Wednesday, April 07, 2010
Tea and Biscuits--& Foaming-Mouth Monkeys
Tomorrow I'm flying out on yet another trip, this one to Nashville to meet with my new publishing house, B&H. On the way I'm stopping in Kentucky for a few days to be with Mom. Known as Mama Ruth to many, she's now 93 and driving her "Ruth's Rocket" red golf cart around her retirement village. Today, in honor of Mom I'm running one of her slice-of-life tales from India. Mom and Dad (J.T. and Ruth Seamands) were missionaries in India for 20 years. This story, as Mom tells it, takes you back to the late 1940s...
I can still see my big old stone house with twenty-pound langur monkeys pounding over the roof every day. Plenty of holes for the monsoons to pour through. Vast living room with ten double doors—and no screens. It was just after WWII and screen wire was not available. Lots of guests from America visited India to "cheer up the missionaries." One day it went like this: (Names have been changed to protect the frightened.)
Somebody at my door kept clearing his throat, which was my doorbell. "Salaan, Mem-sahib." A tonga driver put his two palms together in greeting. His one-horse shay stood at my steps. "I brought you some guests from the station, Madam." He spoke in Kanarese, which told me he didn't know English. If he had, he'd have been proud to speak it.
I answered in his language. “From the station? Today?”
A portly American stepped forward, taking command off the situation, holding out his big hand to shake mine. "You're Mrs. Seamands."
I nodded. I already knew that.
“I am Congressman Charles Crow, and this is my wife, Susan."
"Oh, Congressman, I thought you were coming tomorrow. . . I could have met you in our jeep. So sorry. . .”
Mr. Crow brushed aside my apology. "It isn't your fault. We got an earlier plane."
"Well, come on in. My ayah will soon have your room ready. Meanwhile, please sit here and I'll get us some tea."
They nodded and smiled and sat on my droopy couch while I paid the tonga walla and dismissed him. Turning to my guests, I hoped to make them feel welcome. "It’s so nice to have you visit us from America. I do get lonely for home folks sometimes." I brought in the tea tray. Strong Indian tea, boiled with milk, spices, and whole cardamom seeds. "Estation tea," we call it because that's what we always get on trains at every station. "Here you are." I passed them large cups full of this special tea. "And try some of these biscuits--uh, cookies. The British out here call them biscuits, but they are American oatmeal cookies. I just made them."
They both seemed quite thirsty. "This is very good tea--and I love the cookies," exclaimed Susan. "I never dreamed I'd have oatmeal cookies in India." They put their cups back on the tray.
I was pouring a second cup when an enormous black-faced, white-mouthed monkey loped from the guest room through the corner of my great living room, and out the front door. Susan Crow’s eyes bulged. She screamed, quickly covered her mouth with one hand and lifted both feet off the floor. "D---do they live here with you?"
"Not with my permission! Don't worry about that monkey, Susan. He's probably as scared of you as you are of him. Because we don't have any screens yet, they sneak into the bathrooms when they find outside doors open. They like to eat the soap."
"Eat the SOAP?" they echoed in unison, their cultural horizons widening with every passing second.
I shrugged. "I guess it's because they don't have any toothpaste."
Charles Crow boomed--if a crow can boom, "Eat the soap? I thought that monkey had rabies! He was foaming at the mouth."
"No, they like soap. Sorry, you will probably find teeth prints on your new bar of soap. It was my last one. Just keep your outside bathroom door closed."
Susan quavered, "M--maybe it's not a good time to stay here, Charles."
He patted her shoulder and whispered, "We'll face it together, Dear."
I smiled at them, remembering how I first felt when I came to India, to this place, and faced all the critters I now encountered every day. "Don't worry, it's a good time. This is usually a pretty quiet place—”
Before I could finish defending my living quarters, we heard a great crash and yell coming from the wall. That was followed by a series of heavy whacking sounds and more shouts. Susan whimpered and drew her feet off the floor again. "Char--Charles. . .!"
The rotund VIP, skilled at taking charge of any trouble, jumped straight up. "WHAT WAS THAT?"
I sighed. "Oh, that. It's just my noisy husband. He's in the storeroom." I pointed to two doors in a side wall. "Killing rats.”