Jai is mad about his Pulsar. It’s a 180, a big bike to start with, but he’s put a decal on it that says 200, a perfect forgery of the factory sticker. He says people stop him in the street ask him about it, even take pictures. Standing in the dirt at the side of the road, waiting for the mechanic to install a new and louder muffler, he gestures at the busy main street.
“What’s the fastest you’ve ever driven on this road?”
The street is full of cars, trucks, cows, bikes, bicycles, pedestrians, oxcarts, everything. I tell him, well, the traffic moves at about 40 kilometers an hour.
“I’ve gone 87,” he grins. Then a grimace. “It’s not a good idea.” But you can see how he really feels about it.
Jai yells at the mechanic to hurry up, then turns back to me with his childish smile. He’s 18 and I don’t think he’s ever worked in his life. His father makes a good salary and his mother is sad all the time. Their house is a surprisingly empty apartment. Chairs and a sofa-bed thing in the living room, a desk and a bed and a wardrobe for each child. A big gleaming refrigerator, a polished dining-room table. But nothing on the walls. No knick-knacks, no debris and clutter.
“We’ve been here almost a month,” says Jai. “This is our temporary home. We’ll leave it when we go back to Punjab.” His father is involved in managing the construction of a new hydroelectric dam an hour or so away. He visits once or twice a week. They’ve been in Siliguri two years now. Temporary home.
The mother dotes. She speaks very little English and talks only through Jai. She promptly prepares a huge meal of briyani rice, daal, raitha, aloo gobi, and stuffed chipati served steaming. “My mother cooked all of this in ten minutes,” Jai beams, but I think it must have been the maid. I’m never introduced to the maid.
Mother apologizes, through Jai, on the plainness of the meal. She didn’t know I was coming, you see.
Jai’s sister is called Jaina. She is a beautiful, wispy, smiling 16 year old. I try really hard to avoid “what grade are you in?” and other such blandness but I have no idea what to talk about with a middle-class adolescent Indian girl. We end up talking about television, of course. It turns out she loves to watch Hannah Montanna on the Disney Channel.
“Do you have internet?” she asks seriously. I tell her I do.
“I love the internet,” she says. “I spend all day on it.”
“What do you do on it?”
“And you like TV, too? Hannah Montana?” ”
“What about books?”
“I don’t read books.”
Maybe the newly literate nations will skip paper entirely.
“I have to get to a pharmacy later,” I tell Jai as we finish lunch.
“Why, do you need medication?” And I end up explaining my heart transplant, the whole story. He turns around and translates this for Mother, who looks suddenly stricken. Like she’s about to cry.
“Is she all right?” I ask Jai.
“She’s just thinking what a hard life you’ve had.”
I explain that actually, it changes one’s perspective to have a new life in that way, but mother is still near tears. She often seems near tears, as when we discuss Jai leaving home to go to university. Though actually, the plan is that the family will follow him wherever he studies.
Her husband earns the money. The maid does the housework. She does not seem like a happy woman.
I ask Jai how to eat the daal – with a spoon? Or pour it over the rice?
“Sure, you can both, with a spoon or on the rice. Have you seen the people in South India eating with their hands? Just scooping it up?” Jai mimes shoveling food into his mouth.
I spent two months in Tamil Nadu. I’ve seen plenty of Indians eating with their hands, there and elsewhere.
“It’s disgusting,” he says. Mashing it all around on the plate, and your fingers get all sticky…” He gestures wildly, makes a face.
After lunch, Jai jumps up from the table with teenage energy. “Maybe I’ll have a drink from my can,” he says, and sure enough the container he retrieves from the fridge is labeled “Pepsi My Can”. It freaks me out a little to hear him call it that, to say the slogan out loud without irony.
And then Jai takes me back to my guesthouse. I hang on to the back of his Pulsar, tense, as he talks about being a rebel, about finding his own way. He takes a tight low U-turn and rides against oncoming traffic for for half a block. “I need to do something wrong before I can digest my meal,” he yells back over the slipstream — no helmets. (“It’s normal for India.”)
I ask him what he wants out of life.
“Happiness is more important than wealth. Happiness is everything,” he tells me over the wind. Like he rehearsed it. He’s going to study business administration.
“Is that what you wanted to study?” I yell into his ear, over the stench of diesel and cow shit and the screech of poorly muffled trucks.
“Yes!” he yells back. “My parents wanted a BComm, but I chose BBa.”
“So what do you like doing? What do you actually want to do with your life?”
He thinks about it for a minute as we dodge cows. Then: “The trouble with Indians is they don’t spend. They make all this money and don’t do anything with it. You have this super rich guy and he drives a basic car, lives in a little house. If I had money, I would spend it.”