Coming up on the midnight specialPosted: September 5, 2011
I feel like some old engine, lost my driving wheel – Tom Rush “Lost my driving wheel”
The rickshaw left me standing alone at the train station in Amritsar. I schlepped my pack to the nearest hotel and asked them if I could leave it there for a few hours. They refused. I walked to the next hotel and asked them too. I didn’t mind paying a little, I said. They refused, as did another three hotels. The entire time a tout was trying to sell me a room. I was leaving in a few hours I told him (repeatedly) but listening didn’t seem to be his strongpoint.
I gave up and headed to the Golden Temple. I hadn’t planned on visiting again but I had a couple of hours to kill before my midnight train and knew I could leave my bag there. It was only a short trip anyway and I arrived near dusk. The Temple was lit up by the oblique rays of the setting sun and I walked around watching the devotees perform their ritual ablutions in the pool of nectar. I’m not a spiritual type but I am prone to occasional sentimentality and watching the devotion of the pilgrims was a moving experience. I walked a circuit around the lake, visited the temple in the middle and took a few photographs before my mind wandered towards finding a bar. It had been a month since I last had a beer.
Outside the temple a cycle rickshaw driver hailed me with a smile. He wasn’t pushy so I told him to take me to a pharmacy and then to a bar near the railway station where I could wait for my train. I didn’t get what I needed at the pharmacy so I put my faith in the loperamide I had taken and we headed for a bar.
Santosh took me to a local bar but it wasn’t close to the station. I knew there were a couple of bars right outside the station but Santosh was firm.
“Indian bar, Indian prices,” he assured me. “I wait you outside.”
I was feeling lonely and for some reason, maybe it was being sick and so far from home, a little lachrymose. I wanted company.
“No Santosh, you come inside with me.”
“Yes sir, ok I park now.”
Inside was crowded with Indian men sitting shoulder to shoulder on rough benches under fluroscent bulbs. I edged my way to a free bench and sat down with my feet in a puddle of water. A man came over, gestured at my moustache and smiled.
“You look like Bhagat Singh! What you want?”
“I’ll have a beer and, um,” fumbling for a moment, “a butter chicken” I finally finished, my imagination failing me.
The beer that came was called Thunderbolt and tasted like methanol. I poured us two glasses and waited for the food to arrive. The chicken came in a huge dish with huge lumps of butter melting on the surface. There was far too much for two.
“No whisky?” Santosh asked.
“Not for me,” I said. “My stomach not good.”
“Just one small bottle? If you have, on train will sleep good,” he said, pillowing his head with his two palms pressed together.
“You want whisky Santosh?”
“Just a little sir.”
“Ok, ok,” I relented, calling over the waiter. “One small bottle of whisky and one bottle of soda.”
“No soda, just beer,” Santosh corrected.
The whisky arrived in a 180ml bottle and was called Royal Stag. Santosh divided it between our two glasses of beer. The whisky tasted like formaldehyde; added to the beer we now had embalming fluid.
“Take that parasites!” I thought as I took a sip, grimacing. Santosh had already drained his glass. I tried to give him some from my glass but he refused.
Silence settled over us as we worked with chapatis at the massive dish of chicken and sauce. Soon we were stuffed but half the food still remained and Santosh sent for the waiter to bag up the remains for me.
“For the train,” Santosh said, handing me the plastic bag with the remains of our meal. Then, after a pause, “these good people here, same people every night!”
A locals haunt, my kind of place I thought. A few of the men came over to shake my hand and wish me well. Too bad I felt like such shit. I wasn’t being great company; it was a bit unfair to expect Santosh to hold up the conversation given his level of English.
“Let’s go,” I said. “I can read at the station until my train comes. And take the food, you can give it to your wife.”
“Ok, as you wish sir.”
He pedalled me there and I paid him twice what he might have asked for had we gone there directly.
“Are you happy sir?” Santosh asked. “If you are happy I am happy.”
I wasn’t but told him I was. I was tired and sick and had two hours to wait until my train left but couldn’t handle any more strained conversation.