Deb Markanton: Nevetsized
by C. N. Nevets, (c) 2010
The air in Delhi was thick and clingy. Every breath was layered with the deep history of a place that embraced the incense and spices of its ancient roots as fondly as it did the exhaust fumes and cigarettes of its leading edge. Rich colors and a chaos of motion and activity poured into my eyes as relentlessly as the grind of traffic and roar of the crowd cascaded against my ears.
I was energized by the life of it all, but smothered by its mass. All that energy had nowhere to go except into my blood and into my bones. I was jumping inside my own feet and I could swear my veins were twitching. My eyes couldn’t sit still. I felt like I needed to run – but only so that I could curl up somewhere and catch my breath.
Neither option was truly available to me.
“Tell me again why we’re queuing up for the abattoir?”
“Beads.” My boss sounded as agitated as I was. “They said there were beads here.”
Chadni Chowk. They’d called it an old marketplace. They’d said it was full of history and culture. They’d told us it was the only way to really experience Old Delhi. They hadn’t said that it was about three-million people and fifty-thousand shops and stalls crammed into a maze the size of an elementary school gymnasium.
“This is India.” A baba ji’s arm brushed mine and I jumped. I turned to apologize, but the old man had moved on. I completed my thought through the corner of my mouth – “There are beads everywhere in India.”
“I want nice beads.”
Four shops. Four dozen shops. I had lost count. None of them so far had offered beads that my boss found acceptable at a price he found acceptable. The shops were tiny. There was no room for casual browsing or hanging on, so I waited outside. Feeling the air, breathing in the people, being crushed by culture.
No beads. Time to move on.
We were guided through the crowd by one of our Indian production agents. As long as he kept going, we kept going. Where he moved, we moved.
I noticed that someone else moved on, too. Not surprising, except that I thought I had seen him earlier. A young man, holding something. Half the people here were holding something, but he wasn’t selling anything, and he wasn’t buying. He’d stopped at a shop but not gone in. And then he had moved on when we had.
The young man stopped, too. Nearby again. He did not sell. He did not buy. He was not specifically looking at me, but there was no denying that he kept glancing in my direction.
No beads. Next.
The shops were mostly not that far apart, but it took several minutes to jostle through the people, all jammed into the narrow alley. Everyone seemed to be going in a different direction. Everyone except the young man, who was once again, going in the same direction as us.
Once again, he stopped when we did for no apparent reason.
I tried to get a look at him. Peering through the crowd, I bobbed and weaved, searching for an angle that might let me see what he was holding. Before I found such an angle, a clutch of women pushed past, knocking me back. By the time I’d composed myself, it was time to resume travel.
“Someone’s gotta have decent beads.”
This time the only the place the young man could stop was a little stoop that put him just high enough that I could see what he held. A round, woven basket, capped by a woven lid. It might have held anything. Vegetables he had brought to sell, or had bought at an earlier stop. The basket was no help.
Neither was the shop. No beads. The search continued.
The next store was further along, but we did not lose the young man. I was convinced that he was deliberately trailing us. He was making no effort to hide. Indeed, over the next few stops he seemed to want my attention. He did nothing specifically to grab it, but when I looked at him, it seemed that he was waiting for eye contact.
I refused to hold it. Every time, my eyes slid down to his basket, wondering what he was up to.
A handful of shops and no beads later, I was standing opposite a stall where a man sat with a woven basket like the one the young man carried. Across his lap lay a pungi flute. A snake-charmer.
“Who cares?” I snapped.
I took a deep breath. “Sorry. I’m cracking under the pressure.”
Pressure? he asks as if he can’t feel the city pulling him apart and pressing him in at the same time. As if he can’t tell we’re being followed. As if we were not across from a man with a flute on his lap and a snake in a basket.
A basket an awful lot like the one the young man carried.
Pressure was irrelevant. We had asked the agent to lead us to beads, and the agent was going to do so, and would not quit until he had. On to the next shop.
The young man followed. With the basket.
I don’t know why I didn’t see it earlier. The way he held it. The shape of it.
Black, coiled evil.
But of course we couldn’t stop.
We could only move on. And the young man slithered after us.
I was sure I could hear its hiss.
I reached out to grab something for balance, and pricked my finger. A splinter had never felt so much like a fang.
“Sorry, Deb, no beads here, but Raj says the next shop always has great beads and is always willing to make a deal.”
The young man followed, slipping through the cracks in the crowed until he drew close.
I grabbed the agent’s arm, and the young man instantly stepped backward. I gestured at the basket with my elbow and asked, as quietly as I could, “Is that basket what I think it is?”
“That would depend on what you think it is, Miss Deb.”
All the sensory overload was being translated into the sensation that serpents were writhing all over my body. I shivered and squirmed where I stood. “I think it’s full of snakes.”
“It very likely contains one cobra, exactly and approximately.”
I backed away, tried to duck behind some of the crowd, and slipped as quickly as possible into the dark corner between two stalls. I had to hide.
I could hear my boss. “No beads after all, Deb. Time to move on.”
But there he was. The young man.
Right in front of me.
Holding the basket – moving the basket towards me – pressing the basket against my chest.
There was no place to go. My sanctuary was a trap.
There was a snake in there. I could tell. I could feel it.
“Deb? Did you find some beads?”
The young man began lifting the lid. “A present from a man you once said you loved.”
The cobra rose up swiftly, holding its hooded head proudly erect. Its little black eyes seemed to stare into mine. Its mouth slowly drew open. Fangs. Tongue. Throat.
I felt a sudden, stabbing pain deep underneath my breastbone. A fiery hand squeezed inside and twisted, its flames licking up inside my shoulder, down my left arm. My jaw felt as if it were going to crack in half.
The cobra was gone. The basket was gone. The young man was nowhere to be seen.
It was just me, three million other people, and fifty-thousand stores, all crammed into an elementary school gymnasium with no beads.
I slumped to the ground, and left myself collapse onto my left side. I called out. I cried out as loudly as I could. I didn’t have much strength left. But my voice joined the chorus of Old Delhi, adding another pitch to the voices which cascaded through the alleys.
I drowned in the rich the colors of the marketplace until they all faded to grey.
And all that was left was the air. Thick. And clingy.