I sat in the air conditioning and laughed at how cool it was, how I’ve been depriving myself of the pleasure of being temperate and not sweating. “Come to my house,” Roshan said, “And it’s like this all the time.” Because Roshan is fair-skinned, and his father works for the narcotics department, shipping opium to Mumbai in big drums and then onto the USA where it becomes “painkillers” and “medicine,” he drives an “Indian Mercedes.” Which on the outside seems no different than any other Indian car, is just silver and compact, and has the word Roxan spelled out on the rear windshield with little flower stickers around it, although it is new, fresh off the lot, with a killer soundsystem we showed off driving slowly through the narrow Bundi streets in order to get people to move over, laying on the horn when they didn’t immediately respond, at which point I kind of hated him for being the person honking at me when I’m walking through the narrow streets, and he’s the one showing off his car he thinks is so cool, which by Indian standards it is. There was a vague pleasure I felt in hanging out with this rich Indian guy, this “hungry dog” of a man, who really just wants to have more sex, and from the sound of it I can’t blame him, his last good story he shared coming three years ago in the form of some horny French girl walking into his store and asking for opium, and since his father’s a narcotics agent and all, he had some fresh in his pocket and gave it to her and ate some himself and pretty soon they were fucking. But that was three years ago and he hasn’t heard from her since, although he still sometimes eats opium, which is really good for having prolonged sex without side effects. I remembered how at the lakeside the lotuses grew high and I laughed again because I was drunk and Roshan rejoined me after depositing a duckling under a bush, because he’s a good guy, and doesn’t throw beer bottles into the woods or on the road, but lightly places them on the ground, and he doesn’t care about money, so he’s letting me use his bike to ride 20k around Bundi and see the sights, more thoroughly examine the lake, the cemetery, although I’m somewhat worried by the traffic and the excessive heat, especially during midday when it could make the bike too hot to touch…But when he said “Come to my house,” it wasn’t a literal invitation, I mean, the bike lending for which he’d normally charge 250 rupees is kind enough of him, but for a few seconds, I wasn’t sure if it was an invitation or more of a “I’ll show you if you ever give me the chance” kind of thing. Not that I was offended when I realized it was the latter, since again, after the bike riding I’m going with him, as a guest of honor, along with Golu the nine year old without parents and a front incisor, which may be due to its not coming in yet, but no, is probably just poor orthodontia due to growing up without proper nutrition and a home, poor guy, and Roshan feels just as bad for him, which is why he hires him, to attend an Indian wedding where there will certainly be delicious food and after I shower and dress American style to look nice for it, we’ll have a beer and be off to enjoy and dance, and maybe, who knows, visit some prostitutes with Singh, the tall bearded friend of Roshan, who is the “king of these things.”
By the end of the night, I realized how similar this was to high school, driving around drinking and looking cool in our cars, listening to music, getting drunchies before going home, and generally hanging out to escape suburban summer boredom. Except Roshan is 29. And I’m American, which made me feel oddly like he was trying to impress me, and I’m sure he was, and I was kind of impressed, because it was nice sitting in an AC car while the other poor Indians around us looked enviously on from their bikes. I felt like a guest of honor sitting shotgun, as Indian eyes looked me over, then Roshan, thinking this guy must be pretty important to be driving an Indian Mercedes and have a white dude sitting shotgun. Who are they, anyway?
So that today when I woke up a little late, and after I ate my banana honey porridge and drank my small coffee and helped Ahioud make a Skype account, I walked over to Roshan’s shop, uncertain of what would happen. There he was, with Golu, sitting in nice jeans and boots, which is of note because every Indian wears flip-flops or sandals, or sometimes if it’s an Indian tourist, nice dress shoes. When he asked me my good name, I was somewhat offended that he didn’t remember after the few hours we’d had last night cruising around, but maybe it was all the beer we’d drunk, but wait a second, this wasn’t Roshan at all, because he’d heard about me from Roshan– it was his brother, which was a relief. I sat for fifteen minutes listening to Golu and Roshan’s brother with an unpronounceable name talk swiftly in Hindi, until I finally worked up the gall to ask about the bike Roshan said he’d let me ride. He called his bro, who was on his way and would be here within fifteen. When he showed, he handed me the key since he had to work. Golu got on the back seat and we went off to get some fuel, Golu giving me directions and me repeating them partly to ensure I’d heard correctly, partly to better influence his relatively poor, slurred English. And we were off, driving around the lake and out of the city through an old city gate with a Mughal style-architectural cupola and farther out into the dusty-green hills.
We drove past those tall and thin Rajasthani men with white stubble and multicolored turbans of bandanas tied together, their colorfully sareed female partners balancing jugs or piles of wood on their head, and on into the devastating heat which only increased with every kilometer we drove. I didn’t know where we were going or what to expect so when we drove into what looked like a park, with bigger, more broad-leaved trees, I was pleased. Ochre dirt gave off a scent of febrile earth, dry and turned over. There was a parking lot, partially shaded by these not-quite desert trees, and yonder, stores vending thin lines of seed-filled plastic as well as bottles of hot liquid standing to attention. People in shadows said hello to me, others didn’t wave back. Golu led me past kitschy colored temples monkeys had made into playgrounds and toilets. We bought water, which made me feel less shaky in the heat, and climbed steps. A family of monkeys were eating corn kernels and off the path in a small pool protected by limestone cliffs and tropical trees, their brethren splashed. The pool rises significantly higher during monsoon season, which is just a few weeks away, and becomes a small river, flowing out to the roads we drove on, where tigers drink at night. The notion of being very remote and in an exotic place kept striking me, from the way the monkeys were treated so commonly as slightly dangerous pests, to the colors in the mens’ turbans to the tropical foliage and palms.
Golu was dressed in pants and a polyester navy, white-collared shirt that was pilling on the sleeves. He wasn’t even sweating. I, on the other hand, was wearing red mesh shorts and a white tanktop, with a red bandana wrapped around my head. Each step felt like physical exertion that it wasn’t, but my body, no thanks to the already piss-warm water I was drinking (I’ve been downing a gallon a day) to excite myself to continue moving, wasn’t listening. I was walking up sand dunes in the Sahara, and who knew if we were ever coming to an oasis. Finally we reached the top step and walked in the shadows of another kitschy temple’s veranda, and then down. I dreaded that Golu was taking me on a hike, on this hottest day of my life (maybe). But then, shouts from below, and green water. A pool! For swimming! I took off my fanny pack and wrapped it in my tank top and, careful not to slip on the pond-moss, walked in up to my shoulders. It was fairly filthy, from birds feathers and monkey turds and human detritus building since last monsoon, but good god it was cold and refreshing. I looked up at the birds nesting in the cliff and swam to the shadowed side, where it was even cooler. Monkeys were climbing safely away from the humans resting on nearby boulders. I sat submerged to my ears on a rock and relished this Indian swimming hole.
Now a troop of humans were hooting down the stone path and I could see little Golu growing uneasy. He summoned me and I felt bad he wasn’t swimming next to me, instead growing only hotter. But when I emerged and shook hands with the more gregarious boys willing to make my acquaintance, I discovered Golu couldn’t swim. Despite my protests that I would teach him, he was resilient, and we left to the hoots of the boys, jealous of their comrades for making my acquaintance and hating themselves for not being more outgoing. When we were far enough away Golu explained that if given the chance they would have taken my things and run away. I thanked him for his foresight, but wondered if he weren’t making excuses for having to bear the shame of being taught by me, a white man, to swim.
We sat so I could dry myself and prepare for the next fifteen steps back to the temple and down to our bike. Although I was refreshed, I wasn’t ready to run a marathon or anything. A man who had introduced himself to me, inviting me to sit with him, which I denied, came up to us and after asking my name and the names of each member of my immediate family, put his phone in my face and took a photo. All I could see when he showed me were a washed out white face and cheesy smile, with a beady mustache hunkering over my chin. He took another one, and now I felt like a monkey posing for him, looking into his little Nokia camera. But yes, the second was decidedly better, more spontaneous, more off-balance.
We walked back and I bought little Golu a soda, and encouraged him to get whatever else he wanted since he was so goddam cute with his big brown eyes and pathetic parent-less fate. Then we hitched up the bike and drove off the way we came, a simoom drying the moisture from my shorts. We passed a took-took, said hello to the villagers who hadn’t seen a white face for I wonder how long, and soon came upon the lake with its rising pink smell of lotus, the big leaves bouncing on the water. Back through the city gate and past the alleys with thinning groups of people, preparing for the midday siesta when they cut the power for an hour.
For lunch we went to where I had eaten dinner the night before, where the guy (who was going commando in shorts with the fly open) made us dal with cashews, capsicum, ginger, garlic, onions, tomatoes, and raisins and I told Golu threateningly that he better eat all the half portion I’d ordered him. But he doggy-bagged half of it and to show him how a man eats, I devoured all the dal and rice, glutting myself so that it hurt when I walked out and told him I’d see him in a few hours for the wedding we’re attending with Roshan.
I’d been so sad before walking to Roshan’s last night, after I’d seen the Bundi palace in all its faded glory, with monkey feces and wrecked painted miniatures from Indian kids touching them over the years, and looking out at the light-blue houses and the green lake with the mountains in the distance, all for man’s vanity, all fallen into ruins. And the poor kid with the speech impediment which made him hiccup in nervousness and stick out his tongue as he tried to pronounce the words leading me into a locked room with beautiful 700 year old paintings that hadn’t been destroyed, which he’d known I would appreciate when he saw me sitting on the marble landing, looking out over the city and contemplating man’s pathetic nature. I think my melancholy was also due to reading 100 pages of Franzen’s Freedom yesterday, which after doing some research on, was written in opposition to any form of modern optimism (a notion which I’d like to disagree with). But after I’d eaten eggplant, potatoes, tomatoes, garlic and ginger I was able to look forward to that beer that Roshan had proposed when he’d rolled up to me on his bike in the early afternoon and taken me to a stepwell on his way home. I quickly forgot about everything I’d read and anything my friends were doing on facebook and looked forward to an ice cold beer and the possibility of friendship with a local, which is really much better than traveling and backpacking India alone, especially when it’s so miserably hot.