Some of the names in this story have been changed to protect identities of the victims.
I’ve been in India for less than 48 hours and I’m in a public hospital waiting for the results of a CT scan. The ER is packed. Smears of wet blood on the floor, bandages scattered. The place is a mess. The ER beds don’t have sheets. They’re a kind of brown vinyl, some with bloody handprints at the edges. I choose to stand and give it to one of the two dozen gaping head wounds I see in the lobby.
My compatriots and I seem out of place. A white guy with a stoned look on his beaten face, a deaf Tibetan kid holding a swollen jaw, and a pretty girl in a tight shirt and Daisy Dukes, bleeding and covered in bruises.
I type some words on my iPad and hand it to Jampa, the Tibetan kid, “Thanks for getting us the hell out of there. I thought I was going to die.” He reads it and gives a nod of agreement. This is the most conversation we’ve ever had.
Once I get the results of my CT scan, I’m going straight to the U.S. Embassy. The fight was brutal, and I should probably flee the country before those bastards figure out my real name. I called my lawyer on the way to the hospital. He said that the way things had gone, I could be charged with attempted murder, never mind that I’m a foreigner. “Get out while you can.” He told me.
I’d come to India to see the Holi Color Festival. If you’ve ever seen those pictures on Facebook of your friends covered in some rainbow of paint or powder after some mud-run, this is where it started. This was to be my Year of Travel– Whiteboy Walkabout, I call it, and I’d seen pictures of the festival on some internet bucket-list, so I bought a one-way ticket and figured I’d country hop until I ran out of money or passport pages.
I arrived in New Delhi on March 4th at 1130pm with no plans. and no reservations. I’d put up a profile on Couchsurfing.org, a site that connects travelers with hosts willing to put them up for free, and before I’d even made it through immigration, I had an invitation to stay at stranger’s house, and a young Indian woman named Samantha offered to show me around the next day. On the site, the host had positive references from other travelers and the girl looked pretty. Not a bad start, all things considered.
The free room was a king sized bed with leopard print sheets and disco lights on the ceiling. My kind of place. The next afternoon I went to meet Samantha in the central district. She’s was from the North East of India and studying for her master’s in New Delhi and took me around to run errands: Local SIM card, pharmacy, lunch, how to use the metro. She paid for everything, too. In the evening she took me to her favorite bar and I sang “Sweet Caroline” with India’s karaoke champion (which is apparently a thing), and then we met up with her friends and danced until dawn at someone’s apartment.
In the morning, she told me to grab my things. We were going to a “Holi” party. Downstairs her friend Jampa was waiting in a grey fiat. He was kind and agreeable, but he was also deaf and driving with both hands, so any pantomimed questions about where we were going or how far it was met with mumbles and head shakes. We were going to a farmhouse. That was all I knew.
Farmhouse is a misnomer. It was a large, ten-bedroom house with a pool and a hot tub on a large tract of land with a massive green lawn. The crowd was an eclectic group of Indians and Europeans in their 20s and 30s, and few older finance types (someone had to pay for it). There was an open bar, serving staff, and catering. This was not a slum.
I made friends and danced with the girls, I ate the food and drank the beer. Colored powder was arrayed on a table, and people would grab handfuls and chase each other around, tossing it into the air, which is the custom. Before long, everyone was a rainbow mess from head to toe. One of the guys playing grab-ass by the pool was a little too stoned, and shoved me into the pool while I had my iPhone in my pocket, so that was the end of that. I forgave him, seeing as it was a party, and went to sit on the lawn with Samantha a couple French girls.
Samantha pointed out one of the men, some guy in his early 20s. She said she’d seen him at other parties and he was always really aggressive, shoving or poking women to get their attention. Even as we watched, he snuck up behind some girls making polite conversation and mashed color powder into their hair, grinding it in with the delighted look of a young boy sticking worms in a girl’s hair.
“Maybe he’ll grow out of it.” I said. It’s hard, learning to flirt.
Later on I was in the hot tub watching some wasted girl try to dance and swing on a tent pole, only fall on her ass. Then she takes some unfinished cup of whiskey and stumbles over to her friends on the lawn. Samantha came and joined me in the hot tub. She was drunk, too, and starting to feel sick, but nevertheless would grab for my beer so she could keep going. I tried to cut her off, but had little luck.
Also in the tub was a young Indian man with a sad excuse for a mustache. We tried to make conversation with his broken English, but I knew what he was really curious about. Judging by his body language, he was just hoping to be there when the clothes came off, whenever that may be.
Before long, he had gotten close enough to bump knees in the water. Samantha whispered in my ear that she wanted me to scoot away. I did and gave him a cautionary nod. Okay, buddy, that’s enough. The water was a brown soup of chlorine and Holi color dyes, hiding everything beneath the surface. I felt something on my leg, a hand that then slid onto my crotch.
“Hey!” I snapped at him. “You’re touching the wrong PENIS!”
He’d been reaching for Samantha, but missed. He backed away, embarrassed, and mumbled a kind of apology. I’d read about this kind of thing in India but couldn’t believe I was actually see it. Even still, this isn’t America, and I wasn’t about to burn the place down over it, so I suggested to Samantha that we go rejoin our friends on the lawn, and she agreed.
As we sat on the lawn chatting with the French girls, we watched a group of college-aged girls fussing over the drunken dancer. She had passed out face down in the grass and they were trying to get her into the backseat of a car so they could take her home. The girl was chubby, wet, and limp as a rag doll, so this was no easy task. They were all set to leave when we heard the girls burst out in hysterics. I ran over to find them screaming and crying in the backseat, all covered in vomit. The drunk’s inept cousin caught the most of it and was completely overwhelmed.
They were so preoccupied with their shrieks of disgust that they didn’t see their unconscious friend struggling to breath through a mouth full of regurgitated rice, pasta, and beer. The silent, choking death that only a BAC of 4.0 can give you.
I yanked open the door and dragged her down from the car, putting her on her side and scooping the vomit out with my fingers. Her eyes were rolled in the back of her head, and slapping and shaking and yelling did nothing to wake her. The drunk’s cousin, the worst of the girls, jumped on top of her to shield her from the assault.
I shoved her out of the way and yelled at her friends to shut her up and keep her away. First aid is never elegant.
I managed to clear her airway and had someone bring a few buckets of water to pour over the drunk girl’s head. For fleeting moments, she showed signs of a working nervous system. Eye-contact, if nothing else. Once her cousin calmed down, and we buckled the drunk girl into her seat, I made sure her friends understood what to do with her when they got home. No one had ever explained to them that drunks go face down, not face up! “That’s how Hendrix died.” I said. The owner of the car was a male friend of theirs, some poor sap saddled with the responsibility of driving this vomit parade. I made him vow to get this mess to the cousin’s apartment, then sent them on their way.
By now the sun has gone down. The party’s still going on, but the crowd has cycled. Most of our new friends went home sometime while I was dealing with the previous disaster. I’m pissed off and I need to find Jampa and Samantha and corral them both to the car.
When I finally see Jampa, I give him my best attempt at Sign Language. “Drive. Now. Where Sam?”
He didn’t know, but went off in a hurry to find her.