By Steve R. E. Pereira
The first things that Raymund bought after his father and mother ceremoniously presented him with the tickets at his graduation party were bathing trunks in glittering gunmetal and a pair of sunglasses. The trunks were Armani, the glasses not made by anybody worth mentioning. But he had so admired them on Paul. It made him feel better not just because he did look particularly buff in the swimsuit, but because he knew his father would not approve. And he wanted to get him back. He had specifically asked for a trip to Paris. And what did he get? Bloody Goa. Bloody family.
Then the frenzied days of squabbling over his blond tips ("What will people think?"), inoculation-taking, money-changing, squabbling over his three silver stud earrings ("Why do you have to make such a spectacle of yourself?"), present-shopping, squabbling over his nose ring ("Do you not have any shame?"), packing, packing, squabbling over the clothes he was packing ("What will people say?"), novena-saying, unpacking, repacking …
Throughout it all, he'd quelled his growing irritation with visions of himself buffed and bronzed, stretched out on the golden sand, beneath swaying coconut trees, the ocean a swathe of shimmering blue sparkling in the foreground. And hovering around the peripheries of his postcard-perfect picture – this he realized in their startling absence after he got there – were the other expectations of 'exotic' travel: a five-star hotel with acres of cool marble, solicitous uniformed staff, and sleek, tanned bodies littered around a series of impossibly aquamarine pools. That was what he’d expected prior to his arrival. But the homecoming was quite something else.
It was only on the third day after he arrived that Raymund got to go to the beach. It was Sunday, and after the ritual of breakfast at eight, mass at Holy Name of Mary's across the road at ten-thirty, lunch at noon, siesta until two-thirty – only then did they, with much chatter, troop down behind the house, to the beach beyond the sand dunes. It was two minutes away, but it could have been halfway across the state, such an expedition it became. In an unarticulated coda that governed rules of acceptable behaviour, Sunday was, Raymund was able to gather, the one day of the week when it was permissible to go to the beach. Perhaps it had something to do with the balancing influence of mass in the morning. Otherwise, the beach was considered verboten; a hangout for rubbish people, lewd behaviour, drug-crazed hippies, and god-knows-what-else-ness. This he was told on his first morning, when looking around at the twenty-two versions of his father who had arrived to meet him for the first time, but who were now looking back at him with just as much horror as he was looking at them when he asked about the beach.
After a week of being ferried around to innumerable, insufferably inquiring and disapproving relatives, Raymund began to affect an escape by announcing rather grandly that he had decided he would like to do a tour of India. To see, he said, the Taj Mahal, the temples, the museums, and things like that. "After all, I am here all the way from Melbourne,” and he sighed as he said this, hoping to ingratiate himself by invoking a certain amount of pious responsibility. "And who knows when I will be able to come back again. I may as well do some travelling now, see the rest of India."
The truth was that he had a limited idea of what he wanted to see in India. His trip to Goa was a reluctant concession to parental pressure. There was an obligation here to renew ancestral ties strained by the exigencies of what his grandfather considered exile, his father’s migration and what he regarded as good fortune, especially after meeting his extended family. Saccharin memorialising had attempted to bridge the gulf between places and generations but here, now, aside from a litany of family names, he knew little of the place, and frankly, cared much less. His mistake was that, in his anticipation of a month on a tropical beach, he hadn't quite prepared for the smothering attention accorded a prodigal return. He had to get away; the questions were becoming progressively more awkward and personal.
His uncle was not convinced about the proposed travel. He fixed Raymund with his rheumy eye and in a sputtering of gestures and fatuous profanity - this bloody, bloody that - he painted the world outside Goa – no actually the world outside the tennis club, the family compound, and the Church, in that order – as a tangle of primitive, heathen, dark, hostile forces. Here, the uncle who was taken to pompous announcements, announced very pompously: “Here is FAMILY. Here is five hundred years of Portuguese rule/church/civilisation. Here was once the Pearl of the Orient.” The uncle paused and wagged a finger in Raymund’s face. “Do you know why we are known as the Irish of India?” he asked. Raymund did not. “We are the Irish of India because we too love the whisky and the music.” The uncle was positively triumphant. There was nothing to say to that.
Raymund was saved eventually by a no-nonsense senior aunt visiting from Bombay who decided on things by saying that she couldn't see that it would do him any harm, and with one of her unsettling looks said that he was far too Australian for his own good anyway. And that pretty much settled that.
Taking him in tow back with her to Bombay, the somewhat terrifying aunt took charge. She snipped the blond tips off herself and stripped Raymund of his earrings, nose ring, and layers of attitude with a brisk "We don't tolerate that nonsense here." Perched in her tiny cramped apartment in teeming Bandra and armed with his contribution to the exercise – a Lonely Planet guide purchased at the bookshop of the Taj Mahal Hotel – they mapped out a much-subdued Raymund's passage through India. Well, northern India anyway. Bombay to Varanasi to Delhi to Agra to Jaipur to Udaipur then across to Calcutta, then up to Kathmandu; pit stops in a positively dizzying array of places. That was the plan. As it turned out, Raymund never made it past his first stop, Varanasi.
The flight from Bombay to Varanasi was fine, the hostel a tad too rustic for Raymund’s taste, but also fine. The contretemps began the morning after his arrival.
In the grey-silver crispness of a Varanasi morning, Raymund negotiated his way down the silted-up steps of the ghat to the river-edge. Further downstream, the bustle had already begun along the bank; pilgrims lined up for the first of their immersions in the holy river while priests, flower-sellers, and beggars readied for the business of religion. Further up the river, at some of the accessible ghats, he looked enviously at the vanloads of chattering tourists being gingerly assisted into canopied boats for the obligatory dawn river excursion.
Raymund was on his own. He had negotiated the previous night with a boatman recommended by the proprietor of the hostel. Fifty rupees for one hour on the river beginning at five in the morning – a bargain, he was told, for a private expedition. He didn't much care for the privacy; he would have preferred to share with other tourists, not just for the economy of it but for the inconspicuousness it would have afforded. He could deal with being an object of curiosity for western tourists, he was used to being exotic in Melbourne. But Raymund had arrived too late to join a group excursion, and he only really had a day in the city.
He was to meet the boatman at four-thirty. It was four-forty. A boat was pulled up by the concrete mooring on the river, not the gaily canopied vessel that had been there yesterday, but a smaller, much more dilapidated one sans colour, sans canopy. Yesterday's boat and boatman were nowhere in sight.
Raymund perched on the prow of the boat, his back to the river as he scanned the banks for the errant boatman. He had paid a deposit, not much, but still. Where the hell was the boatman? His uncle was right. They were all thieves. Bloody, bloody, bloody hell. Raymund didn’t want his uncle to be right about anything. He jiggled his legs in frustration. He didn’t realise he was making the vessel rock until the yelled oath – “Arre Sala!” – from the depths, startled Raymund into leaping away from the boat. Unfortunately, the incline of the bank made him trip over his feet and brought him to his knees.
Fighting off the pain, Raymund looked around. There was a man standing up in the boat lighting a kerosene lantern. This definitely was not the boatman from the previous night. Beautiful god. The gnat of a thought pinged across Raymund's mind. The man … boy … man/boy looked down at him. Raymund thought there was something boyish about him, even though they could have been the same age. A grin, a very sexy one, slowly crept across the billowy curves of the boatman/boy’s lips. "You boat ride?" the god-face asked. Raymund was disconcerted and stared blankly. The boy lifted his chin at Raymund and winked. Raymund realised that he wasn't perhaps in the most dignified position; on his hands and knees looking over his ass at the man. Well, not the best position in which to be holding a conversation. "My uncle. You made business with my uncle," said the boy.
Raymund stood up hurriedly, dusting off his palms and knees. He was a little disconcerted. This wasn't what he expected, not at all. He must be cold, he thought - those shorts are very thin. So very thin.
"Where is your uncle?" he asked trying to sound stern and regain some dignity. The boy's grin was too knowing, too close to a leer for Raymund's liking. "My agreement was with your uncle. Where is he?" He tried to sound as stern and as Aussie as he could. He needed to control this situation.
"He other people," was the response as the boy gestured vaguely up the river. "No problem, I take you." The boat was in the water now, and the boy was holding it steady at the pier waiting for him to climb in. "Come, sir. No problem. I am good. You like me."
Troubled by the ‘sir' and deciding to ignore the even more unsettling ‘you like me', Raymund walked to the edge of the pier to where the boy was with the boat. The drop down was steeper than Raymund had expected. He stood at the edge, looking down uncertainly at the boy. Then suddenly, with a laugh, the boy wrapped both arms around Raymund's upper thighs and lifted him cleanly off the pier. Swiveling, he slid Raymund down his body, and set him down in the boat. They stood there for a beat, the boy laughing down at Raymund's burning face while Raymund tried hard not to be conscious of the point of pressure from the boy against the front of his hip. It wasn't the boy's hand. Then a swell from a passing motorboat conveniently sent Raymund stumbling back, and he fell onto the seat. The boy chuckled as he stepped around to the till. Raymund absorbed himself in setting up his camera.
Unsettled even before the expedition had begun, Raymund didn't hear most of what the boy tried to tell him about the schedule of the expedition as he navigated the boat away from the pier and into the river. He was grateful he had his back to the boy and just nodded when it seemed a nod was called for. He was uneasily conscious of the boy's curiosity in him. But he put a quick damper on his interest when the boy asked, "You are from India?" His look back was glacial as he said, "No, Australia. I told your uncle yesterday." He wasn't encouraging any more impertinence.
A little bit later, as they negotiated past other boatloads of tourists, he saw the uncle – the man he had talked to the day before – rowing a packed load of tourists who were busy chatting. The uncle waved at him enthusiastically as the boats paralleled one another. Shouting across the chasm of the river between them, he pointed to his boatload: “Australian also.” Snouts of video cameras locked onto him as bacon-red faces looked up at the boatman blankly then turned to look at him curiously. He didn't offer a greeting, and the boats soon swept past each other. The boy snickered behind him. Raymund turned around. He had forgotten – how could he forget – how good-looking the boy was. The boy winked at Raymund. “You Australian, ya?” The upping and downing of the eyebrows combined with the grin was confusing. Raymund couldn't figure out if the boy was making fun of him.
He decided he had had enough. Besides, now he could see more clearly what was in the river and it wasn't attractive. No matter what the boy said, Raymund couldn’t believe that dolphins or any other fish could survive in the effluence that was the river. He said to the boy: "Enough. I want to go back."
The boy looked surprised and said, “Still twenty minutes.”
Raymund didn't know how he could know that, since he didn't have a watch on but didn't want to get into it. “Never mind, I will give you the full payment. Go back now.”
The boy's lips gave a quick twitch, but he said, “OK. You boss,” and turned the boat around.
“Fifty rupees, your uncle agreed,” Raymund said when he was standing on the bank. “Fifty rupees for two hours.”
“OK ...” said the boy, adding a breath too late and with a smirk that belied any sincerity “… Saab.” Raymund avoided looking at the boy, added another twenty rupees as a tip, said thank you very politely, and climbed up the sides of the embankment as fast as he could.
It was hot, humid, and the throng were already bustling at the banks of the river. Walking carefully around the huge sheets drying on the steps, he went into his hostel. He had a shower, sought relief from a throbbing erection in the sputtering stream of cold water, and felt better for it. Even so, the knowing grin of the boy lingered on in his mind as he lay sweltering on his bed. After an hour of futile rest, he went out again. It was already too hot to do any walking so he, for the first time grateful for the inconspicuousness of being able to blend into the crowds, sat on the steps of the nearest ghat and pretended to be absorbed in a book.
He was caught out almost at once. A muscular South Indian-looking man emerged dripping from the river, and locked gaze with Raymund as he stepped up the incline. Raymund held his look for a second, but then lost courage and looked away. When he chanced a look back, the man who was adjusting his wet lungi, let it slip open revealing an impressive thatch of dark, wiry hair and a thick, hooded dark root between his legs. Raymund played it cool. He looked at the man's crotch until it was covered up again, raised his eyes to meet the man's, then deliberately looked away to the river and then back to pretend-reading his book. He didn't look up as he heard the man go past him, particularly when he heard the man mutter angrily to the back of his head, “Apni gaand mein muthi daal.” [Put your fist up your ass].
His attention was caught though when there was an unexpected loud and guttural rejoinder from a familiar voice. “Arre, chutia, kya baath hai?” [You fucker what's the matter?]. That reduced all the chatter around them to silence. Raymund looked up. It was the boy from the boat facing off against the South Indian man. A space had instantly cleared between them. The crowd, as always, were spoiling for a fight. There was a beat of silence, then the South Indian man sucked his teeth noisily at the boy and jerked his head in Raymund’s direction. “Kya yah aapkee kutiya hai?” [Is this your bitch?] he asked contemptuously. Immediately, attention switched to Raymund and an excited buzz began to circulate.
Raymund was feeling sick. His face was on fire but there was a ball of ice where his stomach was. He turned to get away but immediately two men on either side of him grabbed his arms and held him in place. Their grips hurt. One of the men put his face right up to Raymund’s and snarled, “Tum kahan ja rahe ho, kutiya?” [Where are you going bitch?]. Raymund recoiled as much from the aggression as from the sour smell that came off the man. He was more frightened than he had ever been in his life. He knew enough about mob violence in India to be properly terrified. He squeezed his eyes shut. Involuntarily a prayer bubbled from his lips, "Hailmaryfullofgrace."
Deep breath. “Holymarymothergodprayussinnersnowandtilldeathamen.” He didn’t know how many times he repeated the inchoate prayer, how long he was standing there or when or how the yelling and chaos around him ended. But end it did, and Raymund suddenly felt himself being released. He opened his eyes, blinking against the harsh light.
Four policemen were standing at the top of the steps grimly surveying the crowd, slapping their wooden batons against their palms. The two men holding him were gone. So was the crowd which had dissipated as quickly as it had formed. It was the usual bustle and business as though nothing had occurred. The South Indian man had vanished but as Raymund looked around, breathing deeply, there was the boy from the boat. He winked at Raymund, a smile twitching the corners of his mouth.
“Arrey yaar Aussie,” [Hey Aussie] the boy said. He stepped up to Raymund and held out an offering in his hand. It was his camera lens-cap. Raymund had left it on the boat and in his discombobulation, hadn’t even noticed the loss.
Raymund wanted nothing more than to not be there, but he didn’t want to draw any more attention to himself and that boy was right in front of him. There was no getting away. He had difficulty meeting the boy's knowing eyes, but between the eyes and the too-thin shorts, the eyes were easier to deal with. He took the lens-cap, thanked him, and offered the boy a handful of notes. The boy pushed back Raymund's proffered hand and said: “No.” Raymund looked at him in alarm. The boy looked at Raymund unsmiling. “Take my picture.” Raymund just looked at him blankly, so the boy leaned in closer and said more deliberately, “You. Take. Photo. Me.”
There wasn’t a whole lot of choice. Raymund said, “OK.”
The boy posed in front of him, a Bollywood pose; leaning back, arms folded across his chest, one hand cradling his chin. He looked good. Raymund clicked and clicked again. He didn't see any point in telling the boy that the sun was coming in the wrong way, that the photos would be too dark. He clicked a couple more shots, even turning the camera around horizontally to show that he knew what he was doing. Finally, he lowered the camera and said, “All right.”
But the boy hadn't had enough. “Now like Stallone,” he said and took off his t-shirt, hunching his shoulders up in a muscle pose. Grinning, he segued through a series of poses. A crowd gathered, Raymund was sweating, but the audience was whistling and clapping admiringly. Raymund clicked away, though this time he did move around. The circle of people required a better performance from him. Plus, this way he had an easier escape route to his hostel.
“Hey,” the boy suddenly said. Startled, Raymund lowered his camera and looked at him. “You think I look like Rambo?” There was that sly smile again as the boy moved his palms over the muscular planes of his chest, thumbs flicking blackberry nipples in passing. His laugh was coarse and was echoed in the substantial crowd that had gathered around them. The boy was playing up to the audience. “You Australian,” he said, “me Rambo”, and laughed. There were approving chuckles all around. Raymund felt the blood drain from his face, which then turned very hot. He looked down at the camera, fiddling with it.
“I will send you the pictures,” he finally said. The boy laughed. He reached out and held up Raymund's chin. The touch was gentle and then it was gone. The boy slipped his t-shirt back on. “OK,” he said to Raymund and then with a blow of a kiss, he was gone.
Raymund made his way back to the hostel where he barricaded himself in his room that night. The next day he changed his ticket to fly back to Bombay and three days later he was back in Melbourne. He put down his early return to not feeling well. His parents didn’t say anything about the new sober-looking, sober-attitude Raymund, and didn’t ask any questions about the photos of the bare-chested boy he kept hidden in his sock drawer. For his part, Raymund caught up with Paul and went on with his life. Sort of. At the back of his mind for years after, he just wished he had asked the boy for his name.
Steve R. E. Pereira is a Melbourne-based creative producer working on performance- and art-related community engagement and community development projects.