The initial plan was to eat the hash cake and then wander around Pushkar for a few hours, but a terrible paranoia had since taken over me and I was now too scared to leave my room.
It was my fourth day in India. I was lying in bed with the door bolted shut, naked. It was too hot to wear clothes. The ceiling fan, which looked and sounded like a Twin Otter propeller, was wafting the dry air over my bare skin.
During the previous two hours I had been able to leave my room only once, about an hour ago, when I was still level-headed enough to make it across the street and into a little shop where a boy was selling psychedelic black-light posters.
I had passed the kid on numerous occasions earlier that day, each time ignoring his pleas to enter his shop. Now we were face-to-face. A 26-year-old American, a 12-year-old Rajasthani boy. He was very skinny, with knotty joints and big eyes. God knows how strange I must have seemed to him. He smiled and bounced his head in the Indian way as I walked in.
I wasn’t interested in buying anything,it was just that the hash had made his little shop extremely interesting. He had posters of mushrooms and worm holes, of Krishna, Lord Ganesh, Lakshmi, Bob Marley, the Beatles and so on. It gave me the impression of a secret grotto, a little neon universe sequestered from the horrors I was perceiving beyond the door. I stared at each poster for a long time, lost in the glowing swirls of color.
“Bob Marley,” the boy said, startling me. He pointed towards a poster depicting Marley smoking a J. The boy held up a make-believe joint and took a puff off it, then laughed and held up three fingers and told me the poster was 400 rupees.
“Sorry man,” I said. “I only want to look. You’ve got a nice shop here though.”
“Yes,” he said, smiling, bouncing his head, not understanding. “400 rupees.”
“No buy,” I said. “Just looking.”
“No buy?” he said, his smile melting. “Just looking?”
I puffed on a make-believe pipe and threw my hands up whimsically to demonstrate. His smile rose again, but I don’t think he understood me.
“Do you know who Bob Marley is?” I asked, indicating towards the poster.
“Bob Marley,” he said, smiling, pointing. He puffed again on his pretend joint.
“No,” I said. “I mean do you know who he is, where he comes from, why he is famous?”
He had no idea. All he knew were the Indian deities.
“So you just sell these to silly Westerners without knowing who these people are?”
He was a nice and honest kid whose father owned a rosewater shop nearby, but as we talked the drugs began to distort things and I started to fear him and needed to leave.
Back at the guest house my room, with its thick cement walls and barred windows, felt like a dungeon. It overlooked the ghats that surrounded the Pushkar Sarovar, the sacred lake of Pushkar, a famous pilgrimage site for Hindus. Brahma’s most prominent temple, one of only a few in the world, stood across the water, enshrouded with shadow. Drums were being pounded inside. A few feeble lights twinkled on the lake, but everything else was muddled with darkness, except for the temple below my window, where a Brahman priest, whom I recognized (he’d spent the afternoon trying to inveigle me into giving him money), was lying on his back, playing a game on his cell phone.
Around midnight I went up to the roof. There was a Moroccan-German girl up there staring out over the lake. Her name was Esma and she was good-looking and had eyelashes that were almost a half-inch long. We began to chat and were soon smoking a joint together. Then, one-by-one, her traveling companions emerged from their rooms to join us.
This was how I met Jared.
At first I was too preoccupied with Esma to notice him much. Everything was dark except for her face, with its unnaturally long lashes, illuminated by cheap candles that kept blowing out. We were basically a collection of disembodied voices, but from his accent I could tell Jared was a New Yorker. Unlike other Americans I’d met in India, however, Jared seemed to have little idea of where he was. He’d come to India alone and had recently befriended a German law school dropout named Hans. Together they had barnacled onto Esma and her two girlfriends a few days ago.
As we passed around joints for a few hours I made two observations about Jared. First, he was a drug addict. Second, he was the most innocent person I’d ever met. More innocent than a child.
Wandering Pushkar the following day in search of Esma I found Jared instead. He was standing in the middle of the street heating up a bar of hash, pinching it into little balls, dropping the balls into a little wooden pipe, which he lit and smoked in plain view of everyone. It was too dark the previous night to know what he looked like, but I knew instantly that it was him. He had a buzzed head, big ears, wide nostrils and an expression of perpetual astonishment.
After saying hello I asked him why he wasn’t being more cautious with his hash in public. He lit his pipe and shrugged.
“Nobody cares,” he said. “Plus you can just bribe the police if you have to.”
All around Pushkar there were signs in English requesting that visitors respect the Hindu religion and not use drugs in public. I asked if he thought it was disrespectful to ignore them.
“He’s American,” Hans said, appearing beside us. “He doesn’t care about other cultures.”
I tagged along with them for a few hours, thinking it would eventually lead me to Esma. At the end of the day it was hard to say what we’d actually done. We would smoke, settle on going somewhere, set out, forget where we were going, get lost, then smoke again. This went on for hours.
At one point a man waved us over to his booth on the side of the road and asked if we wanted to ride camels into the desert. He was a camel man, he said, and had the finest, cheapest camels in all of Pushkar. And I believed him. I believed him because he was the archetype of a Rajasthani camel driver, mythical in proportion, wearing a blindingly white kurta and a polychromatic turban that rose four inches above his head. His mustache hung off his lip like lopsided commas. His name was Janesh.
We signed up immediately and went to tell the girls. They had us postpone it until the following day.
Things started going wrong from the very beginning. We were supposed to leave at 10am, but nobody crawled out of bed until noon. Then Jared convinced us all to smoke, transforming the fifteen-minute walk down the road into a two-hour saunter.
When we finally found Janesh, who had been waiting for us all morning, somebody suggested we drink psychotropic bhang lassis to give our adventure added flare. We each bought two from some man on the side of the road and downed them as we walked.
Our camels, along with a team of teenage jockeys, were waiting for us in an arena outside of town.
It was my first time to experience camels up close. They were odd creatures, so odd that they didn’t seem entirely real to me. And these ones were particularly strange. They seemed sickly and depressed, yawning and coughing constantly, hacking gunk up on the ground, which they then ate again.
When I crawled onto mine, by far the tallest of the bunch, the bhang lassi finally hit me. The world zoomed out and then very quickly zoomed back in again. Then the camel straightened his back legs, lifting his ass in the air, sending me sliding down onto his neck and almost to the ground before I managed to grip, barely, the back of the saddle, holding on desperately as he straightened his straining front legs and with a warbling grunt lifted us into the air so high that I felt like I was in a hot air balloon. He swooned like he was drunk for a moment, gaining his balance, and then turned and hissed at me until one of the jockeys slapped him.
I must have been eight feet above the ground. It felt as though I could see for miles. One by one the girls screamed as their camels hove them up to join me and together we set off across the sands.
Entering the desert I had the feeling that we were wandering into another dimension. An image of Tatooine rose to mind. The camel’s plod was slow and methodical and the bells on his harnesses jingled with the rhythm of a forgotten time, a time not of clocks but of the moon and the menstrual cycle. The sun above was scorching and mad. Among the surrounding hills a few huts sprouted here and there, surrounded by parched chaparral. Village women in maroon saris were walking through nearby fields in a single-file lines, carrying water pots on their heads, their bracelets and anklets clacking and jangling. Beyond that were only wastes of sand.
I was lost in thought for a long time before I remembered I was with companions. Esma was in front of me, swaying back and forth, singing what sounded like a German folk song. The other girls were leaning back in their saddles with their hands thrown out, looking at the sky. Hans had his arms crossed and looked to be meditating. Jared, who was at the front of our caravan, was smoking a joint and having a very lively conversation with his jockey about girls. After a while he slowed down beside Hans and handed him the joint. In this way it made its way from camel to camel until it reached me at the back.
By sundown we had reached the field where we were to sleep. We jerked blankets from under the camels’ saddles and lay them over the sand to lie on. Janesh, who had vanished at some point (I didn’t notice it until now), came riding up to make sure the jockeys were preparing dinner properly. While they cooked he warned us not to go wandering around without shoes on, as there were deadly scorpions about.
“What if they sting us?” Hans asked. “Do you have some sort of antidote?”
“No,” he said. “But I know mantras.”
He whispered mantras as though if he said it too loud the word would summon spirits.
“Mantras?” Hans said. “For scorpion stings?”
“I know many mantras,” he said, again very quietly, forcing us all to lean in to hear him. He said he even knew a mantra that could kill a camel.
Before we got a chance to eat a storm blew in and we had to run to a nearby village for cover, to a little two-room shack owned by Janesh’s relatives, where a family of some 15 people lived. All of them were asleep outside under a thatched pavilion.
Janesh showed us to a small room that smelled like livestock and was illuminated by a lantern. Jared almost immediately knocked the lantern over, burning a hole in one of the blankets and filling the room with acrid smoke.
We all barely fit inside, but had nowhere else to go. There were no windows and the walls were made of thick mud. It was the hottest I had ever been in my life. Sweat was pouring down my face and my shirt was soon soaked with it.
We had nothing to do but sit there and chong the place out with hash smoke. Meanwhile, Jared told us about his strange adventures around India. He told us a story about a time in the Andamans when he’d tried to swim out to an uninhabited island but halfway there got dragged away by a current, which dropped him near another uninhabited island miles away. He was marooned for an entire day before he managed to flag down a fishing boat. All he’d brought with him was a zip-lock bag full of hash.
It astounded me that Jared was still alive after five months in this country. In fact, nearly everything he said amazed me. He gave me the impression of a shipwrecked extraterrestrial who’d been damaged during the crash and had forgotten that he wasn’t actually from this planet. Humans were strange to him. They were strange to me too, but with Jared it was different. He didn’t seem to comprehend other people at all, nor did he seem interested in his lack of comprehension.
As far as the Germans went, they watched him like one watches a television show, bursting into laughter at almost everything he said. Jared never understood why they were laughing.
After an hour or so, after we had run out of things to talk about and were silent and dazed and staring up at the ceiling, listening to the rain and thunder, Jared produced an African kalimba from his satchel and began thumbing out some of the most complex and beautiful music I’d ever heard. He rocked back and forth, his eyes closed, shaking his head as if in a trance, his thumbs plectruming the tines so swiftly they were invisible. He played for nearly 30 minutes.
I was speechless. How could something so beautiful have come from such a fool? I had obviously underestimated him.
“Where did you learn to play that thing so well?” I asked.
“In my spare time,” he said. “Instead of studying at school.”
He’d learned to play many strange instruments in this way. He named them off but I’d never heard of them before.
Eventually the rain stopped and we dragged our blankets back out to the desert to sleep under the stars.
In the morning the girls left early to catch a bus to Udaipur while us guys loitered around the house where we’d taken shelter the night before, waiting for breakfast.
I knew it was a bad idea and didn’t really want to, but when Jared rolled his morning joint and passed it my way I took a few puffs and was soon back in that paradigm in which all things are exaggeratedly strange.
The jockeys and the rest of the men had gone somewhere, leaving the eight or so women of the house, all clad in vermilion saris, to prepare the food as we sat on the ground a few yard away, passing the joint back and forth, staring at them as though they couldn’t see us. I didn’t know if they were wives or sister or what, but the higher I became the more I thought I understood where each one stood in the hierarchy of household authority, which was the matriarch, for instance, and then the progression downward towards a woman who I assumed had been recently married into the family.
For the most part they pretended we were transparent, but every now and again one would lean with her mouth cupped towards the ear of another and whisper something and their bright eyes would flash at us as they buckled over with laughter. Jared kept rolling joints. We’d been told to wait 15 minutes, but two hours had passed with no sign of the camels.
And then it happened.
Jared stood up and announced that he had to take a dump. But as he took off he stopped and thought for a minute and his face lit up.
“Ever since I got here I’ve wanted to take a shit in the road,” he said. “I think this is my chance.”
I’m not sure if we didn’t believe him or what, but we paid little attention as he strolled out towards the dirt road in front of the house, where villagers often wandered back and forth and the occasional tractor trundled by.
I continued to watch the women, whose tasks of sweeping and tending children were like poetry to me, until the eyes of the smallest one, the one with no authority, squinted towards something that was happening out on the road. I turned. There, not fifty feet away, in front of the house in plain view of the whole village, Jared was squatting with his pants down.
I thought I was hallucinating. I turned back towards the woman, who was still very clearly perplexed, and then back towards the road to discover that what was happening was actually real. Jared’s bare ass actually was hovering over the road, quivering as though he were giving birth.
A dark cloud swept over me as I realized that in the eyes of these villagers I was somehow guilty by association. I wanted to run away, but could do nothing but laugh, laugh at the absurdity of it all. It was not normal laughter, but a kind of interior revolt against the breakdown of order that was taking place. It nearly brought me to tears. I felt suddenly weak. I was barely able to reach over to tap Hans and point. It took him a moment to understand, but when he did it was like a revelation. He rose slowly.
“No,” he said.
He looked at me.
He turned back and shook his head and looked again.
“Oh my god,” he said.
He snatched up his camera and rushed off to take a photograph.
I turned my back on the scene. The women were now gathered together, trying to figure out what was going on. They seemed concerned. When they looked to me for explanation I could not face them. I buried my head between my knees and tipped over onto the ground, almost suffocating from the laughter.
After a few minutes Hans stumbled back over looking as though he’d just witnessed a sacrifice. He sat down next to me.
“I can’t believe it,” he said. “I just can’t. I can’t believe it. Look at this.”
He showed me the photo. In it Jared had a smile on his face and was giving a thumbs up to the camera. Below him his testicles dangled over a pile of clayish feces.
The laughter crawled into me again, up around my spine and into my belly and brain.
“Welcome to the Twilight Zone,” Hans said, shaking his head.
I thought it was over but I was wrong. I don’t know what he wiped with, but Jared was soon galloping back towards us buckling his pants with a tremendous smile on his face.
“Woohoo!” he shouted, shaking his fists in the air. “I’m a real Indian now!”
I felt like dying. I fell over again, shaken by a laughter that burrowed deep into my bones, laughing not at Jared but at the abstract horribleness of what was occurring and felt somehow a part of. I shielded my face so that I wouldn’t have to look at him.
“What is wrong with you?” Hans said. “Do you understand what you just did?”
Jared didn’t get it.
“Uh, yeah,” he said.
He turned towards the women, who were huddled together and staring at him. They looked afraid.
“Did you see?” he said to them, pointing towards the road.
“I pooped in the road.” He squatted a little to remind them. “I’m a real Indian now!”
The only thing that kept me from killing myself was that these women did not speak English. But every time he shouted “I’m a real Indian” it was like lightning struck me.
“What’s up with you?” Jared asked me. I was on the ground, just lying there, unable to move. He had no idea what he was doing. As innocent as a child.
Soon Janesh arrived with the jockeys. They didn’t even have time to tie up the camels before Jared was over there telling them about what he’d done, telling them that he was a real Indian now. They didn’t understand what he was talking about. He got the camera from Hans and showed them the picture. It took a moment for Janesh to realize what he was being shown, but when he did he smiled, shook his head and walked away.
The camel jockeys did not speak English and so for them it was just Jared showing them a picture of himself defecating with no explanation. They were confused at first, then thought it was outrageously funny.
Meanwhile, the women had grown curious about the photo Jared was showing everyone. When he noticed their curiosity Jared asked them if they wanted to see. They didn’t understand the question. He hurried towards them waving the camera in the air but luckily Hans stopped him and took it away.
Who knows what these people thought of him, of us. Perhaps they thought it was simply the erratic and unpredictable behavior of foreigners. Perhaps they thought Jared was mentally challenged and didn’t want to intervene. Whatever they thought, they were very good-natured about it. They went back to their business as though nothing had happened and we hopped atop our camels and rode back into the desert.