Cold Coke in Jodhpur



        Back at the Acchal Niwas Guest House in Jodhpur, I have not yet recovered my energy despite my five days in bed in Pushkar, and I am smarting from my back injury. I curse the careless bus driver who, yesterday, drove at full speed over a well-marked speed bump, resulting in my being thrown upward and back down on my seat, like a yoyo. In the split-second when I banged my head under the luggage rack and my behind hit the seat on the rebound, I felt as though my spine was being compacted. I don’t know if this will be a permanent injury; it has not improved one bit since yesterday and of course, I have hardly slept, not being able to turn over in bed. I walk with a limp and cannot carry or lift anything heavier than a small bottle of water.
        By the Clock Tower, the Omelet man (a greasy old fart) with his ostentatious “Recommended by the Lonely Planet” sign, is busy as usual trying to steal young Vicki’s customers across the path. And that, despite boasting to me, in answer to my question, that he sells thousands of omelets daily. I will not eat Chez Greed Incarnate. My not too matinal routine takes me to Vicki, the not-so-well-known omelet boy. His contagious smile while cracking eggs and heating up his old, beaten up, blackened pan, makes me forget my woes for a moment. 
        Greed Incarnate tries to ignore me ever since I told him it would be kind of him to let someone else earn a living. “You don’t even have time to spend any of the money you earn; you are at your omelet stand morning til night, seven days a week,” I told him. It breaks my heart to see all the tourists, Lonely Planet Guide in hand, dropping themselves down on his dirty little seats; they have come to him as pilgrims to Mecca. If only they knew…
        Today, on this March day in Rajasthan, I feel brutalized by the heat. After breakfast, on the way back to Acchal Niwas to get my Hindi study book, I spot a Café with large parasols atop another Guest House. It will be a good place to study for a few hours. On the way in, I ask, “Is this the right door for the Café upstairs?” “Yes, Madam, no problem.”
        I labour up 4 flights of stairs. As in many old homes in India, the steps vary in height anywhere between 6 and 12 inches. Limping up these 4 flights sucks out any vestige of energy left in me. I come to a semblance of restaurant: one lone table with an unbelievably filthy tablecloth. Stains from the last few years adorn it and proof of recent meals served on it attest to the fact that not everyone is as fussy as I am.
        “I’m sorry,” I tell the friendly woman gesturing me to the table. “I can’t sit here. This tablecloth is just too unclean.” How can I be so rude? It must be the noonday sun turning my brain to mush. Yet I am neither Englishman nor mad dog. Am I hoping for a miracle? The thought of searching for a more suitable place after going up and down innumerable high steps in stifling hot, narrow stairways, depresses me no end. I reluctantly glance behind me towards the top of the stairs.
        “Yes, no problem, Madam.” replies the young woman, unperturbed, the owners’ daughter-in-law, most likely. In a swift, expert motion, she whisks away the lumpy piece of cloth to reveal a filthy, originally white, plastic table of the kind we now find everywhere in America. Everywhere in the world. She smiles at her resourcefulness, and graciously pulls the chair out for me. For some reason, dirty plastic is less repulsive to me than dirty cotton. At least, it can be wiped clean with a damp cloth, and the dried-out lumps of food can be scraped out until only the turmeric stain remains. I wait until she has half-heartedly wiped the table before putting books or elbows on it.
        “May I have a cold coke please. Thanda, thanda.” “Yes, no problem.” I wait twenty minutes. I am getting more dehydrated by the second. By now, only a very cold drink will cool my body as well as my temper. I limp over to the top of the stairs and shout down several times: "Coke hai?” After repeated enquiries, someone shouts up, "ek minut." And after another five or ten minutes, up comes the woman with a warm bottle of coke, unopened, lying sideways on a stainless steel platter. No straw, no glass. “Sorry”, she says, “family problem.”
        I am fully aware of my pickiness but let’s be fair, any self-respecting French Canadian will sympathise with me. “No thank you,” I say, staring, unbelieving, at the hot coke. Defeated, I walk back down and out the door. Lo and behold, once outside, I realize that the restaurant I had intended to go to actually has its entrance at the side of the building.
        This is typical of India: a small guest house opens a rooftop restaurant and, because every tourist establishment is so cluttered with signs, customers don’t bother to read them; they come up the wrong set of stairs. When going in, they ask, “is this the right place for the restaurant?” After a while of this repeated scenario, the people at the non-restaurant place figure, well, we are missing out on a great opportunity here, so they plunk a dirty table and a dirty tablecloth on their roof and smile and say "yes, no problem", and customers, wary of having climbed 4 flights of stairs, stay and order something which may or may not come.
The “yes, no problem” should have been my clue. I have spent enough time in India by now to know that “yes, no problem” means a few things, but that it does not mean “yes, no problem.” It means, for example, “of course not, but we need the money so go on ahead”. Or, “here’s another dumb tourist who thinks I understand English”. Or, “yes, but I will have forgotten what it was you wanted by the time I get back to the kitchen” or, “no, we don’t have any but if I say: “yes, no problem”, it will keep you happy for another ten minutes". These are just a few of the translations for this very versatile expression.
“Excuse me, for the Malhotra Restaurant, do I go left or right?”
“Yes, no problem”,
“Excuse me, is this 100% cotton or is it synthetic?”
“Yes, no problem”,
“Excuse me, is this real silk?”
“Yes, no problem”,
“Excuse me, would I be better to take a bicycle rickshaw or a motor rickshaw to the Red Fort?”
“Yes, no problem”,
        Well, never mind. By now totally dehydrated, I excruciatingly climb up five flights of uneven steps from the door at the side of the building, and arrive at the lovely blue, clean restaurant, the one I had actually spotted from the street. When I mention my back injury, I am even offered two thick cushions. My coke, thanda, thanda, comes swiftly and my hostess adjusts the large parasol over my table to protect me from the sun while letting me benefit from the breeze. I settle myself down to study for a few hours and to take in the ever colourful street scenes below.
        After a few sips of my coke, I glance over my shoulder towards my previous table on the roof top one floor below. The daughter-in-law is sitting at the dirty table with the dirty tablecloth back on, staring into space, doubtlessly waiting for the next unsuspecting tourist. “Yes, no problem.” True, she wasn’t the one who had a problem. I have to give credit to some of these women; nothing ruffles their feathers, not even the fussiest of customers. That's India for me.

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