I met the stare in his guileless, blue eyes. Maybe it would be better to share a room at first, I thought. Their genuine documents and their easy smiles would smother my false passport. Maybe it would be safer.
‘And it’s a lot safer,’ he added.
‘Yeah, right,’ his friend agreed.
‘Safer?’ I asked, assuming a nonchalance I didn’t feel.
The bus was moving more slowly, along narrow channels of three- and four-storey buildings. Traffic churned through the streets with wondrous and mysterious efficiency—a ballistic dance of buses, trucks, bicycles, cars, ox-carts, scooters, and people. The open windows of our battered bus gave us the aromas of spices, perfumes, diesel smoke, and the manure of oxen, in a steamy but not unpleasant mix, and voices rose up everywhere above ripples of unfamiliar music. Every corner carried gigantic posters, advertising Indian films. The supernatural colours of the posters streamed behind the tanned face of the tall Canadian.
‘Oh, sure, it’s a lot safer. This is Gotham City, man. The street kids here have more ways to take your money than hell’s casino.’
‘It’s a city thing, man,’ the short one explained. ‘All cities are the same. It’s not just here. It’s the same in New York, or Rio, or Paris. They’re all dirty and they’re all crazy. A city thing, you know what I’m sayin’? You get to the rest of India, and you’ll love it. This is a great country, but the cities are truly fucked, I gotta say.’
‘And the goddamn hotels are in on it,’ the tall one added. ‘You can get ripped off just sittin’ in your hotel room and smokin’ a little weed. They do deals with the cops to bust you and take all your money. Safest thing is to stick together and travel in groups, take my word.’
‘And get outta the cities as fast as you can,’ the short one said. ‘Holy shit! D’you see that?’
The bus had turned into the curve of a wide boulevard that was edged by huge stones, tumble-rolled into the turquoise sea. A small colony of black, ragged slum huts was strewn upon those rocks like the wreckage of some dark and primitive ship. The huts were burning.
‘God-damn! Check that out! That guy’s cookin’, man!’ the tall Canadian shouted, pointing to a man who ran towards the sea with his clothes and hair on fire. The man slipped, and smashed heavily between the large stones. A woman and a child reached him and smothered the flames with their hands and their own clothes. Other people were trying to contain the fires in their huts, or simply stood, and watched, as their flimsy homes blazed. ‘D’you see that? That guy’s gone, I tell ya.’
‘Damn right!’ the short one gasped.
The bus driver slowed with other traffic to look at the fire, but then revved the engine and drove on. None of the cars on the busy road stopped. I turned to look through the rear window of the bus until the charred humps of the huts became minute specks, and the brown smoke of the fires was just a whisper of ruin.
At the end of the long, seaside boulevard, we made a left turn into a wide street of modern buildings. There were grand hotels, with liveried doormen standing beneath coloured awnings. Near them were exclusive restaurants, garlanded with courtyard gardens. Sunlight flashed on the polished glass and brass facades of airline offices and other businesses. Street stalls sheltered from the morning sunlight beneath broad umbrellas. The Indian men walking there were dressed in hard shoes and western business suits, and the women wore expensive silk. They looked purposeful and sober, their expressions grave as they bustled to and from the large office buildings.
The contrast between the familiar and the exceptional was everywhere around me. A bullock cart was drawn up beside a modern sports car at a traffic signal. A man squatted to relieve himself behind the discreet shelter of a satellite dish. An electric forklift truck was being used to unload goods from an ancient wooden cart with wooden wheels. The impression was of a plodding, indefatigable, and distant past that had crashed intact, through barriers of time, into its own future. I liked it.
‘We’re almost there,’ my companion declared. ‘City centre’s just a few blocks. It’s not really what you’d call the downtown area. It’s just the tourist beat where most of the cheap hotels are. The last stop. It’s called Colaba.’
The two young men took their passports and travellers’ cheques from their pockets and pushed them down the fronts of their trousers. The shorter man even removed his watch, and it, too, joined the currency, passport, and other valuables in the marsupial pouch of his underpants. He caught my eye, and smiled.
‘Hey’ he grinned. ‘Can’t be too careful!’
I stood and bumped my way to the front. When the bus stopped I was the first to take the steps, but a crowd of people on the footpath prevented me from moving down to the street. They were touts—street operatives for the various hoteliers, drug dealers, and other businessmen of the city—and they shouted at us in broken English with offers of cheap hotel rooms and bargains to be had. First among them in the doorway was a small man with a large, almost perfectly round head. He was dressed in a denim shirt and blue cotton trousers. He shouted for silence from his companions, and then turned to me with the widest and most radiant smile I’d ever seen.
‘Good mornings, great sirs!’ he greeted us. ‘Welcome in Bombay! You are wanting it cheap and excellent hotels, isn’t it?’
He stared straight into my eyes, that enormous smile not wavering. There was something in the disk of his smile—a kind of mischievous exuberance, more honest and more excited than mere happiness—that pierced me to the heart. It was the work of a second, the eye contact between us. It was just long enough for me to decide to trust him—the little man with the big smile. I didn’t know it then, but it was one of the best decisions of my life.
A number of the passengers, filing off the bus, began beating and swatting at the swarm of touts. The two young Canadians made their way through the crowd unmolested, smiling broadly and equally at the bustling touts and the agitated tourists. Watching them dodge and weave through the crowd, I noticed for the first time how fit and healthy and handsome they were. I decided there and then to accept their offer to share the cost of a room. In their company, the crime of my escape from prison, the crime of my existence in the world, was invisible and inconceivable.
The little guide grabbed my sleeve to lead me away from the fractious group, and toward the back of the bus. The conductor climbed to the roof with simian agility, and flung my backpack and travel bag into my arms. Other bags began tumbling to the pavement in an ominous cadenza of creaks and crashes. As the passengers ran to stop the hard rain of their valuables, the guide led me away again, to a quiet spot a few metres from the bus.
‘My name is Prabaker,’ he stated, in his musically accented English. ‘What is your good name?’
‘My good name is Lindsay,’ I lied, using the name from my false passport.
‘I am Bombay guide. Very excellent first number Bombay guide, I am. All Bombay I know it very well. You want to see everything. I know exactly where is it you will find the most of everything. I can show you even more than everything.’
The two young travellers joined us, pursued by a persistent band of ragged touts and guides. Prabaker shouted at his unruly colleagues, and they retreated a few paces, staring hungrily at our collection of bags and packs.
‘What I want to see right now,’ I said, ‘is a clean, cheap hotel room.’
‘Certainly, sir!’ Prabaker beamed. ‘I can take you to a cheap hotel, and a very cheap hotel, and a too much cheap hotel, and even such a cheap hotel that nobody in a right minds is ever staying there also.’
‘Okay, lead on, Prabaker. Let’s take a look.’
‘Hey, wait a minute,’ the taller of the two young men interjected. Are you gonna pay this guy? I mean, I know the way to the hotels. No offence to you, buddy—I’m sure you’re a good guide and all—but we don’t need you.’
I looked at Prabaker. His large, dark brown eyes were studying my face with open amusement. I’ve never known a man who had less hostilit
y in him than Prabaker Kharre: he was incapable of raising his voice or his hand in anger, and I sensed something of that even then, in the first minutes with him.
‘Do I need you, Prabaker?’ I asked him, my expression mock-serious.
‘Oh, yes!’ he cried in reply. ‘You are so very needing me, I am almost crying with your situation! Only God knows what terrible things are happening to you without my good self to guide your body in Bombay!’
‘I’ll pay him,’ I told my companions. They shrugged, and lifted their packs. ‘Okay. Let’s go, Prabaker.’
I began to lift my pack, but Prabaker grabbed at it swiftly.
‘I am carrying it your luggages,’ he insisted politely.
‘No, that’s okay. I’m fine.’
The huge smile faded to a pleading frown.
‘Please, sir. It is my job. It is my duty. I am strong in my backs. No problem. You will see.’
All my instincts revolted at the idea.
‘No, really …’
‘Please, Mr. Lindsay, this is my honour. See the people.’
Prabaker gestured with his upturned palm to those touts and guides who’d managed to secure customers from among the tourists. Each one of them seized a bag, suitcase, or backpack and trudged off, leading his party into the flak-traffic with brisk determination.
‘Yeah, well, all right …’ I muttered, deferring to his judgment. It was just the first of countless capitulations that would, in time, come to define our relationship. The smile stretched his round face once more, and he grappled with the backpack, working the straps onto his shoulders with my help. The pack was heavy, forcing him to thrust his neck out, lean over, and launch himself forward into a trundling gait. My longer steps brought me up level with him, and I looked into his straining face. I felt like the white bwana, reducing him to my beast of burden, and I hated it.
But he laughed, that small Indian man. He chattered about Bombay and the sights to be seen, pointing out landmarks as we walked. He spoke with deferential amiability to the two Canadians. He smiled, and called out greetings to acquaintances as he passed them. And he was strong, much stronger than he looked: he never paused or faltered in his step throughout the fifteen-minute journey to the hotel.
Four steep flights in a dark and mossy well of stairs, at the rear of a large, sea-front building, brought us to the foyer of the India Guest House. Every floor on the way up had carried a different shield—Apsara Hotel, Star of Asia Guest House, Seashore Hotel—indicating that the one building was actually four separate hotels, each one of them occupying a single floor, and having its own staff, services, and style.
The two young travellers, Prabaker, and I tumbled into the small foyer with our bags and packs. A tall, muscular Indian, wearing a dazzlingly white shirt and a black tie, sat behind a steel desk beside the hallway that led to the guest rooms.
‘Welcome,’ he said, a small, wary smile dimpling his cheeks. ‘Welcome, young gentlemen.’
‘What a dump,’ my tall companion muttered, looking around him at the flaking paint and laminated wooden partitions.
‘This is Mr. Anand,’ Prabaker interjected quickly. ‘Best manager of the best hotel in Colaba.’
‘Shut up, Prabaker!’ Mr. Anand growled.
Prabaker smiled the wider.
‘See, what a great manager is this Mr. Anand?’ he whispered, grinning at me. He then turned his smile to the great manager. ‘I am bringing three excellent tourists for you, Mr. Anand. Very best customers for the very best hotel, isn’t it?’
‘I told you to shut up!’ Anand snapped.
‘How much?’ the short Canadian asked.
‘Please?’ Anand muttered, still glowering at Prabaker.
‘Three people, one room, one night, how much?’
‘One hundred twenty rupees.’
‘What!’ the shorter one exploded. ‘Are you kidding me?’
‘That’s too much,’ his friend added. ‘C’mon, we’re outta here.’
‘No problem,’ Anand snapped. ‘You can go to somewhere else.’
They began to gather their bags, but Prabaker stopped them with an anguished cry.
‘No! No! This is the very most beautiful of hotels. Please, just see it the room! Please, Mr. Lindsay, just see it the lovely room! Just see it the lovely room!’
There was a momentary pause. The two young men hesitated in the doorway. Anand studied his hotel register, suddenly fascinated by the hand-written entries. Prabaker clutched at my sleeve. I felt some sympathy for the street guide, and I admired Anand’s style. He wasn’t going to plead with us, or persuade us to take the room. If we wanted it, we took it on his terms. When he looked up from the register, he met my eyes with a frank and honest stare, one confident man to another. I began to like him.
‘I’d like to see it, the lovely room,’ I said.
‘Yes!’ Prabaker laughed.
‘Okay, here we go!’ the Canadians sighed, smiling.
‘End of the passage,’ Anand smiled in return, reaching behind him to take the room key from a rack of hooks. He tossed the key and its heavy brass nameplate across the desk to me. ‘Last room on the right, my friend.’
It was a large room, with three single beds covered by sheets, one window to the seaward side, and a row of windows that looked down upon a busy street. Each of the walls was painted in a different shade of headache-green. The ceiling was laced with cracks. Papery scrolls of paint dangled from the corners. The cement floor sloped downwards, with mysterious lumps and irregular undulations, toward the street windows. Three small plywood side-tables and a battered wooden dressing table with a cracked mirror were the only other pieces of furniture. Previous occupants had left evidence of their tenure: a candle melted into the neck of a Bailey’s Irish Cream bottle; a calendar print of a Neapolitan street scene taped to one wall; and two forlorn, shrivelled balloons hanging from the ceiling fan. It was the kind of room that moved people to write their names and other messages on the walls, just as men do in prison cells.
‘I’ll take it,’ I decided.
‘Yes!’ Prabaker cried, scurrying away at once toward the foyer.
My companions from the bus looked at one another and laughed.
‘I hear ya,’ the shorter one chuckled. He bent low and sniffed at the sheets before sitting down gingerly on one of the beds.
Prabaker returned with Anand, who carried the heavy hotel register. We entered our details into the book, one at a time, while Anand checked our passports. I paid for a week in advance. Anand gave the others their passports, but lingered with mine, tapping it against his cheek thoughtfully.
‘New Zealand?’ he murmured.
‘So?’ I frowned, wondering if he’d seen or sensed something. I was Australia’s most wanted man, escaped from a jail term of twenty years for armed robberies, and a hot new name on the Interpol fugitive list. What does he want? What does he know?
‘Hmmm. Okay, New Zealand, New Zealand, you must be wanting something for smoke, some lot of beer, some bottles whisky, change money, business girls, good parties. You want to buy something, you tell me, na?’
He snapped the passport back into my hand and left the room, glaring malevolently at Prabaker. The guide cringed away from him in the doorway, cowering and smiling happily at the same time.
‘A great man. A great manager,’ Prabaker gushed, when Anand was gone.
‘You get a lot of New Zealanders here, Prabaker?’
‘Not so many, Mr. Lindsay. Oh, but very fine fellows they are. Laughing, smoking, drinking, having sexes with women, all in the night, and then more laughing, smoking, and drinking.’
‘U-huh. I don’t suppose you’d happen to know where I could get some hashish, Prabaker?’
‘Noooo problem! I can get it one tola, one kilo, ten kilos, even I know where it is a full warehouse …’
‘I don’t need a warehouse full of hash. I just want enough for a smok
‘Just it happens I have it one tola, ten grams, the best Afghan charras, in my pocket. You want to buy?’
‘Two hundred rupees,’ he suggested, hopefully.
I guessed that it was less than half that price. But two hundred rupees—about twelve dollars American, in those years—was one-tenth of the price in Australia. I tossed a packet of tobacco and cigarette papers to him. ‘Okay. Roll up a joint and we’ll try it out. If I like it, I’ll buy it.’
My two roommates were stretched out on their parallel beds. They looked at one another and exchanged similar expressions, raising their foreheads in sedimentary wrinkles and pursing their lips as Prabaker pulled the piece of hashish from his pocket. They stared with fascination and dread while the little guide knelt to make the joint on the dusty surface of the dressing table.
‘Are you sure this is a good idea, man?’
‘Yeah, they could be settin’ us up for a drug bust or somethin’!’
‘I think I feel okay about Prabaker. I don’t think we’ll get busted,’ I replied, unrolling my travel blanket and spreading it out on the bed beneath the long windows. There was a ledge on the window sill, and I began to place my keepsakes, trinkets, and lucky charms there—a black stone given to me by a child in New Zealand, a petrified snail shell one friend had found, and a bracelet of hawk’s claws made by another. I was on the run. I had no home and no country. My bags were filled with things that friends had given me: a huge first-aid kit that they’d pooled their money to buy for me, drawings, poems, shells, feathers. Even the clothes I wore and the boots on my feet were gifts that friends had given me. Every object was significant; in my hunted exile, the windowsill had become my home, and the talismans were my nation.
‘By all means, guys, if you don’t feel safe, take a walk or wait outside for a while. I’ll come and get you, after I have a smoke. It’s just that I promised some friends of mine that if I ever got to India, the first thing I’d do is smoke some hash, and think of them. I mean to keep that promise. Besides, the manager seemed pretty cool about it to me. Is there any problem with smoking a joint here, Prabaker?’