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Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Tourist’s Gaze by Kawika Guillermo

The Tourist’s Gaze by Kawika Guillermo
In Kerala an elderly Sikh invites me to his home, feeds me Tandoori chicken, egg curry and scrambled eggs and tomatoes. He doesn’t speak a word of English, but we drink whisky and speak in our mother tongues and it feels that we understand each other. We watch Triple H take down Mysterio.

Of Chennai, the Guidebook says “the city still has many slums but is also developing dynamic new-town suburbs, a rash of air-conditioned shopping malls and some of the best restaurants in India.” “but?” Why not “because of,” “due to the fact,” or “with shocking indifference to,” or, at least, “giving up any notion of responsibility over its inhabitants, the government of Chennai…”etc.

Bangalore, aka ITocracy, aka calltopia. Known for having one out of every three office buildings in India, for obesity and diabetes, for drinking at 3am, when the American workday ends. Bangalorians are emancipated into jam-packed pubs, the chaotic night markets and the large strip halls, to rooms of belly dancers.

HITECH City, Hyderabad, where the IT revolution has perhaps hit hardest, is not filled with young Indians in collared shirts jabbering on headset headphones. It has few long streams of electric wire weaving about from iron statue to statue, and the glossy, posh buildings, are almost entirely absent. It is a surreal desert of nascent buildings still undergoing erection, and the only movement comes from migrant workers living in tent cities on every roadside. Our multinationals aggregate into Industrial parks, casting foreboding shadows from incomplete buildings that stretch from the rocky hills of High Tech City, onto the city of Hyderabad.

We enter Hyderabad in the Islamic holy month of Ramadon, a time when rickshaw drivers sway their bikes, enervated by lack of water and over-exposure to the sun, and when every night becomes a festival of cheap chicken and lamb kebabs, only to end abruptly with each sunrise. Here women are dressed in the latest foot fashions, their fashion fetishism limited by the burkas enshrouding the rest of their bodies.

Sixteen hours on the train, sleeper class, I lie on the upper berth of a crowded cabin, my arm suspended at head level like a crane. I easily grasp onto passing soft drinks, samosas, or the heads of children with sticky fingers. Outside the train, the sunset straddles the horizon among rice fields, lines of trees and electrical towers that look like steel angels in the dark.

In Delhi Avisha and I chase the bureaucratic fairy around the train station from one ticket counter to another, filling out forms, getting things stamped, carrying our luggage on our backs with the body-heat of the Indians in our nostrils. The bureaucratic and taxonomic obsession with getting things right. The denouement of our confusion and utter exhaustion is only to discover that there is no train left for Jaipur.
In Chandigarh two high school boys meet with us; their questions are typically high school. She your girlfriend? You kiss her? You sex with her? How many girls you do this with? Very common in America? They are obsessed with white women. Very naughty, very sexy they say. I ask them about Indian women. Very naughty, very sexy, they say. The first boy tells me he has proudly slept with seven to eight Indian girls, all of them his friends, though the second boy tells me they are all prostitutes. The second boy has a meeker sex life however, at “two to three” women. Ambiguous numbers.

In Amritsar recumbent pilgrims lie scattered on the white marble of the Golden Temple. They look identical: long dark beards, white turbans, aged soles of their feet. Here we are far from the anomic lifestyle of Las Vegas, the bathetic pathos of casinos and slots. Here people must have touch, must express total equality even in their style of eating, must cover their heads in humbleness not only to an imaginary God, but to each other. In a state of quiescent repose, we face each other as beings of the same universe.

The first night in Jaipur a fuse blows at our five dollar hotel. We move to another room and that fuse blows out. The next day we relocate to another hotel for three dollars a night. It is ridden with ants, spiders, pleas, mosquitos, cockroaches. The mattress is a cot on wooden planks. It reminds me of living in North Las Vegas. We wake up with new places to scratch.

I rid myself of the tourist monuments like passing difficult excrement. To find myself in a new city, one must survey the perimeter, as a canine around his new home, before he can take in the pleasure of the streets. As soon as I am released from the injunction to see the tourist sites, I perambulate towards whatever seems exigent or within my proximity—a broken down building, a gathering of Indians around a well-lit street, a strange figure in the dark. Very often I simply float within the crowd, an unthinking and unassuming flaneur, imbibing in the aura of the city and its people, retreating from certainty, trusting the void wherever it leads.

And Jaipur is a city full of Gods, Kings, monkeys, and street children. They work in groups, perhaps. Avisha and I give rupees whenever I see Mani, a fifteen year old with a baby covered in flies. I like her because she always takes my money and never asks for more. She takes food when I buy it for her. The street children just take the food I buy for them and then toss obscene gestures at me that say in so many words: damn you, cheap America! Mani gets it, so I always give her money. This is called selfish giving.

In Rajasthan, men follow Avisha, with their eyes, their steps, their hands, and occasionally, with their lips, though none have been reciprocated. In the Guide it warns that “Rajasthanis are known for harassing women in Western style clothing”. This means asking for kisses, asking how many people Avisha “sexs” and whether she uses condoms or not. It means obscene stares and being followed by gangs of them at night. It means always being served last at restaurants. It means that when she orders beer the waiter assumes she is only doing it for the men in the room. It means constant whistles, taunts, and arms and hands “accidentally” falling upon different parts of her skin. It means men standing near her with such propinquity as to peak down any portion of her body where the distance between the fabric and her skin might reveal the curve of a breast or thigh.

In Udaipur breezes compensate for overhead fans. I can spot the scattering colors light Badi Lake. Back-up generators never fail the tourist. We inhabit landmarks for three dollars a night.

Author’s Bio: Kawika Guillermo (or Christopher Patterson) is currently finishing his doctorate in Seattle (USA), where he also teaches writing and writes fiction and poetry. He has been published in journals such as The Monarch Review, Unlikely 2.0, The Houston Literary Review, and Danse Macabre. He can be reached at:

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