Longtime townie Jeff Brunell finally returned to school just before turning thirty. He’s in southern India, completing his graduate field work and taking stock. These are his findings. To see the entire series start here.
The new haul: unfamiliar bloating by my left upper molar and the mosquitoes that have infiltrated my calm room. Stomach is intermittently a mess.
Today was a delight.
Mr. Rahul told me, “Oh yes, nine is fine- no problem,” when he left me at my quarters last night, but it sure seemed like I was late to breakfast. Alone at the table reserved for our pack of visitors, I ate quickly in the otherwise empty dining hall. I dumped three tiny cups of scalding and excellent tea into my sputtering mind while rushing thru my toast. And then he found me there, dining plainly out of rhythm with the respectable world. I was concerned that I’d quickly run afoul of the director.
I asked which way off of campus led into town, and where I might find a universal outlet adaptor. He told me not to worry; someone would take me tomorrow. Likely rude, I pressed that I needed it today and would gladly wander alone. Mr. Rahul countered that he would cancel his afternoon plans to escort me, though this would plainly be of inconvenience. Stymied, I played my usual dumb and said, “Oh no, it will be fine,” like I hadn’t quite understood, when what I meant was, I am desperate for some time alone.
Light and patchy rain caught me on the easy walk out past the edge of the map. The stores faced a busy and unbeautiful highway, two frantic lanes each way and wide enough to interrupt the contiguous experience of a town. One could cross, with determination and some time spent teetering in the narrow median, but I didn’t need to. Everything on this list I’d been dreaming up for weeks, I found within a couple of blocks. Everyone who told me to buy in bulk, buy in advance, and bring an extra suitcase for the whole mess: you gravely underestimated the long arm of globalism.
I paid too much for some hangers; dry-skin cream; a stylish hand mirror to keep the chaos in check; some soap called Park Avenue.
I paid fair rates for a laundry line and clothespins; talcum powder; a universal wall adaptor; an okay towel, though I should have purchased one of linen rather than cotton; several luxurious rolls of toilet paper; an Indian-style straw broom, the length of which is mostly comprised by the bristles themselves. In a swashbuckling and uncharacteristic show of charity to myself, I purchased a floor mat; supposedly for exercise and meditation. So far, I’ve sat on it and it’s a really good thing.
Unlike in Mumbai, where so much merchandise was unlabeled and subject to haggling, the prices in Kalady were as marked. Several clerks even rounded down such that rs.52, for instance, became rs.50 in my favor. No one seemed especially surprised or impressed at another foreigner drawn by the college. A young guy cramped inside the window electronics shop helped direct me toward a place that sells towels; there, one of the kids working the counter said lovingly of the other, “she is craaazy,” while making the international index-finger-to-temple twirl. At a hardware store, the owner winked at me in good cheer and pointed to a sticker above his desk which read, “No Other Gods Before Allah,” after I’d implied by my university affiliation that I was some kind of missionary jerk.
A fresh mosquito net waited for me outside my dormitory room. The long-coveted adaptor worked and it was obscenely satisfying to finally rig up my drying line. I set some clothes away and generally settled in while listening to an inherited iTunes mix on Zach’s computer. Again, I gravitated to the Beats Antique and Massive Attack, exactly what I’ve been in the mood for since arriving in India: somehow ancient, spooky, glitchy, and lush.
Lunch: the other five students had arrived sometime after midnight and we sat as a full group for the first time. I was pleased that rapport with Michele and Lena seemed to be intact, and our mealtime conversation suggested that rapport with others would come easily enough. After eating, there was an informal question and answer session regarding facilities and tomorrow’s schedule. It will be some days, I think, before we get any real sense of whatever lies ahead.
We compared notes in the shadowy house assigned to four of the seven girls, a place I’m not allowed to be after 7:30 at night. With the mid-afternoon gloom setting in, we decided to skip naps in favor of venturing into town. A deal: I’d accompany Michele, Lena, and Kali into town and show them all the great toilet paper spots. They would pitch in on a rickshaw to the famed nearby mall.
It’s the largest in the state.
Groceries secured, we faced the typical cab fare mystery: the first driver asked rs.360 and the next, just rs.175. By kilometers, we’d learn later, an honest price would have been nearer to rs.40. The mall was just far enough from campus that a walk along the highway felt too ambitious for day one. We ponied up.
Halfway there, I was heartened to spot a music shop with guitars in its window. One of the returning students had told me that he found a decent one for under $20 USD, and though that number seems inconceivable, I hope that he isn’t too far off the mark. An instrument is the next key purchase, and a cheap guitar is probably my best bet. I considered getting a tiny keyboard instead, for portability and the freedom of limited options, but what I’ve heard appears to be true; electronics are priced comparably here.
This I confirmed at the mall’s gadget superstore where, at length, I settled on a microphone/headset combo for rs.499. The other options were either more expensive (say, tenfold) or lacked compatible accessories. The one I picked appears ready for hot customer service action and will suffice for Skype, music after hours, and making recordings which will likely carry a signature flavor of mucky reverb roominess. Besides keeping this very public log of sandwiches and hurt feelings, I aim to devote some of my post-curfew hours to compiling the songs that I write but rarely share and never organize.
We lingered at the mall longer than planned – a couple of hours, I guess – and it’s comical, pitiful, and tragic how pulled toward the West-in-India we are, though loathe to admit it. We stopped into the board game store; the expensive clothing department store; the shop with heavily-sequined ladies’ apparel; and another outpost of the deeply mediocre Café Coffee Day.
An older man at the next table broke off from conversation with his wife and introduced himself as a former resident of Houston, Texas. Within a couple of minutes, he was telling us about his book which apparently centers on the massive New York tsunami of 2020 and the assassination of Barack Obama. We were somewhat taken aback, and he doubled down, accusingly: were we Jews? Kali excused us and told me, once we were out of earshot, not to encourage crazy people. I wondered to what extent his views are shared by others in his generation, and whether he’s more a philosophical product of India or the U.S. Well, nevermind- we stumbled into the mall’s arcade zone.
Here were a rollercoaster, proxies for the tilt-a-whirl and pirate ship and a squatter version of that freefall boardwalk ride. An ice rink with terrible ice hosted some marvelously spasmodic attempts at skating. Lena and I speculated that with our middling north country skill sets, we’d find celebrity here if we’d only just lace up. Instead, I suggested that she take a swing on the King Hammer test of strength; my treat. As she took a few casual motions in practice, a crowd of at least forty gathered. When she struck – 23/25ths of the way to the high score! – she netted eight tickets and drew wide applause. The crowd hung around while I faced Kali in air hockey, a match which I lost 7-6 after the usual series of questionable calls.
Before leaving, four teenage boys asked Lena if she’d pool her eight tickets with their 42 that they might buy a box of two dozen Matchbox-style cars. Deftly, she bargained to keep two and the boys agreed, only to learn that the 50 ticket cost was per vehicle. Laughing, they gave the one car to her and smiling, no strings attached, bid farewell.
We realized that we’d been carried away in outstanding, orgiastic capitalism and had only 15 minutes before we were expected at dinner. We found a rickshaw driver who spoke no English and knew Kalady town but not our college. Chuckling kindly, he indulged the directions I pointed over his left shoulder.
Dinner was mercifully mild, as I’ve settled into something like a dozen trips to the WC daily. Though I hope the pace slows, it appears to provide rapid slimming effects. To close on a related note: at the mall tonight, I finally used a Squattie for the first time. This was a really nice establishment; the stall door was of a heavy wood, tightly sealed to floor and ceiling, with burnished steel handle. Every other surface was immaculate tile, and in this context, it really did feel like the sanest, greenest, and healthiest way to shit violently.
And in a message from the 5th dimension, the house muzak played one re-imagined American pop song after another – Summer of ’69, Rock Lobster, Sea of Love – each drawing from an unlikely palette of pedal steel, opiatic beat counts, and gratuitous orchestral swells.
Blessed thing, no question.