25 September 2010

“Your mind expands when you chat with people”

That’s what Gopal, a painter working in our flat, told me as he and his partner were polishing some furniture they had finished staining. This conversation in Hindi was sort of a breakthrough for me because since arriving in India just over a week ago literally every single other person I’ve conversed with in India either preferred speaking English with me or was too stuck-up to have a conversation--and let's face it, in status-conscious Delhi that happens frequently. Gopal, on the other hand, spoke very little English so by necessity when he invited me to inspect his work and have a seat, the language of conversation was to be Hindi (since I didn't speak his native Bengali).

He apologises for his poor English but explains that people in his economic stratum in West Bengal state were educated in Bengali and Hindi, and English is an afterthought. “So for us, we can understand some English but it’s hard to speak; just like you understand Hindi, right?, but have some difficulty speaking,” he said. (I've translated our conversation from Hindi.)
We talked about cities in India and the relative size of New York, which for simplicity’s sake, I had said was similar to Delhi. He had left Calcutta some eighteen years ago and had come to Delhi. Five years during that period were spent in Mumbai, which he says is even better than Delhi. You earn twice as much money for the same amount of work and there are Bollywood starlets around. He said that he was itinerant like me (I had just explained that I had come from New York via London and now to Delhi). “That’s how life works,” he said, “you go from one place to another.”

After a couple of minutes, he told me I that was a good man. I was surprised by his matter-of-factness so I asked whether he was in fact saying that I was a good man. Yes, exactly. Not being any sort of a working class hero, I don’t generally know how to react to a tradesman’s comment on my moral worth. I opted for a simple “thank you.” I had apparently earned his respect just by being willing to chat with him. He had a philosophical moment and declared, “This is how a person speaks to a person, and so people are the same.”

He looked to be in his mid-forties. He was rather dark complexioned, a few inches shorter than me and slightly paunchy. He was dressed in a faded blue shirt opened down to his navel and matching trousers. Both looked like a Jackson Pollock painting. His hands were black with furniture stain, which I had seen him apply with his fingers. He and his partner stopped to smoke their rolled cigarettes, the kind that burn with a sweet smell that I always think might be marijuana be probably isn't. Gopal asked rhetorically if the cigarettes in New York were white.

The conversation continued as he took long breaks from the polishing to ask me questions: Were there painters like him in New York? I said that of course there were. How difficult and expensive is it to get to New York? Yes, unfortunately, the work visas are hard to get and cost something like $200. I tried to do the conversion in my head but he said “We understand if you say it in dollars. A dollar is 45 rupees.” I figured out that I meant 9,000 rupees. He offered me his card, carefully explaining the phone number and address. “We are very trustworthy people, you see, just call and the next day, I’ll be there.” He wanted to know if I had siblings, and asked if I had a mother and father. Yes, they are both alive (though not, as I thought at first he was asking, in India). All my grandparents were dead except my father’s mother and that was when I blanked out on Hindi kinship terms, which are more specific than in English. I said naaniimaa (mother’s mother) instead of daadiimaa (father’s mother). I corrected myself and we sorted that out. Gopal clearly enjoyed helping me make myself understood and having me understand him.

As the sun dipped beneath the horizon, Gopal showed me his bag and his partner’s bag on the way out to prove they hadn’t stolen anything. (He felt the need to explain that the metal plates were for lunch and the dirty clothes were his partner’s dirty clothes.) He made me check that he had properly shut and locked the door. Both men shook my hand, the junior partner putting my hand to his forehead, and told me, in English, “goodnight.”

Ironically, I had this experience of India, which truly did "expand my mind," on the same day as I had indulged in an imported groceries buying spree. India pulled me back even as I tried to use authentic Italian pasta to pull away.

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