Friday, November 28, 2008

Chennai Day 14

This is my favorite picture so far: this is the High Court in Chennai, an institution that still bears some of the hallmarks of India having been a British subject. At the same time, elements of the culture here: order in what appears to my Western eyes as disorder. These are files from court cases. The large, uneven stacks toward the back, tied together with twine, are, I believe, back cases. In front, documentation for cases currently under consideration. There is a person whose job is to go through those big stacks, find the necessary paperwork, and place it into the little stack in front for the lawyers. As someone known for losing things, I cannot imagine how he begins to know where to look, or where to file cases back into the taller stacks. But isn't this great? You have to have a sense of faith - a belief that that there is some larger plan out there - to even begin to conceive that a system like this will work. And, as corollary, you have to be willing to be patient.

At about 1130 am, with a break in the rain but the skies looking cloudy, I broke out of the apartment to do some shopping for light bulbs, milk, and vegetables. I was about a block away when the skies opened up again, but given that I'd been inside for the last 24 hours, I kept walking. I stopped at the Departmental Store, which is like a very small grocery store. They sell food, drugstore items, cleaning supplies, and soda. I picked up some Kellogg's Cornflakes. If you have a box at home, take a look. My box touts the high iron content (25% of RDA) and notes that one bowl of cereal is equivalent to seven bowls of spinach. Also, that is is okay for vegetarians to eat. I'm wondering if the American packaging, or even the American recipe, is as concerned with iron content?

Next, the vegetable store. Very intense yesterday. It's a rectangular space bordered with large wooden trays, divided into squares, and each tray with a different type of vegetable. Onions are toward the back of the shop, in a big pile on the floor. There is one bin that has an assortment of vegetables in it. I think that these may be seconds and bruised pieces but haven't tried buying from there. Fruits, greens, tomatoes are toward the front of the shop for passersby to see. You pick up a large metal bowl, which doubles for our shopping baskets, put in whatever you are buying, then bring it to the counter at the side of the shop. The man who owns the shop sorts it (seems to be that onions, garlic, fruits are a set price), weighs your purchase on an old-fashioned two-sided scale, switching octagonal metal weights on and off until it balances. Then he takes the metal tray from the scale, dumps all of its contents into a bag, adds the pieces that he has not weighed, and gives you the price.

Usually, the shop is quiet - maybe one other customer, and then an employee working, sorting through the bins, cleaning, hosing them out. But yesterday there were four customers ahead of me. People kept filling bowls and walking away, and each time, the owner would look at me as I waited to pay, point to the bowl, and ask if it was mine. Nope. This happened several times, including once when a young woman, who'd left a large bowl of tomatoes, returned holding a shopping bag with two plastic bags of milk from the Medical Store next door to the vegetable shop. (It looks more like a food store to me, but that's what it is called.)

This may have been the last milk in Chennai. When I finally made my purchase and went next door, there was no milk left. Nor at any of the four stores we stopped at while coming home from the movies in the afternoon. (I'm beginning to wonder if crispy is not in the Indian cuisine. Before the movie, I bought what I was expecting to be popcorn from one of the many small carts in the theater. The sign said "American Corn." What you get: a papercup of large corn kernals - like our canned corn. You choose the flavoring - American (margerine and salt), Masala, Chinese, and some others. The guy working the cart scoops the kernals into a metal bin, adds flavorings, mixes it, and scoops it into a cup, then sticks a plastic cup in, and hands it back to you. I went with Masala - spicy, some lime, still not as hot as I'd been expecting the food here to be. Very good, but not crispy. Also, our movie had an Intermission, which is so smart, because then you can pop out for food or bathroom breaks and not miss any of the show.)

I did find cream at one store as well as butter (which I hadn't seen anywhere) and yogurt. Milk, however, was nowhere to be found. Perhaps the supply line to the dairy farms was flooded. Or perhaps the cows went on strike. Eventually, we did get milk, thanks to our driver, who offered to have his father, who guards a building up the street, buy some when the delivery van (or maybe cart) came to bring milk to that building. Somehow, he came back five minutes later with
the milk. For breakfast today, oatmeal with papaya, coffee with milk, and orange juice!

And that unknown fruit from yesterday's post? It's a guava. At every store that I stopped in for milk, I checked out the rest of the store and looked at the signs on the fruits and vegetables until I found it. I've never before seen a guava in any form but inside a bottle of juice. And the yellow ones are the ripe ones. I cut it up last night and ate it while playing my eighth hand of Solitaire: the taste is like a banana crossed with a pear.

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