I was late! What would Dasrath think? Had he and his family already left for the festival without me?
My chores that evening in Hazrat Ganj took longer than expected. To ensure the future welfare of my stomach, I had decided to eat dinner beforehand at a restaurant called the Royal Café.
There is nothing particularly Royal about the Royal Café. A restaurant with electricity, cheap food, and quick service, it stands in front of a courtyard in the middle of the Hazrat Ganj thoroughfare. In the evening you will see aunties dressed in resplendent saris licking at the drops of melting ice cream on the edge of a stone fountain. The stone fountain is mostly dry, save for several small pools of water stained into brown patches near the drains. I have never actually seen water spurt from the fountain; I have often wondered where these patches of water come from.
The husbands sit hunched beside their wives. Their bellies bulge over their belts and shopping bags rest by their polished shoes. A band of young men share the opposite edge of this same fountain. They style frayed jeans, popped polo shirts, and dramatically colored button downs. They slap their knees at some joke and curl over in laughter. The girls array themselves in salwar kameez, Western jeans, T-shirts, and makeup. Sometimes their faces are covered in burkhas, and all you can see are their eyes, dark and folded in mirth. They chat with one another on benches or on the phone. Their voices rise birdlike and tinkling above the burble of the crowd and traffic.
The streetlamps flicker to life in the evening and illuminate the black paint of the wrought iron railings aligned along the sidewalk; the heavy, drooping elephant ears of the palm trees; and the trashcans, surrounded by Coke cups, which everyone ignores.
The Nepali waiter bows his head and opens the door for me. I expect to walk out into the palpitating commercial nigh of Hazrat Ganj. I notice, however, that the night’s pulse is beating more slowly than usual; the edges of the fountain are empty of aunties. Only the occasional man slips beneath the light of the street-lamps, in the same way that the famous Indian actor, Johnny Walker, strolled along the midnight Mumbai lanes, whistling to himself in the film, Pyasa. The streets are strangely deserted, quiet.
Everybody must be with their families celebrating Janmasthami. Or they must be at the festival in Police Lines, which now, I think, checking the time on my phone, I am running late for.
I had decided to stop at the Royal Café after my chores that evening. The struggles of the day had left me ravenous. And I couldn’t help but fret, too, that if I didn’t ensure myself with dinner now, the street side food at the festival would lead to a long night at the toilet. Based upon my experience of Indian hospitality, I knew Dasrath and his sons would insist that I share pani puri with them, or select several mithaiyaun (sweets) for me to sample (sweets whose names have always been too numerous and diverse to remember.) One cannot deny sharing a snack with a friend in the same way one cannot deny an offer of a freshly prepared cup of chai. So when the opportunity would arise when they pani puri would be thrust upon me, I would be prepared with the excuse, “I have already eaten.”
Friends, I will be honest: I am a closet hypochondriac! Who knows how it came to pass that I would end up in India, the country where vendors pick their nose before filling your bag with popcorn; where cooks flip rotis and parathas with dirty hands over pans that have not been washed in a week; where cows chew at plastic bags in the piles of trash at the end of the road; and mosquitoes buzz above pools of white, milky, stagnant water.
I have heard that in China the government has mandated that signs must be hung over street stalls to notify customers of their level of cleanliness. The signs are ranked A, B, C, D, etc. If only the government were to employ such a system here in India! I remember one of my UVA professors—a professor of comparative Indian politics—remarking once on a foreign exchange program that for the longest time he had eaten street food without incident. And then, having gotten too cocky, he one day landed himself in the hospital with an infection. He had to be seriously monitored for several weeks. Do not get me wrong: I am afraid. I have sampled my fair share of street food and unequivocally agree that street khana is some of the best khana out there. But I couldn’t help imagine myself in my professor’s position. Or if not his position, then bowing my head to the toilet lid in the puking-pooja.
But now it was 7:45! And not an auto in sight. All of the guest house employees must have already assembled in the lobby of the guest house. Perhaps Dasrath and his family, lost in the conviviality of the crowd, wouldn’t remember about our meeting time until I passed through the door? Then Dasrath, with his characteristic lightning-like-speed, would throw up his hands and rush over to press them into mine. This is John Sahib, he would say to his sons. Lakshman! And from there I would swallow a pakoda and we would set off into the night.
It was not until I had walked down the street in the direction of Lucknow University for some time that finally I heard the familiar lawn-mower rumbles and saw the quizzical upturned hand and raised eyebrows of the autowalla as he materialized beside me.
“Police Lines mujhe le jaiye,” I said. Normally when I give the autowallas directions, they nod with a curt “Bato,” (“Sit.”) But today the autowalla waggled his head and smiled.
“Janmasthani?” he said.
“Janmasthami,” I responded.
A train of Indians filtering through the entrance of Police Lines. Christmas lights were strewn over two large concrete white walls. The sound of Hindi music boomed out of the two walls in the same way that music bellows out of the throat. The night air shivered with the sound. It was a physical experience.
I directed the autowalla to turn onto my street. Often frequented by college covered in layers and layers of clothes from the nearby girls’ hostel during the day, the street had been transformed into a carnival. Stalls hugged the roadside. The dukandars (shopsellers) stirred woks of Chinese noodles and dumped them onto plates for display. Women sat with their banyan-bare feet on the ground with the icons of the Hindu gods, most particularly porcelain statues of Krishna and Ganesh. I had always assumed that such murtis and religious statues were meant for passing tourists. But there were very few tourists that week near the University of Lucknow.
I was the white face everyone stared at.
I spied Dasrath leaning against the gate of the hostel. I paid the autowalla and slipped out of the auto. Dasrath waved at me. I rushed over to apologize for my tardiness. I glanced in the direction of the lobby, but it was empty inside. Dasrath smiled at me in the way he always smiled at me whenever I returned to the guest house. He seemed to have completely forgotten about the invitation he had extended that morning.
“Have you just come from the festival?”
“No, from Hazrat Ganj.”
“Explore the festival!” He urged. He tilted his head in the direction of Police Lines.
“It is not too late?” I asked. Behind my question I was really asking whether I was late, whether he himself had already wandered through the festival, and whether his sons had gone.
“No, the festival will be lasting late-late into the night,” he said. “Aaram se,” he added. (“At your leisure.”) He pulled open the gate and I passed him, staring with a furrowed brow at the ground. What had happened to our family arrangements? I thought. What had happened to being Lakshman, and meeting my other mythological brothers? To avoid awkwardness, I continued wading steadily into my confusion, rather than asking what had happened.
Perhaps I had misunderstood him that morning? I thought. Perhaps he, too, had forgotten about the meeting time we had decided upon, and his sons would not arrive until later? Dasrath—leaning as he was against the gate, soaking up the sounds of daughters burbling up at their mothers; and sons calling for their fathers to hurry up as they rushed down the street; soaking up a dusty purple sky turned into a glowing galaxy-cloud in the festival light–seemed completely oblivious to my late arrival.
Had he forgotten?
I stepped into my room and closed the door. I was dusty and sweaty, but did not have the patience for a shower. I would just get dusty and sweaty again before the end of the night. So I peeled off my by-now browned white collared shirt and replaced it with a clean blue one. I washed my face in front of the bathroom mirror and arranged my hair so that it looked slightly less disgruntled than it already was. I slipped back outside. When I once again arrived at the gate, Dasrath pointed and urged me in the direction of the temple, where the darshan (viewing) and bhojan (offering food to gods) of Vishnu’s avatars, Krishna and Ram, was taking place behind the white walls.
Guards in khaki uniforms on horses holding red flags stood in front of the gate. There was a traffic jam on the street. The dust rose like smoke in front of the headlights and army of helmeted motor cyclers. To cross and enter the gate, I had to circle around the horses hind legs. It was a miracle to me how they didn’t send me flying with a kick, given the crowd pushing past them and blaring horns on the streets.
Ahead of me a long line had assembled. The faces of the faithful were projected against a large white screen as we entered, accompanied by the high-pitched voice of an Indian woman singing. The parents arrived with their children, the men in formal Western attire, the women in saris. Other youths, around the same age as me,, just wore t-shirts.
I took my place in line. I glanced at the pretty Hindu girls waiting in the line ahead and behind me. Sometimes they walked in pairs past me, and would glance, smile, and look away. Sometimes the bolder girls smile at you unashamedly; you are the one to glance away first. I did so then, staring at my shoes, remembering the taxi cab driver’s warning that gendered interactions in India are not as acceptable as they are in America.
But one factor was reassuring: the girls in Lucknow were much better looking than I last remembered!
Several girls in yellow t-shirts progressed down the line handing out coupons. One such girl, with long, straight black hair down to her shoulders, straight, white teeth, and a more healthily sized frame than many of the thin Indian girls I often saw, stopped in front of me.
“Do you want a health test?” she asked.
“Why not?” I said.
“Then come.” She motioned her head toward an open tent. Similarly uniformed girls in yellow shirts stood with clipboards in their hands beneath a tree. There was also a tall man—almost as tall as the tree itself!–with a mustache and glasses. He was lost in conversation with another man beside him, perhaps another health test volunteer.
“The test will be ten rupees,” the girl said, extending her hand.
“No,” I answered. I turned back toward the line.
“It will be free for you,” she said, stopping me. Other Indian boys my age leaned out of the line. Soon there was a crowd grinning at me and shoving elbows as she led me in front of the tent. She ordered me to discard my shoes and step on the weight scale. I struggled for some time with my shoes and my socks. I felt her eyes boring into my impatiently. When I finally straightened, she thrust a machine into my hands. It looked like the steering wheel of a spaceship. The outlined figure of a human body appeared in the screen of the machine.
“The X-Rays will check your metabolism,” she said, holding the machine and gazing up into my eyes.
“Okay,” I said.
Then she flipped the switch.