I’ve been to India just twice, but within those two trips I have lugged with me enough children, pediasure, sunscreen and travel anxiety that I feel as though I’ve lived about three years of my life there.
At this point, I’m kind of an unofficial expert. By the end of trip two in December 2012 I had my standard response to the question of “What is India like?” all figured out. It was rehearsed down to the very semi-colon and dramatic pause. It was both pithy and vast.
It goes like this: “India is everything in abundance all at once, except privacy and predictability. Not much of either of those.”
Mumbai glitters at night, but as you’d expect from any megacity: Glitter and grit coexist, and they’re not always a pretty pair.
Examples: Privacy, predictability denied
No mom can predict that a plain-clothes security guard will kick her off the slide in a congested urban park. No jetlagged traveler can understand that the overnight train’s bathroom is actually an empty car with a bucket. Attached to a chain coiled on the floor. And it’s BYO toilet paper. First graders who look like their Irish-complected momma don’t mind being photographed by random people all the time. It’s when they return as sixth graders that this attention gets uncomfortable. I teased my son that maybe the other tourists in Kanyakumari thought he was Justin Bieber (pre-DUI, pre-Anne Frank House megalomania). My son never bought it, and in retrospect I know I didn’t demonstrate the necessary compassion to help him cope with being a temporary tourist attraction. We eventually settled for having me sabotage as many of these unwanted photo-ops as possible with a sweaty, steely glare and ‘90s dance poses. This red-faced lady can vogue, India!
One more example. You arrive in Madurai in the midst of a biblical plague of mosquitoes. You begin to rethink your decision to forgo the anti-malarial meds because your kids hated them and vomited them often on your first trip. So you ask your aunt about malaria outbreaks and hold your breath for the answer.
“No, there is not so much malaria,” she says. Pause. Relief. Deep breath. “But there is a lot of Dengue Fever.”
For the latest updates on Dengue Fever ’13, and to wrap your unmentionables.
I hope in some small way these anecdotes (all true, all “anonymous”) convey the truth behind my earlier “no privacy, no predictability” statement. None of them are complaints of any sort. Just observations.
A shocking shopping excursion
Back to December, 2012. Our final day in India was meant to be a relaxing one, or as relaxing as any day in this teeming, ambitious mega-city Mumbai can be. My husband and I went shopping in King’s Circle while the kids were off with one or a half dozen of their aunties and uncles.
Being the adventurous tourists that we are, I insisted on a stop in the Levi’s store – the kind of place we’d never visit back in the states. I’m short. The pants I try on are long. It’s a familiar story. Until the clerk says something verrry interesting.
“We can do alterations,” she tells me, with all the eye contact and urgency one can summon when talking to the store’s only customer.
“We have a flight in 12 hours. It would never work, but thanks,” I say, feeling conspicuously touristy. Like my son must feel, sometimes, I imagine.
She smiles. “It will take one hour. It could take less time than this.”
Can you imagine if stores in the U.S. just hemmed your pants for free while you waited? No. You really can’t. Not if you’re in the Kohl’s Department Store/T.J. Maxx shopping clubs like I am. Two pairs of pants that will actually fit me are immediately purchased and measured.
So that’s a surprise. Totally unpredictable.
Then something else happens. I realize that my monthlies are about to begin, and our shopping trip will take on a new sense of urgency. Extreme travel (and stress) can alter a woman’s internal calendar, you know.
King’s Circle is just that – a circle of clothing shops, Udupi restaurants, sweet stands and flower vendors packed around a hub that includes the aforementioned park where parents are forbidden to use the slide. Though I’m surrounded by commerce I have no idea where to go for those most practical of necessities – lady stuff.
Our first stop is the neighborhood “library,” basically a toy and bookstore where my husband used to get Archie comics as a kid. For every one trip to India that I have taken he’s taken six, and Mumbai’s Matunga suburb is the setting for many of his childhood memories. He just wants me to see it. Then we’ll get on to urgent matters.
The shopkeeper at the library actually recognizes and remembers my husband. They talk about life. I get introduced. No one mentions Archie.
Our next stop is a department store so much larger and brighter than any of the other shops nearby that it brings me hope that maxi pads are somewhere under those fluorescent lights. My husband and I know that finding tampons is just an added layer of complexity and vocabulary that we can’t take on. We have a flight in 11 hours!
Shampoo and bindis, saris and toys, stockings and school supplies – they’re all there. In the back of the store microwaves and toaster ovens are for sale. I circle the place a few times while my husband watches. He knows this is not the place, but I forge ahead.
“Can I help you find something, M’am?” asks a managerial-looking gentleman.
I nearly jump back as I’m so laser-focused on talking to a female clerk. Then I try to think back on all the female clerks I’ve seen in Mumbai, in India in total, since we arrived. Nearly every time we’re in a transaction, from the chaiwalla to the jeweler to the three men who made my recent ice cream cone, all are men.
“Well,” I say and sigh, “I am looking for ladies products.
“You understand,” I continue in slower, Midwestern-flat English accent. “Products for ladies.”
“Yes. Yes. Products for ladies. Follow me.”
“Ladies items,” she said discreetly. “I am looking for ladies items.”
I follow him right to the cosmetics counter, where every shade of lipstick pales in comparison to my scarlet complexion. I am a mom. I see a gynecologist yearly. Yet somehow I’m suddenly too eighth grade to handle the reality of international menstruation.
At least there is a woman there, behind the counter. I go for it. All of it.
“Excuse me, but do you sell sanitary napkins or tampons?”
“No madam,” she says. “We have none of those items here.”
I give her a moment’s pause, awaiting directions to the secret pink clubhouse nearby where one can purchase ladies’ products. Yet nothing more is said.
A few street crossings later we’re at the corner shop where we sometimes buy Oreos and granola bars for day-tripping around Mumbai for the kids. It’s the same place where I had sought out melatonin a couple weeks earlier without avail, but it did sell band-aids. It was worth an attempt.
I again mumble something about ladies products to the man working the counter. I think he doesn’t hear me, so my husband steps in. There’s some Hindi, and maybe a little Gujarati thrown about. It’s indicated that we must step out of the main grocery store section of the shop and round the corner to a detached drug store counter staffed by two other men. I remumble, and the two men understand me at once.
“What size?” one of the men asks me. “Is it the wings you are wanting?”
“The kind that’s big enough you can just hide underneath it and disappear — that’s the kind I want,” is what I want to say. Instead, I collect my dignity because I know this should not be so difficult. Also, I’d like to see my options before I get tossed some off-brand, odd-sized package.
Wouldn’t you guess that maxi pads are high up on a shelf behind the counter, behind the clerks? It’s the combination of security and location that we reserve for infant formula and condoms in the U.S.
“I like the blue one on the left.”
Me and my husband both nod.
The fitter then turns to his counter-mate and issues my order. The second man takes down the highly coveted blue package. While I rifle for rupees, clerk no. two begins wrapping my purchase in newspaper. Two layers! In case some eagle-eyed passerby might actually read through the wrapping and discover my lady secret.
We now have 10.5 hours to catch a flight and retrieve my me-length Levis.
My point is finally here
I’d actually forgotten about this mostly non-episode until reading today’s articles about Arunachalam Muruganantham. My walking tour of King’s Circle is nothing but a cake walk when compared to the menstrual challenges faced by women across India, only 12 percent of whom actually have access to proper sanitary pads — the kind that are clean and that promote and preserve women’s reproductive health. Access to hygienic, practical menstrual products also goes a long way toward dissolving the stigma and shame that menstruation carries with it, unfortunately, in many cultures. After years of ridicule and trial and error himself, Muruganantham has developed a simple design for clean cost-effective ladies products, in addition to machines that women in 23 states now use to produce the goods cheaply and conveniently.
Thank you, Mr. Muruganantham! Nonetheless I’m taking no chances. Next time we travel to India I’ll bring my own. Some things can’t be predicted. This should not have been one of them!