Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Casual Leave

December 2006

When one realizes that his life is worthless he either commits suicide or travels.
Edward Dahlberg (1900–1977)

It was how dangerously beautiful the razorblade was beginning to get that finally got you packing.

The ride to Kalimpong began with promise. A wide smooth road searing through the jungle, massive trees tiger-striped the tarmac in gold and shade. Apprehension dallied with the excitement of actually having at least begun to pull this off – a covert runaway to a hill town you’d only read about in books and heard of in other people’s conversation. By this time, three days later, Darjeeling’d be part of yours.

First the invitation to Kalimpong. A sleepy, forlorn yet uncomplaining and self-appeased hamlet; the recipient of a sudden literary fame begotten by its being the setting for a recently published novel. The road to Kalimpong and Gangtok dichotomized near the river Teesta, and there began a discouragingly steep bike hike up to pong. The ride is at times, soul crushingly slow, and the engine begins to weep in unnerving, metal wails. Mercifully, it never stops. Some seven or eight times, you’re almost run over by one jeep or another festooned by a screaming pink ‘Picnic Party’ banner, full of holiday makers ferried by largely identical looking inebriated lunatics behind the wheel. The tourists clap their hands, lost in Nepali singalongs, oblivious to the number of times they narrowly avoid turning our hero into roadkill. The drive, in between these brushes with certain death, is rather nice, what you need – engrossment in something cold and mechanical, to keep you from believing the job and the life you wake up everytime the night ends to lead can exist. January’s clemency peacock-prances as clear skies, sunlight so crisp you can hear it crack, and no signs of things even hinting at being any other way.

You stop and offer a haggard old man who looks like a lung cancer patient with tuberculosis given the greatest smile in the world as remuneration, a ride. He gleefully accepts, sits down and then says nothing. After around twenty minutes of balling the jack, the total absence of not just conversation, but sound, makes you wonder if he’s fallen off or something. You slow down and turn around just to check. He’s still on there, and the smile’s only gotten even more world beating. Skinny, eighty, stoned out of his skull, only looking like he was going to die, and blessed with a grinner like that – he’d obviously won first prize.

“Where would you like to get off?”

“Right here would be just fine.”

He dismounts, numbs the pain with yet another magnificent show of front teeth, folds his hands and says thank you, and then kills you completely by turning right around and walking back. His stop was probably a good 8 kilometers back. Nonetheless you muster up the courage to wave. He squashes that courage totally and finally by waving back. The small hill shanty towns zip by, all looking just the same –utterly beautiful- and inhabited by people who also look just the same –utterly beautiful. Eateries, made out by the packets of instant noodles hanging from the windows, dot the road. They sell little else save those same noodles, which despite being cooked in around 15 different ways still taste like nothing in the world but marinated rubber bands. The signboards on these shops bear the names of whoever runs them. A surprisingly large number of girls have been entrusted with business. Some of the names become painful aftermathly reminders of girls you once knew, but now don’t. Relationships you realized could have been, only after they were over. Just when you’re about to bleed, Kalimpong happens and saves the day.

‘Quaint’ is a word whose place in the world you had never been able to figure out. Quaint is in the water they drink and the air they breathe in Kalimpong – a velvet-and-styrofoam town of narrow, perpetually wet streets, lined by cramped together shops selling something pretty you can either wear or eat. Most of the people you see are, understandably, well-dressed and chewing on something. Your friend had told you to meet him in the hospital, the lane to which is as real a crotch-crusher as you’d ever hope of never seeing. Yet another old man bums a ride, only this one knows where he has to get off. It gets dark pretty early around this part of the country this time of the year. Since it’s already rather late, most of the well-dressed eaters have by now huddled outside their houses around fires of cardboard, empty peanut shells and hay. They eyeball you in rapt amazement as you drive by, making you feel almost naked. You start to wonder if this is subconsciously why you made really made the trip – to be stripped bare of all the things about yourself that kept making your four-year-old-self stare in rapt amazement at who you’d become. Things that’d become seminally painful; anything could sire an unsavory memory that shot a mother lode of pain down your spine into your gut, where it thrashed about and left only if and when it pleased. You’re knocked out of a daze by a scruffy rat-bastard of a mongrel which races out of one of the houses, chases after the motorcycle and near bites your foot. Swerving to avoid it, you bungle into a puddle, loose balance and drive into a gutter nidorous of urine and garnished with slime. As you drag yourself and the motorcycle out, swearing at the dog, the giggles of its proud owners emanating from around the fire declare that they’ll at least have something to talk about over dinner besides the cold.

Then finally the hospital. And Sam the Dentist.

If you took any of the rotund, five-year old Nepali schoolboys cutting school and running around this part of the country, impervious to things like the flu and any reason to stop smiling, and inflated them with air till they were just as round, only now five and a half feet tall, you’d get Sam the Dentist. His unbridled adoration for booze was matched only by two things - his complete inability to hold it down, and the unanimity with which he chose to rather nurse the subsequent hangover than acknowledge the existence of things like a job and work. He was, in many ways the apex government servant. The workday began at nine in the morning, and for all you know, might as well end at five past nine, depending upon what those five minutes hinted at. The man’s incorrigible hoplessness with women had become the stuff of legend, one that even he had come to believe.
Perhaps to fabricate himself a believable enough excuse to lean on, he’d taken to neutering himself by drinking unimaginable amounts of whiskey, and then launching into incoherent, leaky-eyed tirades against the entire other gender as a whole, which invariably ended with his morphing into a sobbing, spirit-seasoned lump on the floor. Clearly a true, textbook lover of women.

We’re perched on a ledge leading up to the military hospital, built on a hilltop far above the city. The whole town is spread out like a mirrorwork picnic-blanket below us, shimmering as the locals light and put out their stoves and lamps. Half the night is spent keeping a fire alive, listening to dogs swear at each other in across Kalimpong’s paralyzed nighttime existence and telling stories.

Soon I’m crying too.

1 comment:

TSO said...

Travel journalism is clearly more your calling than life-and-love 2am musings. No hackneyed water colour shades to describe arresting vistas. Very fluid. With diary entry kind of posts, you tend you halt at the actual events, holding back facts that are needed and covering up by elaborating on underlying flow of emotion that unfortunately end up being what even you know is generalized, and lacks the freshness that only comes from a reader being introduced to the characters that evoked them.