The Godling of Greater Kailash in “Manhattan” magazine

This issue’s Fictionist features a short story by James McGirk, a writer who moved to India in the early days of Manmohan Singh’s economic reforms. The Godling of Greater Kailash is an intriguing story, loosely based on McGirk’s experience as a photographer’s assistant during a particularly long and hot Indian summer, when New Delhi’s expatriate community was flooded with Burmese refugees.

 

Memory Scraped onto Landscape with Smell

So horrid and bright to open his eyes. So much better to stay enshrouded in ruddy dark. But other signals were… penetrating too. His gullet came unfastened, pulsing and melting, and a sour bulge of liquid rose and – oh fuck, he sat up too late – popped and disgorged into his cupped hands. He cradled this liquid inch; it had weight and mass, and the gluey but slippery consistency of watered cornstarch. Sweet artificial scents of partially digested alcohol rose from its glistening surface. How much like an offering this was, with its bobbing rice grains and bilious yellow tint (he was bent on his knees in the sand). The smell intensified. A nostril twitched. Revulsion clenched him, and he flung his slop into the fire pit.

The Earmen

A bunny slope version of India was within walking distance from our compound. Each proper Delhi enclave had an Indian antecedent to the American strip-mall lurking along its fringe; the enclaves were roughly circular and the better, quieter properties were clustered around a grassy interior park filled with grass for cricket and shade trees; the marketplace was ugly and crude in comparison, shunned by decent folk and patronized only by domestics or school boys buying liquor from the government package store. A blighted patch barely tolerated as if a horrid thing had been caught in a fence and was kept tame with scraps. I did not bring my gun. All I had was my folding scout knife. Lifting the blade from its hinged cradle distracted me enough to maintain composure.

I took a service road, or servants’ road, one of the thorn-clogged alleyways that ran behind the row of walled houses and the domestics walk to and from the main-road without spoiling our view. A mottled orange cat, with slim limbs and a bulbous head eyed me as he picked his way between the glinting glass lining the alleyway walls.

The market appeared to be a group of shabby municipal buildings. A post-office logo hung above an overhang, and I walked in and realized the and realized the institutional tile was only a façade. A crowd milled around a tea vendor; there weren’t so many of them, there was no jostling. The men wore collared white shirts and wool pants. There were no women except for a lone police constable who followed me around discretely. The others eyed me but no one approached. Beyond the teashops were rows of stalls leading down winding narrow roads. Each stall was a three-quarter cube of concrete, its opening facing the street, dim bulbs coiled around its rim, blinking, attached to bits of rebar, the dealers hawking, or crouched over stoves that reeked of kerosene and frying dough. Wares ranged from gleaming bare metal pots and pans, to live chickens clucking in cages. I chose the one that looked the cleanest and the walls closed in. Clothes, rogue television lines, and frayed flags flapped overhead, casting everything into permanent gloom. Even the walls were marred almost black with soot. The sky was very far away and I felt very alone no matter how much I thumbed my blade.

I became comfortable with the market, and as the days passed I went deeper. In the deepest recesses I found a row of booksellers. Stolen periodicals were the bulk of their trade, other offerings were mostly limited to political tracts, conspiracy, books of bawdy humor, business, self-help manuals and astrology and superstition. Their bind was of a uniformly atrocious quality, the glue contained no gelatin and pages fell out as you read. I bought them by the armload. Hungry to acquire secret knowledge. I planned elaborate seductions using books of body language interpretation, learned how airports function and the way to escape a maze was to always turn right. One day I bought Collier’s Encyclopedia of Omens. A syntax of mind-bending toxin for a sensitive young brain to intake. An index articulating mystical interpretations of any event: how tinnitus signaled news that was either sinister or good, depending on the ear in which it rang; how an odd number of crows was bad, and even number was good. That uncrushed eggshells provoked stormy seas; that spilled salt drained your luck away unless preventative rituals were performed.

One morning I staked out an open section of the marketplace, clutching a notebook and a pencil, loitering in the dusty concrete plaza noting who entered and left. A useless exercise, certainly, I even I knew it at the time, but I needed a tether to reality – or something like that. I was about to leave when three men arrived, a much different group than the predominantly middle class Indians who had been walking to and from the stalls. They were grubby and obviously close to destitution. Not quite peddlers but tinkers of the lowest sort. They spread out mats and squatted, smoking sharp clove cigarettes. Identical kits lay before them, a single candle lit and burning, a long metal spike, and a photo album filled with postcards from all over the world. WHAT A DIFFERENCE THE EARMEN HAVE MADE. Read one. I HEAR CLEARER THAN I EVER HAVE BEFORE. One man menaced me with a spike. I refused his services, but he kept advancing on me, pleading for me to become his lucky first customer of the day; I stood and left, but lingered on the periphery to watch.

A customer arrived, an elderly Indian woman in a lime green sari and white stripe braided into her black hair. She strolled across the plaza toward them, stooping to examine each book of cards, querying and commanding, until she finally chose an appropriate ear man. She squatted on the mat. The earman perched behind her holding the spike. He was about to insert when she slapped the spike down and I heard a haughty gust of Hindi. He nodded and plunged the needle into the candle for a few seconds then twisted it in his grimy shirt. There was a metallic flash and he jabbed it in and twisted and twisted, pulling her head into the needle and grinding it in.

He removed the spike. A gooey black ball hung from the tip, he waggled it in front of his customer who paid and walked away rubbing her ear. He wiped the wax onto his candle. My ears ached in sympathy.

The Thirty-Third Internet Connection in New Delhi

Tandy Acoustic

I never had a problem with Alaskan Senator Ted Steven’s oft-mocked remark about the Internet being a series of tubes. I saw it with my own eyes (metaphorically speaking) as a teenager growing up in New Delhi. The Internet was a feed of information that trickled in drip by drip, slowly increasing as we switched our faucets and eventually tapped into the municipal supply. My father was a foreign correspondent, which meant he had to send stories back home to be published. When we left “on assignment” to India he was issued with a bag of sophisticated telecommunications equipment. We plugged it in and became early adopters.

Grand Hotel/Eelco and the Aggregate

Maurya Sheraton

The Grand Hotel.

(photo by A.Fisher)

Before I moved to the diplomatic enclave, I lived in one of Asia’s grand hotels, a Raffles for the Subcontinent, a once-glamorous old thing that had been gutted by a multi-national and outfitted with “hospital grade” redundant air-conditioning and “hardened against bomb-blasts.” Expansions had been undertaken; they pried its dome open and fattened its backside; but the original façade remained intact, a toothsome grill of reassuring colonnades and gentle spires. Luyten’s Delhi, reinterpreted by an Indian in the 1950s. From far off, the detail blurred, and the Hotel looked like an egg; but not an edible egg, one streaked with afterbirth slime and beginning to go bad.

Nestled in the city’s south were other grand hotels, a cluster of them, flaming beacons on Delhi’s drab night sky; each an enclosed city, a Vatican, with its own water supply and telecommunications and police force and food supplies trucked in. Life within the hotels took place elsewhere, away from the seething sunlight and hordes of sickening poor. If the capital at night were untethered from the earth then these incandescent orbs were space stations. If the capital at night were a cavern then these few chips of light were gemstones; a long finger of semi-precious aggregate ending in blazing jewel.

Eelco and the Aggregate.

Eelco was a Dutch diplomat’s son who would grow to manage oil refineries all over the world. Then he was a thuggish blond child. Shorter than I. For thrift’s sake neither of us wanted to spring for a cab. So I followed him up a bridge toward South Delhi. From the ground this seemed benign, a mild ascent over the Yamuna, a line of Y shaped pylons splitting the stream of traffic in two. We walked on the island beneath the lamps. From one orange dumbbell of light to the next. The walk was comfortable at first, moist river air condensing on our cheeks, the traffic howling past a few meters away, but then the pavement petered out, until there was nothing left of the island, just bare asphalt littered with tire scraps, and we scurried from pole to pole, trucks rushing past, roiling the air in their wake. At the apex, Eelco grabbed my cuff. He pointed at the city. Clean nuggets of halogen burned above naps of dingy orange arc-sodium, incandescent veins that sliced through the dark vegetal substrate of the enclaves. He was pointing at Hotels. From where we stood the hotels were aligned, a rhinestone garter that wound through the city.

The bridge dipped we as entered the sector, the traffic forming two long sine-waves, one red, one white. The hotels vanished beneath billboard armatures and matrices of crisscrossing tree limbs. The fecal fug of the riverbanks welled up; the city smoke became increasingly acrid the further we walked in. Gradually the pedestrian route cleaved away from the bridge. Our pathway bent from the road into empty space; and the traffic rushed elsewhere. Suspended, with no support visible, the walkway wobbled beneath our soles. The sky was suddenly filled with sparks that curled around us and soared up into the sky on thermals. My eyes teared; woodsmoke, kerosene, burning plastics filled the air; it became harder to breathe. Pits of garbage burned below us. Gullies of it glowing like flowing magma. A tamer, electronic glow hung before us. We hurried toward it. A purple-tinted flourescent dome lit a series of concrete steps descending down into a mesh cage. We swatted at a swarm of dry little flying bugs inhabiting its airspace.

No- I said. Eelco grabbed my wrist and pulled me down. I didn’t dare object. The structure shook with each footfall. Below us, the blunt shapes of impovised dwellings became visible. Faint voices called out from the semi-dark. Peels of amplified music leaked from far away speakers. My body became acutely aware of its volume within space. My skin extra sensitive. The guardrail felt cool in my palm, reassuringly Western, the air was thick and strange. We touched ground. It was soft and sucjed at my shoe.

The stairs led into a slum. The roofs were lower than we were tall. The roofline a plane of crooked slats. Cooking fires glowed from doorways. Cigarettes. Flickers of black and white television. Drains gurgled. Makeshift huts linked with looping wire, all open to the elements. The air was disturbed with minute sounds, massed sighing; around us, lying on mats, beside the road, beside the shacks, feet poked from bedrolls, sleepers. I worried about dogs but said nothing. Pint bottles glinted. Long sticks were tucked beside them. Some snored. Chests rose and fell. Some shifted or farted or scratched. A figure stood from his blankets, and wobbled toward us with stiff steps. He stopped before an open drain and urinated hard. We hurried past. Crescents of light flashed off circular lenses and the arc of his piss.

We climbed from the trench. Up another set of concrete stairs. The slums were in a long gulley; fed from garbage from the hotels, which rose suddenly up from the trees as we climbed out. The Egg towered above us, floodlights illuminating its soft pink shell, which was ruined by ductwork and antennae and ramps I had never seen before: the rear-end. The service entrance. We circled around, and walked in, unremarked upon through the lobby and into the hotel proper. We took a lift. Eelco punched in a floor number. The four walls were mirrored. Even the panel. We stood beside each other, silent, as the lift ticked upwards toward the penthouse floor and our faces reflected into infinity. Eelco took me down a lushly carpeted corridor, past all the rooms. At the end of the corridor was a glass square with a small chrome hammer dangling beside it on a flimsy chain: a fire alarm.

Eelco seized the hammer and yankedt off before I could object. He pushed the door open into a stairwell and we raced down, me a pace behind him, taking two steps at a time. No one followed, so we kept going down, more slowly, down crisp clean stairs the color of eggshell, heading down toward a soft vibration, that grew louder and louder the deeper we went down. The door to the outside was locked tight. We walked up a few floors and pushed our way into a dark space crammed with hulking cubes lined in formation; we had stumbled across a conspiracy, these were war machines. Housekeeping carts–said Eelco, lifting the skirt and removing a handful of miniature shampoo bottles. We poured out some of the white goo onto the floor and then searched the room for more. The most interesting feature was another panel, this on the size of a small door, set against an interior wall. Together, we pulled it open. Inside were thick cables, black rubber the size of a small tree trunk, one had split open, revealing a nest of translucent fiber, sparking. I held my hand against the optics and let beams of information pulse against my translucent skin.