Ello. Ello. One Rupee. Ello.
(Notes From a Travel Journal)
In the doldrums of the afternoon, the birds aren't entirely sure of their purpose. They are Rajasthani birds after all, and like or not, they go blotto in the heat just like the rest of us. Siesta is unsatisfying, brushing away flies with half-hearted left hand swipes. The swamp cooler exists existentially, drawing passing cows into drooling fits of sentimentality.
Unable to sleep, I hit the streets and I'm reminded why I tried to nap. Jaipur is loony. It's one hundred and thirteen degrees and I'm heading for the only tried and true air conditioning I know. Stubborn pregnant clouds lounge overhead snickering down at me, "We'll rain when we're goddamn good and ready and not a second before! Don't like it? Stew in this juice!"
I'm groggy. Time works differently here. It's tied to smell memories and distances between a fresh cow turd the size of a lunch box and a pakorawalla. I avoid both. It's a long journey, and dysentery cramps the style. Smell memories devour brain space like computer RAM which is why dogs nap wherever they collapse.
"Ello. Ello. One rupee."
I look down into the pleading eyes of a girl beggar too distressed to ignore. India rolls on through detachment, but I'm still too green. Her grimy nakedness, her panties strategically torn to reveal her filthy little vulva — a ploy, a gamble on the part of some putrid mother or father. The more pathetic or destitute, the more overwhelming to the white flesh, the tourist, me. The more tender, the more my guts go to ground beef. I lose myself in anger and imagine standing over the broken body of her manipulative parent, but these are unwelcome heroics spun from years cloistered in my own parents' wealth.
"Ello. Ello." She tugs on my pant leg.
"Nahii!" I say forcefully, "Jaao." I wave her off. A moment later a mother in a red and yellow sari materializes armed with a toddler.
"One rupee," she says and puts her right hand to her baby's mouth as if to say that I can feed India, that I can but don't and do every time I leave the house. I give out cash when it's one beggar, but it's never enough and once hooked, the children will follow for miles, the whole way singing, "Ello. Ello. One Rupee. Ello."
The sharks circle, the smell of money cutting through the tepid air, and then I'm penned in by a two families, overcome by a sea of outstretched hands.
"Nahii!" I yell. I'm loud, but it's not enough and the desperate persist. I try to escape into the street and fortuitously glance right just in time to catch my life. A vestige of British imperialism, Indians drive on the left hand side like ancient knights jousting on horseback.
Three lanes interrupted by a median of crushed shrubs then another three lanes of every conceivable form of transportation. Barking horns that scream, "I am here!" sound constantly from the machines that dare each other to share a common smoky space spiced with sparks and shrapnel. Miraculously, accidents seldom occur.
The jovially psychotic rikshawallas, the true Jedi of Rajasthan, are lane splitters with gusto. They may try to cheat the tourist, but they put on one hell of a good show guiding their three wheel 100cc soot billowing rockets through the city streets, armed with cigarette stained teeth and bravado.
Camels spit and hump along. Bikewallas suffocate in their slow pace. Mopeds transporting entire families speed by carefree — the helmeted husband, two toddlers, and a wife sitting sidesaddle in dresses down to their ankles. Elephants and buses begrudgingly give way to one another though at slow speeds the stoic pachyderm would kick a beaten Volvo's ass to the curb. No one messes with massive cows who move about the city with a rare liberty, karmically unrestrained; the original green solution, they go where they please and when one chooses to amble across the six lanes, I follow suit and stare into the indifferent eyes of the oncoming travelers.
Across the street, I amble over to a cigarette stand and buy a pack. The loafing men stare at me. I light up a Mill's Classic and nod at the closest inquisitor. He doesn't respond to the international sign of dudedum, just continues his stare. When I have the patience, I return the stare until one of us breaks away. I seldom win. Different stares hold different meanings and it would take a lifetime of studying Hindi and some damn good tanning cream for me to understand. This particular look is one of incredulity. That I could waste an entire buck on a pack of elephant dung tasting smokes is beyond belief. They buy smokes one at a time, the process and the necessary greetings takes up the time that they might ordinarily spend staring at foreigners.
Past the cigarette stand is a parking lot in the making. Gaunt darker skinned men and women, possibly from southern villages, form an assembly line passing concrete and stone. A beautiful woman in a red sari pauses to look me over. She's holding six bricks on her head, a weight that would crush my spine, and when she smiles, I smile back. I know I'm not supposed to do this, that she'll probably get a pile of shit from the surrounding men, but it's a rare liberty that passes between us lasting only a few seconds.
I'm thinking of the woman when I almost slip on the marble ramp leading to the entrance of commercial modernity. City Pulse Mall, Jaipur's newest avatar of Ganesh, the lap dance of the international elite, and the solace of the burgeoning middle class. For me, it's all about the air conditioning and Barista, a chain of coffee shops that's spreading across metro-India. An Americano costs 51 rupee, or about a $1.50, and what seems punitive in America seems beyond tyrannical in India where a hustling Rikshawalla makes 100 to 150 rupee on a good day.
The Barista staff consists of five leering twenty-somethings who burn milk and surpass their stateside counterparts in angst and ingratitude. Every time I come for coffee the manager tries to practice his French with me and every time he is disappointed.
"No pole vu France!". I answer which is stupid and confusing on my part, but akin to the street kids who want to practice their English — "Hello sir, my name isWhat country you from?" Past that, they got nothing. I usually respond with, "Aramse. Me Atta hoon. Merinam Johnny Cash," which roughly translates to "Hey, Chill the Fuck out. I am here to save your day. My name is Johnny Cash."
I sit down and suck in the cool dry air.
Posters of wispy white models clad in lingerie tear at the ancient vanity of the proud, traditionally thick middle class women strutting in vibrant saris and covered in jewelry; they were the standards, now their husbands' masturbatory visions taunt them with uncertainty. Bollywood is whiter than a New England clambake. Advertisements for Pond's skin whitener are everywhere tearing at the fabric of this liberated postcolonial society. It's hard to tell if the advertisments are meant to sell whiteness or set off a race war.
Businesses are over-staffed. Westside, the mid-end department store, has over twenty listless clerks who get in the way more than assist the customer, especially the visitor who's used to room, not the agressive haranguing of the old market places. Several stories above the mall are the private luxury condos that were sold out years before the first shovel tore into the chalky dirt. Recession is on my lips.