Tara: If you are not properly attired, you will not exhilarate my husband.
Maya: Exhilaration is my department.
Jaipur’s Indian Coffee House lies two hundred metres west of Ajmeri Gate on M.I. Road. As with Kashmir but with less disastrous a legacy, it suited the British to let the martially inclined rajahs run things here as they saw fit. (Provided, of course, the Great Empress Across The Water could send sepoys and gurkhas through to apprehend and hang dacoits who’d graduated from minor to major irritant, or to quell badmash defiance of her more direct writ to the south and north.)
Nevertheless the Coffee House has a faded colonial feel more common to Lahore or Khanpur or old Bombay. Huge fans on high ceilings whir slowly but to good effect as outdoor temperatures climb, even now in early autumn, to forty and rising. To be sure, its walls have seen better days, their cracked mortar and peeling paintwork – institutional maroon from floor to chest level, pea green thereon up – suggesting Wormwood Scrubs mid fifties. But that’s part of the appeal of a joint launched in 1947, the year the jewel slipped from the crown.
For the second morning running I’m with an Indian male. For the second morning running the conversation has been wide ranging and satisfying. And for the second morning running my companion has introduced the subject of sex in ways slyly tangential; the ways of a culture stuck in the reign of Edward VII. All our English hang-ups – with Suez open and bible bearing memsahibs arriving to help the menfolk keep their trousers on – were gratefully received, then ramped up to the nth degree.
OK, that’s an oversimplification. The root cause of sexual repression, from dawn of class society to the partial and distorted but real liberation of women under advanced capitalism, is private property. With it comes marriage, legitimacy, chastity and all that follows; most of it stifling and life negating, some of it horrific. All the same, the nudge-nudge-say-no-more attitude of lower middle class Indian men evokes, like the Coffee House itself, a whiff of the fifties. Yes, in this the land of the Karma Sutra!
Yesterday it was Sunita, a young hotel worker, cell phone at the ready should his boss need him. He asked about my visits to other parts of Asia.
(A gulf far wider than that signified by the digital and optical wealth in the bag at my feet is my freedom to do no work and travel the globe as the mood takes me. For Sunita and many others, such freedom betrays – less in expenses incurred than the cessation, however temporary, of the demands of earning a crust – opulence beyond measure. And no, I didn’t make this up from my armchair last night, or read it in a book. I base it on conversation with Really Existing Persons across the modern world’s most colonised continents.)
It takes me a moment to register Sunita’s particular interest in Thailand but the glint in his eye, as he steels himself for the big question, is a giveaway.
“And have you had … relations there ..?”
I bat it back with a show of butter-wouldn’t bemusement. I won’t lay it on a plate for him. He has to put himself out a bit on this one.
I watch the play across his handsome features of salacious curiosity at war with suffocating decorum. My money’s on the curiosity.
Good call. I knew he’d come through for me. He leans forward, mouth part covered, voice a stage whisper.
“Sexual relations … with Thai ladies …”
“Ah – boom-boom fickety-fick! Oh yes. So many boom-boom with Thai ladies! Hundreds of boom-boom. I think maybe thousands!”
Why needlessly disappoint the young?
Today it’s Babu, tuk-tuk wallah in his forties. For two days I’ve fended him off on principle every time he accosted me in the street, which was often … ever since our first encounter when, with that world ends tomorrow look a subset of Indian men under fifty specialise in, he invited me to take chai with him – then put on a comedy show of hurt feelings as I politely declined.
(Top tactics for top tacticians of travel No. 42: learn the difference between being rude in the face of genuine hospitality, and refusal to be suckered by the emotional blackmail of those who would fleece you, bore you to death or both. Of course, we also have to remember rule No 1: we do not Already Know. We never Already Know and no matter how honed our instincts, we’ll still read it upside down from time to time. Nobody said this kind of travel is roses all the way but here’s a truth I can pass on from over four decades of mulled over experience. The opening venality of shysters – and do remember they too have mouths to feed – can lead, if played with a straight bat, to engagements altogether more genuine.)
Now I’ve invited him to coffee; my shout. Not because I’m Santa but because it leaves me in the driving seat. As we talk and he unwinds, as my feet start jigging to the Goddess Caffeine (Peace Be Upon Her), the human being emerges from behind the mask of earnest obtuseness. I’ve seen this metamorphosis before as Indian men – the most pressurised on the planet; fathers of girls especially – get to relax. Babu is not handsome but, as he chills out, that uptight expression is replaced by one more becoming. Face of lumpen irregularity and hair grimly oiled down change before my eyes to the craggily boyish and, as he grows more animated (Peace Be Upon Her), to unwittingly self tousled locks. Such moments, with inner lightness of being reflected artlessly outward, are moments of rare beauty.
But this wouldn’t be India if he didn’t go and ruin it. He too has picked up on my Thai visits but, though he sired two now married girls and all but broke his back to pay the dowries, may have proclivities other than Sunita’s; desires he is not entirely aware of. Of particular interest to him is the lady-boy thing.
“And do they have … [anxious glances to left and right, voice lowering a decibel or three] … breasts?”
I answer in the conversational tone and volume I began with – three coffees back – and have no intention of altering now.
“Well I wouldn’t know. Breasts are not hard to fake, are they? I mean … I never saw a Thai lady-boy naked.”
Naked, it seems, is a word of even greater taboo than breasts. Babu shoots forward, pants on fire, head swivelling like a broken robot, the finger on pursed lips of a pantomime schemer. Say what you like about old Phil Larkin, reputed custodian of the finest porn collection north of Watford. He knew the score alright.
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.