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Tamil, Peanut Brittle...it's Day #8
April 26, 2017
I ask you.
How it is possible.
That one can come home every day thinking, “So so full…I never want to eat again….”
Shouldn’t there be some engrained memory of the pain of eating so many banana-leaf sized, heavy white rice-based meals a day? It’s masochistic.
Well, we’ll try again tomorrow.
Other than gauging proportions, I’m getting used to days here, they aren’t unfathomably long anymore. The last several ones have passed by without quite as many wild experiences but maybe its only because I’m adjusting to strangeness on a daily (hourly?) basis…
There was a city-wide strike yesterday—no buses running, no shops open. I walked to the Centre, where several of the staff had no way of coming. Unfortunately it was very anticlimactic from the Centre. I read the newspaper (the English copies), the plans for the afternoon were canceled and instead I had an extended Tamil lesson, plus many hours to work in the building, discussing my research questions with the staff, and finally doing a real tour of the area, including the kitchen in the back. It is about the size of a broom cupboard and makes five or so fabulous dishes twice a day—as Sekar says, “It’s where magic happens.”
Tamil hoodwinked me. It appears to be a pretty simple language, because colloquially it uses so many English words (a lot of “Family-la,” “Chair-lee,” “Nandri thanks,” “Super,” etc) and once you identify a few familiar phrases, you hear them everywhere. The language magically appears to make sense, it’s very natural to listen to, and if you have any context to begin with, you can follow the general topics of conversations with basic conjecture. But actually speaking it, and isolating enough words to follow exactly, is a nightmare—partially because most words are at least six syllables, there’s basically no rules for the structure of colloquial speech, and there are around five different “l” sounds…which I couldn’t explain because they all sound the same to me. And that’s not getting into reading and writing. I’m trying to make little pictures out of the characters to remind myself what they sound like, but I’m having enough of a hard time remembering that “k” is pronounced “guh” half the time, and “zha” is pronounced “luh.” Speaking is like swallowing a tongue twister, actually quite beautiful in an impressive way, once you understand how many sounds native speakers stuff into a breath. As soon as I begin to understand (and it takes a long time, as my teachers speak tenuous English and rarely follow my questions—and seem to think that by running through lists of phrases for a couple hours means I’ll then be able to speak them on command—), I look up from my book and hear a jumble of familiar sounds that don’t inspire any understanding. Because it all sounds roughly like the same two or three words. Argh.
That evening, there was a meeting with the Centre’s “consultant,” a large mustached man with a brow that jutted out over his eyes. The austerity of his presence was emphasized by the fact that when he stepped out of his car, everyone in the area stopped talking, leapt up, cleared their chairs and began offering him tea and sweets. I can’t decide if it was their typical hospitality (which is a confounding mix of ascetic and angelically beautiful) or if this was a moment of the deep patriarchal relationship between men and women, which I have been emotionally preparing myself to encounter here. Perhaps a bit of both, it was too uneasy to be simply a kind welcome. In any case he invited us all to sit at the main table in the Centre, and it felt very clear who was in charge. The meeting began and while Vidya assured me it would be bilingual, two hours later I was still waiting for someone to clarify who he was, what he was doing here, and why he was asking questions about every aspect of how the Centre is run (that much I could pick up on). The evening was very slow. Listening to nothing but a foreign language for a long time, when everyone slowly forgets you exist, is exhausting. I entertained myself by eating the sweets at the middle of the table (small cuboids, a little like peanut brittle) as casually and slowly as possible so no one would notice how many pieces I took. In any case, I did learn from that experience that I do not know Tamil.
Today the city was back and running as usual, only a little to my disappointment. Again, I had Tamil class all morning. Clearly the fact I’m not fluent after a week is evidence that reading more lists, faster, and with less discussion on what the heck I’m saying and why, is necessary.
After lunch—ooh ooh, let’s try Tamil: sadam, kaai, rasam… (rice with vegetables, and a soup-like side called rasam)…I definitely got that wrong. I know “sadam” is rice, because I think “sodomy” which is not chaste like pure, white rice.
I really hope no Tamil-speaker reads this.
Anyway, after lunch my English became an asset, rather than an offending habit in Tamil class. We drove downtown to a small recording studio (an all pink room on the second floor on a street dedicated to carpentry and metal working). There, I did some English voice over work for two documentaries the Centre is making, editing the scripts and recording my voice (trying not to sound like a knowledgable narrator who can pronounce the names of obscure towns and people). It was slightly uncomfortable reading the script on schools in Tamil Nadu, which took a very positive perspective on school policies that seem to model the military. I spoke cheerfully as images ran on the screen: several hundred kids moving in precise lines, giving synchronized pledges, reciting Sanskrit and passages from the Quran and the Bible, girls covered from neck to toes (plus bulky vests to put as much fabric as possible between the female shape and the eyes of the boys). But it was not as uncomfortable as praising the god Siva and reading the myths about his most faithful devotees to match the images of the festival hosted in his honor each fall. To give you the feeling, all of these 200 word myths ended with a person or animal pleading for death, simply to be closer to Siva.
But then we got coffee, so it was ok.
(Coffee here is like if chai and espresso were put in a shot glass and made twice as sweet and creamy).
When I got back to the guest house that evening, it was clear I’d had visitors again. I don’t mean the lizard family (two adults and one baby, I call them all “Stickers”) I mean someone had “cleaned” my room. The only way to know, is something little will have moved. Sometimes the chair will be a foot to the right of where I left it. Yesterday there was a giant blue roll-y chair in the entry way. On my first day I came back to find the bed was on the other side of the room. (It was so surreal, I had to look at my photos of the room from that morning to make sure I wasn’t insane). Today the pillows were side by side instead of on top of each other. The funny thing about this “cleaning” is that nothing seems to happen, except these little mind-games. The trash is left full, the floor doesn’t appear to be swept, my things on the tables are left in their general disarray. I don’t have any wish or expectation that my stuff is cleaned up, it’s just bizarre to have visitors come and move something every few days. It’s like a subtle threat: I’m here, I can get in through all of your locks, I can get in and I could take your passport and your m&ms and your toothpaste you wouldn’t know until too late. Or maybe I’ll just move your bed to show you my power….muwa-ha-ha.
Speaking of m&ms, when I went poking around in the kitchen to make dinner (eat gorp) I found that my subtle snacking in yesterday’s meeting was not so subtle. My mysterious cleaner had left a brand new package of the cuboid peanut-brittle sweets I loved so much in the little, room-temperature refrigerator, just for the Stickers family and me.