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TENT CITY

*

The green Vespa bounced across the paddock and sputtered to a halt.

‘How was your festival?’ said young Madame Singh.

‘Where is the car?’ said Nearly-Singh, the pickled fiancé.

‘Why are you on a motor-scooter?’ said Senior Singh.

Grandma Singh sat, spat and didn’t say anything – but then, she never did.

Well, I’ve never seen a family move so fast.

‘Oh, my God!’

Boy Scout Singh explained it all as they rushed around. He was still talking as they all clambered into their 4WD.

‘Oh, my God! Where?’

My valiant rescuer pointed dramatically to the mountains. The car lurched anxiously into gear and he fell backwards onto Madam. She squawked, he bounced and her fat fiancé beeped the horn. They charged out the gate, screeching orders to the staff on the go.

‘Raju! Start the curry!’

‘Raju! Make a sandwich!’

‘Raju! Boil the water!’

‘Oh, my Gah-h-h-hd!

*

Raju disappeared into the hospitality tent. He emerged with his turban unravelling, proudly holding a plate with two slices of processed white bread on it. The turban toppled into chaos around his eyes, as if an orange octopus had fallen on his head. Both hands flew up to fix it. Of course, he dropped the plate and the bread in the dirt. He knelt down, absently picked up the bread, dusted each slice against his grubby trousers, put them back on the plate and disappeared into the kitchen. There goes lunch, I thought.

Four frightened heads poked out of the Hessian. More tribal youth. These feral creatures were the staff. They looked at me. I looked at them. I wiggled my head and they disappeared. One popped his head out again and wiggled back. I returned the gesture. He laughed and disappeared. Such was the depth of our relationship.

Raju reappeared and walked over carrying my dusty bread. It was evident he had no idea what a sandwich was. One slice was smeared with yoghurt, jam and tomato; the other embraced a slice of processed cheese and tomato sauce. Each had been rolled up and punctured with a fork. They were disgusting.

I saw the thick layer of dirt under his fingernails. There was a faint smell of brie.

‘Chai?’ he said.

I stared at him for a moment. His head looked enormous. Perhaps he had two turbans on by mistake.

‘Only if you take that stupid hat off.’

He didn’t understand. I smiled and looked around.

‘No Sir?’

He wiggled his head.

‘No Madame?’

He wiggled his head.

‘No old Sir?’

Ahh, he was getting it.

‘No old madam?’

I looked around and shrugged my shoulders.

‘No turban.’

I did a mime.

‘No uniform.’

Another mime.

‘No-o-o-o tension…’

Ah-h-h-h! The lights went on. I was always a hit at charades.

He smiled broadly and ran off to tell the lads. As he left he threw his turban in the air and screeched then dived into the open tent flap. I heard shouting then there was an eruption of young men from the kitchen. Raju, his four servant mates, two security guards and a cat ran out of the tent. I’d unleashed a giggling, running, jumping, punching, testosterone cyclone.

They were just tribal lads from up north. None of them knew how old they were; the youngest twelve, the eldest fourteen maybe, fifteen? The lads didn’t even know how to pick their nose. They slept in their clothes on a mat on the floor, only changed to put on their ridiculous turbans when guests were around, coughed on the food and each other, lived like grubby monkeys a long, long way from home. The poor sods could do with a break.

Maybe I should teach them how to wash.

*

Raju wandered out of the kitchen tent and across my line of sight into the field. He was holding a bottle of water. When you see an Indian heading into a field with a bottle of water, don’t ask, don’t follow.

He wandered back a few minutes later, objective achieved. Raju went straight to the kitchen tent, sat down at a table and began to pummel and punch at the dough for tomorrow’s parathas.

It occurred to me that I was at greater risk of hepatitis than tribal attack.

*

‘Where are the washing facilities?’

‘Err… the boys have soap.’

‘Yes, but they boys don’t know what it is. Show me the soap.’

You know the answer.

‘Where do they wash?’

You know the answer.

‘When did they last wash their hands? Raju! Show me your hands. Argh-h-h-h. Show me those fingernails! Argh-h-h-h, God Almighty! And you are preparing my food… in there!’

Sweeping gesture into the kitchen tent. Don’t look in the kitchen tent. If you look in there you will die.

Raju couldn’t see what the problem was.

All these boys were tribal lads from Poshina. Sticking a turban on their head wasn’t going to make them a waiter. They were feral sprogs with no comprehension of any of it. If they had ever learnt, they had forgotten. Time for a crash course in hygiene. Doctor Dogster doled out Dettol, cough medicine and Strepsils, bandaged cuts and bruises, inspected nails and bench tops, made a great game of washing hands. Lest I appear like Albert Schweitzer be sure I had nothing but self-interest at heart. To this day, I think I was lucky to get out alive.

*

Mukesh huddled stoically under the last teak tree on the mountain. The sun was down and out for the count. The sky loomed cobalt blue fading to black. Only a tribal boy knows the blackness of the black tribal night. Shivering, hungry and secretly scared he sat and stared into the void.

The valley was dark now, just the lanterns flickering on the slope. A waft of song blew up the hill. Baghoria tomorrow. It’s already begun. Nothing is safe at bhagoria. Nothing.

Rana Singh was fast asleep, curled in a ball by the tiny temple. Every now and then he gave a little start, as if a sudden thought occurred to him in dreamland. Of course, all his thoughts occurred in Dreamland. He’d been asleep for years.

Mukesh shivered. He had a boogie-feeling in his spine.

‘Ee-e-e-eyah!’ from down below.

‘Eee-e-e-eyah!’ from the lanterns.

‘O-o-o-lu-lu-ulu-ul-ooo!’

‘Eeyah !’

Getting closer.

*

There was nothing subtle about the Singhs.

Five of them in a hurry is quite a sight. It was as if the Landcruiser had ten arms, an attack of the horn and epilepsy. The family careened up the mountain road, flashing past isolated farmhouses, yellow headlights swiping wild across the fields.

‘Not far,’ shouted Boy Scout Singh.

‘Oh, my God…’ said Madame.

‘Stupid old prick,’ sneered Nearly-Singh.

‘Watch that chicken!’ the patriarch cried.

Old Mother Singh curled her lip.

Live – die, she didn’t care.

*

I don’t believe there is a tribal version of ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ but if there is, Mukesh would have sung it as the headlights from the Landcruiser stabbed into the valley. They took a long time coming, swinging wildly from side to side as the 4WD made its way around bends and twists until finally it roared up the last scrabble of road.

‘Oh, my Gah-h-h-hd,’ the daughter said, ‘what will we do-o-o-o?.

I could see why her fiancé had taken to drink. It was either that or kill her. She had rich parents. He’d rather marry and drink.

Rana Singh emerged from his confusion. He felt somehow vindicated. See? Help had arrived and he hadn’t done a damn thing. That proved that strangled inaction was wise. He snapped back into Rana gear.

‘Afternoon, cousins! Welcome!’

‘You stupid old fart. What are you doing bringing a foreigner up here?’

It was the patriarch and the Rana head to head.

‘Bloof bluff bloff,’ flustered Rana, ‘bugger you.’

Well, it was on.

Nearly-Singh took control. Huge bribes were handed out to swaying lanterns, drunken tribesmen were assigned to lift the car, Mukesh was rescued and the old man’s pride was saved, the Singhs were Singhs of Singhs once more.

*

‘You know you’d still be on that mountain right now if his son hadn’t been there…’ the eldest Singh whispered. They were back at the camp.

That was absolutely true. Not a soul knew where we were.

‘Without mobiles we’d never have found you.’

I noticed his hand shaking as he told me. He was drinking whisky too. Singhs drink whisky.

‘Why were you up there?

‘He wants to make a hill-station.’

‘It’s not even his land!’ he laughed. ‘No wonder he didn’t want people finding out you were up there. That stupid old fool would have let you die up there to save his reputation. You’re damn lucky.’

The stupid old fool in question had made a rapid exit.

‘Pure fluke, a university student and a Vespa got you out of that.’

‘Yes, I owe young Singh a drink…’

‘Those Adivasi drunks would have stripped the car and beaten Mukesh senseless, just for the pleasure of it…’

He pulled a face.

‘Then they would have stripped you, robbed you and left you naked with Mukesh. You don’t want to know the rest.’

My blood ran a little bit cold at that.

‘And old Rana? What would they have done with him?

‘Same as they’ve always done. Ignore him.’

*

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