Saturday, October 22, 2011

One Raj Mahal Chai, No Please, No Thank You!

When we met Vikramjit and Raj on the train ride from Delhi to Amritsar I don't think any of us imagined that just over a month later we would be such close friends as to consider them our Indian family.

Our week visiting their hometown of Ashok Nagar in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh was a highlight of our larger trip and the absolute best part of India for us. We had planned to stay only a couple days, but as those couple days came and went we found ourselves so comfortable, so happy, so welcomed and so well fed that we ended up staying an entire week. We could have stayed even longer, basking in their comfort, conversation and friendship. We all would have enjoyed it, but we tore ourselves away: the Nepalese Himalayas were calling us to hike in their short optimal season before our visa expires.

This blog entry would be pages long if I were to detail all the wonderful things we did in Ashok Nagar. The days seemed to fly by in this beautifully green countryside. We visited a magnificent old fort, a temple full of monkeys and a hilltop temple with vibrant live music and dancing. We hiked a mountain and visited a farmhouse. The single best thing about Ashok Nagar though, was the people. Not only did we have the privilege of spending time with Vikramjit, Raj and their kids Ravneet and Rohan, but we were also lucky enough to meet so many of their wonderful family and friends. The people we spent the most time with, were Mr and Mrs Sandhu and their family and Mr and Mrs. Ram and theirs. Vikramjit's mom, 'Mommy Ji' we called her, also came to visit for a few days and we loved being with her as well. We are so, so lucky to have met such fantastic, caring, generous, fun people and we are very thankful for the time we spent together.

We learned so much too. First, and very important, how to make the perfect cup of chai. I'm sure you know this, but 'chai' is just the Indian word for 'tea' so when we order a 'chai tea' at home, of course we mean an Indian tea, but we are really saying we would like a 'tea tea', which must sound quite entertaining to anyone who knows the language. Raj uses the Indian brand of black tea called Taj Mahal. She says its the best, and she is the expert, and makes the best chai in India, so we believe her. Jonathan dubbed Raj's delicious chai 'Raj Mahal chai' playing on her name and the tea brand. 'We want chai, not tea, please. A Raj Mahal! Only the best will do!' we would joke with Raj. I can't wait to see if I can recreate a Raj Mahal chai when I get home....

Many an evening I stood in the kitchen with Raj, notebook in hand, jotting down notes as she prepared food. 'Its so easy' she would always say, as she scooped handfuls of this and that into pots, not measuring a single thing. Sigh. She made it look easy, that's for sure. Her kitchen always smelled so delicious. The spices, the ghee, the stewing veggies, lentils and sweets. Yum! One of the things we really wanted to do in India was to take a cooking class, since we love Indian food so much, so I really enjoyed spending time chatting with Raj as she cooked, watching and learning. Raj and Sandeep, Mr. Sandhu's daughter joked that when we got home we could continue to have cooking classes over Skype. Only I'm afraid that their dishes cooked over here on the subcontinent will turn out far more delicious than mine and then I will have to watch them enjoying their food through the computer resisting the urge to lick the screen! But, really, the food we ate in and around Ashok Nagar was absolutely scrumptious. The best food in India by far, and possibly even the best food of the trip this far was what filled our bellies in Ashok Nagar. We tried so many different dishes prepared by so many different, very talented cooks. We probably gained ten pounds this week, but, oh my, was it worth it. We especially liked all the food cooked by Raj, the feast at Mr. Ram's farmhouse and everything prepared by Mrs. Sandhu and Sandeep. Our last morning in Ashok Nager we went to Mr. Sandhu's for a delicious breakfast and before we left, Mrs. Sandhu and Sandeep had packed us a huge lunch, complete with cake, to take with us on the train ride! Our bellies were very, very lucky!

We learned that the pleasantries that we use constantly in English are not used really at all in India. Between friends, especially, you would never say, please, thank you, or sorry. Its not rude at all to neglect any of these sayings. They are implied and don't need to be spoken every time. For us, of course, these manners are so deeply ingrained in us that it was nearly impossible for us to stop saying 'thank you' every time someone did something for us, which was often. 'No thank yous!' everyone kept telling us. We tried to remember, but the words just kept popping out. It became a running joke. 'No thank you,' Vikramjit would respond every time he was in a situation that one would normally say 'thank you' in. It was funny. We laughed a lot in Ashok Nager.

Vikramjit and Raj's two young kids are great. Ravneet, their daughter, is about five years old and is super smart. She is a serious gal who loves school and learning. Everyday after school she would run immediately into the room that had a big chalkboard and a bucket of chalk and would start playing 'Teacher, teacher.' A game where she was the teacher, writing on the chalkboard, and scolding her student, namely Rohan, her younger brother. I think at times he was disciplined for being a less-than-willing-student, but as any good little brother, he knows that older sisters are the boss and not to be argued with. Rabu, as the family calls her, has no interest in toys, dolls, makeup, jewellery, dresses or games (other than 'Teacher, Teacher', of course). Unlike Rohan, the typical little brother, who loves all things loud, messy and destructive. Give Rabu pens and paper and she is happy as a clam. In fact, she loves stationary so much that she scolds her father for being a dentist. Rabu told Vikramjit that it would be much better for her if he would close his dental clinic and instead open a stationary store so she could have an unlimited supply of pens, pencils and notebooks at her disposal! haha! The other thing about little Rabu is that she is absolutely beautiful. Our digital camera was a novelty to her and she loved having her picture taken. Every time she would come up with a different pose, (how do five year olds know how to pose?) tilting her head, crossing her legs or resting her hand on her jutted out hip. It was adorable and earned her the title of 'India's Future Model.'

Rohan, their son, is about three years old, and within a day or so of being at their house, Jonathan had nicknamed him the 'Eating Machine.' Eating Machine is a ball of energy, so, quite reasonably, he needs a lot of fuel to enable him to continue on his mission of crawling (sometimes literally) up and down the walls until it is finally his bedtime. One day we had an outing planned so Raj had cooked up a really big, filling, delicious breakfast so that we would all be full until mid afternoon. Eating Machine had eaten his breakfast early, when he had gotten up, and then ate a second breakfast with everyone else later in the morning. We got on the train and a man selling samosas came by, so, of course, Mr Machine had to have a snack. Then, we got to the station and he saw a food stall and suddenly really, really needed a bag of chips, so he ate that. Then, because I saw his hungry eyes wandering, I gave him a candy that I had found in my purse. About twenty minutes later or so a man with an ice cream cart strolled by. Rohan ran up to Raj and started telling her some sad sounding story in Punjabi. There were actual tears in his eyes. "What's wrong?" I asked Raj. She laughed. "He says he's starving because he hasn't eaten since breakfast."

We also learned that cows like to sleep in the middle of the road. Only the middle will do. And that this is totally acceptable. As cows are representations of dieties to Hindus, they are pretty much safe no matter where in India they are or what they are doing. So, why not sleep in the middle of the road, really? The first night we arrived in Ashok Nagar it was late. Being the wonderful people that they are, Vikramjit and Raj had driven almost three hours in the monsoon rains to pick us up at the train station, and then of course, we had to drive back. 'Driver Ji' we began called Vikramjit, as he chauffeured us around that week. ('Ji' is a general term of respect. You can add it to the end of people's name to be polite. Its kind if like saying 'Sir') The main road was closed because of monsoon damage so we had to follow a series of small, barely paved, pot-hole laden roads from the station back to their town (if you can imagine it is even worse than Drummond Hill!). 'Bone-shakiii' MP roads we would all learn to love to call them. When we got about three kilometers outside the city we were met with a mass exodus of cows. It seemed as though they were fleeing the city. It was crazy the number of cows that were strolling down the middle of the narrow road. Maybe even a hundred of them! Ones that weren't strolling, were already lying in the middle of the road, resting. Watching the traffic like it was late night television. Seriously, it was like they each had a special 'middle of the road' spot that they liked to call their bed, and that, like a bed, they returned to every night. Driving in India is like an obstacle course, and all the ridiculous objects in the way that would be completely unacceptable to us, as westerners, are just normal, every day pylons to Indians. Cows, for one, are huge. Both annoyance wise, and their physical size. Travel is slow going not only because of the state of the roads themselves, but also because everyone has to slow down to maneuver around the cows, or 'Speed Breaks' as Sandeep calls them. Or, a 'cow jam,' as I liked to call it. I also delighted in yelling 'MOOOooooove!' out the window every time we had to screech to a stop centimeters in front of a cow and wait for it to look at us for a few long moments in its cowy way and eventually, after it was sure we knew just how much we had displeased him, saunter out our path (and into someone elses). I thought it was hilarious! Most others didn't share in my hilarity.

Besides the cows obstacles include herds of goats and water buffalo, sometimes being shepherded by their owner, sometimes wandering freely. There are stray dogs and stray children, sometimes carrying other children (probably strays, too), bikes, rickshaws, people pushing carts of produce, people talking on cell phones while walking their livestock.... 'Sometimes, when you are really in a rush,' Driver Ji informed us as we swerved around fence dividing the road and towards a herd of oncoming goats, 'you are allowed to drive on the other side of the road.' Why not? After all, this is India, and in India, 'Everyt'ing is possible!'

ps. In the next Ashok Nagar installment I'll tell you all about the day Jonathan wore a turban, an adventure up a mountain, servants, gifts, our new Punjabi vocabulary, and I'll probably talk about food some more too.


Gina said...

A temple full of monkeys? Like in Jungle Book? Please write a post about that; it sounds awesome!

Anonymous said...

Hi J and K,
It was woderful thaclentedt you got to meet up with "Vik" and Raj again after such a short time. I reckon your visit with them and their relatives will be the highlight of your breath-taking trip.The Indian food you so much enjoyed will be something you won't forget. From the pictures you took, J could be mistaken for one of the natives ! Too bad all those cows kept getting in the way. When you come to Ireland on your way home, I assure you there will be no cows on the roads !
With best wishes as you journey on.
Love, Pappy.

sarah adie towle said...

Ahh Pomey, have I told you lately that I miss you? I go weeks (and maybe a month or so) without reading this blog and then I do and I miss you all over again!
Thank you for the tidbit of chai meaning tea, how silly we all sound ordering tea-tea lattes.