I have company this year. Although for a while there was the possibility of another Western volunteer joining me at the school, this never materialised. There is no long queue of Western people waiting to flock to Kerala to improve the English of the locals; they only exist in the fantasy world of B, who is involved in a volunteer programme enticing British people to India at exorbitant fees and whose grasp on reality can be somewhat dubious to say the least. But a new teacher arrived at the school at the end of May, an Indian teacher with Western attitudes and good English; a gem to be cherished for her proficiency in English, but at odds with Indian society because of her Western mindset. Suffice it to say that whereas my white skin protects me from criticism and I get away with bending the rules, no such allowances are made for her.
Being Indian, A. – who comes from New Delhi but has also studied in Canada – was given ‘suitable’ accommodation in the small village of C, near the school. She was given the luxury of having a mixie, a kind of food processor/grinder which is indispensable in a Southern Indian kitchen to make such delicacies as dosas, idli, coconut chutney and fresh spice mixes. Although her apartment had a bed and linen, it lacked every other kind of comfort such as a fridge or television, and internet access was dubious at best. Clearly, the school’s manager was of the opinion that as an Indian woman, A. could dispense with such extravagances. A. has recently married and her husband, a white Canadian, is trying to jump through the hoops of immigration to allow his wife to join him, but this could take another 15 months. In the meantime, A is living the life of a misfit in Indian society, shunned by the locals for being a ‘bad’ Indian woman and not quite accepted in the white world either as her experience with Western ex-pats in Goa taught her when they closed ranks and excluded Indians from their social clubs. A lonely existence.
So it made sense for the two of us to live in the same house. As the Westerner in India, I have a fridge and a television and my internet is pretty good when there is electricity… and teaming up with A. has given me access to a ‘mixie’ so I can try out new recipes with the meagre supply of ingredients available in the local shops. Also, her insight into Indian culture is often invaluable and she can shed light on the peculiarities of life in India for a Westerner like me. Although the management put every obstacle in the way to ensure the two of us would not become ‘pally’, they were bound to fail. We have too much in common not to become friends, so regardless of the wishes of the school’s management and the power games they played, A. moved in with me in early June.
And her arrival did not go unnoticed. ‘ Inebriated Upstairs Neighbour’ immediately found cause to come and introduce himself and check out the new addition to the downstairs household. A. indeed invites curiosity as she does not follow Indian customs by bedecking herself with the customary jewellery or red dot on the forehead or hair parting to indicate her marital status and this can lead to misinterpretations; at the age of 35 she should be properly married with kid(s) in tow and husband in charge. But neither of us had any intention of getting more closely acquainted with the upstairs neighbour, so he was given a cold reception and left with hanging tail. Now, this did not go down very well and clearly ‘Inebriated Man Upstairs’ had his nose put out of joint and was looking for revenge…
His opportunity came a few weeks later when A. accidentally left a bag of food waste at the bottom of the steps near the entrance of the house. As the school composts food waste and we consume considerably more fruit and vegetables than the average person in Kerala, we generously donate towards the school’s composting project; it also rids us of the problem of what to do with it anyway as fruit and vegetable peelings cannot be burnt easily which is the only option available to us for dealing with rubbish. On our return from school, ‘Inebriated Upstairs Neighbour’ was hanging over the balcony, eagerly awaiting our arrival so he could chastise us. We duly apologised and thought no more of it; it was indeed an isolated oversight on our part.
But the next morning, we found a letter from the landlord at the doorstep, clearly intended for me as the main tenant: ‘To whomsoever it is concerned. It has been brought to my notice that garbage and other solid waste is thrown at the entrance of my building by the servant maid. This may kindly be avoided. The wastes may be deposited in the spot where it is meant for in the compound pit in your compound or in my compound pit set apart for this purpose. To the Resident living in the ground floor. Signed: The owner of the house.’ The implication was clear: as the white woman in India, I was availing myself of the services of an Indian woman; the only ‘obvious’ explanation to the claustrophobic mind of Indian society.
Unfortunately, A. who is a highly educated Indian woman and teacher, was the first to see the letter and saw red. Not only was the note demeaning to her, the facts were distorted. Needless to say that as two like-minded women, we did not take kindly to this behaviour and visited the landlord at the earliest opportunity to put matters straight. Although in the Western world it may seem a very logical step for women to confront the landlord (who is a man and therefore a figure of authority), in India this was slightly daunting as women are meant to be demure and submissive, but we decided that we were capable enough to fight our own battles and did not need men (in this case the School Manager) to do it for us. Thank goodness, I had already spoken to the landlord on several occasions to iron out a few issues, and we get on really well, so we put our side of the story and clarified A.’s position as a teacher, not servant, and the fact that we have never thrown waste anywhere, but burn it….
We have not heard another peep from ‘Inebriated Upstairs Neighbour’ since… and he is keeping out of our sight.