The Search Continues (July 1, 2006)

I knew it. I knew it. I knew it. But did Captain Dutt listen to me? No. No. No.
Now here was this young man, Murugan, telling me he and a bus driver saw my bag fall off Kali as their bus and my bike passed each other on the dusty road out of Pushkar.

I had tried to get Captain Dutt to question the people at the bus stand; the one directly across from the police station, but he had informed me that he knew what he was doing and that to question bus passengers would be a waste of time. But I had always had the feeling a bus was involved. I guess my subconscious had picked up on its presence, lodging the information in my gut.

“I have been reading the ‘lost ads’ every day in hopes of finding the bag’s owner,” Murugan said when I asked him how he found me, “but there was no ad.”

Ah, the ad in the lost and found section of the paper. The waiter in the restaurant at the Rajasthan Tourist Bungalow advised me repeatedly (it seemed to be his mission in life at one point) to place an ad in the local paper, but when I rode to Ajmer to do just that I was told the price would be Rs.1200 ($40). In a developed country the price might seem reasonable but in India Rs.1200 was what a policeman makes in a month. It, however, was more than just the price; I simply did not think placing an ad would do one bit of good. I was wrong. So, the lesson in this is: listen to the local people when they tell you how to do something; they know what they are talking about. When Murugan failed to find an ad telling him who had lost a lost camera, he said he began conducting his own search.

“I knew I was looking for a foreign man on a simple Bullet, but most foreigners have fancy bikes, so I was not having luck finding your Bullet. Just now I saw this simple bike in front of the police station and you in the courtyard. But still I wait for the man you must be with. Then I think, maybe SHE is the man and decide to ask you,” Murugan said.

I wanted to grab and hug him for being brave enough to ask me a second time if I had lost a bag after I rudely tried to get rid of him when he approached the first time. How foolish I had been to try and blow him off because I wanted to be left alone in my misery. What an opportunity I had nearly missed because my mind was closed to anything but myself. I would beat myself up later over this, for now I wanted to know where the bag was and how I could get it back.

“The driver has taken it home. I told him to because I did not feel it would be safe to leave such valuables in the bus terminal’s lost and found,” Murugan said as he began to tell the tale of my bag’s whereabouts in the flat, mocking, tone not at all like the singsong sway Indian’s usually speak in.

Murugan’s way was soft and shy, and while I could barely contain myself from shaking him to speed his story along (perhaps I harbored some delusional hope that by shaking him my bag would fall from his body like the pieces of Kali fell to Earth), I managed to control myself enough to ask the civil questions one is bound to in any society. Meaning, I asked him about himself.

He was a hotel tout. His job was to round up foreigners as they stepped off the bus when it arrived in Pushkar and convince them to check-in at the hotel he hustled for. Since he worked on commission, he would say anything to boost the hotel’s glory in an attempt to rock firangs into plunking their rupees down on the hotel’s counter and scrawling their names in the registration book. His skin was dark and tough like that of a beetle’s back and his eyes looked runny behind thick fluttering lashes. His face was round and innocent. His posture that of a boy’s.

Murugan said he had not reported finding the bag to the police.

“I had some trouble with them last year,” he said looking at the ground and the fine layer of dust covering his feet like mesh.

I tried to get him to elaborate on “trouble,” but he only shook his head and said it did not matter. I suppose it really did not matter. All that mattered to me at the moment was getting my bag back.

“I will ride with you,” Murugan said, “but you must bring the motorcycle over here.”

We were standing at the end of a row of snack shops and Kali was parked across the way in front of the police station. Whatever trouble Murugan had had with the police had left a deep fear of them in him.

I tried to convince him we should take an auto rickshaw to the driver’s home, telling him riding on the back of Kali would be painful for him since I had removed the passengers’ seat and replaced it with an iron rack. But he said no, that the Bullet would be fine. I suspected Murugan was looking forward to a ride through town on the back of a Bullet driven by a Western woman. Especially since I was opting to not wearing a helmet at the moment.

Kali idled beside Murugan and he stepped next to her and swung his leg over her rear. He sat tall and ridged, his hands plastered to his thighs like flies stuck to flypaper. Between us I could feel the gulf of physical distance and the gulf of cultural difference. In India it was okay for a wife or sister or daughter or any other female relative could ride behind a male relative on a motorcycle or scooter, but what did I mean for a man to ride behind a woman from a far off land? What did it mean to Murugan? What did it mean to the people who saw Murugan and me?

Our physical disconnectedness made handling Kali difficult as she lurched left and right on the road lined by cornfields. I had learned in my motorcycle training course in the States that the rider had to “become one with the bike,” and that passengers had to become one with the rider. That was not happening now as Murugan leaned away from me providing a respectful distance between us.

The sun was into its afternoon decline as Murugan and I set off. I assumed Murugan knew where the bus driver lived. I assumed Murugan and the bus driver were friends. I assumed we were on our way to the bus driver’s house.

“Turn here,” Murugan shouted in my ear as we neared a crossroad.

I asked Murugan where we were going and he replied, “I will tell you as we go.”

I did not mind the secrecy because it did not feel like secrecy. I had lived in India long enough to know that things were done differently here. Besides, Murugan could not give me a street name, address, or even a location because I did not know where I was.

The bike bumped along the crooked road and the few people who walked in the road quickened their paces to get out of our way when they heard Kali’s thumping engine behind them. Our destination turned out to be the central bus station, where we learned that Mr. Amar Chand Bhadana—the bus driver—had called in sick that day.

“Now what?” I asked. “Should we go to his house?”

“I do not know where he lives,” Murugan said. “But you go wait for me by the motorcycle and I will have a chat with these bus wallahs. I think they do not trust you.”

I was not going to argue my honesty, but I did begin to wonder about Murugan’s. As I walked toward were Kali was parked I began to wonder if there was some secrecy going on that I needed to concern myself with.

“Let us go,” Murugan said, hoisting his thick leg over Kali’s rear and settling upon the rack that had once been the “lady’s seat.”

“You have his address?” I said, turning my head slightly so he could catch my words in the wind as I rolled on the throttle.

“Follow my directions,” he shouted. “Take this road.”

We are out of Ajmer within minutes, leaving behind the choking black fumes produced by the busses and cars, and into the country where the air smelled of grass and damp earth. But just as quickly as we had left Ajmer, we entered a small village’s noisy market. Children squealed and chased each other between rickety carts piled high with vegetables as women meandered in clusters of three or four, examining the tomatoes and green beans as if they were judging them for a county fair.

I rode through the twisted lane and as I did I felt Murugan’s hands creep from his thighs to my hips, and felt the brush of his lips near my ear as he leaned closer to give me directions over the din of the market’s noise. Murugan was becoming familiar with me and in the process losing his respectful distance.

I was wondering if I should do something about his new attitude when I looked over and saw a cow with horns painted pink charging in our direction. Her mouth was stuffed with stolen greens she had snatched off the cart of a sabzi wallah as he sold bundles of cilantro to a woman. The man selling the vegetables and herbs grabbed a tomato and winding his arm up like a pitcher, hurled it at the bandit cow. That started her running wild-eyed in our direction. The market was too narrow and crowded for me to get out of her way and all I could do was steady myself for a blow.

“Watch out!” Murugan said.

The cow’s hard, flat head slammed into my clutch hand, smashing my pinky finger and ripping a chunk out of Kali’s soft handle-grip. She wobbled—Kali, not the cow—and I over-compensated, shifting too much weight left and nearly butt-ended an old man. Murugan hands slid up further on my body, tightened around my waist.

“You must be careful,” he said loudly, once I had regained control.

I felt a little grumbling in my throat but bit back any comment I might have for him at that time. After all, he knew where my camera and stuff was and how to get there.

“Stop here,” Murugan said when the market ended abruptly at a block of houses.

Relieved to find the driver’s house so easily, I relaxed as Murugan trotted toward a cement house with a welcoming blue porch. A woman in a cotton sari stepped out from behind a screen door and she and Murugan spoke for a few minutes, then he returned to me and boosted himself back onto Kali.

“The driver’s not home?” I said.

“This is not his home. I was merely getting more directions.”

Of, course. How could I have imagined it would be so easy to find the driver’s home? Had I not lived in India long enough to know that there was indeed an intricate and mysterious way of doing things here? India was, is, a land of mystery. Things are not as they seem. Things are not as you think they are. One of the first things I learned upon moving to India was that the Indians have a way of communicating that was invisible to outsiders. They have a way of knowing things that seem to come to them on the wings of air.

When I first moved to India I lived in the barsati apartment of Mr. and Mrs. Gupta in Gulmohar Park. They had a “houseboy” (a servant) named Shankar and it was through him that I first learned of this mystic communication. In India servants do not have rooms of their own and usually sleep on rooftops or hallway or back porches. They do not have private phone lines or even much time to themselves. But they did have the rooftops, and late at night when the families they worked for had gone to bed and the moments were theirs alone, Shankar told me the houseboys gathered on their rooftops and call out to one another in their village languages, passing secretes and household information back and forth like spies smuggling diamonds.

But knowing something and having it a part of your life are two different things. I knew of India’s secrets and still I could not comprehend them. Murugan knew what he was doing, and he steered me through lanes, neighborhoods, and markets gathering more and more information as to the location of the bus driver’s home. It was as if everyone had a small piece to our puzzle and without the cooperation of all we would be lost. Such a joint effort by a group of strangers is what makes life magic, I thought as I skirted around water puddles.

“There is a bus driver living in Diggi Bazaar,” a bent, old man said, as he leaned against a fence, “but I do not know his name.”

In Diggi Bazaar another man told us a Mr. Bhadana lived across from the Mahabodhi Mission, but he was unsure if the Mr. Bhadana he knew drove a bus.

On and on we followed leads until two hours and eight stops later as the sky turned from the vibrant colors of a Kincaid painting to the watery hues of a faded cloth, we found the home of Mr. Amar Chand Bhadana.


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Is the book available yet?

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peter said...

Great story. As a new owner of a Royal Enfield Bullet 500 and having visited India I can relate to some of your story! Hope to read more or buy the book!


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Manoj Singal said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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Manoj Singal said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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