Delhi. (I haven’t posted on the village because I am working on a much longer piece for it. Hopefully will have something of that in the next week.)
This is not going to be a pretty description, but when I left Jharkhand, I thought I was leaving behind all the infected bloodsuckers — but alas I met a couple different kinds on the train back. Bed bugs and dubious politicians.
All of my train rides in India have had wonderful, curious, and generous people. This was certainly no exception. Well, in the end it was no exception, but I started off in the wrong cabin. By the time I found my seat, the crappiest allotment in a second class AC sleeper (side upper), the train was about to move and the man with the bunk below me refused to allow me to sit down. While I insisted that his bed was supposed to be converted to two chairs, he told me to stay in my cramped upper bunk where the side of the train curves in, giving a sitting person late-onset scoliosis. As much as I’ve gotten into the habit of picking a fight with people that shouldn’t be doing the things they do, I wasn’t willing to do so with a man who was going to be residing just above my bags for the next 17 hours, let alone the fact that he knew exactly where I would be sleeping.
So, exasperated, I ducked into the adjoining main cabin and asked if I could sit with them. “Main aap logon ke saath baid saktii huun?” I asked.
They were four regally relaxed looking men in kurtha pajamas. “Of course of course,” they said, as if my question didn’t need asking. I thanked them and pulled out my computer, intending to stay out of their way.
Two minutes later, a woman entered and presented a very large guava. The largest guava I had ever seen.
These are normally sized guavas.
This guava. . . Well, look at it. Use the human hand as a scale.
It weighed half a kilogram and was apparently a gift. “If you take this photo with the guava holding him, it will be more famous,” said one of the men. I was confused. “This man is very famous in Jharkhand,” he clarified.
“Oh, I see, he’s a celebrity.” I took his word for it and continued to marvel at the truly absurd size of the guava.
“Very famous,” he repeated. He asked why I had been in Jharkhand and seemed uninterested when I described my work in the villages.
“What do you do?” I inquired.
“What do I do? Or what do all of us do? We all do the same work.”
“What is that?”
“We care for poor people, the blind and the sick. We carry them and take care of them.” This sounded like very dubious phrasing. I understand when English is your second language that you will have trouble, but this sounded like an oblique phrase from someone who had no idea what it meant to care for poor people or ‘carry’ them.
“That is very noble of you,” I said, “Jharkhand needs people like you. Are you part of an NGO?”
“No, we are in politics.” Only then did it register why these guys didn’t really care to elaborate how they helped the poor people, mostly because they didn’t. I asked them why they were going to Delhi.
“Oh, for political stuff.” Shady.
Politicians in Jharkhand are especially known for being corrupt.
When I asked Kamesh, a friend who had grown up in the villages near Ranchi, who he voted for, he responded, “the local party, because the BJP and Congress Party only comes to villages to buy the votes. After they win, they never come back.” But it seems that even the local party have failed.
These men continued their conversation in Hindi and were very kind to me. They offered me pieces of the large guava, but I sensed they had no interest in sharing how exactly they cared for the blind and poor or in learning how other organizations were engaged in rural development. They chatted about the Congress Party and about the estimates for the votes they would receive. And they did talk a bit about the poor people and how they would rise up. I feared asking them which political party they belonged to because, honestly, they all seemed the same — uninterested, immersed in corruption, and occasionally violent. Maybe I should have given them a chance, but part of the draw of not caring was my safety for the next 17 hours.
And with that, I quietly returned to my bunk, when my mother conveniently called me. In my conversation with her, I verbally abused the man below me in Mandarin and English, one of the benefits of knowing other languages. It’s one of those things that is extremely childish but enormously satisfying (I made sure that he did not speak English first). The side upper bunk is a truly terrible place. You feel all the traffic passing by in the corridor through the thin curtains, and the air conditioning blasts right through. And you end up sleeping in the same position as a corpse in a morgue, I realized, covered in a thin sheet because the blanket might have cooties.
My blanket actually did have cooties, it turned out. I woke to lines of bites down parts of my body no insect has ever traversed. It was disgusting, miserable, and itchy. The train was running on Indian time, arriving at the labyrinth that is the New Delhi Railway station an hour late amidst a downpour. From the overhead bridge, I could see men carting about large packages (large is like 4 times the volume of their body) somewhere, probably soaked with twenty times the liquid that their owners had intended. Some men had towels over their heads, which stopped serving any function once the rain graduated from a drizzle. I kept walking but none of this station looked familiar (it never does; it needs to be bulldozed and rebuilt), so I had to stop and ask if I was in Delhi, the kind of question that probably gives rise to stereotypes that Americans are idiots. The woman was nice and pointed me to the metro. En route, I slogged through shin-deep puddles of water and other liquids I don’t want to think about. I had a single objective: to get back to the hotel and disinfect everything I owned.
Upon getting back, that’s exactly what I did. I filled a bucket with detergent and water and submerged everything vaguely clothlike that shared the upper bunk with me, and I examined the damage. The bed bugs had had a feast.
I’ve instructed my mother to pick me up from the airport in a vehicle lined with plastic trash bags. All of my luggage will sit outdoors and piece by piece be disinfected by the washing machine before gaining admission to the house. I may immerse myself in an antibacterial bath. It will be great.