I made 200 rupees today. That may sound impressive. And perhaps it is. But you should know that 200 rupees equal a whopping 4 dollars and 28 cents. But I made it from selling something that I formerly considered trash.
Our apparently valuble cardboard boxes
I’ll start at the beginning. Yesterday I said to Nisha and Ray (the manager of all the work going on in our apartment, who today fixed a broken light, our broken toilet and a broken doorbell. There seems to be always something new!) that I needed to find a way to throw out the many furniture boxes we had sitting around. I couldn’t put them outside because of the monsoon but they were just taking up space in the spare bedroom.
“Throw out?” they both responded, looking at me like I had three heads.
I stared back. “Well, we have to get them out of the house eventually,” I said a bit sheepishly. I didn’t know what I’d said that was incorrect but clearly I was in the wrong somehow and I might as well be preemptively embarrassed for my own stupidity.
“No, you get these guys,” Nisha explained in the manner of someone talking to a very nice but very slow child, “they come around every day. They buy cardboard and newspaper from you. You can get money for it.”
“I tell guy at gate if they come by to send them up,” Ray said, as he walked out of the apartment, clearly on a mission to inform my doorman (or “guy at gate”, apparently) to send strangers into my house foraging for heavy-duty paper products.
And as promised, they arrived the next morning. They came in and sternly began evaluating my ‘goods’. They spoke in quick, sharp Hindi to Nisha. She turned to me and said, “They’re offering you 150 rupee. I don’t think that’s enough.”
“Well, tell them that it doesn’t bother me if they sit in the extra room for a few more days.”
“Yes,” she said, “Good. We’ll get them to 200.” She talked animatedly to the man in charge, clearly rejecting his initial offer. He moved away from her and started to look at the boxes more closely. I wondered what on earth he was trying to find. It clearly was part of his negotiating strategy.
She leaned over to me as he looked away. “Say to me loudly that you don’t need the boxes to go away yet if they don’t give a fair price.”
I just looked at her. “They don’t speak English, I could say anything and they wouldn’t know the difference.”
To make the point, I said some make-believe gibberish about pigs flying in my most stern voice to see if I could get Nisha to laugh. She did, but with her back turned to the men all they heard was my insistence. Clearly I was VERY serious about pigs flying.
But it worked and we had a deal. The men agreed to 200 rupee and began to collapse and take away the boxes. Nisha took the plastic wrapping off some of the boxes.
“Is ok if I take these? My roof is leaking from monsoon and this will help.” I wanted to cry. I wanted to go over to her house and single-handedly fix her roof (as though I could do that without breaking her roof and/or killing myself). I wanted, though, to not embarrass her.
“Yeah of course. Take whatever you need!” I said, as though my enthusiasm for plastic somehow made it all better. But it’s only ME who is embarrassed. She seems to feel this is a normal question that shouldn’t faze me as it is clearly not fazing her.
It’s a funny thing, the American guilt. It’s clearly one sided and not even recognized here. She’s not upset; she just wants some plastic. It’s me who is embarrassed, not her. It’s me who has to get over it because she was never in it or under it. She folded up the plastic without noticing my own pathetic internal Greek tragedy. And the boxes continued to be collapsed and taken away.
Victory! The newly earned 200 rupee
A moment later, once they finished, I opened my hand and two crisp 100 rupee notes were pressed into it. Success. It was my very own trash into treasure story, but clearly I could take no credit for the victory. It marveled in the uniqueness of that experience.
“Some things are very different here,” I said to Nisha.
“Well, I never knew you could sell cardboard to men who came to your house.”
Just then the monsoon started up again and the noise took over the room. “And this constant rain is different,” I said.
“You don’t have rain in New York?”
“Well, we have rain, but we have it in short spurts all year.”
“You have rain all year?”
“Yes, but it’s not like this all year. It rains for a day or two then it doesn’t rain for a few weeks. Then it rains some more and then no rain for a bit.”
“Even in winter? Or spring?” She was clearly shocked at the idea of rain in November or March.
That question, that kind of moment, is when I’m reminded that there’s a whole world whose experience with even the most basic parts of humanity – such as rain – is completely different to my own. There’s no right or wrong – just a whole new way to see the world.
I had spent a larger portion of my day at a coffee with the American Women’s Club than I did with the boxes or the conversations about rain. But the interaction with the day-to-day life of India stuck with me more than the attempt to find remnants of home here (even if it was nice to be around a bevy of American accents for 2 hours and I will definitely be happy to have those coffee respites while I’m in Mumbai).
What a world of learning I’ve entered into. Today: rain and cardboard. Tomorrow, who knows what’s next.
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