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Monday, November 9, 2009

The Apartment: Part II

Sand that washes to the side of the road like water against a jetty. It gets in between my toes. I stop and shake rocks out from my heels and arch.

No more than 50 yards from the street that I exited, lies a small bakery. A poor-quality bakery, but a bakery none the less. Everyday, as I walk to it, I pass the same things. An empty lot with burning trash. A pharmacy. Two Muslim bed-roll makers. A side road. A husband-wife run stationary store. A dry-cleaners that is run by a man I wave to, and he waves back. A small wholesale shop in which that owner always seems to look at me with a disdainful eye. Then a barber shop. A single stall cigarette stand. A small sagar (restaurant). A convenient store shrouded in goods jutting out from the walls, hanging down from the ceilings, and piled up from the floor. And finally, the bakery.

The bakery is quite popular among rickshaw drivers. Located at a junction between K.H.B Main Road and a side road, I always see auto (same as rickshaw) drivers parked there. They converse, they chat. The bakery is constantly serving chai , egg puffs, samosas, and little snacks for people to munch on. Around 4pm every day another man joins on the sidewalk. He sets up his table and puts out piles upon piles of movies. Hindi movies. Kannada movies. English movies. Hollywood movies. Bollywood movies. He even has movies that have barely come out in theatres in America.

I recently saw District 9. Excellent movie. Hard to understand the Russian subtitles though. These movies are simply someone with a video camera in the back of a theatre sitting there, recording them all. It's especially noticeable during funny movies. As something comical happens you hear people laugh before you laugh. Just hearing that is just enough ridiculousness to laugh again. Then you turn off the movie because you've had enough and want to see some quality. Hey, if the guy is still out there, they must be selling.

That morning was quiet and calm. Only one rickshaw driver sat there, and due to my frequency in the neighborhood, they've stopped bothering me for rides. They know it's my home. Walking up to the glass counter, the owner had just gotten his delivery of packaged goods. Some cookies, some crackers. Various treats. Not having eaten breakfast, maybe I could quell my hunger here and now.

"Hello," I said, greeting the shop owner
"Hallo! Good morning. Milk?"
"Yes. You have egg puff?"
"Ah, no sir, 2pm. Chai?"

That's right, the samosas, egg puffs and other warm snacks don't arrive till the afternoon. The owner looked around the store, seeing if there was anything else that could satisfy me. A short man, he had a lean body type. His young face bore a smile that was warm and inviting, but his eyes seemed focused on business. He was smart, as he has tried to play little tricks on me to take one or two rupees while giving me change. If I hadn't noticed, I wouldn't have figured out he was a business man. His short wavy hair swept back over the top of his head, he usually wore an off-brown shirt.

His small corner shop is no more than 6-7 feet across, and maybe 12 feet deep. 12 feet deep, but 12 feet cluttered. A glass counter in an obtuse horseshoe shape is the front for the shop, and just behind it is a small desk littered with cookies, and single-use packets of coffee, cereal, tea, and more. Behind that to the right is the large refrigerator with "Coca-Cola" proudly displayed on the top. Funny how Coke makes so many refrigerators to keep all the water they waste in India cold. But that morning I ignored the destruction coca-cola wreaks on water supplies and villages in India, I had to satisfy my hunger and get some energy for the day. To the right of the fridge lay a small doorway, and while you can't see into the doorway too well, chai magically exits from that small room. I can't imagine anything more than a bucket of water and a small stove fit behind there.

Thinking back on how he's tried before to cheat me out of a rupee or two, I would normally be upset. Anyone ripping someone off is bound to cause some disturbances. But after catching him once or twice, and arguing with him in the store - we've built a calm rapport. I come buy milk, 2 packets, sometimes some chai and an egg puff, and I go on my way. He's stopped ripping me off and I keep giving him business. The thing is, super markets charge more for milk, and other places leave milk out in the open, in the sun, until it sells out. This little man has milk all day, and its constantly refrigerated. It's convenient.

"No chai, only milk, please."
He goes to the fridge and opens the glass door. But instead of grabbing milk, he looks at me, waiting for something. That's right, I forgot to tell him how much.
"Ah, 2 packets."
"Two?" He confirms,
"Yes, two, do." (pronounced "doe" it is Hindi for two.) I also hold up the peace sign for him for one last confirmation.

That's how most conversations go. They know sort of what I say, but don't fully understand. There is always one last confirmation question. Either way, I do the same thing to them to make sure I understand as well.

I thanked him for the milk, and went on my way to eat some breakfast. Passing the single stand cigarette shop, the man in his little stall calls out for me. I glance over at him and he shakes a pack of Gudang Garums at me. I smile and wave my hand and keep walking. Gudang Garum are these Filipino kretek (clove) cigarettes, that are much sweeter tasting than your normal tasting cigarettes. I know, and a lot of people think they taste bad. But try a Gudang and then let me know. Either way, my friend told me about them here in India and once I bought a pack 2 months back when I first moved in. Since then - this man won't get off my back about them. Each time I pass, he wants me to buy a pack. Needless to say, they are not the most popular of cigarettes, and not many people buy them, and are therefore more expensive. I wonder if he knows about the Pareto principle . . .

As I make my way past the blue gate, I stand to one side for a man I see on many mornings. He comes downstairs dressed in all white, and faintly smiles. Every morning, his poker face looks at me, and looking back I can discern nothing about his personality. His hair line has receded to the top of his head, and he uses the rest of his forehead to show off three bright white chalk-like lines. In the center, on the middle line is a single dot, usually yellow or red. Not only dressed in white, but wearing a dhoti (a type of single cloth used by Hindu holy men to cover their legs), every morning I wonder where this man goes. Many people go to temple in the morning, but I wonder if this man has any authority in the temple. Perhaps a type of Hindu priest.

One day, when going up to the roof, I passed by an apartment with an open door and saw this man sitting on the couch watching television. Should he really be a Hindu holy man, I find it pleasantly ironic that he is living next door to a Christian pastor (John's father).

He passes me without a glance, but with again with that faint smile, and walks his way down the street. I watch him turn the corner, and disappear into the street. His presence is replaced with the dust of a passing rickshaw, or motorcycle. Walking up the stairs on the stoop, I walk past the set of nine mail boxes for the respective apartments in the building. My apartment is right there on the first floor. G-2 (ground level, apartment two). The ceiling is low at this point, as it is where the next flight of stairs is connected to the wall, so I be sure to duck my head slightly and walk carefully up to the door. Some mornings, you just forget though, and the bump wakes you up more than any sugary drink.

I stand in front of my wooden door, motionless, hoping everything is still inside. To my right is an older wooden door. The floor in front of this apartment is colorful and carefully decorated. But worn in. The door and the paint look very old. And for that matter, I've never seen anyone exit or enter this apartment. Then I look a little more closely and notice the little whole to see whose outside before opening the door contains no glass. Just a hole. I carefully peer inside, and look into the apartment. Unfortunately, I can't see much of anything, and at that same time I hear someone walking down the stairs. Turning around and rushing back to stand in front of my own door, I take out my key. The key goes in the lock, I release the lock, and wonder if John is still sleeping. I've already dealt with people in the morning, but it is morning, and I enjoy being alone.

Slowly, I move the handle downwards and the door creaks open. The apartment is quiet, still dark, and without movement. I smile at the temporary tranquility that I'm able to soak in. As I take off my outdoor chapples, I lose my balance and reach out for something to grab onto. My hand grabs the hand rest of the black faux-leather couch that is just a couple feet away from the door. A convenient place to leave your sandals or chapples.

Let's start from the door. You have the door. It opens and there is a floor mat in the corner where the door meets the wall. Then along that wall the couch. Then my desk with my computer and random things that I keep on my desk. Then a book shelf. Then two more desks. One with the office computer and on the last desk is John's computer. Along that back wall is a window that lets no light in.

Opposite side. The wall completely opposite the window I just mentioned has the TV shelf with movies and some books. Along the wall opposite the couch lies one chair, a glass coffee table, and another chair. These two single-seat chairs are part of the set that came with the couch. All black. Next you have another desk, that is exactly parallel to my desk on the other side of the room (say less than 5 feet). The desk touches a wall, and on the other side of that wall lies the hall way to the kitchen and the rest of the apartment.

I make my way past the furnishings, down the hall way, and hang a quick left to enter the kitchen.

"Finally, some milk," I whisper to myself. As quiet as I am trying to be, this is where the morning begins to get loud. It's not that I want to be loud, its that the things that need to be done to eat breakfast, clang and clash and are loud no matter how gentle you cook. The sandalwood incesnse had fully gone out, but the strong, herby smell remained in the kitchen. I took out the one-litre steel vessel that I always use to boil milk. It has no handle, and this is not uncommon. In almost every household you will find a small utensil that looks like a combination between a fork and a claw. It's only purpose is to pick up the no-handle vessels.

Well, actually I didn't have a potato masher so I used it to mash potatos once....

Biting the corner of one packet of milk, which come in these 500ml sealed plastic bags, I rip off enough plastic so that milk can exit without it being uncontrollable. Carefully, overturning the packet, I aim the torn hole into the center of the pot. Milk pours out, and being that it issues from such a small packet, 500ml looks like a damn lot in that small pot. After one packet, in goes the other.

I turn the knob to let out the gas from the approporate stove top. I then take my pen sized fire-started. One click. Two clicks. Three clicks. On the fourth, with a big burst, the flame comes to life underneath my milk-laden pot. My mouth waters as breakfast grows closer. Then one, two, three clicks and a small fire starts beneath the kettle filled with water. The wisps of steam that caught my attention earlier were gone. The misty moments in my mind that adorn every early morning was quickly fading away, as I have to think more efficiently. After all, I don't want the milk to boil over and cause a mess.

As the milk and water heat up, I look up at the contents among the still ugly off-blue shelves. Some cups, some wine glasses, some mugs. On top I see some plates, and various utensils. Small bowls, and a two-tier metal coffee filter. "A-ha! I need that!" I would say to myself and take it off the shelf. Still need something else though. To the right are containers of various spices. Tumeric, jeera powder, coriander powder, cinnamon, cloves, cardomon pods, chili powder, ghee. Still not what I need for breakfast. Theres a box of choco krispies that reminds me of home. I look on the shelf above that. Some oats, some winner chocolate mix, muesli, more cereal, more spices. And then of course, in the top middle shelf, where it always is, but where I always look last, the coffee.

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