Introduction (30 July 2010)
Let us see.
I went to India to try to figure something out about a place that I didn’t really know; and though I think I was maybe figuring some stuff out while I was there, I think I’ve mostly forgotten by now. I went to India because I’d always wanted to go there, and because I finally could; and because a girl had broken my heart and I’d somehow pen-palled my way into falling in love with a completely different girl who lived there. (I went to India because I’m a hopeless romantic). I went to India because I liked American knockoffs of Indian cuisine, and I went to India because I thought it would be hard, challenging, difficult. And it was. But it was just hard and challenging and difficult in ways that I couldn’t have possibly foreseen.
In other words: Enjoy.
The first thing you will feel is awe.
Walking out of the airport, with your prepaid taxi slip in your hand, the throngs of people outside of the airport, waiting for loved ones, or marks, or saps, or customers. “It’s four in the morning,” you’ll say to yourself. “What the fuck have I gotten myself into?”
This is me we’re talking about. But it could just as easily be you.
So I walk past security, past the two soldiers guarding the doors, and I am immediately approached by a taxi driver, the first of many. “I have a prepaid taxi,” I tell him. “Yes, but I help you.” He tries to grab the slip from my hand. I stop in my tracks, give him the evil eye, and pull it away. He continues to offer his help. “Are you my taxi driver?” He is not, which I already knew. He will help me, he says. I do not believe him, but I stop, listen to him for ten seconds, then turn around and walk away. He doesn’t follow.
I find my cab. I get into my cab. We drive to Colaba.
Colaba is forty five minutes away from the international terminal at the airport. At least by night. Along the way are some of the most devastating sights in the world. A vast slum. Houses with roofs sagging in the middle, held up by twigs and old newspapers and the sheer will of the gods. Scraps of cloth drying in the early morning heat, sewage on the streets. There are children and adults sleeping on the highway median, goats and cattle strolling aimlessly, people bathing and pissing and walking to no particular place. Imagine, if you will, the movie Slumdog Millionaire, and then imagine that it is real, that it is one hundred times more overwhelming than the cinematic portrayal of poverty, and that it is the permanent state of affairs–that it does not end happily, or when the credits start rolling. I asked the taxi driver if I could smoke a cigarette, and since he didn’t speak English, I took his grunts as an affirmative.
The drivers in India are a thing of much mystery, as are the roads, and the rules of the road. First rule/only rule: there are no rules. Traffic signals could hardly be called even suggestions, so brazenly are they violated. The horn functions as a turn signal, a register of presence, and a signal of dissatisfaction. The roads are shared by taxis, rickshaws, cyclists, cattle, strollers, people pushing their wares on large wagons, and everything else under the sun. Or, in this case, under the moon. It’s four-thirty in the morning, and though the city is mostly asleep, there are more people out now than there are in Brooklyn at four-thirty in the afternoon.
Then I got to the YWCA. Colaba. Of course there were no rooms at four in the morning, so I bid my original taxi driver a farewell, tipped him 50 rupees, and enlisted the services of another, middling about, talking to the guards in front of the YWCA. I took him to be a more reliable source of information regarding hotels that would take someone in at five a.m. We went to one guest house, which asked for 1700 rupees for 24 hours of bedding. I said “Too many rupees,” and walked out, taxi driver in tow. Then we went to another, which asked for 1200, had bigger rooms, and would let me stay until 10 a.m. the next day. This room I took. And even though I knew that the taxi driver was getting a kickback from the hotel to bring me there, I tipped him 50 rupees, too, because he had told me his life story, and it was not a pretty one.
I slept until the afternoon. I awoke to blazing heat. The whir of the fan. The call to prayer in Muslim Dongri. I washed my body off, put on my sandals, and went downstairs, to find water that I could drink, to see the streets illuminated by the sun, to soak it in.
It’s easy, now, to act as though this was an easy decision. It was not. I spent the better part of an hour rolling around in bed, looking at the ceiling, thinking, “Too much, too much, too much.” Thinking, “Flee, go, leave. Now.” Thinking, “What am I trying to prove?” And, “To whom am I trying to prove it?”
But then I went outside. Because I had to. Found water, because I had to. Found the Internet, because I had to.
I talked to Aliya, in Bangalore, who asked me how I was, and I said, “Oooh. Don’t know about all of this,” and she said, “Takes time, takes time.” And I realized, after a while, that she was right. And that I needed something to eat. That I needed more water. I bid her adieu, went to the restaurant recommended to me by the man at the Internet cafe, ate delicious Muslim food, paid 96 rupees for a giant meal, and felt, instantly, alive. Capable. Happy. In the course of three hours I went from feeling utterly destitute and lost to feeling like I had made the best decision of my life.
It must have been something I ate.
Back at the hotel, talking to the owner, who likes me and implores me to stay in Dongri–”Colaba is bad, filled with tourists, not real Mumbai”–he asks me if I am married. “No, not married.” Why not? He wants to know. “I thought I was going to get married once, but it didn’t work out,” I explain. “Oh. How come?” he wonders.
“We were going to kill one another.”
He tells me that I will perhaps find wife this year.
I ask him if he’s married, because this is the polite thing to do. He is. “Children?” He has seven of them. “Boys and girls?” He smiles, wags his head, “Yes, it is a mix. So it is okay.”
He, his friend at the desk and I all laugh. I don’t know why I laugh. I laugh perhaps because they are both laughing, or perhaps because it’s genuinely funny to exhausted-jet-lagged me that a Muslim man with seven children would be relieved that they are not all girls. Of course he would be relieved. I would be relieved too.
I wish him well, I walk upstairs, I read until my eyes won’t stay open. Then I go to sleep.
Let’s start with the first one:
My new favorite restaurant of all time: Restaurant Some Hotel Whose Name Currently Escapes Me. It’s around the corner from my hotel, Hotel Al Najaf. I’ve gone to Restaurant Some Hotel Whose Name Currently Escapes Me at least once a day since I’ve been in Dongri. Yesterday I went there twice, for both of my meals. Today, after I leave here, I’ll probably go there again, unless I can be convinced otherwise by some set of enticing aromas along the way. But I’m getting ahead of myself, because I’m not particularly hungry, and because I have shit to do first. Like this. Wait a minute. Let me begin:
All of the waitstaff at Restaurant Whose Name Currently Escapes Me by now know me, and I recognize them all. There is the head waiter, tall for an Indian, mid-thirties, best English-speaker in the restaurant, no beard, quick with a coffee at the end of the meal; there’s the severe-looking teenager, perhaps second in command, who holds a special place in my heart due to his instrumental role in creating the joy I felt eating there for the first time–he literally pointed at dishes I should eat off the menu until he’d constructed the most perfect meal I could imagine; there’s the googly-eyed tween who still looks at me with a mixture of awe and delight when I sit down, and who I catch smiling wildly when he busses my table, or brings the lemon water with which to wash my hands, or when I simply look his way–ever eager to serve; and there’s the rest of the bunch, too, but I don’t have all day here. These three are my Restaurant Some Hotel Whose Name Currently Escapes Me triumverate, is my point, and if you can love the people who serve you food and don’t speak your language and treat you graciously–people with whom you can barely communicate except via hand signals, but with whom you share a mutual respect, even camaraderie–then, fuck it, I do.
Especially you, googly-eyed kid. You’re the best.
Today I go in, eat a Muslim mutton dish, two rotis, bottle of water, coffee for dessert. Googly-eyed kid rushes to bring me the hot lemon water to wash my hands. I can’t help but laugh. Except I do help it, and I hold it in. The fans are whirring and I look out at the main street at the heat undulating in the crowd, sipping coffee, pondering my check. 97 RPS. Two dollars. For some of the best food I’ve ever had.
I tip big, as I always do here, and walk back to my hotel.
But today, it is some sort of Muslim feast, which happens twice a year, but whose name Google would not yield in five minutes of admittedly none-too-thorough searching. Anyway. It’s a big deal, this feast, and the streets in front of my hotel and to the west of it were washed yesterday in preparation, a fact which my hotel owner and I remarked upon as I stood outside smoking a cigarette last night, me thinking that somehow it had rained on our street, and our street alone. He laughed when I said this, set me straight.
Me: What’s going on?
Hotel owner: Cleaning the street for [insert name of festival]. Tomorrow. Very delicious food.
And this morning, from six to seven, I sat in my room smoking cigarettes and looking down as old holy men sat in front of large vats stirring large stews, while younger men began to organize the street–setting up benches and picnic tables–for the meal. I had no idea what to expect.
But then, walking back from lunch, stuffed silly, I find myself standing once more outside my hotel, where hundreds and hundreds of people stretching up and down the street are dining, laughing, talking, celebrating. I talk to the hotel’s right-hand-man, ask him why he’s not eating: “Oh, full, full,” he says, pointing to his stomach. “Me, too,” I say, pointing to mine. “I wish I’d known.”
Suddenly, a small child, Yassam, who is serving everyone their meal out of a big metal pot, calls out to hotel right-hand-man, saying essentially, “You want some fucking food, hotel right hand man, or what?” in whatever language they both speak, and hotel man once more points to his stomach, declining. But then a funny thing happens and Yassam says to me, “You want food?” in English, and hotel right-hand-man laughs and tells Yassam that of course I want food. My own nervous laugh says, “You bastard, hotel right hand man,” and I am immediately brought a plate filled with a glop of yellow curried deliciousness, a large roti, and some red-sweet deliciousness, the likes of which I’ve never tasted. Another man tells me that if I like it I can have as much as I want.
I am, in short, welcomed so completely and thoroughly to this holy feast, that my heart can’t help but quake a little bit.
Hotel right hand man leads me inside, gives me a chair, and I eat as much as I can with my right hand before hotel small child assistant leads me upstairs to a washroom, to wash my hands. I drink more water, thank everyone profusely, but explain that I am now so full and so about to explode that I really must rest for a while. I thank them. They say, “Welcome,” and they bid me adieu. I walk upstairs, lay on my bed, feeling fortunate, blessed, sated–mentally fellated.
I’ve been sitting in my hotel room for three hours, reading The Wind Up Bird Chronicle and waiting for you. Your flight into Mumbai has been delayed over and over again. First, you were due in at noon. Then two. And then finally you told me that your plane was taking off, and that you’d be into Dongri by six. The whole time I’ve had butterflies. And now it’s ten to six, I’ve just finished a chapter in my book, and I’m leaning out the window, smoking a cigarette, and waiting for you.
Down below, four stories deep, the goats are tied up, ravishing mysterious greens. The pigeons are engaged in a mating dance on my air conditioning unit. The rats on the roof across from me–rats the size of possums–are weaving in and out of abandoned pipes, scouring for food. Mumbai is covered in a thick paste of haze. Dilapidated buildings, perhaps once beautiful, melt in the heat. The workmen across the street stand on breaking walls with sledgehammers, demolishing one of those dilapidated buildings brick by steady brick. Saris sway in the breeze, drying in the heat–red ones, purple ones, yellow ones. Blues. The rooster crows again (as he does all day, every day) jumps from a hand rail to a motorcycle to the ground, to chase his hen. Men and women buzz by on mopeds and in taxis, tooting their horns, the toots saying, “Pedestrians, get out of the way, or I will kill you.” Children walk home from school, dressed smartly in their academic uniforms, little ties for the boys, little skirts for the girls. Bicyclists ring their bells for no apparent reason. The street vendors cook their kebabs. The big sign on Tantanpura Street–pockmarked and browning–floats aimlessly. And I lean out the window watching it all, pulling on my cigarette, waiting for you.
Suddenly–and somehow–I see you. Strolling towards me on Tantanpura. Hauling a big bag. It looks heavy. Your jeans–this is how I identify you. No one here wears tight jeans. No one.
I wonder if you can see me, too–white guy with a cigarette, waiting by the window for you.
And then you do. You wave. I wave back. You smile, maybe laugh. I smile, not quite believing, wave again. Gulp.
Then I throw on some pants, and rush down the stairs to meet you. Because I’ve been waiting for this. Waiting by the window for you.
Mumbai. It’s my last six hours there, and I have no place to stay. I’ve purchased my bus ticket for Goa–550 RPS. It’s too many rupees, but such are the perils of last minute travel planning. At any rate, I am at Mumbai Central Terminus, with six hours to kill, no one to talk to, and a plan to concoct.
So I go to sit at a bar.
It will be my first alcoholic beverage in India, as Dongri is Muslim and Muslims don’t drink. Or, if they do drink, they don’t tell white people where they keep the booze hidden. So I go to a bar, as I’m no longer in Dongri. The bar is called Lucky Star, as in you can thank your lucky stars, or when you wish upon a star, or whatever. The name is inapt for a number of reasons, which I will do my best to enumerate below.
1) There are disco lights. Disco lights at a bar at 2:00 in the afternoon? Never a good idea. I do not thank my lucky stars for disco lights at 2:00 in the afternoon.
2) The Foster’s is 120 RPS. ‘Nuff said. This is an American price for a beer.
3) There are perhaps five customers in the entire bar. For every one customer, there is a waiter, who will not stop cleaning ashtrays, even when you don’t want him to. What you want to say is, “Chill the fuck out with cleaning the fucking ashtrays already, okay, pal?”
4) For every one customer, there are two women–some of them no more than teenagers–dressed scandalously in saris. The women are not customers. Walking into the bar, I think to myself, “Whores?” But it is not a whorehouse, and they are not whores. It is just a bar. The craziest fucking bar I’ve ever been to, granted, but ultimately just a bar. The women, I deduce, are simply eye candy for sexually repressed Indian men. They apparently get paid in this function. This is really fucking odd.
5) There is a live band. This live band cannot, for the life of it, figure out how to work the PA system, which means that when the lead singer’s microphone is not producing painful feedback, his voice is boomy, or too low in the mix, or lacking definition. It is painful to listen to. Truly, utterly painful.
6) The lead singer, also, cannot sing.
7) Of the five customers in the bar, three of them are drunken idiots. These drunken idiots, despite being drunk and idiots, are going to make my rich Western ass look bad. They are going to make it look bad by getting ridiculously drunk and throwing 10 RPS notes up in the air with reckless abandon–tipping perhaps 2000 RPS over the course of the hour that you share the bar with them.
This is going to make me look bad because at the end, when I have milked two beers over the course of three hours, studying Lonely Planet and coming up with a plan of attack for the next several days, I will lay down 60 RPS on a 240 RPS tab. This is my tip, and for those keeping score at home, it is 25%. It is, in other words, an extremely generous tip, all things considered.
But it is not generous enough for the craziest fucking bar I’ve ever been to.
The waiter, or one of them, comes over to me and pleads with me for more money. “No,” I say. He continues to plead. “Look, I had two beers, and I tipped you guys 25%. That’s really fucking generous.” He signals for the maitre d’ to address the situation at hand. The maitre d’ comes to me. I explain: “The tip isn’t for the girls–I don’t care about the girls, the girls just sat around being unhelpful. The tip is for the people who brought me beers. Distribute it among them.” He tries to explain that I should be more generous. I say, “Jesus fucking Christ. Take what you get, and take it gracefully. You’re not getting another goddamned rupee.” I am somewhat buzzed, what with not having had a drink in a week, and this buzz makes my language flow a bit more liberally than perhaps I should allow it to. But he finally relents. I get up to leave, grabbing my backpack, thrilled by the idea of sitting on the sidewalk for three hours until my bus comes.
At the door, the doormen–two of them–ask me for a tip. “What for?” I ask. “Watching door,” they say.
“What the fuck is it with this place?” I say, more to myself than to them. Then I throw up my hands and laugh. “Your goddamned tip’s inside. Go ask them for it. For crying out loud.” I walk away, no doubt being shit-talked all the way down the street by the doormen. But I don’t care. I truly don’t. I could not care less about the crazy people at the craziest fucking bar I’ve ever been to. Not if you paid me.
I sit on the sidewalk for three hours. Then I get the hell out of Mumbai.
First things first:
I haven’t been to church since Linus died. Linus was an old retarded man I took care of for a while. One day he died. I went to his funeral, where Bill, one of his developmentally disabled roommates, gave the most heartbreaking speech I’ve ever heard delivered at a funeral. Until Bill, I had kept my shit together, but once Bill started talking, I lost it. Everyone did. Bill brought the house down.
So that was a year and a half ago, and before that, I can’t remember the last time I’d gone to church. Years. Years and years.
But I’m in Goa, and I’m in Panjim, it’s capital, and Goa was the crown jewel in the Portugese empire for a hot minute, and the state still carries a heavy Roman Catholic burden–and so… And so. And so, my hotel man, Edgar, is a practicing Roman Catholic and I lied to him to get on his good side and told him that I was, too, that I was religious, that I was a follower of the Lord. It worked, my lie: he took to me immediately upon hearing it. Became my unofficial tour guide, pointed me in the direction of interesting things to see in the city while I recovered from a head cold, the like.
But then yesterday, walking around the grounds of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception church, I suddenly decided that I would go to mass.
So I asked Edgar. “Edgar,” I said, “does the church do a Sunday service in English?”
He said that it did.
I asked him when.
“8:15 in the morning,” he told me. Then, “It is a very beautiful church, with comfortable benches and fans on the roof, and beautiful statues.” He went on, “And the priest is young. His sermons are very good.”
I didn’t really need to be sold. I had already decided to go.
I had Edgar set me a wake-up call, arose before it, showered, shaved, put on my collared shirt, my nicer pants, and walked to the church. It really is pretty, by the way. All white, set upon a hill, twisting stairwells guiding you to the entrance, and the Virgin Mary in stone, thrusting toward the heavens.
I made my way inside.
Mass was mass. I forgot some of the call and response aspects, but pretended that I knew them. I said “Peace be with you” and the Our Father.
Then I took communion, which I hadn’t intended to do. Then I went back to my pew, knelt down, and prayed, which I definitely hadn’t intended to do. Then the service was over, I went outside, took a deep breath, and lit a cigarette.
I didn’t pray, when I was praying, to God. I prayed to no one in particular. Maybe the proper term for what I did was “wish” as I lack the requisite faith to truly pray. But it felt like prayer. I prayed that good things would happen for people I love. I prayed that I might discover something about myself.
And that’s about it. That’s about all I prayed for.
When I left, I couldn’t help but feel dishonest. But I couldn’t help but feel honest, too. I was all alone, I decided. And I didn’t need any excuses.
Pardon me, because I’m slightly sunburned, and maybe dehydrated; and drinking beer in the scorching heat, even if it’s only two, has a way of messing with your head; and the sweat hasn’t dried yet, and I’m covered in Arabian sea salt, which makes my eyes, or the area around them, sticky, tacky, chalky; and I’ve been here for four days, making friends, walking around the beach, laying on the sand, swimming in the water–rinsing, washing, repeating. So pardon me, that is, if this doesn’t make sense, or if I leave you in the dust, or if I don’t introduce characters properly, or flesh them out suffificiently, or describe their motivations with accuracy. If you lose me, it’s my fault, and I will take all of the blame.
Peter (37 years old, British Indian, bald, videographer, artist, wedding photographer, deep thinker, hash smoker–we spent last evening drinking brandy and smoking hash and debating various aesthetic theories) told me that there was a backgammon tournament on Thursdays at Hawaii (little restaurant by the sea, serves Western food to old hippies–i.e., not Hawaii the United State). I had to go. I had to. I am a backgammon afficianado. Eric and I spent days and days and days in the cold Montreal winter smoking joints and playing backgammon. So I am good. I am really, really fucking good. I could crush you at backgammon. And even though I hadn’t played in months, I was pretty sure I could win the backgammon tourament on Benaulim Beach.
The pot was 1000 Rs.
Hawaii, as mentioned–old hippies. Hippies that return to Benaulim year after year after year to sit on the beach, smoke hash, drink coffee, and work on their tans and beards. There were ten of us in the tournament. Eight old hippies, me, and Stefanie. Stefanie and I were opponents in the first round. Stefanie, briefly:
Canadian, 28, married, stunningly beautiful. Out of place at Hawaii. Like me. Only more beautiful.
Stefanie: somehow beat me in a match to 15 points. Let me explain. Backgammon is a game that’s roughly half skill and half luck. I say this because I’ve been beaten many, many times by far lesser players. You know they’re lesser as you play them because 1) they are counting out their moves, and 2) the moves that they make are frequently stupid. They are moves, in other words, that you would not make, because you are not stupid. So, to take a quick example or two: leaving people open for no reason, always trying to hit the lone man, irrespective of the rest of the setup–moves like that? Stupid. Amateurish. And I know that you probably don’t care about all of this, but I do. I dislike playing against amateurs.
Especially when I lose to them.
Anyhow, the point of the story is that sometimes the stupid moves pay off. Sometimes, against all odds, the stupid moves work out. Because in the end, you’re rolling dice. And dice do whatever the fuck they want to do. They don’t always reward good strategy.
So Stefanie has been making stupid moves all game, and she doubled, and I doubled back, and it started out with a double because we rolled doubles on the first roll. So the game is worth 8 points. 8 points in a match to 15. It’s a big game.
And I’m ahead. I’m sitting in my chair, taking out my men, and Stefanie is three rolls behind me, with stacks in the back of her home base, and so I’ve got it. I’m going to win. The only way she can win is if she starts rolling double sixes.
Which is precisely what she starts to do.
Two double sixes in a row. A double four. I am flabbergasted. She’s suddenly ahead. She’s suddenly going to win. And now I’m the sorry bastard who needs doubles to have a chance.
I already told you I lost, so I’m not going to pretend there’s suspense anymore. I didn’t roll my doubles, Stefanie won the big game and took the match, and I finished the rest of my Kingfisher in dejection.
I wished her well in the next round, walked down the beach, glanced at fat Europeans and Russians–beached whales, really–tanning in the sun, and went back to Rosario’s to wash the salt out of my hair. That was the end of that.
Benaulim was nice but eventually I had to get moving, otherwise: skin cancer and death on the beach.
So I booked a train to Hampi.
Cook and I woke up at 6:00 in the morning to meet the rickshaw we had told to meet us on the football pitch at 6:30. My train was at 8:00 and his was at 7:30. Cook: South Korean, 23. I met him and Asaf (Israeli, 24) on my first day in Benaulim. I asked them if they knew of a good restaurant. They didn’t, but we became fast friends anyway. Cook and I shared my room the last two nights to save precious rupees, and we had the happy accident of having booked our departure trains for the same morning and from the same train station. So it was all very good. Really, it was.
6:35. Rickshaw to Margao. At the train station, give the rickshaw driver 150 Rs. Ask the enquiry booth man about platforms and late trains, drink chai for 5 Rs, and 7:25 rolls in, I wish Cook safe travels, shake his hand, tell him I’ll be in touch if ever I find myself in South Korea.
Then I go to my platform.
Indians walk up and down the strip, offering more chai, samosas, other foodstuffs. The train shows up fifteen minutes late. The white people all board. We’re all going to Hampi. We’ve all got Lonely Planet, and Lonely Planet tells us to go there.
So this is what we do.
I find my seat in the sleeper car. It’s grungy. I sit opposite a young Belgian with a shaved head and a single nappy dreadlock. Across from the Belgian and me are two Swedish families of three, traveling together. The Swedish families will purchase something from practically everyone who walks by selling something for the first two hours of the trip. In that time, I will listen to music, and watch the jungle roll by, take pictures of the train, smoke a cigarette in the bathroom. I will daydream and buy dhosa for brunch. I will think about you. I probably will.
I cannot do justice to the Indian rail experience. You must simply see it to believe it. It is a market on wheels. It is a small self-contained city, replete with beggars, cripples, the middle class, and tourists all living side-by-side. Men and women walk up and down the aisles selling chips and water. Indians and foreigners sit and stand by the open doors at the end of every train car smoking cigarettes and talking to one another. I befriended Shafraz for the first four hours of my trip. Shafraz is a 20 year old Muslim engineering student from Hubli who loves Hollywood movies and would like to one day live in either America or Saudi Arabia. He has eight sisters, five of whom are married. He would prefer if he could marry based on love, but he understands and accepts that his marriage will be arranged. I tell him that I am unmarried, he asks me how old I am, and when I tell him that I’m 26, he looks at me with obvious surprise.
“You have girlfriend?” he asks.
“Sort-of girlfriend,” I say.
“Will you marry her one day?”
I answer this the way that I always do. ”I don’t know.”
He is practically green with envy.
Shafraz is the first of ten or so Indians who ask me what my tattoo means. I explain it the way I’ve learned explains it best, by appealing to a cliche that resonates more in this part of the world.
“You give a finger, they take a hand,” I begin. ”You give an inch, they take a foot. So, ‘Never give an inch.’” He nods. He thinks it’s badass. He tells me so. I thank him, but I finally understand what Kate meant when she told me that getting a tattoo would invite unwanted conversation, uninvited justification. I ask Shafraz if he has a tattoo. He shakes his head. ”No. In my religion it is not allowed.” I nod. Then I remind him that he could always get it someplace that other people wouldn’t be able to see. ”Like your ass.” He smiles. He nods back.
He will not get a tattoo.
Shafraz gets off in Hubli. I give him my backup email address, tell him to feel free to write, tell him that if he makes it to America that I’d be happy to show him around. But it’s an empty promise. Shafraz is a man I met on a train. I feel no obligation to him.
This is a new feeling. It has something to do, I think, with the amount of attention you are accorded as a white person in India. ”Rickshaw, rickshaw!” ”Do you have coin from your country?” ”Rupees?” ”Motorbike?” ”Do you need guide?” ”Postcard? Map?” It’s a cacophony of requests for attention. You get used to it, of course, and it turns into background noise eventually, but background noise is still noise–and it’s noise, moreover, directed at you–and there are times when you want everybody to just shut the fuck up so that you can sit down and think for a minute.
So Shafraz got off in Hubli, is my point.
Then I met the German, whose cigarettes I smoked, leaning out the doors, watching the rice paddies and the Indian plains whiz by. The Israeli girl who borrowed my lighter over and over again. The English couple with their children. The man from the Indian navy. The children begging: ”Rupees?” ”No rupees.” Then, as if the response hadn’t made sense: ”Rupees?” And the second time you just ignore them until they go away, because your heart is cold and hard. Your heart has adapted to India. A warm and beautiful place.
In Hospet we get off the train. ”Rickshaw, rickshaw!” I bump into Emma, an Australian who I’d met on the train. She and I decide to split a ride to the Bazaar rather than take the bus. We haggle for the price. ”150 rupees,” the man who has followed us out of the station suggests. ”80,” I say. ”No, no, no,” he replies, then adds, “120 rupees. Final price. Emma chimes in, “100 rupees.” He shakes his head. ”120 rupees, final price.” Emma says, “All right, then,” and we begin to walk away. The rickshaw man smiles and says, “Okay, I take you for 100.”
We pack our shit in the rickshaw and drive.
It’s nine o’clock in the morning and it’s hot in Hampi. Scorching. Boulders and rocks sit on top of one another–red and copper and sunburnt–and this is the landscape. Like a planet, like Mars, really. Like the red planet, minus aliens, but plus otherworldly ruins. And it’s hot. Hot as hell. I already said that.
I am walking to the Monkey Temple. The monkey temple, which I heard about on my first day in the bazaar, waiting for the ferry to bring me over to my side of the river. “There’s a monkey temple?” I asked. “Yeah,” the woman said. “It’s filled with monkeys.”
This was something I needed to see.
So I am walking to the Monkey Temple. Asaf has not come along because he feels sick. He feels sick from the watermelon he ate yesterday. He had the shits all night. You can get sick from anything here. Even watermelon. And that’s exactly what Asaf has done. So I lather myself with sunscreen and set out walking.
It’s nine in the morning. I already told you it was hot.
Everywhere where there aren’t boulders, there are ruins and rice paddies. And palm trees. And little shops. And cows. Water buffalo. But mostly rice paddies and ruins. Oh, and banana trees. But anyway, rivers feed elaborate, tiered and quartered irrigation systems, the rice sits with its roots submerged in water, and on the little barriers separating the paddies grow the palm trees and the banana trees that I was talking about.
So there’s this–ancient farming, lush and green and tropical–set amid that–a landscape 300 million years of erosion in the making, though it looks as though it were created by God–and it’s a nice walk. Truly. To the Monkey Temple.
You should try it sometime.
I arrive at a fork in the road, have some water. “Which way to the Temple?”
A man is standing outside of his car. He points down the road I’m on.
“This way or that way?” I ask, pointing at each. I need to clarify, and I need to ask questions that cannot be answered by resorting to yes or no. There is in India a cultural aversion to saying ‘no’ or ‘I don’t know,’ one that you need to be on your toes to remember, lest the answer always be “Yes.” A yes answer is only the one you want fifty percent of the time.
The man at his car assures me that I’m on the right road. So I keep walking.
A kilometer or so further, sweating now, a boy herds water buffalo with a stalk of sugarcane. Three of them. I ask him if I’m on the right road. “Monkey Temple?”
“Yes. This way.” He points down the road I’m on. I say, “Not that one?” then, correcting, “That one or this one?” There is another road, the one that I skipped at the fork, that has so far run parallel to mine, but which looks as though it is the one that in fact leads to the Monkey Temple. Not the one I’m on–this road doesn’t. Rather, the road I’m on looks like it’s heading away from the Monkey Temple. Which would be bad. So I’m curious. Because it’s ninety-five million degrees outside and I don’t want to be on the wrong road.
“That one,” he says. He points at the road on the other side of the rice paddies. Fuck. Okay. “Are you sure? Is the temple this way or that way?” He again indicates the road over the paddies.
I make him tell me for a third and fourth time that it’s the other road–not this one–that leads to the Monkey Temple. He affirms that it is. He then asks me for rupees. I say, “No rupees.” Repeat. Then he asks me for a pen. “School pen?”
I give him my pen. “This better be the right road, little dude, or I’m going to be pissed.” I start crossing the rice paddies.
It takes fifteen minutes or so, but eventually the other road winds behind a grove of banana trees and completely reverses direction. Wrong road. Obviously, Tom: it isn’t paved. I turn around, retrace my steps, cut back through the rice paddies, to the main road where, as one would expect, the little kid has disappeared, and I’ve got another two kilometers to walk.
So I shut up and walk them.
And then when I get to the bottom of the hill that the temple sits on, six hundred stairs up through giant stones and monkey shit, I shut up and walk those too. In the sun. Drenched in sweat. And I only stopped once, shit you not.
At the top, were there any monkeys? There was precisely one. They come out in the morning and in the evening, when it’s not unbearably and oppresively hot, because they are smarter than I am. From what everybody who had been up there at sunrise told me, it was quite a sight to behold–monkeys taking your clothes, trying to put them on; monkeys jumping in your hair and trying to pull fleas out of it; monkeys stealing bananas and screaming and yelling, hooting and hollering. But, did I see it? Did I see the monkeys at the Monkey Temple? No. I had to take it on faith. I had missed it. I sat on the wall in the shade, looking at Hampi, ancient, ancient forevermore crumbling Hampi, and drank water for an hour. Then I turned around and went back down.
Asaf and I left Hampi for Bangalore. Took a bus from the Bazaar into Hospet, out of the ruins and the rocks, into urban decay and the smell of sewage in the canals, women washing their families’ clothes in shit-water, stray dogs laying in the evening heat. To the train station. To other places. To southern Karnataka.
At the train station in Hospet, our train is delayed by an hour. As if it could be any other way. I spend most of that hour standing outside the depot, smoking cigarettes, drinking rum, and fending off small beggar children. Or, rather, no: I fend them off–at best–half-heartedly. For the most part, I mess with them.
The list of questions and requests posed by the beggar children should, by now, be familiar.
“Coins from your country?”
“Rupees? Five rupees.”
School pen? No. Cigarette? No. Rum? No. Are you married? No. Do you have girlfriend? Sort-of. Will you marry her? Don’t know. Rupees? I’ve already told you no. Stamps? No. When will you marry? When I find the right woman.
And then a French woman, probably my age, comes outside to smoke a cigarette, and I’m briefly in the clear while the three of them–nine- and ten-year olds–subject her to the litany of standard beggar children questions.
The one who doesn’t speak English, and who will stand by my side until I board the train (silently asking me for swigs of Old Monk, and cigarettes) nudges me. Then he pokes me. I look his way. He’s seated between me and the French woman. He indicates her, grins big. “What?” I ask him. He points at her, pokes me again. I get it. Laugh. Play dumb. “What? What do you want?” Again, points, raises his eyebrows, pokes. “You want me to ask her to marry me?” He nods. Yes, of course, white man–ask her! This is repeated a few more times, as I feign slow learning. “Ask her to marry me?” Yes, yes, yes he nods. “This is what you’re telling me?” Yes, yes, yes! Okay, I say.
“This kid won’t be happy until I ask you to marry me,” I tell her.
She laughs. She doesn’t know what to say.
I tell the little boy who doesn’t speak English that if a woman laughs at a marriage proposal in the West it’s the gravest insult a man can receive. He doesn’t understand. “She said no,” I assure him. I take one last swig of rum, tell him again that he can’t have any, and wish him farewell.
(He’ll be with me until I get on the train, as I mentioned, but at the time I thought I was done with him.)
Then Asaf and I board.
The train, it turns out, is called the Hindi equivalent of the Poor Man’s train. Asaf and I have a side berth, overnight to Bangalore. We are the only white people who board in Hospet. We are the only white people on our car. We’re the only white people who get off at Yesvantpur eight hours later, too, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
First I must tell you about this train.
Ah, but first I must preface this by telling you that having a bottle of rum on a sleeper car for an overnight journey on a train called the Poor Man’s train might be the most solid recommendation I can offer at this juncture for traveling in India. Here’s why:
(Wait for it…)
Cockroaches everywhere. Lots and lots and lots of cockroaches. Crawling on your seat, on the ground, on sleeping people, your bags, the windows, the doors, the bathrooms, the walls, the handles. Everywhere, cockroaches. Big ones, medium ones, small ones, baby ones. Cockroaches. Fucking shit tons of fucking cockroaches, dude. No fucking joke. I sit in my seat after we board and notice a couple, thinking “Okay. No big deal. They’re just cockroaches.” I stomp on a few. Crush a few more. But really, it’s all to no avail, obviously, as the car is absolutely teeming with them, spontaneously generating them, birthing them from every seam and crack. I give up, but I slap every itch I have. I give up, but I tuck my shirt in. I give up, but I say Shit a lot. I give up, but I go to the bathroom, smoke cigarettes and drink rum. Then I do this again. Then I do it again.
By midnight I’m drunk enough to sleep in the filthiest fucking place I’ve ever slept. And so I do. For a few hours anyway.
Four-thirty in the morning, we arrive. I wake Asaf. “We’re here.” Asaf is catching another train to Bangalore Central; I’m taking busses to meet Aliya in Yelahanka. His train comes and we part ways–probably forever, since that’s how travel works. And so it goes. I piss onto the tracks, because the bathrooms aren’t open yet. I get a chai, because the chai men are out and about. Then I go outside to smoke.
Rickshaw drivers, naturally, follow me on the way out. Offer me rides to Yelahanka. I get another chai from another chai man.
“I take you Yelahanka for 400 rupees,” one says, the one who’s been following me longest.
“How much your friend say to Yelahanka?”
“She didn’t,” I tell him, “but if you’re offering 400, it can’t be more than 200.”
No, no, no, he lies. “The price is 400.”
I fuck with him a little bit, act interested–like I might be sold, or on the verge. I scratch my beard, pretend to mull his offer over–pretend that I am still the man I was three weeks ago. But I’m not. I finish my cigarette. Then I turn around and abandon him. I ignore whatever it is he says to my back. I walk to catch the bus to Majestic, the central bus depot, from where I catch another bus to Yelahanka. The wrong bus, but it’s going in the general direction of where I need it to go. At the final stop, the bus driver tells me how to get to Aroma Sweets, where Aliya is (hopefully, oh God, please be there) waiting, and I walk the kilometer there, smoking a cigarette again, lugging my pack again, thinking about chai again, and scratching at my permanent sunburn.
Aliya and I are in Mysore. We’re going to the palace.
We’re crossing the street. Or, rather, we’re considering crossing the street, but the traffic in the traffic circle is insane and we’re waiting for our moment. We’re waiting for our window. Crossing a busy street in this country is everywhere and always a leap of faith. The leap says, “I have faith that the rickshaws and motorcycles will not kill me as I weave in and out of their various paths.” Like most faith, it is a lie. At best, you believe it in that first step, the one that thrusts you into harm’s way–the one that requires you to believe it. After that, though, it’s gone. Everyone could kill you. You simply have to rely on everyone not killing you. Otherwise you’ll spend the whole day standing at a statue across the street from the back entrance of a royal palace, waiting for the traffic to clear up.
Which it won’t.
There’s an Indian man crossing with us. We follow his lead. Strength in numbers, you see: the willingness of a driver to mow you down on the asphalt is inversely proportional to the amount of damage the force of an impact with you would wreak on his vehicle. Such that crossing the street is always safer in a group, even when it’s not.
The Indian man crossing with us is a rickshaw driver/tout. A tout is a person who is trying to tout his wares, or the wares of his friend, or the wares of his “uncle.” This particular tout tells us that he will bring us to the old market, two or three kilometers away, for ten rupees. Twenty cents.
This is an unbelievable price, and in retrospect it was an obvious tell. But at the time the offer is so unbelievable that we believe it. We get in the rickshaw. We begin to drive.
We begin to drive in the wrong direction.
Aliya and I exchange knowing glances in the backseat. “Wonder where we’re going,” she says.
“Hard to say,” I reply. “Probably not the market.”
We giggle. There’s nothing to do but play this one out.
We end up in residential Mysore, walking into a shack built in some Shanti Shanti dude’s backyard, where we are about to be offered all sorts of wondrous items. We take a seat. I smoke a cigarette. We are shown handmade incense of a number of different varieties, oils of a number of different varieties, and hash. Good hash. Tasty-smelling hash.
I suddenly want some hash.
Aliya draws my picture in the guestbook. The guestbook is filled with accolades from various people who have been pleased with their visits to the Shanti Shanti guy. They have probably purchased his delicious hash. Or maybe they have purchased his aromatic oils. I purchase a little of both, though not without some negotiating.
Everything in India is a negotiation.
Me: “Okay, how about 100 rupees worth of hash, and 100 rupees worth of sandalwood oil?” The sandalwood oil here is world famous, and I figure I’ll give it to my mother, or something. What does one do with sandalwood oil? I have no idea.
Shanti Shanti guy: “Can you buy one hundred rupees of hash in your country?”
Me: “No, but I can’t get a gourmet meal for a dollar, either.”
We laugh. Shanti Shanti guy is awesome. He tries to upsell me.
“Two hundred rupees hash, two hundred rupees sandalwood.”
I meet him halfway: “One hundred rupees hash, two hundred rupees sandalwood.”
Deal. Money and goods are exchanged. Aliya finishes the portrait, signs my name for me, and underneath it I write, “BEST INCENSE EVER!” Shanti Shanti guy wishes us well, gifts us with incense, and we leave with rickshaw team. The rickshaw team wants to ask us a favor. Like this:
If Aliya and I go to two different stores and pretend to think about buying their overpriced handmade Kashmiri goods, the ride will be free, and he’ll drop us off at the Palace by seven, when the lights go on. We naturally accept. We walk around shops. We examine saris and hand-carved elephants, jewelery, ornate paper-mache lockboxes. We buy nothing. We get dropped off at the palace by the rickshaw driver, who doesn’t fail to mention how amazing we are as human beings, which figures: he got a commission from my 300 rupees, he got a kickback from the stores we pretended to be interested in shopping at, and he wants to drive us to the mountain tomorrow for 300 rupees. We’ve been good customers, and you always dote on the good customers. At least, if you want to make any money you do.
So he tells us how great we are. And we know it’s part of the spiel, but we decide to believe it–because why not, because it’s Valentine’s Day, and because it’s a nice thing to believe every once in a while. You know?
The small child on the bus says his name is “Shy,” or something that sounds remarkably similar to the word “shy,” so I’m going to go ahead and dub him thus. Shy falls asleep on my shoulder for the first hour and a half of the bus ride to Ooty. It’s cute as hell. I wake him when we get to a bus station, so that I can go outside to smoke. He doesn’t mind because I am fascinating.
Shy offers me some watermelon, and then an orange. I decline them both. I’m hungry for biryani, not fruit.
Shy touches my arm. “Which country?”
I tell him “USA,” and he says, “Ahh, America,” a look of understanding spreading on his face. Yes, I nod.
“You like India?”
“Yes, I like India very much.” I stop, further words failing. Why am I intimidated by this small child?
“It’s a very beautiful country,” I conclude.
Shy thinks for a minute, then says, “Good. If you not like this country, you cannot sit here.”
I am confused.
“Wait, what? What does that mean?”
He says it again.
“So if I don’t like India I can’t ride the bus?”
He stares at me, hinting at a grin. He does not nod or shake his head or head wag. He simply stares. Then he averts his eyes and acts as though the conversation never happened.
A little while later Shy is gleefully pointing out Indian elephants roaming around in the tiger reserve our bus is rumbling through. There are no tigers, so elephants will have to do.
“Look, look!” and Shy grabs my arm, points to the huge elephant a hundred meters into the bush–the elephant that I didn’t see, because I’m not a child–and says, hushed now, “Elephant.” He pronounces every syllable with reverence, as though the experience is a spiritual one. And I suppose that for a boy of seven it probably is.
I mean, it kind of is for me.
Because there are only so many tomorrows before I leave this country, and because I accidentally fell for her, Aliya was able to convince me to go to Indian Woodstock.
Indian Woodstock: not really called that, but an all night music festival with hippies and camping under the stars–so it may as well be called Indian Woodstock. That’s what I named it, anyway.
We are on the bus. I have had to pee for the past two hours. It is our third hour on the bus because Indian Woodstock is happening in some village in the middle of nowhere, and the middle of nowhere takes a while to get to from Bangalore. I am complaining to Aliya about how badly I have to pee. The cast, by the way, is: Aliya, Namrata, Thanvi, and me. When we all finally get off the bus, halfway into our fourth hour on it, I go to an alleyway and relieve myself, and we hitch a ride with a married couple for the last five kilometers to the amphitheater. It is while stuffed in the backseat of the married couple’s car that I am told the price of admission to Indian Woodstock.
The price is 350 Rupees.
It is while in line ten minutes later that I hatch my plan:
Lie to get into Indian Woodstock for free. Pretend that you are a journalist from New York City and that you are going to write about Indian Woodstock. See if it works.
It does work. Here’s how:
I borrow a notebook from Aliya–it is to be my prop, evidence of my reportorial bonafides. I hold it prominently in my hands. Aliya, Namrata, and Thanvi are brown: they pay and go inside the gates to wait for me. I’m white. I say, “Hi. My name’s Tom. I’m a journalist and I’d like to write about the event tonight. Can I get a ticket comped, or what?” I wag the notebook around. I’m a little bit drunk, but I’m playing the role pretty convincingly–mostly by virtue of my race. The woman taking tickets eyes me with curiosity.
“Are you on the list?”
“No. Not on list.”
“Which paper you work for?”
“The Village Voice,” I say. “New York City,” I add, for emphasis. I don’t want to say the Times, of course, because that’d give away the game.
She tells me to hold on, gets on her cell phone, calls boss-man, explains that there’s some white guy reporter who’s not on the list but wants to go inside for free anydamnway. She passes the phone to me. I say Hello.
“Hello, sir, this is Eugene. I run the event. You are a reporter?”
“Yeah, yeah,” I lie. “I’m in India on holiday, but I figured I’d file some copy while I’m here.”
“And which newspaper do you work for, sir?”
“The Village Voice,” I say again. I tell him that it’s based in New York City. “It’s an alternative weekly. I’m not on the list or anything, but I was wondering if you could put me on it.”
He is not nearly skeptical enough, but he asks, just in case, “And you are a real reporter, sir?”
“Okay, please pass phone back to…” and I do so mid-sentence, and try my damndest not to burst out laughing. The ticket woman hangs up the phone, gives me my ticket, I get a stamp on my hand from the bouncer, and I’m in. For free.
Easy as pie.
We find seats in the amphiteater, watch a few sets, a few artists. There are good ones and bad ones, but eventually it’s one in the morning, and Aliya and I need to eat and find a place to sleep.
So we eat.
Then we start walking around in the forest, looking for a soft spot.
“There’s one. How about that?” I say.
“No. Too many people,” Aliya replies. Then, “How about that one?”
“Um, it’s kind of small, don’t you think?” I point out.
And right then I fall into a hole.
Like, literally, a hole. In the ground. That kind. I fall into it.
Quickly: holes in India are everywhere, are unmarked, and are often deep. Watch out.
The hole I fall into has a jagged boulder in it, which tears open my right shin in two spots and my left foot in one. I am on the ground, adrenaline pumping, thinking “Fuck.”
Aliya: “Are you okay?”
Me: “Not really, no.”
She helps me up, we walk (or rather, she walks and I hobble) to a bathroom, I flush my wounds with water and soap, and Aliya goes to the ticket people to request first aid supplies for an injured Western journalist. I am on my back, with my feet in the air above my heart, slugging rum to keep the pain down, and thinking about karma.
Aliya comes back. She comes back with gauze, iodine, and swabs of medical cotton.
The iodine hurts like hell, and the gauze and the cotton will stick to the wounds and be painful to rip off and re-dress, but for the moment I’m laughing. I’m laughing at Indian Woodstock and the terrible blues band piddling through its set. I’m laughing about the microbes I’ve allowed into my body by washing my wounds with tap water. And I’m laughing about falling into a hole in the fucking forest in the middle of nowhere, India. Because crying about it wouldn’t solve anything.
Auntie is Aliya’s landlady. She’s married to Uncle, Aliya’s landlord. I don’t know their real first names. I suppose it doesn’t matter.
Auntie pretends to be stern, but underneath the brusque exterior is a woman who wants to love life. Maybe she’s disappointed by hers, I don’t know. Maybe it hasn’t been all that it could have been. But her faith, I suppose, gets her through–her trust that God is divining a proper path, that everything is part of (and here I use her pronoun) His plan. In a word, her fatalism. It is a trait that I both admire and abhor. Admire, naturally, for its capacity to foster persistence in the face of even the longest odds. Abhor, of course, for its tendency to make apathetic layabouts out of us.
But that’s beside the point.
Auntie’s fatalism is of the admirable cloth. She believes with what seems to be grain of salt. And she doesn’t relinquish her independence or allow her identity to be subsumed by the divine. She’s a hard, strong woman. She’s a trickster and a joker. She’s quick with a punchline and a wink. She’s loving with her reproach. Warm in her critique.
She’s a hip old lady.
And so I asked her to teach me how to make biryani. And she agreed.
Though it almost goes without saying, Aliya and I delayed by several days our date with Auntie’s biryani. Each day we put it off we were met with subtle admonishment from Auntie. We would be walking down the stairs to go out for fish thalis, and Auntie would remind us that we were lazy and that we needed to cook the biryani one of these days. Or we’d be in Old Town looking for halal mutton for the biryani and Auntie would tell us over the phone that it was too late to prepare the meal that night, as she was already preparing curry. And so on. Eventually, though, it had to happen. There are only so many days you can flake out in a row without feeling bad about it.
Especially with Auntie.
So the two of us, Auntie and I, are sitting on the rooftop waiting for Aliya. Aliya is going to be late, we both know, and so after we rag on her for a while–kindheartedly, of course–Auntie and I begin preparing the meal. We chop tomatoes and onions, mint and coriander leaves, garlic and chicken. Marook, Auntie’s granddaughter, sits with us on the rooftop and does her math and English homework. I quiz her on what various computer commands do. I check her long division. I ask her what grade she’s in.
“Mostly A’s and B’s,” she replies.
“Right,” I say. “But, like, what grade are you in? Like, first, second, third, et cetera? Which one of those grades are you in?”
“Well,” Marook begins, “I’d like to be in the first grade, but right now I’m only fourth or fifth. But if I get all A’s this year I will be first grade.”
Marook doesn’t understand. I give up. Auntie slaves away at the stove and I take notes–”Add cloves, cinnamon, turmeric, and cardamon to (2), bring down to simmer”–for my future American rendition of biryani. I know that I’ll never get it quite right. But I’m going to try.
Auntie digs through Aliya’s fridge looking for curd, mildly cursing her for not having it, and I offer to go to the grocery store to pick some up. I need cigarettes anyway. When I get back Aliya is home from school, and Auntie and I make some mild jabs at her for being so late.
“Way to be here at 6:30,” I say, ribbing.
“Fuck you, Tom,” Aliya answers, feigning fluster.
“While you are gone Tom and I do all the cooking, the preparing, the grinding. Now you are just here to eat.” Auntie looks at me, winks, cackles. Her laughter is infectious, especially when it’s at Aliya’s expense. It’s most infectious then because Auntie truly loves Aliya. Like a daughter. Like an errant little birdie who needs to be shown how to live like a grown woman.
Even though the two of them will never agree on what being a grown woman really is.
No matter. Auntie has me sample the biryani base, asks me what it needs.
“More salt?” she offers.
“I don’t know, Auntie. It tastes pretty perfect to me.”
It is pretty perfect.
When it finally comes time to eat, Auntie excuses herself. Aliya and I implore her to stay. To dine with us. To taste the fruit of her labor.
But she declines. The chicken we got from Old Town might not have been halal. So even though she spent two hours chopping, dicing, mincing, testing, tasting, and spicing, for Auntie the final product is off limits. She was just showing me how to make it, she explains. She was just offering a little guidance.
So Auntie goes downstairs.
And Aliya and I eat.
The biryani is delicious.
Bangalore Central Station.
Aliya and I are on the sky-bridge, smoking cigarettes, drinking chai, and waiting until the last moment to board the train to Delhi. The train to Delhi takes 36 hours to make its journey, and I’m going to be smoking all of my cigarettes in the bathroom, holding onto a handrail and trying to avoid falling into the toilet. So I’m enjoying this open-air cigarette while I can.
Aliya is talking to a French guy. I’m twiddling my thumbs.
Then I see a ghost.
The ghost approaches Aliya first, interrupts her conversation with the French man, asks her name. It is the only phrase he knows in English.
“Your name, please?”
I am looking at the ghost, knowing him. “I have seen you before, ghost.” But, then, no. That’s impossible. The ghost is in Hospet, hundreds of miles away. “Do all beggar children look the same to me now? Would that make me a bad person?” I am thinking these thoughts as Aliya replies.
The ghost shifts his gaze my way and opens his mouth, revealing semi-rotten teeth and dark brown eyes, the same raggedy-Andy haircut, and he–suddenly–is the one who looks as though he’s seen a ghost. A friendly ghost, though, I suppose, since he is beaming.
Maybe I’m Casper.
The ghost points at me, starts waving his hands about: “Hubli! Hubli!” And I suddenly know that it’s him. This is the child who spent the better part of an hour trying to let him have swigs of my rum. This is the child who convinced me to ask the French woman to marry me. This is the child who, weeks back, stood by my side until the very moment I boarded the Poor Man’s Train to Bangalore. This is the very same kid.
I can’t fucking believe it.
But it was in Hospet, not Hubli. So I correct him.
“No, no, no! Not Hubli! Hospet! Hospet!” I say.
He practically smacks his own forehead. “Hospet! Yes, Hospet!” he says, nodding frantically. He eyes me with disbelief–though not, probably, as much as I reserve for him. This is a kid who somehow–with no money, no parents, no English, and no pubic hair–made a journey from central Karnataka to its southern edge, only to find himself at yet another train station, asking foreign people for their names and their rupees. This is a kid who not only manages to survive in this unforgiving country, but who somehow manages to shine, to stand apart from all of the other ghosts and soon-to-be ghosts–to imprint himself on your brain, like the imprint a girl makes on fresh white sheets. This is a kid who would be a superhero if he had half the chance. Which he doesn’t.
I am thoroughly awed by him.
He and I don’t stare at one another long; it’s as though our mutual recognition of the unlikelihood of our ever meeting again has thrown us both off guard. It’s as though we both need to escape this moment to make it last, to make it permanent–to make it real. He asks for no rupees, no cigarettes, no nothing. He just slowly walks away, looking back and laughing, before he finally dashes off into the station, never to be seen or heard from again.
At least, until I do see him again.
Whenever that might be.
I am looking for a necklace with little skulls on it in Delhi. I am looking for it because I’ve decided to do almost all of my souvenir shopping here. I have decided to do almost all of my souvenir shopping here because Delhi is cheap, and because I might up and decide to meditate for ten days before I leave, which would cut into my souvenir shopping time in Bombay.
So that’s that.
I am looking for a necklace with little skulls on it, too, because my ex-girlfriend said that she saw one once and that she thought it was rad. And because I love her, I’m trying to get her a souvenir that she’ll like.
I’m nice like that.
(Just don’t tell anybody.)
The important thing, though, is this: there are no necklaces with little skulls on them in Pahar Ganj. None. Not a one. There are a shit-ton of necklaces with other things on them–beads and doilies and shells and teeth–but no skulls. I have looked. I have walked up and down the main bizarre repeatedly, inquiring at shops on the strip, following touts to their “shops,” only to be offered hash, hats, trips to Kashmir. The like. It happens.
So I am defeated and I have lost, and oh well, I can get her something else. I am walking back to my hotel. Another tout approaches.
Manzoor is his name.
“You check out my shop?” he asks.
Fucking touts. “No. I’m only looking for one item. A necklace with skulls on it.” I point to my head, then his, because I’ve learned that “skull” isn’t a word that most ESL Indians really know the meaning of. “Skulls. Like, the head, minus the hair and the skin and the brains.”
Manzoor looks flabbergasted. He pronounces the word to himself.
“Yes, skulls!” I say. “Bone. The bone that covers your brain. Only, I want one with little animal skulls on it, not human skulls. Those would be too big.”
“Aha!” Manzoor says, lighting up, “Shells!”
I smack my own forehead. “No. Not shells. Skulls. Skulls. Skulls.”
He assures me that he has necklaces with skulls on them, and that if he doesn’t, that I’ll find something I like. “Very good price,” he assures me. Knowing better, I follow him to his shop.
His shop is through a winding alleyway, up a set of concrete stairs, over the sleeping leper, and under the ventilation unit. It doubles as his home. This is where Manzoor lives. This is where Manzoor works. I hope that it isn’t where Manzoor dies.
“Sit, sit, sit,” Manzoor says. “Don’t be afraid.”
“I’m not afraid,” I reply, “I just don’t really want to waste a bunch of time, you know?” This isn’t entirely true. I kind of do want to waste some time. And by the time I’ve reached his shop, I’ve already decided to buy something from Manzoor. Because I like him.
Rule number one for selling me shit: you must make me like you. In this respect Manzoor has succeeded. Perhaps it’s due to his lazy eye and his nonchalant demeanor. But it’s hard to tell in retrospect.
So I sit down.
Manzoor pulls out bags of jewelry, none of which, of course, are necklaces with skulls on them. I pull out a piece of paper and a pen, draw a skull and crossbones, and point.
“This,” I tell him, indicating the skull, “is the skull. Not the bones underneath–those are bones. I want a necklace with fucking skulls on it. And not shells, either. Skulls.” Manzoor is holding a necklace with shells on it, and the impatient part of me wants to wring his neck.
“Ahh, ahh, okay. I see,” he says. “I don’t have.”
No shit, Manzoor.
“But here, you look at other items anyway and find something you like.”
I do. I find two necklaces. One for Dan, and one for my ex-girlfriend, one that fits her aesthetic–or what I can recall of her aesthetic.
Memory has a funny way of abandoning you at the most inconvenient times.
“How much?” I ask.
“This one two hundred,” Manzoor says, pointing at Emma’s, “And this one 150,” pointing at Dan’s.
“150 for both,” I offer.
“220. Last price.”
“No. 150.” The most important thing to know about haggling–other than the fact that you need the proper time to make it work, that you cannot haggle successfully while you’re in a rush–is that everybody else sells the same exact item you’re bidding on. Everybody has a rickshaw, everybody has a travel company, everybody has trinkets, jewelery, water, cigarettes, food, drugs, everything. If you don’t get your price, you walk. To the next guy. Don’t be afraid to walk. You’ll never learn to haggle if you don’t walk away from good deals every once in a while.
“My friend, give me good price,” Manzoor says.
“I just did.” I start to stand up.
“Okay, okay. 150.”
“It’s okay?” I ask. “150 for both?”
I hand Manzoor two 100 rupee notes, ask if he has change. He doesn’t, and I don’t feel like waiting for him to get it.
“Give me 50 rupees worth of hash, then, and we’ll call it even.”
Manzoor pulls out a chunk of hash. “Whole thing, 250 rupees.”
“No. Only 50 rupees worth.”
He tries to convince me to take the whole ball for 250, then 200, but I am firm. He cuts it into thirds, gives me one.
“A little bit more,” I tell him.
He cuts one of the thirds in half, such that I’ve gotten a gram of hash for the equivalent of a dollar. Such that I have won the haggle. Such that I’ve come out on top.
(But really, with haggling, everybody wins. Some people just win more than others.)
Manzoor asks me to sign his guest book, because guest books with notes and signatures from satisfied white people are de rigeur for a reputable tout, and I oblige him.
“Good hash,” I write. “And cheap necklaces. Love, Blogbytom.”
I bid Manzoor adieu and I wind my way back down the stairs, over the leper and through the alley to the bizarre. Into the sunshine. Into the city of Delhi.
Out of the rain.
I am trying to offer Aliya the requisite rupees to cover her rickshaw fare to the train station. The ride should cost 50 rupees, but all of the wallahs want to charge her 100. And we don’t really have time to haggle properly, because we’ve waited until the last minute. And so when a man comes up and offers to do it for 60–and when Aliya starts arguing with him about the price, because she’s frustrated and sad and angry, and because I haven’t yet told her that I’ll go to Delhi again for her (because I haven’t yet told myself)…because she thinks these might be our last moments together, and because she doesn’t want to spend them arguing with all of the rickshaw wallahs who think we’re green–I step in. Say Yes. “Yeah, we’ll take it–one way. 60 rupees.”
There’s no time to go down the other ten.
(The funny thing about falling in love with a girl who lives on the other side of the world: You don’t necessarilly realize how impossible the situation is
until you’re in it. You don’t realize that it’s doomed to fail, that
you’re digging yourself another hole, that you’re making life more
complicated than both of you really need it to be. Or, rather, I guess you don’t realize until you do. Until one morning in Mysore, laying in bed,
thinking to yourself, “What have I gotten myself into?” You wonder
this as you play with her hair; you wonder it because you suddenly
understand that you only have–at best–three or four more weeks to
play with her hair. That then you’ve got to go. You could stay in India,
but you both know that you won’t. That you probably won’t. No, that
you won’t. You won’t because you’ll feel like a hanger-on, like a
rider-of-coattails. Like a burden. Like someone who is not living
his own life.
And that’s not something you want to do.
And then what? Those three or four more weeks are up? Are spent? Just like that? And that’s all it took? And how did we end up in Varanasi again?
Aliya throws her bags in the rickshaw and I hug her and kiss her face and get all misty-eyed, and I tell her (because I’ve just now decided) that I’ll see her in Delhi, that this isn’t the end. The rickshaw man appears genuinely affected by the white man losing his shit a little bit over the brown girl. I notice him looking affected because I’m looking away from Aliya, feeling embarrassed, trying to hold back tears.
Aliya gets in the rickshaw and I walk away; and I don’t look back because if I look back then that means it’s the end; and, besides, looking back would mean I’m being desperate, greedy for time; and since all time does is disappear, it’s a stupid thing to be greedy for; and since I’m not stupid I can’t be greedy for time. Can I?
I can be, but I still don’t look back because I’ve decided to make more. I’ve decided to make more time. So I don’t look back because we’re not going to die in Varanasi. No one will ever die in Varanasi again.
Oh, who am I kidding? I look back. But when I look back it’s too late. When I look back she’s gone.
And it’s just as well.
I walk alone through cow-shit-littered gullies to the burning ghat, inhale the smell of roasting bodies, and cry.
I am sitting on the ghats in Varanasi, food poisoned, watching the sun come up over the Ganges. The contents of my stomach have stopped trying to escape from my body for the moment, and I am enjoying that moment by sipping on a chai.
The Ganges at dawn, and Varanasi at dawn: breathtaking? The word doesn’t quite do it justice. You just need to go. It’s the most beautiful cess pool in the world. And it is a cess pool. Shit on the ground, in the alleyways, piss dribbling down to the river–goats and cows and dogs and humans shitting and pissing whenever the mood strikes. Mostly-naked men washing away their sins in the fecal water–water so filled with shit and piss that marine life can’t sustain itself in parts of it. Bodies burning on the river bank, the remains (fully burned, or not) thrown into the water to release their former inhabitants from the cycle of life and death. It’s hideously filthy and an epic beauty, Varanasi is.
It’s kind of one of a kind.
And so it’s my last morning in the holy city and I feel like dying, because I’m sick of being violently ill. I feel like dying but I’m sitting on the ghats, drinking chai from my favorite riverside chai wallah, and smoking a cigarette.
An old man approaches.
The old man wants rupees, naturally. He must be at least seventy, he walks with a limp and carries a cane, he has an adorable face with a pug nose and crooked glasses. He’s dressed in orange, as so many of the old beggars are; and I can’t tell if it’s because they’re a special breed of holy beggars, or if it’s an evolutionary tic of the beggar classes in general to look holy for the white people so that the white people are more likely to give them money.
Anyway. It doesn’t matter. The cute old man wants my rupees and I’m not going to give him any.
Then he points to the chai man.
“Chai?” he says.
“Chai,” I reply, matter-of-factly, pointing at my glass.
“Chai?” he points again.
And here, his face becomes so puppy-dog-like and filled with sadness that I cave and ask him, “You want a chai, uncle?”
Yes, yes, yes he says.
I beckon the wallah, point to the old man, and nod. The wallah pours him a chai. I pay for the two of us and smile at the old man, get up to walk back to my hotel, where I’ll probably vomit again. The old man is soaking up the sun with his little twig legs crossed, smiling, and rocking back and forth on the stones.
“Chai baba,” he says to me as I walk past him. “Chai baba, chai. Chai baba, chai.”
He seems truly happy with his tea and his sunrise, and I’m truly happy to have contributed to his happiness. It’s what one might call a win-win.
And in a few years I suppose the old man will die here, be burned with the rest of them, and have his ashes strewn in the Ganges. In a few years he’ll be free. In a few years I will envy him.
But not right now.
“Too short, too short,” I tell the man cutting my hair, but it’s too late. The man cutting my hair has already cut half of my hair too short. I didn’t notice: he cuts a mean head of hair–and by “mean” I mean “incredibly rapid.” Like, fifteen seconds ago I had my beautiful strawberry blonde locks flowing over my too-big ears. Now the whole left side of my head is crew-cut. Military-esque. I look, for the moment, like Lyle Lovett.
That’s the guy with the eighties’ hair, right?
Twenty minutes ago I was walking to the wine store to buy a beer. On the way I had asked another barber: “Haircut and a shave. How much?”
“100 rupees,” he shot back.
“50.” This was my new firm price. I had discovered in Varanasi that Indians pay ten rupees for a shave, 20 for a haircut–and while I’m willing to pay the foreigner-price for a lot of things in this country, I’m not willing to get straight-up hosed.
“70. Final price,” he said.
I walked away. Got my beer. Walked back. Found another barber.
“Shave and a haircut. How much?”
I start to walk away, and the man says, “Come, come.” I sit on the barber’s chair. The barber puts the haircut gown over me. We discuss the particulars of my haircut.
“Just a trim, you know?” I begin. “Like, leave it some space to curl.” Here I hold my curls in between my thumb and my forefinger, make a swooping motion. “Curl,” I say slowly, swooping.
“Curl, yes,” the barber says, or at least that’s what I think he says. It’s really impossible to tell.
“I need it to look good for a woman,” I continue. “If you fuck it up, she’s going to be angry, and I’ll bring her back here, and she’ll scream and yell at you.”
“Girlfriend?” he asks.
“Yes, girlfriend, fiance, wife. She wants it to look good.”
Of course the Indian man had noticed us yesterday. We walked by yesterday. Everyone notices us when we walk by.
Or, at least, everyone notices her.
“Yes, Indian girlfriend.”
He smiles at the other barbers, starts talking to them in Hindi, and I look at myself in the mirror, waiting.
“Okay, okay, good. I do. Good,” the barber concludes.
The barber then proceeds to completely fuck up my hair.
When he’s done cutting my hair–or, rather, when he’s done compensating for his initial fuck-up by fucking up the rest of it evenly–I tell him that I don’t want the shave. “I’ll look like a child,” I explain. “My face is boyish.” The barber looks nonplussed. “Fine. Just shave the mustache and the soul-patch, and we’ll call it good.”
He lathers my upper lip, my lower lip, takes the straight blade to them and makes them soft as a baby’s bottom. ‘At least he didn’t cut me,’ I think.
I notice that I’m bleeding.
“You cut me.”
“Sorry, sir. Sorry, sir.” The barber shop erupts in laughter. The barber wipes my face with after-shave and the blood goes away. I dry my hair out. The barber holds my shoulders and massages my head. The barber asks me about my freckles.
Indian people don’t really understand freckles. In Ooty, walking past the destitute Nilgiri women selling healing ayurvedic oils on the roadside, they’d point to me and say, “Pimple, pimple!” as though I needed my complexion entirely re-configured–and I’d shake my head and say, “No: Freckle, freckle!” and ignore them. I’ve been asked repeatedly about my freckles. I should probably have started lying about it by now, but I haven’t.
“Not an infection. Freckles.” I take the barber’s arm in my hand. “Look. Your skin gets dark evenly”–I look into his eyes and nod, to make sure he’s understanding me–”my skin gets dark in spots. They’re angel kisses,” I tell him. “I was kissed by many angels.”
“Girlfriend?” he asks.
I laugh. “Exactly.”
I give him fifty rupees and thank him. Warn him again, though, that if my girlfriend isn’t happy with the haircut, there’s hell to pay.
“Yes, yes. Indian girlfriend.” The barber starts thrusting his hips. “Fuck and fuck and fuck and fuck.”
I stare at him slack-jawed. I thank him again, turn around, and walk back to the hotel.
Aliya pretends to like the haircut.
It’s 6:30 in the morning. The sun is coming up. I’m hungover. I’m alone again. I’m hungover because I’m alone again. Because I decided to get drunk to deal with being alone again. Last night. I got drunk. Really drunk. Because that’s sometimes how I deal with my problems.
So there’s that.
There’s also this: I’m at the fucking Taj Ma-fucking-hal. The Taj Mahal. No. The Fucking Taj Ma-Fucking-Hal. I’m there. I had my hotel people wake me up at 5:30 in the morning so that I could watch the sun come up through the minarets. I woke up when they woke me up. Then I brushed my teeth. Then I walked the two hundred meters to the gate. I waited in line. I got inside.
So I’m there, right. Some guy is leading me around, showing me good spots from which to take photographs. He is the second guy who has led me around. The first one was worth every rupee. He took my picture over and over again, had me strike poses, the like. I paid him ten rupees.
“Some people give one hundred, two hundred rupees,” he began, putting out his hand.
“I’ll give you ten.”
He was worth ten. All ten. But no more.
But the second guy has decided that I can’t tell east from west, is leading me toward the west side of the Taj so that I can take pictures of the sun coming up through the minarets. I am following him. He will get ten rupees, too. Might as well trust the people who guide foreign people to picturesque spots for a living when you’re a foreign person looking for a picturesque spot. You know?
But then my batteries run out.
Oh. You should probably have extra batteries for your camera when you visit the Taj Mahal. Just, you know, as a precaution.
So, right. Okay. My batteries run out. I’ve only been here for twenty minutes.
“Shit, guy,” I say to the second picture-guide. “What do I do?”
“You must go outside the gates and find batteries on the street,” he tells me.
“Okay, perfect,” I reply. “How much?” I’m not going to pay what he asks, I’m just curious.
“Some people pay one hundred rupees, some people pay two hundred,” he says.
“I’ll give you ten.”
He accepts. I walk–no, I power-walk (hell, I practically run)–to the gate. Say hello to the security guards.
“Hey, guys. I need batteries.” I show them my camera. It says, ‘Battery Exhausted.’ “See?” I point. “Exhausted. Battery exhausted. Can I go out and get some batteries and come back in real quick?”
“Yes, yes. Of course, my friend,” they say.
“You’ll remember my face?” I pinch my cheeks. Like an aunt might.
They assure me they will.
Of course, this being India, the Taj being the Big Motherfucker, I am besieged outside of the grounds by twelve- and thirteen-year-old touts. Touts in training. In twaining.
I say that I need batteries. I am a man on a mission. The twouts jockey for position and fight for my attention. I pick one at random. He brings me to a shop across the street.
“Batteries?” I ask.
The battery wallah nods.
And here I don’t even let him finish. Batteries do not cost 150 rupees. If you ever come to India, please do not pay 150 rupees for batteries. You’ll just be doing us poor travelers a disservice.
“40 rupees,” I offer.
No go. I walk out. He goes down to 100 as I leave, but I keep walking, led by another random child. Into the next store. Same exact thing plays out.
150? 40. Not possible, sir. Exit, Tom.
Next store, not led by small child. I go in. Battery wallah shows me the Panasonics everybody’s been trying to get me to pay 150 for.
He frowns and pulls out Duracells. They have the MRP printed on them. It says they cost 40 rupees.
“Perfect. Let me try them first, and if they work then I buy.” I rip open the packaging.
“50 rupees,” the wallah says when they work.
I laugh. “No, my friend.” I point, “MRP! MRP!” I have exact change. I give it to him and walk back to the gate. I go back inside the grounds to gaze at the Taj Mahal. To take it in. To live with it for a little while.
It is the most beautiful thing that I have ever seen.
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.
You get tired, you know? You get tired of everything. Tired of India. Traveling. Of overnight buses. Trains. Samosas. Haggling at every turn. Calling bullshit day after day. You get tired. You deserve to be treated like someone who knows better, you think, because you do, in fact, know better. None of this is new to you. You know that a kilo of bananas cost 20 rupees, not 40; that a coconut costs ten rupees, not 25. You know this. But still, every day–a challenge. And it wears on you. It does. Really.
I’m not fucking kidding.
So I decided to stay in Pushkar for just one more day before I go to Jaisalmer (my hotel has a pool, and the room costs two bucks a night), and Mirt, my Slovenian travel partner who I met at the bus stand, decided to go to Agra. We said goodbye today as he left to catch a bus to Jaipur.
Mirt: His name rhymes with ‘leer’ plus a ‘t’. But it’s a Slavic language, Slovenian is, so the ‘t’ sound is pretty hard. Not quite ‘Meer-tuh’ but close. Mirt. Say it with me.
No, not quite. One more time.
No. Not that time, either.
It doesn’t matter.
Mirt is 19 and full of energy and bounces around the subcontinent like it’s going out of style, which maybe it is. Mirt is a philosophy student to-be, and he and I spent an evening debating determinism and its consequences for morality while getting drunk on cheap Indian whiskey. I won the argument, for the record, but it didn’t matter. Mirt is a mini-me, an incarnation of my former self: strong-headed to a fault, unyielding in the face of proof to the contrary. Mirt is a clever bastard, and dispatching with determinism involved forays into the philosophy of mind and crazy shit like defining consciousness, which I hadn’t anticipated being on the agenda.
So Mirt was all right, is what I’m getting at.
But Mirt was 19. Is 19. And Mirt doesn’t get tired like I do. Or, if he does, he hides it better than I do. And now Mirt’s gone to Agra, and tomorrow I’m going to get on a bus to Jodhpur–and do you know what I really, really don’t want to do?
Get on a bus to Jodhpur.
But do you know what?
I’m going to do it anyway.
I didn’t go to Jodhpur.
Instead, I spent two more nights in Pushkar–three more days in Pushkar–relaxing, thinking, existing on a plane that didn’t involve waiting in line to get tickets for a last-minute train, or lugging my pack around trying to find a place to bed down for the night, or the stench of stale urine at the bus stand. Instead, I walked around in Pushkar’s sleepy morning streets, avoided head-butting cows, had chai with my Pushkar chai guy, ate paranthas for breakfast, pretended to be interested in shopping, sat on the ghats with my sandals off, glanced at pretty girls, and then went back to the guest house–Shree Palace–to sit on my bed under the fan and read and smoke a cigarette; and then have a shower and listen to music and wait for the afternoon heat to subside. And then into town for a special lassi–a lassi with bhang in it (bhang being a derivative of marijuana)–and a lunch/dinner of a vegetarian thali… and what? And once again to the hotel to change into my swimming shorts. To walk along the sun-baked patio on tiptoe to the pool, filled with filthy desert India water–opaque and speckled with floating plastic…
To dive in.
To go for a swim, of course.
And, oh, how I swam. I swam laps in that pool–laps like that pool has never seen, not being a pool much suitable for swimming laps–kicking the water in the air as I reached the end, spun around, and then, six or seven strokes later, reached the other end, only to kick the water in the air again, spin again, and so on.
It’s a pattern. At least, it was one.
But I swam, I tell you. Like it was the last time I ever would.
So I did this instead of Jodhpur and Jaisalmer. I walked around, read, drank special lassis, got high, and swam laps in a miniature pool in the Rajasthani desert. And today I got on a bus to Bundi, rattled my way the two hundred clicks here, and I don’t know… Now, I don’t know. I really don’t. Because it’s the end, you know?–or nearing it–of whatever this is, or has become, or was destined to be–and I don’t have any conclusions to draw, or any lessons to relate to you… morals, axioms… I’m not Aesop, and none of this is a fable: all of it really happened, after a fashion. All of this shit really went down, in a sense. But there comes a preordained time where a man has to end an era, an epoch, an age if you will…and, what if there’s no string with which to tie it up? Or no wrapping paper? Or no box? Or, I mean, what if there’s no there there in the first place? Nothing to put in the box, because the nothing has only been made something by a devastatingly finite subject? What if nothing on earth can be finished, until you are?
Or what if you just want to go for a swim?
I don’t know where to begin.
An offer in Bundi: 500 rupees to the waterfall and back. ”Can you swim in the water at the waterfall?” Yes.
“How about 300?”
Or perhaps meeting Christian last night.
Me: ”There’s a waterfall, you know. You can swim in it.”
Or maybe I begin on the motorcycle, with Mayauk at the helm, Christian in the middle, me in the back holding on for dear life–white-knuckled–as we bounced our way 40 kilometers through the desert to a waterfall that, I swear to God (in that motherfucker of a desert), I couldn’t believe could possibly exist. Until I saw it. Until I was forced to confront its existence.
Or do I begin at Krishna’s shop, with Krishna telling me that the “cheating man” who I bought hash from cuts his hash with, get this, dirt. Here Krishna rubs his arm, rubs the India filth-film into a fine little ball.
“This,” he points and smiles, the grit in his fingertips, a little black ball.
“There are some things I don’t want to know, Krishna,” I reply.
(Krishna has the most endearing smile in all of India, which is why I bought him a beer. And which is why I give him cigarette after cigarette despite the fact that he charges ten rupees per chai, an absurd price. (I got free chai for life, however, after buying him that beer).)
Or do I begin in the water, with Christian and Emily and Nina, swimming underneath the cascades, feeling as though we’ve stumbled upon the last great untouched beauty of Rajasthan, because we have?
It doesn’t really matter. I’ll start on the motorbike:
“Ow.” I say this with vigor. I’ve been on the back of this fucking motorcycle for an hour, and my groin muscles hurt, and I feel like I’m going to fall off every thirty seconds, and I’m obviously getting sunburnt, and again, I feel in my bones that there cannot possibly be a waterfall in the middle of this desert. Christian asks me if he needs to move up. ”No,” I tell him, “I need to get off this fucking bike.”
We’ve worked our way off of the main roads, which are bumpy enough in themselves, and into rock-littered dirt-bike paths. My balls hurt. My back hurts. My groin hurts.
Ten more minutes, I hear from the front.
The ten minutes are, needless to say, worth it. Mayauk, Christian, and I pull into the “parking lot” above the canyon. The waterfall is thin, this being the hot season, but it’s flowing. It’s flowing and it’s sky-blue and it’s safe to swim in. It’s water, in other words, that doesn’t exist in India unless you find your way to the sea. It’s water that should be filled with shit and piss and plastic bags and more shit and piss.
But it isn’t.
So I dive in.
And Christian dives in after me.
And so does Mayauk, the guy we’re paying to be here.
And honestly, if you can think of a better way to spend a Wednesday afternoon–something better than swimming in an oasis-pool in the desert in India–I’d like to hear about it.
Because honestly, this is The Oasis In The Desert. The real one. Not the mirage. This is a little pocket of life in the middle of only death.
This is exactly what I’ve been looking for.
Christian and I swim until we can’t swim anymore, and Nina and Emily arrive. Nina: Dutch, 21, traveling alone, shy in the way that she says goodbye. Emily: British, 24, meeting her brother in Varanasi, adorable. The Indian children gather around us as the women walk up to the rocks. The children stare.
Emily: ”It seems as though we have an audience.”
Emily and Nina are bikini-clad blondes in a sexually repressed society: of course they have an audience.
We swim some more, Indian tweens gawking at loose white women. I dry my bathing suit on a rock in the sun. It becomes apparent that it’s time to go.
And we do. We go. Mayauk leads Christian and me back to his motorcycle. We bid the women adieu. We climb back on the two-wheeler. We weave in and out of cows and trucks and rickshaws and speedbumps and rocks and villages back to Bundi.
It is a perfect afternoon.
I have a recurring nightmare in which I’m yelling at someone–at you, maybe–about something that he or she has done terribly, terribly wrong. I’m yelling at the top of my lungs–and my anger is justified, always–when suddenly my voice just goes. Gone. Disappears. And I keep mouthing words, but, no. No. Nothing. Nothing comes out. Just silence and righteous indignation.
Which brings us to today. This is not at all what happens today.
Today I will be looking for a last-minute gift for my father, who I cannot for the life of me figure out how to shop for. I will be in Bombay. I will be, more specifically, in Colaba, the toursity part of Bombay. I will walk by a fancy looking tailors’ shop and I will be wooed inside by a jolly-looking old fat Indian who promises me that all of my dreams are contained within.
No. He says nothing of the sort. But I go inside anyway.
Long story short (long haggle short): I tell him that I can’t have a shirt tailored for my dad without knowing his measurements, he tries to convince me to have a shirt tailored for myself, and then–and this is important for later, so don’t you forget it–lowers his price (at his “fixed price” shop) repeatedly to sway me. But I ain’t being swayed. I start to walk out, notice that he’s got ties laying about, ask about those (thinking ‘Dads like ties…’).
The old fat man proceeds to break out several boxes of ties. I proceed to pick one out, 100% silk, a snazzy design for a father who doesn’t much wear ties anymore.
The old man lifts the tab to show me the price.
Now, in America, that’s like five bucks. Or no, like, five-fifty. But we’re not in America, and the fat man has already tipped his hand by lowering the price of the shirt he tried to make for me, and so I offer him a mild haggle. Like a mild salsa, you can barely tell it’s there:
(In the course of a haggle, the parties involved sometimes exchange information about one another’s personal lives. It’s space-filling banter, common in India. So I’ve told the fat man that I’m a house-painter at the moment, and he’s told me that he’s a widower. These are both disclosures that we will come to regret. Here’s how…)
The fat man scoffs at my offer of 200 for the tie, begins to explain that he only makes 50 rupees per tie he sells, that he only marks them up that much to stay moderately profitable.
This is a lie, and I treat it as such by laughing.
“That’s what everyone says,” I say.
But the fat man is insistent, and he enlists the services of his partner, the skinny man (who has hitherto been silent), to rally to his side.
They speak to one another in a foreign language, and the skinny man affirms with a nod and a frown that I am being unreasonable.
Understand this: I am still in “friendly haggle” mode. The haggle is always full of drama and theater from both parties involved, and even more drama and theater if there’s a supporting actor or actress. But it’s still, to me, and at this point in this particular haggle, a game to be played. I’m playing it the way I play it best, with a smile and a joke.
“How do I know you didn’t just tell him to harrumph and scoff at my offer?” I ask the fat man. “After all, I don’t speak Hindi.”
Here the fat man and the skinny man both begin telling me what an insult I am to their esteemed shop, which is, for the record, empty. I’m a little put off guard, but still thinking that it’s the rising action to the eventual catharsis of a sale. I’m still thinking that this is part of the act.
It isn’t. I misread the scene.
The skinny man begins to tell me to leave, as if I’ve insulted his dignity. “You don’t know India,” he starts. “Not everything is a haggle-this-haggle-that.” I counter by pointing out that I’ve haggled over MRP–the law of the land–many a time. He does not believe me, though it’s true.
“Leave,” he tells me.
“Okay,” I respond.
And right now–at this moment in time–I’m fine. Everything is fine. A haggle is a haggle is a haggle, and you don’t win them all. But the fat man is going to blow everything presently:
“What would a house-painter know about fine things?” he says to himself derisively–or perhaps to me–as I walk out the door.
And this is the part where I explode.
Or no: the fat man has pulled the pin out of a grenade which is going to explode in approximately fifteen seconds. First I must walk ten meters away from the shop. Then I must turn around and start visibly shaking.
Then I must walk back into the shop.
(Only then can I explode. And explode I do).
“What the fuck,” I am yelling as I walk back into the shop, “do you know about me, you fat fuck?” I don’t let him answer. “Everything in this fucking country is a fucking negotiation and you, you fat fuck, are telling me what I can and can’t say?” Oh, sweet Jesus, I am angry. “Fuck you–”
Here he gets a word in edgewise: “You and your fucks and fucks–”
I cut him off. “Yeah. My fucks. Fuck you. You’re fucking calling me a painter, as if that’s something to be ashamed–what the fuck are you? You’re some fat fuck old tailor. I’ve got a fucking education, you fat fuck. I went to one of the best fucking universities in the world, you fat piece of shit. I’m going to do something with my life, and you’re going to die alone, a fat fuck ignorant old tailor with a shit-little shop in Bombay. Good for fucking you.”
I turn around quickly and storm out, but not before I see that I’ve hurt him, viscerally. Not before I see him quake a little bit. Not before I’m forced to confront the fact that I have just spoken–or screamed–these words to a human being, a being made of bones and skin and blood and guts and brains… everything else.
Of feelings, in a word.
I go outside, walk halfway around the block to hide, sit on the curb, and shake some more.
It is not one of my best moments in India.
But it is one of my last.
So this is it.
I don’t really know how to conclude.
(I’ve been concluding things since I got here, I realize. I’ve been saying goodbye for as long as I can remember. I just do it. I don’t reflect; it just happens. Endings come because they have to, not because you want them to.)
I am back in Bombay, and back in Dongri. I got in two days ago, took a cab from Bombay Central to my old haunt. It smelled like nostalgia when I got here. This will always be my India smell, Dongri will. Tantanpura Street. It is the smell of thousands of people, goats, chickens, rats, pigeons, hawks, smog, dust, grime. It is the smell of streetside kebabs, of kids playing cricket in traffic, of poor people slowly dying in the street. It is the smell of a subcontinent that I cannot possibly understand, but which I’ve done my best to navigate.
And now it is the smell, too, of finality.
So, full disclosure time: I don’t know what I’ve learned. I don’t know that I’ve become a better person. I know this: traveling India is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It is harder than twelve-hour days painting houses. It is harder than writing twenty-page term papers at the last minute. It is harder than having your heart broken, picking up the pieces, and sewing it together again.
Traveling in India is impossible.
But it isn’t, and it’s eminently easy. If it weren’t, I couldn’t have done it, because I’m a pussy. All that traveling in India requires is a little bit of grit, the will to live, and a lack of the financial wherewithal to change your plane ticket.
Really. That’s all.
I wish that I could come up with something special to say, something to wow you with, but I can’t. I’m hot, I’m tired, it’s Easter, and I’m thinking about the meal I’m going to eat tonight at Shalimar. Shalimar, where Aliya and I shared our first meal, where we began to fall in love…this is where it will end. I’ll order lamb kebabs, palak paneer, rice, chapatis, and I’ll eat with my hands… and if there are leftovers I’ll get them bagged, find the most destitute-looking one-legged sleeping person on the street, wake him up, and tell him to eat. And then I suppose I’ll take a cab to Bombay Central, a train up toward the airport, and a rickshaw to Terminal 2.
I’ll sit at the airport waiting for my flight, smoke cigarettes, and cry.
And then I’ll come home.