The fan was wobbling gently as it spun from the stained ceiling. Elizabeth wondered if fans ever fell on people, chopping them up into little pieces. If this one decided to taste some freedom, she decided, it probably wouldn’t kill her – though it would certainly make a mess of her legs.
She turned on her side and continued reading her book.
She didn’t hear the noise anymore. For months she had resisted it, switching off fans, coolers and A/C units, shutting doors and windows, inserting imported bits of yellow foam into her ears so that she would only hear the buzzing of her brain. She had told off servants and children when they were noisy enough to wake her up from her nap, and pestered against the continuous hooting of the traffic which kept her from sleeping at night.
She had resisted the dirt too. Everything was so dirty: she would take four baths a day; wash her hands constantly; wipe her spoon on a clean hanky before eating. She had demanded again and again that the stained but “clean” bedsheets be changed, until she had given up and gone off to buy her own.
Elizabeth had also bought herself a broom, as well as a rich selection of detergents, soaps, and anti-cockroach products to clean her room up herself. The landlord’s wife had watched her, amazed, as she scrubbed the floors with hydrochloridric acid to make them white again. She had rinsed everything with Khatnil, and poured a whole bottle of it down the drains in the bathroom, putting an end to the comfortable lives of the juicy cockroaches which inhabited the various water-pipes. She had fought with windows until they closed, and lined them with newspaper to make them mosquito-tight.
But now she washed her teeth with tap water, ate with fingers that had been washed at the tap and dried on the family towel or her dupatta, and let the servant come into her room each day to sweep and then wipe the floor with muddy-brown water. The tiles were gray but she didn’t care any more: they were clean, nobody walked inside the house with their shoes on.
Oblivious to the roaring cooler next to her head and the wind from the fan that prickled her eyes, she made her way through the pages of her book, time stretching endlessly into the hot afternoon. Elizabeth knew that the moment the world became still around her, she would simply simply put the book down without the slightest tinge of irritation, stretch on her back with her arms wide open, close her eyes and do nothing but wait.
When the Bijli Devi, the new electricity goddess who felt at times that she had to remind the people of her existence, decided to go on the strike, life in the neighbourhood seemed to come to a standstill. Sound froze, the fan slowly stopped fanning and the heat pinned everyone and everything down. Do not move. Keep your body temperature to a minimum. It’s no use protesting, you know it just makes sweat stickier.
There was silence in her ears and sweat on her skin when she opened her eyes. She wiped her forehead, pestered against the greasy layer on her nose, and ran her fingers through her damp hair.
The light filling the room was a cloudy gray – not much good for reading by. She stretched. She closed her eyes again.
Sleep had obviously left her for good. She sat up, and tried to collect her thoughts and feelings from the mid-afternoon daze that her nap had left her in. It was no good going out yet – shops would be closed until five or six.
She went down to the dining-room hoping for some company. Inactivity made her feel a bit empty inside, and being around others usually helped fill her up a bit. Unfortunately, there seemed to be no Others in the house at that time.
Elizabeth wearily headed back to her room, stripped, and proceeded to do some washing. Power cuts were a great time for splashing around in cold water – and after a bath, at least she wouldn’t feel as sticky.
She had more or less adopted the Indian bucket-washing technique: squatting on the bathroom floor, she wet the clothes in a bucket of cold water before rubbing them on the ground with blue soap. Smear, rub-rub-rub, smear, rub-rub. She worked the blue marks into a white foam. Rinsing was the part she enjoyed the most: grab the clothes, slosh them in and out of a filled bucket, empty the soapy water, repeat.
By the time the clothes had been washed and wrung she was pretty wet and feeling a little better. She emptied a couple of buckets of water over her head and lay straight down on her bed, without even drying off with a towel: the heat would take care of her drying soon enough.
She stayed like that for a few minutes—or was it an hour? Time refused to flow here with the more or less predictable speed it had in the West. They called it Indian Stretchable Time; and she thought that it always insisted on stretching in the wrong direction for her.
Time had been another of those things she had fought with all her might. She used to get fidgety when made to wait for no reason at the bank, at the restaurant, at the post office or in the shops. She would get irritated when people turned up hours late without so much as a word of excuse. She couldn’t understand how a single errand could suck up a whole afternoon’s worth of time, when she had five more to run on her to-do list. She had fought so much she had nearly made herself ill.
And so she had finally learnt, as she had learnt the noise and the dirt and so many other things in this foreign culture. She lived one day at a time—or even, one hour at a time. She made as little plans as possible, and was always ready to change them. She arrived late. If she did make plans, she never let them depend on other people. She went out once a day, not more. She learnt to wait. She learnt to let the world tell her what she would do, instead of expecting to keep it in control—just as she had abandoned her reading without a thought when the power went out.
As she had tried to domesticate Indian time, she had little by little, without being really aware of it, inserted herself in the outside world in this strange way that Indians have, allowing a part of her individuality to dissolve into it. The world she now lived in was not the tame world of her homeland; it was wild and unpredictable like the feral cats who lurked in and out of the kitchen and rubbish heap during the night. She was living in the uncharted territories, in a place where our rules do not apply; and to survive she had had to dive deep into it, losing some of herself in the process.
[This is not the end… it is the beginning.]
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