By Carol J. Arnold
An old gypsy teaches a retired American visitor that getting lost is often the best way to find what you’re looking for.
It came out of nowhere, a horrendous crash like something had dropped from the sky, shattering the passenger window only a few feet from my face. “It’s okay,” my husband Andy said as I grabbed his hand, his rapid breaths only slightly less ragged than my own. “The glass is in one piece.”
“Are you well?” Samir turned and asked. Samir was our driver, a young man hired as part of our nine-week sojourn through India to celebrate our recent retirement from busy careers in San Francisco. We had been cruising down a Rajasthani highway, one of the few where cows, donkey carts or camels don’t share the road. Samir had insisted we sit in the backseat, a custom apparently left over from the days of the Raj, the proper place, it seemed, for sahibs and memsahibs.
Shaken but unhurt, we assured Samir we were okay. ”The bus,” was all he said as he turned the car around and sped off in the other direction. Within moments, we were driving alongside the front fender of the bus that had just passed going the other way. Having no alternative but to slow down, it pulled to the side of the road and stopped as Samir pulled over too. Jumping out of the car, he snapped open his phone and within seconds was talking in rapid fire Hindi. Andy got out of the car, looking perplexed. All the male passengers exited the bus including the driver. The women gawked out the bus window at me, still sitting in the car catching my breath.
After the phone call Samir conferred with the bus driver then explained to Andy and me in halting English that something had been tossed from the bus window, exactly what we never knew. “Not on purpose,” he assured us as I suspiciously scrutinized the passengers standing around him. We had had a bomb alert at our hotel in Delhi a few nights before requiring everyone to evacuate to the street. False alarm, we were told afterward, but the experience had left me jumpy.
Serious negotiations ensued between Samir and the bus driver. The passenger side of the windshield was splintered beyond repair, but beyond that there was no damage to the car. I could tell by the intensity of the conversation that Samir was driving a hard bargain. Finally, the bus driver handed over a wad of rupees. Samir stuffed the money in his pocket, mentioning something about a windshield replacement waiting us in Jaipur. He then held up his hands in prayer and bowed slightly to the bus driver, the Hindu Namaste that tells the other, “The god in me sees the god in you.” Without insurance adjusters, lawyers or police, Samir had settled the matter on the open road and we all went on our way.
We had met Samir the week before when he picked us up at our Delhi hotel to begin our driving tour of northern India. He was a professional driver assigned us by a short and shiny-faced man whose cramped and dimly lit travel office we wandered into our second day in the city. Racked with jet lag and overwhelmed by hordes of destitute people trying to separate us from our money, we had shelved our plans to travel solo through Rajasthan.
Rocky, as the travel agent called himself, was a smooth operator. “I know your needs, Madame,” he told me as we handed over a pile of cash for three weeks of hotels, a car and a driver. “You are a flower in my hands.”
The next day, a young man appeared at our hotel, decked out in a pale blue shirt, carefully pressed gray slacks, and a handkerchief folded neatly in his pocket. He was so clean he looked like he might squeak if you rubbed your finger across his skin. With his stunning white teeth gleaming in the hot Delhi sun and his jet-black hair falling seductively over his forehead, Samir could have been, if not a Greek god, certainly the Hindu equivalent. The thought crossed my mind that a flower in Rocky’s hand we may be, but this guy was the orchid.
Gazing into his eyes as we stood there in front of the hotel, I had the odd sense I knew Samir. Maybe I was his mother in a past life, I pondered, as I forced myself to look away. Noting the many decades between our ages, I knew grandmother was more likely. But there was something else, not quite maternal.
It had been almost thirty years since Andy and I took our marriage vows standing on a hillside overlooking the spectacular Big Sur coast. As much as we loved each other, the ecstasy of those first years together had gone the way of thin waists and thick hair. We had built a wonderful life together, but it was sometimes difficult to conjure up the rapture of our initial attraction. It had been replaced with something deeper and more solid, yes, but sometimes I longed for that pure, unadulterated thrill when I looked in his eyes. Would I have to accept never having that feeling again, I had wondered, concluding probably “yes.”
Samir took us around the city that first day, ending up at the spice market in Old Delhi. The crowds were so dense nothing could penetrate but rickshaws and ox carts. Samir negotiated for our bicycle rickshaw driver, a tiny man with missing front teeth and cloudy eyes who pumped us all down Chandni Chowk Road. We had told Samir we wanted to wander the market alone, but would appreciate his getting us there. Finally disembarking in front of a spice stand, we were immediately set upon by a group of gypsies who hustled us over to a stack of boxes containing various medicinal herbs, or so the sign said. Samir left us in the crowd to let us experience the market ourselves as we had asked.
Seeing him go, the women started dancing around us in circles, their beads and bangles jangling to the rhythm of their bobbing heads. This is fun, I told myself, as their withered leader produced some leafy stalks and began waving them in our direction. Soon the raucous laughter of the younger women swelled to high-pitched shrieks and their hips took on a hint of the bump and grind. A heady aroma—something between peppermint and vinegar—drifted through the humid air, mingling with the smell of cumin, coriander and cinnamon from the spice stands.
The fun of a moment ago was soon transformed into something less easily labeled an Interesting Travel Experience. The gypsy crone sidled up to me and began chanting unintelligible incantations in my ear. Her eyes glinting darkly and her shrieks drowning out those of the other women, she began wildly circling the fragrant herbs above my head. I glanced over at Andy who, like me, was sporting a frozen smile. Just as I felt I was about to start shrieking myself, Sumir emerged from nowhere, marching up to the woman and barking at her in pointed Hindi. Grudgingly, she pocketed the leaves and skulked off with her troops. Sumir extended his arm, which I immediately grabbed like it was a lifeline in a churning sea. His taut muscles rippled beneath the light cotton of his shirt as he hustled me down the street, Andy following close behind.
The next day, we visited the Taj Mahal. On the long drive from Delhi, Samir explained the meaning of the four Hindu gods whose pictures he had tacked to the dashboard of Rocky’s car. “This is Ganesha, for good luck,” he began, smiling, as I gazed at the dancing elephant whose left foot balanced precariously on the back of a rat. “And this one is for beauty,” he added, pointing to the last picture. He rested his hand on Lakshmi, a sensuous Hindu goddess whom at that moment I wanted nothing more than to be.
What’s this, I thought, as my eyes lingered on the tawny skin of his hand? I remembered the gypsy, her leafy stalks circling my head. Could it be, I mused, that the herb she was waving about was the aromatized version of the proverbial Spanish Fly, the substance (its origin the subject of endless debate) my friends and I had giggled about in high school, something none of us had ever seen but had been told about? Boys, older girls had warned us, would be more than eager to throw one or two of whatever it was in our cokes, and nymphomaniacs we would instantly be.
Always in command, Samir left no stone unturned when it came to our wellbeing. In addition to the gods on his dashboard, he had hung a small mobile from the rearview mirror, a several-pieced replica of a favored Hindu temple, to accompany us on our journey. It’s metallic tinkling was a constant reminder of the spiritual life Samir seemed to hold so dear.
As we had left Delhi on our way to the Taj Mahal, he had pulled over at a dilapidated kiosk perched precariously in the middle of the road. As cars zoomed all around us, we came to stop in front of a faded photo of a bearded holy man surrounded with twinkling lights and wilted marigolds. With traffic zooming all around, Samir handed us a ten-rupee note. “To bless our journey,” he said as he motioned for me to rub my fingers on the greasy note. I complied and handed the note back to Samir who deposited it in a basket beneath the photo. Holding up his hands in prayer, he bowed to the holy man, then put the car in gear and took off.
Returning that night to Delhi, a dense mist of diesel fumes had settled into the humid Yamuna River valley. My vision of the astonishingly white Taj Mahal soon faded as the night and the road produced visions of their own. Shacks and carts lined both sides of the highway selling fruit, chapattis, dal, tobacco, and packs of betel leaf, the mild stimulant chewed by many Indian men and spit between the teeth at regular intervals. Tiny lights flickered in denuded trees as incense burned in broken branches. Fires roared in ancient 50-gallon drums where people cooked curries and sweets. Barefoot children played in suspect puddles as skinny dogs lurked in the shadows. Women in brilliant saris drifted through the night while scores of shiny cows wandered about chewing their cuds. Smells of dung, incense, spices, urine, smoke, and diesel fumes permeated the air in what we came to know as the signature odor of India.
All of this spilled out onto the highway itself, as if there were no distinction between the road and the pulsating, reeking life it took us through. Samir negotiated his way through the throng with all the dignity of a king, never once resorting to road rage, not even a hint. Inching the car past a herd of cows, we soon bogged down completely as a group of men ambled across the road carrying a dead body on their shoulders.
Andy and I stared out the window then back at each other, jaws agape. Intent on his driving, Samir merely rolled down the window of the car to adjust his side mirror. As he did, a soft breeze wafted through, jingling the hanging temple. Reaching out to calm it, Samir caressed each tinkling parts as if they were alive. In what could only be described as a swoon, my breath quickened as my head began to spin. “It’s so hot,” I said to Andy, knowing that wasn’t it at all. I longed to be that jingling temple, stroked and soothed by the hand of Samir. Embarrassed, I sat up straight. “How many more kilometers do we have, Samir?” I asked, smoothing the wrinkles of my blouse.
As we traveled through Rajasthan, Samir continued to hustle us through minor troubles with command and ease. Mostly he stayed in the background, letting us immerse ourselves in all that was India but knowing instinctively when this might overwhelm, and gently leading us away. Sometimes he would appear out of nowhere especially when I was sightseeing alone and a particularly aggressive beggar had attached himself to me. Never making a scene, he would shoo the beggar away with a few quiet words. Intuitively knowing where I wanted to go, he would take my arm and say, “This way, Madame, follow me.” I always did.
Samir worked very hard for Rocky, with hardly a day off. During one of our long days on the road he told me why.
“Where are you from, Samir?” I asked him.
“Rishikesh, in the north.”
“Oh, isn’t that the town famous for its yoga?”
“Do you practice?” I inquired, thinking anyone who lived in a yoga town would.
“No, Madame. My parents are from there. They have house, many years old, our family house. It is broken. They can’t live there. I bring them to Delhi. We live together in my place.” Samir’s “place” was a room in old Delhi.
“I want to give my father and mother rupees so they can fix house and move back home. My parents don’t like Delhi. My father is very old. He was farmer but can’t work now.”
“How old is he, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Oh.” I did a quick calculation. At least I couldn’t be Samir’s grandmother, but according to his perception of “very old,” I was near dead.
Many times I asked Samir not to call me Madame. “Call me by my name,” I said. “That’s what we do in the U.S.” But this was a barrier he could not breach. Madame, it remained.
At the end of our last day in Rajasthan, Samir handed me a ragged notebook, very plain with lined paper. On the front cover were glued cut out photos– a rose, a temple, a deer, a mountain. “For you to keep tonight, Madame. I would be very happy if you write in my book.”
After dinner that evening I curled up on our hotel bed and opened Samir’s book. In it were pages of testimonials to Samir, his driving, his sweet ways. Some were in Hindi, others in German, French or Japanese. But most were written in various levels of English.
“Samir, you tell good joke,” one man said. “You and I like joke. We have big fun. Soji.”
“We have spent wonderful days with you Samir. You are a special person. Please come visit in Amsterdam. Fondly, the Van Dam family.”
“When will you get married, Samir? I hope soon. You’ll be a good husband. I’m not married. Love, Brigit.”
I read some of these to Andy who was sitting across the room studying a guidebook. In the middle of doing so, I broke down. Sobbing, I told Andy I would miss Samir and didn’t want to go on to the next leg of our journey.
“What’s this about?” Andy asked.
An awkward silence ensued. “The change,” I finally said even though we both knew that was long past.
Andy looked confused. “Hormones,” I added, “you know, female stuff.”
Hormones indeed. Clutching the pen, I began to write.
Dear Samir, I have never met anyone like you. You are gentle, sweet, strong, capable, spiritual, and gorgeous, everything I love in a man. I want to fuck your brains out.
Whoa! Quickly tearing out the page, I stuffed it in my backpack and started over. Dear Samir, You are a wonderful driver and a great companion. If you ever come to the U.S. we would love to have you visit us in San Francisco.
I pictured Samir in our guest bedroom, asleep in the big bed, his dark hair spilling over the pillow. Would the yellow percale sheets do, or the green? Lilies on the nightstand, or roses? Lost in my reverie, it took me a moment to notice the photograph that had fallen out of the book, a faded image of a dilapidated house on an eroded hillside. A tattered couple stood outside staring grimly at the camera. Samir’s parents.
On our return to Delhi, Samir stopped once again at a crumbling holy man kiosk. After blessing another ten-rupee note, he put it in the basket and held up his hands in prayer. As he did, I put my hands together too, but not at the old man in the picture. Facing Samir’s back, I bowed my head toward the back of his.
“Namaste, Samir.” I whispered.
The god in me sees the god in you.
When we returned home to San Francisco, I had time to peruse my photos. After downloading them all, I discovered one I hadn’t really looked at since I snapped it. It was Samir and Andy standing in front of a spice stand on Chandni Chowk road. Studying Samir, then Andy, my jaw dropped. With a few modifications like curly hair instead of straight, Samir could have been my husband’s son. He looked like Andy when I first met him. Samir had awakened something in me for sure, but that something was sitting right next to me in my living room reading The New York Times.
That night in bed, I cuddled up to Andy and whispered in his ear. “You are a god,” I said.
He laughed then stared at me when he saw I didn’t.
“Yes. I just hadn’t noticed for a while.”
He leaned over and kissed me, and there she was, the gypsy queen and her pungent herbs spinning wildly above our heads.
Carol J. Arnold’s work has appeared in Travelers’ Tales’ 2008 Best Women’s Travel Writing; Ars Medica, an anthology of medical literature; BARK Magazine; Composite Arts Journal; Pif Magazine; and Fourth River Journal, among others, both print and on-line. She was awarded New Millennium Journal’s 2009 first prize for flash fiction, and Honorable Mention for her nonfiction work. Her short story won an Honorable Mention in the 2008 John Steinbeck Short Story Contest sponsored by Reed Magazine. Her creative nonfiction essay won second prize in the 2013 Keats Soul Making Contest, and her short essays continue to be featured on San Francisco’s National Public Radio.