Udayan

I've been taking the day off.  Lounging around my little apartment in Santiniketan.  Eva and Barbara left today, so I have the place all to myself.

I now have a little modem that hooks up to my computer like a pen-drive.  It's not running at full speed yet. In India, the guy at the wireless shop comes to your house, checks that the modem technology will work with your computer (if you have a mac, that is), then lets you use his 2g sim card while he goes back to the shop to do the paperwork that will get you the 3g sim card, which, in my case,  he will deliver in the morning.  AT&T could learn a thing or two from this guy.

Lunch and dinner were delivered to me from Chandana's house.  Fresh vegetarian cooking, hot and ready to eat, twice a day.  I drank lime sodas and caught up on the Huffington Post.  I deliberately decided that I wouldn't write until tomorrow.  I figured a day off needed to be a complete day of rest.

But then I got a call from Nicole.  A friend of hers is staying at Leelu's and this friend called to say that Udayan, Leelu and Roy's "Boy", died today.

I was joking the other day with Barbara, Eva, and Chandana that when I was Indian, in a past life, that I must have been "working" class, which is a nice way of saying that if I really was Indian in a past life, I was probably a poor, low caste, servant.  I've come to this conclusion because all of the "help" at Leelu's, Mathew's, and now, here, have taken a particular shine to me.  So much so, that I've wondered if they recognize me as one of their own.  Chompa, the lady who lives behind the house here in Santiniketan, hugged me several times when she discovered that I was staying on.  That's kind of a bold move.  I don't imagine she takes those kind of liberties with all the people who stay here.  Randa, the cleaning lady at Leelu's, offered to let me stay at her house when she found out that I was leaving....she thought Leelu and Roy were kicking me out.  Appayan, the cook at Mathew's, wanted my address so that his daughters could write to me.

I cherish each of these honors.

Udayan liked me, too, I hope, but not in a particularly special way.  I thought he was great.  Udayan had been the house-boy, gardener, cook, dog-walker/groomer, late-night door answerer for Leelu and Roy for over 25 years.  He must have been a teenager when he started.  A slight, very quiet, warm-hearted soul, he plugged away day after day after day taking care of a family that wasn't his.  He must have sent money to his wife and three daughters who lived a couple of hours away.  He saw them a few weeks ago, during my first stay in Fort Cochin.  He went home to go to a family wedding.  Leelu and Roy had to make the eggs in the morning for two days.  It wasn't the same.  But then Udayan returned to his kitchen and resumed cooking, gardening, washing the dog, and sleeping in the pantry on a mat.  I noticed one day that there was an old discarded stool next to his rolled up bed.  On the stool were a razor and an ancient radio.  There were a few shirts folded nearby.  Other than that, there was nothing that spoke of him or his needs or his existence.

I made him smile a few times.  The first was when Roy taught me how to say, "Udayan, annekay oru kuppi venam vellum."  Or, "Udayan, I would like one bottle of water."  It was my first full sentence of Malayalam and Udayan was suitably impressed and surprised.  He did, of course, refill my water bottle.

The second time, I had gone into the pantry late in the evening to fill up my own water bottle.  I'd called out to Udayan to make sure he wasn't in the pantry or the kitchen.  I didn't want to disturb him.  He wasn't there, so I went in.  After my bottle was filled, I stepped out of the pantry just as Udayan was coming into the kitchen and we both jumped.  Then we both laughed.  Even before the news today, it was one of my favorite moments in Fort Cochin because it was so human, a shared unguarded encounter that left me feeling glad to be alive.

Lastly, when I left Leelu's the first time, I bought treats at the bakery for Udayan and Randa, the cleaning lady.  Randa wasn't there, so I gave both pastries to Udayan.  He looked in the bag and only sort of smiled.

I said, "Do you like those?"

He nodded vigorously and then really smiled.

Roy and Leelu were taking a nap when my car came to take me to Alleppy and the backwater tour.  Udayan was sitting in a chair by the front door.  I said, "I'm going."  Even though I'd given him sweets, the language barrier was such that he hadn't understood that they were a farewell gift.  So, he said, "Ohhhh," and shook his head a little sadly.  He ceremoniously got up from his chair and offered his hand.  I took it.  We shook hands.  It was as touching as a hug.

When I returned for those few days after staying in the hills, Udayan was not feeling well.  He wasn't smiling at anything, though he was by no means unpleasant.  I found out that his finger was bothering him and he'd been to the doctor.  Leelu had had to chop all the vegetables for her cooking class the night before, so her back was bothering her.  Roy was going back to Dubai where he works much of the year.  The whole house was discombobulated.  I tried to keep to myself and didn't really mingle with the household on the second leg of my Fort Cochin stay.

But, I remember wondering what would make Udayan's finger hurt so badly that he had to go to the doctor.  There was no cut.  I asked him what was wrong and he indicated that it was something like a hangnail.

I have no idea if what was wrong with Udayan's hand is related to his death.  It seems he was feeling so unwell yesterday that he went to the hospital, but they could find nothing wrong and sent him back to Leelu and Roy's.

It is a strange and complicated set of feelings I have right now as I try to articulate something of this man I hardly knew.  My affection for him is wrapped up in the jumble of emotions about class and caste, poverty and wealth that I struggle to understand every day in India.  It is impossible not to think about the softness of my days and the hardness of his.

I can joke about why it is that I've been so blessed with the kindnesses of the people who have been waiting on me, working to make my days so gentle and well tended.  "I must have been like them in a past life.  Poor girl makes good in the next life...."  But even if that was true, and we will never know, the fact is, in this lifetime Udayan never knew the kind of relaxed day I had today and that makes me sad.

My sadness is nothing compared to the utter shock and devastation his wife and children must feel, and his other family of Leelu, Roy and their three sons.  So, I hope you will send a little love to them today.

And I hope you will hold the Udayans of your life a little closer, those souls who make life more comfortable for others while asking for so little for themselves.


Talkin' Bout My Guy

For an actor, I'm generally a very bad liar.  I don't mean to imply that actors tend to be master fabricators except, of course, when they are getting paid to fabricate.  It's just that I don't tend to speak untruths in my normal everyday life.  I don't like it.  I get nervous. I feel dirty.  Even "nice" lies meant to protect someone else's feelings make me uncomfortable.

In India, however, I'm getting pretty good at it.  Today, Sandosh took me to see the Palace of Kerala's erstwhile kings ("Very Beautiful Palace").  Granted, I thought we were going to the very famous Dutch Palace with the amazing frescos of the Ramayana.  Sandosh had other plans.  No surprise there.

On the drive he plied me with more questions about my husband, wanting to know things like how long we had been married ("Uhhhh....six years"), what he does for a living ("consultant"), was it a love match ("Yes, of course.  That's how we do it in America.")  If he'd asked me what my husband's name is I would have said, "Guy."  I think "Guy" is a funny name for an imaginary husband.

I keep an imaginary husband to ward off unwanted attention from men.  I'm not sure it really works.  I wear a wedding ring and everything.  I didn't know, however, that in India no one wears wedding bands, so the ring doesn't really do anything but help me feel more confident about lying.

Sandosh and Shani have been married for 13 years after only meeting briefly before their wedding.

Roy and Leelu, too, had spent just one hour together before tying the knot.  Leelu copped to the first two years being difficult.  Gesturing with her hands, fingers splayed apart, she indicated that it took that long for their personalities to mesh.  After that, "they did not like to separate."  Here she slotted her hands together in a "Here's the church, Where is the steeple" fashion.

I was dumbfounded when Leelu, in answer to my question, "How did you and Roy meet?", said, "Arranged Marriage."

They are so solid, such a team.  The equanimity of the house is unquestionable.  They work together and sleep together and have made three "fine" sons.  I assume they are "fine."   I've only met one and he seems "fine", you know, in nice, upstanding way, not a mediocre Martha Stewart "It's a good thing" kind of a way.

Huh.  Arranged Marriage.  I'd somehow forgotten that that's they way they do it in India.  All the couples I've met have been so functional, loving, trusting.

One of my favorite daily sightings is seeing a couple on a motorbike.  The people change, but the picture is almost identical.  The man is driving, wearing a helmet.  His wife sits side-saddle behind him in a gorgeous flowing sari.  She has no helmet.  He is zooming in and out of traffic at break neck speeds.  She rides on the back of the bike as if she was gliding in a gondola on a smooth, calm lake, back straight, one arm ever so gently leaning on his back, the hand perched delicately on his shoulder.  She is all grace and ease, there is no clutching or panic or worry.  Sometimes she is even holding a small baby, or their helmetless toddler is sandwiched between her and him.


That's one thing you'd never see in America, am I right?

As hard as it has been for me to sometimes handle unwanted attention, I do have an appreciation for how very manly Indian men are.  This is a country where Men are Men and Women are Women.  No doubt about it.  You don't see wives driving their husbands around on motorbikes.  In fact, I've only seen two women, period, driving a motorbike.

In Malayalam, as Roy explained it, wives often call their husbands, "Achai", or in Roy's case, "Roy-chai."  Achai means "respected one."  When I asked what he calls Leelu, thinking there must be a feminine version of "Achai", he said, "Sweetie."  Leelu claims not to make any decisions without consulting her Roy-chai.  Even when he is off in Dubai for months at a time tending to his other business affairs.   If they were an American couple I would have thought these behaviors sexist and mildly offensive.  Leelu is more than capable of running the Homestay.  She's got back-bone enough for 10 people.  But I let that notion go instantly because the two of them are complete partners in exactly the way I would hope one day to be with my Guy.

Of course, Guy and I are a "love match" and that can be so much trickier.  We are always expecting that same spark we had in the beginning.  But six years is a long time to keep the passion fresh.  Lately he's always off consulting and I'm forced to travel by myself.  It is nice when we meet up, and we will in a few weeks, you know, because it's like a little honeymoon every time.   But then he starts telling me how to do the laundry and I tell him I do it just fine, if he wants it done differently then he can just do it himself and we fall into bickering.  I blame the travel, the time spent wandering by our lonesomes (and here I'm splaying my hands wide, fingers apart).  We need more (and here I'm weaving my fingers together) Meshing.

(See what I mean, the lies are just rolling off my fingers.)

The trouble is, what if a guy comes along who could really be my "Guy."  Wouldn't that be something?  If I missed my real guy because my fake Guy got in the way?....I am wearing his ring, after all.

Maybe I should just ask Leelu and Roy to arrange something.  They like me.  I think they'd probably do a pretty good job of setting me up.