My wife loves India. She spent a month there thirty years ago. And then another month the following year. Now she wants to go again. She wants me to go with her.
I asked her about those early visits. She said that she spent the first three days crying her eyes out.
“Everything was so overwhelming; the smell of garbage in the street, the raw sewage running in the gutters, the traffic fumes, the incessant honking of car horns during the day, and at night the never ending barking of dogs. I couldn’t sleep. My nerves were frazzled. It was terrible.”
“It sounds terrible,” I said sympathetically.
“I’ll never forget the river in Benares,” she went on. “Dead bodies were floating in it. I remember seeing one corpse with a vulture perched on its chest eating away at the open stomach.”
“It sounds horrible. Why didn’t you just leave?”
“I don’t know. On the morning of the fourth day I somehow managed not to see those things. Instead I smelled the jasmine flowers and the spices from the market place and everything changed.”
“What were the people like?” I asked wanting to get away from the corpses and the sewage.
She thought for a minute and then told me this story. She had hired a rickshaw driver to take her around the city of New Dehli. She asked how much it would cost for the day.
“Whatever you want to pay,” he said.
She pressed him, but he insisted. “Whatever you want to pay, madam,” his head bouncing back and forth like a bobble-headed doll.
Back at the hotel at the end of the day, it was time to settle up. She asked the driver to wait while she went inside. She asked the receptionist, the concierge and someone waiting in the lobby what a reasonable price would be. They all came up with a figure within a couple of dollars of one another. She added five dollars to the highest estimate, an enormous tip in those days, and offered the money to the driver.
“Is this all you are going to pay me?” he yelled.
“You said whatever I wanted to pay you would be fine,” she replied.
“But this is ridiculous,” he said.
She told him how she had arrived at the figure. By then a crowd of thirty people, all men, had gathered to listen. As the argument went on, the men joined in. They took sides, splitting evenly, fifteen on one side, fifteen on the other. Every now and then someone would come over to Nancy’s side and someone would go over to the driver’s side. The sides were always perfectly balanced.
The concierge and the hotel manager had come out to see what the fuss was about. Now the driver was in a bind. He could not back down without losing face. On the other hand this is the place where he worked. Nancy judged that he was trying to cheat her, but she also knew that he couldn’t lose face without losing his job.
She needed to find a way out, one in which he saved face but didn’t cost her an arm and a leg. She came up with the solution.
“I need to go to the airport,” she said. “I’ll pay you this much more if you’ll take me.”
He jumped at the offer.
The ride to the airport in an open-air rickshaw was uncomfortable. She was coated with dust from the roads to say nothing of breathing in the dirty air.
On the plane back to America the first symptoms of shigella showed themselves. She was sick as a dog for a week.
Now she wants me to go back to India with her.
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