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Amongst thousands of persons, hardly one strives for perfection; and amongst those who have achieved perfection, hardly one knows me in truth.
– Bhagavad Gita 7.3
Who can take a sunrise, sprinkle it in a dew, cover it in chocolate and a miracle or two?
– Leslie Bricusse & Anthony Newley
I am Willy Wonka
“Hey Mister, buy from me! Buy from me!”
The kid flashes a Bollywood smile as he leans on the window of the cab stopped at a crooked intersection amidst dozens of other taxis, trucks, scooters and the occasional moody wandering cow. I inhale the dusty air, the heat, the sounds of horns and coughs and other chattering baby merchants leaning onto other car windows and engage, “What ya got?”
The kid leafs through his stack, thoughtful-like, trying to decipher what the white guy might be hankering for on a fine Mumbai morning. His hand emerges from its wanderings, sticky talons grasping a Scooby Doo colouring book. I shake my head and he frowns, furrows his brow. Trying again out comes Sponge Bob. Another negative. Third time is a set of cartoon characters I am unfamiliar with. No thanks bud, my colouring is done brand name.
To his credit, he is not dissuaded by my lack of interest in his wares and simply changes tactics.
“Mister, small money, give me small money. Mister, small money.”
Okay, last try. “Mister, one chocolate. Only one small chocolate, just one chocolate, only one!”
The look on his face as he makes this last plea makes clear he thinks I am holding some massive quantities of chocolate. Like acres of dozens of shitloads of chocolate is on my person. He licks his hungry lips as envious eyes reflect me doing a backstroke in a river of chocolate, an army of adoring Oompa Loompas shower my naked chocolate-y body with gumdrops and sundry.
Before the light turns green (not that lights matter all that much here in Mumbai), colouring book boy is shouldered aside by a slightly older child with packs of breathtakingly shitty plastic toy cars.
“Mister, buy from me! Buy from me! You have chocolate?”
Chewing and chewing all day long
There was an article in the paper about building an aviary for the vultures of Mumbai. It is illegal to slaughter cattle, so there are many cows wandering the streets. At some point these cows die of natural causes and they fall down in the street or field whereby they are carrion for the vultures. India used to have the largest vulture population in the world but now most of the birds are gone. The decline of the bird population coincides with the introduction of veterinary medicine. The vultures reacted poorly to something given to the cows and the vultures’ kidneys failed and the population dwindled. The lack of vultures is causing additional problems for the city’s Parsi population.
I ate in a Parsi restaurant and had to look it up. They are Zoroastrians who fled from Iran to India centuries ago, pushed by the tide of Islam. They’ve settled comfortably in India, making up another patch in India’s vast and varied ethnic and religious tapestry. Zoroastrians believe a human corpse is unclean and therefore cannot be touched by any of the four cardinal elements; in practical terms cannot be buried or burned. So the solution is, and always has been, vultures. This is why they are building the aviary.
Why don’t you try simply reading a book?
The National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai has most of the big guns of modern/contemporary Indian art: MF Husain, Ram Kumar et al. The missing links are in the branch in Delhi, including my personal favorite Bhupen Khakhar – a curious relegation as Mumbai/Bombay was his birthplace.
I walk through the gallery, boring river/village scenes, deities, before stopping at an FN Souza painting. Souza is the black sheep of the Indian art world; he booked for New York City at a relatively young age and could never quite cotton the whole Indian artist persona – robe-wearing guruji – many others seem to cultivate. He was more in the Western mode: drinking, smoking and womanising. His work is too. The pieces I see in Mumbai aren’t great: messy cubistic imitation, though a Cezanne-updated still life has its merits. I had dinner with FN Souza once in New York. There’s an amazing picture of the two of us: both with scraggly beards and unkempt hair but he a frail Indian man in his eighties and me all young NYC in my twenties. At the time I worked at an art gallery specialising in Contemporary South Asian art, mostly Indian. The dinner was in celebration of an auction of some of his paintings; he made a pretty good cut and deigned to dine with us.
My bosses at the gallery often dangled an India trip in front of me for my continued low-wage service, but I split before it ever happened, if it would have; the gallery’s defunct, the bosses finding better wasteful uses for their money. Hadn’t made it to India until now. Whenever I told people about my plans for the trip, they invariably said something along the lines of “I hope you find what you’re looking for,” which annoyed me as it assumed some sort of vision quest was in the offing. The one-billion people and ancient culture, not reason enough. I got some similar lines writing in my moleskin in a Goa bar: next brilliant novel, right man? (It’s not the “Great American novel” in Goa.) Eh, maybe ten years ago. Genius strikes young, hot and hard; a great novel and the rest of one’s life in a desperate attempt to recreate that first strike. At least I am spared the embarrassment.
I did watch Darjeeling Express on the plane over; it’s cute, but I don’t have brothers and can’t really relate to the dynamic.
Pampered and spoiled like a Siamese cat
Six police are “working” in the reception area. One carefully draws straight lines with a ruler on a page, one after the other. One crosses his arms and looks menacing. One provides a bit of geniality. One fills out a form on recently hand-ruled paper, having carefully, painstakingly clipped mimeograph paper underneath. One hunts and pecks on a computer entering data from the hand-ruled form the previous guy filled out, the first guy having hand-ruled it. Often the guy who takes notes longhand must translate long passages of his (very level) scrawl for the benefit of the guy hunting and pecking on the computer. The menacing guy rearranges chairs, tells me to sit. I ask the genial guy for a toilet. The computer guy goes to lunch. A sign on the wall says, “Rape is an attack in the soul.” I can’t even fathom being a sexually assaulted woman and coming in here to report the crime to this bunch.
My girlfriend’s bag was somewhat ingeniously slashed earlier in the day in a crowded market. We had separated in the mass, she felt a tug, dismissed it. I had heard tell of this crime but I had certainly never seen it and was even grudgingly impressed with the clean getaway, a straight-razor rip in her canvas tote. Despite my protestations to the utility of a complaint, she was aggrieved by the loss and wanted to report it; we had a train to catch that evening and I worried we would spend the day in the police station, but perhaps we could get some insurance money with a police report. We went. We sat.
A blonde European tourist came in exasperated. His bag had been stolen and when he had come in the day before to report the crime the police had encouraged him to report it “lost” instead. After a night of wallowing in resentment, he had changed his mind and wished to change his report to “stolen.” Sit down, they say. Tell us the story. But I told you many times yesterday. Tell us again. A man he thought was his friend, they had shared a room and travels and companionship the past week, absconded with his stuff. His face was on the hotel’s CCTV. Here is the picture from the hotel – the grainy picture of a dark-skinned man. Here is his name. Wait, this is your friend for seven days? Yes yes, I told you, I thought he was my friend. You stay together? Yes yes. You stay together in same room? Yes yes. You are “friends?” We were friends. Friends? Friends. What hotel is this? Scowl.
Clearly, the police think some buggery was going on and are not pleased; they may have a word with the hotel management; the blonde boy cries.
Outside the station, a fortune teller sits cross-legged on a cardboard carpet. A green parakeet chirps in a small wooden cage of polished teak. Face up on the cardboard is the five of swords, self-interest, discord. The sky grows dark. A distant chaiwalla wails.