Monday, June 06, 2005

De profundis

India, combined with my abundant stupidity, can make for an interesting day.

After a couple of hours scrawling postcards and aerogrammes for family and friends, I headed out into the scorching heat of Mamallapuram in search of shade, sea breeze, a quiet spot to finish my novel. My path took me through seventh century carvings of the Pallava dynasty to a tranquil, deserted temple cut into a towering monolith of granite. Hanuman monkeys were my only companions, going about their business in the branches of enormous neem trees. Few people passed my way, and I was left to enjoy the final chapters of my book, now and then pausing to look up and exchange a few words with various characters - sellers of cucumbers, mangoes, beads and trinkets.

Novel finished, I walked slowly down the sloping rockface and headed towards the bus stand, stopping at a drink stall-cum-stationery shop to purchase new pens. Here I made the error of placing my notebook and digital camera on a pile of books to my right while browsing among journals and text pads. Transaction completed, and of course, camera no-where to be seen.
Disappointed? Yes. Four hundred irreplaceable shots from the previous 1200 kilometres of towns and cities: the beaches of Goa, the teeming crowds of Bangalore, markets in Chennai and the numerous temples, carvings and people of Mamallapuram. Gone.

I sighed. It was 40 degrees. Under my synthetic shirt a sweat-soaked singlet clung to my skin. Flying insects were at their most manic and dust clogged my mouth, nose, nostrils. Judging the looks of those around me, I believe I entered a type of trance - foaming at the mouth, incoherent babbling, eyes rolled back until only whites showed in the sockets. Possessed by neither demon nor deity, indeed, possessing only the maximum amount of idiocy ever doled out to an individual, I couldn't accept that I had allowed Robbery No. 2 on this journey to take place.

I have travelled enough to avoid this kind of thing. My ineptitude today was suddenly making the contestants of Big Brother appear as interesting, sentient beings.

I expelled the demons and tried to make it clear to the concerned onlookers I blamed no-one for the incident. This is a very small neighbourhood and many of the town's inhabitants know me either by sight or name, in particular those with businesses around the vicinity of the bus stand. My thrice daily glass of rose milk and cigarette purchases are with Krishna on the southern end of the square, I drink chai with Praveen and his avuncular mates next door, eat my daily fill from the inappropriately named Hotel Deluxe. Rickshaw drivers have established a love-hate relationship with me, and from between their parked vehicles I buy luscious diesel-infused mangoes from a toothless sari-clad crone each morning.

Until now, I was certain the only thing they knew about me was my age and my unmarried status. It wouldn't take long until they knew the story of the disappearing camera. I didn't want them to think me mid-thirties, unmarried ... and stupid. And I have no intention of reversing my hereto successful integration programme. I was relieved when the shop owner himself suggested I take my grievance to the police.

Law enforcement officers of the third world are reputed to be corrupt and ineffectual, brutally wielding their batons over the impoverished mass. I wasn't quite ready to face Indian bureaucracy at this hour and so sat under the rattling ceiling fans of the Hotel Deluxe and ate my biryani silently. A masochist at heart, I spent twenty minutes ruminating over the sad collection of chapters that constitute the book of my life. Eventually aroused from this unproductive self-indulgence by a goat, I paused to wonder if he would be on the tomorrow's menu, paid for lunch, and headed 500 metres north.

A large man with a respectfully sized paunch interrupted his text message to inquire. I briefly recounted a few facts; he wobbled his head from side to side in the Indian manner, and after a pregnant pause, instructed me to enter the building.

The station was dark and cavernous. It took a few moments to adjust my eyes. A blackboard attached to the wall of the entrance hall enumerated the yearly failures and successes of the Mamallapuram District Police Force. Murder on the wane since 1996, traffic infringements increasing. Armed robbery seems frightfully common in such a small, peaceful district. It was only as I scanned the 'Percentage of Stolen Goods Recovered' column that I came to the notice of a man laying on a wooden bench, his enormous bushy moustache meeting his thick black glass frames - think Mr Pickwick cross-dressing with Buddy Holly.


'I need to report a stolen camera.'


I explained what I could without breaking into broken English. During the story he lay there, silent and immobile. Like a parent recounting a Grimm Brothers' tale, I wondered whether the layabout had actually gone to sleep. Still now I remain unsure, as it was another voice from behind the desk who commanded, 'Sit.'

Where? There were no other chairs around except that in the lock-up cell, presumably locked. I didn't fancy sharing the bench with Slumbering Walrus Man. I did, however, think about sitting on his head. Resigned to standing, I gave full attention to a man who seemed rather too occupied for my liking with carbon paper and small red rubber bands. I watched forlornly as trickles of sweat raced down Mr Perumal's temples, seeping into the dampness of his grimy shirt collar.
Grime was the theme of the station's inner sanctum. Walls were lined with rusty metal and shabbily-fabricated wooden shelves, brackets and joints straining under the weight of bulky, tattered ledgers. Spines and covers frayed and darkened by the handling of countless grubby hands. The concrete floor was home to burgeoning flotsam and jetsam left behind by ten thousand footsteps. Skirting boards black, and dirt working its way up, lighter now, until meeting the chipped and flaking whitewash of the walls. A collection of ham radios, amplifiers and tuners nestled beneath a bird's nest of wiring and slurry of dust.

'I need to report a stolen camera.'

'Come back 5:30. You see Inspector.'

And at 5:30,

'Come back 6:30. Inspector not here. Too much troubles today.'

At 6:45 the Inspector of Police was barking down his mobile. He was a tall imposing man with dyed hair, a toothbrush moustache and too many gold rings on sausage fingers. He didn't look like the south Indian type - his skin was too light and he seemed too arrogant. He tapped his enormous paunch while looking over his frameless spectacles and down his nose at me. I decided to hate him straight away; I thought it would save time.

He barked, 'Inside.'

He followed and directed me to his office, brightly over-lit by fluorescence that turned the space into a sea of pastel. In the luminosity his skin took on the hue of damp mushroom. His face was slightly marked from the pox and a line of sweat beads danced on his moustache which now looked pencilled on. He was the archetype Indian police officer, and I'd already encountered him in a hundred Bollywood movies while being shunted around the country on night buses.
'If you lose your camera, you should not leave it around.' His wisdom had me enthralled. I decided not to comment on his abuses of conditional phrases in the English language, and waited for him to continue. He didn't seem to be awaiting a response from me.

And I got Hamlet's Polonius.

On and on he went, a great rambling monologue. In a life absent of positive male role models, this was not one of the species I would be looking up to either. From the obvious 'You should not be leaving your items alone', to the more surreal 'If not coming from the thief, then where?', to the ridiculous 'I am thinking you not having the camera here', my mouth was agape.
He had received the story of my woes second-hand from a flunkey, but I hadn't been allowed to speak.

I wanted to yell,' Listen here you trumped-up, pig-eyed sack of shit. You might think yourself important among this band of illiterate ill-kempt subordinates who undoubtedly grovel at your feet each time you bellow some preposterously ludicrous turn of phrase, but personally, I couldn't give a flying turd.'

But managed to utter that I needed a report.

He shouted something in Tamil and a young, smartly dressed officer appeared.

'Go.' Our conversation had come to a close.

Out in the street, I discovered that Detective Rajuman spoke little English. With my complete lack of Tamil, we headed in silence to the scene of the crime. Towards the end of Raja St, I pointed out the shop where my camera had disappeared.

I felt bad. I didn't want the Detective to interrogate innocent people. I just wanted a report to make a valid insurance claim. He interviewed every one at the scene, even those absent at three thirty that afternoon. The shopkeeper, salesman, neighbouring shopkeeper and a suspicious, malodorous herd of goats were all questioned in turn. Voices rose and fell. I floundered. Not once was I asked to speak, and in true Indian fashion, a crowd formed, faces turning sporadically to impress upon me the disturbance I had created.

I had given my contact details to the shop owner as soon as I learnt of the camera's disappearance. This was now produced for examination. The crowd regrouped, more tightly this time, and I imagined amongst the throng a graphologist had metamorphosed and my poor handwriting was betraying me as a lying upstart. Nope. After roughing up the sales boy, the Detective had had enough. We returned to the station.

I sat in the Inspector's office waiting for more illuminating tripe to spew forth.

'The shopkeeper is telling me that you didn't have a camera.' [Quelle goddamn surprise]

'Yes I am having one.'

'You will petition me...' [wait for it] '... You are writing all facts, camera, name, details. You write that you leave shop. When you coming back, camera is gone.'

'Petition me.' Who do you think you are? The Mughal Emperor?

Truth. Justice. The Indian Way.

Sadly, this is not a joke. As the possibility of a valid insurance claim leapt to its untimely death, I adopted my role in the farce and fled to an Internet cafe, set upon writing the truth imbued with a massive fat lie. At least the Inspector could now downgrade the incident from one of 'stolen property' to 'valuables left unattended in a public place'. I wondered briefly if the shop owner was in cahoots with the pigs, but know now through our learned friends of 'The monk who sold his Ferrari' that I cannot allow myself even just one negative thought. It would take napalm to eradicate these ones ...

Presently I returned, and at some unforeseen moment passed from the natural, ordered world into the nebulous ether of illogical malevolence and mystical nonsense. I played the role avec brillo.

The Inspector was done with me. I shunted Sleeping Walrus from the bench. He awoke with a start, saw the wild look in the crazy foreigner's eye, and slunk away, deprived of his government-sanctioned sleep. In his place came another menial, toothless and in homespun cotton. He took my statement, and for fifteen minutes was a captive audience to my six lines of skillfully composed English, no doubt admiring gravity of tone and clarity of thought. At least someone appreciates my writing.

I looked about. All this paper. IT files, GC.K.CD files. Arms and Records Register, the Duty Register. The Village Roster and Government Property Register. Group Office and Visiting and Inspection Book. Gun License and Registration Books, Arms Deposit Ledger. Arms Distribution Ledger. The paperless office in the subcontinent is still some years away. As is a society without guns.

Then solemnly, 'Your good name?'


'Your good name?'

My good name is twice written on the paper you hold now, the very one which I am about to snatch from your good hands and cram into your goddamn throat until you meet your next reincarnation, buddy.

'James Heywood.'

'Your country?'

And on it went. The following minutes were tinged with violent thoughts, primarily because I had long ago met Blind Rage and was now glancing flirtatiously at her cousin, Psychotic Behaviour. I lost myself in this hot, stinking, filthy place, let it engulf me. I immersed in the subcontinental concoction of the absurd, the illogical, the meaninglessness of it all.
Question and answer time over, Mr No Teeth & White Pants handed me form number 23 stamped by the Sub Inspector of Police, E1 Mamallapuram P.S. I have to return tomorrow to collect the official certificate.

As I walked back to the entrance I took a parting glance at the blackboard brimming with statistics. The percentage of 'Recovered Stolen Property' was low in any given year. And the chance of leaving this country with my sanity appeared slimmer yet.
I exited the building and passed Inspector and Detective Rajuman smoking in the dusty courtyard.

'Thanks for your help, guys' I uttered without a second thought.

I moved slowly back to my hotel room, shuffling in my ill-fitting sandals, hoping to regain my sanity.

Unfortunately, along with my camera, it appears to have absconded permanently.

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