Tuesday, October 22, 2002

sirrh! master! sahib! boy!

From zero to hero in the eyes of India's masses

By Jason Overdorf
(This article appeared in the Asian Wall Street Journal in October 2002).

Ali, my guide, and I lolled in a camel cart somewhere in the Thar desert in Rajasthan, India. I had given up on camel riding after having my own hump tenderized by the wooden saddle for several hours. Our two camel drivers played cards next to us, letting the camel plod along as it wanted.

"Do you think youll ever see the sea?" I asked Ali.

"No," said 19-year-old Ali, a clever and outspoken Muslim boy. "It's too far. It would take me three days traveling, so I would have to stay fifteen days."

Bikaner, Alis smallish hometown, lies smack in the middle of the Thar, perhaps 150 kilometers from the border with Pakistan and 800 kilometers from the Arabian Sea. On this unforgiving plain of baked sand virtually nothing grows except giant milkweed and the khejri tree, a dark hardwood that manages to survive by dint of exceptionally deep roots. In the summer, temperatures routinely top 50 degrees Celsiushot enough to burst your can of shaving foam. It is a desolate place, but also a beautiful one.

Here I hoped finally to shed my sahib skin. When I moved to India with my girlfriend four months ago, I was prepared to plunge into the street life, munch samosas with the sadhus and blab with the babus. But somewhere over the Pacific, I became a sahib--a sir. The transformation was no fault of my own. I am happy to scramble into third-class compartments, eat street food fried in suspect oil, and haggle over a dimes worth of Rupees. Its the Indians who made me into a big shot.

Being royalty isn't so bad. The trouble is that I have no control over when Im a sahib and when Im a sap. The Indians define me as it suits them. When they want money from me, I'm a sahib. In exchange for groveling sycophancy I am expected--required--to pay ten times market value for goods and services. The patter of a dubious guide near my girlfriends hometown of Madras drove the point home. "Sirrh, you take one guide, sirrh? You no take guide you no look see anyting." When I ignored him, he called out to me with increasing deference, until, giving up in disgust, he called me by my right name. "Sirrh! Masterrh! Sahib! Boy!"

I've attracted a string of pavement artisans to our posh South Delhi neighborhood. Hearing of the sahib's arrival through the network of housemaids, chowkidars and press wallahs, the trinket sellers have trooped up to our rooftop apartment, cap in hand, to see if the sahib was at home. You're not to buy anything, was my standing order from my foreign-returned Indian girlfriend. Arms akimbo, she barred the door to the woodcarving wallah whod buttonholed me in the street. He produced a pencil holder and tried to show it to me by thrusting it underneath my girlfriend's arm. But sahib told me he wouldn't be busy at six oclock, he insisted. After that, even my partner got into the act. Sahib is not at home, she now tells visitors when it suits her purposes--that is, when they call her Madam.

The desert would be different, I thought. There was nothing to buy, not even a packet of paan masala. Ali's aspirations, if not his experiences, were probably closer to mine than to those of our tribal camel drivers. With only the occasional goatherd as witness, we could define our own roles.

When the sun had reached its meridian, we veered off the camel track to stop under a khejri tree. The boys prepared a potato and chickpea masala for lunch, and after we had eaten, Ali declared that we would wait out the heat of the afternoon there.

"What other places in India have you visited?" I asked Ali.

"Jaipur, Jodphur, Udaipur, Ajmer," he said, rattling off a list of cities in Rajasthan. Hed never been far from the searing plains of North India. "And Delhi. I've been to Delhi several times."

"Don't you want to go to the Himalayas one day?" I asked. "Himachal Pradesh isn't too far away."

"Do you want to eat beef?" Ali asked before we sacked out.

I cast a sidelong glance at our Bishnoi camel drivers, a teenager and a boy not much older. Beef has the illicit romance of contraband everywhere in India, but the Bishnoi are more strict vegetarians, even, than the Hindu Brahmins.

"Not here," said Ali. " These are Bishnoi people. You can eat beef at my home, with my family." Was this Ali the procurer, or was this an opportunity to return as a genuine guest, our seller-buyer relationship concluded?

"Maybe," I said. "I might be leaving. It depends on whether I can get a train tomorrow or not."

That night the four of us slept on a sand dune under the stars. The camel drivers chattered in Rajasthani, laughing loudly every so often. Ali and I watched for streaking planets. He invited me to his brothers wedding in another month, he told me about his girlfriend and about his plans for the camel safari business he would open for himself one day.

"Someday you should visit the sea," I said. I suppose I was proselytizing.

That was the closest the two of us came to an understanding. I never made it to Ali's house to eat beef. In Bikaner the next afternoon, he warned me: "Don't tell anyone in the hotel that I told you where to get cheaper beer. And don't say see you later or make any plans in front of them. If they know I am taking you for eating in other places and telling you those things the owner may be angry."

By the time we reached reception, I'd become a sahib again. Ali stood outside my room deferentially while we tried to plan a time to meet for those cheap beers he'd told me about. But we both knew he was just waiting for his tip. I gave him one hundred Rupees, slipped into my old skin, and said goodbye.