Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Thoughts On a Mattress

I have just fallen into bed.

It is the end of the very first day of the India trip. I have said my good nights, closed the door of the guest room in Premi and Bijoy’s apartment in Delhi, and staggered through darkness to the bed. I am sure it will be mere seconds before I am asleep. This is the moment for which I have been yearning for the last thousand or so hours.

It has been the most extraordinary day. Eventful, fascinating, alarming, and long. Almost all those thousand hours have occurred just since this morning, when Premi collected us at the airport. Since then I've been doing my impression of a toddler—veering back and forth between super-charged excitement and head-lolling sleepiness.

I don’t know how many hours’ worth of jet-lag I have (I think it may actually be incalculable), but it isn’t just the jet lag; it’s the being vertical for too long. The whole last day in Leeds, the trip to Heathrow, the sitting at Heathrow, the flight to Delhi, the thousand hours since then, all of it has been spent upright.

Oh, the longing to be horizontal! At lunch I imagined sweeping all the plates aside and lying down on the table. From a sight-seeing walk around the neighborhood, the only sight I remember is a bench that looked just about my length. I could feel the earth’s gravitational pull, and it was focused on my head. But “Don’t nap!” I kept telling myself, quoting travelers’ lore. “Napping makes it worse; sleep when the locals sleep."

It is dark now, and the street outside my window is quiet. Premi said that a night watchman patrols this street; she said I may hear him whistling and tapping his stick. I find this image reassuring, even charming, but I know will hear nothing. The locals are asleep, so I'm allowed to sleep too, at last.

Falling asleep...

One nice thing is that I will do so on a brand new mattress. If I were the sort of person who worries about bedbugs (which I haven’t been but now that I’ve thought of it I might be), I could rest easy because this mattress is definitely not infested. The other thing it's not is soft. At all. I said earlier that I fell into bed; onto bed would be more accurate. Still, a firm mattress is good for the back, and I won’t even notice how hard it is, since any second now I will be sound asleep.

Here I go, drifting...drifting…

I know the mattress is brand new, because Premi bought it on the way home from the airport. I was surprised that she chose that moment for mattress-shopping, especially since we were in a taxi, but what do I know about the customs of Indian mattress shopping?

The taxi was a splendid old Hindustani Ambassador, as was almost every car on the road. I didn’t know about the others, but this one was falling gently to bits: the window on my side appeared to have fallen into its socket for the last time, and stuffing was emerging by the handful from several gaps in the upholstery, giving the back seat the look and feel of a nest. After the rigid contours of my British Airways seat, it was rather nice. I could do with some of that stuffing now, to be honest.

Premi gave the driver—a grizzled man in a turban who never said a word—some instruction in Hindi, and then explained her mattress-buying plan to Mum and me (Dad had gone straight from the airport to a meeting). Soon after, we pulled off the road at a row of roadside stalls and Premi got out. She went to a vegetable stand and bought something vegetably, after which I expected her to get back into the car so we could go to the mattress store. Instead she walked to the next little shop in the line, and began talking to three men who were standing there.

That’s when I realized we were already at the mattress store! In the shadows of the little building behind the men were neat stacks of what were undeniably mattresses. But Premi was apparently not interested in any of those. She was looking upwards, out of my field of vision, and pointing. I leaned over to peer out of Mum’s window, and saw perhaps twenty more mattresses on the shop’s roof, rising improbably in a tall, teetering, colorful stack up to the lower branches of a nearby tree. It looked like an illustration for a very peculiar, dusty version of the Princess and the Pea.

I thought about getting out of the car to observe the proceedings; this was exactly the sort of local color that I had come on this trip to see. On the other hand I was busy being really very comfortable in my stuffing-nest, and I could see just fine out the window. Two of the three men now clambered up onto the roof. They had poles in their hands, and they pointed at mattresses up and down the stack, looking to Premi for an indication of her preference. Then, with a flip of their poles, they raised the upper third of the stack and whisked Premi’s choice out. It was like a big, soft, card trick.

While Premi paid, I watched a woman in a turquoise sari walk past the car, carrying a tall, teetering stack of round flat things on her head. Two tall, teetering stacks of things glimpsed in as many minutes. Mum explained that the round flat things were dried cow-dung, to be burned as fuel, but she could not have carried them with more elegance had they been crystal.

The taxi driver got out and opened the car’s trunk. A bit optimistic, I thought, to imagine the mattress would fit in there. Still, having been surprised on all matters mattress thus far, I was open to being surprised again. Then the trunk slammed shut and I saw the driver had just been fetching a coil of rope.

The next second, one end of the rope flew past my nose. The driver and a mattress-shop guy had set about tying the mattress to the taxi’s roof. In my window and out Mum’s the rope flew: over the mattress, back through the windows, all done and dusted in about thirty seconds. Premi and the driver got back in the front, and we were off! I was impressed. Less impressed when I realized that Mum and I were now effectively tied into the car. If we crashed, our doors would be impossible to open, so it was just as well that my window was missing, giving us an escape route. And if the car rolled, I thought, at least the mattress would cushion the impact.

Not so much, I am thinking now, still awake. “Cushioning” is not this mattress' primary quality.

I don’t know what time it is. The power in the whole apartment building is out, so my lamp won’t work. Can’t see my watch. Can’t read. Still, mustn’t complain. Partly because that would be rude, but also because the power outage was technically my fault (another story). Still, who needs to read? I will just lie here and enjoy the deep peace of the Indian nigh—

Suddenly a shrill scream tears through the darkness. I leap up, gasping. Was it a scream? It sounds again, and this time I realize it is actually a whistle. The night watchman has arrived.

When Premi told me about him, I imagined a reassuring, burly chap, strolling down the alley and whistling the Indian equivalent of “Goodnight Sweetheart.” Instead, he’s blowing a police whistle, at full volume. The sound must be audible ten blocks away. I wonder who can possibly benefit by this, other than the burglars working unhurriedly ten blocks away, regularly alerted to his exact location.

“Thunk! Drag, drag, drag…THUNK!”

This is the watchman’s stick. Again, in my imagination, the burly, whistling chap was going to be tap-tap-tapping a walking stick. Whatever is hitting the pavement now sounds more like a battering ram. It drops with a heavy, hollow sound, then gets dragged a few paces before being lifted and dropped again. The effect, to my admittedly Western, jumpy, jet-lagged ears, is indescribably creepy. I would not like to meet this watchman. In fact, if I were those ten-block-away burglars, I’d run away now.

The watchman moves on, and my adrenaline level subsides. The whistles grow faint; the thunk-and-drag sounds like distant thunder. And it is now, as the silence washes back into the room, that I finally feel the beginnings of sleep. What do you know? I think to myself. Maybe the watchman serves a purpose after all.

It is my last waking thought. This is the one that gives a gentle push to the tall, teetering, colorful, stacks of things that have been piling up in my mind for a thousand hours. Finally I feel the sensation I've been longing for, of everything beginning to tilt, to slip, and at last to topple altogether, into the bliss of horizontality.

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