Before coming to India, I made it clear to family members that I wanted to be a lot more independent on this trip. From the greeting at the airport, that initial request left a lot of room for interpretation:
Welcome to India! We’ve got you a cell phone, a personal driver, and people to throw rose petals in front of you, so your chappals don’t have to touch the street.
I start clarifying, but no one takes me seriously. On every other trip, this would usually be the point where I’d give up, but my resolve is a little stronger this time.
My opportunity arises as soon as my parents and aunt fall asleep. My grandmother’s in the kitchen making coffee (kaapi). I tell her I’m going out. She asks why, and I tell her I want to go “explore,” using the English word because the Tamil equivalent escapes me. The following conversation ensues (italicized words are in English):
Grandmother: Smoke? You started smoking?
Me: Not smoking… exploring!
Grandmother: Oh, you just mean you want to have a look around.
Me: Yes, I just want to have a look around.
Grandmother: You should check out the Vinayakar temple by the bus stop, but be careful! India’s not like America. They drive on the left side of the street here. And don’t forget to take the petal throwers with you!
With those words of advice, I’m off, holding the petal throwers at bay. I find the Vinayakar temple and see several familiar sights and sounds. There is almost no challenge, so I decide to create one: I must purchase something before returning home.
Why would that be a challenge? The answer is simple: since I can remember, I have never spoken in Tamil to a complete stranger. After browsing around a corner store for a few minutes, I build up the nerve to approach the counter. The clerk stares disinterestedly off into space.
“How much are the 5 Star bars?” I ask.
“We have two kinds,” he responds. “Fives and tens.”
“I’ll take a ten,” I respond and suddenly realize that I’m not sure whether that number denotes the size or the price.
I hold out a ten rupee note, but he doesn’t respond. My confidence is initially shaken, but then he notices it, takes it, and I leave. I breathe easier.
Upon returning home, my grandmother is still the only one awake. We start splitting open pea pods for dinner, and she explains how the price of peas have fluctuated since the floods. I tell her about my mini-adventure in procuring the 5 Star bar.
My mother stirs and wakes up. She notices the candy bar and is upset upon hearing that I just picked it up at a store.
“Do you realize how much chocolate we brought from America?” she asks rhetorically.
My aunt wakes up, bringing out digestives and bakarvadi to snack on with tea. She suggests sightseeing trips that I can take with my parents. I use the 5 Star incident above to frame what I want out of this trip: “I want the experience of someone who lives here, not the experience of a tourist.” It feels great to assert myself in this way, and the conversation that follows between my aunt and me is filled with ideas of how to make this possible.
As the conversation ends, my grandmother takes out a knife and divides the 5 Star bar as evenly as possible. She smiles as she puts a piece in her mouth, looks at me, and says, “Thanks for the chocolate.”