I’m in an alley in Fatehpur Sikri. I’m there because this is where the wine shop is, and I want either a beer or a little bottle of whiskey. I haven’t decided yet.
Wine shops in small towns in India have a way of doubling as bars. Such that this particular wine shop, at a dead-end in an alley, is filled with Indians getting drunk and gambling. Or rather, Indian men. They’re all men. Women don’t go to bars in small towns in India. Especially when those bars are really wine shops in alleys.
And here’s another thing: there are different kinds of wine shops. There are legit ones, with labels on the liquor and prices listed on those labels. And there are dodgy ones, which lack labels, prices, and licensing.
This wine shop is of the latter camp.
And I’m in line, and the sign is in Hindi but obviously the wine shop sells some sort of alcohol that won’t make me go blind, because there are all these Indians sitting around getting drunk on it, and none of them are blind. In fact one of them sees me. He sees me and he does not like me. He does not like me being there at his wine shop. My presence. He dislikes it. So here’s what he says:
“This wine shop for Indians, friend! You go back to your wine shop!”
But he’s kind of smiling and he seems like a jovial enough drunk, so I don’t feel threatened. I just laugh and say, “My rupees are as good as your rupees, my friend.”
But this is the wrong thing to say.
I can tell it’s the wrong thing to say because he gets off the ledge he’s sitting on and comes down to get into my face. I’ve already purchased my little bottle of Indian mystery liquor, and it’s in my bag, but he just wants to let me know that he disapproves.
“Which country, my friend?” He’s being sarcastic when he calls me ‘friend.’ He pokes me in the chest. I had sized him up on his way down to my level, and I had determined that I could probably knock him out cold with a quick elbow to the head. It’s not him I’m worried about so much as the fact that I’m alone in an alleyway surrounded by a bunch of drunks who may or may not share his sense of resentment at seeing a white guy buying liquor at the Indian wine shop. So if I lay him out–if it comes to that–I might have to lay out ten or fifteen more of them. Which just ain’t going to happen.
I play it cool while, upon hearing that I’m from the States, the drunk calls me a liar, and tells me and mine to leave certain things for Indian people–like the Indian wine shop. And here’s the thing: part of me agrees with him. I mean, being a tourist puts you in an ethically weird position. You’re rich. Your plane ticket costs more than many Indians earn in a year. You piss away savings on guest houses and train travel, on eating out and getting drunk; and you haggle with poor people over pennies. You might not be rich in your country, and you might kind of resent being called rich, being seen as rich, being a target because of your perceived wealth–even if you understand that it’s necessary, that it’s inevitable. So it’s odd, really. Truly It’s something I haven’t figured out how to negotiate. I just wing it from day to day and hope that I don’t cause anyone too much grief.
The drunk man who doesn’t like me keeps talking shit, poking me, and I try to calm him down. But I don’t really need to, because another drunk Indian guy has suddenly leapt to my defense.
“[Hindi-hindi-hindi-hindi]!!!” he says.
The drunk guy looks at my defender, livid. “[Hindi-hindi-fuck-hindi-hindi-fuck-hindi]!” The two are now definitively angry at one another. The two now begin screaming and yelling at one another. And I can tell that shit’s going to hit the fan, that it’s going to explode, but I just stand there gaping as the whole thing unfolds. As if in slow-motion:
I blink and my defender has grabbed the drunk man’s throat.
I take a breath and the drunk man has thrown my defender against a brick wall.
I blink again and my defender has shoved the drunk man into a shop window and begun punching him repeatedly in the face.
I look past the scene and notice an old serene-looking man, who catches my eye and waves me away. “Go away,” his hand says. “We don’t want you here right now.”
So I do it, I turn around and walk away. This isn’t my battle anymore.