Friday, February 22, 2008

bihar and jharkhand

I prefer to write blog posts like this. For starters, I have a few cold beers and my friend's laptop so I can take my time to make sure it sounds right to my ear. My dad long ago gave me the good advice to read your writing aloud to detect unclear writing and poor flow.

More importantly, this post focuses more on what I observe around me in this strange and wonderful country instead of my "hey guys, look at my crazy drunken adventures". Those stories form more of an online diary for me to remember what I did. I think the writing that actually interests other people (and me) looks at how 1.1 billion people with hundreds of languages and dozens of religions manage to fit into a country the size of Canada. And since the goal of this blog venture is to have lots of hits (which keeps me up late clicking on hundreds of times on Google), let's go with that.

So we last left our intrepid explorers in the much maligned Calcutta (now Kolkatta) on our hero's birthday. With no more television shoot, Tessa decides to return to Bombay and make money instead of spend it. After my delightful Darjeeling trip, it got me reminiscing about my first time in Kathmandu. I even started thinking about moving there once my Mumbai lease runs out so Astrid and I decide to head north to take a look around.

After a pleasant overnight train trip with a cute father and daughter to play with, we arrive at Raxaul on the Nepali border. We walked the kilometer to the border, much to the befuddlement of the rickshaw wallahs. The border police stopped us with a beautiful yellow lab drug dog. Admittedly, this caused a little worry because we spent the night before around some smells that might arouse said dog. Luckily, he just sniffed us and we all shook hands with the guards who seemed delighted to see us. We walked for ten more feet when more cops with drug dogs waved us over. We nervously kept telling them we just got searched by those guys back there. They insisted we come over anyway. Then they all gather around us with another pretty yellow lab so they can take photos with us. I love this. How often do border police want to take pictures with random foreigners walking by?

The extremely friendly Nepali border officer very regretfully informed of us something I should have known already. A strike around Kathmandu has left the city completely inaccessible. The Maoists plan to cut the city off from oil and force the king from his throne (hey, attacking the oil infrastructure worked for the Allies in WWII and it can work for you). I don't quite understand the Maoist position because they already have transformed him from a dictator to a figurehead in just a few years.

Nepali contemporary politics factbox: In 2000, the entire royal family was purportedly murdered by the drugged out son. Most people believe the current king actually had his thugs carry out the dirty deed and blamed it on the son so he could seize power. Strikes and violence by the long running Maoist revolutionary movement forced the king to lose almost all of his power.

I decide to buy a three day Nepali visa while I'm here to reset my Indian visa. There's a rule that anyone on a tourist visa in India has to leave the country every six months and I don't have plans to leave until a june Bali trip with family. By just stepping across the border and getting the paperwork done, I can avoid having to make a trip abroad later just for visa purposes. After getting my Nepali visa, I head back to the Indian side to get my stamp from them.

The two border officials on the Indian side loved Valentine's Day. I pleased them because I had already given Astrid a rose. I, of course, neglected to admit someone else gave it to me free to give to her. A photographer from a local paper came up to take our picture with the babus (this used to be a term of respect but now has become a generic term for bureaucrats). The photographer admitted that he saw us getting our passport photos taken and followed us from there so he get a picture of us for the local paper. Before getting down to the visa business, we sat down with the babus for chat and chai.

After the normal questions, tattoo comparisons and paan spitting, they took a look at my passport and started shaking their heads. I got my nepali visa before an exit stamp from India. They hemmed and hawed about this for quite awhile before telling me that they'll just give me both stamps and act like they did it correctly (exactly what the nepali border official said they do every time). Of course, they tell me, I am free to give them some baksheesh as a thank you for fixing this irregularity. As we left, I palmed a 100Rs bill to each one of them (I don't think I need to palm money here, bribes are understood and accepted, I could just hand it to them openly but I just do it to feel cool). They looked at the money and shook their heads. They each got another 100 Rs and then broke out into big grins as they wished us safe travels.

With Kathmandu out of the picture, we decide to go to Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand, to meet up with the russophile Raja's son that we met in Gangtok. I wait in line to buy unreserved train tickets and get pissed when I notice that men walk to the front of the slow moving line to get someone else to buy their ticket for them. I loved the vigorous cop there who tried to prevent to stop this from happening. He marched around the front of the two lines like a bulldog with a stick. He''d stand on a ramp for a better view and then charge into the middle of a crowd that swarmed around the head of the lines. It looked like trying to push the ocean back with a teakettle. I did my own part and heatedly broke up any deal around me. I don't mind women being allowed to the head of the line (poor dears, they need all the help they can get, they must simply be lost without any testosterone) but men paying to avoid the line drove me crazy.

Astrid got a good laugh while she waited. She just couldn't believe how everyone stared at her quietly reading her book and no one even glanced at the cow taking a shit in the middle of the lobby. I have to admit, I got quite sick of the staring I received in the more secluded parts of northern India. I didn't want to be a rock star anymore. Even as we played a hand of rummy waiting for the train, almost everyone on our platform gathered around to check out the game. I got pretty uncomfortable with a group of thirty watching me beat astrid once again (beat in cards, I never beat her publicly).

We had two transfers ahead of us on this train trip. Unfortunately, our train got in three hours late so we thought we had no chance of making our connection and would be stranded for the night in some shitty bihar town. We called our friend in Ranchi and he actually had one of his friends come to the train station and help us find a nice cheap hotel room. The two guys who picked us up, wow, a writers dream. What an odd couple. Asit, our original contact, had his finger in many pies around the city and came from a family of almost all medical doctors: five MD aunts and an MD mom along with almost every cousin. A friendly enough guy who preferred to do most of the talking. Fine with me.

The friend he brought made me think of Dostoevsky's Underground Man which turned out to be fairly prescient. A tall twitchy man with a thin mustache and eyes that became intense with his mood. He mentioned a two year old daughter and a job with the police that he hates. He initially struck me as the sidekick clown of the relationship. He always had paan and would let it fill his mouth to the point that he needed to lean his head back to talk. I even observed him talking to his friend by grunting because he couldn't open his mouth. Amazingly, they seemed to have quite decent conversations in spite of the mouth full of red spit.

The next day, we took a long car trip to a big temple which turned out to be closed. I enjoyed observing the Bihari countryside. If Darjeeling runs on coolies, Bihar runs on small spirited horses. These cute hairy little horses pulled vehicles with entire families or wagons loaded high with goods. They seemed to always maintain a high stepping spirit, whatever their task. I also saw cows everywhere, the large black cow with horns and the inevitable string through its nose. They never did any work. Just walk around and around in the small circle allowed by their tether.

After the car ride, we rested for a few hours until almost time for the bus when our strange friend returned to see us off. Our last hour uncovered several more layers that increased my curiosity about him in conjunction with my repugnance. In a despondent mood, he complained about losing a million rupees in the stock market that day and vaguely blamed us because he was out driving us around instead of watching the market. He immediately started drinking heavily from a bottle of vodka he brought along. He would agree that it was only money and not something to get worked up over and would them immediately start getting worked up. After a few minutes of this pleasant conversation, I went to use the bathroom.

When I came back, Astrid was rigid with anger. On the HPIS body language scale (How Pissed Is She?), her level translated roughly to "Caught You With Your Secretary on Your Anniversary". I just tried to keep him talking to me from then on so he couldn't talk to her. It got harder as he got more and more drunk. Eventually he started getting a little weepy about things he had done. When he mentioned the word killing, my ears perked up because I suspected the truth all along. I finally drew out the most interesting piece of info I got out of the guy: he's an encounter cop.

I don't know much about encounter police but I don't think many other people do either. Here, they just know they exist. Because of India's amazingly backlogged judicial case load (fact time: if the Indian courts stopped taking cases now, it'd take them 300 years to get through what they already have, it's far too reminiscent of Kafka's The Trial) and the ease that power and money can makes cases disappear, small groups of quasi-legal secret police stage encounters with unprosecutable people and kill them. They make it appear that they only killed in self defense or make it look like a hit by someone else but most people know what actually happened. They go after terrorists, mob bosses and even politicians, anyone that could easily escape the normal routes of justice. I have heard hits need approval by a judge but I'm unclear on details. Wait for my expose article. The one I get killed for.

I realized why this strange man hated his job and why he could not quit it. He's carried out five missions but that's all the details I got. He clammed up quickly when I responded stupidly to his questioning of my curiosity. I said I'm a writer and interested in everything. Note to self: don't mention being a writer when talking to people about immoral or illegal activities (and yes, I know I'm not really a writer but it's becoming my goal and I love the best part about being a writer: no one asks follow up questions because no one really wants to here about what you're working on). He finally chose to leave us for a few minutes to go get a drink. Then Astrid told me had made some very disgusting comments to her about sex and called her a whore. He told her that I would never marry her (funny, because we tell everyone we're married just because it's so much easier). Luckily, he didn't come back before the bus so I had no chance to get into a fight with a secret policemen.

Nothing gets me ready to fight faster than rude behavior to women (eve teasing is the local term). This rarely happens publicly in India because almost every other guy feels like I do and would love the opportunity to put an asshole in his place. I see rude behavior in small groups of friends. There's always that jerkoff friend who doesn't know how to handle himself and then you're in a tough spot. How far do you confront one of the friends? Always a balancing act. This made me miss Tessa. I've never seen anyone better at putting rude guys in their place. I can watch it from across a room and know exactly what's happening. After a rude comment, she starts laying into them and they just freeze with a stupid forced smile on their face, caught like a frog in a blender. Her poor husband. I hope he's deaf.

Putting that strange incident behind us, we boarded our overnight bus. It had rows of seats running the length of the bus but it also had four sleeper berths on each side above the seats. Definetely worth the extra 30 Rs to get a bed. A nice ride except for the never ending loud Bollywood movie being shown near us in the front of the bus. Early the next morning, I woke up to watch for our stop but I didn't have to bother. The bus employees (and there are usually four per bus but only one ever drives, curious) knew where the foreigners needed to go and came to get me when we got into Ranchi.

We called our new friend, Manu, but he didn't pick up his phone so we decided to let him sleep while we got breakfast. We found a nice grocery store where we got crackers, spreadable cheese, grapes and other accessories. We sat down on the steps outside and gathered a small group of dirty friendly kids who watching us as they played. I might add, they played right next to the busy road. No fear here about 2 year olds running into traffic. Kids aren't that dumb and people here don't treat them this way. I eventually started showing off to the kids with one of my best tricks: throwing grapes high in the air and catching them in my mouth. It may not sound great which is why I keep my audiences to the "under ten"crowd, but hey, I throw them really high and never miss. I gave them the rest of the grapes and they wanted picture time so we have some fun shots of cute snot nosed grape eaters.

We walked to the train station and waited there for our new friend, calling him occasionally. We didn't hear from him for 7 hours (which is still not nearly as bad as me leaving my good friend stranded in a dresden train station late at night when I forgot he was coming in that day, sorry jimbo, good luck with the med school semester of hell). Short version: we got pissed at Manu and he sent his other friend who we met in Gangtok, the pants wearing half of a newlywed couple. They turned out to be amazing hosts and Manu turned out to be a flake.

"The rich are different."
"Yes. They're better."
- Hemingway and Fitzgerald

We didn't do much in this backwoods capital because I spent most of the time on the toilet but I got to observe the rich of this town in their natural habitat. Our host family ran a business with an exclusive contract to install cell phone towers for the entire state of Jharkhand for the big three carriers. In this country, I'm very curious whether exclusive contracts of this nature operate above the table or if they involve obscene amounts of baksheesh. I have no idea but I lean towards the latter.

I found both the sons to be down to earth but aware of their power. They belonged to the most prestigious club in the city, the Rotary, and the youngest son mentioned they had recent problems with nonmember locals. "We've been trying to keep them out and keep it exclusive." He also said that if he ever got pulled over, all he needs to do is mention his father named to get waved off. We attended a Valentine's Day party at the club (which I also missed most of thanks to toilet duties) and I expressed amazement that they could play loud music until 2AM in this quiet town. I was told that "we're the cream of the crop. We can do what we want." However, I am not complaining about these guys. Just noticing some interesting effects of belonging to the great family of a town. Overall, great warm hosts who took wonderful care of us.

After two relaxing days, they put me on a bus to the closest train station while astrid traveled on to northeast india. I got a general class ticket for the Gitangli Express, a 30 hour ride. It only cost 270 Rs (7 USD) to cross the country but I have never been in such cramped quarters for such an extended period of time. However, it only renewed my amazement for what Indian's endure so casually. Complete strangers fall asleep tangled together like a bunch of puppies. The smell of farts constantly drift through the air and the easiest way to get to the bathroom involves climbing like a monkey down the aisles, over everyone's head. Nobody complains. Nobody gets angry. Everybody sleeps like cherubs (except your noble hero who simply gets a lot of reading done).

It's almost impossible to get a seat on a busy train unless you board at its first stop. I'm lucky because people always insist I get a good seat out of hospitality. However, you're always watching to see if you can maneuver into a better position. I'm usually aiming to get under the bench seat that everyone sits on. From there you look up through the boards at everyone's rumps but at least you can stretch out. It's the only way I can get any sleep (although the claustrophobia can make it tough if it strikes). It's also never fun to sneeze because I always forget and slam my head into the underside of the bench. In conclusion, getting a good seat on the train is like romancing a woman: when you get the opportunity, you take one small step at a time until you're under a bench of Indian asses or under the bed when her husband gets home.

On all trains, sellers offer samosas, chai and various snacks through the windows at stops. They often hand in a large amount of food quickly and it gets passed back to the people who want it while the money gets passed forward. It'd be easy to not pay for your food but I never saw any incidents. Everybody operated on trust. On less crowded trains, the sellers walk through the cars. They have an interesting trick (especially the chai wallahs) of using a nasally voice that refuses to be ignored. It cuts through the background noise of the train to make sure everyone knows what they're selling. It's quite effective.

This trip started with a man who reached a new level of industry. When I boarded the crowded train, he pulled me over to him and made sure I got a seat. He had a large pot between his legs filled with dahl (lentils). He supplied dinner to almost everyone in our car for ten rupees (25 cents) a dish. He had quite an operation. As I watched, he spent twenty minutes cutting onions and greens with startling efficiency (I love watching people that good at their job, whatever it may be). Then he put leaf bowls on the lid of his pot. I do not know how they are made (something I plan to investigate because they are ubiquitous here) but leaf bowls consist of a few layers of dried leaf in the shape of a bowl. Very cheap and disposable. He filled the bowls with the warm dahl he brought with him and then sprinkled the onions and greens over the top of the food. He squeezed some limes over it and added salt and spices from two containers. Then he stuck a wooden spoon in each bowl, the kind you would use for italian ice. Everything he did had such an economy of motion. Then he would climb over the aisles with his plates of food to other parts of the car to sell them there. I don't think he counted the bowls he handed out. He just assumed everybody would pay. He repeated this until he had run out of food and fed the entire car. I have to say, this man impressed me with his industry and his friendliness. As he worked, he happily jabbered on, obviously keeping the whole section entertained.

Entertainment is a welcome relief on these trips. Any motion attracts the eyes of everyone in sight because people generally just sit and stare. I simply cannot get through a train ride without a book to read. Otherwise, I would have to spend my time contemplating my life and that's just too unnerving.

So I finally return to Mumbai with apologies for lack of posting. I like being back in the city and it gets my creative juices flowing. The accumulated bad feelings from the annoyances of this trip just dissipated away as I rode the commuter train. There's no place like home.

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