The Touchables

indiaThe third thing Dad said when we woke this morning was, “I know what we should do for the untouchable kids. Tonight we’ll take them out for ice cream.” In my head, I imagined flocks of untouchables following us into the ice cream store, dissatisfied with just one scoop and wanting more, more: money, food, ice cream, grabbing our arms and clinging, covering us, bringing us to the ground in a rubber, untouchable liquid, but I only said, “That may have unforeseen consequences.”  After we went to Sarnath, one of the four holy sites in Buddhism, Dad wasn’t sure if we should meet Atique for dinner again tonight, if we should stand him up or we should see him and tell him we’re doing our own thing. I said let’s just walk out and see what happens.

We had met Atique the night before on our way to dinner when he first tried hawking the Mughal Arts he sold in his boss’ store. He asked us the usual, “What country?” and then we told him and things became different. He asked us if we needed help and we said yeah, where’s the India Hotel? He said, down there, I’ll take you. I suspected him as another touting bum, but Dad and he started talking and Dad asked, “Why is there so much dirt and filth in Varanasi?” Atique said, “Because people are stupid and don’t care about each other.” This was exactly what Dad wanted to hear because to hear a native say it confirmed his suspicions of this oldest living city in the world, and pretty soon we were talking about the untouchables because there was a family of them enjoying a leisurely evening nearby, behind parked trucks. Dad could barely take it; from his Western point of view, these people were deeply suffering, even though we had been talking earlier about how most New Yorkers’ mental anguish is more severe than the mild physical discomfort of sleeping on a cardboard box. He walked to them and gave the little boy a pen and money and we saw that his selflessness was pure and genuine and our eyes glossed when Atique turned to me to say, “David has big heart.”

From there on it was like Dad and Atique were old friends and once Atique started asking me questions, he treated me like a son. We had a grand dinner, not in food ordered since we had eaten so much at lunch, but in conversation and learning about each other.

He walked us back to our hotel and on the way, Dad suggested we get ice cream at the parlor. We each had a scoop. While Dad was inside, thinking about getting another, Atique put his arm around me and looked out past the motorcycles and rickshaws and cars blaring their horns and rising dust, and at the gate to our hotel, the Gateway (which wasn’t a Gateway at all but an enclave). “When I was a child, this was paradise,” he said, “A park was here and you could play hide and seek and cricket and sleep under the trees. Now you can’t even cross the road.” And I could tell that this was more than him reflecting on his youth and childhood, or even a forgotten way of life; it was him knowing that he’s lived and that soon he will die. “I know,” I said sadly. “No you don’t know,” he laughed, “You weren’t alive!” We both laughed and I said, “I meant I can imagine,” and I felt sorry for him, sorry that his life has been so sad, that his daughter had died and that he hadn’t really been able to do what he wanted, and now here he is sixty-one, getting ready for death, can’t even walk down a flight of stairs by himself. We shook hands and parted, and he said he would be at the same spot tomorrow between 7 and 730.

So after we finished buying a plane ticket for me to Amritsar, where the largest temple in the world is, the Golden Temple, we rounded the corner past the street carts in front of the Mughal Arts shop, and from fifty feet he saw us and stood. He had shaved the white stubble from his face, but his big sunken eyes  and red-limned twisted premolars jutting from his mouth, his missing incisors were still the same; a tuft of white hair puffed out from his undershirt under his button down just as it did yesterday; he walked with the same dignity and tiredness, one hand clenched the other open.

Dad told him his plan for the ice cream and he said, “But ice cream is not food, it will go through them and they will go to sleep hungry. Better we buy dal and floor and rice and spices and give to them raw, because if we go to the hotel restaurant and bring to them it will cost ten times the amount.” Dad liked that idea, he hadn’t thought of that and we followed Atique to the general store on the main drag, past the honking motorcycles, which Atique later said were the new generation thinking they’re heroes.

We bought two kilos of rice, flour, one kilo of sugar, a loaf of white bread, and two packets of cookies. It cost five dollars and I carried the big bag on my head half the way and in my arms the other half but the bags were thin gristly-blue plastic and  I accidentally made a hole in the dal bag. On the way Antik put his light arm around me and said, “Daniel, in the next life I wish to be born in your country, in your family.” I didn’t know what to say, so I said, “Aww… you’ve lived a good life.”
“No, my life was too up and down and I was very poor and could never do anything.”
“But at least you’ve lived.”
“Yes but now I am old and I will die. I wish I had done more…”

Now we were coming up on the untouchables and I felt that I had done my best to console him, so I asked Dad if he wanted to give the kids the food and he said, you give them the food, I’ll give the gel pens. The family was seated around a half empty black pot of rice, a lot of rice, I thought, for people who are supposed to be hungry. The orange glow of their clay stove shone behind the scene and the mother looked at us kindly, as though she knew what were coming and the little girl, tall for her age, twelve maybe, stood and looked surprised, like we had come across her in the middle of a forest. Atique presented us in Hindi and the beautiful little girl accepted the bag of bread and cookies with tears in her eyes and I gave the mother the big bag of food, protesting that there was a hole and Atique translated. She was careful. A littler girl wearing jangly silver earrings and a pink top stood and Dad gave her pens and the little boy stood and accepted another set of pens. A stirring sleeping baby lay next to the father, who sat up on his canvas and aluminum cot and nodded at us. Atique gave the mother fifty rupees change left over from the groceries to buy firewood and other necessities and we watched him speak in Hindi, probably saying, “And now that we have come here and given you this food, pray for us, and be happy.” He clapped his hands and we felt their appreciation and love and were happy to see them in such a way. We waved goodbye, turned and walked away.

About fifty feet on we stopped to talk about where to go for dinner. I looked back and saw the beautiful little girl, her milk chocolate skin and ebony hair sunken in the shadows, the whites of her glossy eyes shimmering in the distance like a doe’s and I was bashful but curious, so I waved and she didn’t wave back and neither did her brother or her mother, so I told the older men, come on, let’s go.

Atique led us down the street to a marriage ceremony in the Christian quarter. It was to begin in an hour and wait staff bustled back and forth in loose ties and sloppy uniforms, preparing for the festivities. Fruits on silver trays arranged in a pyramid were stacked fifteen feet high on white-tableclothed tables. A man stood behind a waist-high circular brick wall, patting doughballs to put in the stove. A hundred cloth-draped chairs were arranged before a stage with a silver and red loveseat where the bride and groom would later display themselves to their friends and family under a marquee, drapery red and gold and silver, all joy and money spent. Small made up girls in embroidered dresses and little boys in plaid and jeans flocked around Dad as he photographed them. Atique and I watched from afar. As Dad walked up to us a little girl with heavy eyeliner demanded a photo in Hindi. Atique and I and all the children huddled round for Dad to take one. They crowded round the camera to see themselves, the little boys pushing their way in. And after they had been satisfied the girls ran away, the boys somersaulted after, and one of the girls, with Asian eyes, raised her hands like a conductor, ceremoniously, telling her cousins what was next. “Hell outside, paradise within,” Atique said, and Dad added, “Untouchables outside, touchables inside,” as we walked over the red felt carpet and patchy lawn, across the dusty cement road, navigating the honking motorcycles, and into the hotel restaurant.

When we sat in exactly the same place we had the night before I ordered an ice cold mango lassi, with bits of mango and ice in it, thick like a milkshake; lime sodas; spiced buttery-red chicken masala; spicy mixed dal; and cardamom rice, so that we were fit to burst; and then after it all, we split a big icy Kingfisher beer to top it off. And as we walked back to our hotel, talking and throwing our hands wide after not having imbibed for a week, and Atique for 2 and a half months, we passed the untouchables again, the children now asleep, the mother and father talking softly about their love and their family, recumbent on their canvas and aluminum cot. They looked happy and didn’t see us and I wondered what they had thought about we three who had so briefly entered their lives. In front of our hotel Atique told me to call him when I come back to Varanasi (me knowing I’d never see him again), Dad took one last picture of us,  we hugged and handshook Atique, then went our separate ways.

As we walked away and I reflected on the night, I remembered the doelike look in that tall girl’s eyes; the little boy’s smile; the ceremonious wave the well-dressed girl gave and I realized in each is the same faceless beauty I have seen all over the world, in train stations and on sidewalks, on ferries and in restaurants, in old sad Polish women and young happy Egyptian boys, the same suffering beauty who loves and cries and wakes hopeful in the orange morning and thinks the same things I do before sleep and I wanted them to love me too, so I had waved and I don’t know if they saw because none waved back so I looked away and felt like we should go, like they shouldn’t see us any more, like they should just have the memory of us to feel thankful for and remember the way I remember them.

By Daniel Ryan Adler

Daniel Adler writes fiction and nonfiction and is finishing his MFA at University of South Carolina.

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