Monday, July 20, 2009

Patti and the Park


Yesterday evening had its emotional ups and downs. The down part happened after lunch. I was doing some work organizing the files in my room, and got a little bored so I went to see what everyone else was doing. There was a very well dressed woman and a young man in Kumari’s room along with the rest of the family. Kumari introduced the woman as her sister and the man as her nephew, and I thought for sure I had misheard. Kumari’s sister married a wealthy man three times her age when she was sixteen. They moved to Dubai where they had two children, a boy and a girl. The husband died soon after, of old age. Kumari’s sister has been in Dubai living a very wealthy lifestyle ever since, and her son now goes to school in Australia. Her sister hasn’t been in touch in years and they haven’t seen her in at least a decade. When Patti (patti = grandma in Tamil) got sick last year and they thought she was going to die, the sister couldn’t be bothered with it. Kumari, who has nothing, had to take care of all the medical expenses while her sister lived the life in Dubai, one of the wealthiest cities in the world. This is all that I had been told by Kumari about her sister, so I was very surprised to see her standing there in the room. I awkwardly shook hands with her and her son, and feeling the tenseness in the room, I wisely decided to go and check on the kids.

After they had left I returned to the room. Patti was lying on her side crying, and Kumari was quietly eating. The sister had flown all the way from Dubai not to see her family, but to visit the temple. Seeing them had been an afterthought, which Kumari and Patti could tell from the sweets and the sari she had bought them as gifts from the store literally right outside the house; the gifts were still in the store’s plastic bags with the receipts. Patti was the most upset, she had given up so much to educate her daughters, whom she raised alone. Patti kept looking at the 1,000 Rs ($20) that her daughter had given her, and you could tell that this “gift” was killing her inside. New tears kept falling from her sunken eyes, and I wanted to put my arm around her and comfort her, but the social rules are so different here I didn’t know what was acceptable so I just sat with them quietly. Kumari and Xavier kept trying to reassure Patti saying that they were there and that they would care for her, she didn’t need anyone else. An hour later Patti was still lamenting; she whispered miserably “she bought the sari from right there” while pointing down the street. I can’t even begin to imagine her pain.

Kumari was both angry and humiliated by the visit. Angry because everyone, including Patti, was happy without her; she was a distant memory. Coming back made things worse; it may have made her feel better about abandoning the family, but it made her family feel terrible. Kumari was humiliated because of how her sister looked at her. Her sister gave no warning about the visit. Kumari was in the kitchen cooking; her old house dress had a fine mist of oil on it, her arms had batter smeared on them from making idilies, and her hair was caked in a mud of henna to dye any stray gray wisps. Her sister was dressed finely in real silk, a jeweled bindhi on her forehead, and her skin was fair from never being touched by the sun. In her sister’s presence the reality of how poor Kumari is was really drilled in. Kumari had offered her sister and her nephew lunch, and she could see a flash of disgust on her sister’s face before she “graciously” declined. The house, though cleaned everyday, was looking especially messy since it was the final day of a three day weekend for the children. The laundry had piled up in the corner of the room since everyone has been too busy with the kids to do it. When her sister left, Kumari cleaned the room, did the laundry, bathed, and put on her most beautiful sari in what seemed like an attempt to salvage what was left of her pride.

A little bit later Kumari tricked Baboolu into going to the new house with Priya so we could take the rest of the kids to the park. Kumari doesn’t let Baboolu go out with the other kids because he is such a nuisance and makes it difficult for everyone else to have fun. He knew, though, that something was up because the family was speaking in Hindi to plan the park trip, a language they only speak when they don’t want him to understand. When we finally got him away, I revealed to the kids that we were going to the park and they went crazy; they haven’t been on a big outing like this since December. They all got dressed in their nicest clothes for the trip. The three autorickshaws came to pick is up, and we had to fit the kids into the little space like it was a puzzle. On the way to the park I ended up having three kids on my lap. The ride wasn’t too long, and I realized that I am really figuring my way about the town. When I first got here all the roads looked the same, and, with the auto drivers swerving down the road like a child who just got the training wheels taken off their bike, it was hard even to tell what direction we were going in. But, alas, a month later (oh my goodness I’ve been in India for a month…) I have figured out the roads.

We got to the park and I was could not believe how clean and beautiful it was. It had a wonderful view of the mountain that wasn’t obscured by any man made objects. The plants were bright, colorful, and well kept. The playground itself stretched throughout the park, and the different pieces were hidden into little alcoves in the shrubbery, bamboo, and cacti. Nothing was made of plastic; it was all wood, polished cement, and metal. Parts of it even seemed to melt into the natural setting. The play equipment was also a lot of fun. The slides were steeper than I have ever seen before, and the things to climb reached high into the sky. At first I wondered why we don’t have playgrounds like this in the US but then realized that though this was probably the best playground I have ever seen, it was also the most dangerous. In the US the owner would have been sued the moment the gates opened. One thing to climb on was a metal shell that extended two and a half stories overhead. You could climb it on nets, ropes, or steel rings. Hanging from the center was a giant mass of tires, on which probably at least fifteen kids were hanging. There were some were staying in nooks inside the mass, some were standing on top of it, others were hanging on to the sides, and some dangled from the bottom. This giant pendulum of childrem swung from side to side while men ran and pushed it so high that it went straight over their heads. This was probably one of the most dangerous toys in the park; children would fly off it and land head first into the rocky sand, and would be whisked away screaming by their mothers. Dhanalakshmi fell off and got a rock stuck in her forehead. Kumari popped the tiny stone out like a strange pimple, and blood drained from the little hole. We decided to move to a different, safer, part of the playground.

The next place we visited was a maze made out of a very prickly plant (I told you this place was awesome!). The kids had a blast running around in it while Kumari and I sat on the sides and watched. Some kids caught butterflies which were everywhere. They fluttered around our faces and the dead ones crunched beneath our feet. The kids took the powder off the dead butterfly’s wings and placed it on their foreheads for financial luck. At six the park closed and we crammed back into the autos to return home. The rest of the night was quiet. Naveen and Maha came back, and Naveen admitted to stealing the money and also that he had taken and hid Priya’s flash drive. Hopefully he won’t have anymore problems like this.

This morning I woke up early, with only two days left I don’t want to miss a thing. I had breakfast and Kumari and I went to Xerox and print out some things. I finished organizing the office, and I have a couple more things to do. We set up the car to pick me up tomorrow night at 11, my flight leaves at 4 in the morning and it is a three hour drive to Chennai. Hopefully I will get all my work done today so tomorrow can be spent relaxing with Kumari, Xavier, and Patti.

Me and Patti. I was pleased that she was actually the one who wanted this picture taken.

Everyone at the park. I think some of the kids weren't quite ready for this picture...

One of my favorite pictures ever, this is Mukesh with one of the butterflies he caught. They would make wishes on them and then let them go.

Brothers, Prasad and Prithivi.

Kumari leads the way into the park.

1 comment:

  1. ahh, patti is so incredibly tiny, I cannot get over it! that playground sounds like the coolest thing, ever. and um, the prickly maze?! even better.