Life in the Jungle

An old friend died recently on the other side of the planet. It was both predictable and shocking, as these things often are. He was a long-term abuser of powders and pills; I had not expected him to live as long as he did. Still, we had been children together, neighbors, brothers almost, at that crucial period in modern male friendship: early adolescence. So I was shaken when I got the call from another friend and ex-neighbor. It was as if a few bricks fell away from the walls of my house, but it wasn't a house I live in anymore.

Over the next few days, the grapevines of social media (through which old acquaintances had tried to reimagine themselves as old friends) yielded slippery details and problems. He had died in his sleep in a hotel in Paharganj, the seedy Delhi neighborhood frequented by white tourists in dirty pyjamas. A bottle of sleeping pills was found in his bag. His mother was with him. They had been traveling together from Moscow to Durgapur, the industrial city where we had lived as children; she had spent the night in the same bed unaware that he was dead. She had dementia and a tendency to wander off. There was a brother in Canada; he was on his way but, we were informed, reluctant to take his mother back with him. The mutual friend and I tried to find an old-age home in our old hometown where she could be safely abandoned, among people who might visit her once or twice.

I also tried to remember the dead man, or boy. I dreamed of him several nights in a row even though we had not spoken in nearly thirty years. This lag was not due to a quarrel, but because we had drifted so far apart that nothing was mutually comprehensible or relevant. So it was startling to find photographs of a big-eared twelve-year-old slouching in his room circa 1982. It regenerated a face, which allowed other images and sounds to creep back: the grinning face in my window on weekend mornings, the stuttering shout of my name, his presence in my house on the day of the year when sisters give their brothers a protective fingerprint (having no sister of his own, he would borrow mine), the telephone ringing just when my mother was taking her cherished siesta on her day off from teaching. I remembered endless hours of batting practice, and the sight of him airborne before his delivery stride, head cocked, arm and wrist coiled, lanky. He revered Michael Holding. I remembered a small crime we had conspired to commit (inspired by James Hadley Chase) and the unraveling of the conspiracy, the embarrassed-indulgent rage of parents. I was able to recall an even older image, from before we became friends: a boy of five or six throwing a tearful tantrum on the bus because he didn't want to go to school. It’s not that I had never thought of these things in three decades. But it had been knowledge rather than remembrance, cut off from life.

It was, among other things, knowledge of waste and luck, which is why it had been pushed to the margins of memory. One more boy wasted by a system of education, examinations and professional bottlenecks that gave no quarter to those who could not, or did not want to, stay in the fast lane, which was also the only lane. Healthy competition, the schools called it, as if there was something laudable about brutal hours of cramming and 'private tuition,' fetishizing ‘coming first’ in examinations, being ‘ranked’ in your class beginning when you were five years old, the smugness and alarm of parents who shared the hierarchy of their children, and the fear of falling out of the middle class altogether. The perversity of that education was inseparable from our teachers' proclivity for creative physical violence. I don't look back at my Indian schooling with any pleasure or nostalgia; the memory of those grey walls is enough to fill my stomach with a dull anxiety. I lived with the nausea – the longing to be anywhere else instead – for nearly ten years. (The feeling came back to me when I began dropping my daughter off at school, and I had to force myself to see that her school was not what mine had been.) My dead friend, who had been an intelligent boy with eclectic interests and bookshelves, was also an average student in a system that chewed up such children. I got out just in time; he did not and became a ‘failure.’ When I met him again at the age of nineteen, he was injecting heroin into his scrotum and stealing cough syrup. He had nothing to say that was not recycled tripe. He was not the only one. There but for the grace of God went I.

The Jesuit jailhouse of our childhood dissolved into the city itself, turning it grey: grey school-buses, grey shorts, grey mornings, dirty white sky. As with the school, I can’t go back there without a sense of dread. I know this contradicts the conventions of NRI nostalgia. (But then, bin Ich nicht ein bloede NRI.) We are supposed to look back with affection and pride, and there is undeniably something romantic about Durgapur and other ‘steel towns’ that came up in India in the 1950s. This was the frontier of Nehru and Bidhan Roy: instant cities in the wilderness that had secreted legendary bandits like Bhabani Pathak and Ichhai Ghosh, marked by receding forests, smoke-stacks, geometric housing developments, no extremes of wealth and poverty, no crime to speak of (polite scientists and their well-bred wives had replaced the bandits), no filth on the streets (but nasty chemicals in the air and the river), sheltered and sheltering, a modern Indian Eden where everybody knew their neighbors and spoke three languages, and nobody talked about religion or caste. In the evening, the horizon would turn an attractive orange as the blast furnaces roared and released their slag.

As a new city where even the old residents were first-generation migrants from elsewhere, Durgapur was a place constituted by arrivals and departures. Men and women came, recognizing their roles as pioneers, but expecting to leave at the end of their working lives. Parts of the town retained that touch of the makeshift: Steel Market, where we bought Tintins and textbooks, cricket balls and orange squash, was a double row of Quonset huts corrugated-iron barracks on a dirt road. For children, home was always encroached upon by departure, because the same schools that consumed their lives in the city would spit them out of the city, towards ‘real’ cities where there were colleges, careers and airports. (Durgapur had only a railway station.) To remain in this place was a sign of failure.

Into this place that was also no place at all, at some point in the mid-1960s, my friend’s mother had come, a Russian scientist who had married an Indian engineer given to spells of withdrawal and melancholy, and what was probably schizophrenia. The few friends she made in Durgapur included my mother. Birokto korbena (“Don’t bother me”), she told my mother, was her husband’s frequent response to her desire for his company. She had hung on for a long time. As a foreigner, she was even more afflicted by the limbo between arrival and eventual departure; the sense of isolation must have been acute. I remember her – and her husband – as being simultaneously present and absent, inseparable from the failure that swallowed my friend. In attractively modern company housing, husbands turned cold and wives seethed with rage at being stranded in the jungle with their various disappointments, while children lingered on the cricket field after dark or wandered the streets in the burning heat of May afternoons because it was better than going home. Anyone could turn feral. The town wasted the Russian woman just as it wasted her son, and there’s a morbid irony in the likelihood that she will live out her final years there, in this wilderness of unreliable memory. There but for the grace of God; but quite a few of us did go there.

I had left. I escaped miraculously, due to the mad initiative of parents who recognized the importance of getting out, even though their own education and aspiration had been focused on reaching places like Durgapur. Leaving destroyed them professionally, socially and personally, turning them into slightly shocking shadows of their confident and accomplished selves; immigration is not for the middle-aged. But it got the kids off the conveyor belt to nowhere. My friend who died understood that. He once sent me an email in which the only coherent thing was his resentment that I had flown the coop while I was still alive.

So perhaps it’s understandable that I associate the place with death: arrivals culminating in necessary departures. I first arrived in Durgapur when my parents stepped off the Coal Field Express on to the platform, my father carrying me in a bassinet. Quite by coincidence, I last saw my father at the same railway station, when he put me on a train bound for Indore. It may very well have been the same platform. The Coal Field passed through before my train pulled in and we said goodbye. Four months later he was dead, alone. I used to take the Coal Field sometimes when I accompanied my father on his trips to Calcutta. Fish and chips in the dining car, the thrill of the big city and what must be the real world. Lunch at Kwality or cake at Flury’s to bribe me into visiting relatives. Temporary getaways.

A lot of this is the neurosis of the emigrant, of course. For most of my friends from Durgapur, the place is mundane. Some have laid to rest the ghosts of engineers’ colonies and borrowed time, bought homes and started businesses, made it a hometown like any other. There is even an airport now, although not many flights. But on the two or three occasions that I’ve gone back, I’ve been haunted both by the fact that the place has changed, and by the suspicion that it hasn’t. Is it even sadder now, or was it always sad? Were the roads always narrow and the buildings a little drab? Had the open spaces that I remembered vanished, or never been there at all? And I went back to Ohio / But my city was gone. But the school is still there, with the grimy boys in grey shorts, living in homes that shade into the jungle, studying feverishly to get out. When I had tried to explain to my friend, during our failed attempt to reconnect by email, that I found Durgapur depressing, he had again become enraged: he claimed the place, and I was the condescending NRI. He was too wasted for me to convey that ‘going to Durgapur’ was like visiting my own grave, charged with the fear of discovering things best forgotten, like dead boys and the holes we come from.

December 4, 2015