Victoria terminus in mumbai (Photo credit: Sofi Lundin)
Kris still hasn’t arrived from Bali, and it’s starting to look like I’ll be spending my holiday break alone on this boat: embroidering, folding origami and doing other Batty Old Lady things. I miss him; as I’ve mentioned before, it doesn’t matter how often he’s away, I never get used to it. ‘Pining’ is the word that comes to mind. I often scold myself for “putting all my eggs in one basket”, so to speak; Kris is my best friend, my most-esteemed colleague, my best teacher (and also my best student), my Belovéd, my mentor, my role-model, my solace, okay, you get the picture…
Where was I going with this? He’s written a fourth book, Out of Census—about his years as a student in Prague, how he ran away from Communist Czechoslovakia, and his years as a wanderer through Europe and the Indian subcontinent—and I was re-reading it tonight (it makes me feel close to him to read stories from his life, written in the same slightly-off Eastern-European English that he normally speaks with. This is my personal favorite of all his books.)
This story takes place in India in the late 70s, around Christmastime and the New Year, which I thought apt…although it isn’t a Christmas story, please be warned! It’s bleak, and very alien to what we think of as Christmastime stories…but, like all of Kris’s accounts of his life, it makes me think, it inspires me to be less afraid and to take more risks, and it opens my mind up just a little bit more.
Bedlam spread into the lofty Victoria Terminal. Whole families were living on the floor of the waiting platforms….In a quiet corner I saw a man lying on the floor by himself, fully dressed in filthy European jeans-jacket and long pants, the soles of his bare feet black as a bitumen road. As I looked at him, the destitute beggar turned over and I saw his face; he was a young, white hippie…pale, with sunken eyes the color of wilted lemons, protruding cheekbones, evidently gravely ill, abandoned by his friends, and he was sheltering from the sun and crowds on the station. With a groan he passed out, exhausted by the move. I shivered.
I wasn’t feeling well, myself. And it wasn’t the usual gastro discomfort. You get used to intestinal problems in India. Old hands ignore them, pointing out that even such luminaries as Mahatma Gandhi lived their entire lives with chronic dysentery that never improved, in spite of diets and medical attention. “Three solid shits in two years in India is good going,” we used to say. This time I had caught something more serious. I was getting weaker by the day, I had to sit down to rest every half hour; I had lost my appetite altogether. I was pissing dark brown urine, no matter how much liquid I drank…
I made it back to the hotel and went straight to bed. I was running a high fever and I was sure that I was crook as Hell. In the morning, the German girl that I had been traveling with looked into my face and her jaw dropped. “Have you looked into your eyes?” she asked. Wearily I turned my face to a little hand-mirror hanging from a nail over the washing basin. My face shocked me. Cadaverous eyes stared back at me, feverish, and instead of the usual red fever tinge they were deep yellow. The penny dropped as I reviewed my symptoms. I had hepatitis. I reached for my liver and yelped in pain. It was swollen sticking out from my side under the ribs, tender and painful. No wonder I was off food, weak as a fly, pissing blood. My liver was shot….
Generally, I am fairly resistant; my stomach is strong, but I am prone to attacks of malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases. Hep was another matter. It was a serious blow, as there was no cure for it. There still isn’t. Several dozen known causes can lead to hepatitis, which is the generic name for inflammation of the liver, but there is no medicine to combat it directly. You can strengthen your body’s immune system as it is fighting, but you have to wait, two to six weeks, until it conquers the invasion by itself.
Our gang panicked; hep was a major scarecrow on the road. Within an hour I was alone. Fools. I had been spreading germs amongst them for days, as my disease incubated, before the symptoms became manifest. It was too late to run, now. What’s more, many strains of hepatitis are not directly contagious…not by simple contact or by sharing food.
This desertion by friends hurt. We had traveled together since Quetta…we were a gang. I had known some of them since Istanbul. I did not blame them—we did not know much about hepatitis—but I resolved not to travel with Germans again.
Picking up my backpack, I focused my fuzzy mind on one task: I had to get out of Bombay, or I would die like a beggar I had seen on the street, the previous day. A picture of the unfortunate hippie in the filthy jeans jacket, lying on the platform, also danced in front of my eyes…
I dragged myself down the street, bound for the railway station. Every fifty meters I had to stop and sit down. The only place to sit down was in the dirt of the pavement. Each time, I collapsed amid the rubbish, rat shit, and sweepings of the street. Even the homeless who lined the street averted their eyes when I encroached upon their domain. One insistent tune occupied my mind like a mantra…the first two lines of a Simon and Garfunkel song: “Are you going to Scarborough Fair? Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme…” I only knew those two lines, and I kept stubbornly repeating them, humming them in defiance as I focused on reaching the Victoria Terminal. It wasn’t a song, anymore; it was a chant of determination. I was telling myself “I am gonna make it, I will pull through.”
Three years later I heard Simon and Garfunkel sing Scarborough Fair, live on the stage, in Wellington, New Zealand, and I wept without shame—all the crushing emotions of being alone and ill in Bombay sweeping back over me….
I did get to the station without help, and I bought a second class ticket to Madras. Still humming Scarborough Fair through clenched teeth, I boarded the train. I was powerless to argue about seats. The weak and ill have no chance of negotiating in India. I could not care less about the world around me. I took down the bags and suitcases that other passengers had stuffed into the overhead luggage rack and, with effort, crawled up there, myself—stretching in the netting, stowing my own bag under my head—just like a rough bivouac in a hammock on a rock wall. One passenger got up to complain about my behaviour. I stared in silence down into his raving face, and when he stopped for a breath I opened my eyes with my fingers to show him the yellow color, and I whispered: “I have hepatitis. And I do not give a damn.” That shut him up.
It was Christmas Day. My first Christmas away from Europe, and I spent it curled up in an overhead luggage rack on the Madras Express, for the entire 36-hour trip….By the time I slid down the two steps to the platform in Madurai, I knew that I had broken the sickness’ back, and my body was on its way to recovery.
…I took a small clean room on the ground floor of a pension around the corner from the main temple, and I settled in to wait until I felt better. Christmas I had spent curled up like a used paper bag in a luggage rack on a train. On New Year’s Eve I felt strong enough to venture into the streets, to celebrate. Indian street life continues vigorously into the late hours…not as revelry, but as ordinary activity in the cool evenings. On the last day of the year there was nothing to distinguish it from any other day. By midnight everyone was asleep, streets were dead, resonating to the snores of the homeless bedded on the pavement. Indians do not celebrate the same New Year that we do. Nobody took any notice, nobody lit fireworks, nobody cared. The central government in Delhi ran its affairs by Western calendar, but both main religions, Hinduism and Islam, counted time in their own ways, aligned with the moon.
New Year in Madurai awakened me to the fact that even basic preconceptions that we assume to be universal do not reach past Istanbul. White man, in his cultural arrogance, because he doesn’t know any other way of looking at things, thinks everyone else in the world agrees with his point of view. Sitting on the pavement that night, reflecting on the different calendars that people use today, I came to realise that what we think of as the world, or the world that counts—this essentially white, Western, Christian world view—is a minority opinion, if you take the earth’s population as a whole. Hindus…the Chinese…one billion Muslims…just these three blocks comprise more than half the world’s population. Then come smaller groups, like the Japanese, who still count years from the ascension of the current emperor, and who only celebrate Christmas Day because it happens to be the birthday of their Emperor. Add countless smaller groups who all have their distinct ways of looking at the world, and then tell me: What makes us think that the way we see things is the world norm?
We need to be reminded that the world is a much wider place than what our teachers depicted at school, and that in many places our domineering culture is seen as invasive, immature, barbarian, and not up to the standard. Happy New Year, man.
—text excerpts from Out of Census by Kristian Larsen, 2012. All rights reserved.
I’ve been told that you have never really been to a place until you have been seriously ill there. I also know that there are few things as miserable as getting sick in a strange place..having to find your way to local doctors or pharmacies, having to explain what’s wrong or what’s needed through the language barrier, and having to look after yourself because nobody else is going to do that for you. It’s a very lonely feeling. But if you pull through, something about your relationship with that place is changed. You have been tested, and triumphed. The unfamiliar surroundings hold little terror or fear for you, after the ordeal, and, strangely enough, you feel as though you finally fit in…belong there, just a bit more. A price has been paid, a part of you has been taken, and the place cracks open like a nut, in return.
Often, the only way out of the terror is through the terror. Have you ever taken that path? It can be an amazing experience, and no words can describe the personal power and strength that washes over you when you emerge on the other side.