Last exit to bedlam – Chand Baori, Abhaneri, India
‘I’m telling you he’s asleep again.’ said Aniqa.
‘You sure?’ I said.
The taxi began to drift into the opposing lane and in the rear view mirror I could see Mani’s eyelids were closed. A sharp punch to the back of the headrest was the reckoner, as the taxi swerved and snaked on the road. Aniqa thrust out her arms to steady herself as Mani fought with the steering wheel.
The horn of an oncoming vehicle blared as we swerved and clipped its flank before juddering back over onto our side of the road. Aniqa let out a gasp and I turned and looked through the rear window at the other car pulling over to the side of the road, but we kept going.
‘What the hell Mani!’ I screamed.
‘Not a problem sir, back on track, we’ll be there soon.’ he said.
‘Can’t you stay awake, Jesus wept!’
‘Just trading paint. Mani taxi is number one in Rajasthan and the whole of India sir,’ said Mani. ‘Who hit me?’ he asked rubbing the back of his head.
‘Pothole.’ I said.
Stalls adorned with the sunken fruits of grim heat afternoons arbitrarily dotted the roadside. Everything in this oppressive heat, no matter how trivial, conspired against my reverie as I shuffled myself uncomfortably, my body sweating against the cheap plastic seats held together with gaffer tape. Aniqa, a Danish girl I’d met on the train from Delhi, was leaning against the half opened glass of her window trying to cool down.
Pendants and beads swung beneath the rear view mirror, though I doubt Mani had ever bothered to look in it. I could hear him now – behind us is in the past sir, not to worry sir.
A frayed sun-bleached image of Shiva the destroyer sitting on a tiger with a snake around his neck and another of Krishna as a small boy were stuck to the dashboard. I’d noticed Mani kiss his hand and touch them after broadsiding the other car.
In India, as in other third world countries, the thinking is that every day is a blessing and when your keeper calls for you then that, as they say, is that. However in the fevered mind of the driver in such countries, there is clearly something of an impatience for god’s divine plan, and I’d even venture a concerted effort to return to his dark embrace at any conceivable opportunity.
After another hour we turned off of State Highway 11 from Agra to Jaipur, onto the 25 north. Mani, although adamant he’d been here before when negotiating the journey in Agra seemed happy to make numerous wrong turns and speak to every farmer by the side of the road for directions before we finally arrived at Chand Baori, a 9th century stepwell situated in the small unassuming village of Abhaneri.
We found the place deserted and began to explore, as Mani reclined in his seat to indulge himself with another mid afternoon doze. Some of the village folk stopped and stared at us as we disappeared into the darkened recesses of the well.
Despite the competing forces of neglect, weathering and a recent barbarous affliction of concrete to repair certain features, the well had us overawed as though we’d been cast into an Escher illustration. With 3500 narrow steps and 13 stories plummeting 100 feet deep, Chand Baori was difficult for the mind to fully realise, as though an illusion. We’d arrived long after the last of the Monsoon rains and the water level was nearly at its lowest point, revealing the full majesty of the structure.
An hour passed as I explored the ancient Hindu carvings before I gathered myself for the mental anguish of the drive back to Agra. Out in the street Mani was leaning up against the side of the car and I paused to meet his gaze.
‘Are you ready to return to the city sir?’ he asked.
‘You’ve got a lot of heart Mani, but I can’t be having you counting sheep on the way home.’
‘Counting sheep? There’s no sheep.’
‘I mean when you go to sleep, we have an expression where you imagine sheep jumping a fence and as you count them you drift away.’ I said.
‘You count sheep to go to sleep? Are you trying to bamboozle me with gobbledegook? I wonder how you ever ruled this country with such crazy ideas.’
‘You worship monkey and elephant gods. It wasn’t difficult to move in.’ I said.
Mani laughed and slapped me on the arm a little harder than I’d prefer.
‘Let’s go, it will be dark in a couple of hours and the roads get a little spooky after dark.’ Mani said. I had no desire to experience Mani’s version of spooky.
Aniqa reappeared from the well and we set out back towards Agra. With an hour to go before arriving at the city, the light faded to a brooding grey dusk and as sure as shit baking in the midday sun, the gut-wrenching terror wasted no time surrounding us like a plague that would seemingly never end. Mani, fully alert in his limited half-baked capacity, sat upright, lit a cigarette and accelerated into the hazy veil.
The failure of the evening light was compounded by the pollution emanating from the city ahead, the result of millions of combustion engines and filthy old generators going at it like stink. Out of the darkness ahead, walking towards us, a cow appeared, then another. Mani continued at 70mph, whistling past them as though confident they wouldn’t break rank. I turned to see their rancid tails swooshing to and fro, spraying their effluence across the highway.
What absurdity would be next? The answer came as a dark looming object appeared ahead, a huge sack full of hay, the height of a truck and almost the width, precariously perched upon a 50cc two-stroke motorcycle. I winced as Mani flew past at what seemed like a cigarette paper’s distance from taking out the bulging load. Again I span in my seat to see the fate of this farmer but the night had already taken him.
Aniqa looked more mortified than ever. ‘I preferred it when he was asleep.’ she said.
‘I preferred it when we’d never met.’ I said back.
The cab began to drift off of the road onto the dirt and I feared Mani was up to his old tricks, but before I could dry-gulch the back of his headrest again, a huge truck with no headlights came barreling towards us on our side of the road from out of the darkness. Paralysed i could only stare as Aniqa sucked in a muted scream.
Our little Tata car shook violently from the displaced air of the juggernaut as it bullied past like a bloated black balloon fashioned from corroded rivets and steel, back into the darkness from whence it came.
Mani pulled back onto the road as though nothing had happened, scarcely dropping his speed throughout. I pleaded with him to be careful as I imagined the tears in my mother’s eyes as she met my coffin arriving back home on some lonely runway in the rain.
Entering the city limits the roads began to throng with people yet Mani continued his reckless way past them, the occasional clipping sound of our side mirror catching some part of an anonymous shadow’s anatomy. Roundabouts were taken the wrong way to the incessant sounds of horns.
Indians don’t ride their horns in anger, they ride them without prejudice or emotion, as though the fundamental principle of the combustion engine was dependent upon it. It’s genetically hardwired into their DNA.
Just then, suddenly, after negotiating miles of disorientating alleyways, side streets and even cutting across a public park, all the while holding wet cloths to our faces from the appalling stench of fumes, rotting garbage and open sewers we’d arrived back at the hotel. Exhausted I slumped back in my seat and rubbed the dirt from my eyes.
‘No place like home,’ said Mani.
‘Say Mani,’ I said ‘Did your mother have any other children that lived?’
‘I am the fourth of six children.’
‘Well,’ I said slapping him across the shoulder harder than I imagined he’d have liked, ‘I guess in this part of the world you have to hedge your bets.’
Getting out of the death car I half expected to see the door panels bejeweled with splattered blood and an uprooted limb hanging lifelessly from the rear hitch, however I was relieved to see this wasn’t the case. I went down the road to a small hut with a barred window to pick up some cheap whiskey and beer. It was going to take a long shower and most of the booze to restore me, back to the place Mani calls home.