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.