Friday, October 26, 2007

Identity crisis

Earlier this month, before I contracted, suffered from and eventually beat malaria, Aliyah and I spent a few days in Mumbai. I was on business -- a delegate for my employer at a national magazine conference at a fancy hotel by the sea there.

The conference was fascinating and fun, and the trip, overall, was wonderful and, perhaps best of all, essentially free. However, during the run-up to the trip, I encountered a frustrating obstacle as a result of subtle and benign racism.

The day before the conference, I still hadn't been given plane tickets and was starting to get anxious. Finally, about 20 hours before my plane was to leave, a woman who I'd never seen before, but had apparently handled the bookings, approached my desk. Speaking frantic Hindi to a couple of my colleagues, the woman meekly handed me two plane tickets. I began examining them. The dates and times were right. Everything appeared to be in order. But then a problem jumped out.

"Brian Escochar," I said, reading the name on the tickets.

"This might be a problem for you," one of my colleagues said.

"Yes," I nodded. "I imagine it will be."

I approached a senior colleague to ask about the mix up. He assured me that the company would fix everything. And for the record, it did. The name on my Delhi-Mumbai ticket was quickly changed to my own, and when the airline adamantly refused to change the name on the Mumbai-Delhi leg, the company bought me a replacement ticket.

But how, I wondered, had the mix up occurred in the first place?

"Well," a coworker told me, "the order to buy a ticket for Ben Frumin somehow got misinterpreted, and instead they bought a ticket for Brian Escochar."

"Who is Brian Escochar?" I asked.

"He works downstairs."

"But he's not a gora, right?"

"No," my colleague said, "he's Indian. But he does have a Christian name."

This confused me even more. "But I'm not Christian."

What had happened, of course, is that to the well-meaning Indian employee who'd booked my tickets, the foreign-sounding names Ben Frumin and Brian Escochar are very similar. I made a lot of hay about the subtle racism in this confusion ("It would be like if I confused the names Jose Garcia and Juan Gonzalez!"), but really, the mistake was harmless. And not one that I'm above making. After all, wouldn't it be conceivable for me to confuse two Indian names like Suvrokamal Charkravorty and Sukumar Choudhury? Of course. So, no harm, no foul.

This is Brian Escochar, signing off.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Five game scenes

1. Yash's drawing looked like some sort of deformed sock puppet. He moved his pencil slowly and deliberately, drawing the ambiguous object while his teammates bellowed harried guesses.

"Oven mitt!" Amit shouted.

"Bread!" Dave tried. "Loaf of bread!"

"Oven mitt! Oven mitt!"


"Time!" Anant screamed with glee. I looked at the small plastic Pictionary timer. All the white sand had collected in the bottom half.

Yash threw his pencil down and looked at his teammates as if they were fools.

"Shoe!" he yelled. "Shoe!"

Dave leaned over the drawing and squinted. He shined his headlamp more directly on the sketch. He spun the paper 180 degrees. He looked at Yash, puzzled.


Amit stood up and pointed an accusatory finger at Yash and the drawing. He wagged it back and forth and screamed louder than the Ganges whitewater that would thrill us all the next morning.

"How is that a shoe?" Amit screamed, so loud that my own throat seemed to hurt. His finger wagging intensified, and Amit grabbed his hair with his other hand.


2. "Strawberry."








"No!" several of the Indians seemed to yell in unison. "No!"

"Yes," I said. "Tomato."

"Tomato is not a fruit," Yash said.

"Tomato is a fruit," I said.

"No!" one of the girls chided. Her voice took on the sort of condescension usually reserved for children. "Tomato is a vegetable."

Soon there was a chorus of Indian voices trying to drown Aliyah's and my calm, reasonable and, most importantly, undeniably correct assertion that a tomato is a fruit.

"No! No! No! Vegetable! No!" the darkness along the river seemed to echo.

"Indians, Indians," I said, finally getting them all to quiet down. "Apparently, the news has yet to reach your country. So please, let me be the first to tell you: Tomatoes are fruit."

Devyani laughed and conceded the point.

3. "Bird! Bird!"

Puja waved them on with her free hand, continuing to point at the sketch (which barely resembled a bird) with the pencil.

"Songbird!" Devyani screamed.

"Nightingale!" Anant shouted.

Puja gave a thumbs up sign. I cringed.

"Florence Nightingale!" Anant screamed.

I stared at Puja's mediocre drawing of a quasi-bird.

"Yeeeeeeeeeesssss!" Puja delighted. "Yes! Yes!"

"Oooooooh, yes!" Anant shouted.

I looked at the picture again before offering a carefully considered comment.

"What the fuck?" I said.

4. "OK," Amit said. "Animals."

"Dog," Dipika said.

"Bird," Aliyah said.

"No!" Yash shouted. "Bird is not an animal!"

"How is bird not an animal?" I said.

5. "Puja and I will go make some tea," Anant said. "Anyone else want some?"

After a chorus of "No"s, the pair trudged off along the river sand toward the surprisingly good kitchen.

We were quiet for a few seconds. I looked at the Pictionary board. The quiet continued.

"So..." I finally ventured. "Are we just supposed to wait?"

"I guess so," Amit said.

"What the hell?" said the Irish river guide.

"Can we just go and skip their turn," someone suggested.

"Yeah, they forfeit their turn," someone else said.

"What time is it anyway?" I asked.

Amit checked his watch. "Almost midnight."

"What?" I jumped up. "Screw this. Let's go to bed."

We gathered up the game, drew a pictorial note that, we thought, conveyed our victory and the tea-makers' forfeit, and left for our tents.

I am told that a few minutes later Anant showed up with tea for everyone to find an extinguished lantern and abandoned game.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

indian flu

I woke up sweating one morning to find that the air conditioning was turned off (It’s still hot in Delhi--in the 90’s on most days, so AC is a must, especially at night).

I wandered into our living room to find Ben sitting on the couch wearing sweatpants, a thermal shirt, sweatshirt, socks and winter ski hat, all bundled under a thick blanket rubbing his hands together.

“It’s freezing in here!” he exclaimed through chattering teeth.

That’s when we discovered Ben has malaria.

Okay, well not really. But he’s been showing symptoms all week: fever, vomit, chills, cough, headache, and orthostatic hypotension. We don’t know what that is, but we’re sure he has it. Luckily, I’m not working this week, and Ben was able to take the whole week off to recuperate, which means I got to play nurse.

We quickly ran out of the American medicine we brought with us. After scrounging around in our medicine cabinet for a stray Airborne, Advil, Day/Nyquil, or Motrin pill, I knew I’d have to make a visit to the pharmacist (which they call chemists). I walked across the street and downstairs to the small dark store to describe Ben’s symptoms to the chemist. “Coughing” <>, “Fever” <>, “chills” <>>, I told her.

She said something in Hindi, and a man went scrounging through several boxes until he found the one he was looking for. He took a paper towel to rub dust off the box, and cut off a strip of medicine containing 6 tablets. “Take one morning. One night,” he said. “Sixteen rupees.” Only 43 cents. I asked for some other options and went home with four strips of medicine.

Upon returning home, we googled the name of the medicines to see which ones would best fit Ben’s symptoms. All of the medicine required prescriptions from a doctor, but not in India. One type of medicine was for HIV. Another was for hay fever. One was an antihistamine. One strip, however, was for the common cold. It was our golden nugget.

We’ve spent the week watching old movies like Sneakers and reruns of TV shows like Seinfeld, Full House and Who’s the Boss. There’s no such thing as chicken noodle soup, so we’ve been living off of hot and sour soup from an Indo-Chinese restaurant that happens to deliver. We’ve also been drinking a lot of orange juice, sprite and tea.

We’ve been making progress. The AC was on when I woke up this morning, and Ben made two eggs for himself for breakfast. I know we’ll be all better by the time he’s eating four.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Dead fish

Gluttony, it seems, is indeed a deadly sin. Ben Fish, that pig of a fish who inhaled every food pellet in sight before his bowlmates even managed to digest a bite, died Thursday.

We had returned two days earlier from a short business trip to Mumbai. While we were away, our landlord fed our three fish. All seemed well to me when we returned, though Aliyah insisted in hindsight that something about Ben Fish's behavior had seemed, well, fishy.

"I suspect foul play," she scowled. "I think Ben Fish was poisoned."

"Why would our landlord murder Ben Fish?" I asked.

Aliyah looked at me as if the answer was obvious. "Because he's not paying rent," she deadpanned.

Time-lapse poison or no, two days after our return from Mumbai, I found Ben Fish floating belly-half-up on the surface of the dirty water (in my opinion, the real cause of death) filling their bowl. I tapped the glass. Aliyah Fish nibbled at Ben Fish's tail. He didn't move.

"Uh oh," I said.

I called Aliyah over and shared my morbid discovery. In between brief but passion bouts of sadness ("We couldn't even keep our first pet alive for a month!") she hatched all manner of conspiracy theories ("I'm sure Ben Fish was poisoned. There's no other explanation."), and searched the internet for specific causes of death (She googled "fish dying.") and for local veterinarians who might be able to perform a late-night fish autopsy ("I have to know what happened to Ben Fish. I don't care what it costs.").

It soon came time to dispose of the body. Perhaps too callously, I suggested flushing Ben Fish down the toilet. Aliyah reminded me that our toilet suffers from weak plumbing that sometimes prevents immediate, thorough disposal of waste. The toilet is prone to stragglers, and we did not want a dead fish floating there any longer than necessary.

"Get a shovel," Aliyah said. "We'll bury him in the park."

I shoved a spoon in my front pocket and gingerly placed Ben Fish inside a plastic bag.

"Now," Aliyah instructed, "we each need to pick something that's important to us to bury with him."

This proved tricky for me. I slowly walked through our house, but discovered that any object which meant anything to me was also something I was unwilling to bury next to a dead fish.

After several minutes of unsuccessful searching, I approached our medicine cabinet and pulled out my bottle of malaria pills. About 50 small pink pills rattled around inside. I began removing one. Aliyah narrowed her eyes.

"A malaria pill?"

"I don't want Ben Fish to get sick in the afterlife."

Aliyah graciously agreed that the green, white and orange wristband she'd selected (an office gift she'd received on the sixtieth anniversary of India's independence) could suffice as both our objects. Dropping the nationalistic accessory in the bag with Ben Fish, we began our funeral march.

Several Indian men were sleeping in the park. We tiptoed around them. Aliyah pointed to a spot beneath a tree. I stuck the spoon into the dirt. Hard as a rock. We continued looking, but found the park earth unforgiving.

Finally, we found a large pile of dead leaves and other dried brush. The pile reached nearly a meter high, and scooping out a deep crevice, we placed Ben Fish deep inside this once-verdant cave. After thoughtful eulogies ("I've never met a fish with such a strong personality," Aliyah said), we headed back upstairs to mourn with the survivors.

We walked from the park in silence for about three seconds. Then Aliyah looked at me with wide and excited eyes.

"Can we get a dog now?"

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Of fish and meat

The fish are alive. Ben Fish continues to eat every pellet dropped in the bowl. Aliyah Fish is still an incompetent eater who regurgitates every bite she takes. Amazingly, she lives. Maybe she's sneaking cookies and chocolate from our fridge in the middle of the night.

And that all-too-sober, protein-deficient month of September is, thank Vishnu, over. We're proud for having achieved our perplexing goal of abstinence, and have vowed never to make such a foolish commitment again.

We broke the fast on a Sunday. I drank whiskey and beer on the wrong side of noon. We ordered two greasy pizzas -- pepperoni and chili chicken -- from a delivery joint called Smokin Joe's. We sat on our terrace with our Aussie neighbor Danielle and reveled in sun and meat. I never thought flesh could taste so good.

And, of course, by 3 p.m. we felt ill. It turns out that returning to action after a meatless month can even make the most ravenous bacon-scarfing cheeseburger fiend sick. My stomach roiled. I belched more in an hour than I had all year. I could almost hear the pig oinking and the chicken clucking from the dark recesses of my churning abdomen.

Nothing a little nap wouldn't cure. By dinner I was back. We ordered way too much meaty, oily, gooey gloop from the Om Hotel, and I washed it down with a cold beer.

Ah, success.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

give a dog a bone

New Delhi is teeming with homeless hounds. The dogs spend their days trotting through the dusty streets and their nights scraping out a living in India’s capital. Many of the females have sagging nipples that nearly drag on the ground, the product of being a puppy factory most of their lives. Several have small patches of fur missing from scratching away their fleas or duking out their territory. They really are quite perfect.

And, like most of the poor in India, they are largely ignored, including the five or six pups in our neighborhood that always congregate outside of our grocery store, Hawker’s House. They sleep under cars and keep at respectful distances from humans. One recent evening Ben and I decided to walk to the store for an ice cream when I came up with, what I thought was a genius idea.

“We get a treat, why shouldn’t the dogs?” I asked Ben as I put a bag of dog bones on the cashier’s counter. He gave me a funny look and reluctantly paid for the 60-rupee bag of raw hides.

“These dogs are going to be so happy,” I said as we walked out of the store, opening the bag, thinking it would be a sort of trick-or-treat holiday for our neighborhood pets. I saw my first dog, a brown dog so skinny you could see his ribs poking out through his fur. I set a bone in between his paws. He sniffed the bone and then meandered to a garbage pile of onion peels, fruit scraps and plastic bowls that once held street vendor samosas and panipuri.

“These dogs are stupid,” said Ben. “They don’t even know what bones are.”

It turns out, he was right. After attempting the same routine with several other dogs, we decided they had never had a bone in their lives. One dog pawed at the bone, unsure what to do with it, another ignored it completely. The next morning, the bones lay in their original spots.

I recently read that over 2,000 dogs are born in India every hour. Someone should inform them about bones.

Next time, I think we’ll skip the bones altogether. Double ice-cream for the both of us.