Two or three cows and a few donkeys dressed in worn out woolen sweaters and jeans paced continuously in and out of a slum hut. One donkey missed an ear. A small family of short dark-skinned and clearly underfed people dressed in dirty rags joined them now and then running in and out of the same dwelling. This circuslike freak show unfolded slightly east of my building, on a daily basis and for free.
West of my eyeshot under a busy but crumbling down flyover, people bought and sold bananas, papayas, lauki and bael.
A few hundred yards in front of my apartment complex, the rather gray waters of a supposedly holy river flowed. On both of its shores, crowds gathered around two industrial-looking crematoria. Judging from the smoke their chimneys produced, they were doing excellent business. This river was sacred indeed: it functioned as the recipient of ritual offerings, urine and excrements, prayer, human ashes and the decomposing bodies of those whose families couldn’t afford firewood. During wintertime the early morning fog often fused with the smoke from the ovens and the human ashes. Seen from my apartment, this misty concoction appeared like a long blue ghostlike cloud that haunted our neighborhood.
At the inside of the walled courtyard of my upper-middle class housing colony, well-fed (and a few rather obese) people wearing the latest brands, jogged and exercised, picnicked and held occasional karaoke or bingo nights.
I smoked a lot back then: 60 to 70 cigarettes per day to be precise. I also drank back then: 2 to 3 bottles of wine per day and a cognac or two before bedtime. What a generous time it was. Sitting on my balcony, I’d pour myself a glass, gulped it down, suckled on my cigarette, inhaled, exhaled and just gazed and gazed and gazed. What a salubrious time it was. And I was young, very young. I know because I still masturbated back them: compulsively, of course.
I observed stray garbage, men and women voiding themselves at the shores of the holy river, emaciated dogs barking and running after the many families of feral hogs, street kids playing with debris, cows and water buffalos devouring plastic bags and carton boxes, the jogging wealthy corpulent inhabitants of the country of which I was merely a temporary visitor, and I thought to myself: what a wonderful world.
My appetite is like a sexual orientation. One is born this way. It’s not a lifestyle. I never chose to have this appetite, never cultivated it, and had I been given the choice I would most definitely, however enjoyable, have rejected this birth defect. Like everybody else I’d instead prefer enjoying walks in the park, borrowing books from the library and singing in the bathroom. I have no clue from where or from whom I inherited this talent. My folks are hardworking people who use credit cards to buy stuff and their car to drive to work or to nearby strip-malls for either business or pleasure. They’d never pay in cash or take the bus. Why would they?
Also, back then I only ate meat. I know because I clearly remember that some people, besides pooping, also fished in the holy river. They’d sell their holy catch at the little plaza of the illegally constructed shantytown next door where the dressed up animals circulated. While being sold, the fish squirmed and wriggled and gasped for breath. I never considered buying sacred fish. Why would I? As I said, I used to only eat meat. I still do.
And, whenever I’d leave my apartment for, let’s say, grocery shopping at the mall, I’d pass though the slum. From behind the darkened windows of my air-conditioned taxicab, I’d stare at the saintly fishmongers, the sleeping scabies dogs, I’d watch emaciated men and women eat rice on a banana leaf and I’d observe the trash-stuffed open sewers. Seeing all that, you know what thrilled me the most? That I didn’t feel guilty at all. Why would I?
My favourite shopping mall was called “Fun Republic:” a truly apt name for a joyous place. From the outside, Fun Republic looked as if built of plastic, glass, cement and steel. One of the reasons I loved going there was that it had both a butcher and a bar. The bar was on the top floor. The butcher was on the first floor.
I remember distinctly that I always doubted whether to head first to the bar for a couple of drinks or go to the butcher’s first. Either way was fun. As you can imagine, arriving inebriated at the butcher’s had produced many anecdotes, and these I related at the bar. After all, drinking alcohol, however legal, was considered a sort of taboo in my host country, and my bar fellows often went “Oohhh” and “Aahh” when I told them about my adventures of buying meat at the butcher’s while drunk.
But I equally enjoyed going first to the butcher and then to the rooftop bar. There’s a particular kind of pleasure to be extracted from dragging a big plastic bag stuffed with chopped up dead animals around while enjoying a few tequilas, especially knowing that up to 80 % of my fellow drunkards most probably were vegetarians. In my host country, however legal, eating meat was considered a sort of taboo. Such an ecstatic time it was. And I was young, so young. I know because I was still interested in copulation.
A few days after I began frequenting what would become my favourite bar, a young female journalist committed suicide. The girl jumped from an indoor bridge on the top floor where the bar was. While I was enjoying my sixth or seventh tequila, I remember vaguely that the bartender tried to convince me that the girl wasn’t a regular. “Besides,” he said emphatically, “she was sober.” While he was telling me all that, I remember thinking, wow, this man has a huge head. And why does he have hair sprouting out of his ears?
Slightly tipsy or perhaps flat out drunk and while holding a big plastic bag of meat (I believe some blood was dripping on the floor), I wobbled to the infamously lethal bridge. I wanted to feel how it is to walk around the spot where someone just committed suicide by jumping four floor doors down in such magnificent place as Fun Republic. Imagine you’re trying out new lingerie or enjoying an omelette when suddenly you hear this strange thud. Surely some sort of echo is still dwelling around this bridge, I thought, this much of despair and anguish doesn’t disappear right away.
Pacing back and forth on the bridge with my dripping bag, I believe I did feel something. I think it was a kind pressure, as if the molecules around the bridge wanted me to jump as well.
I quickly returned to the bar because I needed another tequila but the bartender refused to pour me one. An artist, a young man with reddish and unusually long hair, always seemed to be hanging out in this bar the same time I was there. I never saw him drink alcohol or eat meat. Instead he carried around a colourful three-to-four feet tall half-human half-monkey hybrid figurine. He must have been either a saint or a Brahmin mystic. When I asked him that day why no drinks were being served, he told me that the owner wanted to avoid people thinking the girl first drank alcohol and then jumped. Other customers who were drinking lemonades said that no alcohol was served out of respect for the deceased girl. To be very honest, it all irritated me, and I implored the large-headed bartender with the hairy ears to pour me a drink: “please, bro, I’ll pay you double or even quadruple for another tequila.” He looked at me in a sad way, wobbled his head and made a shrieking sound, perhaps saying something in his dialect, I wasn’t sure but decided to leave anyway.
While exiting the mall, still dragging around my dripping bag, I saw the artist again and his apelike figurine. Both were sitting on a stationed Harley Davidson. When I approached him, he suggested going up for drinks.
“But you don’t drink,” I said. “Besides you just said they don’t serve alcohol out of respect for the dead.”
He ignored my remarks. Instead he played with his beautifully long red tresses, smiled and touched the forehead of the statuette.
“What do you have in this big black dripping bag?” he asked next. I didn’t buy meat that day because the butcher shop was closed, so I agreed to go for a drink with him.
At the bar I refused to drink alcohol. “I rarely drink during the day,” I lied. “What about coffee?” he asked. In spite of his long red hair he looked quite sexy in his extremely tight jeans in which his crotch was bulging out. The monkey God and him looked great together. The three of us were sitting on long wooden bar stools facing one another.
“Please, if possible, make me a very strong coffee,” I told the bartender. “I dislike both American and the coffee of this country for the simple reason that neither seems to be caffeinated enough to be called coffee at all,” I told the artist, but he seemed to be looking through me, staring into the middle of nothingness. I used to drink double or triple espressos back then. What a Bourgondian time it was. And I was young, very young. I remember because I still watched a lot of porn.
When my coffee arrived I immediately saw it wasn’t strong. “Through the coffee, one shouldn’t be able the see the inside of the cup!” I yelled. Some unknown-to-me people rapidly brought me extra coffee on a little plate. “Don’t worry,” the artist said. “We’ll brew you a tremendously strong coffee.” He played again with his tresses and smiled. The monkey God smiled as well. His crotch bulged out even more and I caught myself observing it through the corners of my eyes, catching myself think, wow, this young saint sure is dragging a big pair of balls around.
Leaving the bar we crossed Suicide Bridge. I saw that someone had spun a net on one side of the bridge but not on the other. Work in progress? I thought. “Nope,” the artist said. “The net will be spun only on one side.” “Obviously, the bill boards hanging on the other side can’t be removed,” he carried on, and laughed like a maniac. “Besides, the mall received just enough of cash to spin a net only on one side.”
His crotch was still bulging out, but I, most definitely, didn’t have a problem with that. Actually, the whole scene fitted perfectly with the appetite I was born with. Think of it. Suppose you want to die. You can either jump of this bridge and be saved by a net (you still get to scream), or you pick the other side. Having options is always good, they say.
And then it all hit me: the Coca-Cola billboards, the net spun only on one side, the murderous molecules around the bridge, the artist with his bulge and figurine laughing really loud, the fact that the management of Fun Republic bribed government officials to allow them to spin a net only on one side (because they received beaucoup money to hang the Coca-Cola billboards). It all made me realise that there could be no better place for me to further explore my inborn appetite then this city. I was exhilarated and I revelled. I even felt a tickle in my groin.
“What’s going on,” the artist asked, “you’ve turned all red in your face.” “Nothing,” I said, “absolutely nothing. It’s just that I’m experiencing the world being perfect just like it is.” He looked at me with his black eyes so full of melancholy but even more so with this look people have when they don’t understand what is happening and they’re assessing whether they’re in danger or not.
The artist offered to drive me home. We drove through the slum at breakneck speed. The road had more holes than asphalt, but that didn’t seem to surprise anyone. I kissed the artist and the figurine goodbye, entered my apartment and dropped my body on my bed as if it were a lifeless protein bag of bowels and bones. I lit up a smoke, poured myself a shot of tequila and contemplated my appetite. Does it also include telling lies, I wondered.
I experienced my first blatant lie the same day the artist with the bulge dropped me off at my housing colony. One of my secret relationships had called and asked me what I was doing. “I’m writing,” I lied. “In that case,” he said, ”you’re free and available. Let’s meet.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I can’t.” This was the first time I refused to meet and have sex with him, but I had no choice. I had an appointment with someone else I liked very much. That particular secret relationship was extremely jealous and possessive. So I had decided to tell him that I had my period. Completely aware that I was lying, I lied. While lying a strange sensation had welled up inside me. It had to do with me knowing that he as well lied (to his wife) whenever he wanted to meet me. Now both of us were liars and for the same reasons. How salubrious.
He got irritated. “So you can’t have sex while menstruating?” he said in a sarcastic tone, “my wife can.” This statement angered me, and as usual when I got angry, I spoke in the local language and in English at the same time. I would start the beginning of one sentence in English and finished it in Hindi, stuttering. Occasionally an Urdu word would weasel itself into my word salad and decibels. That surprised me, and I analysed my grammatical mistakes while shouting at the phone. Eventually he said, “take care” in English, and hung up. Convinced I wanted to have fun with that someone else I liked very much, I switched off the phone. I have to admit, though, I sure enjoyed lying so deliberately. What a gorgeously religious time it was. And I was young, so young. I know because I still could tell all my lies apart.