Janna White
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Drink a Coke and kill two goats… or don’t

May 27, 2010 @ 4:57 AM | Permalink

Over the last month, I've figured out two things about Mussoorie, the hill station in northern India where I'm currently staying. One: someone’s business is everybody’s business. The pastime of gossip here is as extensive and entrenched as the 94 viruses that were expelled from my laptop yesterday. Two: everyone has an opinion about everything.

I had hints of this even in my first days in the town. The cab driver who took me to the local Hindi language school was an old classmate of the principal, and a billiards partner of one of the teachers. The local tailor didn’t approve of my choice of a guesthouse because the family was Tibetan and didn’t speak proper Hindi. (They were, in fact, Bhutanese by descent, fourth generation Indian-born, and spoke no language other than Hindi, but no matter.) One of my teachers warned me that he wouldn’t say anything about the tailor except that I shouldn’t get involved in any financial transactions with him. Oh, and that he was illiterate. And so forth.

This intimate knowledge of people also extended to an intimate knowledge of person. When I came down with a stomach bug, my landlady took me to see her family doctor. I had two classes at school the next day, with Narayan and Priya. The discussions of my ailment began when both volunteered that I was looking particularly pale (or, in Priya’s case, yellow). The doctor I had seen was well-known. Priya was relieved to hear his name. He’d been practicing for a long time; he would know how to cure me. Narayan was disappointed. He’d been practicing for a long time; his methods were out of date. I had a bottle of Coke with me that my landlady had encouraged me to drink. Priya approved -- Coke was a great bacteria killer. Narayan had “insider knowledge” that the government had ordered the company to put warnings on all of the bottles that the drink caused cancer and practically threw the bottle out himself. The momos and thupka that my “Tibetan” family would make for me during my illness were deemed by one as sufficiently mild and by the other as nutrient-deficient. 

As it happened, the doctor hadn’t impressed me much either. I called a close friend in Banaras who had worked with foreigners for many years to ask for his opinion. I decided to follow his recommendations and to try out an an Ayurvedic serum (of Narayan’s suggestion) that would not negatively interfere with the other pills. When I returned to the pharmacy to pick up the new round of prescriptions, the pharmacist praised this smarter course of treatment. (Why he of everyone had decided to hold back his opinion when I visited the first time is still a mystery.) 

I recovered relatively quickly, but it wasn’t long before a friend of mine came down with something else. Following the trend, I offered my own theory about how she’d fallen ill. She had attended a wedding two days before. Perhaps she had eaten something bad there? It couldn’t have been the food, she said, but the wedding was still viable as the source of her ailment -- her neighbor was sure she had been struck by the evil eye there. In another part of India, her family had just built a new house and had spent the night in it without first completing the proper rituals. Her father was convinced that her illness was thus God’s way of rebuking the family for their brazen decision to move in without sacrificing two goats beforehand. Why didn’t I get anything so interesting?

When my computer refused to move past its startup screen, its technical failure upset me far more than that of my digestive tract had. I had waited a day or two before allowing myself to be dragged off to the doctor, but I wasted no time in trekking down to one of the town’s only internet cafes to see whether their staff could help. I sat worried for two hours before they told me to go relax for a while. (No longer the patient but the anxious guardian.) On my way home, I ran into the tailor’s brother, who immediately asked why I looked so sour. The people I’d commissioned to fix my laptop couldn’t be trusted, he said, and if I was lucky enough to get my machine back in one piece, they’d charge me an arm and a leg for the service. I was reminded of my teacher’s warning about his own family’s financial misdeeds. And of a conversation with another local friend a few days before, who’d asked, clearly insulted, why foreigners didn’t seem to think they could trust anyone in India.

Five hours later, my computer was returned to me in working order, with a new antivirus software made by an Indian company and, yes, a sizable bill. It’s entirely possible that I was ripped off. But even if Indian medicines are better at curing Indian viruses, I’m pretty sure that my instincts, however foreign, still trump rumor; and they tell me that the most important thing is that I have my computer back. And I realized that it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference to my friends what I decide to do in the end. The idea that I would heed everyone’s advice is as impossible as it is irrelevant. As best I can tell, the obligation--and the pleasure--of having an opinion lies solely in its offering.

I went to pick up some sweets on my way home. (I didn’t want to tempt punishment from any gods by not providing some offering in gratitude of the day’s small miracle.) Much to my surprise, sitting on the counter were my favorite variety, gujjiya, which are normally only available around the spring festival of Holi. I picked up two pieces and brought home a box of laddoo, the house favorite, for everyone else. When I offered them to my landlady, she asked what was in the other bag. She was skeptical that I could‘ve found the sweet at this time of year, so I pulled a piece out to prove my point. “No, no, that’s not gujjiya,” she insisted, and shook her head dismissively. I looked at the sweet in my hand, shrugged my shoulders, and popped it into my mouth. It was definitely gujjiya, but I didn’t say a word. I savored every bite. 


Posted on 5/27/2010 by

M. Quinn Sweeney

M. Quinn Sweeney

Glad you are feeling better! It's amazing how small town dynamics are so similar around the world.

Posted on 5/28/2010 by

Janna White

Janna White

My thoughts exactly, Quinn. It felt like I was back in Burlington (minus the Ayurveda and the momos).

Posted on 6/29/2010 by

aaron sinift

aaron  sinift

this is hilarious! just like Burlington Iowa... beautifully written!

Posted on 7/01/2010 by

Warren WhiteKnight

Warren WhiteKnight

Great writing Janna, keep it up!

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Congratulations Janna on turning the corner with your Hindi! My Hindi is suffering in Tamil Nadu, where in Chennai you can see the trilingual road signs with Tamil, English, and ...

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