The cloth of road workers is the same garb of the ever shrinking sari flirted in Bollywood. Even the road workers, brushing their brows sweating dust in long dirty smears, bare their belly beneath a wrap of unstitched cloth. Certainly less glamorously as new asphalt had filled holes on the way to market, homogenising the raft of hanging shirts that choke you in colour where advertising and sign overload fracture the landscape.
Past the sound through Gokul restaurants open door, where he had once been served by an energetic smiling dwarf. Past the driving school, and a goat carcass hanging as fly feed beside a butcher whose spit ejaculated from his henna beard into the street.
The straining of a truck changing gear up the rise. An endless throbbing amplified beat of traffic that travels across open space when estates go to sleep. honking whirring whizzing precipitous confusing.
Where I would move around behind someone, in India everyone seeks to cram into an impossibly small space. All around each other, cows slouched in the middle of the road. The shock of car behind a bust of adrenaline, he felt heart faster, muscles tense, how are you ever to cross the road he thought as he felt his the spasm in my gut, and the rise in blood pressure.
HORN OK PLEASE! is flashed across the back of trucks. Where once Down Under, it was illegal to blast a horn, here even in the car horns speak a different language, as expressive as Indians themselves: I’m coming, lookout, I’m beside you.
A blind woman oblivious to horns of cars that move around her rickshaws and pedestrians on the road – the footpath now crowded out by carts of endless traders steeling any space to hawk their goods.
Everything seems reversed: Indians may have a greater spatial awareness. Rare is it that they look before they enter traffic. Pull out foot then look: he’ll stop, if not “Oh well” t, a little bump, sometimes a verbal stoush, ten you begin to check for traffic.
Still, as our world shrinks our world shrinks become more tightly bound, I am forced go beyond my narrow perceptual landscape. Where fashion dominates western conformity , Indian streets conforms with eccentricity. I lack the discriminating mind to distinguish the diversity.
Saris and kurti’s are worn by women in infinite colours.
Down the slope along side the overpass past piles of rubbish, a kaleidoscope anarchic montage where families packed honey combed in rooms and alleys hidden behind leprous houses lurching into each other. Faking walls that faced the descending road to the train track, paper thin, cracks covered by paper or cloth. common walls that for a few hours at least were packed with rubbish scoured by scrap pickers. Their ropey arms strong, tied to work slumped shoulders, narrow and flat chested men, knobbly spines perched on thin pigeon legs. Down the alley where even from , greyness comes the rustle of feet and patter of children, and from darkness, desolate cries and street carts.
I moved onward, averting his eye from a young girl squatting her toilet onto the footpath and smiled to the white bearded gent who every morning axed pine boxes. Besides him an old woman, fully present, intimate and warm.
I felt an outsider, but no longer an intruder, I had walked this way too many times now . Still, I felt powerless. I wanted to show the world, his family mostly. If ever I find a photo of a slum on your facebook I’ll throw you out echoed on his mind. I doubted his landlord would do it – but the weeks of recrimination and anger – wouldn’t be worth it. I would be forced to take them photos down.
Here all the beauty should be broken into pieces. Instead, families and friends and newly-weds, snacking on tasty street food and making merry in the evening air, because they choose to live.
I wobbled across a plank over trodden mud, to packed earth, then crossing the rail track, –the repeating rythm of train, dadumdadum dadumdadum, its breath of coal and petroleum. Here no one used the overpass , even though last month , the paper said, last month seven were killed for “coming under a train.”
The mud bank worn bare led to trinkets for sale and women on rugs, tikku, less appetizing as they fell out of season, sold from a cart, opposite thechai walla and out onto market street that drained from Pimpri like a giant s-bend .under the Fshaped overpass that covered more markets, some rooms and on the far side, out of the way slaughter yard used during Eid. I remembered seeing a cows stomach dragged out to a dumpster . The smell of death, leaden, thick, dense, bloody and cogealled.
Ie was surprised there was no Hindu uprising.
But why be surprised? Throughout the side roads the decay of fish arrested on ice; wallahs swishing away flies.
Everywhere was the smell of chicken shit and cardboard trays of eggs stacked into mountains.
Old woman held out her hand, leaning slightly favouring one side. Her thinning hair of someone sick, mortally tired deep set eyes, bone dry wrists and skin like parchment.
The crumbing concrete terrace, dislodged water main of the slum. Plastered slabs and scavenging cows The faded undercoat blue and cement gray and quivering rat gut was being shredded by a crow.
The open field by the bridge held stalls bamboo sometimes nailed with fibro and corrugated roofs held down by tiles and rock. Umbrellas arc over goods at the middle, like a Chinese dragon of lemon, blue and gray. Mounds of tomato, red and green lay by carrots, sometimes in orange bags, as cyclists pushed their way past beans and crates of cabbage, trying to dodge motor cyclists who cared little the area was people packed.
Pachas kilo, pachas kilo(50 a kilogram) rang out from the leather faced subze- wallah behind a pyramid of spinach. Besideher another mound of coriander concentric circles of pan leaf were stacked neatly in piles like solitaire cards arrayed on a white table. I could feel the vibration from the boom box besides the chai wallahs store.
Laughing smiles defined by their business. Remembered by a fresh faced woman of about forty who gestured me over to her piles of purple onions. “Photo, photo “ she called refusing to accept that he didn’t have his camera. So he pulled out my cell phone instead, and watched as the woman waggled her head delighted.
The colours still excited him: mint coriander and rosemary The earthy moistness of vegetables, to feel alive in hydroponic green. The subdued pepperiness of onions, the cholorphyl of greens, zesty citrus and ripe mango.
Fruit and spices , grains and marigolds stringed and of roses. All revealed the parade of the Indian year, winter, of dry and monsoon.
I looked up past apples and watermelons to where a few weeks earlier a leper – sold a small pile of chiku. It no longer surprised him. Saturday nights and Sunday morning it is no longer just a vegetable market. Anything is hawked – blow up toys sold by children, maps of India some clothes occasionally. Trinkets. She had only been there once. Perhaps she was passing through not a regular weekend seller.
I wondered whether she had been moved on. Under the Raj medical supplies filtered to lepers last of all. Out of necessity lepers became the masters of steeling needed health supplies. They cornered the medical black market. I had heard lepers were considered cursed. Lower than even dalits. But I was amazed by how readily people accepted disability here. Perhaps it is because deficiency diseases are prevalent. Club feet, rickets, and distorted limb, a hunch back sells clothes up the road. A dwarf regularly served him at a local restaurant. A former Residential Care Officer I knew to well how Australia had once hidden the disabled.
I always marvelled at the pyramids of coriander and mounds of palak spinach, sold by women. Another argued violently before settling into bright smiles.
Approaching hawen, roosters in the hot and dry crow desperately, as if suffering from colic like the old man with a frigid complexion, struggling with an irritated stomach.
At the market I settle into a street stall for chai.
“Paanch minute” I am told, as the flame, its intensity increased by the impatient stall hold, heats a huge pot. Then from behind me a man walks up, removes the lid, and pours, the undrunk tea back into the pot.
“In front of a customer!”he snaps ruing a lost sale.
Chai-less, I walk away remembering stories of honey diluted with jiggery, ginger powder replaced by turmeric, ferric oxide and synthetic dyes.
Away from the babbling of laughter and arguments. Returning through quieter street s, away from the Babel of language, again through the slum under diarrhoea coloured street lights the rotting root and mud filling thick air. My feet avoided a dump of child’s excrement as I stopped at a reflection. A muddy; malarial pool of stinking, sludge from which the light shone bright. Raw waste carves gullies along the ragged ribbons of bare earth
Old men coughed over stubs, their youth sacrificed to alcohol and nicotine. From besides stone, a drain sweat oil and sludge into a trench of Carbide water, reeds in rigor mortis salute the skies in in an Industrial war. Carnage of straw as dry as the old men’s skin – flaking, and dry, like their hopes faded in perpetual dusk.
Old and infertile – A land where water Is both life and death, to overflow its banks and quench the crumble dry or stagnate fetid and poisoned. Sweet sirens sing their politics of simplicity to drown in innocuous hopes of malicious intent. A distant church offers a baptism of solace cleaned and new.
But uncharted waters leave their own scars, cutting ropes that tear unaccustomed hands untouched by harsh militancy in the shadow of the cross.
“Callousness is cowardice” I thought. “It takes courage to care.”
From the dark puddles among the stones, I could see the moon reflected among the clouds as if returning to wholeness.
India has taught me that during pain there is a blessing, a lesson, that makes a unique contribution to this world. Through the dramas of the past Perhaps I am turning heartless reality into a noble picturesque hope. Or is it that I am forced to reflect? Hovering in a dream? But of what?
That through the dramas of the past divine orchestration conducts the symphony of life. The discordant note resolves to make the harmonious even more sonorous.
I could see blessing reflected in everything of life.
India is not the dirty land of poverty but the land of a billion opportunities.