Oolash! A Day in the Life

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The doorbell starts ringing at 8 o’clock in the morning, Saturday, our first “day off” in weeks. The day’s visitors include the typical Bengal Bunch cast and crew—Bulbul-da, Bodi-the-Nosy, Bling Bling Mani—in and out all day, but there are special guest stars this day as well: Anuradha Talwar, our “boss” from Calcutta, as well as her IUF counterpart who has flown in from Ahmedabad. Their cell phones, laptops, and action-oriented auras add to the general excitement of Things Getting Done as we sit in circles on the floor, one meeting leading into the next.

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Actually, most of the day, Tay and I spend in our room, listening through the door to Bengali and Hindi chatter as waves of tea workers enter Akhil Bhavan; they’ve been told that Sarmishtha and Debasish will help them complete the forms necessary to obtain a certain federal relief grant, and turn up in respectful clusters of three, four, five and six, with stacks of their fellow workers’ thumbprinted papers. We tip-toe around them all day; the noise, the body heat, the doorbell, and, of course, a river of tea raging from the kitchen.

Yes, readers, our two-month layover in Birpara has crept steadily forward, through both time and heat; yet I have tried to stick to facts and impressions, and have thus spared you from most of the drama that has wound its way into our day-to-day. I realize however, that, just as there is no boundary between our private and work lives, nor can there exist a frontier between our identities as travelers and everything else that goes on. And since travel is the name of the game, I thought you’d appreciate a little catch-up on the home front.

Welcome, then, to our Amazing Race, in which we are in pursuit of nothing more than our own experience, which in turn, has been more soap opera than sitcom. We’ve only got two more gardens to survey, two weeks to go before the marathon to interpret the data and write it all up, and the personal excitement is mounting quite nicely with the overall dramatic tension of our work.

To wit: Bling Bling Mani, our red-capped, low-buttoned (we’re talking one sub-navel button, John Travolta–style) Nepalese driver who finally put himself out there beyond our help and done got himself sacked. There was the time he showed up reeking of rice beer, forcing us to cancel the day’s surveys, even though it was later judged by Bulbul-da that the stink was indeed, as Mani claimed, from the previous night’s puja revelry. Then there was an odometer rollback incident, followed by more illegal passengers and petrol-stealing, which finally cost him the job. A pretty dumb move on Bling-Bling’s part, considering all the loot and tips he would have received if he’d stuck it out.

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Bulbul was apologetic, but undeterred, and immediately enlisted a new man. Today was the first day of work for Mohammed, an 18-year-old Muslim who speaks not a word of English and who, we found out, has a driver’s license that says he is 27 (he’s had a bogus license ever since he started illegally driving three years ago). Mani always used to refer to Tay and I as “Madame” and “Sir,” no matter how often we told him to use our names. Mohammed, our new team member, calls us “Kaku” and “Kakima” (“paternal uncle” and “wife of paternal uncle”).

Moving on to Bodi-the-Nosy, our imperious Akhil Bhavan floormate with her 18-daily-unnanounced drop-ins (sometimes with little Shanko in tow, sometimes not), riding a whirlwind of gossip, raging into our room to ask sudden, personal questions in a too-loud voice, or interrupting Sarmishtha with much ado about nothing; Bodi-the-Nosy, who pushed it just a little too far the other day, and whose visits are noticeably less after getting a door closed in her face, through which she tried to force herself anyway.

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There’s more theater where that came from, but enough is enough. You get the idea. Life is strangely entertaining when it is filled with so many characters enduring a decidedly un-tranquilo heat wave.

Our “day off,” of course, wasn’t really a day off. Even when we don’t go into the gardens to drip sweat all over our questionnaires, we do not have a private life. I am accustomed to this blurring of my personal and work lives, having worked a number of seasonal jobs where there was no such distinction; where I lived in close quarters (often in a tent) with my workmates. But although I was somewhat prepared for this situation, it’s always more of a challenge than one imagines, especially with the lack of both air conditioning and normal distractions in such a crappy truckstop of a town as Birpara.

So we stay inside, under the ceiling fan (which only works when the power’s not out), we take multiple showers to keep cool (but usually start sweating before we’ve dried off), we read, we ignore the stream of visitors in the living room, or sometimes we join it, until night has fallen and the only ones left are our exhausted roommates, sitting with Bulbul-da on their bed, who has lingered for a nightcap—vodka and water, served warm in a glass with a squirt of lime and a sliced-open green chili floating on the surface.

“Oolash!” someone shouts, and we all clink our glasses, a Bengali “cheers,” another day done gone.

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