We rose at 5am to watch the sunrise over the Ganges.
This man rowed us all the way.
He brought us to the Burning Ghats, the final resting place of millions of Hindus.
We went back to our hotel a little bit different.
They played for hours under the burning sun that day. Nobody kept score. The game would keep going until the sun called it a night. Until they couldn’t possibly play another game. They would start again at sunrise.
Govinda chased every ball that came close to him and threw them back to where they came from. His arms were numb. His soles burned. His lips cracked. His cheeks ached from smiling so much. But he didn’t feel a thing. An excitement he never knew existed pushed that pain down. But Govinda couldn’t stop the little worries creeping up into his mind and growing every second. At 3.35, he would have to stop playing. Stop having fun. Stop having friends. Stop being Anit. Stop being who he wanted to be, and start being who he was told to be.
Govinda had been watched the gaps between the trees all afternoon. He watched the traffic stream past. He watched for a bus. A big yellow bus making its way towards its school. He worried that he wouldn’t see it pass. That it would leave him there. Leave him there after the cricket finished and the night caved in. He wanted to stay. But he couldn’t. Govinda thought that it was about three o’clock. But he wasn’t sure.
The older boy stepped up to bat. He still had that swagger, but it was weary. Worn by the heat and runs back and forth, back and forth. Stuck between two points. But he still wore that smile as he pointed the bat at Govinda.
“Another one for you Anit my friend!” he shouted. Govinda smiled and looked over his shoulder. Thick, thirsty shrubs lay behind him. He felt his watch ticking in his pocket. Louder than his heart, but slower. The drawling ticks tried to pull at his smile.
The boy struck the ball high into the sky. The ball was harder to see against the deepening blue of the sky. But Govinda stood, eyes fixed as it flew overhead and landed deep into the sharp shrubs. He turned and ran towards them. Wading in, he glanced over his shoulder. The boys were celebrating. This time, no one followed him. He stuffed his hand into his pocket. He pulled out his gold watch and checked the time. 3.26. His heart sank. He hadn’t time for anymore. He knew that he had to leave. Govinda felt a tear run from his eye and mix with the dirt he had rubbed on his face that morning. He saw the ball through the shrubs about two feet in front of him. He bent down and pushed his hand through. His fingers wrapped around the worn old ball. As he pulled it back out he felt the thorns tear at the skin on the back of his hand. As he looked at his hand he knew that he would have to explain those cuts at the dinner table that night.
“I have to go” shouted Govinda, looking round at them all, memorizing their smiles to hold back his tears.
“Why?” replied the bowler. He tossed the ball Govinda threw into the air, catching it again.
“I have to meet my father at the market.” Govinda looked back at his feet. They had stopped hurting now. The dirt was embedded beneath his well cut nails. He curled his toes and gripped the hot, harsh sand.
“Okay. Well, same time tomorrow” said the batter with a smile, “You’re a pretty good player.”
Govinda let a single tear fall and land on his feet. It mixed with the dirt he had ran onto them all day. He looked back up at group of slum children, and wiped his face gently. None of them noticed.
“Yeah. Tomorrow,” he replied softly. The lump in his throat grew with every tick and tock he felt in his pocket. He turned and walked away, back towards his tree. No footsteps followed him. He reached his weak hiding place and lifted up the old, torn plastic bags. He found his clean bag sitting where he left it. Through the thin white plastic he could see his school uniform, his bag and the bottle of water he had packed to clean himself off with. He heard the game start again. The laughs and cheers swept in from behind him. Govinda walked across the road and started to sob.
Illustrations courtesy of Paul Aitchison – www.paulaitchison.wordpress.com
Govinda hid himself from view behind a tree. There were many trees on the fringe of the building site. They obscured it slightly from the view of the high-rise apartments that loomed over it. Govinda had chosen the most slender tree to hide behind. His small frame could almost be concealed behind it. His hands held the trunk like he would fall. His fingers fumbled the grooves in bark. His young, boned shoulders could just be seen on either side of the tree. Every now and again, he would carefully move a single eye out from one side of the trunk. He could hear his heart beating. He could feel his palms sweating. He was suddenly aware of the blood rushing around underneath those beaten, ill fitting clothes he found across the street. He looked down at the plastic bags and plastic cups and plastic packets around his feet. He heard the boys shouting and looked up. He watched the next boy stand up to the wicket. Govinda remembered that this boy was left handed. Every time that he had seen the boy, he had hit a six beyond the trees where he stood, hiding weakly.
He peeked out and watched the tall boy swagger up to the wicket. Four broken breeze blocks stacked high. His steps were slow, but long and smooth. He had a hole in each leg of his browning jeans. His dusted knees would spike out with each of those long, smooth steps. He wore a faded soccer shirt which hung from his shoulders and flashed the bottom of his flat stomach. The glued and nailed bat dipped and rocked, slung across his shoulder like a sword. He pointed vaguely towards the trees on the right side of the field where Govinda hid, without looking from the ground in front of him. Some of the older boys started to laugh at his old swaggering confidence. Two of the younger players frantically ran towards Govinda’s tree. He quickly cowered behind it. He poked a single eye out.
As the boy took to the wicket, Govinda studied the broad smiles on the children’s faces. Their half moon smiles shone against their sunned skin. Their heads wobbled side to side as they exchanged tactics, pointing and shouting towards the younger boys, arranging them like chess pieces. The wide fielders would stand idyll, hands pressed onto their thrust forward hips as they looked around. The bowler had started pacing to his starting block. He moved a little quicker than the batter. The wind blew a sharp gust and whipped the dust into the air between them. They stood twenty long, slow paces from one another, staring. Studying one another’s eyes through the dust. The bowler was around the same age as the batter but a little shorter. He wiped his slightly darkened upper lip. The batter stretched his lower lip over his soft, young moustache. The beads of sweat formed and dripped from his forehead, sliding around his fixed stare. He winked at the bowler, and smiled.
As he struck the ball into the blue sky, the dust burst up from beneath him. The red tennis ball stood out against the deep blue. They watched it float gently. As the ball stopped rising and began to fall, his team mates began to shout and whoop. Govinda just watched the sky. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes tightly. He turned and started to run. He ran towards the busy road. He could hear the steps of the younger pawns behind him. But he ran faster. He kept a half eye on the oncoming traffic, listening for the beeps. But he watched closely as the ball bounced and rolled into the ditch on the other side. A rickshaw slammed on its breaks as Govinda shot in front of it.
“You little bastard! Watch the road!” the fat driver shouted, beeping the horn again.
Govinda dived into the ditch and fished the ball out of the filthy water. He looked back. The younger boys had stopped by his tree. He watched them for a moment through the blur of passing traffic. They stood confused as this boy emerged from the ditch with their ball. Govinda glanced both ways, and ran back across the road.
“Hey! Give us our ball back!” shouted one boy as Govinda sprinted towards them. He kept running, he ran past them and out onto the field. Blood burst around every part of his body as he felt the rough sand under his soft, bare feet. The heat from the pulsing Delhi sun had warmed the sand. It scorched his soles. But he kept running. He heard the footsteps behind him get quieter. He gradually slowed, arced his arm and threw the ball towards the wicket as hard as he could. The ball bounced around ten feet short of the target. The older boys turned around as the ball bounced again. They saw a strange little boy standing on the field, panting. He was looking around at their faces. They watched as their pawns moved closer and closer to him. He was a skinny little boy. His trousers were damp up to the knees and his clothes were worn and full of holes. The batter looked to his friends and pointed the bat towards Govinda.
“Who’s he?” he asked behind him.
The boys shrugged.
“He can throw pretty well.” Govinda’s heart skipped a little. He stopped his smile from breaking through. “Who are you?”
Govinda looked down at his feet, burning in the harsh sand.
“Anit” he replied.
“Who’s your father?” the boy asked.
“He’s called Anit too.” The younger boys caught up with him. They surrounded Govinda and started to eye him up and down. Govinda looked through them, towards the older boy with the bat.
“I don’t know him. You live in the Jhugghi?” Govinda nodded. He looked at the slum in the distance. The dark, rumbling slum. This was the closest he had ever been to the Jhuggi Jhompdi.
“How come we don’t know you?” shouted the boy, swinging his bat slowly across the field, passing each of his friends.
“We just moved here. Two days ago. From Orcha.” The boy turned to his friends behind him and gave a light shrug. He turned and walked back to the wicket. Raising the bat high in the air, he pointed towards Govinda’s tree.
“You’re wide right. This one’s for you.” Govinda knew that he was just another pair of legs to chase his sixes. But he didn’t care. He smiled and ran back towards the tree.
“One cigarette” he said, nodding to the packet in my hand. I pulled one out. I gave him my lighter. He held up a hand to stop me. He was holding a box of matches.
“Thank you kindly.” He blew out the smoke from the first drag. I looked up at the Taj Mahal above us from deep within the huge shadow it cast. I looked at the big wall in front of us.
“Does the Taj mean anything to you anymore?” I asked.
“My friend,” he started, looking up at the bright white dome above us, “it will mean something to me for as long as I carry this horrible thing.” He pointed to the automatic rifle by his side.
I looked back at the Taj and wondered if ever saw what I could see.
“You see these hands friend?” he shouted back, waving his hand in front of me. I kept my eyes on the road for him.
“Clean hands. No cheating.”
I nodded. As another rickshaw cut in front of us he jammed his thumb onto the horn. It coughed an old cough . The other rickshaw coughed back.
“If I am cheating, God will see” he shouted, pointing to one of the gods that sat enshrined above his head.
“So you wait until he blinks?” I said.
He looked in his mirror. I caught his big smile.
“No no brother. Clean hands,” he said, lifting them off the handlebars and shaking them, “I am the best rickshaw driver in India!”
I belived that he probably was.
They all told me that the water wasn’t that nice.
“Honestly mate, it looks a lot warmer than it is” they said. But I saw them splashing around. I had been in a couple of days ago. I remembered that it was like a warm bath. But I didn’t say anything.
The doctor said it would be six months before I could run around again. I would just sit in the sun, trying to tell myself that the water was a lot colder than I remembered.
The old man smiled and wobbled his head. He watched the strange man with the little black box standing in front of his daughter. He looked up from the box and told her to smile more. The old man understood. He shouted to her. She started to laugh. The man looked back into the box and clicked, taking the last of those little laughs and locking them up, inside his little black box.
I woke up in Udaipur. All of the bus-to-bus action had clearly had its way with my standards of overnight accommodation. I slept, uninterrupted, for nine hours. I’m a bit of an insomniac right, so bein’ able tae dae a power of sleepin’ on a bus like that is quite something. But I was not in a good shape when we arrived at eight in the morning. I carried the weight of ma discomfort in ma rucksack and the strain of it on ma rough, stubbly face. I could smell ma own socks fermenting in ma shoes. Ma figure was cut from disheveled cloth crying out for a good scrub. Me and the Chilean Crusties didnae look quite so mismatched anymore. All I needed was a beard with sea shells in it and a didgeridoo on ma back and we’d look like a band of busking stains. By the time I’d pulled our backpacks out the back of the bus, they had about nine rickshaw drivers battling for our fare.
“Hundred rupees,” replied one driver, looking off into the distance, respecting us just enough not to look in our eyes when he tried to scam us.
“NOOOOOO! Ten rupees only” shouted Maria (I think that’s her name. The shorter, hotter one), shaking her head frantically.
“Ten rupees less” a voice from the back of the crowd offered.
“Eighty rupees” said another.
“No. No. Twenty rupees is final price. Final price.” declared Sophia (the less attractive one but with better English).
“Ten rupees less” the voice from the back said again.
“Fifty rupees.” said the initial bidder.
I was stood there in awe of their skills. I knew that these girls hadn’t wanted me to tag along because they found my style and panache to be an effective lubricant. They couldn’t speak English all that well and had assumed that having a clueless Scottish guy with them would help in cost cutting. They needed no help man. At least not from me anyway.
“Done. Forty rupees!” shouted Sophia as she clapped her hands and pushed her way through the crowd towards the voice at the back.
We all jumped into the wee rickshaw and told him to take us to Tony’s Planet’s top pick for budget accommodation. Lalghat Guest house. I went into ma pocket and pulled out ma iPhone and fired up the calculator, thinkin’ I’d rip the piss out of them a wee bit.
“So lets see then gurls, forty divided by three is………..fourteen point three three three three three three rupees each” I said with a wee smile.
“I no have change, only five hundred rupees” said Sophia.
I sighed. I thought that was a good joke. Maybe it was lost in translation.
“It doesnae matter, I’ll get it.” I said.
We got to the guest house and checked in. This horrible rigmarole with filling in your passport details and your visa number and your home address and aww god, I hate doing it. I go first while the girls confirm the price with the receptionist. One hundred and twenty, just as Tony said. They both gave me a glance, one last chance to postpone that sweet comeback wank in favor of an eighty rupee saving and a one-percent chance of a threesome. Sorry ladies, I came to India to learn how to be on ma own.
“Two rooms please” I say to the guy.
They give me the cold shoulder and sign the book. He gives us rooms one and two and a couple of padlocks. We shoulder the bags again and walk up to the rooms. As you would expect for about £1.50 a night, the room a was a fuckin’ jail cell. The bed didn’t have any sheets and the pillow was like a packed bag of sand. The floppy ceiling fan was slowly wobblin’ round and round, breathing its warm, stale breath onto the bed. An addictions worth of cigarette butts had been squished into the corners of the room. The browned switches had a thousand mankey fingers caress them in search of light. The smell of sour, watery shite lingered in the air, warning you to brush your teeth with mineral water. I spotted a little graffiti above the bed, which read:
“What are you in for?”
I exhaled and contemplated my two to three day stretch in this little cage of depression. I heard the girls happily chatting back and forth to one another. They seemed happy in their pit. One can only imagine the suicidal hotel rooms that their frugality had dragged them into so far. I closed the door and checked the time on ma phone. I almost hit the roof with excitement. I had a wi-fi signal!
Porn man. ALL the porn.
“I’ll catch up wi you guys later tonight” I shouted towards the hole between our rooms.
I had a massive smile on my face as I locked the door, snapped the latch shut on the decaying wooden windows, and skipped back to the old war hospital bed. I opened the Safari web browser and the words “youporn” leapt from my thumbs. That big sleazy smile of mine stretched across my face. This was the happiest I’d been in India, and I didn’t feel in the slightest bit bad about that.
This was the first time I’d been tae the countryside in eleven years. That’s a long time for someone who generally hates cities. I could never convince ma cousin Sandy and the like to take a wee excursion up to the Highlands. They were always all like, ‘Nah man, all they fuckin’ stupit choochter bastards runnin’ aboot, nae clubs, pish weather, blah blah blah’ . You see, me and ma family were goin’ to a wee village called Achnafachel a couple of times a summer until I was about twelve. After that I started tae think that I was too cool tae sleep in a tent with ma parents. I loved goin there but things were gettin’ nasty at home. I’d go and stay with ma Aunty Mary in Blantyre and my folks would go away together and to try to glue back together whatever pieces of their relationship that they were prepared to salvage. I remember hangin’ about before they’d leave, packing everything into the car and they’d already started gettin’ on one another’s tits. I always hoped that they’d be pure happy on the way there, singin’ along with ma maw’s Rod Stewart tape in the car and re-kindling their pre-marriage romance on the idyllic mountain roads of the Scottish Highlands. I would think about them doing all of the things that we used do together. Fishing, walking, cooking, playing fitball, exploring. Everything would be the same, but I wouldnae be there. I always used tae think that they would be havin’ a great time gettin’ a chance to enjoy one another’s company without me. At that time they were havin’ regular verbal punch-up’s and I always felt like I was the root of the problems. I’d see pictures of ma parents before I was born and couldn’t help but notice that they looked happier when I just wasn’t fuckin’ there. Photographs of them smiling at each other, kissing in front of some decaying Highland castle or standing proudly next to their new gold Volkswagen Golf. Before me, they had more money, more freedom, their eyes were burstin’ with a hope and optimism that was completely redundant after I was born. But as I got older, I realized that they were never really happy. Cause despite what people try to tell you tae protect their own interests, photographs can lie. They were probably happyish for the first year, but after that it was consistently miserable. Ma dad regretted gettin’ married and havin’ a kid so young, and my mum regretted havin’ a wee kid with someone who was basically a big kid. I didn’t see any of this until they broke up. Ma maw started goin’ with an older widower with a couple of ready-made, microwave kids almost immediately. Dad transformed into an aging man hoor, shaggin’ every single mum in the scheme. I was just sort of forgotten about. Left in the middle just doing ma best to shelter maself from the fallout. I guess you can see my battle scars on the surface of my decisions.
The journey was, again, uncomfortable. The condition of the road was top drawer. But our driver was an animal, and possibly a certified space cadet. The traffic was fairly heavy and our driver overestimated the torque of his bus numerous times during the journey. He would pull out on blind corners to overtake three lorries in one go, getting interrupted halfway by an oil tanker grumbling its way quickly towards us, and swinging back in at the last second. But there was absolutely no point in worrying about the death. If he was going to kill us, I couldn’t stop him. Dwelling on it only made the journey more unpleasant. I was distracted by an information sign above the driver’s seat. It was all in Hindi and written in paint or blood or something. I assume that the phone number was who you call if your bus driver thinks he’s Danny Zuko. Although I was convinced I would cover the final miles of this trip in an ambulance, I started laughing.
The number was 01412369109: A Glasgow number.
I sat for a while and entertained the thought that the Indian Public Transportation office had outsourced their call centers to Glasgow.
“Awrite your froo tae the Injin Govermnt Publick transport office, yer speakin’ tae Anne Marie the day, how kin ah help ye? Whit? Overtakin’ oan a blind corner? He nivir did! Rite, well let me tell ya this by the way, he’s in it up tae his hairy wee baws, let me tell ye that son. Ah’ll just stick ye froo tae the relevant departmnt. Okay, aye, okay, bye.”
This scene kept my thoughts in my head, away from the traffic coming in the other direction, just long enough for me to doze off.