The following is a short story set in Varanasi and written roughly a year ago, with various edits and updates since. As I shall be returning to India for five weeks in December and January, I figured I ought to get closure on the last trip and get this short story out there.
The hustle was more than enough to keep him in the hotel room. If it wasn’t a boat ride on the Ganges, then a head massage or a fortune told; future mapped and past explained. There was much on offer: spiritual comfort, physical relief, food, drink, trinkets, baubles, ornaments, silk, hashish, charras and flowers for Puja. It wouldn’t have been so bad if it wasn’t always so hot; if they weren’t always so insistent. Dirk was having none of it – with the exception of the hashish and charras.
The heat was everywhere; in the air and in the stones; even it seemed, in the river. It hung in the atmosphere like grease; textured by the dry dust of the north Indian plains. It coated everything in a thin film; hair, clothes, skin, eyes, camera lenses and sunglasses. Dirk could take all kinds of privation, but humidity was his kryptonite. It made him irritable and short-tempered; enough so at times to act with a rare lack of courtesy. It had wiped him out in Vietnam, where, having been cheated, his anger had risen in a volcanic surge. With that incident in mind, he worked hard to maintain his equilibrium. Yet, for the first time the evening before, after two months of diplomacy, Dirk had lost his cool and called a man a “slack-jawed cunt.”
He had taken his first shower at 0615. It was the time to get things done, for by midday the air would be porridge. He sat on the end of the bed, rolling a joint.
“Buy a pipe today, Dog.”
He mostly spoke just to hear the sound of his voice, and had taken to addressing himself as “Dog.” Travelling solo, it was in part to prevent himself going mad, though he now wondered if that was precisely how people went mad; by becoming accustomed to it. Outside of his own company, most of his utterances took the form of polite refusals. He was not unsympathetic to the countless poor traders, shopkeepers and rickshaw drivers, but nor was he inclined to accept their constant overtures just to please them.
“You should have stayed in the mountains, Dog. You ran away like a coward.”
Dirk licked the paper and sealed the roll. He twisted one end, then picked up a match and tamped down the contents of the other. He tore off a length of slim cardboard from the cigarette papers, rolled it and slid it in for a filter. Working it with the match, he made the filter fit snugly and tightly inside the joint. He was both proud and fatigued by this meticulousness. These small things, these necessities, he could manage quite well, though the effort left him work-shy.
Dirk stood up and listened at the door. He heard only the rushing of the fan outside, blowing hot air up the suffocating staircase. Lately, Dirk had retreated from the expansive, affable mood in which his holiday began. Perhaps he had smoked too much; become isolated, paranoid. He had, in various locations, often felt he was playing cat and mouse with the hotel staff; that they knew somehow of his furtive joints, but hadn’t caught him yet. Perhaps they didn’t care, but he couldn’t take the risk. He remained bluff, assertive, yet could not meet their eyes; not without sunglasses. He always wore sunglasses, cleaning the lenses obsessively.
Dirk moved to the squat balcony door. It was firmly shut, as was the patterned window beside it. The glass was green in some places and gold in others; a blended reflection of painted walls. The wooden frame had been sloppily coated and thick dark brush-strokes marred the regal pattern on the glass. From outside, red and ochre light crept through, and the room was in earthy semi-dark.
Dirk lit his joint. He sat back on the bed and smoked. He lay back and smoked. He savoured it, holding it in for greater effect. First of the day would send him straight to the toilet, but he lay a while, blowing it up to the ceiling. All this time and now more than ever habituated to dissipation, to aimlessness. He was a tourist, he wanted to see things – he saw things. He was a traveller, he wanted to go places – he went places. He was on holiday, he wanted to holiday – he didn’t have to do a single goddamned thing if he didn’t want to.
Dirk struggled to sit up. He was tired already from thinking about how much he could do. He could leave his room and walk around for hours taking photographs, or, he could fall back on the bed and stay there, day-dreaming. Time had slunk off after the first month, taking much significance and purpose with it. The hungry search for “gold”, for photographs he deemed to be of quality, still niggled him. It was his purpose, and the inspiration on which it was contingent was ever-present if he could tap it just right. The joints helped him get started, but later he would slow to a crawl.
Dirk stood up, buzzing with the creeping stone. He had eaten breakfast in his room; banana pancake with honey, a bowl of fresh curd and a pot of heavy-duty filter coffee. He still had some coffee left. He reached over and took a slug; all this, and only now did he feel ready; ready for another shower.
The sun hit hard. At eight o’clock the shade was still cool, but not for long. The jagged steps of the staggered Ghats swung down the river facing fully into the light. Dirk retreated to the small laneway outside the Ganpati Guesthouse where he was staying. A goat had climbed onto the protruding foundations of the wall opposite and stood there staring at a dog. Dirk stood and stared and thought about a photograph. Already he’d taken twelve thousand shots. Did he need one of a goat looking at a dog? He stood watching; a dog looking at a goat looking at a dog. That settled it. He took the photo.
“Hello sir, good morning!”
A young local man approached him.
“Which country sir? Which country?”
“Australia, very nice. You like cricket?”
“I guess, sure.”
The young man had a killer tan and wore western garb. He was handsome, but his eyes were milky and red.
“Listen my friend, how can I help you? Anything you need, I can get for you. Hashish, marijuana. Best hashish, pure and soft. So good.”
“I have some thanks. I’m okay.”
“What have you got? Where from?”
“Actually, it comes from Varanasi. But I got it in McLeod Ganj.”
“From Varanasi? My friend, it won’t be like this stuff. I have the best. You want, you come with me.”
“Look, not now. I’m going for a walk. Maybe later.”
“Anything you need my friend. I am here all day. Here, around, on the ghats. You will see me. I will see you.”
Dirk laughed. “Yeah, I bet you will. Everyone sees me.”
“Because we have what you want,” said the young man, smiling.
Dirk was impressed that he got it.
“Okay, maybe later.”
“Later then, my friend.”
Dirk set off with more purpose, full of confidence from his first refusal. He had never liked talking to people in the morning and tried to avoid all contact. He adjusted his sunglasses, ran his hand through his hair and walked down closer to the river. It was a blinding expanse. The Ganges was low, but still wide and glittering and, across the water, the bright flatness continued in a dry floodplain.
Dirk took note of those who would approach him. He had come with an innate sense of how close he could get to a hawker before they would attempt to ensnare him, like attracting the aggro in a computer game. Yet, since arriving in India, this sense had been blown away, for here there seemed to be no limit to the ground they were willing to cross to offer him something he invariably did not want. In Varanasi, it was always boat rides and head massages.
“Boat, sir,” called a man, from twenty metres away. He was moving purposefully towards Dirk, and Dirk, having seen him, was shaking his head. The man grew closer, but Dirk paid him no further attention. “Don’t look back,” his mother had always told him with stray dogs and cats. “They will follow you.” Dirk fiddled with his headphones, which hung from inside his tee-shirt.
“Boat, sir! I take you across, see ghats.” The man was now only a few feet away and Dirk had begun to shift. He didn’t feel it was necessary to say no twice, but as the man hadn’t accepted his first indication, he now turned his face to him.
“No thanks,” he said firmly.
“Very cheap,” said the man. “Good price.”
“No,” said Dirk.
“Maybe later, but I don’t think so.”
“Okay, okay,” said the man. “Later it is! I will be here.”
Dirk nodded, putting the headphones in his ears. He didn’t like to be rude to people, but he also didn’t like it that people continued to address him despite wearing sunglasses and headphones. If he wanted something, he would ask for it, not otherwise. He wanted a tee-shirt with “Do Not Disturb” written on it, though he doubted it would make a difference. The man was still lingering, so Dirk walked away, not looking back. He made a point of casting his eyes across the river, away from the boatman, and then, following his gaze, moved quickly down the steps towards the water.
There were many small boats moored in the fetid shallows; some with tall wooden prows, others low and flat. A short, black-tanned, wiry man, with muscles hard as nails, glutes like iron muffin-tops, scrubbed the underside of a propped boat. To Dirk’s right, the river curved in a long, slow arc, and down its length lay the curious geometry of the unevenly stepped banks, the stacked hotels and temples. It was yellow, red and purple, green where the trees protruded, and already it was shimmering in haze.
Another man approached him. Dirk kept his eyes facing forward with even greater purpose, refusing to make eye contact. He was determined not to say anything, especially now the music was in his ears. The man arrived beside him, asking him if he wanted a boat. Dirk could hear him, but he pretended he did not. He pointed to his headphones and, opening his arms in a gesture of helplessness, said “sorry, I can’t hear you.” Didn’t they get it? He didn’t want a fucking boat.
The man repeated his offer and Dirk ambled forward a few steps to indicate that he was not listening. What annoyed him was that he was listening. He was listening intently, watching from the corner of his eye, waiting for the man to leave. How was he supposed to enjoy this morning, this wonderful, hammering stone that he had achieved, when people must interrupt him? Could he ever be alone in India?
He wandered a few steps further towards the water. More men had noticed him now and he could feel their hands tingling with the desire to massage his head. Maybe a head massage would be nice now that he was baked. He was standing very close to the water and took a closer look at it. It was poo-brown in colour, tinged green near the bank with the algae that grew from the stones. The water, so polluted in some places as to be septic, had undergone a transformative journey from the fresh thaws of the Himalaya. Just a month ago Dirk had watched it, rushing through Rishikesh, clean as a whistle; so clean he could swim in it. From there it had passed through more than a hundred towns and cities, collecting their poisonous run-off.
The man beside him shook his head and walked off in a huff. Huh! So it was Dirk who was rude. This mutual distaste was not his idea of a cultural exchange. He stepped back from the water and continued down the ghats. It was still relatively quiet, unlike the middle of the day when so many tourists arrived to suffer in the heat. Further along, men and women stood in the shallows beating clothes upon stones. The vigour of their work churned the water, giving it oxygen and life. To his amazement, the clothes came out stunningly clean. Dirk stopped to take photographs. He shifted every time someone took an interest; like a magnet repelled by the same polarity.
A bearded man in white robes stood with two goats on a leash. Beside him, dressed in black robes, another bearded man held his own goat on a rope. They looked like themed chess pieces. Dirk shot them without restraint. The river backdrop snaked lazily away through the heat haze; the foreground’s tail. Just beyond the goat men, he watched a man pulling on his trousers; as immaculate as most Indians; poor but bleached and starched. He was selling fake bags; the Reebok label poorly rendered. Dirk walked past him and clambered atop an octagonal parapet. From there he could see further down to another distant parapet, whereon a red-robed, bearded mystic sat cross-legged with a cup of tea. His face was black, yet his hands were white; the pigment lost in some genetic mishap. It was a common problem in India. In a country with so many skin-whitening products for sale, Dirk wondered if such was considered a blessing or a curse. He photographed the man indiscriminately.
Three hours later Dirk sat on a step in a cool lane near his hotel. He had just finished e-mailing his family; updating Facebook and tweeting: I said to the man are you trying to tempt me? Because I come from the land of plenty. He smiled at the conceit of this quotation. The contact had brought him back to earth; he felt the tug of Australia, and the impending sense of his holiday’s end. Already he knew he was in the coda and had few expectations of further beauty. Since leaving the mountains of Himachal Pradesh he had been sad; despite the energetic chaos and colour of the north Indian plains, or, indeed, because of it. The people of the mountains were less pushy; Buddhists mostly, they were quieter, less wanting. The mountains were clean and quiet; the air thin and brisk. The high rise of the peaks, the towering cedars, the crashing cascades had left Dirk tilting and small. He had lost himself in the scale, reduced to the smallest unit in a cool, epic landscape. The rough spines of the Himalayas had a stark and beautiful brutality; unaffected by people, without their complications.
Here, in Varanasi, Dirk carried his body like a burden. He could feel the weight of his limbs at all times, as though he had just stepped out of water.
He put his head in his hands. It was approaching midday and already he was spent. He had smoked another joint on the ghats and, once the high had passed, his lids and frame had grown heavier.
Dirk looked up, for the voice was familiar. So was the face. The young man he had met that morning approached him on the step.
“Hi there,” said Dirk. He felt strangely pleased to see the young man, and realised only then that he was lonely.
“How are you? Is there anything you need, sir?”
“Dirk,” he said. “You can call me Dirk.”
“Dirk!” said the young man, flourishing it like the shiny dagger of its namesake.
“I am Manoj. Like the cricketer!”
“Yes! See, I can talk to Australians. They know.”
The young man stood beside Dirk, leaning over him. He leaned in closer.
“Do you want some hashish, some marijuana? I have the finest hashish, not far to go.”
“How much?” asked Dirk.
“How much do you want?”
“No more than one thousand rupees. I’m running out of money.”
“One thousand rupees, no problem. But for one thousand five hundred, you can have the best quality.”
“Maybe,” said Dirk. “But that’s more than I want to spend.”
“You can spend what you like. First, I show you.”
Dirk shrugged. Again he noted Manoj’s milky, red eyes, and Dirk was sure that he must be a heavy smoker himself. In Darjeeling the local dealers, the pony-handlers, had eyes like piss-holes in the snow; their gaze always disquietingly unfocussed.
“Fuck it.” he said. “Come on, show me. Is it far?”
“Not far, very close.”
Dirk stood up and swung his pack over both shoulders. The small bag, his only luggage, never left his sight, nor was it ever out of reach when not in his hotel room. The young man waited for him to be ready then set off keenly down the lane.
Manoj led Dirk through a network of alleys. Dirk wasn’t especially worried about becoming lost, for despite the confusion of streets, he only needed to find his way back to the river to orient, and the Ganges was hard to miss. The city stopped dead at its banks, with no bridges across, nor settlement on the other side. Instead it spread in a white blaze of heat towards a wobbling horizon; the flood plain of a river not now swollen.
The back lanes were full of small businesses; hole-in-the-wall shops, barbers, kitchens, spice-traders, grocers. Since he first began exploring Asia, Dirk had finally come to understand what the cities of the Roman Empire, which he had spent much time studying, must have been like. The eateries, with their counters sunk with vessels, stoves and ovens, fronting straight onto the street, were practically the same design. These huddled buildings would leave similar ruins. Here too was a polytheistic society. Manoj led Dirk through a great crowd milling about a Brahmin-blue temple entrance.
Five minutes of walking through the winding streets, brought them to a white-washed wooden door. Manoj pushed it open and walked straight through. Dirk followed cautiously, whilst Manoj waited inside for him then closed the door behind.
Manoj called something which Dirk did not catch, then beckoned him to follow. They were in a dark corridor that led into a small room at the base of a stairwell. Sitting on the floor was another young man. He smiled up at Dirk with the same milky red eyes.
“Hello,” he said. “I am Sanjay.”
“This is my brother,” said Manoj. “He will show you what you want.”
“Hi,” said Dirk. “Thanks.”
“Sit down,” said Manoj. “Take off your bag.”
Dirk sat down as instructed, though he did not remove his bag from his shoulders. There was something strange about the way Sanjay was sitting, and a moment later, as Sanjay shuffled on his hands across to an old wooden cupboard, Dirk noticed the horrible marks on his right leg. Almost the entire leg was covered with large, lumpy scabs; dark brown masses surrounded by yellow skin. Dirk shuddered at the colour and scale of it, and felt a wave of revulsion. What on earth could have caused such a thing? Was it a skin disease, or a horrible accident? It looked so unnatural, like burned foam. He caught himself staring as Sanjay, still resting on his haunches, pulled two large bricks of hashish from the cupboard. He crawled back across towards Dirk and placed these bricks on the floor. Wrapped in cling-film, they must have weighed a kilogram each at least.
“I have two varieties, as you can see,” said Sanjay.
“This is the local stuff. From here in Varanasi. I don’t think it is the best. It is harder, less soft. Not so strong.”
“And the other?”
“From Punjab, very special. Very nice. Softer, stronger. You can smell it, please.”
He leaned forward awkwardly, across his wounded leg which was stretched in Dirk’s direction. Dirk took the heavy brick in two hands and tested the weight. It was a hefty block, and when he brought it up under his nose, he caught a strong, nutty scent; pungent and oily, with a dusky sweetness, like cloves.
“It smells good,” he said.
In truth, he had no idea of how good hashish should smell. It had long since vanished from the market in Australia, and the last time he’d seen it with any regularity was eight years ago in Rome.
Dirk handed the brick back to Sanjay. Despite a growing discomfort at the sight of the man’s wounds, his eyes could not help but be drawn to them. He looked around to see Manoj standing behind him and suddenly he felt very uncomfortable. He wanted his back against the wall, did not want anyone between him and the door. Dirk was an experienced traveller who didn’t like to put himself into situations from which he could not easily run, yet here he had done precisely that. He was large and strong, and didn’t doubt he could overpower both of these men, yet what secrets lay within this house of theirs? Other accomplices, a cloth full of chloroform, guns? Perhaps it was just paranoia, but such was his disposition, and anxiety had long been selected for genetically, precisely because the wary stayed alive.
Sanjay was talking to him.
“How much do you want? I can do you any deal you like. Big, small. You want a lot, I make it cheaper.”
“I’m a tourist,” Dirk said. “I just want a little.”
Manoj now spoke from behind him.
“One thousand five hundred. One thousand five hundred for the good stuff.”
Dirk had a feeling of growing sickness in his stomach. He couldn’t stop looking at Sanjay’s leg. Perhaps it was the heat and the sun; perhaps it was the air. There was something vile about the air in Varanasi. The back lanes were full of rubbish and dung, malnourished rag-doll animals skulking half dead among the refuse. From the river came the cloying humidity; full of the ash of funeral pyres, burning plastic and septic, stagnant water. Dirk could only guess in horror at what manner of bacteria must have crept into his lungs. The wounds on Sanjay’s leg seemed to herald some tropical corruption; some grotesque, mutilating virus unheard of outside these swollen latitudes. Dirk felt himself reeling. His mouth went dry then quickly flushed with saliva. He was not about to be sick, yet fear had risen swiftly in him and he felt an urgent panic. He swallowed nervously.
Sanjay was talking, but Dirk, tired, stoned and dizzy, was not listening.
“I only want to spend one thousand,” he interrupted. “Can you just give me less? Really, I don’t care. Just give me less.”
“This is one thousand,” said Sanjay. “This one thousand five hundred.”
“I don’t mind,” said Dirk. “One thousand, please.”
“You don’t want the good stuff?”
“No. I mean, yes. But not so much. Can you just give me less?”
“Sure. But it won’t be so much.”
“Any is plenty. I don’t care.”
Sanjay watched him closely. His smile made Dirk feel even more nervous.
“You are wondering about my leg?” said Sanjay. “You are wondering what happened?”
“Umm, sure. What happened?”
“I was catching a train,” he said. “The train was leaving and I had to run to catch it. I tried to climb in, but fell and got caught on the step. The train dragged me for a very long way. My leg was skinned. My whole leg. Look, you can see. All the way.”
Dirk did not want to look, but something compelled him to do so. The yellow skin around the dreadful scabs seemed worse than the wounds themselves. What had made it that putrid, mustard colour? Was it the bruising? It seemed artificial, like the stains of mercurochrome. Dirk felt a new wave of sickness coming over him, and again he flushed with panic.
“I was selling hashish. I sold two kilos. I had two thousand dollars in a bag. Two thousand dollars and another kilogram of hashish. I dropped it on the train tracks. There was no chance to go back. All was lost.”
All was lost indeed, thought Dirk. This guy was the real deal; a proper dealer. A criminal. What was Dirk doing here, in this strange man’s house? With a drug dealer who dealt in kilogram blocks? Coming here was a bad call; it was too big for him. Sure, he wanted some hashish, but he didn’t like to be so close to the source. Inside this house, in a corrupt foreign country, anything might happen. He should have kept all such business to the streets; where he could run, where he could lose himself. Was the front door locked? Would he be able to escape if they tried to take him down? It was all taking too long and Manoj was still standing behind him, making him feel even more nervous. He hadn’t come here to be social; he had come here to score some goddamned hashish and didn’t want to be kept waiting; not when he was hot, not when he was scared, not when he was paranoid. He stood to his feet, clearing his throat in an exaggerated manner.
“I need to spit. I feel a bit sick.” He summoned up all he could in the hope of maintaining the ruse, despite his mouth having gone dry again after swallowing. Manoj stepped aside and watched him; the path was clear to the door! He stepped around the corner into the corridor; only metres from the street and from freedom. He hurried along, his bag still on his back. The door was not locked. Indeed, it was slightly ajar. If he needed to make a break for it, he could go right now, leave them wondering. He cleared his throat again, pushed open the door and stepped into the street.
Outside the sunlight was blinding. Thank god he still had his sunglasses on. He rolled his shoulders and opened his lungs. He spat what little he could manage. They must not suspect that he feared they wished him ill. Perhaps they would take offence, and rob him. He looked up and down the street. It was bright with the overhead sun; quiet in the midday heat. He took deep breaths and ran his hands through his hair.
“It’s okay,” he muttered to himself. “It’s okay, dog, relax.”
A moment later the tension seemed to go. They were waiting for him patiently. It was just a simple drug deal after all.
Dirk turned back inside, leaving the door slightly open. In the corridor, he reached into his pocket, withdrawing the small wad of notes he kept there to avoid fishing his wallet out in public. He peeled two five-hundred rupee notes off the roll, and returned to where he had been sitting on the floor. This time, however, he remained standing. The two young men smiled at him.
“All good,” said Dirk, handing out the money.
Sanjay reached up from the floor, handing him a fat little ball of hash.
“I think you will like it,” said Sanjay.
Dirk took the hash and placed it in the pocket of his tired, dirty shorts. He adjusted the bag on his shoulders and made a snorting laugh of release. The men chuckled with him; business done and everybody friends now.
Nothing, after all, was amiss.
Read Full Post »