Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Part 1

Glory to you, O Ganesha,
You are the delight of Gauri
And the charming son of Shiva.
You are the extirpator of all pairs and contraries
And the deliverer from them.

Delhi, Day 1

Strange, the unseasonable cold. Like an omen, lying thick and low over the city. Smog, yes—that, too. But the cold. The chill in the air keeping the cows close-huddled together, keeping the mangy dogs at bay, crouched close to each other, nursing pups through the night or making forays into the deserted streets in hopes of scraps.

The pigs horded the scraps, of course, and lorded over the trash mounds—bits of paper, rejected vegetables, dust swept from the cafes, cow dung gone uncollected by the women who would slap it into patties, let it dry on a wall somewhere, and then later use it to heat their meager homes.

But in the January cold—only 50 degrees Fahrenheit in Delhi—almost unheard of—the cow-dung women were the fortunate ones. Others lay in doorway or crowded onto flat-bed carts; their whole families bundled under whatever bits of blanket, burlap, or rejected fabric they could find. Some slept in shanties fashioned from cardboard boxes and even more lay like sacks of laundry lined up along the sidewalks.

But that wasn’t her concern as she lay shivering under the thin bedspread in her room. She knew the window was leaking over her bed. One pane was missing completely. But there wasn’t a wind, and stuffing a towel into the jagged space would do no good. The whole cavernous building was cold. The desk clerk, if he was still awake, was slouched into his sweater vest, a scarf wrapped around his head from crown to jaw as if he had a tooth ache. Other men were there, too, somehow managing to doze through the chilly night on the reception area’s cracked vinyl settees, while the black-and-white set burbled on in overly-cheerful Hindi. Movies. Bollywood. Those insipid, unrealistic undertakings where the cast suddenly burst into song while a woman, clad in the customary virtuous sari writhed with a complete absence of virtue under a downspout.

Maybe that was how the men could sleep—in the grey light of the TV there was no winter. There was only the India of dreams, full of desert heat, religious fervor, jewel encrusted royalty and peacocks strutting tirelessly through palace gardens.

She roused herself from a half-dream, emptied her backpack of anything wearable, and layered a ridiculous assortment of pants, skirts, t-shirts and socks under her fleece jacket. Then she doubled the bedspread, threw her towel on top for luck, and tried again to sleep.

She imagined she could see her breath.

This cold was only supposed to visit the Himalayas—Delhi wasn’t close enough. Wasn’t the point of an Indian holiday to escape the east coast winter? She could’ve saved herself the trouble, gone to Canada instead. To bone-chilling Toronto where, at least, the hotel rooms guaranteed heat. But no. Twenty-four hours in the air and then this—the shock of the cold that had taken several minutes to register when she’d stepped out of the airport terminal. She pulled her knees to her chest and managed to wrench her way into a fitful, dreamless sleep.

Somewhere, in the pre-dawn hours, women were rousing themselves from charpoys, peeling themselves from the body heat of husbands and children. Or maybe lifting their stiff limbs from the mud-washed floor, arranging saris, pulling the ornate border over their heads as a gesture against the cold. Just a gesture. Some women owned a shawl, others made due with the luxury of wrapping their own arms around their thin frames for a moment.

And then there was work.

Light the fire. Cow dung, burning slow, filled the room with sweet smoke. Set the pot to boil, maybe chop potatoes with a small knife. Fetch water. Every morning was like that. Heft the clay pot onto the crown of the head and move with the same certain sway of the water buffalo going out to pasture. Move through the dark, not even hearing the jingle of jewelry at the ankle, the wrist, the neck, the ear, the nostril. Just move, almost able to sleep again in the momentum of the chore. Swing the bucket up from the well and fill the vessel, then squat, settling it back onto the head.

Maybe chew a Neem branch on the way back, cleaning the teeth, giving the tongue something to do. Waking slowly like that—waking into the activity of the day. No time, really, to be bothered by the cold. There was just doing. Life depended on the motion of doing. Once doing stopped, the world would fall away.

She, struggling to sleep on the hard hotel bed, didn’t know that, didn’t think of life that way.
She was thinking of the monsoon palaces, the floating palaces, the water gardens. She thought of food, of what she’d eat when she let herself awaken and venture from the room. She worried not about where the food would come from, but how she’d find a cafĂ© and whether or not she’d have to eat alone, and if she’d be able to communicate with the waiter. She worried about germs, and then she thought again about the floating palaces where surely there were no germs.
Like the movies with the writhing maharani, her jeweled breasts creating a waterfall while she slicked her sari flat against her skin, molding it to her body so that no one had to wonder what she looked like naked.

They did wonder, though. Because they wouldn’t see her naked. Nor would they see her gliding along the dusty road, feet turned dust colored, skin colder for the metal against it. Neem stick between her teeth, urn balanced on her head. The family’s water for the day, potatoes boiling, men rousing to the warming home, day coming in slow and pale.

Day coming in everywhere, pushing back the blanket of night. Cows lowing, spry pigs rooting for the best morsels, dogs whimpering at their sad lot.

Cows waiting patiently for the old women who would surely come soon. Morning brought them in droves—the widow women clutching warm chapattis slathered in butter, which they fed to the cows from their own hands.

It wasn’t at all what she’d been expecting. And nothing had prepared her for it—not the movies she’d rented (Kama Sutra, Salaam Bombay, A Passage to India), the books she’d read (Rumor Godden’s Peacock Spring, John Irving’s Son of the Circus); not even the Lonely Planet guidebook she’d bought months early but, admittedly, hadn’t read, unless perusing the color pictures counted.

The thing was, Indira Gandhi International Airport terminal was neat, clean and orderly. There were no throngs of school-aged children begging for coins, no lepers, no hassling vendors, no elephants or even cows. Just subdued lines of weary travelers winding their way through customs, the obligatory smack of the stamp and then on to baggage claim.

If anything, it was anticlimactic.

Of course, Ami chided herself, this is just the airport. India is out there, past the doors. Airports are really some sort of neutral ground, some sort of holding tank for the in between, the lost, the disenfranchised. She’d been among the masses of wanderers when her flight laid over in Amsterdam. Trapped in the sterile white airport, surrounded by the statuesque Dutch in their crisp gray uniforms, she’d felt neither here nor there. Nowhere. And Indira Gandhi Airport terminal wasn’t really any different, except that she’d come through customs and was nearing the entrance to the real Delhi.

Ami pulled her passport from her back pocket, where she’d stuffed it, and gazed at the stamp, slightly smudged from closing the little book so quickly. Smeared, but it was there, right next to the full-page visa granting her permission to stay in India for six months if she so desired. She was legitimate.

Remembering the advice of Holly, her globe trekking friend at home—which was now twelve time zones and twenty hours of flight time away—Ami tucked her passport into the flesh-colored money belt she wore strapped under her clothing. She’d resisted the idea of the silly little bag, preferring to carry her passport, traveler’s checks and credit card some place she could easily access them, until Holly pointed out that if she could get at them easily, a nimble-fingered pickpocket on the streets of Delhi could clean her out even faster. So, Ami bought the ugly money-belt and dutifully deposited her return ticket, along with her other important papers into the Velcro-secured pocket.

It itched.

And looking around the terminal, Ami couldn’t imagine what all the fuss was about. Indira Gandhi Airport could’ve been Philadelphia, except that most of the late-night arrivals were Indians—the men turbaned, the women swathed in rich saris, gaggles of small, bleary-eyed children dragging along behind the wheelie-bags and luggage carts.

Making her way to baggage claim, Ami felt a twinge of anxiety that her own backpack, newly purchased for the trip, wouldn’t arrive. Holly had advised her to pack light enough so that she could carry her bag onto the plane, but she hadn’t listened. Even though the trip was only for three weeks, she couldn’t imagine life without her toiletries, a decent supply of underwear and a few changes of clothes.

“You only need one change of clothes,” Holly had insisted. She’d been to India several times, and promised that Ami would be able to buy new clothing to wear for less than it would cost to do a load of laundry at home. The guide books and travel shows all said the same thing, but when Ami stood in front of her closet trying to figure out what one outfit she’d bring—what one outfit would cover all possible incidents of heat, cold, grime, travel comfort, wrinkle-proofing and still manage to look good?—she just couldn’t do it.

Honestly, she had tried. Once the pack was stuffed to bursting, Ami had forced herself to remove half of its contents and then she’d zipped it shut and set it resolutely by the front door, refusing to entertain any thoughts of adding to it. And all the way to the airport, sitting in the cab, she’d tortured herself with the idea that she’d left behind something she’d really need.

Holly, riding along for moral support, promised that India—especially Delhi where Ami would spend the first few days of her trip—would have everything she could possibly desire. Shampoo, nail clippers, Band-aids, extra socks, tampons…well, maybe not tampons, Holly admitted with a frown. India was a little weird about feminine hygiene products. But certainly they could be found in a pinch—it would just be a matter of attracting a crowd while trying to explain in pigeon English to a confounded pharmacist exactly what the item was.

Once Ami was in the air she’d relaxed. It was just as well, she figured, that her bag was stowed in cargo. It meant it was out of her hands for the time being—for the twenty hours of flying and laying over. Anyway, she had the necessities—her return ticket, her passport, her traveler’s checks and a Visa card with a five thousand dollar limit and three crisp hundred dollar bills: her emergency fund.

Standing in front of the baggage carousel, Ami suddenly felt differently about her luggage. Whatever was in it, however inappropriate and badly packed, was her only link to home. If it were indeed lost, she’d be floating freely into the vast, inexplicable country of India with nothing for ballast. She needed the bag for its weight, its familiarity, its very presence, which proved that she was a traveler—someone who came from some other place and therefore had some place to return to. A home.

Just as Ami felt panic prickling at her palms, her pack wended its way around the carousel. She pushed through the throng of passengers, reached into the sea of flailing arms, and grabbed the strap of her pack. Airborne, it crashed into several bodies, but no one seemed to notice. They were too busy grabbing madly for their own possessions.

With the luggage, a chocolate-brown L.L. Bean travel bag with a detachable daypack, situated on her shoulders, Ami made her way to the information desk where she asked the thin, college-aged man how to get into the city.

“Where are you going, Madam?” he asked politely, in clipped British English.

“To Delhi,” she replied blankly.

“Of course, Madam, but which hotel are you staying?”

She hadn’t made any arrangements. It had never crossed her mind. She’d simply planned to land and then figured it would all fall into place.

“I shall make the reservation for you?” inquired the young man. He sported the thinnest rendering of a mustache over his full lips.

Ami remembered something from her first trip about the Main Bazaar. It was a crowded shopping area an area frequented by hardened travelers and chock-full of cheap rooms.

“I’m going to the Main Bazaar,” she said, trying to sound convincing. “Is there a bus?”

“Madam, this time is two a.m. It’s best for you to take taxi. Also, driver will direct you to
nicest place to stay in Paharganj.”


“Yes Madam. Paharganj is Main Bazaar.”

“Oh, thank you,” she replied, adjusting her pack. Already it felt heavy on her back, and she’d only been wearing it maybe ten minutes.

“Taxi is just outside,” the information clerk gestured to the automatic sliding glass doors. “Enjoy your stay in India.”

So, then she half expected it to be easy. She’d just waltz out the sliding glass doors, hail a taxi and be swept into the heart of Delhi.

It didn’t happen that way, though.

Through the doors, where the other travelers made their way in pairs and small groups, waited a throng.

Ami wasn’t sure she’d ever really seen a throng before, but there it was—a mass of people all reaching out and shouting, competing with each other to collect their loved ones first. And then there were the touts, shouting over everyone else.

“Madam, Royal Hotel, very nice. Special price for you!”

“Yes, Madam, you like taxi?”

“Yes, Madam, I take your bags. Only fifty rupees.”

She felt a pair of hands trying to remove the pack from her back, and she swung around abruptly to face a rather small man with a thick mustache and red teeth.

“Okay, okay,” he spoke rapidly, “Thirty rupees.” Again he grabbed at her bag.

“No!” she shouted, not wanting to be rude, but caught off guard. She lurched out of his reach, almost bowling over another tout.

“Madam, you need taxi? Palace Hotel?”

“No,” she replied, “Main Bazaar?”

“Main Bazaar? Where you stay?”

“I don’t know,” she admitted helplessly. “The desk clerk said…”

“Okay, okay. I know some place. This way please.”

“How much?” she asked, trying to remember what Holly had told her. Haggle with the drivers. They always over charge. “How many rupees?”

“Six hundred rupees,” he said, giving his mustache a twirl. From the looks of it, every man outside the airport sported a mustache, except for the turbaned Sikhs with full beards.

“Too much!” she protested.

He sighed. “Okay, how much you pay?”

That’s when she realized she hadn’t changed her money. Ami turned quickly and began to push her way back through the crowd.

“Okay, five hundred rupees,” the taxi driver called, mistaking her retreat for hard bargaining.
“Four fifty, best price!”

“I forgot to get money,” she shouted over her shoulder, slipping back through the doors.

At the moneychanger, Ami thought to ask what the normal fare into Delhi would be.

“Paharganj? Three hundred rupees,” replied the sleekly coiffed woman behind the teller booth. She didn’t look like someone pulling a 2am shift in an airport.

Ami thanked her and tucked the wad of rupee notes into her money belt, trying to be discreet. As she hefted her bag onto her shoulder again, the woman waiting behind her caught her arm.

“Hey, I’m heading to Paharganj, too, if you want to split the cab fare,” she said in an American accent.

Ami nodded gratefully. “Thanks. I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“Yeah, I could tell,” the woman answered, taking in Ami’s attire as if that explained everything.

Ami glanced at what she was wearing. Olive green cargo pants, purchased from the J. Crew catalogue, a black t-shirt, a zip-up gray fleece jacket, and a pair of light blue Nike running shoes. Holly had promised that travel in India required only a good pair of sandals, but Ami wasn’t willing to leave Philadelphia, in January, with bare toes.

The woman, who had turned to the business of changing her dollars into rupees, was wearing a long, wrap around skirt over a pair of loose cotton trousers. They appeared to be pajamas, with cuffs gone gray from dragging on the floor. She wore battered Birkenstock clogs, a thick, purple and green Peruvian sweater, and a small brocade cap over her close-cropped hair. She looked like she’d done a bit of traveling—a suspicion confirmed by her well-worn backpack, covered in patches boasting the countries she’d visited.

“I didn’t mean anything by it, you know,” she announced, turning back to Ami. “I mean, there’s nothing wrong with being a first-timer.”

“Well, I do feel a little stodgy, I guess,” Ami admitted, wondering who the hell said stodgy but someone who actually was stodgy. “I mean, I really appreciate sharing the cab fare.”

“No problem. I don’t mind haggling with the bastards, either.” She hoisted her pack over a shoulder, and Ami noticed with some degree of satisfaction that it was full to bulging.

“How long have you been, um, on the road?”

“Dunno. Maybe two years? I was with this acting troupe in Madrid for awhile, but I’m taking a few months off.”

Ami nodded as they left the terminal again, pressing their way through the throng, which, despite the ungodly hour, hadn’t lessened.

The woman cleared the touts shouting by the doorway and marched up to a driver sitting on the hood of a bulbous black car.

“How much to Paharganj?” the woman demanded.

The driver, a stout man, probably near fifty, stood up and tucked his shirttail into his pants. He was wearing a scarf around his neck, and suddenly Ami was aware that it was, indeed, rather chilly.

“Four hundred rupees.”

“Two hundred,” the woman shot back.

“Three fifty, good price.”

“Two fifty, my final offer.”

“Okay, okay. Three hundred. Best price.”

“Deal,” she said grinning broadly.

“Which hotel are going?”

She turned to Ami and shrugged. “Any idea?”

“No,” Ami admitted.

“Hotel Ganesha,” the woman offered.

“You are knowing address, Madam?”

The woman shook her head, and the driver went off to consult with the other cab touts.

“I have a guidebook if it helps,” Ami offered, pulling it of the front pocket of her pack.
“Oh that’s excellent!” The woman replied. “I totally made up Hotel Ganesha. It sounded like a sure bet.” She took the Lonely Planet and thumbed through the Delhi section. “Do you want somewhere mid range or bargain basement?”

“Um, what do you think?”

“For you first night, spend five hundred rupees and have a private bath. If you’re on a budget,
you’ll be using the squat toilet in the hall for the next…however long you’re traveling.”

Ami nodded. She wasn’t sure what to think of the squat toilets. Holly had told her about the
contraptions, extolling their virtues. But Holly also hadn’t minded sleeping on hard mattresses, stained from countless bodies. Oily bodies. The pillows, she claimed, were always stained with hair oil. The thought of it now made Ami cringe. She was glad that they were heading for a midrange hotel.

When the driver returned, the woman announced, “Hotel Hare Rama.”

“Yes, Madam,” he answered, gesturing into his cab. “Hotel Ganesh, not in Paharganj. Maybe Connaught Place. Many tourists going to Connaught Place, but this time is too late.” He indicated his watch. “Lock out time.”

The two women hefted their packs into the truck and slid into the back seat.

“By the way, I’m Ami,” she said as the cab inched its way around the other vehicles waiting for riders.

“Yeah, I totally forgot to introduce myself. I’m Celeste,” the woman answered, slipping off her cap and running her fingers through a near-crew cut. She wore a silver ring through her nostril and a bindi sticker over her third eye. “Actually, my parents named me Jennifer, but I changed my name to Celeste when I started traveling.”

When Ami was in college, she’d fancied changing her name. In fact, she’d imagined that she’d buy one of those around-the-world tickets when she graduated and travel to all the exotic places—Thailand, Japan, Africa, Australia. And she’d tell everyone she met to call her Shanti. That was the name she wanted at the time.

“Celeste, where are you heading from Delhi?”

“Well, I’d planned to go north, to Rishikesh, but it’s too cold now. So I don’t know. Maybe to Benares, to see the Ganges, or maybe to the desert. I love Rajasthan.” Her eyes turned dreamy.
“What about you?”

“Rajasthan,” Ami answered. She’d decided right in that moment. The desert was what most captured her imagination. Men in bright turbans driving camels. The stark brown landscape. And heat. In the cool night air, Ami wanted heat.

Devesh Marugan wiped the dust from the hood of his Ambassador with a clean towel. It was too dark to see what he was doing, despite the small light in the courtyard of the driver’s quarters where he was staying. Still, he knew his car well, its contours, the places where it collected the most dust, so he wiped by memory. In the morning he’d give it a good wash.

Thankful that his trip was over, Dev let himself sink onto a charpoy in the courtyard. The air was cold, but he wasn’t ready to go in yet, knowing that all the cots in the room were probably occupied by snoring men. He zipped his jacket to the neck, feeling himself still wide awake, pumping adrenaline from the late-night drive in from Jaipur. His last fare, a middle–aged English couple, had been the difficult sort, but he didn’t really mind. It was a good job, even if the hours were long. And honestly, he didn’t mind driving. He could go all night, never feeling sleepy, never weaving along the road.

Dev prided himself on his good driving record, his clean car, and his people skills. He’d learned to deal with these westerners, their bizarre demands, their insistence that India conform to their ideas of what was what. “No spicy food, young man,” the English woman insisted over and over. He didn’t tell her, of course, that in the tourist stops the only seasoning they use is salt, and maybe enough turmeric to turn a dish the curry-yellow all westerners expect.

“Keep the beggars away,” the couple pleaded in their nasal voices. “Dirty, dirty,” they sniffed, stepping over club-foot children on their way to the temple, where they asked Dev to wait outside, guarding their shoes.

“This lady is watching your shoes,” he tried to explain, hoping they would see the logic of leaving their expensive and cumbersome Rockports with the crouched old woman who sat all day on the temple steps.

“We don’t even know this woman. Now, be a good chap and stand guard,” the man cajoled, guiding his sock-foot wife into the temple, their cameras swinging from their shoulders.

Dev had tipped the old woman from his own pocket, apologetically. He couldn’t be responsible for teaching all westerners the customs. And anyway, more often then not they didn’t seem to want to know. They just wanted to take their trip—a week, maybe ten days—get some good photographs and avoid the lepers at all costs. Dev gave them the experience they came for. A trip as sterile and comfortable as India would allow.

Despite the aggravation of dealing, day in and day out, with these unrealistic expectations, Dev found a soft spot in his heart for his western tourists. They paid him handsomely, usually, even if they didn’t mean to. He received a small fee each time he brought customers to the over-priced rest stops and the upper-end guest houses with western toilets. And then there was the shopping. As silly as he found the activity, he quickly learned that Europeans, Canadians and Americans love to shop. It seemed they could forgo the temples, the palaces and the gardens as long as they could spend money in the markets.

So, Dev gave them what they wanted. All along the route he delivered his tourists to the manicured and exceedingly civilized art shops selling whatever was in vogue in that region. In Udaipur, miniature paintings. Jewelry in Jaipur. Pashmina shawls in Delhi, mirror work in Jaisalmer. The tourists, of course, were completely taken in by the polished salesmen (purporting themselves as art enthusiasts) and the gleaming shops (referred to as art schools, and often boasting real live students carrying out the work that was supposedly passed down to them by the masters). For every sale, Dev received a commission

And then, at the end of the trip, there was the customary tip, almost always handed over, discreetly, by the man. Dev reached into his pocket as he sat back on the charpoy and pulled out the envelope. He’d made himself wait to count the money. He freed a small bottle of whiskey from his pocket, purchased earlier that day while his English people selected a particularly gaudy brooch in the Jaipur gem shop. The brooch earned him several hundred rupees—enough to warrant a little celebration—and besides, after all day driving, he found he needed a little something to sooth himself into sleep.

The envelope was sealed, but he held it between his thumb and forefinger, measuring the stack of bills. A decent sized payment. He slid his nail along the lip and let the bills slid into his palm. Two thousand rupees for five days driving. He couldn’t help but smile. The westerners, over the years, had bought the Ambassador for him. Not much longer and he’d be able open his own business, maybe have a house in Delhi and a wife.

All those days on the road, crossing and recrossing India—it did get lonely. It would be nice to have someone to come home to.

The cab bumped along the battered streets of the Main Bazaar, not bothering to alter its speed to accommodate the tight curves and narrow passageways. It was the jostling that woke Ami.

“I don’t remember falling asleep,” she muttered, looking at Celeste who was gazing out the window. “Are we there?”

“I think so. We’re somewhere.”

The car lurched to a halt in an unlit alleyway, bringing to mind too many cop-dramas where hapless females were cornered and assaulted. But there was nothing to do except clamber out of the back seat and look around.

The driver heaved each pack from his trunk, one at a time, grunting with exertion. “Madam, three hundred fifty rupees,” he said, blowing on his hands to warm them.

Ami was thinking of how strange the cold was. Why hadn’t she checked on the weather before she’d left home? Was it always this cold in January? Wasn’t India supposed to be sultry? She started to reach for her money belt.

“You said three hundred at the airport,” Celeste announced. She was right, of course. Ami had forgotten.

“Yes, but drive was farther. This is far side of Paharganj, near railway station,” the driver gestured vaguely back the alley.

“Three hundred. That’s the deal,” Celeste told him, handing him her half of the fare.

He pocketed the bills and looked at Ami. She handed him a hundred and fifty rupees, then thought better and added twenty more. “Where’s the hotel?” she asked.

“Just this way,” he pointed farther down the alley. “Sign is not lit, but you are knocking loudly.”

“Is it closed?”

“Madam, Hotel Vivek always open. You are knocking.”

“Hotel Vivek? This isn’t Hotel Hare Rama?”

The man waggled his head from side to side, smiling. “Hotel Vivek, very nice place.”

Celeste let out a long sigh, shouldered her bag, and began the walk down the dark alley. Ami, not sure of what else to do, followed suit. They banged on the narrow door, gently at first, and then with increasing violence until, finally, a teenaged boy clad in an undershirt and sarong let them in. With a surprising lack of ceremony, he instructed them to sign in, glanced at each passport, and handed each woman a key, pointing them up a winding stair case.

“I’ll see you in the morning?” Ami asked, suddenly uncertain as she stood outside her door.

Celeste nodded. “I’m just down the hall if you need anything,” she said warmly, then turned the key in her own lock and let herself into the dark room.

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