by Raju Peddada
[Author's preface: "All good things come to those who wait" is a bullshit cliché that I find repugnant. But I do find "what if" counterfactuals rather convincing, than that cliché: "What if we did get those reservations?" and "Would we have enjoyed such grand theater?" Waiting conjures up an India I had known in the past: the 7-year wait for a scooter, the 3-year torture for a ration card, or the long line at the water tap or the milk booth. What was infinitely infuriating was the wait I was subjected to by my own friends, who usually arrived at their own Indian Standard Time. Nevertheless, for that punctilious and precise individual on vacation, waiting, inversely, can become delightful -- that is, if you can relinquish your control, and transform yourself into an audience with a front row seat at the grand theater, which is India.]
"We had better wait and see."
—Herbert Asquith, 1852-1928, Earl of Oxford /Asquith & British PM
(Swans - June 17, 2013) We hired a private taxi early morning in Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh, on the 30th of October 2008, for a 3-hour drive into Tamil Nadu. Our destination: Katpadi Junction, where we were to board our train to Mangalore, Karnataka, as reservations were impossible from Tirupati.
The morning drive through the emerald landscape was only a prelude for what awaited us. We drove past and through small villages, with sun-baked people clad mostly in white, on feet, bicycles, rickshaws, and bullock carts; occasional dogs, roosters, goats, or monkeys darted across the road. We also craned our necks to see men rope-hop on tall palms for the kallu, a tree sap that is a mild hallucinogen. We saw basket weavers using the dry palm leaves by the road. Later, the lush foreground gave way to speckled rocky outcrops that appeared like large upright dinosaur eggs, and some had small temples atop them, with stairs leading up. We stopped at a village fruit bazaar, and after an amusing haggle, purchased some guavas.
Half an hour later, around 10:30 a.m., I relinquished 750 rupees to the taxi driver at the station portico. Katpadi station was clean, with passengers in all age groups that lounged around, fanning themselves in the waiting hall and battling flies that mild morning. I could hear a nightingale cooing in some distant orchard, which washed in melancholy memories of the bygone era of my youth.
We, (my mother, wife, our boys, and I) removed to the platform for the breeze, as it felt stuffy in the hall, and also to get the boys to do their homework. Yes, the boys had to do their homework, even on a train platform! But was it possible over the din of this theater? We could hear, among other things, a cacophony of horns from the street, a rooster from someone's backyard, a dog fight in progress, female altercations, haggling between porters and customers, screeching of little monkeys and parrots, flocks of crows crowing over scraps, flitting sparrows chirping, children crying and mothers shouting, station announcements over the PA system that no one could decipher, clock chimes every half hour, food vendors in their peculiar high-pitched advertorials, and the low-pitched rumbling of diesel-shunting engines going back and forth on the tracks. This was all very strange and thrilling -- all this life. The din of the day, and a civilization!
The waiting hall opened onto platform No.1, around which all the food vendors were stationed with their colorful packages. This was prime real estate for a man, let alone a crippled dog. As soon as we and our luggage arrived on the platform, we were welcomed by this dog that appeared to be a collie, black with white spots, sporting only three legs -- the front, a stump, with two muscular hind legs. He convulsed with hospitality and submittance, with his ears down, swinging his head and tail like a Nudibranch in motion, in the deep for its quarry. "Don't touch it... it might be having rabies!" warned their grandmother. We were in its "house." Actually, it was quite mystifying as to how a three-legged dog managed to corral such prime real estate for himself.
This became only apparent after Mani, our 3-year-old, dropped Parle-Gluco biscuits for our host. Suddenly, from nowhere, a dog and a bitch that looked like Dingos (wild Australian dogs) and a stray rottweiler materialized, galloping in from different directions, as we froze. What ensued was that which none of us had ever seen before. Our host had abruptly blurred into a snarling-menacing phantasm. He moved like a ghost, creating an invisible circular moat around us, sequestering us in the middle, like sheep. What had seemed and appeared to everyone for a nascent moment, his imminent ignominious end, stunned us with a counterintuitive conclusion.
Our host selected the male dingo as its target, approaching it quickly and deliberately, keeping low to the ground as if in supplication, yet snarling to save face. Then, at reaching within three feet of it, everything became that jerky camera impression. My recollection was this: our host pivoted into the vortex of energy on his sole front leg, centrifugally deploying his hind legs violently to dispatch the squealing dingo flying. In the next seamless moment, he reached under the yelping bitch, and turned it upside down with its teeth. The unwieldy rottweiler reflexed defensively, and retreated. We felt the same inertia the three intruding dogs had experienced -- it was all that quick. We hardly saw the dogs vanish, except we noticed our host, now the hero, at our feet, exhausted, but still wagging his tail, with ears and eyes cast down, as if in guilt "I'm sorry for all this commotion." And, as our tension dissipated, we looked at it in disbelief.
Yes!! We all exclaimed, gathering ourselves, as we and many others watching this were completely taken by our hero. We stroked his head for the first time. Food came from all quarters. Butch and Mani dropped the whole package of biscuits. About an hour later, we shared our lunch, and upon learning the platform position of our railcar, we had to move west on the platform. Our host knew it before we did, and as we set about to make our move, he stood up wagging his tail, looking directly and forlornly into our eyes to bid us farewell. The boys: "daddy... can we take him with us?" He never followed us; he stayed. What a survivor!
West on the platform looked more like a town than a station, with railway quarters and their well, huge trees, and an overhead bridge connecting the platforms 2, 3, and 4. We got our spot under a Banyan tree. Then we saw three little monkeys sitting on the edge of the platform with their tails hanging free. The adults, what seemed like the whole brood, sat up on the rafters and on the lower steel frame of the bridge, a few feet from where we were. There was this big grim-looking bearded monkey, with no tail, sitting on the bridge frame picking his skin, watching everyone wearily, but with total confidence. Two females groomed their infants under the bridge atop a metal dumpster, and one female, with a dark brown spot on her neck, flitted with restless energy by us.
Food availability on the train was big question mark, so my wife, being a creature raised on bread, craved for it, and brought a desiccated Britannia loaf, long past its expiry date, along with some bananas. We sat and snacked under the tree, while Mani, our resident monkey, took the loaf to tease the monkeys. Their chatter increased as their excitement rose. Then, innocuously, the young female with the spot saunters over to Mani, looks straight into his eyes, freezes him, and takes the loaf from his hands. Mani was mesmerized by this interaction, as she tried to open the plastic covering on the loaf. "Mani, don't run, stay still... be cool" I said. Their grandma: "don't tease or run after them... we'll get another one... don't worry! If you hurt them they'll become united and dangerous... don't do anything rash!" This was echoed by the murmur of those who knew English next to us. But, my wife protested, "My bread, I'm going to starve!" Desperate, she took two bananas and coaxed the female back, which played cat and mouse with her. Eventually, she dropped the loaf, grabbed the bananas, and took one big leap for that dumpster. I snapped up the loaf. Hurray!
It's hard to render the details of that drama that had unfolded in a blur almost 5 years ago, but everyone remembered one thing clearly. We saw two separate movements, two lightening flashes, as the spotted one got atop the dumpster with her bananas, the alpha male also flew to it, arriving there at the same moment. There, the male calmly took the bananas from the astonishingly pliant female -- then, in a manifest display of dominance, "I am the chief, and I can do whatever I please!", turned the spotted female around, lifting her buttocks to the appropriate height, and while stuffing his face with the bananas with his left hand, he held and mounted her with the other, and proceeded to rock a doggie-style copulation with her, right before his international audience.
Those moments seemed interminable, especially with my clairvoyant mother who had already turned her head away towards the tracks, but for my gaping and incredulous wife, who had never seen anything like it before. This was followed by an audible gasp of indignation from some woman, and catcalls and whistles from young rowdies on the platform. Both the boys asked "Mommy -- what was that big monkey doing to the small one?!" I distracted the boys into exploring the idling engine.
What we realized was astonishing: The monkeys hovered around us, they did not bother the fruit seller, nor the food vendor that went back and forth by us. They did not harass the locals, nor the other passengers. They knew us to be naive to such an environment. They seemed to know that, and wanted to take advantage. Within an hour of that thrilling climax to the monkey drama, the train pulled onto the platform. The boarding, normally an adventure by itself, was anticlimactic. After we had settled into our seats, a cool northern breeze filtered in, reviving our humor. Minutes later, at exactly 3:50 p.m., the train moved. I stood on the stoop of the moving car with my boys, and took a parting glimpse, with mixed feelings at the two wondrous stars of that two-act drama -- the survivor (dog), of Act 1, and the dominator (monkey), of Act 2, that kept us entertained for hours. What a wait it was!
The clickety-clack rocking of the train induced my drift -- I saw Horatius Cocles in that dog. The same wounded Horatius who defended the bridge of Pons Sublicius on the Tiber, and saved the Roman Republic from the marauding Etruscan army led by Lars Porsena, in 6th century BC. If Act 1 was about survival, then Act 2 was about dominance -- so, isn't it natural that in order to survive, we need to dominate? There's an eerie coherence and concatenation in this logic, which these "lowly" animals exhibited. Later, as we ate the guavas for desert and sped over the lush Tamil Nadu topography, Mani asks again, in front of everyone: "Mommy please... what was the big monkey doing on the small monkey?" She responds irritably, stealing a look at me: "It's just monkey business... don't ask again!" The pregnant silence developed stretch marks, then I piped up, "why not?" She and we all broke into laughter.
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About the Author
Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines. (back)