On Jan. 16, I took a boat from Goa to Bombay a day ahead of my traveling companions because I had a romantic errand. Twenty years ago, the only other time I’d been to Bombay, I’d visited an opium den. A young Indian took me there and we lay on the floor among dried-up veterans, heads balanced on grimy wooden blocks as a chemist cooked and spun and at last dipped a needle of black opium into a brass bowl at the end of a long pipe. The high was abstract and gentle; we drifted down to the Marine Drive and gazed at the Arabian Sea.
I wanted to refind the place. My 20’s feel like a lost and unhappy time to me, and relocating the den seemed a good way to bundle them up and send them out to sea.
Within a couple of hours of landing, I dropped my stuff at a hotel and found a compliant cabby. But the project suddenly seemed daunting. The city at night was smoky and senseless, lit by fires and neon signs for Intel. It wasn’t Bombay anymore, but Mumbai, rechristened with its precolonial name, and my driver insisted that I wanted charis-heroin that is smoked in sugar cubes-and I kept saying No and mimed the act of lying down and smoking.
He was as frustrated as I when he suddenly stopped and got out of the cab on Grant Road, as a legless kid in a skullcap wheeled up to my door on a skid. I gave him a rupee, and then the driver was back, preceded by a tall rushing man dressed dapperly in a gold shirt, gray trousers and flip-flops.
“I am Krishna,” he said, getting in and seizing my hand. “I am guiding in Mumbai 40 years. What do you want?”
Krishna looked like an Indian Sid Caesar, a little handsome with a square face, large dancing eyes and lower teeth worn away by betel. The satin shirt tails flapped out over a small potbelly. He was very energetic.
“First try-Chor Bazar.”
The cab required a push start and we were soon in the vicinity of the Thieves Market. Krishna hopped from the cab to consult locals, then directed us to stop in a lane crowded with shacks, where he alighted and rushed off with inspired purpose. I got out to look at what the papers call “hutments,” tin and wood, two stories in 10 feet. It was 9 o’clock and children sat out in the street working. A boy of 10 peeled red onions. Nearby, a grown man bunched cheap gold bangles on sticks before handing them to four little girls, who painted them with enamels.
Krishna came back at a run and spat dismissively.
“Police problem,” he said. “Closed for one years.”
It was on to Chhota Pakistan, Little Pakistan. This time I rushed along with Krishna and he held my hand as he threaded through the lorries and Fiats. At a blue stall, a group of Muslims breaking their Ramadan fast with coils of roast mutton were hostile to our project. But a block away, a gritty associate of Krishna who was crouched in a gutter offered us encouragement.
“Beezlebozzle,” he seemed to say, nodding and gesturing.
When we were back in the cab, Krishna squeezed my knee.
“You are lucky man,” he said. “Very lucky man.”
Our way led through narrow lanes with more children at work. One girl was washing clothes, others were sorting garlic. A naked boy fresh from his bath-it is a marvel to me how fastidious even the poorest Indians are, how concerned with hygiene-ran ahead of us, buttocks gleaming in the headlights. Krishna shouted out the window for the children to clear the way, and we took a left, creeping down another alley.
A group of young satirical men was seated on chairs in the road.
“Beezlebozzle,” Krishna said, jumping out.
One gestured upstairs. A wizened cabinet of an apartment tilted out over the street. The wood seemed never to have been painted. The shuttered windows looked like cupboard doors. Did I imagine it, or was this the building of my dead youth?
The men offered me a seat and conferred in Marathi with Krishna.
“Police problem,” he said, smacking his hands. It had been in business till a few months before. All over Mumbai, the police were cracking down on drugs.
“Next try, Red District,” Krishna said.
Ten minutes later, we were at the intersection of Foras Road and Falkland Road (now called Nimbkar Road and Bapurao Marg, respectively), the prostitution zone, like nothing I’d ever seen. For several blocks, the streets were virtually lined with women standing or crouched before cagelike doors in wood buildings painted turquoise or pink. Normal Indian life went on around them: children asleep at the foot of string beds, men sipping coffee from glasses. The prostitutes were strangely impassive-stoned, glaze-eyed-though some performed a summoning gesture, swinging their arms at their sides like oars. “Twenty rupees,” Krishna said contemptuously. Fifty cents. Many of them were teenagers (sold by their families, it’s said) and whenever I asked the driver to slow, the true vendors materialized from shadow, men with their hands on the window frame.
“You want fucking? Clean girl. Nice girl.”
I had to see a house. We went up two flights of steep steps over the women’s cramped living quarters. A sleazy viewing couch was against one wall. Three doors opened and closed on the room, bouncers appeared. Then a line of women, looking at me plainly.
But as for beezlebozzle, it was the police problem again.
Krishna had one last try, or maybe two, I don’t remember. The night became a haze of Muslims singing under fluorescent lights outside a mosque, a fat whore leaning from her step, beating a rat to death with a stick, and my dapper guide leaning out the door to leave a rich red splat on the street.
It was midnight. We stopped at a liquor store for a bottle of whisky and Krishna rushed off again, coming back with a hashish-doped cigarette for me.
“I drink, you smoke,” he explained, before dropping me at my hotel, the Bombay Palace.
I gave him 100 rupees-less than $2.50, as the rupee crashes-and said, “Krishna, I’ll give you 300 more if you can find me beezlebozzle.”
I wonder if I’d unwittingly uttered an obscenity. Krishna grinned and grabbed me by the waist, shaking me with affection.
“I come to your hotel at 11 tomorrow morning. Next time you dress nice. Good shirt.”
I’d been traveling all day, in a shirt that felt especially sodden among all these fastidious Indians.
“Now you have a smile,” he said.
Krishna wrinkled his nose and appeared to sniff his own armpit. Oh, yes, a smell.
I smoked half the hash cigarette and got a few hours of sleep and walked out the next morning to buy a map of the city. Two bearded men pushed past me on the sidewalk holding leashes to muzzled black bears that came waddling behind. Nearby, a billboard for bank loans said, “Will your child be the next Bill Gates?” India produces multitudes of software programmers even as scribes in dhotis sit on corners typing letters on skeletal typewriters.
This is a big part of the reason the country draws Westerners like me, “spiritual tourists,” to use the wonderfully savage term I heard at an ashram. All manners of dharma are jammed in next to one another and, unlike the West, there seems to be honor, or at least a place, for all these different modes of being, from whores to animals. The cow is not the only sacred creature. Monkey, crocodile and rat transported the gods. One day in a restaurant, a rat crossed the floor and I cried out. The waiters opened the front door, and patiently tried to usher it out.
I had tea in a place on Lamington Road and took notes on my long night. Only then did I realize what I’d seen when I went looking for my youth: children experiencing their childhood now, in extreme conditions that they had no choice in, but in the midst of which they seemed to have moments of delight. I remembered smiling at a little girl who was painting bangles, and getting a bright smile back.
Still, I was determined to find my opium den. Why? Because it would make a better story. My friend the writer James North says that journalism is an adult scavenger hunt. Arbitrary goals, assigned meanings. Do all journalists end up resenting their readers, and vice versa?
I got back to the hotel lobby at 11 and passed an hour reading about India’s political crisis in the papers before I understood that Krishna was not going to show. So I rose and set out on my day.
I’m sure now, from the way he grappled my waist the night before, that Krishna had no plan to return, that he had better things to do, even if that meant passing up 300 rupees, a princely sum in Mumbai. My only regret is that he did not get to see how I had prepared for him: bathed and shaved, in laundered clothes.