Tuesday, December 29, 2009
I'm... Too Sexy for This Sari
Lubna and Pravez are the most wonderful hosts. We spent one hour talking with Pravez about religion of all things. He is a joke teller. What he calls non-vegetarian jokes. And with all people whose first language is NOT English, there is an odd mish-mash of phrases that are funny to hear.
“One should like to investigate the mind and expand a horizon” or “You should put on a very sad and forlorn face like you are lost in the woods and someone is certainly sure to assist you” (Picture it with an Indian accent)
We talk about how a smile is the same in any language, the great equalizer. He offers us both financial advise and why he thinks it’s important to seize the day. We discuss how families in western countries no longer eat meals together or travel together like Indian families do. And then he announces that ’Sex in the City’ is his favorite show and wants to know if that’s really what life is like for the single girl.
We spend the day lounging about the B&B ahead of our pre-wedding party. Lubna and Pravez invite us to join them for lunch. Pravez’s mother (who lives with them) is also there. The food is some of the best we’ve had in India; I fear Indian food is ruined for me back home. We have a dish that looks like a bowl of Thousand Island dressing but the neon orange sauce is savory and cheesy. They make us fresh roti and a curry vegetable dish. Yum!
Lubna helped us into our saris for the party the night before the wedding. Mine is turquoise with fushia, trimmed in glittery sequins; Melissa’s is black and red with silver flowers and trim. We’re thankful for her help, because it involves a lot of wrapping and pleating and tucking. We felt like girls being helped by our mom for our first prom. Once we were properly sari-ed, she determined we didn’t have enough bling and insisted on loaning us her expensive costume jewelry.
The party was at Surbhai’s uncle’s house, which is about a one-hour drive outside of Delhi. It’s an interesting contrast; we turn off the highway onto dirt roads, dirty barefoot kids running around, cows roaming the street. And the house is at the end of the block, red lights strung down the entire front of the house to indicate a marriage in the family. In a park next door an enormous pink tent has been erected. It all has a very Arabian nights feeling. Inside the tent, there are boys doing henna on ladies hands and arms and a traditional Rahjistani band is playing. Guests are removing their shoes and sitting on the cushioned floor to listen to the singers and talk. There are so many different color of dress; orange trimmed in gold sequins, a red and brown quilted design, sheer saris and those made of silk, vibrant pinks and muted greens. I would say it’s like a rainbow but that doesn’t do it justice.
Our palms, wrists and fingers are covered in intricate henna designs. I’m amazed at the boys doing the work; how do they keep so many different designs and patterns in their heads? They do dozens of them, all different from the next, and at lightening speed.
Afterwards we sit waiting for it dry with our hands up in the air to prevent our bangles from sliding down and ruining the henna. It’s unseasonably cold in Delhi and we can see our breath in white puff and our toes are freezing, not to mention our exposed mid-drift which our saris have left open to the elements.
But soon our henna is dry and just in time because the buffet is finally open. It’s set up like Indian street food, serving all the favorites that are sold in markets across India, but at a higher quality level. And it’s all so delicious! The chat is mind-numbingly scrumptious, a scientific blend of a crunchy fried bread thing, spiced yogurt, mint chutney and a mix of foreign spices. It can be made with any number of ingredients, but this is certainly the best I’ve ever had. Dozens of men are standing behind large, metal pan that look like giant woks mixing each order on command.
I try something that looks like a little roll, except it’s fried to be hard and hallow inside and filled with what looks like green pea soup. Actually, it looks gross. But I take a chance and am glad I did because it tastes nothing like it looks. It’s spicy and strangely has a meaty flavor. We eat delicately spiced veggies and fire-hot dosa, which are bread stuffed with all sorts of mouth-watering items.
Next, we have some fried bits of dough filled with potato and veggies and spice. We expect a samosa flavor but it tastes nothing like that.
Enough appetizers. We move to the main course table. Mini naans and roti; dal made of lentils, some kind of cheese cube in a tomato gravy-type sauce.
We are getting some attention from what I can only assume are single boys at the party. They cluster in a large group of about 10 and stare and whisper about us, making no attempt to pretend they are doing otherwise. Nobody else seems to notice they are doing it and like much in India we just take it in stride as they aren’t doing it in a way that is rude or makes us uncomfortable. It’s actually quite funny to be honest.
A DJ has started to play loud dance music, a mix of Indian and Bollywood and Euro trash. We decide to dance with the other girls and young boys despite the stares from our growing fan club.
One of Surbhai’s aunts comes over to tell us how nice we look in our saris and tells Melissa she wears her sari well. It’s a quirky phrase and we love it.
Breakfast the next morning at Lubna and Pravez’s B&B is a full house; an older Israeli man has checked in, as has a Canadian couple. Conversation is flying around the table, vying for space amongst Pravez’s jokes about Hindus, Jews and Muslims.
We take an auto rickshaw into the city to meet Amy for a day of shopping ahead of the wedding later tonight. We had ridden one through the old city, but this was on the highway and quite the adventure. Picture ridding an open cart on the FDR. It was a bit cold. At a traffic light on the entrance ramp we are accosted by young boys selling magazines; Marie Claire, India Today, Fortune. Their arms are stretching into the rickshaw as they babble at us “50 rupee” “you buy?” “what you like madam” before we speed off.
The shopping was great in Delhi. We focus on Connaught Place, which is a giant outer circle in north Delhi surrounding an inner circle, both of which are clogged with traffic. Streets spike out from the circles and we wander on the main one as shop keepers try to lure us inside. We look at scarves and before we know it, we are inside, sitting with cups of tea, haggling with the tall, handsome shop owner who is originally from Kasmir. We don’t leave empty-handed.
Much to our delight (more mine that Melissa’s, who is growing weary of my shopping disease) we happen upon the equivalent of a New York City street fair. Soon we’re weighed down with earrings and glass hanging lights, $2 shirts and elaborately painted metal dishes. The haggling is great fun and we’re getting very good at it. The key it to walk away like you mean it. One man insisted on 500 Rupees for one shirt (which is about $10), I countered with 100 ($2.) He said 400, I said 100. And on it went until I walked away and he ran after me, agreeing to 100 Rupees.
But the coup of the day was Melissa’s travel chess set. The previous day a boy had tried to sell her one outsideof the Red Fort. She doesn’t really play chess. But she likes how compact and convenient it was, the cleverness of the idea. So when a boy offered one up in the market for 650 Rupees, it was game-on. He followed us for half the market but he never stood a chance. Melissa was soon the proud owner of a smart, handmade wood box concealing a travel chess set for 100 rupees!
Afterwards we stumbled onto the food section. First we tried some dumplings from a little cart called Momo’s. Veggies and paneer (cheese) -- both were full of flavor, with a dipping sauce that set my lips on fire and turned them a rosy red. As we were gulping an orange Fanta soda in a vain attempt to cut some of the spiciness we spied two girls eating a large fried ball of something. We held up a finger to order one and paid the equivalent of 50 cents before tearing it apart with our fingers. This definitely makes it into Top Ten Things We Ate in India; fried hard on the outside, doughy on the inside, and filled with a mix of potatoes and spices and veggies. I know, I know -- all the food seems to contain the same ingredients. So, how can it all taste SO different?
One of the mysteries of this strange, dirty country.
Later, as we’re getting ready for the wedding, there’s a knock on the door. It’s Lubna offering to help us with our saris once again. And she’s not empty handed; she has bought us gifts, a set each of the colorful handmade tea cups in her house that we’ve complimented her on. It’s a sweet gesture and another of the long list of reasons why we have warmed to her so much.
Today, I’m swathed in a royal blue sari dotted with silver studs, a flower and bird design laid out on the end part that hangs down my back. Melissa’s sari is Caribbean-sea blue, a mosaic of gold, brown and black flowers running along the bottom and down the back. They are actually quite comfortable, once you get past the fear that they are sure to unravel, leaving you naked in the middle of India.
We feel elegant and exotic and as we pack both saris away that night we vow to have a sari night out when we return to New York.