India Trip Notes
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Some DC Writings on this site
4-17-11 - More Lessons in Dharamsala
My last all night in Dharamsala I had a room down by the Tibetan Library but was still up in McLeod Ganj hanging with a diverse group of foreigners. Israelis to the right, Europeans to the left. One other USAer straight ahead, John. Everyone was talking to everyone else and there were a few more beers than usual. Something I said made John's head turn. I don't want to repeat what he said or how he said it because it would be too delightfully self-serving and would tend to alienate some sensitive readers. He'd realized that I'd written Thank You and OK and said he had a bookstore in Maryland and he enthusiastically hand-sold that book. In the book biz that's the term that's used when someone personally recommends a book to customers, pushes it.
John and I ended up talking till the waiters had to - not really go home but close up. They slept there. Then John and I went out to the bus stand plaza and talked till everything was quiet. Oh oh. I needed to go down to my room next to the Library and it was too dangerous to walk there. The road was being worked on and there was a rumor that the road workers who were from a poorer state, liked to knock people walking alone in the dark out and rob them. And then there were the leopards. We tried waking some of the drivers who were sleeping in their rickshaws but they weren't interested. Finally, John said he had an extra bed in his place so I went there, we smoked some hash and he told me a great bedtime story.
"I'm going to share something that happened to me," he said, "And if you write about it I'll kill you."
He didn't really seem like the type of guy who'd kill me, but I do respect his wish and will not reveal the elements of the story that are the ones that he obviously doesn't want told - except by him. I told him I thought he could get $10,000 for it from the National Enquirer - maybe. And most of what I'm telling here is public record.
John owned this bookstore in an historical district of a town outside Washington DC. He specialized in rare and out of print books - and Thank You and OK. One morning he stood outside his bookstore with a crowd on both sides lining the narrow, Colonial street. They were waiting for the presidential motorcade. After a while some police motorcycles rode by and then some limousines, one of which stopped causing all the other vehicles to stop. President Bill Clinton got out and walked over to the bookstore. He wanted to do some shopping.
The store was so small, John said, that only Clinton, a couple of aids, and his secret service guards could come in. It was just them and John's Ubangi lip altar where he lit incense and burned a candle. He said he and Clinton were smushed next to each other so close that he could feel something in his pocket pressing into Clinton's thigh, all the while Clinton asking about this book and that. He said that Clinton knew what was valuable. and especially admired a first edition of Whitman's Leaves of Grass. Clinton bought several hundred dollars worth of books and left. John was relieved. He didn't like crowds and the much-ado. He was sort of shy, a loner.
John got a call from a woman saying she wanted to buy a birthday present for the President. She said there was a book he'd admired when he was there. John said he knew exactly which book that was. She asked if she could come that night to get it. He said he was playing in a blue grass band in a nearby bar, to meet him there, and he'd take her to the store on a break and sell her the book. That happened.
One morning John went to work and as he was pulling his keys out of his pocket, a couple of men in suits came up to him and started asking questions. The name Monica Lewinsky was mentioned.
"Who's that?" he said.
They asked him if he followed the news and he said no, not at all. An agent went to a nearby newspaper dispenser and held the front page up for John to see.
"There's that woman!" he said, and was immediately sorry he'd let that slip so carelessly. He didn't want to have to deal with anything, especially something that might be public.
Kenneth Star got word that Monica might have bought the Prez a gift that he hadn't declared which would not be okay if it were worth over a certain amount. He told the FBI to get the bookstore's record of that transaction.
John went to the Grand Jury to be interviewed informally. There were lots of people and reporters. One reporter told him that they weren't interested in him yet, but when he came to testify - just then someone came out who'd been testifying and the reporter ran off to join the others who mobbed that witness. Bulbs flashed. It was like being Paris Hilton for a day.
John told the FBI he couldn't find the receipt so nothing ever came of that. And after spending 80 million dollars on his investigations, Kenneth Star came up with nothing illegal that the president had done except for lying about something that he did that was not illegal.
Hey John or whatever your name is, if you're out there anywhere, or if anyone knows who you are or what the name of that bookstore was, please let me know. I'd like to talk to you or to him. [firstname.lastname@example.org]
The next morning I got up early and was walking by the Tibetan Library half way down the mountain when I got an uneasy feeling or, more accurately, I admitted I had to deal with the uneasy feeling I'd had for some time about Sharma having had my MasterCard for thirty minutes. That's not a good thing to do, I thought. Why did I do it? Why didn't I just walk out then?
There are things he could do with it like run up more charges or take the code off the back. I was uncomfortable that someone who'd done to me what he’d done had had my card at all. I went to a STD station and made a collect call to MasterCard in America. What I found out confirmed my suspicions.
My card had been frozen because of a bunch of charges that had come in on that day, the day that I had kept telling Sharma that I would be gone. First, there was a charge for $44.38 (r 2066) to a place called Record Store. It was approved. Next there was a charge of $1622.27 (r 76,234) to a place called Household Appliance. It was approved. Next there was an attempted charge of $1900 (r 83,600)and then another attempted charge for$779 (r 34,276) to Household Appliance, which were both not approved thanks to MasterCard’s computer sensitive to unusual charges. Good going computer.
A tornado of activity followed. By noon I'd met with several businessmen whom I knew through Dianne and Ulf, had talked several times to a woman named Poonam at the American Embassy, and had registered a complaint directly with the assistant chief of police while accompanied by a reporter from the Times of India. That reporter told me I'd scored high with the officer when I started with this could have happened where I live too and it probably would have been for more. I also said I'd mainly like to prevent this from happening to others for their sake and for Dharamsala's. The police though needed proof which could only come from MasterCard.
The businessmen were aware of Sharma and told me he had a history of cheating tourists and agreed he should not be allowed to be a money changer. But when I brought the reporter to them and said we'd been to the police, they became vague and unhelpful.
Up in McLeod Ganj Sharma's office was closed and I was told that word had already gotten to him that I was still there and talking to authorities and he'd left town. I went to see his associate Dodhi. Dodhi was a friendly, confident businessman. He shook his head at what I told him and said maybe now I would do what no one else has done to clean this town up.
I told Dodhi that everyone I talk to knows Sharma cheats people. They all tell me to stop him but it's the local business community that should stop him. He threw back his arms and said, "Only God can stop Sharma!"
People were coming up to me in the street and in McCloos congratulating me for getting rid of Sharma. I said I think he'll be back before long. Ulf said that he felt more responsible than ever for my travails and the least he could do would be to buy me dinner before I left on the night bus. OK.
I went to an Internet cafe to send a report to Poonam and got an unexpected email. It was from an American who told me he had learned from Dianne, who was out of town, what had happened to me and he is so sorry and so ashamed and so frustrated because this sort of thing has happened before. He was married to Sharma's daughter, the lived in Dharamsala but they were in the States at the time.. He said that Sharma was a buffoon and a disgrace who had deserted the family and lived in Thailand for six years but had gotten in trouble there and had run back to India. He wrote he hoped I didn't have too much difficulty working this out with the credit card company and to keep him informed. There was also an email from Dianne saying that Sharma's American son-in-law was well respected, upstanding, the opposite of his father-in-law.
As the night bus bounced down the mountain, I reflected on how much one can get done when under pressure. What I'd done in one day might have taken me a week under normal circumstances.
It was another semi-ordeal of the road. There were two cool young Indian university students sitting near me and we talked a bunch. The bus stopped at one place where there was nothing one could get, no tea, not even water. There were no toilets and men went to the field on one side and women on the other. Only one person complained and boy did he complain. He was a tall Englishman of late sixties I'd say, who loudly criticized, cursed, protested, and merely grumbled when he was resting.
"No tea! No tea! What sort of service is that!" And, "No proper toilets!. You filthy beggars! You should be ashamed!"
And while we were riding along he'd yell at the conductor and driver the most offensive and degrading things. At the next stop, another Brit tried to reason with him, was being understanding, listening to the man who's voice did not lower. I walked up to them and asked him what he expected on a regular bus in India?
"You shutup you jackass!" he yelled at me.
"My, my," I said. "Are you sure you came to the right country? I think you should go check your ticket."
He glared at me. "Mind your own business!"
"This is my business," I said. "You're forcing it on me, yelling so loud that you're including me and everyone here in your personal drama. That's not fair."
"Go away!" he commanded and I did, but he was pretty quiet after that.
The next day I was standing at a tiny little obscure outdoor tea spot in an alley in Delhi, not even a roof, telling the tea wallah and his buddy about how shockingly rude the guy was the night before. And as I was saying this he walked up from behind me and asked for tea. I shuddered wondering what he'd heard, then thought what the heck, I don't care, looked at him, and felt as if I was in a dream. I said "Good day." He went, "Hmph." I paid, stepped back and pointed at him from behind letting the others know as I mouthed, "That's him!" I walked off wondering what the odds were of that encounter.
I went to the American Embassy in an auto rickshaw and talked to Poonam through bullet-proof glass. After that I hung out and ate at an outside table in a small funky tree-lined shopping area nearby then walked off into the distance. There were other embassies in that area and wide open spaces. I kept going.
There was a woman on a block surrounded by nothing but empty fields, sitting on a large piece of colored material upon which she was preparing various goodies. I stopped and got some and she was unusually friendly. She said she lived in the housing project in the distance. A motorcycle zoomed up and voices called out, I supposed for her, but they continued and so I turned and there were the two students I'd been talking with on the bus. We chatted a while and they told me which direction to walk toward to get to a street with rickshaws and busses.
On the way a bicycle rickshaw pulled over and I said okay but was doubtful. Delhi's like LA - it's giant - and I had places I wanted to go. And this guy took me to them. He must have been going over twenty mph for hours in the midst of heavier and faster vehicles.
I walked through the ruins of an old fort. It was scary. There was no one there. It was all overgrown. I went through tunnels and over bridges, down corridors and through open spaces. He peddled me to the International Baha'i Center of the religion with the strange apostrophe and it was one of those paradises that don't seem like India - green, expansive, clean. I circled the cathedral-sized chapel looking down and up, reading the occasional posted teachings. My favorite one I wish I'd written down. Was it from the Koran? Don't remember. It said something about criticizing others being the gravest of all offenses. As the driver peddled me home I thought of that and then I wondered if a Lloyds of London actuary could work out the odds of my having run into the nasty Brit plus those two guys on the motorcycle in a sprawling city of tens of millions the day after the night we'd been on the same bus.
Two days later I saw Poonam again but this time there was no bullet proof glass between us. She'd put me on the guest list for an open house at the Embassy. It was like being at a country club. There was wine and American type snacks and pleasant people from the US and India and a State Department representative spoke and took questions, some of which were slightly critical of the Bush administration. I didn't cause any trouble, just kept snacking and drinking wine and enjoying the lawn.
I told Poonam that I'd given up on the Sharma case. The police were ready to act. The papers were ready to print. But they needed proof. I wouldn't have guessed that the weak link would be MasterCard. They wouldn't send me anything but a new card - no records of transactions, nothing. It would take months they said. Every time I called I talked to a new person and had to start all over.
And the card they sent me never got to me in India. First, they didn't have enough lines in their address form to include my name and the embassy and all. It had to be sent to the embassy. So I had them send it to the embassy in care of Poonam who sent it by courier overnight to me in Rajasthan but it didn't get there in a week and went back to her and finally I had her send it to Bangkok where I eventually retrieved it - I was on the road, there were ATMs everywhere I was going, and could do without it.
I will give MasterCard credit for being easy to deal with when I got back. I had a letter from the police and from Poonam at the embassy, photocopies of my passport and other receipts to prove where I was. I needed to do that because the charges were made in Tokyo and with a card, not over the phone. They had a name for that. They didn't make me pay the first fifty dollars which they could have, and credited me with both the false charges and the interest and other charges. So nothing lost and it was an interesting and educational experience.
I didn't tell Poonam the rest of what I had learned. It wouldn't have mattered but I felt she'd put enough attention into this case. I told her I was sure she had other people to attend to and thanked her for all her help and for the invite.
What I didn't tell her was what I'd learned from the last person I'd talked to in McLeod Ganj before I got on the bus. I was sitting out there in the dark a bit woozy with my backpack at my side. People were coming out of the cinema (a room with a wide screen TV), a few rickshaws were still running, up and down, the bus was sitting waiting for the time when people would enter it. A guy came up to me. It was my old friend and defrocked monk, Zinten.
I asked him where he'd been and said I was glad to see him before I left and thanked him for the meals he'd given me. I told him I'd had a big problem with Sharma the money changer and he said he'd heard. He knew how long it had taken me to get the money and about the false charges and Sharma leaving town.
"Well," I said, "Somebody's gotta stop him. I can't. I'm leaving and it's not my town. It's yours though. You stop him."
"It's not him," said Zinten.
"It's not him."
"What do you mean it's not him?" I asked with disbelief. "I saw him do it. I gave him the card. I could hardly get the money from him and then there were those charges and now I don't have a card."
"He's an idiot, not a mastermind."
"Well, that sounds right."
"Twelve years ago," Zinten said, "Sharma had a all the money exchange here, Then he lost. A sharper mind of employee of his came to owning all Sharma business. This smart man was Dodhi. Now Dodhi has everything and Sharma just is collecting small amounts from his exchange business which is run on money he borrows from Dodhi. He's pathetic."
"OK," I said, "But still, it was Sharma I dealt with."
"Yes. He was trying to get out a few rupees extra for himself, but he didn't make those false charges."
"Well who did then?"
"Hmm. Sharma's son has no respect for his father.
"So his son did it?"
"I don't think so."
"Well who then?"
"Dodhi - with the help of Sharma's son. And Sharma maybe suspected something was happening."
"He did always look afraid when he was dealing with me."
"He is afraid."
"But why does everyone, all the business people and everyone else, why do they point the blame at Sharma?"
"Because they're not afraid of him and they don't respect him. They're afraid of Dodhi. And that's maybe why you should get on this bus and not worry about this anymore. No one will help you. It's very easy to get people hurt or to get rid of people here."
"This is a small matter, right? It'll all work out, right?"
"Right," I said. The bus engine was running. Zinten and I bowed and vowed to meet again.
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