Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Part 6

I’m drunk and I haven’t slept for over sixteen hours, but I’m ecstatic and tingling with anticipation and dread. It’s an odd combination. I’ve a strange and terrifying duty tonight: to prove to my new compadre, this fellow night voyager, Alan, I met the previous day, that what I’ve just eaten won’t kill me. It’s a deeply unsettling prospect, but one that is eased by the whiskey I washed down my throat moments ago before being kicked out of the local dive I was killing time in. Closing time is a bitch.
I light a cigarette, and take stock of the situation. It doesn’t look good. I sway heavily with cheap drink and the weight of it all: some four hours crammed into a tiny space filled to the brim with perhaps a hundred Indians, all jeering and tittering with excitement, leering at me with curious and accusatory eyes, and no chance of sleep. We are set to arrive at 4am, have no place to stay, and no real way to find one but to follow a guide from the station through dark and narrow streets at this terrifying hour. I can already picture him. His beady eyes will dart and glint boldly, scanning the light of the terminal for a victim. He will be shrouded in darkness at first, and will see us well before we exit the bus, by which time he will have already crept to our sides as we unload our baggage. He will introduce himself, baring his teeth in a wide grin; rotten and stained with chewing tobacco, framed by deep-set wrinkles caked in grime. He will wring his hands together hungrily, dollars in his eyes, and offer us his services: to take us to a filthy and overpriced bed at this ungodly hour, for extortionate prices. These are the least of my worries.
I exhale deeply, and a plume of blue smoke rises into the air gracefully as I lean against the bus behind me. I study it for a second. It twists away from me, dancing in the warm air, a rising, playful thing, beautiful in its fragility. A small breath of wind blows it back in my face. I close my eyes in defeat, become interested with the blackness behind the weighty lids for a fraction too long, and almost lose my balance, clanging against the metal monster behind me. I open them again.
The bus is in front of me now, swelling smoothly to fill my vision. It is a weird contraption that was once a royal green but is now soiled and unfit for life, specked with rust and disease, with great empty spaces where windows and doors should be; vast and black and engulfing, they seem to swallow everything within their dreadful frames. At least two dozen people are already curled up inside on rickety iron and tarpaulin, desperate for sleep before the great metal monster gallops off, twisting and curling its way up the mountain, shuddering in the pitch black as the air grows colder and colder around us.
Behind the bus, the street lights flicker manically, illuminating the stained concrete that is beginning to swim around my feet. It casts bizarre and outlandish shadows of both the bus and the occupants, which dance in the darkness of the parking lot in front of me. It’s all quickly becoming too much for me. I glance sideways at the absurdly comical bins lining the parking lot; cracked blue and yellow concrete penguins, sporting ridiculous moustaches, holding signs pleading for people to unburden their garbage into receptacles held in their flippers and not onto the street.
It’s a really respectable city, Coimbatore.
I’m wracked with distain. The mushrooms are coming on strong, and I need a distraction.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Part 5

The eyes, two pale orbs hanging in the blackness, sunken and white and glazed sticky with horror, dart quickly all over my body, curious, then fix themselves on mine.
They are sentient things, aching with desire: creatures borne of night and darkness, unholy and ravenous, studying me with a malicious and undeniable intelligence. Behind the milky cataracts I can barely make out the pupils, stained with the bloodthirsty intent of an ancient predator. They stare right back into me, menacing and defiant.
Suddenly, I am struck with a searing blindness, and my limbs become fire and lightning for one agonizing instant before blackness pours into my vision, thick and oily. Slowly, tiny trails of light paint themselves across the horizon. I shake my head violently, and the stars move with it.
The eyes flash again and I jerk forward, unable to control myself. The blackness seeps slowly back into my skull, and this time the crackling and spitting of the dreadful fires and the wailing that binds the dead to earth become nothing more than a hollow drone, rising and falling in pitch, piercing the silence from far away. Dizzy and nauseous, I am pulled inexplicably through the greasy blackness, choking on the mud and sickness of the Ganga, toward the dreadful spheres, which grow larger and more hypnotic by the second. Pins and needles begin to kiss my stinging flesh until my body becomes nothing but a dull, numbing ache.
There is a deafening crack as they flash a third time, and now there is nothing; no oily black, no blinding white, no giddy star trails, no piercing hollow drone, no dull throbbing, no nausea: no feeling. I am sucked out of my body, robbed of form, and set adrift in the smoky vacuum of the dead eyes. Enveloped completely in their gaze, I am starved of life; tainted and corrupted by the finality of absolute oblivion. The cadaver, still frozen in its agonizing final moments, transfixes me in a dark caress, binding and haunting me, and I gaze upon death itself, for one fleeting and eternal moment.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Part 4

I walk slowly towards the river, fighting for footholds at the end of the treacherous, narrow brick street. I’m blind and the air is blackened and bitter, and carries an indescribable fervor. My face is red and stinging and filled with fluid and ash, and my skin is raw and whipped from the heat. The thick, acrid smell of burning bodies conquers my nostrils. Smoke, torrid and furious and filled with ash, spews past me, eager to aid the journey of the deceased into Nirvana.
It regurgitates its grisly burden onto the city streets and into the river, and fills the city with death.
My left leg slips into something warm and wet and heavy, then the air is filled with a large sucking and popping as I pull my foot back up and onto the last dry step. Clumsily, I attempt to wipe it clean of the mud and excrement that is now beginning to harden and cake on it, baking in the intensity of the heat. Smothering the urge to dry wretch, I snatch a small breath, and squint carefully, allowing the fluid gathered on the pupils to insulate against the onslaught for a moment.
In front of me the funeral fires burn bright, hot and constant; a grim and efficient factory, working continuously to process the dead and scatter charred, stubborn remains into the river. A caretaker uses a long stick to crudely stuff a pair of bare legs into the heart of one of the fires. In another, a foot, blackened and bubbling, waits for flames to finish their gruesome job. Someone tosses the smoking remains of a woman’s pelvis into the dark, churning water. Its sinks with a contented sigh into the murky depths, winking secrets in the sun. The ribcage of an unknown man crackles and hisses viciously and then spits a greasy surrender to the flames, filling the air with a smell of seared flesh and rendered fat.
A woman cries out, sobbing and wailing, and moves forward through the ghat to the riverbank to give her husband one final embrace. Her voice carries a raw, human urgency, naked and beautiful and full of grief and faith. The funeral bearers relent and lift layers of thin cloth from the man’s head, coloured garishly at first, then faded, and finally white, until there is no more cloth, and only a wizened face, shrunken and contorted and set into its last throws of pain.
The cries of the widow double in pitch and volume, swelling intensely, then grow shaky and doubtful. Just for a moment they waver and are battered by the terrifying uncertainties of the afterlife before they find renewed strength and start to climb, religious and robust. Above the body they climb, above the river, above the city and the clouds, and then they soar, above the fire and earth and water and sky, above the plants and the animals and the men, above man’s strange stories and customs, above his thoughts and dreams, and into the unknown, the cries soar, where they will remain, lost and innocent, until the end of time.
I choke.
I am back on the ground, and my head is swimming. The heat is becoming unbearable. I’m disorientated and my lungs are screaming, thirsty for clean air. I’m fighting the urge to suck in the foul cocktail around me with every fibre of muscle, every nerve, but it is too much. I collapse to my knees in the filth of the riverbank, gasp deeply, and fill myself with the blood of man.
And then I see them.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Part 3

            I am on the street now, and it is waking, shaking off the heavy blanket of night, and breathing a muted sigh of relief, for it has survived to see another dawn. And I want to wake with it, to breathe with it, to take the pulse and rhythm of the city into my lungs and exhale with it also, until we are one, locked in a deadly and loving embrace, heaving and breathing and sighing together. I want to stare it down, to choke it and tame it; for it is a mad, feral thing, swelling and twisting and chasing it’s own tail, howling and snapping and biting and thrashing, distrustful at the touch of man, then calming and falling back only to rise again and bare teeth. It is alive and breathing and dirty and chaotic and beautiful and feverish and rabid and wonderful, and by god!
            Nothing can prepare you for India.
I allow myself to be swept away by the seething current of bodies.

Around me is a beautiful dance: Children are naked and raising hell on the streets, darting between the giant yellow taxi cabs, whose horns blast incessantly, insisting that each has the right of way. People wash the stench of a long night off themselves, still drunk on sleep, and grey soapy water runs down curbsides, collecting dust and urine before it finally disappears into a small hole and joins the rest of the whirling, fetid torrents. Stray dogs, scabbed and flea-ridden and crippled, hunt for scraps among garbage, piled high around ankles. Peddlers work every inch of street, crying out and smiling, their eyes darting and scanning and fishing for a sale. The street urchins grind spices for their morning breakfast on an old piece of stone, worn down and smooth with age, and they grind and grind, and they litter the spices with drops of rainwater collected from a drain to make a paste, and they grind and grind, and the city grinds along with them.
The working class men, entitled and noble, press on to their burdens, their gaze down and unwavering, brows furrowed with a violent urgency. They are oblivious to the clicking and whirring of engines, the drone of horns, and the crying and screaming and laughing of the people. They are oblivious to the stray dogs, scabbed and flea-ridden and crippled, oblivious to the peddlers, reeling in sales with their eyes, oblivious to the street urchins and the heartbeat of the city. They are oblivious to the humanity, bold and proud and dignified, and ugly and unforgiving and merciless. But I am aware, by god. I see the city with fresh eyes, and I see the city for what it is.
And suddenly around me the city is a virus, cruel and resilient, just as man is cruel and resilient. It has adapted and evolved, just as man has adapted and evolved, meeting each new trial stomping and howling and snorting with rage, digging stubborn feet into the tired earth. It cherishes the scars from each new victory, scabbing and blistered, for these wounds define it and become it, and it cannot exist apart from them. And now it seems to me that its bloody victory is a fixed, luckless certainty; grim and resolute in its meaning. The city can never die. It can never dissolve and decay, for it has become decay, stark and absolute.
For a brief moment, the dance is no longer beautiful, and I see it for what it is. It is a frantic, twitching illusion, throbbing and agonizing and borne out of necessity. It is the cumulative mass of the human spirit, strong and defiant, turned on itself, blackened and cannibalistic.
Hungry and calculating sacks of flesh shift and moan. Thin eyes and thin lips and leathery faces, heavy with dust and hardened with struggle and resolve, survey me as I pass by. Hands are everywhere, bony and cupped and hopeful. Desperate, pleading eyes cast invisible nets, thin silk snaring and paralyzing me. Hands grab, fingernails tear into my skin and pull and drag me down and they are closing and growing tighter and I can’t breathe, the dust is too thick and I am smothered by hands and faces and voices crying out, smothered by the city, and smothered by need; the need for clean water, for clean air, for food and money and work and education, the need to throw off the heavy blanket of night each day, and breathe a sigh of relief each morning. I am smothered by the need to live, and it is a vindictive and wicked and urgent affair.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Part 2

We thunder and shake for another twenty minutes, ripping asphalt and weaving maniacally between the sleeping dogs and thieves and beggars, bobbing in and out of weak patches of light thrown sporadically out by the few working bulbs lining the oily streets. It’s too late, and I’m too exhausted to take anything else in, so I slump down in the back seat and lean against my backpack, defeated.
Seconds later we come to a crude, screeching halt. The taxi driver motions through the darkness to a small opening in the cracked concrete wall, bathed in a solitary light. In front of the opening is a closed gate; defiant, rusty iron spears, jagged and mean and begging for flesh, threatening and daring those who would attempt to penetrate its guard to try, and to lose.
I glance at the taxi driver quizzically and his eyes are deep and stern.
“Thieves, sir,” he exclaims matter-of-factly. “Just knock on the gate and it will open, you will see.”
I unpack my bags form the car and take one last look back into the dim light of the cab. I can just make out his Cheshire grin, wide and pearly against his dark skin.
“But I am no thief, sir!” he adds, as if finishing his earlier sentence, then he breaks into a warm, satisfied laugh and is off, bounding and clunking through the night at a hundred thousand miles per hour, swerving for sleeping dogs and hooligans, this midnight ferryman in the streets of Calcutta.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Part 1

It’s 1am and I’ve got 15 wretched hours of traveling under my belt by the time I arrive.
I feel wrung out. No other way to put it. Like I’ve been pummeled around in a dirty washing machine while bleach burns, and the sides of the drum paint my body blue with bruises. I feel like any greasy son of a bitch with stones enough to take advantage of me could have my worth, though I think to myself I’ll be dammed if I’m going to let these thieving bastards get me that easily. But like a bloody fool whose eyes are red raw and burning from ammonia and lack of sleep, I stammer a dimwitted yes to the first man that approaches and addresses me as sir.
He is a skeleton, tall and dark, sporting a thick moustache, an ill-fitting suit and shoes too big for his feet. He smells faintly of spice and petrol, an odd marriage of flavours –though not offensively so. He wrings his bony hands together and introduces himself to me. He is a taxi driver. He narrows his right eye, glances over his shoulder quickly and whispers something to me. With a firm resolve, I answer his question with the same question any self-respecting man would have asked in my place.
“How much will it run me, by god?”
And before I know it I’m packing my bags into a rusted old tin can, heavy as twenty goddamn sacks of bricks and reliable as a neglected lover. How did I get here? Where am I going? Is this man friend, or foe? What on earth compelled me to embark on this terrible odyssey, and why is it only dawning on me now? No time for such thoughts though, only rash decisions.
Another man approaches and snakes his head in through the window. He licks his lips and extends his filthy hand.
“Fifteen hundred rupees, sir,” he exclaims.
My mind races. Do I haggle? I know he’s a crook. Who does he take me for? My head is spinning.
“You’re not getting a cent more than a thousand, you leech!”
Did I say that or just think it? I blink heavily, and study his face. No reaction. I reluctantly throw him fifteen hundred rupees and his head vanishes from the window. No sooner than it is gone, I am bouncing down a dark concrete abyss, pocked with potholes and sleeping dogs and hooligans, traveling a hundred thousand miles an hour, horn blazing and temper white-hot.

After a grueling thirty minutes, we pull off the main road and slowly make our way down an overpass beside a small river. It feels significant, like we’ve reached our destination. I glance around. Something is wrong. There are no hotels here. No buildings at all, in fact. Hell, this is barely even a road! I sit up and force my eyes to focus. Almost dozed off there.
Through the fog and headlights, I can barely make out two men staring at us. Criminality and murder leeches into the air from their hungry silhouettes like the stench rising from a carcass in the midday sun. I can smell desperation and darkness on them. I can taste the eager chatter of bone on bone as their teeth grind and click in expectation.
Then it hits me. I don’t know this driver, this midnight ferryman. This isn’t a taxi. This is a death cab. This is a two-ton wrought iron coffin. This is where the Brutus licks his bloody blade and screams fire and madness into the air, croaking and praising the foolish trust of the man whose throat he feasts upon. This is it. This is where I’m carried off and pulled apart, kicking dust and breaking bones until I lie still and am left for the magpies, or worse. This is where it all begins.             
“Where in god’s name am I?” I think to myself as I feebly grope around in the darkness until my hands clutch my precious passport, and the money I have stashed inside. How did it come to this? I stuff everything into my socks like a madman, though above the divide of the seat in front of me I feign a cool interest in my surroundings and attempt to stifle a fake yawn with a short, nonchalant exhalation.
The ferryman’s left eye twitches in the mirror as he sniffs and switches gears. His gaze comes to rest on me, reflected in the rear view mirror, as we come almost to a halt in front of the two men, still cloaked in a shadowy mirage just beyond the pale blue of the headlights. My ears burn. My stomach is a string, pulled just shy of snapping and it is giving off the acrid aroma of skin licked by acid. There is a dull thudding. I can’t quite place it. I glance around, and the thudding becomes a thick taste of bile in my throat. Then the horrible realization washes over me like a dank and salty tide, carrying unfamiliar and exotic filth from treacherous foreign lands. The thudding is in my mouth. It IS my mouth. My heart is so far up my esophagus that it feels as though I’m choking on the taste of a rich, congealed copper.
The two men fall into the headlights and I catch a flash of their teeth, yellow-stained from tobacco, and crooked. I make eye contact, allow a breath of precious oxygen and steel myself.
“I’ll have those rotten teeth in my knuckles before the night is finished,” I think to myself.
The driver winks at me in the rear view mirror, as if in agreement, then the tires sing a beautiful crescendo and the road places giddy kisses upon the spinning, heavenly notes.