When I was in India, I gave away all my money and most of my possessions and became a beggar for a month and a half. A few Western travelers take this path. India shakes them like dice. Life there smashes Western preconceptions, and once those are gone, anything becomes possible.
I was 22, and I’d been wandering around India and Sri Lanka for almost a year, seeking adventure, enlightenment, and a boyfriend. I was almost ready to give up on all three, weary and in despair. On a bright January morning, I sat down at the Sunshine Café in Colaba, Bombay’s hotel district, and ordered tea. The man at the next table turned and asked if I had any antibiotics. He was gaunt and stringy-haired, with skin the horrid parchment yellow of the opiate addict.
“I have this infection,” he explained with a faint English accent, showing me the lump of pus on his forearm. That’s where he fixes, I thought. I had encountered junkies in India, but I’d never made friends with one, so this gruesomeness was new and fascinating.
“I don’t have any pills,” I replied, “but I have some antibiotic cream that might help. I’ll get it for you later. I’m staying at the hostel across the street.”
“Thanks a lot. I’d really appreciate it. Have you just arrived in Bombay?”
“Yeah, yesterday, from Goa.”
“Where are you going next?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Nepal maybe. By the way, do you know where I can get some visa pictures taken?”
“Yeah, sure. I’ll take you there.”
Abruptly, he turned back to the Indian man sitting at his table.
“Did you hear about this business with Richard, it’s too much! I get involved to help out, and all I get for it is trouble.”
“What happened?” asked the Indian. “I heard some German guy got his passport ripped off. You got it back for him?”
“Yeah, he was running around blabbing about it, and we knew who did it, I mean Richard’s a friend, but that’s bad business, stealing passports, and he wasn’t being cool about it, either. So Gilles and I went to talk it out of him, and everything woulda been okay except the hotel manager went and called the cops. Then Richard, the bastard, what a friend, tries to pin it on me! The cops take my passport, Gilles and I get kicked out of the hotel. For trying to help! But people in Colaba know me, they all tell police I’m okay. I’m always straight with people, everyone told them.”
“That’s right, Garry,” the other man nodded, smoothing down his shiny hair. “You always honest, all Colaba people know that.”
“I’ve done a lot of favors for people here, a lot of business and never cheated anyone, you know that, Misra. And now this son-of-a-bitch Richard tries to drag me down with him. It makes me sick.”
“No, you good man, Garry. Everyone in Colaba telling. Don’t worry. So what you doing now?”
“Ah, I’m not feeling too good, got this infection, and now I have to go to the police and get my passport back. Been staying at Hassan’s place. Don’t get much sleep there, but they’re good company. Yeah, I’m the night manager.” He snickered, looking at me. “Nice guys. Made me the night manager.” He laughed again, and I smiled blankly. “Come on,” he said, “I’ll take you to the photo shop.”
We stepped out into the sun and headed down Best Marg. In four blocks we were stopped three times by men who shook Garry’s hand and drew him aside to talk. At last we progressed to the photo shop, and I had my picture taken.
“So what’s there to do on a Monday afternoon in Bombay?” I asked. “You must know this town pretty well.”
“You like to smoke opium?”
“Sure, why not?”
“Let’s get a cab.” He told the driver to take us to Sukalaji Street.
Sukalaji Street. I grew up in Poughkeepsie, New York; not actually in that upstate city but in a housing development molded around hills and woods outside of town. It was the ultimate in affluent middle-class security. Ever since I left the cozy lap of Overlook Estates, I had been trying to escape the boredom that the place had warned me was my lot. But it isn’t easy to fight the habits of suburban banality, and even though I was in exotic India, my adventures had been coming out half-baked. The sex and party mania on the nude beaches of Goa had been as unromantic as Sri Lanka’s meditation retreats, and I was feeling like a failure as an adventuress. Now, in the space of less than an hour, I had jumped the tracks of convention in no less than three ways: I had made the acquaintance of a bona fide junkie, I was heading for an opium den, and I was about to visit a mysterious place called Sukalaji Street.
Order the book on Amazon.com.