Everyone already had a copy of Shantaran, but I was yet to be infected by William’s evocative portrait of Mumbai. So I got on a night bus the day I arrived in Mumbai and headed south. I had been in India less than twelve hours when I met Dom.
Dom gets on the sleeper bus four stops after Victoria Station – part of the two hours expended leaving the city before the journey south began. At first sight Dom looks either like a very ugly woman or a very ugly man – androgynous and quintessential rural breed of Britain with high flattened cheeks, setsquare nose and peach straw hair.
Dom flops onto the double sleeper bed behind me at the rear of the bus. Before I acknowledge his presence I hear the pertinacious declaration between the grill separating the sleeping compartments,
‘I don’t know about you, but this is India, so lets get fucking high.’
Despite my initial gender confusion there is nothing equivocal about Dom’s appearance – he’s wearing the ubiquitous, loose orange-yellow neo-hippy uniform of travellers in India. I explain to him I have just arrived in India and don’t know how cool it is smoking, and more importantly smoking charris on buses.
‘This is India, everyone gets high.’
Dom bought the charris at the bus stand while waiting for the coach.
‘It’s as easy to get as a packet of Parle-G’s,’ Dom adds as if the connivance alone legitimises the public use of cannabis. He shows me the deal. I’d never seen charris. The bag looks like fresh rabbit droppings, which is the precise observation Dom then makes. He rolls a joint and smokes it all to himself. Later on in the night he is busted for smoking on the bus. He sounds surprised when he tells me in the violet glow of pre-morning. He had come from Uttar Pradesh where he was working but said he had smoked on buses all over India. He was on a drug run down to Goa to score acid. When I ask what work he is doing, he is evasive and quickly manoeuvres the conversation to the girlfriend he left there.
She is twenty-six and divorced and Dom talks in vagaries as though he is undecided about returning − to her or the job he is again adumbrative and I catch the pungent scent of a traveller inventing them self. He calls himself, ‘the black sheep’ of his home village in England, but his precocious, intractable speech, in which he phrases everything as a truism makes his parlance all the more inane and provincial.
I wonder how a nineteen year old foreigner ended up in a Himalayan village with a girlfriend in her mid-twenties. But again Dom continues his knack for expressing what I’m thinking.
Dom explains how his girlfriend was married through arrangement and moved with her husband to Mumbai. The husband was physically abusive and treated her badly and when she wanted a divorce he contacted her parents to spread rumours through their village of her fraternising socially – unacceptable conduct in India’s strict Hindi community. So she returned to her village divorced, tainted and unwanted. Then she met Dom.
As the dawn starts to fill with the light of reality Dom talks with masochistic glee of the chance to meet her father and what he would do if he did.
We arrive as day breaks in Masupa. It is my second day in India – I’m shattered and decide to follow Dom on a path of least resistance. We share a rickshaw to Anjuna, the famous party beach of northern Goa. Within minutes he leans forward on the bumpy, winding road up over hills to the warm Indian water and asks the driver about getting LSD. The man appears neither responsive nor affronted by the request, but gestures for Dom to sit back.
Just like the heat and smell of shit I soon grow accustomed to the ambivalent Indian countenance emanating from their infamous head wobble. Without context it is confusing, infuriating and comical − just like Albanian and Bulgarian custom of indicating ‘yes’ by shaking their head or nodding to say ‘no’. It feels unnatural like they’re defying gravity or breaking some universal law.
At the time I struggle to discern the driver’s intention. But his wobbling head is clearly meant to neutralise Dom and avoid offending him while possibly indicating it’s a discussion to take place at a more appropriate place. I ask Dom shouldn’t he wait till he’s been in Anjuna a few days to make a deal – implying the double advantage of a good price and safe exchange away from me. But Dom talks in fatuous Cheech and Chong quotes that are lathered with pseudo Leary hallucinogenic rhetoric. And with the frightening bravado and invincibility of youth he states, ‘He could be an informer for the police… but i don’t think so.’
The tuk-tuk driver stops at a guesthouse on the main road away from the beach. I’m disappointed not to be by the ocean, the same ocean I grew up on. But I’m assuaged by the proximity of bed and surrender to the passage of commissions and back-handers that got us here.
After we agree on a price for two rooms I lay down on my bed starring at the ceiling fan while Dom eagerly beckons the driver into his room like a child. They talk business in thin voices that rise above the rafters between our adjoin rooms and blend into mumbled murmurs around the sussurant ceiling fan.
Dom enters my room afterwards and announces, ‘Two o’clock tomorrow,’ before he proceeds to roll a spliff.
It’s 7 am.
Deftly picking up the thread of our conversation before, Dom exhales and announces, ‘I’d never get caught for drugs.’ The smoke is reaching out, surveying Dom’s mind with implications of his drug deal − equally it drains the fatigue embalming my brain with new sense of alarm over the risks of being associated with Dom.
I see extreme poverty and corruption as universal consorts. I’m unsure if this is born of time and experience − but I know enough to see India is a highly corruptible place. I see it through the haze of pollution that clings to the sweat on my skin and hairs in my nostrils. Proof of guilt is never essential or even necessary in places like India. The simple notion of innocence and guilt in an officer’s head is more concrete than intent, evidence and judgement.
In cultures like India where respect and honour are paramount Dom wouldn’t have a chance without a fat wallet. But my final warning before sleep is met with intransient aloofness of international backpackers.
‘I would never get caught for drugs,’ Dom reiterates and before bidding me good-morning night he adds, ‘ Id put up such a fight they’d have to let me go.’
I realised what a dangerous young mind I faced and already set plans to put some distance between us.