An Informal Economy

In which our heroine picks up a kid in India. Sort of.

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The boy had the kind of ears no human could possibly hope to grow
into, and when he showed up at my restaurant table, just tall enough to
mouth-breathe into the backside of my newspaper, I told him to eff off.
I had become the anti-Mother Teresa in my first month in India. I knew
from experience that if I gave a street kid food from my plate, it
would lead to him asking for more food, money, and eventually, I
feared, a piece of my soul. So I took to regularly telling the kids,
beggars, and even the monkeys of Mysore to piss off while I was eating.

As the kid with the ears breathed on the other side of my paper, I
read English-language personals to my friend Carly across the table.
She was reading the sports section in order to figure out the rules of
cricket. It’s what we did every night after school in different
sections of the city.

“Listen to this,” I said. “This ad was taken out by the mother and
aunt of a university lecturer in his 40s with a Ph.D. in folklore and
video conferencing and a limp from polio. He’s seeking a Tamil bride, ‘actor-singer-director, journalist, or scholar
preferred.’ Man, people are so self-centered.”

“Scram,” she said to the little boy behind her newspaper and flicked
one hand at him. “I think I would be a wicket keeper if I was a
professional cricket player,” she said.

The waitress came with our thalis. She set down our steel trays of
yogurt, rice, dhal, rotis, and vegetable curries. Then she lunged
toward the boy and yelled at him to make him go away. The moment she
walked back to the kitchen the boy reappeared. “I am not sharing this
with him,” I said to Carly. To the universe. We ate and stared at him
because he was just standing there, oddly not begging at all.

He instead pointed to each metal cup and spoke a couple of sentences
in what I presumed was Kanadda. The waitress came by and told him to
eff off again. He disappeared for a while. “Your date is very
mysterious,” Carly said. “He is not my date,” I said.

When we finished our meal, grabbed a handful of candy-coated fennel
seeds from a basket to aid our breath and digestion, and left the
resturaunt, the boy reappeared and started to follow us. “No,
seriously,” I said. He kept walking right behind me and talking in
Karnata. He put his hands into my pocket to get me to turn around and
look at a store with a copy machine we had already passed. “Get your
hands out of my pants,” I said. He pointed to a big cow in the street.
He caught up with Carly who was trying to ditch him by walking fast. He
tugged on her shirt. He pointed to a sweet shop we had passed a block
ago. “Beat it,” she said.

The three of us stopped on the street for a meeting. “Why is he
still with us?” I asked. “He’s really annoying.” We both looked at him,
and he was slicking his hair down with one hand and still talking, not
at all bothered that we weren’t listening, or that we didn’t know a
single word of the language he was speaking. He pointed to the rooftop
of a building in the distance for no apparent reason.

“Act like you’re mad,” Carly said.

“I am mad,” I said. “I don’t want to be followed tonight.”

“Tell him,” she said.

I tried to work-up a mad look. A mad voice. “You were not invited on
this walk,” I said right to his face. Carly laughed. The boy laughed.
“How old do you think he is?” I asked. His ears were cute for the
moment, but they were going to be a real liability in a few years. I
thought someone somewhere should be saving up for the personal ad he
was going to need to have placed on his behalf. “You try to tell him,”
I told Carly.

“Shove off,” she said and pushed her hands toward him in a shove off
gesture. “Nobody,” she continued, but by that time she was laughing,
“wants you here.” He laughed and talked. He pointed to a watermelon
rind in the gutter. The meeting was adjourned. He had some closing
remarks. We gave up on losing him.

He trailed us into the night market. He was pointing out the obvious
at his eye level behind us, but it was loud, and we couldn’t hear him.
Potatoes, onions, garlic, and ginger. He kept stepping on the back of
my flip-flops, and my feet were so sweaty I stepped right out of them.
I turned around and told him to knock it off. He pointed to pumpkins,
sandalwood soap, little coconuts, marigolds, and big colored piles of
incense for sale.

I stopped at a rack of glamshots of male Bollywood stars. They
sported tank-tops, mesh shirts, and steroid-fueled biceps. Their teeth
were bleached white and they wore sunglasses and gel in their hair.
Others were old and bearded. One had pock-marked skin. I couldn’t tell
if the ugly ones played villains or were just sex symbols from the
`70s. The little boy pointed at the photos of different actors and
talked, a stuttery excited talk, and I squatted down next to him and
tried to listen for the first time. Maybe that was how Mother Teresa
got her start in the whole charity thing. Maybe she found herself
befriending lepers because they dished great gossip on oily Bollywood
stars. It’s possible.

The three of us crossed a street and an older man said something to
Carly in English. “Can you do us a favor and tell us why this kid has
been following us all night?” she asked.

The man had a posh British Raj-style accent and a handlebar
mustache. He talked to the boy. He paused and gathered his translation.
“Why, that boy,” he said, “is your tour guide.”

The boy put his hand out. He wanted to be paid in full for services
rendered. Maybe he wanted money to buy a thali or go to the movies. I
hailed an auto-rickshaw to get back to the university. “Pay our guide,”
I said to Carly with certainty. He hadn’t taken us anywhere,
effectively communicated any new information to us, or even conveyed
the fact that we were on a tour, but he had brought an undeniable
passion to his work, and those ears were funny. Carly pulled some rupees from her pocket and put them in his palm. He made a fist around
the money, smiled like he thought it was a fair exchange, and didn’t
ask for anything else. • 4 February 2008

When Emily Maloney is not traveling the globe, she lives at home with her mom in Oregon. Her column Emily’s World appeared weekly on The Smart Set. She can be reached at emilymaloney@yahoo.com.

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