Come ON Take a TRIP by Kaushik Barua

Excerpted and adapted, with permission, from No Direction Rome, Fourth Estate, 2015. Jack Kerouac meets James Joyce meets Harold & Kumar in this dark comedy about the anxieties of a rootless generation. Krantik is a paranoid hypochondriac, an Indian working in Rome where he drifts in and out of a dead-end relationship with the assistance of several intoxicants and a short-lived love affair.

In the excerpt, Krantik meets his friends for a night out in town.




The end of that week, Friday, Liesbeth called me. I was checking for a gastroenterologist to get my ass examined. Again. She has a heart of gold, Liesbeth. It’s soft and malleable, also it deforms under stress: Tanzanian malnutrition gets her down, so does Wall Street arrogance. And repeated refusals. So I said I was coming. Sometimes she beats her heart into a pulp and smears it in thin paste over ugly things, to make little gold trinkets. I may bitch about her, but we end up hanging out a lot. And she had some good stuff, she said.


I got on the metro and found a seat at once, which is always a miracle. There was a blonde girl opposite me with glasses on. I looked at her and she was looking at me, and then we both turned away. An older man was standing near me. I didn’t offer him my seat; he had a beard like Sean Connery so probably didn’t need it.


The metro had cradled us down one stop when a hobo entered the carriage. He had no shoes, and no pants on. Just a long coat that went down to his knees and a dirty cap. He bared his ugly misshapen teeth. And then he slouched against a railing and started his speech. I couldn’t understand some of it, but this is what he said (in Italian of course, because I know you don’t read Italian, I’ve written it out in English): Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, I’m a poor man, poorer than any of you. I don’t have enough money for a meal and haven’t eaten a full meal in days. So if you have some spare change, you can give it to me.


He stank up the whole compartment; he hadn’t showered since the Berlin Wall fell. (Of course, we don’t remember that, do we? No one remembers the wall being torn down, at least not since the two towers fell.) And it was as if he just read out his litany, there was no feeling. He didn’t need any pleading: he was probably thinking, I don’t need shoes, hell I don’t even need pants, do you think I need your money. He had no drama. And he had no dignity. We like our poor dignified.


So I took out a few coins. I had to reach over and drop them in his hand, which didn’t stretch far; it was probably fossilised with dirt.


Everyone looked away. Fuck you all, I thought. Fuck you and your purses and your iPads, fuck your hair and your shoes, fuck your mom who died of cancer and your brother who’s just been diagnosed, fuck your red skin-tight pants, fuck you if you didn’t get your promotion, and fuck you if you lost your job. Fuck you if you’re dying and fuck your newborn child too. I’m getting out of here. It was my stop anyway.


I was calmer as I climbed into the skies on the escalator. Sometimes my anger is fake. Often my sorrow is fake too. If I don’t fill my soul with wind and bluster, the world may know it’s empty and crush it like a Coke can. You could add gold plating on it, but it’s still just an empty Coke can.


When I was walking to Liesbeth’s place, I crossed a yard with books, furniture, CDs, a bird-cage, some old suits littered on the lawn. So I walked in. It was an estate sale: some guy had kicked the bucket and now his whole life was for sale. Everything he owned at least. ‘Todd Williams, lover of books, birds and beauty in the world. Husband, father, friend. We will miss you.’ The placard read. An American; I wasn’t surprised. No Italian family would sell their memories, this whole place is built on memories. People milled around the tables, picking up stuff, putting them down respectfully, as if the lampshade was dying of kidney failure too. I went through the books; I read a lot (and no, not just random websites, sometimes actual books too). Dostoevsky for three euros, but he was too heavy; Safran Foer for five euros, nice but I’ve got most of them; Jeanette Winterson maybe since I haven’t read anything but Oranges. And then I saw the Graham Greene. He had only one. The Quiet American. Funny that was on sale here. Because the only quiet American is a dead American.


When I reached Liesbeth’s place, she asked me if I had paper. I said no.


But I told you I had stuff.


So I assumed you had paper. In fact, I even brought the rolling machine.


What do we roll with? Toilet paper?


We could do that, Massimo said, and then smoke that shit.


I can do it in a cigarette, I offered. I started twisting the tobacco out of my cigarette while Liesbeth scooped a little to mix with her weed.


On my way here, I saw a yard sale. Some guy who died and now all his belongings are up for sale. It’s in one of those big houses in Garbatella.


I’ve never seen that here.


No, he’s American. Was American.


What do they have?


Everything: his walking stick, his books, bedside table, his hats including the slightly worn ones.


That’s terrible, Liesbeth said, it’s like they’re getting rid of him entirely.


No. I think it makes perfect sense, I said. He’s dead, what’s the point in hanging on to his used underwear?


In Japan, they sell used underwear, Massimo said.


To whom?


They have vending machines for used ladies’ underwear. Men queue to pick them up. Probably take them home for some conversation.


If I had a lover who died, Liesbeth said, I would never sell his stuff.


If I died, I would ask whoever’s left behind to sell it all, I said. In fact, I’d ask them to sell all my memories too. Sell my first date, my first time on a plane, the first day in an office.


I’d sell all my days in the office, Massimo said.


For how much?


Anyone can have them for free.


So we made a list of memories that people could sell.


First Pet: YOU PAY 400 euros.

Naming the first Pet: 5000 euros (because you also get a lifetime of passwords) First-time sex: 30 euros (it’s never divine, it’s always a mess, and you’d rather start with the pro-category anyway)

Marriage: Pay what you want

First kiss: 3000 euros, if teenage fumbling in a corner: magical. 40 euros if adult: desperate.

My holiday in Palolem where I was with the girl and I had the greatest sandwich in the world: I probably wouldn’t sell that.


I was still dropping tobacco out of the cigarettes. Drop, drop the tobacco. Sprinkle some on the weed. Then drop the cigarette on the table. It will come alive again, filled with magic.


Drop, drop through the water, float inside. But then you find you’re sinking.


We moved to the balcony to smoke. There was a deserted hospital in front of us, Liesbeth claimed she heard sounds from the building every Thursday. And there’s a huge palm tree. We could be in the Middle East. Only then the buildings would be crumbling with explosions, not slow-motion for centuries, like in those start-stop videos. Massimo is trying to inhale as deep as he can. And while he waits with his lungs full, he twists his fingers into a Hindu-lotus-cow position. He’s such a jerk. I took the joint from him. Nothing was happening. Below us, a man muttered to himself on the streets. And then he held up his empty hand to his ears and started screaming. Porca miseria, porca miseria. Into his invisible phone. Fuck misery. In Rome, the object of fuck works along a well-defined gradation. You start with fuck the snowman. And then fuck misery. And then you work your way up.


Who’s he shouting to?


Whoever’s on the other end. Rome is filled with crazy people. I mean, literally crazy people. They had this asylum on the outskirts of town, and then they had to shut it down, fiscal tightening etcetera (I like writing etcetera, it’s so much classier than the abbreviation). And since no one came to pick up the inmates, they just let them loose on the streets. Which is probably nicer than being locked up. We’re all on the streets. Actually, most of us are locked up in offices to keep the roads safe.

We smoked three joints in a row. Massimo and Liesbeth had gin and tonics. I had an orange juice. When we walked back to her living room, it happened. I was unstuck from time. The room was floating, and so was I.


Where did you get this stuff?


From this gay guy at work.


Does he have a name?


Gordon. He knows a great dealer. Says this is grown in labs in the north.

This is brilliant.


By unspoken agreement, I twisted another cigarette open and Liesbeth started cleaning another bud. Heart of gold she had, probably deposited on earth by some meteorite, like most of the earth’s reserves. A woman who rolls, who knows a great dealer. Once we danced and got a little close, but that was it.


Are you looking at my boobs?


No I’m not.


I think you were, Massimo said. You weren’t even blinking, you were so overwhelmed by their magnificence.


I was thinking. It was the gazing into the middle distance look, and your boobs just happened to be there.


If you were, you can admit it. We’re all family here, Massimo said. I’m often overwhelmed by their magnificence.


Their magnificence! Really? Liesbeth asked.


Of course.


So, you guys aren’t just here for the free weed?


No. We’re here to worship you.


If only either one of you were any better looking.


Thanks, I said. Great time to remind us of our inadequacies. Just when we’re stoned and paranoid.


She finished mixing. And then she sniffed her fingers. I wondered where her fingers had been. No I didn’t, I’m just joking; I’m not like that. I went to the loo. As soon as I started pissing, I remembered what I had had for lunch. Asparagus. I was zooming out asparagus piss. Have you ever smelled it? It filled up the whole bathroom. This really powerful smell. But on the edges, you can also feel its life-affirming quality.


When I got back, Sandra walked in. She kissed Massimo and Liesbeth hello and then me. And then she held my hand.


You can talk to us, she said.


I am talking.


No, you can tell us if you need anything. I didn’t say anything. She wanted to know about the failed engagement to Pooja. What could I say? My hand was still in hers. I tried looking melancholy. I wished I wore glasses. When I should feel sad but I don’t, I think of other people. You’re an executive on the 95th floor, with your brand new spotted tie, surveying the city that you will control someday. And then you see a plane flying, too close to the ground and then too close to you. Too soon, it always comes too soon.


You’re buying naan because your cousin Muzammil has brought some great mutton curry from the old man near the chowk. You’re in Nadeem’s bakery where you always buy your bread, because he never cheats you and once he even gave you some of his hashish. He’s always clucking when you talk about Muzammil: used to be such a quiet kid, till he lost his job. You don’t have time for Nadeem’s lecture because the rogan josh is waiting at home. And then you hear a whistling in the air. It’s coming from far away. Nadeem leans out of the window, and you know from the shock in his eyes that it’s too late. You knew when the troubles started that one day you would be stuck in a place where it was too late.


My hand was still in Sandra’s. Liesbeth had put on the Grateful Dead and I wanted to hum along or move my head to the beat, but now I can’t. And it’s difficult to hum along to them. I don’t even like their music, I think they’re like an over-rated country-folksy-boy-band with too much hair on their faces. (What? You can insult my god and I can’t insult yours?) My hand’s frozen and I couldn’t stand near the table like a statesman all night. So I sat down and Sandra rubbed my shoulder once. I poured a little vodka for myself, but it was suddenly really heavy. So when Massimo switched the music to RATM, I stood up and said we should move before we get too lazy. Rage is always a good trip.


We took a taxi. Outside, young men ran with the dogs and the women balanced their stilettos on the cobblestones. The mad city was coming alive, playing out all its delusions of joy.


Porca miseria, I thought, porca miseria.



Kaushik Barua’s latest novel No Direction Rome is a dark comedy set in Rome. He won the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar for his first novel Windhorse, HarperCollins, 2013, a work of historical fiction set in the Tibetan resistance.