The World According to Kenneth

Advertising hoardings, Calcutta. (JAMES FLINT)

Advertising hoardings, Calcutta. (JAMES FLINT)

I hate flying. I never used to, I used to love it, I used to love airports as well, I used to love the way the terminal buildings are stacked like cartons of cigarettes, used to love the way people drift through them like smoke through one of those Xpelair air-filtration machines, scrubbed and organised by the charcoals and gauzes of check-in and X-ray and duty-free before being gathered in the planes and disposed of in those cotton wool swabs that drift through the skies, bearing rain. But now when I fly all I can think of is the possibility that some time within the next couple of hours I'm quite likely to die along with whatever collection of randoms chance has thrown at me: this Japanese kid and those American tourists and that Indian businessman, all of us gathered here by the system and slotted into our pews where like the faithful we listen to the priest in his cockpit pulpit sermonising over the intercom about cruising speed and altitude and thunderstorms over the Alps. The laminated evacuation cards with their non-denominational instruction sets are our prayer books, the sound of air barrelling through the organ-pipes of the engines our hymn. I'm leaving Calcutta, flight bound for Delhi, the 737's backing away from the gate and they've just activated the air-con and it's so hot in here - hot outside, but hotter in here, with the bodies - that the cool air's condensing on contact with the the dense cabin fug and it looks like the mist in some movie graveyard. The undercarriage groans and my stomach does a flip and I'm frightened, really frightened, I'd say like a little kid but a little kid wouldn't be frightened like this, a little kid would be exhilarated, would think it was fun. Me, I thumb a Valium through the foil membrane of its popper pack and wish I'd taken it sooner so it had time to kick in before I left the departure lounge. It's too late now to do me much good, but fuck it, I'm going to take it anyway. At the very least it'll complicate my neurosis in interesting new ways. That should keep me occupied for a bit.

It's incredible, these days, what I need to fly. In hand luggage are the following: two books, in case I need something to read and I'm not in the mood for one or the other of them, two magazines in case I get bored of the books, tabs of diazepam (10 x 5mg) for general purpose quelling of fear, of aphedrin (10 x 0.2 mg) in case we hit some real heavy turbulance or I become obsessed that one of the engines is going to blow out I need something to help me deal with this, of zopiclone (7x 7.5 mg) in case I just can't cope at all and decide it's better to trick my jittering brain into sleep, of imodium (12 caplets loose in a film canister) in case of a sudden case of the squits. Then there's a turbutalane turboinhaler for if I get an asthma attack, chlorpheniramine maleate (14 x 4 mg) in case some kind of stinging insect has snuck on board and chooses to sting me thus triggering a possibly allergy io have, ibuprofen (50 x 400 mg) for when the stress of coping with all these possibilities brings on a headache, earplugs in case I'm sat next to some screaming child, and a torch and notebook(s) and pen(s) and one pack of Bicycle air-cushion playing cards plus glasses, spare glasses, sunglasses, eyedrops, chewing gum, penknife (this last specifically forbidden, I discover, by the rules and regs on the back of my boarding pass), toothbrush and so on and so forth and then last and by no means least a minidisc player and eight minidiscs for blotting out engine sounds because once on an internal in Russia which is where all this fear of flying began they started developing this low uneven thrug like the bearings were worn and the spindle was about to explode, not that I know anything about jet engines but I'm pretty sure they have some kind of spindle which it might be prone to wearing and then at high speeds exploding and taking most of the wing or tailplane or whatever it's attached to along with it, and all this I can doubly imagine happening in Russia or Cuba or India or some place where the brand names are all different or they don't even have brand names owing to there having been some kind of previous and now basically defunkt communist or equivalent system in place for X amount of decades and there therefore being nothing at all you can place your faith in unless, like the Hindu guy next to me who's already set up his little Shiva shrine on his fold down table complete with flowers and water and dabs of powdered colour and all that despite the stewardess's repeated request for him not to release his table until we are safely in the air, you want to place it in God, which, personally, I don't, seeing how if God had meant us to fly he'd have given us wings and since he didn't and we do (fly) he can't therefore exist and this especially as we've actually had to take a step backwards down the evolutionary ladder (of which more later) in order to achieve this incredible feat that's a double reason for his not existing when you consider that most religions (the ones I know of anyway) generally place man (Man, but man, too) at the apex of some kind of evolutionary progress pyramid kind of thing and don't mention any regressions or sidesteps or backwashes or anything like that.

Except maybe Hinduism or its offshoot, Buddhism. Which brings me to Kenneth.

Kenneth's not like me. For starters, Kenneth's still in Calcutta whereas in a few short moments I no longer will be. Kenneth had the room next to mine in the guest house, a third floor place above a kindergarten, out of the centre but not too far from Park Street. The rooms were large, clean, light, no air-con but fans and TV, and set off a little lounge and kitchenette, which was nice. When I'd first arrived Kenneth had been sitting there, in our lounge. He was long, thin and white as a stretched stick of gum, and was draped over his wicker easychair like half the life had been chewed out of him.

'Yo, man,' he drawled, pushing a jumble of petrol-coloured curls back from his face. He was bearded of course and his chest was sunken like he'd been in a camp - you know what sort. 'Yeah,' I said, mentally filing him away in my sixties casualty tray and carrying straight on by after Dooga, one of the three or four guys that ran the place. But once I'd dumped my stuff and ordered some tea I was grabbed by a sociable urge and went back out to the lounge. Kenneth wasn't there but after I'd sat down and the tea had arrived and read half of the articles in the Hindustani Times (which doesn't take very long) suddenly he was, and the conversation began.

I explained, hurriedly, like it was an unpleasant medicine I had to no choice but to take, that was I a journalist, writing a travel piece for a London magazine and here as a guest of the Indian Tourist Board. I told him too that there'd been a fuck up with my flights and there was some doubt as to whether or not I was going to get home any time within the next month. This was more than he needed to know, but in my experience hippies and journalists don't mix (too much of a compromised bread-head profession, see) and I wanted to get his sympathy before he started to hate me. I sweetened the pill with a few lines about where how remote and chilled out it was up the hills where I'd been, figuring that remoteness and chilled-outedness he'd respect. I guess I must have been craving company more than I'd realised.

Either way he seemed to warm to me. 'Yeah man,' he chuckled when I told him this was my third time in India but first for a decade, 'it's been twenty years since I've been back here myself, and I spent most of the sixties and seventies here?' He did that a lot with his sentences, inflected them as if they were questions. 'Oh yeah?' I said, without realising what I was doing. Because this minor expression of interest was apparently enough of a prompt for Kenneth to launch into a Castro-sized monologue about his life and experiences. 'Oh man, India was like Disneyland then, Disneyland of the soul,' he began. 'I tell you, it was incredible, and I've been back five weeks now, been down in the south, south of Madras? And I tell you man, it has not improved one little bit since that time, not one little bit. You want to talk about progress man? I tell you, these guys have gone backwards! The only thing that's improved is that, back in the seventies, when the first cassette recorders and radios came in? These guys had them blaring out that dang crazy Hindi pop music every minute of the day and night from every shop and office and bus and rickshaw and you couldn't get a second's peace, you know, not a second without that blah blah blah, but thank god they've got over that now. No I tell you man, this country has gone right down hill, the food, the food has gotten worse like you wouldn't believe. You see me now?' - he indicated his body - 'I don't normally look like this man, I got ill down in Madras, I was so ill I had to literally drag myself to the train station and haul my arse up here to where I knew some people, and let me tell you, if it hadn't been for the guys here in this hotel? Dooga and his pals? If it hadn't been for them man I swear I'd be finished.' As if to illustrate how sick he had been he now coughed, a great hawking hack that shook his frame and rattled him to the base of his spine. 'I've lost twenty or thirty pounds the last month, usually I'm pretty stable around one seventy-five one eighty I mean I'm tall and big-boned, but right now I can't be more than one fifty…'

He went on like this without pause for the best part of an hour, talking about his health with that particular level of self-obsessiveness shared only by maiden aunts and dope heads, relating anecdotes which wound into other stories and opinions and after a huge detour finally returned to the main thread only to veer off once again. He was from Texas, and his voice was a weird blend of drop-out and good-old-boy and there was something something of the NRA member, of the caustic and tobacco-chewing and quite-possibly-corrupt cop mixed in there somewhere. Whatever it was buried pretty deep, a cobwebbed attic doorway tucked up under the claggy eaves of his eyes, but it made him different to your average dope refugee. He had his own religion, it seemed, an idiosyncratic blend of Buddhism, Hinduism and humanism with more than a little capitalism mixed in for good measure, and after spending maybe ten years on the road he'd returned home the States where he'd been running some business for the last twenty years.

I was tired and pretty soon I'd had all the company I needed. Plus I was getting hungry: it was energy intensive, all this listening. I waited fifteen minutes or so for a suitable gap in Kenneth's word-stream then quickly made my excuses and disappeared into my room. I took a shower then lay on the bed to dry off and watch CNN coverage of the Clinton visit, the footage of helicopters and dances and diplomats and the chat about a new era of international trade counterpointed by a triple decker ticker of the latest stock prices that scrolling across the bottom of the screen like the melody line of a strange global music. Body and mind rinsed clean I slipped out to Park Street to find some dinner - Tandoori fish, if I remember, plus a couple of palm nans and some sag paneer. And a Pepsi, a symbol of how India had changed: when I was last here a decade ago there were hardly any imported goods and if you wanted to make an international phone call it took an entire day. But now it was all Coke and Pepsi and nuclear weapons and even MacDonalds was here and there were really good telecoms everywhere even up in the hills and Internet too, Internet Internet Internet, cybercafés and .com adverts as much in evidence in Calcutta as in London or New York. It was weird.

I returned to the guest house to find Kenneth sitting on his own in the dark. He was in the lounge, perched on the wicker settle in the lotus position, meditating. I slipped by, trying not to disturb him, and went to my room. A few minutes later there was a knock on the door. 'Hey man, would you mind turning the TV down a little? I don't really sleep any more man, I mean I've been perfecting my body long enough that I don't really need sleep, but the TV kind of interferes with my vibes? Is that okay?' Sure Ken, sure it's okay. I'd only put it on for the company anyway. I killed it and read a book for a while before falling asleep to the lulling slap-slap of the Texan's sandals as he pootled between the kitchen and lounge doing whatever it was people who don't need to sleep do with all that extra time they have on their hands.

I have to confess I didn't believe any of this not sleeping crap but he was certainly up and about by the time I awoke and seeing as how that was before six if he had slept at all it couldn't have been for more than a couple of hours. I wasn't up that early by choice, I might add - in order to make sure I didn't sit around his offices all day giving him grief the tourist board guy responsible for getting me home had organised a guide to show me around Calcutta.

And show me Calcutta she did. Rekha was in her fifties, married with kids, she'd lived in London and Paris and spoke about six languages and what she didn't know about the city wasn't worth knowing, believe me. She insisted we get started at the crack of dawn 'because in Calcutta that's when life really is,' and for the next two days she would pour the city into me like it was butter tea: syrupy and strange and a little hard to take but ultimately rather sublime.

Tired, my head full of city, I got back to the hotel to find our Texan friend standing in the kitchette slicing a watermelon. He offered me some and I accepted but also asked Dooga if he could go get out and fetch me a beer. Kenneth glared at me disdainfully. 'Alcohol's poison man. You want to cool down, watermelon's the thing. I tell you, this place has just saved my life, this great refrigerator they let me use,' - there was a large red fridge in the lounge, stood up against the yellowing wall - 'it's a Godsend, I've got containers of mango and watermelon in there, plus water of course, I can cool right down whenever I want? It's better than any amount of cold beer.' Kenneth now launched into a monologue detailing the dismal and negative effects of the various evil toxic substances woven into the fabric of modern life, telling me in great detail - like I was interested - about his acute sensitivity to chemicals. The diatribe segued into an anecdote: he'd run into some Bengali guy the previous day who'd spent the past five years in his bathroom developing some kind of all natural disinfectant which he was now trying to foist on Calcutta hotels. The gloop was called Sol, into which name Kenneth read great significance: 'Because I worship the sun man, that's my god, Sol, the sun is the source, of life, of everything, because life is light, that's what it is? But the hotels they won't touch it, they're too tied into that Western chemical mindset. But this is great stuff, a real breakthrough, I've had Dooga wash my entire room down in it today, floor, walls, ceiling, everything.' He had too - he took me in there to see. Certainly the place was scrupulously clean, clean and neat and simple as a room in a hospice.

His next comment came as a bit of a surprise. 'Do you smoke man?' he said. 'What, cigarettes?' He ignored that, like it didn't compute. 'Because I've got something fabulous, I've got ten tolas of the purest Manali, hash like you wouldn't believe. I mean, I don't smoke any more, gave all that up, I don't pollute my body with any drugs anymore? But this is some really good shit, believe me. If you want I could sell you some?' And of course I said yes and immediately escaped with it into into the ubiquitous mediasphere of MTV, Z-movies, CNN.

The next day: more guided tours, including a trip round the Indian Museum where, wandering through the halls filled with statues and relics, a section of stone frieze carved in two-thirds relief caught my eye. It featured eight figures that included, reading from right to left, a fish, a lizard, a rat, a monkey and two men, the second man riding a donkey. 'What's that?' I asked Rekha. 'It looks like a progress of evolution diagram from an introduction to biology textbook.'

'It's the Hindu cycle of reincarnation,' she informed me. 'You move up the scale and civilised man - represented by the chap on the horse - is the last step before you finally escape the samsara cycle of birth and obtain liberation, moksha, in brahman.' 'Brahman?' 'The absolute, the great cosmic power. The one. How fast you progress through samsara depends on your karma at each stage.' But the frieze still looked to me like it was some basic version of Darwinian theory and we puzzled over this for a while, over whether it was possible that with enough deep meditation to travel back beyond consciousness and explore the archeology of the brain, digging through the strata of amygdala and ventricle and spinal chord to uncover the fossilised tracks made by our ancestors as they dragged themselves up out of the sea. From the museum we trundled over to Kalighat, the temple from which Calcutta takes its name, for a more visceral contemplation of the cycle of life and death: inside the compound, in a small fenced off area almost hidden from view by the crush of pilgrims and priests and trinket salesmen goats are ritually sacrificed throughout the day. Rekha had seen it all before and didn't want to look but I pushed my way through to the front and rubbernecked as two men grabbed one of the creatures, its black coat slick with rose water and sweat, and wrestled its head into a crude wooden vice. The goat couldn't believe what was happening, you could see from its marbling eyes and the way its lips shrank back from its teeth that its small but capable goat-brain was twisting itself apart trying to resolve the paradox that the tall beings who had fed it and watered it were now going to stand calmly by and watch it die.

And it knew about death, of that I was sure. It had just watched its two sisters get theirs and spent the last twenty minutes scrabbling around in the wash of their blood. Death doesn't get too much plainer than that.

But death was coming, inexorable and quick: Kali and the lines of the poor queuing for cuts of cheap meat at the gates demanded it. The fat machete was went up and came down in a swift single stroke that cleanly severed the animal's neck. The head thunked down on the stone its expression immediately waning into one of absolute defeat, and a geyser of blood arced and pumped from the neck like a great purple piss as the body was hefted away into a corner where its unconscious legs, their neural systems not capable of registering that this was the end, trembled and ran until they too melted into death's cool embrace.

On the way back to the guest house we called by the office of tourism. There was still no news on my flight, but I was told not to worry - I was to have lunch with an Air India official the following day, they were trying to organise me a special government-reserved seat, it would be all be okay. I was sceptical. I was supposed to be leaving for London in under forty-eight hours and all this last minute politicing was not reassuring. I walked down AJC Bose Marg growing more worried with every step, and as the worry grew so did the frustration. And with the frustration, of course, came the fury.

Back at base I bludgened my anger with 10 mgs of Valium and ran my evolutionary theory of meditation by Kenneth. He wasn't having any of it. 'I've been reincarnated literally thousands of times,' he said airily, looking at me with the expression of pity the elect save for young souls. 'This is my last time around.' 'Where's your horse,' I said, but he didn't get it 'Samsara's behind me man. I'm right at the point of being able to give up taking food.' 'What?' 'Food's poison man, you don't need it.' And this from a man who looked like he'd just walked away from a famine.

I wanted to find out more about this giving up eating bit but Kenneth wasn't forthcoming; preferring to tell me instead about how he'd made that antiques business of an massive successful by combining the techniques of Tantric sex and American salemanship. I wallowed in my warm bath of diazepam and listened, trying to keep the smile from my face.

Next day I met the airline official for lunch: much chat about my thoughts on Calcutta but no information regarding my flight. In desperation I finally brought up the subject over dessert. 'Ah, yes. We are trying our best, but it is very difficult. It is all very busy now, everything is very much overbooked.' Tell me something I don't know. 'You have to understand that unlike in your country in India these things take time. We think it's best if you go to Delhi. It will be much easier for you to organise everything from there.' My heart sank: they were passing the buck. But what could I do? There was no point losing my temper. They gave me a ticket for an internal flight and a bunch of phone numbers in Delhi, then said their goodbyes. I was fucked.

Back in my room I took more pills and smoked some more hash then lay face down on the bed in my underwear, sweating, the ceiling fan going full tilt. I was so furious I could tear off my skin. The bastards had lied to me, had fobbed me off with promises and now I was going to have to go to a different city and start all over again. But what really got me was the thought, reiterated and reflected into a migrained infinity by the mirrored halls of the THC, that really it didn't make any difference when I got home. I wanted to leave for London when I did because that's what I wanted, that's what I'd been promised, but the fact was I lived alone, my flat would look after itself, I had no unmissable appointments to keep, no desperate reason to be back. Being a writer I could even work: I could walk down the street, sit down at a computer and pick up my email; I could contact my contacts, file my story, I could work on my book. With the net it didn't make much difference where I was and somehow this realisation transmuted my anger into the deep paralysing fear that my life wasn't tied to anything, that it had lifted clear of the ground and had begun a slow circling cruise in the stratosphere forever, a flight that might never come in to land.

Time passed and then it was night. Someone knocked on the door: it was Kenneth, I knew by the cough. I told him come in and he entered and sat on the floor, back to the wall, his scrotum popping free from the crutch of his tennis shorts like the plump plucked breast of an oven-ready chicken bursting out of its supermarket bag.

'I just wanted to, er, I just wanted to finish up telling you what I was telling you yesterday,' he said. I couldn't remember what he was telling me yesterday, nor did I care; I wanted to scream at him to leave me alone, to fuck off. But I didn't, I couldn't manage it - Kenneth was all that I had. So I turned down the ceiling fan and sat there smoking the remains of a joint while he told me his plans to set up a new business shipping containers filled with textiles and wicker furniture and Raj-era antiques back to Texas. 'I tell you man, they've never seen anything like this stuff over there, and they're just going to lap it up.' He had it all worked out: suppliers, shipping agencies, outlets, profit margins, the whole deal - finally I was finding out what he did all night, sitting out on the sofa in the dark, maintaining the lotus position. This fucker meditated business plans. He'd even got as far as recruiting Dooga and two of his friends to the scheme - he was going to train them up and fly them out to the states. And in return Dooga was finding him a wife.

It was this piece of information that finally prompted me to say something. 'A wife! Hold on Kenneth, I thought you'd renounced the pleasures of the flesh. Yesterday you were giving up eating, for godsakes.' 'Yeah man, but you know, it's not like that, this girl, she's only twenty-three, she's got a young child which was hardly into this world before the father died in a car accident? She's got no one and no chance of remarrying - you know what the deal is with widows out here - and here I am, more money than I know what to do with, single, and I've always wanted to bring up a kid man, when I was seven years old I made the decision that I was never going to have children but I've always wanted to bring up a kid, I love kids, and as for the sex, it's all Tantric for me, I'm way beyond orgasm, it's all about energy exchange? If the woman takes pleasure from it that's fine, and like I'm sure being young she'll have needs which I'm prepared to fulfil, but I'm way beyond all that desire and shit.'

I tried not to sneer. 'That's very generous hearted of you Ken. So what does she looked like, this girl?' He trembled like a teenager anticipating a date. 'Dooga says she's beautiful, man.' 'You mean you haven't met her yet?' 'She's coming here tomorrow. She doesn't live in Calcutta. I've given Dooga money for the tickets and he's going to fetch up her up from Bihar on the train. I think I'm going to have to delay my giving up of food, it'll upset my karma but I'm going to need to get back to my normal weight, at least till I'm well again. I mean I'm not usually this thin, it's not good, and I've got to get rid of this cough man, it worries me, my family's got a long history of TB, I have to be real careful about anything unusual going on with my lungs.'

I didn't hear anything he said after that. With this mention of mortality the fear I'd been experiencing all afternoon and which Kenneth's presence had helped to dispel suddenly took a fresh hold of my brain. The air turned thick, like the whole room was pumped with exhaled Kenneth-breath, and I imagined I could feel the tuberculosis bacilli swarming over my skin. TB, the quintessential writer's disease. And this guy I'd spent three days talking to, he fucking had it. Unable to overcome the paranoia I made another excuse and ushered him out then stood under the shower for a while trying to calm down. But it didn't do any good and I spent the rest of the night haunted by a vision of slowly coughing my life away in this room in Calcutta, far from nirvana and further from home, while smiling officials looked on doing nothing and Kenneth dug the foundations for a vast global Tantric business cult.

Late the next afternoon I left for the airport to board that Delhi flight, leaving Kenneth sitting in the lounge awaiting the arrival of this prospective wife, resplendent in a saffron dhoti and flanked by two acolytes. And here I am now in my pew, minidisc on, and the plane is tricycling towards the arrow of runway lights pointing into the maw of the night. It's the vibrations that get you, that get me anyway, the vibrations, the way as we thunder down the arrow the wings look like they're trying to flap. And then, with a sigh, this orchestra of technology finishes tuning up and we're airborne, more swimming than flying, as if the plane's worked out it's more fish than fowl, as if it's discovered that if only you can move fast enough the sky's just the same as the sea. No need to evolve feathers and shit, forget about progress, evolution's about reconfiguring a problem, not about solving it; it's about finding yourself a new niche. Just ask Kenneth.

- PiL #8, July 2000