Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Family Way

Today I went shopping for a new laptop to replace Billy, who is not quite making the grade at the moment, and while at the computer market, in the furnace heat, amongst the hoards of beggars, samosa cooks, shoe shiners and shifty types who’ll sell you a knock-off copy of anything from Hitler’s Mein Kampf to The Gideon Bible, I was again reminded of what it is that makes India a tough place to live.

You see, India, or more precisely, Delhi, is like your mother’s old Aunty when you’re a twelve year old kid. You know what I mean - she’s about a hundred-and-three and she looks it; she’s all hunched over with a grotesque, protruding spine sticking out of where her right shoulder blade should be. She’s got those hair-raising, gnarled, cold fingers that slop limply into your hands when you’re helping her out of a chair, and of course, there’s that massive mole on her chin out of which grows a long, course, black hair like the one Michael J. Fox pulls out of his chest when he begins to realise he’s becoming a Teen Wolf. And let’s not forget that flower-wilting smell of decay on her shallow breath from the lithium addiction, which you can just make out above the stench from her horrid, never-ceasing flatulence.

So Delhi’s basically like that … but when you live here, in the summer time, it’s not like your Great Aunt who still lives in the country, and whom you only have to see at Christmas. In the summer time, Delhi is more like when she has just had a stroke, and has had to come and live with you. Its so hot and dusty here that your life becomes just as if that hemiplegic old bag has moved right on in, and every time she shuffles by, you can hear the grinding of all the crusted grit that she’s accumulated in the folds of her flaccid, jowly skin, all the way down her useless left side.

Basically, living in Delhi from May to August is nothing short of torture. Leaving the house on any given day during these months is reminiscent of when, as a twelve year old, your mother ushers you closer to that ancient, grotesque dame - you’re trying to pull away, but firm hands are pushing you closer … and closer, and in the end, when your will is completely sapped, your astral self steps out of your body and begins convulsing on the carpet as your physical form leans in to kiss that cold, clammy, leathery mug. And like a day on the steaming, streaming streets of Delhi, once your astral self has re-entwined with your body and its stinging, newly stubble-rashed lips (thanks to Aunty’s sandpaper complexion), all you have left in you is to cower in the corner with frightened, haunted eyes for the rest of Christmas.

But just like Old Aunty Ethel, you know that it’s not Delhi’s fault, and that you have to feel a bit sorry for her. So you try to love her as you should, however with all the arthritis, the flatulence, the medication and the bed sores on her arse, she has become a pretty cantankerous old bitch! She never smiles, she never ceases her complaining and she can be as unforgiving as a sailor’s chancre. Still, you try to grin and bear the abuse and look for the nice things about your aunt. You try to love her, in the knowledge that she may not be a part of your life for very much longer, and maybe she’ll reward you for your patience with a decent slab of inheritance when she’s gone … but the old spinster just will not admit defeat and die. She’s been complaining now for the better part of a century, and although her fragile frame groans with the physical effort of it all, that cold, black heart just will not give in. Fuelled by sheer stubbornness, it just keeps on rattling with the relentless regularity of an autistic adolescent.

So that’s what Delhi is like in the summer time; ugly, painful, uncomfortable, relentless, and with an ability to seek out and exploit even the most deeply suppressed pockets of Catholic guilt imaginable. It’s for these reasons that Donkey is getting out. As of last month, my work at Saving the World HQ is no more, and after putting-in a short stint with the Sugarpuffs Anonymous people, I’ll be rolling on out of here, and making tracks for some higher ground … some very high ground, as it happens. Donkey’s got a new gig, and he’s heading to the roof of the world; the mysterious land of ancient Tibet, and its awe-inspiring capital, Lhasa.

So from early July onwards, don’t be too concerned if Old Donkey’s posts seem even a little more garbled than usual, and if I just wander off halfway through a …

… um … what was I? … oh yeah, a sentence, just appreciate that there’s probably a whole lot of high-altitude acclimatisation going on. Maybe you should just go and make yerselves a cuppa until I get that turn of phrase back on track.

I’m obviously pretty excited to be going to live in a place that I’ve only ever dreamed of visiting, but like many things as you get older, the excitement is somewhat tinged with other, less positive feelings.

Number one on the negative aspects chart is my having to live without the companionship of Mrs Donkey for a while, and that guts me completely! But there are some other, less easily understood negative feelings going on down there in that twisted, bitter, little heart of mine. For instance, now that I have made the decision to move, I’m starting to see things in Old, Great Aunty Delhi and saying to myself, “I’m really going to miss that”, or “I hope I get a chance to visit that before I leave” etc etc.

Glass half full or glass half empty? More like glass half broken, and all the water draining out, and three pieces missing, but I’ll still be banging around in the cupboard looking for a straw.

It's not just the expats, life's tough for just about everyone in Delhi. Pic: Hagas

Sunday, May 20, 2007


DISCALIMER: The following post comes to you after a considerable period of convalescence, during which I have been receiving post-trauma counselling. This post, prepared as a major component of my therapy, tells the story of my last few, tumultuous weeks.

I am not a stylish Donkey, as you’d note immediately upon clocking my somewhat unkempt, dishevelled form from across a crowded dance floor; initially it might be my fairly unorthodox … hmm, let’s call it, “avant-garde” dance moves, but before long your keen, stylish sense of the world would latch onto, and shudder at my baggy, flared trousers, my untucked, plain, long-sleeved business shirt and my hair style, distinguished as it is by the absence of anything that could even remotely be referred to as “style”.

No, this Donkey is not one to be found watching the Fashion channel (unless it’s 3am after yet another fruitless evening in a dance-club, and the bikini catwalk is about all the action I’m likely to see). This Donkey is in no way stylish, and I am sad to say, is often found wanting when a conversation amongst friends, be they men or women, inevitably turns to clothes, manicures, fashionable cars and penthouses.

I’m not quite sure when it happened, but I guess it must have been about the age of twenty-eight. A day before my 28th birthday, I was sitting around a grotty table at the pub, everyone was three-quarters of the way drunk, Banno (not his real name) was getting-off in the corner with some girl he’d been pursuing for months and who, true to form, he’d no longer speak to in three days time. Everyone else was arguing over whether Chewbacca had a penis, or whether wookies laid eggs, and the only concern anyone had was whether or not to order the steak sandwich or the BLT.

Jump forward to a week later, when at the age of twenty-eight years and six days old, the same players were sitting around a slick, stainless steel table in a neon-lit WINE BAR, and the conversation was all about Quirky’s (not his real name) new red sports car, seaside holiday home mortgages, hairdressers and who receives the best massages, and where. “I’m sorry”, thinks I as I spray my chilled chenin blanc across the polished granite floor, “Did you say massage?”. It was right then and there, that I knew the world had moved on, and this Donkey had somehow been left behind.

And I am sad to say that I remained in that suspended animation for many years. The conversations about grooming, French fragrances and massage continued, and I still had nothing to give. I became a fashion recluse, shying-away from the bright lights of personal hygiene and designer labels, and if ever I got caught in the crossfire of whether Thai massage outweighed the benefits of Swedish, I wondered how these boys, former comrades in arms from the public bar battlefields of Fitzroy, were able to lie still, wrapped only in a towel, and remain completely unaroused, as a naked Thai princess or perfectly-proportioned blond, bronzed Swedish goddess, straight from the hot tub, rubbed oil, seductively, onto their bodies. For this is what I understood massage to be all about.

Obviously it’s not only the male of the species that enjoys a good massage, and when I got married, Mrs Donkey saw the matrimonial union as the time to transfer the pleasure of a trip to the day spa with her girlfriends, to enjoying the experience with her beloved. This was all a bit hard for a poor Donkey to face. “Obviously my wife has a kinky side that I wasn’t aware of”, thinks I, “she must get off on a bit of ménage à trois action with her husband and a leather-clad Thai masseuse”. Call me a prude, but that was quite a bit more than I was willing to be party too, and I’m prepared to bet my entire beer glass collection that my getting an erection from the touch of another woman, in the presence of my wife, is not going to result in a happy ending.

So I became very, very crafty in my methods of avoiding the massage parlour … OK, sorry, I think that’s probably not the correct name for it … in Australia, “massage parlour” has somewhat different connotations, and as a red-blooded Australian Donkey, obviously I never avoided the massage parlours, but clearly my wife was never present at the time, and what I meant here was, not “massage parlours”, but other places where people go to get massages … got it?

So for years, I artfully parried every attempt by Mrs D to get me onto the hard wooden bench, where I would be fondled by a gorgeous, nubile, lathered mistress of tactility. When holidaying by the coast in Australia, I always seemed to be able to convince Mrs Donkey that the only time available for the massage at the day spa happened to coincide with the turning of the tide, and it was imperative that I went out fishing.

In Thailand, I made sure that our four days at the resort were jam-packed with activities, thereby making it impossible to fit the dreaded massage in. In Bangkok, I artfully deflected the proposition of massage by suggesting we go shopping (genius, pure genius!). In the Solomons, I managed to weave a wicked story about a foreigner who’d been driven mad by evil spirits after receiving massage from a traditional healer, and in Beijing, I timed our trip to coincide with a significant number of public holidays, so none of the massage “dens” were open.

Years and years had gone by, and still I had managed to maintain my dignity, and save our marriage, by avoiding the massage bench, but despite the bubble of smug, self-congratulations at my shrewdness, I could tell Mrs Donkey was onto me. She started to make noises to the effect that the next place we visit which has massage on offer, we’re getting one. I realised that there may be no avoiding it this time; Mrs Donkey was keen for some three-way, horizontal action, and I was going to have to either remain cold and limp by sheer force of will, or kiss goodbye to our trusting, harmonious felicity.

Mrs Donkey and I recently holidayed in the gorgeous southern Indian state of Kerala. Kerala is absolutely amazing, and after a year and a half in the barren north of that vast country, the lush, tropical gardens, friendly faces, flawless hospitality, azure beaches, wonderful food and blood-red sunsets made Kerala seem like the Garden of Eden – if there was a paradise on Earth, this was most certainly it!

Unfortunately, what I was not aware of until we arrived, and what Mrs Donkey was certainly privy to when she booked the tickets, is that Kerala is the home of Ayurvedic medicine, a large component of which being massage, and it was offered absolutely everywhere.

The Lonely Planet guidebook describes Ayurveda (knowledge of life) as being a spiritual and medical practice based on the concept of restoring imbalances in one’s general well-being. The massage component of this is like the “jump-start” to health, and combined with a special diet and exercise, one can achieve a daily state of health and relaxation. This sounded right up Mrs Donkey’s alley, so she began harping-on about booking in for a “service”.

I did my best to parry, “Not here, though, it looks a bit touristy. We need to go somewhere ‘credible’ if we’re going to do it properly”, but my efforts were a bit half-hearted, and while Mrs D was having a sleep one afternoon, I resigned myself to fate, and went looking for the Ayurvedic Institute that I’d seen sign-posted earlier.

As I walked through the delightful, palm-shaded streets of the tiny Keralan seaside town that sleepy afternoon, I commenced my spiritual journey to Ayurvedic enlightenment, and began to think positively about what lay ahead. I turned a corner in the narrow street, and entered a massive clearing, in the centre of which was an enormous pool of holy Hindu significance and magnificent beauty. The Ayurvedic Institute looked out upon this, and I knew that I had selected an institution which took its practice seriously. With rising apprehension, I drew a deep breath and entered the jaws of either physical and spiritual enlightenment, or sexual ecstasy and the end of my marriage.

The woman who met me outside was not quite what I had been expecting. Sure, she was pretty enough, but not quite Bangkok-sex-show pretty, but still, I was not put off, and in the spirit of doing this whole thing properly, I signed us up for the full rejuvenation massage, complete with both hot oil and cream.

The next day I held Mrs D’s hand nervously as we arrived at what I reflected could well turn out to be our last hour of trusting, supporting love. We entered through the archway, which had been forbidden to me the previous day, and met with the Ayurvedic “Madam”, who introduced us to the two young ladies who were going to be our “hosts”. One of these two was the woman I had spoken to the previous day, and her companion was similar in her plainness, but I noticed they wore their sarees loosely, and I gulped down a hard lump of fear and apprehension. Behind them, in the darkness of the building, there were other shapes moving around, but I thought nothing of this.

It was time, and to my surprise, the two ladies led Mrs D away from me. I was a little confused, therefore, when two shapes emerged from the darkness in the forms of towering, athletic looking young men. “What’s going on?”, I panicked, and as Mrs Donkey and I were led in separate directions, I felt genuine loss at being separated from my beloved, perhaps for ever.

The next three minutes were like an old World War II film. I was dragged down a dark, dirty, dank corridor, on either side of which were large, iron, cell-like doors with huge latches that bolted them closed from the outside. I was led around the corner into what could only be described as a filthy cell, with no windows and a bare wooden bench as the only feature in the centre of the space. I was ordered to strip. “OK”, I relented, and waited for them to leave, or at least turn their backs, but in the end I had to reign-in my welling tears as I disrobed before these leering ruffians, who then approached to tie a string around my waste, into the front of which they tucked a paper napkin (a very large paper napkin, I might add). The napkin was then woven beneath my legs, pulled up my bum, and tucked it into the string at the back. Completely useless and ridiculous! And as I was ushered across the slippery, oily, dirty floor to the bench, I let out a dignity-swollen sob; my very last reserve of that essential human essence.

For the next hour, I clung miserably to the slippery bench-top, my muscles like walnuts as I tried to keep from falling onto the floor. I shuddered in pain as these two goons smacked my scrotum every time they ran their rough hands up my legs; suppressed a whimper whenever they stuck their hands up my bum; burned with shame as they ran their fingers around and then clinched my nipples. Hot oil and then cold cream – it seemed like an eternity as these rough bastards subjected me to all sorts of depraved violations, and still the worse was yet to come.

I was done-in with exhaustion when I was informed that the “relaxation massage” was about to commence. I was instructed to close my eyes and relax, and as one of the brutes left the cell, the other began gently caressing my entire body with his fingertips, sending me into writhing spasms of ticklish discomfort. By the time he had made his way up my legs and onto my abdomen, only my shoulders and heels were touching the bench as every muscle in my body screamed and I tried to breathe. In hindsight, I think it very fortunate that my eyes were closed, for as he continued to caress my nipples, I’m sure if I had have looked at him, he would have winked at me.

My paper napkin was a sopping, oily mess as my subjugator led me out of the cell, head bowed and my will beaten to a pulp. I crossed the floor like a lobotomised McMurphy from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest as the cruel brute led me into a shower cell and whipped my useless, sodden covering off me in one fluid, final undignifying sweep. He then proceeded to scrub my back with some soap.

They say that even the most repressed, beaten slaves still harbour a flicker of dignity, which smoulders deep within, and which maintains their humanity. And so it was, during this final act of dehumanisation, my flame within flickered into defiant indignation. “Leave me alone – please get out of here”, at which my repressor’s face fell, and he quietly left the shower cubicle.

I cleaned the oily shame from my body as quickly as I could and began wondering how I would escape, and whether or not I would return in the night to rescue my beloved, but as I tried to leave, I discovered that I had been locked in. I screamed in panic, and my heartless captor opened the door and dragged me back to the oily cell. There I removed my towel and dressed in my street clothes in two seconds flat. I ran straight out the door of the cell, along the dark corridor and out of the building, not daring to look back to see if I was being pursued. I crossed the road to the sacred pool, and sat under a tree, breathing heavily as I grieved for the lonely life that lay ahead.

Moments later, Mrs Donkey emerged in a similarly dishevelled state, fear evident in her rapidly darting eyes. We collapsed into each others’ arms and held tightly for a long time, sobbing with relief, and vowed never to leave each others’ side again.

Massage, hey? Not quite the sexual enlightenment I had been led to believe from all my poncy friends back home in Australia. Not exactly the relaxing, luxurious pampering, the descriptions of which I have had to endure through countless, mind-numbing conversations. Massage is a violating, dehumanising affront to a person’s dignity, and should be outlawed in civilised societies everywhere. Promotion of such activities should be likened to pimping and human trafficking, and those who do so, ought to be prosecuted accordingly under International Humanitarian Law.

One thing I have to say in defence of this harrowing experience, however, is that far from resulting in the end of our wonderful marriage, Ayurveda has brought Mrs Donkey and I even closer together, so I guess I must concede that massage is not all bad.

The sacred tank where Donkey and Mrs D were reunited. Pic: Hagas.