Thursday, February 7, 2008

One of those days/India journal by Austin Ryer

This bastard was trying to rip me off.
“150 rupee good price sir, very good price.”
Yeah, good price my ass.
“No way in hell, I got one just like this two days ago here for 100, I’m not paying 150 for this one.”
“Good price, best around.” This guy was relentless. I went to walk out the door; no DVD was worth 150 off the black market, even if in America that was roughly three dollars. But suddenly as I stepped through the door, the old man had a change in heart.
“Fine sir, 100, but no more; you’re my only white customer.”
Can’t say no to that.

I walked out into the street, but barely. Something that might have been a Harley Davidson roared by, almost clipping my arm with its rearview mirror. I watched it move down the road, barely missing two school kids still in uniform, a dog, and an old man fighting with a monkey for an apple.

“You know that guy used to be a Nazi?” I heard my friend, Ian, ask.
“What?” I wasn’t really paying attention.
“The guy you just bought that movie from.”
“He seemed nice enough to me,” I replied, but who was I to say? He just tried to steal my money. I found it hard to keep a conversation when instead you can watch monkeys take food from shops.
“Maybe he wasn’t a Nazi, but he had a Nazi flag up a while ago, probably why he gave you the discount. The whole blue-eyed, blond-haired Aryan race thing”.
“I won’t judge him, I just got a discount.” The monkey had dropped the apple and scattered to the rooftops, where it was going hand over hand along the power lines like James Bond to rejoin its troop a few stores down. After the monkey had run off, the man with the fruit stand found his apple lying in a puddle on the ground a few meters away. Without hesitation he dried it off and put it back on the shelf.

We kept walking along the commercial section of the Bazaar, moving slowly because there was nowhere we had to be. We passed an elderly man sitting against a wall calmly behind a box advertising “BODY MASSAGE” in big letters with a hole on top for money. Farther in we saw a group of little kids armed with plastic soda bottles harassing a cow on the street, even though cows are sacred in that part of India. Eventually we hit a food market, a place known as Rom Chander’s, notorious for handing out cheap gum as change. I had nothing to buy, at least until I saw the fireworks now on the shelves. This was the weekend of Diwali, a national celebration of lights and something about good conquering evil. And so I found myself eyeing fireworks that were nothing like I had ever seen before. Essentially gunpowder wrapped in aluminum foil with a wick, I asked balding man behind the counter the price.

“The small ones there, 2 rupees each, and those big ones 5, my friend,” he told me.
I noticed on the side of the display were some circles of cardboard, with what might have been a wick sticking out the side. On top was a cheap drawing of some Goddess on a purple background.
“How about for those little circle things?” I asked.
“6 rupee, but for you I make them 4 each.”
I loved getting reduced prices. I grabbed a pack of six small yellow ones, a few big ones wrapped in green paper, and 3 of the circular ones. When the man handed me back 15 rupees, I told him to hold it and grabbed a few more of the small ones. He gave me a pack of gum and a “Lacto King” lollipop instead of making smaller change.

Back on the street, Ian and I began walking back towards dorms; it was almost time for check-in. Towards the edge of town we began talking about school; it was the first time either of us had thought about it since getting out the day earlier.
“Any French homework?” I asked him.
“Would you do it anyway?” he asked me back. We both knew the answer was no.
We were walking by an “English Wine Shop,” called English because the Indian wine shops sell stuff that can kill you. I made the mistake of looking as we passed. The man behind the counter interrupted us.
“Chilled beer for you? Very good, yes” the man asked. His best income was probably from foreign students like us; why wouldn’t he ask?
“No thanks, ji, out of money” we told him. Usually calling an annoying shopkeeper sir and claiming you were out of money got him off your back.
“You sure? Very cheap, very good, best in Mussourie! Nice and chilled, you will like!” Of course he didn’t believe we were out of money. We were rich, privileged, and ignorant white adolescents. At least that’s what most the street venders believed.
“No, no, maybe next time” we told him. Before he could reply again though, we kept walking.

Five minutes later, when it was dark and we were out of town, we lit off one of the big fireworks. We didn’t know what to expect, so we handled it like a stick of dynamite. And from the size of the explosion, it might as well have been. Because I lit it, and therefore was closest, I couldn’t hear out of my right ear until ten minutes later. We lit off a few more before finally returning to dorms.

Earlier in the semester, I had been a part of the Woodstock football team. We practiced about three times a week, and played in various friendly matches against other local teams. But none were important except for the ones played in the RIMC tournament. It had lasted a whole weekend and even into the next few days as we moved up in rank. It was hosted by a military school down in Dara Duhn, a city below the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains and closest to our school. We drove in through the main gates onto an impressive campus, on a thin road that wound among green lawns and low buildings surrounded by neatly planted trees. Occasionally to prove that it was, indeed, a military school, the road would pass by an old helicopter or rocket.

The tournament began with a ceremony, but hardly so. The teams formed up, some in shirt and tie, others in uniforms, and they marched with legs straight and arms swinging as far as they could swing them. Somehow the other teams could do this in unison, but ours simply didn’t bother. At the end of the march, some politician said some words barely audible under his accent, and some balloons were almost released. Most got caught on someone’s arm and had to be cut after they spent a minute attempting to untangle them. Then the politician said something else, and I asked the guy next to me, a Bhutanese named Pasa, what he said.
“This tournament is now open,” he replied simply.

It rained that first game, the one following the opening ceremony. It rained to the point where our ankles were submerged in the water that had gathered on the field, and still we played. It rained until the other end of the field was static, and nothing was clear because of the water dripping into our eyes, and still the game continued. There were struggles in midfield where no one could see who was on their team and who wasn’t, and everyone fought for possession of the ball until finally someone emerged from the splashes of muddy water coughing and slipping, surprised to realize he had come out of the fray with the ball. This kind of thing lasted five minutes, or so it seemed, and it happened often because it could not be avoided.

Our coach, a short Indian man called Mr. John, was shouting the usual slander from the sidelines.
“Come on, work together, kick the ball!” I heard him screaming into the rain.
He had begun the game clad with a pink umbrella, a weak attempt to stop the weather, but by halftime had lost it as well as his shirt, running around the sidelines to yell advice to us.
“Look, I’m soaking wet too, stop feeling sorry for yourself and get into the damn game!” he shouted at anyone who could hear him.

We won that match, and would move on the next day to play again. That night, before returning to school, we celebrated by eating at McDonald’s. Inside, it seemed more formal than a McDonald’s should be. With two floors and employees who will clear your finished tray for you and then clean the table, it seemed as if the Indians had gotten the McDonald’s ideal wrong; maybe they actually believed it should be a real family restaurant. Among the crowds of Indian businessmen and schoolchildren, I looked at the menu. Divided into either “Veg” or “Non-Veg”, it consisted of either something with chicken or something with some sort of substitute for the vegetarians. And still I had a hard time deciding. I ended up with a Chicken Mexican Wrap, a piece of a chicken patty wrapped with something that might have been salsa, mayonnaise, lettuce, and carrots. I ate it quietly, and I had to wonder why they didn’t have anything that good in the McDonald’s back in America. We returned to the school later in a bus that barely fit all the whole team, but we were fine with it. We had won.


John said...

Austin Ryer captures well the contemporary Indian experience. It often reads like something Mark Twain or Dickens could have written, the text of contemporary India.

Ben MacKenzie said...

I could take credit for teaching Austin to write that well...but I don't want to incur his wrath for lying.

Well done.

Anonymous said...

Ryer, to have had these experiences with you was a pleasure and now to read your accounts which are so vividly expressed, makes me feel even more lucky than before. You are a fantastic writer and it is so great to read and remember through your words.

your aussie,