8th January 2016
Dear Mr Taxi Driver
Before I leave for Hong Kong, my aunt, T, has sent me a note to print out—it has her address in Chinese, in case I ever have to take a taxi home on my own. There is an English translation in the same sheet; “Dear Mr Taxi Driver,” it begins. In the Hong Kong airport, I use this note to fill in forms printed on small squares of paper. The woman in her glass cubicle at Immigration doesn’t seem to believe that T lives in a Visiting Quarter at Lingnan University, but she sees the note in my hand, and when I say that I study in Bangalore, she lets me go. I walk through the Green channel; nothing to declare. Outside the airport, the sea is bluer than other seas, and the small windows of every apartment block look the same. It is as though the owners of every flat have decided to change their curtains to similar shades of yellow or white. There are so many trees, and the bushes along the road look perfectly groomed, as though secret people work at them on warmer nights. The mountains have small white graves; T says that people choose these spots before they die. When I am there, I make notes every morning about my days in a little notebook with a red spine. I sit on the bed with thick white sheets in a small room in the corner of T’s house, and she is in the kitchen making scrambled eggs for breakfast. I should help, but I have taken to washing our dishes after meals, and the kitchen is too small for the two of us. It is slightly warm, but there is no fan in this room—for some reason, there are only air conditioners in Hong Kong. I keep the window opposite my bed open; it looks down on the road leading to the university’s gate. T is asking if I want blueberry jam as she walks across the wooden floor, but I am writing and too distracted to answer. I can smell the Suma filter coffee I brought with me from Bangalore. T says they don’t take coffee seriously here. I realise she is right when I find a shop that sells a drink that is a mixture of tea and coffee. On the first evening, we go to the night market at Temple Road when the stalls are still being set up, and the lights are just coming on. There is the clang of the legs of metal tables being opened outside restaurants, and the dull scrape of plastic stools being arranged around them. It is a busy road at night; A, T’s student from Netherlands, says she likes to come here with people who are new to the city because they notice things she has long since stopped paying attention to. She has been here for many years now. There is a lot of red, red shop names, and clothes, bags, and the covers of adult films in a movie shop run by an old man in a red shirt. T is looking for a particular film, and I remember the ones I have watched on the recent Umbrella Revolution for greater democracy in Hong Kong. The man in the red shirt does not have the films she asks for. I have to look long enough to begin to see things in the dark, but E, also T’s student, is leading us and doesn’t know where we want to stop. E points at the woman selling magnets. All My Friends Are Trouble Maker, You Are My Love My Angle Don’t Treat Me Like Potato, Private Except Girl, T is reading aloud from them and laughing into the fumes of the noodles being cooked on the side of the road. E watches T pick out blue socks for her Hindustani music teacher in Bombay. I linger opposite the socks stall, where a Pakistani man is selling minion shaped pen drives. “Kitna hai?” T asks him, coming over and pointing at a batman minion pen drive. T is talking loudly, over the voice of a woman shouting in the hope that someone will hear her. She is selling clothes with large, bright flowers. But the man from Pakistan is so happy he can understand us, and we can understand him, and he gives us a discount rate. We buy five pen drives. I try to use one of them when I come back to Bangalore, but it doesn’t work. We are walking away from the stalls faster now, and suddenly everyone thinks it will be funny if I get my fortune told—“For the experience,” E says laughing. There is a small street that turns off the road; A says she has a psychic friend who feels “unsettling vibes” every time they are there. We walk into the first stall on the street. “You will have a strong career,” the fortune teller says once he has nodded and frowned at the lines on my palm. I think of the aunt who once told me I had “no work hands,” because they are too soft; I smile at the fortune tellers checked blue shirt, and the manner in which he doesn’t care to be convincing. “But your love life…” he trails away, mumbling something about divorce. I try to look worried, but start laughing. I’m waiting for him to say more—to be able to tell a story like a friend who had been told she would run away with her parents’ money—but we get nothing. “Is there anything special in her?” E asks him, once he has decided he must tell me to exercise. “Nothing,” he says, “Would you like me to read your face too?” We back out politely. There are sex toys towards the end of Temple road, where there are fewer lights. T is laughing and asking me if I want any—“What kind of feminists are you?” she asks me, when I don’t pick any for my friends. A is laughing. “We really wanted you to see these,” E tells me. I wonder what she means, as I stare at the stalls and watch two women laugh and buy something. The road is too dark for me to see the name on the box they pick up. I never have to use the Dear Mr Taxi Driver sheet. The first thing T does is to buy me an Octopus card that we swipe to pay our fares on trains and buses. Everyone here seems to use the train to travel; we stand in slanted lines on the quiet platform, and enter the train only after the people leaving walk out between us. Nobody speaks English, and so there is no point eavesdropping on the already few conversations in the way I do on buses at home. Instead, I watch T pulling on a sweater because the trains are always cold, and rub my nose to get rid of the smell of air conditioner. “Do you want to come with us to some abandoned houses?” E is asking me. “I’ve got pictures!” A says and shows me a photograph of a room with clothes still hanging on the door, and an open book and glasses on a table. T later tells me that A and E take black and white photographs. “It looks almost arranged,” I say, and E nods. “You think we could squeeze it into your schedule?” she asks, but we never go. She is putting sanitiser on her hands again. I watch A try to balance without touching the railing. A woman whose open checked shirt is long enough to reach the hem of her black skirt is leaning against the door of the train, reading. The man on the seat next to her is looking into the bag of clothes from Mango between her feet. Everyone else is on their phones or catching up on sleep. Parts of this city are caught in some kind of movement. Kwun Tong (the industrial district) has the same growing glass high rises that are in Central (the financial district), but opposite these buildings are industrial garages and construction sites. The sound of machines drowns out the sound of high heels and polished shoes against pavements as wide as roads; in Kwun Tong, people are still working at nine in the night, and the air smells of petrol and rusty cranes. Nobody wears suits and dresses ironed as stiff as their walk like they do in Central; there are no sleek cars with rolled up tinted windows. T does not look up at the buildings here in the way she had in the financial district, with her head falling back on her neck. There is the loud laughter of men talking in Hindi as they roll barrels along the pavement. “Dhoond lenge ba,” a man says wiping his face, “Saab ko pata nahin chalega.” It takes longer here to place their Hindi words and give them meaning, and it is harder to look away from them when they hold their curious stares for longer than anyone else. Just before E, A, Z and I enter one of the two lifts at the back of a garage to head up to Hidden Agenda, they tell me that it is an illegal live house for indie music. Z is telling us of about the metal band that is going to perform here next month. T has gone back to the apartment. “We must take the yellow lift,” A insists, “It looks happier.” But the lift that comes down is not yellow. Men working in the garage watch us as the doors close. Upstairs, we show two other men our tickets and they stamp our hands—I must take a picture of the stamp when I get home, I think, but I forget. We enter just before Frande, a Taiwanese band, starts to play. Nobody is yelling appreciatively when they begin. We stand at the back and watch the red lights on the stage flicker. The small room is dark and full and so I cannot see far, but the man next to me has closed his eyes and is swaying in his place. The girl in front of me is bobbing her head. E is sitting on an empty chair and has lit her cigarette. “No smoking inside,” a man whispers to us. He has not seen the woman sitting comfortably in a corner holding a cigarette between stubby fingers. She is wearing black and the room is dark; the tips of her hair are too close to the lighter she has just clicked. E and I go outside to the lifts. “So what is the Pride march like in Bangalore?” E asks me. I am distracted by a woman who looks disgruntled with the man she is standing with. “I’ve been to one. It’s all colourful and loud, and there’s dancing and slogan shouting,” I tell her. E laughs. “Join us for the Pride after party,” she says. When I tell my friends from college about attending the Pride March in Hong Kong, they are surprised that everyone has been asked to wear yellow. T later tells me it is in solidarity with the Umbrella Movement, but the march is small and slow and uneventful. I am told it is just a “minor disturbance to old people crossing the roads,” and nothing else. There is still no yelling when E and I return, and the lights are blue now. A and Z have moved to the other side of the room. When the song ends, everybody claps loudly. It is hot inside, and the air smells of smoke and sweat. Some women are standing on the sofa at the back of the room. There are two whistles from somewhere on my right, and when the next song begins, there is more swaying. E has made her way forward a little, and is bobbing her head. A is tapping her feet. There is a bar at the back of the room. “They aren’t allowed to sell alcohol,” Z tells me. He goes up to the bar, picks up a glass of beer, and drops some money into a box marked ‘Donations.’ We have finished the cans we brought in with us. When we leave the live house before the concert ends, we take the yellow lift. Z and E want to go to McDonalds outside the train station, thinking of perfect food for hangovers. The streets are empty, and the air is cooler on this night than it has been through all my stay. A is telling us about buying weed in school. It is 2:30 when I come home. T is asleep. I like walking these streets alone at night. On the rare evening that we finish an early dinner, T and I sit on the red sofa in the hall. She is following the Bihar elections, and I am writing an email to Appa, telling him about our visit to the Tai O fishing village. I tell him that we saw pink dolphins, and that here too, the market is red. In Tai O, they have houses on stilts. Every house is open—I look into them and wonder if I shouldn’t be staring, but they are all empty, and everyone is at the market. The beds are unmade, and there are shirts hanging off door handles like in A’s photographs of the abandoned houses—there is one house with a vase on a blue table, but there are no flowers. The walls are in shades of brown and muddy yellows, and I can smell salt and fish. We are going between the houses by boat because T says we should try our luck at seeing the pink dolphins. H and I are sure we won’t—“I have the worst luck,” H says, and I tell her about all the times I have got the questions I never wanted in my exams. T has been told that the pink dolphins are a lie, but we go anyway, because I like being in a boat. We see nothing. Suddenly people are squealing, and H is shouting, “What! Where!” and standing up in her place. The boat is swaying dangerously. T is saying, “Did you see it, did you see it?” The man behind me is saying something in Chinese, and he sounds excited. And then everyone is laughing. “Che, nonsense ya,” T is saying, “They’re just pretending.” Five minutes later, they squeal again. “My gosh!” T is yelling. “Look, look!” H is saying pointing at a blue boat that is pulling up its fishing nets. We see the pink dolphins near the blue boat. They appear and disappear, and appear again. They look like they know we are there for them. In the markets at Tai O, they sell dried fish that hangs from the ceilings of shops. The fish looks like papad that won’t crumble, but they haven’t lost their smell of salt and meat. The road seems to curve and fold into itself. A woman stares uninterestedly at a cat and ignores her customers. She does not look up when they walk away; they would not have bought anything anyway. An American man looks disgusted when I try a piece of seaweed. I catch up with him and eat a fish ball in front of him. I can only taste the spice but not the meat. Later, T and I meet R outside the station for a tour. She is from a company that takes visitors on walks to different parts of the city, but this morning, our tour has just the two of us. We walk through the streets towards Mong Kok market, and R insists that the government is making a terrible mistake in its attempt to clamp down on open wet markets—markets that sell fresh meat and produce, as opposed to dry markets, that sell clothes or electronics. The three of us are standing huddled at the entrance to the market road, and there is no space to walk among the women around the stalls. “I will raise my hand, so just look for it above all these people in case you get lost,” R tells us cheerfully. There is an old woman here who has been selling ginger for decades. “People say she sells the best ginger in all of Hong Kong,” R says, “They come from everywhere just for her.” The woman sits hunched behind her ginger, smiling at us without teeth. There is the smell of ginger and milk in the air. An old man, her husband, who is usually next to her sits with a cap and sunglasses—“Very cool looking,” R says laughing. There is a woman selling tofu on the other side of the road. The women here are speaking in Chinese—I have long since stopped paying attention to the Chinese spoken on trains—but here there is so much more sound and so many conversations that I don’t understand. R is talking to T about the Umbrella Revolution in the middle of all the noise, but I cannot hear them. We are walking through the streets where the protests happened, and I imagine rows of tents instead of open shops, and young women and men with yellow umbrellas and boards that read, “We are dreamers.” The stall next to the woman with ginger has a man selling medicinal tea. R buys something for her mother. T wants something to prevent sore throats, but the old man refuses to sell her anything—“He doesn’t have the tea that you need, and these won’t be good for you,” R tells her. The road now smells of garlic and mushrooms. On the pavement, there are shops that sell things made of paper—houses, phones, toothpaste, cars, stationary—“To bury with the dead,” R explains. Now they can have things they never had in life either. When we are standing on an overbridge, R says that every foot massage parlour has a lit up picture of a foot. “If there’s a smiley face in the foot, it’s a brothel,” she tells us. It is a strange feeling to stand outside an openly disguised brothel. I secretly look for the smiley face in every foot massage sign I see. I find four. We see the parts of the market that are less chaotic. As per regulations, the stalls are of the same height and made of the same materials. Apart from clothes, I cannot see what they sell from here. On my last day in Hong Kong, T and I take the bus to Victoria Peak and look down at the city from somewhere far above. When I am at the airport, and my flight is delayed for three hours, I join the people asleep on the floor because all the seats are taken. I create a folder on my phone for all the pictures I have taken of Hong Kong, and stare at the photograph of dimsums with soup in them. At my gate, they start to distribute free chocolates as compensation for the delayed flight. “Muru-muru kodtha idare,” a boy is saying, pulling at his mother’s dupatta. For the flight home, I have picked an aisle seat because I want more space for my legs. The man sitting next to me is old, and watches the movie that I am watching—Me and Earl and the Dying Girl—frowning into my screen and eating ice cream. When I reach the Bangalore airport and have access to WiFi, I see angry texts. Your aunt is more active about your trip than you are. Where are my pictures? Are you back yet? Meet me. Give me my presents.