India is paradoxical. One minute you’re in Paradise, the next minute you’re tumbling head-over-heels into the bowels of the Inferno. It can be infuriating if you let it get to you, but at least the mangos are delicious.
In February of 1971 my girlfriend and I were temporarily housed in the servant’s quarters of a wealthy Indian businessman’s villa in New Delhi. She had agreed to volunteer at an experimental school of which the businessman (for social reasons) was an unwilling patron, and in return we were provided with basic accommodation, with a pronounced emphasis on basic.
We inhabited the top floor of an airy two-story structure, airy meaning unfinished, as in lacking actual windows but possessing rough holes in the concrete wall where they would one day go. Just below us lived the resident gap-toothed gardener and his multi-generational, chattering family. It was a small self-contained space, unfurnished, consisting of one bare cinder block cell, I meant to say room, and a small tiled balcony that also served as the landing for a stairway that led to the flat roof above. The entire structure was vaguely Escheresque after a joint or two. Colourful saris and drying dhotis festooned a haphazard maze of washing lines on the roof, and I once became entangled in them. My girlfriend had to unwind me in the dark. On muggy nights the gardener and his extended family slept on woven rope charpoys up there, hoping to catch a cooling breeze, chirping away at one another like a flock of starlings. There weren’t enough charpoys to go around, so we slept in our room with the shutters over the non-existent windows folded wide open. A cement shelf conveniently held our Campingaz cooker and a few pots and pans, and the owner had kindly provided us with a foam pad of dubious provenance to use as a mattress. Just off the balcony there was a traditional Indian loo complete with contoured foot-rests and a chipped, sky-blue basin, and water tap.
We couldn’t have wished for a more genial arrangement. Except for the dysentery that had plagued me since departing Goa and refused to release its grip. The loo became my refuge, and I spent much of my time crouched in it, awash in self-pity, trading sad looks with the bug-eyed gecko who lived on the wall. Anyone was has ever suffered from dysentery will understand the misery I was in. Between bouts I read Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and, being young and impressionable, I decided to adorn my once-white sneakers with trippy, psychedelic designs. With a joint in my mouth and a palette of coloured markers arrayed before me, I transformed those worn-out sneakers into a garish canvas that shocked even myself.
Before long I had lost so much weight my girlfriend pleaded with me to go see a doctor. I cast the I-Ching, and in a roundabout way the yarrow stalks led me to an ominous quote from Thomas Cleary: “When flowing water...meets with obstacles on its path, a blockage in its journey, it pauses. It increases in volume and strength, filling up in front of the obstacle and eventually spilling past it…”
My stomach gurgled, and that was enough of a hint for me. I headed for a doctor the very next morning.
The businessman’s villa was in an affluent neighbourhood of Sunder Nagar, a haven of calm somewhat isolated from the frenetic pace of life that swirled through most of New Delhi. The nearest shops and small commercial enterprises were a twenty minute walk away. Off I went in search of healing.
So there I was, lurching down the road with an ungainly gait, kicking up dust beneath a row of neem shade trees, a six-foot-one-inch tall, sickly, pale, blonde foreign scarecrow with hair down to his ass, skinny as a rail, in an ill-fitting embroidered Indian shirt, wearing locally-tailored maroon bell-bottoms constructed of thin cotton flapping around his ankles, and wearing size 13 psychedelically adorned sneakers on his unsteady feet.
The first stone hit me in the centre of my back. It stung, a marble-sized projectile. I heard giggles, so I turned and looked up the road. A jeering group of urchins had gathered, maybe ten metres away. There were five or six of them. Another pebble flashed through the air and hit me on the collar-bone; that one really hurt. The kid had range. I couldn’t believe what was happening. Never before in India had I been physically assaulted, let alone by a bunch of fucking tweens flinging rocks. More stones came flying, and I had to dodge and duck, hands held high, batting them aside, frantically trying to protect my head. Furious, I charged at them, roaring from the bottoms of my lungs, windmilling my skinny arms like scythes. My guru would have shit; all those hours of supervised meditation erased in one fell swoop. They backed up, giggling, and grabbed handfuls of gravel to hurl at my face. The stress made my stomach churn and clench; it threatened to give up the struggle and let go altogether. I didn’t know what to do. I was physically, socially, emotionally and spiritually obliterated.
A man bellowed something from the road behind me and the little bastards scattered into the distance, still laughing. I was shaking with a combination of rage, indignation, fear, disbelief…I couldn’t believe what had just happened. My foreign privilege had just evaporated, along with my carefully cultivated yogic equanimity.
The man who saved me just waggled his head in that Indian way and walked away without saying anything. I trudged into the shopping centre and found the doctor, who waggled his head too and sold me an envelope of pills for my dysentery. I bought a pair of cheap rubber sandals at the corner shop, took off my Day-Glo sneakers and tossed them in a rubbish bin. I wanted no more unwanted attention. I began the long walk home, dodging all human contact by slinking through the neem trees like a chastised hound.
My girlfriend asked me how my trip to the doctor had gone.
“It was a little rocky, actually,” I said. “I got stoned.”
“Lucky you,” she replied.
“Literally,” I said. “I literally got stoned.”
“Oh you,” she laughed.
Lawrence Morgan was born in Miami, raised in Istanbul, and left home at the age of 15 to explore the world and have adventures. He currently resides in Scotland. His other writing includes Meal, Combat, Individual, Bottle Rockets, One, Two, Three, Hike, The River Guide Myth along with his superb pieces for Memoirist:The Curious Case of the Grandmother and the Frozen Mackerel, Island Fever, And Yener DancedThe Visa Siege and Herat, 1968. He was awarded the Memoirist biannual prize in April 2020.