The small kitchen room is filled to the brim with the smell of fried dough and warm bananas. Rutvik and I are squatting on the floor around the small stove and talking about how we want to design our next pancake. It turned out to be a little more challenging to create banana pancakes than we initially thought it would, especially considering that none of us seemed quite sure how to do regular pancakes in the first place. But three trips to the nearby village to get bananas, sugar, eggs and again bananas – because the other guys just ate them all up – turned out to be worth it and we even somehow got the twist of how to creatauburn-mark-free pancakes with a nice and mushy banana filling inside.
Praveen enters the kitchen, a plate in his hand. “Can I have one more?”. We look at him suspiciously and then at the already dangerously empty pot of dough. Both Rutvik and I haven’t had more than a few test bites of the pancakes we made so far and which we prepared so hard-headedly for. “It’s so delicious!”, Praveen continues in his broken English. “Maybe half?”. His smile wins us over and as he leaves the kitchen, excited like a child over his piece of brown, warm, sweet dough, all our worries disappear like flour in the wind.
In the end we actually get to eat the last small pancakes ourselves, before going to help the men at the construction site. They are building a community kitchen which is soon to become the new social center of the village. In the heat of the rising midday sun work is harder than it should be, but the plastering of the beautifully twisted pillars turns out to be a quite fun and rewarding learning experience and I feel good about my work and what I’ve learned when I head for lunch.
After lunch it is too hot to go outside and continue with the work, so I stay in and write on my internship report, that I promised myself to finish while staying here. Sitting next to my bag, I unconsciously dig between my clothes until I feel the satisfying phone-like shape of a chocolate bar I kept hidden from the cat, dogs and other predators around the house. Trisha, the 11-year-old daughter of the founder couple sees me. “Hey, what is that?” – “Chocolate”, I answer, truthfully, but as low and casually as possible, as to not let too many others know about it. She seems to get the hint, because she lowers her voice a little as well. “May I have a piece, please?”. I give her one when catching Rishab’s, her brother’s eye, taxing my chocolate bar. When I am done distributing chocolate to everybody nearby, only less than half of the once so proud bar is left.
Soon I get enough of squeezing lines out of the insides of my brain and open the browser on my tablet. I seem to currently find myself in a small crisis, because I fail to come to a decision on where to go next, after I leave this village. A feeling in the gut tells me, India shouldn’t be the last place to stay after already almost five months here, but Japan is too far away and cold right now, Bhutan and Bangladesh not really a change of perspective, Burma and China too restricted with regulations and I don’t know much about other places around. I ask a friend in China and she recommends Thailand, so I type it into Google image search. Pictures of the white beaches around Phuket and Bangkok’s pulsing night life fill up my screen. Maybe that’s a good way to go. They might even have mangoes there that time of the year.
“Hey Mattyoos!” Rafiq sticks his head up to the platform right under the roof where I am sitting. He seems to have found my camera lying around somewhere, because he is demonstratively holding it up now. “Oh, where?”, I ask. He points to some corner of the room. “Great, thank you so mu… huh?” Rafiq is still holding the camera in his hands and doesn’t seem too eager on letting it go that soon. He is holding it to his chest now and points towards the door. “You wanna take it out and make some pictures?” I mimic holding a camera in front of my face and pressing the release. He nods enthusiastically. I tilt my head to one side for a moment, then I shrug and make a gesture as if to shoo a fly, the way I have seen it Indians do it countless times. “Ok, sure.” He grins excitedly and runs off, camera at the ready.
I sink back into the research about Thailand and lose myself in time. Soon it is growing darker outside and in the blink of an eye the sun has gone down with me still sitting between the mattresses on the platform. “Mattyoos!”, somebody is calling me. “What?”, I answer absent-minded. “Dinner”, Rutviks voice replies. “Huh, yes, in a minute.” I take probably ten minutes in the end, before I join the others. Rutvik, Praveen, Rafiq, Trisha, Rishab and a couple of other guys are sitting in the main room and the kitchen scooping up hot and spicy Sambal with small balls of rice they mush between their fingers before skillfully lifting them up into their mouths. Arriving in the kitchen, however, I am staring at an empty pot. “What happened to dinner?”, I ask, to no one in particular. “Ah, I think there’s only rice left.”, Rutvik answers. I stare at the half filled pot of plain, tasteless Basmati rice next to what seems to have been the Sambal pot. “Only rice?”, I ask, incredulously. Rutvik helplessly lifts his shoulders. Praveen looks at me mimicking what seems to be an apologetic smile, his hand still sunk deep into his portion. The kids don’t even lift their heads. I put the empty plate I just took up back on the shelf and bow to look into the sack we kept three dozens of bananas in for at least a tiny snack. All gone. Of course. I don’t even bother with another inquiry, but turn on the spot and return back up to my tablet. One night without dinner will not kill me, but I can’t help to be bothered by the fact that everybody else got to eat so well. While I am trying to focus on my travel plans, the day passes by in front of my eyes, and a big input-output equation that doesn’t seem to make sense appears in my mind and begins to frustrate me more and more.
Another “Mattyoos!” is shouted through the room, half an hour later. I peek down from the platform where everybody is gathering in a circle. Group meeting. Fine. I climb down the bamboo stairs and join the meeting. Almost the entire conversation is held in Telugu, so I fail to make out most of the topics discussed. Instead I sink back into my own darker thoughts, internally trying to phrase my displeasure. Looking around the circle of very different people, old and young, urban and rural, English-speaking and Telugu-speaking, school-educated and home-educated, I seem to find a few reasons for some of the younger people to forget about me in their culinary calculations. Why some of the older and more reflected-seeming people would do that is beyond me. Maybe I am missing a fundamental cultural phenomenon or local code of conduct that somehow disqualified me from having any dinner tonight.
I am just trying to make my peace with me going to bed hungry and to not think too much about what I might have done wrong during the last twenty-four hours, when the heavy wooden door swings open and Nagana, an older man with whom I haven’t talked much yet, and whose absence I haven’t even noticed, enters. In his left hand he is holding a garn-bound paper package the size of a honey melon. He cheers into my direction. “Mattyoos! Come. Food.” I can’t help but smile lightly, suddenly realizing what the package must hold and at the same time trying not to be too optimistic about my chances of having it all by myself.
But really, opening the package in the kitchen, he reveals a more than generous portion of alluringly smelling fried rice, still hot from the pan, and apparently all for me. Nagana must have driven all of the five kilometers to the market and back just to get me some fresh dinner. I sit down to eat, a little off from the group that is still discussing matters of the village, when Trisha starts to go around and hand out bananas that must have been stored somewhere in the room of her parents. Graciously I accept the unexpected dessert and happily look at my late dinner that suddenly turned out to be such an enjoyable one.
I stop Nagano by his arm as he walks by.
“Thank you so much for the food, Nagana. I mean it.”
“No, no.” he replies smilingly – and then “Friend.”, as if that was all the reason required.
He pats my shoulder and walks off to join the other guys again who are joking loudly and laughingly wrapping up their meeting. I watch them getting up to play tricks on the younger kids, jumping and dancing around the small room. Praveen walks towards me, my headphones in his hands.
“Matyoos. Headphones, can I have?”
A few minutes later I can hear him all the way from the cow shed, loudly singing along to some Telugu song only he can hear.