"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Buffalo Boy

A story from my early days in India in 1968.

“Not more than a week in Bombay, and I met Nailson N., a twitchy Goan in the dope business. His partner was Frankie B., who called himself Zebbede, an English cockney turned hippie who bought Danish pornography, sold it in the Gulf where horny Arabs paid top dollar; changed dinars for gold which he smuggled into India under a Sikh turban; sold the gold for the above-market prices the bangle-crazy Indians were willing to pay; bought opium-laced hashish (Bombay Black) at wholesale prices from Afghani dealers; then consigned it to Nailson who arranged for Chinese packers to secrete it into Hyderabadi bidri work and contracted Goan goondas to take care of Customs and the Kuwaiti ship captains.

When I first met Zebbede he had fulminating paratyphoid which had locked all of his major joints; brucellosis which had caused all his major organs to go pulpy; amoebic dystentery and, according to the story circulating around Breach Candy hospital, his parasite load was higher than ever recorded there. His wife, Zoe, had advanced tuberculosis, was a thin as a wraith, had not had a period in two years, had giardia lambia, worms, and amoebas, but radiated the flushed beauty of La Dame aux Camelias. They had both been on a mango fast for a month, but when Zebbede could not get out of bed one morning, and the landlady threatened to call the police because she wanted no foreigner dying on her property, Zoe paid the landlady’s sweeper and gardener to haul Zebbede to a taxi and help her take him to the hospital. 

Zebbede was a London East Ender who had had few breaks in his life. He had been in trouble with the law much of the time – petty thievery, mostly, but he was on the verge of getting involved in a big heist when he met Zoe who had just been to India. “Paved wif gold”, she said, and together they hatched the three-corner trade scheme.

Radhakumar Shah, an Indian who collected foreigners. One day I was listening to a bhajan at a local Bombay temple when Shah came over to me, told me it was his temple, and invited me to tea. Over chutney sandwiches and buffalo-milk tea, Shah told me that not only did the temple belong to him and his family, but also Shah Auditorium, Shah Stadium, and the Sri Devadas Rajkumar Shah Ladies’ College. I quickly learned that the Shahs, along with a few other Gujarati and Parsi families had built Bombay.

Shah’s father and grandfather had been conservative scions of the Gujarati community. Austere sepia prints of Goculdas Seth Shah, his grandfather, and Morarji Jindal Shah, his great grandfather hung on the walls of his Chowpatty apartment. However, perhaps because it had been at least two generations since any Shah had worked for a living, and whatever connection the Shah had had with the real world simply disappeared. Radhakumar had turned some cultural corner. Shah was an eccentric, collected both exquisite pornographic Moghul miniatures and had a fascination with animal buggery.  His eccentricity, his amazement about anything Western, and his delight in hearing what he considered were ridiculous social habits, were quaint; but there was a simplicity and innocence about him (despite his sexual interests) which made him appealing, and we became friends.

One day Shah confided in me that he turned off the lights to his Breach Candy flat at night and watched the neighbor in the building opposite "do it with dog", a mastiff whose penis was bigger than most men's (Shah had bought a pair of powerful binoculars, although he swore to me that the dog's whang was so big, he could see it with "naked eye").
 
Shah was obsessed by this woman (or her dog) and had to find out whether this unholy conjugal union was done for his benefit; and if so, what could it possibly mean? If she wanted his man-sized dong between her legs, she had a strange way of showing it.

Did she want a menage-a-trois? ("manger-a-trois", Tejpal pronounced it. "Manger, manger", he said. "Like Baby Jesus' manger......sheeps, goats").

"In manger-a-trois what would I do with dog? Or what would dog do with me?", he asked.   "Maybe she just wants ' my stiff ' in her”.

One day Shah happened to run in to this woman - and her giant mastiff – on the street in front of his building. He had the audacity - an audacity which came, I think, from being a Brahmin (the woman was Kshatriya at best; probably Baniyan) - to tell her that he had seen both her and her dog from his window. She stared at him, then broke down crying. He asked if she would like to walk a bit on Chowpatty Beach, and she agreed.

She told him an incredible story. She had grown up in a small village near the U.P. border with Bihar. Her father was a drunken peasant who beat her and her mother. Five of her six brothers and sisters ended up begging in Varanasi, and the eldest sister a prostititute in Calcutta. She was saved from this miserable and benighted life by Shri Anand Gokhale, a wealthy Maratha landlord who had extensive land holdings near Allahabad. Gokhale had seen her, one day, tending sheep in the fields near her village, took pity on this ragged urchin tending two or three equally ragged sheep. He invited her to come with him to his home and work as a servant in his kitchen. She took only a few seconds to decide and got into Gokhale's Ambassador.

Gokhale, it turned out, was a sex maniac - not for little girls, but only for animals. She was forced to watch day after day and night after night as Gokhale fucked, buggered, and sucked off all the farm animals - sheep, goats, horses, dogs......all. She told the transfixed Shah how he used to fuck chickens. He would spread their legs, impale them down on his cock (Shah laughed ever time he told this part of the story), and bury his head in their flapping wing feathers.

Gokhale, despite this shocking and disgusting behavior, was good to her. She had easy jobs in the kitchen, cleaning up after the cook or helping the upstairs servants with the beds. She came to accept the bizarre behavior of her employer - what else could she do? He was such a generous benefactor.

One day, Gokhale asked her if she wanted to "try".

"Try what?", she asked timidly, although she knew quite well what the old man meant.

"Well", he said, "Choice is up to you - woman is different from man. She can only be receptacle. So choice is limited. But good. You want ram? Very auspicious. Ram-ram". Here Shah interrupted to insist that this is where the line must be drawn. Buggery, bestiality are all part of God's infinite universe; but joking about Lord Rama is.........blasphemy.

"Donkey? Goat? Dog?"

The poor girl didn't know what to do. The memories of Gokhale reaming chickens, porking rabbits (predictably, Shah howled at this idiotic play on words), mounting sheep, horses, and donkeys were disgusting. He even acted like an animal, she said, biting the mare's back like a stallion,
rolling his eyes like a bull.

When forced to choose, she picked a dog. Dogs were always friendly, she thought. There were always dogs around her hut in the village, many of which she fed and became her friends. But the dog Gokhale had in mind was something else indeed. This was a big Alsatian, and she was afraid. "Don't be afraid, my little sweet", said Gokhale, as he stroked the dog's schlang.

"Who was his sweet?", asked Tejpal, rhetorically. "Girl or dog?"

To make a long story short, she submitted to Max the Alsatian and........well, you can guess the rest, liked it. Not at first, of course. The dog had foul doggy breath and drooled on her back. His fur was rough and raised welts on her bottom, and she was afraid he would bite; but in the end - so to speak (again Shah guffawing) - dog and girl became friends.

The dog thing became an addiction, the woman told Shah as they completed their round of Chowpatty, something she could not leave, even though the thought of the act itself repulsed her.

"And the open window", asked Shah finally. "Is it for me?"

The woman looked at him quizzically, and replied, "Of course, not my dear. It is for bitch in Flat 678. He is old dog, now, can't get it up like he used to. Poor animal. Someone once told me men think of young girls when they fuck their old wives. Is this true?"
 
Shah winced at the reference to his  crone of a mate, and decided it was time to say good-bye. "I close MY curtains after that", he told me.

From the perspective of my rooftop apartment on Peddar Road, I could see the entire city of Bombay. To the east, the shoreline of the Arabian Sea curved around from Breach Candy, along Chowpatty Beach to Nariman Point where the first new, modern buildings were being built. To the west was Bombay Harbor where both Arabian dhows and commercial freighters were anchored and where power launches left to take visitors to the offshore islands and the Elephanta caves. The Towers of Silence, the burial grounds where Parsi dead were taken to be consumed by vultures, were in a green, lush enclave in the Malabar Hills nearby, and to the north I could see the endless suburbs of Bandra and Deonagar, and finally the outline of the ghats that rose to the Deccan Plateau.

From the perspective of the street Bombay, despite its sweep of beaches, palm trees, and skyscrapers, was a city of dung and horse-sweat, diesel fumes, goats, curry, rotting garbage, and human shit; rickshaw bells, scooters, street peddlers and hawkers, banging pots; cheap sari cloth, and garish Hindi movie posters.
I smoked dope with Nailson and wandered through the Cages, the red-light district where prostitutes, painted like marionettes and dressed like Degas dancers, solicited traffic behind the wooden bars of their electric-blue and -green salons.

Standing by the Gateway of India on the day of my arrival in India, looking out over the Qatari dhows anchored in the harbor and the setting sun on the Arabian Sea beyond, surrounded by holy men, hawkers, and silk-saried women, smelling sweet incense and jasmine, and eating rose-flavored sweets and bhel-puri, I knew I had made the right decision. Within a few months, I was convinced: I had a penthouse apartment overlooking the city and two servants, my office was spacious and opened onto the sea, and I had a Gujarati girlfriend.

A car and driver were at my disposal; membership to the Breach Candy Club, an elegant seaside enclave was inexpensive and easy to arrange; air travel to the Himalayas and the valleys of Kashmir, to Khajuraho, and the beaches of Goa and Kerala was cheap and uncrowded. Every night there were concerts of classical Indian music, and recitals by the masters of the sitar, sarod, veena, and tabla were commonplace. The bazaars, markets, temples, ashrams, rikshas, holy men, Victorian rail stations, cricket fields, and elegant Parsi mansions of Bombay were right outside my door.

LOCAL BOY DOES GOOD said the caption under my picture in the New Britain (Connecticut) Herald, December 18, 1968 in an article about my imminent departure for India and the food relief work I was to undertake. As I considered my good fortune I thought: If this is doing good, I’ll take it.

One day Shah invited me to visit his village in Gujarat. He wanted to visit distant relatives that still lived there and check up on the administration of the large family ashram, but the real reason was to visit the “buffalo boy”, a Peace Corps Volunteer who, despite careful vetting by Washington (the ideal Volunteer, it was said, should be a lot like a Greyhound bus driver: careful, at home with routine, never adventurous, rarely angered, respectful of simple rules), had gone mad. The villagers had found him one morning in a buffalo manger, currying the animals with a corn cob, had recognized his madness, and thereafter treated him as respectfully as a holy man. They gave him buffalo milk to drink, mangoes, and food scraps.

Buffalo Boy had been living in the village for about six months before Shah had heard of him; but he had never gotten around to a visit until almost a year later. He had been curious about the boy because he thought that the boy might in fact be holy; and now that he had discovered the dog lady, he wanted to know what the boy did with the buffalos.

We went to Gujarat by road, a long, hot drive through city, past the ragged, muddy slums out by the airport, through the salt flats, and finally to the town of Thana, not far from the Gujarat border.
Shah insisted that we stop at the New Light of Asia restaurant for lunch. It served “English food”, he said. It did, but it was a sorry, lamentable parody of a Western restaurant. It was a miasma of darkness and sickening smells. Tattered, dusty curtains, hung half off their rods, and there was water-stained, crumpled newspaper stuffed in the rigging to keep out the sun. Flies settled on bits of food and spilled drinks on the tables and buzzed in tall glasses of stale drinks where they had gotten stuck. The dank thick air, circulated through a damp moldy straw tick to cool it, smelled of roach spray. The waiters’ white coats were smeared with old, yellowing curry; the seat of their pants black from where they had continually wiped their hands. The food was served in grimy, chipped plates – a few bits of chicken-like pieces swimming in a greasy gruel; gritty rice with chips of stone and gravel; and stiff, leathery chapatthis. The New Light of Asia was not just a bad Indian restaurant; it was the bad Indian restaurant.

To Shah’s disappointment, Buffalo Boy was as mad as a hatter. When we went into the animal shed, he started bellowing. He was totally naked, and hair was tangled and matted with buffalo shit. He crawled around the shed on all fours under the buffalo tethered there, and they started bellowing, swinging their heads, flinging slimy strands of spit around the room.

“This boy is not holy”, said Shah. “He is cuckoo. We must remove him from village”

The next morning Shah called the Peace Corps who were very happy to know where he was. Buffalo Boy’s parents were Washington lawyers who in addition to being disconsolate over their missing son, they were in a very litigious mood and had threated to sue the entire State Department. Therefore when the Chevrolet truck pulled into the village, it was carrying not only the head of the Peace Corps who had flown to Ahmedabad from Delhi, but the American Consul from Bombay, and the Peace Corps doctor. The only way they could coax him out of the grange was to truss him up like a rodeo steer. They threw him in the Jeep where he bellowed and slathered, his eyes wide and rolling, pissing and shitting all over the back seat.

What amazed them most was not the horrible spectacle of Buffalo Boy grunting and mooing in the animal shed; it was the fact that the villagers thought that this idiot was holy. “One fucked up country”, said the Consul.

They all lived in the American Compound, a walled enclave of modern housing, up-to-date diswashers, washer-dryers, electric ovens, central air conditioning, its own power and water supply, baseball and softball fields, bowling alley, schools, restaurants, bars, social clubs and the American Commissary - a supermarket of Walmart proportions. Leaving the Compound meant watching Indians shit on the side of the roads, naked children take a piss on on dusty patches of ground in front of their rag huts, avoiding mangy rabid dogs picking garbage from gutters and blind beggars holding one-armed babies.

“He is the one fucked up”, said Shah referring to the Consul. “Motherfucker wery fucked up.”
“We may need you as witnesses”, the Consul said, “in case the boy’s parents want us to initiate any proceedings against………..”

Here he paused, and looked around the dusty village. It was late May, just before the monsoon. Everything was parched and dry. An old woman sat on the ground in the shade of a mango tree with a few shrivelled carrots and a fly-covered liver displayed on a stained cloth in front of her. As the sun had moved higher, a mangy dog moved from one place in the dust to another. Villagers stood around the truck gawking at Buffalo Boy who had smushed his face up against the back window and was making faces at them.

“Forget it”, said the Consul.

Mr. and Mrs. Harold W. Martin, the parents of Buffalo Boy, had done very little travelling in their life. They were both from London, Ohio, a small farming community near Kentucky, had gone to Ohio State for both undergraduate and law school degrees, and had married soon after graduation. After working in Ohio – she as an attorney for the the Ohio State Power Commission and he for the State Labor Department - they took jobs in Washington, DC. He moved up in the Labor Department and she stayed in the power sector, but moved to a private law firm which litigated on behalf of newly privatized power companies.

All their work had been domestic, their travel in the early days when their children were young to visit the grandparents in Ohio; later the took short winter vacations to Florida; and only in their middle-aged years had they ventured outside of the United States joining Ohio State alumni tours to France, Italy, and Germany.
After their son, David, had graduated from Ohio Wesleyan, where he had not done particularly well, he joined the Peace Corps. His parents, if not enthusiastic, were supportive. David would surely find himself in the Peace Corps, and then could return to the United States to study the law.

During the first six months of his two year tour in India, David’s letters had been enthusiastic. The Peace Corps was wonderful, he loved his village, he was making progress in establishing chicken farming, and India itself was endlessly fascinating. For the next three months, the letters dwindled to almost nothing. In the first of only two letters during the third month, he spoke only of “the river’s insults” in a kind of parable that described a river’s meanderings and associated it with modern culture, but other than that, his musings were indecipherable. His last letter enclosed a piece of cow dung wrapped in string. A small scrap of paper said: “Fuck the river”.

When Mr. and Mrs. Martin received this letter, they immediately called the Peace Corps who insisted that David was fine; a lot of young people forgot to write their parents in the first flush of the Peace Corps experience; there was nothing at all to worry about.

In fact, the Peace Corps didn’t have a clue as to where David, now Buffalo Boy to the villagers of Shahnagar, was. They simply lied to the parents, figuring that the boy would turn up within a few weeks – it wasn’t unusual for Peace Corps Volunteers in those days to take weeks of informal study tours within India without informing headquarters – and if he didn’t, they would begin to search. They were sure that the boy was visiting a Peace Corps friend in some part of India, and he would turn up soon.

When Buffalo Boy did not turn up, either by himself or after a thorough canvassing of all 278 Volunteers in the country, they began to worry. They still did not want to alarm his parents, and continued to tell them that they were sure David was visiting friends in Goa or Madras – in fact he had a girlfriend there. Not to worry.
Finally, Mr. Martin said, over an international connection that faded in and out, “Find my son or I’ll sue your fucking ass to Timbuktu”. This was followed by threatening letters by Martin’s lawyers, copied to Peace Corps Headquarters in Washington, the State Department, and the American Ambassador in Delhi. Despite the litigious threats, the Martins were obviously concerned.

While all this was happening, Buffalo Boy had become part of Shahnagar. When he arrived, after a 12 hour walk from his village in Maharashtra, the villagers thought that he was just a hippy, and they left him lying under the big mango tree near the Panchayat office. Only when he came up to Shri Deshpande’s bungalow and Deshpande and his brothers saw his crazy eyes and matted hair did they realize that this was not a hippy, but a holy man. When they saw his neckless of cow dung pieces wrapped in string, they were convinced.
It was the tradition in India to care for wandering sadhus or holy men. Many villages have them, and the sight of these near naked, stringy men, in matted hair, smeared with ashes and painted with the emblems of Siva or Vishnu, was common.

They were even more in awe of Buffalo Boy when he chose the animal shed as his resting place. Someone in the village had heard the story of Bethlehem story and word got around that Buffalo Boy might be an incarnation of Jesus Christ.

After a month’s searching, the Peace Corps had to admit that David Martin was officially missing, and they so informed his parents, who were on standby to come to India at a moment’s notice.

If it hadn’t been for Shah and his feudal visit, Buffalo Boy might not have been found for months. Word of the village’s holy visitor was filtering out, however, despite the villagers desire to keep Buffalo Boy to themselves, and someone would have called the authorities eventually; but you never knew what Indians would do.
It took some doing to figure out that this was an American, first of all, since when we found him, he was just bellowing and lowing. He could have been American or equally Dutch, German, or English.

“Listen carefully to him”, Shah said to me as Buffalo boy bayed in the night. “You are American. Americans know each other. Is he from your country? Even in bellowing of buffalo there may be some telltale accent”. I suspected he was an American – only the Peace Corps had young people deployed widely in the country, but I could not be sure. There was only one telephone in the village, and getting a line through to Bombay was difficult. After five calls over two days to get through, I finally got the Peace Corps, but they said that my description did not seem to match anything they knew about David Martin. Only inadvertently did I mention the dung necklace, but the connection was made, and the mission to rescue Buffalo Boy was dispatched.
In the meantime Shah had been talking to the villagers who did not want anyone to take away their holy man. “The villagers are worried that if Peace Corps finds out that Buffalo Boy may be Jesus Christ, they will surely take him. I told them that Buffalo Boy is not holy, only batty, but they are not listening”.

The next day when we woke up and went to the Panchayat Office, everyone was suspiciously quiet. “They have taken him, I am sure”, said Shah, and went we went to check, the animal shed was empty.
The villagers had not gotten more than a mile out of Shahnagar, when Buffalo Boy bolted and jumped in an irrigation ditch where water buffalo were getting cooled down by two young boys. The boys, startled and then frightened by this wild foreigner jumping over them into the water, ran up the hill. The buffalo, now untended and frightened by the Buffalo Boy’s thrashing and moaning, lumbered out of the ditch and started in a slow gallop along the rode. The villagers ran over to Buffalo Boy, and decided to tether him. If he believed he was a buffalo, they reasoned, he would not resist the tether.

If it hadn’t been for an Army jeep from the nearby cantonment passing by, the villagers might have made it to their proposed hideout – little known caves in the cliffs in the lower ghats; but when the Lieutenant saw ten villagers walking along the road with a tall, wild-looking foreigner on a buffalo tether, they stopped.
Without much conviction they told the villagers that Buffalo Boy must be mad, that they should return to the village, clean him up and report him to the proper authorities.

By the time the Peace Corps arrived, the villagers had put Buffalo Boy back in the animal shed. Although Shah had not been able to convince them that he was not holy, but just batty, he was able to convince them that the full weight of the American government would be brought to bear on the village if he were not returned. No lift irrigation scheme promised by Children are Precious. No Green Revolution rice. No nothing.
The trip back to Bombay in the Peace Corps vehicle was hell. The Peace Corps had no way of knowing what to expect. I didn’t tell them to bring a cattle car for the boy; I just helped to identify them; so they had brought no restraints, nor any sedatives. One of those K-9 fences for the luggage space would have been better than nothing; for as it was, the Consul and the Embassy lawyer had to share the back seat with him. Although the villagers had tried to clean him up and give him a clean kurta pijama, they could do nothing about his matted hair which smelled of buffalo piss, stagnant ditch water, and shit.

The problem was what to do with him when they got him back to Bombay. The Martins had taken the first plane to India when they got the word that their son was located, and were now waiting in the American Embassy. The Consul had a good idea: “Why don’t we take him in the back way, get him to the infirmary, and knock him out with Demerol. We can clean him up, give him a haircut, and then let his parents see him while he’s out. Buy us some time to get our shrink to talk to him, maybe limit our losses. Stall the parents. What the fuck. Buffalo Boy is over 21.”

Mr. and Mrs. Martin remained still and ashen on the early morning trip back from Bombay airport. These were the days before highway beautification schemes in the United States had begun, let alone India, and the road went for miles past ragged lean-tos; past the potters’ colony – a low-caste slum smelling of shit and rancid goat; past naked children pissing in open sewers; past hundreds of Indians silhouetted in the pale light squatting to take a shit. The smells of dung and horse-sweat, diesel fumes, goats, curry, rotting garbage, and human shit were overpowering.

We passed slow trains so overcrowded that people were hanging off the sides and riding on the roof. There were passengers on every inch of the hard, wood benches; there were children on the lap of every person on those benches. Improvised hammocks were slung across the car from one side to the other, and babies swung and lurched a few feet above the heads of the passengers. Boxes, bundles, sacks, and suitcases were piled everywhere. Mothers held their babies out the window to shit. Passengers downwind had shut their windows, and streams of piss and rice water smeared the glass half-way down the car. Every window was a disgusting mess of flecks of spinach, bits of corn and a long, yellowish smears.

There were people shitting in gutters, in dumps, on street-corners, on railway tracks, in open lots, in alleys. Naked kids shat on dusty patches of dirt in front of their huts while chickens pecked at their turds. Women, only somewhat more discrete, shat in the shadows, behind walls, beyond a thatch of palm fronds.
“How are you liking India?”, asked Shah, oblivious to Mrs. Martin’s grief and desperation. As he spoke to her, Mrs. Martin reached for the window handle. “I don’t know whether to roll it up or down”, she said.
To the shit and goat smells had been added the smoke of dung fires and the stench of the tidal flats just beyond the sea wall. The oozing muck of low tide, a thick slime of raw sewage and mud, was swarming with flies. Rats crawled out on greenish, sodden, rotting planks exposed by the low tide to pick at dead fish.
Mr. Martin put his arm around his wife. “Don’t worry, dear”, he said. “It will be over soon. Mr. Shah is taking us to a five star hotel”. Mrs. Martin sighed. Her blouse was stained with sweat; her face was greasy and smeared with perspiration, road dust, and black diesel exhaust. She looked terrible.

Finally, as we approached the turn-off to Juhu Beach, the tall apartment buildings of Bombay could be seen across the harbor. The road changed visibly as we entered the city limits. Shops and tea stalls appeared and palm trees shaded increasingly substantial dwellings. “At last”, said Mrs. Martin; but her happy mood was shortlived, for soon the streets became more and more crowded with bicycles, rickshaws, and bullock carts. The noise grew louder as the suburbs gave way to the crowded neighborhoods of Bandra, Gurgaon, and Borivli. The noise of street peddlers and hawkers, motor scooters, cow bells, and thousands of people banging pots, pounding spices, breaking rocks, or just shuffling their way through the crowds became unbearable. The garish colors of cheap sari cloth, movie posters, banners, ribbons, in glare of the now hot sun and stifling air became blinding and sickening.

Mrs. Martin’s face was now a very pasty color. Traffic barely moved. It was suffocating in the Ambassador. “Oh, God”, Mrs. Martin sighed; but Tejpal continued to rattle on. “There is Shah Textile Mills”, he said, pointing to the red brick building built on two city blocks, “and there is Shah Foundry. My great grandfather, Mohan Seth Shah, built both in British days.“

The Taj Mahal Hotel, a wonderful Victorian Palace built for the visit of George III and kept in immaculate condition – polished brass fittings, rosewood floors and stairs, burnished mahogany railings, Persian, Afghani, and Kashmiri carpets; potted palms in shiny brass planters, and cane furniture – must have seemed like Xanadu to Mr. and Mrs. Martin. Sweat-stained, grimy, and defeated by the trip in from the airport, the Martins were greeted by liveried, turbanned Sikhs, regal in white coat, red sash, puttees, and ornamental swords. They were fawned over by desk clerks, bell hops, and floorwalkers. “Welcome, Mr. and Mrs. Martin”, they all said. “Welcome to India”.

Maybe India wasn’t so bad after all, Mrs. Martin thought. By the time she lay down on the broad canopied bed, let her head sink into the down pillows, and felt the soft breeze of the ceiling fan, she had forgotten Gurgaon and Borivli. “I can’t wait to see David”, she said to Shah.

David, however, had escaped through back window of the Peace Corps infirmary. The infirmary was primarily used as a holding station for volunteers who had come down with amoebic dysentery, hepatitis, or typhoid; and they were too sick to even turn over let alone climb through the window and into the back alley below. Apparently the Peace Corps doctor had underestimated the virulence of Buffalo Boy’s madness, and the conservative dose of sedative that he had given him wore off in just a few hours. All that remained in the infirmary room were Buffalo Boy’s pajamas. He had left the infirmary exactly as he had come in – naked and wild-eyed.

The Peace Corps called a emergency council – the Director of the Peace Corps, the American Consul, the Consulate’s chief attorney, and Shah. Although the Americans had instinctively ruled out any Indian in their deliberations, they were finally persuaded by a deputy that if Buffalo Boy had gone back to the village, Shah was the only one who might persuade them to give him up. “Remember”, he said, “the villagers think he is Jesus Christ”.

They had to tell the Martins, of course, what had happened, and no sooner had poor Mrs. Martin gotten used to the linen sheets and hot water of the Taj then she was again back in the streets of Bombay. “Oh dear”, she said. “What will we do?”

“You will do nothing”, said Shah who eagerly agreed to take charge of Mrs. Martin. “I will do everything. I know where your son is at this very minute, and it is my duty to find him. Never fear”.

The Peace Corps did not describe Buffalo Boy’s disappearance as an escape; not even an unexplained absence. “He apparently has gone to visit friends in the city”, the Martins were told. Although he had not left a note, they were sure he would be back by the end of the day. Mr. Shah would take them back to the Taj where they could keep cool and rest up for the happy reunion in the evening.

“Somebody surely will notice him before he gets too far”, said the lawyer. After all, there are not that many foreigners here”.

True as far as it went; but what the recently-arrived Mr. Levenson did not realize was that foreigners already walked around naked. What about the German hippies in Goa, who wandered around naked except for a thong up their crack and a leather pouch for their balls?

“No”, said Shah. “They are definitely not noticing. We must find him”.

It would take him at least a week to arrive in Shahnagar – if he arrived in Shahnagar. He wasn’t a dog, after all, and couldn’t sniff his way back; and did he even know the name of the village? He might wander for months without anyone taking notice.

After Buffalo Boy had escaped from the Peace Corps infirmary, he wandered down Breach Candy Road to Chowpatty Beach where a young boy was cooling his buffalo down in the water. It was not uncommon for buffalo to wander through residential communities, and although Bombay was now a very densely-populated city, there were still broad maidans, grassy median strips, and untended gardens, and buffalo could graze there before being herded to the Muslim slaughterhouses near Juhu. Buffalo Boy mooed, grunted, and slathered when he saw the buffalo. He smeared himself with dung, made himself a crown of seaweed, and picked up an old piece of bamboo that had floated in with the tide to use as a cane.

After hearing of Buffalo Boy’s first hours on the streets of Bombay, pieced together from a variety of accounts (Indians were quite forthcoming about Buffalo Boy after they heard that he was a foreigner, but not before), the Peace Corps psychiatrist thought that the little care he had given him must have worked, because he was walking on two legs, not down on all fours like they had found him in Shahnagar.

It turned out that the boy, Mohan Das, was a Gujarati like Shah, albeit a lower-caste one. His family had come from Makkargunj, a village not far from Shahnagar in the same district. The fact that the boy was a Gujarati was not much of a coincidence. Bombay was built by Gujaratis and Parsis. There were tens of thousands of them in the city. What was remarkable was that Mohan Das was from the same district as Shahnagar. Just like Italians from Sorrento all clustered in New Haven, where my parents were from, Gujaratis from Bharatpur District all settled in Gurgaon where Mohan Das lived.

Mohan Das, had not heard of Buffalo Boy when he wandered up and started mooing at his buffalo, but like most Indians in Bombay or Calcutta who were used to naked sadhus walking on their thoroughfares, paid little attention to this obviously holy man. The fact that he was a foreigner did not register on Mohan Das. If he noticed that Buffalo Boy was not Indian, it was totally irrelevant and inconsequential. He was a sadhu, and Mohan Das has been brought up to respect them.

Only three days later, when he arrived back in this Gurgaon community – the half-way point to the abbatoirs in Juhu - was he told who was accompanying him and the buffalo. Not only had Buffalo Boy’s reputation spread to Bombay, it had now gained in lustre and importance. God had seen to it that Buffalo Boy/Jesus Christ was reunited with the people of Shahnagar

The Gujaratis of Gurgaon brought Buffalo Boy back to Shahnagar where he had a tearful reunion with the villagers. He was so happy to see his buffalo friends that the mooing and slobbering went on into the night, and the next morning the village panchayat arranged a simple ceremony to celebrate his return. Shahnagars were all Vishnavites, and a painted statue of Lord Vishnu was placed on a pedestal in front of Buffalo Boy’s manger, garlanded with flowers, anoited with ghee, and given offerings of bananas, coconut, and betel nut.
Shah knew that a string of “coincidences” would unwind, and that Buffalo Boy would end up back in Shahnagar. He was only surprised at how fast. “God is usually not so quick in his work”, Shah noted, “but who are we to question?”.

Although the villagers were now most reluctant to let Buffalo Boy go again, Shahnagar was not a rich community, and the offer of Mr. and Mrs. Martin to pay for a lift irrigation scheme salved whatever religious regret they may have had. They left a large picture of their son in the village, and Shah told me years later that it still was enshrined in a grotto that stood nearby the place where the old manger had stood. Ironically the manger had to be torn down because the most productive place to dig for water, Indian hydrologists determined, was in the precise spot where Buffalo Boy had lived.”

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic short account of what India can be ... is ... and multiplied by a thousand. I spent much time in India in the 70's. India to me was a microcosm of the Universe. I shared the GOA drug dealing, Sadhus, gangster-ism days of Delhi/Mumbai (then Bombay) though I missed the India sexual liberalism (perversion?) world. I was always convinced that India mirrored ALL humanity!
    Thanks for the great story :)

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