Downstairs from my squalid room in the Hotel T.A.P. Silver Square, the amplified BOOM, BOOM from the Fusion Night Club makes the floor shake as though workers with sledges were trying to get at me from beneath.
The club is bearable. I have ear plugs, and the patrons, once outside, are mostly quiet Himalayan exiles in their 20s. Anyway, the noise comes to an end at 11:30, 15 minutes from now, so the women, not all of them escorted by men, can get home safely.
Unready, I say, because Indian grunge seems worse than ever, and I hadn’t expected to be shocked — Shocked, I say! — again. Thirty-eight years ago, my first trip, reeking Bombay’s teems of ragged people, old men dying in the gutters, children offering to sell themselves for pennies, the wealthy seeing none of it and flicking the beggars from their path with a flick of the wrist, gave pause. I retreated to my room and sucked my thumb.
Bangalore is India’s wealthiest city, and my hotel, its inner walls as unwashed as the jagged sidewalks outside, is in the midst of it. A treat of some sort — misery and hopelessness with a sweet center of gold; or a lovely piece of candy that is foul when you bite into it.
In 1975 I met an embittered American woman who had stayed too long with too little money. India, she said, was a cesspool, and it was our future. India’s was the world’s oldest culture, and it was in a downward spiral. We were just slightly higher in the whirlpool…
Today, I had a conversation with Shrinivas Bairagi, a restaurant worker. I mentioned I had seen two policemen step up to a frail news stand vendor and each take a newspaper without paying, snarling at the old man. “They take everything!” he said. “They are very well paid, and they have free houses to live in, but still they take. Not just newspapers but in restaurants, they have a meal and pay nothing.”
I nodded toward the jagged pavement beside us, the electrical wires dangling, the dirt which covers every surface with a crust of filth. He nodded. He was not optimistic about India, he said, and he explained: “They are all corrupt! All of them!”
Those who struggle here are flooded with images of gorgeous, bare-shouldered, glossy-haired women selling this or that, and the flash of modernity, cameras, phones, Ray Ban sunglasses –“Authentic since 1937,” according to the sign — cars… The masses reach for it all, but “they,” the corrupt, grind them down.
Shrinivas, in recovery now because he must save money for marriage, said he had wasted his money on Faceboook and in “cyber cafes. But now, he said, “I spend much less.”
His idols, aside from a famous cricketer, run to Warren Buffet, Bill Gates… men who made themselves “big.”
Altruism, he said, including in himself, but in most everyone, is dead. “And if I wanted to help India,” he said, “to make it better for people, they wouldn’t let me.”
But I am still reeling, and my feelings aren’t to be trusted. India is a friendly country, mostly, and its charm blows over the broken sidewalks: I hear girls laughing together, the Himalayan dancers gathered outside the club in friendly, animated conversation (though they shoo off the beggar children remorselessly), two poor boys walk down a dark side street each with an arm draped over the other’s shoulder. They stop by a pile of trash and one boy, barefoot, tries on a pair of discarded shoes, and in the small” restaurants, the workers have uniforms and an identity.
“I like writers,” Vaseem Akram, manager of Au Bon Pain coffee shop and snack bar, told me, seeing me writing in my notebook. “They take the knowledge which they have in them and express it with the words. They don’t keep it in themselves. They don’t keep it to themselves. They let the world know about that.”
I liked the little beggar girl. She was insistent. I made her go away, and she tossed a sarcasm over her shoulder. It would have been good to talk with her, but give her Rs 20 and she would demand 40; give her 40, and the whole family would make me their own… My fondness for this baffles me, but the night air here could lift a magic carpet.