Wondering & wandering
Where you from?
England? [speaking English]. Ireland? [with a strange accent.] Germany? [said “Ja”].
Oh, South Africa! Sanibonani.
You look? Good price, I give you good price.
You so beautiful.
Rickshaw? Hash? Hashish? Marijuana? Opium?
Thank you, yes thank you.
Come, have a look!
Opium? Good price.
And so continues the cacophonous, collective voice that is India’s street talk. Liquid sound that gushes down Udaipur’s Lal Ghat, carrying you along with the flotsam and jetsam — tourists and dogs and cows and motorbikes — when you pass through its iron teeth with a final whoosh into the whale’s mouth, churning and turning in a salivary cinema of jasmine and shit and smelly canine until the rapturous moment when you’re born into the traffic stream of its thousand-year-old body.
You, young Jonah-in-the-whale, witness constant shuffling from left foot to right, cue a quick change from rickshaw driver to drug dealer, hotel manager to restaurateur, beggar to tour guide. Wooing, haggling, shouting. Reaching for hands and faces — “please, come look”, shifting from purse strings (“Six hundred rupee, no less. Come; give me your final price. That your final offer?”) to heart strings (“Come now, this is hand stitched by myself, please, you my first customer, give me good luck.”).
You glide down the throat, Octopussy playing on screens everywhere you look, Alice in Wonder View hotel gawking at Lake Pichola. A snot-nosed child beckons and the belly of the beast rises up like an enormous, quivering palace, fireworks erupt and you are tossed into its fiery pit. By now the stomach juices are working on your hair. It grows oily, dark streaks where dead protein used to be. Your skin adopts a layer of grime that protects it from more grime, your nails harbour black crescent moons where once there was polish. Your feet dry and crack and flake. Rupees fly out your pockets and into the hands of men who sell shawls and rings and leather so real you can almost smell the cow.
Your instincts kick in: you fight. But wailing and beating your fists against the stomach wall and yelling at shopkeepers and hating the con men and holding your breath will kill you faster. You must succumb to the digestive process. Let the madness engulf your mind. Allow its noises and smells and sights to grow gentle on your assaulted senses. Don’t pull away from the insanity mirrored on every glass and mosaic and lake surface. Instead, watch through ruby glasses as your life becomes a small reflection of the greater whole. Shiny, sparkling lights in the Kingfisher-filled intestines illuminate a maze of fleshy streets as you slide deeper. A man trudges past in the thick midst of an Opium-induced, treacly stupour, a cow with colourful horns nudges you in the tummy. Curiosity and an overpowering human odour propel you towards the exit. You are hurtling and spinning, dizzy and disorientated, kicked in the gut by chicken you shouldn’t have trusted and water you shouldn’t have touched. You spew out the offending meal and feel lighter. A stupid, toothy grin you don’t recognise as your own replaces anger. The self fades with every moment you accept insanity and your consciousness rises out of the sinewy tunnel’s end. You see the light of your new reality: the dog with the cancerous growths for legs, the man without limbs, the women beating the crap out of saris that did nothing to them. Putrid water wraps around your form like amniotic fluid and with a final push you are birthed on to the street, back in the midst of the chaos.
Spat out; you are reincarnated. Propelled by wanderlust you fight off leering men, drink chai and rejoice in the crazy warmth of it all. (The maddening heat. The human filth. The plastic packets that knot themselves in the bellies of cows and dogs.) You join the rank of vagabonds who walk this street to find what they want, be it elephants or ecstasy. You become the experiencing consciousness that is life itself. Like others, you are delivered into a country where no lifetime is long enough to begin the impossible task of fathoming the rhythmic beat of its oxymoronic heart. Which is why you, dear Jonah, are granted several lives in India. Hold your breath, the next one’s just begun.
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