It was Sunday, when Simone called with an escape plan.
“Sahil, Devika and I are going to Puppies. You coming?” Not a moment too soon. I had spent 2% of my Saturday doing Tamil homework, 10% thinking about how much I didn’t want to work on my final project, and the remaining 88% was equally divided amongst eating, watching Tamil soap operas, and battling the heat by dumping buckets lukewarm of water over my head.
“Thank god. I spent yesterday watching Crazy Eyes yell about money. Or his wife’s cooking. I couldn’t tell which.”
“207.” We had no idea what was going on in the soap operas but for some reason the director thought zooming in on Crazy-Eyes face constituted a good transition between scenes. There were too many characters, someone was always fainting, crying or having a marriage arranged. “When are you guys heading out?”
“Probably about 30 minutes.”
“Ah great. See you there.” I went to find Svada. Because there were only three rooms in the apartment, this proved to be a relatively simple task.
“Svada?” Our cook was squatting on the kitchen floor chopping what looked like an okra on steroids. “I go. No lunch. Lunch with Seemone. Returning 4:30. To Puppies, bakery.” I waved my hands and she bobbled her head.
“Okay okay. One second. One second.” Svada walked to the living room and picked up the phone. I went to my room to gather my backpack and books.
Now, when we do Puppies we don’t just stop in for a quick coffee and croissant. Typically it is a four-hour affair designed with the goal of minimizing the opportunity for our host families to force feed us while maximizing our stipend purchasing power. Large chocolate shake? 75 cents? Don’t mind if I do. At this point in the semester we were a Malted Choco Delight, three Xtreme Carmel Samosas and a bowl of Mac and Cheeze away from getting through the whole menu. The wannabe American/European bakery had an interior looked like it was decorated by the architects of Barbie’s dream house. With the focal point of the room a long glass counter stacked with rainbow cakes, cream puffs, cookies sprinkled with fairy dust, apple pie and cups and cups of deep chocolate mousse, this became our sanctuary.
“Heelaryy? Sumathi.” Svada called from the other room and held the phone receiver out to me.
“Hi! How are yo-” I started. It was the first time since last Tuesday that I was hearing from my host mom. She had left the city to be with her sister, whose husband just died after choking at a restaurant.
“HillaRYYY you don’t go out today. Sabita says those men are out making ruckus.”
At first my reaction was “Thank god someone is paying attention.” I grabbed my jumbo Lego brick of a Nokia phone and like a true hero dialed Simone. “Simone, my host mom says there are riots still happening and we probably should stay inside.”
“Huh . . .” She sounded more miffed than concerned. It was hard to tell how seriously to take the riots because classes weren’t canceled and my professor, Dr. Arun, said, “Oh walking so good for the health!” when I asked him if I should find another method of getting to school. I had never experienced a riot before. When I picture riots, I see smoke bombs, angry men, pitchforks, and a mass of flaming torches. It is usually dark, and a group of people in the background are trying to turn over a car. Also there is face paint. This is the image you get if you have watched too many Disney movies and when the closest you have ever come to experiencing a riot was watching the Red Sox win the World Series in 2004.
“Hmm. My host mom said it was fine. Wait. . . Your host mom is not even in the city, right?”
“. . .”
“Well how would she know?” I hung up the phone and sat down stupefied. How would she know? Her sister, right? But wait . . . my host mom, she was with her sister. Ohmygod. Wait a minute. I was trying to process. I relocated myself to my room. Neither of them were justified in making any assumption about the status of the “riots.” Where were they getting their information? The local gossip network? I wanted to slam the door but that would have interrupted the necessary cross breeze.
I could just see Devika, Sahil, and Simone discussing whether they should order Mac and Cheeze or the Ultimate Pizzah while I was at home awaiting my next three-cup mountain of rice. The jealousy bloomed inside of me. Why did I end up with the paranoid host mom? She didn’t even know. She hardly leaves the house anyways.
Here I was flopped on my bed, trapped inside. I was on my sixth day of host mother abandonment and was so over politeness. I had suffered through two cups of pongal which is basically couscous with vegetable shavings in it (estimated nutritional value, zero) and was so ready for a conversation that was not dominated by charades. Also it was the weekend and weekends generally suck because I am forced to stay inside the whole time and watch Tamil soap operas.
So there I was. Lying on my bed. A hot pink, sequined beached whale. Sweating. I made the conscious decision to roll up my pants legs as far as they would go, which translated to mid-calf. This action both doubled the surface area sweat could evaporate from and was a blatant sign of defiance. Oh yeah? You try and contain me? Take these culturally inappropriate capri length pants.
I watched the fan spin overhead. Every so often I would pick out an individual blade and follow it for a moment before losing it and being forced to pick out another. Spinning. Spinning. I, hypnotized, by its imaginary breeze. The fan with its false promise of comfort. There was a beep from the back of the house and the Tamil soap opera stopped mid-tantrum. I watched in horror as individual blades emerged from the spinning blur.
Oh of course. The power was out again. Suddenly the fan didn’t feel so useless.
And then I remembered. Puppies has AC. And a generator.
The fleecy surface of the pilled comforter suddenly became unbearably itchy. In that moment this overwhelming feeling of heat-induced claustrophobia morphed into something entirely different. Restless leg syndrome. And. With it. Ohmygod. The realization. This. Is. WhatItFeelsLikeToBeAWoman. Trapped. Ridiculous rules.
In my twenty years wearing dresses and the occasional sweep of mascara, I don’t think I have ever really felt conscious of my gender. And then there it was. A whack that sent me spinning. Damn it. There was no way to escape. I was being held hostage by a woman who was three hours away. The windows were barred and one of the servants had now taken up watch by the door.
My mind immediately latched on to all the women you read about in the newspaper who can’t go anywhere without a male chaperone. And all of a sudden I didn’t just understand, I was that BBC version of every Afghani, Iraqi, Pakistani woman locked inside some ridiculous walls and with no rights. All I wanted to do was go to school, eat ice cream and eventually burst from the trenches, a Nobel Prize winner and testament to the unconquerable power of the female spirit. (Just for some reference, at this point I was about fifteen minutes into my self-imposed solitary confinement.) My purpose was realized. My new life had begun.
Unfortunately, in this “new life,” there were still riots, my host mom had not changed her mind about letting me go outside, and my friends were still at Puppies eating Ultimate Pizzah and Death by Double Choco Assault. So for the next hour, I lay there moping. My plans to emancipate all female-bodied individuals of the world were momentarily put on hold. I moped on my back. I moped on my stomach. I tried moping on my side but it did not have quite the same level of drama. Around 45 minutes in, the heat became exponentially more irritating so I dumped a bucket of water over my head which simultaneously enhanced my performance art and produced a momentary chill.
That’s how Svada found me.
She held out the peace offering. Usually she gives me coffee in this little aluminum cup but today it was a porcelain mug, American style. And per our usual ritual I took two sips before sneaking off to dump the rest down the drain.
I look back on that moment of irrationality and frustration and I cannot help but laugh at that version of myself. Of course I didn’t know what it was like to be any of those women. I will never really know. I don’t know Iraq or Pakistan, I barely know India. I see Svada every day but I will never see her home by the railroad. I will never be able to tell if my host mom teases her or yells at her. I will never be able to ask my host mom why she doesn’t leave the house. Why she hasn’t seen her husband in over a year. Three months in India will not grant me the perspective of an insider. In comparison, the only irritations I understand are surface-level mosquito bites. On my desk is a vial of pale blue pills so I don’t worry about malaria. And in a drawer is my passport, a promise that any itching is temporary.
Hillary Mullan graduated from Oberlin College. She spent a semester studying in South India. Currently, she is working on research to understand how the brain creates memories and is looking forward to her next opportunity to travel.