Some years ago, I was near New York’s Times Square, leaning against a lamp post at sunset, when a black man in a suede jacket came up to me.
“What are you here for, champ?” He asked. “Girls?”
“Nope,” I said.
“Looking for boys, then?”
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“No, really.” I smiled. “I don’t want anything.”
The pimp inspected me from head to toe with professional curiosity.
“Champ: everyone wants something.”
For most of my life, I have felt like a Darwinian failure. Men with sharper teeth surrounded me. They wanted the normal things—sex, money, power. I just drifted from place to place. And that is why of all the cities I have lived in, I am most grateful to New Delhi: for it was where I learnt to want something.
India, to which I returned in 2003 after 12 years abroad, was a sequence of shocks: and the biggest shock of all came from the women. In New York, it had been so simple; they asked you out. I had no family in Delhi and almost no friends; the Time magazine bureau, where I worked, had just three reporters. Without any normal social network, it became clear that meeting women in the Capital could happen only in the classic Delhi way: through a scam.
Open windows: (clockwise from top left) Lodi Gardens, one of the city’s green oases; the iconic Purana Qila; and a food vendor on the streets of Old Delhi. Photographs: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
One Tamil businessman, the son of a famous babu, took pity on me.
“New Delhi is full of beautiful, sensitive Sikh women interested in painting and music. And they are stuck with these big hairy men drinking Royal Challenge. They’re all looking for south Indians to have affairs with, trust me.”
A portly Bengali public relations man told me the secret of his success: language lessons. Years ago, when the Indian economy opened up, he had figured out that Delhi would soon be full of lonely Swedish businesswomen looking for someone to talk to. His insight had paid off handsomely. “Keep away from Danish,” he said—he was learning that now. “Go for Finnish. Icelandic.”
I took my troubles to a woman; she got to the heart of the problem.
“Why don’t you have a car? You’ve got the money.”
I told her I had lived in New York for most of my adult life; I didn’t know how to drive.
“Then get a driver.”
I had been out of India for so many years that I was uncomfortable with having servants. I could not order people around.
“Then you can kiss your chances of getting laid in Delhi goodbye,” she said.
In late 2003, I was still paying taxes in America, so it horrified me that the US consulate was hosting a “Gallo drinking appreciation event” one evening on the lawns of the ITC Sheraton. What a waste of my tax money, I thought, walking past the people quaffing free Californian Chardonnay. Behind them, a pianist was playing old film tunes, and a slim short woman in a green dress was dancing around him.
The friend who had brought me there noticed my noticing her.
“Speak to her,” he said. “She’s into books.” He whispered: “Bengali.”
Noticing my reticence, he brought the woman over by the arm to where I stood.
I was 28 then; she looked a few years older. Almost as soon as we began talking she told me she had been divorced.
I was not sure about the cultural significance of this; did she not want me to make a pass at her?
To confuse me further, she added, “Twice divorced.”
Having no idea what she wanted me to say, I asked if she had read Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
No, but she had all his books at home. She lived in Greater Kailash-II. What was I doing after this?
The pianist left; the lights flickered. Gallo appreciation evening was over. People left the lawns.
Now came the dreaded part of the evening. When we got to the lobby of the hotel, I confessed: “I have no car.”
“It doesn’t matter,” she said, with a smile. “I have one.”
I met her four times. When I called for a fifth meeting, her secretary picked up the phone and said: “She is in Calcutta.”
The next time I called, she said: “She is in Bangalore.”
The next time the phone was not picked up.
All through the 1990s—in New York, Oxford, then again in New York—I tried to write. I woke up at 5 in the morning to finish my novel; and I slept at 2 in the morning to finish my novel. Yet I could not write it. It seemed to me that my problem had begun in 1990, when, to protect myself from a trauma, I had withdrawn from others. I was not emotionally engaged with people as a writer ought to be: the syringe of the world had not penetrated my epidermis. And what worried me most was the ending of Henry James’ novella The Beast in the Jungle, when the hero realises his terrible fate: to be the one man in the world to whom nothing ever happens.
Old and new: (left) Devotees at the Nizamuddin Dargah; and the busy Greater Kailash-II market. Photographs: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
In the early days what I did was still, by and large, sane.
I bought the music she had played when I stayed over at her place. My landlord in Nizamuddin East, a tall gracious man named Bijlani, knocked one morning on the door:
“I did not know you liked Hindi film music so much, Mr Adiga.”
“I don’t,” I said.
He picked up a CD cover: “Then why are you playing Kal Ho Na Ho all night long?”
I bought several dozen tapes of Sufi music, to search for a riff that went, Ali, Aaali, Ali, Aaali, syncopated by the stamping of her foot as she danced round and round and round her living room.
She owned a small Raja Ravi Varma, which she had bought in Mysore, and I went searching through catalogues for it: a green, red-eyed demon is spying on a chaste woman in a sari. She ran a small public relations firm. I read the business papers for articles about the companies that she worked with.
I began a double life. In the morning, I went to my office in the P.T.I Building, interviewed people, and filed boring articles on how exciting India was. My Punjabi office manager liked to tell people I was the “most Madrasi Madrasi” he had ever met: “This man has Bisleri in his veins. Not a drop of warm blood.”
Around eight in the evening, I started texting and emailing her. Then I began calling. One night I finally got through. The moment she recognized my voice—even before I had finished a word—the line went dead.
“This is shameful,” I told myself. “You come from a family of respectable lawyers and doctors. You can go to jail for something like this.”
And then I called her again.
Things became worse and worse, until one evening, I turned up uninvited to her door in GK-II—a gurdwara nearby served as a landmark—and pressed the bell.
There was a paper lamp in the shape of a Chinese dragon above her door. Her Bangladeshi maid opened the door and told me, in Bengali, that no one was in; the grin in the corner of her lips, and a sudden movement of the dragon in the wind, told me otherwise.
Around this time, in early 2004, I began writing in earnest. One evening, as I was stepping off an autorickshaw in front of the Lodi Gardens, the driver asked:
“Can you buy me a ticket?”
“Ticket for what?” I asked.
“To go into the garden. It looks so beautiful inside.”
I told him the garden was open to anyone, regardless of social class, but he was too frightened to come in. I took a few steps into the garden, stopped, turned and ran back, determined to drag him in. But he was gone.
I thought of something that had happened a few days earlier, in old Delhi, where I went every Sunday to the second-hand book market in Darya Ganj. An old Muslim man sat by a stack of New Yorker and Vanity Fair magazines, which he sold at Rs 20 each; he got them from a foreign embassy. He had no interest in the magazines he sold; all he read was a book of Urdu poetry. I wanted to know what was in the book. Each time I bought a pile of New Yorkers, I squatted by him, and he read me a couplet or a quatrain, usually by one of his four favourites—Iqbal, Rumi, Ghalib and Hafiz.
That Sunday, I thought about the poem he had read out, and then got down on my knees again:
“But uncle, what does that mean?”
He was a dark, sweaty man, with a fringe white beard. He glared: “You look stupid, beta—but are you actually stupid?”
To placate him, I bought another New Yorker. “Please, uncle…please.”
So he read it again, the line from Iqbal that had confused me:
“They are slaves because they cannot see what is beautiful in the world.”
He closed his book. “Go home and think about it. I have customers here.”
There was a connection between Iqbal’s words and the autorickshaw man’s timidity. One morning, I was walking around the Delhi zoo—past the broken wall of the Purana Qila, past the pelicans that were being fed, past the painted storks that looked like gandharvas on the palm trees—when I saw the connection.
The white tiger was locked up in the heart of the city, like the biggest secret in Delhi: like an Iqbal poem behind black bars. And the secret that the white tiger knew was this: Beauty is freedom.
All through south Delhi runs a red wall, stained with bird shit and paan, and guarded by men with guns; behind this red wall live the powerful and important of the Capital. From my first day in the city I had been trying to breach this wall—get myself invited to book launches and cultural events—to join in the Capital’s inner life. But all I had found behind the red wall were third-rate people turning up at third-rate book launches and cultural events.
Outside the red wall, life was raw and beautiful; wild peacocks still roamed through New Delhi. Outside was where I was going to stay from now.
By 2005, I had learnt to stop my phone calls to the lady in GK-II.
I developed a writing routine after my day as a journalist ended. There was a store in Khan Market in those days called Bengal Sweets—the name seemed grimly ironic to me—where I went to write. The waiters let me stay as long as I wanted. One of them, a man with a handlebar mustache, stood by my side as I revised my printed sheets, and asked if I was a “kavi”.
After my work in the café, a walk in the Lodi Gardens: the medieval battlements lit up by golden lights, men’s faces illuminated by cellphones. From there, the walk continued, on big broken slabs of pavement, all the way back to my home in Nizamuddin.
One evening I sat down on the street, wiping my face, and watching the ripple of light made by the traffic along the neem trees. To my surprise, another man was sitting down a few paces next to me. We stared at each other.
Further down the road, near the Nizamuddin dargah, there were scores of homeless men, reading newspapers in the dim light. New Delhi at night turned into a vast Tophet, an infernal city full of secret fire. In the flashing headlights of cars and buses, a vivid face: an old man, his long, white beard blowing in the wind, looked up at me with his finger on a journal.
What were these men reading by night? Were they all Naxalites gathered in the Capital? Was there an insurrection being planned?
But the insurrection was in my heart: against the way I had lived until then.
In November 2006, I left Delhi after three years that smelled to me of failure; I had been at a job I did not really care about, had not married or settled down, as I had hoped to do.
Only now do I realize how productive my three years there had been. I finished my book of short stories—which has still not been published in a proper form in India. I began the draft of what would become, in Mumbai, The White Tiger. I started other books that I hope to complete soon.
Most of all, during my time in Delhi I understood what I was meant to want on earth. More than money, fame, or life—O, much more than life—I wanted to write.
Aravind Adiga’s new novel, Last Man in the Tower , will be published in 2011 by HarperCollins India.
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