I asked Clay to write something about India because he always told me bits and pieces about his time in India. Mainly about booze and debauchery. He sent his story at dawn today with a little disclaimer that it was too long, and that I could edit it however I wanted. But how do you edit someone who has been writing much longer than you have? You don’t. Especially when it has that lovely prose like this story. So the much I have done with this story is to right-hand click and amend a word that Word had underlined in red.
Here is presenting his story of India. Look at those short beautiful sentences. They are like blooming flowers in July. I loved them. This is going to be the first Long Read here, Gang, but for very good reasons.
BY CLAY MUGANDA
Oti Papa. Oti Rech, Oti Maua, Oti Father. May his soul rest in peace.
He was not the first person I met when I landed in India one hot summer afternoon many years ago, but he was already there.
He had been in India for close to a decade, or longer. People could not remember I guess. I used to joke that his name changed from Maua because like a flower, he had withered — in physique and stature and influence.
He was the typical Kenyan student in India. He was once a tough cookie, but had lost hope, and everything he ever had. Even then he was brave enough to party, and above all, give freshers tips on survival.
If you were in Chandigarh, you had to know him. He had a step in his spring. Yes. He knew his way around places and women. When women discovered they were his weakness, they started ignoring him. Oti was the first grown man I ever saw cry over a woman. He cried the whole night. He was pacing around the small compound in Sector 11 residential area. Sobbing, talking to himself, blowing his nose, coughing, clearing his throat and at times wailing.
India is a tough place even for the strongest of men.
“My sister dumped him,” I was told, as we cuddled in the small bed, trying to find our way around our clothes, our small bodies, our frail hearts.
We were trying to find our way around our freedom. And I think captivity too. India is one big open prison fraught with all the dangers your parents did not warn you about. It is a paradox. Easy to understand — but like a minefield, harder to navigate through unless you are focused. Staying focused is not easy because you have to trust your own instincts and you can only do that with a sober mind. Staying sober is not easy in India.
I was a few months shy of 18. I did not even have a national ID. She was slightly younger. We were independent young souls, thrown in the deep end that is India, a place with so much freedom that you can easily end up in jail.
This deep end should not have worried me. My father had tried to take me through it, drawing from his experience in the United States. “When I reached my benefactor’s house in Dallas, he showed me to a car, told me to get in and drive after him,” he had said. “I had never driven on the right and I did not know the directions to where we were going so I had to stay focused on the car he was in and what I had gone to do there…”
India. Discover it. A signage at the airport proclaimed. And we were doing just that with Mwana. That is the name Oti had given her. Others called her Portable. I guess that was because after our first dance, I carried her from the floor to her seat. I called her all the names I had read in those books that were a boon to the mills of romance. All the nice names a 17-year old whose father was a cynic knew.
“You will never board a plane to go for further studies,” my father had told me on the day he gave me my passport and air ticket. My father used to be a motor vehicle mechanic who had a dislike for Toyotas. He then became a tour driver, and “since I was such a good driver, one of my long-time clients asked me if he could take me to the US and I told him I wanted to become a pilot.”
As I listened to the cries of Oti, a grown man, I started getting scared. What were the chances that I will never sink that low socially, financially and academically? He had been dumped because he had refused to rejoin college. His girlfriend had enrolled for a Masters degree, and moved to another town in the state of Haryana, where she met Muriuki (May his soul rest in peace) who later became my friend. Oti had become the furniture of Chandigarh. His girlfriends found him there, and moved on. He had never cleared his under graduate and had a repertoire of excuses for that.
“My sister was helping him to rejoin college but he has been procrastinating,” Mwana said — and we swore never to fall through the system the way he had.
He could have been a professional footballer in Calcutta, but on the day someone came to close the deal, he was busy keeping his new girlfriend away from her ex-boyfriend. By the time they were dressed, the scout had left.
If passing examinations in India is easy, failing is a walk in the park, literally, because one can spend all his time in the parks, smoking weed, drinking, walking his girlfriend or just lounging. Or “harvesting” weed which grows wild mostly in northern India. It is abundant in the universities’ botanical gardens.
India is not called the world’s biggest democracy for nothing. There is so much freedom and that is why Mwana and I could hit it off less than 48 hours after we met.
It was at a bash to mark the end of summer, and I want to guess we were broke because we walked to the bash with Tilas, a wily fellow who once cautioned freshers against enrolling for an IT course because computers will give them viruses. They believed him. We had a bottle of gin. We drank it on the way, taking swigs in turns, and then danced ourselves lame. When the alcohol wore off during the wee hours, it was time to look around, and that is how I spotted this petit innocent looking girl. The rest is history — and later hysteria.
After one year, we moved in together. Before then we had been living with my cousin, Mr G and Mr O. Our fathers were acquaintances, and they were friends of the then education attaché in India. We landed in Bombay and missed our flight to New Delhi, then some gentleman, Mwalimu, I called him that because he had been a teacher, argued our case and we were booked into a hotel not far from the airport.
India. We had started discovering it. Through traffic gridlocks, the smell, human traffic and through demonstrations considering that we encountered about five different groups with placards on our way to the hotel, less than five kilometres away. We flew to New Delhi the following day, and — we were about 15 Kenyans — spent the night in the education attaché’s house. The other students left and I remained behind with three other guys. We were joined by Mr O, came, and we left for Chandigarh by bus.
We ended up in Sector 15, in the house of some extremely kind gentlemen who helped us — Mr G, Mr O and I — get a house in Sector 38. My cousin joined us a few weeks later.
Then the discovery continued.
We were never broke. I think we were just not frugal. The education attaché covered our backs. My cousin’s paternal uncle was working with the UN was also living in New Delhi. Mr G’s father used to travel to different countries and could pop in anytime, unexpected, probably hoping to find us messing around. He was not lucky. Or rather, we were lucky.
Our fathers took good care of us financially, and if we ever ran out of money, it was not their mistake. We drank alcohol, but attended classes without fail. The education attaché could come to Chandigarh and meet us at his hotel. During summer I could go to his house in New Delhi. He is a career educationist and a generous gentleman who used to warn us that we could easily lose focus in India because of alcohol. That is after giving us a bottle of premium whisky.
In Chandigarh, we met good guys who told us about the bad guys who were captives of the freedom in India. The bad guys could not renew their residential permits because they were not in college, and were ideally in India illegally.
After our first year, each one of us moved out, to live on his own. I moved to Sector 3, a 20-house heavily fortified garrison of an estate with platoons of armed police and military officers at every corner and at the main gate because the Chief Minister of Punjab or Haryana resided there.
I used to stare at the barrels of machine guns, manned by mean-looking officers in full combat gear, behind sandbags, while passing through the main gate. During my first summer, Mwana went to his sister and I was all alone. The chessboard was my pal, so I used to visit Joseph (May his soul rest in peace) in Sector 40, and teach him how to play chess. It was hot. I was broke, and I think I was depressed.
After some time, Mwana moved in. We were two teenagers managing their own sex lives, finances and everything in between. Making all the decisions that happily married couples ever make I want to guess because I am currently unmarried. In the evenings, we could sit on our small porch and talk about very many things. Sometimes we could entertain my friends. Fred was our frequent visitor. We were with him on the same flight, but had lost his marbles, and could dance to the music playing in his head and do other crazy things.
Oti used to come too, and regale Mwana with stories, in very old sheng. Then one day, he was sent to jail. Very few people bothered about him, save for his good friend Index (May his soul rest in peace).
Unlike Oti, Index had graduated, but then lost the plot and became a musician, a Rastafarian, a philosopher, a life coach, a traveller and failed to follow up on his Masters degree. When we were not experimenting in the kitchen (old habits die hard) with Mwana we could go to the movies, or I could go out to drink, and I would wake up in bed, or on the porch and I could not remember how I got home or who brought me.
Mwana would be furious, and we the mood in our “household” could be frosty for days, until Mr O and his girlfriend came to visit and we would be a happy couple, and my infractions would be forgotten.
Then one day, Mr O said he was coming back to Kenya. Someone had told his father that he was not in college. He was, but his girlfriend was not. I took Mr O to the airport on a day when Indian pilots were on strike, and he had to fly to Addis Ababa, then to Nairobi. We were stone-broke and had taken a bus to the airport. I did not even have cigarettes, so a smooth Mr O went to the terminal building and came back with packets of cigarettes. He said he got them from some pilots.
One summer, we boarded a train to Agra with Mr O without buying tickets. We were late and we entered the coach next to the platform. It was reserved for the Armed Forces and their families. Before we got a seat, a drunken military officer asked us if our fathers were in the military. Mr O’s father was in Kenya Army, so he answered in the affirmative. We were kicked out.
Another time, against the wishes of our girlfriends, we set out for the cold and hilly Shimla, 117 kilometres away from Chandigarh, but boarded the wrong bus and ended up in a colder Dharamshala (245 kilometres away), the city where Dalai Lama runs Tibet’s government in exile. We reached Shimla (239 kilometres from Dharamshala) two days later. On the day we were to go back to Chandigarh, we lost our bus fare, and we were left with less than 100 rupees between us. To make matters worse, some organisation had called for a transport strike. So we started walking. I have no idea how many kilometres we had covered before we saw a vehicle and flagged it down. The lone occupant was just too happy to have us in his vehicle. We communicated in the smattering of Hindi we knew, and shared our problems and his apples, our first meal for that day. He had spent the night in a police cell and we laughed all the way to Chandigarh, and our good girlfriends were very sympathetic, and all our infractions were forgotten.
After Mr O left, I moved to a town in Haryana, and Mwana moved to a flat in Sector 15. Mr O’s girlfriend started dating a younger guy from my village, and their house was a battle field, more so when they were drunk, which was often.
The distance started taking a toll on what was left of our relationship. We were like Kilkenny cats. Once, I broke the hand of her landlady’s worker and the police were called, but I ran faster than the Mahindra Jeep they were following me in.
That was not the fast time I outran anyone or anything while I was drunk. Some years earlier, I hurled a bottle of rum at some “cool” guy at a house party. I missed, and together with his pals, they came for me. I ran and fell, but they did not catch me. Tilas laughed his head off. That guy held the Nairobi schools 100 metres record!
In the new town, I moved to a secluded area. I was lonely. I understood what heart break is because I felt the pain in my chest. I was broke too, but there was a grocer who was always there for Kenyan students. During that period, I never cried but I read extensively. I read schoolbooks and any other literature I could lay my hands on. I wrote poetry. I wrote stories. I drew and painted too. I drank so much coffee and tea without milk that my teeth started turning brown.
I communicated mostly with Jayadha (that is how I called him), a pragmatic fellow in Chandigarh who never used to get excited and who could never be rushed in to making a decision. Thanks to his encouragement and sarcastic remarks whenever I visited him, I pulled through, and ironically added weight.
I started making friends and enemies and Gachuhi (May his soul rest in peace), who was my neighbour used to encourage me every time I was in trouble with other African students. “Sasa Clayboy, kama ile shida ingine ulimaliza, hii itakushinda? This is a small issue.”
Erico who had been my fresher in Chandigarh and moved to Haryana after his first degree used to tell me “shida zako ni za kujitakia,” and then defend me. I was prone to accidents and I was a regular at the Minor Operation Theatre of the university hospital, so much so that the doctors could stitch my wounds without applying local anaesthesia. But not once did I ever cry. At some point, I started doubting my sanity. About ten people I used to hang out with had lost hope and their marbles too, and came back to Kenya for good.
My brother was in the state of Maharashtra and I once visited him, and we went to a house party. Twenty minutes later, bottles were flying all over the place because of me. On my way to that town, I passed through another town, where also I stopped the music in a house party, and I had not been there for 12 hours. Oh, I had been to another town too, and I crossed the path of the dean of foreign students within hours of my arrival.
When I enrolled for journalism, I decided to take the rough with the smooth. People told me that it was a risky profession and I could easily die. I told them dying is not a problem. Living is. My stories about drugs in a local paper rubbed some Africans in New Delhi the wrong way, and on some days, I could not sleep in my house for security reasons. When I was an intern at the Times of India in New Delhi, I sometimes used to access the newsroom through the back door — the printing plant — but once some Kenyans came to complain about my stories. My editors stood by me and taught me never to throw writers whose stories I edit under the bus. It is at Times of India where I was taught (how) to kill stories. Not dreams. And to always strive to help people build careers. Not egos.
Looking back, I always wonder how I survived. But I realise it was a learning curve. I learnt how to take rough with the smooth and to have explanations, not excuses.
My scars taught me how to be a safety freak, and how to be cautious when it comes to relationships. I do not drink alcohol, but I still drink a lot of coffee.
I used to laugh at people’s first world problems as I found them too soft.
- Brian (May his soul rest in peace) believed that a heat stroke would kill him and wanted to cover his head with a big shawl during summer. I told him Africans do not die from such things. He later died in India when his gum got infected after his tooth was extracted.
- Martin, (May his soul rest in peace) thought that India’s tap water was not safe for drinking and had to be boiled. I laughed him out of town. A small wound on his leg got infected because he did not get a tetanus jab and he died in India.
- Index contracted tuberculosis and a lung infection and his sister who used to work at Nation Media Group used to ask me why we left her brother to die in India.
- Oti survived India but not Nairobi. He was mugged by thugs while walking to bus station from a Moi Avenue drinking den frequented by Indiawallahs. He did not know the extent of the injuries at the back of his head. When he went to seek medical help months later, it was too late.
- Joseph suffered a series of infections and even lost his eyesight before he passed on.
- Muriuki had relocated to the US and once his sister told me he had undergone a lung surgery. He passed on a few years ago and was buried in Nairobi.
- Gachuhi was a victim of a traffic accident on Thika Road, on his way to Nakuru where was running or working in a law firm.
- Mr O, Mr G and Erico are married and work and live in Nairobi.
- My cousin, unmarried like me, lives in the US.
The friends I had, and friends I lost, while discovering India are many — and this is not even a tenth of our story.