The streets leading away from Juhu Beach, Mumbai are slender arteries off the main strip. I’m cruising down one of them in the passenger seat of a Corolla, one of the few contemporary cars on the road. Sheru is driving, one hand loosely gripping the wheel, the other casually resting on my splayed legs. His one-sided game of chicken has become serious, but I don’t move his hand away, yet.
One day prior, I am lost in Juhu, when I meet Sheru for the first time. His deep voice from behind me stops me in my tracks. “Sir, you are going the wrong way.” Hearing the disembodied advice, I instinctively put up barriers. In India, everyone is trying to get you to go their way.
I turn to face the voice, and find a tall, polo-shirted Indian with fair-skin eying me. He has a straight back, and his chest is thrust forward. He looks like he hates standing still.
Sheru is on a six mile walk to the Siddhivinayak Temple. I’ve heard of devout Hindus making this pilgrimage, and have been interested to walk it − Siddhivinayak is one of the most important Hindu temples in Mumbai. Having wandered around India for two months, it’s still unclear to me what makes a temple important. It seems like the more deities you can pack in the better, a one-stop Karma Mart for paying your respects. I ask Sheru if I can accompany him. “Yes, yes,” he jiggles his head hesitantly. As we start walking he checks his watch, and five minutes later does it again. He likes to walk fast, and it appears he wants to best his previous time.
We speed-walk down a twisting road, and I ask Sheru about his family. “My father, he was a Bollywood freedom fighter,” he proudly states. “He starred in 1000 Bollywood movies, and fought with Gandhi.” He picks up the pace. “My wife, she is great, but she does not understand me.” Sheru eyeballs his watch. “She is a slow walker,” he breathes, “but you are fast.” He grins and imitates my exaggerated speed waddle. I cajole myself into moving faster. For some reason I want to impress this man. It seems as if he appreciates people who can keep up with him, and we are now competing to see who can better the other’s pace.
We fly through a Muslim dominated area, a loud series of blocks devoted to Vodafone signs and windowless shops. Sheru glances around uneasily. “Pakistan, there is no doubt the food is good, but that is all. The people are miserable.” I’ve heard these judgments before − Indians denouncing Pakistan as a terrorist country. The wounds of the November terrorist attacks are still raw, though assuaged somewhat with the tough, diplomatic line the ruling Congress party has since maintained.
We finally get to the temple, and I regain my now breathless composure. Today is a Thursday, and there is only a smattering of devotees inside. On Tuesdays, the main day to worship, there are usually throngs, and it takes two hours just to get inside. I’m stopped by the front guard, who denies me passage; no cameras allowed. Sheru takes him aside, and seconds later, I am allowed in. Sheru winks as I stroll past the guard − his connections evidently providing an exception to the house rules. We enter together, and I thrust myself into the assembly line of worshippers pushing and pulling in a ring around the main idol. A Brahmin priest anoints me with a crimson tikka on my forehead and I quickly offer up my pre-paid gift of coconuts and flowers.
As we exit, I suggest that we celebrate our successful walk with dinner somewhere. He agrees, but has to check with his wife first. “I am out with a foreigner,” he announces into his cell, as if he is justifying a new lifestyle. We head to Goa Portuguesa, a restaurant near the trendy Bandra neighborhood. Sheru wolfs down his dinner, then looks at me, still hungry. “What are you doing tomorrow?” he asks. He offers to drive me around sightseeing. I can’t refuse the offer. Having access to a car in Mumbai is a luxury, but something about his tone makes me uneasy.
The next day as we drive down the clogged roads of Bandra to South Mumbai, Sheru is ranting again on Muslim-Hindu relations. “What kind of religion endorses keeping a goat as a pet, and then killing it?!” He gesticulates, while slapping my knee for good measure. “And the poor children, witnessing it all!” He slaps my leg again, but this time leaves his hand on my thigh. “Can you imagine slitting another animal’s throat?” Sheru has now calmly placed his entire hand on my groin.
I look down, ensuring this is no accident, and that he has not mistaken my lap for the gear-shaft. Sure enough his hand is starfished between my legs, unmoving. I immediately start to rationalize. Plenty of Indian men hold hands in public as acts of friendship, perhaps this is just an extreme example. I glance down again and Sheru’s hand is still there, stoic and steadfast. I shift my body-weight, and finally his hand recedes, returning to grip the wheel. I relax my rigid frame.
Five minutes later, his hand is back on my lap, this time making measured staccato movements. “My family, they are different than you.” Finger-tap. “If I invited you over I am afraid I would not know what to do with you.” Two-finger tap. “But my children, they would love you.” Four fingers. Thumb.
Ten surreal seconds pass. Sheru continues to ruminate on having me over to his house, while I sit contemplating whether to jump out into oncoming traffic. Finally Sheru relinquishes my personal space. I lock my arms at my sides, which seems to work. Sheru can’t get in, but he can posit certain points. “You look tired. Why don’t you just put your seat down and relax.”
At this point, I decide to end the tour early, and direct him back to my hotel.
Back at my guest-house, I call my Mumbai friends Lhotsie and Ashish at work, colleagues from my old job, and ask them if this is a part of Indian culture that I missed in the guidebooks. Peels of laughter negate my proposal. “No man, he’s obviously gay,” they exclaim. “But he has a wife and family,” I counter.
Sexual frustration, both gay and straight, is buried beneath the surface in India, but this is the first time I’ve encountered it firsthand. I could have sent Sheru packing at the first instance of pelvic pandering, but something about him made me stay, as if I was observing an animal in the wild that I had never before seen. Sheru has had an arranged marriage, and the concept of love is very different from Western thought. After an arranged match, love is expected to grow, a result of perseverance and hard work. It’s often believed Western-style passion only means disappointment when it most-assuredly ends.
I believe Sheru when he says he loves his wife, but it does feel like I’ve been on a couple of dates with a forty-year-old man. An arranged marriage can be green-lit after only two or three dates, and the parents usually attend the first encounter. If only Sheru’s mother or father had been with us in the car, we could have been on the road to holy matrimony.
A few days later, Sheru calls me on my Indian cell. He says “Hello, darling,” and asks me when I’m coming back to Juhu. I humor him for a couple of minutes, and tell him that I’m not interested. He laughs, and asks, “Not interested in what?” I smile to myself, and tell him I have to go. As I gently hang up, a rickshaw pulls up behind me. The driver madly gestures for me to step in, but I wave him away. This time I am walking, alone.