Some Uncertainty Amongst the Hedgehogs Today
Getting used to a new life in India
Two months out of England and years of living the same way have been drowned out by fresh, unfamiliar challenges. There’s so much light and sound to be caught up in here, the scent of life competing with bowls of marigold and Arabian jasmine as ‘the flower act’ endlessly repeats for the delectation of ancient gods and flat-toed tourists. Best not to sit down in the street.
A few memories come a-haunting back to me but these are disconnected now, fleeting and inconsequential things like the blurry images of the park from when we were four. Ice cream days. That was before we all went to different schools together, do you remember? Were you the one who liked snapping the chalk? That sounded incredible, like the cliffside crack of a kite-surfer’s bones. God, my thoughts are still damaged — but that’s no sicker than Game of Thrones and you liked that, kept coming back long after I’d lost interest.
You may have gathered that some flashes in my mind today I find disturbing. I don’t want them rising and need a new set of mental imprints to play with. My recollections of English life seem incomprehensibly transport-related today; like screens of train ticket pricing structures designed to make you over-pay, air-pressured eardrums on a flight and indistinct impressions of hedgehogs squashed on the roads. You must choose, as the gypsy said to Lord Baskerville’s bride.
“The lady’s heart is burdened. Before her lies a difficult choice that in choosing has but one answer. Life and Death. Though in choosing death, she also chooses life. Though she cannot choose life without death. It is a choice with no choice. Yet she must choose.”
Both life and death call me and I don’t know why. Too much Fyodor, not enough fire. So, be positive. No, that’s a blood group. I think a desire to see people again should wrench us back, not things, not objects, certainly not dreary transportation and poor, cold creatures of the woods and hedgerows who fell in the name of an efficient commute. Progress is the third mass extinction.
Opportunistic are the roads, according to Kerouac, but I sense the spirit of these places is grinding, inhuman and uninhabitable zones. Years ago, compassionate folk campaigned until the councils or Highways Agency agreed to put discreet tunnels under main roads so wildlife could cross without being pancaked. My school visited one such place and we performed some litter picking amongst the heady air of hydrocarbons and leaden grass. Don’t eat the blackberries poppet. They spray them with things, but it was okay because hedgehog road safety was faithfully assured. Human compassion saves blind nature. I remember we felt good about ourselves as refined beings.
Around seven or eight years later, an anonymous individual I will refer to as M.Y. (who won’t be reading this but might search his name) patronised me with the facts that children always miss, that hedgehogs can’t read animal crossing signs, so don’t compare the merit of a safe tunnel to the topside route with lorries. They usually, he said, trundle over the surface of the road within sight of a tunnel because they are short-sighted, like all stupid creatures are. You see, the wildlife crossings are only there to salve our human conscience, he said, looking pleased with himself. That can’t be right, I slapped back, because you never see a hedgehog squashed on the road now, do you? That, he said, is because there are so very few hedgehogs left alive.
That’s behind me now, I hope, with everything else uncomfortable, including the knowledgeable M.Y. When this person heard I was emigrating to India, back in early December of 2021, he said he couldn’t process the news and wanted to see me again before it was too late. For effect, he murmured something complimentary about an angel, or it might have been a bagel, incoherent but I didn’t ask him to repeat. Sure we can talk, but why? Something about he’d never done anything about me. Then the rest. Spare me Michael, don’t start spluttering about love now. Okay but didn’t I share his view that we had unfinished business? — Come again? As you’re going, it’s not as if anyone would know. Schedule revised, I needed to leave as soon as possible. Some people simply aren’t on the same wavelength as hedgehogs.
The airline itself made travel as painless and pitiless as they could, with Covid and whatnot to be frightened of, although I’m always unsettled by long journeys anyway. This was my first time with a one-way ticket, so I already felt vulnerable, then the stewardess spoke to me like a rival — for what? I don’t want her job. Can you see your own body language? The unsettling thing was something else though. They were serving free drinks as part of the deal and some passengers kept drinking like rainbows to claw back the price of their seat. It got to me when they raised their volume above the constant background hum in my ears, even though I hadn’t had a proper panic attack for ages. I could see the airline staff trying to fill up the glasses with ice and mixers to slow them down but at least one of the passengers was hiding ice cubes in the flaps that hold the flight magazines and safety cards so they could demand a refill quicker.
All you can do is part from one set of humans to the clutches of another. Interchangeably, the low-life gangs won’t let you pass.
Feet on the ground, what first, perhaps a symbolic step forward for once? Hop. People are looking at me and I don’t know why. I need to dump my ignorant preconceptions and develop an easy confidence, quickly. I’ve always been one who likes to step on their own shadow and spin when no-one’s watching, but can’t today, so many eyes.
So I arrive, all pent up and frustrated, and take in the living, moving, smiling crowd in which I am an inconsequential dot. How do they all stay so reasonable this close together? Perhaps the West is not enlightened; they just convince themselves they are, spending up selfish and unsatisfied lifetimes rummaging around after artificial destinies. Everyone feels so crap all the time that happiness and health has become a rare sickness, an aberration to the norm.
The otherworldly, the spiritual, the pastoral calendar rooted in belief and seasons has gone from England now but what’s missing from the day is never noticed… until you see the contrast that is called India. Eight percent annual economic growth can’t stifle whatever these guys are breathing, but I can imagine there’s also no respite inside the sprawling reach of the city. I take a taxi and then a short bus where air becomes a thing of value.
A taxi stops and four burly men get out, speaking Russian. They don’t pay the driver and wave his protestations aside as they walk off. He runs in front of them and, hands clasped, begs and entreats them to pay the fare they owe. They don’t give a shit and walk past the man like he’s nothing. The driver is on his knees ahead of me and I want to help but I’m a stranger and can only react to the symptoms of injustice with stupid handouts, never the cause. That sight destroys my first day in India.
For the record, I can’t secure a working visa because the minimum earning threshold is higher than the school for visually impaired students is able to pay, so I’m volunteering my work indefinitely for nothing. It’s okay as my savings should last until I’m beyond needing support and, since arriving at the work site, people keep giving me free hot food and saying I look skinny. They stare wide-eyed at my facial expression and watch me chew to confirm I like it. I nod and say thank you, way too many times when they don’t look away until I become self-conscious about it. When I find a cardboard box, I’ll put that over my head to eat meals in future.
I made the mistake of opening an account with Axis Bank and then finding there was a new rule last year that overseas income has to come in via the State Bank of India and have its source and purpose properly declared or it is sent back (less charges, which they skim off the total with each mistake — welcome to a Game of Rules). This is probably a justifiable measure to stop tax avoidance or money laundering but it feels like silly bureaucracy and profiting by small-penised men in high places and I hope they feel some shame at punishing someone who came only to help.
My work is going well and I can already see progress but perhaps I should stop trying to prove it to myself through the foreign disease of analytical metrics and just relax. What do they really think of me? I realise that this question matters to me. A year from now, when I have proven my commitment, I might build up the courage to ask. Three years from now, I might get a truthful answer.
Lao Tzu left China for India in the 6th century because his mind didn’t fit the structurally inhibiting society he lived in. I had several reasons to walk out of the window, but he was great and I am not. I like the inspiring thought of ordinary people becoming heroes too, even if they do fall short. I doubt Lao Tzu was much of a practical alpha male either. What was he like? I met a local man soon after I arrived who expressed his ideas (and even street directions) with moral precepts, as if he’s lived five lives, and he’ll never know how he’s challenged my surety that reincarnation is scientifically impossible. I’m surprised I’ve just written that nonsense but it crept in somehow.
My sight is sliding out of… view I suppose, but despite the deterioration I borrow a bicycle to get around, which will last while I can still take chances, unless I take a risk too far and it crumples along with my confidence. The traffic is lighter around here, although ‘rural’ is comparative, and I stay well to the side but, even so, there are frequent obstacles and even a beverage stalls that sticks out into the street right in front of cyclists. If you move out to miss it, there are cars coming the other way. It’s safer to be sleek when every inch of width matters. For these trips, I’ve stopped wearing clothing that can snag.
Some days ago I was on the bicycle, something like fifty or sixty yards out from the gate, when there was a bang and the bicycle jolted like it had smacked over an invisible stone. I looked back and wobbled, then recovered and didn’t stop because there were some men standing around. The incident was forgotten quickly. Just one of life’s little mysteries.
I have a friend at work, P.K., who can’t see and doesn’t seem to have much of a sense of smell but tries very hard in her duty to be useful to others, which makes us alike in a way. At first, I couldn’t understand why I found cups and plates with bits of food still stuck to them in the communal cupboard, so I turned the whole thing out and cleaned everything, then the cupboard. It happened again, despite there being a dish washer. Was it deliberate? Some obscure form of antisocial sabotage? I wasn’t going to write process notes, like the patronising M.Y. would have done. No way, so I paid closer attention. Every day, people had their meal and added plates to the dishwasher. There wasn’t much cutlery because some people eat with their hands, especially rice and veg. The theory is that when the machine is full, someone should set it off to clean the plates over night. People assume someone else will do this last thing, but it doesn’t always happen. Being helpful, my friend was opening the dishwasher in the morning and putting everything away in its right place, not realising that it hadn’t been put through the cycle yet. That is a sighting of how it will end for me.
Then there’s A.H., who I watched dancing in a graceful fury, inspired, unbearably alive, the way mad women whirl and spring to celebrate existence. She isn’t like me at all. At work she’s un-noticed, one eye displaced to the garden of Eden, but when there’s music she’s in the thick of it like a god playing, playing for everything, going for broke. Her father died and then her sisters put her here because she knocked things over.
Where are my poets, my moonlit evenings, blue evenings, rubber plants like oars tipping the pond back in Sussex? Were they ever real, was I part of life on the tended lawn? I have swapped what I knew for this, gained both, and it is real, a dangerous reality where to sink is to be genuinely lost and hungry. Even people in that state in India venerate the beautiful rich and all that aspirational lifestyle advertising. Old gods/topical gods, a seamless interlacing of always looking up through two kinds of lenses. Yet it works. The economic tides are moving.
I was in a car back in January, being driven down a four lane highway which they told me was a recent addition to the city, a flight of progressive pride in the new India. Beside the highway I noticed a blind man, maybe fifty or sixty, with a stick just waiting for someone to let him cross. Perhaps he had always crossed here, to go home. No cars stopped and he waited and tapped and waited. I asked the driver if we could stop please. He explained to me that stopping is prohibited on the new road.
I think I would give it an hour and step out anyway. A hedgehog death.
What else can I tell you? There are a handful of interracial students here. They have a more balanced view of the world than the cultural average and form an easy understanding between viewpoints and cultures. It doesn’t occur to them that it is unusual that I am in my mid-twenties and not looking to be married, which does seem to bother some of the others and I’ve had to drop a few hints to dispel the idea that I’m not attracted to men — but am also not a foreign slut, so that’s a professional reputational balance. No one makes hurtful assumptions about the interracial students’ background because that’s forbidden. The fact the rule exists though means people might draw malicious conclusions. Maybe they don’t make judgements at all, in this most perfect of all worlds.
Am I the only one who thinks ordinary people live more intensely and get more out of their time on Earth than the intelligentsia? People, I mean, who grow things and manually change things and add heat or spray water in their everyday routines. The intellectual overlay on every society just talks about doing or knows how to do but this strata doesn’t actually feel with their own hands the pleasure of actually manipulating and doing the thing they are advising about. Both sides experience tiredness, whether it is of the mind or the muscles, but do both sides feel the warmth of what they are holding, or even cautionary pain, not so rare a companion, that wet red line down a white wall?
I find comfort in authentic, time-worn ruination and may even leave this text imperfect like a churned-up street because if I read and correct it, I might delete everything. Like friends, like England. A red line down a white wall, that’s me. I’m sorry I left several people cut off but I needed a clean restart for the sake of my mental health.
On 18th March I will be part of Holi, the festival of colours, rich and bright enough to vibrate through even my self-obsessed foothills of blindness. Then, after that merriness and abandon, splashed with clouds of paint and powder, I guessed there would be no more timid talk of taking a footstep back and I truly wouldn’t care what happened to me next. There was Fate’s invitation.
Yesterday, I finished my teaching schedule and went out on the bicycle again. About a hundred yards out of the gate and just as I was reaching full speed something went crack and I lost control, falling over the handlebars as they jack-knifed under me, then scraping along the ground and being too shocked to yell. Everything hurt. A man I couldn’t focus on clearly arrived at the wreck within seconds and was full of remorse. He sounded more broken that I was and I couldn’t understand what he meant. With more people around, I saw the bike being taken away and wasn’t sure if someone was returning it or taking it or even if was fixable. The cuts on my forearms and ear stung like salt water and there was some bleeding. Then the man said in my ear that he wanted to meet me but he was walking and I was always on a bicycle, so he had put a stick into my wheel spokes to make me stop. What an astonishing thing to do. This place is perfect for writers.