Excerpt: Peanut Butter and Naan: Stories of an American Mom in the Far East.
By Jennifer Magnuson
As my children sleep with their faces pressed against the car windows, spent from the thirteen-hour journey, our convoy of cars sputters past fruit stands piled high with pyramids of lychee fruit and pomegranates. Street vendors taking advantage of the nocturnal business generated by the airport crank heavy wrought iron handles, feeding stalks of sugarcane into a press that spits out a sugary juice called rhuse, which is popular throughout the country.
We drive along a seemingly endless stone wall that is punctuated every twenty meters or so with the beautiful, picturesque script that characterizes Hindi. What could it possibly say? Welcome to India? We pray more than you? It is so foreign! So terribly exotic! I beg my driver to translate the flowery prose that adorns the ancient-looking structure. He scarcely hesitates before informing me, “It says to please, no urinating here.”
We plan on spending the next few days house hunting; our rooms at the Taj Coromandel Hotel are booked and waiting for us. India is nothing without her celebrations, and even though it is now the early hours of the morning, we are greeted by a sight I will always remember:
A beautiful young Indian woman in a striking teal-and-gold sari stands at the entrance of the hotel to welcome our family. Her shiny blue-black hair is tightly wound behind her neck and topped with a fragrant bloom of jasmine petals. In her outstretched hands is a round brass tray inlaid with the whorls and symmetrical designs I will come to associate with the Indian aesthetic. On the tray, a single lotus flower floats in an earthenware bowl, along with a small brass lamp releasing a flickering flame, and next to it an even smaller bowl – like a salt cellar – holds a neat little mound of red powder, called kukumam, which the woman ceremoniously applies to the spot on our foreheads right between our eyes leaving us with the mark of tilaka.
We manage to put the kids to bed by the respectable hour of four, and fingers of sunlight are already peeking through the night’s darkness before Bob and I go to sleep. I’m sure we could have collapsed earlier, but just after we get the kids down, we are increasingly disconcerted by the constant booms and cracks thundering just outside our hotel windows, and I have Bob call our concierge.
I’m frightened, of course, and in my fatigue and culture shock have anxiously conjured a scenario wherein rebel forces are just outside our room, waiting to capture the newly arrived American family and take us to some spider-infested jungle to await their ransom payment.
“This is Bob Magnuson. For God’s sake, it sounds like Beirut, Lebanon, outside. What on earth is going on? Oh. Yes, I see. Okay, thank you. No, no. Good night.” He hangs up the phone and gives me a sheepish look.
“Well, apparently it’s Saturday, and that’s when the Indians get married. All the wedding halls in the city are still letting off fireworks and crackers for the celebrations. I guess this is a pretty regular thing.”
I finger the grainy red dot on my forehead as I try to will sleep to come.
Welcome to India, Jennifer.
This is a sponsored excerpt from Peanut Butter and Naan. Available now.
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