Slippery Slope

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It happened a long time ago, right before my children began pretending they had no parents, that they had been raised by wolves, like Kipling’s Mowgli.

I am taking a Christmas vacation in India with my Indian-born wife and our two children, the man-cubs. I hate everything about the Christmas season. India is a good place to be at that time of year because you easily miss Christmas altogether there. I especially dislike the false saintness of the Christmas season.

I know there is no such word as “saintness.” So? There should be. “Sainthood” refers to an eternal condition, “saintliness” refers to a person, or to his actions, not to a collective mood, and “holiness” refers to a sacramental condition, or to a state of grace, rather than to the collective mood I have in mind. I wouldn’t mind “factitious piety,” but that’s longer and more artificial. But to return to my story . . .

We are doing ordinary tourism — at least, I am. One day, in Agra, I decide to go and see a minor palace or fort, rather than the Taj Mahal. My wife wants to spend time at our hotel with her sister whom she has not seen for years. Besides, if truth be told, she does not enjoy India much; that’s why she

emigrated, after all. My children are still young. They are California-reared wimps. Of course, they will claim to want to visit with their aunt just so they can stay in the air-conditioned hotel. That is a major point of this story: Although we are in December, it’s hot. It’s always hot in the northern Indian plain anyway, very hot, extremely hot, or merely kind of hot.

As a refugee from the near-insularity of northern California, I am a dutiful tourist. (Look at the map: northern California is an island, for practical purposes. It costs a fortune to fly any- where from the San Francisco area, except to Los Angeles or Las Vegas. I like Las Vegas — every five years or so. I have never been able to find L.A.) Anyway, when I am abroad, I do visit the sites; I really do.

When I was growing up in Paris, before global airline deregulation, it seemed that you could never afford to go anywhere under your own power. You might travel on the government’s dime as a public servant, or if you were in the military. Other than that, foreign countries seemed pretty much out of reach. The day I crossed the border into Switzerland with the Cub Scouts was a big day. I brought back white milk chocolate such as I had never seen before, and cool matches made of wax paper.

With the fabulous, unexpected jump in prosperity of the ’60s and ’70s, I became an experienced traveler. Of course, I take pride in my adaptability and my readiness for everything. So, in India that winter, I am wearing shorts (of decent

Since I am now a member of the old rickshaw- wallah’s family, I feel obligated to add a big tip, equivalent to the fare. What the hell; I don’t want my nephews and nieces to go wanting.

length so I won’t be barred from temples), which facilitate ventilation of a man’s hottest parts, and a light, short-sleeved cotton shirt. My feet are shod in ankle boots with thick soles because the heated blacktop can burn your feet through thin soles. Also, I have been in India before. I really like that country, but the truth is, you can never be sure what you are going to step into. And when you are sure, it’s even worse.

There are taxis waiting outside the hotel, but I don’t want them. Indian taxis are ugly, hot, cramped, uncomfortable. They usually stink, and they have small windows. Also, it’s a nice clear day, without much air pollution, and there are a dozen bicycle rickshaws, with their drivers, in the shade of a big neem tree. All the drivers make vigorous, enticing gestures — in my direction, of course. Middle-class Indians are usually bad tippers, and they tend to be harsh with working people. (That’s an interesting lagging effect of caste. Unlike most prosperous Western adults, I would guess they have never performed menial work.) Compared to the locals who are financially able to take a taxi, a large, pink sahib looks like a gift from Ganesh. (That’s the elephant-headed god of prosperity.) Most Westerners tip well. Americans tip generously and they are almost always nice and appreciative.

Whom to choose? Most of the rickshaw-wallahs are in their 20s. There is just one older guy sitting quietly by himself. He has gray hair and he is very thin under his off-white athletic shirt. He looks at me silently, with hopeful eyes. I motion to him and climb into his rickshaw.

“Taj Mahal?” he asks. (Of course.)
“No, I want to go to the Red Fort. Do you know where it is?”
“No English, Sahib.”
No matter, he pedals right on ahead. Frankly, it does not matter when I get to the fort. But this is interesting. Perhaps the rickshaw guy knows something I don’t know. After all, it’s his job.

After a short ride, we stop at a street-side tea shop. Of course, I buy tea for both of us. He is staring at the samozas, so I order a few.

I ask around in English where the Red Fort is. Several men give me directions in the infuriating Indian way: vague on distance, vague on the time it takes; won’t ever get you to the end of the trip, only to the general vicinity. Two of them more or less agree. I ask them to explain it to my rickshaw-wallah in Hindi. His eyes seem to say that he does not want to go there. Religious interdiction? Caste problem? I can’t even ask him. I take out my wad of rupees to pay him off. His eyes darken with disappointment. “Okay,” I tell him in California English, but with the help of my French hands, “I pay now or you go to where those guys said to go.”

He gets back on his saddle with resignation written all over his face. I climb back into my own seat. After a short time, the road starts going up. Speed decreases to less than that of a man walking. What the hell, I figure, it’s still reasonably cool; I can use the exercise; I have been eating too much greasy food; I can walk a while, for sure. I tell the guy, “Stop.” He does. I get off and start walking alongside the rickshaw. He looks vaguely embarrassed but is doing much better without my 200 pounds in the back seat.

Then the slope becomes even steeper. (Forts are usually built on a hill, I realize then, not in a valley.) The thin man is wheezing. I have no choice: I start pushing the rickshaw from behind. I push for a good 15 minutes. It’s now hot. My shirt is dripping with sweat. My forehead is burning. It gets so steep that the rickshaw is slipping back down, in spite of my thick shoes.

Finally, we reach the fort. There is a space under the shade of big trees where other rickshaws are waiting. I push mine in that direction and let go. The rickshaw-wallah is coasting. The rickshaw stops and I catch up. My man gets off his saddle and shakes both my hands with obvious emotion. He touches his heart several times with his closed fist and he repeats a word I recognize — at least I think I do — as “brother,” in Hindi. (It sounds like the Sicilian “paesano.” I know my movie classics.)

Of course, I have no choice but to pay him the full tourist fare he asks for. I don’t usually bargain over services in poor countries, anyway. I am not keen to save three dollars at the moral risk of depriving someone of goat meat (“mutton” in Indian English, from the middle-French “mouton,” sheep and sheep meat). Since I am now a member of the old rickshaw- wallah’s family, I feel obligated to add a big tip, equivalent to the fare. What the hell; I don’t want my new nephews and nieces to go wanting today.

By now, however, I am too tired to really visit the fort. It looks to be of mediocre interest anyway, as seen through the sweat burning my eyes. I need a shower, a meal, and a nap. I take a taxi, a motor-taxi, back to the hotel. It’s less than 15 minutes away.

Every story has a moral, whether it’s a moral one or not. Here’s the moral of this one: virtuousness is a lot like criminality. It involves a slippery slope. Unlike any specific “virtue,” it’s a general disposition, one that prompts to action, almost automatically. You can’t be too careful. You step on the top with insouciance, and then you begin sliding down. If you aren’t careful you become very good and you turn into a stranger to your old, moderately evil self. I would guess that’s what happened to Mother Teresa — in India, precisely.

Young people: think hard before you travel to poor countries. Temptation is everywhere in those places.

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