Thursday, July 03, 2014

63) Escape From the Jungle, (But Not Without His Leg!)

He spoke too soon in his wishful thinking of safe escape from disaster as it was indeed waiting for him on that seventh trip to India; he forgot to expect the unexpected, he had to push the envelope and he wound up in the dust. 

He loved to fly like a jjin above the Himalayan splendors on a motorcycle in a cyberpunk India, chaos and technology entwined, extremely exhilarating but it was playing Russian Roulette. Indian traffic has a system all to its self, because there’s so much of it, a billion people rushing to and fro, it’s Topsy-turvy Land, the secret of making it through the  morass is to hone your driving skills, cross your fingers and pray to every god known to man.

All traffic must simply keep turning in a great, endless circle, a merry-go-round(not), where no rational traffic rules apply except each person must simply jump into the spinning vortex with his eye on the guy ahead and absolutely ignoring the guy coming up behind. If people gave way to the right or stopped for a pedestrian or worried about staying in the proper lane all traffic would come to a jammed up standstill, so it’s jump in, judge everyone’s varying speeds instantly with one’s bio-computer, and then knock the weaker one out of the way, social Darwinism at its scariest. 

Everyone mostly makes it but such is the volume of mobile-madness there are innumerable accidents, in one year over eighty-five thousand dead and one hundred and thirty thousand crippled for life, and in the background lurks a vast, multi-layered medical industry waiting to patch up the pieces.

Topsy-turvy Land indeed, as if they planned on purpose to make the conditions as bad as possible: pot-holed roads, grease slicks, monkey tribes playing ‘chicken’, pedestrians in a trance appearing out of nowhere, along with monstrous pigs and stupid dogs that seemed determined to commit suicide under the wheels of humanity, sugar-cane loaded bullock carts that fill the road, no street lighting at night, everyone driving on high beam, the obstacles and dangers are legion. 

Deadliest of all irrational facts was that everyone drives on the wrong side of the road, and hopefully swerves back to the correct side when oncoming traffic approaches. Most of the time this correction happens, everyone swerving around everyone in all manner of speeding vehicles, an exhilarating, fast snaking in and out of an exotic landscape that feels like the wildest of computer-video games, only it’s for Real.

But the one thing any soul could dread the most about traveling in India happened to Arthur and he found himself in the dirt of the Indian countryside, sprawled on the side of the road in a smashed up heap, helpless and at the mercy of the proverbial, mysterious elements. Motorbike riding was a wonderful sport for him to discover in his old age; nursing the dying in hospices wasn’t enough, he needed something extra exciting to whet his jaded, existential palate and make him feel alive. 

He’d flown a thousand and one times freely through the amazing, outlandish countryside of India, especially as pillion on the back of an Indian friend’s fast bike, and every journey went splendidly well. The Indians seemed such capable drivers, almost flying as if blindfolded, whizzing through the narrowest of harrowing obstacles, somehow the mad, chaotic flurry worked and Arthur let the devil-may-care attitude go to his head, duffer that he was.

He should have known Kali was dancing around him when the beggar child turned up at Mukti’s Café, his face hideously deformed by an abscess in the roof of his mouth that he must have had from early childhood on. The deformity of the palate had pushed his growing set of teeth through the flesh and out above his upper lip, the teeth splayed like a mustache under his nose, creating a grotesque parody of a smile, like the mythical Kali’s ghastly smile of destruction and entropy. All the firanghi tourists tried to ignore the freakish beggar, as the Healthfood Café was supposed to be a time-out zone for foreigners, where they could eat in peace, for a few moments, maybe.

And in his ‘great white sahib’ hubris Arthur walked past the child without paying his due to the forces of chaos, as if he was Lord Rama arrived from his silver flying chariot. He felt compassion for the downfallen and helped out where he could but the deformed child horrified him, he lost his humanity in the face of it and ran away, without giving the kid any monetary succor. He told himself he couldn’t help the army of cripples, especially the road accident victims hobbling about with crooked legs, leaning on tall staffs. He bullshitted that everyone he passed was responsible for their own karma, including the severely handicapped child who grinned back at him in defiance, as if to mock him.

Leo, an experienced biker back in Germany, was a great friend with whom he’d experienced third millennium India for several years. He invited Artie on one last tour of the Himalayas, to Nainital, an old colonial hill station next to a lake where they could ponder the vagaries of the British Raj as it mulched back into its Indian heritage. Three times Arthur refused to go on the trip, wanting to rest in his room, ready for his imminent departure back to Australia, having successfully survived the wilds of India yet again. He had some vague intuition that his path should go elsewhere, alone if he could swing it, for one last glimpse of Garwhal Himalayan paradise. But his friend insisted Arthur accompany him, he liked to share adventures as it gave them more memorable validity.

Arthur, having refused many another person’s request for travel companionship due to the extra hassles it inevitably involved, kept refusing till Leo brought up on his computer, via an internet connection, the details of the place they would be visiting, the Jim Corbett National Tiger Park. For years Arthur had wished to go on a safari and see his beloved tigers in the wild but it was such a tedious journey across the foothills of the Himalayas and something always intervened to stop him. But he changed his mind when it dawned on him that Jim Corbett was the one and only “Jungle Jim”, celluloid macho hero of Arthur’s youth, starring Johnny Weismueller and his faithful Sikh side-kick, a masturbatory icon for whom Arthur would risk death to get near. And the Himalayan region which Arthur had long called his home, Gharwal, was the very area where Jungle Jim had grown up, hunted and become one with the Indian landscape.

Leo showed him the bungalow where Corbett spent much of his life, now a guest house, and Arthur dreamed he could sleep in the great man's very bed; this clinched it and on the fourth request to accompany Leo he acquiesced, as it might prove to be one of those experiences of a lifetime that he thought he was always missing out on. Like many of his most brilliant wishes come true, he ended up experiencing it as a cruel joke.

Arthur had learned to be an expert pillion motor-biker over the years, leaning into the curves, keeping cool when confronted by road-frights, exhilarated by the speed. If only they hadn’t stopped off at Rajiji National Park so Arthur could pat a baby elephant for good luck, as that extra five minutes provided an exact time-line trajectory for a collision course between two wayward, annihilating particles. 

They were flying along like the Thief of Baghdad hanging onto his genie, Himalayan foothills in the background, past the peasants reaping their vast sugar-cane fields, through the klunky one-buffalo villages, zooming alongside a stupendous concrete canal, man-made tributary of the Ganges River, as colossal as the Great Wall of China in its extreme length, as if leading travelers into infinity, the Canal of Life going nowhere. Leo turned to Arthur and shouted above the wind, “It’s like flying, isn’t it?” And Arthur yelled back, “Yeah, so cool!”

There was none of the usual clutter on this open road, no vehicle traffic at all, no cows, monkeys, dogs, bikes, pedestrians, nothing, an absolutely miraculous anomaly. But way up ahead, like a mirage, could just be made out a line of six motorcyclists coming towards them, taking over the whole road like Marlon Brando’s “Wild Ones.” Most noticeable, three of them were driving on the wrong side of the road, in the left lane, all six riding abreast, laughing and chatting mindlessly at each other, possibly drunk. Leo expected the expected, rational driving: big mistake!

He imagined they’d cross back to the correct side, the right lane, as they approached, as all good Indian drivers do, but not these idiots. Three bikers passed on the right, two passed on the left, and the fuckwit in the middle couldn’t decide which way to go, even though the lane on the right was empty. The pea-brain decided at the last moment to cross over and pass Leo/Arthur on the left, instead driving straight into them and thus they had a head on smash-up. Leo hadn’t slowed down much, expecting the moron to do the right thing and as the other bike bore down upon them, he deflected his bike just that much that Arthur took the full brunt of the impact. He saw the monstrous other bike rear up on him like some devouring metallic demon, felt his right leg explode at the knee as Thor’s sledge-hammer pounded it and he gave a loud shriek.

A diamond light expanded around him for an eternal moment in which he felt nothing except astonishment at such stupidity, and then they all went down in a sliding, screeching, metal-tearing heap, and as he tumbled in slow motion to the road, Arthur worried that Leo was maybe copping the worst of it, and death could be visiting from out of the blue.

Calling out, he discovered no one else had been hurt, just a few bruises, though Arthur intuitively knew his right leg was badly broken. He looked down at it in trepidation, pulled his torn jeans leg up and went into shock, his lower leg lay Z shaped in the dirt. But thankfully no blood, he wasn't bleeding. Indian peasants rushed from out of nowhere to crowd around and have a look, dust and flies and pushing children smothering his upside-down view of the world. They were in the middle of nowhere, up the road was a feudal Moslem village, a row of cow-dung daubed cottages scattered along the highway. 

The criminal biker had bit the dust also, only he got up, brushed himself off, looked back at the stricken firanghis lying in the dust and knew he’d well and truly fucked them. He did the common Indian trick of "absconding", for few had driver’s licenses, let alone insurance, in the “functioning anarchy” that was India. He jumped on his bike and sped away with his mates while Leo scrambled about trying to find an appropriate vehicle to take a broken Arthur to the nearest hospital.

A toy-like tin truck showed up, a three-wheeled took-took, the classic peasant taxi, and a well-meaning farmer tried to lift Arthur onto it by tugging at his broken leg and much shouting had to ensue before the guy would leave off.  Artie knew he was done for, here in the medieval Himalayas, hundreds of kilometers from techno civilization, and he had to stay calm and collected, concentrating all his energies into the seven point plan for survival his bio-computer had instantly relayed to him as he lay in the dirt: he had to be one cool cat to get out of this mess. He drifted into a strangely quiescent state, his saving mantra, AUM, taking over and cocooning him, he had a ghastly injury yet mysteriously felt he would be alright, he would be taken care of and the disaster would be overcome, the Universe cradled him and it was all One.

He asked to be gently transferred to a flat board and then hauled into the back of the three-wheeler and off they went, chug-chug, to an unheard of town called Najibabad where they were told there was a Clinic, Leo riding escort on his dented motor-bike. Every pothole and bump caused agony in Arthur’s smashed leg and he watched the funky medieval scene pass slowly by with a morbid curiosity. In the middle of a grungy, tumble-down town they found a modern-looking private hospital called the Pujah, glowing like an oasis in a desert of concrete cancer, where they stabilized Arthur’s leg with bandages and shot him up with antibiotics, anti-inflammatory and painkillers. 

They took x-rays and announced Arthur had indeed lost his right leg, the miracle was he had no torn flesh, not even a scratch, or else he could have bled to death back there in the dirt. All those years of yoga, dance and walking had paid off for his knee was able to take a seven-tonne sledge hammer blow, get stretched way out of kilter, then rebound without the flesh, blood vessels or nerves tearing. His shinbone had been dislocated from the joint and broken cleanly in two, the knee cap shattered and the tendon snapped; he supposed he was lucky he didn’t break his back.

The Pujah Clinic couldn’t deal with the seriousness of the injury so he was rushed off again, in a hired jeep; as his knee swelled to the size of a football he lay in the back and rolled hashish joints to smoke, keeping the anxiety and pain at bay, a worried Leo driving ahead of them on his bike. They drove on and on, endless hours tearing through the timeless Indian landscape to a mythic high-class hospital Arthur had heard of near Shangri-la. Because it had a five star hotel perched on the mountain behind it, Arthur stupidly thought the hospital was also five star. In fact it was the Jungle Institute of Medical Sciences, a teaching hospital, and whenever the locals hear that their relatives have been taken into its precincts, they cross their hearts and say a prayer, for many come out of there dead.

Leo had rung ahead on his mobile and they were met at the front entrance by a “mad professor-like” head surgeon, hair standing on end and goggle-eyes bulging. “Have you got any money?” was the first thing he asked them and Leo assured him they had. “Good. You’re in luck. We only operate once a week and it happens to be tomorrow morning.”

Arthur was up for the tourist experience of a lifetime when he was admitted to this veritable death-house, and as Leo was the only one with the money, to keep costs down Arthur decided on a cheap, shared room, all gray concrete and grungy bed, decor like a prison cell. Leo told the surgeon to save his leg, no matter the cost, and stood by the surgery door peering in through a glass window to make sure they didn’t ignore his orders and chop the leg off, a common horror for the poor in India. Arthur actually wished the world farewell as he went under the anesthetic, a mini-death then ensued yet he did indeed come out the other side of dark oblivion to tell his tale, it even said it in bold print on his discharge papers, “Alive.”

Firanghis get treated special because everyone knows they have access to plenty of money, and Leo was made to throw thousands of rupees at the demanding Indians turning up every seven minutes for their piece of the ‘road-wars’ action. His “mad doctor” was like something from a 1930s horror movie in his white coat and grey hair in disarray, issuing orders in a loud staccato, making everyone jump. Arthur thought, “Cool, someone who knows how to be in charge”, for the demons of entropy were howling down upon his back and he feared he may never walk again.

He had been dredged up from unconsciousness after the operation by a young anesthetist tapping him vigorously on the forehead and intoning, “Mr. Arthur, Mr. Arthur, would you be pleased to wake up now?” Arthur found himself surrounded by twenty-one young adults, dressed for a surgery costume party, all talking, laughing, exultant and impressed, as if they’d witnessed a great artist’s performance. They were the head surgeon’s students of course, but Arthur didn’t mind, for their excitement augured well for the success of the reconstruction of his shin and knee. He pleaded for peace and the party quickly broke up. Back in his room, people walked in and out all night, like it was a railway station, and someone stole Leo’s mobile phone that he’d left for Arthur in case of any emergency.

At one point Leo sat by his pauper’s bed and cried sincere tears, at a loss as to how to deal with Artie’s tragedy. "I’m so sorry Arthur, if I hadn’t hassled you to come with me this would never have happened. You had intuited the danger and three times you said no but I kept it up and now look at you. And you aven't once complained or tried to blame me.”

Arthur cried with him. “I’m master of my own destiny. I made the decision to come, now I have to wear the consequences. It’s got nothing to do with your willpower so don’t blame yourself one little bit. I’ll survive this, I feel it in my heart. But use your strength to keep this hospital under control and then make sure I get to the airport in Delhi in time to catch my plane back to Auz, that’s all I ask of you. My country will take care of the rest.” Leo put his hands together in the prayer of “Namaskar” and promised.

He then chased down all the necessities outside on the main road where pharmacies and medical equipment suppliers lurked, the hospital providing the barest requirements. Arthur had to constantly reassure the doctor that he had not been abandoned in his jail-cell, that they could continue to treat him with confidence, that all would be paid for. A female Hospital Administrator came and cluck-clucked over the missing mobile, an unheard of event, and got Arthur moved to another grimy room, one with not so much traffic. The attentive female nurses were the sweetest thing about the joint: as always, nurses rule, OK? The efficient, militant doctor promised Arthur he would walk reasonably well again as he’d done a perfect job in screwing the bones together, though he wasn’t sure about the knee-tendon.

Along the way, every little item that was needed for his treatment had to be immediately purchased and Leo led a harried chase outside to get all the bandages, syringes, drugs and crutches supplied: lucky he was a forceful character and spoke good Hindi. No meals were served in this citadel of experimental surgery, families expected to live by the beds and provide all necessities, leaving Arthur to live on huge blocks of Swiss chocolate Leo had left for him. 

Regardless of Leo buying most stuff, ever more bills were presented, they stacked up, and one earnest young man was not leaving without the many thousands of rupees owed for a metal pin screwed into Arthur’s shin to keep it together. He’d come from a great distance with the very special device, it was mighty precious, the latest in medical gadgetry, it would not only save Arthur’s leg, it would save his very life. On and on chattered the surgeon, greed causing his eyes to bulge further. The whole hospital routine was wearing Arthur down and he was dying to leave but the “titanium pin” guy waited solemnly outside Arthur’s grungy room night and day, making easy escape difficult.

The hospital was designed like a circular, pan-opticon prison, bars on the windows, guards at the doors, and every item needed for Arthur’s recuperation had to be haggled over piecemeal while the bills flew down like a flock of black crows upon carrion, Leo throwing money at all and sundry to calm the atmosphere of anxiety and distrust. Arthur could hear them all caterwauling in the corridor, the staff squawking, Leo threatening to call the police on them as cheats, the fanatic surgeon shouting for them to relocate the racket so they didn’t disturb his sensitive patient, Arthur, who heard everything from the beginning and was extremely perturbed.

He became more and more anxious to leave the zero star citadel, the demands for money were getting hysterical, money for this, money for that, no matter how many notes were thrown at the importunate medicos, they’d gone into a feeding frenzy. With a lot of secretive whispering Arthur lined up a couple of his Indian buddies to jump the waiting “pin” guy if he really became an obstacle, but Leo produced another stack of rupees, and there were relieved handshakes all round.

More money was counted out, Security Guards dressed like airline pilots were brought up to stand over Arthur and the hapless Leo, and after many more thousands of rupees were shared around, they made their escape, grumbling hospital employees crowding them all the way to the front door. Arthur’s Indian mates had been waiting out front with the engine running and hobbling fast on crutches he scrambled aboard, leaving Leo to continue squabbling with the staff. Spinning away from the circular horror-house thinking of the latest Bollywood schlockbuster, Arthur could only joke, “Escape from the Taliban, but not without my leg!”

He knew he was only patched up, the surgeon had warned him that he’d need more surgery back in Australia but he trusted in Australia’s world-class, free Medicare treatment to take care of him so he didn’t worry overly much. He was just glad to have escaped alive from that jungle teaching hospital. Leo and his Indian friends made sure he got back to Delhi easily to make his flight back to Auz, he even had morphine pain-killer pills that zonked him out and made him spew for the whole journey, annoying all his fellow travelers, but make it home he did. 

The really bad joke was the special titanium pin they’d put on his shin at great expense and hand-wringing turned out to have a golden staph bug attached to it that nearly killed him with an infection a few years later. He had to have another operation to take it out and a three month course in the last anti-biotic in the world available to kill off the nasty infection.

Again, yoga had made him incredibly fit and healthy and he survived it all. It was a great pity that he would never dance like a cyberpunk Nijinsky again, but after a few years of strenuous exercise he was able to walk reasonably well, he even danced the dervish shaman nirvana trance again, it just took attitude to bring back the twinkle toes. And for an intrepid Indian sojourner like him, that ultimate BAD tourist experience was par for the course and somehow worth it.

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.