‘Just Don’t Die in India’
During my early years in India, back in the late 80s, when I was writing the first feature film of mine that would go into production, I was invited to dinner at the home of a charming socialite in the Juhu area of what was then called Bombay. Some people say Juhu is the Malibu of Mumbai, but that isn’t being fair to either California or India. The only things that make the comparison viable are the location on the beach, the presence of film folk, and the insane real-estate prices. To be honest, the strongest shared quality is that the two names rhyme.
Being even less sane than I am now, I was rapidly falling in love with this country that was so much more insane than I could ever hope to be, for what is insanity but a break from reality, and the West and India are barely in the same dimension that way. When Western crooners sing about being crazy in love, they are being insipid by comparison to my ardor for India. Mine is a big, jangling tamasha of passion, the kind that can cause the heroine to keel over dead from a broken heart from one moment to the next, right there in a Bollywood puddle, the monsoon crashing around her like no other rain on earth.
The apotheosis of this amor dementis was surely when I emerged out of a giant wooden peacock as the MC of India’s first televised national beauty pageant, an experience I recommend all young American men to have at least once in their lifetimes. That was but the most brash and zany outcome of the romance between India and me. It is two-sided, and like all romances it can be imbalanced; I have often stormed off back to the relatively banal comforts of the West, and she has turned away from me at least as often, tossing the pallu of her sari over her shoulder, her ankle bracelets a-jangle with contempt for the pagal Angrez who surely can’t be worth much if he’s here in India and not writing for Hollywood studios.
At that early dinner in Juhu — with those obnoxious, toxic odors (soon to be dubbed eau de Bombay) competing with the more salubrious breeze of the Arabian Sea — I was only getting an inkling of where this love affair between me and India was going; we’d just started dating when I’d stepped off the plane three weeks before for a whirlwind shoot for a magazine I was editing. Then I stayed to write the film. I was voraciously consuming everything about her, as all lovers do when they first come together.
The charming socialite who hosted the dinner dazzled me not just because of her exquisite taste in modern art both Indian and European, but because she was the first Parsi I had ever met. A Zoroastrian sect of merchants who settled in Mumbai centuries before following a pogrom that drove them from Iran, Parsis believe in giving back to life, which includes being eaten by wild animals after they die. Originally, they were taken outside the community to be consumed by whatever was ambling around the wilds of Iran that wanted to dine on dead fire worshipper. As communities became cities, the Towers of Silence were built. Relatively shortly after death, a Parsi is taken into this stone well by priests and laid on a vast circular slab surrounding an ossarium in the middle, which collects uneaten bones. The priests step back, clap their hands, and trained vultures descend to feast on fire worshipper.
Let’s take a step back ourselves here for a second and examine this. I’ve been a reader longer than I’ve been a writer, and I know how easy it is to allow your eyes to skim over sentences, go “Ew!” or “Hmm,” and quickly move on. Often we edit out how powerful information like this is. If you want to understand part of why I am so smitten with this crazy bitch India, you have to look closely at something like the Towers of Silence.
India swings between tranquil meditation, enchanting gardens and blithe exoticism, and this churning, relentlessly whirling, madcap, often disgustingly filthy morass, especially Mumbai, its most bustling metropolis. Built on seven islands, it has no real center the way European capitals do, but several, like American cities. So somewhere in one of a few centers, on Malabar Hill, there is this fetid well, as old as Mumbai itself, where Parsis are taken, often a few at a time, and laid out for the vultures amidst bits of other Parsis who have died within the past few months, but who have long since become carrion too putrid even for vultures, and who wants to eat rotting fire worshipper when you can have one delivered fresh at least every few days?
Can you imagine what this place must be like to stand in? The blackened stone slab, the vulture poop, the bits of bone, the smell of rotting flesh boosting the aforementioned eau de Bombay — there is already a heavy rotting-carcass-of-several-animals base note in that most pungent of major-city smells. I’m sure there isn’t centuries of this ghoulish Parsi Chainsaw Massacre piled up everywhere, it must get a good scrubbing now and then. But still: It’s so horrific you can’t look away.
It’s the kind of detail that makes you sit up in your bistra bed, with its tightly packed cotton mattress, after you’ve had a long sultry fuck with India, and she’s got her back to you while she combs that long black hair, the best hair in the world for wigs, and you no longer care that the wobbly punkah fan is going to detach from the ceiling and slice you in half, and you go, “Whaddaya mean they get eaten by vultures in a tower around the corner?” It’s the kind of detail that just makes you desire this crazy bitch even more because you’ve finally met your match, after all these years locked away in stultifying Waspville.
Luckily, my particular Waspville is located in New York City, which makes me brash and not a little vulgar, no matter what the school or club. I couldn’t help asking my hostess about her religion’s grisly ritual and how she felt about ending up in the Towers of Silence. I certainly couldn’t see it. This gorgeous woman, with that high-quality lustrous hair, who embodies all the grace and charm of millennia of the most refined aspects of Indo-Persian culture, wealth and privilege sprinkled over her every pore like diamond dust, is gonna end up pecked and shredded by vultures at the bottom of a tower so grim even Game of Thrones wouldn’t shoot in there?
Nah. Nah-uh. If I imagine myself laid out amidst that horror, I see my eyeballs being plucked out and gobbled, then my genitalia ripped off, and… No. And my gracious hostess shouldn’t go there, either.
“It is odd that we are fire worshippers but we don’t cremate our dead,” she said. “But that would defeat the purpose of giving everything we have taken from life back to it.”
See, that’s how you fuck with an American’s head, especially a New Yorker’s: tell him he should give back to life rather than take, take, take. And give his body, too, as nourishment.
India has finished combing her hair. She gets up from the bistra bed, tilts her head in That Way. And for the first time you get That Paralyzing Feeling: she finds you boring; she can’t even be bothered to laugh at you, you’re so boring; you so utterly lack any spice, fragrance, grace that you cannot help but be boring. Her disdain makes you paranoid, often.
“But what if you don’t want to… you know… get eaten?” I asked. “What if you want to be cremated?”
“You can always make the request in your will,” she replied. “But your fellow Parsis probably won’t honor it. The trick is, just don’t die in India.”
I have carried that last sentence around with me ever since that night like a mantra. Just don’t die in India. I have been through so much in this “land of sudden death,” as the British called it; so many moments in every day that one is here are near-death experiences. But my mantra has kept me safe.
I tell the story of the Parsi lady and the warning about dying here — I am scribbling as we speak from the most idyllic writer’s haven possible, on a farm outside Delhi — to almost everyone I introduce to India. It’s a vocal reminder to myself as we laugh with gallows hysteria at the unhinged madness assaulting our Western sense of what is safe; and that hysteria is boosted by the existential realization that whatever sense of safety we have in the West is merely a better-regulated illusion.
It’s entirely conceivable that the magic of my protective mantra will wear off one day, that I will indeed die here, tomorrow or eventually. In fact, I have two visions of how I will die: calling “Cut!” on set after a perfect take; or slipping away at an unseemly old age in an opioid haze in Goa, after which I will be burned on the beach on an open pyre.
I always introduced first-timers in different ways according to their abilities to stand the shock; this is true culture shock, with real blood, real vultures, real danger, an experience we normally pay good money for at the IMAX or Six Flags, except no entertainment product can match the impact of India, positive or negative.
When my mother first came here, I introduced her via Mumbai, where I took her for breakfast on her first morning to the bungalow of an Indian film star I was working with, where she watched the actress apply her makeup for the wedding scene she was shooting that day. As the actress smeared with her ring finger a thick swab of vermillion paste through the center part of her hair, she explained to Mum, looking at her through the vanity mirror, that it signified she was married.
I know my own mother: her artist’s soul melted before this real-life performance art. From there I took her to Bangalore, to stay on a similar farm on the road to Mysore with artist friends. And then I dipped her into Rajasthan for the obligatory royal tour. After the trip, she retired the one cocktail dress she’d brought with her as her “Maharaja’s dress.”
As she kissed me when she left Mumbai, she said, “I feel like I’ve spent three weeks in the One Thousand and One Nights.” It was a Moment between us.
I am now married into India, literally: I have an Indian ex-wife floating around out there, somewhere; my sister is married to a Kashmiri friend, the son of what we would call the executive producer of the film that brought me here in the first place. My sister met him at my wedding, so that was her particular intro to my Great Love: through the big fat Indian wedding.
It’s been a while since I’ve introduced a good friend to India. I’m not interested in the maharajas or the film stars any more than they are interested in me; it’s a hoot over a drink or five if we bump into each other at a social function, but that’s it. My relationship with India has become less frivolous and indolent, more industrious and practical. Forget getting fucked up, forget the fucking, even. Can we work together, finally?
A couple of weeks ago I had the occasion to introduce a good friend, whom I’ll call Luke the Plumber because that’s his real first name and profession, but not his professional name, and this article will include hallucinogens. While that affects my professional life not a jot (particularly as the hallucinogen in question, bhang, is both legal in India and sacred to Lord Shiva), Luke is at the pinnacle of his profession, and we are still a long way in America from admitting that certain drugs are indeed sacred, albeit not in any religious sense.
Luke is a seasoned traveller, an Asia-phile so extreme he has taught himself fluent Vietnamese. So for Luke his intro begins with a stint with the family in Delhi and then a major dunk into the realest India I know: Varanasi, also known as Benares, anciently called Kashi, always the oldest living city on earth.
Varanasi is the Towers of Silence cranked up to full volume. Good Hindus go there to die and are burned on two of the ghats reserved for open-pyre cremation. Boatloads laden with cords of sandalwood are tethered to the burning ghats, waiting like vultures for the dying to get on with it. Varanasi’s medieval ramparts, built to withstand the flooding of the Ganga during monsoon, soar with power and exoticism. It’s the most sacred city in Hinduism and it knows it; just getting a beer served around so much sanctity means both the bottle’s label and the glasses we are drinking out of have to be covered with napkins lest the gods be offended; bhang and hash and opium are fine and holy, but booze is sinful. Again, our Western perspective upside down, inside out, ulta pulta as far as India is concerned. And both Luke and I love our beer. We’re going through a lot of shitty paper purdah napkins.
I was first brought to India in an odd bait-and-switch with my first film. I was originally supposed to write a feature about the building of the Taj Mahal and the War of Succession, but the director, being the talented-but-dizzy creature that he is, decided to sidetrack us for a few years with the aforementioned project in Kashmir, which fell apart mid-production because civil war broke out in the Valley. But as I said to a friend the other night as we watched my gorgeous nieces cavorting around a party, “The film was never going to be good. But look at what a success these two are,” for they would never have happened without that Kashmiri project.
The dizzy director wanted the Taj Mahal film based on one book in particular, which hypothesized that the great success of the Mughal emperors relied on a network of messengers that ran relay across the subcontinent high on bhang, a concentrated hemp paste. Bhang gave them tremendous energy and focus. Bhang was the spice from Dune, and the Mughal universe depended on it.
What was this stuff? Did it still exist? Everything ancient still exists in India, functioning away happily.
I was in Mumbai while reading this book I was to base the film on, perhaps only a few weeks after my dinner with the Parsi socialite, so I did what one does here when you need anything: ask the house staff. I discovered that not only did this bhang thing still exist, but it was consumed almost universally by Hindus on the festival of Holi, when they basically all trip on THC and throw colors at each other. Weeeee! And it was available from the milkman.
Ain’t it always the fuckin’ milkman? He’s literally the dude here: dood is Hindi for milk. Cows are sacred, milk and milk products are ubiquitous. Call him the Dood Dude.
I gave a houseman way too much money to buy way too much bhang from the Dood Dude. My Hindi was rudimentary in those days, and I guess the staff assumed I’d done this before, that Holi had come early thanks to the nutty lekhak scribbling in his room; they promptly mixed up a full pitcher of bhang lassi, the yogurt milkshake that is so necessary for this procedure: bhang tastes like you’ve taken the cud right out of a cow’s mouth after she’s thrown up on it a few times.
Now that I’m an old bhang hand, I laugh every time I think about how much I took my first time. That lassi was deep milky green.
The dizzy director had pimped me out to Air-India to make a promo vid, and I happened to be on a production call with the airline’s creative director when I was served my first glass. I drank it. The houseman stood there dutifully awaiting instruction. How much did I want? Fuck if I know, I shrugged, not wanting to interrupt the call. The lassi was good. I held up my glass for more. And then a third glass.
I drank half the pitcher. The rest was consumed by the staff. After twenty minutes, I was still on the call, but I could feel the rush coming on strong, the spice controlling my universe. Whatever the Mughal Empire ran on, this was some heavy shit when consumed so intensively. The warmth of an imminent drug meltdown tsunamied from the tips of my toes up to my head. I had the presence of mind to tell the creative director that I was suddenly feeling sick because of something I ate, that I would call him back when I felt better.
Your first heavy trip on any hallucinogen, whether organic or lab made, is a scary experience; you don’t know what the endgame will be, if you’ll ever come out of it, how long it will last. This was the worst of my life. I remember standing on the bistra bed screaming for help, sometimes in Russian — a language I don’t actually speak — trying to stop the wobbly ceiling fan from chopping me to bits. Happily or unfortunately, the entire house was also tripping, which meant the staff were useless. I am no believer in reincarnation, but I was experiencing a past life as a Russian prince during the Revolution, hence the language change.
Against all odds that my seething mind was throwing at me, I lived. And lived to take bhang again and again, always with respect, as one should with any drug.
Luke the Plumber is no stranger to organic hallucinogens. To my great envy, he has travelled to the jungles of Ecuador to trip for a week on ayahusca with a shaman. Not that we’re lacking any of those in Varanasi: You can’t swing a monkey around a cow-shit-slathered, cobble-stoned medieval alley girded by spice and silk merchants without hitting a demented, turbaned sadhu smothered with ash carrying a begging bowl, a trident and a thousand and one spells and blessings.
Still, Luke’s wary of THC, as many are; it gets you too much “up in your head,” as they say in Californese, and not in a good way. “Paranoia, they destroy ya,” as the Kinks song goes.
Like all marijuana products, the bhang high varies by strain of plant and grower. But by and large, the hash and the bhang in India are fairly consistent in terms of the high they deliver. And Luke is right: bhang can make you so paranoid that you think you’re a Russian prince running for his life when you’re really just a twenty-five-year-old American screenwriter falling in love with India through her experiences.
I allow us to be charmed by a tout slash auto-rickshaw driver named Prashant outside the hotel we’re staying at on Assi Ghat, the most The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel of the ghats of Varanasi; it’s the furthest from the Great Hindu Roast downstream. My mother stayed there when she took her friends to visit Varanasi. It’s safe, but funky enough to feel like you’re on an adventure. It’s also pricey enough to keep the European junkies away; they’re more inclined to stay in some crypto-crack den deep in the Midnight Express warrens of Bengali Tola more in the middle of the old city. Downstream is downtown here.
To wit, as we’re walking the night before our bhang trip through Bengali Tola, I see a strung-out woman — French or Italian — hugging a wall like a deranged hysteric in an eighteenth-century illustration of an insane asylum. The brown sugar heroin is kicking in; she might just die in India. “Disgraceful,” my mother tut-tuts, adjusting an exquisite pashmina shawl she recently bought from the family shawl-wallah in Delhi; nowadays we have things like family shawl-wallahs and jewelers in Delhi.
Luke doesn’t notice the deranged junkie. He needs a bathroom, quickly; if this is the land of sudden death, it’s even more the land of the immediate crap. Few sphincter muscles have the strength to hold back the carnage wrecked by the all-conquering Hindustani dysenteric amoeba. None are spared: Akbar the Great, arguably the mightiest of the Mughal emperors, shat himself to death.
Given where we are in the world, this situation is sort of like the quandary of why fire worshippers don’t cremate their dead: as long as we’re practically wading in excrement, most of it bovine, why not just drop trou and do it in a gutter? I ask a shopkeeper for directions in absolutely pitch-perfect Hindi — “Where is the nearest toilet?” is a phrase I have practiced since I first stepped onto Indian soil. It comes out more fluidly than a languid Air-India flight attendant giving final-approach instructions for the umpteenth time.
The shopkeeper points to an alleyway. As we round the corner, we find the street entirely blocked by a cow sifting through garbage, its shit-smeared rump and hind legs a definite No Entry sign. “Nope, not up there,” I say, and we totter off, laughing so hard we almost soil ourselves.
Full disclosure: Luke wanted me to put that part in this piece. It was clearly a moment for him. I wouldn’t have remembered it otherwise, that’s how inured I’ve become to India’s many daily flashes of her scatological and twisted visual hilarity. And she gets how hilarious it is, too. She has to. This much dysfunctionality gives you a great sense of humor. You have that in common, you and she; there’s an abundance of abuse and self-inflicted damage in your past.
I allow us to be charmed by Prashant the rickshaw driver, even if he is going to try to bilk us or sell us something every step of the way to Godowlia Crossing, where the Dood Dudes prepare their thandais and lassis, and the bhang maker-dealers hang out to dispense the paste for “free” in exchange for a healthy tip. Not only is bhang legal in seriously sacred places like Varanasi, the price of it is controlled by the government, set risibly low so that holy folk can afford it with half a morning’s alms.
The reason I allow us to be charmed by Prashant is because the relationship between the tout and the firang is a venerable one across Asia, seeped in tradition, a micro economy with its own system that works out equitably for everyone, provided you aren’t a complete sucker, in which case you deserve to be bilked. Touts rely on charm and can be lots of fun as well as fonts of interesting information; you’re actually better plugged in through them to what’s really happening on the streets than any domestic tourist, whom they mistrust. And the surcharge you pay them in the end is really nominal in terms of its worth in the West. How much would you pay someone to personally take you around New York or London for a couple of hours?
The milkshake bandar we are taken to is a Brahmin recommended by the Brahmin concierge at our hotel. There you have it, again: bhang isn’t something to be at all ashamed about asking a concierge at an upmarket hotel about; in fact, you should, if you haven’t already understood the instructions from this article and can do all this yourself.
The milkshake we buy in order to get the bhang for “free” isn’t my thing, never is. If he could make me a mocha chocolate Myoplex protein shake with banana, peanut butter and almond milk like the one I get as a treat occasionally from the health-food store next to my gym in L.A., I’d be totally down with it. But neither Luke nor I will allow the ice we’ve just seen crushed in a dodgy red khadi burlap sack with what looks like a small cricket bat. No ice makes drinking the spiced milkshake lukewarm and a bit unpleasant.
We accept the bhang from the leathery, deep-brown fingertips of its maker after the Milkshake Brahmin has blessed it under the murti icon of Shiva Shankar with ladlings of Ganga jal, water straight from the Ganges, no filter. How a river so sacred can possibly be polluted is a common logic among people like the Milkshake Brahmin. I will regret this in a few days when I’m lashed to a toilet on Norflox and Immodium, but for now it’s bottoms up; it’s all happening so fast, and if Luke will do it, I’ve got to do it, and if I do it, Luke has to do it. Screw the mighty Hindustani dysenteric amoeba: This is a guy thing. But why I’ve bothered forgoing the ice made from unfiltered water — but accepted from a total stranger’s hands this revolting paste that might as well have been excreted by a mad cow that had been grazing on leprechauns — makes me feel so dumb-dumb whitey wuss.
Luke has less than I do. It’s his first time. I’m a big believer that if you’re going to trip, you should trip hard, or you risk having a bad time. A friend of mine who has been dropping acid since it was invented is positive that bad trips are the result of not taking enough. And I have no idea why I just quoted that particular friend, whose brain is so fried he’s barely in this reality any longer, but it sounds like a good excuse. The truth: I am in the mood to get fucked out of my brain. I’ll weather the inevitable meltdown, then have a good time hanging out with Luke in Varanasi.
And that’s exactly what I get.
I ask for more bhang to go from Leather Fingers, which he puts in a flimsy plastic baggie. I try to pay the Milkshake Brahmin, but he refuses to accept money directly from my hands. I have to put it on the counter, and he spirits it away discretely with a cloth. I know Luke caught the strangeness of that interaction, so I quickly explain that as foreigners we’re born out of caste, therefore untouchable. He who wields the blessings of Shiva Shankar, the Lord of the Universe in his meditative sage state who catches the falling Ganges in his dreadlocks, cannot accept payment from me directly, nor even have my shadow fall on him. White foreigners occupy a greyer area than real Untouchables because of our history as rulers of the country and the value placed on the pallor of our skin; real Harijans are normally quite small and dark. And before you get your social-justice warrior knickers in a bunch over that statement, remember you’re dealing with thousands of years of genetic engineering via the caste system; if your eye is properly trained, you normally can tell someone’s caste just by looking at him. The young-adult book and film Divergent is basically how the caste system started: You were married off with other people with similar aptitudes and characteristics. That became ritualized and institutionalized into the culture over the millennia. And, then, voilà! Put the money on the counter and don’t fucking touch me, you impure bastard, and how dare you think you’re too good for my ice made from unfiltered water form the most sacred source on the planet?
Karma is a vicious circle, baby, and dharma is a blood sport.
On our way back to the hotel, Prashant tries to sell us shawls, but we’re not buying and we beat a retreat from the shop like a scene from Cheech and Chong. Back in the rickshaw, the tout says, “In India, when we take bhang, we like to have sex,” which is nonsense, a desperate attempt to sell us one last thing. But neither Luke nor I are in the mood for Benarasi male hookers, which is what it would boil down to once we have informed Pranshant that, despite our appearance, we far prefer men to women.
At a vegetarian restaurant we enjoyed yesterday, Luke and I order food. I ask for a sweet lassi so I can take more bhang; this is taking an inordinate amount of time to kick in, I feel. The waiter’s eyes widen when I grab a tablespoon from him and mix in a healthy dollop of bhang from the plastic baggie the Leather Fingers gave me.
A few seconds after I swallow the last drop, the first dose hits both Luke and me at the same time. That wave of bodily warmth washes over both of us, sucking us out in an unstoppable rip tide. As our minds are gripped by toxic paranoia — but I’m pleased with the gripping; this is now Fear and Loathing in Varanasi; I’ve even created a Facebook album to record our adventure with that title — we instantly lose our appetites. Luke pays for the meal, I assemble enough Hindi to instruct that it be delivered to my room at the hotel.
It’s three blocks back to the hotel. Midway, a pair of gorgeous cows have created a meridian in the road because they own India and they can. They’re chewing their cud like paan, looking blissed out. The remaining bhang belongs to them. I can feel it. I also know that I’m going to get way too fucked up to want any more, especially after the lassi dose hits me.
“I’m going to feed the rest to the cows,” I say to Luke. But I can’t just give them it as if I’m giving a dog a treat. I’m not sure about the protocol about feeding cows in India in general, much less the remnants of your bag of bhang. Even in this foreigner-heavy area, all eyes are on us; both Luke and I are 6’3”, mean looking, tattooed. I know they see us as gangster-villain archetypes from Bollywood films, and they’re not far wrong.
I have maybe a wet ounce and a half left. The whole thing cost me less than a dollar. I open the baggie in my pocket and drop it on the general debris strewn in front of the cows.
“Bang! Bhang!” I say to the cows. Luke laughs nervously. Have fun this grass, bitches; it’s blessed by Shiva; it’s almost as sacred as you are. Maybe there will even be a bit of a kick for whoever drinks your milk in a couple of days.
Grateful for our individual rooms, Luke and I separate, muttering an agreement to meet again for dinner. The ceiling fan reminds me of my first bhang trip, that everything will be okay. My inner voice and my ego wrestle, merge, splinter as they race along the tracks of my thoughts. You hate me. You love me. I hate myself. Ha ha, no! I love myself. I couldn’t care less. I care too much. What is that thumping coming from the ceiling? They’re fucking in the room upstairs. But it’s so rhythmic and intense, and it’s going on and on…It’s not fucking. It’s the fucking ceiling fan.
At least three times I sit up in a silent scream as I’m stabbed in the mind. The fucking ceiling fan reassures me, tickles me. I laugh and fall back on the bistra and huddle under the razai.
The food is delivered at some point. Munchies for later. Once the storm within subsides, I go next door and haul Luke out of his introspection. We spend the rest of the night drinking like Finns.
Is it that night when Luke falls as hard for India as I first did? His expression is changed the next day. “They will never, ever build a Starbucks here,” he says of the Old City — one or two have probably already sprouted in the newer parts on the outskirts. Two weeks later, back in New York, he writes, “I miss India,” as part of his list of complaints that a Sunday-morning hangover is whining at him. When he bought a massive pashmina men’s shawl at the family shawl-wallah, he said, “I’ll never wear this in the States.” And yet he’s posting selfies from NYC looking like a Jedi warrior fighting for the Taliban. He was only here for a week, but he’s already planning his return.
What about me? I’m still here. I’ve booked a commercial that I’ll shoot in the next couple of weeks. The usual discussion has arisen about spending more time here, a seductive proposition that arises every few years. I’m hesitant because India and I have cohabitated as colleagues before, but it has always ended in disappointment, for me.
She bathes daily in impermanence, conditions her hair in insouciance. Even if she is sentimental to a degree they would find shameful in America, she doesn’t trust you, the pagal Angrez, enough to make you part of her histrionics. She knows you’ll leave one day. Nobody is meant to leave India. People have always come to her, not she to them. You lose caste if you leave India.
India is different now, evolving quickly. And I am older, more patient, but there is also a lot less here that one needs to be patient about. Then again, Delhi, the most polluted city in the world, is so toxic I am often nauseous. And I’ve got the runs, more often than not. But this is also Beijing circa 2003. A new popular, fearless leader, Narendra Modi, will heave India over the finish line, once he takes care of the infrastructure problems. The dealing with the infrastructure problems creates its own problems — many of my daily delays are due to construction as much as congestion. As an old India hand, shouldn’t I take advantage of my knowledge and plug it into my career once and for all?
We’ll see. As I said to my roommate before I left Los Angeles, handing him three months’ worth of rent checks when I was scheduled to be here for three weeks, “Strange things happen to me in India.”
From my Facebook “Fear and Loathing in Varanasi” Album: