India postcard

[From December 2007.]

Drinking chai and chatting  with the Tiwari brothers at their book, moneychange, taxi, travel arrangement, and internet shop, some tourists talking about Shantaram.  When they leave, Sunit twists up his face and says, “Damn, since that book was published, everyone has to have some adventure in the shitty parts of Indian city. It’s very stupid.” I’ve spent enough time there to see him deal with all manner of customers, yelling at the pushy impolite ones to get out, that he doesn’t need their business. Some people do come in with an appalling attitude, and I find myself lapsing into irrational small sample size beliefs about which nationalities are the worst (Sunit has these beliefs as well).  He apparently makes most of his money guiding Australian tour groups, so the shop stuff is “for tea money only.” I sit on the floor mattress with the staff — his brothers or the taxi drivers — writing or chatting. People who have come in with questions quickly realize that by asking me things, I’ll figure out what they need and pass it along in more intelligible form to the Indians. The especially inscrutable Europeans get immediately shunted to me, since I can often understand their English or Spanish or at least take a reasonable guess at the sort of thing they’re after. The fact that I get included as a matter of course in the chai runs suggests they appreciate it.

My social life has fallen into an easy, agreeable pattern.  Early in the day, before heading to Sarnath, I drink tea with the teenage touts, exchanging news and observations.  They head off to scam Westerners all day and I go to the archives.  I take lunch with the monks and the students at the institute.  When I get back, I sit and drink tea with the Tiwaris, and often join the brothers’ families for dinner.  I’ll then return to hanging out with the tout boys to explore some of the thought-to-be seedier aspects of town.  Moving between castes as I am hardly even registers in my psyche, but each group freely badmouths the other. On the other hand, no one seems overly concerned about my ecumenical attitudes toward friendship.