Thursday, October 16, 2008

Ladies who lunch

India was smiling at me today. And I was smiling back especially as one gentleman sang Justin Timberlake at me as I passed by his car window. It was 9:30a on a Sunday and I just finished working out with my friend Raghu. He has one of the few names I could pronounce right away and he had no idea that there’s a spaghetti sauce by that name. I explained it was sort of a Pasta masala, let’s say and since then he’s sent me text messages signed ‘Mr. Sauce’.

Most of Bangalore had long been awake I think in part because bars close at 11:00 p.m. and dancing is prohibited anywhere that alcohol is served. If you’ve seen Bollywood’s gyration generation on VH1 recently, you’d understand that this law probably has more to do with rampant hip dislocations than a wobble towards conservatism. It makes for early nights around here though. Not to mention that it was day four of a five day cricket match against Australia and the fervor hadn’t dampened in spite of dampening rains and India’s poor showing. I remember thinking after day one when the hoards poured from Chinniswamy hooting like soccer hooligans, “pace yourselves people! There are four more blasted days of this!”

I was particularly impressed with their rigorous cheering after a day in the stands where even Indians will admit it’s hot. Generally Bangalore is considered mild or even ‘cold’ by Indian standards and that’s why the coffee is heated to 190 degrees. The bubbling heat in combination with all the added sugar should be just short of hard-ball stage which would turn their latte into a lozenge all to escape a chill. I was incredulous as this was explained to me by the Barista as I peeled the shirt away from my sticky back. I have grown to accept the fact that my conditions are now permanently swampy and that, however unpleasant, I can support a new kind of ecosystem that I care not to ponder. At night I’ve considered kissing the ceiling fan in thanks but I’ve been reluctant to get that close to the blades in the dark when I’m groggy. I do, however fall back asleep smiling as I’m lulled by its sweet, sweet hum.

I skipped a couple of hours of blissful fanning the other night in favor of a couple of extra hours of crowded swamp-dwelling. I went to my first pub in Bangalore making what feeble contribution I could make emptying a pitcher of Kingfisher beer with friends while I pretended not to notice the sweat dripping down my clammy belly having, as usual, come straight from the gym. I was trying to remember the directions I read in a guide book that explained how to avoid the epic headache that the local brew can apparently give you and wondering why so many things in this country have a nasty backlash.

Even the favorite milk treats here squirt sweet syrup venomously and squeak against your teeth as if in defense and protest. I’m unwilling to eat anything that puts up that kind of tussle, sounds like a baby rat and is an unnatural shade of pink. As for the beer, I recall the first step had something to do with tipping a bottle upside down. At the time it sounded less like science and more like a Puja so I quickly forgot how it went.

As I pondered, Vinayak said, “do you have a curfew?”

“Wha . . .?” In Seattle before I left I overheard two different conversations on Broadway between young hoodlums casually talking about their ‘PO’ or parole officer. If the subject of a curfew had come up then, it would have had context. I also remember noting at the time that moving out of my neighborhood started to look like genius. Here, I couldn’t figure out where a curfew might be coming from and figured it might be yet another thing caused by the viscous mosquitoes.

With a puzzled expression, I finally said “I’m like . . . 40!?,” using a vocabulary implying that I’m like . . . 20. “Mine’s nine. In fact it’s 9:30 now, I’m surprised my father hasn’t called.” He’s 26 and just spent the last couple of years in the U.K. getting masters in finance which, in the present economy, may qualify him for a job teaching Karate Kickboxing classes at Gold’s gym. That happens to be what he’s doing while on vacation this week besides being punched in the arm and browbeaten by the ladies at the table who were drinking the local wine. It was bright fuchsia and tasted like fermented Snapple.

I’ve been taking his class as a ramp up to the kickboxing class that I teach in the mornings and also because he’s one of the first people I can talk to here that understands most of what I’m saying. With a background in Karate, he finds the preoccupation with caloric expenditure to the exclusion of skill-development about as perplexing as I do. We can’t figure out if the disconnect is between our mouths and their ears or their ears and their limbs but whatever inspires their locomotion in class has little at all to do with the directions they’ve been given. At least they aren’t terribly concerned about it but Vinayak and I talked over beer as if we had blown something up in a science lab and were trying to piece together what went horribly wrong.

The problem probably begins when they sign up based on an advertisement written on a white board as they walk in that says I’m NSCM certified – a qualification that doesn’t exist – and that the class will be spurred on by rousing heart-rate elevating music. Unless I’ve forgotten to close the door to the studio where bumpin‘ techno remixes blast in from the fitness floor, there is no music for me to shout over especially the latest hits by superstar Bryan Adams, a singer I abandoned at about the same moment tears over my junior high heartbreak dried up. Slight Indian ladies walk in and learn how to twist off a man’s balls set to the tune of my barking voice. India has no idea what I’ve just done given that most of the women I’ve met here have 1/10 of my muscle but ten times my attitude evidenced by the ladies at the bar who had Vinayak, with his advanced training, ducking their flying fists. I was scared of them in spite of my purple belt and before any of them could aim.

Frankly, I find the inevitable physical assault of some of the males here both justified and long overdue. I’ve had several conversations with strange Indian men here that have made me consider giving up peace, love and harmony in favor of militant feminism. On two occasions, I was tricked into what I can only describe as a job interview which is particularly accurate given that dating either of these gentlemen would have felt a lot like work. Apparently some men here believe all it takes is a thirty-minute rapid-fire Q&A to get that whole girlfriend thing handled over a cup of coffee.

One gentleman chatted me up while I was at a café writing and as he ticked each question off his list he sidled his chair ever closer to me until our knees would brush and I’d move my chair. Had he actually listened to my answers rather than wait for my mouth to stop making noises, he would have heard that I was annoyed and had he noticed the way I turned my chair to halt his advance he would have had the good sense to run away. What happened instead was a good ole Sicilian what-for complete with hand gestures and a very detailed list of reasons why he should leave white women alone.

I think he just waited for my mouth to stop making noise so he could apologize for something he didn’t quite understand. And this is where a good ball twisting becomes absolutely necessary.

The finale occurred after the following exchange:

“Are you married?” he said, with a nervous twitch in the form of rapid-fire blinking while he grinned in a fake ‘group photo’ sort of way.

“No” I said, shuffling my chair away from him further.

“You don’t want to marry?” with all the shock of an Indian auntie.

“I haven’t found anyone I’d like to marry, no.” I said in a tone that should have registered ‘please notice that I’m being dismissive.’

“You can’t find anyone to marry? After all this time?!” he said after having resolved the ‘how old are you’ question. Even the numerologist at brunch on Sunday felt compelled to point out that time was running out. He assured me I’d be wed by the time I was forty which caused me to put down my fork because that’s less than twelve months to fit in a wedding dress and I had allowed myself to indulge in a little Biryani after beating the 20-year-old Raghu’s time in the workout that morning. The fortune-teller gave me his number so I could call in the next two months with ‘happy news’ though I’m told that ‘happy news’ in India generally means you’re pregnant which is the news my sister would have preferred from me rather than marriage.

“No. I have found men I COULD marry, I just haven’t found one I WANTED to marry,” I said.

Dear India: Please note the distinction so I’m saved from saying it again. Sincerely, Heather.

And as he chased me from the café puzzled that I hadn’t set up a time to meet again especially since it was clear that we were now dating, I wondered why violence isn’t a more legitimate form of communication. Instead I got in the car with Shiva and exclaimed, present company excluded, “You, no problem! But Indian men are blech!” hoping in spite of his inability to understand English that ‘Blech!’ might be universal. I had already explained to him when he asked me a few days earlier, “Drive other country? No English? Three years, maybe?” that he could be a driver in another country because women don’t expect men to understand them even after a couple of years. Heck, I myself recently proved it. And then he grinned like he knew what I was saying and that was close enough.

I was however hoping for a deeper level of understanding when I got in the car a couple of days ago on my way to Kanteerava Stadium. It was finally my day to work out with the Olympic Lifters and Power Lifters who had just returned from a competition in Mysore over Dessera and Shiva was driving me to the stadium. I told him that I was scared and I threw in a pouty, “I feel fat!” since he couldn’t understand what I was saying anyway and wouldn’t think to tell me I was being ridiculous. Shiva is my best friend.

“Shiva, you don’t understand! I saw a skinny, little Indian mom who can deadlift 151 Kilos!” I told him.

“How much you lift Madame?” he asked in a way that made it sound like the chorus of a pop song.

“Well, I can squat about 102 kilos,” I said a little shyly.

“Ooh, good job, Madame!” he said and then exclaimed “40 Kilos” and made motions demonstrating how he’d buckle under a 40K bicep curl all while he maneuvered through traffic. Then I grinned while he grinned. I marched into the stadium with that and nothing to lose.

Kavia set up the squat rack, alternated lifts with me and interpreted the directions from the head coach whose name has more than three syllables. It means I won’t have any idea how to pronounce it for at least a couple more weeks. I just smiled at her a lot and lowered my gaze to communicate her alpha status and then I nodded and thanked her when she said I’ll be competing in a month.

Chandana, who’s life tends to proceed as if it were planned or something, asked me all the questions that any reasonable person would ask as we sat poolside watching Diya’s swimming class at the Catholic Club.

Reasonable question one: “competing in what, exactly?”

“I don’t know”

Reasonable question two: “Who are you representing?”

“I don’t know”

Reasonable question three: “Where?”

“I don’t know”

Reasonable question four: “Can you do that?”

“I don’t know”

I sometimes find logic irritating. And it went on like that but I’ll spare the details.
The trainers asked none of those questions since they just appreciate competition and assume I’ll win because: 1. They believe there are strong Indian women as strongly as they believe in unicorns and fairies and 2. I’m ‘big’.

Ganesh offered his usual advice, “dye your hair black,” which is what he generally says because he thinks I’ll blend better and because I think he doesn’t like the looks he gets when I’m on the back of his motorcycle any more than I do. I offered my usual reply, “Shave your moustache.”

The friends back home who had the romantic notion that I would come here to marry underestimated the obstacle that is the south Indian moustache. It’s everywhere and for me it’s nothing more than a libido crusher designed to keep Indian men lonely and turn them back to the tradition of arranged marriage. Instead of ‘I’m in the mood for love,’ I find myself humming ‘Sabotage’ by the Beastie Boys and giggling to myself.

I’ve explained this to Ganesh who has the softest, smiling brown eyes. This is a feature I noticed only after staring at his moustache for a solid week. I told him, “THAT,” as I pointed accusingly, “Was invented by Indian mothers to keep white women away.” He laughed and nodded slightly with confidence, “It’s MANLY.”

Poor, sweet, Ganesh. I hope his mother has good taste.

Ganesh was the one who got me set up with the coaches at Kanteerava like he was returning a stray kitten. It’s partly because of his kindness and partly because I strongly believe that you never swagger into somebody else’s dojo that I’m committed to keeping my mouth closed and my ears open. And I was also drawn in by the promise of a 150 Kilos squat by a male coach there with the movement and the mannerisms of a capoeirista.

Didn’t I just complain that Indian men are not smooth talkers? He had me at 150 Kilos.

As I started day two of my training with snatch practice I could only laugh to myself. How many different languages must I be told I have an early arm bend? It’s a bad habit that somehow made it through customs with all the rest of my baggage. I saw the correction coming long before the Kannada started to flow.

As the female coach with the impossible name I can’t pronounce focused her energy on training for an upcoming competition, I was given directions by her husband Sanjay, a name I can pronounce, who coached me using that impossible-to-interpret head bobble, a movement I simply can’t understand. I would make a correction look at Sanjay who would wobble about and then look at Kavia, “Yes? No? Maybe? Not-so-much? You’ll never work in this town again?” I deciphered.

“He said it’s fixed.”

Meanwhile across the room, the other coach examined me with his third chakra. Something was disturbing the energy in the room and I had my grip on it. Every time my hands inched in ever so slightly to accommodate my aching and swollen thumbs he paused before picking up his bar, turned slowly towards me and scolded me with his eyes.

Heather keeps her mouth completely shut: Day two. My tasks over the next month are simple: Say goodbye to the birthday Burfi to make weigh-in, go to the stadium everyday at 2 p.m. to train, and try really hard not to get crushed under heavy weight. Oh, and keep my mouth completely shut.

I’ve already fallen into a routine with my nutrition in spite of the couple of lapses and the increase in carbohydrates that can’t be avoided here. Thank Allah for ‘State of Punjab,’ a fast-food kebab joint in Sigma mall where I can eat a decent serving of chicken Tikka for Rs 140 and practice eating with my right hand in case I’m ever invited back to a real Muslim restaurant with better food.

For the most part, it’s not a place where I’ll be judged no matter how awkward my table manners which is made obvious by all the teenage Muslim girls who hide in the food court booths letting their hijab down and holding their boyfriend’s hands. Every now and then one of them gives me a look and I feel like saying, “Oh, don’t look at me like that, sister! I’ll tell you what – I’m calling your dad. Feel free to call mine.”

In fact, I called mine the other evening to leave an accusatory voicemail after my birthday. I was out with my friend Tammy, who’s a spinning instructor from South Africa and happens to know more about the nightlife in these parts than I do. With her urgings to order a birthday cocktail, I scanned the happy hour buy-one-get-one-free menu and my eyes landed on ‘Gin’ in the form of Gin and Lime Juice. Given that Gin is my father’s drink of choice I felt as if I was tipping a glass to the old man at a moment when I was feeling especially homesick and especially lost since I don’t know anything about cocktails. I also thought the reference to gin ‘n juice was funny and smart given that sweeter drinks give me the room spins almost instantly.

By the end of the evening, there were several things I was unclear about. First, I’m not sure how that particular buy-one-get-one-free deal worked since drinks kept arriving in my hand and I’m not sure how long that went on in a country where happy hour begins at five pm. I’m also unclear about how and when I’ve agreed to go to Mozambique and why my background in martial arts will be particularly useful when I go though I recall that being an important detail.

Any unanswered questions regarding my arrival back on Cunningham Road that evening or any speculation regarding how drunk I might have been will continue to be available at any security guard station from here to the end of the street until something more interesting happens. I do know that all of the drivers now greet me warmly whenever I come home and at any moment I’m likely to be invited to sit on the curb with them and play cards. I have now been officially defrocked of ‘Madame’ and have lost any privileges associated with the title. I feel like Vanessa Williams.

Of course, this is my father’s fault and I made that clear on the voicemail that I left. I was only influenced by the fact that I’m teetering on forty which I’m continually told is a little late to get married though I don’t recall asking, and I miss my dad. The next two days taught me never to buckle to that sort of silliness again since my hangover was epic. Later, Tammy and I were convinced that the exaggerated aftermath suffered by the both of us was either because the gin was made in a local bathtub with the sort of sanitation I’ve come to expect here or because the drinks were chilled with unfiltered ice cubes. Of course my dad was sympathetic and assured me that he’d be shipping a birthday present to his homesick daughter in a few days and he was wondering how long it would take for me to get the bottle of Gin he’d be sending.

Should I elect to blow the Muslim girls' cover and call their dads I suspect it will have far greater impact than anything whispered from the guard posts in Bangalore. I have sworn off Gin for several reasons now: 1. I’m training more seriously, 2. I have to know what my weight is doing, 3. I love my liver and it loves me and 4. I don’t even want to know what was in that drink.

I’ve decided instead to focus on more innocent pursuits while I train. I’m embracing cricket simply because everybody here is mad for it including Shiva and Chandana’s mother. I explained to Chandana that I intended to sit with 'agee' during the next test match with funny hats and foam fingers. I enlisted Shiva and I explained that it would be a party.

“Beer?” he asked.

“No beer,” I said clearly finished with alcohol and not wanting to turn Agee’s party into a Kegger.

“No Beer? Where’s party?” Some things really are universal.

I told Chandana about this and she told me, “Oh, you don’t know my mother!”

“She drinks beer?!” I asked.

“No. Gin and lime juice.”