Thailand is where you go when you need a break from India. Either to retreat. Or to recoup. At least that’s what this Swedish guy told me as we flew over the Atlantic, shortly after I turned nineteen. . .
But that’s getting ahead of myself, shouldn’t do that, not if my life as it’s unfolded is going to make sense. Though unfolded isn’t the most accurate word to describe how things played out during what was supposed to be my sophomore year of college. Unraveled is probably closer to the truth. So before I even begin, while my destiny stood on familiar ground, I should admit that I knew there’d be a phone call. And not a good phone call either. That’s just how it was with my twin brother. You see, Mike and trouble were a package deal, inseparable really. However, I liked to think of him as unlucky or a bit of a prankster as opposed to being a bad person. Still, it got to the point where no one wanted to pick up the phone in our house anymore. Mom dealt with the phone calls from the high school. It was usually one of Mike’s teachers complaining that he wouldn’t be quiet in class. And I don’t mean joking around with his buddies or flirting with some bra busting cheerleader. Unfortunately, there’s no polite way to say this other than that Mike would fart, loudly, disrupting the whole class. To make matters worse, his classmates found it hysterical, laughing themselves to tears while pinching their noses closed to thwart the near lethal smell. Then again, a few stuck-up, serious students would inevitably complain and leave the room in a huff. Of course, Mike’s teachers were infuriated. However, he said he couldn’t help passing gas in such an overt fashion, that it was a “medical condition.” Problem was, Mike was always suppressing the urge to laugh when he said that. But he would quickly add that this was some sort of official condition too, a defense mechanism to mask his embarrassment. He was almost convincing.
There was also late senior year, days before graduation. Mom took the phone call from our usually pleasant but now pissed-off principal when Mike hi-jacked the school’s brand-new PA system to sing, “I Can See Clearly Now.” You know, the old 70’s song. Basically, classes couldn’t function for close to an hour as Mike sang in but mostly out of tune about how the damn rain was gone. The entire school was under siege as he tried out a country version of the song . . . and a reggae version . . . and even a heavy metal version until one of the more clever janitors finally removed three separate doors from their hinges to get to him. Consequently, the principal was all set to suspend him until it was pointed out by the varsity baseball coach that Mike was not only leading the team in hitting but was the scheduled starting pitcher for the state playoff game against arch rival New Trier.
Then, though it wasn’t apparent yet, my life took an unexpected turn when Dad picked up the phone last year, a few days after Christmas. Mike was downtown at the police station. Arrested. Wrong place, wrong time at the Public Enemy/Sonic Youth concert. Normally, I would’ve gone with him, but it wasn’t really my type of music. I just wasn’t that angry about anything. That’s why I was at home baking brownies with Mom for New Year’s Eve while Mike took the ‘L’ down to the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago by himself.
Though we were just freshmen in college, Mike was convinced he knew everything. And sometimes I wish he did, but his blue eyes and blond curls carried his crooked smile just far enough to make him charming. So Mike got his way a lot, which left him with the false impression that he was rather clever. Then again, no one could’ve known that after the show thousands of teenagers high on punk rock and rap music would spill out into an anti-war protest and that somehow this would lead to me getting on a plane to an intoxicating, distant land. Must be a twin thing.
Cops vs. College Kids in Uptown. The conflict in the Persian Gulf was just kicking off, and Bush was looking for an excuse to go into Iraq, much to the alarm of a good number of people. As a result, there were just too many concertgoers and protesters blocking traffic outside the Aragon for the cops to deal with. Meanwhile, Mike could go from idle supporting cast to ringleader in a matter of seconds, eventually getting a taste of how the Chicago Police react to such shenanigans. And he was tasting forearms, batons and pavement. So Mike wasn’t always so dim as he was just plain doomed.
How was a teenager from the suburbs supposed to know that the cops considered the Aragon a battlefield? No one clued in Mike that this once elegant Spanish dance hall from the 1920s had gained a questionable reputation as a concert venue ever since rowdy rock bands like Van Halen, UFO, and the Ramones steamrolled through town in the ’70s. Apparently, everyone in Chicago knew the place as the Aragon Brawlroom.
The very first thing Mike utters to our dad when we bail him out at four in the morning is, “I’m going to India this summer.” Not sorry, or it was all a misunderstanding. Or even Mike’s famous, “We must’ve got some bad beer.” He just said that he wasn’t sold on the typical summer in Europe plan anymore. Once we got him home Mom put a bag of frozen peas over his swollen eye, convinced he was delirious, hoping he had a concussion. But Mike kept talking away, jibber-jabbering about these amazing Full Moon parties in India he’d heard about from someone he had been handcuffed to. It was a girl, obviously.
Mom told him a police “paddywagon” was a great place to pick up useful tips on Full Moon parties. However, Mike didn’t realize she was being sarcastic, though he might have thought Mom said “useful tits” instead of “tips.” My brother had a tendency to hear what he wanted, though Mom wasn’t much better as I’m pretty sure she thought a Full Moon party involved someone pulling their pants down. I know I did. Anyway, Mike said that he was looking to try something different over the summer, radical even. But different in our family was driving up to a lake in Wisconsin to go tubing. Radical was the August we went to Maine for two weeks. But India? That was out there. Another planet.
We received a postcard from Mike just before Labor Day saying that he wanted to stay in India a bit longer, something about a camel fair that he hoped to catch in the fall. A camel fair? That one about drove Dad through the roof considering Mike was always nix-naying family plans to attend the Kane County Fair. And now he was pushing for a camel fair in India? Mike said he would write a paper (he actually had the balls to use the word dissertation) on the fair and try to petition Madison for college credit. He even wrote that he wanted to rush a house when he returned for the second semester, that he was going to take a look at SAE like Dad.
My parents took this last bit of news to mean he was dropping out. They knew Mike wasn’t the fraternity type. Partying? Yes. Rules about partying? No. Dad threw his hands up in the air. Mom let out a stressed sigh. They were done with him. Not done, done. And not in a bad way. It’s just that if you thought about Mike too much and what he might be up to, you would worry a lot, lose sleep, even suffer from hair loss as my dad will vainly attest.
I couldn’t imagine what Mike was getting up to in a place like India. What did he do all day? No Cub games on WGN. Or sailing the sunfish on Lake Michigan. Or late night ping pong in our neighbor’s basement. And what about food? People in India always looked like they were starving. Mike and I were pretty damn skinny, but we were long, just over six foot. And Mike could eat a ton. He loved the cheddar fries at Buffalo Joe’s. And when he came home from Madison for the weekend he would always roll in to Sarkis’ and crush the Disaster or stop by Hecky’s up on Green Bay Road for a boatload of barbeque.
In India, however, I could only picture him on his hands and knees, groveling through the blistering desert for a cup of rice boiled in camel urine. I mean, who goes to India for fun when you’re nineteen? Or any age, really. It wasn’t like my brother was a born-again Buddhist or anything. And Mike had no hotel reservations or hostels lined up or any concrete plans once he got there other than tracking down some fabled Full Moon parties that some tree-hugging, incarcerated hippy chick had blabbered to him about.
An additional nugget we got from his postcard was that his suitcase had been stolen when he landed in Bombay (yes my brother brought a suitcase, a giant Samsonite at that). Now, Mike being Mike, he easily could have lost it, ditched it, given it away or gone to the wrong baggage claim area. The possibilities were endless. Regardless, day one in this faraway land he was down to just his JanSport school backpack, containing a few odds and ends and toiletries but no sleeping bag or change of clothes or the new raincoat Mom had bought him for the relentless monsoons she had read about. “June monsoon, June monsoon,” she kept repeating for emphasis. With dread in her voice, Mom described the terrifying pictures of a flood she had seen in a National Geographic, in which “the streets of Bombay were littered with hungry, floating rats the size of . . . (gulp) dogs.” Shit, I know I was scared.
Soon after the postcard arrived came the phone call that refuted most everything Mike had written us. This was the phone call that really threw my life for a loop. I was just about to go upstairs to bed after watching Letterman when the phone rang. . . I quickly grabbed it so that my parents wouldn’t wake up, hoping it was this really tan Jewish girl from Niles West that I had met earlier in the day while working at Lighthouse Beach. It wasn’t. Not even close. The call was from the American Embassy in New Delhi, India where a kind yet formal Indian man said that Mike was being held at a jail in Old Delhi. Old Delhi? That didn’t sound too good, and I immediately wondered, worried really, why they didn’t just jail him in “New” Delhi.
I was also thrown by the man’s British accent, a very proper British accent too, though it sounded weird coming from an Indian. If you had said “Indian” to me last year I probably would have replied, “Cowboy.” I feel like an idiot now, but I was clueless when it came to all things India. It just wasn’t ground that we covered at school. And my knowledge of British culture was still limited to late nights crammed around an old black & white TV watching reruns of Monty Python and Mike’s favorite skirt chaser, Benny Hill, though I definitely went through a Phil Collins phase after seeing Tom Cruise “boff” that girl on the ‘L’ in Risky Business. Anyway, I kind of knew that the Brits were throwing their weight around India back in the old days, but not to the extent that this Indian man would sound like a constipated James Bond.
The Indian man said that Mike was in good health and that he was holding his passport at the embassy until his release in a few days. That was great news but I didn’t know what Mike had done to get arrested in the first place. Or how long he’d even been in jail. The Indian man said Mike ran into trouble at the Taj Mahal; something about a bhang lassi, a rickshaw, and a holy cow. Say what? Excuse me. He banged who? And what made a cow holy? That was Chicago Cub announcer Harry Caray’s signature call: “Holy Cow!” How did Mike get in trouble for that?
Meanwhile, I was trying to relay everything to Dad who was wide awake now, cursing and pacing behind me, insisting I fly to India to get Mike on the first possible plane home. I thanked the Indian man, letting him know I was flying to Delhi right away to make sure everything went smoothly with Mike’s release. In turn, he told me his name, Anand, and the address at the embassy, but it was confusing so I made him spell it out for me.
“S-h-a-n-t-i-p-a-t-h, C-h-a-n-a-k-y-a-p-u-r-i,” he systematically repeated as he assigned a word to each letter, which about halfway through made it even more confusing. Anand also gave me the main embassy phone number (60-0651), but when I told him I’d heard only six digits instead of seven, he patiently confirmed the same six numbers, which, though seemingly trivial, left me with an eerie feeling that nothing about this trip was going to be normal.
I had a lot to learn about India in a very short period of time. So I busted out the encyclopedia set Mom bought off a salesman on the front porch when we were kids and quickly found out that India is the seventh largest country by size, second by population. And it’s the world’s largest democracy. The capital is New Delhi. Official language, Hindi—though not the national language as there are too many to count, which means that English, thanks to British dreams of an empire, is used for official written work and spoken throughout the country. Then there’s Mahatma Gandhi, a little bald dude with glasses who spearheaded India’s independence from Great Britain in the 1940s. And Indira Gandhi (not related), a woman who served as Prime Minister. And let’s not forget Mother Teresa and what she did for the sick and the poor in Calcutta. Of course, I could go on and on, but I wasn’t sure how any of this was going to help me with Mike.
I gave myself three days to get Mike home or I would be in jeopardy of missing the start of fall classes. I finally had gotten away from my twin by staying put, going local to Northwestern with the idea of majoring in journalism. Mike had the grades to get in too but said the girls were all bookworms and even worse, boring. His words, not mine: that “hot chicks don’t have the drive to get in to NU.” My thought process was that without Mike, and hot chicks apparently, I could concentrate on my courses. And I did. Got mostly A’s freshman year . . . and maybe not a hot girlfriend but definitely a cute one. Now the silver lining to the whole Mike fiasco was that I was sure it would make a great little story, something I could work into a feature for the Daily Northwestern or roll into a speech at his wedding someday for an easy laugh. Of course, I had no idea what was in store for me at that point.
Luckily, when I went to get the same raincoat Mom had bought for Mike in Winnetka, the granola girl at the counter tipped me off to a mammoth thousand-page guidebook on India by Lonely Planet. It was billed as a “travel survival kit.” The title sounded a bit extreme at the time, though it proved prophetic within days. Dad dug out my passport, which was still valid from a trip the family “talked” about taking to Paris a few years earlier, and handed it to me with a plane ticket tucked inside. He didn’t want to discuss the last-minute price. He went on, however, to thank me for taking on such a big responsibility, saying he didn’t think his “old ticker” was up to the task. Then he counted out three thousand dollars in cash, all in twenties, and placed the bills firmly in the palm of my hand. Dad was sure I would have to bribe someone in India along the way and started in on the old, “Money Talks, Shit Walks” speech as he poured himself an overambitious gin and tonic.