Sunday, October 10, 2010

Old friends and charred meat, such is how i proceed

I met up with Saleem this night.

Saleem is the cousin of my friend Aneesa, the lovely woman who introduced me so perfectly to Mumbai two years ago, back in 2008. I was 19 and a bit of a drunk then, and so was Saleem, and we got along like a house on fire, chiding each other into ever-stupider feats of consuming Old Monk (a vile but cheap Indian rum) and spicy meat kebabs. Saleem and his family are Muslim, and he was (as I recall) forever figuring out ways to stay out late without attracting the ire of his parents, or figuring out a way to sneak back home, or figuring out how he could sneak out of going to the mosque in the morning, and all of this lent an aura of espionage to the affair. Saleem trying to be cool in the fashion of Indian youth and (surprisingly) mostly succeeding, a bit of swagger in his step, as we messed with each other, teased each other about pretty much everything. He was always concerned about me, in the fashion of the Indian male, and never quite certain that what I was doing or how I was conducting myself was wise.

"You're too brave," he'd tell me, as I walked out into traffic or snarled at a taxi driver again, "You're too brave." To which I'd smile and skip on down the street - so what, the Saudi sex slave traders hadn't got me yet, and Mumbai was filled with the lightness of being (to me), so what, and he'd follow behind.

Aneesa considering our meeting, before I arrived in Mumbai. "This is a bad idea, you know. My cousin loves Old Monk and partying, he's just like you." Sarcasm. Rarely or never have I had such fun. I hope he did too.

Shivaji train station.

I thought he was dead for a day or two after the Mumbai attacks. This is part of the inevitable post-tragedy scramble, for those who know someone caught in the maelstrom, the cloud that terror places over a place. He reappeared on Facebook, and I was very glad.

We met at the Woodsides - it was late, because he couldn't get off work until later then usual, and then the trains were snarled, as they always are in Mumbai.

He hadn't changed his appearance at all, and I guess neither had I. "You look the same," we both said to each other, and our voices were relieved.

The Taj hotel.

Our lives have both been startlingly successful, for a couple of loud-mouthed punks with an affinity for trash liquor and bad behavior. He has secured a good job doing recruiting work for IT companies, and enjoys what he does. I am legitimately employed in journalism, and moving to Cambodia. We have made something of ourselves, mostly.

The inevitable romance talk, what we have got, or what we had. Had in my case (approximate), briefly and extremely pleasantly, with large and unmovable barriers at the end of it - the finality imposed by I Am Moving to Cambodia and Not Coming Back.

Saleem discusses his girlfriend, who is Christian and Catholic, although apparently this does bother him. "Yes, with her - you're dating someone, and suddenly - well, you're together, it's very sudden." The look on his face is one of pure affection, and of wonderment at his own great good fortune. If I could photograph that and send it to her, she would appreciate it. Any thoughtful woman would,

He's hungry, though he says he's not as hungry as he thinks he ought to be. It's Ramadan, near the end of it, and he's become used to it. He explains why he's adhering to the rules, although he isn't exactly the most moral guy on the planet the rest of the year. "I feel like I'd better be extra good when it really matters," he says, his face contented. "Just to make up for the rest." No Old Monk tonight.

We eat at Bademiya, the outdoors kebab place located conveniently behind the Taj. It's a legendary place, and for good reason. There's packs of Mumbai youths sitting on their cars or their motorbikes and wolfing down large and greasy portions of ultra-thin roomali roti, boti kebab made of lamb chunks, spicy chicken parts and paneer curry and much much more.

Kebab guys.

I don't know how they function at Bademiya when it rains - doesn't it rain all the time? - but it's not raining right now, we can stand in the haze of smoke given off by the huge and ultra hot grills and order our food. "I remember this last time," I tell Saleem. "That was the first time I ever ate boti kebab, and now I know how to make it, I eat it all the time." Truth - it's impossible to get boti kebab worth eating in the USA. It's better to make your own, you and your recollections.

Bademiya chicken breast. Yum.

There's nowhere to sit, since we don't have a car or a motorbike, so we head back to the Sea Palace. The waitstaff are kind enough to look the other way when we tuck into our Outside Food. We order some roti out of a sense of pity. Once we finish the food - chicken and boti kebab and roti - we hunt around a bit for a bar nearby that will admit us. We do a few laps around the neighborhood talking, and finally end up at the rooftop bar next to the Sea Palace. We both order tea, after Saleem has a pointed argument with the waiter over the provenance of the iced tea.

Now time for the really inevitable discussion. November 2008. Not long after I left, that first time.

"I was headed to the Leopold Cafe that night, you know," he says. " My mom wanted me to do something, so I didn't go out, I was kind of pissed about it. And then all this stuff goes down."

"I spent two days in front of the television," I tell him, almost guiltily, because I wasn't there. "I couldn't turn it off, and it was Thanksgiving, but that wasn't important at all. I just remembered you guys, how often I went to the Leopold." Of course this was selfish. I spent those two days worried for Saleem and his family, but I also worried for myself, thought about how easy it would have been for me to go down in bullets at the Leopold, for me to be forced to crawl under a table and shelter myself, where just a minute before I had been sipping a trash whiskey and regarding my sketchbook with displeasure.

"All of us did," he says. "My family was stuck in our apartment for about two days, and we were just watching the TV too. We couldn't believe it was happening, you know?"

"But you're all right," I say.

"Yeah, I'm all right," he says, smiling. (Another personality trait we share. Laughing it all off).

I sip my nimbu-paani and think about near misses and about the iterations and twists of fate. A year ago my grandmother told me just about the same story, about when she had lived in Yugoslavia during the unpleasant years of the early 80s. "I was going to go to the produce market, where I always went, and then I decided to wait for a day. I needed to do some stuff at home. They of course decided to set a bomb there that day." As if this was regular stuff, but of course my grandmother, my grandparents, have always downplayed the great dangers and risks they have run, just another Tuesday and ho-hum, could someone please fix the dispose-all because it's clogged, you get the picture.

Both Saleem and my grandmother told these stories with an aura of surprising calm - though Saleem certainly wavered just a little more (I chalk it up to age, to experience and a certain incredible fierceness, my grandmother has plenty of both).

They tell these stories this way because they have to and because it is the only way to contextualize them. Something Saved You, something minor and stupid, that didn't even occur to you at the time. It was impossible to predict and nothing you could have controlled, and yet because of this you still draw breath, you still continue, you still wake up in the morning and do the same damn things you have done every day and will continue to do. Saleem and my grandmother both evaded the dangers inherent to a chaotic universe. I too have done so, to this point.

"These things do happen, of course," my grandmother said. "But you can't let it make you afraid. You'd be unable to get anything done, or go anywhere." Her meaning: there's luck, sometimes it holds and sometimes it doesn't, sometimes you're fucked and sometimes you aren't, there's nothing you can do about it, not a thing.

"You can't live in fear," Saleem and I agree over our tea. Two young people who have determined the universe. "You can't let Them make you live in fear."

The Leopold Cafe has preserved and framed the bullet hole in the mirror.

You go on, you reconstitute yourself. Maybe in water, for there is plenty of that here.

This is Mumbai, this is India's particular City of Dreams.

I go home that evening and I am thinking of two things. The first is the terrorist attacks, and how remarkable it is that such a pall doesn't really hang over the city, does not really hang over Saleem - they have picked themselves up and gone on, are Able to Talk About It, have relegated it to the past.

The second is more self involved. To meet Saleem is a strange thing, and a new thing for me. I am 22 years old and for the very first time I have felt (in confluence with another, my counterpart) the passage of time, the oncoming and slow but persistent encroachment of maturity. We'll never be that young again, we'll never be that stupid again, I think, remembering 2008 and Old Monk at the Taj.

I am 22 years old and have just had my first brush with eventuality - I think forward to five or ten years from now, and intersecting with Saleem again and again when I am in Mumbai, and the parallel continuing, advancing, and what it will turn into.

And I'm a little afraid. Not of the terrorists and maybe I should be, but of that, primarily that, of luck and how long it holds out.

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