My Cat Eyes in Chennai

I can’t believe how fast time is going. I’ve already been in India for a whole month!

After AIF orientation, I arrived in Chennai on September 19th. Ramki, my mentor from SAATHII, picked me up from the airport, and on his day off, he took me for an introductory tour of Chennai. The timing couldn’t have been better. I was just in time to witness Ganesh Chaturthi, the Hindu festival for Ganesha. In the afternoon, the streets were filled with truck after truck containing giant Ganesha statues painted in vibrant colors, adorned with chains of flowers, and surrounded by singing, chanting, and dancing men. The massive caravan of hundreds of trucks was slowly snaking its way in the direction of the beach to immerse the statues in the sea. With all this commotion, it was quite the exciting introduction to my new city!

For a couple days, I was pretty nervous about my lack of permanent housing, but with the help of co-workers and word-of-mouth connections, I found an apartment to rent that is nearby work. This means I don’t have to take hot, incredibly crowded buses, or struggle to bargain with rickshaw drivers on a daily basis. Instead I can save these adventures for my less frequent trips. I’m quite thankful for this, because despite my stubbornness and absolute refusal to go along with “Free ride, madam. You go two stores, no buy anything, just look.” and my tendency to simply walk away from drivers who are being outrageous in their pricing, I am pretty sure I’m still losing the bargaining battle and I likely pay too much for any given ride.

The apartment I rent is above the home of a joint family consisting of twin brothers (one is my landlord), their wives, children and other visiting family. They are seemingly very concerned that I am not getting enough food. Almost every time I see my landlord, he asks me if I’ve eaten. I’m beginning to suspect that this is a direct translation of a Tamil greeting… maybe I’ll come back to this in a month when I will have hopefully learned more than the approximately 10 Tamil words I now know.

So far, the family has insisted that I come for lunch every Sunday. The first Sunday, I was told to come at one, so 1pm is exactly when I knocked on their door. (Hey, I’m from the US and I’ve most recently lived in Sweden for two years… one means one!) As you can likely guess, I suspect that to them, 1pm probably meant closer to 2pm, but they invited me in nonetheless. They brought me in to one of the bedrooms and turned on the air conditioner and sat me on the bed. There was a Tamil movie awards show on TV and I spent the next half hour talking and a doing a fair amount of hand motions with some of the girls in the family. The youngest family member is only two, and at first she was afraid and hid from me.  After a few minutes, she must have decided that it would be permissible for us to interact. She came over to me with her arms outstretched and proceeded, with surprising force, to pinch my cheek. I gently pushed her hands away, but she was a pinching machine and just kept coming back for more. The teenage girls and I laughed about this and one of them said (or so I thought), “She is pinching you because you are so fat.” I chuckled to myself, because at 5’7/ 170 cm, I am kind of a giant compared to many of the women here. However, I must have made some type of surprised face. (I mean, this isn’t something one would usually say to a person they’ve just met.) The girl repeated herself, and this time I understood, “She is pinching you because you are so fair.” I thought about it briefly and concluded that yes, I probably do look pretty alien-like to this toddler.

At this point, one of the women brought in a large bowl with ghee rice, and a side bowl with pieces of chicken in gravy. They brought one plate, and served me the delicious ghee rice. They did not serve food for any of their family sitting in the room. I asked whether they were going to eat with me, and one of the women said they would eat at 3. So everyone watched me eat, or I should say, struggle to eat, as I was eating with only my fingers. I think they were confused as to why I was struggling so much, and I explained that I wasn’t used to eating with my fingers. They offered me a spoon, but I declined saying that I do need to learn to eat with my fingers.

I definitely felt like a circus animal on display as they all watched and laughed. After a short while, they took pity on me and coached me on proper rice-to-finger-to-mouth technique. This continued for a while, as they just kept spooning more and more rice on to my plate. No attention was paid to “I am full, no more food please.” Finally, more firmly than the other three times, I said that I really could not eat any more food, and thankfully, they listened.

During my third and most recent visit with the family this past Sunday, one of the little boys (maybe 4-years-old) kept pointing at me and saying “poonay, poonay.” I was kind of confused, because during my second visit, he and his brothers had been teaching me Tamil names for animals, and strangely enough, “pooonay” was the only animal word that I could still remember a week later… so I asked why this little boy was pointing at me and saying “cat, cat.” His older brother giggled and said, “He means, your eyes are like a cat… blue color.” This was certainly a comment I’ve never received! …guess I’m going to need to pay more attention to the cats here, as I haven’t seen so many blue-eyed cats before.

To entirely change the topic, this past week, I had my first motorcycle ride in Indian rush-hour traffic. It has likely been the most exhilarating and frightening of my new experiences during the past month. Being that I’m completely a motorcycle novice, Jacob (co-worker/new friend) gave me three rules to follow while riding with him:

1) Don’t move in your seat; it shifts the balance of the bike.

2) Don’t put your feet down; someone will run them over.

3) Don’t scream.

Even though he really is a good rider, it was all the other honking cars, rickshaws, motorcycles and bicycles crowding in to ANY little space they could possibly fit that had me just a bit concerned. I definitely spent most of that first ride with my eyes closed. Otherwise I’m sure I would never have been able to follow rules one and three. Later, after finally getting used to being a passenger, after the sun had been down for a few hours, and with the wind blowing in my face, I thought for the first time since coming to Chennai that the weather felt lovely!

Also related to motorcycle riding, a past AIF fellow who is now working/residing in Chennai taught me a technique for tying my dupatta around my head to properly minimize the amount of pollution/dust inhaled while riding on the streets.  When correctly tied, my eyes are the only visible part of my face.  If I were wearing a long-sleeve shirt to cover my skin, I just might blend in as a local… that is, except for my “poonay” eyes! 🙂

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