God bless you, beta

One of the things that’s either really interesting, or really annoying (depending on your attitude) about living in India is that very strange things happen here almost every day. In fact, just by leaving the house I can pretty much guarantee that I will witness something – or someone – odd.

Such was the case last week when I was trying to take an auto from Saket to Green Park.

In front of the Saket PVR there’s always a row of autorickshaws, but, as usual, most of the drivers were asleep (in various contorted positions) on their back seats. The one driver who was fully conscious refused to take me to Green Park for less than a hundred rupees; a ridiculous price for a fifteen minute journey. I began to argue, but stopped suddenly when I heard a voice behind me.

‘Excuse me, my child,’ the voice said. I turned around and found myself standing face to face with none other than Jeff Goldblum.

Okay, it wasn’t actually Jeff Goldblum, rather an Indian guy with strange glasses and an uncanny similarity to the American actor of Jurassic Park fame. But at least now you’ll be able to picture him in your head. He continued. ‘Beta. Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe you think that this driver is trying to overchange you.’

‘Yes!’ I cried. ‘He’s charging a hundred rupees to go to Green Park!’

Jeff placed his hand on the top of my head in sympathetic blessing. ‘Which country do you belong to, child?’

‘Scotland,’ I replied. The bemused auto driver twiddled the corner of his moustache.

‘Ahh. The United Kingdom,’ said Jeff in a mist of nostalgia. ‘London. A magnificent city. I lived there once.’

The auto driver and I glanced at each other. Jeff continued. ‘I have lived in many places. Paris, New York, Louisiana, Washington, Barcelona, Amsterdam. And of course your city, beta – London. But anyway. Back to the matter at hand. One hundred rupees. Do you really believe the driver is trying to cheat you? What do you think the correct price should be?’

‘He should use the meter!’ I said, raising my eyebrows at the driver. By now a few passers by had stopped to listen to the conversation, and the man who makes paranthas had left his stall and wandered over.

‘God bless you, my child,’ said Jeff, placing his hand on my head again. ‘This is India. This driver man has very little money; perhaps he has a family to care for. One hundred rupees is a very small sum, really.’

‘But-‘ I protested, ‘but, I know a hundred is too much! He’s cheating me because I’m foreign!’

‘Oh, my child. You are new in this country and you have much to learn. Indian cities are very different to your London. It is not common to use the meter, for example.’

Exasperated, I had no choice but to stir things up. ‘In Mumbai they use the meter!’ I wailed. The crowd around me uttered a small cheer. The auto driver started laughing. Only Jeff Goldblum remained serious.

‘Listen, beta. I will now speak to this driver in Hindi. You will not be able to understand.’ Jeff then switched to Hindi, and politely requested the driver to use the meter, promising that I’d pay twenty rupees extra. The driver seemed satisfied with the offer.

‘Twenty rupees extra?’ I shrieked in Hindi. ‘That’s like foreigner tax!’

Completely unshocked at my change of language, Jeff only shrugged. By this stage I was really quite late, so finally I convinced the driver to take me to Green Park for sixty rupees and sat down in the rickshaw. Jeff sighed and adjusted his glasses.

‘Remember, child, this is India. Not London!’ said Jeff. Slightly confused, I nodded solemnly and told the driver to get moving. He started the engine.

‘God bless you, beta,’ Jeff raised his hand in a limp wave. The crowd (now taking up most of the pavement) grinned and waved enthusiastically as we drove off. A minute or so later, the auto driver caught my eye in the mirror. He looked just as baffled as me.

‘Udder’ madness at the Mother Dairy

Life’s really great when you’ve got a fridge. It’s something I used to take it for granted before; it was always there, quietly humming in the kitchen, keeping the vegetables and dairy products happily chilled. I lived in Delhi for a full year without a fridge, and it was difficult, especially in the scorching months of May and June when I had to get used to drinking warm water and only buying things I was going to use right away. So one of the main items on my list when I was flathunting back in July was, well, you can guess. I decided I needed a little luxury.

Now, because I can, I’ve got into the habit of buying milk every day on my way home from Hindi class, so that I can have an evening cup of chai, and another one when I wake up the next morning. But there is one problem with this new lifestyle of mine: the Saket Mother Dairy, or rather, the man who works there.

‘Uncle ji,’ I said, in what I thought was a friendly-yet-assertive tone. I was the only customer. Uncle ji was perched on a box in the far corner of the shop, smoking a bidi. He ignored me.

‘Uncle ji?’ I raised my voice a bit. Maybe he hadn’t heard me; he was quite old after all. But he continued to stare into space, concentrating hard on smoking.

Another customer appeared. In contrast to my meek, foreigner approach to getting the man’s attention, she leaned over the counter and shouted, ‘Uncle ji! Half litre toned!’ But, alas, it seemed the bidi was more important than us.

In the next minute or so, several more customers arrived, and before long the crowd at the counter started to look more like the frantic front row of a stadium concert. ‘UNCLE JI!’ a middle-aged lady boomed, slamming her handbag down in emphasis. Other people were waving twenty rupee notes from extended arms, shouting requests. But instead of serving us, Uncle ji coughed, spat, and lit up another bidi.

The next evening, I reached the shop to see my grey-haired friend reading a newspaper. This time I mimicked the Indian customers, and shouted out that I wanted half a litre of milk and some butter. I waved some money at the same time. But of course, Uncle ji again feigned deafness and lifted the newspaper up to block me from view. It wasn’t until a sizeable, angry crowd had gathered that I received my purchases.

This kind of treatment I can generally deal with, but then when I arrived at the Mother Dairy last night I was faced with something much more dramatic. It appeared that Uncle ji was going mad.

To my amazement, he was standing up at the counter, but as I got closer I saw that he was angry. In an attempt to lighten the mood, I smiled. ‘Unc-‘

Before I could get the words out, Uncle ji started screaming, his white moustache bristling with rage. At first I was convinced he was shouting at me, but then I saw what had happened. One of Uncle ji’s young workers had knocked over a large steel container full of milk, which was slowly making its way across the shop floor. The boy, clearly terrified of Uncle ji, grabbed a cloth and started mopping up the milk, but in return, all he got was torrents of frenzied Hindi abuse.

Finally, the old man calmed down, and looked back at me.

I smiled. ‘Half litr-‘

‘[incoherent shrieking]’ The boy wasn’t mopping fast enough, maybe.

I gave up and watched the spectacle for a few minutes. Uncle ji was rubbing his grey hair in exasperation. I wondered if the expression ‘there’s no use crying over spilt milk’ was translatable into Hindi, but decided not to say anything out of fear of another outburst.

There’s actually another Mother Dairy less than ten minutes up the road, and I’ve been considering trying that one. But the truth is, I’m too lazy. No, that’s not what I meant – the truth is, I have become quite fond of dear old Uncle ji. And now I look forward to my regular evening ordeal of milk purchasing, because it’s far more entertaining than buying milk in Scotland.

It really is the little, maddening, funny, odd chunks of daily life here that make India so, erm, incredible. Which is partly why I’ve stayed here for so long. I sometimes wonder, though, if any of the strange behaviour I observe will rub off on me. I’d better be careful.