Of red balloons and Capricorn shopkeepers

I’m not sure if ‘expect the unexpected’ is ever good advice.  It’s the same as saying, don’t, whatever you do, do NOT think of a red balloon.  It seems counter-productive; it seems like a waste of time.  In that sense, perhaps it was the perfect piece of advice that someone could have given me before I left for India.  If you’re the type of person who is of the persuasion that thinking of a perfectly joyous red balloon floating gaily in a bright blue sky for apparently no good reason whatsoever is a waste of your time, perhaps you’d better hop a ride on that balloon and sail away to a more reasonable place.  My short time in India has already shown me that there are a crore of worse ways to spend one’s time.

So I suppose I must sympathize with those who gave me that piece of, seemingly, nonsensical advice.  Although it didn’t do much to prepare me, it has already proven itself as resoundingly wise in a multitude of “unexpected” situations.  For example, the, seemingly, simple act of a, seemingly, well-prepared American — armed with passport and visa, copies of both, passport photos, proof of work with her NGO, and a steeled disposition — purchasing a mobile phone turned into a game of Cat-and-Mouse.  Or, should I say, Oggy-and-Cockroaches, an American cartoon program from the mid-1990s that has experienced an unexpected resurgence in popularity across the globe here in the houses of middle-class Indian families.

‘Excuse me, sir?’




‘Sir, I need my passport back.  I can give you a copy, but you cannot have the actual passport.’



All I could think was, Should have learnt how to say, ‘This is an emergent situation in that I have unknowingly allowed a shopkeeper to take my passport out of the store and disappear without me knowing where he was going or if he was going to come back’ in Hindi.  Or more simply, the good old standby phrase, ‘I need an adult.’  What was clear to me was that the process of getting a SIM card was more complicated than I had realized.  What was unclear to me was where my passport was.

In an instant, my perspective on my life at that moment changed.  What had started as a one-day trip into central Ranchi to take care of absolutely every logistical necessity – mobile phone, SIM card, data card for Internet, toilet paper – had suddenly churned to a halt.  I mustered up the strength to follow the path the shopkeeper had taken when he had suddenly bolted from the store.  Although I had been sure it was bound to be a fruitless quest, I turned the corner only to recognize the unmistakable “Capricorn” belt buckle and oil slick mullet that was his calling card.  I entered an identical mobile phone store to the one I had just been standing in and quickly realized that the shopkeeper had no intention of selling my passport on the Ranchi black market.  He was simply discussing my case with another shopkeeper, albeit with my passport making the rounds of greedy hands and eyes.  My Capricorn shopkeeper turned to me and said very simply, with a phrase that has now become familiar, that selling me a SIM card was “not possible.”

It was once typical of me to want to do everything myself, and to get it done quickly.  Before coming to India, perhaps I would have considered this shopping trip a disastrous failure.  But somehow the drive back to lovely, quiet Rukka left me strangely at peace with the world around me.  I hadn’t gotten a SIM card, true, but I had my passport, some bananas, and even some toilet paper.  That night, I got to see a joyous balloon of a red Indian sun sink gently down beneath the trees, disappearing so quickly that I went to bed early so that I might be up in time to see it appear once more.

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