photo by ellen reitman.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

how i lost my shirt.

after five years of my leaving india, i went back for a first visit, in 2003. stepping off the plane, just as all the other passengers realized they had made a horrible mistake and wanted to get back in the aircraft, i felt like kissing the ground. i don't really know why. i was tremendously happy with canada, quebec, with wakefield. it was, perhaps, a visceral reaction to the place i spent so many years of my life. india, almost against ones better judgment, gets under ones skin, not like a bad rash or a flesh-eating disease. it's like an acquired taste, a test perhaps, a testament to tenacity. i let the hot air, the smells and the noises wash over me.

the whole bunch of rickshaw and taxi drivers charged at me. i grabbed one old rickshaw wallah, typically emaciated and wearing pyjamas with only flip-flops on his calloused feet, and hugged him like he was my long-lost dad. as soon as the others heard me speak hindi they gave up, dispersed, seemed to dissolve as they looked for the next possibility. i got into the old guy's cycle rickshaw. for about twenty minutes i just let the fellow pedal away and i let myself re-adjust to that old familiar world until we reached an 'indian oil' station where i knew there'd be a taxi sitting. i over-paid the man before jumping into a car for the rest of the journey to new-delhi.

it was nearly two in the morning once i arrived at the 'jyoti mahal' guest-house in phar ganj. i had to wake up the chowkidar, but he smiled as he unlocked the gate. it isn't a great hotel. it's ok, convenient enough, cheap and clean enough, and the people are nice. the guest house tries and, except for its name, fails to be reminiscent of the famous 'jyoti mahal' temple in jaipur.

in the morning, walking through the market of phar ganj, a beggar on a make-shift rough skate-board approached for money, baksheesh. i handed him twenty rupees, but he said: "you usually give me thirty." i smiled down at the guy. "how do you know that? i haven't even been here in years." then the beggar smiled up at me: "you're hansraj. you always give me thirty." what could i do? he remembered my name. so i handed him thirty rupees, which meant that he had fifty. however, then he asked for my shirt! that was too much. so i said: "you want the shirt right off my back? even if i gave you this nice western shirt you would still have bent and withered legs." that was quite something to say, but he simply smiled again, a totally disarming toothy smile, and responded: "i'm not asking for your pants. i'm asking for your shirt." what could i do?

even at that early morning, i was surrounded by the busy, crowded mercantile world of a thick indian market-place readying itself for a day of hussle. nobody took the slightest notice of one pale, shirtless westerner wandering through. old ladies swept the streets kicking up the dust. dogs ran around in packs looking for scraps. shops were opening. 

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