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False at First Light

March 23, 2012

by Kerry Harwin

With thanks to Ernest Hemingway for teaching me that even a lie ought to have truth at its core.

I wished that Amar wasn’t the way that he was. He was fine friend and not a bad man. But he was a difficult man to be friends with. I wished he didn’t need his whisky and soda and cola at ten in the morning, and I wished that once he got tight he didn’t need so badly to be so damn helpful, especially when he was trying to help me with women. His drunk instinct was infallibly disastrous no matter whom I was chasing.

Amar lacked the forethought to buy a ticket for the plane or the train, so he came on the bus. He smelled of whisky and dust and benson and hedges and of twenty hours of hard road. He joined us both, me and Jeremy, at the cafe table; outside for that brief moment in a New Delhi October when a man in shirtsleeves can leave the comfort of four walls and climate control.

Jeremy was something like Amar with money, a European upbringing, and self control. Or, at least, enough self control to wait until the afternoon for his wine, and to go home when he was too drunk for anything else. But even his control made you depressed, because it seemed to spring from an awareness that things weren’t going to get any better in any case.

We were fortunate that evening. Our night train and coming journey gave us something to talk about. And so we weren’t forced to listen to Jeremy, oblivious to the impact his words had on Amar, plaintively moan about the poor mental constitution of the Indian man and the many ways in which the subcontinent was doomed. After four years spent as a banker in Bombay, Jeremy had developed a detailed taxonomy of Indian faults. Having exhausted all his complaints about whatever establishment we were drinking or eating in, or the hotel he last stayed in, he would inevitably find a way to tie this to some shortcoming in the Indian character. And so, as he held forth on the flaws of Indian bankers, the Indian service industry, Indian men, Indian women, Indian families, Indian Muslims, Indian Christians, and Indian Hindus, you could see the toll it took on his Indian acquaintances. The toll it was taking on Amar right now. For Jeremy was cursed with the special kind of oblivion that comes from a very human settling; a settling into resignation or despair accompanied by an awareness of the improbability of amelioration. That obliviousness left him blind to fact that the only Indians he knew were the rich and travelled sort who spent much of their time engaged in the same nature of complaint. He was even more thoroughly blind to the fact that those Indians had earned by birth a right to complain about their nation that is rarely endowed upon the foreign born.

Nor were we subjected to the flow of words on love and suffering that were the frequent mainstay of Amar’s conversation. Amar was in love with Shirley and Shirley was engaged to someone else and Shirley was a bitch and Amar a masochist and the combination is a dangerous one. Shirley was the too common type of woman who would mete out just enough crumbs of tenderness to keep Amar constantly pleading for more. Amar was the kind of man who lacked the spine to tell her what she ought to do with them.

Amar had left his fiancé for Shirley and Shirley had left Amar because he wasn’t the type of husband that her parents had in mind. She wasn’t a woman you’d want to know; she had the body and the temperament of every entitled rich girl any man has ever tried to avoid, without the face to make up for all that. So Shirley slept with Amar’s friend, and then left him after he was so foolish as to fall in love with her. And then she slept with the new fiancé her parents had found for her. And then with all three of them on alternating days and then only with the fiancé again until it was settled and he had won.

These days Amar sits on the floor and watches bad television and drinks whisky until the whisky comes out of his eyes and he asks why she doesn’t love him anymore. And I tell him that she’s an awful shrew and he’s better drunk and lonely and without her and have another Vat 69, sport. Watching a drunk man sob is an unpleasant but sometimes necessary task. But a blubbering drunk defending his tormentor isn’t something a man ought to witness. Both the cryer and the watcher will have to acknowledge it or ignore it the next day, and neither way is any good. The drunk can choose to forget, at least, or pretend that he has anyway.

So there’s no choice. I can either give the usual platitudes or give a hard smack followed by another glass. One has a duty to a drunk and broken friend, and duty is a simple, wonderful thing. It obliges without need to reflect or consider; nothing is easier for a man.

But none of that mattered. We were the table, and we were outside, and it was night. And the air was just beginning to turn to what passes for winter in New Delhi and it was neither warm nor cold. Our train was late and our dinner was long since finished, but we lingered over bottles of wine that would be regretted by all but Jeremy when the check arrived and we hoped in vain that he would take the bill.

He often did, for he liked being needed, as all of us do.

“We don’t want to miss the train.”

“There’s time for one more glass.”

“Yes. But quickly,” Jeremy ruled, “I hate to rush in the station.”

The train to Udaipur bears little mention. It was hot and it was crowded for a great many hours and then we were there. And moments later, we were gone, the road scarred Indica carrying us away from the urban desolation of the desert city, thronged with man and beast and horns and dust and shit, towards another altogether more empty desolation.

In India, things are false at first light. The falseness burns in the afternoon sun and is scoured with dust and sand but doesn’t change. It is only after nightfall that things become true. True not because anything has changed within them, but because you have worn yourself down. You have given so much time and effort to teasing the real from the false that both have lost their meaning. There is no more false; it has been overtaken by a truth born of nothing more than fatigue and acceptance. At night you know that everything is the way that it is and that how it is is how it ought to be.

Note: This is an extract from a longer work.

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Kerry Harwin has been living in India — Bombay, Calcutta, and Delhi — for almost four years. He works in an office during the day, plays music for drunk people in night clubs on the weekends, and occasionally writes on culture and lifestyle, travel, and energy policy in several outlets of little significance. The most pressing thing he would like to know about you is what song you’d like to listen to while you blast off into outer space, should you ever find yourself in a space shuttle. He would choose “Glass Dance” by The Faint.

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