Sunday, October 10, 2010

Pondicherry rat

Ten years ago, shortly before Christmas, I went to India for a month with my parents.

They were going in order to be useful--a thing they were regularly, despite being 80+. Every couple of years, they went to train and encourage the staff carrying on work they had started in the 1950's, among the leprosy patients of South India. They were also going on this occasion to see my niece, Stephanie, a medical student from Minnesota who had been interning for some weeks at a hospital there: the very hospital where I was born.

I was going (at their invitation) as a freeloading tourist, to see the country of my birth for the first time since I was five. I was about to turn 42, and felt useful to no one. (Except perhaps my three children, and not even them anymore, since I had temporarily abandoned them in England to come on this jaunt.)

In this blog, I will occasionally write about that month, in small stories that I hope will string themselves together in the reader's mind like bright beads. If I were a proper writer I would do the stringing together myself, in an actual book. Perhaps that will happen one day, but for now the stringing is up to you.

So, today's story--a nod to the Fun Table theme of this blog--is about a meal in Pondicherry.

After a short, stunning, grueling trip to the hills of my father's childhood, where we had visited numerous orphanages and churches, Stephanie and I were exhausted. She had heard that friends of hers were going to Pondicherry for the weekend. Neither of us had ever visited Pondicherry (though I got a kick out of saying the name). We'd heard it was quite different in its architecture and vibe from the rest of the country, perhaps because it had been a French colony. Beautifully situated on the coast, it was described as a favorite on the ashram circuit. That all sounded completely lovely, but anywhere with a cold beer, a hot shower, and a comfortable bed sounded completely lovely to my shallow ears at that point. We decided to go.

The story of how we got there--and the surreal events surrounding our attempts to check in to the hotel where Steph's friends were staying--that is all for another time. All you need to know is that I narrowly avoided being put in jail, for not having my passport with me. Fortunately we escaped that fate by running off to another hotel--one with hot showers and no threats of imminent arrest (two things now firmly on my hotel checklist). We were relieved, but rattled--or at least, I was, being the one who had contemplated spending Christmas in an Indian jail. Stephanie found The Angry Beavers on our room TV. I had never heard of the show. Strange, that it took a journey to the southeast corner of India to see the two cartoon beaver brothers slapping each other. Stranger still that it made me feel much better.

The next morning, we tried to connect with Stephanie's friends for breakfast, but they had rented bicycles and cycled off without us. I began to wonder whether these people were in fact Stephanie's friends at all. Somewhat deflated, we decided to look for breakfast on our own. It was hot. We passed a couple of vendors and hole-in-the-wall places that would probably have been just fine, but when we spotted the cool shade of a restaurant set back from the road, open on all sides to the breeze, spacious and quiet, we did not need to discuss the matter any further.

The restaurant looked quite sophisticated, with polished concrete floors, and tables of gleaming dark wood. Tall, glossy-leaved plants lined the open breezeways, giving the place a dappled green light. We were the only customers; I reckoned 10:30 was probably not peak breakfast hour in Pondicherry. There was one waiter, elegant in a Western-style suit and eager to demonstrate his pretty darned good English. We placed our order for omelets and coffee, and were just leaning back in our chairs in relaxed anticipation of these delights when Stephanie--looking over my shoulder at the restaurant entrance--gasped, leaped to her feet and ran outside.

Feeling jumpy after my brush with the law the previous evening, I almost dove under the table, to hide from whatever uniformed official Stephanie must have seen approaching the restaurant. But she returned to announce that what she had seen was all her friends riding by on their bicycles. She had tried to call out to them, but they had not heard her, and they'd gone. Again, I thought, with a private "humph": friends? Had they really not heard her?

The smell of coffee drifted towards us, mingling with the slight saltiness in the air. I felt suddenly ravenous, and annoyed, and anxious, and generally jangled. That was when Stephanie's eyes, now watching the doorway with fixed concentration, widened again, this time in horror. I froze.

"There's a rat," she said. "A rat just walked in to the restaurant."

"Phew," I thought. Just a rat, then.

I looked over my shoulder, and there was a rat. An enormous rat, if it was a rat at all. Perhaps there is some other large Indian rodent species with which I am thankfully unfamiliar. This looked like your basic giant rat, to us. The odd thing about it, though, apart from the fact that it walked into our restaurant at 10:30 on a sunny Pondicherry morning, was the way it walked. This was clearly not a well rat. It would stagger along for three or four feet, then collapse to the ground dramatically. Moments later it would lurch to its feet again, and stagger a little further, to collapse somewhere else. It reminded me of the climax of the only opera I ever saw, where the heroine kept appearing to have died (at last) of tuberculosis, only to rally for one final aria. And then one more.

Stephanie and I looked at each other. Seconds ticked by. Eventually it became clear that we were not going to do anything. Not leap up and leave the restaurant in disgust, not make a complaint; we were not going to move an inch from the table where we would shortly be served omelets and coffee. It was the clearest indication I ever had of the way in which travel in India had changed my priorities.

We started laughing. By this time, Stephanie and I had laughed together often and hard, often ending in hysteria. This time, I went straight to the hysteria. My stomach clenched; tears began to stream down my face. I made sounds like the keening at a Middle Eastern funeral.

The waiter approached with our food. He was obviously aware of the rat, having had to skirt its twitching form to get to our table. He set our food down, and asked if there was anything else we would like. We shook our heads no, wiping our eyes and whimpering as we struggled to control ourselves. He turned and looked at the rat, and then back at us. He clasped his hands, clearly wondering how to address the situation.

Finally, in a tone of gentle authority, he said, "It is dying."

We nodded, happy to agree to the blindingly obvious. We didn't ask the obvious follow-up question: why it should be left to keep dying, a few feet from our omelets. The waiter moved away, and we tucked in, chewing between bouts of ghastly, uncontrollable giggles.

Later, I wondered if he was speaking in mild reproof of our hilarity: a creature's life is ending, he may have been saying. Have a little respect, please.

What seemed more likely was that, even with his pretty darned good English, he just didn't have any words sufficient to the event. He had been trained in omelets and coffee.

Perhaps, on the subject of a giant rat's death throes on the floor of his restaurant, he was as helpless as we were.

1 comment:

  1. I shall add this to my list that already includes Peking Duck, Yorkshire Pudding and Buffalo Wings.