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Awakened to Old-World Warmth

Perhaps I was expecting a Muslim call to prayer. Or an alarm clock. Or a rooster. But I was in a Parsi colony in the center of Bombay, and the wakeup ritual there was much more pragmatic.

"Fresh milllllk!" shouted the first vendor of the day, lingering on the Hindi word for milk (pronounced "doodh"). His nasal tone was so powerful, it penetrated concrete walls and reached even into my dreams. But he wasn't after me. He was calling the Parsis to shop.

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Since no one told the fellow to be quiet, I could only guess that this ritual had been going on for 1,000 years, when the Parsis first left Iran to escape religious persecution. But at 6 in the morning, after a 26-hour flight to Bombay and just a few hours of sleep, my wife and I regarded it as a rude awakening. This was our first visit to India since our marriage. We were newlyweds.

In vain, I searched for a snooze button.

"Fresh milllllllllllk!"

"What is that?" I asked, pulling myself out of bed.

"It's the milkman," my wife droned. "Go back to sleep." And she did.

But groggy as I was, I had to get a look at this man with the Mahatma Gandhi frame and the Ethel Merman lungs. Sure enough, there he was, a lanky fellow with a covered wooden pail on his head. For a few coins, he'd stop to ladle out some milk. But apparently no amount of money would make him stop yelling. And just as the milkman's voice began to fade, a new voice took its place, selling vegetables, then another selling fruit, then mutton, and so on.

Giving up on sleep, I got dressed and stumbled out into the waking world.

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In the living room, the day was in full swing. My mother-in-law was carrying a heap of clothes out to the dhobi-walla, or laundryman. Father-in-law was purchasing two green coconuts from a young man carrying a long, curved knife. The man set the coconuts on the floor and hacked off the tops, somehow without spilling a drop.

"Good morning, my son! Did you sleep well?" my father-in-law asked, handing me the larger of the coconuts. I had expected the liquid to be milky, but it was clear, and tangy sweet. He taught me how to use a round sliver of the coconut shell to scoop out the tender flesh inside. It melted in my mouth, and my grumpiness melted as well.

IN time, I began to cherish these Bombay mornings. Sitting out on the porch, I would watch my new neighbors scramble downstairs to haggle with the vendors, while those on the upper floors conducted their business from the window. They lowered baskets containing money and pulled up their breakfasts of bananas, guavas, and prickly red lychee fruit.

Every activity seemed exotic and new, and I watched it all as intently as the stray cats watched the fishmonger make her morning rounds. The more I observed, the more I compared Old-World India with the New England home from which we'd come.

In the United States, calling a relative meant reaching for the phone. Here, you opened the shutters. Here, children were always within sight of some grandmother hanging out the window (and her word was law).

In the US, I rarely conversed with neighbors and barely knew their names. Here, I not only knew the neighbors, but I could still taste the spicy meals they had prepared in our honor.

Before the trip, I had steeled myself for wrenching scenes of poverty and pollution in one of the most densely populated cities in the world. But I didn't anticipate the warmth of its people and their strong sense of community and connectedness.

TO be sure, living in my in-laws' home gave me an advantage over all those foreigners in their fancy hotels and air-conditioned buses. I was getting a family-eye view of India, and as a newlywed couple, my wife and I were getting the red-carpet treatment that you couldn't pay for.

Every mealtime was booked: breakfast with Najimai Aunty; tea with Uncle Hoshang; lunch with cousin Aban. And every visit began with the traditional Parsi blessing for newlyweds.

Aunt Jeroo was the first to bless us as we arrived at her door. Her warm smile was a marked contrast to the bared teeth of her white Pomeranian, Amar.

"Hush, Amar, no need to be a hero," Jeroo cooed. Then, turning to us, she said, "Wait, wait! Stay right there."

She placed fragrant flower garlands around our necks. The rest of the blessing involved cracking a raw egg and a coconut on a plastic sheet on the doorstep, then daubing our foreheads with a red paste and scattering rice on our shoulders. Then she gave us a big, warm hug.

"OK, come in now. I hope you're hungry," Jeroo said, making her way to a kitchen full of bubbling pots and fresh-cut veggies. Amar the Bold followed on her heels.

I knew instinctively that I would miss all these new traditions (new to me, anyway). But while I couldn't bring centuries of Parsi culture home with me, like trinkets in a shopping bag, perhaps I could share bits of the Old World in other ways. I could stop to chat with neighbors at the mailbox, or make the rounds with a plateful of cookies.

If that doesn't warm up the neighborhood, I can always practice the Hindi word for fresh milk.

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