Saturday, March 1, 2008
It’s like those cruelest of hands dealt at Scrabble. The letters in the name ‘Tenga’, no matter how you arrange them, always very nearly mean something, but never do – Ant eg(g), Negat(e) and so on. In much the same way, an existence here could very nearly mean a life, but ends up as little more than just not being dead. It is the armpit of the world. And at 5am on a Tuesday morning, I’m on a bus headed to it.
“I have seen a cell full of sick junkies silent and immobile in separate misery. They knew the pointlessness of complaining or moving. They knew that basically no one can help anyone else.” – William Burroughs, Junky
We pull out from Tezpur, the most visually ill city I’ve ever seen. Whatever ails the place is very contagious for you are almost immediately infected with misery and loneliness. The bus has 50 seats, all taken, but conversation is impossible. Each passenger sits constructing his own private hell from the voids of places and people he left behind and would rather be with. The gloom leeches out of your skull, and paints everything the colour sad. Trees lean hungrily over the road, at places intruding with their vine-like tentacles, as if to juice out any remnants of life left in anyone forced to or foolish enough to venture into this circus of dark green bleakness. Often the sun is blocked out, and swamps are born where the soil can drink in no more rainwater, and is forced to vomit. Insects, nature’s shiny unalive jewels of neglect, parade about fearlessly and show themselves off. For every mosquito you kill, five shall take its place.
The ride turns into a sequence of five or six still lifes, repeating themselves randomly. One features sickly, half naked un-childlike children sitting outside a wooden shack, surrounded by malaria and the forest. In another they wave at you, unsmiling. A third shows an ugly shop or some ugly houses surrounded by ugly coconut trees shading an ugly stray dog or two. Like rot dissolving the dead hippo of Charlie Marlow’s cannibal crew, the next picture is of a dead bus or truck being either nursed back to illness or torn to scrap by frenzied, starved mechanic-like beings. Yet another shows the forest being defiled, stripped bare of its trees and undergrowth, to reveal a bare, brown and almost burnt landscape no less putting-off. One, both tragic and pathetically funny starred a sign saying ‘Beware of Elephants’ – a meaningless shibboleth from days when tuskers used to barge into the handful of huts as they pleased, stole rice wine, got drunk and went on killing sprees. The numbers, and the roles of hunter and hunted traded places, hence the sign’s redundancy. Some scenes are nothing but riotous explosions of wild cannabis. But the one image that hit the hardest spoke my state of mind’s language the clearest. In a visage dominated by the swamp, the only gushing of colour that broke the verdant, depressed sameness came from a dying banana tree. The swamp had crept up to its roots, drowning it from the feet up, and inciting a seemingly violent celebration of death in yellow. Deliverance, however it would be, would one day be happiness.
The bus pulls into an eating joint, and all are warned that the stop shall last only 15 minutes. Deciding to believe in my bladder and abstain from the mad-dash to the loo, I head off to the counter and buy myself a Coke and half a chow mien. The noodles are disappointingly good and I hate them. I want everything about this place to be the absolute pits, I want to have justification to be miserable, to not allow myself to be labeled just plain cranky. I am rescued by the flatness of the Coke, and with a contented smile I gulp down what tastes like machine oil, sugared ad nauseum. Cannabis, in glorious bloom surrounds the small eatery too. I pluck a flowering stalk and offer it to a 4 year old girl staring longingly at me and my Coke, and making me feel naked. She ignores it, and stubbornly refuses to let me swallow in solitude. So after finishing it, I hand her the empty bottle. It’s about as much a disappointment as she’s in a mood to take. She runs off to her parents, and I throw the stalk away. Just as the vacuum of the moment starts making me wonder how I’m going to keep from taking up smoking, not become an alcoholic or stay away from the dope, the bus starts honking and threatening to leave without us.
More of the same. Then the ride slowly changes - as we climb higher, pigs join the dogs on the roadsides, and the kids start smiling when they wave. We’re getting closer to Tenga. .