There be dragons and bandwagons

Last evening I wandered around in Mehrauli trying to locate someone I was supposed to interview. The cab-driver annoyed at being in dark, narrow lanes abandoned interest in the project fairly early on. He parked the matchbox and refused to budge. In the last few minutes of daylight, I saw that he had decided to park next to a bull. A huge bull straight out of the epics, mad as hell because of a skinny dog annoying it. So the bull was tossing his head and leaping about and the cab driver decides to park next to it. I am not a big believer in eugenics but I really hope he has no children. Anyway I snuck out of the cab and raced away. About thirty seconds later it was pitch-dark (Take the lane along the jungle, I had been directed on the phone. I had sniggered at the point but, what the hell, there are trees in Mehrauli.) The address matched what appeared to be an abandoned apartment building. There were no lights or signs of occupation. But there were an assortment of vehicles in the basement. I found a man squatting in the dark who said there was no lift and that I would have to walk up to the 4th floor. Even on the fourth floor there seemed to be no human beings. (Turned out there were plenty, but that's another story.)

As I groped my way upstairs, I was asking myself, why I felt such a strong sense of deja vu. Was it the perfect memory of a night about six years ago? My roommate and I had walked, as stealthily as we could, to the top floor of a dirty building where we thought a friend lay after being beaten up by our classmates. We had seen the grime and the broken glass of those stairs any number of times. But at midnight everything was terrifying. It is still jolting to remember that on the street, earlier, when we recognised the distinctive lopsided gait of one member of the lynch party, by his shadow, we had instinctively hid behind a wall. We didnt even need to tell each other that all of our classmates were such unknown quantities that they merited paranoia. Upstairs, we knocked for what seemed like a long time before our poor, battered friend answered the door. Later, my roommate and I compared notes. We had both thought that our friend had died. In reality, he wasn't badly hurt, just bruised and frightened. Usually tactiturn, it was near-impossible to prise the details out of him. We sat there for a few hours, holding his hand and trying to clean up his room. When the lynch party had arrived, his flatmates had considerately left the apartment, he said. After a while, he said that there had been some speculation among the mob about draining some petrol out of one of their bikes to set him on fire. One of the non-participating observers had demurred at that extent of permanent damage. So we had him to thank for the life and limbs of a frail, strange boy who was little more than an acquaintance.

The next day began the treks to the police-station, the discovery that friends had turned Judas, that there were acquaintances who said that the boy had it coming to him. Years later I wondered what would have happened if we had got there a tiny bit earlier, the two most unpopular women in that class. My ambitious, brilliant roommate had consistently made the rest of the class look stupid by being better at everything they wanted; I was wierd. I had slapped one classmate for feeling me up, threatened to break the Neanderthal jaw of another for feeling my roommate up. I wonder now what they would have done, those big hulking jeunesse doree. (They all now work for television companies, advertising agencies and PR companies. They were already so compromised then, tongues black from lying, spines bent in slavery. Could they possibly be any worse now?) What had we been thinking running in the dark from our safe little house to the dirty lane in which that silly boy lived?

Fear flourishes as we grow older. As our parents grow malleable, as children look absurdly small, as your skin seems thinner. The impossible-seeming grotesquerie of newspaper columns shows greater possibilities of becoming your life. You could be the one gored by a bull, bit by a rabid dog, hit by a runaway truck, raped in the basement, broken in a dark stairwell. That could be you. Every day becomes tamer and you remember your random acts of courage, truth and beauty with shudders. 'Anything could have happened. How did I do that then? What was I thinking?' In my case, each year has eroded the tiny store of physical courage I was born with.

What a comfort it is to sink into VI Warshawski's Chicago, a dirty corrupt town as familiar as one of our own dirty, corrupt towns. What a comfort it is to know Warshawski is that old-fashioned thing, a heroine. She jumps out of buildings onto moving trains, is beaten, slapped, jailed, tortured, betrayed and belittled. She is sweaty, dirty and constantly accused of being boorish or slutty or desexed. She is poor. What a comfort it is that at 43 she is still wishing for her mother and more money but jumping onto moving trains.

Like the crusaders, carry your sword and the Good Book into battle and let it be a Warshawski.


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