India Part 5 – The jigsaw puzzle of the Indian psyche – peices added, peices lost (part 2)

LL, Sys, Box

Whoops, I accidentally sent that other part before I had finished it….. so
here’s the rest.

To hire Tim’s Royal Enfield (a famous British bike, now ruling the streets
in India) Ronnie got us to meet up with this strange Indian mobster who
owned the bike. We met him in his backyard, where he gave us chai and
“beedis” (cigarettes, but wrapped in a leaf instead of paper) and told Tim
(through Ronnie) how the bike worked, how much he wanted etc. This guy had
more hangers on and right-hand men than Anthony Mundine and Dannny Green put
together – he sat in the middle of his garden on a chair and they flanked
him on either side, nervously laughing at all his jokes, and not speaking
unless spoken to. We felt a bit uncomfortable, especially given that there
was a bloke writhing around and groaning in his garden shed just behind us.

Anyway, Tim got the bike and he and Ronnie rode to the Bay of Bengal for the
day, while I hung around town getting hot and dirty and eating icecreams on
the Maidan (the big park). I paid a visit to the India Museum, which was so
“old-school” a museum as to be an actual museum OF a museum. I can just
imagine a teacher taking some kids around:

“Children, this is what a museum used to look like when the British ruled
India. Come, lets look at the stuffed animals, fossils, and rocks in their
dimly-lit and dusty wood and glass display cases, each clearly and
methodically labeled with only their latin names. Oh look, there’s a painted
fibreglass model of a bottlenose dolphin, and a pickled cobra in a jar! A
truly fascinating glimpse into the past.”

The following afternoon we left Ronnie for a while and went to Aquatica, the
Kolkata version of Wet ‘n’ Wild. Of course, instead of being nice and clean
and cool, the water was a thick green amoebic meningitis soup – a dish best
served lukewarm. But having come so far, and paid so many rupees to get in,
we gave it a crack anyway – anyone who has seen the pool at my house in
President Street will understand when I say that I think I have built up a
strong tolerance to water-borne diseases. There were some fun slides there,
but every time we went down without fail there would be an Indian boy or
girl or man or woman stopped halfway down screaming or crying and, being
large white men unable to stop our momentum, we inevitably plowed into their
backs or heads or necks, causing them to scream or cry some more. This even
happened on the pitch-black tunnel slide and Tim had to kick this guy in the
back or the head about 10 times to get him moving…. incomprehensible

The highlight of Aquatica was this kind of watery disco, where there was
loud Indian music being played out over a wooden dancefloor impregnated with
little jets that shot mist up onto the groovers. A rope across the middle
divided the girls and couples (about 5 people) from the hormonal boys (100
plus, some doing pushups in their muscle shirts). Naturally, being a disco
fiend from way back, I had to give it a go. I thought being a white man
would allow me to access all areas, but I had to settle for the boys side,
where I put on a fine display of traditional Australian dancing – the
sprinkler, the lawnmower, the shopping trolley (I forgot to do the
shark)…. I had about 100 people yelling and imitating my actions, but I’m
not sure they fully understood what a sprinkler or a lawnmower or a shopping
trolley is – at the Taj Mahal they mow the lawn with a team of bullocks
strapped to a harvester, and in Mumbai I saw ten men mowing the maidan by
hand with small sickles.

The next day we caught a local train south to Ronnie’s village – I finally
fulfilled my vision of being in a fully packed Indian train and hanging out
the door…. excellent fun. When we jumped off there was a sudden commotion
as a big mob of men and boys dragged a terrified looking bloke off the train
and started slapping and punching him and yelling at him. Ronnie told us he
was a pickpocket they had caught – they dragged him off into a shed where
Ronnie said they would beat the life out of him. Swift Indian justice. I
can’t describe the fear in this pickpocket’s eyes – I’ll never forget it
though. We stayed the night with Ronnie and his wife, which was great.
Ronnie, his neighbour, Tim and I got drunk and staggered around and caught
the train to another town and back, and generally had a great time.

Next day we got the local train south again into the Ganges delta, caught a
boat across the river, caught a rickshaw for 30 minutes, and then hired out
a big boat for the day to take us to the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve. The 3
hour boat ride was really relaxing and fun for me, but Tim and Ronnie were
really sick from the previous night’s festivities and may not have enjoyed
it quite as much. Anyway we got to the Reserve, only to be informed that we
couldn’t come in unless we had the correct authorisation letter from some
office in Kolkata – I blame the British for this. I was sure the Phantom was
in there too damn it!

“It’s better to stare into the tiger’s eyes than into the cold eyes of the
angry Phantom”*

But, boys and girls, there is one thing that I consider more dangerous still
than staring into the cold eyes of the angry Phantom – jumping into the
Ganges River (see email from Varanasi for description of river conditions),
and this is what we did. There is crocodiles in the Ganges too, but the boat
driver said there was none in this area – I made it a quick swim regardless,
because he also said we could get into the Sunderbans. We got back to the
town, and back on the rickshaw to the train station.

(start Fred Savage “The Wonder Years” narration with nasal American accent)

And so, as Tim and I rode facing backwards on the platform rickshaw, Ronnie
and his neighbour on the front, we no longer saw what was coming towards us,
but only what was being left behind. The sun was setting on the mangrove
forest and also on our 5 week journey of discovery in this strange but
wonderful country. Our quest to understand India and Indians was looking
like a lost cause. Everything we saw and every answer we got led only to
more questions, and we were no closer to discovering the holy grail, or the
single stitch that would tie together everything that we had seen.

But as I looked back at the village Indians smiling and pointing and
laughing as we flew by, I started to wonder if THEY knew why they threw
their rubbish on the ground, or why they could make Tim a cheese sandwich or
a tomato sandwich but not a cheese AND tomato sandwich, or how they could
have a constant water shortage in Darjeeling where it rains every day and
there is large rivers running by. I said to Tim that I had recently come
extremely close to throwing my rubbish on the gound or in the water – in
fact another week here and I almost certainly would have done it. Tim
admitted that he had been throwing his rubbish on the ground when he was
sure I wasn’t looking.

At this instant I finally understood India. No Indian could EVER explain any
of these things to us in logical terms, because there was no logic behind it
and they would freely admit this. When we asked people in Darjeeling why
they didn’t collect rainwater they would say “Yeah it’s ridiculous, we
really should” and leave it at that. India doesn’t make sense at all, and
there is no use fighting against it or trying to make sense of it. Indians
know this, and now I know it too.

And so as I looked back on this crazy decade, the 1960’s, I knew that Winnie
and I had been through the good and bad times, and we were going to be OK.

(end of “The Wonder Years” narration)

Yeah we are back in Mumbai now, and hitting an Indian nightclub tonight. I
bought some new shoes for the occasion, but Tim’s feet are too big for
Indian shoes so he’s gonna try with the old Dunlop Volleys – banking on his
white skin as his passport through the door. I’m a bit crook, but he went
out last night and saw a Norweigan get bitten by a rabid dog – good old
India, I’ll miss her.




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