Swans Commentary » swans.com July 12, 2010  



India Ajog


by Peter Byrne


Short Story



(Swans - July 12, 2010)   I had the driver put us down in Kumdanbaron. Gia didn't so much complain as register horror. She'd had enough of the small towns of Tamil Nadu between the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. When she realized we were there for the night -- then she complained. She was right, but I'd sent the driver away, and there we were.

Gia's mood wasn't sweetened by my insistence that we were lucky. We now had the opportunity of observing Indian small-town life unclouded by self-consciousness. This gave her pause, but only long enough to hone a reply: It wasn't anyone's prying eyes that bothered her, only my trying to call the ordeal a treat. Again, she wasn't wrong. We'd had our noses in these crossroad towns for days without anyone giving a damn. And with all respect to Mother India and her mysteries, our knowledge of what happened on Main Street was more complete than we could wish.

If a place had no temple of note or landmark, ancient or modern, we were reduced to making diffident sorties from our room in a hotel too modest to have a lobby. Our walks would be short and staggering, up or down those crossed roads. There was no park or town square to sit in. Nor could we dawdle at a café table and watch the madding crowd. There were no cafés with or without tables. There were plenty of people who wanted to watch people but they did so from the roadside where they squatted. They took refreshments there too, handed them by a tea seller, he too on his haunches.

Not that a plunge into small-town hubbub didn't shiver your timbers and for the first five minutes dazzle your eyes. Flamboyance, though grubby-edged, did not want. Clothes were generous, swathing, layered, always more than necessary, or less than enough, for cover. Colors spoke of a celebration that never ended.

The energy of some locals on their errands was electric. They'd dart about among stalled figures whose juice was turned off and who simply gawked. A third category consisted of wholly absent presences. These faint shadows contrasted, zombie night to sunny day, with the spectacularly painted fences and walls they backed against to remain upright.

The paintwork wasn't graffiti. Professionals had to be responsible and they were adepts of no ordinary métier. For travelers invulnerable to the advertising pitch, the stunning lettering in an exotic alphabet was the saving grace of these twitchy backwaters.

As for traffic, any speck on the map with an illegible name could offer a vehicular riot that made you run for cover. Rattletrap buses, rainbow sided, came and went in a fury of competition. The drivers had to be in a race. Ox carts ceased to be picturesque after a while. Likewise the svelte figures in saris crossing the road to a building site with buckets of sand on their shoulders.

The free-lance cows were a different matter. Even after weeks you couldn't consider them routine. To see as normal the way these smug quadrupeds evaded all regulation you had to adopt the oblivion shown them by the locals. The autorickshaws were another special case. Man-dragged rickshaws or bicycles pushing or pulling huge loads could be ignored as old-fashioned speed bumps soon to be smoothed out by the gross domestic product. But the tuk-tuks, pollution machines imperiling passengers, bystanders and the whole Indian biosphere, were so ingenious and useful it would be hard to do without them. The three-wheeled gas and diesel gulpers, open right and left to the elements, kept the whole urban circus turning.

The tuk-tuks percolated around us as we strolled fending of the sound waves in Kumdanbaron. Hardened by the passage through similar towns, we were braced for more of the same. Then, in the overall commotion, novelty reared a sweaty head as a jogger jogged by.

"Look," I said. "Imagine keeping rhythm and pace in this hullaballoo."

"Imagine jogging at all in Tamil Nadu," said Gia.

She was right. A jogger here was a rare as an ambling cow in Paris or New York. In these skint parts there were other pastimes, such as getting enough to eat.

"Come on," I said and put my hand up for closest tuk-tuk.

We bundled in.

"Where now?" asked Gia.

"We have to meet that young man."

I told the driver over his shoulder -- no, keep your eyes on the road! -- to stay abreast of the jogger but not to get in his way.

"This is insane," said Gia.

I had to explain that in Tamil Nadu's roiling sea of utilitarian effort this instance of movement for its own sake called for investigation and -- why not? -- an interview. The jogger would have to be a man in a million, no this being India, a man in millions.

Gia didn't argue the point but simply requested to opt out and go home.

"Home?" I tried sarcasm. "To those radioactive winds from the hotel kitchen?"

Then serious, excessively so, I pointed out that on such a mission a female companion, and even more so a wife, was vital. Did she want her husband to pass for a gay sugar daddy from the fabulous West?

Our tuk-tuk driver was eager and compliant -- they always are -- ready to grab his slim profit margin from any foreign madness. But he had to fight in the melee to keep tabs on the jogger. We wove deftly but two running legs could out weave three wheels. Gia cursed in her Italian dialect and held tight to the unsteady pole that held up the swaying roof. In miles per hour we were going nowhere, but in racket, cunning and struggle we were off the speedometer.

When crosscurrents blocked the jogger, he'd keep pumping in place, refusing immobility according to the best international jogging norms. When he finally stopped, it was he who made the decision, his run, to his satisfaction, over. We caught up to him just out of town. He stood by a tea stall patting himself with an Indian towel, dish cloth size.

I'll spare you the introductions, which I've burnished over the years as a traveler. They permit me plausibly to opportune anyone from a busy lavatory attendant to a marching military man. Gia blushed, of course, but in no time we stood with metal cups of chai bantering about the art of jogging in what I called a developing economy.

He didn't go for the idea that jogging could be related to yoga or Gandhian masochism. But I blundered on and put the other sandal in my mouth. He had to chide me for being concerned with yesterday's India, for even mentioning development, which suggested all was not perfect. He assured me that there were joggers aplenty in the New India.

"Yes, but isn't it rare to jog in Kumdanbaron, Tamil Nadu?"

Indians don't give withering looks. This Indian smirked me off as if it would simply be too much trouble to put me in the picture -- his picture. In it he posed interlaced with the New India. Wherever he jogged, there was tomorrow. He was a young man with one counterfeit Nike on today's windpipe and the other well into next year's percentile growth rate.

This sleight-of-hand of sub-continental proportions made the India we could see and touch vanish. It also brought back my nausea of the morning. I'd almost regurgitated my breakfast when I read that Tamil Nadu was the Indian center for organ tourism. There was a genuine boom. Small farmers sold their body parts to pay off their debts.

Why didn't I tell him with a sneer that this thriving commerce proved globalization to be a godsend? It saved lives by slowing the runaway suicide rate. But the man of tomorrow, now with his sweat padded down, would only agree with me. I said:

"The next thing you'll have a golf course here," my hand sketching a gesture toward an improvised garbage dump that was banked up along a wall of luxuriant tropical foliage.

He looked superior and balled up his tea towel.

"There are half a million golfers in India."

I looked at Gia and winced. These numbers were drowning me. They rolled over my head like ocean breakers, they...

"There were six golf courses in the 1965. Now there are two hundred and fifty and at this minute fifty more being built."

My God, were there no figures in this country that were shrinking?

"So fewer people are into cricket?"

"Not at all. Cricket has one hundred and twenty-two million television viewers and that leaves out those in jail for financial scandals, match-fixing and off-field gambling scams. The New India has gone beyond TV in jail. Let them buy cell phones."

I reverted to clumsy irony.

"Well, all those jobs for caddies will cut into the unemployment figures."

"Caddies? The India of 2012 will produce more golf carts than China."

"Sure. You've got the jump on them with the tuk-tuks."

Gia was retracting behind her blush. My irony made a jump from crass to crasser.

"Aren't you afraid all those people sleeping in the streets will move on to the fairways? Look, with three hundred golf courses of eighteen holes, India will have five thousand four hundred greens each with a flag in the middle making them easy to find in the twilight."

Did he think only Indians could pile on zeros?

"Who," I went on, "isn't going to bed down on that pillow-soft emerald fuzz?"

He un-balled his tea towel and folded it carefully in squares. I'd been forced to throw my smile out of joint, but the young man finally realized I was trying to be nasty.

Still, he had no place to stow the towel. But this was the inventive India of self-supporting dhotis and turbans held aloft by mental energy. He tucked it ritually into his jockstrap.

Was that some sort of Indian sweat-off-my-balls insult? Well, fuck the interviewee.

Gia gave me a lets-get-out-of-here nod.

I gave in and decided to end on a friendly note.

"You'll want to get back for your shower."

And then our jogger produced one of those magical Indian moments. Out of nowhere a business card appeared in his hand.

"Showers are a thing of the past. We'll be expecting you at the Westminster Rainforest Sauna. Tea is complimentary. With my card you'll get the special rate."

By the roadside our tuk-tuk driver hadn't budged or altered his fixed grin. Why hadn't I interviewed him instead? Gia guided me towards his throbbing vehicle. She remembered the name of the hotel.

"Interview over," she murmured. "You're not quite ripe for Larry King's chair though I prefer your hair."


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published July 12, 2010