IV. Janmasthami: The Metabolism of a Woman

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During the interval between my recruitment for the health test and removing my shoes and socks for the outer-space-metabolism-machine, I spoke with the girl in Hindi.

“You speak Hindi!” she exclaimed.

(A cultural fact: upon learning that you speak Hindi, Indians often respond in two ways. Either they speak to you in an extremely patronizingly tone, with viscous, molasses-drippingly slow questions like, “How…are…you? Where…are…you…from? What…is…your…name? Where…did…you…learn…how….to….speak….Hindi?” Or they speak as the girl did—in a torrential flood.

I nodded my head.

“Do you understand?!” she interrogated again.

Her meaning was still coming to me. I nodded my head. “You understand Hindi, don’t you?” she repeated, practically tapping her foot.

“Yes,” I said. “Yes.”

“Body parts!” she shouted with exasperation, and then shoved me onto the scale. “Remove your shoes,” she ordered. Two other girls had assembled to cover their mouths with their hands. I started removing my shoes. “Sit down!” she ordered again, motioning to the chair behind me. When had she become my parole officer? She motioned toward the chair behind me as I was awkwardly bent down, balanced on my right leg, and pulling off my left shoe. I sat down, which made things considerably easier.

“Now stand here,” she snapped.

They handed me the spaceship steering wheel. There was a chord connected the steering wheel to the scale. On the spaceship wheel there was a gray screen that displayed a black outline of your body. A black line rolled up and down as dashes on the side of the screen flashed.

“It is taking your x-ray,” the girl explained. “To check your metabolism and nutrition.”

I don’t know much about science, but this didn’t seem possible. Once when I was in the fifth grade I visited my pediatrician for a general checkup. She tried to take my pulse but said that she couldn’t find it. Determining my metabolic rate became a complicated ordeal.

“His heart rate is exceptionally low,” the doctor said to my mom. “I am worried about him. We should send him to a cardiologist.”

So I went to the cardiologist. Once again, a doctor took my pulse, and said, “His heart beat is exceptionally low. This might be a problem.”

They attached a series of electrical nodes to my chest. Wires curled down my fifth-grade body under my white Catholic polo uniform into a box machine that looked like a pace maker on my belt. Allegedly, the machine measured my heart rate throughout the day. When I returned to the cardiologist the next day, she admitted to my mom in apology, “It seems there is nothing wrong with your son. He is perfectly healthy: because he runs cross country and swims he must have a low heart beat.”

Thank you, American medical system.

But if a cardiologist had to apply a spider-like machine to track my electrical signals, then what chance was there that this big Gameboy (with zero wires) was actually emitting X rays that quivered through my fat and bone and circled back to the mother-ship with an accurate reading?

I smelled a scam.

“What is this for?” the crowd of gawking Indian boys asked. They gestured to the spaceship wheel. They had abandoned the line to form a circle around me.

“Health,” I said.

The yellow shirt girl brushed them away. It was as if she was preparing to partake in a magic ritual–the boy’s bodily presence would interfere with the magic. We all stood there for several seconds in perfect silence as the blinking lines roved up and down the screen.

“Put on your shoes and step down,” she said. She grabbed hold of the spaceship wheel and stared down at it, interpreting it’s results.

So, uh, what’s up doc?

“What was the result?” I asked.

“We will tell you shortly.” She noted down the results onto a sheet of paper. “What is your size?”

“5’ 11”,” I said. “But that is in feet and inches.”

“In centimeters?”

Malum nehein.”

There was a conversion table from centimeters into inches on the back of her report card. I made a mental note of the conversion rates. I observed that she wrote my height down in inches incorrectly. I was five foot five. I decided to say nothing.

“Please step aside,” she said. She turned her attention to the lien of boys removing their shoes.

It seems to me that some Indians have a particular fascination with health tests, especially concerning their weight. Once, in Jaipur, I attended the Birla Mandir during Ganesh’s birthday. In the entry court there is a scale situated in between several shops. Friends teased and pushed one another onto the scale and burst into giggles upon receiving their weight. My friends and I blinked at each other, unsure what to make of it.

Now that I was off the scale and once again a public commodity, two Indian boys, maybe seventeen or eighteen, grinned at me and whispered something to one another. One pointed a finger. An Indian professor once told me in a car in Delhi: “I apologize, India has a culture of staring.”

I have found this to be true. Wherever I go, people gape at me as if I am a dinosaur-sized walking dodo bird. I am slowly learning to adjust to the eyeballs hovering around me constantly. Occasionally, it begins to grate on my nerves. “Quit staring at me!” I want to shout. “I am just walking on the street to buy groceries!” Or, “I am on my way home, just like you! I promise I’m not going to pull Ronald McDonald out of my shirt sleeves!”

Once, on the metro in Delhi, an Indian man stared at me from the other side of the car for several minutes. In America, if someone stares at you, you can meet their gaze and they will look away with embarrassment. This strategy does not work in India. I stared back at the man, waiting for self-consciousness to engulf him and for him to glance down at his shoes. Rather than look away, however, he merely lifted his eyebrows suggestively at me and smiled. I then had to be the one to turn my gaze to the window.

I realize that we Americans, too, are not immune from the habit of staring. There have been plenty of times in which I have stared at an Indian or individual of different ethnic origin. I let my eyes rest on them for several seconds longer than I would otherwise. American staring, however, is surreptitious; we try to hide our curiosity. But, as I have said, Indians do not suffer from the same cultural restrictions.

“They go about the same routine everyday and suddenly they see a gora (white) foreigner they have never seen before,” the professor said. “You cannot fault them for being curious.”

I am the foreigner in their country. Of course it is perfectly understandable why they would want to be curious about me, the way I look, and my culture. And usually it does not bother me. But that night the boys were not even trying to hide their sniggers as they grinned and pointed.  I advanced toward them. They widened their eyes. But their grins did not falter. I asked in Hindi,

“How are you?”

I had hoped that whipping out my Hindi might have reminded them I was a human being, and that you don’t talk about people behind their backs. I had hoped it would seem as if I’d heard everything they were saying. But my attempt failed;  I ceased being an object of amusement and became a participant.

“You speak Hindi!” They roared.

(I wish I had a nickel for every time I have heard that sentence.)

They proceeded to ask me how their culture seemed to me—another question I receive fairly often. I reply “accha lagta hai.” Or, “Good.” I add that I am interested in India’s politics, history, religion, culture—I grab at random large words to prove I know more than the average tourist,

Accha.”

But the answer is woefully insufficient, and I always feel a pang of guilt when I say it. Once a creative writing TA complained to me about how his friends frequently dogged him with the question, “Oh, you are a writer, what sort of things do you like to write about?!”

“What do you do with a question like that?” the TA moaned.

I felt a similar way when strangers asked me to summarize my impressions on India into a coherent statement. I could exhaust a novel on that question. BIG AS LIFE. So I give them the generic response for how I feel about India, life, and other impossibly large questions.

“Good.”

“Muslims live in Lucknow,” the boys inform me. “Most Muslims want to kill America.”

My had spent my previous summer studying Urdu with Indian Muslims. They most certainly did not want to kill America. “That’s not true at all.”

“Right. Indian Muslims do not want to kill America!” They cheered. “Lucknow Muslims are good Muslims.” I had passed some secret test. I felt as if I was on a game show. Congratulations, they seemed to say: you guessed correctly what lied behind door number 6.

(In reality, there is something dark and dangerous hiding behind door number 6. This was not the first time Hindus have approached me to share their opinions about violent Muslims. But this is a subject sufficiently complicated for a later Broken Tusk post.)

“Can I interrupt?” the girl with the yellow shirt appeared by my side. “I have your results.”

The boys started to resume their conversation with me and ignored her. She glowered at them. They put their hands around each other’s shoulders and slipped off.

“Sir will be coming shortly,” the girl said. She glanced down at the report on her clipboard. True to her word, the tall man with glasses and mustache began to approach. Looming above us high as the Himalayas, he grabbed the clipboard and ran his eyes over the results.

“You are from where, sir?”

“America.”

“That is very good!” he said. “Our organization is working with your country to eliminate nutrition problems all over the world. Some people are too fat. Some people are too thin. It is our job to make sure that people are healthy and live a long life. You are in agreement?”

How could one not agree with long life and health? But I didn’t believe he was affiliated with America at all.

“I am in agreement,” I said.

“So Mr. John Vater,” he said, reading my name aloud, “It says here…what is your height?”

He caught the mistake on the page and fixed it. Now all of the data was wrong. But somehow, this did not appear to have affected the interpretation of the stats. I peeked at the data on the clipboard. It stated I was overweight with high visceral body fat.

Well, my metabolism had been slowing down recently, I considered, and I have been gorging on Indian food without moving around too much…I thought of Indian aunties in rickshaws.

He pushed his glasses down his nose, and stared at me with a severe expression. He revised my data after doing several calculations in his head on the basis of my actual height.

“I am sorry to tell you this, Mr. John,” he sighed, “But you are severely underweight. You are not eating enough calories. And…” he paused, “you have the metabolism of a woman.”

My lip quivered. I tried to maintain my severity.

“But it is alright. We are working with America to make sure everybody is healthy. For malnutrition is a serious epidemic, no? Fat people, skinny people. I will give you my number.” He wrote it down on a sheet of paper. “You will come to the health center tomorrow?”

“No,” I said. Whenever Indians try to take money from me, I put my foot down. It is all fun and games until they cross the Rupee-Rubicon. “My health is fine. I am not worried about it.”

“Today it might be fine,” the man admonished. “But in the future?” He waved his hand. “That is what we are trying to avoid.”

“My health will also be fine in the future,” I said. By my grin, the man knew I was calling bullshit.

“Your test will be ten rupees.” He said, frowning.

“The girl said I didn’t have to pay,” I answered. He scowled and marched back to the tent.

The line to the temple by this point had grown considerably. I could now no longer resume my previous place in line; I was forced to walk all the way to the back. The girl in the yellow shirt spotted the inconvenience they had caused me and giggled. When I was once again directly in front of the tent under the tree, I felt her eyes digging into me.

When I finally made it in front of the temple precincts, I snapped several pictures of Krishna and entered the mains sanctum. I removed my shoes, rung a bell, touched the feet of the gods, and imitated the movement of their hands to my head and heart. Then I moved on.

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On the way back to the guesthouse, I ran into the girl again. I smiled at her politely, and she smiled back. Kasrat spotted me approaching the gate to the guesthouse. He leaned over the gate with his arms and elbows spread like a cowboy might lean against the fence of a pasture.

Pita-Ji waved his hand in the direction of the festival. “You saw?”

“I saw,” I answered. He still appeared to be not too upset that I had shown up late earlier.

He put his hand to his mouth to signify the bhojan. “And you entered the temple!”

Again, I nodded.

“And the Ram Bhojan?”

I did not know. He tried to explain what the Ram Bhojen was. From what I could gather, it involved a separate temple dedicated to Ram further down the alleyway of the Police Lines, where a table of food was erected for visitors to offer to God.

I told him I had seen no such thing.

His hands flew in the direction of the temple. “Police Lines! There are the two walls, no? You must keep walking down them past the temple of Krishna and Raddha.”

“Should I go now?”

“No, no. The celebration will be going on all night. You should go at midnight. That is the best time.”

I waggled my head at him. He waggled his head back. He opened the gate. I marched back up to my room and collapsed onto the bed. No sooner had my head hit the pillow than I knew I would be unable to surface from my room again that night. I had put on a new t shirt, but underneath, every one of my pores felt clogged with dust and filth. I showered, changed into a t shirt and pair of basketball shorts, and slipped into bed.

This would not be the last time I heard from the health organization. In the proud rush of possessing an Indian phone number, I had given the nutrition center my contact information. There is a verb in Hindi, actually, that you can add to your actions to imply that you have done something very foolish. Baithna, or literally, “to sit.” The girl used that information to call me that night, the next morning, and several times later that week. At first she called me on an official capacity. Later, when I said I was not interested in her organization’s services, she called to ask to be my friend.

But my interaction with Hashmi is another story altogether. And I had little time to think about her—or anything else, for that matter—before the exhaustion particular to the hot summer Indian days clubbed me over the head and knocked me unconscious over my pillow.

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