Back in December, Elise and I went on one of our first date nights in India.
It wasn't our very first. That night I remember well. We walked a short distance from our home and flagged down an auto. Though we were only going a block or so away, to the Sheraton, we were still too trepidatious to cross the street. This didn't make us pansies. Crossing the street is not easy to do in India. It is like the most dangerous game of Frogger ever, because there is never a pause in the traffic. So, instead of waiting for a break in the flow of cars, motorcycles, buses, water trucks, bicycles, cows and water buffalo you kind of have to just take a leap of faith, hold your breath, step out into the street and pray.
We can do this now. We couldn't in December. So we flagged down an auto to take us a block and half. When we told the rickshaw driver where we wanted to go, he gave us the noncommittal Indian head bobble. Did he know where we wanted to go? Did he understand us? Did he know where the Sheraton was? The head bobble said both yes and no at the same time. So, unsure what to do, we got in.
Come to find out....he didn't know where he was going. After driving a kilometer or so in the wring direction, he banked the auto into a crowd of men in dhotis eating vada straight from the frying pan at a roadside cart. They barked at each other in Tamil, and the men sent us on our way. When I called, "Nundree! (Thank you!)" back to them, they giggled as though to say look at the white man speak Tamil.
We finally found the Sheraton and after overpaying for the auto ride, Elise and I walked hand-in-hand to the palatial hotel. There was a giant man in a red turban standing next to a metal detector at the hotel's grand entrance. He had a towering, bright red turban on his head, and an imposing scimitar at his waist, and the broadest, bushiest mustache I had ever seen in my life. The tips of his mustache curled and touched the tips of his earlobes, and disbelievingly grew even bigger when he smiled.
Inside, Elise and I found a sitting room, and I ordered a Kingfisher and she a dirty vodka martini up. There was an old-fashioned rotary phone on an end table. We had a view of the pool lit for night swimming, and an Asian woman soon stepped up to the mike and began strumming a guitar and singing a song I didn't recognize, maybe Sheryl Crow. It was perfectly British Colonial and perfectly Indian.
A few weeks later, we ventured to the rooftop bar at the Raintree. There, the twinkling lights of the village spread out before us, punctuated by the occasional, violet-lit facade of a five-star hotel. There, too, the constant bleating of traffic was dimmer fifteen stories below, but not entirely gone. Fireworks went off for seemingly no other reason than to celebrate date night. I thought I could almost see the Bay of Bengal as a black hole on the horizon.
After ordering grilled chicken tandoori my cellphone rang. Of course I answered it, thinking it could be Shanti, our babysitter.
It wasn't. It was the owner of the car rental company we had been using since our arrival in Chennai. I could barely understand him. It sounded like he was calling us from a party. Moreover, he sounded drunk, and I doubt I could have understood him if he were stone-cold sober, but what I did make out was disturbing. He was trying to tell us that Sundar, our driver, was mad and that he was going to quit after the New Year. After hanging up on him, I tried not to let this distressing news ruin our night, but it was hard.
The following Monday, Elise and I confronted Sundar. If he was unhappy working for us we wanted to know. I didn't want someone who was mad at us driving my family around town. Come to find out through a very difficult conversation that, looking back, I really only half understood, he wasn't mad at all. His coworkers at the car rental company were expecting me to give Sundar a gift, a bonus, candy, I'm not sure what, for Christmas and they were expecting Sundar to bring it back to the office and share it with them, and when that didn't happen they decided to call me and heckle me about it.
After finally figuring out where the breakdown in communication had been, Sundar began to insist, "Everybody happy. Everything no problem." And then, he got down on his knees and started patting my legs and toes, apologizing.
I told Sundar he didn't have to do that. I was embarrassed and touched at the same time, but I couldn't get him back on his feet.
It has not always been smooth sailing with Sundar. We went through a period when he insisted on calling Peter "Crane". We couldn't figure out what it meant or why he did it. Our only theory was that Peter is a "Christian" name. Anyway, we didn't like it and put an end to it. Then, there are a the times when Clementine is crying in the car, and Sundar eggs her on by offering her a lollipop we don't have. Yeah, not super-helpful that time, Sundar.
But four months after our arrival in Chennai, we were finally able to buy our own car, a 2002 Honda CRV that leaks oil and has a mini-Ganesha on the dash. It is always filled with mosquitoes but at least it is ours. When we got our own car, we asked Mr. Sundar to continue on as our driver. He negotiated hard, but we were able to hire him away from his rental car company. He seems happier, and, as always, "Everything no problem. You coming. You staying, Everything no problem."