“You’ll get the shit. You’ll be knee-deep in the shit.” Tales from the Hood
Like death and taxes, despite all the evidence to the contrary, you somehow think it might pass you by. It is a badge of honour, a sign that you are an experienced traveler, this hope against hope, that the plague will pass by your door. You start in clean, packed restaurants, munching on dhosas and thalis. Your friend takes you out for dinner at the Oberoi, one of Delhi’s swankiest hotels, telling you that it will make a nice prelude to the grimier fare that awaits you further on up the road. Within two days, you feel confident enough to sit at street-corners munching on glorious tomatoe-paneers and naan bread, still amazed at the cost and the quality, knowing that this is better than anything you ever tasted on Rusholme’s Curry Mile. For four days, you live like this, feeding yourself handsomely for a pound a day. There is the occasional – how shall I say it? – substantial visit to the bathroom, but all remains solid, in order.
Then it drops. One morning, in your ‘Indian-style’ toilet, it flows out of your bowels like the Ganges. You do all you can to deny it, but the evidence is dripping there below you. Traveler’s Diarrhea – known in these parts as ‘Delhi belly’ – has claimed you as its latest victim. The moment you acknowledge this, the rest of your body joins in. Your appetite vanishes, although not before you rather stupidly grab a piece of chocolate cake from a ‘German Bakery’ across the road. You start to feel distant, your head clams up, the slightest movement feels like you are pushing against steel. You withdraw to your bedroom, defeated.
And then you do something stupid. Fascinated by the possibility that the Chabad House in nearby Dharampok is run by sectarians – those who, heretically, believe the Rebbe to be the Messiah – you decide to head up there for Shabbes dinner. In the auto rickshaw you hold on for dear life, knowing that, if the vehicle does not plunge off the edge, its sharp jerks will certainly kill you. You stagger out, gingerly, and head into the Chabad House. There, you exchange pleasantries with the Rabbi, finding respite in the playful chatter of the children. But by the time prayers begin, you are fading fast. Yedid Nefesh begins, and it is your cold which is fuelling your duchenning. You borrow a thick Tibetan shawl (more a fireplace than a jumper) from a fellow-countryman, and sink into your seat, trying to absorb the Rabbi’s words on chosenness, spiritual effort, and the shmita year. Pretty quickly, you can take no more, departing from the house of prayer before they have even sung Lecha Dodi.
Back at the hotel, your motto is that of a child on his first day at the Gulag: survive. The sheet is complimented with a blanket; you lie very still on your back, thankful you have asked Drew across the way to check that you are still alive come morning. Within twenty minutes, you have made your first visit to the bathroom; there will be a dozen more before dawn breaks.
All this is accompanied by a delirium, too banal to be a dream, too commonplace to be a nightmare. I am selling tickets for buses traveling around the Himalayas. As the evening progresses, as my bowels calm, I get better and better at it. By 2AM, by body having decided not to disturb me for the next five hours, I am the champion ticket-seller, having sold ten tickets to Kashmir. Then I am selling swords, I think. This is all accompanied by depression and doubts, and – in the more extreme moments – morbid fears. I am going to die alone in a hotel room in Mcleod Ganj, I think, I should never have come here, how can I have been so stupid as to have eaten those paneer fried in that weeks-old oil?
By morning, I have begun to recover, although my droppings are still liquefied. As I begin to write these lines, sitting with some Israeli girls in nearby Bagshu, my appetite has returned, and my strength is once more. Delhi belly’s visit has been sparingly brief. I guess I got my swagger back.