Thursday, March 26, 2015

No Love Lost On The Night Train To Odisha.

I hoped to have wised up by sixty-five, not be the usual old fool for a smiling come-on, yet I found myself walking the streets of Mumbai singing, “What kind of fool am I, to always fall in love?” I didn’t feel lonely and certainly not desperate for sex, in fact if you’d offered me a hot love affair I would’ve refused it, I was too tired, disappointed and jaded. But I was definitely on the rebound from a disintegrating relationship and maybe looking for some light, temporary company as Mumbai can be very tough on a lone tourist. I simply was not prepared for the intense attachment and eventual kidnapping that was about to unfold.

I first met Ravi just after sunset sitting on the sea-wall outside a ritzy night-club. I was sad because Mohammed, my friend of twelve years, was drunk again, which he’d been promising me for the last five years that he had given up, and I knew it was the final crashing end to our long affair. The boy sitting on the other side of Mohammed also looked very sad, as if he had a lot of trouble weighing down upon him, yet he seemed to forget the concern for himself when he jumped up to help an old man who had stood upon some broken glass.

The boy picked the glass from the drunk’s bare feet then led him further along the concrete bench and got him to lie down and take rest in safety. He then returned and sat back down next to Mohammed. We gazed across a gulf at each other, looking deep into each others existential being, with a need that neither felt any hope of satisfying and we didn’t speak. As if passing on the baton in a life-long psycho-sexual relay-race, Mohammed asked the boy to talk to me while he went off on an important mission. He had another agenda, pretending he had to take his sister to hospital, in reality he stumbled off to get another drink.

The boy asked me what my friend’s problem was and I told him how M was an incorrigible alcoholic, I didn’t drink and had no patience with drunks and M had known it from the beginning of our friendship, we had a verbal contract that alcohol would not enter the equation. For years he’d sneak away or was always trying to get rid of me to guzzle more booze. Ravi’s reply was the first of many white-lies, “I don’t drink” and, coming across as innocent, sincere, meek and vulnerable, after M’s deceit, I was ready to believe anything.

He looked to be in his mid-twenties, was tall and slim with a very cute, boyish face, dimpled chin, North-east Indian slanted eyes and dark butterscotch skin, drop dead gorgeous in fact, though with a nasty scar across his jaw, a flaw that enhanced his beauty. He spoke in a soft, almost pleading voice, mister nice guy, gentle, sweet-natured, undemanding. I had been betrayed by a long line of con-artists and needed badly to meet a person who was real, to believe in somebody. I thought I had met an angel there by the sea, a treasure of a human that the world had discarded. I asked him why he seemed so sad and he told me his pathetic tale in a few hard sentences.

He’d arrived in Mumbai as a teenager with a mate, comrades fleeing the jobless Indian interior, but was abandoned on Grant Road Railway Station when his friend was offered employment that didn’t include him. He cried a little boy’s tears, left alone in a strange, nasty city like Mumbai, and for years he had to fend for himself on the streets, doing whatever was needed to survive. I shuddered imagining what that would involve, he didn’t go into details except to confess that he was a pimp, getting women for the rich bastards who frequented the nightclub across the road.

And occasionally he fucked rich women for money, only last week he’d been taken by a foreign tourist into a Five Star Hotel under the pretense he was carrying her luggage, and he screwed her all night to her great satisfaction. She bit the tip of his cock in her enthusiasm and to compensate him she gave him thirty thousand rupees, ($500), a good night’s work except for the discomfort and ignominy of the dick wound. He’d sent the money to his dying mother, she had a brain-tumor and needed an operation, now he was back to being broke and very tense worrying about her.

I didn’t know how much to believe but he certainly looked stressed. His pathos made me want to help him somehow. I asked him if he was hungry and he said, “No.” He softly pleaded with me to keep him company, he broke my heart but I had to refuse, telling him I wasn’t interested in getting entangled with a new buddy as I was still committed to M, was devastated at the turn of events and needed to find the guy to see if I couldn’t straighten him out. Ravi admitted that he had been too proud to ask me for money and indeed hadn’t eaten that day. I saw the sincerity in his eyes and gave him enough for a meal then excused myself, hurrying off. I had to find that fool Mohammed, and truly thought I’d never see the tall, dark lad again. I meet many people with a hard-luck story, they pass me by in a flood and I have to let them go, I’m a fucked up pauper artist myself.

Mohammed turned up drunk late at night and I felt like punching him out. The next day he ran off on his bullshit hospital mission again leaving me alone to wander the streets of the tourist district, Colaba. As my cross-eyed destiny would have it, I ran into Ravi and his face lit up with joy. He told me he’d waited till 3 a.m. the night before hoping I’d come back and was now very happy to see me. His earnestness was hard to resist and I was feeling quite blue, in need of cheering up. I offered the boy a job, to accompany me on tours of Mumbai for the week I was there and I would feed him and give him forty bucks a day which he accepted enthusiastically.

The kind of cheap hotel I stay in doesn’t allow guests to have visitors, in fear of them getting robbed and murdered, and I’ve lost my libido anyway, therefore there was no hanky panky in the offering, he was simply a joy to be with, and me being a movie freak, we went to the movies every day, much to his delight. He rang me at 11 a.m. every day to find out what my plans were, then would meet me for lunch, a trip to some Mumbai iconic site like the Island of Elephanta or Chaupatti Beach, dinner, the movies, (we saw "The Hobbit", "Big Eyes", "Bhopal" and "Taken 3"), then we went strolling the boulevards of Colaba, Marine Drive, Churchgate Station and Gateway of India. M joined us at times, pissed out of his mind and sweating like a fish, insensible even to my budding friendship with the ravishing Ravi and breathing noxious fumes in my face shamelessly.

M and I shared a room and he snored like a drunken buffalo till I had to whack him in the face with a pillow repeatedly, still he didn’t wake or relent with the loud croaking. I went sleepless for a week and, at the end of my tether, decided to flee to Goa, alone, buying M a backpack to put his stuff in, after which I sent him packing. Ravi saw me off at the bus station, upset that I wasn’t taking him with me and again I had to plead emotional alienation, I didn’t want a traveling companion anymore, it only brought me grief, I needed to recuperate.

In Goa, as reported in “Orpheus in India”, I was bored at being on my own, and, as such, a target for thieves, hustlers and importunate peddlers. With Ravi ringing me every day to see how I was faring, by New Years Eve I succumbed to the loner’s blues and asked him to join me for the big party. He showed up dressed in neo-psychedelic gear, with a Ronaldo razor-haircut, looking very hip for a boy from the boondocks. 

He stayed loyally by my side throughout the celebrations, was fun company, intuited what I needed without me even asking, like milk coffee while I exercised my muscles on the dance-floor. He was a wildly enthusiastic dancer himself which is what I most desire in a companion, and all other Indians, seeing I had a chaperone, kept their distance and I had no hassles at all. As he leaped about me like a faun performing the rites of spring, I noticed women’s eyes were drawn to him, they smiled cheekily, this ecstatic boy turned them on. Maybe there was some truth to his gigolo pretensions.

Throughout this joyful holidaying he was ever on the phone to his family, his mother’s brain operation was imminent and he was in a lather of frustration at not being able to help her. They could only raise half the money to pay for the medical bills and he turned to me as his big hope, begging me to give him four hundred dollars to pay for the rest. I resisted for about seven minutes but I had truly come to care for the lad and his peace of mind, like an old fool I handed over the money which he deposited in a joint family bank account.

The next night we sat upon the Vagatore cliff-top and watched the moon rise above the Arabian Sea. He got a call from his sister on his mobile phone and they all chatted excitedly and he suddenly burst out crying. He turned to me and said his mother’s operation was successful, his father and sisters were crying for joy as was he. He grabbed my hand and kissed it, thanking me for helping him, his hot tears running between my fingers, and I couldn’t help but cry with him. In such a moment compassionate love is born, like a small flame flickering on a cold windy night, if it was to last for a viable length of time it needed much effort to keep it alight to warm our needy hearts.

The temple Mela.
Goa is expensive for a pauper artist such as me, we stayed ten days, went to an Indian circus, rode a shaky Ferris wheel that had no safety mechanisms at a Hindu temple fair, caught an auto-rickshaw all the way to the capital city of Panaji to go to the Inox movie theater to see bad horror, “The Woman in Black 2”. And throughout it all he got in the queue to get the tickets, he went for the food and drinks, he got me the best prices and translated all the nonsense, he led the way though the crowd, mostly I just sat and took a rest. We bought many pirated movies to watch on my laptop in my room and umpteen T-shirts for us to parade about in and give to our friends as gifts, and we ate seafood day and night, all of which drained my bank account.

Thus our Goan romance was quickly over, reality intervened, we had to face that teeming, harsh city of Mumbai again, where Ravi decided he had to rush to Bangalore the next day to see his recovering mother before she and the family returned to their home village in Odisha. I bid him goodbye, imagining I’d never see him again, for I was off to the Himalayas to spend my last few weeks in India there above the snow-line, with other friends.

While I suffered for two weeks from the Urinary Tract Infection I picked up in the hot sulphur-springs tub, I got phone calls from Ravi pleading with me to allow him to come up to the mountains and join me as he enjoyed being with me, Bangalore was boring now that his family had left. I knocked him back, not up for the hard work of keeping him entertained, in response to which he cajoled, begged, wheedled, mesmerized me to come down to the plains and join him, he’d show me the delights of Bangalore. I kept refusing, recovering from my fever, happy to stay in an old friend’s restaurant, lolling about on a couch, reading crime novels, even the thought of travel tired me out.

With two weeks to go before my flight back to Auz, ennui set in, I was bored with the same old same old river, jungle and mountains that I’d visited a thousand times. My friends in Shangri-la had proved to be shallow, disinterested in my fevered plight and boring in their conversations, money, family, god and sex the only topics that interested them. I needed a change of scenery and figured maybe I was up for one last fabulous adventure before the banality of Sydney threw me low again. I acquiesced to Ravi’s blandishments, the promise of a good time in a quiet place amidst the loving attentions of his family. Thus I drifted that thousand kms down to Mumbai on the Rajdhani express, for the hundredth time, sixteen hours from New Delhi, time out to ponder my ongoing artist’s non-career in old age.

At the movies in Mumbai.
I hoped to go to the movies in Mumbai but Ravi didn’t want to stay for even a day, he rushed off to get train tickets to his home village which he suggested was not far off. He only got “Waiting” tickets, no reserved seats, actually illegal to board a train until seats are confirmed. I followed Ravi onto the train in complete trust and when our fellow travelers told us we wouldn’t have a chance, the conductor would throw us off, I half shat my pants. I must’ve been in a daze as I only then inquired exactly where it was we were going and Ravi replied, “Orissa”.
“Ummm… where exactly is Orissa?”
“It’s on the other side of India, the east, just under West Bengal, about a forty hours journey.”
“No, that’s impossible! I’m not staying on this crowded fucking train for forty hours. We don’t even have proper tickets.”

I tried to get off at the next station, only two hours back to Mumbai, but Ravi insisted we’d be OK, he’d bribe the conductor and get me a sleeping berth. I decided to let go of my haughty tourist stance and go with the flow for once, just let events take me, into the unknown, as if willingly kidnapped, by love. The train was filled to overflowing, everyone was going home for Siva Ratri, the night sacred to their number one god, it was like those trains you see in the movies when India was partitioned, millions packed into the carriages, all looking tired and resigned, their luggage piled around them, with nowhere for interlopers like us to sit.

We had to continually move up and down the train to allow those with legitimate tickets to have their seats. I sat on the floor, up in the luggage racks, by the doorway, next to the toilets, everyone’s butt pressed into my face, with no fresh air as Indians have a mortal fear of it, all windows firmly shut. My biggest nightmare come true as I suffer badly from claustrophobia and I had to grit my teeth, shut my eyes and breathe slowly with my mantra, AUM, filling my thoughts to stop myself screaming and wrenching open the exit-door to leap to my doom.

Ravi tried hard to find me a comfortable position and get me food from every station platform we stopped at, but nothing could placate my annoyance or mollify my fears at being dragged into this outrageous predicament. I kept shaking my fist at him and whispering, “You’ve killed me, I’m fucked! I won’t survive this, you fucking bastard!” The poor boy could only say over and over, “I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry!” And he was unrelenting in his running up and down the kilometer-long train trying to find a good seat for the lone precious foreigner in the crushing crowd. Only after about twenty-five hours of restless torment did Ravi finally corner the conductor and bribe him with forty dollars to get me an upper bunk in an air-conditioned carriage and the rest of the journey was passable, though I was still furious to be dragged far from my comfort zone.

At one point an Indian woman sat next to me and berated me for being Australian, a country that hates Indians, not only bashed them up willy-nilly but even killed them when possible. I talked myself blue in the face trying to convince her it was all a media beat-up, that Indians were safe and happy in Auz and “We love you all.” She kept her sour puss and wouldn’t believe me, “I’m an engineer, educated and I’m telling you, all my friends are too scared to go to Australia!” Only a few weeks later an Indian woman was stabbed to death while walking innocently through a park in Sydney and I felt intense dismay, sorrow and regret that the lady on the train had been proved right.

We hurtled across India, through Chadisghar where Maoist rebels destroy whole army platoons and hold up trains to loot everyone. We arrived in Bubaneshwar, the capitol city of Odisha as it’s now called, at 5 a.m, tip-toeing amongst the thousands of peasants sleeping on the station platform, to struggle into the dark night outside, me thinking we’d landed on the moon. We caught an auto-rickshaw to a bus station, then a bus to another bus station, where we left in a tiny bus that wobbled and shuddered for six hours up a dinky highway, all the while me grimly trusting that Ravi knew what he was doing. He told me his whole family was waiting excitedly for me, would I please remain patient and be polite on my arrival, and I wondered if I could pull off the charming guest act.

Bubaneshwar Station.
We drove endlessly into the middle of nowhere and I kept cursing my friend, this trip was growing more impossible with every kilometer, the bus got ever more packed and shaky, I just didn’t count on going to the ends of the earth, especially as my return flight to Auz from Delhi was now only ten days away and I was down to my last three hundred dollars, with no ATM in sight, a pittance between me and oblivion.

Finally, coming to a cross-roads containing a few desultory shops, we squeezed from the bus to find an auto-rickshaw had been sent by Ravi’s father to bring us to his village. We took-tooked more kilometers up narrow roads through islands of coconut groves and a sea of rice-paddy fields and with every kilometer I felt the hope of return growing more and more improbable. I had come to the ends of the Earth, to a feudal society, of male supremacy, idol worship and mythic superstition. Outside of every village we passed was a giant, psychedelic statue of Hanuman, (the monkey-god who assisted Lord Rama in his mission to rescue Sita from the demon Ravan), and I asked why He was so prevalent. “He wards off evil spirits, he protects us from ghosts.” “Hmmmmm… OK, hope He protects me too.”
We’d arrived just in time for the big celebrations in the temple to Siva. Ravi’s dad greeted us and cried with joy to see his son and the good friend that had helped the family. I quickly changed into my cool Siva singlet that showed off all my tattoos, then I was led around the village like a monkey on a chain for everyone to gawk at, the captive freak, they’d never seen a foreigner like this before. I felt terribly embarrassed as the crowd took turns poking me, chatting me up in broken English, rubbing my tats to make sure they really were permanent, and pointing at my bulbous nose as something utterly alien.

The fact that I was an Australian added extra cachet as everyone was watching on cable television the World Cup cricket matches being held in Australia, (yes, technology was ubiquitous, they all had mobile phones and motorbikes too), and I was a representative of a futuristic utopia wearing the aura of superstar world cricket. I was marched up and down, round and round, Ravi touching everyone’s feet, the prodigal son returned, bearing the prestigious accessory of a foreigner. I sensed some hesitation on the part of the village elders, as if Ravi had some history of being a tear-away child.

I remained affable and polite, somewhat amazed at village life and the countryside of Odisha, though inside I was seething with annoyance and scheming upon my escape. Every chance I got I nagged Ravi to go to his friend the travel agent and get me a return train ticket to Mumbai. I was deposited with Ravi’s family in a mud-walled hut with thatched roof, quite picturesque when viewed on a TV documentary but to live in one was quite primitive. They had govt. supplied water from a tap outside but no toilet, they all shat in the fields behind the hut. And no kitchen either, everything was done in the bedroom/sitting room, food cooked on a small kerosene burner.

A typical Odishan dwelling.
The hut was actually a compound, several rooms around a central open air courtyard, twenty-eight members of an extended family sharing the space, half of them children, one of whom was born deaf, dumb and blind and sat moaning loudly in an alcove throughout the day. Ravi’s father was a sad failure who couldn’t get his vegetable stall happening until I gave him the money to set it up. He had four brothers, all more successful than he and they fought bitterly over money, and didn’t share much. One brother was particularly rich, owning a small forest and much rice-paddy. He’d built a concrete monstrosity of a palace next to the thatched compound, it had all mod cons and the fat uncle sat like Jabba the Hutt on his throne inside, grumpy, glowering, ugly. He and his equally ugly wife frowned at me like I was the devil, yet I was to stay in their guest room, to their intense resentment.

Ravi promised he would get me out of there in a few days but I was fast losing trust in him as everything he’d said to me up until then about our sojourn had been a lie, all of it a plan to get him home for a visit with me paying for it all. I got dumped with mum and dad later that day while he ran off with his mates to drink beer and chase girls in the nearby villages. Ravi’s mother was very sweet and kind to me, waiting on me hand and foot though she was still ill from the recent surgery, every now and then collapsing on the floor and we’d all have to lift her up and insist she take a rest.

The time came for me to go to bed and as the honored guest I was to go next door to the concrete palace and sleep in a room more suited to my high station in life. First I asked to go to the toilet and instead of the modern flush one in the bathroom I was led out back to a shed that had to be unlocked before I could go in and squat Indian style over the hole in the floor. Then I was shown to my room, past the uncle and auntie who were fearsome to behold, like uncaring ogres. I was totally freaked out by having to be nice to them as I was locked into my airless cubicle.

I realized why the toilet out back had been padlocked, they were so mean they didn’t want the rest of the family using it, even though they had their own flusher inside the house, making the extended family shit out in the fields in the dark. At one point the fat cousin burst through the door to ask if I was alright, somehow his avid interest creeped me out and I lay in terror all night, fearing he’d come back. All I could do was meditate upon my escape. Ravi’s dad got me up at 7 a.m. to have a quick wash in the lovely bathroom then breakfast in the mud-hut.

The village center.
All the village was agog at my presence, the women calling in to inspect me, the children to crowd around, stare and giggle, the old men to frown. It was too much, with each hour I despaired of ever getting back to Mumbai. I thought of all those westerners who had been kidnapped and held for ransom, Odisha was infamous for it. I’ve stayed with Indian peasants a lot in my life, know how to be polite and fore-bearing, but this was the nitty-gritty of real grungy poverty, their hopes and aspirations not given much scope to find fruition. Though anxious I felt great compassion and figured I’d try to help them any way I could.

Ravi recovered from his night of carousing to take me with his boyhood buddies on motorbike rides around the Odishan countryside, vast open spaces of rice-paddy fields, dotted with innumerable villages like islands, along a huge river full of crocodiles, gaily painted temples with animal statues out front to guard them, thatch-roof huts with white milk-cows munching straw/chewing the cud, and various exotic birds flying into the sun. It was lovely and pastoral to pass through but in my mind Hell to get stuck in.

The Maharaja's Palace.
The biggest attraction in the area was an old tumble-down Maharaja’s palace that cost ten rupees for a visit. Ravi’s mate told me the old Maharaja had died some time ago and his son, the new Maharaja, preferred to live in England. The upstairs was out of bounds as it looked to be collapsing, and in the living room the plaster fell from the ceiling, the stuffed animals were moth-eaten, the grand furniture broken, and the photos on the walls, depicting the golden days of the Raj with their hunting parties, were fly-blown. I loudly commented on the cruelty of killing animals for sport, the snooty Brits and Indian Royals sat holding their guns with vast numbers of dead creatures laid out before them. I picked up one dusty plaque and read it aloud, “The Maharaja of Odisha has proudly presented the British govt. with a Tiger Moth fighter plane to assist in the war effort in 1940s Second World War.” I put it back on its shelf with the comment, “How amazing!”

Then I wandered into the next room to poke amongst heaps of bric-a-brac and moldy furniture, somewhat melancholy at the transience of all things, even grand palaces and exploitative empires. After some minutes Ravi’s mate came up to me and said, “Toby, the Maharaja would like to speak to you.” 
“Huh! It can’t be possible, I thought he lived in England?”
“No, he’s in the next room and he wants to speak with you.”

Flabbergasted I went back to the dusty room I’d just vacated and found a little old man, about fifty-five years old, unprepossessing, dressed neatly in expensive but plain casual clothes, straightening up the plaque I’d put crookedly back on its shelf. He shook my hand and, on asking me where I came from, replied, “Oh yes, Australia.” I commented how sad that his palace was falling down and asked what he was doing there. He said he lived in a part of the building that had been renovated and was in the process of fixing up the whole joint which we agreed was going to cost him a lot of cash as it really was in ruins.

Then two of his Indian house guests stepped forward and introduced themselves and asked whereabouts in Auz I was from and I replied, “Sydney” and one said, in a plummy English accent, “That figures, a guy like you would have to come from the toughest and most challenging city in Australia” and I agreed. He had traveled to my country and told me how much he’d enjoyed it and I said I was always pleased to hear someone had been given a good time by my countrymen. I told him of my hippie days in the early 1970s, hitch-hiking the entire length of Odisha and sleeping by the side of the road, and again he said, “That figures.”

I mentioned that my return flight was only ten days away and I was nervous at not making it to Delhi in time but had great confidence that the Indian people would get me safely to the airport as I’d always found them to be most helpful when a guest in their land was in need. At this they beamed fondly, “Yes, yes, the Indian people will make sure you get home safely.” For once, in this outlandish of lands, I felt some confidence and tried to relax and enjoy the awesome experience. Only in India can a bum like me rub shoulders with a Maharaja.

Ravi’s friends vied with each other to cart me about on the back of their motorbikes but Ravi felt I was getting too familiar with them, clutching them too close as I do in fear of falling off the speeding machines. He dumped me again with his family while he went off to party and I refused to go back to the Orc-like uncle and auntie’s house, preferring instead to sleep on the creaky wooden bed with mum and dad. The next morning I again nagged Ravi about the return train tickets that I had paid one hundred and forty dollars for on first arriving in the village, two days later they still had not materialized.

He promised, prevaricated and made excuses while I cajoled, begged, demanded, stamped my foot and cried bitter tears to get him moving, finally socking him on the jaw in a temper tantrum because he seemed slack. Though it was what my mother called a “love tap”, this guy was furious and from then on he wouldn’t even look at me. I really did begin to feel like I was a captive and might never get away. Every few hours he hassled me for more money to spend on his mates and girlfriends, he was the happening guy come back from the big bad city and had to show he was something of a success.

To distract me and make me feel at home the family put the TV on the sports channel and I got to watch the World Cricket Cup being played out in Australia, relishing the scenes of Melbourne and the Melbourne Cricket Ground outside of which I’d slept as a child in expectation of the football Grand Final. And the shots of Sydney, the Opera House, Harbor Bridge and Sydney Cricket Ground made me feel terribly home sick and I wondered if I’d ever get back to my comfy bed to think back on this mud-hut village as a fascinating dream.

Every temple had animal statues out front for protection.
Ravi seems to have grown up king of his castle, the only son with two sisters, he was spoiled and everyone deferred to him, possibly because he’d also been the major bread-winner for several years. In his natural environment I got to see another side to his nature, very macho and bossy, he ordered his sisters about like servants, yelled at them rudely, even yelled at his sick mother if she didn’t quickly do what he demanded. At one point in an argument with his father he pushed the poor old fellow over. I was quite shocked and when I asked one of his sisters why he treated them all quite disrespectfully she said, “All Odisha boys speak this way to their women folk, it’s just the way men are.”

This was not the sweet, self-effacing, obsequious boy I had first met. I was beginning to dislike his abrupt, uncaring attitude but had to remain diplomatic with him as I was dependent on him keeping me safe. When I asked who was the presiding deity in the gaily painted temple at the center of every village we passed through I was told it was “Mata Dev”, the Universal Mother. Why then I asked do men treat women so badly all over India if their major deities are female, it was a contradiction? The girls just shrugged, it’s the way it had always been, boys had to be eternally appeased.

I was promised my return to Mumbai would happen on the coming Friday, that meant I’d be back in civilization on Sunday, with a few days to rest, (and hopefully go to the movies), then a train back up to Delhi, then a day to get to Shangri-la to pick up a suitcase I’d left there, then the next day back to Delhi for my flight home. It seemed I’d make it by the skin of my teeth. I was trapped in the back of beyond, no one spoke English, my money was running out, there seemed no transport out of the place, I couldn’t eat the food or even go to the toilet comfortably as I was loathe to go back to the awful uncle and auntie’s house. When I went out late at night to shit in the fields like the other peasants I couldn’t find a clear space to do it and when I crouched down I got the rest of the family's shit all over me. Yuk! I washed it off in the communal pond trying to disassociate from the reality.

The lush countryside of Odisha.
On the Thursday, hopefully my last day in the village, I was left to my own devices, Ravi’s friends abandoned me, the novelty had worn off. I sat writing in my diary out the back of the hut by the pond, (fed by a natural spring, nearly every house had one for washing), a joy to be near nature as white egrets took flight and kingfisher birds dove at the water. Then I wandered about the village and was still an eyesore freak, everybody staring at me, wondering, “What is this crazy firanghi still doing here?”  I was persona non grata, Ravi had also run off to avoid my querulous ire.

At sunset his sister took me for a stroll about the countryside with her girlfriends, they were very beautiful and I got them all doing Bollywood dancing, like Dorothy and co on the yellow-brick road, perhaps to the scandal of the locals. I was just trying to instill some fun into what looked like a dreary existence, they didn’t even have a cinema, not even a proper chai shop, I guess cable TV was enough for them, they could jump about in the seclusion of their rooms and fantasize.

Then his poor old mother collapsed on the floor for the final time and couldn’t get up again, her cancer had spread to the spine and she could hardly move. We carried her to the bed and tried to get her to lie still yet she constantly tried to sit up and continue the household chores, such was her duty to her family. I realized Ravi’s acerbic response to everything was all due to his extreme worry for his mother and I tried to be caring and patient with the ongoing imbroglio.

I pondered upon this latest misadventure as some kind of karma, India getting her revenge on a firanghi tourist like me who thinks he can pass through all the muck without getting dirty, with his head in the clouds thinking he’s above it all. Maybe my getting passionately involved with India was a kind of death wish playing out, a secret hope that my life’s travail will be over in some calamitous event, yet always the travail gets extended, like here in the village.

While I had hoped Ravi would be a longtime companion, maybe the last of them, now we were antagonistic and it looked as if I’d be saying goodbye to him and leaving him to his fate. I’ve said goodbye to many friends, being an independent  wanderer, and there I was, left to my own fate, waiting, waiting, waiting for it, maybe tomorrow, a freedom that hovers on the horizon and ever recedes as I toil towards it.

On that last night I again slept with mum and dad, mum begging me to stay another week, me trying to explain the urgency of my return flight from Delhi, all in broken Hindi that nobody understood. The next morning a taxi turned up to take me back to Bubaneshwar and I could have cried with relief. Half the village came to say farewell and it was sad to drive away, me like Lord Rama in his silver chariot, to go back to heavenly, fabulous Sydney, while they stayed back in their feudal backwater, perhaps to talk for years of that strange, curious foreigner who had once graced their village for a few days, (which seemed like an eternity to me!)

We stopped to say goodbye to Ravi’s father at his vegetable stall, he sensed the tension between me and his son and he took my hand and placed it in Ravi’s, a loving gesture causing Ravi to smile for the first time in days. We drove back down that dirt and pot-holed highway, over immense rivers, through the grungy one car concrete towns, but still with no train tickets in my pocket. Ravi kept saying it would happen somewhere down the road and I sweated on it the whole way.

Then not far from Bubaneshwar we stopped in a dusty tumble-down town and waited ten minutes till a goonda-type turned up on a motor-cycle and presented me with my reserved air-conditioned train ticket, which I clutched to my heart in thanks. As we zoomed off I realized the ticket was only for one, me, though I thought I’d paid for two, and Ravi was not coming with me. He rang his friend the travel agent who assured him he’d be waiting outside the railway station with another ticket.

We duly got to the station with an hour to spare but there was no one waiting with an extra ticket. While I had a delicious meal in the station restaurant Ravi ran around outside trying to find the guy, then he came in to make sure I was OK and smiled when I told him I’d enjoyed a vanilla milk-shake. Little did I know that would be the last time I’d ever see him.

It was time for me to board the train and I found I had been given the most comfortable seat on the kilometer-long Konorak Express. I was on the phone constantly to Ravi, anxious that he wouldn’t make it in time, and he never did as his ticket didn’t show up and the train pulled out with me alone and forlorn, like a sad song, cut off by time, distance and identity from someone I had come to care for deeply.

Thinking back on it I wondered if he hadn’t planned the whole escapade, conning me like a practiced confidence trickster, to pay for his homecoming, to splurge money in the village to big-note himself, to not buy two return tickets but keeping the money to help his floundering family out. If so, good luck to him, it didn’t end up doing me any harm and was actually an amazing experience, no globe-trotting tourist could have got one more interesting.

I dreaded the conductor’s approach as my ticket didn’t have my name on it and I worried I’d be thrown from the train. When the conductor examined it I explained that a friend had booked it for me as I didn’t know how to do it, and he was very solicitous, saying that was fine, I would have a comfortable journey back to Mumbai. He then turned to the other Indians in my compartment and asked them to look out for me as I was a vulnerable guest in their great state of Odisha.

He returned hours later and again told my fellow travelers to make sure I was kept safe. Then late at night he showed up out of uniform and for the third time told the crowd very sternly to watch out for me closely, Odishan pride depended on it. I was stoked at their hospitality and later, when researching Odisha online, I was reminded of their terrible history of foreigners being kidnapped and held for ransom in the area the train traversed. A French tour operator and friend had been held for months by Maoist rebels until the govt. released seventy of their fellow Naxalites from jail in a swap. (I wondered if the Maharaja hadn’t rang his friends in the Railway Service and said, “There will be an Australian on your train in the next few days, make sure he gets to Mumbai safely, he’s an intrepid traveler and we want good reports on Odisha”; India is like that.)

The French captive of Naxalites.
I got to Mumbai at 4 a.m. and sat in Sivaji terminal for two hours with a thousand slumbering Indians waiting for the sun to rise, watching the city come to life. I waited in Mumbai for a few days, going to movies like “Whiplash”, “Wild”, “The Imitation Game” and “Birdman”, hoping that Ravi would show up but he never did. I then returned to Delhi and the Himalayan mountains for one last glorious day of riding high above the Ganges River, to sit upon a temple terrace and contemplate the miracle of life on this wondrous planet and my good karma at surviving it all, the pleasure and the pain.

I rang Ravi nearly every day and he’d had endless bad luck, from being pick-pocketed of his cash to having a motor-cycle accident, to being ripped by the travel agent to his friends deserting him, from one guy beating him up with a cricket bat to not being able to find a job. And most sad of all, his mother died only two weeks after I left the village, the whole family distraught, lost and in debt from all her medical bills.

Maybe it’s all more of the con job done on my soft-touch nature, I don’t care, money is nothing compared to the survival of such beautiful people. Though poor myself I have sent them small amounts of money to help out, and will possibly adopt the family, as I do care for Ravi and them very much, and maybe he really will be that perfect companion/helper for these last seven years of my wanderer’s life, some of it in endearing, incredible India.


P.S. And I got to lie back on my bed in safety in Sydney and watch the semi-final of the World Cricket Cup on TV, India vs. Australia, in a stadium not ten minutes walk from my apartment, and I watched it with one billion Indians, including that village in far off Odisha, and for a few hours we were as One.

If you enjoyed this story please go to the WEB address above and consider buying my book of tales about growing up anarcho-queer, rock and roll punter and mystic adventurer in Australia and India of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s.