Heat and Dust
November 20, 2008
I would like to bother you today with a story that pretty much sums up my life in India.
As you will see, my life is utterly glamourous.
I found myself sitting, one fine day of last year, on the second floor of Jaipur’s General Post Office. You might be interested in knowing why, in the first place, I was sitting there – one of the first rules I learnt in India being: Government Offices thou shall avoid.
I was sitting at GPO, my dear friends, because my beloved mother thought it would be nice to send me a little parcel of things I had left in her house in France. Warmly encouraged by me, she gathered some much-adored belongings of mine and set to send them. She did ask whether I wanted books too, to which I said no, for books alas are too heavy to be mailed. “But if you want to squeeze a pocket edition of Emily Dickinson, of course, feel free to do so”, I added.
She, instead – such is my mother- asked about a particular book which she thought I might want to have in my house in Rajasthan, but I repeatedly and vehemently forbade her to put it in the parcel.
She was referring to a beautiful coffee table book by Assouline called “Sex Games“. It is, like most Assouline books, well done and stylish, depicting the historical, social and cultural evolution of, well, sexuality, with hundreds of übercool pictures, song lyrics and breezy little quizzes. A sexy book I bought in the beautiful Assouline shop down the rue Bonaparte. But I decided it was better suited to my French coffee table than to the Rajasthani one and left it in France.
It has now been confiscated by the state of Rajasthan along with the whole content of the parcel my mother sent.
This is why, in as few words a possible, I was sitting in this office.
My mission was simple but taxing: I was supposed to argue, cajole and cry. I was to act humble and smart with the government officer in charge of my case, who in turn would be trying to make me feel so unimportant he could, while I was sitting with him, watch the cricket, pick his nose, catch flies in the mane of hair coming out of his ears, drink three chai, talk on the phone to half a dozen cousins, and extensively comment on the cattle fair held in his village. Which he did. Except that I did not resent him for that, and did not even obsess, after all, over my darling clothes and lost belongings.
The reason is: I was fascinated.
I have, my friends, been in many unclean places in India but this one made them all, literally, bite the dust. The chair I was offered with deference was smashed in the middle, hence forcing me to sit, so to say, on air. There was about four inches of dust everywhere, and boy, am I used to dust – I live in what is maybe the dustiest city in the world. But this was another level of dustiness. It was a thick black mean layer covering everything. Adding to utter dinginess of the place was ink, blue ink, everywhere. Furious scribbles that had penetrated deep into the office’s quintessence. Piles and peaks of yellow papers were scattered everywhere, as well as: lonely shoes, buckets, beedi butts and elements of a chair. It was noon and there were no curtains. Still, the room was dark, since nobody had ever cleaned the windows.
A crowd of very skinny men in Saturday Night Fever-ish shirts, and a few chubby women in salwar kameez passed by me, on to my friend the government officer who thought he’d give his precious feet some air and was hence making it impossible to breathe, so overwhelming was the stench.
I was in awe, enthralled in the whole atmosphere and completely oblivious to the destiny of my very dear clothes. I even sent a message to a friend in an attempt to share this moment of utter freaking beauty. He instantly replied: “Take your stuff and run.”
Which woke me up from my reverie. But as I was leaving the office (with an invitation to pay a fine and never recover my clothes since they came within a parcel of illegal, punishable, pornographic content), my eyes fell on the filthy window in front of me. Someone – I would love to know who – had put a sticker there. It was slightly torn off on the upper left side but what it said, everyone could read.
It read, in big black letters of a fine, elegant font: “Poetry builds minds’.