A Night at the Agra Caterers

by Ian Charles Douglas

I limped wearily back to the guesthouse, dripping blood on the ochre dust. My trip to the lost city of Fatehpursikri had been abandoned. The mad scram to board the rusty bus had thrown me against the ironwork steps, and cut my calf. I resigned myself to a lonely night.

Dhanesh, the little Nepalese bellboy, found me in the yard, puffing clove cigarettes and sulking.

"Tonight I am working at the Agra Caterers," he said. "Only place in Agra to serve alcohol."

My mood rallied.

"Why not you join me?" he added as he made for the gate.

After dark I ventured into the labyrinth of unlit lanes, at every turn shadowed by strangers. Well, this is India, I was used to it by now. The Agra Caterers appeared out of nowhere like a boozer's Shangri-la. The air was thick with voices and the whiff of stale beer.

Dhanesh spied me and ushered me in. Well, rough was not the word. The décor was off-the-wall, literally, with wallpaper hanging off in great strips. A fight broke out behind me within moments and, gulping hard, I pretended not see the whirlwind of fisticuffs. It was like Gin Lane meets Aladdin. Meanwhile, Dhanesh ducked and dived between the clientele of intoxicated labourers, rickshaw drivers, and ne'er-do-wells, ferrying out pints of foamy beer and poppadums. In a patterned pullover and so polite and sweet, juxtaposed against the somewhat thuggish patrons, he was an angel who had fallen from the clouds.

Three bottles of Kingfisher later, and I began loosening up. Well, the dive had a kind of charm, didn't it? I spoke too soon, as trouble breezed in, trouble in the shape of two drunken railway workers. Ah, and there was I, the dumb tourist who had strayed off the guidebook maps!

They sat around me and plied me with cigarettes and booze. They suggested, nay insisted, I go off into the night with them. I couldn't figure where exactly from all their whistle speed jabber. A carpet warehouse? A jewellery shop? A brothel? Whatever it was I didn't fancy my chances of surviving wallet intacto and body unharmed.

Dhanesh watched with a disapproving eye.

"Why you chat with low class men?"

I shrugged helplessly. I didn't know how to extricate myself from their overbearing hospitality.

Agra Caterers was closing. My newfound minders ordered me to leave with them

"Are you sure you want that?" Dhanesh asked in my ear. I shook my head vigorously.

He beckoned me to follow, out through the kitchen to a yard full of chickens and dirty plates. Here we sat and shared a bowl of dhal, dripping in coriander. But it was not that easy. The railway workers hurried after us with, to my dismay, the entire bar! A crowd of inebriants gathered around me. The railway workers went berserk, shouting at Dhanesh in Hindi. I had no idea what they were saying, but I think it amounted to 'hands off our meal ticket.'

The crowd rippled with anticipation of a fight.

Dhanesh whispered, "When I say go-GO!"

The two railway workers turned their backs to us, apparently stating their case to the mob. Why I was their property and nobody else's.

"GO!" Dhanesh cried.

He leapt on a dilapidated bicycle and pedalled furiously. I jumped behind and clung to my would-be saviour. Yes, all six-foot-four of me hanging onto to the diminutive Nepalese.

Out through the gate and down the country lane. The crowd roared with disapproval, the entertainment was escaping! They came running after us, the railway workers at the fore, waving their fists.

Dhanesh was floundering, overwhelmed by my weight. The wheels wobbled and lost speed. My English sensibleness clicked into action.

"Off!" I barked.

Bewildered, Dhanesh obeyed. I moved onto the saddle and gestured for Dhanesh to climb on behind me. All those weekends biking around the leafy University boulevards had not been in vane. Pedalling hard, we picked up speed, faster, faster still. The crowd fell behind.

"That way!" Dhanesh shouted. We hurtled across a meadow, bumping over cowpats, swallowing flies, exuberant. I glanced up at the night, packed with myriad stars. A whoosh of what I can only describe as 'energy' exploded out of my head and up to that glittering sky. This is living I thought.

At the guesthouse we squeezed past the night boy asleep in his hammock. In Dhanesh's small room, walls stained with squished mosquitoes, we sat up late chattering. Dhanesh told of the political fights and murders back in Nepal and why he had come to India to build a new life. Slowly he stripped down to his underwear and I took the cue to leave. I wondered if I would ever see him again. I did not.