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

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


Ajax and Circe were English hippies who had developed an ingenious three-cornered trade.  They bought Danish pornography in Denmark, smuggled it into the Gulf States and sold it at ten times the European price. They converted their profits into gold which they smuggled into India to sell at prices which were higher than the international market rate.  At the time, the late Sixties, Indians still didn’t trust banks, and whatever wealth they had was in gold bracelets, nose rings, necklaces, and baubles.   Ajax and Circe had done a precise market analysis and concluded that horny, flesh-starved Arabs, and gold-hungry Indians would be ideal customers.

Ajax dressed like a Sikh sadhu, long hair piled high on his head covered by a red turban.  He wore simple home-spun white cotton kurtas and pajamas accessorized with a string of tulsi beads, an amulet carved with the image of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, and a love-bracelet worn also by his soul mate, Circe.  In his hair was concealed the gold bought in the Gulf.

My wife and I opened our house, and took in most comers. Although we both had sane and conservative jobs with international agencies, the counterculture menagerie that we collected was our concession to the times. When Ajax and Circe arrived at the house, a single-family residence in one of the nicest and oldest colonies in New Delhi, they told us they had been on a mango fast for three weeks.  They both had been sick, but the mangos were cleansing their system of disease, and they soon would be well.  Circe was tall and wraith-like.  Her eyes were wide and blankly staring out of a flushed face.  She moved like a sylph, gliding rather than walking, had a beatific smile, and a beautiful aquiline nose. 

Ajax was small, wiry, and twitchy.  His eyes darted from me to the bronze figurine on the hall table, to the silver spoons on the Gujarati chest.  He had the look of a petty thief casing the premises.  He had a thick cockney accent, his name was not Ajax, but Frankie Basher; and he came from an East London housing estate.  Circe was not his girlfriend’s name either, but from her accent she was born and brought up far from the Dickensian life that poked out every now and again from Ajax' affected Eastern demeanor.  In fact, Frankie not only looked like a petty thief, he had been one, and he and his estate-mates had stolen the seed money to get him going on his three-cornered journey.

Circe’s rosy, peaches-and-cream complexion had nothing to do with the bloom of English youth but was the roseate flush of La Dame aux Camelias, Dumas’s consumptive heroine who dies an operatic death; and part of Ajax’ twitchiness came from his frozen knee joints.  He could only stumble around like Boris Karloff, grabbing spastically at tables and chairs in order to keep upright.  We asked if we could arrange a doctor for them, but they refused.  The mango fast’s purgative effects would kick in soon enough, they said, and they would be fine.

They of course did not get better, but worse.  Circe lost even more of the little weight that she had, her eyes were feverish and ethereal, and her graceful ballroom gliding became more and more unsteady.  Ajax was confined to bed – the straw pallet that he insisted on – and he only left it to crawl his way to the furniture to haul himself painfully up and over to the toilet.

“I don’t want them dying here”, my wife said somewhat unkindly but correctly.  “If you don’t go to a doctor, you’ll have to leave”.  The other hippies in the house – Billie and Aldo, like Ajax more fugitives than wanderers, stone dopers who supplied the house with acid; Jack Stone who was as big, it seemed, as the  image

famous Jewish Giant and had enormous meat-hook fleshy hands that were always cold and sweaty; Harvey Poole, an F-14 fighter pilot who had finally freaked out after all his napalm runs and came to India to find peace – all were appalled.  “You can’t kick them out”, they said.  “Lord Krishna will provide; and if not, they will die with their friends”.

My wife then, as she has always been since, was resolute and absolutely determined.  “A doctor or the street”, she repeated.

Ajax and Circe in their own way were as determined, and tried one brand of local medicine after another.  First they contacted an Ayurvedic doctor who came to the house with a large briefcase full of herbs, dried flowers, roots, and pieces of mangled, shriveled, and misshapen bark, strands of dried seaweed, and bits of corn, a few oats, and dried mushrooms.  “I will cure your ailments”, he said.  “I, with God’s divine help, and Nature’s bounty will cleanse your polluted and corrupted system, purge your impure bodily fluids, and return you to the sexual vitality of Lord Shiva and his consort, Parvati”.  When his ministrations failed, and both Ajax and Circe sank farther away, they called a Homeopathic doctor.  This type of medicine is based on the theory that if you produce the symptoms of a disease, the disease will be cured.  If you have a fever, then you should eat plenty of hot chili peppers.  If you had diarrhea, you should take purgatives. 

Both Ajax and Circe had fulminating fevers, so the doctor instructed the cook how to prepare a spicy gruel for them at four in the morning.  “This is holiest part of day”, said Dr. Gupta, his cheek swollen with a wad of pan, a dribble of red betel juice escaping from the corners of his mouth.  “Foreigner always in bed in his own foul and stale air”, he said, “But Hindu breathes fresh and spiritual air of first chakra of morning, and purifying soup must be given at this hour only”.

The already ravaged stomach linings of poor Ajax and Circe must have been burned raw by the chili soup.  I saw how many of these little red devils were put in the ox-tail broth, and I knew that just one of them in a curry would complete the triple threat of 1) burning lips; 2) sweating scalp; and 3) burning asshole the next morning.  Dr. Gupta had instructed our cook to put in five peppers.  Ajax and Circe were miserable.

“That’s it”, said my wife.  “You will go to a real doctor or else”, and that day the physician used by all the Americans in Delhi came to the house.  He had spent some time in the States and a lot of time with the staff of the Embassy, USAID, and the various private organizations in the city.  “Hey, how’re you doing?”, he said, gargling his R’s and stretching out his vowels.  No matter how much time he spent hanging around Americans, he would never even come close to getting the accent right.  “So where’re the patients?”.

When he saw Ajax and Circe, lying next to each other on their straw ticks, holding hands and staring up at the ceiling, he exhaled quickly, and reverted back to his more familiar Indian English.  “Very bad”, he said.  “Hospital must be called”.

It turned out that Ajax had brucellosis, typhoid fever which was so advanced that it affected his joints and frozen his knees, amoebic hepatitis, and some thrush-like disease that covered half his body with a red rash.  Circe had severe anemia, tuberculosis of the kidneys, pellagra, and incipient diverticulitis.  Both bodies were total wrecks.  I never thought I would see them again, assuming the worst, or at best I guessed that they recovered enough to make it back to England; but six months later I saw Ajax, without Circe, scrambling down to the front rows of the concert hall at intermission, chasing empty seats, getting a deal, a front-and-center bargain for his cheap tickets, always the petty thief as twitchy as ever.  I never saw him again.

Life returned to normal at the house.  The Jewish Giant was a serious photographer, and Black Star had bought many of his pictures of the Tibetan communities of the Indian Himalayas.  He simply wanted a place to stay and was not dropping acid every day like Billie and Aldo.  He could never get enough to eat, and was not satisfied with curry and rice.  He had a contact who got him provisions at the American Commissary and had family-sized jars of peanut butter in his room.  Only great gobs of Skippy could give him the density of calories that a thin curry sauce could never provide. 

Billie was a great chef, and prepared all kind of dishes that we had never had before.  She took over the kitchen, and asked if we didn’t mind condemning the bathroom on the roof so she could convert it into an expanded cooking area .  We had no objection, but within days of the transformation – which, by the way, was remarkable since Aldo had been a master carpenter back in his straight days and retrofitted the small shed-like structure into a functioning two-burner, big-time kitchen with hooks for all the utensils – the cook quit.  Not only did he quit, but he quit in a rage.  It was bad enough that he had to work for foreigners who walked around naked, smoked dope, and ate all kinds of impure foods; bad enough that he had to work for Americans who had no sense of propriety, manners, or dignity like the British; but building a kitchen where you shit?! This was the ultimate insult – the insult of all insults, the most impure of the polluted, a degradation of life beyond even the most marginal of outcastes. 

India was wonderful in those days because it was such a tolerant place.  We were young, idealistic, and ignorant, and shoved our lives and barbaric ways in the faces of everyone with rarely a retort.  We were already so far down the spiritual scale, stewing in our own foul bath water, consummating ‘love’ marriages, using toilet paper, and worshipping a punitive god, that just about anything we did was OK; but some things were just unacceptable, and this was one of them.  The other unpardonable transgression that  I remember was in Goa where hippies dressed like low-caste fishermen from the seaside village near the tourist hotel on the beach.  The hippie men, like the fishermen, wore only a G-string, and padded barefooted through the streets of Panjim.  The naked part was OK.  The Indians had seen plenty of tits and ass in the Hollywood movies that had come to Bombay, and assumed that this salacious and lewd behavior was part and parcel of the foreigner contingent that came and spent money here.  It was the ass crack-string worn like the lowest of the low that offended them.  How could wealthy, indescribably wealthy foreigners dress like the dregs of Hindu society? It was an insult and an outrage.  The Indians were right. These fisher-folk hippies were total assholes.  The Indians knew it, but only expressed the thought differently.

We did not hire another cook.  If cooks would quit a high-paying job on principle, word would get around, and while there would certainly be cooks without principle, they probably would have a metaphorical thumb in the soup at every meal.  One by one, our hippie houseguests left and disappeared.  I heard that Aldo did more time for drugs, but this could have been only rumor based on his shady past.  The Vietnam fly-boy, the Jewish Giant, and Billie the Cook disappeared into the world as completely and thoroughly as Ajax and Circe.

My wife and I returned to middle-class civility and propriety.  We had been born too early to be real hippies, and so had been voyeurs on the margins.  We never meditated, dropped acid, sat naked on the banks of the Ganges, or wandered as white mendicants begging at the holy sites of Benares, Allahabad, or Hardwar.  We watched, listened, observed; and despite this remove and distance, our four years in India were by far the most influential of our lives. 

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