It had already been a long day after barely any sleep- waking up at an unearthly hour, an early morning flight out of Melbourne, the drive into Lakemba experience and an informal debrief. The Shawrma & Hummus lunch was a welcome change, but by the time the car slowed down, we could see the it’s magic- all of us were drowsy and quiet.
At first glance it looked like a slightly drab shop-lined part of Sydney, a bit like many touristy places in the off-season.
Aaron’s “Welcome to King’s Cross” threw me off. Was this the locale of ‘Underbelly’ from some years back? It looked seedy but completely lacked the edginess that the TV series depicted. Maybe I had the names mixed up.
Joe introduced us to Kings Cross. He didn’t tell us much. We were asked to walk around a bit and get a feel of the place. For a minute I got the feeling that he was going to give Mahima some money to go buy some ‘specified’ fare, but then he changed his mind.
It was late afternoon. It seemed like a relaxed kind of place- McDonalds rubbing shoulders with shops of the McAdult variety, Boho’s sharing beer and chips with drunken women, dollar souvenirs sharing space with smutty literature, homeless people with earplugs looking up at the blue sky, beggars politely asking for ..
Just a few minutes in, this is the conversation that occurred:
Polite (This being a big change from the persistent whining beggars back home) stoned beggar – “Can you lend me a dollar mate.”
One of us gives him a couple of dollars and some change we still haven’t figured out. He just stands there looking at us. We try to pretend he’s not there.
Gurmeet: In Hindi- “Lend? Does he intend to return it?”
Mahima: Hindi -“Paagal hai….? You mad? It’s a polite way of begging.”
Gurmeet: Hindi- “I like the beggars in Australia.. “
Mahi: Hindi- “Charsi hai yar- He’s stoned, mate..”
Gurmeet- Hindi- “…..”
Mahima- Hindi “…..” Back & forth- assessing the beggar’s politeness, degree of stoned-ness (for lack of a better word) and modus operandi.
The baffled doped beggar gives up hopes for a bigger loan, looks at us and shouts as he walks away-“You crazy Abo’s stoned out of yer brains, aren’t ya!!” Then turns back- “You drunk f*** Wogs, I got that wrong!”
This was the second time that day we’d heard a racial slur. It wouldn’t be the last. (The first was in an airport shop that morning when a white woman looked across at an Asian woman struggling to quieten her bawling baby and said loud enough for her to hear- “….Slit-eyed c***” )
A short while later, Mahima was on camera.
Joe- “Mahima, what are your views on sex education?”
Mahima- “There is growing awareness about this issue in our schools & colleges too. I believe it is very important… In fact even the strippers here have a right to their occupation. It is a step in the right direction, etc…. “
Camera off. Mahima looks at us and winks. “Was I good!”
We all smile. She was.
Just like her response at seeing the $300 tag on a life-sized doll in the display of an adult shop: “Toys are so costly in Australia! Aussies must really spoil their kids…but how can children enjoy playing with such big toys!”
Amer: “Nice one Mahima!”
Gurmeet: “Why are we here? It’s boring. They should get us to check-in first…”
Mahima: “I would have bought one of these pretty dolls for my 4 year old niece if it was cheaper and smaller.”
Amer: “Buy me one Mahi! I would myself, but I’ve bust all the money I had.”
With some special Aussie hospitality via a section of our crew, effectively, Melbourne had been Amer’s (Kings) Cross.
Amer & I checked-in only after our somber meeting with Dr Fulde at St Vincent. We came out shaken-up after he shared their experiences of saving lives on a regular weekend night: Dealing with aggressive drug overdosers, victims of drunken glassing, fixing broken bones, stitching up wounds, mending broken skulls, gunshot wounds, literally putting together body parts that have been ripped apart- all connected to people under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs- while calmly listening to them abuse, curse, show physical aggression and swear violently at the staff attending to them. He talked about the demons that testosterone brought out-how the the abuse of drugs & alcohol fueled an aggression that turned normal human beings into monsters who didn’t think twice before causing another human being the gravest harm.
The encounter left Amer & I with the deepest admiration and respect for the doctor and his medical staff. It also left me staring starkly at the difference between a first world country and mine, highlighting how incredibly lucky Australians are and how much they take for granted. To be fair, why wouldn’t they? It is natural to believe & claim it as a right unless you’ve experienced differently.
Most of our reactions in the debrief that followed did not make the final cut. These were mine:
In India, drug/ substance abusers in a brawl/ fight would be bleeding in a police locker, slapped (at the least) really hard until they stopped the rant, and sent a couple of days later to a rehab center- where it’s another hell waiting (without any gentle doctors & nurses, with the barest infrastructure and definitely not much empathy), unless it is a private one which would have a high fee, and so very few people would have access to it.
With such poor infrastructure & resources and millions needing medical care, drug addicts are really the lowest in the priority for any medical emergency. Yes, we have drug abuse in India too, especially high in some states (mostly arising out of poverty), and awful as it may sound, there is a stoic attitude of “Put him in that corner. If a nurse finds time, she will attend to him/ bandage him up, but the police have to take him back to the locker
But the lockers may also be full, so he is out on his own on the streets or… I don’t know what eventually happens to him. The poor family takes him back and has to deal with the addict and his violence, but also the ‘shame’ of having an addict relative. Besides, they don’t have the money to pay for his habit/ rehab…and eventually they are forced to give up on him. These substance abusers become the millions of faceless people in dark places, unseen, uncared for. Basically there is the underlying attitude- “He is an addict- he deserves nothing much.” …. and then I mentally go back to St Vincents and it’s facilities and all the other free-flowing advantages- all of which (in spite of the excellent doctors and hospitals) are just a dream for our country’s nameless millions. Why? The resources and the terrifyingly huge population just don’t match up.
That experience at St Vincent also gave me a glimpse of why people from war-torn and politically scarred countries put their lives at grave risk and do whatever it takes to somehow reach Australian shores. Who wouldn’t mind being killed in that process of becoming a Boat person/ illegal immigrant/ any label.. if their family could get a chance to live in that small piece of heaven- when you come from places like Afghanistan, parts of Africa and the Middle East and a host of other countries where hell is just the only way of life. I wouldn’t think twice. Every risk would be worth it.
As we walked back to the hotel in the dark, the genial (if seedy) Kings Cross of the afternoon had become something else. It was noisy, rowdy, crowded and definitely more sleazy at night- bright neon lights contrasting with dimly lit bars, prostitutes and bouncers standing around and dingy clubs proclaiming adult-related business. It’s mixture of charm & sleeze reminded me of Pat-Pong in Bangkok. Charm? We walked through a street with trendy cafe’s and restaurants with outdoor seating and an interesting menu on offer.
It was already a 16 hour day, but if I had any hopes of sinking into my bed, those were quickly dashed. An all-dressed-up Mahima and Gurmeet were full of questions- “Where were you both? Why are you so late? How was it?” and Mahima had plans-“It looks exciting out there.. dress up quickly, we must go out tonight..and we haven’t eaten since afternoon.”
She had just discovered that for the first time since we’ve started this journey, none of the crew were staying with us at night- they all lived in Sydney and had left us in Jon’s care.
Amer mumbled something that sounded like “I’m tired and sleepy” and slinked off somewhere.
Before I could tell her it wasn’t looking all that safe out there and I wasn’t about to go looking for trouble, she was gone looking for Amer.
I was wary of us sampling Kings Cross alone at night. Mahi, on the other hand was persistent. Luckily for me, Jon had this to say-
(Very serious expression and a stern voice) “Mahima, Aaron has given me strict orders that I cannot, I repeat, CANNOT allow the Indians to go out at night while we are here. I can however go get you all a pizza for dinner.
These were our reactions:
Mine: Aaron, director ji, if you really said this, I feel so much love for you!
Gurmeet: Looking relieved. “Okayokayokay, but we can’t just eat pizza everyday…”
Mahima: Argue Argue Argue ..and then “and Jon, how will you know we won’t creep out at night, huh, tell me!!”
Jon: (Pulling himself up and pulling out his terribly officious British accent) “Mahima, WE have our ways. You Indian’s have secret trackers on you. I can’t say more”
Mahima looked a bit worried now. “Jon, can you track us everywhere? You sure?” (Then to me in Hindi- “Bathroom too you think? Did you read the contract? I’m worried…”) “Ok Jon, because we don’t want you to get into trouble with Aaron, we’ll just stay here. Just because it’s Aaron, okay..”
Jon & I looked at each other & I mouthed a thank-you.
Mahima was placated only when Gurmeet and I agreed to spend time at the hotel bar instead. She asked for Champagne, but reluctantly settled for her fav pom-poms instead. (Those are Breezers, right?) Her constaint refrain was “Amer had to choose tonight to feel sleepy. I would have gone ..”
The bar looked onto a noisy dimly lit narrow street. We were looking directly into a tacky strip bar. In fact, we were looking into several of them. They all had prostitutes posing outside the dark smoky premises, many of whom looked around sixteen. Intimidating bouncers lounged around them. We could see them haggle fiercely to fix a price each time a customer stopped and showed interest, after which they were led into the dark, only to emerge as shadowy silhouettes on the floors above.
It was almost voyeuristic, this experience of looking into another world from across the road- all this going on right across while we sat sipping our drinks and pointing out the action outside and listening to the crazy-but-true stories the barman recounted.
We saw fights break out, a bouncer slap a prostitute really hard a couple of times as if to wake her up, visitors pour a bottle of something on another persons head leading to a brawl, visitors being roughed up and herded out of a strip bar, a couple of girls retching right in the middle of the street, drunken tourists try to kiss a couple of really young looking boys dressed like prostitutes after which they just dropped their skirts and roughed them up…. and then we saw someone in a red hoodie walking leisurely across where we sat. It was Amer!
Next post: Kings Cross After Dark & Other Scary Tales