my week of selective amnesia

October 12, 2007

This week will go down in the history of my life as the Week that Disappeared.  This is because as soon as it is over I am going to obliterate it from my memory, exorcise it from myself.  Make it go away.  I have decided that writing it down will be the first step in this exorcism. 

It was as if on the stroke of midnight, the transition between Sunday and Monday, last week’s grace and this week’s turmoil, began.  Sunday night we spent in a restaurant with some friends, great food, and wine that was great by my Indian standards, but still tasted a little like feet.  Getting home involved the customary battle with rickshaw drivers who work on the basis of a simple formula:

Gender + Nationality + Destination + Time of day+ (Kilometres x 6 + 2) = Cost

I’ll explain.  The Kilometres x 6 + 2 is the standard fare for a rickshaw ride.  A rickshaw driver will almost never just turn the metre on for us though because we are western female foreigners living in Bopodi (i.e. distant destination).  This is a bad formula.  In addition is the ‘night charge’ that rickshaw drivers are fond of adding on as soon as the sky begins to darken.  This is a battle that we will never win, can never win but that we fight every single day.  Often the price they’re asking would be the equivalent of a bus fare in Australia, but it’s about more than the cost now.  It’s about being sick of being treated differently all the time because of our nationality.  It’s about the almost uniform unpleasantness of rickshaw drivers.  I guess it’s about power, a tug-of-war.

We’ve started lessons a few times a week with an Indian friend, she teaches us Hindi and in exchange Celia and Flo teach us French.  Much of the first lesson was about teaching us such useful phrases as “That’s not fair”, “You’re lying to me”, “Just put the metre on” and “Please give me the normal price” – all these phrases with rickshaw drivers in mind.  In the heat of the moment I can never remember how to say these sentences in Hindi, but we’re all practising.

So, back to Sunday night and after arguing with the rickshaw driver we got home. By the time we got to bed (via a few brandy sours and some very bad 80s French pop music, merci Celia et Flo) it was after 2am and Erin and I had a class at 10am the next morning, we really needed some sleep.  But sleep would not come.  I lay for 2 hours listening to the cacophony of beeping traffic (yes even at 3am), barking dogs and our creaking fan.  Finally I was so desperate for sleep that I got up and started doing uni work, hoping that it would be so uninspiring that it would send me to sleep.  And it kind of did.  Nevertheless this was at about 5am and I had to wake up in far too few hours. 

At 8am I dragged my unimpressed body out of bed and towards the coffee percolator.  But normal life wasn’t going to happen this week.  Our household had fallen under the spell of the Week that Disappeared and calamity had hit.  I’m not going to say much about this episode except that it was very frightening, and involved pain and panic and a realisation of how scary it can be when things go wrong in a confusing and foreign country. 

I began feeling very alone and frustrated.  I wanted to make the situation better and I knew that if I were in Australia I’d know exactly how to get what was needed.  But nothing is simple in India.  Phone numbers weren’t working, or if they were working the required person was out to lunch.  The episode ended as happily as it could have done though.  New friends living locally and old friends living a long way away all lent so much help and advice and I realised how much of a support network really is available to us if we need it.  It was a good realisation.  So by Monday night calm had settled back over our apartment, at least temporarily.

Appendix:  Australian Consulate is useless and unhelpful for all their hypocritical rhetoric of support for overseas citizens.  I’d suggest going straight to the American Consulate or the nearest five star hotel if bad things ever happen when you’re overseas. 

 

On Wednesday Erin and I had an essay due on Dalit literature for the infamous Raj Rao.  Thus, Tuesday involved copious amounts of coffee, procrastination (for me that involved sweeping and mopping the floor, face masks and cooking elaborate meals) and very little sleep.  My procrastination (but not my essay) was helped by the fact that we had carpenters and tailors over all day.  Erin and I had organised for a clothes hanger, post box and curtains to be made but of course they didn’t turn out exactly as planned and so there was much negotiation and frustration in stunted Hindi and English. 

I was also exhausted due to lack of sleep on Sunday night and not being able to catch it up on Monday night.  For much of the day I felt as if there was a layer of cotton wool separating me from my brain.  Concentration was difficult (obviously not helped by my penchant for procrastination, the presence of obnoxious carpenters who enjoyed poking through our belongings, and too much coffee). 

I finally finished the essay in some passable form at 4:30am.  The day had been a too-long and painful slog, though punctuated on the stroke of midnight with the transition to my birthday.  My housemates helped me celebrate this in style by wrapping a gaudy ashtray in toilet paper, writing ‘take it easy’ on it in permanent marker and taping a burning cigarette to it so it protruded out the top of the ashtray like a birthday candle.  They came into the living room where I was working, turned of the lights and put on the song ‘Take it Easy’ (I think an 80s French pop song – a genre of which my French flatmates are connoisseurs). 

The ashtray was accompanied by a tacky key ring with my name on it that is powered by some solar arrangement and that flashes obnoxiously.  I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate my Indian birthday.  I think this episode should be exempt from my Week that Disappeared – a sustaining interlude. 

You would think that after so little sleep and at such a revoltingly early hour of the morning I would fall into bed and fall straight to sleep.  But alas no I lay awake listening to the outside noises for a few more hours, coughing incessantly – I was getting sick too.  In fact it was the coughing more than anything else that ended up keeping me awake for so long, my own addition to the Bhau Patil (the road we live on) symphony. 

After a perfunctory 2 hour sleep I once again dragged my unhappy body out of bed and towards the percolator, my breathing now punctuated with coughing, my voice reduced to a mannish croak. 

Fortified with coffee I stepped out of our apartment building.  I walked straight into a funeral procession.  No, seriously.  There was a funeral procession marching down our street and they had reached our end of the street just as I exited the apartment building.  There were lots of men in white, women in technicolour saris and a dead body lying in a glass casket garlanded with flowers.  This was the first image of the first day of my 22nd year – the greying body of a dead man being carried down the street by mourners.  I was to find out a few days later that the man was a mafioso who had been shot in our street that morning.  So probably as I was coughing up my left lung this man was being shot.  Bad omen?  It felt like it. 

Next was the usual battle at the rickshaw stand, as detailed in a previous episode.  Because I was alone that morning they were even less willing to compromise than usual and in my tired and fragile state I was less willing to accept their double standards.  It ended up in a fight and with me having to walk up the road until I could hail a rickshaw who would play fair.

I had very diligently woken up early so I could attend a politics class that I had not attended (for various reasons legitimate and not so much) for almost a month.  The teacher is Madame Pandit who I have mentioned in earlier blogs.  Her most defining characteristic is her presence, the volume of her voice (and actually her body), its grating tone.  This was not something I felt like confronting in my drowsy and sick state, but despite this I dragged myself to the classroom somehow.  Madame Pandit, however, did not.  I’d turned up for absolutely no reason.  I was not happy.  There was not much point in returning home as I had class at 11am, so I bided my time at uni.  At one point mum called me to wish me happy birthday but the reception is so bad at uni that the call was cut short.  This depressed me even more, all I wanted at that point was to hear a familiar voice. 

At 11am I went to my English classroom only to find this one empty too.  Was it some public holiday that I was not aware of?  It had been Gandhi’s birthday the day before, but I was not aware of anything particular happening on October 3rd, except my birthday of course, but that wasn’t really cause for a national celebration.  I went and found my English teacher who was as ignorant as I was as to why no one else had come to class.  It’s obvious now that it was a conspiracy of the Week that Disappeared but at the time we were both quite confused. 

I had one more class that day – Gender, Culture and History.  This was a course I was really looking forward to, I have done a similar sounding course at UNSW which was great and I was keen to get an idea of the Indian approach to feminism.  In reality it is the most mind-implodingly boring course I have, for a million reasons that I won’t go into.  It makes my brain want to curl up and die.  It just does.  Because it was, after all, the Week that Disappeared, this class was running.  I don’t even know what we covered, I was inebriated with tiredness.  I could only concentrate on keeping my eyes open.  This was such a struggle that I had to devise various ways of achieving this including drinking copious amounts of water (a mistake if you’ve ever seen the women’s toilets at UoP) and taking my shoes off and placing my feet of the cold ground to shock myself into consciousness. The teacher indulged herself in 30 extra minutes of class.  I thought I was going to explode with the desire to get home. 

Finally I stumbled out of the building and tried to find a rickshaw to take me home.  There weren’t any, or not any willing to go to Bhau Patil road at least, even though it’s a mere 10min drive.  In the end I was forced to drag my unhappy and unwell body 3km down the road and up 5 flights of stairs and…home.  I fell on my bed and had a grateful birthday phone call with Dave. 

In the innocence of Sunday night, pre-Week that Disappeared, I had agreed to go to karaoke for my birthday.  This now seemed like a mistake on a number of levels, not the least being my complete and utter lack of singing ability.  People try to comfort me, “no really Lucy, you’re a great singer” or “of course you can sing, you’re just too self-conscious about it”.  And I appreciate the support, but let’s be honest.  I cannot sing.  It’s a hereditary thing, and those of you who have attended family birthday parties will know what I mean – our rendition of “Happy birthday” sounds like cats mating (no offence family, but we all know it’s true).  One of the most comical and excruciating moments of my life was my piano exam, the bit where the examiner plays a tune and you sing it back.  Cats mating.

So you get the picture: it’s bad and karaoke is not my thing. Nevertheless, complete with alarming sounding cough and croaky man voice I dragged myself to this karaoke bar called “Not just jazz by the sea”.  I didn’t hear any jazz and we weren’t anywhere near the sea so that was a bit confusing.  Appallingly cheesy macaroni and lychee flavoured margaritas increased my confusion. 

In the end it was a good night.  Heaps of people turned up, most of whom I had never met in my life.  My birthday wish to not sing was respected.  The whole group of people who didn’t know me were dragged on stage by the karaoke-coordinator-man and forced to sing “Happy birthday” to me, both verses (I had no idea there was a second one, maybe it’s an Indian thing).

Some randoms engaged in some very energetic Bollywood dancing to some Hindi song sung by a man with the most scarily versatile voice I have ever heard – he could master anything from Barry White to the Buggles.

We were kicked out of the karaoke bar at 11:30pm due to the newly adopted curfew for bars here.  We hadn’t quite quenched our party mood so we returned home, drank brandy sours and danced to…bad 80s French pop music (merci Celia et Flo) and I got to open my present which was a beautiful mirror from FabIndia, my favourite shop in Pune. 

This time I lay down in bed and fell asleep, finally, gratefully, deeply for 12 hours, not waking up until 1:30pm the next day.  The only problem with this was that I had slept through a meeting for a sociology group assignment which had been at 12:30pm.  I figured my health superseded some presentation due in 3 weeks and sent my group members an apologetic message. 

The rest of Thursday went relatively smoothly considering, apart from cutting myself while chopping onions and bleeding everywhere. 

Friday began with me spilling boiling hot coffee all over the sensitive inside of my wrist and burning myself.  I battled on nevertheless, wrapped ice in a tea towel, wrapped this around my wrist and went to class feeling very sorry for myself.  I sat through class with the ice on my wrist but by the time class had finished all the ice had melted and my wrist was starting to burn again.  I was supposed to wait around for an hour for another group meeting but I couldn’t hold on, I really needed to get home and stick my wrist under water.  My only alternative was to spend the next hour in the uni bathrooms with my wrist under the tap.  As I mentioned earlier, the women’s bathrooms at uni are a problem that I’ll refrain from going into.  This was not going to happen. 

I raced home via a chemist for some burn cream and stood underneath the tap for another hour and wrote another apologetic message to my group members.  The meeting was just to distribute reading material so I offered to meet them near where they live in order to collect the articles. 

My overzealous group member replied with an abusive message accusing me of laziness and having no respect for other people’s time.  Considering the week I’d had I was not in the right emotional state for dealing with such accusations calmly.  I sent an angry message back informing her that I was not conspiring to make her life difficult, that I had had a very bad week and that she should get a life.  In hindsight perhaps I should have thought first and messaged second (a slogan for our generation?), she’s quite capable of dobbing on me to the teacher (you’d think her 23 years would put her marginally above this). 

Our inevitable confrontation on Monday morning hung over me all weekend.  In reality Monday morning arrived and we had a strangely uninvolved encounter.  It turns out that she had already emailed me the articles on Thursday and so my attendance at the Friday meeting was completely pointless.  Estupido! 

My week really improved when the weekend arrived.  We went to a party on Friday night and hosted a party on Saturday night for my birthday.  We also acquired a pool (of the inflatable variety which we christened by squeezing our-four-selves and our cocktails in for about 10mins until the novelty wore off) and hot water and a shower (of the about time variety, achieved by withholding the rent from the landlord.  It worked like a charm – something that he’d been putting off for two months suddenly, when the money stopped, materialised in two days).  A long sought after copy of Titanic in English (not Hindi dubbed) also came into our possession, but that’s another story. 

Putting my Week that Disappeared down I’ve realised that I don’t really want all of it to disappear.  Maybe the Week that Disappeared isn’t a completely appropriate title.  Maybe I’ll rechristen it as the Week of Selective Amnesia (which works on more than one level considering the number of brandy sours, gin and tonics and rhubarb liqueurs I consumed). 

Qualifier:  I must sound like a really diligent student, dragging myself to class sick and wounded.  I’m not really.  It’s just that I’ve ended up missing a lot of uni because I went on a random trip to England, Scotland and Berlin (Scotland for my cousin’s wedding, the rest to make the long plane trip worthwhile), and really can’t afford any more absences.  I’ll write about my UK/Europe aside later, I can’t find the words for it right now.

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