The journey took nineteen hours, the last twelve of which would be in daylight. The carriage was crowded and his seat was on the wrong side to see occasional glimpses of sea. The land was mostly flat and dotted with villages, towns and cities. Few countries and towns look good from trains, and this was no exception.
On leaving an almost clean and not too odorous toilet Frankie noticed a young man sitting on his tattered rucksack in the space between carriages. They chatted. His name was Jürgen, he was twenty-four, German, from Darmstadt, on an extended holiday with no itinerary or destination in mind. Frankie offered to pay for a seat, if there was one, but Jürgen muttered that it wouldn’t be an adventure if he was comfortable, which Frankie thought interesting, if a bit silly. He was clean, lean to the point of emaciation, deeply tanned, with a sharp nose, prominent Adams apple, pale grey-green eyes that seemed reluctant to stay focussed on anything, and a scraggy beard. His teeth were good but more old ivory than white, and his dark brown hair was cut very short, apparently by himself with blunt scissors. A niggling concern for the strange fellow saw Frankie offering to meet him outside the main door of the station in Hyderabad. In a pleasantly accented voice devoid of enthusiasm Jürgen reluctantly agreed.
The journey became tiresome. Too many people walking up and down, gathering in chattering groups, opening odd smelling food parcels and treating the carriage like a picnic ground. Some were friendly and offered to share their food, but Frankie wasn’t in the mood, so smiled bravely and pointed to his belly, receiving nods of commiseration.
He kept wondering what he would do after seeing Sadu. He didn’t want to go home. He wasn’t ready for that. The last weeks had sucked him out of the world he considered normal, into alien spaces that were normal to many more millions of people than inhabited his world.
He thought about Kolkata and wondered if he should have stayed longer. The swarming metropolis made him think of a wide, shallow-domed ant nest behind the garage back at “85”. Inside, a warren of tiny tunnels, and if the outside was tapped the dome would instantly swarm with millions of tiny creatures pouring out of several entrances, ready to defend. Despite being blind, they managed never to crash into other inhabitants of their city. All were busy, all were physically individual, and all were inextricably constrained by a social web similar to that which humans call civilization.
Ok, so he didn’t want to go home, but nor did he want to be a tourist gawking at the giant forts and monuments to oppression, power and wealth of both Indians and British. That would be depressing. He wanted to be an invisible ant scurrying around, discovering what it would be like to be one of the local ants. And then he felt stupid. How could he ever understand what life for the vast majority of Indians would be like? His relative wealth was the least of the differences between them.
The journey took an hour longer than expected and dusk was falling as he descended at Nampally Railway station feeling slightly woozy and stiff. After Howrah Railway station, the first impression was of an unnatural cleanliness and order, despite the crowds of travellers. Ignoring his obvious lack of luggage, several men and boys approached offering to carry whatever he had and take him to a good hotel, or show him the sights of the city. Very beautiful. Very historical, Big forts and lakes. He nodded thanks and dismissal, intent on securing train tickets for the rest of his stay.
During so many hours of thinking he had decided there were three things he wanted to see in India; Adam’s Bridge because Arthur C Clarke had mentioned it in one of his novels; Kanyakumari because in an encyclopaedia as a child he’d seen a photograph of a huge statue of a philosopher marking the southernmost tip of the sub continent. And Kerala because in a school geography textbook had been a photograph of a tropical waterway lined with magnificent palms, with an exquisitely handsome, slim, dark young man in a brief lungi, poling a canoe through the placid water.
After studying railway maps on the wall, he was served by a bribable clerk who, for only twice the regular price, sold him open tickets in AC Chair trains from Hyderabad to Chennai, where he’d stay two nights, then similar tickets to Rameswaram Via Madurai, then two nights later to Kanyakumari, again via Madurai.
On exiting he turned back to look and was delighted to see the station building was perfectly maintained; neatly painted cream with reddish brown trim, the car park empty of litter, the crowds not overcrowding, and, to his surprise as he’d been nearly an hour buying tickets, Jürgen leaning against a wall, looking twitchy. It was nearly eight o'clock, the sun had set and hunger led them across the car park and along a road to a T-junction with a busy road. On the opposite side was a building that would have accommodated wealthy British travellers in colonial times. Pinkish sandstone, two storeyed with covered verandahs on both floors supported on strong stone columns. Balustrades of sandstone filigree and an impressively sculptural stone roofline completed an image of past splendour. Hotel Royal Grand was the name of this salubrious establishment.
Frankie dragged Jürgen to a vegetarian restaurant on the ground floor that smelled wonderful, but Jürgen said he had to go.
He shrugged. ‘I’ll find someone selling flat bread.’
‘And where will you sleep?’
Another shrug. ‘Doss house. On the street. Doesn't matter.’
‘You could get mugged, robbed…’
‘I’ve nothing to steal.’ His eyes wandered, he nodded and turned away.
Frankie took hold of his shoulder. ‘You're skin and bone. I insist you eat a meal with me as my guest. Come on!’ He pulled an unresisting Jürgen into the restaurant, and after both ate themselves full, invited him to be his guest in a room in the Hotel Royal Grand, which, according to a notice beside a wide doorway further along the building, was upstairs where rooms cost a mere four hundred rupees. Jürgen shrugged and nodded.
As Frankie had discovered was so often the case in this miraculous country, the somewhat decayed exterior gave no indication of the interior, which was clean, polished, neat, and comfortable. Their twin room was at the rear where it was quieter. They showered in the spotless communal bathroom, slid between clean sheets, and discovered they were too wound up to sleep.
‘I have to pay you for the meal and room.’
‘No. You are my guest.’
‘I insist. All I have is my body, so it’s yours for the night.’
‘Is that how you’ve been living?’
‘For how long?’
‘I forget. I don’t keep track of time. A long time.’
‘Do you take drugs?’
‘No unnatural poisons enter my body.’
‘Unless one of your customers has a venereal disease.’
‘Diseases are natural.’
‘You want to die?’
‘I do not want life.’
‘Then get off the bus.’
‘I don’t understand. My English is not perfect.’
‘Top yourself. Jump off a tall building. Tie a rope around your neck and hang by it from a bridge. Why come here to play this game? Why not clog up the doss houses and pavements of Germany? Don’t you think this country has enough problems without you adding to them?’
‘In Germany I would be taken to a crazy house and force-fed and kept alive forever. They do not respect the individual’s right to choose for himself how to live.’
‘So you’ve come here where no one cares if you live or die?’
‘And you’re living in the crazy house of your own mind, keeping yourself alive forever. You might as well go home.’
‘I despise my country.’
‘You mean the people?’
‘Every person in Germany?’
‘I thought I was tired, but now I'm totally awake. Come on, let’s go and see Hyderabad by night.’
‘Because I’ll thump you if you don’t, that's why!’
They wandered for hours, avoiding busy thoroughfares and unlighted lanes, along narrow streets lined with two and three storey buildings, most with some sort of business at street level and offices or apartments above. Most food places were open and, although the streets were not as crowded as Kolkata, it was very busy. Everyone seemed to have an aim, a plan, something that pushed them on. The smells were alternately sweet and sour, rancid and savoury, interspersed with traffic fumes and always the noise of cars, motorbikes, air conditioners, people. Frankie felt as if they were the only ones wandering aimlessly. It was late when they returned, but the restaurant was still busy, and they flopped into bed with relief, falling asleep in seconds.
Breakfast was crispy flat bread, savoury balls and chilli sauce washed down with strong tea. Afterwards, they sat in the rear courtyard in silence.
‘So,’ Jürgen broke the silence. ‘You think I should kill myself?’
‘I think you should stop this pathetic wandering around like death warmed up, and decide once and for all whether you want to live or die. If you want to live, then bloody well start living, if you want to die, then decide when and how.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘If you decide to die, you might choose to hang yourself tomorrow, or in forty years time… that sort of thing. What you're lacking is a plan.’
‘You're right, I suppose. I've been like this for so long I… But wouldn’t it be weak to decide I want to go on living… for a while?’
‘The opposite! Living’s a bugger most of the time. Being dead is one long, delicious, dreamless sleep. It beats me why so many people are afraid to die.’
‘That's religion. They're frightened they won’t go to heaven or will come back as a slimy toad.’
‘They're the ones who ought to be in the crazy house, not someone who looks critically at human activity and says they don’t want to be a part of it.’
‘You mean I'm not mad?’
‘Far from it!’
‘Do you feel like that?’
‘Totally. But as the only certainty in my life is that I will die one day, I may as well hang around and see what happens; at least until it gets seriously intolerable.’
Jürgen grunted. ‘I came here to die… and was nearly dead, I'm sure of it. I hadn't eaten for three days. It wouldn’t have been much longer. Then you came along and now I’ll have to start all over again. It’s annoying and embarrassing.’
‘But you were still drinking water?’
‘Then you had several weeks to go. That would be seriously embarrassing, especially if some benighted German Christian charity woman came along and whisked you off to her shelter. But don’t worry, I promise to tell no one. Meanwhile, let’s hire those little electric motorbikes the young guys are riding, and go see the sights.’
‘You know I've no money.’
‘But I have, so here's the deal. You know this country better than me, so I’ll hire you as personal assistant for three thousand rupees a day, out of which you will have to pay all your own expenses. I don’t want you cadging off me all the time.’
‘Are you serious?’
‘Unfortunately, yes. That makes two of us in need of a crazy house.’
It was a perfect day. The bike-hire man sold them crash helmets and a map on which he drew neat red lines along all the easiest roads for novice riders to all the monumental places he thought they should visit. But warned them not to try to see everything in one day. If they hired the bikes for a week there was a discount!
It was a bargain and excellent advice. Relaxed, they could enjoy themselves, take their time, eat takeaways on the shores of Lake Durgam, spend a whole afternoon in KBR National Park, Drive past the new luxury residential tower blocks beside a lake, explore Golconda Fort. So many places to visit. So many interesting streets and lakes and people who, unlike the two Western dropouts, knew who they were, what they wanted and where they were going. On the surface at least, the inhabitants of Hyderabad appeared more cultivated, more intelligent and more sensible than the young men’s own countrymen, so many of whom succumb to depression and other mental diseases and need professional counselling if the electricity goes off for half an hour, or their cake doesn't rise.
Frankie found an Internet café, checked his emails and chuckled over a message from home in which, along with Sadu’s address, Ingenio, Constantine, Karmai and Sylvan had all added something. He wasn’t ready to return yet, but suddenly he discovered he wanted to - eventually, which was not the way he had felt only one day ago. Was he really such a flibbertigibbet?
Sadu lived on the fifth floor of a large apartment complex on a hill about ten kilometres from the centre of town, if you could call any part the centre. Like most giant metropolises, the city seemed to be a collection of towns and villages, and in reality remained that for most inhabitants.
Not wanting to arrive unannounced, Frankie telephoned first from a public phone in a nearby grocery store. A female answered.
‘Hello, I’m a friend of Sadu from Australia, my name is…’
‘Frankie Fey.’ The tone was not pleasant.
‘How do you know?’
‘I was in the same class as you in Melbourne. I recognised your voice. Sadu and I are married now. Why are you ringing?’
‘To find out when it would be convenient to visit him.’
‘Why do you want to?’
‘To see how he is. We were best friends. I was in the play he directed.’
‘As if I could forget that bit of pornography!’
‘It was not! It was…’
‘My husband is busy.’
‘You're jealous! What an insult to Sadu!’
‘Hold the line.’
Voices argued, a door slammed then a breathless… ‘Frankie!’ The enthusiasm sounded fake. ‘Where are you?’
‘Not far from your apartment.’
‘I’m married, with two children.’
‘My wife is…’
‘Your wife is jealous, suspicious and doesn't want you to have contacts from your past. I understand. Are you well?’
‘Yes. But I've gained weight. You would never approve.’
‘Have you remained active in theatre?’
‘My father in law has a thriving grocery business and I am his manager, so I haven't had time for wasteful things.’
‘I understand. Well, it’s been nice talking to you.…’ Frankie waited.
‘Frankie,’ Sadu’s voice was a mere whisper. ‘I'm so sorry. It’s just that the other students guessed about us and…’
‘And told your wife after you were married, and you can’t risk it being brought up again. I understand, I really do, and will keep the memory of you in Melbourne intact. Take care.’
Was that the slightest whisper of a kiss, Frankie wondered before sighing with relief that he would never be saddled with a jealous spouse or demanding kids. That was followed by a sigh of sadness that custom and culture had made a menial slave of such a brilliant man.
After a light meal at a pleasant outdoor restaurant beside a park that evening, he recounted the story to Jürgen, who nodded in sympathy for Sadu.
‘It’s a relief to know I'm not the only crazy person who’s going to spend his life doing what he doesn't want to.’
‘It’s not the same because your salvation is entirely up to you. If you had shackled yourself to a dependent and traditional family as he has, you would never be able to free yourself.’
‘Do you know anyone who is totally sane?’
‘My father and his partner. At least to me they're a hundred percent sane.’
‘Partner… as in…?’
‘I have no boyfriend—yet. And you?’
‘Open to offers, although I guess it’s time to give up, having waited and searched for years.’
‘Perhaps that's the problem.’
‘Waiting and searching. So many proverbs are wrong, All things do not come to those who stand and wait, and if you seek you will not find.’
‘Because none of us know what to look for or where to look! If you don’t know yourself, how can you know what will be good for you?’
‘What's the answer then?’
‘The answer, my scrawny friend, is to do what pleases you while remaining alert, open, ready to grab hold of whatever opportunities arise that interest you. One of the best proverbs is, “He who hesitates is lost”, because opportunity seldom makes a return visit.’
‘Am I really your friend?’
‘To my utter amazement, I have to answer yes. Not yet a bosom friend, but a likeable man whose company I enjoy – despite your miserable mug. What about me, am I your friend?’
‘No. You're my saviour. I'm not worthy yet, oh sage, to call you my friend, but given time… I hope to earn that honour.’
‘I deserved that. I know I'm a pompous pontificating prick, having been told it so many times throughout my life.’
Jürgen laughed. It was short, sharp and discordant, but genuine, and he seemed genuinely surprised at having uttered the sound.
Later, after a shower, lying on top of their respective beds in the old-world atmosphere of the Royal Grand, Jürgen asked diffidently, ‘Am I too scrawny?’
‘Too scrawny for what?’
‘To attract your kisses and caresses.’
‘No, but I’ve just said goodbye to such a friend in Kolkata,’ Frankie lied. ‘So I’m not ready for another amorous relationship.’ Even to himself it sounded false, but better than an outright, No, you're far too crazy for me.
‘I’m totally clean, you know!’
‘I noticed that in the shower. How did you manage it?’
‘I washed at every opportunity, of which there are many if you start looking, because so many people are dependent on public water supply.’ He sat up, leaned forward and stared intently at Frankie. ‘I ran out of money two weeks ago in Delhi. Someone told me about a street where young men sold themselves, and as I can pass for an Indian in the dark with the light behind me, I went there, was taken by a well padded man in a well appointed car to a quiet street where he parked and I performed fellatio. He smelled clean, but I didn’t swallow. Then he drove me back and gave me a thousand rupee note.’
‘Which you tried to spend, and discovered it was useless.’
Speaking rapidly as if afraid he’d be stopped before he finished, he blurted, ‘Yes. Then I let another man suck me off for a handful of smaller notes. About two Euros. After that I begged and felt awful because it was my choice to be there, so I was stealing money from the poor kids who had no choice. Then fellatio on about a dozen men let me live for a couple of weeks, then I stowed away on the train where I met you. Somehow the ticket collector kept not seeing me.’
‘Not a glorious tale.’ Frankie frowned as if he was thinking deeply. ‘You're lucky you didn’t catch any diseases. Ok, time to sleep. We’ll talk more in the morning.’
With a sniff that Frankie couldn’t decipher, Jürgen turned over and fell conspicuously asleep.
Frankie worried he’d been too brutal. But what else could he have done? He didn’t mind helping the guy, but he certainly didn’t love him and had no intention of being his brother’s keeper or lover out of compassion. He sighed and fell asleep hoping it wasn’t all going to end in nastiness.
The following morning, perched atop the battlements of an ancient fort, gazing across the old town towards a vast arrangement of towering high-rise apartment blocks bristling against the clear blue sky, Jürgen suddenly said, ‘What if I get another bout of depression? What if I suddenly take off again and mope around till I die?’
‘Is that a question or a crie de coeur?’
‘What would you do?’
‘Go home and carry on living? What did you think I’d do?’
‘You wouldn’t try to save me again?’
‘I can’t do it again, because I didn’t do it the first time. You did it to yourself by waiting at the station for me, so stop playing the hysterical melancholic and be honest. Were you enjoying yourself in India before you met me?’
‘Then why did you not just go home?’
‘Were you genuinely depressed in Darmstadt, or merely unhappy with your situation, feeling uneasy about being attracted to men, escaping a clinging girlfriend, trying to make yourself interesting by publicly quitting this life and telling everyone you were going away to die?’
Frankie’s laugh was triumphal. ‘You were! I’m right! You hoped they'd say, Oh poor Jürgen, he is such a poetic, suffering soul. And when you said you were leaving forever because life had no meaning, you hoped desperately they'd say. No! Please don’t go! Stay! We love you! But they didn’t. They put some money together to help you go. So you went. But when you realised it was better at home than scrounging your way across this poverty-stricken, overcrowded land, living in squalor and misery, you couldn’t return and lose face. You thought it really would be better to die than go back and face the sneers and jeers.’
Jürgen sprang to his feet, face red with anger. ‘Shiser! Schwule!’ he shouted, scrambling down the wall and disappearing around the corner of the fortress.
‘He had to be told the truth,’ Frankie sighed as he lay back on the grass and closed his eyes. ‘As the Tarot so wisely tells us, face the devil within and then you can face the world without fear.’ He dozed.
A shadow falling across his face woke him. He looked up at a large rock hanging a metre above his head. Reflexes literally threw him to the side where he gazed in horror at the heavy rock that had embedded itself in the grass exactly where his head had been.
Jürgen was standing, frozen, staring down. He turned saucer eyes to Frankie.
‘I didn’t want to. But you were so cruel! So cruel! Like everyone else you were laughing at me! Laughing at me.’ He sank to the ground, hands over his face, weeping, still whispering, ‘Laughing at me, laughing at me, laughing at me.’
When his heartbeat slowed, Frankie knelt beside Jürgen, put his arms around him and rocked him softly.
‘It’s Ok, Jürgen. Nothing happened. I understand. It’s all been too much.’
Jürgen turned his head and stared at Frankie. ‘But I nearly killed you! The first person who has been nice to me, and honest. You were right… That’s what it was like. I…’
‘Good man! That was brave to admit it. It means you're not crazy, just overwrought. Are you prepared to do one more brave thing?’
‘Aren't you going to ask what it is?’
‘No. Whatever you suggest, I will do. I promise.’
‘Good man. And I promise that you will soon be better.’
Seven hours later, Frankie watched an aeroplane take off on a direct flight to Frankfurt. Telephone calls to Darmstadt ensured Jürgen would be met and not reprimanded or laughed at or made to feel stupid. Frankie had been adamant about that. He would not put their son on the plane if he thought he was going home to the same sly taunts that had driven him away. That really got up the parents’ noses, but they promised, and Frankie heaved a huge sigh. Other people’s problems took a serious toll on energy. But! He grinned. He was free again and filled with the urge to move on. He’d get a good night’s sleep then catch the morning train to Chennai.