Sunday, February 5, 2012

Music for Mountain Roads

Things I associate with other things:
The MN State Fair and mini-donuts
Bare feet and the beach
The smell of alcohol and hospitals
Indian mountain roads and very loud music through headphones

*   *   *   *   *   *

On the way down from the hill town of Munnar, we bounce and shimmy over a road that is almost wide enough for two vehicles to pass comfortably. Sometimes, leaping around a switchback, we meet another vehicle. Both lurch to a halt. The drivers communicate with complicated hand signals and abrupt jerks of their chins. Usually the coming-down-the-mountain vehicle reverses, maneuvering backwards up a hairpin turn or two. We find a place to squeeze by, like a passenger in the window seat scooting up to the airplane aisle. Now imagine doing that if, instead of the seatbacks in front of you, there’s nothing but a drop-off and empty air. I peer out my window as we rattle past a truck; it may as well be 10,000 feet down.

As soon as we’re clear, the car sprints forward. This is less of a flat-race than hurdles: we spend a great deal of time partially airborne, crashing back to the road with elephantine grace. I hold the Oh, Jesus handle. (Would that be a Hai-Ram handle in India?) Unlike the USA, where the Oh, Jesus handle is so called because it’s what passengers grab in an emergency or accident, here in India, these situations are so constant they lose urgency. You learn to hold the handle (or the prayer, if you swing that way) the whole time. You keep your bag zipped up so that when it is flung onto the floor all your stuff doesn’t fall out and roll around. My headphone cord is arranged in such a way that it will not strangle me if I am flung onto the floor (learned that the hard way); the phone it is plugged into is wedged carefully so it does not become a projectile (same incident). 

I am listening to Kanye West: aggressive, misogynistic, smart and melodic: Everybody knows I’m a motherfucking monster. I turn it up all the way. The sound is fantastic.

I have (have always had) diverse musical tastes. Growing up, I was as likely to listen to Air Supply as Iron Maiden, Billy Joel as Peter Tosh. But when it came time to buck over the narrow, nearly vertical paths and ruts of the Himalaya of my childhood, I always chose the loudest, most parent-disapproval-earning, ear-drum-punishing sound for my headphones. When I was young, it was as much escape from my family as anything else. I don’t know why I do it now.

Kanye threatens, howls and opines: I mean this shit is, fucking ridiculous…

I listen to the pounding bass and observe the bewildering tragicomedy of Indian billboards: smiling sari-clad women loaded in gold jewelry, a child sprays water at an Audi, half-dressed men lurk on motorcycles and scowl, happy couples jump for joy, a swami floats beatifically over a temple, a group of anxious people are menaced by a gigantic snake. There are signs for something called Globstar Sofas (that is not a typo). Every single person in every single ad could pass for white. The signs are mostly in Malayalam, a language I can’t read or speak. Besides the sofas, I have no idea what the ads are for. Movies? Wedding jewelry? Undershirts? Motorcycles? White folks?

Praises due to the most high Allah
Praises due to the most fly Prada
Baby, I’m magic. Ta-da!

I settle my sunglasses more firmly on my face (they will shake lose again in a couple of minutes) and glance over at Urban. He is wearing a fine, cream-colored cotton shirt, and a lungi (the sarong-like garment traditionally worn by Indian men). It looks good with his fair skin, unruly blonde hair, and the ease with which he carries himself. His eyes are closed and he counts prayer beads on his mala: he is meditating. I look down at myself: I am wearing capris and a shirt I bought at Ridgedale. Kanye thumps and cusses in my ears.

We got nothing to lose, motherfucker, we rolling. Motherfucker, we rollin. With some light-skinned girls…

I am the Indian one, although all the Indians in the billboards now rushing past at roughly the speed of sound have complexions closer to Urban’s than my own.

Ain’t no question if I want it: I need it. I can feel it slowly drifting away from me…

We pass painted trucks & indifferent cows, sometimes whipping by inches away. A group of shirtless men squat by the roadside drinking chai. A young woman in a pink salwar kameez roars by on a motorcycle. Our eyes meet. She does a double-take at Urban and gives me a grin and a nearly suicidal thumbs-up.

Would you rather be underpaid or overrated?
(I consider this line for some time, and try to imagine a scenario where I would have to choose between these two options. Then I realize that I already have both. This makes me happy.)

Turn up the lights in here, baby: extra bright, I want you to see this.

Urban finishes his mala, digs around for his headphones, and plugs them into my phone. This is possible due to a device that goes with me everywhere. I call it The Nifty Dual Headphone Jack Adapter Thingy. Getting all this technology out of bags and connected while the car jumps and spins takes some doing. Now Urban is trying to take pics of the billboards while holding on to the Hai-Ram handle with one hand. I turn the music down for him, a little. Kanye is picking up steam:

No more drugs for me; pussy and religion is all I need. Grab my hand and baby, we’ll live a hell of a life.

We pass a bus with an Indian-looking Mighty Mouse emblazoned on the back. Urban & I grin delightedly. We reach out to each other, but the car careens around a corner, and we have to clutch our respective handles to avoid being thrown across the bench seat and out my open window.

Exchanging amazed glances at the world outside, the same music in our ears, we can’t hold hands because the ride’s too wild. Coming down the mountain, hurtling toward the sea: we have no idea what we’ll find there.

That’s one hell of a life.


  1. A clear glimpse into the lives of real people. How fun!

  2. I love this.

    Looking at Indian media: movies, TV and billboards you would think India was a country populated by a billion white people. Juxtapose that with the dark-skinned people you see out the window and you'd see how surreal the media is from the reality. Surrealism is abundant in India. Add a soundtrack an tight space on roads, hairpin turns and everything flying by around you and you begin to understand this piece.

    Well done Saum. Thanks.