When I was in India in January, I had a little adventure. I don't mean to sound blase about it. I know that just going to India at all sounds like a big adventure, and in some ways, it is. But I've been going to India since 1989, so it's become a different thing, a less adventurous, more comfortable and familiar thing, especially since I was with friends for much of the time.
This time, I went to Sri Lanka as well, which, again, could be seen as an adventure in and of itself (and given the state of civil war, it kind of was), except that most of the time I spent either lolling at the beach (lovely but not particularly adventurous) or hanging out and gabbing madly with my friend Sonia in her lovely flat in Colombo. Sonia and I have been friends for going on 16 years, and over those years, we've gabbed madly in apartments in Eugene, Seattle (multiple apartments), Oakland, Northampton, and Delhi, so adding Colombo to the list felt pretty natural.
Anyway, every once in a while, on my non-adventurous trip, I'd have a little adventure. And one of those days was the day I left Colombo to return to Delhi. Even as it was happening, I knew it would make a good essay, and it's an essay I've been trying to write (and I'm not going to write it here), but until I write the essay, I thought I'd at least write about one part of the adventure.
The brief background is that I had a 6 hour layover in Chennai (formerly known as Madras), and I was determined not to spend it in the airport. I've been to Chennai a bunch of times, but the last time was probably in 1995, so I had no clear memory of it. So, that was part of the adventure--figuring out where to go and how to get there in this little window of time I had.
What I wanted was lunch, and after consulting with the ticket-wallah at the local train station (conveniently located near the airport, inconveniently located across a highway construction zone), I got on a local train for 7 or 8 stops and got off at a station called Mambalam, where I then went off in search of lunch. My whole little mini-adventure--finding the train station, riding in the ladies compartment on the train, navigating the crazily crowded pedestrian zone at Mambalam, my satisfying lunch at Saravana Bhavan--was fun as it was happening and is fun to think about now, but what I wanted to write about was the stainless steel.
There's lots of stainless steel in India, and it's not something I've ever thought about much. Over the years, I've accumulated some stainless steel cups and mugs, and after my long stay in Delhi, I came home with a stainless steel milk cannister that I used to take to the Mother Dairy milk stall to get my milk for the day. Now, I keep rice in the cannister, but I do like remembering myself standing in line for milk with my cannister, often the only person in line who was not a small child or a servant.
But that afternoon in Chennai, in that crazily crowded pedestrian zone filled with sari shops and gold shops and lots and lots of people, what beckoned to me was the stainless steel. There were two stainless steel emporia just a few doors away from each other, and even though I'd had no plans to go stainless steel shopping, I couldn't resist.
The reality of the matter was that I couldn't buy anything big, even if I'd wanted to. I was flying on a discount airline back to Delhi with one small suitcase that was already full. So, no enormous vessels for me, alas.
Still, stainless steel comes in all sizes, so I thought I could get a few little things--some cups, maybe, a tea strainer, some little boxes. But for a little while, it looked like I might not be able to buy anything since the clerk who ended up helping me turned out to be profoundly unhelpful. I was looking at some spice boxes, and I pointed to one on the shelf. He took it off, looked at it, put it back on the shelf, and told me it was defective. I asked to look at another one. That one, apparently, was defective too. After that, I was mostly curious to see what he would do, and sure enough, everything I pointed to was defective and thus I couldn't look at it. I found it hard to believe that an entire section of the store, the one I happened to be looking at, was full of defective stainless steel, but I couldn't really argue with him. I was tempted to move around the store and see if he followed me, telling me that everything in the entire store was defective, but I didn't. If I'd been in northern India, I could have spoken to him in Hindi, and that would have helped. But this was Chennai, where they speak Tamil, and there I was, a white girl in western clothes with a clunky daypack on my back. It probably felt like more trouble for him to deal with me than to tell me everything was defective. His shining moment was when I asked if they had any tea strainers, and he said "No, not available, madam," and I turned around, and there was an older gentleman unloading an enormous box of tea strainers and putting price tags on them. The older gentleman handed me a tea strainer with the unhelpful clerk looking on.
Eventually, I found a basket on the counter full of little stainless steel spice boxes. I started looking at them before the unhelpful clerk could tell me they were defective also. In the end, I bought two sets of three little round nesting boxes that fit inside each other along with the tea strainer. All together, it cost 92 rupees, about $2.30, at the exchange rate then.
I haven't put spices in my boxes yet. But I've taken to carrying the 2 smallest ones around with me. (They're the 26 gram size, the label says.) I put little handfuls of nuts and raisins in them and keep them in my bag in case I need a snack (a frequent occurrence). I like their portability, and I like it that when I look at them, I have a vision of myself, halfway around the world, reflected in a shimmering stainless steel nirvana.