I. The Guesthouse

I spent the first week of my Fulbright project living in Room No. 8 of the Lucknow University Guesthouse. The Indian Research VISA stipulates that one must check in with a special bureaucratic agency called the FRRO (Foreign Regional Registry Office) two weeks after arriving in India. There are FRRO’s in every city, but as the customs inspector reminded me as he stamped my passport at Indira Gandhi International Airport, “You must sign in at FRRO in the same city where you are institutionally affiliated. Don’t forget.”

In other words, Lucknow.

The previous summer I had enlisted the support of a professor in the Urdu department of Lucknow University. My research had nothing to do with Urdu and probably would not take place in Lucknow at all. But for formalities sake I needed the signature of a professor. As my immediate plans stood, I would be departing for a Hindi language program in Jaipur and would be spending nine out of my total thirteen months in India in New Delhi. Nevertheless, I found myself buckling my seatbelt on AirIndia to my old alma mater to hand deliver a few important forms to some bureaucrats and to meet my new supervisor. It all sounded fairly simple. Get into Lucknow. Get out.

“Do I really need an entire week to do this?” I asked my program coordinator in his office in Delhi. He smiled a knowing smile. I had no idea.

So I stepped out of the Lucknow Airport to the familiar pandemonium of autowallas and taxiwallas waving and shouting and making general tamasha. Flies buzzed over their heads. The heat shimmered over the parking lot. The fronds of the palm trees drooping over the exit road  were large, green, and prehistoric. A bead of sweat dripped down my neck. I swatted away a mosquito.

Ahh, it was good to be back in Lucknow.

I travel relatively lightly. All I brought with me was a single backpack and an Adidas gym bag. I set my bag on the ground and ran my eyes over the signs floating between the moving hands and mouths of Indians pressed up against the metal barricade. Six or seven men called out to me, waving. “Come! Come!” I felt a hand tug at the shirt sleeve of my left arm. “Taxi?” a man asked. He motioned his head toward the parking lot.

“I’m waiting for my friend,” I said.

“Oh.” He retreated several steps away and stared at me.

I had been informed that an Indian Fulbrighter would be waiting to pick me up from the airport with a placard and take me to Lucknow University. Just as there are American Fulbrighters to India, there have also been many Indian Fulbrighters who have conducted research in America. We were all part of one big international family. Someone was supposed to be holding a sign with my name. Once again hitching my bag over my shoulders, I pushed through the crowd of taxi-wallas in search for the non-existent sign.

“Where is your friend?” the youth asked, tailing me.

“I don’t know,” I answered.

I waited for fifteen minutes, scanning the parking lot. A crowd gathered. When I answered in Hindi that I didn’t need a taxi they retreated back into their group and pointing non surreptitiously my way, grinning.

I had just given up and was preparing to hand over my bag and money when a boy half my height, maybe thirteen or fourteen, materialized in front of me.

“Mr. John Vater?” he asked.

“Yes?”

“Your ride is ready. Please come.” He grabbed my bag. It was about as big as he was. I followed him, blinking, as he struggled with its weight over his shoulder.

The boy explained the situation: his father could not come, because his grandmother had recently fallen ill and had had to rush to the hospital. At this time I did not know who his father might be. Was his father the dispatched taxi-cab driver? Would this boy now be driving the taxi?

Another quiet, sullen man fell in step beside us. The boy switched from English to Hindi; he told the middle-aged man to pull up the car. The man nodded and disappeared without saying a word. Who was he? The boy dropped my bag by the curb and turned on me. He said with the same exuberant authority. “We will wait here.” He smiled. “The car will come here to pick us up, if that is okay.”

“Okay,” I said.

The pairing of the  energetic boy and sullen driver seemed almost comedic. Something that might be in a cartoon—like a small criminal with a black suit, tie, and top hat slipping out of a bank with the alarm ringing and shouting to his big hulking sidekick across the street:

“Quick, the car!”

Like most Indian males, the boy wore a pressed collared shirt and slacks, His hair was nicely gelled. The driver pulled up in front of us and stared at us blankly through the lowered window. The boy heaved my bag into the back seat. I wanted to help, but knew it was futile.

“What did you bring?” the boy ask.

“Books,” I said.

“Books!” he said, with a small cheer. “That is very good.”

It wasn’t until we were several miles away from the airport—past the chauraha (four-way intersection) with the gazebo of Ambedkar; past Mayawati’s looming pink and beige walls; past the Indian defense department with the jeeps parked behind the wrought iron gate—that the entire situation clarified itself. The boy was the son of the Indian Fulbrighter who had planned on meeting me at the airport. The driver must have been a family servant. The boy whipped around every few seconds to look at me. He told me I was only the third American he had ever met. I complimented his English. He grinned. “No, no, I am not that good.” He told me he wanted to be an engineer. He was very fond of math. I told him I was not fond of math. We bonded. We passed the journey speaking about the cars he would drive one day.

We arrived at the guesthouse. The guesthouse is located within walking distance of the university, next to the Kaushala girl’s college, and across from the Police Civil Lines. Girls walking in pairs with books clasped against their chests stared at our car as we pulled into the gate. The guesthouse looked like a bungalow, with two floors and a wide entrance. More servants met us. I was ushered over to the couch in the lobby while the guesthouse workers finished preparing my room. They boy sat beside me on the couch, grinning, tapping his foot–we had exhausted our conversation. A guesthouse employee served me a tray of chai tea. Another in rapid succession brought me a newspaper and cup of water.  I asked if the water was filtered. “Of course, sir, of course,” the employee said, waggling his head.

I took an experimental sip and set it back down on the tray.

I expected my bedroom to be cheaply furnished, with perhaps a single bed and table—something like my room with my Indian host parents the year before. For this reason, I was surprised by what I found when the guesthouse employee appeared at the stairs and called for me to follow him. Room Number Eight. The employee rattled the medieval sized key in it’s lock. He opened the door and flipped on the light.

The room consisted of two bisters (thin, Indian sleeping mats) which had been shoved together over a double-bed. In front of the bed was a TV. A small refrigerator sat against the wall nearest the door. On the opposite side of the room was the door to the bathroom—a private bathroom!–to the left of which, nestled into a corner, was a writing desk coated in fresh black paint. There were two chairs and a coffee table to the right of the bathroom door. The employee pulled out a chair and turned on the air conditioner for me.

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The air-conditioning grumbled like an old automobile to life. Cold air began to suffuse the room. I collapsed into my chair and the icy breeze.

This would be one of the few instances I would enjoy of such relaxation for the remainder of my week, however. I had hardly finished unpacking my things before, half an hour later, a PhD student from Lucknow University showed up with a knock at my door.

“You would like to meet Sir?” he asked. (By which he meant my new supervisor.)

His motorcycle waited outside. Strutting over, the student sunk his bulk down onto the motorcycle seat and motioned for me to slide on behind him. I knew where this was going. I had done this before. Of course, he didn’t have a helmet. I grabbed his sides. He glanced back and laughed. Soon we were weaving through the honks, rattles, and coughs of the dusty storm of trucks, cars, motorcycles, rickshaws, and autos racing down the road.

It was in this way that I flew off into my brief layover in Lucknow, where, among other things, I would be forced to visit the FRO office three separate times; find myself adopted into the family of guesthouse workers and learn of their amorous intrigues; find my room broken into; attend a Hindu religious festival where an “expert” would tell me I had the metabolism of a woman; and receive love poetry from an Indian girl.

All of these stories, friends, and more to come.

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