India alarmed Joe the moment he trundled his trolley into the chaotic airport arrivals. He imagined a land of poetry and although he did not have great hopes for an international airport, he found the scruffy brown mess of fractious people that descended upon him offering hotels, taxis, luggage handling, money exchange, and demands for charitable donations, instantly disenchanting. He vowed to stay as close to his five-star hotel as possible.
“Hello Mr. Lampton,” said Krishna, the assistant sent to collect him. “Good flight?”
“Oh yeah. It didn’t crash. Always a good sign,” said Joe, still confused by the uproar of the arrivals and catching only a good look at the back of Krishna’s head as he led the way.
“Yes. Always a good sign. You didn’t bring your wife? You could go to the Taj Mahal with her once business is done.”
“I’m not married.”
“Then we’ll have to set you up with a fine Indian girl. You will discover that our women are the best. We train them well in the arts of the bedroom.”
“No, not terrifying! Dangerous! Just what a man wants from a woman.”
“I meant it was a terrifying thought having other people set you up with a woman.”
“Oh no. We do it all the time in India. Our friends do it. Our cousins do it. Our parents are always doing it. And I tell them, get me a dangerous woman! And they say, huh, you’re crazy! And I say, yes! Crazy! A crazy man needs a crazy bitch!”
“I’m not sure I need anything at the moment, other than to get out of this place.”
Following Krishna, his head bowed in the hope of avoiding the beggars and free lance baggage handlers, he tried to collect his thoughts about the computer game his company was designing and what he must tell the awaiting meeting. Five hours by plane was nothing to worry about; he had previously done seventeen and still made a conference key note speech. All he had to do today was give a brief morale-boosting introduction to the game concept, a shake of everyone’s hands and then sign the contracts.
“Alph is the sacred river that runs through caverns measureless to man down to a sunless sea,” explained Joe to Krishna as the private mini-bus that collected them jolted and honked through the swarms of people spilling out over the roads oblivious to the chaotic interweaving trucks and three-wheelers. “And in that deep romantic chasm, which slants down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover, beneath a waning moon, a woman wails for her demon lover.”
“A demon lover! Yaar! Now you’re talking. Everyone is going to really try get through to that level!”
That was exactly what Joe wanted to hear. He continued: “Alph would begin as the river, and Betty the wailing woman, would arouse it so that it must transform into a man.”
“Alphabet! I get it boss.”
“That’s right. And their demon progeny would be Alpha Betty and this would trigger a graphics encounter and the realisation that the copy of Coleridge’s poem, Xanadu, on the inside of the packaging, is more than just a piece of literature, it is a hint sheet!”
“Xanadu! Whoa man, I know that one. In Xanadu did Kublai Khan a pleasure dome erect!”
“Well, that’s the Frankie Goes To Hollywood version of it,” said Joe, “But I think a lot of Indians will know this. They love English literature.”
“Do they? Do we?”
“So I’m told.”
“We will once we’ve played this game!”
“Cool. You know much Indian literature?”
“How long, how long, in infinite pursuit of this and that endeavour and dispute?”
“Persian. Omar Khayam. But I suppose that classes as Indian.”
“Oh yeah. How about, They beg and they lie and they suck for your vote, but once they’re in power they treat you like a goat?”
“I don’t know that one.”
“Baba Sehgal man! He’s a rapper!”
“A rapper. Well. I’ll have to look out for him.”
“You want to work some of his stuff in there. Make the game really funky.”
The goal of Xanadu was to achieve maximum happiness within the confines of Kublai Khan’s pleasure dome and in the end, would be the beginning: an exhortation to move away from the computer screen, and bearing in mind the lessons of the game, seduce one’s own demon lover.
“Beware! Beware! His flashing eyes! His floating hair! Weave a circle round him thrice, and close your eyes with holy dread! For he on honey-dew hath fed, and drunk the milk of Paradise,” quoted Joe when giving the presentation to the Indian programmers. He finished with a flourish, pinning the concept down: “Men quote poetry. Women dance. This is the surest way of everyone getting what everyone wants!”
There was a faint ripple of applause as the audience slowly recognised the quote, or pretended to do so. Everyone could now get down to work, thrash out the details, turn ideas into numbers, and numbers into pictures. Another project would be under steam and Joe would prove to be the man who stepped outside the box and discovered a new genre with a new market. Joe was legendary for his ability to make complicated concepts succeed.
“First class speech, boss,” said Krishna, “We’ve a little entertainment lined up for you now.”
“I just want to go back to my hotel.”
“Oh yes, you get freshened up. Then I collect you and take you out. All the boys want to meet you in person.”
“Do they really?”
“Oh yes, you’re their hero. You make it big man. They all want to be like you.”
“What? A middle-aged man still playing children’s games for a living?”
“But a rich middle-aged man! We can all learn from that.”
“There’s no poverty in youth.”
“Is that another piece of English poetry, boss?”
“Time, the destroyer of worlds, annihilator of all sides. That’s definitely Indian.”
“You are a walking encyclopaedia of poetry.”
“Young men write it, but you get old before you understand it.”
“That’s why we want to learn from you, boss.”
Joe tried to meet Krishna’s eyes but Krishna was glancing elsewhere, looking for people in the departing crowd. He waved and gave a mysterious thumbs-up.
“It’s all settled. He’s cool!” shouted Krishna to nobody that Joe could recognise. Then he patted Joe on the back and pushed him forward ahead of him. “There you go boss. Everyone happy. We get you ready now. We have lots of suggestions to make.”
“The game! You need plenty of sex in it but nothing filthy-dirty. A Westerner can show their tits but no Indian woman.”
“Nobody shows anything in the game.”
“Oh but they should, just not everything. There are ways of conveying wicked and filthy thoughts. This is Bollywood after all.”
“The game isn’t about wicked filthy thoughts.”
“Oh no, of course not. Of course not. Little town fantasies, that’s what works here. Work in America too. Sex and shopping. The whole world is the same.”
Joe peered out of the grimy window of the Morris Oxford taxi that seemed to him more like a big blue-bottle than a car. It buzzed and dodged in and out of cows, lumbering trucks that belched diesel fumes, dilapidated double decker buses, suicidal bikers, and various dead things. The India of the economic miracle was all very fine but to be part of it was to be marooned amongst this explosion in a rag and bone factory. Bombay in daylight was a sick ensemble of grimy blocks, shabby shack shops, uneven pavements, pot-holes, and the stunning faded glory of old colonial buildings with perfectly manicured patches of greenery amid squalor. And as the light dimmed and the neon advertisement of the new shopping malls began lighting up and the traffic seemed to ease, something magical began to emerge: the Bollywood imagined by all the dreaming beggars asleep on the piles discarded film magazines.
“One thing puzzles me boss,” said Krishna, “The happiness algorithm is desires obtained divided by desires. So you score highest if you have no desires. Thus, if you have no desire to even play the game, you score infinitely high. Is that what you believe?”
“No. If you have no desire, then you cannot achieve any desire, so the mathematics produces a zero score. Therefore you’re first step to happiness is to purchase the game.”
“Ah,” said Krishna, the back of his head rattling above the front seat expressionless, “Cool. Much better than anything the Buddha had to say about it.”
“I don’t think the Buddha had much to say about computer games.”
“Happiness boss! He said a lot about happiness.”
“I’m sure it would make us all happy if people bought the game.”
“Oh yes, but people pay good money to hear something more spiritual.”
“Well I don’t think people will think too closely about the philosophical niceties of the algorithm running the game’s scoring system.”
“Probably not. You’re the one who knows these things.”
“Oh yes, you are the expert in games. But India is a big market boss, and, as the HSBC Bank advertisement says, quite poetically I think, a little local knowledge can go a long way.”
Joe stepped from the taxi and briefly had to breathe the dank air with its stench of smoke, exhaust fumes, and cooking oil. Krishna quickly whisked him past the jostling shoe-shine boys with scabby lips, runny eyes, and scrawny dirty hands that demanded five dollars for "same colour polish." "Shoe's very dirty boss. And I'm very hungry." He was wrestled through a cordon of grizzly-chinned shot-gunned security guards, and then through the glittering hording, flashing with electronic displays of exploding stars and inside one of Mumbai’s hottest of hot spots: The Pillhouse, named after Bombay’s red light district. A woman in the sheerest of saris, damp with perspiration, a gold tikka upon her forehead, namasted as they entered, the gilt silk wrapped around her body making her look more naked than naked.
Armanid millionaires, nero-jacketed
politicians, starlets tightly pinked in pants and transparent high-heels,
mingled with the curries, caviar, mountains of pineapples, dates and guavas.
The A-list filled the foreground, a private reception taking place in the
courtyards, trampling over shampooed gravel watched from a tree by what he thought must be a leper. Joe
perked up momentarily, the glitterati without a pen and Philips screwdriver in
their shirt pocket, looked a little more like a good time and they would surely
not want to tell him how he should be doing his job! But Joe was whisked passed
them - “Private party, don’t stare,” said Krishna, “They’re security will beat
you up.” His destination was the discothèque inside, at the end of the complex
where the wannabe A-list resided for the time being. Here the young dot-com men
he employed played.
“Midnight is when the real action starts,”
said one of the young men who now jostled with Krishna for the pleasure of
leading Joe into their world.
Black-faced waiters in starched-white suits
silver-trayed purple cocktails to Joe and Krishna. Before them young men in
sweat-soaked shirts danced while mango breasted women, draped in red, green,
blue chiffon scarves, drank, talked and ignored them. “All these women,” explained Krishna, “Want jewels on their
fingers, Chanel on their back, Mercedes on their bums, Tigers in their beds and
husbands stupid enough to pay for it all.”
“Not too many Tigers here then.”
“Maybe they find husbands stupid enough to pay for it though.”
“Are you stupid enough?”
“First I’ve got to be rich enough.”
The music changed and a thumping bass shook the ground. “They keep party-hopping left and right,” barked a rapper, “But they never get to party on a Saturday night!” The men in their sweaty shirts stomped and threw out their arms in LA Gang signs, mouthing the words along with the song. Joe backed himself into a corner which only served to encourage the more earnest of his programmers to step off the dance floor and come forwards with the look of people who had long pondered deep questions.
“In from that chasm, with ceaseless turmoil we see things,” quoted Joe, “As if this Earth in fast thick pants were breathing, a mighty fountain momently was forced, amid whose swift half-intermitted burst, huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail, or chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail, and 'mid these dancing rocks at once and ever, it flung up momently the sacred river.”
“No need to keep working boss!” said Krishna, “We get it. Sacred rivers are big in India. Sacred rivers, fishy women, perpetual virgins, you name it, we got it, so we get it.”
“I was referring to the dancing and pointing out the curious aptness of the fantasies of the Lakeland poets in describing the writhings in a Bombay discotheque.”
“Oh yes, those Lakeland Poets. Hey, we should teach you the bhangra! Very sexy dance, man. Show off that big chest to all the ladies, yaar…”
Joe grinned and tried to assess if learning
the bhangra was better than fending off any more questions.
“He’s not married,” Krishna told the boys,
“So I promised to set him up.”
“With someone looking for a rich and stupid husband? Is that it?”
“No boss. You’re the Tiger!”
“By midnight,” said one of the other young men as he pointed to a dark door at the rear of the club, “All the ladies are like animals out there!”
“Yaar man, they are on all fours!”
“They get real nasty,” said another identical young man-boy, keen to be near the guru of games.
“Yeah, man. Anal is the new Oral!”
“You don’t talk to the boss like that!” said Krishna, giving the young man a quick slap on the back of his head. A flash of bitten-down fingernails caught Joe’s attention. “Anal! New Oral! What is that?”
“That’s alright,” said Joe, not wanting to be at the heart of an argument. “How’s this Bhangra thing go then?”
Joe learnt the Bhangra, not very well, but
well enough for everyone to practice their sycophancy on him. Sycophancy was a
skill he noted came naturally and perhaps ironically. He could not tell.
“These Punjabi’s they got rhythm!”
explained Krishna, “All DJ’s in Bombay are Punjabi! They mix the discs. They
control the flow. They take us up high, then get us real low…”
“That’s almost poetry.”
“You heard of Baba Sehgal?”
“You mentioned him.”
“Hindi Rap, man! First Sikh Rapper. Big star a few years back. An inspiration to us all boss. This is why we get it!”
Krishna grabbed his crutch and ground his
hips like his hero from the latest Bollywood movie. “Whoo!” he squealed and
licked his crooked lips at a couple of girls oblivious to him. The cocktails
seemed to be having an effect upon him.
A strobe light flashed and Joe watched the
dancing men, thinking how the droplets of sweat spraying jerkily into the air
were like explosions in a comic book. He was forty two, a significant age for
everyone working in the games industry, and everyone in his field of vision
seemed to be twenty two, boundlessly energetic, and hopelessly foolish. That
was at least something, he thought.
“One things puzzles me,” said one of the
gathered programmers, sweat dripping down his arm as he drank from a beer
bottle. He looked very earnest and Joe could barely stifle a groan.
“And what puzzles you?” said Joe, weary of these doubts that he detected.
“All this poetry in the game. I mean, it’s a role player and you pick up points interacting with characters. But it’s all conversation. And not all very understandable. Too much typing and reading. People just want to click.”
“They can click if they want and just watch the graphics.”
“Yaar, but they want to click and have things explode, not have some stuffy Englishman spouting stuff. It’s so colonial man!”
“Load in the Hindi version then. Have some Indian spouting stuff. We use Bollywood stars to do a local version. And we use some Shanghainese stars to do the Chinese version. And… I don’t know, Omar Sharif, if he isn’t dead, to do the Egyptian version.”
“Things don’t explode though.”
“It’s a dating game! You learn how to pick up women, or you can play it with your spotty, flat-chested and clueless fourteen-year-old girl-friend who wants to be in love!”
“All Indian girls are hot! With enormous tits. And they don’t make you work for it!”
“I thought this was the land of double locked bedrooms, chaperones and virgin middle-managers?”
“No man, that’d be too tragic even for India!”
Joe looked around in the hope of catching
Krishna’s eye and have him rescue him. At the back of the room, the dark
doorway offered a quiet retreat and so he staggered forward, patted a few of
the boys on their back, muttered he needed to take a breather. When it was
obvious he was moving towards the back room, he could hear grunts of approval.
“Yaar, he’s cool,” said Krishna, as Joe
escaped. “Top of his game, and still hungry. He’s the man to beat all right.”
Joe immediately felt relief as the
temperature dropped and the volume of noise fell to a low thump. Ears numb, he
stepped through the door. A mosquito sizzled in a blaze of blue from the
ultra-violet insect-catcher. Every sound was muffled; every sight hazy in the
smoke of some narcotic. He met a gathering of pot bellied men in kurta pajama,
smelling of turmeric, their greasy fat fingers counting out rolls of high
denominational rupees, one eye on the money, another on the interloper, a
Westerner, a walking wallet: Joe.
He reeled backwards as a face pushed
towards him stinking of bad teeth and purring: “One hundred dollars?”
“I didn’t know you had to pay?”
“Of course you pay.”
“I haven’t got any money on me. I don’t carry money,” said Joe sensing a hand patting him down.
“Oh man, you gotta pay if you want to play!”
“I’m with those guys out there.”
Krishna shouted something from beside the
door and that seemed to settle all the payment problems. Then Joe felt a hand
pull him down to the ground where in the haze of smoke lay a dark, naked woman,
who spooned out florescent white powder onto her stomach, piling it high in her
navel. He pulled away and bad breath came to his nostrils again.
“Relax man! Let her do all the work. She’s
a professional virgin. Everything she offers is pure.”
He heard singing. But the song was in a
strange language. Even so, he could make out between the cyclical hum of the
air-conditioner, the words: “And now 'twas like all instruments, now like a
lonely flute, and now it is an angel's song, that makes the
heavens be mute…”
“Are you one of
those cut’n’paste boys?” whispered a voice in his ear.
He recovered a moment and turned over to
wrestle with a red silk cushion, then victorious, he emerged between the oiled
thighs of a dark woman with arms full of silvery bangles.
“Here,” she said, slipping a silver pipe
into Joe’s nostril and giving a gentle blow. “Now don’t sneeze!”
He held his
breathe, his eyes streaming, and his throat numbed.
“Oh Jesus! What
And then all was love and beauty and she
was doing all the work, removing his clothes, oozing over his chest, breathing
heavily into his ear: “You fuck like a porn star,” she groaned, her long
straight black hair engulfing him. She slid off, propped him up and began
fingering dribbling honey-coated pastries into his mouth.
boys must be eating all that growth hormone…”
“English, I’m English actually.”
“Oh well, all that dairy cream must give you the edge.”
This was obviously the girl that Krishna had fixed him up with.
“One moment in annihiliation’s wastes, one
moment the well of life to taste, infinitely I would have lived in bliss for
taking no more than just a kiss.”
He could feel the honey dribbling down his
chin and then he sensed his head banging up and down on the back seat of a
noisy vehicle. He smelt carbon monoxide belching up through the rust holes of
the floor and thought he would suffocate until he was being doused in a cold
shower wearing nothing but a kurta. For some reason his suit had gone missing.
“You don’t marry them,” said Krishna. “Not
even if they are sweet smelling pregnant virgins.”
“I’m not married am I?” came his voice, as if from far away, “Get me her address before it is too late! We have to sort this out.”
“Yeah yeah boss. You sleep. We find her tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow. Yes. Tomorrow and tomorrow and... I’m not married am I?”
“You said you wanted to marry her.”
“Did I? I should marry her…”
“Go to sleep boss.”
“I’m a tiger.”
“That’s right boss.”
In the depths of his five-star bed, rocking to the rhythm of trolleys trundling the long corridors, bells on doors ringing, grunts of alarm at his presence, and then mysterious scurryings and doors closing. There was no sense of urgency, just drifting flashes of consciousness, lists of things to do, Alph and Bet slowly calculating all of pi, the number 3.14159265 endlessly lengthening and endlessly fading into nothingness. “A circle, a circle,” he muttered as he woke and saw the light through the crack in his curtains and heard the Mumbai cacophony beyond the double glazing.
He shaved and examined his face in the
mirror. He looked as he felt: eyes black, skin pale and liver sick, his hair
with more grey than he recalled, and his wardrobe with fewer clothes than he
brought, except for the kurta which he slipped on over a pair of jeans, then
put on a pair of flip-flops and left his room. In the hotel foyer he stared through
the plate glass doors at the mess of yellow air being buffeted by a downfall of
The concierge in his black suit with a
white handkerchief in his top pocket fussed over a group of bewildered Germans
trying to stop the staff from helping them with their luggage. They feared they
would not see it again. Joe stepped around them and went through the revolving
doors into the rain where its brown streaks glued his kurta to his skin. He
pushed further out into the teeming streets, torrents of filthy water
ankle-deep running off the pavements into swirling storm drains. Cars and
motorcycles stalled and called forth a plethora of helping hands to push them
to the side of the road and keep the world flowing by.
“Five miles meandering with a mazy motion,”
muttered Joe, “Through wood and dale the sacred river ran. Then reach'd the
caverns measureless to man, and sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean.”
Joe stepped off the pavement and found the waters swirling about his knees. He would be bound to catch something, he thought, but it was probably too late to worry about that, so a bit of putrid water should not worry him. He waded across the road attracting young men and boys who called out to him.
“Hey Boss, you want to buy a watch? Suit? Carpet? Come to my shop. I give you good discount.”
“No, bugger off!”
“I give you bugger off then!”
“I’m not a tourist.”
“You need a guide? I speak good English.”
“I’m Serbo-Croat. No understand English!”
“You making fun of me boss?”
Hands grabbed his arms, tugged at his kurta, “Rupee! Rupee!” wined some emaciated child with skinny knocking knees and no face, just two watery eyes and a gaping suppurating hole.
Hands thrust bangles, beads, biros, bananas, bicycle mirrors, before his eyes for his purchase. He tried to push them away, the barrier, the bombardment of fleas that infected the tourist. But he was a businessman bringing business not a tourist shopping, and he wanted to avoid the cars and buses that transported him to places full of people he did not want to meet, full of people challenging his ideas and marrying him to what? This place? And now here he was sinking in more people he did not want to meet. He longed for the arms of the dark woman in the dark night, a neon lit night, blackness hiding the squalor, perfume hiding the stench, narcotics drowning the horror of his own existence, the poetry! He longed for the poetry. Had he truly reached the final level and there was nowhere to go? Had his programme ran its course? Had his algorithm produced infinity or zero? Was he a tiger? Where was his demon lover?
A hand grabbed his arm and pulled him through the crowd, miraculously parting, forgetting he existed, melting away into the hubbub of the drowning town.
“Good afternoon boss. I’m here to pick you up and take you to the airport before it is too late.”
Joe remembered the flight and suddenly his schedule flashed before his eyes. An umbrella was held above his head as he was led back into the hotel.
“The monsoon is really bad this year boss,” said Krishna, “And every year it gets worse. We say we’re going to have the drains fixed, have the walkways put in, but in the end nobody takes responsibility in this town.”
Krishna shook the umbrella dry, handed it
to one of the hotel staff and then began rubbing Joe down with a threadbare
towel produced from inside his shirt.
“Good trip? Get
all your business done? Everyone happy?”
Joe nodded and
as the towel whipped about him.
last night,” asked Joe, “You fixed that?”
Joe tried to focus on Krishna’s face: neat
black hair, grinning eyes, a slightly ironic turn of fist-cracked lips, long
“This town’s really buzzing,” said Krishna,
“Next time you come, we’ll plan something really special. Something really
wild! We’ll try get Baba Sehgal to put on a show. Then you can see what a great
guy he’d be to do the voice over. And write the copy. Here’s a magazine article
Joe gingerly took hold a crumpled, damp
Hindustani magazine featuring a photograph of a fat little man dressed in drag,
vaguely reminiscent of Madonna.
“Baba Sehgal is a great admirer of Madonna.”
“And 'mid this tumult Kublai heard from afar, ancestral voices prophesying war!”
“What was that boss?”
“Nothing. Just nothing.”
“Nothing. Oh, yeah. I get it boss. Now, you get a good rest on your flight. You earned it. Now, it’s up to us. Baba Sehgal, he’s the man though. He’s the man.”