A man with a flaccid penis drifts by me in the train station of Varanasi. Except for a beard covering half his torso he is completely nude, and just as I see his swaying comportment beginning to cross my path, it then plummets into the railroad tracks, falling towards the heavy iron rails the way one might fall onto a softly pillowed couch after a long day at the office.
When I am on the train I can think of little else but the fall. It seems he was…I’m not sure what to insert into this slot. Drunk? Poor? Desperate? Really really old? Perhaps religious? My imagination takes off, pondering the man’s fall the way Sherlock Holmes might ponder a crushed hat lying in the street (though with far less finesse): During a routine parachuting, this elderly adventurer’s loosely worn dhoti was yanked from him by the elements, and due to the pre-jump elevation sickness, found himself in a nude daze, his head bopping to Purple Haze, resulting in what seems to be..what certainly was, it seems…it seems…
I am so benumbed in my memory of this event that I barely kick my feet off the side of the train, or bother to look out the window, so that when my traveling companion’s bag is stolen in the middle of the night and I am charging through each compartment of sleeping saris searching for the stolen passport and credit cards, when the police with Rajastani mustaches and thick eyebrows finally arrive holding uzis and AK-47s, when we are sitting in the station in Kolkata wondering if we are ever getting home, and even when, nearly a day after the fall, hotel owners start throwing our luggage into the floods of the monsoon, refusing to let us in without a valid passport and we have to trudge for hours through a street flood that has risen to my waistline, waiting for pity, our tears never showing through the pouring rain, I am still in that Varanasi station on an otherwise normal day, watching a nude man plummet into the train tracks. The police did nothing, everyone else was paralyzed in a state of shock. I am now beginning to remember someone does leap in, kicking away the giant rats who had come to explore a new piece of roadkill, pleading with the guards to find a pair of trousers, ordering a clerk to bring some chai, sitting the old man near my luggage.
How does an entirely nude Indian man get all the way from the platform staircases, the corridors of the station and the hired guards, to my end of the train? Had he been nude the entire time? Had he really walked through the entire train station without anyone giving a damn? That is, until it happened?
As we are walked off the plank of our fifth hotel, back into the waters of the monsoon with my laptop already permanently damaged from the floods, I begin to count the things we still have. The clothes on our backs. We have toothbrushes and bones. Defeated eyes. Variegated silk from Benares. Contemplation of the vacant railway. We have words that have hibernated for so long in our mouths, finally beaming in, we just have to keep our heads in the right place, I repeat, and repeat. I even have an adage: The greatness of a man is not in their achievements, but in the way they react to tragedy. No longer with the privilege of cynicism, deprived of our sense of distance, we are comforted by every cliche’ and overdone song lyric that comes to mind.
Hours into our plight we are sick with exhaustion and wet to our chests, so we wetten the floors of an internet cafe. As my traveling companion calls her loved ones, reliving the moments again and again, I cannot forget that we are still in a place of abandon. No proof of identity whatsoever. The hotel managers and landlords still refuse to let us in, assuming perhaps that she is a prostitute from Nepal or Myanmar, that I am trafficking her across the border after promising to marry her. We are already on our way to Sonagochi, where I will sell her to the highest bidding brothel. When I show them her police report they snicker at the stamp.
I am in Kolkata.
We have mother-of-pearl bangles. A new bedcover three sizes too large. An ineffable urge to fly away from wherever we are. Songs that strangle.
I have left her in the internet cafe. I am back in the river in the street, heading towards that intersection where the current is pushing against me. A black bull has somehow retreated to a rooftop. Children in school uniforms laugh gayly in the rushing flood, surrendering themselves to the rush of waves. I take slow, careful steps; I cannot see where my feet are in the brown river. With every step I hear the crunch of an enervated body, the exhausted succumbing of a man onto thick iron rails, a man who, it seems, must have, it seems…
In the water I begin to lose it, and as my body gives out, all those things on the tip of my tongue shoot into my brain. There was a time, years ago, in a bar somewhere, someone asks me what the title of my research paper is on, and I cannot think of a quick and humorous response. He is short and has a smug smile, I’m not sure if he’s serious. Meanwhile I am watching my body in some berserker, screaming at the flood, thrashing its arms about in redundant paroxysms. The title of my paper? I say, returning that smug smile. Isomorphic Agrarianism and the Half-life of the Hyphen. That’s what I should have said!
At perhaps the eighth hotel, I meet Phillip, an Indian man with a small mustache and wearing tucked in plaid. As I tell him what perhaps has happened to us, his fists clench in a rage that I am far past, but I accept him as my avatar, he can feel my anger and rage and I can sit placid in numbness. He offers us a room, tells us everything is going to be all right, is already waking up the old cliche’s in his mouth. Just do not worry now, you must keep your head. He has relieved me of so many duties.
An hour later I bring my companion to the hotel. Phillip assesses the situation. You have no copies of your passport. No identification at all. No money. No credit cards. No cell phone. You have nothing. Nothing. Do you know what it means to have nothing? In this country?
It seems we just appeared, waiting to be picked up.