1 | Through the Looking Glass
I have a dreadful long-term memory. I only remember two traumatic events of my childhood--my brother's near-death by drowning and my own near-death by humiliation when I was rescued by a lifeguard while attempting my first lap of the butterfly stroke in the local pool. I vaguely remember truth or dare kisses in the back of a bus, aged about twelve, dancing to "My Sharona" at thirteen, behaving like an absolute arsehole in my adolescence and having a hideous hippie phase involving dreadlocks and tie-dye when I was at college.
For my twenty-first birthday my parents gave me a plane ticket and a blessing to leave home and Australia for a year. This middle-class rite of passage had become a family tradition--my mother had hitchhiked around Europe in the fifties and wanted us all to experience the joy of travel before we settled into careers. My trip through Europe, Egypt and Turkey is a bit of a blur and recollections of the two-month tour of India on the way home are vague. I can see myself roadside squatting and peeing with women in wonderful saris, sunset games of beach cricket with a trinity of fat Goan men named Jesus, Joseph and Jude, and the white bright teeth of a child rickshaw driver wearing a T-shirt printed with come on aussie come on. I recall angst, incredible anger, deep depression and a love-hate relationship with the country, but I can't remember why. I'd filed the soothsayer, his prophecies and my vow never to return under "young stupid rubbish" and let it fall deep into the black hole of my brain.
Until now--a month short of eleven years later.
As I walk into the plane in Singapore, a seed starts to sprout in the blocked sewer of my memory; a seed watered by the essence of stale urine and the whiff of vomit coming from my window seat (where the pink and orange paisley wallpaper artfully camouflages the spew). The high-pitched, highly excited jumble of Indian voices almost germinates a recollection. But after too many going-away parties, involving too much indulgence, I'm too wasted to let the bud bloom. I fall asleep.
Somewhere over Chennai I become aware of an increasingly rhythmic prodding of my inner thigh by something long, thin and hard. I open my eyes to see a brown finger with a long curved nail closing in on my crotch. The digit is attached to a scrawny old Sikh in a turban sitting beside me. He is slobbering and shaking with excitement. I'm too sleepy, shocked and, for some reason, too embarrassed to scream, so I buzz for sisterly assistance.
An air hostess with big hair, long nails and drag-queen makeup slowly strolls over. She looks cranky.
"This man is touching me when I sleep," I bleat indignantly.
The hostess rolls her eyes and waggles her finger.
"Well, stay awake and don't let it happen again, madam."
She wheels on the spot and strides off, swishing her nylon sari.
Months later a friend will tell me that many Indian flight attendants are rich girls whose parents pay a massive bribe to get them a job involving travel and five-star hotels. These brats view passengers as pesky intrusions way beneath their status, and detest doing the job of a high-flying servant. But right now, I'm floored, abandoned and angry.
I stay wide-awake and alert until the hostess with the mostest sprays the cabin with foul-smelling insecticide. She aims an extra jet directly at my head. I can almost hear her thinking, This should clean the Western whore.
It's now that I remember that India is like Wonderland. In this other universe everyone seems mad and everything is upside down, back to front and infuriatingly bizarre. I'm Alice: fuzzy with feelings about my previous trip down the rabbit hole, I'm now flying straight back through the looking glass to a place where women are blamed for sleazy men and planes are sprayed when they fly from a clean city to a dirty one. In this world we applaud a dreadful landing that's as fast and steep as a takeoff, we jump up and tackle fellow passengers in a crush at the door while the plane is still moving, and the air hostess gets off first.
I get off last to be embraced by the cold and clammy smog. The cocktail of damp diesel fumes, swirling dust, burning cow dung, toxic chemicals, spicy sweat and sandalwood wraps me in memories. The soothsayer and his prophecies of a decade ago boil to the surface of my brain.
For the old bloke did give a good hand job.
My friend Nic got married soon after we came home; she then quickly popped out two gorgeous girls and has never come back to India. I'm still single and at thirty-three, by Indian standards, I'm a spinster to be pitied. I've had good jobbing--only days ago I finished my last Morning Show on the Triple J network. I've interviewed famous actors, crazed celebrities and brilliant musicians; I've talked with an audience I admire; and I've enjoyed a lifestyle of traveling, film premieres, theater opening nights, music gigs and festivals. I've left the best job in the world for a country that I now remember hating with a passion. And I've done it for love. My boyfriend, Jonathan, is the Australian Broadcasting Company's South Asia correspondent based in New Delhi, and after a year of yearning, soppy love songs and pathetic phone calls, we've decided we can't live apart. I look to see if the toilet cleaner is here to gloat.
A different tarmac welcoming committee emerges from the mist--five men with massive mustaches, machine guns and moronic stares, each of them clutching his own penis.
I then spend hours inching along an impossibly slow passport queue comprised of harassed foreigners, while Indians move past smiling. It takes half an hour to find my bags in the midst of a screaming and jumping porter mosh pit and another twenty minutes to have my luggage X-rayed again. By the time I am near the exit I'm frantic that I'm late for my most important date. I rush down a long exit ramp that gets steeper and steeper, pulling my trolley deeper and faster into India. I hit the bottom with a bump and fall over. Dazed, disoriented and dusty, I sense a strange sight and sound emerging from the smog. A huge hurricane fence appears to be alive. It's rocking and writhing--fingers, toes and small arms reach through wire gaps; heads poke over the barbed wire, and mouths pressed to the steel groan and moan.
"Taxieeee, taxieee, madam, taxiee, baksheesh, money."
Before I can pick myself up, an arm breaks through a hole in the fence, grabs my bags and starts to disappear back into the misty melee. I begin a tug of war with a person I can't see. I start to scream. "Stop. Come back, I'm getting picked up."
"No, no, you are too late, your car not coming, I am taking you," yells a voice from the end of the arm.
Could he be right? Could Jonathan have come and gone? Or been held up on a story? My doubt weakens me and I lose my grip on my bags and fall flat on my back.
Then, through the smog, a tall being with a familiar grin emerges. Jonathan rescues me, grabbing my bags from the invisible man and me to his chest. I'm momentarily comforted, then I pull away and hit him.
"You're late," I wail pathetically. Jonathan recoils like a wounded boy. This is hardly the romantic reunion we'd pictured, and not how I wanted my new life in a new country to begin.
Jonathan bundles me into the Australian Broadcasting Company car with a promise of a stiff drink and a warm new home. We drive slowly through New Delhi's winter streets which seem like hell frozen over, or perhaps purgatory. I can't see beside or beyond the car. Foghorns hail from huge trucks sailing too close for comfort, and every time we stop at a red traffic light, which impossibly instructs us to relax in large white uneven letters, a ghostly torso or a gaunt face with an expression straight from The Scream rises from the milky depths. Long, skinny Addams family fingers rap on the window--death knocks from beggars. I shrink from the beings as if they're lepers and then realize many actually are. Still freaked from seeing bits of people through the airport fence, I'm now scared by seeing people without bits.
We stop at a huge black gate opened by a very small man with an extraordinarily large mustache and an even bigger smile. It appears he has won a beauty contest of some sort, as he's wearing a white pants suit with a red sash that says west end. Beyond Mr. West End looms my new home. I hit Jonathan again: I've left a sunny apartment by the sea in Sydney for a dark, dingy first-floor flat on the intersection of two of New Delhi's busiest roads.
Inside, the flat is large but lifeless; its white walls are stained with diesel fumes and bordered with dark wood; its marble floors are cold, cracked and yellow; its rooms almost empty, bar some ugly, Australian Broadcasting Company-issue pine furniture. Jonathan is a house-proud bloke, but he left most of his things in Australia and has been traveling almost constantly for a year. He quickly promises we will move or renovate. I try not to look too disappointed and he perks me up with champagne and a bedroom strewn with rose petals.
We fall asleep rocked by the reassurance of a love reunion and the traffic vibrations.
The next morning, after a Sunday sleep-in, we wake wrapped in a noxious cloud of smog and dirty diesel fumes. Marooned inside on the couch we sip chai--gorgeous tea made with cinnamon, ginger, boiled milk and a tablespoon of sugar. When the smog lifts we move to the deck to watch a roaring rough sea of traffic wildlife. All around us a furious knot of men and metal constantly unravels and re-forms, ebbing and flowing and going nowhere fast.
Blokes--and a friend or two--perch atop tall, rusty bicycles. Entire families share motorcycles; toddlers stand between dads' knees or clutch his back, and wives sit sidesaddle while snuggling babies. Auto-rickshaws zip around like tin toys. Ambassador cars--half Rolls-Royce and half Soviet tank--cruise with class. Huge tinsel-decorated trucks rumble and groan, filthy lime-green buses fly around like kamikaze cans squeezing out a chunky sauce of arms and legs. Shoes dangle from back bumpers and black demonic faces poke out red tongues from windshields; these are for good luck. But it's probably the holy mantra written on the backs of vehicles that keeps things moving It's not baby on board, or jesus saves, or triple m does delhi. Instead, hand-painted in swirling childish capital letters is: horn please.
Everyone seems to drive with one finger on the horn and another shoved high up a nostril. The highway soundtrack is a chaotic symphony of deep blasts, staccato honks, high-pitched beeps, musical notes and a weird duck drone. It's as if Delhi is blind and driving by sound--except it seems many are deaf. Women are curled up on the pavement sound asleep, and a man is stretched out on the median strip, dead to the danger. On the backs of bikes, on the laps of the motorcycle mums, babies are floppy with dreams.
It's clear it would be suicide to drive here and luckily I won't have to. The Australian Broadcasting Company has a driver, Abraham. Abraham's thick curls have crawled off his head like furry caterpillars and they now encircle his ears. He wears a mean pair of black Cuban-heeled cowboy boots and fake Levi's.
But Abe is no cowboy. Small, skinny and incredibly jumpy, he's worked for the Australian Broadcasting Company for twenty-five years but still seems nervous around boss-sahibs. He wrings his hands when Jonathan asks him a question, and whispers answers so quietly we have to lean close to pick them up. This just makes him more nervous and he jumps back as if we are going to hit him. Mild-mannered Abe, however, is Tarzan of the traffic jungle. He knows the strict species pecking order: pedestrians are on the bottom and run out of the way of everything, bicycles make way for cycle-rickshaws, which give way to auto-rickshaws, which stop for cars, which are subservient to trucks. Buses stop for one thing and one thing only. Not customers--they jump on while the buses are still moving. The only thing that can stop a bus is the king of the road, the lord of the jungle and the top dog.
The holy cow.
Eighty-two percent of Indians are Hindus. Hindus revere cows, probably because one of their favorite gods, Krishna, is a cowherd, and Shiva--the Lord of Destruction--has a bull called Nandi.
I've always thought it hilarious that Indian people chose the most boring, domesticated, compliant and stupid animal on earth to adore, but already I'm seeing cows in a whole different light. These animals clearly know they rule and they like to mess with our heads. The humpbacked bovines step off median strips just as cars are approaching, they stare down drivers daring them to charge, they turn their noses up at passing elephants and camels, and hold huddles at the busiest intersections where they seem to chat away like the bulls of Gary Larson cartoons. It's clear they are enjoying themselves.
But for animals powerful enough to stop traffic and holy enough that they'll never become steak, cows are treated dreadfully. Scrawny and sickly, they survive by grazing on garbage that's dumped in plastic bags. The bags collect in their stomachs and strangulate their innards, killing the cows slowly and painfully. Jonathan has already done a story about the urban cowboys of New Delhi who lasso the animals and take them to volunteer vets for operations. Unfortunately the cows are privately owned and once they are restored to health they must be released to eat more plastic.
New Delhi and its cows can wait, though. Jonathan and I need a week's holiday and a catch-up after a year apart.
Before dawn on Monday morning, Abraham drives us through wide avenues, around green traffic circles, past a flower market, and drops us at the New Delhi train station, which doubles as a pavement hotel--rows and rows of bodies stretch across the station--entire families snoring away atop ripped sheets of plastic, filthy rags or just the hard concrete ground.
We negotiate an obstacle course of bodies lying comatose on the concrete as we scamper after a scrawny porter who insists on carrying our backpacks upon his head. The old bloke keeps stumbling and shakes with Parkinson's disease, so Jonathan ends up carrying our bags and very nearly the porter, who looks at our train seats with an obvious longing for a good nap. Feeling sorry for him, I hand him fifty rupees (one dollar). But just before the train lurches from the platform, he's back, yelling at me about "no-good money" and throwing the notes on my lap. I look down and swear--I've accidentally given him fifty American dollars and the poor guy has no idea of its worth. Humiliated more by his mistake than mine, I hand him one hundred rupees to appease us both. He stumbles off singing with delight and a crowd gathers around him in shock. It's way too much. (For the next two years the porters at New Delhi station will recognize me as the Mad Madam who paid two dollars for nothing, and demand a similarly huge sum. Some will even shake to arouse my sympathy.)
From the Trade Paperback edition.