Aside from the brilliant landscape, the warm colors, and the vibrant people, when I come home from India the thing I miss most is Maaza. You may not even know what it is. But Maaza, and it’s almost as good counterpart Slice, are iconic parts of any experience in India. At every corner shop, or restaurant you will see the orange bottles signaling that cool, refreshing, flavorful treat, only 27 rupees away. By now, if you didn’t already know, you’ve probably figured out that Maaza is a type of mango juice. A coca-cola product you would never expect, and one that is oh so elusive in the United States. But every once in a while you get lucky, and strike some liquid gold Maaza state-side. I had such an experience yesterday in a small nick-nack shop in Providence, Rhode Island.
I was walking back to my car after a tour of Brown University when I saw a hand-painted sign that said “Spectrum India.” It looked interesting, but I was expecting a touristy, American-style faux-Indian place with ridiculous prices and inauthentic goods so I hesitated a moment. But I didn’t have anywhere in particular to be so I decided to have a laugh about the jacked-up prices and non-Indianness of it all. So I walked in and began looking through the nick-nacks and the quasi-indian food and, sure enough, it was as over-priced and Americanized as i had expected. But then I saw it. A green label on an orange bottle. I just about knocked over a row of carved elephants in my mad dash but then I had it: a bottle of Maaza. It wasn’t quite the same as the real thing; the bottle was a slightly different shape, and the color was a half a shade off, but it was Maaza alright.
As I made my way to the front to pay, I saw a basket full of Mehndi (Henna) cones with a Max Retail Price printed at 10rupees a piece. Excited by an idea, I grabbed a cone, held it up to the man at the desk, and ask “can I pay for this in rupees?” The man looked up and I tried again “I’ll give you ten rupees for this cone. It says right here that that’s what it costs. Will you sell this to me for 10 rupees?” The man looked at me more seriously and said “show me the rupees.” I was astounded he was even taking me seriously enough to humor me, but I got out my wallet and showed him what I had. He was disappointed that I only had coins, but seemed intrigued that I had any Indian currency at all. He began to ask me where I had gotten it and why I had been in India. I told him my schpeel about the school trip and the State Department scholarship and learning Hindi, and to my surprise he responded with “aap Hindi bolte hai?”(you speak Hindi?) He didn’t strike me as looking or sounding particularly Indian, and based on his excitement at my rupee coins I had figured he had never even been to India. So I was ecstatic when I realized he was not only Indian, but spoke Hindi and grown up in Northern India. We conversed briefly in Hindi about my trip there, hindered by my limiting skill in the language, and then returned to business. I asked again if I could pay for the Mehndi in rupees and he waved me off, telling me to take it, as a gift. He proceeded to tell my mother and I to go over and pick out a bracelet each to take with us as a gift from him and his store. We parted with “Namaste”s and “mhuje apse milkar kushi hou”s (I’m happy to have met you).
I didn’t ask the man’s name, but I like to think it was something like Bonzo, although probably it was more along the lines of Ranjeet or Adidtya. As we walked out of the store my mom turned to me and told me that I had made Bonzo’s day, and I replied that he had made month. Meeting him, and speaking in Hindi, and making a connection I never in a million years could have made just three weeks ago, made all the hassle of returning home from my trip worth while.