Chapter Six: Into The Light
Darkness. I could hear the kids running up and down the hallway and Solenne’s shoes clinking on the marble floor, but I couldn’t see anything. After one home-cooked meal and a good night’s sleep, I woke up the next morning, my second day in Delhi, with a burning fever and a migraine that made my stomach turn. Solenne, the magnanimous hostess that she was, fixed up the master bedroom for me. It was the only room with air conditioning, which transformed it into a cool den of tranquility with but one exception, the hard mattress on the floor. “We got used to it after 6 months,” she said as she showed me into the room, “Now we can’t sleep well on normal mattresses!” A slab of marble with a mattress as thin as a quilt is a slab of marble with a mattress as thin as a quilt. Nothing was going to change that or the fact that I had to lay flat on my back to avoid crushing limbs. The darkness, the marble, the chill, the singular sleeping position -- I felt a bit entombed.
But it wasn’t all doom and gloom during those long days. First of all, Max was ordering me Solenne-approved meals at regular intervals, and I would occasionally feel well enough to try some of the Indianized McDonald’s french fries or Dominoes pizza. He also found a Diet Coke dealer in the South-Ex market. I say “dealer” because Diet Coke wasn’t readily available anywhere and our stand man was charging a pretty rupee for it.
Secondly, you can learn a lot about a place from lying in a dark room day after day. At least more than you think you can, especially when your surroundings are foreign. I still hadn’t met the other two children, and from listening to them run around in the halls, I could tell that the oldest girl was completely in control of the younger boy, and that Apolline was Queen of them all. I noticed that everyday around 10am, a man with a noisy cart would pass the house, and then at noon another would do the same, both shouting some kind of rehearsed chant in Hindi. Occasionally one of the cooks or cleaners would yell back down. I learned later that these men were the household wares sellers, one man with a cart full of brooms, mops, rags, pans, and cloths, and the other with a cart full of plants. No need for a supplies store in South Ex, they came to you. I heard the milk man converse with the cook everyday at the front door, and listened to Solenne’s comprehensive instructions to the children and the cooks and cleaners for the day. I also learned my first Hindi word, Theek hai (sounds like tika), Apolline’s favorite. It means OK.
In total, I spent four days in the darkness, and ironically, just at the start of Diwali. The Festival of Lights, as it is sometimes called, is an important five-day celebration for Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains, the three most prominent religions in India. The word Diwali translates into “row of lamps,” and Indians celebrate by lighting small clay lamps and setting off fireworks to signify the triumph of good over evil. Lux et Veritas, it seems, translates through cultures. All in all, Diwali is my kind of holiday. Along with all the pretty lights and tales of good and evil, it’s also five days devoted to the wearing of fancy new clothes and indulgence in all things sweet. Needless to say, I took it as a bad omen that I lay in pitch dark silence while the rest of the nation celebrated light, truth, and the uplifting of spiritual darkness.
I resurrected from my death and into the light on the fifth day, flung the shutters of my metaphorical tomb open, and inhaled a big gulp of . . . dust! But suffering in silence and darkness does things to you, and I was ready to take on the subcontinent once again, feeling as fresh as the girl standing in the Frankfurt airport before this India adventure had begun. My train of thought went something like this: “Ah how marvelous to be all the way across the world! There are so many interesting things to see in just this city! We have to start planning the rest of the trip! I must lay on a beach in Goa!” Then Solenne walked into the room with a pained expression. She proceeded to tell Max and I, in no uncertain terms, that we were in danger of suffering a nasty, painful death. Oh yes. The culprit? DINGO.
It turns out that DINGO was Dengue as in Dengue Fever, pronounced with a bit of a French accent and a Solenne twist. Apparently many of the children in the French community had contracted it through giant dingo-carrying mosquitos that Solenne had seen with her own eyes, and though they were only showing signs of fever and minor pain thus far, certain strands were known to be life-threatening.
This was all true. Dengue fever and dengue hemorrhagic fever are both diseases prevalent in India, and after doing a bit of research, we learned that there had been an uptick of outbreaks in the past weeks. After hearing the symptoms of the fever: severe headache, muscle and joint pain, and nausea, I was pretty sure I'd been suffering for five days from the sting of a vicious DINGO mosquito. On a positive note, at least it wasn't the wrath of God.
We decided not to take any chances. Falling ill for a week with a mean headache is much different from falling dead from internal bleeding and shock-like symptoms. Instead of taking on the city as I had originally planned, Max and I donned trousers, long-sleeved shirts, thick socks, and neck scarves and headed out cautiously into the midday heat. Thus began Mission Mosquito Net, and believe me, I didn't sleep without one for the rest of the trip.