Delhi II

In the two months since I left Delhi, the city has already become unrecognizable. Perhaps this is due to the commonwealth games, which two months ago forced squatters from their tarpauline homes. Now those homes have become smooth concrete, shiny as glazed donuts. Even the backpacker district of Pahr Ganj smells a bit less like piss, and I am able to stroll through the main Bazaar without having to leap over puddles of mud.

Palika Bazaar

Palika Bazaar

In the Gem bar I spend a night drinking with a BBC director. He abuses the United States, calling us “a bunch of Imperial assholes.” He fancies himself a fan of Shakespeare, and when I continue to win bets over which character is which, and “what year did Shakespeare write Titus Andronicus?” his distress turns to ire and he returns to reprimanding the United States, expecting to get a rise out of me.

As if I have any emotional investment in a country that refuses to help pay for my medical bills or subsidize my medication. The pills I buy in India for $8 a pack are about $350 in the United States, for the same active ingredients.

Er...crowded train station

Er...crowded train station

As the BBC dickhead proceeds to offend any American in the room, I begin to wonder why there is no American in the room. Even in the backpacker’s mecca of India, I have yet to meet a single American, and the only familiar accents come from Canadians.

Afterwards I walk the Main Bazaar, the night market’s cunning aiming for me in all directions. Passing by other travelers, I see stereotypes so true and untrue, always laughable. Japanese girls wearing tight white masks to protect them from H1N1. Scottish blokes in ripped jeans and gigantic earrings. French families who stare apprehensively at their bottled water, clutching the pages of their guidebook as if it were a Bible. Australian boys always in large groups, perhaps intoxicated, pulling boyish pranks on any passerbys. Koreans giggling somewhere. Chinese men watching the Indians, noting down any foulplay. Israeli hippies looking for marijuana. British men in long dresses and smoking cigarettes, absorbing the shit around them. German men in extremely short shorts. Canadians in the corner, reading books.

And the Americans. The Americans are nowhere. Do you want to hear the confession of a traveling American? The most insulting part of belonging to this global Empire, one that not only believes that we know the world and what’s best for it, but that we somehow deserve to operate as its global police force–that our opinions should matter the most, that our IMFs and World Banks somehow “enlighten” the rest of the world? Are you ready? Here it is:

In nine weeks of traveling around India, I never met another traveling American. Not once. Not in the gigantic international festivals of Bangalore, not in the thrilling train rides packed with young backpackers, not even in the wondrous Taj Mahal, perhaps the most visited monument on the planet. I never even met a “Non-Resident Indian”-American.

The small amount of Americans in South-east Asia made me suspicious, but the complete absence of my countrymen in India seems totally unbelievable, considering the amount of western youths trying their luck in South Asia. For a country like the U.S. that insists on acting like a world leader, this is abominable. As I watch the other travelers in Pahr Ganj, I begin to realize that the vitriolic criticism  that the BBC Director was spewing about the United States was by no means an uncommon diatribe. In bars all across the world, America is being denounced as an “Empire in denial,” and what’s worse, there is a deep nostalgia for the way the British Empire ran things.

As my Indian friend, Phillip, once told me: “at least the British built bridges and trains, what the hell is your Empire doing to help out? Trying to make us all Christian?”

Delhi Gate, again!

Delhi Gate, again!

When it comes to defending the United States, I am lonely and alone. I do what I can to break the stereotype, but there are far too many American soldiers in third world countries sprouting districts full of prostitution and drugs, and too few (if any) American travelers to showcase a more approachable kind of American. We travelers love to laugh at the Japanese for wearing those absurd masks, and the Australians for being obnoxious drunk assholes, but we forgive them because they are here, among the world, experiencing it and letting the world experience them. But there is no redemption for young Americans. We refuse to see the world eye-to-eye, and the world only sees us through our bureaucrats, our corrupt politicians, our soldiers depicted in their newspapers when, as in Afghanistan last week, our airstrikes end up killing the civilians we are meant to protect.

Americans as a people are in absence, but as a world power we are ever present. Is it fear that holds us back? Our fear of what–stomach aches? India, at least, is ready for us. The Obama charisma has yet to wear off on its people, and as an American, I am greeted and shown respect in every capacity (most Indians are simply bewildered to see an American traveling at all). I have never lied about my nationality, not in communist Laos, not in the long lines of Beijing, not in Ho Chi Minh’s Hanoi, not in the knife-happy bars of Phenom Penh, nor in any part of “second-world” India.

Where I went in red, where I stayed in blue.

Where I went in red, where I stayed in blue.

Last year, when the protests in Bangkok were at their most crucial, I followed the events with an astounding amount of care and dedication. This is perhaps what backpacking is, what makes it more than simple summer trips, brief outings into the limin, or inexpensive vacations. Because I had been to Bangkok, and knew the people, and had a cognitive map of the city, I could not help but empathize with the protesters, I could not help but care, and root always for the people trying to change their corrupt government. If, like the Europeans, every American spent their youth traveling to places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, India, would we still be where we are now? Would we have been so quick to ignore the number of Iraqi civilians we continue to call “collateral damage?” Would we have been fooled for a moment when they told us we were there for “liberation?” Would we have sat by watched our soldiers destroy those great monuments, those astounding mosques, those museums, those countless homes and so many lives, whose deaths we barely even keep track of?

Now we are on the verge of more violence, more occupations, more bad intelligence, and most of us have never even been to the regions under our country’s vast influence. But we are still young. Our backs are still ready to sleep on park benches, our lungs, still willing to inhale the toxic fumes that await us, our hands, still ready to reach out to the unknown, to be grasped by whatever lurks there. Our spirit and enthusiasm, our openness, our efflux of our soul, our willingness to accept the world, this will not last forever. Let us go! As Americans, let us be rid of our fake certainty, of querulous libraries and our ivory, panopticon towers. Let us go! Into the world to break this stereotype so ingrained in the eyes of the world, which puts us always in an antagonized position of dominance and power, as the exploiters of the third world. Let us go! Let us see and be seen, let us act and be acted upon. Let us plunge! Let us plunge!

Where I went in red, where I stayed in blue.

Where I went in red, where I stayed in blue.

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Hadiwar, Rishikesh, Dharamshala

The foothills of the Himalayas in Himachal Pradesh.

Rishikesh

Rishikesh

After a week of running to the embassy, the regional foreign officers, the police, and so-called “cultural centers,” my stubborn performance of the wandering back-packer begins to collapse. Whether or not there is an authentic “India” to find, when one goes looking for it, they don the guise of the backpacker, one who struggles to find an authentic travel experience, who fluctuates between a constant fear of the unknown and a constant fear of the same old known. Backpackers are the natural enemy of the tourist. We gaff at the “fat white old men” like punk rock kids at a football game claiming that the jocks all look the same, while we, in our ripped black T-shirts and converse, high-five against conformity.

In backpacking, a similar game is being played. We all wear photogenic props: backpacks larger than our bodies, unkempt flock-of-seagulls hair, stubbled beards. We are known to “toke up” when the time is right, we are promiscuous, adolescent milkers of our youth; with adulthood just over the horizon, we are not-yet ready to hand over the world for the cage we must one day crawl into. When we get diarrhea on the road, we are grateful for it. When we get Dengue fever, we obtain bragging rights. When we get a cut or shiv, we stand-by for infection. We don’t mind used needles, we like things being shit and the shittier things are the better. We seek to hide within the grime, the seediness; we straddle between the whatever, and the why not? We get our passports and credit cards stolen. We get bit by rabies-infested monkeys. Our narrative grows and grows.

That is why, on my first package tour, riding through the mountains of Himachal Pradesh, I feel something of a coward. How has it come to this? How have I so easily exhausted my resourcefulness, letting the whim of the tour guide shepherd me from one ugly religious monument to another? It is clear I have betrayed my people, my self, my dignity and the overly romantic self-image in my head, where I appear as a brown Brad Pitt. My only redemption is when the air-conditioning on the bus leaks freezing water onto me all night and we have to sleep with the windows open, inviting all types of disease-ridden mosquitos. See, my backpacker companions, this is still travel, right?

Hadiwar Temple

Hadiwar Temple

Besides being famous for the Beatles and their drug-induced Enlightenment, Rishikesh is mostly just a beautiful city and not much else. Adjusting already to my role as a package tourist, I sneer past the low-life British backpackers with their dreadlocks and smell of piss and pot.

Dharamshala

Dharamshala

Dharamshala is by far the most interesting place along the Himachal Pradesh route. The home of the Dali Lama and the Tibetian exiles, this is perhaps the one place in India that does not bargain for prices. At least, this is my first impression, until I run into all the Hindus who had moved into Dharamshala just to sell “authentic Tibetan” knick-knacks at extremely high prices. I do my good deed for the year by dealing only with the Tibetans–it is their cultural heritage isn’t it?

Tibetan Temple

Tibetan Temple

After three days in Dharamshala, the bus back to Delhi breaks down, one day before my flight back to the States. The toxic fumes of a nearby factory and the swarm of mosquitos make this especially unbearable. After hours of watching the Indians weld together parts underneath the hood of the bus, I am in need of a restroom, and two minutes later I am accidentally mooning a family of shop-owners who speak no English and perhaps have never seen an American, let alone an American returning to nature in their fields. When the bus starts running again, the Israeli traveler next to me shoves his legs in front of my seat, and the entire night becomes a battle for more personal space, of which there is no clear victor.

Package tourism. I don’t see much of a difference.

Kolkata

A man with a flaccid penis drifts by me in the train station of Varanasi. Except for a beard covering half his torso he is completely nude, and just as I see his swaying comportment beginning to cross my path, it then plummets into the railroad tracks, falling towards the heavy iron rails the way one might fall onto a softly pillowed couch after a long day at the office.

When I am on the train I can think of little else but the fall. It seems he was…I’m not sure what to insert into this slot. Drunk? Poor? Desperate? Really really old? Perhaps religious? My imagination takes off, pondering the man’s fall the way Sherlock Holmes might ponder a crushed hat lying in the street (though with far less finesse): During a routine parachuting, this elderly adventurer’s loosely worn dhoti was yanked from him by the elements, and due to the pre-jump elevation sickness, found himself in a nude daze, his head bopping to Purple Haze, resulting in what seems to be..what certainly was, it seems…it seems…

a fall.

I am so benumbed in my memory of this event that I barely kick my feet off the side of the train, or bother to look out the window, so that when my traveling companion’s bag is stolen in the middle of the night and I am charging through each compartment of sleeping saris searching for the stolen passport and credit cards, when the police with Rajastani mustaches and thick eyebrows finally arrive holding uzis and AK-47s, when we are sitting in the station in Kolkata wondering if we are ever getting home, and even when, nearly a day after the fall, hotel owners start throwing our luggage into the floods of the monsoon, refusing to let us in without a valid passport and we have to trudge for hours through a street flood that has risen to my waistline, waiting for pity, our tears never showing through the pouring rain, I am still in that Varanasi station on an otherwise normal day, watching a nude man plummet into the train tracks. The police did nothing, everyone else was paralyzed in a state of shock. I am now beginning to remember someone does leap in, kicking away the giant rats who had come to explore a new piece of roadkill, pleading with the guards to find a pair of trousers, ordering a clerk to bring some chai, sitting the old man near my luggage.

How does an entirely nude Indian man get all the way from the platform staircases, the corridors of the station and the hired guards, to my end of the train? Had he been nude the entire time? Had he really walked through the entire train station without anyone giving a damn? That is, until it happened?

As we are walked off the plank of our fifth hotel, back into the waters of the monsoon with my laptop already permanently damaged from the floods, I begin to count the things we still have. The clothes on our backs. We have toothbrushes and bones. Defeated eyes. Variegated silk from Benares. Contemplation of the vacant railway. We have words that have hibernated for so long in our mouths, finally beaming in, we just have to keep our heads in the right place, I repeat, and repeat. I even have an adage: The greatness of a man is not in their achievements, but in the way they react to tragedy. No longer with the privilege of cynicism, deprived of our sense of distance, we are comforted by every cliche’ and overdone song lyric that comes to mind.

Hours into our plight we are sick with exhaustion and wet to our chests, so we wetten the floors of an internet cafe. As my traveling companion calls her loved ones, reliving the moments again and again, I cannot forget that we are still in a place of abandon. No proof of identity whatsoever. The hotel managers and landlords still refuse to let us in, assuming perhaps that she is a prostitute from Nepal or Myanmar, that I am trafficking her across the border after promising to marry her. We are already on our way to Sonagochi, where I will sell her to the highest bidding brothel. When I show them her police report they snicker at the stamp.

am in Kolkata.

We have mother-of-pearl bangles. A new bedcover three sizes too large. An ineffable urge to fly away from wherever we are. Songs that strangle.

I have left her in the internet cafe. I am back in the river in the street, heading towards that intersection where the current is pushing against me. A black bull has somehow retreated to a rooftop. Children in school uniforms laugh gayly in the rushing flood, surrendering themselves to the rush of waves. I take slow, careful steps; I cannot see where my feet are in the brown river. With every step I hear the crunch of an enervated body, the exhausted succumbing of a man onto thick iron rails, a man who, it seems, must have, it seems…

In the water I begin to lose it, and as my body gives out, all those things on the tip of my tongue shoot into my brain. There was a time, years ago, in a bar somewhere, someone asks me what the title of my research paper is on, and I cannot think of a quick and humorous response. He is short and has a smug smile, I’m not sure if he’s serious. Meanwhile I am watching my body in some berserker, screaming at the flood, thrashing its arms about in redundant paroxysms. The title of my paper? I say, returning that smug smile. Isomorphic Agrarianism and the Half-life of the Hyphen. That’s what I should have said!

At perhaps the eighth hotel, I meet Phillip, an Indian man with a small mustache and wearing tucked in plaid. As I tell him what perhaps has happened to us, his fists clench in a rage that I am far past, but I accept him as my avatar, he can feel my anger and rage and I can sit placid in numbness. He offers us a room, tells us everything is going to be all right, is already waking up the old cliche’s in his mouth. Just do not worry now, you must keep your head. He has relieved me of so many duties.

An hour later I bring my companion to the hotel. Phillip assesses the situation. You have no copies of your passport. No identification at all. No money. No credit cards. No cell phone. You have nothing. Nothing. Do you know what it means to have nothing? In this country?

It seems we just appeared, waiting to be picked up.

Varanasi

Shivatha Ghat

Shivatha Ghat

You want coolie? asks a man in a red vest, his teeth stained yellow with paan and his eyes in some uncontrollable blitzkrieg. Before I can answer he lifts my bags onto his head, straining his neck, marching up flights of stairs, his aged body nearly giving out under the weight of marble nick-nacks stockpiled among my belongings.

It’s difficult to spend a moment in India without immediately thinking of A Passage to India, and the intense guilt that comes along with Forster’s parable.

VaranasiIV

Varanasi (also called Benares) is India encapsulated; the diversity and multitudinous lifestyles that make the sub-continent more-or-less absent of ideology is well represented in the stunningly multicultural holy city. Here Muslims make statues of Ganesha for Hindus, while Hindus build mosques for Mulsims. Every Ghat bordering the sacred river Ganges is devoted to a different religious sect or region of India, so that any type of identity one chooses to align with is represented upon this sacred river.

The owner of my hotel is a bald Indian whose Japanese wife teaches yoga, while their children, a fat-Buddha looking boy and eight year old girl, are raised mostly by the hotel staff, who speaks to them in simple Japanese. Along the road I am met by East Asians, Nepalese, Indians from Bangalore and Madras.

Whatever you can say about India, says Amartya Sen, the opposite is also true. After two months of traveling in India, one must succumb to the absence of understanding. For Whitman, to travel is to rid yourself of certainty, to know nothing and take pleasure in not knowing. In trying to conceive of India, no mental picture appears, no one city, no style of dress nor even a ubiquitous pop-song (the Tamils still refuse Bollywood). As Arundhati Roy puts it, in one category or another, every Indian belongs to a minority. One must learn to conceive of a people without the golden thread of normalcy.

Dasashwamedh Ghat

Dasashwamedh Ghat

As soon as I arrive at Gai Ghat, a mustached Indian man commandeers our boat and gives me a fulsome explanation of the purposes of the Ghats. He  says that old people come here to die, that they need very special wood to burn their bodies with, that this kind of wood is extremely expensive for them—around a thousand rupees a kilo—and that if they do not have a proper burial they would not go to enlightenment (as he calls it).

Then, almost comically: If you give, you go to Enlightenment too. So how much do you want to help those in need? One, two, three kilos?

My eyes meet his with stern execration—an immediate sense of loathing for such a man, any man, who twists the goodwill of others to their own purposes. The smoke from the burning bodies pinches our noses, the requiems of lamenting families reach out to us in a choral yearn, the garlands of brightly colored flowers upon the dead bodies still submerged in the Ganges set our eyes into sudden still. I know the man is a scammer, with the audacity to scam so shamelessly in front of the mourners–such a capacity I can not believe! And though I shake my head and tell him no, there is still that rattling of a guilty conscience, that suffering of imprecation, the fear that after refusing the chance for redemption, one might never breath an anxiousless breathe.

His riposte: You will remember what you have done here today. You are a very very bad person, with very bad karma. You will remember what you did.

All the families of India come to the Ganges, that river too toxic for most wildlife, where there is a spot for each region, a place for each religion, a time for each prayer, a chant for each caste. They are all, equally, offered the chance to reach Enlightenment (depending on the kilos of wood they purchase).

VaranasiV

Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh

Pathergatti Road, from Charminar

Pathergatti Road, from Charminar

The streets in HITECH City (Hyderabad Information Technology Engineering Consultancy City), Hyderabad, where the IT revolution has perhaps hit hardest, is not filled with young Indians in collared shirts jabbering on headset headphones, has few long streams of electric wire weaving about from iron statue to statue, and the glossy, posh buildings, are almost entirely absent. Instead, High Tech City is a surreal desert of nascent buildings, still undergoing erection, and the only movements of the streets is of the migrant workers, living in gigantic tent cities, on every roadside. Here multinationals aggregate in Industrial parks, the foreboding shadows of their incomplete buildings stretch from the rocky hills of High Tech City, onto the city of Hyderabad.

HITECH Development

HITECH Development

Hyderabad is a great deal like Bangalore, only not yet.

Buddha Statue, Hussain Sagar

Buddha Statue, Hussain Sagar

I enter in the Islamic holy month of Ramadon (Ramza here), a time when rickshaw drivers sway their bikes, enervated by lack of water and over-exposure to the sun, when every night becomes a festival of cheap chicken and lamb kebabs, only to end abruptly so the participants can wake up in time to eat before sunrise, and when the women are stylishly dressed in the latest foot fashions, limited by the burkas enshrouding their entire bodies.

Mecca Masjid

Mecca Masjid

Oh yes, and it’s the week of Ganesh.

Bangalore, Mysore

In Bangalore, the guidebook suggests, be aware of the rickshaw drivers.

 

Tree-filled streets of Bangalore

Tree-filled streets of Bangalore

 

 

Ok, be aware, be aware. I repeat this at the train station, with no clue where the district of cheap hotels and delectable juicy drinks is. I have no choice but the autorickshaw. I take steps to increase my awareness in the back of the rickshaw. Remember: be aware. I begin to tremble under the ambiguity of this statement. Do I open my eyes wider? Do I stare intensely at the driver’s back, hugging my passport and wallet into my body like I’m holding organs into my torso?

 

Despite my increased awareness, the advice of the guidebook, the suspicious grin the driver makes at every glance at his rearview mirror, and the honking of horns outside that sounds like a calf being torn away from its mother, I begin to phase out in the backseat, dreaming of some fantastical faraway land. Suddenly I realize that no other cars on are around us on the road. He stops in front of a small building—most of it descending deeper underground—that reads: GOVERNMENT SILK EMPORIUM.

 “Just go in, have a look.” he tells me.

 Allow me a moment to explain these emporiums. One day the government thought it would be a swell idea to replace dynamic local markets with gigantic emporiums of extremely expensive but authenticated stock-piles of India’s treasures. These emporiums are usually in the middle of nowhere, and any rickshaw driver who brings foreigners to these places gets a commission, plus small governmental benefits like tax write-offs (not having to pay any taxes at all), waived requisites (a blind-eye to their lack of a driver’s license] or some other type of governmental protection.

 To placate the man, hoping that I would one day get to a hotel, I walk into the emporium, spend ten minutes grumbling to myself, then leave. Minutes later he has taken me to another one. I complain but he keeps saying “just look, just look.” Too enervated to argue, I walk in with the stench of the train still following me, walk around in a haggard daze, and then fall into the back of the rickshaw again.

 “Now we go hotel.” I tell him.

 “One more shop sir.”

 “No!” I plead to him, while in my mind, I am cursing the guidebook for its total lack of specificities. “I give you one hundred rupees, you no take me to another one.” It was three times the fare.

 “No, no want money.”

 “Two hundred rupees!”

 “No, just look, just look.”

 No amount of money can compare to the benefits of collaborating with a corrupt government. Instead of giving him the money, I spend it on a sandalwood Ganesh, knowing that the driver will get extra “benefits” if I actually buy something. When I get back in the rickshaw he has a smile on his face as mocking as a crescent moon. But he takes me to the hotel.

 

Insense, flower extracts and dye

Incense, flower extracts and dye

 

 

 In recent times, the name Bangalore has become synonymous with the word outsourcing, and neologisms are spurred in attempts to understand the city—ITocracy and calltopia to name just a few. One out of every three office buildings in India spring up in Bangalore; obesity and diabetes are growing concerns here, where most everywhere else in the country, food and the fear of draught from this year’s disappointing monsoon (about %75 of its average) is of growing concern.

There is no better way to understand this indefinable city than to stay up late, at least until 3am, when the American workday ends, and all those Indians you hear over the phone when calling the Dell computers customer service line are emancipated into the jam-packed pubs, the chaotic night markets and the large strip halls, where, in rooms that look remarkably similar to Korean karaoke rooms, Indian women striptease bellydance on top of men’s laps.

 Staying in the Majestic district, I become all too familiar with this nightlife as I realize that the extreme discount I receive on my hotel room has less to do with my own cunning, and much more to due with the fact that the hotel is hardly a hotel at all, but an in-and-out “love hotel.” Harrowing screams from adjacent rooms drown out the lectures of my ipod. 

 ChandigarhV

Unable to sleep among the orgasmic cacophony, I take to Mysore, a far more laidback city with a long royal history, rickshaw drivers that do not take you to government emporiums, a nightlife that doesn’t burst through your hotel window in fragmented colors and screams, and a hotel that’s actually a hotel…with a very inviting pillow.

Chennai

In the unadorned train compartment where I have my assigned upper berth, I immediately begin brain storming new ways to evade the overwhelming stench coming from the four squatting restrooms nearby, where mixtures of day old piss with excrement from over-spiced samosas happen to drift just to my sleeping spot, and no one else’s.

Sleeper Class

Sleeper Class

The obvious way out is to hold my dirty plaid collared shirt upon my nostrils to mollify the smell, but this proves ineffective. I spread deodorant beneath my nose, then mosquito repellent, then a jaw of pure flower extract that I bought for four dollars at a local market. Apparently, four drops of it in a 100ml bottle of alcohol will give you the exact ingredients for Calvin Klein’s Eternity.

ChennaiII

But Eternity stands no chance against the toxicity coursing from those four bathrooms. I would rather inhale burning plastic, sniff it into my brain and possibly suffer some permanent loss of memory, than continue to bare that stench. Once the train really picks up speed, the smell weakens a bit, but only to taunt me with an ever more overpowering, odoriferous smell, re-energized by another relieved passenger’s contribution.

As my vision blurs I begin to see men like women, and women like men. Oh wait, it’s just a Hijra! She pats me on the knee in a gainly fashion. I know the drill, they tap you, you’re supposed to hand them at least five rupees, then they kiss the coin and say a namaste.

Just as I pull out a five rupee coin from my pocket, she pounds me on the shoulder, then smacks me on the face.

Am I bleeding? Was I just beat up by a woman or a man? I’ve heard some are eunuchs, that might make a difference.

Still in shock from this utter loss of manhood, I pull out even more change. She must have heard the other coins rattling inside my pocket. She moves to the next sucker and comely holds her hand in a kind namaste. When he refuses to pay her, we all laugh as she kicks him in the stomach.

Chennai Gate

Chennai Gate

When we arrive at the station early in the morning, and the other passengers begin infecting each other with their yawns, I squeeze on my dirty contacts and make out the name of the station: Egmore. The hell? I double-check my guidebook, but the station name isn’t there.

–This is the train to Bangalore? I ask a lean dark Indian with a small girl clutched in his left arm. Chennai, he tells me.

The one place every traveler I have met has told me not to go to. Chennai, says the guidebook, boring, skippable, do not waste your time in this shithole.

ChennaiV

On the beach I run into a kind Christian Tamil, a young isolated student who attends Madras University, which faces us from across Marine drive. As the other boys throw his sandals into the breaking waves and then toss sticks into his backside, he responds with a meek smile and continues to talk to me as if he’s not in incredible pain. Why not hit back? I ask. He tells me that Christ would not hit back.

ChennaiVI

We meet two Gujuratis in the construction business.

–Don’t the women swim? I ask them all, referring to the estrogen-absent waters.

–Women can swim too! Look! They point to an old woman with her feet in the water, her arms holding her pink sari just above her knees, the undertoe dragging sand against her shins.

–That’s not swimming.

ChennaiVII

As with Mumbai, the draw of the slums here isn’t so much in the squalid quarters of its inhabitants, but the close proximity of the slums with symbols of major affluence. Mumbai’s Dharvati slums lie directly across posh apartment complexes thirty stories in the air; Delhi’s slums encroach upon government buildings and great monuments. In Chennai, I visit slums of extreme dearth, located literally across the street from gigantic golf courses.

ChennaiVIII

Golf

Of Chennai, the guidebook says “the city still has many slums but is also developing dynamic new-town suburbs, a rash of air-conditioned shopping malls and some of the best restaurants in India.”

Let’s think about this word “but.” Why not because of, due to the fact, or with shocking indifference to these slums, or, at least, giving up any notion of responsibility over its inhabitants, the government of Chennai…etc.

South Indian coffee

South Indian coffee

On the bus out of Chennai, a frump in a sari puts her finger on the ipod I’m playing with, touches the side of my cheek with her right hand and rapaciously grabs my thigh with her left, then shoves my face into her cleavage. Though I’m not one to complain about this type of public indecency or promiscuity, I still struggle in her eerily strong arms, as the glass seashell on her necklace is digging into my forehead and it’s difficult to breath under her soppy breasts. She lets me go, laughs, and continues to grab my limbs, shoving my face into different folds of her body until I realize what’s happening and pay her twenty rupees to stop.

Kerala

Kerala's backwaters

Kerala's backwaters

The first democratically elected Communist state is, as writers like Arundhati Roy continue to remind us, one of constant religious strife, one of hidden enmity against both the lower class and the lower caste, and, perhaps most surprising, the home of the largest pornographic industry in the world.

They move the boat with a gigantic stick of bamboo

They move the boat with a gigantic stick of bamboo

Kerala has become the richest state in India thanks to a viable tourism industry, remittances from the Gulf, a high literacy rate, and being the source of many of the world’s raw materials. The straw of a coconut tree is taken through a machine that twists the sparse pieces around each other to form taut lines of rope. The shells collected along the backwaters are crushed into calcium and heated in large stone furnaces. All alongside the road rubber trees are being tapped for Goodyear, Coconut and banana farms extend for miles along the roads, plantations for tea and marijuana settle in the hills and plains.

I was not so successful

I was not so successful

The most beautiful part about these farms is that few of them are owned through foreign direct investment. Most are local farms, exporting on their own terms, engaging in the free market through direct ownership of their commodities.

Kathakari Theater

Kathakari Theater

And yet many are still bewildered as to how Kerala became such a success story. Could the Land Reform act, which redistributed all private land in the 1950s, have anything to do with it? But that’s too close to socialism, so we bang our heads looking for another explanation (see Keralan model of development )

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Kerala is a fine addition to my list of places to go when I retire, or, when I just get really get sick of the world.

Goa

Anjuna Beach

Anjuna Beach

The Kathans from the south of Hampi come to Goa to sell the handmade trinkets and bangles molded by their families in the villages. These former adivasis have become over-pressuring tourist touts, selling any kind of drug one can imagine, providing the hippies and backpackers with infinite distraction.

The touts here speak German, English, Hebrew, Hindi, Tamil, French, Spanish and Portuguese. But they mostly know the bad words; what would be inappropriate in any other country has become modern parlance for the Goan locals. They shout them at tourists to alert them and make conversation, picking them up from foul mouthed backpackers. They timorously shout shit, fuck, shize, panpcha. baka na, merde, madar chod.

Goa collects the profanity of the traveler, hides it in sand, lets the ocean waves carry it into a bleak and forgettable ocean.

Afghani Chicken

Afghani Chicken

The women selling bangles on the beach join me for a chai; one tells me her husband has a daily ritual of going out and playing with his friends, leaving her to find employment and support him and her child. As she is confessing that she cooks and cleans, the girls all quiet down when an Indian man comes to survey them. He shouts something and almost all of them run away.

I wonder if they are just trying to sell me bangles. Later, as we bargain for a price, she uses her troubling anecdotes to close: If you buy at this price, my husband get angry, beat me beat me!

I think they are just trying to sell me their bangles.

Kingfish cooked Indian Style (I have no idea what that means)

Kingfish cooked Indian Style (I have no idea what that means)

The beach is inhabited by these touts, along with the aged expats, who sit near the ocean from morning to night, iniquitously trying any drug the touts recommend or suggest. They stare at the ocean waters, listening to loud house music, as if they are at a Pink Floyd light show. Many have been here for years, some for over a decade. They lie on the beach and do not move when the waves crash on top of them; it is all a part of their trip.

Hills near Vagora

Hills near Vagator

I am kept up all night at a bar by a martial arts teacher high on LSD, tearing apart little bits of napkins onto his leg. I see reckless Israeli’s running into the hills, crazed out on ecstasy, tripping on every stump, never realizing how bruised and bleeding their bodies have become. After I tell a Scottish guy to be careful of the coconuts, that if one hits him on its way down there will be nothing but a convulsing carcass, he starts whacking at every palm tree he finds, trying to make them drop on his forehead. Because it would look cool.

“Cabron!” Someone shouts.

Mumbai

The sights from the train, welcoming me to Mumbai

The sights from the train, welcoming me to Mumbai

Scrubbing off layers of dirt can be addicting, once you start at it you simply find layers of aggregated dust formed upon every inch of skin, and if you are ever to finish such a fastidious project, you soon find that the patch of skin where you began has been coated with another layer of dust, waiting to be scrubbed.

Being in India makes any reasonably clean person feel like Sisyphus.

India Gate

India Gate

On the train to Mumbai, India’s CIA factbook statistics come alive, concretized in the masses of tenebrous shantytowns, prodigious slums and gated suburban housing. India contains 1/6 of the world’s population. Only 7-15% of that population works in formal employment. 70% is rural. At least 40 million have been displaced by big dams that generate little electricity and frequently fail to supply water to the villages that need it the most. These dams are almost uniformly funded by investment from western companies and the World Bank.

The sale of emergency contraceptives increases by 50% every month.

The Beach

The Beach

In Mumbai, 53% of the population lives in slums, but unlike Delhi, the casual traveler could venture throughout the city without ever having to face the real faces behind this harrowing statistic. The slums here are segregated into blocks mostly in central and northern Mumbai.

I visit Dhavari slums with a guide from an educational NGO. It is the largest slums in the world, sandwiched between two railways; it is the heart of Mumbai, as the shape of the slum from a birds-eye view appears in the shape of a heart.

Dhavari in Blue

Dhavari in Blue

Rent here ranges from $25 to $4 a month. At more than one million people per square mile, that adds up to some prime real estate. According to Mike Davis, the slums began when the French began erecting walls and sewer systems around the poorest areas of their colonies to keep sickness away, as germs had yet to be discovered.

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Now Dhavari is a 21st Century stain, a heart-shaped hole in the Universe where mankind’s soul has been substituted for cheap leather, clay, plastic, tin, aluminum, and other raw materials that the toxic factories of Dhavarti produce. Here, the leather for Gucci bags are made for about sixty rupees apiece, just a bit more than one U.S. dollar.

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The incredibly small, smoky stone-walled factories make the world of Charles Dickens look like a British tea party. The men here work hard for a few years, die of poisoning or lung cancer, and are replaced all too effortlessly from the convenient surplus population of 2.5 million slumdogs. The superfluous, supernumerary people who drop like lemmings.

This is called the informal sector.

Slums near the sewer

Slums near the sewer

The residences are even more appalling. By day, children play atop mountains of garbage, unzipping their pants and excreting whenever and wherever nature chooses to call. At night, these same streets are a malaise of moving death, invaded by hoards of gigantic rats at the bottom, while at eye level the smoke from the lit cotton of the pottery kilns blind the residents in thick black clouds.

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To walk through Dhavari is to recall the story of the three little pigs, as you pass small houses with the smell of animal feces, each built of straw, tin or brick.

And the big bad wolf comes in many guises. He is in the government of Mumbai, who blithely rezone Dhavari a bit more each year, forcing residents out and jam-packing the people into every tighter quarters. He is in the foreign banks, who fund gigantic machines to help produce larger quantities of raw material, only to garrote the slum dwellers by keeping them infinitely in debt. He is in the slum lords who refuse formal housing contracts for their diminutive family rooms, and, when the rent goes unpaid, are known to dip cats in lighter fluid and set them aflame, letting them run through the houses where everything easily catches fire.

Dhavarti is one out of an estimated 2,000 slums in Mumbai. Just south of the slums, real estate is more expensive than in Manhatten, and the wealthy live in lofty thirty story condos made with glossy contemporary architecture. But on the rooftop of the slums, among the piles of garbage and the toxic fumes spewing out from the factories, I cannot help but notice an aberration: satellite televisions upon the tin, hollow rooftops. This is Mumbai, I remind myself.

Let them eat Bollywood.

Victoria Station

Victoria Station

In a pensive mood I take the train to Central Mumbai station, perhaps to visit the Samos shopping mall for a taste of air-conditioning, perhaps to wander in whatever direction the stars see fit to guide me for the night. When I arrive the streets are dark and full of silhouettes, but the Mumbai skyline is too bright to see any stars. Tonight the moon becomes my alabaster; I follow it with no reservations.

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I pace upon the shadowed streets for nearly an hour, gigantic bats flying above me and stray dogs howling all around me. I imbibe the smoked corn from a street stall. Suddenly a hand grabs me, it is soft but punches me and I see that it is a girl in a red sari, her face divinely made up in matching blush. Sir, sir, she says, smiling. I begin to assess my surroundings. Dozens of demure women in brightly colored saris line the street, smiling towards the passing cars and Indian men. Some are more slattern, they wave at the men from the window sills, from every street corner, from every block and down every alleyway, cooing, grabbing at my belt.

Oh, the red light.

The Street of a Thousand

The Street of a Thousand

As with all of India, it is the amount of people that leaves me particularly disturbed. The streets filled with these sex workers seems to never end, like a funhouse where you believe yourself walking down a long hallway, only to find that you’ve been on a conveyor belt. I walk purposefully, expecting the lines of Indian women to end, and soon I am convinced I have gone in circles, but no, I am on the same street. There are thousands of them.

The women must think of me as an object of fun, for they begin to call from the windows and streets, some grabbing my hands while others crack jokes and point at the traveler who has somehow wandered so far off the beaten path, into their effete world of Johns, drugs and human trafficking. Just as I begin to see an end to the trail of women, a Muslim man in a white robe screams American! and I flee towards the nearest intersection, followed closely by a gang of ruffians.

Is it my accent? The backpack I carry? The Ipod bulging from my pocket?

When I sense them just behind me I turn to my trusty last resort: appearing so incredibly drunk, that to do me any harm would not actually cause me any harm, and therefore defeat the purpose of harming me.

I stagger, do my best John Belushi impression, gaze at them in a simple stupor. They say something in Hindi and leave me in the road.

Shiva and Pavarti

Shiva and Pavarti

Where the red light district ends, night markets fill the streets, and at midnight they are filled with bodies sleeping on the curbs, families under green mosquito nets. After half an hour wandering through the labyrinthine alleyways, another gang of boys are following me.

What am I so worried about? Could it be that they just want to say hello? Am I totally absurd for fleeing from every gang of men who take an active interest in a traveler?

I look back, see them with their arms crossed, advancing quickly now, and I, craven as ever, flee again, so thoughtlessly this time that my foot ends up lodged in someone’s blue tarp rooftop. I am again lost, on the edge of a shanty town. The boys fall down laughing as I attempt to repair the makeshift rooftop.

Shiva

Shiva

I spend a week in Mumbai, in utter exhaustion.