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Modern Day Memsahib: Escape to India Chapter 8

Chapter 8

‘Krishnan, you have got to try this,’ Puneeta, said as she bit down on a slice of freshly-baked, date and walnut cake, which had been toasted and was dripping with butter, ‘Jo has been working wonders in the kitchen, look homemade muesli too, it’s delicious.’

‘Sounds great,’ said Krishnan, grabbing the remaining half from Puneeta’s plate, ‘Antaram was telling me how good it was that you were teaching them new things, and I hear that the lunch menus have been changed. Wow, this is good!’

‘Thanks, it took us a few attempts with getting the yeast right with this flour and getting a measure of the oven but I think we have it sussed now. I’ve just been going through various menu ideas with Puneeta.’

‘Great ideas,’ said Puneeta, ‘Just shows what can be done if you know what you are doing.’

I smiled, ‘Well, from feedback from my own clients, a few days into a trip and they have had it with curry for every meal and if they ever see salad they are scared to eat it as they have been told they will immediately die from typhoid.  So, with a little ingenuity and an insistence on everything being washed in bottled water, I figured I would devise menus with things like jacket potatoes and different quiches served with various salads’

‘Salads with produce from my garden,’ added Puneeta proudly.

‘Indeed, and things like coleslaw, carrot, raisin and nut salad, rocket salad, waldorf, chick pea, cheese and pineapple with ginger and chilli, the list goes on.’

‘Sounds fabulous’, said Krishnan, ‘so how is it going down in the kitchen?’

‘Ok,’ I said with a slight hesitation in my voice, ‘I discovered yesterday that you can’t pick vegetables after dark because that is when they are sleeping or something and the staff don’t seem to understand that you don’t actually cook salad ingredients. Every time I have a finished product ready to serve, I catch Dilip or Prem trying to tip it into a pan, saying ‘Yes Memsahib, now cooking?’ But, onwards and upwards, the new lunches start today so let’s see how they get on.’

‘Yes, I had heard they were starting today. The boys came to find me this morning and said that memsahib was going to trying to poison the guests by feeding them, and I roughly translate, ‘raw food crap.’ I had to explain that it is what Europeans enjoy eating.  They didn’t seem convinced but seeing the guests tucking in  should make them understand that it’s all ok.’

I laughed. ‘It’s just a totally different concept for them I guess, Antaram is very good though and takes great pride in his work.  I do keep asking them to try the food so that they know what it should taste like but they don’t like it at all, keep spitting it out, I guess that’s why they think I am trying to poison the guests.’ We all laughed and I continued,

‘They seem to have got the hang of washing everything in bottled water though. We did fruit salad yesterday and I saw Dilip washing the bananas and oranges before they had been peeled.  I was going to correct him but then figured I wouldn’t confuse them even more.’

‘You seem to be getting the measure of them. So, you still haven’t called home, do you want to go into town with Bahardur this morning? He has quite a large shopping list and Raj has to go in too for spare parts for the jeeps. It will be a good opportunity for you to make some calls, catch up on emails and find out where to get things in town and what else is available in terms of ingredients,’ said Krishnan.

‘Sure, though I don’t think Raj likes me very much, he is very off-hand with me; I keep asking him to help me learn some of the birds but he doesn’t seem to want to.’

‘Ahh,’ said Puneeta, ‘you have to know how to play Raj. He is passionate about wildlife and you just asking him the odd bird doesn’t, as far as he is concerned, translate into a willingness to learn.  We have some bird books and binoculars here; he needs to see you being serious about it before he will spend his rare free time helping you. Once you do that, he will be transformed. Today will help you get to know him a bit better.’

‘Got it, and yes I would love to go into town. I haven’t checked email since I got here and I need to phone my parents too.’  I realised then I hadn’t really thought about Burke for a couple of days, I had been too busy getting to grips with things.

‘That’s settled then, oh and if anyone needs to get hold of you more urgently than you will be able to check emails, then you can give them the camp id, as I check that regularly.’

‘Great, thanks.’

So, a little later, armed with a shopping list that looked harmless enough, chicken, mutton, various fruit and veg. Bahardur, who had quickly assumed the role of my right hand man, and I jumped in the Jeep and headed into Baihar a forty five minute drive away. The first stop on the way into town was to buy chickens.

‘Here we are,’ said Raj, as he pulled up outside a large barn; Bahardur jumped out, puzzled, I followed.  I stopped dead as soon as we entered the building, the stench was overwhelming, I covered my mouth and nose with my sleeve. There was no discernible floor space to be seen, it was all covered with live, clucking, pecking, fretting chickens.  Bahardur turned back to see where I was, took one look at my face and he burst into hysterical laughter.

After he calmed down, he indicated that we were expected to catch the buggers, carry them by their feet, tie them together, pay for them and place them into the back of the jeep.  Simple as that, except I had never realised that I was quite so squeamish.  However, after watching Bahardur seemingly easily, catching and trussing them in one swift movement, I decided to give it a go.  I approached a couple of likely looking suspects but, somehow finding space, and energy they shot off in a different direction. I tried again, and again but as soon as I got vaguely close to any, they squawked, flapped their wings and scuttled away. It was like herding electrified, stinking cats.

‘Oh for goodness sake,’ I admonished myself, ‘how hard can this be?’ But each time ended in the same result.  What was Einstein’s definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  I stood up, took a few breaths through my sleeve in an attempt to rid my nasal passages of the stink and decided to change tactic.  I realised just how spoilt we are in the west, buying our chickens not only dead but plucked, and packed too. I looked over to where Bahardur had started to tie up his chickens and I decided to opt for a different approach.  Slowly and gently I rounded some up in the corner, so far so good, but just as lunged down to capture them a particularly healthy bird took flight and brushed past my face on its path. Startled I stumbled back, lost my footing and ended up arse first in the filth and detritus of a few hundred captive chickens.  I was caked in feathers and faeces. Bahardur heard my shrieks and turned to see what had happened and started laughing so hard, he doubled up and dropped the chickens he had already caught.

Enough was enough. I decided to leave it to the expert and headed back outside, gasping for fresh air. Raj looked highly amused as I approached the jeep, picking bits of feather off my clothes.

‘I’ve left it to Bahardur, I said casually, ‘he seems to know what he’s doing.’

Raj nodded with a smirk firmly in place. Five minutes later, Bahardur emerged triumphantly from the building, brandishing six upside down chickens.  Still laughing at me he put them into the back of the Jeep and we set off again towards town.  I checked the list, the next item was mutton. I glanced at Raj, ‘So, mutton?’ I said, somewhat apprehensively.

‘Yes,’ he replied as Bahardur caught my expression and started laughing once more. No further explanation was forthcoming and so I was left to my somewhat alarmed thoughts.

Fair enough, I could see the logic of buying live produce, having no electricity and therefore no fridge, our food had to be as fresh as possible. Visions of me being responsible for turning an innocent chicken that had been part of the family for a week or so into coq au vin, didn’t fill me with joy even though it made sense.  But mutton, were we really going to bring a whole goat home? Was I really going to have to learn how to wring necks and slit throats?

Further pondering brought me to the conclusion that in view of the men I usually chose to be part of my life, these could be useful arts to learn. However, I was fortunately distracted from this pleasurable reverie by our arrival in town.  People glanced in our direction and then did a double take when they saw a white person, and I got the impression that most tourists didn’t venture out of the safari parks and into town. We pulled up by the bus station.

‘Ok, this is where I will drop you,’ said Raj, Bahardur will show you where the computer place is before he heads to the vegetable market.  I will pick you up in an hour.’

We jumped out of the jeep and Bahardur, proud to be escorting the ‘memsahib,’ who was already generating quite a bit of attention, promptly led me across the road, pointed to a shop front and immediately disappeared as if into thin air. I ventured through the door and was greeted with shocked faces, followed by wonderful smiles.  I tried to explain that I wanted to use the computer but had to undergo the customary Indian quiz before we were allowed to get down to business.

‘What is your good name?’ Standard question number one.  Joanna, I replied. Zana? No no, Joanna, Zonana? No, Jo an na, why hadn’t I just said Jo?  Ahh, yes yes, Zonana. I gave up and tried to point to the computer.  But no, having firmly established that my name was Zonana, we moved on to,

‘And your native place?’

‘England’ I replied, I wasn’t going to try to attempt Yorkshire.

‘Ahh, London?’

‘Yes London,’ I smiled.  The keeper of the computer waggled his head happily.  Anticipating the guaranteed third question I was all ready to reply with, no I am not married when I was caught off guard by the next question,

‘England, Geoffrey Boycott?’

‘Yes’, I nodded eagerly and in that wonderful way we Brits have, proceeded to speak loudly and slowly, explaining to this chap who had obviously almost exhausted his full extent of English that yes, I was from Yorkshire and my friends used to live next door to this 300,001st Indian God.  Realising that as a verbal conversation we were going nowhere, I tried drawing this. Fortunately, after a few frustrating minutes, Bahardur appeared, looked at my scribblings shook his head and in the local lingo told the man that I actually wanted to use the computer.

I was promptly shown into the back ‘room’ where the one and only computer resided, caked in dust and a model so ancient it virtually needed winding up. The room was separated from the front of the shop by a 70’s style flowery, shabby curtain which was duly pulled across as I was left to figure out how to use this antique.

Half an hour later my ears were ringing with the squeaks and whistles of a dial up connection. I had managed to check a few emails, trying not to lose patience as each one took a good minute to open.  There wasn’t anything from Burke which I found more upsetting than I wanted to admit to. I thought he would want to know that I had arrived safely at least. I decided it would be easier to send one email to all my friends and family, rather than battle with individual ones. Calling it Jungle Ramblings I told everyone what had happened so far and gave them the emergency contact.  Being weak and pathetic, I cc’d Burke on it consoling myself that at least I hadn’t emailed him directly; though being thick skinned, I wasn’t sure that he would notice the difference.

Having finally lost patience and deciding that I didn’t really want to know what my accountant or private health plan had to say, I ventured out from behind the curtain.  There must have been seventy people gathered around the front of the shop all waiting to catch a glimpse of the white lady or ‘gori’, well I assume it was that and, despite being a foot too short and a foot too wide,  I hadn’t been mistaken for Claudia Schiffer.

I instinctively stepped back and looked at the guy who owned the shop for confirmation that I wasn’t about to get lynched, as if a local from the town would protect a stranger from his compatriots. I paid for my internet usage and then apprehensively stepped towards the crowd, wondering at their intention.

It soon became apparent that they were friendly and didn’t seem to mind the chicken smell. Some people simply stared, others confused by my freckles and auburn hair reached out to touch me and stroke my hair; some came and shook my hand, others asked for my autograph whilst a few of the wealthier ones asked to have their photo taken with me by their mobile phones. It really was quite extraordinary.  Bahadur appeared from nowhere and alternating between being proud as a peacock of his gori charge, and hysterical laughter (for no discernible reason), assumed air of self-importance clearly attempting to portray the image of ‘this is MY memsahib’ and proceeded to try to get into as many of the photo’s as possible.  My five, actually twenty-five minutes of fame over, a young boy appeared, sent by the local chai wala with glass of very sweet but delicious chai. He handed this to me and proceeded to gaze at me with a look of wonderment.  Bahardur looked uncertain and tried to discourage me from drinking it, knowing that it would be made with fresh, unpasteurised buffalo milk, and untreated water. But wonderful Indian hospitality is not to be sniffed at.  This was my first official mark of acceptance in the town and so I bit the bullet and drank it appreciatively, much to the delight of the crowd.

Raj appeared and gestured impatiently for us to get a move on.  So, having had as much excitement as I figured I needed for one day, we climbed back to the jeep which was loaded with fresh fruit and veg and the now silent chickens.  As surreptitiously as possible I peered in the back to see if there was any sign of a goat but fortunately it appeared that we hadn’t purchased a live one at least.

Puneeta appeared as we were unloading the Jeep, ‘How did you get on?’ she asked, looking me up and down and taking a step back.

‘Oh, fine, yes. I see what you mean about the internet café, but I managed to check and send some emails.’

‘Good, anything from Burke?’ I had filled her in on my broken heart over breakfast earlier that day.

‘No,’ I said dejectedly ‘I thought at least he would have messaged to see how things were going. Am pissed off and worse than that, I am pissed off with myself for being pissed off.  Anyway, moving on, shopping for chickens was a bit of an experience, look at the state of me.’

A look of realisation dawned on her face, ‘Oh, you didn’t go in yourself did you? There’s no need, that’s Bahardur’s job.’

Realising that I had been ‘had’ by Raj and Bahardur I tried to pass it off as part of my learning experience.

‘Oh dear’, said Puneeta, ‘I think we need to have a chat with them and give you clearer briefings in future. Anyway, not to worry about that now, we had a visitor earlier.’

‘Oh, who?’ I replied.

‘Abishek.’ She replied, with a raised eyebrow.

‘Oh, did he come to talk about the tiger situation?’

‘Ostensibly, yes,’ said Puneeta, ‘though he has never dropped by camp for the last four years that we have been here!’

‘Oh,’ I shrugged and tried to look unconcerned.

‘He asked if you were here,’ she added, ‘and didn’t hang around for long once I said you had gone to town.’

‘Really? Do you think he is still interested in me going to work for him?’ I teased.

‘I think he is interested in something but I am not sure it is to do with work,’ she replied and gave me a wink before wandering off.

I tried to push the unwelcome flutter in my stomach to one side. I did not need to complicate things any further, particularly with a known womaniser. Instead, I finished supervising the unloading of the shopping and then headed off for a quick shower, to rid myself of chicken stench and dirt, before entertaining the guest at lunch.

I had twenty minutes to spare and it was another beautiful day, and so I sauntered down to my favourite secluded spot at the far side of the dam.  I couldn’t believe how upset I was by the fact that Burke hadn’t emailed me. Here I was, living in the most beautiful part of India having the most incredible time, one of India’s best tiger reserves on my doorstep and meeting fabulous people and yet I was upset by the lack of an email from him, despite how badly he had treated me.  I was beginning to see value in jungle mode. If I hadn’t checked emails I would still feel great. But I had, and the reality was that I wanted someone to share this extraordinary experience with and after all I had been with him for eighteen months, I couldn’t just flick a switch and pretend it hadn’t happened.  He had never been one for constant message or phone chats, but he hadn’t let me down once, and that was something I wasn’t used to.  He was outdoorsy, fun and even found it funny that I called him Yank, because I refused to call him Burke.  But, facts are facts and he had lied to me.  Then there was Abishek, had he really called in to see me? That was a complication I could really do without.

I let out a huge sigh and took in my surroundings.  There was a kingfisher diving for fish in the dam, a flock of egrets flying overhead. The dogs were lazing contentedly in the shade, occasionally thumping their tails against the ground. One evening, Puneeta was taking me to Royal Tiger Lodge to meet Sally and Mohan, the couple who ran it. They were my nearest neighbours on the other side of Tiger Lodge and good friends of hers and she wanted to introduce me so that I would have some back up after she and Krishnan left. Tomorrow I would be going into the park and would hopefully have my first tiger sighting. Was I really going to let a man, any man bugger up my time here?  No.

Hearing the jeeps approaching as they came back from the park I pulled myself together and dashed to the kitchen.  Day one of quiche and salad and I needed to check they hadn’t fried up the coleslaw with masala whilst my back had been turned.  Despite giving me suspicious looks, the team had done a great job and I moseyed on down to the table which we had set up at the side of the dam. Bang on time Prem, Bahardur and Dilip appeared carrying plates, the quiche and a couple of salads. Prem put a plate down in front of each of us, for Bahardur and Dilip to serve the food on.  Just in time, I happened to feel my plate, it was hot. Of course, these guys did things by rote, they didn’t understand the vagaries of English dining.  For them, food was just a fuel and they would eat two meals a day of rice and vegetables with daal using their fingers from a big tin tray.  Puneeta had drummed into them that ‘Britishers’ eat with knives and forks and that plates needed to be hot and so that is what they had brought, piping hot plates.  Not wanting my coleslaw to separate (we couldn’t buy mayonnaise and so had to make our own) and my rocket salad to wilt, I quickly gathered up the hot plates and asked Prem for cold ones.

His brows knitted together, ‘Memsahib?’ He looked from me to Dilip and Bahardur who also looked utterly confused.

I pointed to the plates, ‘Plates, hot. We need cold plates, cold plates.  Not hot. Can you bring cold plates, cold plates?’ Yet again I felt like a typical Brit abroad.

Prem muttered something to Bahardur who, obviously thinking that I must have decided not to poison the guests, looked at me and asked, ‘Chawal our subzi, memsahib?’ This was some Hindi I had picked up on, it meant their usual offering of rice and vegetables.

‘Nahi,’ I answered, no, and pointing once more to the plates, I touched one and mimicked burning my finger and said again ‘These hot, we need cold plates, cooold plates.’

All of a sudden, a look of recognition registered on Bahardur’s face.  He did understand the odd word of English.  He burst out laughing, situation normal, and then muttered something to Prem.  He, Dilip and Prem then all looked at me as if I had completely lost the plot but Prem, giving me one last, ‘are you actually serious about this’ look, nodded, grabbed the plates and ran off towards the kitchen.

I quickly explained to the guests what was happening and that it would just be a couple of moments before the cold plates appeared.  Dilip and Bahardur stood waiting, Dilip looked incredibly perplexed and kept muttering things to Bahardur whilst looking at me as if I were utterly deranged.  Bahardur just kept laughing and I kept recognising the word, ‘pagal,’ I wondered if it was the word for ‘cold.’

Presently, Prem reappeared, with a tray. Now it was my turn to look confused. ‘What’s this?’ I asked as he reached the table and stood up to look.

He looked at me nervously.

No wonder they looked confused, a whole week training on learning how to make salads and being convinced that I was going to poison the guests and then they must have thought I had wimped out at the last minute, or had decided some raw vegetables wouldn’t be enough food for lunch.  Sitting on the tray, were nine bowls of cornflakes. These guys pronounced p’s as f’s.  Cold plates = corn flakes.

Puneeta and Krishnan appeared to see what all the commotion was and howled with laughter when they saw the cornflakes.

Wiping the tears from her eyes, Puneeta said, ‘Thanda, that’s the word for cold.’ Krishnan gave some quick instructions to Prem, who finally understood and ran back to the kitchen once more.

Again I explained what was happening to the guests who fortunately saw the funny side of it.  A short while later, Prem appeared with cold plates and we all tucked into the salads, Krishnan still giggling.

‘Oh ho, I can’t wait to see what they are saying about this, brilliant, hilarious… I can’t wait.’

I ignored him.

‘So Puneeta, thanda is the word for cold?’

‘Yes’, Puneeta just managed to reply, amidst giggles. ‘And garam is hot, whilst we are on the subject of teaching you the essentials.’

‘So what does pagal mean?’

This caused Krishnan to snort amidst his guffaws, ‘Where did you hear that?’  He looked towards Puneeta who had nearly fallen of her chair.  The guests were joining in.

It’s what Bahardur kept saying to Dilip whilst Prem was fetching the cornflakes, I presumed it meant cold.

‘Oh enough! No more. That’s it, that’s me finished,’ Krishnan could barely breathe, ‘I have to go and find them now.’  With that he set off towards the kitchen.

I looked at Puneeta, ‘So come on then, what does pagal mean?’

‘Crazy,’ she giggled, ‘it’s the Hindi word for crazy, and they obviously think you are!’

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