Back in December, when I first arrived in Delhi, I was naive. I was warned of the struggles in India and the precautions one should take to keep up a healthy system but I was arrogant. I thought I was the star of the show. Buying saris, seeing sights, living the dream. Eating veggies and fruits not giving a damn and thinking there’s no way I’m eating out of boxes! I had mastered India within the first 24 hours and I was untouchable. Then, maybe because she had never seen such reckless happiness, India struck me down: Delhi belly. Coming out of that experience, I was a changed woman. Who is the boss? Not me! Who makes (or doesn’t make) the rules? Not me! What do you want for dinner? Something out of a box!
The body is amazing though and adapts to its environment. January saw a broken hippie, scared into a much quieter, sedentary, less obnoxious existence. Then February was like a baby learning to walk. Tentative. Cautious. Small increments of progress. This meant eating legit (delicioussss) Indian food and hoping it would take mercy on me. Now here we are at March. It’s the reckless teenager phase. My body is getting stronger. My immune system is on a level unprecedented. And two days ago, India and I came face to face again.
I was hungry. It was Tuesday and I wanted spinach paneer (cheese). So I asked Mary, the fantastically sweet Indian woman who helps take care of the household, if she would teach me to make it. She was more than happy to impart some knowledge to me. She also gently laughed and remarked that it was about time I learned to cook Indian food; all those cookies can’t be good for anyone. We set off to the microscopic market just a few blocks down the street. Now, I had a sense on that walk that what I was about to come up against would be significant. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time but I noticed that colors were brighter, sounds were louder; I was walking into battle.
We arrived and indeed, it was a small but lovely market.
The first shop we stopped at to pick up henna was a jack of all trades shop. It had everything: razors, henna, a red flyer wagon, balloons. All of this was piled up into towering stacks leaving only enough room for one man to sit in the middle with his cup of chai, a calculator and a box of money. Mary negotiated the henna and motioned to the soda pop refrigerator. The man opened the sweating door, letting out a blast of cold air, and pulled out a block of packaged paneer. I was generally surprised to be buying refrigerated packaged cheese in Delhi; maybe this wasn’t battle after all! There was some discussion between the man and Mary that I couldn’t follow not because I couldn’t understand them (which I couldn’t) but because I was deep in thought, trying to come up with another adventure for the day since this “brush with Delhi death” was being overrun by modern conveniences. I had safe cheese to eat; there’s no blog story in that. When I arrived back to the present moment, Mary was turning away from the shop and heading across the street to this guy, henna in hand but no refrigerated paneer.
I ran to catch up, worried. “Why didn’t we get that wonderful paneer?” I asked. She replied “It was expired by a year.” Right. “They will have some over here with the vegetables”, she offered. Indeed he had some. It was in a bath of murky white water inside here:
India’s play. It was my move now. I didn’t want to back down but I was scared. I watched in silence as he plucked the cheese from the bucket, sliced off a chunk, threw it on the rusted scale and tossed it into a bag. I watched in silence as Mary paid $1 for almost a pound of cheese. And I walked in silence for a few moments knowing I had just accepted India’s challenge.
We cooked and ate. Three days later I am alive and healthy. Well played, India. We have a mutual understanding: I respect the *#$^ out of you. You let me live.