loads everywhere. Trembling auto rickshaws for three have 12 people Spider-Manned to them. A cyclist is almost completely swallowed under the massive hay barn he sweatily transports, spindly legs piston-pumping.
If McDonalds is going to survive here - hopefully not, as, even though 800 million live on less than $3 a day, the 400 million of India’s burgeoning middle class are beginning to suffer from obesity - to fit in with the local culture it will need to introduce a double-big-mac-whopper-chomper as long as your forearm.
“Eating in here, are we?” my hand signals inquire.
Everyone smiles and settles back, watching me intensely. I gesticulate to the family to tuck in.
A sinking feeling in my about-to-be assailed stomach. My smile turns rictus. I’m to eat on my own. Solo. Singular. Just me, myself.
I’m considering a “time out” gesture. I look at the heaped food. Heads bob encouragingly from the sofa.
I hesitatingly reach for the platter of rotis, which masquerade as cutlery. In India, people eat with their right hand only. The left is reserved for cleaning up shop downstairs. The left hand is strictly a ‘no go’ when it comes to food.
The protocol is to fold a piece of roti over a portion of meat or rice and pop the whole lot (right-handedly) into your mouth, and nibble away at it. The three fingers of the right hand are used like a small trowel to scoop up quantities of rice. With a dexterous flick of the thumb it is swished into the mouth. It looks easy. It’s not.
I scoop rice and dripping gravy, and, without thinking, simultaneously reach for a chicken drumstick. I’m painfully aware of pairs of widened eyes directed at my pair of hands. This two-handed move, no doubt, is going to affect the rest of my life.
Ten minutes in, I have gravied the map of India on my shirt and populated it with rice. My forehead is covered in sweat, like the aforementioned cyclist. I, too, have embarked on a long and tortuous journey.
Despite the difficulties, I am aware of the pleasurable tactile experience of eating with my fingers. The closest thing we in the Western world have is ripping open a hot, freshly-baked bread roll.
However, in spite of my best efforts, there is no sign that the food emporium in front of me is reducing in size. Warm rice is scooped periodically by attentive women onto my plate. There is a conveyor belt of rotis, ensuring that I don’t run out of cutlery. I am compelled to match their generosity with heroic bouts of force feeding.
After what seems like a long time, they mistake my grimace for a grin. There are satisfied smiles all round. I leverage myself to my feet and attempt to find my centre of gravity. I signal, “Gosh, is that the time?” I am ushered outside, and, after a few point-and-shoot moments to capture the historic visit, I am delivered back to my hotel.
I am desperate to relieve myself and search frantically for the room key.
Adeela’s brother-in-law signals for me to follow him to a street vendor, one of the ubiquitous “convenience stores” that can be found occupying any semi-available space throughout India.
I lumber after him.
He leans over and rapid fires something in Hindi to the shrink-wrapped little man who sits cross legged on a waist-height shelf. Reaching into a tub of water, the man pulls out a dark-green leaf the size of my hand, and smears it with a little lime and a combination of crushed betel-nuts, cardamom, aniseed, sugar and grated coconut. All this is rolled into a large cigar which is “paan”. It is an astringent.
Despite the fullness of my stomach, I am surprised at how easily this delicious little parcel goes down.
I retreat to my room, and, while the paan does its work to clear my digestive system, I allow my hand to circumnavigate my swollen abdomen in comforting massaging strokes.
The following morning, after a cleansing, if somewhat spicy hot movement and a few clumsy left-handed manoeuvres, I exit my hotel room.
I’m looking forward to breakfast.