Saturday, July 11, 2009

Deja Vu Drinking, Roof Surfing, and Drunk Driving


I woke up long before I opened my eyes. The taste of the previous night’s debauchery lingered on my lips like the stale memory of a too-sweet candy. Cracking my eyelids I slowly surveyed my surroundings. Captain Bollywood, the personal reference nickname I had assigned to the twenty five year old Mumbai fashion model whose exuberant dance moves were no doubt borrowed from his favorite Hindi movies, snored loudly on top of undisturbed sheets. I was surprised by how well I felt as I rolled off the way too short cot and into the way too small shower. Feeling worse after a heavy breakfast of jalebis, idli and something so indistinguishably deep-fried that it bore no likeness to its former self, I gathered my belongings and piled onto the bus along with the other soldiers, many of who were much more seriously wounded than I. More than a few aching heads were cradled tenderly between clammy palms. I figured that we were heading back to Jodhpur, trying to get an early start on the long, bumpy journey home. Like most of the assumptions I have made since arriving in India, it too was wrong. The bus came to a stop ten minutes after lurching out of the turnaround. Assuming that the man next to me spoke English I asked, “are we stuck?”
“Ha,” he replied – “yes.”
For some inexplicable reason, I shouldered my messenger bag as I deboarded, ready to push the monstrous Shiva-mobile out of the mud. That turned out to be a sage decision on my part. We began to walk.

I didn’t recognize where we were going until I saw the familiar golden tinsel streamers and pink tent rising above the roofline of a two story, cinder block house. Before proceeding into the tent we were invited to walk through the lower level of the bride’s home. On display in the courtyard was the lavish dowry. Dozens of silk, tie-dyed saris, each with their own set of rhinestone bindis. Countless yellow-gold necklaces, rings, and earings, sparkled in polished rohidawood jewelry cases. Stereos, a computer, and other assorted electronics were reflected in the face of a huge flatscreen television. A new car, wrapped in garlands of tawny marigolds, glistened in the car park. The most important dowry item was not on diplay; I was told that the bride’s family had given Banu’s father seven thousand US dollars.

Upon taking my seat at one of the eight-man tables I noticed in health conscious horror that the empty, liquor bottle centerpieces had been replaced with untapped, dew-dripping flagons of Kingfisher and Royal Stag Whiskey. As I poured myself a glass of mineral water Jitu asked me what was the matter.
“Are you having the loose motions?” he queried, clearly concerned by my non-alcoholic beverage choice. People don’t tend to beat around the bush with their line of questioning here in India. This is especially true with topics such as marriage, salary, and intimate bodily functions.
“No Jitu, I’m fine.”
“Ok… but you know what is best remedies for whiskey sick?”
“Really, man, I’m fine.”
“…Gin and mutton!”
“Ok Jitu… now I feel sick.”

In a sweaty daylight deja vu, we ate too much, drank too much, and laughed too much, for no apparent reason, into the early afternoon. I had been sitting for some time at a corner table, my back turned to the bulk of the party, talking to a few of the bride’s guests. Jitu, who was by then sitting at a neighboring table with his back facing me, pushed off and rocked his chair against mine. Craning his neck, presumably looking at a grey gecko crawling across the ceiling, he leaned over my shoulder. “Your buses is leaving,” he said nonchalantly.
“Wait, it is leaving or it has left?”
I instantly knew the answer to my question as I turned and realized that the tent had purged half its occupants. “Fan-fucking-tastic,” I thought as I glanced around in search of an alternate mode of transportation.
“No problems, Ben. You ride in dowry Tata with me,” he said, flashing me his trademark smile…the sleazy one that only seems to appear when incited by liquor.
Great. Problem solved, I thought. Anyways, its not as if he’s asking me to DRIVE the damn thing.”

Indian freighters; lorries, otherwise known as Tata trucks, are essentially jacked-up, off-road, dump trucks, with wood panel cargo siding and a bad attitude to boot. They are all elaborately painted with vines, flowers, and repetitive geometric patterns in an effort to soften the startling reality: they are enormous, rolling deathtraps. Many have messages written in English and Hindi on their rust eaten tailgates such as, “honk please,” or, “Bishnoi,” the later an indication of the driver’s tribal affiliation. Some are morbidly witty, perhaps unintentionally; I once saw one that read, “ten minutes sooner isn’t worth your life,” under which was written, “have a lovely day.” The decorations all seem a bit outlandish – that is until you remember that American eighteen-wheelers are often plastered with decals of confederate flags and naked women. These colossal Tata trucks have anywhere from two to four feet of ground clearance, plenty of room to allow stubborn, unmoving dogs to pass underneath unscathed.

Hiking up my pants and gripping the ladder that was bolted to the outside of the truck, I hurled myself up and into the driver’s cabin. The driver, an unsavory looking fellow whose greasy tank top clung to his hunched shoulder blades, flashed me a yellow, crack-toothed smile as I surveyed his office space. In the middle of the cab, between his seat and the grimy passengers’ platform, was the metal encased transmission. Fringed tassels lined the rim of the cabin, which was plastered with heat-warped postcards of numerous Hindu deities. A plywood plank was wedged under the huge, flat windshield. When removed it revealed an open slot, protected by a mesh bug stopper, which theoretically enhanced air circulation. The driver’s friend, an equally questionable character, sat squeezed between the gearbox and an upturned, glass coffee table that had been deemed too fragile to ride in the back with the rest of the dowry items. Jitu crammed in next to me, removed his shirt, shoes, and commanded the driver to, “challo!” The driver honked the horn, I wasn’t sure why, releasing a multi-tonal chorus of beeps that would have been enough to turn the “General Lee” red with redneck envy. I glanced nervously at Jitu as the vehicle shuddered and then creaked to life.

Jitu and the truck driver

An hour into the drive, I was painfully uncomfortable. An unavoidable metal hook gouged my spine. I couldn’t move my legs; by then the snoring friend of the driver had commandeered them as his pillow. Arms and legs became indiscernible from their rightful owners as the tangled mass of men tried to gain comfort in the 110 ºF, afternoon heat. I knew before I came to this country that Indians have a different sense of personal space than we, “touch-a-phobic” Americans. Furthermore, I arrived here ready to embrace it. American touchaphobia has always bothered me. Why is it that, to many of us (myself sometimes unfortunately included), the unintentional touch of a stranger, a person on the subway, the guy behind us in line, is viewed as an unacceptable encroach upon ourselves? That said, I personally draw the line when the sweat that drips from my body is sourced from another man. I glanced at the black, plastic swatch on my wrist. Something has to give, I thought to myself. I can’t do this for another nine hours.
Removing Jitu’s armpit from my now soaked shoulder, I shook him awake.
“Is it cool if I ride up there on the roof,” I asked in a tone connoting more of a statement than a question.
“It is cools… but look out for power lines,” he said, groggily rubbing his eyes.
“Don’t worry, I told him. “They don’t call me hawk-eyed-Ben for nothing.” Most people back home don’t find my jokes very funny. I suppose that it’s foolish to assume that my humor would succeed on the Asian subcontinent.
He looked at me blankly.
“Um… never mind.”

The driver didn’t bother to slow down as I squirmed out of the passenger window and heaved myself, like a beached walrus, onto the roof of the speeding truck. “Best… decision… ever,” I thought as the hot wind rushed through my hair and wicked the perspiration from my exposed arms. The sensible young adult in me shrieked, urging me to return to the relative safety of the miserable cabin. But it was too late. I wasn’t going back inside. Besides, it was beautiful. I had a 360º view of rural Rajasthan: the crown jewel of India. I watched camel herds charge over rolling sand dunes in their exaggerated, slow motion lope. I was startled by countless male peacocks exploding from desert-brush hides in flashes of iridescent aquamarine. We passed through many small villages. Occasionally an old man, wrapped in a white lungi of homespun cotton, would point up at me and yell in the direction of the driver beneath – presumably something to the effect of, “Hey! Don’t you know that there’s a crazy foreigner on the roof of your truck?” I would salute him, wiggling my head ever so slightly provoking a responsive head wag, beaming smile, or in some cases, hooting exaltations of delightful amusement. Every now and then I would drop down into the open-top cargo area, lounging on the velvet dowry sofa before, always, returning to the exhilarating rooftop.



We made many short pit stops – to purge our gin and mutton-bloated bodies and to stock up on water or kulfi ice cream pops. At one of our middle of nowhere truck stop breaks, I climbed down the rickety ladder to see how my companions were holding up. After buying the guys a round of Pepsi, Jitu turned to me and asked, “So Ben, you want to fuck somebody?” Perceiving his devious intention, I responded with a rude, emphatic, “no way, man.”
Ignoring both the facts that India has the fastest growing AIDS problem in the world and that I am repulsed by the thought of paying for sex, I found it reprehensibly hypocritical that the man offering to hire me a prostitute had, over glasses of spiced Rajasthani liquor not forty-eight hours before, been lecturing me on the superiority of his conception of love and intimate relationship.
Apparently, however, Jitu didn’t get the message. He began negotiations with the two women who approached our truck. Their thick, black eyeliner disguised the dejection that welled behind their subdued eyes. Uneven, home-done tattoos blotched their otherwise beautiful, brown cheeks. As he bargained with them, the younger of the two smiled at me seductively, swirled her tongue in a pathetic imitation of pseudo-sexual expression.
“Jitu,” I said angrily, “I’m serious, man. Let’s get out of here.”
“Ok, no problems,” he said as he climbed back into the truck. “They wants too much anyways – 1000 rupee. I never pay more than 300 rupee,” (roughly six US dollars.)

We moved on, blazing trail across the arid landscape. Black buck deer and smaller, blue bull antelope craned their necks to reach flowering buds atop stunted trees. I wasn’t too worried about falling off. Piloting one of the larger vehicles on the road, our driver was rarely forced to apply the brakes. Only when a shepherd was too slow in herding his flock off the path was I forced to scramble for the support rope I had lashed to a bolt for sudden stops. The sun began to fall as we raced across the desert, chased by our wake of dust. At one point, the driver’s friend appeared in the cargo bed, cradling a 750ml bottle of Royal Stag that had been surreptitiously swiped from the party. Happy when I declined, he quickly scampered back into the cab. I ignored the ominous red flag, assumed that the three grown men would exhibit a bit of self-restraint. A moonless, shadowless night spread itself over the wilderness. No longer able to see the power lines that had challenged my limbo skills all afternoon, I kicked off my shoes and stretched out on the springy, red, dowry couch. Stars twinkled and shot across the blackened sky. Why is it that stars seem to brighten the farther we travel from home? I lay there for hours, staring into space, trying to form a philosophical answer to my question.

I knew that we were getting close to Jodhpur and so I was surprised when we pulled into a truck stop at 11:00 pm. I was even more surprised when Jitu half stumbled, half fell out of the cab and began to vomit. Understandably a little concerned, I swung myself from the ladder, through the window, and into the truck. The entire cab reeked of something between a men’s locker room and the beer-pong basement of a Vanderbilt frathouse. The driver, breathing laboriously, was slumped over the oversized steering wheel in a way that gave the impression that he was trying to hug the dashboard. His friend, who had also passed out, was splayed across the transmission box. For the second time that day, I uttered my favorite made up word: “fan-fucking-tastic.” I ventured outside and found a now pantsless Jitu pouring water over his head in an effort to quickly sober up.
“What the hell, man?”
“No problems,” he slurred.
“No problems? I beg to differ.”
“No, no, no… they just needs to sleep for a few hours.”
“Jitu, I have to be at work early tomorrow morning. This is most definitely a problem.”
“Ok, ok, ok… I talks to them,” he said as he put his pants back on and struggled into the Tata.
He honked the melodic horn a few times in an effort to wake the well-lubricated men. I gave him plenty of room, fearful that he would slip and come crashing down on top of me as he climbed back down the ladder. He planted his shaky feet on solid ground, steadied himself with outstretched arms, and turned to me.
Staring, glaze-eyed, at my duplicate image, he said, “Ben, Ben, Ben,” pausing for a moment as if to gain his bearings.
“Ben, you must drive.”

Honestly, the responsible young adult in me said, “don’t even think about it.” But I am at that peculiar juncture of age where sensibility and youthful recklessness crash into each other head-on.
“Ok,” I said to Jitu. “Give me the keys.”

After shoving the incapacitated driver onto the center console next to his friend, I seated myself into the worn captain’s chair. The truck growled as I sparked the ignition. I honked the horn for no reason, just as I had seen the driver do that afternoon; perhaps it had been an effort to awaken the Hindu gods of good fortune. I popped the clutch and slowly shifted the freighter into gear. The truck shuddered, lurched forward, and stalled out with a hiss of exasperated hydraulics. The sensible adult - the one that I was telling you about - smirked triumphantly at the cocky young man who sat defeated in the driver’s seat.
“Jitu,” I said, turning to the very sweaty Indian who sat cross-legged next to me, swaying in the motionless truck like a drunken pirate on a poop deck. “This is a bad idea, man. I don’t even drive on the same side of the road back at home. And, I saw those swords at the wedding, buddy… I don’t want to be skewered for destroying Banu’s dowry if… when I crash this thing.”
“No problems,” he said. “We wait a few hours for the driver to make not drunk.”
Two hours later we roused the confused reprobate and guided him to the dhaba hut that served as a roadside truck stop. The very understanding, elderly, Sikh proprietor fixed us a basic meal of dhal bhati, chipati, and extra-strong chai, all the while eyeing our driver with contempt. After the snack and a little more waiting, marginally convinced that he wasn’t going to kill us all, I climbed back into the cargo bed, too nervous to accompany Jitu in the cab for what was, as it turned out, an uneventful half-hour ride.

I dragged myself into work the next morning, weary, but with quite a story to tell. The week of the Rajput wedding (including the next night when a five-hundred person reception was held at a Jodhpur club) had been truly extraordinary. It wasn’t just an event. It wasn’t just another series of night after night partying. I had been invited, honored, not as a foreign reporter but as a member of the family. In a weird twist of circumstance, my being forgotten by the bus, left behind in the outskirts of Mandawa, allowed me to see how truly accepted I had been. I wasn’t given undue attention; they didn’t feel the need to coddle me. I think that I will always be grateful to them for that – to have been welcomed as just another sword wielding, turban swaddled, warm-hearted Rajput.


  1. Ben, I look forward to reading about your adventures as you add them. Somehow, I am not surprised at all the interesting experiences that you are enjoying! They are so 'Ben'!

  2. Looks like you've been drinking for Soapy all week. Your (mis)adventures continue to amuse me. On my side of the globe, one of my bosses went to India with LC in 1993. He remembers the subtle head nodding Indians fondly. Stay crunk.

  3. You drink like a fish, u travel on the roof of a rickety even consider urself capable of driving one....u can brave rajasthan's extreme wheather, you work there out of choice and u r 22?!
    You got a lot goin for you dude!

  4. Very nice blog and story. You are a very good writer.