Monday, March 26, 2007

Laundry Day

You know on laundry day, when you have almost no clean clothes left, you just wear whatever is remotely clean? No attention to colors, matching or anything, just need something to cover you while your clothes are washed and dried. Well, yesterday that was me, only I’m in India, and I have to wait for the domestic help to wash the giant pile of clothes and dry them before I have anything clean to wear. I’ve tried to become pre-emptive with my laundry drop offs; a few days before the situation is dire I bring her my clothes. (You ask why I can’t just wash them myself? I have no initiative in this heat, and I have no idea how to wash clothes manually while saving water and not even the slightest clue how to operate their washing machine.)

Being that Hyderabad is moving towards its summer season, the weather has become unbearable for me. I sweat all the time, no matter what. There are no air conditioners here, just hard working ceiling fans that don’t get the job done. The air feels very humid although Hyderabad is found on the Deccan Plateau, a generally dry area, with little rain outside the monsoon season. I suspect my body is still programmed to expect winter temperatures, and these daily tropical blasts of heat are impossible for me to adjust to.

That said, the immense heat means laundry needs to be done more often, and numerous showers (or “baths” as we call them here, since the showers don’t work, and we take them using buckets, not bathtubs) are necessary as well. This becomes a bit of a problem because Hyderabad, along with much of India, faces water shortages. Water use needs to be as economical as possible; once it runs out, it may be a day or two before we can refill our tanks from the main water tanks on the roof of the building.

Onto my particular laundry day. The weather here is way too hot for jeans or western clothes. I really would rather wear a thin sheet and call it a day, but such is not possible in so vibrant and conservative a culture as Hyderabadi India, so a full shilwar khameez suit is required. I pull out the only one I have left at this point; a natural cotton uncolored (light beige, basically) khameez (top) with a pink churidar and matching dupatta. Churidars are a style of pant favored by the Moughals, close fitting from the knee down, specifically tight around the calves and ankles with the fabric gathering in fashionable wrinkles or scrunches. These are a popular style pant with Indian women today, and though a bit like bloomers at the top of the pant, comfortable enough to wear. The natural cloth khameez I purchased as a spare top to wear with skirts and the like. It is a bit tight in the hips and bust; not by Western standards, but obviously so by Indian standards.

To try and remedy/hide this, I drape my dupatta (scarf) all around me, attempting to use the sheer bright pink fabric as a distraction from the plain beige underneath. By Indian standards, I do not look up to snuff. I try and disguise this fact by actually wearing the matching bangles and tops that I have, but to no avail. My pen drive hanging from my neck is also not helping. I ask my great aunt to do a French braid in my hair, but finding it too short; she did two small braids instead. All the shorter pieces of hair that normally frame my face fell forward, giving it a nice dignified look, but as the afternoon progresses, I look more and more disheveled.

After many hours of sweating in the house, around 7pm when it was dark and “cooler,” we left to go run errands. We had to stop by the jeweler to make me pearl earrings. My mom’s first cousin, my aunt Shabu, gave me a large strand of cultured pearls as a gift last time I was in Hyderabad. It was an awkward length, so we had it restrung into a short necklace and a matching bracelet. There were two pearls left over, so we headed back to this same jeweler to turn them into matching single pearl earrings, known as “tops” here. While at the jeweler my aunt decided that she simply must gift me with some gold earrings. She (like most of the women I have encountered in Hyderabad) thinks it is a disgrace that I do not wear any jewelry, especially no gold. She set out once again to remedy this situation. I’m not sure what it is about my unadorned state that makes everyone so uncomfortable, but I suspect it has a bit to do with my standing in the community. I come from a good family of well educated, decently well heeled people and to not wear any jewelry belies this fact. Indian society is so set on appearances, reputation and gossip that one must be up to snuff all the time. That’s the idea anyway.

Back in the jeweler’s, I was alarmed by how showy and expensive most of the gold pieces were. I kept thinking back to a quote I had read recently, referring to India as “the sink of the world’s gold.” Looking around at the displays chock full of gold and the women in full burqua and niquab (the face veil) shopping for the most expensive, glittery pieces they could afford just seemed to illustrate this point. Maybe it’s because I’m from outside of India, but I have never felt the affect of gold’s luster. I don’t pine for it, hope for it, work towards it or even wear it. I prefer the less expensive, but in my eyes, more attractive, silver. (Gasp!! I am definitely not native born Indian stock. Hell, I’m not even Indian!)

My aunt asked the jeweler to show me some tops. He brings out a full velvet tray of gold posted studs out and I follow my aunt’s lead as far as choice goes. I have very specific ideas of what I like, but I’m not purchasing, so I’m not going to go pointing out things willy-nilly in case my aunt feels compelled to buy them or bad because she can’t afford them. We finally settle on a suitable pair, and I stand up and turn around towards the wall length mirror behind us to try the earrings on. I hesitate, wondering how many other women have tried these on and wish I had some hand sanitizer. Indian earrings are very different than non-Indian earrings. Instead of a post t hat you can just push through the pierced hole, you have to unscrew a thin screw from the back of the post. This screw is about the width of an average Western earring post. This small screw fits into a much thicker post that is the actual earring. Screwing the earring in place seems to secure it tightly within the (victim’s) ear. These posts are so thick that they would easily be given a gauge and worn in other piercings in the body.I, and then my aunt, spent a great deal of time trying to shove Indian earring post into my American sized ear piercings. Needless to say, it was a painful process that was not successful.

Next we look at hanging, dangly earrings, but they are all too expensive. We move on to hoops and after much deliberation and a challenge that my second holes are not still open after all these years pick a pair. I try them on, they fit, we weigh them to determine their gold purity and price and then my aunt tells me to wear them out of the store. No problem, I respond, completely expecting this. I confidently re-insert the earring and cant seem to get the hoop to fasten in the back. I try, my aunt tries, and finally the jeweler comes at me with jewelry pliers. I get alarmed. I argue against permanently closing these earrings into my ears, as I don’t carry pliers around with me, and don’t want to have to go to a jeweler’s every time I want to change outfits and accessories. The jeweler relents, and we decide on a ring. This takes the least time of all the consultations as there are only 3 rings that fit my apparently tiny fingers. I pick the best fitting, agree to my aunt’s insistence that I always wear it and think of her (and not walk out of the house without jewelry) and we’re off. This has taken the better part of 2 hours, and I feel strange in my laundry day outfit, wearing gold.

After more errands running, we hop in a rickshaw to go to our local internet café. We have to call America and I need to use the internet. My great aunt, knowing how long my email sessions are, tells me she’ll be up the street at my aunt Shabu’s and to meet here there soon, since it’s late and we haven’t had dinner yet. The internet attendant is very nice, no doubt won over by my large, easy smile and my gora-gora skin. I ask him to borrow a pen and he asks me if my name is Yazi. He gives me a message from my aunt telling me to meet her as soon as I’m done with my work. I rush to finish, wondring how my aunt got the number to the café. As I leave, the nice internet attendant says he’ll have one of the boys walk me to my aunt’s house. Confused, I thank him. We exit the café and my escort gestures to a dark stairwell to the right. More confused than ever, I decline, explaining my aunt lives up the street, not up the stairs.

I walk in the still-not-at-all-cool evening breeze to Shabu Aunty’s and greet her surprised face and empty living room. My great aunt is not there. Damn! More confusion! I remember now my great aunt telling me that my father’s first cousin, Aliah, owns the internet café, and I should inquire after her sometime. I assume that this, combined with the eagerness of the internet employees to help me arrive at Aunty’s, that my great aunt has sought out this other Aunt I’ve never met and is in fact there. I realize that was how the call came, instructing me to return promptly. My younger boy cousins accompany me from Shabu Aunty’s, walking me back to the café. Another gentleman offers to show me the way upstairs and I reluctantly follow him up into the dark. Thankfully my cousins, who have become my makeshift security detail this trip, accompany me all the way upstairs and into my aunt’s large flat.

Thrown off by this unexpected turn of events, I am even more aware of my ratty appearance. This is compounded by my great aunt way of explaining “yesterday she was wearing such nice clothes; I thought to bring her over just to meet you!” The day before I had been wearing a deep purple shilwar skhameez made from a sari with my restrung pearls. I looked quite fancy, like the Indian Bree Van de Camp. I meet my extremely fair-skinned aunt and uncle, trying my hardest to just stuff myself with snacks so that I don’t have to talk and show my discomfort. My aunt remarks how I “look just like my father!”
(This is the first time I’ve heard this in my whole life- everyone I’ve ever met can attest to how I am the spitting image of my mother.)

I stuff more cantaloupe pieces in my mouth to keep from talking. I pay attention to the World Cup Cricket match between India and Sri Lanka to also not talk. This is very simple; my aunt is so used to explaining my life, schedule, eating habits, current education status and projects, family size and geographic loyalties that it is often easier if I say nothing at all. I nearly choke on some watermelon as my great aunt tells me that my Aliah Aunty has a room ready for me at the flat. My great aunt assures her that she cannot bear to let me be away from her, I am her daughter and she worries too much about me, I am her joy in this world. We agree to meet on Monday for lunch and I silently plan to wear my purple shilwar suit and my pearls. As we leave, she tells my great aunt how beautiful I am. I walk faster.

We walk back home, laughing over the misunderstanding and avoiding the stray dogs. We finally get back to the flat and remember that my uncle’s in-laws are visiting! I walk inside, greeting an impeccably dressed Indian wife, with all the required finery, fancy silk sari, plenty of gold jewelry and the most dignified accessory an Indian wife can have; body rolls. Her husband had a bald shiny brown head and an immaculately groomed white beard along with a pressed shirt and pants. A tall young man appeared, decked out in today’s most fashionable jeans and a t-shirt and plenty of jewelry. I go wash up and undo my failed French braids and comb out my hair and curse my clothes. This outfit has been like a magnet for meeting important people.

I sit quietly again, willing these people to leave so my laundry day can end. I mistakenly congratulate the young man, my uncle’s brother in law, on his brother’s engagement. I eat mitahi brought to celebrate this absent newly betrothed young man. I get a short lecture about using the English vs. Arabic words for God and verbally gifted an English translation of the Holy Quran. I say thank you and good bye and sit down to eat dinner at 11 pm. I am exhausted and reflect on the day. I vow to never leave the house on a laundry day again.

1 comment:

girlalex said...

I know what you mean! I'm having a laundry day today, and I feel like such a scrub. But! I went to the tailors and should have some new clothes on friday, and my jeans are up on the clothes line right now.. inshalla they'll be dry this evening.