Sunday, April 3, 2011
(Note: This piece was bought by Harper's Magazine first, then (in 2010) by Virginia Quarterly Review; both magazines sat on the story, then killed it, for reasons that remain unclear. Be that as it may, it's still a good piece, albeit long.)
The piracy zone is well defined in all dimensions.
Geologically it is carved out to the west, south and east by the boundaries of tectonic plates. The Sunda Trench thrusts in a curve from northern Thailand along the west coast of Sumatra to the tip of New Guinea; there it kicks against the Philippines Trench that runs to the northern end of Luzon. Behind the trenches, the Pacific plate shoves west, the Indo-Australian east and north, converging on a theoretical center just to the north of Borneo.
The coasts of China, Vietnam, and Malaysia cap the zone defined by these trenches, giving it the shape of a rough heart.
The geographical and biological dimensions of the area are harder to separate. This is the planet’s largest, most intense tropical archipelago, a fretwork of over 20,000 islands and uncounted headlands, deltas, reefs, swamps and other types of stitching between sea and land. The marine environment takes the form of a pivot of currents spinning counter-clockwise around Borneo, powered by the thrust of the Northern Equatorial Current moving toward Africa above, and the Equatorial Counter-Current rolling to Hawaii below.
The zone’s biosphere, known to marine biologists as Sundaic Southeast Asia, contains a diversity of marine life unmatched anywhere on the planet.
The human aspect of the zone, finally, flows from its other elements; for in this pulsing of tepid seas, soft winds, deep jungles, regular rainfall and mountains rising like surprised gods into the roof of clouds, it is taking the path of least resistance to catch fish, build boats, and sail, using the volcanoes as marks by which to measure both your navigation and your philosophy. And the early settlers of piracy zone were similar enough in how they moved—at risk and in boats—that some have posited the existence of a single Austronesian people who sewed it together with their relationships of piloting and barter much as mangrove lagoons form a junction between the two principal elements of the zone.
This is the place the ship enters now.
She is a bulk chemicals carrier of 6000 gross tons with three decks of accommodation aft, a single derrick, a Makita diesel. Like scores of similar ships she was built in Japan in the 1980s and has plied the waters from India to Korea almost continually since, trading under a half-dozen different flags and owners. A dozen skins of paint of various colors flake off now to betray her history as well as the enduring truth of rust beneath. Her crew includes Malays, Thais, Indonesians. The skipper is Singaporean; the mate, Malaysian Chinese. Now, at 3:20 in the morning on a calm March night, the mate and a deckhand stand watch, checking the radar for other ships traveling the strait. No one else is awake. The cargo, 6,000 metric tons of palm oil, sloshes gently as the ship rolls northward toward the waiting boat.
It is the boat that will complete the circle of geography and trade in the unnatural yet in some ways logical act that is the violent takeover of a vessel on the high seas. In this part of the zone she is called a sampan, though in other areas she might be termed tempehr, bombot, go-fast. She has a fine bow, a narrow beam across which the men sit, their weapons in their laps. Two 60-horsepower outboards burble at the stern. Her crew in its composition is not unlike the freighter’s: Indonesians, Thais, a Chinese; the zone has ever preyed on its own. One man nervously handles a coil of line with an iron grappling hook, wrapped in tape, tied at one end. Another holds a mobile phone into which he murmurs details of the ship’s profile as she comes abeam, then proceeds on her northward course. He nods to the man handling the outboard. The helmsman gooses the throttle, swings the sampan at fifteen knots, and lays her, three minutes later, against the ship.
The rope-man man throws twice before the hook catches on the main deck railing. He holds the line taut while five men with carbines strapped to their backs and machetes at their waists climb hand over hand to the rail and drop into the maze of line and ventilators. One stands guard by the rope; the other four climb to the wheelhouse. The mate and deckhand do not move as four figures in balaclavas and dark clothes burst like bits of typhoon inexplicably dropped into their personal weather from both wings of the bridge. The intruders scream in Malay, Get down, Don’t move, Do you want to die now? and wave their arguments of small-caliber death. The rest of the crew is rounded up and locked with the watchkeepers in a cabin.
The diesel rumbles, unchanged. A container ship looms and disappears, unaware, to the south. The man with the cellphone checks the charts. Two hours from now he will order a change of course and the ship will veer from the shipping lanes and into the wilderness of islands and peoples surrounding. Later still, the crew will be put ashore on an island so isolated it must take them days to reach a radio. By that time the ship, like so many others before her, will have disappeared into the piracy zone, and the odds are fine that in her present form and under her current name, she will never come out again.
It is to find out what happened to this ship and others like her that I first enter the zone. My first step in that direction is on a tangent, from New York to London, to talk to people from the International Maritime Bureau, an organization that collects information about modern maritime piracy. It is based in Barking, outside London. I have corresponded with the IMB for months, and two weeks earlier I arranged to meet its director, Captain P.K. Mukundan. When I arrive on the agreed date at the group’s office, his secretary tells me Mukundan is in Dhubai. I interview his deputy, Capt. Jayant Abhyankhar; seething a little as I stare over the pubs and chip shops of Barking High Street. Then I realize it doesn’t matter whom I talk to here. Good stories are icebergs, with a fraction of their mass above water. Mukundan made it plain over the phone that he was not going to give me underwater data, but only the visible stuff: the numbers, the pie-charts, the press releases.
The visible stuff is dramatic enough. Modern maritime piracy—by its most basic definition, the violent robbery of vessels at sea—constitutes a major international industry whose worth in 1999 was estimated at $22 billion. 202 incidents of piracy were reported worldwide in 1998, involving 78 deaths. In 1999 there were 285 incidents and 3 deaths. No figures are yet available for 2000, though the number of incidents so far indicates no downturn, and the apparent hijacking in February of the Hualien 1 with her crew of 21 would, once confirmed, bring the death count up relative to last year.
By far the greatest number of piratical events take place in the zone. 267 hits have occurred within its boundaries since the beginning of 1998. Abyankhar once served as watchkeeping officer on Indian freighters. His eyes betray nothing as he describes the difficulty of catching pirates. Officials in Indonesia, the Philippines and China, he says, are being bought off by pirate syndicates, or conspire with them from the outset. A country’s legal system, in dealing with a ship registered in Panama, crewed by Indonesians, hijacked in Filipino waters and seized in China, is so unequal to the task of prosecution that often the authorities will simply drag suspects to the nearest border and throw them out. Shipowners faced with a lengthy court case while their vessel, impounded as evidence, sits in port at a cost of $10,000 a day, find it cheaper to drop charges, write off the cargo, and take up trading again. The IMB’s piracy center in Kuala Lumpur has many details of such cases, Abyankhar says. Its director will be expecting me. Like Abhyankhar, he will be unable to furnish me with details.
I no longer take notes, having already lost interest in statistics and teflon offices that possess nothing of what is vital here; not a whiff of diesel or red-lead paint or the stink and grind of cargo; none of the loneliness, the occasional panic, the sudden intrusion of violence on the loneliness of a night watch. What I need is to talk with men who have lost their ships—or boats, for pirates operate at all levels of the spectrum. I want to know, in the gut, what it feels like to sail waters where the next hull coming over the horizon may be a fast vessel full of men bent on robbing your ship and killing you if you resist. I admit that what I want also to find is what lay behind stories I read as a kid: Blackbeard and Golden Vanity, the sham and cutlasses, the adventure theatre of boyhood. What I want is to get taken by the zone.
I have a side-angle on this story to use as cross-reference on both its historical aspect and my ability to sort out the hype from the hidden lineaments. I travel the Underground to Pimlico and walk to Bessborough Gardens. It’s a three-sided square of Regency houses framing a rectangle of grass and elms off the smoke and traffic of Vauxhall Bridge Road. Joseph Conrad sat down to write his first novel, Almayer’s Folly, at 6 Bessborough Gardens. Almayer’s Folly had many flaws but it also contained the mix of maritime accuracy and emotional charge that was to set Conrad’s later work apart. It took place in eastern Borneo, near the epicenter of the piracy zone, in a human environment to which piracy and its cousins—smuggling, corruption, insurgency—form the background. I have a gut suspicion that Conrad, who may have run guns on the Spanish frontier in 1877, was involved in the background more deeply than he let on.
But the house numbers here are out of synch. I walk around, buttonholing locals, for fifteen minutes before I learn these buildings are expensive fakes, part of a development built, under the patronage of Prince Charles, to mimic the architecture of Empire. The house Conrad lived in was destroyed twenty years ago. I smoke a cigarette under an elm, wondering what of hidden history can survive the opposed brutalities of indifference and nostalgia.
Singapore. In a way, Bessborough Gardens held a lesson for approaching this city, which resembles nothing so much as downtown Dallas. Among the glass skyscrapers, the Ramada architecture, the swirl of accountants, some vestiges of continuity remain: a row of Malaysian-Chinese counting-houses thick with shadowed balconies; a temple of automated worship, fat glass Buddhas lit by electricity from within, prayer columns driven by motors twinkling amid the joss-smoke. A work crew of Malays clad in sarongs drifts by. I check in at the mariner’s hostel, using my old merchant navy discharge book. Here I may catch hold of strings of rumor about ships that disappear, or off-color opportunities for waterfront work that might lead to information. I tack up on the notice board a sign offering the services of an experienced seaman, any line of work considered. The desk clerk averts his eyes. [fn]
Singapore is the busiest port in the world in terms of ship movements. From the Cathay Airbus, flying in, the anchorage looked like a pattern of ermine, and each dark score a ship; bulk, general cargo, sampan, container, coaster, tanker, Very Large Crude Carrier, Chinese tongkang, everything on either side and in between moored or maneuvering in the electroplate of sun and sea and desultory cloud-shadow. In the city you find evidence of seafaring on the brass plates of upstairs offices bearing the names of ship’s agents and maritime trading companies. I study these names with the hot gaze of a paranoid, wondering what conspiracies lie locked behind the airco and mahogany. The lawyers and insurance investigators who research the more organized forms of piracy state firmly that the trade is indeed structured in “syndicates.” These are specialized maritime criminal groups consisting usually of three principals: a financier with cash to invest and a buyer in mind for whatever cargo or ship is being stalked; a mechanic, responsible for hiring assault crews and riding teams, and arranging false papers; and a producer, a man (it is always a man, in the world of maritime Asia) with a foot in the various environments, who brings investor and mechanic together, and makes everything work. On an island across the Singapore Strait Indonesian police have in their custody a Chinese pirate, known only as “Mr. Wong,” who most likely filled the role of mechanic.
Investigators such as Clay Wild of Western Pacific Marine or Andrew Horton of Richards Butler in Hong Kong have differing theories about who fulfills the various roles of a piracy group but they are unanimous about one aspect and that is, all these men are intimately involved in the hermetic world of seagoing trade. They most likely are traders themselves, or brokers, or ships’ agents who arrange the details of docking fees, pilot dues, crew advances; who know down to the last detail the greasy and unromantic incunabulae of cargo. Given the web of links between pirated ships and this city, given what the investigators have learned, it is certain the syndicates are present in Singapore.
But the brass plates tell me nothing; these syndicates live in the dark. Singapore itself is a slut for the New Asia, that sterile mix of Confucius, Yahoo! and Nick Leeson; and it’s hard to get New Asia on the line. Contacts don’t call back; a few arrange interviews for much later. John Chang, a police spokesman, assures me with some asperity that “There is no piracy in Singapore.” I never meet the Piracy Center director, who leaves abruptly on a two-week trip. Singapore harbor has been sliced into giant container terminals inside secure areas that allow no pocket of seedy bars in which to get hired by operatives of whatever group is shaping up a hit at the time. What has happened to Singapore is what happened to Times Square. Because the vaster schemes of high finance rely on an appearance of probity, the smaller and obvious sleaze must be squeezed from the neighborhood. In New York, it moves to the margins, to Tenth Avenue.
In Singapore, it goes to Batam.
You know at once you are not in Singapore when the ferry, zigzagging among fat tongkangs, docks at Sekupang and you step into the drop-forged heat and are assaulted by exhaust and thin brown men shouting for your attention. I hold back, asking the customs men for info about the syndicate pirate held on this island by the Indonesian authorities. Studying the touts, I spot a taxi-driver who seems more laid-back than the rest, and point to him, feeling very much the gwailo. His cab is one of those box-shaped vans the Japanese reserve for Third World use. He says he speaks good English. His name is Amin.
It turns out Amin’s English is not so great but with my five words of Bahasa and an English-Malaysian dictionary we get by. There are two terms for pirate in Malay: pembajak, and badjao laut, which is also the outsiders’ name for the Sea Gypsies of southern Asia. I tell Amin I want to find “Mr. Wong.” “Pembajak,” he repeats, smiling. “In Batam, plenty jungle, plenty girls. Plenty pembajak.” Amin is a Protestant and a Batak; a member of a tribe from northwestern Sumatra. He has an easy smile and a real curiosity about what I am doing. To him I represent a change from the usual visitor from Singapore who, he says, is interested only in whores. “Pembajak in village, by the shore, I show you.” Amin looks at me sideways. He has access to a deep network of Bataks living on the island, and those contacts will stand me in good stead, but in all the days Amin and I hang out together he will never quite shake off the suspicion that what I really want is sex, and that eventually I will come clean and hire one of the thousands of call-girls who ply their trade on the island. That first day he drives me to the Batam Industrial Development Agency, a body charged with supervising the selloff of this chunk of Indonesia to the highest bidder. Mr. Wong is famous on Batam. The people at BIDA know for certain he was sent for trial to Jakarta, but with the grace typical of most Indonesians I meet, they suggest that we first check Batam jail.
The sole jail for Batam’s 300,000 inhabitants is a low building of peach-colored stucco with the usual Tiki gable in front and not a trace of barbed wire or watchtowers. A Judas opens in a green steel gate and we are allowed inside to stand among a crowd of guards smoking clove-scented cigarettes, while Amin explains what I want, and in a large room to one side prisoners hold babies, hug girlfriends, and stare at me.
The jail commandant is named Frandono. He is a quiet man with the face of a suffering semiotician. Frandono has published two small English/Bahasa dictionaries of correctional terms. He offers me tea. He asks me if it’s true that Alcatraz was decommissioned, and seems disappointed when I say it was. He tells me Mr. Wong was in Jakarta last week for medical reasons but now he is back. If I can get permission from his lawyer in Nagoya, the island’s main town, I can interview Wong tomorrow. “Mr. Wong is a pirate,” Frandono says, “he is in the syndicate [hierarchy] but he is very low. I think the navy is falling down [on the job],” he adds. “The syndicate pays the navy to say he is the chief.” As I leave Amin excitedly pulls me aside to talk to a guard. The guard claims to know a member of Wong’s gang who is still in the trade. He can arrange a meeting, maybe tonight. Amin nods vigorously. He can vouch for the guard, who is a neighbor in his village.
We wait in Batuaji. Amin’s “village” is a shantytown, a ghetto of tin-roofed shacks without sewers or running water. Only part of it is electrified. As many people live in Batuaji, Amin says, as in Nagoya and I can well believe him. The shantytown sprawls far on all sides and only to the south can I discern a horizon of jungle from which the place was hacked. Amin’s wife serves us tea while their five kids and much of the neighborhood crowd into the shack because Amin has power, and a television. Tonight a popular Mexican soap opera is playing. Waiting in Batuaji then—waiting in other places on Batam as well—I begin to understand that the island has become an Asian Tijuana. It is a place where Singaporean and Western capital flows to take advantage of cheap Indonesian labor, and where men and women converge from all over the archipelago for jobs with companies like Sony and Matsushita, or with shadier businesses that thrive in the Lion City’s shadow.
Except most don’t find jobs. Instead they land in Batuaji, squatting in roadside stalls, smoking as the sun hammers down and the motorbikes whine by loud and ceaseless as the hornets of hell. Amin grows nervous as we wait. He realizes, thinking back on what the guard proposed, that the place where we are to meet the pirate is a kampong, or hamlet, in one of the surviving jungle areas of Batam. He thinks, now, that to meet pirates there might be dangerous. We return to the jail and stand in the shadows outside most suspiciously. The guard shows up, late and dejected. The pembajak has left the island and won’t be back for a month. Amin grins in relief.
Batam is close enough that I can commute to Singapore; spend an hour or two in the morning making calls, then zoom back to Sekupang across the silken swells of the Phillip Channel. Ships run on all sides, and the ferry dodges them at twenty-five knots. In the two dozen trips I take across this stretch of water I see each time a minimum of ten large commercial ships transiting the strait. Only thrice will I cross without sighting a tanker of 100,000 tons or more. The conventional nightmare, fostered by IMB in particular, is that a band of pirates will hijack a ship and put it across the bows of a supertanker, or even take over the tanker and lose control. But such a disaster is unlikely; the pirates so far have been professional and the tankers they go after—the tanker Mr. Wong went after—are small coastal ships, the workhorses of the zone.
The tanker Mr. Wong has admitted to hijacking was called Petro Ranger. She flew the Malaysian flag. She left Singapore April 16, 1998, with a cargo of 11,615 tons of diesel and kerosene, bound for Ho Chi Minh City, and her rendezvous with Mr. Wong.
Mr. Wong is not his real name. The prisoner of Batam jail carried a Singporean passport in the name of Chew Cheung Kiat, but the Singapore authorities swear the document is false. Press reports in Singapore claim the passport belonged to a dentist, or alternatively to a Singaporean day laborer who was pickpocketed in Malaysia. The implication here is “of course Malaysia;” besides Batam it’s the other cesspool of crime lying alongside Singapore the Clean. But I will continue to think of him as “Mr. Wong,” it is part of the scenario everyone has built up, Singaporeans, Indonesians, Mr. Wong himself. And the Indonesian Navy says Mr. Wong owned a ship, a 399-ton coastal freighter called the Pulau Mas, which he anchored in areas his victims would transit. And when the Petro Ranger approached, shortly after midnight on April 17, the crew lowered a speedboat, and they snuck up on her. The ship’s captain, Kenneth Blyth, told Lloyds Maritime Asia that the pirates held machetes to his head and groin. They used cellphones. They knew Blyth’s home address in Australia and threatened to harm his family. The pirates spoke Bahasa. The cargo was transshipped at sea, which implied serious competence on the part of the riding crew. They took Petro Ranger to Haikou, in south China; there Blyth escaped, and raised the alarm.
Frandono gives me the name of Mr. Wong’s lawyer, in Nagoya. The lawyer, whose name is Dahlan, tells me a team of Japanese television journalists will be arriving two days from now. He suggests we interview Wong together. I am starting to get nervous about the amount I am spending, not only in ferry ducats and taxi fees but in time. The feeling I got in Batuaji returns more and more as Amin and I scream down the cracked asphalt and red-dirt tracks of Batam, courting disaster at the hands of the psycho traffic on this crowded island, never wearing seatbelts because to do so would clash with the macho ethic of this place and also, and consequently, they don’t work; thinking how Westerners fuck up the East with their sense of time, their insistence on an immediate, mechanical cause and effect, like gunboat A arriving at kampong B to demand treaty C; or like a writer parachuting into this complex society and demanding to see real pirates now, get this week the story he came for. And what the East has over us is, in such linear terms we will only find a temporary treaty, a one-dimensional story. But we scream around anyway, to the navy first, its base sandwiched between the offshore-oil-rig assembly plant of the McCormick Corporation of Corpus Christi, Texas, and Sameon—a shantytown that Amin tells me (looking at me sideways) is populated exclusively by call-girls. The base resembles a set for South Pacific: bungalows, a flagpole, disused minesweeping drogues, chicken shacks overlooking palms and mangroves and the lapis strait beyond. But what impresses me most about the base is not the setting but the casual arrogance of the officers. They order Amin to button his shirt to the collar before speaking. And I mark the extreme nervousness of my driver. Amin tells me later that he avoids this base because even under the current civilian regime the military still do pretty much what they want and if they don’t like you, you can still disappear and there is little anyone can do about it.
The uniform of the base commander, Captain Budhi, is crisply ironed. His face, behind tinted glasses, is excitable as a slab of limestone. He finds out quickly what type of writer I am; it is not the type he likes. He gives me tea and clove cigarettes. “Where is your clearance?” he asks politely. “What clearance do you have in your country?” I assure him, untruthfully, that my security rating is A-1. He smiles grimly and says in that case I will have no trouble getting the admiral in charge of security in Jakarta to give me clearance, as the Japanese TV men did. The interview depresses me. I wonder if I am the wrong type of writer for this story, though I consciously decided not to go the journalistic route, to avoid the official tour scheduled and nailed down from New York.
Budhi tells me something beyond the party line. Mr. Wong’s ship was impounded after the arrest and now lies a couple of miles from here. He gives me permission to take pictures from shore. The ship, it turns out, is anchored with a gaggle of other coasters off a two-man naval station harboring the idle and gray-painted outboards that are the only Indonesian naval presence I will ever spot in these waters. Amin tells me as we jounce down the dirt track that this beach is known to the locals as “Pantai Stress,” or “Stress Beach,” because it’s fairly secluded and dating couples can come here, as he puts it, to get away from the strains of life on Batam, and to indulge in “imaginings” as they stare out to sea. The navy station radios Budhi to check my clearance. Amin and I walk to a coffeeshop built on pilings over the lagoon, passing a crowd of dark men—I mean, they are dark, they glower darkly and hang out by a black, upturned sampan, caulking the seams—and I think: Here are the raw recruits of piracy gangs, unemployed fishermen, beach dwellers owning a fast boat and a bad attitude and not much to lose beyond. We hire one of their sampans to go to the Pulau Mas.
She is an old coaster with her homeport, “Pnomh Penh,” roughly painted on the stern. The name of her previous port, Hamburg, is visible under the paint. She lies, down by the stern, with hatches open and every inch rotting under the hard sun. A frayed rope ladder hangs down the starboard side. After a quick negotiation our skipper sidles up to the silent ship and I clamber aboard in a clumsy pantomime of what her crew did to the Petro Ranger. I go straight to the bridge, as pirates would. I figure I have only a few minutes before the navy susses out what I’m doing. The wheelhouse is a mess; binnacle and wheel have been removed and hydraulic steering oil slicks the deck. The radio room is a jumble of charts and notations and I thrash through them, sweating. My theory in coming aboard was a function of noir thrillers where the maverick gumshoe, visiting a scene the cops already tossed, picks up a chewing-gum wrapper on which is scrawled the phone number of the killer’s favorite bar. There are no gum wrappers but I find a logbook, thick with positions, and it strikes me as odd the navy would leave this behind. I stuff it under my shirt, with a crew-sheet listing a ship’s agent, Leong Shem, in Singapore. I roam around as much as I dare but the decay of this ship is getting to me. It may only be the navigational sanctimony of one who has worked on ships and depended on them for survival but something feels bad about this rustbucket, she feels dirty and lost and wrong. I slide fast as I dare down the rope ladder and the navy notices none of it.
More waiting; and Amin takes me to a place where waiting is the point. It’s a kopitiam, or coffeeshop, located off the main drag in Nagoya. Nagoya is the most Tijuana town of this border island, a pinball whirl of concrete commercial blocks called “kompleks” with tiny shops and markets wedged between, surrounded in turn by the impenetrable circuitry of people, on foot, on motorbikes, on “tricycles,” which are motorbikes with a cab riding a third wheel. But it’s a good place, the Kopinda, a shaded joint splayed on the corner of a kompleks, with white tiled columns and cement floor and great red adverts for Tiger beer, and stalls along the wall selling satay, fried fish, and noodles. Kopinda means “good coffee” in Bahasa. It’s a place where seamen sit, waiting for jobs, hanging out at the cheap tables like question marks silhouetted against the furnace streets—getting up suddenly and disappearing for no good reason, only to show up later and sit again.
I spend hours at the Kopinda talking with Amin and, increasingly, with contacts he has arranged. I spend even more time sipping tea in silence, moodily smoking clove cigarettes, of which I grow increasingly fond. I think thoughts whose underlying structure, like the Pulau Mas, feels somewhat altered by the hard sun. The Boy’s Life aspect of this story bothers me. I wonder why a trade so dingy and desperate, so founded on misery and death, should enjoy such swell PR. When I phoned my daughter two nights ago I found her growing increasingly upset by the length of my absence; but the fact that I was running around looking for shady characters remained a mitigating factor, because they were guys in bandannas and eyepatches brandishing curved swords—piracy, for kids, being largely a fashion statement. The argument Emi made was not that I shouldn’t leave her to chase pirates, but rather that I wouldn’t succeed: as she put it, “There are no pirates in Hong Kong, there are no pirates in Tawi-Tawi” (an island near a strait off Borneo I told her I would visit), “and most of all, there are no pirates in Singapore.” As I sit in the Kopinda I wonder if part of the cheerful spin piracy gets in Western culture doesn’t come from a nostalgia for the kind of broken time-frame pirates represent, in the sense that they live on the fringe, outside normal schedules; on the sea, which is already a margin. European pirates, like fishermen, often created an egalitarian shipboard society based on shares of the profit, which set them apart from the autocracies of their day. [fn]. And these men thrived on fucking up Western time-frames: boarding ships whose schedules were regimented, even in the eighteenth century, by markets and chronometers, kidnapping their passengers; ripping them out of the standard day. So that we, controlled and rendered impotent by the deadlines imposed on us by jobs, airlines, governments and other unstoppable forces, look at those Howard Pyle paintings of guys kicking back forever on sunwarmed decks and think, Why not?
Kopinda’s clocks, it turns out, are set to piracy time.
Hassan is a gangster who looks the part. He’s built thick as a mangrove trunk. His eyes are mean as a cobra’s. He knows people in the trade, in particular a former crewmember of the Pulau Mas. Through Amin’s Batak network I meet Rony Pangaitan, who looks like Omar Sharif and is a chief in the Batak tribe and a politician honest and true; such an animal is rare in Indonesia. Rony is a town councilor and an activist for PDI, the reformist party led by Megawati Sukharnoputri. Through the Batak mafia and via his job, he knows a pantload of people. One of them is a pirate named Jahin.
But in the meantime the meeting with Mr. Wong happens. The Japanese TV reporter is clearly the mainstream type; he has a briefcase full of permits from Jakarta. The Japanese public has thirsted for piracy news ever since the Tenyu, a Japanese ship, was taken by pirates off Sumatra in 1998. I hear later from Rony that Mr. Wong went to Jakarta last week for arraignment, and tried to escape. Two “interpreters” assigned to the Japanese mutter darkly about my clearance and place last-minute calls to the capital. A prison officer tells me they are BIA, or secret police. When I interview Mr. Wong, or Chew Cheng Kiat, or whoever he is, I get no sense as to which of his names or stories are true. He is a thin Chinese man in his late fifties with close cropped hair and an amused expression that only once reacts to the brilliantly tricky questions I pose him. It’s when I ask if he has ever heard of the Leong Shem Shipping Agency. He glances at Dahlan for a second or two, looks at me calmly, and says, “No.” Mr. Wong signed a paper confessing that he was a pirate who conducted attacks on seven different ships, including the Petro Ranger; now he denies it all. He tells me he was a lowly ship’s agent in Singapore. Pulau Mas belonged to his buddy, Mr. Ng, a businessman in Johor Bahru, the Malaysian port just north of Singapore. Mr. Wong had no idea what Ng or his ship were up to. He was arranging a delivery of fruit to the ship when the Indonesian Navy came out of nowhere, in Malaysian waters, to arrest him and seize the vessel. Dahlan tells me later that Mr. Wong is in fact a professional pirate, but he takes orders from a certain Ah Ling and a Mr. Tan, who are higher up in a syndicate financed by mainland Chinese money via Hong Kong and Singapore. Remembering how Mr. Wong smiled gently and dodged questions, I think of all the different versions of his tale: how the ship was in international waters, in Indonesian waters, in Malaysian territory; how Mr. Wong is the syndicate’s mechanic, or the producer; how he is Singaporean, Indonesian, neither. How he went to Jakarta for medical reasons, for legal reasons, to arrange the sale of his ship. I think of the braided lines of conspiracy and motivation in Almayer’s Folly, and remember, like a curse, the Kipling epitaph: “…a fool lies here, who tried to hustle the East.”
The next day, back at the Kopinda, I finally manage through a lot of bullshitting and buying lunch for people to meet the other crewmember of the Pulau Mas. We conduct the interview in Amin’s taxi, just like G-men I think, stop-going in the vicious anonymity of Nagoya traffic. Though I promised not to use his name or rank, it’s OK to say this crewman belongs to a culture traditionally known in the zone for crewing pirate ships because there are a dozen tribes that could be described that way. He has the hands of a seaman, half curled as if they can never be at rest until they touch and deal with a vector of pawl, shackle or cable. I ask him about details of equipment I saw on the Pulau Mas, stuff only someone who worked on the ship would know. His answers check out. He, in turn, confirms that Mr. Wong—who he says is not Indonesian, by his accent, but Singaporean or Malaysian Chinese—is indeed part of the “syndicate” that ran the ship. He is probably the “mechanic,” and definitely a firewall, whose job it is to take the blame and keep his mouth shut in case of trouble. The gang’s “producer,” this crewman claims, is an Indonesian named Mike. Then he furnishes yet another version of the arrest of the Pulau Mas, which is that Wong and the skipper had not forked over to Mike the profits of a recent hit, so Mike got some of his navy buddies to motor into Malaysian waters after dark to lean on them; at which point demands were made, threats followed, and the navy ended up busting the ship, and Mr. Wong, and those crewmembers unlucky enough to be aboard when all this came down.
“Mike” was not arrested. In fact, he recently offered my crewmember a job with a different gang of pirates shaping up for a job in Indonesian waters in the near future. My crewman turned him down; he says he has given up piracy for good.
Still seeking anonymous zones we drive to a canteen in the Batam Industrial Park, where workers from the various factories come on break. The park is 320 hectares in area and employs thousands of workers, most of them female. Yet this is only a small percentage of the total maquiladora aspect of Batam. For the island, which as late as the 1980s was a backwater of 7,000 inhabitants inhabiting a handful of fishing villages squeezed between jungle and sea, in the late ‘80s and ‘90s was engulfed by the twin dragons of Singapore’s regional expansion plan, and the fiery corruption of Indonesian politics. Suharto donated the island, administratively speaking, to Pertamina, the state oil company, and put his buddy Habibie in charge. Habibie set up a system hardly unknown elsewhere in Indonesia: Give massive tax breaks and cheap land to your family and buddies and multinational companies; receive, in exchange, large chunks of cash. The beneficiaries included Habibie’s son Thareq Keemal, his brother “Timmy” Abdulrachman, and his pal, Liem Soe Lieng. All have interests in the company that set up the industrial park, which rents space to Schneider and Novartis, among others. Watching the lucky workers at the Batamindo canteen—lucky because they get paychecks, while most on the island do not—I am swamped by the realization that this piracy I am looking into is picayune and low-rent compared to the vaster hijackings practiced by fat cats and corporations on this stretch of coast. Much as, I suppose, the depredations of Bellamy, Morgan, and Tews were as fleabites compared to the orgy of bloodshed and pillage, known as the European colonization of America, on which they preyed.
In Western time I make arrangements to meet Jahin, a contact of Rony’s who lives in what Rony describes as “a village of pirates” on Belakangpadang Island. There he practices the garage-startup version of the trade: holding up passing ships, forcing the ship’s safe and stealing any proximate valuables, and vanishing into the night. I also spend whole days in Singapore and this is the worst time because I am not getting anywhere, and at the same time I am making plans to travel to the strait I told my daughter about, the one separating Borneo from the westernmost islands in the Philippines. I want to ride with a snakehead across that strait, for it’s a piece of water known for being hit on by pirates, who usually just hold up illegal immigrants making the trip, but who have been known to kidnap passengers, machinegun everyone on board. The odds of this happening are not huge, but it still makes me nervous. Yet how else do I get close to this issue? How else do I locate the story’s nub, and learn in my gut what piracy is? The thought of my family trusting me to research this story and come back whole while instead I risk my life and their happiness, however marginally, conjures bad dreams in the Singapore “Mariners’ Club:” facile visions of racing across cruel waters with an invisible something in pursuit. It would be safer to track down one of the producers or mechanics who work out of Singapore or Hong Kong; show him evidence of what he did, perhaps convince him to talk. For a few days I think I might be able to do this. A lawyer in Hong Kong points me to a writ in Hong Kong High Court, Action HCCL 27/1999 of February, ’99, that names the Poa Seng Shipping Company of No. 20 Lorong 21/A, Geylang, Singapore, as owner of the 15, 788 barrels of palm oil transported on the Pacifica. This was a ship that got pirated on a voyage between Pasir Gudang, Malaysia, and China in June of ’98. The Poa Seng company is also named, in an action filed in London in late 1999, as owner of a cargo that disappeared in similar circumstances on the Jubilee. It might be total coincidence that the Tenyu, which was hijacked by pirates and then showed up in southern China under a different name in October, 1998, was carrying 15,788 barrels of palm oil of the same quality as Pacifica’s when she was busted. It could be coincidence that two of the pirates on the Tenyu were also involved in the case of the Anna Sierra, a freighter full of sugar hijacked off Indonesia in 1995. It might also be coincidence that the owners of the Jubilee were listed as Mr. Ng and Mr. Tan, two names that came up in connection with Mr. Wong’s group. One has to remember that in southern Asia Ng, Tan, and Wong are names as common as Brown, Jackson or Jones in the U.S.
I’ll get no hard answers from Poa Seng, however. Its address turns out to be a beauty parlor. Its spokesman, Lee Ha Seng, when I finally reach him on the phone, tells me he has no knowledge of the Pacifica, or the Tenyu, or of palm oil cargoes. He says his company is not involved in shipping anymore. Then he hangs up; further calls go unanswered. I squelch through a downpour on another morning to locate the Leong Shem Shipping Agency, of IIA Stanley Street, listed agent for the Melaka Jaya; this was the name Wong’s ship went by before she became Pulau Mas. If “Mike” and his bunch are shipping insiders, I theorize, it is likely they contacted friends or even co-conspirators to find a cheap vessel to use for hijacks. But no shipping agencies rent space at IIA Stanley Street. And the cool, computerized records office of the Singapore government, located on the eight floor of a Ramada-style tower on Cecil Street, holds no trace whatsoever of a company named Leong Shem.
My last gambit consists of tracking down a “Captain Joe Pulaka,” whose name appears on the Pacifica’s papers, and came up in connection with the Jubilee. A man in the maritime insurance business tells me that I can find Captain Joe through the consulate of Honduras, the Central American country that arranges registration papers for shipowners who don’t want to pay high fees or answer too many questions. A large proportion of pirated ships have found new identities under the red, white and blue colors of Honduras. I put together the specs of ship not unlike the Melaka Jaya. Then I knock on the door of Marden Marine Management, which doubles as the Honduran consulate. The consul is a Singaporean named Allen Walters. He is in his early fifties, with a square mustache, very white teeth, lots of rings. A thin grin appears on his lips as soon as I mention my old buddy Captain Joe and never quite goes away after. He tells me Joe has not been around for a long time. Joe, the consul adds, with a sorrowful shake of the head, has come under the spell of the dark powers of the waterfront. He seems, in particular, to have trafficked Honduran papers for ships that it turned out later had been taken by pirates. But enough about Joe, Walters continues. Then he explains, in great detail, how for $5,000 Singaporean dollars I can obtain a 90-day temporary registration certificate for the used coaster I am purchasing. All I will need is a certificate of sale with an affidavit from a notary public in Malaysia, which is where my fictional ship lies. After that, as others have done—and Walters does not say this—I can go to the consulate of Panama, or Cambodia, or the Bahamas, obtain a similar certificate under another name, and continue the dance.
Toward the end of my stay in Singapore I visit the National Archives on Canning Row to satisfy a different curiosity. In 1897 Joseph Conrad signed on as first mate of the Vidar, a steam coaster owned by a Singaporean merchant named Al Joffree. He made five trips between Singapore, Sulawesi, and the east coast of Borneo. These trips, which included stopovers at river trading posts at Bulungan and Berau, provided the raw data for Almayer’s Folly, Lord Jim, and other works. It is also possible that the Vidar, and Conrad, engaged in another traditional activity of Europeans in the piracy zone: selling guns and ammunition to the locals in return for exotic produce. The plot of Almayer’s Folly pivots on the reluctant involvement of Almayer in a scheme to run guns to a part of Indonesia that was rebelling against the Dutch at the time. Netherlands colonial records from that period state; “the import of guns and powder by the Vidar was a matter of investigation.”
The Singapore harbor records for 1897-98 do not mention the Vidar at all, though she does show up in ship movement columns in the Straits Times. I learn later that in this city-state where newspapers and Internet messages can be censored for content detrimental to the well-being of Singapore; where jaywalking, leaving a toilet unflushed, or possession of chewing gum are crimes; that any historical records apt to embarrass not only Singapore but her Asian neighbors are locked in a separate section of the archives, for which special clearance is required. (fn)
I hook up with Rony and Amir and we hire a sampan to ferry us to Belakangpadang. The island’s main village is built on stilts over a bay opposite an island used for transshipping crude oil. Amin and I wait, as usual, in a kopitiam, smoking clove cigarettes, drinking sweet milky tea. Here, as elsewhere in the Riau archipelago, there is no shortage of young men hanging around as we do. Jahin, when he finally shows up, is not one of these; I noticed him earlier, a lean fellow in his late forties, strolling back and forth along the walks of this half-village half-deck, accompanied by youths wearing jewelry and long hair. Jahin has a cloth cap, a medallion, a ready chuckle. His eyes, like Abyankhar’s, stay on the horizon. He smokes a lot, and bursts some of the assumptions I made about attacking merchant ships. He does not, for example, use a rope and grappling hook, but rather a long piece of bamboo with a boxhook lashed to the end, to shinny up the sides of freighters. Once aboard, he will unroll one of the mooring lines and drop that to the sampan for easier access. And in coming up to the vessel he will bring his boat up the bubbles and whirls of the ship’s wake—then, leaping the first wave of wake, lay the sampan between the first and second swells, under the ship’s counter, as the pole-man fishes for purchase. However, Jahin adds, scanning the horizon, he is out of this line of work for good. The men in his village also have given it up for now, because of increased activity by local navies in this part of the strait.
Still, the syndicate is hiring, he continues; or at least, a man who he knows belongs to a syndicate offered Jahin a job two weeks ago for a hijack “sometime soon” in local waters. I press him for details. He chuckles. What he says meshes with what I know of the gang the Pulau Mas crewmember referred to. It is one of three cells that make up the group. Only one cell is used at a time. The immediate boss is an Indonesian who might or might not be “Mike,” from Wong’s old team. They hang in an apartment in Nagoya. They drink a lot. If I offer them enough whisky, Jahin adds, if I guarantee to make them famous without mentioning names, he might be able to broker a meeting. I offer whisky. Jahin says it will take at least a week to arrange. I’m supposed to go to the Philippines in two days but I repeat my offer: If this is for real, if I can really talk to these men, I will return to Batam.
That night, still on Batam, a South African who wears a kaffiyeh and claims he is a “legal consultant” takes me to a karaoke club. The Vovo is filled with Singaporean Chinese men looking smug and singing American pop and even sappier Chinese ballads to clusters of prostitutes hanging like September grapes on bars and couches. Anton introduces me to an Indonesian Chinese woman, with a classically lovely face, named Santi. As Anton warbles Rod Stewart Santi urges me to return later. She has a four-year-old daughter who lives with her grandmother in Jakarta and depends on the cash Santi earns at the Vovo. The going rate for a night with Santi is less than fifty bucks.
I don’t go back; but later that night I lie awake in my hotel room, which overlooks a shantytown full of hopeful and out of work Indonesians, and then the bay in which Pulau Mas is anchored, and Pantai Stress. The hotel is full of girls like Santi, and I think of her; think of the selat, too, and what it is in me that pushes me to court risk, however attenuated by probabilities or condoms, when if that risk were ever to achieve its potential the people it would hurt most would not be me, but those I love more than risk or writing. This hotel, or brothel, stands nextdoor to another karaoke, and all night the Singaporeans croon to their hired girls: It’s Now or Never, and I Can’t Stop Loving You, and the greatest hits of Tom Jones. And if I don’t go back to Santi it is mostly because of my family; but also it is in part out of distaste for this Third Millennium imperialism where the rich of the New Asia screw the poor of the old and sing, very badly, Delilah.
Three days later I leave for the selat.
The selat marks the end of the Sulu Islands, between the Sulu and Sulawesi Seas. The islands rest on a geological ridge known as the Sulu Tectonic Arc which includes a few volcanoes but is mostly made up of coral atolls accreted on the uplift. The volcanoes are dormant; what is not asleep in this area is a more human form of collision, for the Sulu Islands are Muslim and their inhabitants have been fighting the Catholic authorities in Manila since the Spanish got there in the 16th century. They kept fighting when the Americans arrived and then the Japanese and they are still at it. There is no air link to Tawi Tawi, the farthest major island in the chain, till the day I get to western Mindanao, which by bright coincidence is the day Asian Spirit Airlines inaugurates the first flight in over a year. Signs in Zamboanga City airport urge passengers to check in their guns. Soldiers and choppers patrol the perimeter. Military cops write down my name. Westerners are prime kidnapping targets of the local guerrillas, and the army wants to know who I was in case I disappear.
The plane, a molding ex-Chinese YS-11, flies down a line of plentiful clouds, and atolls whose lagoons are browned by mangrove, and reefs turning the water above them the kind of blue you see in cruise brochures. At one point an oil slick fans away from something sunken near a reef and I watch it as long as I can. This is, after all, the heartland of the Sulu sultanate, and the sultanate of Sulu, since the 1300s, was infamous as being the hot spot for piracy in the zone. Stamford Raffles, the East India Company bureaucrat who founded Singapore, wrote in 1811: “Sulu…has been subject to constant civil commotion, and the breaking down of government has covered the Sulu seas with fleets of formidable pirates.” More recently, Cockatoo, an online guide to the Philippines, posted the following newspaper account of the takeover by pirates of a Filipino passenger vessel crossing the selat: “Seven pirates armed with automatic weapons attacked the small boat with 33 passengers and crew…the pirates forced nine of the 16 males to one side of the boat and opened fire, killing them instantly.”
A sheer volcano, its top hidden by clouds, rises from Tawi Tawi’s eastern end, and a long lagoon cuts across its midriff. The shores are jungle, mostly, except for a beach road, a wide harbor. The road from the airport winds through jungle interspersed with palm-thatched shacks propped high on the usual stilts. Roadside stands sell gasoline and brake fluid in cola bottles to the jeepneys and sputtering tricycles that cruise endlessly back and forth. In Bongao port the stalls stand shoulder to shoulder and sell, in addition to fuel, miniature seagoing hearths, cassava cakes, machetes, and a brightly colored junk food named “Chippy Chips.” The bigger buildings are guarded by men with shotguns.
In a hotel on the northern shore I meet an ethnologist who works for the ministry of education. Talib Saugogot is a wiry fellow with a permanent grin that deepens, outlining harsh cheekbones and a total of two teeth in his lower jaw, when he talks about the folklore of the Sama and Tausug tribes who inhabit the Sulu Islands. Talib has been collecting these tales for years, and you could say his efforts are a form of family therapy, for Talib is half Tausug and half Sama and that is more complicated than it sounds. The Sama, who may be descendants of the first Austronesians to populate this area, are a laid-back people who until only a few years ago lived exclusively on their boats, fishing and trading and sailing. Whereas the Tausug, who created the Sulu sultanate and gave it backbone, are a people so tough and violent they make Sicilians look like a co-dependency counseling session. One might even term them bullying and vindictive, given their record, were it not for their habit of defying empires, and a concept of honor and friendship whose rigor calls to mind bushido. They also invented a system of mutual party-throwing, by which they resolve issues of wealth distribution, that I find attractive. The Tausug lived from trade and some farming but mostly from pirating and slave raiding. And as overlords of this area they evolved a feudal relationship with the Sama living on their graceful, claw-sailed lepas. In this relationship the Sama were serfs, providing the Tausug with the fruits of the Sundaic seas in exchange for protection and fair treatment. Because one thing about these “serfs” was, if things got too bad, the lepas would be gone tomorrow, so a Tausug overlord could not act too brutally without putting his private economy at risk.
But the picture contains scumbles and undertones, or so Talib implies, sitting in my hotel room by candlelight; the electricity on Tawi Tawi is provided by a power barge owned by the national utilities company and it works only half the time. New inputs fuzz the algorithm. One is agal-agal, the edible seaweed beloved of the Chinese and now cultivated on platforms on the coral in lagoons and offshore. Another is shabu, or methamphetamine hydrochloride—crank. It is smuggled in from Borneo and purchased with the proceeds from agal-agal. And of course guns remain a factor, and they too come in from Borneo, or are sold on the black market by Filipino soldiers, to add their quotient of instability to the mixture. Here is an example of how tricky it can get. Talib describes a recent incident where pirates attacked a boat full of fishermen. The pirates included several Sama, who ostensibly ran the craft. This reassured their prey who figured Sama were less likely to harbor ill intent. But when they got close, a core of heavily armed Tausug popped out of the bilges and did the actual gun-pointing and tough-talking.
More recently, a boatload of pirates working the selat between the island of Sitangkai and Sabah, in Borneo, were surprised by a Malaysian patrol craft and summarily machine-gunned to death. Only one man, who jumped overboard, escaped. That bunch was all Sama, Talib says, grinning less fulsomely, leaving me to work out the complexities by myself.
I will need to go to Sitangkai for this story, Talib adds, and I feel the nerves rev up, because that island is the jumping-off point for those wishing to cross the fifty-odd miles of open ocean to Borneo. Ferries are scheduled to leave on the overnight run from Bongao to Sitangkai tomorrow and the next day. Talib gives me a name to look up. He warns me not to cross the selat, because it is too risky, so of course the fear accelerates in me, because all along I felt it would come to this—that options would fail or erode, and I would be left with only the one choice: of putting myself in the heart of the piracy zone as prey.
I spend the next two days waiting for the boat, haunting the main wharf and also the Chinese Pier, where if I only knew it much smaller boats leave more frequently for Sibutu, from where I could hire a launch to motor me to Sitangkai. But no one at the roadside stands selling ferry tickets, or at the militia post by the harbor, clues me in. So I sit in black coffeeshops guzzling Royal orange pop while people gawk and call “Hey Joe! Where are you going, Joe? What is your purpose—Joe?”
I am Western enough to hate the waiting, and the loss of time, but at the same time—and I repeat the noun advisedly because the two forms of time are involved here—I enjoy hanging around the Chinese Pier. For this is the piracy zone Conrad knew. The prows of large wooden seagoing vessels, halfway between junks and caiques, line up overhanging the wharf’s capstones. Across the pier the godowns stand; they are small warehouses, unlit save by pressure lamps or the odd working bulb; piled high with copra, dried fish, trepang (sea cucumber), shells, agal-agal, live lobster, bananas, and other products of Sulu. In this nothing has changed since the sultanate’s heyday, when British and American merchants, desperate to find goods they could sell to the Chinese in exchange for tea—the Chinese being unimpressed with Western gadgets—came to Sulu; for China coveted the products of the Sundaic seas. The sultanate, for its part, lusted greatly for one product Western civilization has always made a lot of, namely guns. The Tausug needed guns not only to maintain their own feud-based culture, but to extend their reach across the strait to Borneo, and sections of Sulawesi and Mindanao as well. In the 1820s and ‘30s ships from Salem, Massachusetts, routinely ferried guns and powder from the U.S., bartered them in Sulu for local produce, and shipped that to Canton, where they loaded tea. And just as the godowns of Bongao’s Chinese Pier still sell trepang and dried fish to Guangzhou and Taipei, so arms remain a prized commodity here. The Philippines army complains that the Moro National Liberation Front gets regular deliveries of weapons from across the strait. Washington, of course, equips the Filipino armed forces to the tune of just under $80 million annually. And Gerard Rixhon, an anthropologist at Manila’s Ateneo University, says that when he ran a school on Sibutu, CIA pilots smuggling guns to Muslim rebels in Sulawesi regularly used his island as a refueling point, for Washington then considered Sukharno’s government a leftist threat. Sitting in the coffee joints, watching sweat-slick stevedores hump gunnysacks of rice or copra up steep planks from bow to pier, it’s easy to imagine that time in the Sulus is a commodity that shrinks and expands, folds in on itself and is cut crosswise so that you can never be sure where in the line of serial events you stand, or what strand of it, a day or a century old, might be coiling around your feet to trip you up.
To slice up the waiting I track down Adjarail Hapas at the branch of Mindanao State University in Sanga Sanga, at the other end of the lagoon. I drop in on him out of Western time, unannounced and demanding of information, and like most Filipinos he is far too polite to let his own requirements interfere with my desire for information. Hapas’ office looks out on Bongao Peak, populated by monkeys and Sama ancestors who live in a shrine up top. He shows me articles he has written for scholarly publications on leaders of Tausug resistance: Khamleen, who fought the Filipino army to a standstill in the 1950s; and Panglima Hassan, who battled the American army in the earliest years of this century. The Americans were led on occasion by Captain John Pershing, was to distinguish himself later on a more Hollywood scale of slaughter in France. The Kota Wars, as they were called, ended after U.S. troops slaughtered several hundred poorly armed Tausug on a hill called Bud Dajo. Hapas is slender and languid. He has a thin mustache and a sorrowful expression. He reminds me that piracy is in the eyes of the beholder, in the sense that what a Westerner terms piracy might in local eyes variously be seen as the seagoing application of political pressure against a rival sultanate, or resisting restraint of trade, or enforcement of customs regulations, or guerrilla warfare against a colonizing power. Certainly the history of the Malay archipelago is crammed with examples of all these piracies. Though there were and are pirates who operate strictly for personal gain, much of what the British termed piracy was really a kind of waterfront maquis protesting the European practice of reserving trade for the “stapled” ports of Malacca and Penang, or the Dutch exclusionary zone of Batavia. Sometimes it was waterborne raiding carried out by one river chieftain that the Europeans didn’t recognize against shipping owned by a rival. The zone is the piracy zone because of geographical factors, but political conditions exist that are a function of its peculiar geographical character, and these can be grossly summarized as the conditions of a saltwater frontier: large tracts of wilderness, both aquatic and terrestrial, that were tough for a central authority to control, and where chieftains straddling the land-sea interface could act pretty much as they pleased. In this environment, piracy and smuggling, slave-raiding and kidnapping, religion and import duties, resistance and outlawry were mixed so thoroughly that it was often impossible to sift out the different flavors or define them independently. And so it was easy and convenient for bureaucrats in London or Amsterdam to label all varieties of maritime violence in that part of the world “piracy,” and send gunboats to stamp it out.
Over the brow of coconut palms surrounding the college at Sanga Sanga, on a beach were Sama have erected a slum of stilted shacks, a sixty-foot kumpit is being built by a Sama artisan. It is a lovely hull, the kind of high-prowed cargo boat that crowds the wharves in Bongao, every line perfect. It is carved partly from huge trunks of trees that constantly drift over from the fragile forests of Sabah; kapor for the planks, lawohan for the strakes. The boatwright is a Sama de Laut, a Sama “of the ocean,” as opposed to a Sama de Lea, which is the term used for those who long ago gave up their boats to live on land. With no blueprints or sketches to guide him he crafts the hull from a template in his head, using three tools only: an adze, a knife, and a chainsaw.
The owner is a Sama de Lea, a former teacher. He will use the kumpit to smuggle cargo across the strait, and in so doing he may well become a victim of the pirates who lurk between this area and Borneo. Yet something about the owner’s quiet assurance, and the almost religious focus of the boatbuilder, remind me that not all Sama are cast in the turn-the-other-cheek mold; that quite a few were hired by Sulu sultans to raid for them on account; and that some sub-groups of the Sama, like the Lanun or the Balangingi, became professional pirates in their own right, feared on a par with Tausug raiders and the Bugis of Sulawesi and the Wako of Formosa. Legend has it that the first professional pirate was Lee Ma Ho, a Chinese; and the first people who worked for her were Sama, who later gave the Tausug lessons in how to catch and rob ships. I remember, too, the second term for pirate in Bahasa: badjau laut, or sea gypsies. It is the term Filipinos use to refer to the Sama.
The boat to Sitangkai is announced for eight a.m., then noon, then three. She finally shows up, a black shape outlined by running lights, at eight p.m: bigger than I expected and really rough, a former Japanese deep-sea trawler of one cargo level and two passenger decks entirely covered with rough cots except for a couple of passageways just wide enough to walk along crabwise. The wharf is full, so she docks alongside a coaster, and there follows a scene that terrifies me but that fazes nobody else, as every one of her two-to-three hundred passengers stampedes toward shore, tilting the ferry to starboard, and starts scrambling across the three-foot gap between ship and freighter. Women lean precariously across the dark water; hands grope in the histrionic illumination of decklights; grandfathers, cripples, swaddled infants are suspended between two huge steel hulls that would inevitably crush them to death if they were to slip; others reach out to grasp proffered babies, lift them to safety. Amid the thrum of diesels and the stink of exhaust, harbor water, dried fish and humanity, this appears to me a scene of shipwreck, like the chapter in Lord Jim where the young mate panics in a storm and abandons his cargo of terrified pilgrims. The more I see of these waters, the more I am struck by how closely Conrad modeled his fiction on scenes he witnessed. Now I wonder whether his novels were not largely fact. Two days ago—by way of example—I mentioned Mrs. Almayer to Jerry Hapas. She was the daughter of a Sulu pirate “chieftain,” and she turned against the white man who raised her, and the Dutchman she married, and embraced the culture of the trading port she lived in: either Berau, or Bulungan, in eastern Borneo (fn). I told Jerry it seemed unlikely to me that the daughter of a Tausug chief should feel sympathy with the half-Bugi, half Malay inhabitants of that town, when the Tausug were more used to raiding such places for loot and slaves. And Jerry said, “She might feel they were beneath her. But she could also feel a religious solidarity because Bugis and Malays are also Muslim.” And he reminded me again that it was possible Mrs. Almayer might be, not a Tausug, but a Sama, who would not feel the same contempt for potential victims.
The ferry does not leave at once. She unloads soft drinks and loads ton upon ton of ice, in blocks that melt on the quayside and are pushed through the pond of their own dissolution down a metal slide to the vessel’s gut. The Sampaguita Grandeur also carries on her cargo deck a load of stacked bamboo, both split and whole. But her perennial cargo is people. People of all shapes and ages. People both frightening by their numbers, by the sheer imposition they make on deck-space; and pathetic by their vulnerability, by that need for breastmilk or orange pop or a soft place to rest. The passenger decks are covered, literally and to a depth of two inches, with garbage. The open after section, by the twin funnels, is where people go, bearing a saucer of water for ablutions, to shit.
At four a.m. the loading and unloading are done. The ship leaves the quay without a change in the note of her engine. I lie on my cot, feet stubbed on one passenger astern of me, shoulder rubbing someone beside, jostled by those on their way to and from the after deck, realizing for the first time that I am riding a journalistic cliche, something condemned to be filler on page eight of the daily back home: an overloaded and superannuated Filipino ferryboat whose casualty list, should a fire start or we hit a reef or be capsized in a squall, would inevitably and despite the presence of lifejackets run well over one hundred. But the sea is calm and still, the visibility perfect under a yellow half-moon. An ancestor shrine smokes peacefully on the after bulkhead of the wheelhouse. At an open window the Chinoy skipper squints impassive down the trail of moonlight as his dog yaps around the feet of the crew and the prostitutes who service the Grandeur’s officers yawn, and put on makeup, and crack jokes about the sleepless Milikan.
No movie scout would choose Sitangkai as a location. It comes out of the sea like an apology for the intrusion, a thickening of water in the shadow of clouds, more and more fishing shanties perched on stilts balanced on coral reefs; mangrove-rimmed shores framing a shallow lagoon many miles in diameter. The ferry docks at the lagoon’s nearest end, at a pier poured on an excrescence of coral and otherwise covered with godowns and shacks and surrounded by docks and arrangements of catwalks and shanties. The way into town is a parade of small launches that race each other through the coral down channels so narrow the boatmen have to fend each other off with bargepoles in passing. The anthropologist in Manila told me with a noncommital smile that Sitangkai was nicknamed “the Venice of the South,” and having been to other “Venices” in my life—in London and southwest France and California; any place with more than three canals within a square-mile area seems to earn the epithet—I anticipated little resemblance. And yet, wedged in the bombot’s bilge as we steer through the suburbs of stilted cabins and enter a wide canal, I realize this place really does look like the real Venice. It’s not as grand or big of course, it’s more of a clamshack Venice, or perhaps what the city on the Adriatic looked like early on, when it first served as a refuge from Wisigoths. The waterway is lined with market stalls and a few taller, balconied buildings, and at intervals side-canals open into darker and more complex windings, and the mud stinks and the water seems to lie thick with plots and ink. Bridges exactly like the Italian version, with steps on each side and a high arch in the middle to let boats pass, cross the waterways at frequent intervals. A couple of them bear structures resembling the Rialto’s. And the boatmen cut their outboards and call to each other and pick up poles to push their craft, which are thin as gondolas and black in the uncouth equatorial morning. Disembarking, the launch’s mate leads me across a series of boardwalks and bridges lining a dozen side-canals, where everything, walkways, shacks, shops, shanties, is built on thousands upon thousands of thin poles standing on the abused reef and the merciful swirl of tide. Talib has a friend back here; he is the principal of the Panglima Alari Elementary School and a significant figure in the Sama community. His house is bigger than most, and Hadji Musa Malabong rents the upstairs room to strangers. For besides having no electricity (except for personal generators), telephone (outside of the lone “telephone office” in town), running water, or sewers (if you discount the tide), Sitangkai also possesses no hotels.
It’s at Hadji Musa’s that I meet Lanne, who will introduce me to the people I need to talk to; who, it seems possible, will take me to the selat; who will also acquaint me with those still practicing the trade of piracy. Lanne is long-faced, and tall for a Sama. He has a small administrative post in the local barangay, or ward. He knows many people on the island. Lanne is fiercely proud of his own culture, and collects Sama folktales. That’s how he knows Talib, and it’s because of this angle that he wants to help me; anyone interested in the Sama, even from the piracy perspective, interests him. Lanne is also volatile; when I first tell him what I want, he gets excited and starts rattling off incidents, and people he knows who know people and so on. Then, only a few minutes later, he appears to collapse into depression, and silently stares off across the canal by Musa’s house, and I wonder if I said something wrong, or if he is seeing the other side of this project—that it could reflect badly on Sitangkai or the Sama, or get him into trouble, or worse.
I spend a lot of time staring into space at Musa’s while Lanne is off seeing people and, I hope, scoring contacts for the Milikan. I got used to waiting in Batam so I can hang out a little easier now. In any case it is pleasant to wait here. My room has louvered windows on all four sides. Two face the web of corrugated tin and palm-frond roofs, the wooden decks and toxic water of town; another looks across further canals to the minaret of the nearest mosque, where Musa’s nephew is the imam. To the north, the canal on which we live cuts through the town’s other side to a few agal-agal shacks, and then the long, smoky blue expanse of the selat, the horizon always besieged by brigades of equatorial clouds marching south. During the day it is very hot, but a breeze usually runs through here as casually as the crowds of children who scamper in and out in pursuit of kids’ most solemn objectives, shaking the house on its frail structure as they go. The family on the dock to the north builds boats, as the man in Sanga Sanga did, direct from brain to hand to wood. The docks to the east and west belong to fishing families and they live on those patchwork lanais, flaking out their catch of fish or seaweed, repairing nets. When daylight fades they stay outside till late, eating, chasing kids. Before dawn Musa’s nephew cranks up his tune of minor keys and grace notes to praise Allah for the almost invisible pearling of gray to the east. And then the fishing families conjure fire from their lapohans, the bidet-shaped clay hearths that Sama have used to cook on boats from way before anyone can remember, and from then till the following midnight the air is perfumed with the smoke of junglewood and frying fish and steam from rice, which is the staple of our diet here. Through the barred louvers I watch them like a spy, the families who squat by woks, eating with their fingers. I learn to recognize whose kids are whose, and which parents take boats out fishing. I know the women suckling, and a grandfather who wanders with an infant ever in his arms. This part of town is peopled entirely by Sama de laut. They were the untouchables of the Sulu Sea, lowest in caste, despised by the Tausug for not being “real” muslims, though their version of the faith was similar. Musa, who was born and raised on a boat and as a child sailed with his family down ancient trading routes to southern Borneo, has set up a group dedicated to preserving the culture of the Sama de laut before it is eroded by landbound ways and crank and the corruption of the Filipino body politic. He imagines building a big lepa and using it as a classroom to teach old skills, like boatbuilding and trepang fishing. “The Tausug want boats; we can build them boats. Why not?” Musa says. But the Tausug are also a problem. “Twenty years ago,” Musa says, sweeping his hand to take in all of Sitangkai, “this place was all Sama. Now there is over fifty percent Tausug in this town. On this island, maybe twenty percent Tausug.” They are driven here, he adds, by the guerrilla war flaring in Jolo and the central islands of the chain. Sitangkai’s mayor and the congressman are both Tausug. When I talk to him later, Lanne confirms that many of the local pirates are also Tausug, and if you visualize the Tausug as an organized platoon, which in some ways is not unfair, then the pirates function as point, taking the first ditches, attacking Sama boats, stealing their equipment, threatening those who don’t leave their seaweed farms when informed, firmly, that these stand in waters now controlled by Tausug.
I meet the mayor early on. Musa’s son guides me to a coffee shop full of shadows and deep booths, and men with guns who hang around looking tough. We are stopped three times on our way through the back, but when I finally meet hizzoner he declines to speak on grounds that his English is not good, though it seems serviceable to me. Later that day I take a bomboat back to the ferryboat island to meet a friend of Hapas’, a cigarette smuggler. “Pirates,” the smuggler shouts; it’s the conversational equivalent of a wrestler grabbing hold of his opponent’s belt. We are sitting in another coffeehouse, crowded with men waiting to board one of the Sampaguita company tubs back to Tawi Tawi, a process that will take time, for two hundred tons of agal-agal in gunny sacks await loading and only a half dozen stevedores can do the job, balancing on their shoulders sacks that are the size and weight of the dockers themselves as they tread twin planks to the cargo deck. “All crimes in the Philippines,” the smuggler says, “can be traced to politics. Politics here is a business investment. You get office, you cash in—the people suffer economically and they are forced into a life of piracy.” In Sitangkai, he adds, politicos employ pirates, not directly to steal boats but to draw on their stock-in-trade of violence when enforcers are needed. “The Three Gs of politics,” the smuggler declaims, even louder, and pounds on the table, causing his companions, who have heard all this before, to laugh uncertainly. “Guns, goons, and gold. You need them to get elected—and once you are in power, you can never resign. The pirates won’t let you.”
The smuggler is a Tausug. He treats me to soda. He tells me that most of the pirates, though by no means all, are Tausug. They are violent and dangerous, but that, he repeats, is the fault of politics.
For several days I make more progress on crossing the selat than I want to at this point. It is Musa who indirectly makes the connection, though he wants no part of it really, because the trip is risky due to pirates and the intrinsic hazards of crossing fifty miles of sea at night in an open boat. It is also illegal, since the Malaysians don’t allow “backdoor” entry. Still, a friend knows a friend and the second friend brings his boat around to show me how strong and fast it is, and in truth it is a good craft, a “speedbot” maybe fifteen feet long, lean and tightly built and powered by a fifty horse Yamaha. He can pick me up in four days, the snakehead offers, and take me to Semporna, which is the nearest town in northeastern Borneo. And I agree, feeling nervous and also excited because at thirty knots this boat could be across the selat in an hour and a half. And Semporna is only 150 miles from Bulungan, which was Conrad’s last port of call outbound on the Vidar.
From the telephone office, I call Rony in Batam. He tells me that Jahin’s pirates have refused to be interviewed.
I push Lanne harder. I may have seen a pirate by this time—a fellow who Musa says works in a pirate crew, who lives in a nearby shack, but has no interest in talking to me. I have met victims, too. Musa’s cousin was recently chased in his fishing boat by a boatful of Tausugs in a fast launch. He lost his engine, his fuel tank, his Briggs and Stratton controls. It was a seaborne mugging, a treble note on the scale of violence that sounds like plain chant across this lagoon.
Musa tells me the story of the sergeant fish, a creature with a snout that looks like it was pounded flat by a hammer. According to the Sama, the sergeant fish once had an elegant nose, until the day the Bamban fish snuck up behind him and screamed, “Look out, pirates!” This panicked the sergeant fish so much he swam into a rock and crushed his face.
I don’t sleep well. I have come close several times to finding what I came for only to be stymied at the last minute. I’m growing a little paranoid, frankly; as if the piracy zone were a vast conspiracy designed to lead me on and on and disappoint me at the end with fables. In my urgency I use cliches, patronizing neo-Asian allegories, on Lanne. “It’s like I’m hunting tiger in the jungle,” I insist. “Everywhere I go I see bones, I see paw prints. I hear stories about what he’s done. Sometimes I catch a flash of movement, deep in the trees. But I never see the tiger. And now I wonder if he really exists.” Lanne, who wants me to sponsor him for a visit to the States, squeezes his contacts, or pretends to. Maybe he’s just playing me a little to see what else I will offer. At any rate, shortly after my tiger speech, he remembers a pal of his who works odd carpentry jobs with a pirate. The trick with this particular tiger, Lanne says, smiling sadly as he reprises my analogy, will be getting him to open his mouth. “He is a real pirate, this man,” Lanne continues, staring moodily across the dock. “He has killed many people. He has a scar in his face from a bullet,” and Lanne points to his own cheek, “from a machine gun.” None of this seems to make Lanne happy.
The pirate’s friend thinks he can be persuaded. We arrange a rendezvous for the following night, and the hour passes, then another, and it’s clear the pirate will not appear. Almost a month has passed since I saw my children; the “back-by” date I gave Emilie is only a few days off and there is no way I can make that deadline and I feel lousy. I do not break promises to my daughter. I sit in my room, rereading Almayer’s Folly by candlelight as the moon lacquers Sitangkai silver and indigo. I read through the noon hours, when neighbors climb upstairs and pass out on my floor among the cooler breezes of altitude. The notes to this Oxford edition of Conrad claim the author erred when he described Almayer awaiting the northerly monsoons, because so close to the equator there is no such animal, but in this the Oxford critic is wrong. We are only two hundred miles from Bulungan, in identical conditions of climate and sea, and this wind, Musa tells me, blows reliably from late January to early March. And every day I spend here it bears down from the north, and the children run out on their docks and flaking platforms and sail tiny, Chinese-style kites till it looks like the whole town is a kind of flying machine suspended on a thousand butterflies lifting this congregation of clamshacks into the clouds.
I defer the trip across the selat, and the night after doing so I dream of it. My worries lately have focused on the multitude of drifting trunks that are washed off the shores of Borneo, casualties of illegal logging, into the strait. I grew up running small outboards and I know what happens when a Boston Whaler hits a log at speed. What a tree three feet in diameter will do to the “speedbot” going thirty knots doesn’t bear thinking about. In my dream we hit the log, and the boat disintegrates, and I am left floundering like Michael Rockefeller in black waters between the Sulu and Sulawesi seas, wondering about sharks. I wake up sweating and deeply unhappy, because what’s the point of dreaming if your dreams mirror your fears without a saving distortion? And I have serious trouble facing without distortion the idea of dying, because I fear death more than I used to, mostly because of Emilie; because of how sad my disappearance would make her, and how it would harm her to grow up aware, in a way no child should be, of the extent to which living can hurt. Now more than ever I question my interest in violence and situations of risk. A desire to live intensely may make sense in the abstract, but what is it when that desire puts a kid’s happiness on the line other than the irresponsible quest for sensation at someone else’s deep expense?
The next day Hadji Musa introduces me to the grandfather I have seen strolling around the decks outside. He is spare and has a soft and deferrent air, and eyes that do not avoid yours but don’t quite focus either as he sits downstairs in Musa’s house, waiting for the Milikan to ask questions. His name is Sampilan. He carries, as always, the infant in his arms; a girl, maybe one year old, with tiny beaded braids. His wife, Jabihara, a woman who walks like a princess, accompanies him, making up for her husband’s lack of focus by the intensity of her own. Musa translates back and forth, but what I remember most is the silence between our words, into which I seem to be levered after each sentence by the stark scale of what the pirates did to them.
What they did was this:
Sampilan and Jabihara had two sons. Lumpani was in his twenties, Sahikar eleven years old. The boys went crabbing one day, two months ago, in waters known as “the blue lagoon.” Sometime that afternoon they were chased down by pirates. Their boat and catch disappeared. Fishermen found the older boy’s body the next day; he had been shot repeatedly in the torso. Sahikar’s remains were found three days later, also with bullet wounds. The baby who drools in the lap of her grandfather—and, for a while, in mine—is the oldest boy’s daughter. Musa adds that Sampilan is no good for anything now. He cannot concentrate and lacks the will to go fishing. Jabihara, as is usual with women, has too much to do to abandon focus, but she can think of nothing else, and is glad to tell me her story; the only thing that helps a little, she says, is talking about what happened.
I continue asking questions and jotting down the replies in my notebook because as in all such events complexities exist that cloud apparent motivation and change the story’s plot. For example, the grandparents have since learned, through friends of friends in this gossipy port, that what happened was more than a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time; the pirates may have been tipped off by a crab dealer that the father used to sell to. “Part piracy, part grounds conflict,” I write, but what I’m thinking, and with zero sense of eureka, is that I finally have gotten near the core of what piracy is, and like the rest of human violence it is not romantic; it is lonely and shameful and mind-numbingly sad. I scrawl my notes and grin at the granddaughter, who does the job of all babies at times like this, which is to be completely oblivious and also unflinchingly alive.
The moon is now full behind the monsoon clouds. I believe its light will make it safer to cross at night. The night after full moon the snakehead sends word he will pick me up at six tomorrow evening. That morning Lanne comes by to say the pirate—the tiger—will meet me at his house at five. Lanne told him there was carpentry business to discuss and also mentioned a Milikan and went no further. I send word to the snakehead to pick me up at Lanne’s and spend the day packing, and pacing, and reading two paperbacks left behind by an English ethnologist: Heart of Darkness and Inside the British Army. I learn that regiments fighting the IRA in Armagh lock themselves into bunkers, treating the entire border area as hostile; I learn that the feel of Conrad’s Congo, the procession of jungle and threat on both sides, is similar to how he describes the reaches of the Pantai in Almayer’s Folly.
Clouds accumulate and veil the sun. The wind picks up, dies again. At Lanne’s we drink watery Nescafe and eat a long linguine-shaped pastry of fried rice-dough called “fish intestines.” At six-thirty I recognize Lanne’s friend coming down the dock. Behind him another man walks in the dusk. The four of us sit around a table in candlelight as eels of breeze curve through the slatted windows. The pirate, my “tiger,” watches you directly, without nervousness. His eyes are anything but sanpaku; he does not look at you long, perhaps from lack of interest. He has big ears and strong jawbones and a mustache. He lights clove cigarettes, pinching them between index and thumb inside his fist so it looks like his hand is smoking. He smiles slightly and waits for others to talk, though when questioned he answers readily enough. Lanne starts with the pretext for this meeting, something related to the pirate’s part-time job ashore; he doesn’t translate and I don’t ask. But before five sentences have been exchanged the wind picks up and then the first raindrops fall, big as grapes and making a sound on the tin roof like Philly Joe Jones giving his skins an experimental wallop. Then the bottom drops out of the clouds and the steward minding the hounds of wind opens the kennels wide and everything that can fly in that room takes wing and outside people’s washing sails into the canals and what isn’t tied down blows away. The rain pounds the tin so hard it sounds like the Broadway express clattering through a local station; so loud it hurts my ears. After we have shut the louvers and relit the candles the four of us sit and smile stupidly at one another, as humans do when deprived of speech.
After fifteen minutes the rain lightens and the wind slows. “Hunus,” the tiger says, and grins suddenly; “white squall.” It is the most violent weather I will see in a month in Asian waters. And Lanne starts to tell a story. “In the days of the sultanate,” he says, “there was a huge bird-monster named Mayan Galura. It attacked Sulu. The sultan—a Tausug, of course—and all his soldiers could not protect themselves against it. But one man volunteered. He was a Sama de laut, and you know what his job was? It was bailing out boats. But he was good with a fish spear. He picked up a broken piece of mirror, and looked down to lull the bird’s suspicions. And Mayan Galura swooped in to attack him. Then, when the bird’s huge breast was reflected in the mirror shard, he struck upward with his spear. He killed Mayan Galura dead.
“The point of the story,” Lanne continues, a little disingenuously it seems to me, “is that this fellow—“ he points at the pirate—“he is like the boat-bailer. He is a Sama hero.” The tiger looks back calmly. “He is a pirate,” Lanne continues softly, “but not just any pirate.” The tiger says something. Lanne translates. “He says, ‘I do not attack Sama, I attack only Tausug.’ ”
“Is he still doing it?” I ask. The tiger nods as the question is put to him. He has been taking over boats for fifteen years. He is, even now, planning another attack. What he does is simple: He shapes up a crew and goes out in a speedbot—always a different craft, there being no shortage of speedbots in Sitangkai—and lies in wait. He leaves in the daytime, so he can identify his target; often near dawn or dusk. His crew wields shotguns and fish spears. He himself uses an M-1 Garand, a U.S. Army rifle from World War II. It is a powerful and accurate weapon, the tiger says with some pride.
Thunder grumbles. Lanne’s youngest child, kneeling at the doorway, covers his ears. I am surprised at the readiness with which this man has started talking but Lanne has vouched for him and I have learned to trust Lanne. But even without Lanne’s guarantee, there is something about the tiger’s calmness and the steadiness of his gaze that would have convinced me he was telling the truth. The pirate names people and small craft and later Lanne, and a local militiaman charged with “investigating” such incidents, will confirm the details. He pursues boats anywhere between Sitangkai lagoon and the coast of Borneo. Usually he limits himself to ripping off outboards and whatever freight the boats carry; but sometimes he knows the Tausug whose boat he is chasing and if they have stolen from or hurt Sama he kills them and if there are women and children aboard he kills them also.
“He kills the children?” I ask.
“He kills the children.” The pirate’s expression does not change as he answers the question. “It is better to kill even the innocent. They do this to Sama de laut. They take their boats and their agal-agal farms and they kill all Sama on them. He says, He is simply righting an injustice.”
“He might be a Sama hero,” I say, “if he did not kill kids. Tell him I said that.”
Still no change in the tiger’s calm regard. “He says, He is doing what they do to us.” Lanne leans forward, pointing at the tiger’s face. “See,” he says, “see the scar.” Now that he’s pointing I can see it, even by candlelight, a shallow depression off the gulch between left cheek and the corner of his mouth. “It doesn’t look bad,” I say. “It didn’t go through,” Lanne replies. “Tausug are afraid of him because of that. He has a talisman, he says special prayers—pagsdal—so no bullets can hurt him.” And as I jot this down, I think of a passage in a text I read about the Tausug, who spend so much of their time either shooting at each other or planning to. The book said they also collect talismans and intone special spells against bullets. Because the ammo they buy is surplus military and the island weather is humid, a high percentage of their cartridges misfire, so that bullets often come out with all the force of a fired marshmallow and bounce off a man’s face, confirming that fighter’s belief in the spell he mumbled earlier. And I reflect, This man has been doing it for so long that he has ended up the way all people of violence end: resembling each other, the killer and the target, like the Brits and the IRA, made one by the rites of murder.
I do not cross the selat in the end. The snakehead doesn’t show up that evening. The next day he sends a message, vowing to take me the following evening, and I wait, and read Heart of Darkness under my mosquito netting. I am feeling calmer now this is about to happen, but the snakehead misses that rendezvous too. Then I learn he has left without me. I decide to return by the slow and timid route—thinking mostly of Emilie now. There will be no scheduled ferry for four days, which means that on the date I was supposed to ring the doorbell of our apartment in New York I will still be in Sitangkai. A smaller boat is due to leave Sibutu, the next island, for Bongao, at eight a.m. in two days time. It’s the return half of the connection I missed on Tawi Tawi.
Musa arranges the boat, a bombot with a converted water-pump for an engine and a long propellor shaft sticking out aft that you can pull out for shallow bits. The boat shows up well before dawn for it is a long haul across the lagoon. The two boatmen pole us out of the canal. The muezzim calls behind us, as if in farewell. The skipper pulls the engine’s starter cord. Nothing happens. For the next half hour the boatmen pull the cord and scrape at the sparkplug but the engine is flooded and will not start.
We pole back and borrow a speedbot. The sky grows gangrenous with light. They start the outboard and we run fast and free for about five minutes, enough to get us well out into the lagoon, and then the outboard stalls too. After ten minutes of tinkering with the spark plug they get it to run for another five minutes. We repeat that routine five times. Forty minutes later we are in the middle of the lagoon and I and the mate are paddling against a chop that has blown up with the north wind. The whump! of an explosion comes from far ahead, and a muffin of foam explodes out of the sullen water where fishermen use dynamite illegally. A boat motors out of the shadows on the lagoon’s other side, and I wave with both arms and yell, because it seems obvious to me that if we don’t get a tow to Sibutu in the next fifteen minutes I am going to miss the kumpit to Bongao. My crewmates stare at me. They make “stop, be quiet” gestures with their hands. They turn back to their task, glancing sideways at the boat, faces absolutely still. The boat disappears. It starts to rain. Another, smaller boat comes by and slows down and my two crewmen will not look at it directly or crack a smile.
My breathing shallows. Although I cannot talk to these guys I suddenly have a good idea of what is happening. These men are not flagging down boats because they are not sure of who is on the boats and to signal for assistance would also signal that their boat, this fast speedbot that could outrun anything in the lagoon, is now helpless. And if one of these other boats is crewed by pirates, whether pros or casual exploiters of opportunity, then to ask for a tow would mean to beg for robbery, or worse, depending on the humor of the other crew and what other boats are in sight at that point.
Later, when we get to Sibutu, I will be told, forcefully, that it was stupid to cross the lagoon without protection. Later still, after it turns out the boat to Bongao will leave not that morning but the next, we will be assigned an armed guard to escort us across the lagoon again. But the true flash of understanding comes on that first trip over, and it’s at that moment, paddling in thin rain in the middle of a lagoon between the Sulu and Sulawesi Seas, peering at boats to spot the first sign of a targeted hostility, that I get the feeling of slight nausea that signals I have finally got to the end of this story; grown so sodden with its tensions, so callous in rounding up facts and confirmations, that it now sickens me to the pith to pursue it further.
In the end, I think it’s good I do not cross the selat, or travel up the Berau River to examine the ur-site of Almayer’s Folly, because real stories rarely end so clean or conform to plan; and it is right to remember how much hubris is involved in thinking that they can be torqued to fit into structures you have already built. This is a lesson Conrad learned by running sailing ships on seas like this, with all their unpredictabilities and delays. At any rate his stories never work out as people seem to expect; they turn on failed rendezvous and signs misjudged and epiphanies arrived at too late, or in a fashion that renders the lesson useless to the character involved; just as my own raw intelligence, gleaned from different sources, that a syndicate is recruiting for a hijacking in the near future off Indonesia, could not help the Global Mars, a 6,000 ton chemical carrier taken by pirates off northwest Sumatra just two weeks after I get home.
Twenty minutes later, as I kneel paddling in the speedbot, another boat heaves into sight; a slow launch, but going the right way. It comes close, and my heart beats louder. Suddenly my boatmen’s faces unfreeze, and they look at each other and at me. “Sama,” one of them says, and waves at the boat. His mate gives me a thumbs up.
They grab the anchor line the skipper offers us and jam it into the forepeak for purchase, and slowly, but this time reliably, we are on our way again.
Saturday, March 27, 2010
This is the original version of an article published in Harper's Magazine, in much shorter form, in late 2008. What I wished to do in this piece was view what's going on in India through the prism of its film industry, while fully accepting the bias inherent in being a "Gora"--a white foreigner in Bollywood. See what you think ...
The causeway leading to the shrine of Haji Ali stands six feet above the filthy surface of the Arabian Sea when the tide is low, and several feet underwater at the flood; but during the eight or nine hours when the half mile of paved jetty lies above water it is covered with pilgrims walking, limping, crawling to and from the bright white temple housing the saint's tomb at the end. There are always crowds of pilgrims, and many live off them—for the saint, who drowned in a shipwreck on his way back from Mecca, and whose body somehow washed ashore here, in Mumbai, his hometown, is said to hold power to grant wishes and heal the ill; and the sick and crippled, not to mention the vastly poor who come to touch Ali's tomb in hopes he will work his magic, are primed to make donations to help things along and that manna sometimes rubs off on causeway beggars.
I weave through thickets of hands rising from families camped in pools on filthy pavement. Blind men walk with one palm on the shoulder of guiding boys. Circles of bodies, skin turned obsidian by the sun—bodies lacking arms, legs, thighs—lie with nubs of arm resting, for companionship or just to maintain the comfort of that circle, on the stubbed thigh of the next body over; waving their free stumps as they repeat "y’Allah" in endless call and response. Just before the steps leading to the shrine rises a series of stalls. Among the stuff for sale, plastic sandals, pictures of the temple, are t-shirts showing the faces of Salman Khan, Shah Ruk Khan and Amitabh Bachchan, bright stars of the Hindi film industry known as Bollywood; no, more than an industry, a shining city of white and hope like Haji Ali that whose princes attract even those come to this place with less than nothing to lose.
Inside the shrine an imam circles, orchestrating donations from those clustering around the sarcophagus, and I stand back, reluctant to disturb the force of their hope—not loath, however, to make a wish, that I get what I came to Mumbai for: a part in a Bollywood flick; some role as outsider—at six-foot-two with green eyes I cannot pass as Indian—that will allow me to see from within how Bollywood works; how India works, perhaps, in defining who is accepted and who rejected by this culture that has been slaughtering, assimilating, adapting to outsiders for ten-thousand years. I will likely need the help of saints to plug into this arc spun between misery and shining excess, between the temples of cinema fantasy and the jury-built squatters’ shacks that are home to half the population of Mumbai, or Bombay—and there’s a story behind these binary names, as there seems to be a story behind every facet of this city and the films that represent it.
Back along the causeway, as the touts of the Haji Ali Juice Center sell persimmon liquor and lhassi, amid the swirl of cars and fumes and honks a black-yellow taxi swerves to pick me up. The white man sitting in the rearseat gloom is Tom Alter. This is the master; dean of gora actors, of Westerners in Indian cinema. Alter is tall and thin. He has a white beard, eyes blue as snowmelt, an uncompromising North European nose—Donald Sutherland, perhaps, crossed with a retired Erik the Red. When I talked with him by phone from the U .S. the first thing Alter said was, “You have to understand, I am not Western, I am Indian.” This is true in all important ways—he was born to an American missionary family, grew up in the Himalayas, has spent his life here. He speaks better Urdu than most Indians. His English, while perfect, is Hindi-flavored, and reminds me of call-centers and bills unpaid. Yet Alter cannot look Indian without makeup and therefore he has spent much of his career playing characters he is ethnically identified with yet also distanced from, by virtue of prime belonging. “The most obvious component of Western roles,” he tells me as we ride, “is the British. There were a lot of films made where the British were identified as real villains.” Alter has acted in over 250 films. He has played Interpol cops and Western Mafiosi, a drug kingpin’s chopper pilot, sadistic officers of the Raj. Lately the roles have grown more nuanced, more positive. In Mongal Pandey he played a British officer who befriended an Indian rebel. That relationship was so complex, he says, that audiences were not ready for it; but attitudes are still changing. This, I soon learn, is the party line for many Bollywooders. In part because of colonial history Westerners traditionally have been cast as heavies, brutes, the bad guy—there was an Aussie actor in 70s Mumbai, Bob Christo, who was known solely for beating the crap out of people on celluloid—but as India morphs, becomes a power in the world, Western roles in Bollywood are adapting too, allowing for the kind of complex, equal alliances that Indians also seek in commerce and global politics.
The taxi stops in Bandra, at the Taj Land’s End, near the downtown end of the northern districts; the northern districts are where Bollywooders tend to cruise and work. The Land’s End is a hotel in the Xanadu style, owned by the Tatas, a family of Parsis. Parsis, and their slapstick dramas, were an important feature of early Indian films; the Tata Group owns a studio in Mumbai. Alter is MC-ing a press stunt for a DeBeers marketing conceit at which the top attraction will be Amitabh Bachchan, aka the “Big B,” one of the stars I just spotted on a t-shirt at Haji Ali. Amid the spotlit opulence, the forty-yard-long buffet, the stacked bottles of Moet, the freeloading PR critters, Alter delivers his spiel like the pro he is, intoning the adspeak as if it were Shakespeare: “One tiny look can promise so much; one little gesture can mean the world…” Then Bachchan shows and, in terms of press-suction, it’s as if the black hole of Cygnus X1 had yawned open next to a laboring dustbuster. He is mobbed. Reporters and photographers scale each other’s backs to see him, it reminds me of blue crabs in mating season, each carapace mounting its neighbor’s; it takes ten bodyguards to hold them off. Over the walls surrounding the Taj compound dark heads, from the crowds always walking, walking around this city, peek and call to Bachchan, who takes no notice. Between us and the sea rises another giant hotel, the Sea Rock, empty and dark, its revolving restaurant frozen since it was bombed by Islamic radicals in 1993. On our way back we skirt Mahim Junction railroad station where more bombs killed 200 people on suburban trains last summer. Our black-and-yellow taxi whines and honks, ornery wasp in a nest the size of LA; strung and trapped in the knots and lines of smoke and mad-dog speed that tangle together everything on these blasted roads: trucks, bullock carts, taxis, sacred cows, beggars, people walking, sleeping on the pavement—I have not been here so long but already I feel tied into this exploded churn, this feel of no-limits in volume and blasts avoided or not; the feeling too that C4 and utter traffic notwithstanding, this city somehow manages to go on via a surgical removal of angst—let bombs explode, let another ten thousand families crowd weekly into Dharevi, Asia’s biggest shantytown, right beside Mahim—Mumbaikars won’t notice particularly or care.
My friend Anil works at the Bombay Times, the prime scandal sheet for Bollywood, like National Enquirer and Variety rolled into one—so powerful that a mention in its pages, for a struggling starlet, an actor clawing for a part, can mean the difference between fame and failure. The “Boomtown Rap” feature is so influential that the Jain family, which owns Times of India, which owns the BT, openly flogs “news” items in “Boomtown Rap” through its Medianet service: 50,000 rupees for two lines with your name and what you were wearing at Nihal’s party. Anil is a party-beat writer (he has since left in protest at the paper’s retail theory of journalism); he has been my cheerleader and contact with Madhur Bhandarkar, one of the “new” Bollywoodians. This is a group of youngish directors who have started breaking away from the standard masala, the spiced-up— (masala means “spice stew”)— chopped up, throw-everything-in-and-if-there’s-a-problem-toss-in-more, tradition of Hindi cinema—a very Mumbai recipe, come to think of it, though films in this style are also made in Bengal, Chennai, Tamil Nadu. The churn of cars, religions, saints, migrants, ancient customs and new corruptions multiplied to the edge and then blown through whatever bulkhead defined the edge—masala is an extrusion of Bombay, only with music and dancing girls. Anyway these filmmakers have started tackling themes that take them further afield than the usual Bollywood plot about gorgeous daughter forcibly betrothed by wealthy family to rich boy but she falls in love instead with handsome not-rich boy nextdoor who must save girl from monsoon floods/kidnapping/fate worse than death to earn her hand.
Bhandarkar’s last flick, Corporate, featured a Westerner in a minor role. He is about release another film and is set to shoot a third, titled Fashion. He has promised me—long distance, by telephone, through Anil—I mean I know this is a promise, we’ve gone over this often enough, dammit!—a role in Fashion, which naturally must include languid tall middle-aged green-eyed Western men come to outsource cocktail dresses and hiphop hoodies to cut-rate South Asian apparel plants: the modern equivalent of Bombay’s huge cotton mills, which now—their product itself outsourced to cheaper regions—are being razed by Bombay city government to make, not flats for the city’s six million squatters as the law stipulated, but flash boutiques and apartment towers for those who can afford to pay legislators to flout the law; those same educated, forward-looking, English-friendly élites who, presumably, pay to see Bhandarkar’s films.
We call Madhur on Anil’s cell. I’ve had trouble getting through before but this time we connect at once. “Yes,” Madhur assures me, “we will definitely get together.” “I wanna talk about the role,” I whine, “I’ve been thinking”—and I have, I’ve worked myself into a real character here, one of those thin well-groomed types at ease in both Hyatts and Haitian sweatshops; conscious, perhaps, of “fair trade” ideals but fundamentally cold to anyone who doesn’t dress like Vogue before Vogue focus-groups the spread— “Yes,” Madhur says impatiently, the line is going bad, “yes call me tomorrow, goodbye.” Boom. “He is very busy,” Anil says soothingly, “don’t worry, he’ll come through.”
That evening, back in my hotel—it’s a pea-colored pair of concrete cubes near the seafront on Marine Drive—I sink into a Long Night of the Out-of-Work Actor; sweating in the gloom, the pissant airco. It’s all too hard, I think, I’m wasting time and cash on a narcissistic snark-chase, betting it all on a Kool-Whip promise from a busy director. This is typical, I rage at myself, of the dreamer-dilettante style of thought that has kept me from earning the hedge-fund-manager wages my ego clearly entitles me to. I find out later that this hotel, this very floor, have earned their bad vibes: here was where the team of Hindu extremists hung before traveling to New Delhi to off Mahatma Ghandi. The next day I move to another hotel; this one is a Twenties mansion of rotting stucco, balconies, ceiling fans, all leaning on banyan trees and pink-flowered vines. Crows caw in the branches, cats and rats amble together in the courtyard … More to the point it’s in Colaba, and on the Causeway nearby stalk the touts who prey on tourists—my Plan B.
I’ve been talking by phone to Darwesh, who hangs out next to the Regal Cinema at the northern end of Colaba Causeway and makes a living finding Westerners when the studios want goras for a shoot. By all accounts Darwesh and his ilk have plenty of work because the studios, almost all up north—Bandra, Andheri, Goregaon, Film City—routinely need a white face or ten to use as bling in bar scenes, or any shot where it’s important to look rich, cosmopolitan, jetset. It seems Darwesh is in Goa now but he hooks me up with his associate, Jesse. Jesse, when I finally reach his cell, sounds young, American, and mightily hung over. He is too tired to see me now or tomorrow, he says, but there’s always work; he’ll let me know if he isn’t in Goa. Another contact I have, Warren, tells me to call “Tiran.” He, Warren, is in Goa also. What is it with Goa, I wonder. It’s the beach resort where the young and fair whom studios want for that Western look flock when they come to India; but it’s a full night by bus from Mumbai, and everyone tells me Colaba is, no fooling, where touts find extras. Most of the touts call themselves “coordinators,” though they chiefly work for a slightly higher life-form that freelances for casting agents or studios; their headquarters is Leopold’s Café, on the Causeway, an old Parsi joint that ordinarily would be dark and full of old men smoking and drinking chai as in Mohamad’s across the street, except that the owners have tarted it up with posters of Elvis and James Dean, with waiters in uniform and hamburgers on the menu to attract foreigners who are often wary of dark smoky places with old men drinking chai. Outside Leopold’s a dark-skinned man with a bhindi dot on his forehead and a California accent clear as rain in Mammoth tries to suck a nubile Aussie into a tour of “Bollywood studios.” I ask him if he finds work for extras. “Yeah that’s what I do, man, for 2,000 rupees, I mean I’m an actor too, I’ve worked in L.A. but I’ll be upfront with you it’s a business for me.”
I buy Raja a beer. I’ll pay him an agent’s fee if he gets me work. Raja has killer’s eyes. He reminds me of a guy in Casablanca who sold me “best quality” hash that turned out to be henna. But Raja introduces me to Imam. Imam is a genuinely well-connected agent/dancer/actor/choreographer and yoga adept (“your broadness is huge,” Raja gushes to him when we all meet). Leopold’s depresses me, the fakeness of it turns me off. What I’m starting to like about Mumbai is how normally it’s hard on such hype. Hype exists of course, it’s a unit of currency in Bollywood, the Bombay Times sells it retail. At the same time this city seems too extreme, by all measures—too gigantic, too fast, too non-stop, too hypercharged with in-your-face awareness death people hope—for hype, which is thinned by hard facts, to build mass. I have seen a Lamborghini park next to a Dunkin Donuts in the fanciest street in town, beside a sacred cow, beside a family, with babies, cooking chilis on the sidewalk. Squatters live, sleep, fuck on the dirt road in back of the best buildings in the ritziest neighborhoods; every Park Place has its shantytown. Stars quaff Moet and look elsewhere but everyone knows damn well that every night, half the city; six million people; shits in the gutters. You can only fool yourself for so long in Mumbai.
At the same time this aura of blowout, of connections loose or exploded, of triple-dose quiddity and speed, allows people like me to exist: people who arrive here expecting to become an actor within three weeks—because everybody I talk to, directors, film journalists, actors, touts, assures me that will happen. “Anything can happen here,” Brandon Hill tells me; he’s a New York comedian who after only a few months in Mumbai scored a role as the gullible American billionaire who gets conned by Amitabh Bachchan’s son, Abhishek, into buying the Taj Mahal in Bunti aur Bubli. “This is not Hollywood,” says Gary Richardson, an American actor who has lived in India seven years. “Over there everything is structured, you have to be union. Here everything is fluid. Next month you really could be a star.” I figure in part it’s the deep hospitality of Indian culture that wants to stroke visitors by making their wishes come true; Hinduism posits that every guest may be a Shiva in disguise; but on another level it has to do with the size and the rough-and-ready nature of Bollywood. There are more jobs, more films—between 600 and 1000 flicks per year, nobody knows exactly, over half shot in Mumbai. It’s a planet of indies. How such vast roughness might work in favor of Dimesh, a 16-year-old who ran away from a drunken father in Jaipur to live in one of the zopadpatties, the urban shantytowns, and hawk plasticized maps of India to the tourists on Colaba Causeway, I have no idea. “That is my dream,” he says, standing outside Leopold’s, jostled by the other hawkers flogging brass telescopes, t-shirts, plastic figurines of Ganesh and Shiva. “I can be an actor.” I call Madhur almost daily and get only his answering machine. The touts are hopeful; there’s a shoot coming up at the airport, Kiran tells me, I’ll be able to work on that; but so far nothing solid. I walk late at night, near the dhobi ghat, the open-air laundry basins; the western shantytowns. I’ve started seeking out mini-temples, the homemade shrines people in the zopadpatties put up—to Shiva and Vishnu, of course, but more often to Ganesh, the elephant god, avatar of Shiva, known as a good-time dude. I look for altars to the gods of Bollywood; Bachchan has a temple dedicated to him in Tamil Nadu; but find none. By far the greatest number of shrines are dedicated to Sai Baba, a saddhu, or saint, who lived 150 years ago in Sirthi, in nearby Maharashtra province; he was famed for preaching tolerance and mashing together Hindu and Muslim rituals. Sai Baba seems a good saint to invoke now, since important local elections are scheduled and the Shiv Sena, a Hindu nationalist party with loud support in Maharashtran slums, is making a lot of ruckus verbal and visual with their Mumbai-for-Hindus rhetoric and saffron colors—Bombay is called “Mumbai” now because of a Shiv Sena provincial government, that trashed the old Portuguese moniker—bom bai meant “good bay”— in favor of a name based on a local Maharathi goddess, Mumbadevi. It’s not because of ethnic unrest that I keep to lit streets, though; it’s because of Beerman, a serial killer who has so far knifed seven men in this area and on Marine Drive. I drink Jameson’s in my room, but sparingly, because the government has, in honor of the elections, scheduled five “dry” days when all bars will be closed. I must husband resources.
One day I take the local to the northern districts, where the studios live, to see Ketan Mehta. I take this train almost daily but it keeps surprising me—buff metal coaches big as a double-wide trailer stuffed with ceiling-fans and straps to hang on, into which at certain stops a thousand rugby teams of Indian men scrum aboard elbowing yanking shoving so hard that if you’re not one of the fortunate grapeclusters of humans gripping handholds through the open doors to hang outside the train in the stinking breeze or ride the roof, that too you end up having unnatural sex with several people at once—OK not sex it’s more like a new kind of yoga, you find your limbs and arms twisted against your will among the limbs of other men (women have their own car); you feel like Shiva on acid with eight arms that are both yours and others’ wound in kinky knots around your body: train sutra. Mahim, Vile Parle, Khar Road, Andheri, Jogeshwari. After the train it’s worse, to get anywhere you must hire a motorized rickshaw, a hellish motorbike with a seat and canopy tacked on that dives immediately into a maelstrom of exhaust, dust, and gridlocked rickshaws—every trip in this area requires 25 minutes of auto asphyxiation. Mehta is one of the new directors. He made The Rising with Toby Stephens as a Brit captain who, he says, is not a caricaturized villain but a man of real sensitivity. After leaving Mehta’s I call Madhur and again he answers first ring. “Who?” he replies, when I introduce myself. “Who?” When he figures it out he says we’ll meet tomorrow. Breakthrough! I must cash in on this streak of luck. Mehta mentioned a shoot going on in Film City right now with Shah Ruk Khan. It’s some kind of 70s spoof, he says, that is sure to need white faces. Film City is an industrial zone for movies, northeast of the northern districts, built inside a national park named for the assassinated son of the assassinated Indira Gandhi. As I ride the hellish rickshaw I notice the russet smog that hovers over Bombay like a guilty past lighten somewhat. A range of hills opens over the rotblocks, the slums. I talk my way past a guardhouse and through a gate and we start to climb into jungle up a grade so steep the rickshaw slows to a crawl and my driver gets out to push. This is a big park and it is ill advised to leave the studio to piss in the bushes because leopards live here and they have developed a taste for gaffer. And for villager. No area of Bombay is free of squatters and their shantytowns; shanty-villages in this case; occupy, here a hollow in the trees, there a hillside. Perhaps the cats hunt only by night because at all times the roads, the bush, shiver with lines of children, women, men, walking nowhere. Suddenly out of the dusty green scrub an incongruous scene emerges—a Greek temple towers cheek by jowl with a Rajput palace, a Mumbai high street. Between a hill and a lake so distant it looks like lowlying fog, Anghkor Wat. A studio, on top of a mountain, resembles a SPECTRE hideout—closed. SPECTRE is out of business, and Shah Ruk is MC-ing a television gameshow today; this isn’t unusual for Bollywood actors, who often work three productions at once. Anyway no one needs goras here. Try Studio 10.
Several soundstages are grouped in the valley and I dismiss my driver. Through one door a man and a woman gaze passionately at each other, their profiles hard as nacre in the kliegs. An actor I vaguely recognize tries to break through a cordon of meaty bouncers outside a building labeled “Municipal Court,” and is severely beaten for the camera. The director demands take after take. Rickshaws, trucks, women with packages on their heads, walk unconcernedly behind the fight scene. Continuity does not seem a big issue. I trek around a dusty hillock; under trees, growing fruit like hand grenades, on which monkeys chase each other and parrots flit… It feels good to be in the country, or at least in the not-city. The smell of woodsmoke, from cooking fires, that permeates every inch of Mumbai is still present, but up here it is not fouled with exhaust. Car horns buzz but faintly, from Goregaon. Two rows of what look like abandoned 747 hangars, khaki colored, stand to my right; a family cooks rice over a campfire to one side. I spot a girl in the doorway of an orange blockhouse between two of the abandoned hangars. She is blond and slim and whirls what looks like two boleros, dipping to their rhythm. I walk up to her. She is maybe 28, pretty as Christmas morning, with eyes the color of jade. “I am dancer,” she says, jerking a thumb toward the door. “They don’t ask me now because I have dreads.” Katya is a painter in silk, from St. Petersburg. The blockhaus is basecamp for a ten-“girl” dance troupe, all but one from Russia; all but Katya brought here under contract. A tall dude, also in dreadlocks, claps and yells: “Girls! Girls!” All walk to the next hangar, and I follow, uninvited. A black curtain at the entrance is pulled aside; darkness, cool air, seems to reach out for me; at last I am on a shoot.
And damn, it’s like a nightmare from my bad old days, when I’d drunk too much to think straight but not enough to go home, and ended up, horny, seeing double, chasing babe in joints like this: a crass disco rises from the darkened set. Black and red walls in Marimekko shapes, a raised and spotlit dance floor, posters for French movies, a cocktail bar on the right. Next to the bar, a bearded man in a black fedora sits at a table bearing a keylit chessboard, glowering at the stage. People everywhere, gaffers with their duct-tape chains, carpenters, lighting hobbits, assistant directors, camera crew, chai men; also a bunch of people hanging around with no obvious job, just watching as the girls are wrangled to the stage shedding t-shirts, revealing lace-up leotards that expose a max of fishbelly. “Music!” A thumping, Hindified disco starts to pulse. “Roll camera. One, two, three, and—action.” I’ve been on sets before but my pulse jacks up nonetheless—this stage-management of fantasy, this melding of sex, music and fine lighting, reminds me not only of the five-odd months I spent in drama school, and my odd stints as a bit-part player, but of the basic act of story-telling in which I, as a novelist, am daily engaged at home. The girls go through a routine, legs flashing like sabres, rumps thrusting arrogantly—they do something pretty with their hands, and freeze in place. The music stops. “Number ten,” the choreographer’s voice echoes over the PA, “you were slow. Do it over.” The dance-queen is thirty-ish, hard ass; her two assistants demo to the Russians micro-details of their pas de dix. They go through eight more takes. Spot-boys bring the girls Bisleri water. Russian dancers are treated well; they rank second in a four-layer system of which Anglo dancers are the cream. The third level consists of educated, bourgeois Indian girls, dancing for a lark or because they wish to break into film. The lowest in stature are the “junior artists:” pros, chorus-line dancers who do the real work. No one messes with the first three castes but the junior dancers work sweatshop hours for a pittance. They are often hit, coerced into sex, abused in myriad ways. Nobody complains. It’s a fact of life, just as it’s a fact of life that Russian mafia are in Goa now, running hookers; or that black money, mainly from Muslim mobs like the Dawoods, still funds a bunch of Hindi flicks. Banks lend more than formerly to studios, but the smaller films are still fine ways to launder cash. It’s just the way it is.
The afternoon wears on. Things break, lights are switched; for every change or repair a team of ten men is ready to haul kliegs, scale staging, drop to hands and knees to rag-buff the disco floor; fetch chai for the director, Priyadarshan, who sits aloof, smoking, watching a monitor. I am awed, despite this overstaffing, by the rough-and-ready efficiency of this operation. You won’t find Teamsters busting ass like this, no java-breaks no OSHA harnesses no doughnuts. I am even more struck by how everyone: upper-caste Punjabis, masked Jains, yarmulke-d Muslims, dalit “spot boys”—seems utterly dedicated to getting this fifteen-second take exactly right. Here’s the old-fashioned masala, I think, throwing in everything: New York disco, Moscow dancers, Hindi pop, Punjabi star, to craft something that will wow them in the mountains of Uttar Pradesh, in the slums of Kolkata, in the exile videotechs of North Jersey. I find myself wanting desperately to be part of this. He could be me, that sinister guy in the black fedora; I could play the Ukrainian pimp, the L.A. drug dealer, my pride threshold is low; I’d be the Western boyfriend of, say, Katya, hanging around the bar. I was a pro once, as a child actor I played Joseph in a network Christmas pageant, I did Pal Joey with Arlene Francis in summer stock for chrissake—OK I had no lines but Arlene herself—we’re talking about the star of What’s My Line here—told me how well I acted acute jealousy of Joey. I lounge at a table by the stage, ready for my close-up, frowning at fedora-dude; no one notices. Finally the star sashays onstage. Payal Rohatgi struts through her dance moves between two lines of fair Russkis to freeze as they do at the end. She says nothing to the dancers or anyone. Between takes her personal makeup artist applies gloss. Between takes I sidle up to Priyadarshan as he fires up a butt. “Can you use a Westerner here?” I ask seductively. He stares at me, smiling, nonplussed. “You know, a Western extra, hanging around the bar,” I continue more loudly, waving at the drinks. “No,” he says.
“What about later, tomorrow?”
He turns away.
I am bitterly, irrationally crushed. I walk outside, between the hangars, among the squatters and parrots. The fug of Bombay seems to have stretched its tentacles deeper into the hills. The dread-locked girl-wrangler emerges, talking on his cellphone. “No, Annabell’s in Goa,” he says. “You need four girls, but they are busy tomorrow, here.” I ask him if, as well as Russian girls, he handles Western actors. Patrick gives me the curious nod Indians use, a loose up-and-down-plus-sideways wobble like the head-motion of those toy dogs people put in a car’s backseat. “I’ll talk to Annabell,” he says, “she’s the cousin of my wife. You’ll get something for sure.” He smiles cheerfully. Anything can happen here.
The multiplex is a fairly recent phenomenon in India, where masala traditionally shows in huge, single-screen “hard-top” theaters. It enjoys tax-breaks the old theaters don’t, and it’s tempting to assume this is a hidden government subsidy for the educated elite because these modern honeycombs of new-car-smell and screening rooms are tailormade for Muppies; the Indians who talk perfect English and know Teesside and Teterboro as well as they do Mumbai; the Western-oriented, Mumbai Urban Professionals who comprise the smaller, more recherché audiences that supposedly lap up films in English—movies with less song and dance, with righteous roles for Westerners.
The sleek Inox multiplex downtown, on Nariman Point, is hosting the launch-party for Parzania. I gawk with the press, clutching a Kingfisher among the lights and hors d’oeuvres of the opening—observing once again the crab-mating lunges of the film hacks as they compete for closeness to the female lead, Sarika. Parzania’s subject is the Gujarat riots of 2002 during which Hindu nationalist mobs killed hundreds of Muslims and people perceived to be Muslims. The film is based on the true story of a Parsi family; Zoroastrians, not Muslims; who lost their son to the violence. The family itself, or what’s left of it, sits in the back row of the small theater, weeping softly. One key role in the film is played by an American, Corin Nemec, a scientology fan whose most visible role was in Stargate-SGI. I reckon his must be one of the sensitive New Age Western characters I have heard so much about.
The film’s director, Rahul Dholakia, tells me “The new audience is growing but it’s not where it should be, it’s going to take time.” Dholakia and Ketan Mehta are jumpstarting a studio that will produce nothing but this type of indie film. He put Nemec in, Dholakia says, because he wasn’t sure Parzania could be distributed in India because of its subject matter (the National Film Board tends to censor films that deal with touchy subjects) and therefore he might have to rely on foreign markets, for which an American actor would be a draw. Jag Mehra, who directed Provoked; starring Miranda Richardson and Robbie Coltrane as well as Aishwarya Rai; is more sanguine about the “new” package of audience, film, cosmopolitan parts. “There was a time when every producer had to sell to five territories: Bombay, Delhi-Uttar Pradesh [the “A” market]; Punjab, Rajasthan and Central Provinces, the East (including Bengal), and the South [including Kerala and Tamil Nadu]… “Distributors wanted different things,” Mehra continues. “Even after the film was done they would say, ‘Can’t we have a scene where a guy gets drunk and dreams of home, and you put in an Uttar Pradesh folk dance? You were trying to be everything for everybody.” These days, Mehra believes, the task of satisfying such a diverse audience has been taken over by television. “There is not a single folk festival in India that isn’t represented in a TV serial,” he says. Old-style masala is hemorrhaging popularity among the fifty percent of India’s population below age twenty-five; even in the provinces it’s dying. A new, younger market has sprung up, with loose cash and a more upscale taste in narrative¬¬, not only in India’s cities but among the well-paid desi living abroad; those NRIs, or “non-resident Indians,” who know the West and want, by virtue of how they live their own lives, to see stories that reflect the reality, not the shadows, of other lands, other peoples.
As I watch Parzania, though, I have doubts about this new market split, these pastel cross-cultural roles that might move Muppies. Nemec’s character is if anything too sensitive. He comes to Ahmedabad to research Ghandi in his adopted city and as sectarian stews reach boiling point he submerges in “country liquor,” the home-made sugarcane hootch of India. Public drunkenness is viewed here as a symptom of Western decadence, and Nemec’s character—whimpering, confused—strikes me as another stereotype: the Quiet American, well-meaning but clueless, who drags down the world with his involvement. His is cousin, if not brother, to a slew of dumb-foreigner clichés: vapid tourist, charas-addled hippie, Oxford-twit; that have colored Western roles in Indian cinema since the ‘70s.
I have attended a lot of launch parties by now. I even got my name mentioned (for an opening at Jahengir Gallery) in the Bombay Times; two lines that would have cost 50,000 rupees had I bought them. But one night when no parties are scheduled I go to see Salaam-e-Ishq. It’s playing at the Regal, where the touts hang out. The Regal is one of the original masala theaters, a twenties pile, all shit-brown inside, brown gloomy paneling, vast ochre orchestra with metal seats and quaint tan art-deco masks representing tragedy and comedy. Salaam-e-Ishq is four hours long. Supposedly it’s a remake of the Hugh Grant vehicle Love, Actually though I can detect little resemblance other than a large cast; it’s crammed with song and dance routines featuring the stars Salman Khan and Anil Kapoor plus a host of babes. Classic fare. The trailers proclaim: “Six different couples. twelve different lives… one common problem: love,” and the story lines are familiar; a married man tempted by a beautiful stranger, an eloped couple whose female half loses her memory. The production values are first-rate but otherwise Salaam-e-Ishq is put together loosely, like grandma’s custard: slack continuity, loose editing, untied emotions, dialogue in English thrown in randomly and without subtitles—as Hindi scenes are tossed into films in Tamil, Urdu, Bengali. Songs spring out of nowhere. This looseness is something that I, used to slick, fast Hollywood fare, at first found wearing. But after watching a slew of Hindi movies I have gotten used to it, and even started liking it; as when you loosen your belt for no good reason, and only then realize it was cinched too tight. The only offbeat facet here is Shannon Esra, an American actress who is the unlikely love interest of a taxi-wala played by Govinda. There aren’t many people in the Regal. I sit in the 70-rupee seats, toes practically touching the screen, surrounded by two dozen moviegoers, all male, aged between twelve and twenty-five. I suppose their few numbers might confirm what I’ve been told about the decline of old-style Bollywood; yet this group seems to make up for its small size by their clear love for every aspect of this flick. They call out to the actors, sing snatches of songs, gufffaw at the gags, slump distraught by tragedy. The older, wealthier crowd in the 100-rupee rows makes less noise but seems no less rapt. This style may be on its way out but, in the Regal at least, its fans have yet to hear the news.
Another night, another bash; this time I am invited by Gary Richardson. Gary is tall, blond, 50-something; good-looking in an all-American sort of way—he played football for UMiss and worked, he says, as a Vogue model. He is proud of a role he played in Costa-Gavras’ Missing, very conscious of how he looks. You might stow him in the cliché Gladstone: the table-waiting, monologue-mumbling, narcissistic Sandy Meisner disciple, similar to scores I’ve met in New York, were it not for three facts: he lives in India, he listens, and his judgments are sharp and ungeared to the drive of schmooze. We rickshaw to 11 Echoes, a trendy joint on Juhu Beach. Juhu is the Malibu of Mumbai. The club even looks Californian with dark beams and Spanish-style stucco, a balcony overlooking the invisible sea. This too is a launch party, for a pop CD by Sarika, a B-list actress. As Gary and I are let through security a crowd of flashes pop—at Gary, at me on the off-chance I’m someone newsworthy. “You see,” Gary says, clapping me on the shoulder, “you’re famous already.” Sarika is on the mike, thanking the Academy, and Gary is off, hanging his biceps on showbiz types, mugging for the cameras that follow. “I broke my neck in a fight playing a British general—the equivalent of Hitler—” in an Indian colonial epic, Gary told me earlier. To those who claim stereotypes are changing, he says, “I’d like them to say that in the same room with me.” White actors in Bollywood, according to Gary, are hampered in the same way black actors were in the U.S. before Sidney Poitier. That’s especially true when it comes to playing a white man dating an Indian woman. Richardson is married to an Indian, and he leans on this point several times. “I was just offered,” he continues, “a part in a movie by one of these guys, a good director, very hard worker: an actress comes into my hotel room, I see her, throw a fit … call her a prostitute.” The character, Gary adds, pressures the girl for sex; she rejects him in horror. Gary, for his part, rejected the role. “I said, ‘I’m not interested.’”
My pulse speeds up.
“I’m interested,” I tell him.
“You don’t mind being seen as a rapist?” Gary replies. “Cause every time they need a white rapist, they’ll call on you.” Gary gives me a lot of advice should I get this or any part. He says, Make sure I get a script before I get to the set because most films don’t have scripts; directors work from notes and make it up as they go. “You’ll be pulled into a scene with five minutes’ notice and told to speak these lines… written on a napkin in Hindi, it’s very hard for an American to speak Hindi. And make sure you get a song. That’s what’s important, it’s the song-and-dance they remember. People will stop me and say, not ‘I saw you in that movie,’ but ‘I saw you in that song sequence.’
“And ask,” he adds, “if you get a dressing room, for your own toilet.” Gary has been on shoots where everybody from producer to chai-boy is queuing to use his bathroom. “I don’t like it when a pretty girl comes in to use it and the bowl is full and she thinks it’s me.”
Watching Gary tower over smaller darker film people I feel collegial sadness on behalf of white actors like him, like me. The first major white presence in India film was female, because Hindi culture before 1947 considered acting an indecent job for women; a significant number of white women got work in the industry then. One of these white actresses, a half-Greek, half-Welsh stunt girl named Mary Evans, became the first female superstar in India under the stage moniker “Fearless Nadia,” a black and white version of a Charlie’s Angel. There were slow spells for white actors in the aftermath of independence, as the taboo against Indian actresses withered away. Partition was perhaps too close, the wounds unhealed, no one wanted to see flicks with whites playing, say, brutal British cops.
In the late fifties white actors played British scum--sadistic colonels, racist district commissioners--in a number of nationalist films. Another curious hiatus occurred in the sixties, when India and the USSR got hot and heavy politically, and several films featured Russian actors in positive roles.
Then, with the late sixties and seventies, came the next wave of white lowlifes—the drug smuggler, the racketeer, the corrupt captain of industry—roles (so the producer Pritish Nandy told me later) that arose, like fog from a cold sea, from the shortages and tensions of a frozen, statist economy, where contraband was a fact of life. “The theaters sold escapism,” Mehra comments, “and it killed movies.” Around this time Western flower children showed up, thirsty for gurus, and the Hindi screen reflected their presence with a clutch of dirty, barefoot drugged out backpackers. After the economy opened up in the nineties and especially during the last five years Indians started to feel self-confident about their role in the world and one would expect movies to reflect this change in the form of new, laudable Western roles: The Yank opening a call center in Bangalore; the US agent tracking radical Islamists in Kashmir. The role Madhur has for me is supposedly along those lines.
I have taken the number of the director whose part Gary refused; his name is Ananth Mahadevan, and he lives in Andheri, not far from Juhu. Gary is not sure if the shoot is still happening or when, so this all seems tenuous; nonetheless, for all of ten seconds, I feel guilty for selling out to stereotype. I stare toward the invisible horizon. Below me, on Juhu Beach, dozens of brightly lit stalls sell kolikata, a sweet-and-sour slushie. People move, as always, everywhere, dark shapes among the stalls, up and down the beach road, in and out of darkness, staring toward the bright lights and loud music of 11 Echoes then averting their faces to continue on their way.
I call Mahadevan on his cell—and get him first go. It’s a function of the openness, I think; try cold-calling a busy director in LA, see how far you get, see if you even get his number. Mahadevan is friendly, and asks me to send a headshot; but he is shooting three films at once and the scene I could work in--it’s part of a noir homage thriller called Agar, or If-- is well down his agenda. By the time he gets to it I’ll likely be back in New York. I should come watch him shoot anyway, Mahadevan says, he’s filming a TV scene in a week or so.
Another Gary suggestion: check with the Salvation Army hostel in Colaba, where backpackers hang out. Studio touts visit every day, he claims, trolling for extras. I go there the morning after 11 Echoes, but the desk clerk just shrugs: no.
I dial the numbers of my stable of touts: Kiran, Amjad, Imam, Warren, Jesse, Patrick. Imam has nothing but he puts me onto two more “agents” called Tiran and Hussein. Raja wants more cash, and insists that I meet him where he lives. He wigs out over the phone when I balk: “You’re gora, I’m Indian!” he screams, as if my thwarting him were proof of deep bigotry. “You’re gora I’m Indian!” I notice “Tiran”’s number is the same as that of “Kiran,” Jesse’s contact. Jesse, who works with Annabell, also works with Patrick and Imam. Annabell works with Ajay, a tout who like Darwesh hangs by the Regal. Amjad tells me the airport shoot has been canceled because of the elections. No one could score security clearance. Warren doesn’t answer. Kiran/Tiran hangs up on me. It strikes me that my lines of contact are starting to cross and cause short circuits. I have roped in so many touts that they are now starting to phone the same people on my behalf and everyone’s getting pissed off. I return to the Salvation Army that night and the clerk tells me there will be extra work tomorrow. “Eleven a.m., three people, for a Bollywood movie,” he says encouragingly. I don’t believe a word of it but I will show up anyway; it’s worth a try. On the Causeway that night I buy a little bronze statue of Ganesh, the elephant-god; he is known for supporting special projects. I place him on the table in my room, and place a slice of banana and a two-rupee coin at his feet. It’s worth a try, as well.
The next morning I show up an hour early at the Salvation Army. The same clerk tells me I’m too late; the three extras have already been chosen. I offer him money—this is, after all, India, where you bribe cops, politicians; why not the Salvation Army guy? He smiles sadly and closes his eyes. When the tout arrives—a good-looking kid in his twenties, called Vikaz—he tells me “I only need three people. For Bollywood film,” he adds, as if the blaze and glory of this might shut me up. He smiles in astonishment as I harangue him: I’m sure they can use a fourth extra, I’m an actor, I’ll work for free, I need the experience, for chrissakes just let me tag along! Mumbaikars, though big-city people, are like other Indians too polite to deal with this level of aggression. Finally, to shut me up, he makes a call, and tells me I can come and watch. I think, despite experience to date, that if I hang around long enough, maybe they will take me anyway.
My rivals for the part are an Italian couple in their late twenties, Joseph and Maria; and Simon, an Englishman, maybe twenty-five. He is of Iranian stock and looks it. We take the cattle-car local north. I find, out of nervousness, I cannot stop talking as we ride; showing off my train knowledge—Look, the big stink that suffuses the train after Mahim Junction is the Mahim River, an open cesspool next to Dharevi; the Mahim becomes the Mithi further north, which floods badly during the monsoon because its marshes were illegally filled by developers to build upscale malls. My companions smile at me. Future Studios is in Goregaon. It’s the stop for Film City, but the studio, a four-story rotblock, is in town on a rickshaw-choked road well shy of the hills. We climb to the third floor. A medium-sized loft holds three sets: a wedding banquet, a Mrs. Robinson-era living room, and a Western Union office. The crew is smaller than for Dhol; thirty people tinker, lounge, gawk monitors. A plump woman cuts us with sharpened eyes, talks in fast Hindi to Vikaz. My heartrate is over the speed limit. Vikaz said he would plead my case but now for the first time, standing next to these young Europeans, I am starting to realize how I must appear: balding, salt-pepper beard; even with makeup I can’t look younger than forty—the woman points at me. She points at Maria and Joseph. Vikaz turns to Simon. “She says, you look Indian.” He shrugs, and puts a consoling hand on Simon’s shoulder. I apologize to Simon, but inside my nerves fizz with exultation. I am in.
We are led to the top floor. A corrugated tin roof shields us from the sun. Wardrobe consists of a half-dozen trunks on which two people sleep. The ubiquitous Sai Baba gazes down on a props man who irons suits. Maria, Joseph and myself are fitted with Western-style office-wear. They serve us thali—dishes of chicken, chickpeas, beans in savory sauces, eaten with flat bread. Then Vikaz leads us downstairs to a dressing room with chipboard walls. I fidget; it might seem ridiculous but for the first time I am close to reaching the goal I came to India for: to act, even if only for a minute or two, before Bollywood cameras. And I try to remember what my drama coach taught: You over-act for theatre, underplay for film. Going through the range of hand and facial exercises to limber up, muttering soliloquies from MacBeth. After an hour Vikaz comes to fetch us; the plump AD explains our parts. Maria will be a Western Union cashier, Joseph will walk around behind her, looking busy with files; I will stand at the counter completing a transaction with Maria while the Indian star of this piece, a chubby, pleasant-faced actor named Dimesh Tohol, stands in line behind me. I will thank Maria, turn and walk way—well, all right; I add a line or two to amuse Maria, write out a note that reads “This is a hold-up,” making her smile. I’ll use the note as prop, something to stash in my jacket pocket, to keep my hands busy when I turn away. The set goes quiet. “Camera,” someone calls—“one, two, three, and—action.” On the first take, I say “I’ll take the loot later, thank you” to Maria and turn away, to find my exit blocked by lighting equipment. I stand there, confused. “Do it again,” the voice calls from behind the lights. The second time I walk under a black scrim and the director says impatiently, “He is bending down, why is he bending down?” They tell me to brush aside the scrim with my head. I work on relaxing, smiling at Maria, which is not hard, she has a face like June in Sienna; adding more words in front of my “thank you;” projecting my voice from the diaphragm, stashing the note with flair; losing my smile as I think of other things in turning. I feel better and better about all of this. OK it’s a nothing part but I’m doing it fine, I feel natural, convincing, I’m acting dammit! Acting in a Bollywood movie. Between takes I chat with the star, pro to pro; telling him, like any good thespian, about myself—I’ve trained, done TV, a little stage, written screenplays, I’m looking for more work here. Hoping he’ll have a connection. He seems interested, the Indian thing again, politeness plus appreciation of interest in his land. As we talk he passes from hand to hand a stack of British 50-pence pieces. I ask him about the coins. Why not use pound notes for a Western Union office, through which many of the 20 million NRIs send home thousands in cash? Dimesh holds up the stack in one palm. “This will become an animated character,” he says, “it jumps on my shoulder and then flies away. It will show how quickly Western Union sends money.”
I nod, and turn away. An ad, I’m thinking. It’s not a movie it’s a fucking advertisement. I tell Vikaz, “It’s an ad, isn’t it?” and he says, “it’s an advertisement for television.” “But you said, it was a movie,” I counter bitterly. His smile doesn’t alter by a fraction of a degree. When I tell this story later I am informed that the “Bollywood movie” line is a classic, obvious come-on line for touts. For now, though, I turn away, furious, disappointed, far more than I was over Dhol; that, after all, was a crapshoot, I had no right to expect anything from walking onto a set. I understand, from the power-level of these reactions, how deeply my gut is wound up in cracking, however marginally, the barriers that keep me from doing what I’ve come here to do.
It gets hotter. I spend more time in my room. Watching the fan. Listening to the crows, about which Mark Twain wrote, "[the crow sounds] like a low comedian, a dissolute priest, a fussy woman, a blackguard, a scoffer, a liar, a thief, a spy." Reading the papers. Shiv Sena has won big in local elections. It’s as if upstate New Yorkers—mostly white, Christian, suspicious of immigrants—had taken over the Queens Borough Council.
I make calls. I talk to Madhur. He tells me, talk to his publicist. His publicist says that because Madhur’s film is about to open the director won’t be able to see me in the foreseeable future. “But that’s what I told you two weeks ago,” I protest, “I should see him early, before he got busy.”
All this should trigger my depression reflex which by now is well honed but I find I’ve already discounted this news—the body-language was there, in its telephone version; the reluctance in Madhur’s voice long ago.
One morning my cellphone rings. It’s Amjad. He sounds excited. I think, to give him credit, he’s happy to bear good news instead of the usual nothing. “There’s a shoot,” he says, “they need someone this morning.” The pathetic excitement starts up, like granddad’s erection, valiant in the virtual certitude of its never going anywhere. “George,” Amjad says, “are you tall?” “Six foot two,” I answer breathlessly. “George,” Amjad continues, “do you have blue eyes?” “Well”—I’ll fudge this one, my eyes are green—“blue-green, sort of.” “Are you blond?” “No, but aren’t wigs”—“George,” he continues, “how old are you?”
This is no time for truth in advertising. “Thirty-eight,” I tell him firmly.
“Oh,” he says, sounding disappointed. “They want someone young, to be with a girl. Young, blond--heldy.” “What?” “Heldy.” “What is ‘heldy’?” “Heldy.” Amjad’s getting impatient. “Do you know a blond heldy guy, maybe twenty-five? Can you ask him?” “I don’t know anyone heldy,” I reply bitterly. He asks me to look on Colaba Causeway, he will give me a cut of his commission. He can’t find work for me but he wants me to be a tout. Covering the mouthpiece I shout at the walls, “I will not work as a tout!” Then, more calmly, I agree. Maybe if I call back in an hour without having found a young blond hunk they’ll have to take this aging, green-eyed, brown-haired, non-heldy gora—this Mumbai Humbert Humbert. I read papers for an hour, and call back. The studio has made other arrangements. I lie on the bed, listening to the crows jeer. I feel worse than I felt during my dark night in the Ghandi-killers hotel. Then defeat was a mere likelihood; now it’s a certainty, a black stain that easily soaks the rotten fabric of the rest of my life—my plays that never got more than a staged reading, my acting that went nowhere, my novels that missed the bestseller list by a spread the size of Manitoba.
Eventually I reach some sort of depressive plateau, of Buddhist acceptance; and here’s the difference between me and Sylvia Plath, or Hemingway, or Captain Smith of the Titanic; I am too ready to live with my shipwrecks. I get dressed and go out for chai.
In Colaba people start to recognize the gora who stay more than a few days. The souvenir sellers stop harassing you. Dimesh long ago quit trying to sell me maps. I get to know Harry Keys, who lives at a hotel down the street. He’s twenty-four, tall, fair-haired, blue-eyed—heldy. He graduated from Bathurst U. in Australia with a film degree and is perpetually amazed at how laid-back Indian film-making is. “All sorts of things we were taught as rules they break completely,” he says. “In the West, they have seven storylines, here they have three; seems very shallow at first, but now it just seems like fun.” Harry recounts an extra job he did when he came to Mumbai six months ago. The studio needed whites who could ride, to play British cavalrymen ambushing a group of Indian rebels plus a sleazy white renegade selling arms to the Indians. When he got to the location, near Pune, Harry found another nine white men who had all bullshitted their way into the job; “all babbling, ‘Who knows how to ride? Who knows how to ride?’ None of them did.” Harry, as it happened, grew up riding. They put him in the vanguard of the cavalry charge; he was to gallop through the gate of a castle they’d rented for the shoot. The first take went as planned. As he charged in the “rebels” aimed muskets and said “Pow, pow”—most Indian movies are dubbed. For the second take Harry galloped magnificently into the rebels’ lair, brandishing “a real sword with a proper edge… As soon as I got in the room this gunfire started all around, ‘ka-boom! They’d been loading the muskets with a sort of sticky gunpowder, they had little head-shaped charges which were exploding and spraying sparks. They’d stuffed the horses’ ears with cotton so they weren’t too bad but I was so scared I was squealing like a girl, (yelling) ‘Why the fuck didn’t you tell me?’ They all wet their pants laughing.”
That shoot had a contract Brit who also could not ride. He was to ride in front of Harry, firing a musket over his horse’s head as he galloped into the castle. “For the very first take,” Harry said, “they had loaded his musket four or five times—‘ba-BAM!’” The horse bolted, and the actor fell ass over teakettle into a crowd of villagers watching the shoot.
And then everything really fell apart. The Brit, suffering from what Harry calls “India shock—lepers, polio, ripoff, stench, cows, traffic”—went back to London. The producer wouldn’t pay the extras, who belonged to the Junior Artists’ union; a group which, like film financing in general, had links to Muslim organized crime gangs. Threats were made. The producer mysteriously “fell” from his hotel balcony. Harry has a contract, now, a real role in a proper film. His agent is my tout buddy, Warren. Harry’s a nice guy, and I’m not jealous of his good fortune—but I think, This could have been me, if only I’d been a bit younger. It crosses my mind that the real reason none of this is working for me is that I’m just too fucking over the hill.
But Harry has a girlfriend, she’s dancing in a shoot at the Kameland Studios in Jogeshwari, just south of Goregaon. And at this point I’m in a rut; failure or not, if I don’t get on the cattle-train to Movieland daily I don’t know what to do with myself. So it’s train-sutra, and rickshaw fumes, to a large compound outside Jogeshwari that resembles an old British cantonment town full of sun-stroked buildings labeled “Bank” and “Police” with dogs passed out in the heat and kids wandering and all of it surrounded by walls. Laura’s the girlfriend, from Sydney, trying out the dancing scene; her friend, Charlotte, a Brit, is a veteran. She, her husband and two kids live in a village outside Goa. She dances because she needs the cash and because she loves it. “You either hate it or you fall in love with the madness,” she says. “You handle it or go home straightaway.” Both women are in their twenties. They are dressed as Hawaiian hula girls. “It’s a film about cricket” Laura says, bemused, “but they didn’t tell us that for three days.” Jesse shows up, smoking, in dark glasses; he looks hung-over again. This is his gig. He herds the girls toward the soundstage, which, as with Studio 10 in Film City, looks like an abandoned industrial building until you get inside. Once there you’re in Blue Hawaii. Palm-frond huts, beach sand underfoot. Cartoons of cricketers adorn the walls of a “clubhouse.” Clearly we are supposed to be in the West Indies, whose cricket team, in real life, is currently on tour in India, raising much comment because Carribeans are so dark and Indians, conditioned since the earliest invasions, which tended to be run by lighter and lighter people, to equate darkness with fealty, are astounded that such dark people play such feisty cricket. I stand instinctively near the cocktail bar that seems to be de rigueur for song and dance sequences in Bollywood. Not a huge shoot this, only fifty people hanging around, but the singer for the sequence is Usha Uthup, a staple of the movie pop circuit. The stars are lower-A list—Kunal Kapoor and Rimi Sen (Naseeruddin Shah, a more powerful actor who had signed on for the film, pulled out to nurse his son after the latter fell out of the cattle train between two downtown Mumbai stations). Also they have roped in two famous cricket commentators to jive in the limbo dance. Most impressive of all, John Abraham—whom I last saw as husband of an amnesiac news anchor in Salaam-e-Ishq—is here to cameo in the video as a favor to his buddy, the director Milan Lutharia; Abraham was listed by FilmFare as the third most powerful male star in the Bollywood hit parade, and the top Christian actor in India. This video, titled “Wicket Bashao,” will likely be used as a trailer to advertise the film; and perhaps as the intro to the film itself, as title and credits roll. Usha belts out Hindi pop with a reggae beat. John Abraham wears a striped wifebeater. The same five bars, take after take, Abraham ejecting from the dance moves, laughing. The white chicks are not in this sequence but they must hang around anyway. I have no such obligation yet I hang by the bar as usual, waiting to be noticed. After another hour or so I leave, to go to another shoot; to sit on the sidelines again, and watch Ananth film something for television.
Sahara Studios: Andheri, next stop on the cattlecar, plus ten minutes by autorickshaw. I was supposed to show up at 12:30, but I am a half hour early. A spot boy leads me around back, over blasted concrete, through an alley of parked cars, past a thali buffet under the usual corrugated iron shelter, an old bitch licking her dugs in the shade—to a corridor full of props and ironing boards and wardrobe trunks. I sit on a prop, wishing I’d brought a book. The spot boy comes back. “Come,” he says, “come.” “No,” I tell him, “I’m early.” Ananth shows up, a smiling, clapping me on the shoulder. He’s an affable dude of 49, longish hair, army-olive shirt. “Come, George,” he says, “I want to use you for this scene.” Great, I think. My talents are finally in demand but for another TV shoot. It feels like fate, Greek drama, Kafka—push hard enough and you’ll never get what you want but the gods, to teach you a lesson, will offer you something different, useless, for purposes of irony. The soundstage in this case is the television version—a glassed-off studio with two standard TV vidcams and another, bigger camera. I smile indulgently: TV ads, TV shows, Foy can toss these off with ease. A well-groomed, handsome man in his forties, wearing a classy suit, sits at an announcer’s desk on the soundstage; a logo to one side reads “The RKB Show.” Ananth introduces the anchor as Rajiv K. Bajaj—his show, the director says, is the equivalent here of Jay Leno. Rajiv will be interviewing me briefly, just before a news segment. “What is he interviewing me about?” I ask as spot-boys adjust my clothes and fit a Lavalier. “Anything you want,” Ananth says, checking the cameras. “You can say anything.” “Look,” Rajiv says, “your name is French, right? I will ask you about your connection to that general at Quebec.” “Huh?” I say. Already Ananth and his crew have moved behind the cameras. Lights glare. Rajiv is straightening his tie, clearing his throat, staring at the lens. “George, look at the camera on the right,” he suggests, and then Ananth is saying “Three, two, one, and—action.”
It’s weird how those words work to silence noise, throttle up attention, jizz the nerves. They’re the password to story, I reflect, of whatever nature. Rajiv is into his spiel though, and as stories go this one is pretty pedestrian. I am still nervous about exactly what the hell I’m supposed to say to the Hindi Jay Leno, who is now introducing me as “a famous writer from New York City.” Rajiv turns to face me. “Your name is French, are you a relation to that famous French general from the Battle of Quebec, the battle of the Plains of Abraham?” What? I’m thinking, that was Montcalm, he got offed at the same time as Wolfe; two aristos croaking to claim a colony on a freezing field two and a half centuries and what seems a million miles from the sweating roaring blast-through of Mumbai. “Uh, actually,” I answer despairingly, doing my best to appear calm before the dead black eyes of the cameras, in the face of what suddenly seems like utter weirdness--Rod Serling’s about to show up at Ananth’s left, smoking and intoning “An apparently innocuous TV interview fades out to … the Twilight Zone.” “I mean there are two branches of my name, they’re both French, but one was, uh, French mercenaries who went to Ireland because, because they all hated the British. I mean my side stayed in France;” I’m warming to my genealogy now but in this second a man hustles up to Rajiv and slips him a note. Rajiv reads the note, turns to face the big camera, his face grim. “We interrupt this show to bring you an urgent news bulletin.” “Cut!” Ananth calls. “Let’s do it over,” Rajiv says. “OK,” Ananth agrees. “Give George some more lines,” Rajiv suggests. “Take Two,” Ananth says. I’m staring at them both, wondering what kind of bizarre Bollywood—or Tollywood as TV-land is known here—journalism is at play here; what species of urgent news bulletin will show up impromptu in what is clearly not a live segment. “You see,” Ananth says, coming over to me, “after this Rajiv’s face comes on the screen at the airport. He says the killer has been spotted there, at the airport. Which warns him, so he flees.” I stare at him. My mouth is open; I may be drooling, I wouldn’t know. “You-you mean,” I stutter, “this isn’t really a TV show?” “Yes,” Ananth says, “It is in Agar.” “A film,” I whisper. More loudly: “This is a film.” “Of course,” he replies, turning away now. “The noir film I told you about.” “That was good,” Rajiv tells me encouragingly, fiddling with his tie once more. “I’ll ask you about your family again, and you tell me about them.” “Montcalm,” I whisper. Already I am wondering what I can do to liven this up. Am I a smooth habitué of the interview circuit, the kind who trades quips with “Jay” and mentions his new book at least three times? I try on my face the kind of self-satisfied smirk such a character would wear. I look straight at the big camera. “Three, two, one,” Ananth calls. “And—action.”
I return to Goregaon that night. I’ve been wanting to visit a theater outside central Mumbai. Goregaon boasts the Anupam Cinema, a monstrosity of formed concrete layers, abstract shapes, all pasted together with concrete and pea-colored paint; an acre of bad sixties architecture, similar in concept to the living-room set at Future Studios. I am hoping to see Madhur’s just-opened film, Traffic Signal, and in so doing get a sense of how people in a low-rent district lap up the new cinema; Traffic Signal is an unusual show, without songs or dances, based on the lives of thieves, mafia types, con artists, beggars and other types living near one Mumbai traffic light. The Madhur film has inexplicably been canceled; when the lights dim what ghosts up on the screen is a fifth-rate Hong Kong kung-fu flick, dubbed in Hindi. The audience—identical in age distribution to that in the Regal—is sparse; it and seems to like the choreographed, absurdist violence, but is not involved the way the Salaam-e-Ishq audience was involved. My mind, bored by the clueless plot, strays, and I find myself wondering if the much heralded split between the new films, the ones with more Western roles than most, versus the old masala that this audience might prefer is not a symptom of a deeper division. Masala was the old Mumbai, or India, swirling, vast, integrative—there’s an exchange, ironically in Parzania, between Corin Nemec and his Indian mentor that struck me as typical of the other kind of movie, with its something-for-everyone characters, and of this city: “You have so many gods, which one can you believe in?” the American wails. “You have to believe in all of them,” the Indian replies, neatly spelling out the “throw it all in” gene-sequence of masala. Is the rise of these new films nonetheless a sign of what’s to come—a growing split between the new, information-age, middle-class and English speaking India, and those left behind; between the one million people in IT, and the 1.9 billion who can’t find or maybe even qualify for computer-related jobs. If India, the world, can keep growing, avert disasters ecological, political, economic, maybe the masala fans, as they join the world’s swim, will start to appreciate English actors in non-musical shows. And if not?
I leave halfway through the film and train-sutra back downtown. Unable to relax, I don’t go back to my room and walk instead through the Koli shantytowns. It is late but time has no meaning here or elsewhere in this city; at noon, at midnight, at four in the morning the trucks rickshaws bullock carts are always on the move and you see people walking, buying, sleeping, selling at any hour. Here infants and dogs are sacked out as rats scurry between them in the dirt and people stroll in the thin alleys, move in the lit openings of their makeshift rooms. Women bring offerings to the Sai Baba shrines. I look for televisions; there are some, by no means many, maybe every tenth doorway or window. Boys, assuming I’m lost, give me directions I can’t understand. They smile as I walk off the wrong way—astonished, perhaps, as much by my utter irrelevance to their lives as by my ignorance of these streets. Lost near Sassoon Dock I am chased off by a drunk, a dog, and a naked man, all barking furiously at the intruder; unaware that he is an actor in a Bollywood movie, part of a myth they can in some fashion hang their dreams upon. I turn and head back to the Causeway.