Friday

Everything Is Lost (Apr. 1, 2006)

Kya hai?” asked the attendant as I pulled off my helmet at the gas station. I looked over at him – a thin young man in loose clothing – and saw five more men hanging around the pump leaning on each other and eyeing me, and what was strapped to my leg. Okay, I thought, here we go again. Since leaving New Delhi I had been surprised to discover the amount of attention the lathi I’d strapped to my leg caused every time I stopped for gas. I would have thought the sight of a woman alone on a motorcycle would stir things up, but it was a small piece of wood that got the men’s attention.

As I unlocked the gas cap the attendant tugged at the hose, stretching it to capacity. All eyes were upon me as the men waited for my reply to the question of what was I carrying. They knew good and well what it was. Every policeman carried one. What they wanted to know was why was I carrying it.

“It’s for protection against dacoits,” I said.

The men shifted from their comfortable positions of dangling on one another, looking from me to the lathi to each other. Smirks flitted across their brown faces and I heard a giggle bubble up from the group. Yes, that was the response I expected; the one I’d gotten every time I stopped for gas. But what came next was not expected. Two men broke off from the group and danced around each other in a mock robbery, one cracking the other over the head with an invisible lathi. It looked ridiculous, which was exactly their point.

Still, it was early in my trip – just two days on the road – and I was not ready to cut the thin thread of what I believed was part of my safety arsenal and store the lathi away. So I watched the men mock me and smiled good naturedly, considering I was feeling anything but. I told myself they were living out in the middle of nothing and deserved a good laugh. Besides, my grandmother and mother had always told me that if someone is making fun of me, it means they are leaving someone else alone. “And you,” my grandmother would say, piercing me with her blue eyes as she looked down her long thin nose at me, “can take it.”

While the men played out their comic routine, I took off the small backpack I wore to give my back a rest. The roads where jarring my bones pretty good and decided to strap it to Kali’s rack before hitting the road again. The pack contained my Nikon camera and several lenses, my journal of thoughts and information about the trip since I put my plan into action, a compass, a Swiss Army knife, and several other small odds and ends. I considered each thing in the pack essential to the journey, which was why keep them in the pack and wore it and wore it on my back. But my back really ached from the weight of the equipment in it, and I told myself there was no harm in lashing the bag to the bike.

I took my time securing it to the bike before paying the attendant his rupees for the gas and leaving the laughing men behind. If I had any concerns about the safety of the bag and its contents, I shoved them out of my mind.

Back on the road the traffic was light. In the distance, the smoky-blue Aravalli Range lay lumpy like a child’s blanket left on the floor. The temperature spiked to one 120 degrees. Overhead, scavenger birds wheeled in crisscross patterns searching the desolate land for food. I rode slow and steady, passing through a few villages before reaching the city limits of Ajmer, a bustling desert town balanced at mouth of the road leading to Pushkar – my destination for the day.

I had reached back several times since leaving the gas station to be sure the backpack was still there. And even though everything felt fine each time, I had a niggling feeling something was not right. I wanted to check it out at Ajmer so I pulled to the side of the road and twisted myself around for a look. I didn’t have far to go before reaching Pushkar, less than five miles across the sloping range of Nag Pahar, which means Snake Mountain. I really did not want to get off the bike because I was tired and getting off Kali with her load was a chore. So I told myself it was not necessary to dismount, that I could confirm the bag would remain in place until reaching Pushkar without swinging a leg off.

The pack had slipped some and I pulled at the straps, cinching the teeth of the buckles deep into the nylon straps. All would be fine, I told myself. It’s normal for packs to shift, especially on roads as rough as what I’d been riding on. Besides, I will surely know if the bag falls off. It is heavy and loosing it would cause a shift in the bike’s weight, telling me something had fallen off. So I pushed on.

Pushkar is a mecca for both backpackers and Hindus on spiritual quests. The town’s shops, hotels, and restaurants are sprinkled around a small lake anointed with bathing ghats and temples. Pushkar is the home of the only Brahma temple in India and became a holy site when Lord Brahma dropped a lotus from heaven.

The gate to the city is an archway were hordes of young men lie in wait for foreigners and Hindus to pass so they can press rosebuds into their hands which is a sign meant to indicate that the passerby should hire the young man to perform a puja at the lake’s edge on his behalf. A puja is an offering of prayer, flowers, and food to the gods and goddesses in exchange for them smiling favorably on the worshiper. As a highly spiritual and religious site, Pushkar is strictly vegetarian, meaning meat and alcohols are forbidden. It does not, however, mean that drugs are forbidden. Marijuana and hashish flow freely, and bhang lassies (marijuana milkshakes) are refreshing drinks on hot afternoons – to some.

During Pushkar’s annual Camel Fair in the fall, the town’s population swells from 11,000 inhabitants to 220,000. Filmmakers and thrill seekers from around the world push their way through throngs of people to see naked acetic sadhus (holy men) with ten-pound stones tied to and dangling from their testicles. But even when the Camel Fair is not going on, the town flourishes with an active moneymaking industries selling fried veggie foods, tie-dyed clothes, and handicrafts created by women working in far-flung villages. Despite the crass commercialism that fuels the town’s economy, Pushkar remained a peaceful place.

Just inside town I stopped and studied the town map in my guidebook. The Rajasthan Tourist Bungalow was on the town’s cusp, far enough out to avoid the noise of revelers (should there be any) and yet only a few hundred yards to the center of things. The book told me the hotel was cheap, yet expensive enough to discourage foreigners with drug-taking inclinations from staying there. They didn’t spend their money on comfortable hotels but rather gravitated toward those without doors and where the local rat population gnawed at walls.

I rode on toward my hotel and as I did Kali’s tires left a wake in the dirt of the unpaved road. An old and wild bougainvillea spilled scarlet petals at my feet as I parked Kali out front under an overhang and swung my leg off. I was glad to be done for the day, and it wasn’t until I turned to gather my bags that I noticed the backpack was gone.

“Shit, shit, shit. When will I learn to listen to my instincts?”

The sky was turning the color of a festive tropical drink as the sun sank into the thin black line of the horizon. I looked up and down the street but the purple bag was nowhere in sight. I didn’t feel optimistic about finding the bag but I had to look for it none-the-less because it contained my world. I shoved Kali off her center-stand and headed out to retrace my path along the curvy road of Nag Pahar.

I wanted to find some people who might have seen a bag at the side of the road but the first group I encountered were a band of men sprawled sleepily on a stone pavilion. I saw their bare, leathery feet and knobby knees as they lay prone on the cool stone and felt apprehensive about approaching them. I wanted to talk to them but I didn’t want to walk up to them and ask about my bag, so I tried to attract their attention by walking back and forth near them. This was about as effective as me trying to attract the attention of my neighbor by prancing around in my basement. No one stirred. No one noticed me. It figures, the one time I wanted an audience none appeared.

As I paced around dragging my feet in the dust several women ambled by on their way home after a long day working in the field and a sense of hope swelled up in me. Women were helpful no matter what the country. I rushed at them jabbering in English about my missing purple bag. The women pulled their pallus closer to their faces, shielding themselves from my firang eyes, and blinked at me. Their wafer-thin bodies swayed in saris wilted from working sixteen hours in the sun and heat. A ripple of incomprehensible words rumbled among them before a small woman with bangles on her wrists and ankles stepped forward to speak for the group. Unfortunately she spoke in one of India’s 20,000 dialects and I could not understand a word she said.

Their faces were weary and their eyes spoke of umpteen chores they still had to do once they reached their homes: wood and water to fetch, cooking and washing to do, and who knows what else their worlds required of them before they were allowed to fall asleep on mattresses made of straw. Although I was beginning to panic about finding the bag and its contents, the women’s lives seemed more tragic then mine so I continued on toward Ajmer. It was in the curve of one bend in the road that I saw him.

Coming toward me on a scooter was a hulking policeman with pock-scared cheeks and a handlebar mustache. I flagged him down and tried to explain my loss but a wave of hysterics threatened to engulf me. He listened, not understanding and looked around nervously for support but at that moment we were alone on that switchback road. Tears brimmed in my eyes and he looked like he wanted to run away. Unsure of what to do, he thrust both arms into the air and spoke the only English words he knew, “Be strong.”

Those words had some magical effect on me because once he saw my emotions were under control and I would not cry on him, he got on with police matters by stopping every vehicle to interrogate the drivers and passengers about the whereabouts of my belongings.

Nahin, nahin,” each befuddled and worried-looking person said while shaking their heads, “Hum nay kuchnahin dekha hai.” No, no. They had not seen anything.

Through this method of police work the cop discovered three boys on a scooter who spoke English. He pulled the three toward me and pointed at me while speaking to the boys in their own language. What the policeman said to them caused them to fill with a great deal of sorrow that would be passed on to me, for they turned to me and shook their shiny black heads in unison saying, “Sorry, madam. Your bag is gone forever.”

© 1997-2006. C.L. Stambush, All Rights Reserved Worldwide

5 comments:

A. Bh. said...

Great story so far, you have a wonderful flowing narrative style. I look forward to hearing more and would like to be on your list for when the book comes out. (abb11 AT pitt DOT edu)

C.L. Stambush said...

I would be more than happy to put you on a mailing list of people who want to buy the book when it is published.

Glad you are enjoying the read/ride.

I'll keep you posted.

cls

Franck Rasmussen said...

I get the time but not the date. Are you still on the road?
Regards
Franck

C.L. Stambush said...

I am not on the road riding in India. I left India a few years ago and am in the US.

cls

Mahesh said...

Very interesting indeed. I have been wanting to do what you have done - do India on mobike.

Btw I wonder if you got your bag back! Or do we need to read the book to find out? ;) Anyways, next time you are in India, how about forming a little group of bullet riders and really enjoying India?

mkumar061@rediffmail.com