Monday, October 15, 2007

Barbarian at the Gate

April 2007, pre-shitstorm.

By not charging forth and physically assaulting the eye from any arbitrary vantage point in the capital, India Gate successfully hides how huge it is. When I do come to it, I am disturbed by the lack of sentiment it churns up. The reaction to a Forty-two meter stone brute built in 1921 in memory of Indians who died, alone, cold, sick and hungry in lands that were not their own, fighting for people who’s causes they didn’t truly understand or believe in, should have been more visceral, more overcoming. But it wasn’t.

Now more than ever, and hopefully in just me and no one else, the Gate’s edge, like everything else’s, could no longer rasp or make me bleed. It was now just the immobile stone embodiment of every rude physical retort India wanted so badly to give, but didn’t, when some heckler cried soft-state. Even schoolboys on Republic Day aren’t made to debate that anymore.

Unlike the Gateway of India in Bombay – a warm gray monument of welcome, India Gate on Rajpath seems to have been built to be kept closed. A sort of firm, snarling ‘Fuck Off’ to all those who didn’t want to come inside and play nice. It was stripped of that role somewhere along the road, and is today, just a carnival attraction in the giant circus the Dream has become for all those willing to buy tickets, see and not believe.

As I stood its imposing yet whimpering shadow, and tried find something to feel, my luck served up a far better show than I thought likely. Three boys, hormone-galvanized foot soldiers at the vanguard of the neo-Hun invasion, use the All India War Memorial for the only purpose it seems fit to serve in the now and here: for self-actualization through defilement. They first make a mockery of the rhinoceros in the insignia of an Assamese Regt on the Do Not Enter placard, coming to the conclusion that perhaps the fattest of their threesome would be allowed to. Then they proceed to repeatedly touch pillars that weren’t to be touched and step over (and almost immediately back over) chains that aren’t to be stepped over. Low waist denim clad soul-faggots, engaged in hermaphrodite daredevil games – nausea at its most complete. A curt Fuck Off sends them on their way, but the loneliness in this bitterness they leave behind is eerie.

A chemical nature litmus test of the decoct of 60 years worth of vomit from our most wasted, bilious core. That is the Gate today.

Here alone.
But to not decay is now to achieve.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Junk Babble

Junk transcends demand and supply, the pusher, the pimp and the product. It becomes the wide white line between unsure and cringing-at-death’s-door-dead sure. Junk decocts virile craving from limp desire and impotent curiosity. It needn’t know any rules – of biology, of hunger, or sex or conscience – for it is designed to never loose.

The only entity truly comparable to junk (the perfect product) is virus (the perfect parasite) - both pernicious, beguiling shape shifters. When alone and homeless, they exist as cold, inanimate crystals. It is if allowed to poison, that they become poison.
It makes little difference whether you call him a host or a user, for following inoculation, he ceases to matter. He is now just a medium. He becomes the virus, or the drug, and follows orders.

Though initially, he may be thrown scraps of life like euphoria or illness, as his breakdown blossoms, he eventually experiences nothing. Only a need to be filled. Like a vessel. He cannot defeat the drug or the virus. It shall leave him only if it wants. If it chooses not to, he is destined to die. In either case, it will be the same cold, lonely, emaciated death.

Yet when the medium is dead, they are not. They have already spawned and moved on. The body that was once home has been used and now outlived its purpose. And hence, like the virus, junk is immortal.

“Every dead body that is not exterminated gets up and kills. The people it kills get up and kill.” – The Gorillaz, Clint Eastwood

Junk is not some machine executing an algorithm of decay. It truly enjoys breaking you down. Somewhere, in someone, Junk is always working, and for it, everyday at the office is a good day. Each body bagged is a victory, every sickly surrender a cause for celebration. But like a smug, invincible sportsman, it extracts the most entertainment from the resistance of those who try not to be broken. Junk is moody, but the swings are predictable. It initially offers its respect and glory to someone who wants to go down with a fight. But its patronage is fleeting, and the subsequent retribution for wasting its time is humiliating.

William Burroughs was turned into both a legend and a pathetic example by Junk. Junky serves as his and his drug’s Bildungsroman. Intention is not the only reason it is a detached and factual account. It is also a fractured piece of writing because it precariously tries to weld together the exploits of its two characters – the user, and the chemicals that own him. At places Burroughs narrates, at others, he is forced to take dictation.

In return for his persecution, he is rewarded with a cruel yet honest education. Junk’s dropper-and-syringe tutelage enriches the mind and conscience of a man whom years of the best possible schooling had left wayward and confused. (“Junk is a cellular equation that teaches the user facts of general validity”)

For example, he is taught how at times, renunciation of effort is not just the best, but the only option “I have seen a cell full of sick junkies silent and immobile in separate misery. They knew the pointlessness of complaining or moving”.

How the most important and the worst job is often the same “The job of peddler was a sort of public service that rotated from one member of the group to another…….All agreed that it was a thankless job……As George the Greek said ‘You end up broke and in jail. Everybody calls you cheap if you don’t give them credit; if you do they take advantage’”.

And how the consequences of a man’s actions stalk and hunt him down “You don’t wake up one morning and decide to become a drug addict. It takes at least three months’ shooting twice a day to get any habit at all” “One morning you wake up sick and you’re an addict”

It is scarily magnificent, for all the right reasons.

I saw my first junky in my second year of college. He must’ve been about forty, had no legs, and only a right hand. He sat on a wooden cart in front of Bombay’s Churchgate station using an empty milk tin as a begging bowl. It’d clearly been weeks since he’d bathed and probably days since he’d eaten. He swore at everything that did or didn’t pass him by – at the people who spared loose change, at the people who didn’t, at the lice trampoulining in his hair, at the strays smelling him and barking at him, at God, at fate, at me. Even without what was to come, he was one of life’s more pathetic sights.

His stubborn outpouring of venom persuaded most to walk away. A lady ferrying her kids home from school decided to move on to the next stop and catch the bus from there. But I couldn’t go. It felt like one of those DiscoveryChannel moments, where the gnu walks up to the water’s edge to drink, and you just know a crocodile is going to lunge out of the Nile, clamp down on his neck and drown him – something was going to happen.

And it did. His peddler came. It was no Jesus-comes-to-the-lepers encounter. It was a cold mechanical transaction. There in full view of anyone bothering or daring to look, the pusher took a vial of Ketamine out of his front pocket and snapped it open. He loaded it into a hungry syringe the legless one had waiting. The needle was then plunged into the beggar’s one remaining limb, and emptied. The beggar melted – slowly, warmly turning into a bag of skin filled with liquid joy, just barely holding on to the human form. His peddler, meanwhile, emptied the milk tin of its change and walked off. All of this in less than 90 seconds.

It was magnificently scary, for all the wrong reasons.

Given a choice, I would have stayed and watched him as he lay prostate on his cart, smiling at the sky, now unmindful of the stray licking his leaking vein. But I had a train to catch.

I tried searching for him on subsequent trips to Bombay, but he was never there again. In all honesty, he’s almost definitely dead, and it’s not like he’s taken some shade of the great watercolour with him to the grave. You can rest assured, his place in the chemical chain has already been taken. Three-stump lives on though. He features in one of the more believable recurring nightmares in my head, wedged between some stuff from The Ring and the one time I saw a horse drown.

As for Burroughs, towards the end of Junky he claimed to have defeated junk. He committed the grave mistake of gloating – “The decision to quit junk is a cellular decision, and once you have decided to quit you cannot go back to junk permanently any more than you could stay away from it before”. Burroughs went off in search of a telepathy inducing herb supposedly used by the Russians in slave labour experiments. His wife left him, as did most of his sanity for a large period of time. Junk hunted him down in Tangier and nearly drove him irreparably mad. Rehab happened, and he wrote again, but I’m pretty sure he’d never write like Junky. Much like the three-stump’d beggar, he’d been gifted 158 pages worth of immortality, been used and thrown away.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Beached whale blues

My third step on Marina Beach ended in a semi-concealed pile of two-day old vomit. This was largely symbolic of the way things were going. The current holiday to Chennai (or what used to be Madras) wasn’t turning out to be the exotic, battery charging sojourn I had hoped.

For one thing, half my luggage had refused to disembark the connecting flight, deciding to spend its vacation in Goa instead. Then I learned that Reema, the only person I knew there, lived half a day’s drive away in a city with perhaps the most fine-tuned traffic jams in the country. And now here I was, standing ankle deep in the remains of someone else’s indigestion.

A stroll down Marina beach in the evening has been described by many a travel guide as the highlight of every Chennai trip. Looking around the panorama, I had to ask myself one question: Did they ethically deserve to be in print? Even if you did manage to dodge the vomit booby traps, didn’t have your picnic held hostage by a gang of marauding crows or weren’t hit on the head by a well-aimed ‘stray’ football, whatever you were left with wasn’t much of a beach. The sea, for one, was this unique shade of gray, best described as the only conceivable chromatic counterpart to its smell. There were no coconut palms, and there was no sunset, for the beach faced east. Dusk was no orange fireball’s theatrical demise, just a bland, boring sumo-wrestling exhibition between two gray giants – the ocean and the sky. When they weren’t piddling in it, kids in varying stages of nakedness squealed their Tamil
squeals and ran in and out of the water, competing to fish out the most interesting piece of washed up garbage.

In the usual rosier frame of mind, I would have found all this colic-inducingly hilarious. But not today, when a place just as chaotic, restless and confused existed in my skull. The past few weeks had been amongst the worst in my life. I’d been wrenched by as bitter and unexpected a breakup as I believed possible. I was having grave doubts about my vocation, my place in the family, and at times even my sanity. A healing getaway, I thought, would be in order. But this definitely wasn’t it. The worrying part was I didn’t have a clue what would have been.

I felt like the loneliest, most stupid and rejected person alive. Then just when I was about to cry

“You know, I’ve been ripped to shreds ever since my boyfriend broke up with me. I hate my job so much. And sometimes, at night, I get so scared that I might be going crazy” Meera said, perched next to me in the sand.

And then, as if on cue, Marina Beach switched on its lighthouse, and called home shoals of sardine-shaped fishing boats. Stalls materialized from thin air, selling salvation disguised as coconut water, cold drinks and coffee. Magic and telepathy mingled with the fried fish and Tamil film songs in the air, turning Meera into the one person giving perfect answers to questions I’d framed but would never ask. I looked
at her face, and saw creases of worry bobbing up and down like marker-buoys on a face she tried to keep a smiling sea. The breeze, observing she felt alone too, half-pushed my elbow up against hers and made us hold mental hands.

Things were so different now from before. I saw kids sprinting out of the sea into waiting, warm towels held by mothers eager to dry them off. Crabs scuttled out of holes my gloom had kept me blind to earlier on, probably venturing in search of sustenance and sex. And then, in a final gesture of spirit bandaging, Marina sent forth one of her most loyal subjects: the parrot/guinea pig fortune teller.

Clad in a diaphanous kurta with an Iron Maiden t-shirt clearly visible underneath, for a measly fifty rupees, he offered me a choice between having my tale told by a bird or a rodent. I chose the former, and looked on in awe as the green critter strutted out of its cage, sized me up for a few seconds, picked a card from the stack piled up in front of it, and then obediently walked back in. The teller fished out a seedy looking book and read from it, becoming the bridge between a piece of cardboard and everything I needed to hear. In Tamil. Once again Reema proved she was my savior in the here and now – she translated.

As we got up to leave, a middle-aged couple asked me to take a few pictures of them standing arm in arm in the surf. Paying homage to Marina Beach, I made sure that one of them also featured a skinny little naked boy gleefully leaping into the frame.