I am sitting in a small, dark concrete room full of Shireesha’s uncles who are cracking jokes loudly, almost shouting at each other in between cackles. They are teasing my wife because I had asked how to make Andhra-style chicken. The idea that, on most nights, my wife gets home from work at 8 o clock and we order in, thus precluding me ever seeing anyone cook South Indian food, seems as incomprehensible to them as most of the things I’ve seen since arriving here would seem to my family back home.
The town we’re in has almost as many people living in it as Seattle, yet it isn’t marked on most maps of Andhra Pradesh, the state we’re in. The 8 hour drive that brought us here is the polar opposite of the bland sameness that characterizes interstate road travel in the U.S. The highway teems with more drama and entertainment that the Las Vegas strip on New Year’s Eve. Even between villages, there are never fewer than 500 people, and several of (what would be considered in the U.S.) exotic animals, within my direct view. I pass giant white temples with intricate carvings and 40 foot statues. Women and children carrying loads of crushed rock on their heads in an effort to widen the highway, a 2 lane road with at least 8 lanes of traffic – a pedestrian lane, the livestock lane, a bicycle lane, the auto rickshaw and motorcycle lane, and the lane for cars and buses which carries our motorcade – a large SUV with tinted windows followed by 2 shiny Mercedes Benz sedans. I want to roll down the windows to explain that we’re no mafia or government, we just have an uncle who is a very successful land developer. But rolling down the window to reveal my very Caucasian face would probably create an even bigger scene and I am glad I am in the car with the tinted windows. We pass a line of camels which are apparently raised as food by the local Muslim population.
Now I am on the roof of Shireesha’s uncle’s house at sundown. It’s perfect weather – 80 degrees, dry and slightly breezy. I look out across the town and further over the plain and I can smell the cooking fires. I hear the sound of 1000 birds and roosters crowing. The incessant sound of car horns is thankfully distant enough that it is drowned out by the Sanskrit chanting being broadcast by one of the temples in the town. I came up here to have a moment alone to write but I am interrupted by a woman on the roof next door. “Excuse me sir, where is your home?” in perfect English. She is going to the U.S. next month, having just married an NRI who works for FedEx in Pittsburgh.
Earlier today I walked the one block here from the uncle’s house we’re staying at and was followed by a group of 20 or so children in school uniforms, one of whom was nearly pushed into me, apparently dared to make contact. “What time is it?” After I give him the time he asks “What is your good name?” After I answer, I hear a dozen children’s voices whisper to each other “John. His name is John.” I won’t take out the camera just yet. Last time I did this, 20 children became 100 and I had to be rescued by Shireesha’s uncle on his tractor.
Shireesha's family historically have been farmers and all of the brothers still own land. This is Shireesha's uncle Bakthanath standing in one of their fields. Here, they are growing Chana Dahl (garbanzo beans).
This is one of the bigger temples in the village.