Hello, Nice to Destroy You
December 23, 1964
Pamban Island, India
It was eleven p.m. on the last train to Dhanushkodi. For the past twenty hours, I had done everything but sleep during the long ride, despite spending most of what was left of my money on a compartment of my own. My mind refused the luxury so long as I kept sweating.
The tiny, wall-mounted fan had stopped working five minutes after I switched it on. A porter told me they were unable to fix it and all other cabins were occupied. The crowded third- and second-class cars would be even worse, so I accepted the sticky discomfort. While I appreciated the solitude, one could only play so much solitaire and I sincerely couldn’t stomach a fourth reading of On the Road. Dean Moriarty was starting to piss me off. If he was here, I would have shoved him out the window and into the angry waters of the Palk Strait.
A clap of thunder rattled the cabin and every screw and bolt inside, setting each hair on my body at attention.
I was glad the black night obscured the sea through the window. I imagined waves pushing up against the narrow bridge like a mass of soldiers trying to come over the top of a castle wall. The Pamban bridge between mainland India and the island was only a little over a mile long, but I lacked faith that this clacking, hulking chain of steel would stay on the straight and narrow.
In my reflection, I could sort of make out the heavy bags beneath my eyes. Thoughts of Christmas dinner seemed drawn to me like the mosquitoes had in Madras–I saw steam rising from the bowl of mashed potatoes, the candied yams blanketed in gooey marshmallows, and a buttery-brown turkey sitting in the middle of it all.
I rolled a tiny, bland ball of rice around in my hands.
I might just sleep through Christmas day this year. Curl up on the beach and let the rain and saltwater wash my troubles away. Maybe 1965 would be better for everyone. Maybe I would find myself back in Sacramento next December, sitting around a tree wrapped in shiny silver tinsel and red-and-green lights, drinking eggnog with my parents and sisters, discussing everything but what I’d experienced these past six months. I was positive they would be relieved that I’d finally ‘found myself’ and decided to come back home.
At least, maybe they would.
I leaned my head against the window and listened to the raindrops bomb the nasty film of soot left by the steam engine.
I must have finally nodded off as I was shaken awake by the squealing brakes. My ball of rice was on the floor. The train came to a lurching stop at the final station in Rameswaram before heading south to Dhanushkodi.
I had visions of securing a nice hotel room with a soft bed and hot chai, but I knew my remaining budget didn’t portend much more than a mud and palm-leaf hut. The plan was to take the ferry to Ceylon tomorrow, but I began to wonder if I should bother. Mud and palm-leaves embodied everything about why I had come, right? To get away from all those material possessions and comforts? Find truth?
I slid the window open for relief, quickly realizing I wouldn’t find it there. It was just as hot and humid outside, but with a strong smell of briny seawater. Large squalls whipped around and beneath the train, composing an odd whistling music while also shooting rain into the cabin. As I wrestled the window shut, the door behind me squealed opened.
Sporting a trendy red Hawaiian shirt with white orchids and equally-white pants, a tall, thin man ducked to enter the compartment, removing his vanilla-brown fedora in the process. His head was shaped like an almond and was as smooth as a baby’s bottom from crown to chin.
“The fan doesn’t work,” I said.
He smiled close-mouthed for several seconds before answering. “That’s fine. I rather enjoy the heat.”
An American accent. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d heard one. His voice was sonorous, able to carry over the pulsating rain which seemed to increase its tempo after he came in.
My disappointment at his answer must have been obvious across my tired face.
“Though, I promise I maintain good hygiene,” he followed up.
That seemed to be true. I couldn’t smell him at all, in fact, though I worried that said more about my body odor than his.
I expected him to bring his luggage in from behind, but he simply turned around and shut the door. He had nothing on his person. Not even a briefcase or knapsack.
The cabin had an upper and lower bed and he extended a spindly hand toward the open space on the bottom bunk next to me.
“Do you mind? It’s difficult to sleep in this weather,” he said.
“No.” It could have been a comfortable seventy-six degrees Fahrenheit and I would still be wide awake. Traveling the subcontinent taught me to be wary of strangers within arm’s reach, no matter where they came from.
The bunk shifted slightly as he squatted onto the mattress. “Besides, we shouldn’t be long now.”
It was true. Dhanushkodi was another thirty minutes south. I said nothing, only scooting as close to the opposite edge as possible, which turned out to be a precious few inches. I had second thoughts of pulling out Kerouac’s book as a way of sending a signal.
The man stretched his legs out and reached for his toes, taking several deep breaths. Then he stuck a hand into his pocket. Out came a piece of brown, folded cloth. He opened it up and held it in front of me. There were four or five pieces of yellow, sugar-coated candy.
“No,” I said. “Thank you.”
He didn’t seem to respond other than to take one and shove it in his mouth, wrapping the cloth up and putting it back in his pocket. Even over the ambient noise and the ever-increasing pounding rain, I could hear him sucking through closed lips.
“They’re my favorite, though not exactly healthful.” He leaned in close. “But life is short.”
The scent of sweet citrus stirred my stomach. He was obviously looking for conversation and it would take more effort to fend him off for the next half-hour than it would to just let him talk.
“How long have you been here?” I asked.
It seemed an obvious question to me, but I said, “India.”
“Only a day. It’s been a long time since I’ve been out this way.” He looked through the window as if he could actually see the landscape. From the hallway, a pair of men spoke rapidly in Tamil, none of which I understood, but the bubbling speech pattern was a dead giveaway.
We both fell forward slightly as the train jerked away from Rameswaram Station.
“I’ve only just arrived in town this morning,” he said. “To visit Cain and Abel’s grave. Have you been there yet?”
“The graves. You know. Adam and Eve? Cain and Abel? East of Eden and all that.” He said it with a wink.
I remembered reading something in one of the guidebooks I’d abandoned. Local legend and likely source of income for whatever group of charlatans maintained the ‘tombs.’ It was said that when Adam and Eve were exiled from the Garden, they went east to Ceylon.
“They’re really in bad shape these days. Maintained by a Muslim named Abdul Momit. Nice man. The Muslims refer to them as Habil and Qabil. I hope the boys are resting well.”
He said it as if he truly wished it.
“Quite a thing, really. The first murder. Can you imagine?”
I no longer had to imagine much since beginning my sojourn. I’d seen the world’s dirty work–mainly poverty beyond that which I thought possible. Only blocks from the ornate temples and expensive hotels were groups of emaciated children playing in their own excrement while their parents reached out with filthy hands. Hands that, when not begging, were stealing.
“Out, out, brief candle.” the man whispered.
I shifted in my seat and he chuckled, seemingly at my discomfort.
“So, tell me, did you find it?”
“Enlightenment. The meaning of it all.”
I paused and before I could answer, he said, “That’s why young Americans come to a place like this, right? Hoping to find something that makes sense in a place as far from home as possible? By the weariness on your face, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you at this point that what you’re looking for isn’t hiding under a bodhi tree or a crumbling temple in Ceylon.”
“Seems like you have all the answers,” I said, feeling indignant that the man had me pegged so well. As if I had no say in my life. That decisions I had made were practically scripted.
“I have a few, but not all. Believe me, young man, you don’t want all the answers.”
“You sound just like the gurus you make light of. What is that supposed to mean?”
“Exactly what I said.” His emerald-green eyes paused on mine for what seemed an eternity and I struggled to look away. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Why stop now?”
“Do you think that if you were to live forever, you would be a good person?”
I had a sudden flash of regret at not having paid attention in Sunday school or having not taken the time to read Nietzsche instead of just carrying him around from coffee house to coffee house. Maybe then I could have put this arrogant man in his place.
“That eventually, having done every wicked thing the blood in your body lusts after, you would grow tired of it and find yourself becoming righteous? I wonder if that’s God. That he or she is just someone who never died and got tired of being evil.”
“Then why is there still evil?”
“Perhaps God’s not the only one who never died. He or she is just the oldest.”
As if I was in a motion picture, a crash of thunder shook the cabin at the end of his sentence. With all of this deep talk, I felt the need to come up for air, so I excused myself and headed for the dining car.
Besides a young Indian girl sitting in the lap of a young Indian boy, his arms wrapped around her while he whispered into her ear and she smiled, I was alone in the dining car. The lights above occasionally flickered as I took a seat at the furthest table from them. The sounds of the rain echoed far more loudly here than they had in my cabin.
The waiter’s hand trembled and hot drops spilled onto the white tablecloth.
“So sorry, sir.” He pulled a napkin from his pocket and began to sop up the stains.
“It’s fine,” I said.
“It is the storm,” he said. “We have monsoon rains here all the time, but this one–it bothers me.”
I knew what he meant. As soon as I was close to putting a finger on the exact feeling, it seemed to skitter away into the shunning darkness. I suppose I could have tried to soothe him with a ‘Don’t worry about it,’ or an ‘I’m sure it will all be fine,’ but what could this American say to someone who had far more experience in this part of the world?
He was about to leave me to my chai when I grabbed his wrist.
“Something else, sir?”
“What do you think of people like me coming here?”
His eyes narrowed. “How do you mean, sir?” I noticed his polished teeth and clean fingernails.
I had only a sip before both the cup and waiter crashed onto the floor when the train screeched to a halt.
The waiter was gone the blink of an eye, leaving only myself and the lovebirds. The boy helped pick his lover from the ground and I looked out the window to try and see where we were. I didn’t think we were at the station yet, but it was impossible to tell through the murk. At a standstill now, the winds seemed to be ten times as strong. The entire car was rocking side to side like a giant cradle.
I thought it best to return to my cabin in case we needed to disembark.
The sleeping car was adjacent to the dining area. As soon as I stepped out onto the vestibule, the screeching sounds of twisting metal vibrated harshly in my ears and maintaining my balance on the swaying floor took a feat of magnificent concentration. Stinging sweat, a combination of humidity and fear, poured into my eyes and it took me several tries to pull open the car door.
When I finally made it to my compartment, my seatmate was still awake, swaying with that same sideways motion while looking at his ticket.
He repeated the number over and over until I interrupted him.
“I think we need to get ready to go,” I said. “They stopped the train.”
He shook his head but didn’t look at me. “No significance whatsoever.”
“Significance of what?” As I pulled my suitcase out from under the bottom seat, I wondered why I asked. I wanted to do nothing but get off the train and away from him. The rain seemed almost threatening now, ready to burst through the window.
“It’s just…” He smiled at me. “I always try to find some thing. A bit of meaning. Why I do this. When I’ll stop. But it’s never there.”
I was scared, I was tired, and I was hungry. I didn’t care to solve any riddles at the moment.
“There’s no need to rush,” he said. Just then a pair of agitated porters ran into each other in the hall behind me and engaged in a heated conversation. My Tamil was limited to a few phrases, but I could tell by the rapid speech and tone in their voice that something was wrong.
My new friend continued, “I’m sure you’re tired of my questions, but I enjoy learning about people. Tell me, why did you choose Dhanushkodi tonight?” His voice was irritatingly calm.
I pretended he wasn’t there. “What’s going on?” I yelled at the two porters over the pounding rain. They ignored me before running off in the direction of the engine.
I turned back to the man and his eyes were closed, his hands on his lap as if in meditation.
“Why tonight?” he asked, almost to himself. “Why this time, on this day, in this part of the world? Why you? Why not one of your sisters, Bernice, or Carolyn? Why the young lovers on their honeymoon?” He opened his eyes and a flash of lightning lit up the window. For a brief moment, I saw palm trees whipping back and forth like twigs.
“Why are you here?” he finished.
“I don’t know!” I said, only realizing after that I had never once mentioned my family. My nerves were on edge. I felt entirely frantic.
“I know,” he replied quietly. “I know.”
He reached a hand out as if to shake. “It was nice to meet you. Perhaps, one day, we’ll both become different people.”
Just then, the lights went out in the cabin and there was a low rumble originating from outside.
Knocked off my feet, I flew backward through the open door of the cabin, slamming against the inside of the carriage wall. Pieces of debris crashed down on top of me. Something careened into my head and I went to sleep.