Srinagar really kicked my butt today. I’m exhausted, but at least happy to be sleeping in fresh bedding which will hopefully keep me warmer than my sleeping bag, which I have been using so far. I also have a new heater, but due to electrical issues – which I will go into later – it’s round the corner by the door, about 10 ft away and not really making any impact, so far as I can tell. And after all that I went through to get it! Again, later. It’s curfew again tomorrow, so thankfully I will have this time to sleep off the hangover of today’s trials and tribulations. Not an actually hangover, mind you. I wish.
When I awoke this morning I decided that it was time to make this room feel like home. That meant that it was time to shop. I also decided after another freezing night that the shopping would have to include a new heater. The owner of Relax Inn had clearly stated that he would not permit an electric fan heater in the room because of the running costs, but Rahim told me that he has one which is very effective and only costs him about 300R (£3.50!) a month to run. Time to negotiate with hotel management. I showered, dressed and headed down to reception.
I spoke to the guy (Azoor? I really must get his name again) and explained what I was planning to do. At first he said that there was no electrical outlet that could support an electrical heater, but when I mentioned that I was happy to pay a little extra rent to cover electricity costs, he softened somewhat and said that he would speak to the owner. I assured him that I would get back to him later and headed off for breakfast at Café Arabica, a place that Rahim has taken me to a couple of times. En route I called Rahim, who said that he would meet me there.
Coffee and cake later, we headed off to the shops. As we drove Rahim’s car into the ‘main market’ (i.e. town centre) I felt like someone who had been living all his life in the bathroom and just opened the door, stepped out and realised that there was a whole house to explore. In my mind, Srinagar had been a fairly small quaint town. In reality, it was a bustling, thriving commercial centre. We started off in the more modern part of town and before long had managed to purchase the bedding. However, Rahim had an appointment with an administration officer at 11am - something to do with a land dispute his parents are involved in – and invited me to join him for the ride.
That’s when I realized that I not only had a whole house to explore, I had a whole housing estate! We drove and drove, listening to one of Rahim’s ‘Best Cheese of the 80s and 90s’ mix tapes (‘Nothing’s gonna change my love for you, you oughta know by now how much I love you…’) through packed streets, across overpasses and through winding passageways. Everywhere cars, auto-rickshaws (which I like to call auto-riskshaws), people, dogs, dust, shops with a multi-coloured array of products hanging in front of them, cows, goats, more dogs, more dust and lots and lots of noise. Just as we are negotiating another impossible ensnarement of vehicles in a narrow alley, George Paul breaks into ‘Last Christmas’ and I start to sing along. Rahim looks at me and says, ‘George Paul, he’s one of those…’ (searching for the word…oh boy – here we go) ‘…gays isn’t he?’
‘Yes.’ Rahim begins to sing along, whilst I try to decide whether or not to dig a little. Why not seize the moment? ‘I guess you don’t have any gay people in India, right? Or rather, gay people in India are hidden.’
‘Yes. People talk about these gay gangs. They say that they kidnap men and then cut their penises’
Marvelous. Time to start challenging…
‘That’s bullshit. It’s just fear and ignorance that makes people talk like that.’ Hold breath and await reaction.
‘Yes. I suppose so.’ Phew.
A pause and then, ‘In England being gay is mostly accepted. Well, it is in the big cities like London. A bit different in the countryside.’
‘Yeah, most people just think it’s normal.’ Okay, slight exaggeration but I’m trying to give Rahim an opposite perspective, to redress the balance of growing up in a country where homosexuality is forbidden and taboo. It’s hard to read him.
I wonder if now is the time. It would be easy, ‘Do you know any gay men, Rahim?’
‘Yes you do mate. Pleased to meet you!’
However, this one’s still a hung jury – I think it’s going to be okay, but I need to gather more evidence, and I guess cement our friendship a little further so once he finds out I’m gay he still sees me, and not just ‘a gay man’. Being in these situations always makes me feel slightly uneasy, like I’m being deceptive and duplicitous, but it’s a necessary self-preserving step on the road to coming out to someone, especially when there’s a lot at stake. At the moment, Rahim is not just part of my social circle in India, he is my social circle.
We finally arrived at the admin offices and I waited in the car whilst Rahim went to sort his affairs. One and three quarters hours of Tacky Hits later (really, how many times can you listen to ‘The Lady in Red’ before wanting to kills yourself?) Rahim returned and said that he would probably have to be there all afternoon. We agreed that it would be best to put me in a riskshaw back to town so that I can get on with my shopping, and drove off to intercept one.
Now this was an experience which really put the risk in riskshaw. Firstly, the guy insisted on giving me a guided tour of the town, which was great except that it involved in turning to face me in the back rather than looking at the road, and I could barely understand a word he was saying anyway! ‘uhid dhuwiedhi dhuid iuhedi hduw huwd six months’
Secondly, this particular riskshaw seemed unable to go any faster than 5mph, which would normally increase safety is you weren’t being zoomed at left, right and centre by other vehicles going at least 10 times that speed. However, the pièce de resistance was when we pulled into the petrol station to top-up. The petrol cap is inside the cab in riskshaws, just in front of the driver next to the steering wheel. And what does this guy do whilst the attending is pumping in the petrol? Light up a cigarette!
Anyway, I somehow made it back to town alive and recommenced my shopping. Within about 10 minutes I realized that I had forgotten to bring one crucial item with me. Sunglasses. Not because it was particularly sunny, but because for some reason I was being stared at a lot. I learned in PNG how important sunglasses can be in these situations: they provide one last barrier that the prying eyes can’t get through, they let you keep your soul to yourself. It may sound trite, but in PNG I really understood after a while why celebrities often wear them. However, without this defence to hand today, I would just have to soldier on.
Three hours, several purchases and some hardcore gaze-averting later, I escaped from a tailor who’s determined to show me his collection of one hundred or so business cards of international visitors that he has made clothes for (why oh why did I ever go in there?!) and met Rahim to collect the bedding from the shop and head back to the hotel to sort out the heater. All spent up, exhausted and feeling irritable after hours of eye-rape, with hindsight I was probably not in the right frame of mind to be sorting out a potentially contentious issue. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. The hotel owner was there as we headed in, so I broached the subject with him. To my surprise he says, ‘No problem, we will put a three pin socket in your room’
‘Great!’ I respond, relieved.
‘However,’ (uh-oh) ‘Electric heaters use a lot of power, which is why we never allow them to be used. You will have to pay a supplement.’
‘Okay,’ I say, bracing myself. ‘How much?’
‘One hundred rupees a day.’
‘One hundred rupees!!! That’s crazy money. I’m only in there in the evenings’ (Not strictly true, but rationality had already flown the nest.)
‘Well, how much is not crazy?’ he asked, annoyingly calmly.
‘I’ll give you five hundred rupees a month.’ Putting my foot down now.
‘Well, another problem with these heaters…sometimes people fall asleep with the heater on. Very dangerous, it could gas you.’ (Er, it’s electric) ‘For your safety, we will come to collect the heater off you every night at 10pm.’
Oh no, really gonna lose it now. He just got on my last nerve. ‘Listen, I am not 10 years old, I’m 33 and I am more than capable of turning off the heater before I go to bed! So, no, you won’t be coming to collect it from me at 10pm every evening!’
‘But sir, I am 60 and even I can make mistake and fall asleep.’
(Fuck off) ‘Fine, then at 10pm every evening I will also come to your room to collect your heater.’
I ‘m really not sure what happened at that point. I think we reached a stalemate wherein I could get a heater but the terms were unclear. Poor Rahim had just witnessed ‘angry Paul’ for the first time, and I was already beginning to regret having spoken so abruptly to the guy in whose hotel I will be living for the next five months. This could cost me. Rahim and I dumped my shopping in the room and headed out to get the heater and extension lead.
When we got back, Azoor (?) was in my room trying to fix up the three pin socket (currently, my room sockets are two pin – India, for some reason, seems to have three different varieties of plug). He was doing this by inserting the bare wires of an 3 pin extension cord into my two pin socket (!), but (thankfully) this failed to work because a.) the connection was unstable, b.) the three pin extension box was for the wrong size three pin plug and c.) it was insanely dangerous! In the end, having gone through the various options, we realized that the only solution was to plug my heater into the plug point used by the water heater in the bathroom. Hence, the new heater is now round the corner by the door, about 10 ft away and not really making any impact, so far as I can tell. Back to square one.
To end off the day, Rahim dropped me at Broadway Hotel (the hotel with the bar) before heading off to his parents’ with the fruits of his labours at the admin office. The days remaining excitements can be summed up as follows:
1.Wine could only be bought by the bottle (not a good idea, I thought, given my mood) so I bought a beer and drank it at the bar.
2.Received a call from my parents, followed by a call from my mate Pete in Boston. Apparently, like London buses, you wait ages for a call from family or friends, and then two come at once.
3.Headed off towards Hat Trick for dinner, passing on the way a dog that had obviously been hit by a car and was lying by the side of the road with a forlorn ‘yes, I’m going to die but I accept it’ look on his face whilst another dog started to lap up the blood oozing from his hind legs – lovely.
4.Ate the first half of my chicken curry, rice and nan bread with an audience of two teenage boys who were waiting to pick up their take-away, then wolfed down the second half in semi-darkness, the waiters having turned off most of the lights in preparation to close up for the night.
5.Headed back to the hotel, apologizing through gritted teeth to the owner on the way in, and made up my new bed, where I am now sitting.
Thank God for curfew tomorrow.
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