Dirk stepped out onto the broken street. The hotel was a furnace, and for once the air outside seemed cooler. Beneath his feet, the road surface had been stripped; a jumble of steel and plastic pipes ran along the narrow passage between the stacked hotels. The concrete buildings formed a canopy over the lane. The bright lights of shop-fronts, the signage and hanging bulbs, lit the place up like a bombed-out shopping mall.
Dirk turned left and stepped along the pipes onto Main Bazar, the central street of Paharganj. Here too the road was being re-surfaced, and even now, at eight in the evening, they were concreting a section of it just twenty metres away. All about was busy with human traffic; Indians mostly, but tourists as well, traipsing up and down through the open ground, pitted and full of mud.
Dirk had come to India with just a pair of thongs and he stepped carefully amidst the slush. The caps of manholes, sumps and drains protruded here and there as islands in the muck. Dirk stepped up onto a manhole and surveyed the scene. Just ten feet away was a man with a camp-stove and small wok; a pile of eggs beside him and a taper burning beside some loaves of bread.
He walked over to the man, who was dressed in a white smock with a round, peak-less white cap.
“Hello, sir! Omelette for you?”
“Yes, please,” said Dirk.
“How many eggs? One, two…?
“Two eggs, please.”
“No problem, sir. You want bread? Like sandwich?”
“Sure,” said Dirk. “Sounds great.”
The man cracked two eggs into the wok, then threw in some chopped green chillies. Dirk stood waiting for the conversation that seemed inevitable, but, to his surprise, the man busied himself in the rising steam and said nothing. Thus freed, he turned back to the street and watched the scene. There was mayhem around a choke point, where rough barricades had been erected to block the traffic. In the lightning flash of welding sparks, a man was trying to squeeze his motorbike past a camel-cart, which had paused on the other side, unable to pass. The camel-driver backed the animal up, which coughed its displeasure and, after a couple of feet, stopped and stood working its jaws. Once the motorbike was through, the shadows shifted and people emerged from the pools of darkness about the shabby shopfronts, flowing through the gap. In their wake came a line of bicycles, the riders seated and stepping along the puddled road.
“Drink, sir? Lemonade, cola?”
The man had finished cooking and placed the omelette on a slice of white sandwich bread on a white, disposable plastic plate. The bread had been lightly fried. He covered it with another slice.
“Sure. I’ll take a Thumbs Up,” said Dirk. He had grown rather fond of India’s answer to Coke.
Dirk took the money from his pocket and paid the man. His dinner cost less than a dollar. If he was still hungry, he’d buy another one later.
Dirk strode across to an empty doorway and stood on the step. With his back to the door, he ate and watched the procession of people along the street. The bread tasted lightly of smoke and charcoal, and the chillies were hot and flavoursome. He had arrived at his hotel only half an hour before and had not eaten since breakfast, yet the heat left him with only half an appetite.
Dirk finished his omelette and wiped his hands on his dirty shorts. Everything he wore had been repeatedly hand-washed with soap and shampoo in showers and sinks. Despite his best efforts, his tan shorts were stained with ingrained dirt and grease.
Dirk waited until the path was clear then walked past the road-block behind which men were toiling with shovels and mattocks. On the other side, the street opened out and was soon met by a cross-road. Coming towards him was a teenage boy pushing an iron-banded wooden cart, covered in what looked like biscuits. Dirk stepped one way, trying to get around him and the boy turned his cart in the same direction, accidentally blocking his path. They both laughed and Dirk stepped the other way, just as the boy swung the cart in the same direction, blocking him again. Now they both laughed aloud, and the boy said:
“Try my biscuits!”
“Maybe. What are they?”
The boy stopped and walked around to the side of his cart.
“Butter, nuts, very nice. It’s the local recipe!”
What nuts? wondered Dirk, but he wasn’t too fussed. The biscuits looked excellent; like rough-cut, round shortbreads, crumbly and greasy. His mouth watered as he thought of how buttery they looked.
“You like? Fifty rupees, one bag.”
“Okay, go on then.” The price seemed rather high for India, but it was still just over a dollar.
“You will love these biscuits very much, sir,” said the boy, who can’t have been much more than fourteen. He picked up a bunch with a wooden scoop and tipped them into a paper cone. Dirk got the money out and paid as soon as the bag was offered. The boy smiled so broadly that Dirk wondered what the regular price was. Still, at such prices, it was a win for them both.
A minute later, Dirk stood leaning against a telegraph pole, eating the biscuits. They were indeed good and he relished the buttery, nutty flavour. It tasted like macadamia, but he wasn’t sure whether macadamias were available in India. Eating the biscuits was as enjoyable as buying them had been. How often these things happened to him in India! He was less than a hundred metres from his hotel and already he’d been fed twice.
Further down, the street was lit by lights festooned with power cables, hanging at various heights. Everything seemed so slapdash and unfinished; beneath the wires and lights surged a crowd of the urgent and enterprising poor. Dirk stood and marvelled, until a young man walked directly towards him, raising his index finger to get Dirk’s attention.
“Hello sir, how are you?”
He didn’t wait for Dirk to answer.
“Can I help you? I can get you hashish, marijuana. You want to smoke charras? I can help you.”
“Maybe,” said Dirk. “What exactly have you got?”
The young man looked different to most of the locals. His features were more Asiatic, like the people Dirk had seen in the foot hills of the Himalayas. He was dressed in jeans, overly busy with buttons and embroidery, and a simple black tee-shirt. He didn’t look dirt poor, but nor did he seem exactly wealthy.
“Which do you prefer? Marijuana or hashish?”
“I’d prefer marijuana,” said Dirk. He liked the way this man was straight down to business. “If you have it.”
“I have it!” said the man, excited.
“I want only five hundred rupees.”
“Okay, okay. You get what you pay, no problem sir. You want more, pay more, want less, pay less. Which country, sir?”
“I’m from Australia. Where are you from?”
“India, of course!”
“But where in India? You’re not from Delhi, are you?”
“No, I’m from West Bengal. From the north, in the mountains. Near Darjeeling.”
“Darjeeling!” said Dirk. “My favourite place!”
“Yes? You like Darjeeling?”
The young man was clearly excited.
“Yes, I’ve just come from there. I stayed ten days.”
“That is great, sir, great.”
Dirk stuffed the bag of biscuits into the thigh pocket on his shorts and adjusted the camera on his shoulder. The young man read the signs and motioned for Dirk to follow him.
“Come with me. Here, sir, this way.”
Dirk followed the young man into a narrow back lane. He was wary of what might happen once he got there, but he also knew such deals could not be done on the busy street. He was a strong man with a large upper body, and he made sure his arms were ready, like a probing wrestler. So far he had managed to avoid any genuine hassle on his travels, and he liked to think this was in part because he looked capable of handling himself. He was certainly better built than most of the locals, though he didn’t doubt their wiry strength. He had once worked in a pub with a man much thinner than he, who could lift a full keg to chest height.
“Here, take this,” said the young man, holding out a bony hand. Dirk opened his palm and a cluster of tightly-compressed, dry buds were placed into it.
“No problem, sir. You will enjoy it! Very nice smoke, very sweet high.”
Dirk closed his hand tightly then reached into his pocket to produce the five hundred rupees. He passed the note to the young man, then took another note from his pocket and wrapped the marijuana in it. Another day in India, another deal. He began to laugh and the young man gave him a curious look, standing there amidst the trash and dinginess.
“Good joke, eh?” the young man asked.
“No. Yes. It’s just India,” said Dirk.
“You like India?”
“Man, I love India. But it’s crazy.”
He reached into his pocket again. “Here,” he said. “Take this.” He took out a one hundred rupee note and handed it to the young man. “Thanks for your help.”
“Thank you very much, sir! Thank you.”
“No worries. You’re a champion.”
They walked back out onto Main Bazar, both of them smiling. Dirk wondered as he did about everyone he met in India, how this young man’s life would turn out. Would it be ceaseless toil and poverty, would he wind up in prison, or would he get a lucky start and crack into the new middle class? It seemed unlikely somehow, but then, what did Dirk know of this man’s abilities? Perhaps he already was middle class.
“Good luck,” said the young man, as they reached the milling chaos of the busy road.
“You too,” said Dirk. “Take care.”
They shook hands, beaming at each other. Just now, things were going well for the both of them.
“See you later!”
The young man walked off into the crowd and was soon gone from sight. Dirk stepped across the mud to another manhole island in the stripped, dirt road. He surveyed the scene a while, then took his camera from his shoulder and began to line up shots. Part of him was inclined to return to the hotel and get baked, but he also knew that this street was a potential goldmine with its characters and curiosities. A long continuity of heads and shoulders bobbed beneath the dark mess of wires and dim street lights. The low light made it difficult to capture anything in a brief exposure, and Dirk struggled to hold the camera firm and steady, opening it up for a second or more each shot.
He stepped off the manhole and slowly walked further down the street. He soon reached another crossroad, on the other side of which the street was paved and busy with traffic. Dirk stepped up onto the pavement and leaned against a pole. He placed his camera against the metal and pressed hard to stabilise it. The people, auto-rickshaws, cars, carts, cows and camels that filled the long, wider street before him, offered a shifting collection of silhouettes.
Dirk became so engrossed in concentrating on his photographs that he didn’t at first notice the high, thin voice that was attempting to address him.
“Hello, sir. Hello, sir.”
Dirk heard the voice now and inwardly groaned. He had barely made it two hundred metres down the street and it had taken him forty minutes. Now another person wanted his attention. Despite the pleasure of his last three encounters, he wanted to focus on photographs. Would he ever be left alone? He was determined to see this one off as quickly as possible.
“Hello, sir, can you help me?”
Dirk lowered his camera and turned to his right. Standing before him, with a look of anxious concern on his face, was a terrifically thin young man. Dirk was so astonished by his appearance that he blinked and looked again. The young man was mere skin stretched taut over a skeleton. He was dark-skinned, yet somehow pale, almost white, his arms and legs covered with dry dust. His clothes were threadbare, but clean, and hung from him like they might from a clothes-horse.
“Can you help me, sir? Can you buy me some food?”
“Sure,” said Dirk. “Here,” he reached into his pocket to take some money out, and the young man began shaking his head.
“No, please, sir. No money, no money. Please come with me, please can you buy me the food?”
“You don’t want money?”
“No, no money, thank you. Please, it’s not far.”
Dirk had encountered this before in McLeod Ganj, when a young boy had become enraged after he handed him 100 rupees, a decent sum. At that time Dirk had been hurrying back to his hotel and needed the toilet. He was surprised and annoyed by the boy’s reaction, though he was equally mystified and by no means unsympathetic. Why didn’t they want the money? Would the shopkeepers not sell to them? Would no one sell to them? Was it a caste taboo? Could every shopkeeper be intimately aware of the caste of every urchin in the town? There must have been somewhere for them to go. He thought again. How else would caste work if people didn’t make it their business to know what caste other people were? It still seemed incomprehensible to him; the scale of it, the antiquity of it. Was caste still so prevalent in modern India, in Delhi? It struck him how hopelessly ignorant he was of all this.
Shocked by the emaciated appearance of the young man, and not wanting to disappoint him, Dirk was determined to help. He felt a very sudden and overwhelming sense of responsibility and wanted to do more than just buy him some food, yet he had no idea where to start. His thinness was alarming, like the wrecked bodies of the holocaust; huge sorrowful eyes, peering from an oversized head atop a tiny neck. He had an almost alien air, like those depictions of visitors from other worlds.
The young man began to walk and Dirk walked with him.
“It’s not far, sir, not far.”
“It’s okay,” said Dirk. “I’ll buy you some food, no worries.” He could see how anxious the young man was that he not change his mind, and Dirk wanted to reassure him. Indeed, he could feel the horror of anxiety that filled this boy’s whole life. If he could, just for a moment, save him from this draining, sapping worry, he would be doing something real, something substantial.
“Not much,” said the boy. “Just some chapati, some dahl, some lassi. Please, sir, also one lassi for my brother.”
“Of course,” said Dirk. “Of course. Just tell me what you want, you can have it.”
They stepped along the broken street, over the puddles and mounds of mud and gravel, heading in the direction of Dirk’s hotel. They walked around the barriers where the men were concreting, ducking under the hanging wires of the arc-lights. The young man walked with the lanky gait of a spider. His stick-thin legs stretched ahead like feelers, and his body seemed to pitch forward, as though his upper body had its own momentum. He glanced continually at Dirk, eyes full of guidance, like a man leading an animal or a child, making sure it did not stray.
Dirk was brimming with questions. He wanted to ask about the boy’s life, to know about his circumstances, his privations, yet he had no idea where to start. He remembered hearing a prostitute complain about how men always asked why they did what they did; showing a pathetic sympathy, which perhaps disguised a lurid curiosity. “I hate it when they ask,” she had said. “Are they trying to make me feel ashamed? Are they trying to make me feel like a victim?” Dirk wondered if they boy wanted to tell his story; he also wondered if the boy would tell the truth. He wanted to know the truth, but how could he ever be sure? Even if the boy lied to him, was there any doubting his thinness, his horrid emaciation? What could have made him so thin? Was it simply hunger, or was there something worse, something terminal? He pondered all this, half losing himself in the careful placement of his feet.
“Here,” said the boy, as they arrived at a counter selling hot foodstuffs. “This place.”
“What do you want?” asked Dirk.
The man standing behind the blackened bricks and boiling pots of the roadside kitchen smiled at Dirk, and before Dirk could say hello, the boy began to rattle off his order.
“Four chapatti, dahl, two lassi.”
Dirk, watched him smiling. “Whatever you want, just order.”
But the boy’s order remained modest.
“It’s enough, for me and my brother.”
Dirk thought of his own brother; how they loved and hated and loved each other as children. He felt a great welling of emotion in his heart at this boy’s fraternal care. On very few occasions had he or his brother ever found themselves wanting; not for anything they needed; food, shelter, love, warmth. When his older brother had stood up for him as a child, Dirk had felt a loving admiration and deep trust that only family could engender. It was sweet that this boy cared so much for his brother, but Dirk wanted them to have plenty.
“Are you sure you don’t want anything else? You can order, go ahead. It’s no problem.”
“No, it is enough. Thank you.”
“What about some money? Would some money help? You could buy something for your brother. Really, it’s nothing to me.”
“No, thank you,” said the boy. “No money.”
The man behind the pots handed over the food. The lassi were in clear plastic bags, like prize goldfish. The young man took the food and smiled at Dirk.
“Thank you again,” he said. “You are very kind.”
“Okay, sure,” said Dirk. “But won’t you take some money?”
The young man shook his head and began to walk off. He was smiling and, apparently, greatly relieved. The relief in his face choked Dirk right up.
“Thank you, and good luck,” he said, rather quietly, his voice catching. The young man turned and his pale face flashed a moment in the crowd, like one of Caravaggio’s urchins. Then he was gone.
Dirk felt as though he had dropped a coin into a well, not for luck, but in the hope of one day filling it. His heart was fit to burst with the hunger to help; an appetite for altruism that surprised him. Perhaps, however, one must be very select in this business; unable to give to everyone, it made more sense to give something significant to one person.
This young man had indeed moved him. He stood on the pavement on tiptoe and looked through the crowd, trying to catch another glimpse of him. He was tempted to try to follow the boy, as much out of curiosity as anything else. Perhaps he could do something, if there was an address, a family, he might be able to help them further; even once back in Australia. Yet, the boy had vanished into the stream of people on the dark street and his fate was entirely his own.
Dirk turned back towards his hotel, eager to photograph and remember, to smoke and, perhaps, to forget.