‘saving face’ is a curious mix; it is shame, righteousness, and pride, with some indefinable need to be seen in a particular and continued manner. in bihar ‘saving face’ leads to honour killings and beatings, and to families turning their daughters out of the house because they are ‘soiled’ after having been prostituted.

but i learned about saving face in a slightly lighter context: chaat. it’s true~ everything i need to know about india i learned from the snacks. or something like that…
it went like this: i was sitting on the train on my way to kasturba, wedged tightly between a disgruntled holy man with a bell on his crooked walking stick that jingled incessantly with the motion of the train, and a woman wrapping her toddler in the folds of her sari as they both slept. the wallahs made their way through the crowded car, calling out their goods in their particular sing-songy jingles. lunch had been a long time ago and i was a bit peckish, as well as annoyed that the ticket master had refused to sell me the proper ticket and thus over-charged me by 6 rupees. so when the behl poori wallah pressed his way through the crowd and passed, i decided a snack would be just the thing to raise my spirits and my blood sugar. my brother brannon had been pestering me for weeks to try behl poori, (‘indian rice krispies,’ as he put it…) and i figured if the stanford behl poori was *that* good, the indian version must be killer. little did i know how right i was…

the behl poori vendor looks like a medicine man and a steel drummer. a cloth around his neck holds his box of tricks in place in front of him, like a drum, and there 7 little steel cylinders of magic surround the main bowl of puffed rice. for 4 rupees (about 8 cents) he deftly tosses the rice with a scoop from each cylinder (green chili, onion, salt, masala, mustard oil, sprouted garbanzos, sprouted lentils) and then in a show of prestidigitation, he whips two squares of yesterday’s newspaper into a little cone, into which he dumps the resulting orangish medley. all of this takes about 10 seconds, and he moves on to the next car and the next victims.

by and large, watching me breathe seems to be an afternoon’s entertainment for many people, especially when i am captive on the train. people stare unabashedly and unblinking, as though expecting me to spontaneously combust at any moment. when i am actually *doing* something then it’s REALLY a show. and when i’m doing something INDIAN, such as eating behl poori, then i might as well be ‘gone with the wind’ and ‘citizen kane’ wrapped up in one double feature.
all of which is to say that when i ate my behl poori yesterday, there were many idle eyes upon me.

oh. my. goddess.

i have, if i do say so myself, a very high heat tolerance (or very numb taste buds, take your pick), and it’s not uncommon for me to eat tabasco by the spoonful or order my thai food ‘extra spicy.’ but nothing could have prepared my poor mouth for the Attack of Fire and Brimstone that followed. my eyes watered and threatened to spill over into tears but by sheer willpower i kept from crying, grateful to be hiding, as ever, behind my trusty ray bans. my lips burnt ’til i thought they were bleeding. my mouth was filled with fire ants, running down my throat and searing my esophagus. and all the while my traveling companions stared at me… waiting, i imagined, for me to break.

and i learned what it is to save face. i kept eating, in giant mouthfuls (feeling, perhaps erroneously, that a lesser number of huge mouthfuls would be ultimately less painful than a greater number of small bites…), feeling my respiratory and heart rates skyrocket and beads of sweat roll down my spine. i even breathed occasionally, between swallows. the water bottle in my bag taunted me with its nearness… but i didn’t reach for it, and i finished my chaat and neatly folded the paper cone and smiled pleasantly, trying to mentally put out the wildfire in my mouth.

i disembarked at simraha, and got about two steps from the train before chugging the contents of my beloved pink water bottle and gasping with relief.

and that is how i learned to save face.

morals of the story: watch out for behl poori. and, your brother might be trying to kill you.

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