Wednesday, June 24, 2009

It Must Have Been the Karma


The hung-over morning after the first night of wedding festivities was spent in my office working on the annual report for the Veerni Project’s European donors. Over the methodical drone of click-clacking sewing machines I suddenly heard the approaching chiming of bells. I went to the window to investigate and was surprised to see a full-grown elephant walking down the middle of the street. The animal’s face and flapping ears were painted white with creeping vines and lotus blossoms. The bells that hung from either tusk announced the presence of the holy pachyderm. Representative of the elephant god of prosperity, Ganesha, people streamed out of their homes with offerings for the creature and the master who perched on its back. They freely gave fruits, cakes, and roti, which were all promptly noshed. The elephant used its trunk to collect rupee notes off the ground that it then handed back to its master. It gingerly stepped on a coconut, breaking it into two pieces. As with the other edible offerings, half was inhaled by the animal while the remaining bit was trunked back to the master for safekeeping.

I went back to the guesthouse after finishing my work early. While I was eating a late lunch in the courtyard, a deliveryman showed up bearing a package for me. With no documentation and nothing to sign, he made a demand of, “1,700 rupeeye deliveries for.” I laughed aloud at the ludicrously high baksheesh I assumed he was trying to squeeze out of me. In India, many people’s monthly salaries top out well below 1,700 IR; I wasn’t about to give in to this con artist. With Govind providing basic translation we proceeded to yell at each other. I told the man that if indeed the money was for something legitimate, such as, say, customs duty, I would be more than happy to pay the full amount. I was unwilling, however, to pay him even one paisa without documentation indicating such legitimacy. The man told me that if I didn’t pay he would not give me the package. Now mind you, the box was not in the back of his truck; it was on the ground directly in front of me. Snarling through clenched teeth I told him that he was missing the point. There was a third option that he had failed to consider. I would keep the package, keep my money, and he would turn around and leave.

With an affirmative nod from Govind I picked up my box and started walking with it back to my room. Suddenly he was on top of me. One arm held me in a pathetic half headlock while the other clamped down on my wrist, trying to pry the package from my grip. Equally surprised and infuriated I gouged his sternum with my elbow and shook myself free. Now, there are only a few facial expressions, which in any situation truly transcend all linguistic and cultural barriers. One of those is the look used by a man to inform another man that he is about to have his teeth knocked out. Thankfully Govind threw the guy out of the guesthouse before I could do something that I would have regretted. “Nobody treats my guests like that,” he said as he returned, trying to compose himself.

An hour after the incident with the deliveryman, Govind knocked and entered my room. “We have to go to the police station. That bastard is trying to charge you with assault.”
Oh shit, I thought…
…This could be interesting.
Before leaving I stuffed my pockets with cliff-bars just in case I was otherwise about to spend the next three months chewing the leather straps of my Birkenstocks for sustenance. Riding to the station in Govind’s classic 1970’s Ambassador, he turned to me and asked, “You’re a law student, right?”
“Um…political science undergrad…. but, sure.”
“Ok, I tell them that you are a law student…you let me do the talking.”
At this point that wasn’t too reassuring seeing as Govind was still in his flaming Johnny Cash getup from the previous night.

The chief inspector sat at his desk, flanked by two truncheon wielding officers. Directly behind the inspector was an open door leading into a storage room in which dozens of WWII era carbine rifles were propped up on display. Nearly as many medieval looking rusted iron handcuffs were hung on hooks above the firearms. Peering down the hallway to my left I could see numerous barred jail cells dissolving into darkness…a darkness that I wanted nothing to do with. As I was told to have a seat I glared at the deliveryman who stood in the corner of the room.

Govind began to explain, in Hindi, the situation as it had unfolded. Every so often the deliveryman’s boss, seated next to me, would interject with a defensive comment. Govind repeatedly snapped around and, with the mercilessness of an 8th grade math teacher, would yell, “you shut up, I am talking.” My defense seemed to be going pretty well. For the first time confident that I was probably not going to spend the night in prison, I sank into my grimy plastic chair, tried to appear attentive, and continued to struggle to understand the foreign judicial proceeding in which I had somehow become entangled. I’m not sure if it was comforting or alarming that the inspector seemed to possess the powers of judge, jury, and executioner... probably a little of both.

It was finally determined that the 1,700 rupee demand had in fact been a legitimate customs excise. I paid the money. “Shit,” I thought, “I’m going to jail.” However, as it turned out, the inspector was on my side. He rebuked both the deliveryman and his boss for the ham-handed way they had mismanaged the whole thing. When I asked about the status of the assault complaint against me, he told me to, “don’t worries about it.” Govind turned to me and muttered, “let’s get the fuck outa here before he changes his mind,” and with that we turned and made a swift getaway back to the Ambassador.

“Thanks for that man. I really owe you one,” I told him as we bounced down Jodhpur’s absurdly potholed roads, the newest Shakira hit blasting from the vintage ride’s custom sound system. “No you don’t,” he said, shooting me a mischievous smile before quickly returning his gaze to the road ahead… “Nobody treats my guests like that.”


The pre-pre-wedding party was to be held at my guesthouse later that night. Chann Singh and the two other Nepalese servant boys ran around all afternoon, sweeping, moping, dusting, and generally preparing the place for the hundred or so expected guests. String lights were hung from the exterior balconies. Cobwebs were cleared away and the fountain in the center of the tiled courtyard was filled with water for the first time since I arrived. Women laughed and gossiped as they stirred bubbling cauldrons of fragrant white stew and spiced saffron mutton. The heat emanating from the bustling kitchen amplified the skin-sizzling intensity of the afternoon’s desert sun. The air was still. Everything seemed to be perfect, and then, without warning, it hit.

I was in the downstairs office room working on my laptop when it happened. The lights flickered before they went out. In the darkness of the windowless, motionless room, I listened as the overhead fan struggled to make one last powerless rotation before creaking still. Power cuts in Jodhpur are a daily occurrence. Most mornings, for at least a few hours, the government shuts off the city’s electricity in an annoyingly effective conservation effort. This, however, was different. I hadn’t heard of power cuts at six o’clock in the evening, a time when most people would have been returning from work to prepare dinner. I couldn’t hear them from inside my close-doored chamber, the air raid sirens that wailed a song of approaching doom.

I sat in the stillness of the office for two, three, four minutes, waiting for the fluorescent bulbs to crackle on, the fan to groan back to life. Something was wrong. I could sense it, and not just because the power hadn’t returned. A primal shiver crept up my spine. It was the same feeling that drives dogs mad before an electrical storm. The same sense that makes birds crazy prior to a solar eclipse. I fumbled for my sandals and prepared myself for the blinding light that would turn my pupils to pinholes the second I opened the doors. Throwing back the latch I stepped into the void in front of me... complete, terrifying, ego-crushing darkness.

Confused, trying to find the time on my wristwatch, I stumbled further into the courtyard. The wind whipped around me, howling angrily, coming at once from all directions. Something was in the air, tearing at my skin, filling my useless eyes and choking my lungs with every breath I took. I knew it was ash. I knew that the unthinkable had happened. Pakistan had finally attacked. I knew that this was nuclear holocaust. Time stood still. I had to get back inside. I had to escape the radiation that was poisoning me as I stood there unable to move, unable to think. Blinded as much by my terror as by the black vortex that enveloped me I scrambled up a flight of stairs, desperate to make it to my room before my face melted off. I must have been unconsciously yelling something to the effect of, “what the fuck is going on,” because I heard someone, somewhere, scream, “SANDSTORM!”

I collapsed into my room, drenched in sweat, but relieved that I was not, in fact, witnessing the apocalypse. I quickly located my headlamp, tied a bandana around my face, and ran back out into the torrent. In the span of one minute the storm had gone from being one of the scariest things I had ever seen, to pretty much the coolest thing I had ever seen.

Since first stepping out of the office the temperature had dropped more than forty degrees. With my light I could see about ten feet through the swirling fog of biting dust. I managed to find a few of my friends and after confirming that, no, none of us had never seen anything like it, we decided to go up to the rooftop. As we climbed the stairs leading to the roof, the wind began to ease; the blackness faded into an eerie amber twilight. The storm was finally passing…
…and then in began to rain mud. Water droplets mixed with the dust that lingered in the air and fell to the earth as gritty globules of auburn mud. We all stayed up on the roof and let the dirty deluge cover us. It was cold but, after three weeks of weather that had failed to sink below 100 degrees, it felt great to shiver. After the rain subsided the lightning show began; sky-spanning lightning that would have made Zeus tremble. The static electricity that had been generated by airborne sand particles transformed the sky into a giant strobing canvas.




After a while I decided that the rooftop was not the smartest place to watch a lightning storm, so I ventured downstairs to offer a hand with the daunting cleanup that lay ahead. The food had been saved, the cauldrons covered when the sirens had warned of the approaching storm. The pre-pre party went on as planned with partygoers dancing in the dripping candlelit courtyard until the early hours of the next morning. Many of the lifelong Jodhpurians I talked to agreed that they had never before seen a sandstorm of that magnitude.


I went to sleep with a smile on my face, a notion that karma had favored me on this tempestuous day. Somehow I had managed to not only avoid jail time, but had also lived to talk about what I have heard a few people refer to as ‘the storm of the century.’

Video (not mine) of the sandstorm from Mehrangarh Fort

Video (not mine either) of day turning to night in twenty seconds


  1. The package is definitely shady, I'll tell you that.

    Jodhpur sounds exceptionally amazing or to use a Michael-ism "dope sauce, walk it out."

    You would have loved the bluegrass show. A Texan from LC would probably have been the perfect mix for this crowd as most bluegrass shows tend to be.

    My next burger and beer will be dedicated to you.
    Watch out for the dust.

  2. the sandstorms look amazing

  3. Sir,
    How do you upload these YouTube vids? I tried to copy your tech savvy ways on my blog and failed. Holler.