“Read On”, cry the boys you can see on a cardboard box. “Hey, boys”, say I and search for sweets in my pocket. They smile, even when you can not see it and four minutes later the cardboard box is not a cardboard box anymore but a ship that carries two pirates across a dangerous and wild sea. “Take some more sweets, I say, conquering the world makes hungry” and two little pirate nod in unison, before they are getting back on their boat and dive deep down into the wide, wide sea. A third boy leans over a water canister, looking for a leak. Here, water does not come out of a tap but is stored in such a canister. In the morning a truck comes by to distribute water for the many, many inhabitants. It is never enough and a leak is a disaster. A boy with an immaculate white shirt is ready to go to the school. He is one of the few boys that goes to a government school. His shift starts in the late afternoon and his elder brother, you can see in the background, will come over later to show me his Leaving Cert, which shows only good grades. He looks stunned and very much grown up. “What will you do?”, say I and he says even prouder:”College”. Neither his mother nor his father are able to write their names. You can see B. feeding her baby. She sits on the bare ground. It is her favorite place, because it is the highest point of the street, it dry and it is not muddy. The little boy is her fifth child, the two little pirates are her sons as well. B. comes to collect milk every day. Breastfeeding is the only chance her baby has. As ever: there is never enough.What you can not see, the place where B. sits is the most frequented and the most popular space of a street and a quarter where no toilets and no sewage system exist. And it is the highest place of the street, the faeces are rinsing down. Unfortunately they tend to rinse in the little well you can see just in the middle of the street. The well leads through many houses, most of them are built even deeper than the well. In the monsoon season the well is full of water, faeces and garbage that finds its way easily into the homes of the people living here. You might see if you look quite closely that another well runs along the house that has black plastic foil on its top covered with the most heavy things the household possesses to hinder it from coming down. The wells are the perfect breeding grounds for mosquitos. The house itself has no daylight and the ladder leading upstairs belongs to another family. You might see the clothes on the clothes line and you might have wondered why you see so many plastic buckets, They are the washing machines of the people, you see or do not see on the picture. Above the building with the blue door, you even can see a yellow bucket half full of water and when the washing is done, the water is used and needed for other purposes. The wires are all illegal but this seems to be rather an euphemism than the truth. One has to be careful, especially when it rains, every year people, especially children get electrocuted. What you definitely will not see on the photo are security nets of any kind. There simply is none. You can see two little plants growing in a pot. You can see the people here have the same desire for something green and blooming as you and I. If you look closely you can see two brooms on the roof above the well. The people here like it clean and neat, just as you and I. Do you see the pair of shoe?. They belong to a girl who, had to run very, very fast to fly up high in her father’s arms, just as your children like to do. Do you see the soap just above the door frame where the elder brother stands? The people here like to feel comfortable and to smell as nice as possible, just like you and me. Do you see? What do you see?
Sometimes I wish I could do something completely different. All day long I imagine I would sit in an office. White would my office be. Plain white would the space be, with white walls and white chairs, a white chaise lounge would stand in the middle of the room. At the reception always a vase full of fresh white lilies would greet the visitor. No music would blast from a radio,no telephone could ring and not a single email I would have to answer. Everywhere white towels would lay around to refresh those, who come from outside. No black flies would sit everywhere. This would be important. No black flies at all. Something nice my company would produce. Nothing smelly and as well nothing with a strong taste would leave the door of the firm. No animals would be involved and as few people as possible would be needed to do what has to be done. Gongs I think maybe gongs would be nice. Gongs for all opportunities. Gongs for weddings, because weddings in India are the thing to have. Couples would come and look around in the large white halls, where gongs, not ordinary ones, but made of old, golden shimmering bronze would be shown. Their names they could engrave and those couples still convinced that marriage represents something particular romantic would engrave their names under a pair of flying doves. Gongs for big households to call the family to the table. An electric gong that would with a calm and sonorous voice announce the time, followed by a deep gong to give the hours more meaning would be sold to the energetic businessman. Alarm gongs shrill and shrieking would soon replace sirens and everywhere little but steadfast gong towers would be built, where people who had undertaken a series of lectures and practical recital courses would sit and announce matters of importance on a deep and warm-sounding gong. Gong choirs would find gongs in all keys and from far away monks and nuns would come to order a gong as big as the moon for a refectorium, in a monastery somewhere well hidden in the mountains and far away from any valley or town. Revenge gongs would be a speciality of the house, a blaring and coughing, unbelievable loud and disturbing gong that would keep on going, producing an eternal echo, being the Pandora’s box among all gongs. Gongs for children we would offer and gongs for cats and dogs, easy to handle with a paw or a tail. Light gongs for babies still in the cradle we would sell and high-frequency gongs against mosquitos as well. I would sit in the office, sometimes looking down through the ceiling to look at the people searching for the perfect gong to take home. Silently I would smile, breath in the scent of the white lilies and sometimes I would lightly and just with a fingertip touch carefully and without any haste the small white gong, in the middle of my otherwise empty desk. No one would buy a gong called Read On, but using Sophie would not turn out too bad. “Sophgong” I would call the company. “Sophgong, The gong with the little extra” would just suit the purpose extremely well.
Mr Rajasthani wears a red Polo-Shirt and his best pairs of jeans. Mrs Rajasthani wears a colorful kurti and asks me for help, while she tries to decide which pair of earrings she wants to wear. The children look splendid as well and so do Mr and Mrs Rajasthani senior. They are part of the so called Indian middle class. The Indian middle class does not drive down to Saket on a Sunday morning. They do not own a BMW or an Audi. They might dream of it, but on a Sunday morning we all get into the silver-gray
Honda Suzuki Maruti that is maybe the symbol of the Indian middle class. Mr and Mrs Rajasthani are not on their way to the glittery world of the downtown malls. Louis Vuitton or ESCADA is a brand name for them but nothing they spent their time with. We and with us many other families are leaving the town in direction of Badarpur and Faridabad.There new apartment blocks, office buildings and Malls are built and built and built. Many more Honda Suzuki Marutis are about to be expected. The mall itself is not one of those all glass- and steel buildings you find everywhere from Berlin to Tokio. This is a mixture of cheap concrete and traditional bricks. Inside you do not find high- end brands, and people such as Mr and Mrs Rajasthani are not searching for luxury. They are looking for Beijing porcelain, for salt and pepper shakers in form of a dog and decent tea-cups, they compare prices of LED TV’s and toaster’s. They buy a Sujata blender and are not quite sure if they want to invest in a PHILIPS vacuum cleaner. They are looking for the ordinary. They don’t want to bargain, they want to choose. They don’t dream of Egyptian cotton but of colorful bed linen and ergonomic pillows. Their world is nearly 100 percent plastic- made, easy to clean and replaceable. Products that were featured on TV sell better and as so many other middle class families the Rajasthani’s have a subscription for TATA sky. They love Blacklist as much as A Blast from the Past. The mall has a movie theatre and dressed up as we are, we fit perfectly in all the other families that look exactly like us. The children get popcorn, the Rajasthani’s grilled sandwiches and everyone drinks Coke or Pepsi. 60 Rs a can is double the amount they would pay in the shop, but they can afford it and look happily down at their children, munching popcorn. The movie Baahubali is as historical as fantastic, a long first part of an epic, the hero is good-looking and utterly strong, same applies for the heroine, there is singing and dancing and even more dying on the battlefield. A beheaded man walks further for a short sequence, we see his head flying high above the sky and the audience applauds. But the audience you see is not blood-thirsty, but the Indian middle-class present in the cinema, loves winners, enjoys clear morales and is in favor of those, who are straight-forward and able to decide quickly as the muscled hero. They do not only find joy in the movie but pride as well. Indian cinema is no longer to be reduced on the same, same but different romantic comedies the West associates with Bollywood, but able to create a cinematographic vision of its own including special effects and all other possible tantrum. India can show its face to the world. The second part will be released in 2016 and is already eagerly awaited. Mr and Mrs Rajasthani are convinced they did not only take me to the movies but made me see India’s ability to keep up step with the West. Afterwards we are buying Nutella in big jars- a special offer. Mr Rajasthani is happy. The children are hungry and KFC is the place to go. They love Pizza Hut as well but the OMG burger is irresistible. Now the children are happy too. The Indian Middle classes are not fasting on Tuesdays or Thursdays anymore, they eat meat and they do so nearly every day. They love Western fast-food chains but this day would not feel right if we and with us many other middle-class families would not go to “Haldiram” for a snack. The atmosphere is sober, the restaurants all look like an American diner, are self-service and popular. We sip sweet badam milk, the children are having kulfi the Rajasthani’s enjoy their masala dosa. Later we will get sweets to take home. “Life is as good as it get’s”, says Mr Rajasthani between two bites of flattened bread and a chickpea dip. I am sure everyone around us would heartily agree.
When I was a child I loved vanilla milk. This was not some ordinary milk in a paper carton, but vanilla milk my grandmother always made, when I came to visit her in the long summer holidays. She warmed up the milk gently, because she knew that I hated the skin on top of the milk. She scraped out a vanilla pod and mixed it into the milk, she added a pinch of cinnamon, a pinch of brown sugar and half a teaspoon full of lemon peel. I felt as if I owned the world with my big cup in my hands, sitting on my grandmother’s lap, sipping slowly while listening to a story my grandmother told me.
The man at the dairy counter looks quite suspicious at me. You can see him thinking that he is wondering what this strange woman wants to do with all this milk. But I just smile at him and grab six, large bags, all filled with milk. The milk is not fancy, no chocolate, not vanilla or strawberry flavor, just ordinary toned milk for 19 Rs per 500ml package.
Two hours later S., D. and I cut the milk bags open and we’re pouring the milk into 200 plastic cups. then we start to hand out the cups to the children. Most of them never tasted milk before. Some children gulp the milk down, some children first smell at the milk before they very cautiously start to drink in little sips. Some children are not quite sure what they should think about it all. Other children discuss: “How does milk taste?” One little boy spills his milk and one minute later and to his great distress, more children come and lick the milk up as quick as little cats. All children have milk foam in their face and get a banana for breakfast.
I stand there and for a moment I am again six years old, sitting on my grandmother’s lap with my cup of vanilla milk in my hands, feeling as safe and as happy as only possible in the world. Today after so many years, while handing out cup after cup and looking into the children’s faces, having spilled milk all over me, I came as close as possible to this long gone feeling of utter joy and happiness.
I cannot help it, but I just can’t stop smiling.
“Read On” they say, “come quickly.” I wish I could run away faster. While entering the hallway I can hear screaming, shouting, crying and arguing. It is sticky and dusty inside and at the first glimpse I count more than thirty heads. One man argues louder than all the other men and women in the way too small hallway. I only can see his back, while he argues with both hands high up in the air. He is not too tall, not too old and not too handsome. His hair already starts to thin out. His shirt is glued to his back. Anger makes sweaty. He does not to seem to take notice of my two attempts to interrupt his outburst of swearwords and when I tip gently against his shoulders he does not feel bothered but rams his elbow into my side. I feel slightly nauseous and for a second I catch for breath before I step back. I open the door to my office and open the windows to street side till they are wide open, I open the two windows in the hallway, still unnoticed by the brawling audience, I open the big front door and then I take a seat and wait. I do not have to wait for long. A heavily breeze blows and with an enormous bang and an even louder shudder the door slams shut. The man, who knew how to use his elbow so very well get knocked down by the door and there he sits, now quite silent. The rest of those present in the hallway now is silent for the first time as well. I get up and ask the man on the ground, if I can be of any help. He mumbles something, something pretty unfriendly but I do not mind at all. “Would someone be so friendly” ask I,” to inform me, while I find the hallway in such a state?” The man starts to bark again, but I interrupt him and a woman finally says: “Family business.” Well, I say but this is not a living room but quite a public space and the tantrum in here looked not quite alike a happy family reunion. During the meantime two fractions have formed. One is circled around the elder man, who now sits on a plastic chair. The other party has gathered around a young girls that stands in the opposite corner of the hallway. She sobs heavily. Again the noises swell and before I get caught in another fist fight I scream: “Silentium”, as loud as I can. I feel horribly reminded of a most hated maths teacher, who had the habit to begin each class this way. After a good while I at least get to the core of the story. The man, lets call him just for reasons of simplicity A., forty years old and a widower, wants to marry the fourteen year old girl, who stands in the corner, crying heavily. This is not too uncommon but uncommon is that the girl refuses and does so quite succcessfully. Long enough, the widower claims has he waited and now he wants to things settled, while the girl insists on her refusal. The families are deeply divided, some of the girl’s relatives claim, the death of his first wife was a suspicious affair, other family member claim the girl to be dishonest and refer to a break of an agreement. In the morning the situation escalated. The man arrived at the girls front door, surrounded by supporting family members to claim her as his. She ran away and fled into the hallway, where the argument described beforehand escalated quickly. I sigh. Well, say I, I think there is done enough damage for today and look sternly at the faces around me. I give all of you a good while to calm down and to get out of here. If I hear another brawling or arguing, I call in security and then things will get a nasty turn. Do you understand?I am not quite sure if they understand, but no one here wants to have to deal with the police. Twenty minutes later the hallway is empty and nothing beside of a broken chair reminds of the scene that took place here just half an hour ago.
In the afternoon, the girl comes by and shyly mumbles something that sounds of thank you. Acha, yes, for sure, say I and hope she and the young man, who waits outside on a motor-scooter understand that I only bought them a bit of time.
Sunita comes in every day at 11.30 AM. She alway wears a bright and colorful sari. I wear black yoga pants and a wide T-shirt. She looks ready dressed for a wedding. But in the next two hours she will clean all the pots and pans, plates and cups we were using for last nights dinner and todays’s breakfast. She smiles lightly. I stifle a yawn and make some tea. Sunita is 35 years old. She has three children. Two boys and a girl. I neither have a husband nor children. A circumstance Sunita again and again finds astonishing and very, very weird. Sunita got married when she was thirteen years old. A circumstance I again and again find astonishing and most often disturbing. Sunita and I met a couple of years ago when I came to Delhi for the first time. The first question she asked me when we had tea for the very first time was: “Where is your house?” I didn’t got the question right by then and stared at her not secure what answer she expected. Sunita’s house is in village outside of Lucknow. Family land. They grow mustard seeds. One day she will leave Delhi to get back there. When making tea for the two of us, Sunita never joins me at the table but leans against the doorframe. Sunita swipes the floor, peels and slices vegetable and cuts meat. Sometimes she hums while doing so. Often I lean in the doorframe and listen to her voice. When I left Delhi back then, I did not gave Sunita a new sari ( what she would have like very much ) or money ( what her husband would have liked very much). Sunita I said I pay the fees for you children to go to the school. But you have to promise to send your daughter to school as well. Sunita promised. Once a year I got a letter from Sunita, it must have cost her so much time to write it, confirming that her children did well in school. Now, I look at three children, who feel slightly embarrassed and I feel embarrassed too. I smile and smile and smile. Sunita’s husband is a tailor and he irons as well. He has a small stall not too far from where we live. The children are helping him. Only after school, says Sunita. I nod. Every morning Sunita brings a pile of freshly ironed and washed clothes back to the house. Sunita has never thrown anything into a washing machine. She would never wear as I do, clothes she did not iron beforehand. Every morning before she starts work, she irons and washes the clothes of three other families. A forth-night ago, I opened the door to my room and saw how Sunita pulled my hairs out of my hairbrush. I felt so ashamed. I did not even notice that she does it frequently but I did not even notice at all. Sunita cares about so many things and I do care so less. Sunita’s first son, was born when she was seventeen years old. Everyday around noon, he brings the lunch Mrs Rajasthani prepares with his bike to the hospital. Every time I give him money for doing so. Everyday Sunita scolds me for doing so. Sunita wears a ring on every single toe, her nails are always immaculate, mine are absolutely not. Sometimes Sunita looks at me as if she were about to ask me something. I hope one day she will do. Sunita giggles like a three year old, when I make funny noises with the children. You are pretty say I, Sunita but she does not like to hear this and pulls the scarf of her sari over her head. Sometimes I wish we could be friends, Sunita and me, we could go out for dinner and I know for sure it would be a fabulous night. Sunita never calls me by my name, she always calls me didi, that means elder sister in Hindi, a name I do not like at all. I always call her Sunita and sing her name whenever I spot her. Sometimes her Hindi is so fast that I have to ask Mrs Rajasthani for help. She thinks us a curious couple. Sometimes I am afraid that Sunita does not have a good opinion of me and I rather seldom wish to please, but I very much wish that Sunita likes me only half as much as I like her.
In the middle of the night I suddenly wake up. In my dream I stood in a damp and moist garden, heavily breathing and covered in thick, green leaves. At the other end of the garden I spotted an almond tree, slim but tall with beautiful white and pink blossoms. Slowly and hindered by the leaves that grew higher and higher till they reached my neck I walked towards the tree trying to read a scripture engraved in its trunk. I clearly remembered that with the tip of my thumb, the only part of my body not covered in green, I tried to touch the letters before I woke up- still heavily breathing. While walking a few hours later from the metro in Govind Puri to the hospital, I spot a man who sells fruit of all kinds: pomegranates,mangos, apples and papaya but today for the first time since I arrived I see a pile of green, fresh and young almonds stacked up neat and clean in a large basket. When later, after many hours of work I sit on the rooftop I listen to the radio downstairs were all the women are gathered around listening to Hindi pop music. The following advertisement praises the advantages of almond milk. Two hours later I eat tooth picking sweet baklava filled with almond paste while waiting for B. and D. I am not surprised that only a few seconds later I spot a mother on a terrace closely. Carefully and proud, she oils the long, thick, black tresses of her daughter. I would swear, there lingers a scent of almond oil in the air. Not too sweet, not too strong, just alight breeze in the late hours of the afternoon. “Can you grab a bag of peanuts on your way back?”, asks Mrs Rajasthani and I nod. At Bikanervala the best place in Delhi to buy all possible sweets and nuts, I get peanuts and while the vendor weighs the nuts he points at the almonds: “Fresh delivery, today, Ma’am”, he says and I smile but I shake my head slightly and add a package of Gulab Jamun for the dessert of tonight’s dinner. Back home, under the cold shower I remember with a sudden force the words I was waiting for to appear during the day. Now I again can feel them sharp underneath my ribs, a constant reminder that almonds were never just fruits or common nuts but a memory of loss and desire, still impossible to grasp or to count.