The Shithole – a short story from India.
In March 2004 I was 25 years old. With not a care in the world, no particular place to be and zero commitments to speak of, I packed up a rucksack and headed off to India. The future lay sparkling and I thought it would last forever.
It was early evening and the thick, smoky air buzzed with the sound of chattering voices and the steamy hum of rickshaw engines as they crackled to and fro on various missions. We’d just arrived in Agra, a city many westerners fail to recognise by name. Despite the fact that it houses one of the world’s most iconic and romanticised buildings. “Hotel Shahjahan?” the taxi driver asked with a furrowed brow. “No sir… is finished! Gone!”
“Gone!?!’’ I responded, half bent over the open window. The weight of my rucksack almost toppling me over. ‘‘Gone where?!” Had we stumbled upon some post-apocalyptic, alternate reality Agra? I envisaged an empty waste ground where our would-be hotel once stood. A clump of Lonely Planet pages fluttering despondently in the poisoned breeze. “But nooooo problem sir…. I take you Hotel Kamal, cheap cheap”. I’d only been in India for a few weeks, but was already growing tired and bored of the endless lies and scams. This particular con was a personal favourite. A rickshaw driver informs you that your hostel of choice has mysteriously disappeared. However, fear not, this helpful chap knows of another place he can take you to right away! A joint almost certainly belonging to his brother/cousin/father-in-law/boss.
“No… we want to go to Hotel Shahjahan”, insisted Allan, climbing into the rickshaw as I cautiously followed suit. “But sir, Hotel Kamal very…” “SHAHJAHAN PLEASE, or we take another driver”. The man rolled his eyes, emitting a groan of resignation, “Ok Ok” and fifteen minutes later we were sitting in the reception of our reincarnated hotel, waiting to be gracefully received.
The Shithole, a short story from India.
Having filled out the usual forms, Allan and I followed a dumpy teenage boy up a steep and winding staircase. Slowly, we climbed floor after floor. Eventually, we came out onto the rooftop where he led us to our room, which seemed uninspiring but acceptable. Subsequently, we were just about to give him the thumbs up when Allan made a grim discovery. The ceiling fan, (a colossal contraption resembling the front end of a rusty World War II spitfire) was broken. ‘‘Uh oh!’’ I said, gazing up.
It was a desperately humid evening and the staircase ordeal had left us both sweating profusely. In just under six hours we’d be up and off to see what we had come for. The main reason we’d actually come to Agra. As such, I explained to dumpy that we needed a room with a working fan, a requirement he seemed genuinely surprised about. A working fan, eh? Scratching his chin, he motioned us across the floor where there was only one more available room. In no position to negotiate, we traipsed after him towards the last chance saloon.
The new room had its positives I suppose. It possessed four walls, a roof and an operational fan that clattered noisily when the boy flicked the switch. In fact, it worked itself into such a frenzy one of our neighbours briefly popped his head through the door to see what all the commotion was about. The aforementioned plus points having been covered, all that’s left to say is that the place was an absolute shithole. Thick dirt clung stubbornly to the skirting boards and had even begun creeping up the walls. Said walls had presumably once been white. But now they were a deep, smudged black with occasional patches of splattered red. A fetching shade of squashed mosquito. A lonely wooden table sat awkwardly in the corner, indented with spidery graffiti.
Zac woz ere.
Feeling genuine empathy for Zac, I regarded the room’s solitary window. Virtually hidden behind a row of thick iron bars. “This is a place where people come to die”, whispered Allan. Gingerly opening the toilet door, I froze, held my breath, turned on my heels and exited, shutting it firmly behind me. Sensing that perhaps we weren’t overly enamored with our surroundings, dumpy gave us an apologetic smile. He then promised that the fan in the other room would be fixed the next day.
“This is a place where people come to die”.
Reluctantly accepting the situation, we quickly settled in, deciding it would be best to go straight to sleep. Not even bothering to undress, I clambered onto my bed, doing my best to ignore the colour of the sheets. As I attempted to make myself comfortable, I suddenly recoiled in shock as my hand sunk into a small shard of glass. ‘‘What!?!’’ The resulting cut wasn’t much of an injury and produced just a trickle of blood. But I reacted as if I’d just been slashed with a samurai. ‘‘Glass in the fucking bed!?!’’ Now I’d seen it all!
Realizing that complaining would be a pointless course of action, Allan helped me in the search for further injurious items. Luckily, it turned out to be a lone offender. After checking Allan’s crib for more of the same, we finally turned out the lights. Unable to drift off, I lay there for some time listening to the rotating fan and wondering whether it might spin off and decapitate me while I slept.
When the alarm jolted us both from slumber barely four hours later, I couldn’t get us out of our communal cesspit fast enough. Springing out of bed, I announced a boycott of the shower (it was in that evil toilet), and threw on a T-shirt. “Allan!” I whispered, giving him an encouraging shake while swirling some toothpaste around my mouth.
“Peering up at the orange-blue of the breaking sky, I drank in the early morning silence”.
Outside the morning sun had already begun its long, lazy ascent as we made our way through Agra’s dusty, near-empty streets. It was so early even the few hawkers opening their shops were too blurry-eyed to bother us. Peering up at the orange-blue of the breaking sky, I drank in the early morning silence. Across the street a couple of monkeys hopped playfully across the branches of a large tree. We turned a corner into a wide street dotted with flower-laden trees. And now I could feel my heart beating fast as a flash of ethereal white marble came into view.
The Shithole, a short story from India.
For now the rest of the structure was shrouded by a mixture of the compound’s towering outer walls and thick mist rising from the banks of the Yamuna River. Thankfully, my patience would only have to hold out a few minutes longer as we closed in on the gated entrance. Having arrived early enough to beat the queues, we bought our tickets, went through the turnstiles and eagerly made our way towards The Taj Mahal.
‘The Shithole’ is the fourth chapter of my short story series Incidents In India.
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