Saturday, November 28, 2009

Who Wants to Boogie with Baby '37?

Midwestern people are the nicest anywhere. They’re like Indians, but fewer of them want your money or steal your stuff. Seriously, though. The guy at the front desk of this motel greeted me friendily. Then he pushed his black lab’s snout back through the sliding glass door behind the counter as the dog mumble/growled something, prompting the owner to inform me, “He thinks he can talk.” Later, when I re-entered the lobby to ask about a nearby store, the clerk called me by my name, having remembered it from my credit card, and politely told me that the convenience store next door was open for another fifteen minutes.

In other news, the Iowan freeway has more stars than I’ve ever before seen. I checked again at the motel, and the stars weren’t as many or as bright, but on the highway, when I gazed out the window, I saw more and brighter stars than I’d ever seen.

It’s actually kind of lonely spending New Year’s in a motel room with the only entertainment being the epic comic duo that was Kathy Griffin’s playing the thirteen-year-old bully trying to scandalize the polite, endlessly patient grandmother who looked suspiciously like Anderson Cooper. As I sat there alone, I wondered if I was having one of those climax-of-movie moments where people realize that everything they’ve felt was important in life had been a terrible selfish miscalculation. But then I thought, sure, I’m lonely, but that’s why Kathy Griffin and Anderson Cooper are here. I also wondered why it was that Anderson Cooper covered terrible large-scale tragedies and New Year’s Eve.

Driving along the Illinois highway, I gazed to my left and saw the most amazing sight—the bright sun behind wide-angle clouds being puffed out of a short-squat smokestack beyond a field of green ‘neath an otherwise blue sky. That may not sound like much (though I think we can safely say it was rather impressively rendered), but imagine this—imagine if there were a jar of marshmallow fluff—but not just any jar of marshmallow fluff. This jar of marshmallow fluff has lived a life so admirable, so worthwhile, so selfless, that it without a doubt merited beatification. And imagine if this marshmallow fluff were minding its own business one day, coming home from work on the A train, and all of a sudden, it steps onto the platform, and some desperate, drug-crazed kid with a gun sticks a snubnose in its side and whispers, loud enough to communicate his unyielding assuredness and soleness of purpose, but not loud enough for any of the other commuters to hear (it’s a loud station, after all), “Gimme all your cash, buddy,” and Marshmallow Fluff, not having any pockets, as his only attire is a jar, and therefore opting to carry only a single credit card (and his subway pass, of course) saying, “I’m sorry. All I have is this credit card. And this subway pass, of course. They’re both yours. Here,” hands them over. But the drug-crazed kid isn’t logical. He can see that marshmallow fluff has nowhere to stash his cash—has no cash cache, as it were, but he doesn’t realize it. He doesn’t make the connection. All he knows is he took a risk, thought he’d get some dough out of it, and it pretty much failed. He’s mad. He’s scared. He’s downright crazy. He pulls the trigger, putting a bullet through the jar and square into Marshmallow Fluff’s side at point-blank range.

This is no flesh wound. There’s no obvious reason for hope here. This isn’t even anything from which hope could be excavated—Fluff’s not gonna make it. And, soon, all-too-soon, as the kid backs up, apoplectic over what he’s done, scarcely believing his confused anger of a second ago could have made him do such a thing—turned him into a killer—and is jumped upon and taken down by a dozen or so commuters who had been standing behind him, all he—all anyone—can do is watch as the soul, the saintly, the unblemished, the white-as-his-mortal-guise soul leaves Fluff’s earthly jar and ascends upward, through the exhaust grate, up, away from the street, and alone, solitary, through a bright, sky-blue sky, his work in this life complete, his work in the next just begun—only that could begin to approximate this sight I espied along the Illinois highway.

Friday, November 27, 2009


I left just in time to see the long sunset from the turnpike, casting the leafless trees in silhouette and looking lovely and kind of lonesome above the long flat stretches of land between Pittsburgh and Ohio. As I passed Lordstown, OH, I wondered what it’s like to be a dog there. Passing Ohio turnpike exits for Toledo and Ann Arbor, MI, I learned, in between French-language songs, that St. Boniface is Manitoba’s Francophone capital—knowledge that I had somehow navigated my whole life without. Here’s a question—how come people fluent in Spanish who grow up in the southern U.S. speak English with American accents, but people who appear on the St. Boniface radio station—people who, I assume, grew up in Manitoba—have funny accents that are distinctly funnier than those of regular non-Quebecois Canadians? Huh? (This is not a question of why Quebecois sound like they can’t speak English—the answer to that is because they can’t, the result of a conscious choice they all make and goal they all have.)

I stopped for the night when, just having entered Indiana territory, the rain began freezing on my windshield—something I’d never before seen. I pulled off the turnpike through an automated tollbooth. I saw signs for several chains, all of which I’d previously heard of. I decided to turn left, toward the Super 8 and the Holiday Inn Express, as opposed to right, where lay the Holiday Inn and another more expensive-sounding hotel. As I reached the intersection, I saw on my right a Motor Inn (or something similar) and, realizing that it hadn’t even warranted space on the lodgings-at-this-exit sign, pictured the myriad visitors who no doubt already knew about and chose that hotel in preference to the name brands, thus rendering a sign on the highway unnecessary—namely, cockroaches. This thought made me confident in my decision to choose either the Express or the 8. I came to the Express first, and, looking down the road and seeing only pitch blackness, choose it I did. I walked into the lobby and saw an eating area that looked surprisingly non-express. This made me wondered if the Express was ritzier than I had anticipated. Then I saw the pool and knew I’d been had. What’s “express” about a pool? What do they have at the non-Express Holiday Inn? Maybe the Express is actually better. Perhaps the normal one lacks the quick service and straight, easy-to-navigate hallways of the Express, instead possessing a stiff-jointed staff walking the labyrinthine halls of a layout reminiscent of the hedges in “The Shining.” Maybe that’s why it’s worth the $100 the clerk took off of my credit card as I took deep breaths—approximately 3.3333333 times as much as the price I saw advertised at some roadside motel a few hours back. Maybe that’s the problem—I’d entered a hotel when I needed a motel. Is the 8 a motel? I should have shopped around, but, as I said, it was beginning to freezing rain, and the 8 was well camouflaged even, I assume, for a car that didn’t have a second windshield made of ice. Oh well, at least I can get some laps in tomorrow, I thought. The water must be chilled by an expensive, high-tech cooling machine, to expedite my swim and thus earn the basin inclusion in this temple of temporal attention?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Ganpati and me

In the street, the voice of an adolescent boy cried out pro-Ganpati* chants like a misplaced prepubescent Cambodian guerrilla leader. The fire crackers made you fear there’d been a bombing; the subsequent approach of drumming kind of made you wish there had. Why did they so love this creature? Where lay the appeal of this pachyderman? I had to know.

*Yet another name for the elephant-headed god “Ganesh," or “Ganesha,” aka “Ganapati,” “Vinayaka,” and “Pillaiyar”

At the Ganpati lot, people were strapping to the tops of their cars beautiful Ganpatis of all shapes and sizes—some reclining like elephantine Mata Haris, others sitting straight and regal. I searched through a dense forest of shiny idols. Finally, I espied the perfect one—about 18 inches high, sitting Indian*-style, staring out wisely, nobly, and melancholically, an elephant bull who somewhat recalled his uncle Sitting.



I placed the Ganpati on the counter in front of the old shop owner and reached for my wallet. As I went to pay the man for the god, I caught a hint of anxiety in his eye. I squinted and furrowed my brow in return.

“Ganpati come with responsibility,” he said.

“Responsibility?” I eloquently inquired.

“You must entertain Ganpati,”

“Oh, sure,” I chuckled. “I will.”

Now he was the one squinting.

“No joke. You must entertain Ganpati.” Then he got even seriouser. “Always.”

“What about sleep?” I asked.

“You have wife, children entertain Ganpati when you not able,” he said.

I was taken aback for a second, as I had neither wives nor children. However, I figured television, as usual, would fill that void.

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I will.”

The man looked at me some more. Then he looked at Ganpati.

“This Ganpati not for you,” he said.

“Whom’s it for?” I asked.

“This not Ganpati for you,” he said.

“What is it for me?” I asked.

He stared at me as if he knew exactly what I was doing and was embarrassed for me. I was embarrassed for myself.

“OK, why not?” I asked.

He reached deep into his counter and came out with a dusty old Ganpati, slightly reclining and with some indefinable accusation in his eye. On second glance, it was gone, and I was left to wonder whether it’d been just a trick of the light or, rather, so minute that I’d already become inured to it. I looked from this Ganpati to mine—it had none of the regal bearing of my chosen one. Rather, it lay in a kind of self-consciously bold position of entitled relaxation, as if waiting to be fanned and fed grapes.

“This Ganpati for you,” he said.

“ looks old. And dusty,” I said.

He turned to the back of the shop.

“Sanju,” he called.

A boy who looked as if constructed from the spare parts of an erector set emerged from the back and came quickly. The man spoke to him in a tongue unfamiliar to me, and the boy flew back whence he’d come, carrying Ganpati with him.

I looked at the old man quizzically.

He momentarily shot his fingers out at me and then retracted them, as if showing me a naughty tattoo on his palm. I was confused until he provided narration.

“Five minute.”

The way things were going, I figured I didn’t have much choice.

When the boy returned, I thought he must have exchanged that Ganpati for a new one, fresh out of the blister pack. This one was shiny and bright, with blue and red robes and shiny silver and gold jewelry. I wondered what they kept back there.

The man looked at me confidently.

“This Ganpati for you,” he said.

I gave a sly smile of acquiescence. I couldn’t argue that it looked quite nice, possibly even better than my original, though that was nowhere in sight.

“OK, fine,” I said.

And soon I was walking back home, the proud new owner of a shiny old Ganpati.
When I was almost out of earshot, I heard the unmistakable click of tongue against molars. I turned to see the old man looking at me.

“Do not forget—entertain him,” he said.

I brought him home feeing the anxious exhilaration of a new mother, fully aware of the responsibility, but not certain I realized the depth of its extent. His bassinet was a red-cloth-covered stand on the only shelf in my apartment. I had strung what I only know to call Christmas lights around it. But, also like a new mother, as soon as I placed him there, all gussied up in his robes and sparkling jewelry, I just knew we would get along famously.

However, I knew I had to do my part to make the relationship work, and my part was simple, though not easy—I had to entertain little Gani.

I first thought of what I like to do when I’m bored. I pulled over the laptop and played music for him. I played some of my favorite rock ‘n’ roll, but he just looked bored. I went through ragas, Bollywood songs, Hindi pop, rockabilly, Hebrew traditional—through it all, his expression remained one of lethargic ennui.

Figuring he’s from the younger generation and therefore more of a digital-age cat, I placed the TV in front of him. We started with comedies. There was nothing funny about his mien. Tried some dramas—his countenance lacked any hint of the dramatic. Put on some talk shows, but he looked like he’d prefer they all just shut up. Neither late-night celebriphilic nor mid-day disfunctional merited anything more than his blank stare.

Of course! I thought. I’ve been ignoring his inner animal! With hope too desperate for caution, I turned to Animal Planet.

I couldn’t believe my luck when I saw they were showing a documentary on Africa! We were staring straight at mighty beasts whose visages were that which Ol’ Ganzo encountered in every mirror (though, admittedly, more ascetically attired).

Smiling wide, I took my eyes off of the elephant herd* on TV and looked over at Gani—he looked as if I had ordered him to watch paint dry on a humid day.

Under water.



Maybe I’d misjudged him—maybe, I thought, looking at his thick gray facial hide, he’s the stereotypical elephant, with a sharp mind and an old soul.

As my hope, wiser now, allowed itself only the slightest anticipation of success, I brought in the big guns—Austen, Hardy, Bronte, Shakespeare. Frost, Poe, Joyce. Hemingway and Nabokov. Not one elicited as much as a raised eyebrow! Nary an “Oh, bully phrase!” Never an “I say! Bloody brilliant characterization!” And if the reader expects me to regale him with tales of how Gani humoured my questions on what cruel twist of fate might next befall a Hemingwaian hero, or what twisted motivations compel Poe-ish performances, he will be sorely, sorely disappointed.

It was then I realized that all my efforts had been misguided. Gani didn’t want someone else’s work to entertain him—he’s the type of chap who would crave good, old-fashioned camaraderie. The timeless art of conversation.

With a skip in my step and a hop in my skip, I went to the fridge, grabbed a couple of six packs, and put them down between Gani and me. We gazed at the birds flitting about the jacaranda tree as I told him about myself—my childhood in Rajasthan, amongst the camels. My adolescence in Kolkata’s red-light district, just a fresh-faced kid trying to make an honest buck. My early career spent clerking in The Hague.

It was only when I was quite drunk that I realized it was I who had consumed all the beers. It was immediately after that that I realized it was I who had told all the stories. I slowly turned to look at him, knowing only too well what I’d find. But my imagination had been poor preparation for the reality of that cold, mindless stare—one identical, I realized, to those I’d seen at the zoo when stopping by the elephant cage: a half-conscious look of mindless boredom.

That was it. He had insulted great musicians, he had insulted great writers, he had insulted Jerry Springer*, and now he had insulted me.

*former mayor of Cincinnati

What strain of bloke was I dealing with here? His belly was at most a few jelly sandwiches short of Old Saint Nick’s, but no one’s ever heard of coming down Christmas morning to find Santa shirtless, lounging on their couch, bulging out of decadent robes, all their best jewelry making him outblink the Christmas tree every time he repositions his heft. Certainly no one could imagine Father Christmas just lying there, staring at them accusatorially until they whipped him up a satisfactory batch of snickerdoodles.*

*A type of cookie*


I picked up that pachydermal ingrate by back and gut, tore him away from his royal throne, threw him under one arm, and headed out the door. As I purposefully strode down the street, I could feel the confused stares of locals on me, as their idiots’ anthem, “Ganpati Bappa…Maur-ya,”* that three-word call-and-response that kept them entertained for hours, faded to silence.

*This chant is often heard, between the mind-numbing drum beats and nervous-system-overloading bangs of fire crackers, as groups of people march around the streets, taking Ganpati to their homes or, at the end of his stay, taking him to the sea, or some stand-in body of water, to immerse him, sending him back to the earth whence he came, symbolizing the unending cycle of renewal of which we are all part. Or something like that.

Onlookers’ stares heavy on my consciousness the whole way, I finally arrived at the visarjan pond.* Any shame impeding my progress was more than overcome by the rage I felt toward this elephantcephalitic abomination. It was with ill-concealed glee that I held out that morose bastard in both hands and dove into the water after him.

*The pond where people immerse their Ganpatis

In an animosity-driven rush, I headed straight for bottom.

Gargling curses at the elephantine infuriation, I pounded his fixed phizog into the pond’s floor time and again, until my body trembled for air, forcing me to surface. As I reacquainted my lungs with oxygen, I felt something knock against the back of my head. I turned to find that betrunked bastard bobbing beside me, glinting, whole and mocking, in the evening light.

The son of a bitch had never truly lived, and now it seemed he wouldn’t die.

My rage redoubled, I grabbed him and dove once again, this time pushing him trunk-first into the sludge, twisting and turning him, trying to screw him into the pond bottom for good. No matter what technique I tried, though, I’d always feel his wretched mass ascend back into my hands as soon as I released it. Half mad with rage and oxygen deprivation, I began banging him off a submarinean rock my foot had come across.

I evacuated my lungs to bring myself nearer the rock. In a mad frenzy, I began beating rock with elephant at a pace of several times a second. I didn’t slow when I perceived I may have cleaved a section of his exoskeleton. I didn’t yield when my lungs and head began to ache. Rather, the knowledge that I’d soon have to surface only drove me to work harder, eventually coming to thrash my whole body up and down, off of and back onto the silty bottom in a rhythmic attempt at maximal destruction. I only relented when a sharp pain in my groin emptied my mind of all else.

I released the object of my objection without a thought, my hands flying to my groin, to find a sliver of something hard embedded sturdily in my skin. Feeling only that I needed to remove it immediately, I pulled it out and brought it into the sunlight. It was a sharp, pink shard. That’s when I noticed Ganpati floating in front of me a bit off-kilter and saw the top part of a gash where his left back used to reside. Though I didn’t need to, I looked back at the shard to confirm it was the exact size and shape to perfectly plug that capsizing con.

My other hand, on my inner thigh, felt as though it were covering a pulsating whirlpool jet. He’d struck femoral.

I knew I’d never leave that pond.

As a coldness spread across my skin, I realized he’d planned this from the beginning. From the first time he’d laid his droopy eyes on me, he’d known this was how we’d meet our end. And, like some kind of retarded kamikazi, like a deep-cover suicide bomber, his patience, manipulation, and disregard for self-preservation had let him triumph.

I surfaced once more, doing my best to die in my world—the world of air and sight—even if I’d never exit that pond, my body to be interred with the corpses of him and thousands of his brothers. As I watched what I knew was the last sunset I’d ever see, I was hyper aware of the varying gold, orange, and purple hues. I saw the diaphanous beauty of it shining through the leafy branches of the Indian almond tree. I was aware of the elegant luxury of the light breeze upon my face.

The decadent, conquering trunked god saw what I saw. Though he was canting from the water he’d taken on, his back was to me; he also faced the sunset. I noticed the symmetry of our positions, and our situations, and reflected that perhaps it was meant to be.



Karmic destiny.

As my sight faded and my legs weakened, I fought to stay al aire. The breeze had changed directions, cooling a new section of my damp, matted hair, and Ganpati, half-submerged though he was, began to spin away from the setting sun. Moments before gravity triumphed over my legs, he rotated to face me.

It may have been the soon-to-be-fatal blood loss, but I swear I saw him smiling.

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