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How I made friends with the Indian Mafia

FEBRUARY 3, 2000

People, other travelers, often ask me where I'm going, where I've been. "What's good to see there?" they say. I have to explain that although there maybe a fort (always) or a palace on a lake (usually) I go for the people. This always leads to an onslaught of stories about this con man and that tout—the people who go hand in hand with tourist places.

For the first month of traveling I did a good job of avoiding the con men and touts. I met some locals and was lucky enough to have a few of them invite me into their homes to eat their food and discuss our cultures. In Nepal I stayed in a small village with a Newar family, helped them make rice and vegetables and kill a duck. In India too, I stayed with an Indian widower, helped him make chipati and vegetables. (No duck.) They each gave me a glimpse into the kitchens of their countries.

So, when my bus pulled into Jaipur, in the Rajasthan state of India I came bouncing down the stairs ready to trust everyone. Half an hour later I was locking the door to my room in a hotel that catered solely to women travelers, a fact I found out by observation not inquiry. At first I was thrilled when my taxi-rickshaw driver told me that several Indian fellows were staying in the hotel. But then he proceeded to explain that they each had a foreign "wife" of their own.

"Ashok has a French lady pregnant!" he hissed through smiling teeth before yelling, "Bye!" As if I was supposed to jump up and down, clap my hands and shout, "Goodie!"

So, oh crap was what I was thinking as I came out into the patio and sat down at the table where one of the five guys had pulled out a chair. 30 seconds into the conversation and they had decided that I would teach English at the nearby school and live in the hotel. Ashok, of course, would first show me the town.

I said thank you and told them I was going out to find a guidebook and stretch my legs. I didn't make 100 yards before a scooter zoomed up, Ashok and his friend asking to give me a lift. I said I wasn't done stretching my legs and continued. 100 yards later another Indian, one I hadn't met yet, saddled up beside me.

"Why do all Europeans hate Indians?" he spit out the words at the same hurried pace he was walking. I was trapped. I didn't have the patience to deal with this kid but the culture-sensitive button in my chest told me to defend myself.

I am not European. I thought. "People get very tired of being approached every five seconds." I said. " It gets old. Don't take it too personally. Good bye." A minute later I was sitting, having a cup of tea, listening to him tell me about his German girlfriend. How do they do that? I thought as I scrawled my address on a piece of paper and politely excused myself saying how I really must get to the bookstore before it closed. I didn't have a map or any information on the town and the bookstore was far away. "It closes in a half an hour. Let me take you there on my scooter."

I had avoided one scooter only to take another.

Stretching your legs in Jaipur means re-crossing them while you sit and sip your tea.

At the bookstore I waved goodbye to my friend with a promise to meet him the next morning for breakfast and a visit to his art studio. I breathed and walked into the store. Inside I found what I was looking for—a brand new 2000 all-India guidebook. But I frowned when I turned it over to see that it cost 20 dollars US. In a place where a night at a hotel, dinner and desert comes close to 3 dollars I couldn't justify buying the book; besides, the thing weighed half a ton. Might as well just put a brick in my pack, at least that would be free. I walked out of the shop into the failing Indian day.

Before my eyes adjusted to the light, someone coughed behind me; I turned to see what they wanted. This is how I met Johnny. His actual name is Revi, which is probably short for something else, and he told me his uncle had some used guidebooks at his jewelry shop up the road.

That evening after meeting Johnny's uncle and "brothers"—I'm beginning to think that all Indians have at least ten brothers—we, he and I, went out to get a drink. At a corner diner we sat and talked. After all the introductory questions: Where are you from? Where are you going? How long will you stay here? Are you married? What do you do? Johnny asked me where I was staying.

"The Wahna Hotel." No hint of recognition passed his face. I swung an arm out towards the street. "That way."

Johnny looked at me and said, "Vah bodmash admi hai. There they are bad men." Well, I knew they weren't the city's pride but I didn't think my life was in serious danger.

"Is it okay? I mean, should I stay there?" I asked, trying to be as calm as any hysterical woman fearing for her own bodily safety can be.

Johnny dropped me off just outside the gates to my hotel not wanting the fellows inside to see whom I was with. He told me that he'd pick me up at ten the next morning and told me not to speak with any one. "Just go to bed. Walk in and straight to bed."

I did just that.

In the morning hour of eight, eyes barely open, there was a knock on my door. I ignored it. Five seconds later: knock. Silence. Five more seconds: knock. So I threw on some clothes and threw open the door. "Hello friend!" It was the I-have-a-German-girlfriend boy, Kuldeep. I forgot I was supposed to have breakfast with his family. "Kuldeep I'm sorry. I can't come to breakfast I have other plans." Then, before Kuldeep could make a peep, a voice came from out of the patio shadows. "If an Indian invites you to their home you should go." This was from the impregnator Ashok. My already tight shoulder blades hitched up another inch and I went with Kuldeep.

I walked down the road with a promise to return right at ten and one thought: Damn, how do they do that? But I did want to go to breakfast, Ashok was right, I shouldn't turn away invitations. Besides, having a meal in someone's home was a sure sign of friendship. At the steps to Kuldeep's house I had loosened up some. Up the stairs and into a tiny bedroom I went. "Sit. Sit." I sat. Looking at my watch I had just under ten minutes till I had to meet Johnny. "I really am sorry I can't stay long Kuldeep. Where's your mother I'll explain to her." Upon which I discovered that Kuldeep's mother was out in the market "buying the breakfast things. She'll be back in twenty minutes. No problem. You wait. We can go see my paintings. No problem."

This seems to be one of the most popular sayings: No problem. You go into the post office and ask for stamps: "No problem! No stamps!" Or, asking about hot water, electricity: "No problem! No power! None!" It's as if the "No" and the "Problem" were joined together as a way of buffering the effect of the rejection that was coming. "You want ticket? Noproblem. No ticket. You come tomorrow. Noproblem."

With this I up and plodded down the steps, back to my hotel. Through a series of tests and trials I had narrowed my friendship down from Ashok, who never had a chance; to Kuldeep, who blew it with a bad lie; to Johnny, who, so far, was in the clear and was also waiting in front of the hotel.

If one day can feel like 1,000 this day was it. By the time noon made its appearance I had seen two temples, one palace, had seven cups of tea, met another uncle and seen the jewelry factory. I was on my eighth cup of chai when Johnny asked if I wanted to go to his home for lunch. "Okay." He hadn't screwed up yet. But this time, instead of walking up the street to the house, Johnny led me to a car and said his home was just on the outskirts of town.

"What? You don't trust me?" Johnny whined as I crossed my arms and bit the side of my cheek. You can't even trust the cows in this country and you want me to hop into your car? "It's not about trust." I said feigning deep-thought. I should tell him I'm married, I'm engaged, I have a fatal, contagious disease. "Have I done anything wrong...yet?" And it was the way he paused before "yet" that pricked up the hair on my neck. But he continued, "You said we are friends, we are friends. Only friends. NOPROBLEM. Chello. Let's go."

And for a second I remembered a conversation with a professor of mine in college about the two opposing Greek terms, Libidos and Thanatos, the life force and the death force, each as strong as the other. I must be trying to kill myself, I thought as I opened the door and got in. "Okay, I'll go but you have to promise me you won't drive me out to some deserted place and strangle me."

The drive took twenty minutes. Johnny's house was in the west, suburban side of the city. His mother and father were sitting on the roof. I exhaled. After introducing myself I went to the kitchen with Mamaji, Johnny's mother, to watch lunch cook. I relaxed in the chopping and frying of the vegetables. From Johnny's home we went to a textile warehouse so Johnny could pick up a suit he was having made for a friend's wedding.

"You should come to the wedding with me. Lot's of Indians in a small village. A weekend of culture." The knots returned to my shoulders. "It would be fun. You could borrow my sister's sari. There will be dancing." We were now sitting inside the warehouse and the tailor was telling Johnny his suit wouldn't be ready until tomorrow. I didn't make any comment about the wedding. Johnny tried another tactic and told the tailor to pull out some saris, the traditional Indian dress, for me to try on.

I love all this cultural stuff, I thought as I draped some silk around my head. This sari is beautiful. All my stress lost in the weaving and stitching of the cloth.

The lights in the warehouse were dim and if you squinted some I could have almost been Indian. The sari was brown with pink and gray stripes, a gold border. Indian women know how to dress. The more colors you have on your body the better, so even someone as inept as I at putting outfits together can do well.

"If you marry me you can have any sari you see. Anyone you want." Said Johnny as he pulled on his cigarette and we walked out of the warehouse. The knots returned. I explained one more time that we were only friends, "I didn't come to India to find a husband." Maybe this was the wrong way to phrase it because Johnny just smiled.

We got into the car. Johnny sped off towards the office. It was 6pm. With my eyes barely open (I tend to fall into deep sleeps when overly stressed) we sat down on the quilted cement of the fourth floor room amongst ten or twelve other Indians, all of whom I'd met throughout the day. My head nodded from one side to the other while different fellows told me of wonderful riches to be made by buying this or that stone, bringing them home and re-selling them there.

"The star ruby is the gem of India. If you do this 15 day purifying technique you will have good luck for the rest of your life."

"Jade stone is the stone of power, of success. It will bring you fortune but can also ruin you."

"For only 1,800$ US you can buy some of these jewels and make double when you return home." And Johnny put his hand on my knee.

Later that night as I said goodbye to Johnny, waving as I sprinted out of and away from his car, I tried to pull the friendship apart from the business deal that was being formed. The whole day was one big set up. Every comment and action was a measuring up of my net worth. But still, in a separated sense, the people I met that day seemed genuine (in a semi-precious sort of way). So, fully aware that I was a walking dollar bill in their eyes, I yelled to Johnny that I'd see him tomorrow.

Making friends with an Indian is easy it's staying friends that's difficult here in Jaipur. I had no clue that closing the car door that night would lead to a marriage proposal, a forced business deal and fleeing the city. When I rubbed my eyes awake the next day and looked up at the ceiling of my room, a funny buzz, more like a grip on my chest than actual buzzing, started on the left side of my body. I'm having a heart attack, I thought. I breathed in. Out. I'm not having a heart attack. But where the hell am I? This is a common emotion to have when you're sleeping in a different city every week, it was the stress of the following day which had intensified this feeling to the point where all I wanted to do was sit and digest it for a day or two.

Knock. Knock.

Go away. "Yes?"

Johnny, bent over at the waist, was staring through the keyhole at me. (Only after I jumped ship out of Jaipur did I realize that this slow, constant pressure was part of the scam; they were trying to make a diamond out of me.) So, looking quite un-gem-like, I dressed and packed before Johnny and I went out past the patio gang. I checked out of the wifely Wahna hotel, and Johnny took me to another guest house that another "buyer" had recommended.

A short ten-minute ride out of town was a palace of a place belonging to a German man named Franz. Franz had come to India years before to find himself. What he discovered was Roy. More importantly, Roy discovered Franz, brought him to his suburban flat in Delhi and a year later said goodbye to Franz and his newly married daughter. Franz and his bride are now in Germany but Roy remains as the manager of a no-named, un-advertised guesthouse. And he was not happy with my Indian friend Johnny. As soon as Johnny drove off on his scooter Roy started telling me about the "Mafia".

This type of Mafia is common throughout India where there are tourists and goods to sell. These businesses pop up with lavishly decorated offices and showrooms. A group of three of four head men will have anywhere from ten to twelve, like my Mafia, to thirty or forty underlings, "nephews", working for them. Each man gets a percentage of the sale depending on his involvement in the deal. I had no intention of buying and after they figured that out I was left with three of the fifteen or so fellows I had initially met. I was now being courted as a potential wife rather than a potential business partner.

A few days went by where Johnny would pick me up and we'd spend the day seeing the town and hanging out at the office. At night he'd ask to take me to dinner and I'd either develop a stomachache or have promised Roy I'd eat with him. On the morning of my fifth day in Jaipur Johnny told me I had to have dinner with him. "I want to ask you something only at dinner." My neck now was so tense that I was afraid my shoulders would permanently stick to my ears. I told Johnny to take me to the guesthouse and call around 5 PM. I had less than three hours to book a ticket out of town.

I told Roy to tell Johnny that I had left for the weekend—it was a Tuesday— and I grabbed the 3 PM bus out of Jaipur.

Now, I know that Johnny didn't propose marriage but I feel certain that something along those lines was waiting for me at the dinner table. My business deal developed after Roy made me promise to tell everyone I met going to Jaipur about his guesthouse in-turn for his help lying to Johnny. (Roy preferred to call it "not telling the truth" as opposed to lying.) And, I did indeed flee the city.

So now I too have my con man of India story. I can't say for sure that I was a target, picked out of the tourist masses for monetary gain. All I have to go on are strong inclinations, two very tight shoulders and the fact that everyone I met that first day did in fact know each other—Johnny had told me while heading to Roy's one afternoon that the bodmoshes at my initial guesthouse had called him and told of my guidebook desire. So, for my Mafia friends, I know I wasn't exactly fair. If their intentions were nothing but good then they must be very frustrated. But they didn’t quite fit their stories either; there were too many holes and they were too easy to see through. Of course, much of me feels guilty because I have no solid evidence to condemn them with. Then again, maybe it's better I don't.

-Sarah Reed Bargren
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