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

Friday, April 15, 2011

More stories from India: The Chest

I was spending altogether too much time with Shah and neglecting my work, so I began to travel more on my own to the interior of Maharasthra. Nagpur, although as hot as a forge for most of the year, was pleasant for the few months of the winter, scented with orange blossoms during December and January, and far enough away from the coast and metropolitan Bombay to feel like another state. Poona had been an important British military encampment and continued to be so under the Indian Army. It was all very pukka, with trim and well-ordered cantonment areas, whitewashed barracks, brisk dawn parades and marching cavalry, and officers’ clubs where mustachioed Army Majors played snooker.
Poona was only a few hours train ride from Bombay – a day train from Victoria Station up the ghats. After the stifling heat of Bombay, the first breath of cool, fresh air from the hills was exciting, and passengers put their heads out the windows to catch the spray from the cascades that rushed down the narrow rock cuts of the railway. Although most Indians got used to Bombay and the daily assault of the weather – climbing the ghats was like a spiritual pilgrimage. As the train made its way through the steep, banked rock cuts, and the air became cooler, children stopped crying, the nagging went out of women’s voices, and the whole train became a happier, more congenial place.
The Field Officer in charge of Poona District, and my handler on field trips, was Mickey Brito, a Goan dandy with pomaded hair who wore pointy shoes with stacked heels. Mr. Brito had a mission – to explain India to me. “See how our Indian women carry water so gracefully on their heads” he said; or “Come, let us look at the village women drawing water out of the village well”. He babbled incessantly about “our” water buffalo, “our” bazaars, and “our” temples.
One day, he saw me emerging ashen faced from a latrine. For the third time in less than an hour, I had squatted on the footsteps, as contorted as a fakir, whiteknuckling the water pipe in front of me with one hand, pulling the back of my pants away with the other to avoid the hot rice-water I was about to squirt into the pit below. “You had too much of milk”, he said. “Milk is a cold food and not to be mixed with hot food like pumpkin which, I am sorry to say, you ate very much of at midday. You see, hot and cold has nothing to do with temperature. Is milk cold to touch? Of course not. Is pumpkin hot? No indeed. Temperature refers to changes in body which are produced by clash of hot and cold foods.
“You see, as it has been written in Vedas, it is God who controls Man’s destiny, which includes bodily functions; and just as Lord Krishna drank milk from a ewe’s teat, and then fasted until morning, you too must heed hot and cold.”
Mickey Brito sat next to me at official functions, whispering in my ear like a conspiratorial aide. “He is Deputy Assistant Collector”; or “See how pretty are schoolgirls”. He railed at headmasters who had not complied with CARE regulations - half in English for my benefit about “the good of the country, the health of the schoolboys, and the importance of the program” – and half in kitchen Marathi for the benefit of the villagers. Mickey Vegas was an asshole.
The only good thing to come out of my trips with Mickey Brito was an antique sea chest I had bought from a junk dealer friend of his in Nasik. It was early 19th century Gujarati, built of solid oak and fitted with iron hasps, bolts, and chains. It sounded like a medieval dungeon every time I opened it. It was reinforced with studded oak braces, and was a foot-and-a-half thick on all six sides. It was as big as a closet and weighed over 3000 lbs. It was a magnificent piece which had been built to withstand every possible hazard except sinking, and even then, it would have remained intact at the bottom of the Arabian Sea for a century. It had been carried to Mt. Unique by coolie-cart and waited in the alley by the service entrance. The wheels of the cart were splayed at an exaggerated angle, and the broken rods that had held the wheels to the frame of the cart dangled to the ground.
Despite my concerns over the ability of the elevator to handle anything like this load and despite the elevator warning that it would hold no more than than 8 passengers, or approximately 1000 lbs., the coolie boss insisted that it would work - it had to work he said, because there was no way he and his men could possibly haul the chest up sixteen flights of stairs. His job was at stake, he said. He had contracted with the shipper, and if the chest were not delivered, he would not be paid.
So six coolies grappled and fought with the chest, each trying to get a hold of a corner, groaning, straining, struggling to lift the massive thing off the cart. It had been lifted into position by a crane at the port, the boss said, and he had no idea how much it weighed. Six men was obviously not enough. They fought for leverage, for a foothold amidst the garbage, dishwater, and dog shit that had accumulated in the alley, thrown there by the cooks and servants of the over 100 families who lived in the building. There was no waste removal service as such in Bombay. You just tossed everything over the side and let the human scavengers, cows, dogs, rats, crows, vultures, and finally roaches get rid of the mess. It worked quite well, this informal system, but the alley was always slick with slime and residue and it was almost impossible to get a footing.
To make matters worse, every few minutes a stream of water or garbage came flying down 15 stories and splattering on the pavement near the struggling coolies. They were like soldiers trying to push a howitzer into position while being shelled by the enemy. Just as the coolies managed to get a coordinated grip on the chest and began counting down to assure lifting in unison, down came a bucketful of mango pulp and banana skins. The coolies were now sweating like galley slaves, sinews bunched and stretched to the limit on their arms and legs, and their faces were contorted and grimacing.
Finally they managed to get the chest into the elevator. As it was placed carefully as possible in the elevator and the full weight of it settled on the floor, the whole elevator sank a foot, then sprang back, and finally settled into a harmonic rocking. The roof of the elevator buckled where the cables above strained to hold the elevator car from plunging into the basement below. The cables groaned, and somewhere far above in the machinery housing at the top of the elevator shaft, came sounds of shearing metal and stripping gears. The roof of the elevator car pinged and banged as nuts and bolts pulled loose from the housing came sailing down the shaft.
“You better take it out”, I said.
“No, Sahib”, insisted the boss, his shirt soaked with sweat, and his face streaming. “It is most definitely possible. Tata lift is good lift”.
By this time a crowd of street urchins and servants had gathered around. The servants were giving advice, some saying the load would hold, others dramatically pointing downwards. The children laughed each time a bolt came loose and came ricocheting down 16 stories, banging and whining its way down the narrow shaft and finally slamming into the roof of the elevator with the force of a sledge hammer. Passengers waiting in the lobby for the lift began banging on the doors, hollering for us to release the elevator.
At last the button to the 15th floor was pushed, the doors shut, the elevator groaned and started to lift, and the coolies and I ran up to the lobby floor to get a second lift and to meet the chest when it arrived at the top. The two lifts went up together, and the noise in the shaft was incredible. The cables stretched and creaked like rigging on a four-master in a gale. The winch, floors above, screeched as the cable gained and lost traction. The machine engine in the rooftop housing thudded and banged up and down on its foundation, and a smell of hot grease began to fill the car. A sound like bowling balls being dumped on the roof and rolling across the terrace thundered down the elevator shaft.
Surprisingly, the chest made it to the 15th floor, and the process was reversed – fighting for handholds and footholds, the coolies bent and strained, and finally set the chest on its end on the 15th floor landing. I told them they would have to carry the chest one more flight up to the penthouse on the 16th floor. They mopped their streaming faces and panted for breath. “Sahib”, said the boss. “Sahib please take out from inside of chest what is making it so heavy”. I hesitated and replied, “There is nothing in chest. Chest itself is heavy”.
First one coolie then the next sat down on the stairs leading to the penthouse. The last lash of a thousand in the galley of the trireme had fallen. Nothing in the chest. Empty. They had hauled an old, heavy, worthless piece of shit up 15 floors, and there was nothing in it.

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