The International Writers Magazine: India
Fleshpots and Temples
Travelling through town in a sweatbox of a taxi, in hot pursuit of a gym. No suspension, tattered and torn interior and head wedged against the roof. Every bump and twist magnified from the neck down. Side to side, twisting, turning, avoiding meandering cows and potholes.
All four windows open to combat the onslaught of the oppressive heat. The breeze brings only the noxious odour of exhaust fumes that suck away the oxygen. On the dashboard, a makeshift Hindu shrine; next to it, a stick-on logo which reads 'India is Great.'
The incessant sound of vehicle horns. Women glide past perched side-saddle on a thousand speeding mopeds. Their garments drape in the evening pollution and dance to the strangled wail of film music coming from the street-side shops.
Countless low rise apartment blocks. Doors and windows open, inviting out the heat, inviting in any semblance of fresh air. Behind window bars and thin curtains, a thousand stories told, a million secrets whispered. One room shop after one room shop, temple after temple. Neighbourhoods within neighbourhoods in the packed-tight city.
The traffic grinds to another halt. A million faces wait to cross. Old men pause at the roadside, faces lined from a bygone age, frozen in time with sugarpuff teeth and leathery skin.
And finally, the gym arrives, one of the myriad concrete buildings jostling for space, spilling towards the road. Outside the door, a massive cow munches on discarded cardboard. Above the entrance, 'Gaylord Gym.'
Ill-tempered, jaded and tired from the journey. No ceiling fans. No windows. An ugly place with rusting machines and seriously chipped weights and cracked mirrors. A dust-laden, uneven stone floor. People stare.
The only appealing thing: the sweet smell of burning incense. Smoke drifting through the heavy atmosphere from the picture shrine dedicated to Ganesh, a centrepiece on one of the walls. Adorned with a garland of bright yellow marigolds, the shrine adds to the special character of the place. A reminder in this flesh-pot of muscle, this smoke and mirror temple to narcissism, that muscle and flesh ultimately count for nothing. Mere illusion.
The distorted music from the latest film blockbuster plays at the usual ear-splitting level. In front of the shrine, an empty chair and an imposing, old wooden desk, behind which the absent manager or owner would usually sit.
A few fading colour photos of film stars cut from magazines. A few cut-outs of champion bodybuilders with their overblown steroided physiques.
The tortuous, metal-backed bench wobbles from side to side. Everyone gathers, everyone watches. A big, grinning face peers out from one of the photos on one of the walls. This is local man Sanjay who likes to flex his bisceps and have his oiled-up, bare-chested picture plastered on the gym wall. He will be in later. A local hero.
On cue, Sanjay arrives, a man who could well have just stepped out of a Hindi movie. A tall man, hair stylishly combed back and thankfully fully clothed, wearing an army flak jacket. To the teenage boys in the gym, he has got it all - the look, the build, the attitude, the walk.
Sanjay is the man. He’s the man full of tall stories about his periods in Los Angeles and London. Amusing stories relating to his time spent as a chauffeur and his spell in the state ‘pen’ in California. The personable Sanjay knows all the Hollywood lingo, talking in a heavy Indian accent about good-looking ‘chics’ and the angry ‘pigs’ who arrested him. A tall man with even taller stories told in western movie slang and a good wit.
Sanjay, the man who went to the US and lived to tell the tale. Apparently, he lived ‘the dream’ (or his version of it) by ending up in the state pen and feels the need to tell anyone who will listen. Or perhaps it was Sanjay, the man who watched it all on TV and can spin a yarn or three. Either way, the epitome of glamour and sophistication to the faithful, his followers, the wide-eyed boys in the gym.
For them, Sanjay has blurred dead-beat reality with screen-world fantasy to become their local hero, their conqueror of the mundane, their temporary salvation from the ordinary. A star performer. A jewell in the neighbourhood crown.
And back on the street, a temple in full flow. Beneath the canopy of faith - the towering goporum with its hundred intricately carved icons of Hinduism – the wheel of life and death turns, of birth and rebirth, of hope and sanctity. The vibration of ritual that echoes down the ages. Bare feet on polished stone, coconut and banana on metal plate, fire and devotional music. A bell rings, incense burns. Belief and passion. Ritual and devotion. Life lived in the moment. It’s a life and death affair.
A three-wheel auto-rickshaw hailed. A haggle over the fare. A dozen gesticulations, exaggerated facial expressions and a lifetime later, a price agreed. The gym now a memory. The stage exited, the heroes and gods gone, all left to bask under in the glow of a dimly lit gym bulb or the light of a temple flame.
Every day a new act. Every act a major drama. Every drama a different illusion. Life lived in the moment. A million moments.
© Colin Todhunter September 2013
Colin can be contacted via his site, where you can also read for free his new ebook that's not quite an ebook: http://colintodhunter.blogspot.co.uk/p/paharganj-to-sowcarpet-beauty-rides.html