When we contemplated living in Bangalore for two years, I told Louise, “I’m concerned about the mosquitoes and other little critters there.” Louise smiled with what looked like understanding. When I asked her what her concerns were, she said, “I’ll miss my beautiful home, friends, and family.” Oh yea, I thought, but that wasn’t even in the same ballpark with my mosquito worries.
We’d been in our Bangalore apartment for two weeks when a large insect buzzed by my head as I was sitting on the living room couch, reading the English language Bangalore Times. I was startled by this intrusion into my personal space and my feeling of relaxation was over. It was 9:15 in the morning. It felt as if during most moments of the last two weeks, I was on some kind of alert—looking for mosquitoes, hearing noise everywhere, trying to cross traffic-clogged streets, and getting workers to come for the work we still needed to do in our apartment.
I batted at the insect with my paper and at the same time said, “Louise, there’s a bee or a wasp in our apartment. I don’t know what it’s doing up on the fifth floor. It’s huge.” (Later that day I drew a picture of that bee in my journal. Not much of an artist, I definitely got the insect’s size right. The picture showed a bullet-shaped object, at least an inch long, with beating wings.)
Daily, and sometimes twice daily, thereafter I was put on bee alert by an invading insect. Each one of these bee-me interactions was cause for an anxious comment. Once I said, “There’s another bee in our apartment. I don’t know where they’re coming from.” I also said something like “I can’t figure this out. This is really a mystery.” I don’t remember if I made these comments to Louise, or to anyone in particular. I do remember that there was no response. Maybe this was because the things I said were basically senseless, since every window in the apartment was without screens and kept open to get some fresh air into the warm interior. The insects had free access, carte blanche, into our apartment.
A week after the bees first arrived, I was again attempting to relax on our new couch with the local paper. Louise was at the dining room table writing in her computer journal. I loved reading the many funny articles in the paper. It was a combination of the way the story was told, the use of the English language, and the subject matter, so culturally different from what I was used to. This day’s copy didn’t disappoint.
“Honey, listen to this bit of local color in the Bangalore Times. The article is titled ‘Death Traps: Hosur Road Potholes as Measured by a Citizen.’ It says:
The city’s potholes are enough to drive anyone around the bend, and one citizen of Langford town decided to undertake his own little study of how bad the situation really is. Koshy Verghese and his wife were up, bright and early on Sunday morning. They undertook a drive with a mission, along a 2.8 kilometer stretch of Langford Road; they stopped at every pothole and measured it. The findings: Total number of potholes: 185; Potholes per kilometer: 65; Large potholes (with depths of over 2 inches, diameters over six inches): 25; Medium potholes (with depth over 1 inch, diameter over four inches): 78; Small potholes (depth 1 inch, diameter three inches): 82 …
“Damn, there’s another bee buzzing me.”
I jumped up from the couch and, in almost convulsive moves, tried to shoo the insect out of the living room window with the newspaper. My last swat was just as the bee exited my space. The force of my swing almost propelled me out the window. As I caught myself, hanging onto the window frame, I spotted it. “Oh my God! There it is. I see the source of this invasion. There’s a huge hive on the third floor of the building next to us. It’s got to be at least the size of two basketballs.”
This got Louise’s attention. She walked to where I was at the window and looked out to the right at the next-door building. “That’s the largest hive I’ve ever seen. It looks like it’s attached above the balcony of one of the apartments. Please save us from the residents of this monster hive, sweet prince.” She was smiling when she said “sweet prince,” but I took her request seriously and started planning my strategy.
The next day, returning from an Indian breakfast of idli, sambhar, and chai at a local outdoor restaurant called Tivoli Gardens, I walked down the Street of Holding Hands with Louise towards our apartment house. We had given the street that name because it was one of the only spots in Bangalore where we felt comfortable enough to show any kind of public affection to one another. Once, a few days before, I even gave Louise a peck on the cheek, after doing a complete 360-degree reconnaissance.
As we turned the corner onto our street I saw them. “Jesus, there are thousands of bees returning to that hive. The sky is black with bees. How could those people in that apartment stand it?” I yelled. “I’m going to track this down.” I took off alone towards our neighboring building.
Starting at the bank, which was on the ground floor of the beehive building, I squeezed my way into the narrow doorway, barely noticing the rifle-toting guard who stood at semi-attention right next to the door. I had learned a few days before that a two-foot wide front door opening and a heavily armed guard were security measures that all of the banks in Bangalore enlisted. There was a belief that bank robbers would think twice about coming into a bank and robbing it if they would have to pinch their way past the armed guard.
“Who is managing this building?” I asked a clerk who peered out from a desk piled high with bank documents.
“Sir, I wouldn’t be knowing that information. We are not involved with the building or the apartments on the floors above. Would you like a free calendar? We are only giving them out once a year.”
I reluctantly took the calendar and left the bank, this time moving a little slower past the guard as I exited the building. I actually brushed against his rifle as I squeezed past him. He was an ominous figure that, besides thwarting potential robbers, would seem to give perfectly good customers reason to stay away.
I decided to look for the entrance to the upper floors. Going around to the side of the building, I noticed another doorway that led to an elevator. Next to the elevator a small sign read, “Honorary Manager, Mr. Shah, Apartment 203.”
The door to Apartment 203 opened and a squat, purple-faced woman emerged. She was barefooted and wearing a cotton sari that I worried was about to drop to her knees. It held onto her body, almost magically. In fact just as I was thinking this, she grabbed her sari in the vicinity of her breasts and gave it a big yank upwards as if to avoid for a moment the forces of gravity. As I smiled at her in my most friendly fashion, thinking about how I would introduce myself, I noticed that the apartment smelled of onions and some other unknown vegetables and spices that weren’t unpleasant, but certainly pungent.
“Hello, is Mr. Shah here?”
“Yes, but he is presently taking his bath. I am his mother-in-law.”
“Oh, I live in the apartment building next door, on the fifth floor. We’ve been getting bees or wasps in our apartment every day for the last couple of weeks. Yesterday, I noticed that there was a very large hive on the third floor of your building.”
“Yes, Mr. Shah is knowing about this. He has asked someone to smoke the hive. We too had a hive last year on the corner of our building, near our apartment. It was a big mess to get rid of. This is a problem.”
“Yes it is. My wife and I are very bothered by all of the bees that get into our apartment on a daily basis.”
“Oh yes, I will tell Mr. Shah that you were here.” She shook her head from side to side, which I understood to be an acknowledgement. Her look reminded me of the many promises that hadn’t been fulfilled since we had come to Bangalore.
I didn’t feel very confident that anything would come of my visit to Mr. Shah’s apartment. I would have to take matters into my own hands. It was at that moment that I vowed to put screens on all our windows.
Back at our apartment I told Louise about my meeting with Mr. Shah’s mother-in-law and then said, “I haven’t seen one apartment in this neighborhood with screens. They have to have them in this town, with all the potential they have for mosquito infestations.”
“Dear,” Louise responded, “remember, that we were told last week by our landlords that there aren’t many mosquitoes in Bangalore.”
A small advertisement in the classified section of the Bangalore Times offered a window screening service from Screens to Order. The ad stated, “Better safe than sorry. Total window dressing solution. Authorized ALUMINUM & NETLON dealers.” This really appealed to me, as I liked the concept, “Better safe than sorry.” That is my feeling exactly. I called and made an appointment for 4 p.m. the following day.
“Well, it looks like he’s not going to show up; what else is new?” I said to Louise. The Screens to Order man was four-and-one-half hours late. for his appointment. Giving up on the possibility that he would come this evening, I got ready for bed.
Fifteen minutes later, the doorbell rang. I felt pissed off as I got up to answer the door. Why can’t we get someone to come when they say they’re going to come? Despite my feeling of agitation, I noticed as I approached our apartment door that the bell chimes were playing “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” This was one of five tunes that alternated when the bell was rung. I felt like singing along for a moment but instead yelled at the still-closed door, “Who is it?”
“It’s Gurunath from Screens to Order.”
I opened the door, realizing at that very moment that I was wearing my sleep shorts. “Come in, you know you’re four-and-one-half hours late.”
The man at the door didn’t seem to notice my dress and said, “I’m most sorry, sir. Many things came up and they are too complex to even tell you about.”
He was a tall handsome man in his early 40s. He had a big smile on his face, as though he were visiting an old friend. I noticed that his eyes were soft and piercing at the same time.
“I am ready to go to work and I will make you the best screens in Bangalore. I need to do the measurements now. That will take 45 minutes or so and then I can install the finished screens in two days.”
I frowned in response to Gurunath’s good cheer and, only because the screens were to be my salvation, agreed to let him proceed with his measuring at this late time. This is such an intrusion on my evening, I thought, How does this guy live with himself and act like nothing is wrong, when he’s almost five hours late.
Exactly 40 minutes later, Gurunath appeared in the living room and said, “Well sir, that’s that. I’ve got all of the measurements. I know that it’s late so I’ll be going now, but may I ask you just one question?”
“Okay,” I said.
“It seems to me that Westerners are obsessed by time. For Indians, time has a very different meaning and is quite less important. Can you tell me why you think this way?”
“Now, Mr. Gurunath …”
“Please call me Guru. You know that Guru means ‘teacher.’”
“Guru, is that what people address you as?” I smirked at what appeared to be a grand case of egotism.
“Yes,” Guru responded.
“Guru, I don’t think that it’s very fair of you to ask me how important time is to me, since you were almost five hours late. Also, you need to know that in the last few weeks we have had many, many workers come late for appointments, or not show up at all. I’ve become rather mistrustful of the workers in Bangalore.”
“Mr. Wallock, sir …”
“My name is Joel.”
“Mr. Joel, I don’t think that it’s worthwhile to be upset if someone is a few hours late for an appointment. This is especially true if you become so concerned about the lateness that you are no longer in the present. Being present is our number one goal in life. Now, please understand, sir, … uh, Joel, that I will definitely have your screens ready and installed in two days.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” I said. Then, despite my angst about the whole thing, I did something that was way out of character for me. “Would you like a cup of tea, Guru?”
“Yes, Joel, that would be lovely.” He smiled and put down his tools.
Now I was curious. I wanted to interact some more with him, and, for some reason, I felt that I could trust him. We moved to the couch.
“I think that I know the importance of being present, Guru, but in this area, dealing with service people who have been almost constantly in our apartment since we arrived, my primary goal is to get things taken care of on time. Can you understand that?”
“Yes, as long as it doesn’t become your way of life, Joel. I also want to admit to you that if someone called me to put screens in their very large home, time would be important to me as well and I’d be over there in five minutes.”
“Hey, thanks for saying that. That’s very ‘present’ of you,” I joked.
Two hours later Guru left. Two days later he installed the screens and he also invited us over to his house for dinner. I looked forward to more conversations with him and couldn’t wait to meet his family.
A few days later, I was surprised to see workers smoking the beehive on our adjoining building. As I watched them work from my window, I spotted another hive on the building across the road.
“Oh well, we’ve got screens now, so it’s a non-issue,” I said towards the noisy clamor of the street. Then I glanced at my watch; but for some reason, I avoided noting the time. I felt a little anxious because of this new behavior, took a deep breath, and settled into the couch to read my newspaper.
Joel Wallock is an attorney living in Aptos, Calif. He and his wife spent two years in Bangalore, and they can’t wait to return.