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“And all our power of sight is not without some darkness” March 18, 2013

Posted by newsthatstaysnews in Uncategorized.
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I woke early on the other side of the tracks, drank the local Chai, spiced like Mumbai, but not as sweet.  Slept intermittently in a chair in an AC car of the morning express to Agra, and listened with some sympathy to a pleasant young hedge fund secretary who’d had the frightfully poor judgment to heed directions from a man standing by the railway station metal detectors.  The better part of an hour and dozens of dollars later of course, she’d gotten out of an Agra-bound cab and returned to the train station.  We hired an auto to the Taj, which I left halfway to join the queue at the Indian Archaeological Survey for tickets to a night-viewing.  I stood and chatted with an older gentleman who turned out to be an elector with an eponymous square near cambridge city hall, accorded to meet him again at 9:30 the next evening by the east gate of the Taj, and procured a return ticket to Delhi.  A few hours of linear algebra later, a bag of almonds, a Mughal tomb, and a broken-down auto, I arrived near the Nirvana hostel.  A kilometer south from the main road, I made a right into the parivaran complex, a vast and closely-spaced apartment complex.  The streets were like the gorges of small mountain streams whose walls obscure the sky, but with the peculiar tessellating anonymity of a large urban complex.  I backtracked, and asked a cybercafe operator where to find Nirvana, earning myself a smirk and directions through a nearby gate.  On the other side were piles of construction supplies, and a single incongruous built-up street, like the facade for an old western.  I would have left now in another country where I didn’t belong, didn’t know my way around.  A man walked into the street, and I asked him about Nirvana.  I didn’t understand him, nor he me.  Eventually he made a phone call, and disappeared into a building.  On his return, key in hand, he motioned me to a stairwell in the back of an open but unlit garage.

But for the cybercafe operator, the hundred hostelworld reviews, the knowledge that I was in the middle of a relatively posh area of the city, and most especially the peculiar sense of security I have always had in India, I would not have followed him up the stairs.  On the first floor, he opened a door with someone’s name on it, and indicated the interior of a largely empty apartment.  At this point, I recalled my friend’s dictum: it’s always fine until it’s not.  But, were anything going wrong, it would clearly have been too late to leave now.  I walked in.  The apartment had maybe a half dozen office chairs in it, and a room with a queen sized box spring-less bed, Disney princesses on the wall, and a sticker of Dora the explorer.  I cannot recall what I said to the man as I walked away, but I thanked the cybercafe operator heartily for not telling me that Nirvana did not exist.  It pays not to believe anything anyone in the tourism industry says along the lines of “you cannot ____” or “____ does not exist.”  But then, every once in a while, it pays to believe.

I ended up staying with some employees of a friend of a friend of mine, in a room a little too big for a king-size mattress, attached to a generous bathroom and a 2 x 2 pantry, on the fifth floor of a building.  Off the road straight, left, right, left, past the snack stand, right, through the narrow bit, right, left, left.  In the morning when they woke, they said they were tired as they’d stayed up all night talking.  In the morning, I read about groups, and they cuddled in their sleep, and sometimes one or another moaned softly.  In the morning, after one of them helped me make my way back to the main road, I tossed out some special orthopedic trainers that were destroying my knees, bought some brand new reeboks, and walked out into the world.

In the evening, I was surprised to learn that “you can stay in a mattress on his floor, he’s a bachelor, it doesn’t matter,” meant “you can share a bed with him and his flatmate.”  I was surprised by what I have been told is the intensity of Indian hospitality, and a notably energetic interest in my life, and my doings, and sharing his own.  In the evening, I was surprised by what I’m told is the intimacy that American society simply doesn’t allow between male strangers: to lie on a bed, and stare at one, and to talk to him.  I was surprised to be asked, as a result of a misunderstanding, “how much did they pay you to be here?”

In the evening,  a bit like a young orthodox Jewish schoolboy, I thanked God that I wasn’t a woman.  I asked myself a couple of unaccustomed questions, and decided that the answer was that the only choice I had was when to sleep.  In the evening, I decided that that moment was straight away, and so I did.

* * *

Two hundred kilometers and twenty four hours away, a young frenchwoman came to the same conclusion.  The hostel employees had had a devil of a time convincing her to let a young man who’d arrived maybe an hour short of midnight share her heretofore empty dorm room.  When he walked in and spoke to her, she didn’t reply; just lay with her back to him in her sleeping bag and pretended to be asleep.  When he walked into the bathroom, she rustled around, put more clothes on.  And when he came back out, she was silent again, still.  Someone had taught her a good lesson: despite the nonexistent legal protection of women, public officials referring to sexual harassment as ‘eve-teasing’, despite being forever exposed, obvious, the strange epitome of the desire for light skin, it’s really the other westerners you should probably keep an eye out for.

This particular westerner lay down and shivered.  Suddenly, he understood why it was so cold.  Why the seeing Taj Mahal, perhaps the world’s greatest monument to love aglow in early evening moonlight, &c., had mostly impressed upon him how much his knees hurt.  He got up, took some sort of greenish-blue translucent pills, put on a thick winter coat, and asked her if she’d feel better if he left the door bolted or unbolted.  For a moment, he was smug, for it is an excellence of a traveler to ask precisely those questions that cannot be answered by silence, enthusiasm, or wordless affirmation.

Then, she asked him to bolt it, and he did, and lay beneath a heavy blanket to shiver some more.

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