II. Part of the Family

The employees of the guesthouse became my adoptive Indian family during my week’s stay in Lucknow.

“My name is Dasrath,” the small, wiry man said—the same servant who had opened my room and flipped on the air-conditioner for me the afternoon before. “Do you know Dasrath?” he asked. He pointed up at the sky. “Ram,” he said. “Ram. Ram.” The receptionist’s newspaper crackled as he set it down on a shelf underneath the front desk.

I had just returned–tired, sweaty, and bedraggled–from an entire afternoon in Hazrat Ganj. Hazrat Ganj is Lucknow’s famous marketplace. Built during the British Raj as a road for English carriages, it was later renovated in 2010 and 2011 into a posh shopping center for up-scale restaurants, jewelry stores, bookshops, and clothing outlets. Hazrat Ganj isn’t like any ordinary shopping mall, however; the side-streets are also brim with all of the kokhas and guntis (stalls and kiosks) one usually finds in the cramped, twisting alleyways of the Indian bazaar.

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I grabbed a rickshaw from the guesthouse that morning to the marketplace. My purpose: I needed to search for a  Tata Photon Card. Allegedly, an Internet card was sold in India the size of a USB flash drive, allowing one to access wireless connection anywhere in the country. “Even America doesn’t even have these, so far as I know,” my advisor had told me at my orientation in Delhi.

That morning, sitting in the back of the rumbling rickshaw, it seemed incredible that such a country should have wifi flowing invisibly in the air around me. The rickhshawalla pumped his dusty feet against the pedals of the wheels and tightened his calves into tight, taught balls of muscle as he propelled us up the hill. Across the street were bicycle repair shops and chai stalls. We passed a temple, where men stood outside selling marigold garlands and ladoo, a type of sweet presented in offering to the Hindu gods. Beneath a bus stop along the road’s edge sat a line of bearded men–perhaps pilgrims who’d come from afar to pay their religious respects. They sat in tattered clothing, with bone thin arms and bare feet and legs sprawled over the sidewalk. They watched me from behind their matted hair as I passed, locking their yellow paper eyes in my direction and occasionally smiling a broken toothed smile.

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The rickshawalla wiped his brow with a dirty cloth and jammed it into his back jean pocket. He stopped the rickshaw and dismounted from the bike; the hill had become too steep to paddle. He arched his back and pushed the rickshaw up the rest of the incline. The first time I had ever taken a rickshaw, I had dismounted to lighten the rickshawalla’s load. But he and the other Indians sitting in plastic chairs from the roadside had stared at me with such confusion that I abandoned similar acts of altruism afterward.

It was hard to believe that soon I would find a card in Hazrat Ganj that would magically connect my laptop to the internet anywhere—even from the back of this ricksha! Was this the same country where I had manually refilled my toilet tank that morning with a bucket, just to get to get it to flush?

It was when I had returned from Hazrat Ganj in the afternoon for a well-earned nap that Dasrath intercepted me at the stairs. Dasrath is small and thin; his shoulders were just high enough for him to lean over the reception desk and watch the receptionist pen the names of guests into his records. A television overhung the guesthouse doors and played a Bollywood movie. Another two guesthouse employees, including the cook, sat on the couches in the entryway facing the TV. They sat in the same way a teenager might sit on a couch watching TV in summer—with the head reclined back against the cushions, arms sprawled by their sides, and waists partially hanging over the edge of the couch.

The employees regarded my entrance with a slight lift of their heads and eyebrows. But when Dasrath spotted me, he leapt to life. He spun around to display his white uniform and black polished shoes. He smiled at me beneath his curled mustache with a flash of energy that cast my own plodding feet and slumped shoulders into sharp relief. This streak of energy was characteristic of Dasrath—he was an arrow unleashed like lightning in your service: hands folded in a Namaste when you entered a room; arms outstretched at the Times of India you might have glanced on the table; feet rushing to the kitchen to fetch you a glass of water you never requested.

App kaise hai, sir?” Kasrat said. He straightened his back and nodded at me while folding his hands over his carefully pressed white pants.

Mai bilkul thik hun,” I said, meaning: “I’m fine. Mai yu hi bazaar se aaya hun. Bahut thak gaya hun main. (But I’m just returning from the bazaar. I’ve gotten very tired.)

“What have you done today?”

I briefly overviewed the slow torture I had experienced in the marketplace. I omitted a majority of the details, mentioning only that the process was underway: I had dropped off the necessary documents. The internetwalla at the Airtel-Vodophone stand had required several passport photographs, proof of Indian city residence, a letter of support from an official institution, the number of an Indian to verify my existence, and my own personal Indian phone number. I’d had to rush across the bazaar to make copies of my papers. Later that week, a Vodophone employee would even call me to say: “I’m sorry, sir, we also need proof of your local address in the United States. Do you happen to have an electricity bill or receipt of your most recent rent payment? Can you come to our office now?”

But that was several days later. That morning, I had to go through many obstacles merely to start the process. An Indian youth of seventeen or eighteen, with a cell phone glued to his ear and spiky black hair, strutted over to the Internet stall to grimace at the pile of forms I had filled out.

“This is all wrong,” he snapped. “Why did you write this here?” He tapped his pointer finger above the local address at the guesthouse. Someone showed him that this was where the information was supposed to go. “Does he have his letter of support?”

“All of his documents are here,” the vendor at the AIRCEL—Vodophone stall had said, handing him the folder we had prepared.“He has everything.”

The youth barked something else out on the phone. His lips pursed as smokers purse their lips before angrily ripping out their cigarettes. He threw himself back at the paperwork, while in the meantime a crowd had gathered from the nearby stalls to provide their own-two sense. My application forms became the centerpiece of gesticulating hands, fingers scratching heads, and heated argumentation.

It was only after filling out the same form three different times and getting angry that the youth finally wobbled his head with a “chalega” (It will work) and slipped the folder into his backpack. The youth climbed onto his motorcycle and launched off down the alleyway with a cough and splutter of smoke.

I watched him disappear into the traffic feeling I had just learned a valuable lesson about India. He had received a strange amount of respect for his age: he must have been the courier between the Vodophone vendor and internet provider. Without his assistance the vendors couldn’t sell anything. In other words, these fully grown men put up with the smug bastard for a simple reason:

Bureaucratic extortion.

And off he goes, with enough information to apply for a U.S. Passport…

“Do you remember my name?” Dasrath asked, restoring me to the present. I rested my hand behind my head and smiled. Honestly, I’d forgotten.

“Ram,” he said. “Ram Ram. Do you know Ram?” Dasrath spoke in the same way he moved—in rapid projectile motions with arms darting this way and that.

“I know Ram,” I said. “And Lakshman and Sita.”

“I am Ram’s father,” he said. “Dasrath.”

Most of the time when I go into shops where small brass deities are sold, the vendors exhaustively run through a list of the gods and their attributes for my educational benefit. The lesson doesn’t end until I start pointing out other gods in the store and recite their names: “Ganesh, Hanuman, Shiva, Parvati, Lakshmi, Durga…” Joy lights up their faces upon hearing the names of their gods slip off of a foreign tongue. You know! Their wide-eyed expressions seem to say.  With their names an entire universe of meaning passes between us.

A similar expression of excitement flitted over Dasrath’s face. “My son Ram,” he said, pointing his finger in the direction of the university, “he goes to school here.” Then, with hardly a breath in pause, “You are like my son. You are here too. You are Lakshman.”

“Lakshman!” I said.

Laksham is the name of Ram’s younger brother. Out of familial loyalty, he accompanied Ram and his wife, Sita into the forest after they had been exiled from the kingdom of Ayodhya by their father, under the malignant pressure of the queen. I was touched by his willingness to include me in his family.

“How many other sons do you have?”

“Three.”

“And they all study here at Lucknow University?”

Dasrath nodded.

I didn’t know what Dasrath’s official capacity was at the guesthouse; he cleaned rooms and fetched chai. But immediately it was apparent from his character—from his shining dark eyes and the curve of his smile into his mustache—that he was a generous, honest, hardworking man. If Ram was the embodiment of virtue in the Ramayana, then certainly he had earned his disposition from his father. The dedication of Dasrath inspired me. Because of his work here in the guesthouse, his children would progress in life to achieve some higher profession, whether as a doctor, engineer, or civil servant. I was preparing to ask what they studied when Dasrath said,

“You will meet my sons tonight.”

“Janamasthami,” the receptionist broke in. He’d been sitting there on his stool waiting to break in for some time now. “It will be happening just in front of the hostel. In Civil Lines. There will be a big crowd.” The receptionist had migrated to Lucknow from a nearby village; his words, both in Hindi and in English, assumed a buzzing drone that must have derived from his particular village’s dialect.

I glanced at Dasrath. “Janmasthami?”

“Krishn,” Kasrat said. He raised one of his hands toward the ceiling. “When Krishn comes,” he said. And then, with his other hand waving down at the floor, “here….”

“It’s Krishna’s birthday,” I said.

Vahi hain,” Dasrath said with a small hop. “You should come at 7:30. We will go to Janmasthami as a family. Kasrat. Ram. And Lakshman…”

A real Hindu holiday with a real Hindu family! By the time I made it back up to my room and shut the door I was no longer tired. I readied myself to visit the University, and set out to finish the remainder of my day’s chores to meet Dasrath and his sons for the festival that night.

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