If this were a movie it would start with me chasing a 10-year-old boy through the backstreets of Jaipur, trying to take money off him. He hadn’t stolen it from me, it was his money, but I thundered after him in hot pursuit, my big stupid shorts flapping around my knees, sweat flying from my brow like foam from a rabid dog.
‘Come back here!’ I yelled, but he didn’t.
We barrelled down crowded alleyways, splashed through streams of suspicious liquids, weaved between guys carrying heaps of cloth and bicycle wheels, women balancing piles of chapattis, old men with sewing machines strapped to their backs, young men on mopeds encased in Tupperware. He had a low centre of gravity and he was on home turf; I was never going to catch him.
An hour earlier I’d been standing in the main street of Jaipur, repeatedly peeling my shirt from my sweaty skin, watching my film crew shoot an insert on a traffic island. The scooters and tuk-tuks poured by on either side like metal rivers. Until you’ve been to India you have no idea how many people there are on Earth. It feels as though everyone who has ever lived is on the street with you, all doing something mysterious but vitally important. Everyone is mending or hammering or cooking or bending or tweezing or snipping. It’s a three-ring circus of industry and enterprise, like one of those panoramic children’s picture books you could spend hours poring over and see something new every time you looked.
A kid approached me with a ratty old tennis ball. He had sandals made of rope and a T-shirt with Thor on the front, and we played ball a while. Every time it bounced into the road the kid would run headlong after it and I’d yell and shut my eyes but the vehicles just parted around him as though he were a half-pint Moses in a metallic Red Sea.
It was too hot to play for long, but we had fun and he showed me a trick involving a bottle cap that I practise every morning but still haven’t mastered. Rahul, our local fixer, was watching us. Rahul always fretted that we’d be pickpocketed or harassed, so I waved to him to tell him it was all okay. The guys were wrapping up so I turned to my new friend and gravely shook his hand and thanked him for his company. He grinned and wondered if I might have a dollar to spare.
The kid looked hungry, and I’d taken up a good chunk of his time so I thought that was fair, but the smallest note I had was a $10 bill. I hesitated, but then I thought, ‘Don’t be a cheapskate.’ Feeling mighty benevolent, I handed it over.
I strolled towards Rahul, pleased with myself. I wasn’t some tightwad tourist – I was a benefactor! I spread happiness! But Rahul looked away, and I could see he wanted to say something but thought it wasn’t his place.
‘What?’ I said.
He shook his head, but I pressed him.
‘That boy’s father maybe works 11 hours a day,’ said Rahul reluctantly. ‘And he makes very little but it’s honest and feeds his family, so he has respect. You have just given his son, for free, the same amount it takes him three days to earn. So Mr Darrel, how does his son respect him now?’
I stared at Rahul and I wanted to argue but the shame was too much, and I turned on my heel and chased after the kid. I think I knew I wouldn’t catch him; I think I was just trying to run from the embarrassment of being me.
Getaway, January 2016