Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Bisleri Incident

I was on a train from Old Bombay to New Bombay to see a friend. Now, what I had learned about these trains was that somewhere in the middle of the journey, I would start to feel really parched and it would take a whole bottle of Bisleri to assuage the dread thirst. So I would pick one up at the Victoria Terminus just before embarking on the journey.

I sat in the ladies compartment clutching my bottle of Bisleri and the train started to fill up. On my left a truly beautiful village woman, arrayed in elegant splendour with her three children sitting around her (the children were also beautiful and probably the best-behaved ones I had seen so far) and on my right there was one woman with her solitary child, a little girl, who had burn marks running down half her face.

This little child was fascinated and kept staring at me and looking away shyly every time I caught her eye. Her mother smiled. Then she whispered to her mother and I caught just one word. "Pani."

Now, my Hindi is non-existent, but thanks to watching countless Bollywood flicks during my Salman Khan phase (I was one of the weird ones who emerged from my screening of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, with a crush on Salman rather than Shah Rukh Khan, perhaps because he was big enough to give up the girl rather than insist on his own happy ending), I knew a few scattered words. One of them was pani, which meant water.

"Oh does she want some water?" I asked proferring my bottle to the mother, who of course, did not speak English, but understood my gesture nonetheless. She explained to me in words (that I did not understand) and gestures (that I did) not to bother, and anyway, they didn't have any cups to drink the water from. I had learned that in India, it's very rude to drink anything directly from the bottle. I had learned this as I glugged my mineral water in serene unconcern, because of course, in Malaysia, there is no etiquette to mineral water consumption and you can drink your water all anyhow.

The elegant lady on left pricked up her ears, dug into her capacious bag and brought out a series of cups, which she rapidly distributed around. Soon everyone had a cup of Bisleri and we had quite the party going.

All smiles all around until one of them tried to strike up a conversation with me. Probably asking me where I was from or what I was doing there. "Angrezi?" I asked, hesistantly.

"Oh, Angrezi," that shut off all efforts at communication. The sad fact that I could not speak in Marathi or even the more ubiquitous Hindi. So we just sat there and smiled at each other and I wondered where else in the world, I could have a water party, just from a bottle of Bisleri.

I realised that the experiences I enjoyed the most in India were when I was out of my context and not surrounded by anyone who knew me or anyone who knew anyone who knew me.

Free just to be a stranger in a strange land with just a smile and a bottle of water.

I thought of this yesterday as I hung out in the Reef for Mark's last performance there. The Reef is cosier than the post-renovated Backyard (although I won't be going there after this) and I usually see people I know and go join them and they're happy to have me. Others trickled in and came over to our table and soon we had quite the party going. Surprising what a little cider and a lot of bonhomie can do.

Also I think cider is a better drink for me than red wine. I was completely hung over all of Tuesday but surprisingly unhungover today. Just tired. And now, I have not one but two stories to complete.

Guess I just need to buckle down and write, dammit!


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