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JANUARY 2002 Contents
Asian Art -
at Every Alien Door'
Page 2 of 2
KNOCK AT EVERY ALIEN DOOR
By random choice, he assigned us to a tent and told us to follow him for bedding. He led us into the building where we were each given two blankets and told to pick our own tents. I drew as tent partner Private Sikorsky, the perennial "goof-off" from Brooklyn, the original rebel without a cause. He had spent a week in the stockade when we were in California, thinking perhaps he wouldn’t be sent overseas. But here he was, sullen and recalcitrant as usual, ready for new skirmishes with military authority. He seemed to like nobody, but took a particular dislike to me as the only Southerner in the group, viewing all such persons of that mysterious region as escapees from Tobacco Road. When on those few occasions he spoke to me at all it was with some sarcastic remark about rednecks in his own version of Southern drawl. Like Mark Twain’s view of his wife’s mocking profanity, he knew the words but didn’t know the tune.
The tent was small and weather-beaten, flapping annoyingly in the strong breeze. I spent a wretched night trying to keep warm wrapped in the two blankets on the rope cot, with all the gear I could manage piled on top of me. I noticed Sikorsky sacked out, snoring away in apparent comfort, his boots on the earthen floor in characteristic contempt for lance Corporal Twigg’s warning. I slept fitfully, waking now and then to rustling sounds I took to be the wind.
I woke to the bugle blast of reveille. Untying my boots from the tentpole, I began to dress when I discovered the right pocket of my pants had no bottom. I remembered having a candy bar – on of those reinforced Hershey bars made especially for servicemen in hot climates – in that pocket. Puzzled, I turned the pocket inside out and discovered jagged edges as if it had been chewed. Panic stuck as I recalled Lance Corporal Twigg’s admonition about cobras. Was it possible, that they, too, liked chocolate? I hastily dug out my only other pair of khakis from my duffel bag.
I tried to rouse Sikorsky for breakfast, but left him after he petulantly muttered, "Don’t want none of that limey garbage."
At breakfast I found my friend Mark, and told him about the chewed-out pocket and my miserable night. He found that amusing, but admitted that he had also suffered from the cold. We agreed to ask for more blankets from Lance Corporal Twiggs, but when we didn’t find him at headquarters we went back to our tents. Outside my tent we heard an ear splitting yell followed by a string of obscenities. We quickly entered and found Sikorsky standing on his cot frantically shaking out his boots. "Biggest sonovabitch I’ve ever seen."
"Rat," he shouted. "When I stuck my foot in – damn thing got away. I swear that thing was a foot long with a bushy tail and –" He threw down the boots in a burst of fury. "This stinking country’s good for nothing but rats."
Sikorsky was not amused by our amusement and showered us with another gift of profanity. I took my chewed pants to find Lance Corporal Twiggs. Maybe he would have some suggestions.
When I found him in his cubicle office at the rear of the building, I was not prepared for what I saw. The wiry little man sat at his box-like desk surrounded completely by snakeskins hanging from the rafters. In various lengths they hung, like silver stalactites, giving that dim place an eerie atmosphere. Cobra skins, one and all.
"Quite a collection, Corporal Twiggs." I said.
He looked up at me. "Make belts out of them."
"How do you –" I hesitated. Looking for the right words.
"With this," he said, picking up a long, heavy stick by his desk. "The mongoose, he’s a bloody artist with the cobra. I take my lesson from him. Get the bugger to raise his hood, and I give him the old whacko. Gets ‘em every time. Fear, mate, that’s the enemy. Not the cobra. Got my medals to prove it." He made a sweeping gesture toward the hanging skins.
I presented my chewed pocket to him. "I had a visitor last night. I thought it might have been one of your friends here."
"Rats," was his quick reply. "No self respecting cobra would do that. Bloody nuisance these rats. Can’t seem to get rid of them. Tried everything. Shooting ‘em’s the best, but they’re still around. Bet you had a sweet on you."
"A candy bar."
"They’ll do it every time" he reached into a drawer of his desk and handed me a needle and thread. "This will do up your pocket. Be sure to bring it back."
A few days later we were loaded into a truck and taken to a small landing strip near Delhi, where we were then crowded into a mail plane and flown to Dum-Dum airport in Calcutta. I remember the bird’s eye view of that poetic masterpiece of architecture, the Taj Mahal, as we flew over Agra. Later I was fortunate enough to see it at ground level in all its magnificence. A sight I shall never forget.
But as memorable as these sights and experiences were in my introduction to India, nothing could have prepared me for what happened a few days later in Calcutta, when I ran afoul of the law.
(To be continued in the next issue)
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