Paharganj, Delhi, 2011
The very first thing that happened: a wave of panic struck and for an hour I was convinced that I’d been going slowly and progressively blind for years, but so imperceptibly that I had only become aware of it now. What a disaster, what a tragedy: to dream of Delhi for so many years, only to arrive blind!
I felt as though my eyes were two pinpricks, through which I could see only one small thing at a time – and here I was in the Main Bazaar, life racing around me at every distance, from the rat scrambling over my boot to the minaret calling out in the distance.
In Tokyo, where I’d spent the previous decade sequestered, motion was uniform and predictable. I knew that if I walked out the door at 6:54, I would catch the train at 7:01 and, keeping the same pace, performing my tasks in order, I would be returned home again at 9:47 as perfectly and uniformly exhausted as a tree from which all fruit has been plucked.
In Tokyo blindness was no hindrance. Whereas here in the Main Bazaar everything was every which way and all at once, and I was certain that I would be run over. Admittedly I have been sure I would be run over all my life. I am bound to be proven correct sooner or later. I am terrified of cars and have never attempted to drive so much as a bicycle. Even at crossing the street I am spectacularly inept.
Frankly speaking, I am someone who ought to be accompanied, at all times, by a licensed and experienced nurse. It is much to be regretted that, considering the sorry state of American health care, this is not feasible. Therefore I am wandering around by myself, unsupervised and unattended — in India no less! This is a situation from which no end of trouble is bound to ensue.
I am here in Paharganj or “the Main Bazaar”, as it is mistakenly and inexplicably referred to by the travel guides. What can be said of it? Lists of India, as travel writers love to spin—saffron elephants lepers goddesses dung — seem to me showy and at the same time dull. Suffice it to say that everything on Earth is found here, and everything is just trying to escape having its toes smashed by the cycle rickshaws. Everything is here. No, don’t let me exaggerate. There are no camels. Not during the day. Camels only at night.
There are also no elephants, unlike twenty years ago, and no leper band dressed in red, banging percussion and bawling on brass. These have been replaced by men and women yammering into cell phones, which, while not nearly so colorful, are even more hazardous. At least the lepers and the elephants were paying attention.
Paharganj is a legendary place where for generations foreigners have come to stay in cheap hotels and be unhappy. The hotels are not even so cheap anymore, but the unhappiness persists. Continuously frustrated, frequently cheated, commonly enraged or nauseated or depressed, foreigners scurry around Paharganj, buying drugs and losing weight precipitously.
Speaking of drugs, I suspect that the pharmacist, despite his workaday appearance, is actually a billionaire. Doling out Valiums and pills to stop the shits with such frequency that he’s got to have trucks out back, and be constantly hauling in crates of the stuff.
Paharganj plays a memory trick on all but its sanest visitors – who flee immediately – so that it becomes, somehow, in retrospect, real life. “Hell yeah, we were living then! All that life, out in the street! All that color!” And the traveler dreams of nothing so ardently as to return.
Upon returning of course they remember the actual misery. By then they are shitting through the eye of a needle and must stay a week at least.
Therefore, even to be seen smiling in Paharganj is considered to be in bad taste. One is assumed to be on drugs. Even though the people on drugs are generally significantly more miserable than those experiencing intermittent periods of sobriety. To smile is considered showy and offensive and I myself often receive dirty looks and even actual jeers because I am smiling, perhaps even grinning broadly.
As I have said, I ought to have a licensed and experienced nurse with me at all times to help me to cross the street and also to coach me in appropriate behavior. Regrettably, this is not possible.
Why am I smiling?
Not only do I love India, and Delhi and Paharganj, I also have (as an added bonus) non-stop, 24 hour a day, 7 day a week access to: my own imaginary world! In which, as you can imagine, I feature prominently.
The first day I could hardly stop announcing to myself how utterly I belonged in India. After all, many of my more peculiar characteristics can be traced to India, or at least are less out of place here: the figure-8 head shake, the little bow, the over-formal address, the over-eager awkwardness.
When I came here first, twenty years ago, I was an eighteen year old young man. But I set records for immaturity. I was, in fact, a teenager. A child really. A baby. A fetus, actually. I was born in India.
I’ve gotten as far as discussing with myself the fact that I could never be President of the United States of America because of my ultimate allegiance to India.
I’ve overlooked other obstacles to my presidency, or even my candidacy, such as my conviction that the nation ought to be entirely devoted to ecology, reforested, and returned to the direction of its indigenous people. That, and my tendency to insert into even the most standard and decent conversations, my enthusiasm, and reverence for, the act of fellatio.
The night after this first triumphalist day I spent shitting through the eye of a needle, trying to sleep with my asshole clenched, and feeling intensely sorry for myself, as if I were the first person to whom this had ever occurred, despite the nearly continuous testimony of toilets heard through the thin walls of my Paharganj hotel.
Even on the following day, dog-sick, there were consolations. Because the New Book Depot is still in business at Connaught Place, still run by the same spectacularly haughty queen who was there in 1991, before he had a belly or gray hair. This infinitely disdainful man must now be considered a hero to literature for keeping Borges, Cicero, Updike, Chaucer, Morrison, Homer and Zola on the shelves, along with Indian writers writing in English.
I chose the Selected Essays of Montaigne, Garcia Marquez’ Complete Stories and the new volume of Proust translated by Lydia Davis. One of my compulsions, you see, is that I must always submit myself to be disdained, dismissed and looked down upon by gay men who consider themselves superior. Happily they are always ready to oblige.
When it was my turn at the register I tried, by the off-hand way I passed the books, to give the impression, not wholly untrue, that these were familiar works, with which I was merely reacquainting myself. I willed my stubble to appear professorial.
The manager did not begin at once to ring up the books, but merely looked at each in turn. He then briefly but audibly exhaled.
Even though it contradicts my own recent statements and, indeed, the very ground of my identity, I should admit that this exhalation may have actually been an expression of approval. I believe this gentleman disapproves primarily by means of inhalation.
Thus I spent the afternoon blitzed on literature, feeling entirely on the wavelength with “To Philosophize is to Learn to Die.” Or, as Montaigne says (and I reverently copied onto a notecard): “We ought not plan anything on so large a scale – at least, not if we are going to get all worked up if we cannot see it through to the end.”
Resigned to death, I found that I was feeling better. Never do I cease to be astonished by the rapidity with which this hurtling mass of vanities, fantasies and big ideas is reduced to mess, and then, by means of Immodium and rehydration salts, reverts again to carnival.
Back on the street, perched on a red metal stool with a tall glass of chai, I’m reading “That it is madness to judge the true or the false from our own capabilities”. Before me is the proof; the Main Bazaar; beside me an elderly (Swiss?) Buddhist nun who declares, “Practice like your head is on fire!” and, when asked the time, cackles, “Honey, I’ve got the time, I just don’t have the energy!” supporting my deep-seated belief that only nuns with a saucy sense of humor are to be trusted.
Meanwhile a young Scottsman has arrived, and announces he has been robbed of everything. He does not appear in the least perturbed.
“How’d it happen?” I ask.
“Dey droogged me!” He shrugs. “But, den again, I droog myself all de time. . .”
The thieves took his money and his passport too, but he doesn’t seem concerned about that either. He is a creature of pure charisma, chatting me up in Scottish brogue, speaking fluent Hindi out the other side of his mouth to the chaiwallah, an old friend, it appears.
“Worse tings ‘av ‘appened to betta’ people so fuckit,” he announces. I resolve to have this tattooed on my body some place where I will always see it.
There is, however, a problem. The bastards took his chessboard, which had been signed by everyone who ever played him on it. (He’s such a gentleman he doesn’t add the words “and lost”.) He shows me a color print which promises a 5000 rupee reward, which seems exceedingly generous, considering he only has 160 rupees to his name at the moment.
I would have talked to him all day (he was beautiful besides) but he sprinted off to be replaced, in less than a page of Montaigne (“Not to believe to rashly: not to disbelieve too easily.”) by a Brazilian Hare Krishna who arrived to remind me, yet again, that everything I need to know is contained within the Vedas.
Delighted to learn that I’m from Boston, the devotee revealed Boston was where he was driving, chanting the mahamantra, when he noticed that one of his wheels had flown off to Heaven without him. Happily Krishna appeared just then and flew his car several hundred meters to safety.
I love Hare Krishnas. Even though Srila Prahupad said homosexuals like myself are nothing short of demonic, if you’re ever broke and homeless, go to Krishna. The Episcopalians will toss you a bologna sandwich; the Krishnas will feed you a feast. Keep it in mind.
The whole time the devotee talked to me he was holding sparkly Krishna decals and I’m still a little bit miffed that, even though I listened to the whole spiel, he left without giving me one. But by then it was time to listen to a giant craggy Australian who writes song lyrics in a little notebook and reckons he could be the next Bob Dylan but in the meantime he’s in Delhi to oversee the creation of nearly ten thousand pairs of boxer shorts.
“But not just ordinary boxer shorts,” he reveals. “We’ve add pockets! And a zipper! Hard thing to put a price on, innit?”
After all this excitement I’m attempting to settle myself down with a metal cup full of hot milk, when the drunk Indian man next to me says he is the father of four, says he is 54 years old, says he looks very young. Then he says, “Tell me why I look young!”
I excuse myself: it’s getting dark. The day is nearly over. It’s time for arati, worship with light, at the Ramakrishna Mandir. I sit and watch the swami swing the lamp, the fan and the feather duster over the images of Thakur, Ma, and Swamiji, to whom I apologize for the umpteenth time: I will never be a decent devotee. I love the world too much.
This, for now, is all of what my days consist. Walks punctuated by beverages, supplemented by books, interrupted by monologues, peppered with lust and wonder. I am a fool, of course, but at least I am back in India, the place where I was born.
1 The New Book Depot, one of the world’s great bookstores, closed January 6, 2012.
Raised on a family apple farm in NH, Jonathan Mack has spend most of his adult life in Asia. Stories and Essays have appeared in Epiphany, Gargoyle, The Tokyo Advocate, Quarter After Eight, Quick Fiction, Flash, Mary, Japanzine and elsewhere. His blog is Guttersnipe Das. He lives in Tokyo now, but his heart belongs to India.