Wild life

Wild Life

21 March 2009

11:00 AM

21 March 2009

11:00 AM

‘Where’s Ajay?’ My producer Ed and I are making a film about India’s coalfields. ‘Ajay is busy.’ I complain, ‘But he’s our fixer. Why isn’t he out fixing things?’ In the world of journalism, a fixer is employed to arrange things on the ground. Paleologue in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop was a fixer. Others get fixers like Dith Pran in The Killing Fields. But Ajay is one of a kind. ‘Ajay is drinking whisky,’ comes the reply.

It’s been like this since Ajay arrived by train from Benares. On day one, he accompanied us to a vast open colliery where hordes of impoverished Dalits were toiling in the dirt. Later he said, ‘Body exhausted, mind disturbed.’ We rarely saw him after that. He let me know he was a novelist. I suspected that he might be hiding himself away to polish off his latest Veranasi epic. One day at lunch Ed said, ‘Got anything for us, Ajay?’ ‘No,’ said Ajay, ‘but I will have a beer.’ We decided to leave him alone. No use antagonising him.

We survived thanks to Tanmoy, our other guide who had to put in double the effort. Without Tanmoy we would be lost in the heart of India with its ‘bed tea’, steam-driven pulleys, buzzers, serial numbers, water buffaloes and the 30 electrical switches on my hotel room wall. And it’s thrilling to be in an India tourists will never witness. During Holi, the festival of colours, we saw coal-blackened miners coming off shift throwing clouds of bright red, yellow and green powders. In one mining village I saw a tree hung with gold rags, under which Hindus cremated their dead on platforms across a narrow river. A few yards downstream people were drinking and washing.

Underground, the miners smoke pipes of ganja, shrugging off fears of a methane-gas explosion. Back on the surface, Ajay is partial to pan. Pan, a leaf into which one folds betel nut, may be India’s most offensive creation (together with the motorised rickshaw). If Ajay does condescend to come along for the ride while we are rushing to make an interview in time, he will order the driver to stop at Manilal’s Pan Shop. ‘I am addicted to pan,’ he confides. I ask about its effect. ‘Hard to explain,’ Ajay replies. ‘Can you explain the pleasure of sex?’ When I sample pan all I get is backache and stained teeth.

Ajay also likes Gold Leaf cigarettes. To smoke these he waits until we are all in the car with the windows closed. Outside, Jaria’s collieries are a vision of hell. Open-cast mining has destroyed the landscape, exposing seams of coal to the air so that they oxidise and then spontaneously ignite. The conflagration is out of control, spreading underground, spewing blue flames and poisonous gases from yawning cracks that swallow up entire villages. Chimneys belch smoke and coal dust hangs in a soupy smog. And right in the middle of all this is Ajay blowing Gold Leaf smoke in my face.

For several days Ajay vanished almost completely. We met him once for a meal at which he held forth on the Indian deities, whose number ‘exceeds 36 crore’. Then one day he appeared in the restaurant looking complacent. ‘This has been a most successful visit,’ he said, lighting up another fag. ‘I have concluded arrangements for my daughter’s marriage.’ At last this explained his long absences. I asked if his daughter loved the groom. ‘They knew each other only in childhood.’ I asked if she was happy. ‘What is happiness? Yes, she is happy. The boy has a booming business in Haryana and the father owns a silicate factory.’ I am glad to have helped in some small way with the wedding plans.

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