This morning’s SSLC Mentor touches on Biology and is all about hepatitis symptoms, effects, methods of transmission and prevention. There are also a few interesting multiple-choice questions on the subject of food adulteration, which is still common in India. Apparently coloured saw dust is used to increase the offering of chilli powder, and black papaya seeds for pepper.
This recalls to mind an anecdote from a collection of essays by the wit and general brain box, Gita Mehta, whose writing I have been delving into. She recounts the story of a Mumbai University Professor who became so depressed about India’s rampant food adulteration that he tried to take his own life with poison. Unfortunately (or fortunately) when the contents of his stomach were later analysed it was found the poison that he had taken was so adulterated that the whole packet wouldn’t have killed a mouse.
Another curious item that demands to be read is entitled, Man Marries Rape Victim. A man who is out on bail and undergoing trial at the Fast Track Court recently married his victim at a temple. The marriage was agreed upon by both families. The rapist said he wasn’t marrying her to get a reprieve, but because he repented his act. Due to the injustice he had committed against the victim, no one else would be willing to marry her. The victim expressed her willingness and stated that she ‘had faith’ in her new husband. The girl had been married before but the couple had parted after seeking permission of the village panchayat, as they were not getting on well. The girl had returned to her parents and was eking out an existence as a labourer.
Is it just me, or do you get the feeling this story is awash with half truths and lies of omission? I wouldn’t mind knowing the true motives of both parties and what really happened.
After I pay my 35RS for my dosai and two coffees, I carefully walk down the thirteen narrow steps to the street and duck my head under the sign saying ‘Keep Slippery’.
I trudge up the hill past a line of tuk tuks and climb onto the Virajpet bus at the end of the bus stand. I’m quite happy to take the ‘inexplicably empty seats' in front behind the driver. I could have explained to DM that sitting over the hot engine is not the first preference of most Indian ladies. I settle in for another rip-roaring ride for the hour it takes to get to Virajpet.
All buses have their shrines and garlands, but this bus takes the Indian cake. I count six jasmine garlands, some of which are obscuring a twelve-inch wooden idol. There are various knick-knacks suspended from a circular mirror and above this, a small light bulb illuminates a 3” × 5” picture of Ganesh. On either side of this display, affixed to the dashboard, are two large pots of gaudy artificial flowers that flop in time with the motion of the bus – and wait! There’s more: two peacock feathers stick out from either side and the whole ensemble has a large artificial garland of marigolds hanging over it. In addition there is the often-seen picture of a deceased spouse or parent hanging behind the driver’s seat wreathed in yet more garlands of jasmine. I figure the driver is either a suppressed florist or he has a lot to propitiate the gods for.
We zip past pruned twiggy hedges and roadside trees whose trunks are painted white and there is never a hay-laden vehicle far away. On the positive side of travelling at this hairy speed is the fact that these drivers would probably ply this route several times in a day and thus be able to drive it with their eyes closed. Luckily I’m not close enough to see if our driver is giving this a burl.
In Virajpet I stop for a coffee break at a sweet shop as well as a few milk-based sweets, selected from the glassed-in display, based solely on appearance. As I sip my sickly sweet brew, musing about when I should make my next dental appointment, my thoughts are interrupted by loud drumming and whistle blowing. We all head to the shop entrance to observe a procession of young ladies clothed in two-toned brown salwar kameez. They are students of the Kavary Women’s College who are members of its Nature Club. Their banner is trying to raise awareness of forest fires.
At least today I know where I’m going and roughly how far it is. On the road out of town I notice some very flash houses, many two-storey with beautifully manicured and watered gardens. I smile, wave or nod to everyone I see with responses ranging from delight to stony-eyed focus on the road.
I cover the distance back to the junction Jeevanji dropped me at yesterday in about 45 minutes, which leads me to think the distance is more like 3-4km rather than 5. The day is slightly overcast and the road is heavily shaded. Perfect walking conditions.
Devangeri is composed of five or so houses close together on the main road and then more houses at wider intervals intermixed with fields of coffee. There is even a small counter shop where a few men have gathered to share some gossip. I ask for a cold drink and the shopkeeper brings me out a choice of orange, lemon or cola. I pass over the required coins but he motions for me to set them down on the top of a jar, from where he promptly picks them up. It seems I have progressed from Pointless Barren Single Woman to Untouchable very quickly. Or is it possible he is an ‘Untouchable’ and they still carry on these practices? Surely not with a foreigner though…
I spend the early afternoon exploring where every lane and road takes me. I find a shady hill on a corner to eat my three bananas and some biscuits. From my vantage point I can see three women washing their clothes in a dam and some children following a path across the fields home from school. A local bus trundles past and there is the odd jeep, car and motorbike.
On my return journey I prepare to wave again at the people in their gardens or sitting on their front verandahs. There is a gathering in front of one of the houses and they beckon me to come over. The women are making the universally understood motion for eating and they pull up a plastic chair for me. I half suspect they have gathered here to discuss the potential details of the strange visitor they had observed earlier.
There is an attractive young girl in her twenties sitting on the front step, her smile revealing perfect straight teeth. The baby girl on her lap wears only a top (you never seem to see these babies wee on their parents) and instead of her eyes being outlined in kohl, she has thick black disconcerting Elizabeth Taylor eyebrows marring her chubby face. I soon gather that the relatively old man sitting on my right and closest to the girl, is the father of this bub, as well as another bottomless purple balaclava’d one-year-old crying and holding onto his mother’s sari. Grandma has disappeared out the back to make me some chai and a neighbour stands in the yard with his young son who wields a carved plank marked up to look like a cricket bat. A few other people with children have also gathered at the entrance to the front yard and are all peering curiously in.
I’m interrogated with the usual questions regarding my origin, age, marital status and family members, but an older man with a cloudy blind eye on my left has a good smattering of English and we are able to move onto other topics.
‘How long does the coffee take to dry?’ I ask, indicating the berries laid out in the front yard.
‘Ten days, then roasting.’
‘How much does it sell for?’
‘55RS per kilo. How much for one kilo in Australia?’
I am embarrassed to say. ‘Well, we have to import our coffee fully processed and it’s a long way…maybe $10 to $20 depending on the brand – that’s Australian dollars…so maybe 340 to 600RS?’
He doesn’t seem surprised and simply nods his head. He tells me that their most recent haul was five cases at 10kg per case – 2,500RS. But they also grow pepper, which sells at the higher price of 145RS per kg. The young man in the yard demonstrates for me the delicate operation of a bunch of small green berries being pinched and twisted off the vine.
At this point a tuk tuk motors past and the family yell out and point at me. I’m glad he didn’t stop as I’d much rather walk.
Having finished my chai, I make my farewells and continue on down the road. The same tuk tuk passes me after coming out of a side lane and disappears over the crest of the next hill. As I walk over the hill myself I am met with the sight of the tuk tuk driver urinating off the side of the road. Why would he stop so soon when he knew I would see him?
I immediately start experiencing bad déjà vu as I was ‘exposed’ to a similar ploy in Patras once.
Tuk tuk man walks up to me and gestures that I should get in. ‘I will take you; please.’
‘How much to Virajpet?’ I ask.
Tuk tuk man shakes his head and pushes me on the bottom (like, what?!).
‘How many rupees?’ I demand.
This time he pushes me on the bottom (in case I missed it the first time) and my breast as well for good measure.
RIGHT. ‘I’m walking, thanks.’
‘It’s 6km!’ he yells after me.
‘I know it’s 6km. How do you think I got here?’
He pursues me in his tuk tuk. Pulling up next to me, he grabs my skinny wrist in a steely grip and says, ‘It’s 6km! You get in.’
‘NO!’ I wrench my wrist out of his grip and keep my fist in the upswing in case it has to make a speedy return journey. I glare at him as icily as I can in this heat and storm off.
He drives up yet again and pokes his head out of the door. ‘You kiss me?’
Offagoodness’ sake, I roll my eyes. 'Buggeroff!'
And thank goodness he does. It is only now I notice that his rickshaw is emblazoned with ‘Dream Girls’ on the yellow hood and ‘Coorg Tigers’ on the boot. HUH.
I’m sure Coorg Tiger would have been twice as strong as me if push had come to shove, but it could have been an interesting scene when one imperilled scream brought 37 of his half cousins running out of their houses.
I am steaming home now with my papaya-less day bag and I’m really enjoying the changing late afternoon light. I bend over to pick up a piece of rubber that has just dropped off my right sneaker. I have expended eight tubes of Quik Fix on these shoes this trip and I’m not buying any more. This is their last hurrah.
On a relatively straight stretch of road a neat little white car coming from town pulls up next to me. Inside is an elegantly coiffed older lady.
‘What are you doing here all alone?’ she asks.
‘Having a lovely time seeing the countryside. Are you from Devangeri?’
‘No, I have an estate near the next village.’
Yes. I guess you would.
‘My son works for Toyota. He sometimes visits Australia on business.’
We chat a little longer before she starts up her engine. Her parting words to me are, ‘You are very good looking!’
Aww, bless. So maybe this washed up old scrag has a few good years in her yet. Having said that, I remind myself with some chagrin that in India fair skin is the ultimate beauty asset. You can be as ugly as a hat full of arseholes and be considered attractive if you have fair skin, and if a beautifully made black person, quite undesirable. DM also observed this 35 years ago, and judging by the marital advertisements in current papers, little has changed in this regard.
Twenty minutes later a flap of rubber half the size of my palm slings off the front of my left Nike into the middle distance.
‘Oh come on you guys, just a few Ks more,’ I wheedle.
There is no doubt India has been my sneakers’ Waterloo. To paraphrase the slogan, I think they have ‘just done it.’