Sunday, August 23, 2009

What I Found When I Was Lost

Days (With No Proper Container)

(Delhi. Aug. 19. 09)

This rat is obviously on a schedule. Every morning there he is, beside my table at the Appetite bakery, every day at the same time. Whenever he appears, I stand up, as though he were a prominent politician or religious personage. The rat darts straight up the wall – to work presumably – and all at once the foreigners start to chatter with each other, as though the rat has given us permission to speak.


The French tourists always want their breakfast served in a particular order. Every morning they explain this carefully. Never once do they succeed. They get it when it’s ready. But they do not think this is right.


I wanted to see Delhi’s new metro, so I chose a destination at random from the map. How about Mansarovar Park? Isn’t Mansarovar a sacred lake in Tibet? Or am I making that up? And “park” is always an attractive word, bringing to mind trees full of delicate flowers, and bushes full of pent-up marauding homosexuals. I am always in favor of parks.

Delhi’s new metro is exuberantly modern, except for the lighting, a flickering skim-milk gray blue, and the manners, which Delhiites brought with them from the bus. How many times have I wailed in Tokyo, “Why can’t they just act human?”

Well. Now I have my answer. No one lets anyone out or in, everyone pushes and shoves. Men sit serenely beneath the green ‘Ladies Only’ sign and do not even think of giving up their seats. Half the passengers have just this moment received an extremely important call. They shout. In Tokyo a man hurls himself into a seat – and at once turns his face to ‘off’. In Delhi a man grabs a seat and looks around smug and exultant, like a toddler who has just now mastered the potty.


At Manosarovar Park station, I did not find a park, much less a lake. Instead I found a busy village beneath the elevated train tracks, beneath a cool gray concrete roof, beside towering elephantine pillars. The place was strangely reminiscent of the vast temple complexes at Trichy and Thanjavur, somber somehow, worshipful. At the bottom of this was a paved road lined with cycle-rickshaws, charpoys, mounds of trash mulching in brown heaps, stands selling betel in shiny packets, walls built from the dirt and burlap or blue vinyl ceilings. Extreme poverty beneath a cathedral ceiling. The women tended small fires in pits; the men sprawled on charpoys woven from silver rope. Every minute or so a lorry barreled down the street, blanketing everyone with another coat of dust. If the residents of this village ever decide they need a motto, they could always use Thoreau. “We do not ride upon the train. The train rides upon us.”


Back at Connaught Place, I can’t handle it anymore and so I choose an a/c restaurant at random, climb two flights of steps, and find myself surrounded by Indians in enormous black cowboy hats. Mexican food in Delhi? Apparently so. I order some nachos. The servers glance nervously at my clipboard, afraid that I am writing a review. I ought to put it away, but I have to keep writing because every time I look up I start to giggle: big black cowboy hats, black western shirts and pants, red kerchief knotted at the neck, black cowboy boots with silver buckles!


This young man with the purple shirt and the long stick, who walks the way I’ve seen a fisherman steer a boat in shallow water. When I see his soft eyes and fledging beard at the window, I leave the café and stand in the street with him. I give him bills not coins. The tourists at the Apetite Café are annoyed with me. I am making the problem worse. As it is, we must keep our eyes on our plates lest we see grubby children touching their fingers to their lips as we savor another bite of hot buttered croissant. I can ignore the children. This man, however, is my kinsmen. We share the same defect. The withered leg I hate. I strap my leg into the brace and shove it in an elevated shoe. And I walk. He begs in the Main Bazaar; his dangling dead foot is his qualification. I see that he is beautiful -- and whole. We are brothers. I want to hold his face in my hands and kiss him.

If they ask,
I will say
I make
the days

From these experiments, I make days.


An old woman in a soiled white dress pushes open the glass door and enters Café Coffee Day. “Good morning,” she addresses the room, as though she were a teacher and we were all assembled for class. “Is there going to be a sandwich today? Is there going to be coffee? I certainly hope so.” The old woman is smiling, her eyes are bright blue. She’s British, I think. Her diction is impeccable and her voice is as smooth as glass. She advances to the counter. She speaks but doesn’t look at anyone, as if she knows we are there but cannot see us. As if we are ghosts.

“I have, in my bag, water from a holy spring in Burma. It is absolutely precious but I have no proper container for it.” She waits at the counter, but she does not receive a coffee or a sandwich. The young Indian woman at the counter ignores her, sits there looking bored.

The old woman is now standing in the center of the room. “This woman does not want to be promoted. That is why she does not give me a sandwich. I have been robbed of everything and I am forced to beg. Which is a tradition in this country.” She speaks very carefully, as if this were a recitation and she has to get it perfectly right. The poems of Emily Dickinson would be ideal for this woman in a white dress, for this voice which is sweet and pure and entirely unnerving.

“She has been asked to feed me. The President of India asked all these restaurants to feed me. But she does not. Because she does not want to be promoted.” She walks back toward the glass door. “I am sorry but I cannot hear anything. Because of hypnotic suggestion that has been absolutely beautfully done. So I am very sorry but I cannot hear a word you say.”

When I paid my bill, I asked the lady at the counter how long the old woman had been coming to beg. “Oh it’s been about a year now.” Her voice was flat and bored. “She comes in every day.”

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