Wednesday, April 13, 2005

India in a Stolen Moment

The other day I was sitting in my room on the third floor of a 5-Star business hotel in Chennai, India, watching the Iraq War on BBC when, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a short flurry of red confetti falling outside my window. It was a little shower of bougainvillea petals that had been dislodged by the hemp ropes that banged against the window a few moments later.

After endless repeats of the same street fighting in Falluja, the window activity of two frayed and knotted ropes held the possibility of being the most fascinating sight of the morning. I was proven right when two dirty, brown feet slipped into view eventually followed by a young window-washer wearing a blue workman’s uniform, and considering the lack of any other safety features, an incongruous bright yellow hard-hat. He was dangling, without benefit of even a board to stand on, seeking a foot-hold on the six inch ledge outside the window. After he got his balance he glanced inside, and though I know he saw me, respected my privacy by not acknowledging my presence. He must have been trained to ignore the guests, and besides, he had a few more pressing matters to attend to than the cheerful and incessant, “Good morning, sir,” the non-dangling employees are instructed to offer.

His window washing kit consisted of a well used, dry cloth, and a lot of elbow-grease. He held the cloth in his mouth as he inched along the ledge in order to reach the whole window.

When he was done with my window he grabbed the rope between his toes so it swung out behind him and, I suppose, repositioned itself on the roof-top. At that point the garden workers below were shouting up, and the window washer was carrying on an animated discussion with someone above. After a minute or so of consultation and bright smiles he stretched his legs around a concrete abutment and disappeared from view.

The entire time this work went on I sat unmoving, afraid if I stood up I’d distract the poor guy to disastrous consequences. And then he was gone, and I was free to go back to the war.

That event was India in a “stolen moment:” a five star hotel, global communications, a flurry of color, and a man dangling from a rope performing a service for what I’m sure was little more than subsistence pay.


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