Monday, February 11, 2013
A Colnago frame is lashed to the balustrade. The bike made a journey to get here. The one that comes to mind is not the one that led it up here into the loft of Kala Ghoda café.
I surmise perhaps it was born from once a small factory. It had ferried across continents through red, blue, and off-colored scratched shipping crates, carried on the backs of dirty trucks, settling finally on store racks. Or not so finally perhaps, for the journey of a bicycle leaves respite forever a delusion. At some point someone takes it and gives it a home and journeys start anew.
Perhaps this home was one of a professional cyclist. Sojourns then fetched the rider towards peaks set in distant serried horizons and high through the alps and empty roads and wide ravines and village and countryside. All things are so wide and far and yet not so far on a bicycle. All time marked by the passing of stars, our star, moon, the pace of seasons. On days fallen white with patches of darkness slaking all around, weather blew sideways but the bike did not. But there were also days with sun. One the first day of the training season, he had pulled on the tight short-sleeve jersey. The new route led beneath the shadows of tall poplars, slender birches, elder oaks. Then the shoulders of shade became dappled and then were no more. There was only the sun unblinking. It would be a week before he could put on a long-sleeve again.
Another day comes and it is the hour for the race. The owner had sneered when it was suggested that he should ride the corporate sponsored bike of another breed. All parts new and 100% reliable A-Okay USA. Well, he had none of that. Everything was replaced save the guts on the Colnago Beast, which he began to call it. Though, a Colnago, or any bike, does not have guts save that which comes from rider. His riding partner once called him lame for using “Beast.” They rode on that morning for some time and he said no word. His feet pedaled and cycled. A swift coast down-mountain brought them wheel-to-wheel as spokes spat the tainted waters and rubber siped through the thickening muck. His back was still perfectly hunched, eyes transfixed into the distance of road tunneling into vision. “Everything’s gone now. It’s because of me, only me. Wife, children, the stuff I worked so hard to build, thought I wanted. I think I’m a monster. It’s not like I cry. I don’t feel sorry for myself, just a little sad. I would be such an asshole if I did. But you know, this thing makes me get out of bed at 4am every morning. How is that?”
That year, Colnago was very happy. As for the Beast, it made other tours the world over before the rider could no longer bear to lay eyes to it each passing time he entered and left the modern flat. Trophy collecting was not where his heart lay. Having the thing he wanted was not where his heart was, he began to understand. A paradoxical monster. The skeleton hung in the rafters offering refuge for dust and mites, and it might as well have been him, some once figured equation involving man and soul of machine. He shook his head towards the high-vaulted ceiling where light occasionally broke through in a parallelogram and he sighed back down towards the reclaimed redwood floor from California. “One more tour, then, eh. How’s Asia? How's anything? Only one way to know.
So let’s find out.”
A calm driver ferries our bodies through the art and museum district splashing through pools of Indra’s drain. It’s the same morning though I can hardly believe it’s the same day. Driver looks at a yellowed paper on the visor, our cropped faces in the mirror, the scattered people outside with solid colored umbrellas celophane to the fickle monsoon. With all the water about, somehow our thirst cannot be quenched and we imagine the fragrance of chai or some other exotic liquid though the cab could be drowned at any wrong turn. This way and that way, we go in circles. Lost or not, it could not ever be as bad as our first night.
That night a lawyer and aspirant talent to be of film and dance, Anaka, and her auntie had hailed a tuk tuk just outside of a Goan hotspot, two floors occupied by the standard ambient western restaurant lighting that turns steak a medium-rare no matter how it was ordered. But this was not a steak house and rather it was filled with Indians. We had filled on bombil, dried and fried small fish, the self-same source of pungency that crossed our noses as we passed over neighborhoods in the lee of sun of residential high-rises where the fish were put out to dry. Also on the menu, spicy prawns and mutton everything, though one should note mutton in India is actually goat. Vegetarian everything else. Ah, and biryani. This is Bombay, so we should wait until we head to Hyderabad before we try the real deal biryani, says Anaka. I inform her it can’t be as odd as the one served by us on all the flight services with the perfectly cubed frozen vegetables but Em is too polite to speak at length. Confucius and my grade school teacher advised that I should shut my mouth or else have my stupidity reaffirmed. Isn’t such admonition overly cautious, perhaps, even cowardly? Make it safely to old age with reputation intact and then what?
Anaka, commanding in stature for her unspoken auntie draped in the brilliance of a lime dipped sari stands astride her hips. Em and I stand behind as to not interfere. They call the ear of a curbed tuk tuk and they agree on something real quick-like, something I could never do as a man, as a gringo in India. I find out later she was also testing his competency to get us back our hotel. I tell you now that he wasn’t.
So our driver, let’s call him Bob, slashes a path through the brightness of filtered neons of some bustling streets and then escape through corridors where signs can hardly be known. Bob presses with city animal instincts in a crush of anonymous drivers and passengers and random wanderers of the quadruped variety. Cows and goats and I’m pretty damn sure a horse without rider fester along the shoulders of evening and concrete and at times, children, mothers, (no fathers, for they are among us, one of the drivers, I pray), running alongside the drainage beneath a bridge seemingly alive rumbling with the incessant passage of commerce and industrialization above it. No cardboard cutouts and tents in makeshift quarters of alleyways behind a stolen shopping cart like some metal-framed burro and a dumpster, but only for that single night. But those are images I’ve seen elsewhere in faraway cities, home, America. I see something else. Smiles of the children. I do not doubt it. The mothers are squatted and resign themselves. Elsewhere through the trip, I will remember the families that laid stake to corners of busy sidewalks, where children sleep during the day on the bare concrete, or only pretend to sleep, where we, pretend to look or do not look at all.
I swear we were here twenty minutes ago. I can still tell the place though the only light are the tuk tuk and cab and cycle armies and their head beams and pale lamps from concrete and tin and wood shacks, where I’m pretty sure my modest collection of books at home would not fit. Waiting for the jam to unjam, these houses flank our right, and on our other, a man makes way across fields of debris: colored plastic, dark rubber, mud and tell-tale tracks of animal and man. His sandals wade through it all, carrying back a jug of water with a spout like an elephant’s. This is their outdoor plumbing. Others call it latrine au naturel.
You have come to India, why? Yes, for a wedding. And? What of Bombay? Are you getting in your kicks, you gaudy, fortunate, tourist asshole?
There are means of feeling like a greater asshole. There are means and there is much more to being than to feeling. Have I made a blunder by comparing poverty with authenticity? I can’t help but once seeing the very thing I’ve read so many times in Nat Geo on the matter of the 7 billion population plight that now I breathe it and it is forever scored.
Bob makes uncounted stops by vendors and other drivers curbed on their break, smoking, chatting, sitting idly, anything but sleeping, for that is something done during the safety of day. Now we figure he’s the one asking for directions. That’s fine.
But it isn’t.
You’d think what felt like an hour or eternity was long enough for the drive back to our rooms. An hour getting lost and it would take seemingly another to get unlost. We’ve stopped next to the lot of a hotel where the name hued in broken light against the backdrop of nothing else remarkable is near indiscernible. We tell him politely yet sternly this is not it, though the name bears some likeness. He gestures, “This is right, this is it,” but of course, you’d think WE’D know which place we stayed at. I began to raise a critical voice. He’s unhappy. I know this though we don’t speak the same language. I began to acknowledge others around me again. There’s Em. Through this all, I feel nothing out of place with her. She’s calm as a monk, a steady palm in the gentle sway of weather passing. “As long as we refuse to get off this rickshaw, we’ll be fine.” Talking to myself aloud again. Self-reassurance, do I now hear?
The hotel guy is bored and comes out to investigate this business in the center of his lot which will bring him likely none. The street corner of empty spaces of concrete overwritten by white lines and imaginary stalls. Traffic does not come nor go. Not here. There is really nothing here. Darkened buildings with open windows where people might live. Nothing. Nothing at all. A family crammed into single room hovels. The pallid glow of a tv screen, perhaps. Three souls and another now. A jetliner like a lion above our heads. A jungle in more ways than one. The damp air of mangrove still hangs. The hour of midnight ticks closer and closer, all the while the highway thrumbing is miles away, the light show of beams and advertising radiance denying the midnight of a city more restless than NYC NY.
Hotel guy calls the number on our hotel business card, replete with directions and a map on the back, diagrams before the age of hieroglyphics. This is obvious since they “discuss” at length the meanings. “Yeah. Behind the big theater? ” I ask, perhaps a flicker of connection. He’s pointing at the big landmark drawn dead-center. There’s a name of a road and a cross street. Thanks a lot, Britain. At this point I realize that no one is speaking English save for me and Em. Certainly, Em’s phone is only good for dicking around on, and not so much that actually making a business call in the land of Vodafone, so thank Indra that a modest man can own his own frequency. Mine? I didn’t bring. It’s not a part of my everyday carry kit, not a part of my international-clusterfuck-necessaries. It’s called a dumb phone. Might have heard of it. Hotel guy reaches some understanding, some idea now. Bob has an inkling. At least that’s what I read of their lilting heads. I shrug and get into the tuk tuk. That’s enough. Let’s get on.
Bob is illiterate. He had only glanced at the business card. Hotel guy was there to rescue him from his own ignorance. Not that he did that much better. Bob is assuredly consigned to his fraying seat on the tuk tuk for who knows how long. Bob jerks the motor into turning and he heads off into the shadows for the light of the ramp and highway. Bob’s and most of the world’s crises can be resolved through a few things: books, clean water, and the uprising of women (through books) into the crust that their equals, men, dwell. Relieve scarcity of those three things in a society and you will have a first class one. Also, let those who worship worship their own gods of rain. Easier said than done.
Something more than wheels, tiny rubber tires (only three), compressed natural gas, and Bob’s clear determination yet scrunchy frustrated face will get us where we need to be. The puttering of the rickshaw’s tiny motor sound hilarious and inspiring. Kids would fall harder for it than that stupid blue talking train Thomas and his bullshit I-can-do attitude. I have my own confidence. My tour group consisting of my wife and non-speaking driver instill enough that there isn’t room for doubt or fear. So what? What’s always the worse that can happen? A random maiming or mugging. We die now or inevitably when entropy reaches our doorstep in a many billion years. There will not be any form of intelligence left, if there is presently. So who gives a shit? Trucks. Trucks. Honk, Okay, Please? Bumblebee taxis. BMWs. Mercedes-Benz. Honda motorcycles. Really, really generic ones. Vespas? Dogs. Rickshaws of every stripe. The horde of night coming out to work and play amid people who walk the streets without fear of being crushed outright. I’ve said it. India’s national pastime is in extreme sports, not cricket. Lights. So many. Not of the tawdry lights of a corporatized square in a world class city. Bright and dull headlights aiming into bodies ahead of us, into the distance at times as far and as fast as light can travel. Yellows, whites, tints in between according to the the orchestration of energy, need, darkness.
Things pass so quickly. To this day, it all passed so quickly though we were unmoving at times. So still and it still passed so quickly and I can hardly remember that night that moment lest it was recorded somehow, and for that, Em did. She scratched in her journal at night. She snapped away during the light. Time always passes so steadily which is to say so damn damn quickly, that far too few things such as mutable memory and creatures as short-lived as man can avail of speciation. All a memory now, clear only by color and sense, the others a jedi mind trick. When the night passed on and it was nearly gone we reached that point of the city drenched in an outer darkness, much like our universe, an inexplicable something physicists rather call dark matter. Well, here’s your dark matter.
Morning in circles. We turn into a street occupied by kids and a ball’s trajectory. Sandals and shoes and puddles and rutted holes with a single ratty bat. A game of cricket. They eye us. Our windows down, they usher over out of curiosity or out of earnest want of helping some lost souls. They speak English. I smile, say, “Hi, guys. Kala Ghoda café? Should be on this street, yeah?”
“Yeah,” the kid of fifteen or so thinks aloud, surrounded by friends in the grayest white and brown stripes and holey brown or once ruddy shirts with unfading smiles or curious blankness. He thinks some more. “Over there, yeah.” The shorter and younger admire the wisdom of their ring leader.
I’m certain he had pointed a few directions. This makes us uncertain, but we go. We go. Thirty minutes later, we’re dropped off in a café or sorts, though not quite the one we sought. We take some sweet time to work out our fare and the driver is dismissed. We talk to a security guard in uniform light blue shirt and navy. Likely he is leading us astray again. We end up braving the city splashing of traffic and the slick sidewalks until we return to the cricket game between streets and cars and colonial stylized buildings in the tone of alabaster. Leaves and the unnaturally colorful debris of man scatter around the awed quiet of kids yelling and the muted crack of a battered swing. We walk. We walk. We’re going somewhere. That’s the import. Even in the territories of bounded city blocks there was once the art of the walkabout to remember. We remember to let go and just to walk.
The crackly blue walls at the back of a precinct. Trucks with an open backside made to carry guerilla fighters, who knows, and a modern police car. Two officers in uniform khaki topped by high-crowned official hats sit across from the other tending playing cards. Em wants to ask them for directions and I mumble but relent. They point down the corridor and say to turn and to continue.
No signs. Unremarkable storefronts selling things we’re not interesting in buying. We pass a handful of these and come upon aged wooden doors flanked by potted fronds on either side. We’re too early so Em hangs back and takes her time to compose the scenery. I carry on and reach the crux of the intersection. A few blocks away I hear the main street abuzzing and swishing alive with mid-morning whirl of motors. Two women sit at the corner porch of their moldy building and knit something colorful in the early haze. A few steps away beneath a green awn a man buys cigarettes from a window. The street is big enough that a car or two might go through without getting stuck but I know this won’t happen soon. This is because a sickly dog sits smack center. He looks half sun-burnt but that is not his pain. He’s fending off the mites burrowing into his skin and perhaps the road traffic, too. All give him right of way and I stare a little while longer until the minutes turn the hour.
I look down the street and Em is gone. Walking back, I see she’s on a platform getting better angles on the underplayed drama of the morning’s drench still dripping around. Then someone unshutters the laden doors. Behind that are perfectly clear glass ones as if they did not exist save for their beveled outlines and handles. We still wait. I wonder and ask Em if we had gotten here before anyone at all including the properly dressed young man inside arranging the details and likely starting the brew.
He unlocks the glass doors. A small place. Small means intimate. A retinue of tables and white chairs. A wall-bench of sorts rimming one side.
“Excuse me. What’s upstairs?”
“The loft. You can sit up there.”
“Yes, we would like that, please.”
Sure feel important. We head up unsure steps that would not accommodate every ideal 5’8” to 6’2” dark and handsome guy. I sit. Em gets the couch. In my chair perhaps a renowned journalist from America or England or Australia once sat, dreaming up the same thing I was. To my right a Colnago frame is lashed to the balustrade.
Story by HVH