India Afterthoughts III: A Rat as Big as a Cat – Living Inter-generationally in Mysore

rodent of unusual size

“Hello . . . hello . . .” It was my eldest son, Brendan, calling out at 2:20 in the morning. He was sitting up in the bed next to mine, and calling towards the window. Hearing him caused me to sit up as well. Brendan thought someone was in our room. My immediate thought was that a monkey had somehow gotten inside.

Brendan and I were sleeping in the room his mother and I had shared during our time in Mysore. My son had just returned from a year in Afghanistan, where he had served as a diplomat in the U.S. Embassy. He was spending a week with us in India before returning for his next assignment in D.C. Peggy had gone home several days earlier; I was to join her in the States a few days later.

Now Brendan had ignited his iPhone flashlight app and was shining it towards the floor near the entry door to our room.

“God, Dad, it’s a rat!” he exclaimed.

I turned on my flashlight too just in time to see a huge rodent – as big as a medium-sized cat – slinking across the floor in front of our beds. Now he was in the corner near the window.

“What do you think we should do?” Brendan said.

“I don’t know,” I replied.

Gingerly I got up and opened the door leading to the outside patio in front of our room. Just then the rat jumped onto the window sill and slipped out through a hole in the screen. I heard him scurry out across the yard.

I closed all the windows and said, “That’s going to make it hard to go back to sleep, won’t it?”

Brendan agreed. But somehow we fell asleep again — I suppose dreaming of “Rodents of Unusual Size,” which played such a role in “The Princess Bride” which ironically we had just viewed that very night.

In any case, that’s only one of the many astonishing incidents Peggy and I shared with our children in India where all of them spent time with us in a funky apartment that housed our wonderful inter-generational community.

That is, for three of our four months in India we shared space and time with our daughter Maggie, her husband Kerry, and those three yellow-haired children, Eva (5), Oscar (nearly 3), and Orlando (nearly 2). Peggy’s roommate from her college days, Micki Janssen, joined us half-way through and stayed for two months. Our sons, Brendan and Patrick came for the Christmas holidays. During one of his leaves from Afghanistan, Brendan and his girlfriend, Erin, had also spent a week with us in Sri Lanka.

Our house in Mysore’s V.V. Mohala neighborhood was perfect for renewing family ties. It resembled a three-story motel right out of the 1950s. Four separate living spaces (each with its own lockable entrance and kitchen) made up the first floor. Peggy and I occupied one of those rooms. That’s where the incident with the rat occurred.

Oscar slept in another room on that same floor. The idea was for Peggy and me to keep tabs on him during the night. The house’s owner (the ever-present Mr. Dass) made his office in a third room. And then there was an American college professor (whom we rarely saw) who lived in the fourth.

The second floor of the “motel” was a two bedroom apartment with a large kitchen, two bathrooms, a living room, dining room and office. That’s where Maggie, Kerry, and our grandkids lived. Early on, they converted one of the walk-in closets into a “bedroom” for baby Orlando.

Peggy and I ate lunch and dinner in that apartment with the whole family every day. (The two of us had breakfast each morning on our own at the “Barista” Coffee Shop a few blocks away – café lattes and “Breckwich” sandwiches consisting of an omelet with lots of cheese on a white bun. I figure that between us we probably ate more than 100 of those sandwiches while in Mysore. )

Everyone eating together twice a day was terrific. What bonding we did! We had a great cook by the name of Anita. She’d fix us Indian food for lunch. And it was always superb – Indian curries, dhal, chapattis, naan, biryani rice, roti, bitter gourd, yogurt, and other delights. Then we usually had something western for supper – pasta, pizza, quesadillas – that sort of thing. Two other women, Vigia (of whom Oscar was strangely afraid) and her daughter Pavrita helped Anita and did the cleaning and laundry as well.

The “motel” had a third floor too. Micki lived in the apartment up there. The third floor’s terrace spread itself in front of Micki’s room. Kerry and Maggie eventually placed two table and chair sets there. That made it nice for parties and occasional meals when the weather was especially fine – and when the laundry had dried and could be removed for the occasion.

Intergenerational living in those circumstances turned out to be wonderful. Many mornings Eva would wake us up, join us in bed, and insist on playing some game – usually involving Pippi Longstocking or Harry Potter. She’d also want to awaken her brother Oscar who always slept longer than Eva and was (as I said) sleeping next door. So we’d have to dissuade her from doing that.

Though the living arrangements and interactions were not without their challenges, I’m sure none of us will ever be the same after living inter-generationally like that. We learned we could do it and have great fun in the process.

Brendan and I will never forget that rat either. . . .

India Afterthoughts (I)

Mysore Palace - 7pm Sunday

in the airport on my way home from India. My four months here are over. I can hardly believe it.

Just a little while ago my time remaining here seemed endless – in the sense of still having plenty to absorb what life has sent me here to learn.

I ask myself: what was that? What did life teach me in India?

My answer? It taught me about India itself (this “Mahatma” or Great Soul of the world), about my past lives, how to breathe, about meditation, yoga, and the joys and challenges of communal and inter-generational living. Over the next few weeks, I’ll post some thoughts on each of those lessons.

I’ll begin today with some brief impressions of India itself.

Ah, India! I grew to love the place. It’s just beautiful – gorgeous with its deeply green rice paddies, palm trees everywhere, huge mountains, brown rivers, cows standing motionless in the middle of busy intersections, and roadside stands selling coconuts and textiles of every hue and pattern.

I think of where we’ve been. . . . We spent most of our time in Mysore in the south-central part of this most “foreign” of any of the countries I’ve visited. (The city’s main palace is pictured above.)Compared with other Indian cities we’ve seen – Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore – Mysore was delightfully sleepy and manageable, even though its population is well over a million. Mysore streets are dirty and spotted with cow dung. Unexpected gaps in sidewalk pavement suddenly reveal holes at times a meter deep. But no one seems to mind.

The traffic is absolutely chaotic. It’s dominated by scooters, motorcycles and Vespa rickshaws. Horns blare constantly. As someone said, “It wouldn’t be India if it weren’t noisy.”

But there’s something about the rhythm of life in India that’s most appealing. The pressure we’re used to in the States seems less prevalent, though people still complain about stress. Arrival and appointment times are approximate, not exact. People smile when they talk. They bobble their heads as they consider responses to questions, and always appear reluctant to say “no.” Women doing even the most menial tasks like street-sweeping or ditch-digging wear the pink, yellow, blue and red saris. They all walk with such stately dignity and grace. Everywhere men stand motionless by the sides of roads urinating against walls, trees and into empty space.

We did some traveling too. There were two idyllic weeks at the beach in Sri Lanka. Over the Christmas holidays we also visited the backwaters of Kerala. We saw Agra (and its Taj Mahal), and the holy city of Varanasi on the Ganges.

I’ll tell you about Varanasi next time.

Guest Blog: My Daughter Maggie’s Report on India

Rickshaw

Today marks our 2-week anniversary in India and it feels like our sabbatical experience has really begun in earnest. As expected, India is a radical departure from the elegant Tuscan countryside we so enjoyed for the last two months. But it’s exciting to be here! India is absolutely teeming with life. Kerry and I are already firing on more cylinders. And the kids are thriving–marveling at the cultural kaleidoscope and relishing inter-generational living (with my parents just downstairs).

It’s not perfect, of course. We miss some creature comforts; but we’re hammering out solutions every day. If you’ve checked our blog lately, you know that we don’t love the house we’ve ended up in. Also, our ears are ringing from the constant street noise. This weekend we took a trip out-of-town, and the silence was actually unnerving. Finally, the kids brought lice(!) home after just one week at school, which was appalling. (And of course Kerry and I did not escape unscathed). All five of us did a round of medical shampoo last week, and we’ll do the second round tomorrow to catch the remaining eggs that will have hatched. But Oscar is still itching his scalp and saying he has “ants in his hair,” so the situation is definitely not resolved. The crazy thing is, Indians don’t seem to think lice is a big deal at all; no need to even keep the kids home from school! We’re going to move to braids every day for Eva. And hopefully get some kind of preventative spray shipped to us from home that we can spray on their heads every day before school for the next six months!

Kerry and I started a daily Mysore-style yoga class last week at a shala called Yoga Indea, and it’s everything we hoped for. Our teacher, Pratima, is very strict in an exhilarating way. She scolds us when something is not just right. And she’s constantly telling us to “feel the work.” Kerry is doing great, even though it’s all so foreign to his body. And this is definitely the most serious and frequent yoga I’ve ever done. Most importantly, we’re both moved by the opportunity to engage in this project together, side-by-side. Our class meets each weekday morning from 11:15-12:15. Afterwards, we stop by the coconut stand for some electrolyte-rich coconut water, and then head over to the kids’ school to pick them up. It’s been really lovely so far. And how great that it’s only just beginning!

We are all in near-constant awe as we walk the streets of Mysore. As time passes, I think we’ll stop noticing how “other” this all is. But for now, here’s a little taste of some things that have grabbed our attention as we move about town:
-Children playing on an improvised swing hanging from scaffolding; the swing seat was made of a bound pile of recycled diaper boxes.
-A whole valley full of white sheets and towels drying on lines–stretching over at least a full city block. (In theory, air-drying clothes is kind of romantic. But not on the side of a busy road in a polluted city).
-Our security guard burning (presumably our) trash on the side of the road, not 50 feet from our front gate.
-An incredible funeral procession that started in front of the children’s school and passed right by our house. In it, a dead body, clothed in a loincloth, sat upright, tied to a throne, covered by a canopy of hundreds of yellow marigolds. The throne rested on a litter, carried by four men. A group of mourners encircled the body, wailing and moaning with a somber drumbeat accompaniment. After about 15 minutes, the procession began to move around the neighborhood before heading across town to the burial ground. (Kerry commented that the tradition couldn’t be great for public health).
-I don’t think we’ve seen a single stop sign here. Instead, every vehicle (double or triple) honks at every intersection; this explains a lot of the noise pollution.
-There are so many animals roaming the streets, especially cows. Someone told my mother that cows are Mysore’s “speed bumps.” That’s actually quite lovely, isn’t it?
-Because there are so many animals, it is imperative to walk with your eyes down at all times to navigate the animal dung, which is everywhere. (This even though Mysore is India’s second cleanest city).
-Rickshaws are our main mode of transportation and the children think they’re pretty great. They’re not at all safe, of course. They’re open on both sides and they weave in and out of traffic, tailgate to the extreme and barrel the wrong way down one-way streets without hesitation. They’re designed for two adults to fit very comfortably. And we can technically fit our whole immediate family in one if the boys sit on our laps. Even that seems like a bit of a stretch to us. But our jaws drop regularly when we pass rickshaws literally dripping with people. 4 adults. Even 5 adults. 10 children. Crazy.
-Everyone seems to litter here, without a second thought. It’s pretty mind-blowing, since littering feels unthinkable in the United States.
-Mysore’s world-famous Dasara festival just ended. We mostly avoided the celebratory events because of the crowds. But we attended a purportedly “less-crowded” dress rehearsal of the Torchlight Parade one night. We found ourselves in a shocking crush of people trying to push through a narrow gate into the stadium where the parade would take place. A line would have worked well, but instead it was a stampede. It’s not at all hard to imagine the fatal scene on the bridge in northern India last week. Definitely not a situation we’re hoping to repeat–especially with kids.

Eva turns five next month. It’s a big birthday and we wish she felt more settled socially. She has made a friend at school from Ohio, and she’s happy about that. But she’s generally (and understandably) a little intimidated by the language gap. (As a side-note, recently Oscar refused to ask an Indian waiter for more water. “I don’t speak Spanish!” he insisted). But back to Eva. She really misses the community and sense of belonging she feels at home. She vacillates between saying she wants to go home immediately, (because she misses ALL her friends), and wishing we could stay in India forever (because it’s so exciting and colorful here!) All things tolled, this is not actually a bad mental place for her to be in right now. But if anyone out there feels moved to send a birthday card her way in the next week or so, I know she would really appreciate it. Little connections to home feel extra-important while we’re still getting settled here. Our new address is:

The Lehnerd-Reilly Family
No. 2639/1, II Main, Valmiki Road
V.V. Mohalla
Mysore, Karnataka 570002
India

Thanks so much to everyone who’s keeping us in your thoughts. We’re happy to report that all is well and we’re on our way to creating a full life here. Kerry made a rather profound “sabbatical observation” just the other day: “People without kids don’t understand that ‘doing nothing’ is possibly doing too much.” And so we keep going.

Love,
Maggie, Kerry, Eva, Oscar and Orlando

Asian Journal: Maggie, Kerry and our Grandchildren Finally Arrive

Mysore

Our daughter, Maggie, and her family arrived in Mysore yesterday morning. They were exhausted after grueling plane trips (from Tuscany) with their three small children [Eva (almost 5), Oscar (almost 3), and Orlando (1)] minus their au pair who (following her emergency appendectomy) returned to Mexico in the middle of their trip. Maggie and Kerry sorely missed her help on the plane with a crying baby and the predictable needs of the other two.

Poor kids!!

The stories of their ticket, baggage, and ground transportation problems, were horrific. They were all completely spent.

So Peggy and I were not surprised when they showed obvious disappointment at the digs we had found for us here in Mysore.

Since our arrival here a month ago, Peggy and I had looked at over 30 potential dwellings. None of them were satisfactory. Either they were too cramped or unkempt, or they were far from Mysore’s center and the Montessori school we all wanted Eva and Oscar to enter. So we settled for a large dwelling about two blocks distant from the “ABC Montessori School” we all liked very much.

Our dwelling is a family residence that has been cut up into five apartments to such an extent that the ground floor resembles an old-time motel. It’s located on a street that is quite noisy with large vehicles roaring by at all hours.

When Peggy and I first saw it, we were not impressed. Neither was Maggie after we sent her photos of the place. However, after reviewing those thirty other places, the “motel” took on the appearance of the Ritz.

Of course Maggie and Kerry didn’t have the “benefit” of the search that became the focus of our first month in Mysore. So their first impression, I’m convinced, was the same as ours had been a month ago. The disappointment on their faces couldn’t be disguised. Peggy and I shared their chagrin.

However, we’re confident that in time they might see the “Ritz” qualities here. Again, it’s close to our grandchildren’s school. It’s near shops and some nice restaurants we’ve discovered. It’s relatively clean and well-maintained – though overpriced for us “Americans” who, we’re aware, have been given a “special” deal.

Did I mention that less than half a block away is Mysore’s best ice cream parlor? That was enough for the complete contentment of Eva and Oscar. Yesterday (again, the Lehnerd-Reilly’s first day here) I took the two of them to the “Corner House” (the ice cream parlor’s name) twice for double dip cones!

Today will be Eva and Oscar’s first day in school. I look forward to their tales.