Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Happy Birthday!

I wake up, not sure what has woken me.

I’m in the guest bungalow at Karigiri. I squint my eyes open. There is a gentle light coming in at the window. Reflected from ten thousand shining leaves, it penetrates the deep shade of the verandah and turns my room’s white walls a pale green. They match the pale green lizard flicking its tiny way across the floor.

The room is simple and square, a fan centered in the high ceiling. The fan is not turning, and the air feels heavy and warm. I have a dim memory of being hot in the night. Dim, because after the flight from Delhi and the long drive from Chennai, I was nearly comatose when we got here. That was at 3:30 this morning, long after I’d stopped thinking clearly enough to turn on ceiling fans. Or, apparently, to find my pajamas.

My suitcase lies open on the other bed, its contents clawed through and scattered, as if by bears. I appear to be wearing the top of a salwar chemise, inside out, as a kind of nightie. It’s quite comfy, actually.

I sit up, propping myself on my pillow, so I can see outside. There’s nothing to see but trees, which makes me happy. I have heard about these trees. Apparently when this property was first acquired for the hospital, there was nothing here; it was considered waste land. As the buildings went up, trees were planted, largely thanks to the vision of Ernest Fritschi, a Swiss colleague of my parents. Now it is an oasis for the whole area. Trees tower over the buildings, providing a canopy of shade and a home to thousands of birds.

Then I realize: that’s what woke me. The birds! And then I remember: it’s my birthday! And then I think: I need a cup of tea. Or coffee. Right now. Not fussy about what, just fussy about when.

At home in Leeds, Mark would have brought me a cup of tea in bed, and the girls would have piled on, with home-made cards. I am stabbed with homesickness. I need to be around people.

I look at my watch: almost eight! My parents have probably been up for ages! I throw back the bedcover and lurch to my feet. Picking through the stuff that the bears left behind, I find a T-shirt and loose cotton long pants. Then I splash a little cool water on my face and head out in search of liquid of a much hotter variety, and some company.

What I would love is another cup of the tea I had at 2 AM, at a roadside stand on the way here from Chennai. Dad suggested the stop, partly so the driver could have a break, partly so I could watch how the chai is made, but mainly so we could all have a few minutes of not being in fear of our lives.

I thought being driven around in Delhi was scary. Pah! That was nothing! Well, no, actually, that was really scary, but this was really scarier.

The highway had two lanes, prompting the novice to assume that one lane was for traffic moving in one direction, the other for traffic going the other way. To be fair, I think that was the original plan. The reality was more a Darwinian “survival of the fittest” plan, and by “fittest” I mean “least likely to give way to oncoming traffic.”

How it played out was that we would be driving along in the darkness as fast as the potholes would allow, and then we’d see two pairs of headlights coming towards us, solidly side by side, jostling for position. Long after a hideous crash looked inevitable, they would still keep coming. It was one game of Chicken after another, after another.

Lucky for me, I’d used up my whole day’s supply of adrenaline getting our plane safely landed at Chennai. I was still relieved just to be on the ground, and too exhausted to do more than hunker down in the back seat with my eyes squinched shut. By contrast, Dad had slept the whole flight and now had his eye on the road every single second. He flinched and gasped on behalf of all of us, and every few minutes stamped on his invisible, auxiliary brake, which made our driver chuckle.

For the most part, our guy held his ground against the oncoming vehicles, and most of them did—at the last possible nanosecond—swerve back into their own lane. Only once (“Only once!”) were we actually forced off the road, careening to a stop on the earthen shoulder. I tried not to think about the places where there had been no shoulder—just a ditch, or rocks.

After that, we stopped for tea. The stall was in the sort of roadside structure you see all over India—exactly like a row of small garages with metal up-and-over doors. Even at this hour, in this remote spot, two doors were open. In one, a man waited behind a stainless steel counter. In the other, two men sat watching television, intent on a screen filled with white static.

The chai-seller poured a milky brew from a saucepan into a metal cup, then poured that into a second cup, smoothly pulling the two cups apart as he poured, to expose the steaming arc of liquid to the night air. Back and forth he poured, working fast, and each time there was a split second when the ribbon of tea seemed entirely free of both containers, flying under its own steam (as it were) and with a clear sense of direction.

When he handed my cup to me, I found I could drink it straight down. The air had brought it to a perfect temperature and frothiness. In the fluorescent light from the stall we stood and sipped and sighed with pleasure, while the man waited in silence, to get his cups back.

On the verandah in Karigiri, I want nothing more than to be handed another cup of that chai. But that whole event feels like a dream now, and my present reality is that I’m by myself without a clue where to go. My parents’ door is closed, as is the blind on their window. Apparently I’ve chosen this occasion to get up before them, for the first time in my life. Should I strike out alone in search of tea? Is there some sort of cafeteria at the hospital? Where is the rest of the hospital? All I can see are trees.

And then I notice, at the end of the line of guest rooms, a door with a little sign saying: “Dining Room.” Bingo!

Possibly. The room is empty, but a buffet counter appears to be set up for the breakfast crowd. More importantly, at one end of the buffet is a cluster of cups and a hot water urn.

I let the screen door slap shut behind me, and head for the urn. It’s not clear what the policy is regarding self-service but there’s no one here to ask. Above the door to the kitchen, a sign says, flatly: No permission.”

I could use a sign like that at my house: “Mum, can I (insert questionable activity here)?” “What does the sign say?” “Oh, right. Sorry. Never mind.” Brilliant!

A young woman steps out from the kitchen. She is very small. At 5’3” I’m not in the habit of towering over anyone, but I tower over her. She is also pretty, very dark, and has a dazzling smile, which she demonstrates now as she tells me her name is Daphne.

I tell Daphne I desperately need a cup of tea or coffee, I don’t care which, and she picks up a cup and pours. As she does, I have a childish impulse to tell her it’s my birthday. But then I know she would say “Happy Birthday!” in that automatic way people do, like saying “Bless you” after a sneeze, and somehow that would feel lonelier than her saying nothing at all. Instead I could let her find out on her own, and then she would say, “It was your birthday and you didn’t say anything!” I choose this plan as a better demonstration of my maturity.

Then she hands me my cup. On the side of which, I am not kidding, it says: “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!”

I gasp. “This is amazing!” I say, ditching my more mature plan in an instant. “It IS my birthday! And you just gave me this cup!” I point to the cup, and wait for her to adopt the same look of goggle-eyed astonishment I know I’m wearing. Instead, her dazzling smile falters, and she looks down at the counter. I follow her gaze, and she gestures almost apologetically at the other cups in their neat rows.

Which all say, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!”

We both sort of laugh and shrug, as if the fact that all the cups say the same thing undoes the magic of the moment. I take my cup outside, to sit on the verandah steps in the sunshine. I sip my tea/coffee, which tastes pretty bad whichever it is, and I listen to the birds in the splendid trees, and I look at my happy birthday cup and feel absolutely happy.

Because the magic of the moment is not diminished at all by the fact that Daphne has fifty identical cups. So what if everybody who stays here gets handed one every day, no matter when their birthday is? The way I see it, whoever is in charge of tiny little miracles in my life knew that it would be tough to arrange getting one particular cup into my hand at exactly the right moment. Clearly, the only way to make it happen was to blanket the area with Happy Birthday mugs, and then sit back and wait for me to arrive.