Whilst travelling I’ve met many people from different backgrounds and walks of life. Travellers on a career break – sabbaticals and leavers, gap year students, holiday travellers, short term travellers, those trying to ‘find themselves’ (I hate that phrase), some who don’t know when they’ll return home (wherever in the world ‘home’ may be), and others who like me began their adventure with a full plan from start to finish, but who’ve now kicked that plan in the ass and have just been enjoying each day as it comes.
Two months ago, on one of the most beautiful beach islands in Cambodia I met a number of interesting people. One of those people was Chakradhar, or Chuck to me, you and everyone else he introduces himself to.
After hearing he’s a writer, I asked if I could read some of his work.
A group of us, half hungover to function and the other half recovering (from the previous nights antics at a local Cambodian wedding party) sat around and listened to the stories Chuck had been compiling from his travels… all in his iPhone notes.
I was in awe. Inspired by his imaginative and poetic style of writing. Quirky and fun one minute, deep and thoughtful the next. His words touched upon a rollercoaster of emotions.
I asked if I could share some of his writing here on my blog.
To Chuck, thank you for sharing a piece of your life with us all! It was great to meet you and I just hope you continue being the crazy outgoing man you are. If we ever do cross paths again, we’ll have some joss for old times sake.
For my readers, I’ll leave you with this short story.
The Brandy Man
I met a man on a night train sizzling through the Rajasthani desert. We shared a bottle of his cheap brandy. He was a ‘Mullu’ (from Kerela) they are famous for their drinking. Brandy in particular. And apparently for their debating.
I had a conversation with a decaying orbit with this ‘brandy man.’ It kind of ended with me ‘baring my teeth.’ Something I have not had the occasion nor slightest inclination to do in India. He immediately set upon me asking me question after question and I was giving him casual answers that i do here. Where I’m from, why I’m here, where I’ve been, where I will go. I’ve played this game, often. I’m happy to. My answers are by no means complete when i do this . . . They are but answers to questions that serve to, as best I can bridge a cultural and lifestyle divide in order to find common ground and share. To simply open conversation, and should it blossom, to gradually deepen the discussion of real motivations, desires … of life.
But I soon came to realise he was using my way of answering to methodically try to place me and my character in his own small conceptual box of someone ‘like’ me.
He began refuting my experiences, he would tell me where I should go, try to make me think I am missing too much. (As if 17 states in 3 months were grossly inadequate). He told me what I was meant to feel, how I should engage, things I ‘need’ to do, how I need to act. Questions I’ve foolishly not asked. His interrogation was not born out of an healthy curiosity or an attempted helpful hand. He knew what he was doing; accusing, taunting, belittling the ignorant Westerner. So I let him speak for a good long time, and deliver what clearly became a lecture from teacher to student. The sage wisdom that perhaps only a drunk refrigerator salesman from Kochi was capable of imparting. I could see he was enjoying his game.
When it eventually came to my turn to speak, I said as calmly as I could, ‘I am not quite like all the other people of which you speak. Of this I can assure you.’ Then slowly, then with rising momentum like the chugging night train itself, I unravelled all of his preconceptions of me and those he deemed ‘like’ me. I told him how off the mark his shallow characterisation was.
I told him that although now I was primarily a traveller, that I have lived so many varied lives within my own life and that I refuse to be pigeonholed. I have been the child of timid immigrants, the nervous doctor’s son, the jokey little brother, the cautious teenager, the polite waiter, the competent pizza man, the bored engineer, the lab technician, the gas checker, the labourer, the exchange student, the eternal academic, the partner, the partner, the partner, the partner, the grinding ambitious architect, the reluctant manager, the savvy Londoner, the life of the party, the prodigal son, the griever, the dreamer, the writer … Then as I was galloping along nimbly pulling out all these life touchstone references from the dusty chamber of my past to show him, I decided to play my Ace in this entire debate. I told him that I was actually the same age as him 44. His eyes widened a surprising glossy amber.
I proceeded to tell him the gaps in his entire way of arguing..I said, ‘I like to think that I am still evolving.’
Trying to regain the upper hand, he smugly replied, ‘i have upset you, I simply like to learn things about people.’
I was animated and tipsy on brandy, but I was never angry. I said, ‘I’ve been underestimated so many times in my life, and your type of assumptive closed book reasoning is a over simplified and frankly a boring approach to get to know someone.’ I said, ‘Have your conversations, even have opinions sir, but don’t disguise them as universal truths. It’s transparent. You are reading surfaces, perpetuating stereotypes.’
‘The Brandy Man’ recoiled, he was ever so surprised that I’d possessed the venom I’d shown. He went quiet for a minute. Then his eyes glossed amber again and he uttered the basic statement, (with a more notable Hindi accent and wilder head bobble than I had noticed all night.) ‘I am a simple Hindu family man, I live for the Gods and for my children.’ (Noticeably his wife was absent) I was unsurprised he resorted to these crutches, even though I believed they were probably true. But I knew he’d used those particular references because he thought I was ostensibly without these things in my life.
He showed me pictures of his children and he seemed visibly moved. I smiled and nodded approval. But of his statement, I did not, nor would not want to comment. Because i don’t know his life even to any marginal extent.
So again we fell silent and drank more brandy. I was thinking about what I had said to ‘the brandy man.’ Of the lives we lead within our own lives. The many hats we choose or chosen for us that we wear over time. And how sharing the story is difficult because your own life may seem this long gradient fade as you transitioned through it. But to others the shifting characters often seem incongruous to each other, mainly because you never tell the stories with proper chronological continuity and transitional detail. I was reminded of something the great American poet Walt Whitman said. ‘Do I contradict myself, very well then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.’
Then I watched as ‘the brandy man’ condescendingly ordered food from a passing by Biryani Walla. I was reminded of another quote. ‘Nobody puts Baby in the corner!’ from Dirty Dancing. . . Bitch!
He then tried to force me to eat chicken biryani despite my protestation. He insisted, as a father would to his son. He was once again trying to establish his dominance. Finally I said ‘I am a vegetarian.’ He asked dismissively, ‘Why do you have a need to be vegetarian, you are a Westerner.’ Exasperated, I explained to him that I, as my father before me, I am Telegu Brahmin and I do not eat meat. I pulled with my thumb my sacred Brahmin thread from under my shirt to show him. Yet again, mercifully he went quiet … another preconception shattered.
‘The brandy man’ ate while I finished the dregs of his brandy. He carefully prepared his bunk then bid me goodnight. He turned out the light as I sat facing him and in the dark he said one final thing, ‘Mr. Chakradhar Vittala, I have learned things from you tonight!’
I didn’t reply but I thought. All you have learned from me Mr ‘brandy man’ is how to sharpen your personality carving skills.
I laid back dizzy on brandy, sweaty, exhausted, on the cusp of sleep. I thought of my father. My father was a healer who carried himself with quiet grace. This man was a cunning salesman and a false profit. He made me much wish my father was there in that train car to advise me. Not on the nonsense of which we spoke on that evening. But on the open book that is becoming the second half of my life. The blank pages I stare at each passing day. I miss my father dearly. To think I will never again get to argue as a son does with his father, to show how he has grown into a thinking man, now capable on his own in the world. And to think that I will never walk away from that same conversation realising he always managed to impart some tiny barnacle of wisdom that I didn’t have before.
But he is gone now. . . He’s gone, but he remains. . .
The Brandy Man is the avatar of my ‘adversarial self’. For showing me the strength I hold in the self preservation part of myself, I am glad to have met him.
But happier still that he reminded me of yet another reason why I had undertaken this mad journey. Because I admired my father equally as much as I loved him.