Tom Muzzio
Tom Muzzio
T.E. Publisher
Summer of Raj Return to Vignettes menu
Howling at the Moon

1973

When I lived in Hong Kong, my downstairs neighbors from India frequently had a pot of curry cooking for hours on their stove. The savor wafted up into my flat above. I always wanted to knock on their door and ask if I could have dinner with them! The curry smelled so good! I have to thank PK Rajuhns for baptizing me into the Indian culture. Raj was from Bombay. We got off to a rather rocky start, but in the end became great friends. He had somehow managed to get involved with Teen Challenge India, which was run by a friend of mine from Bangalore. Raj was educated and – I guess one could say – fairly well off by Indian standards. In any case, he had the attitude. Years later, in the Philippines, I noticed that attitude also prevailed among upper class Filipinos. Used to being waited on by servants from birth, wealthy or highborn in third world cultures often take their elevated status for granted, issuing orders left and right, and expecting people to jump at the snap of the fingers. Raj viewed me as an enigma of sorts. I was a white American, so he knew that it would be rather inappropriate for him to snap his fingers at me. However, he was going to be the director of the documentary film and I was just the cameraman, a definite subordinate role in the production process. But the big divide was age. I was 23 and he was 53 – an enormous difference to those from South Asia, where age is venerated and youth often deprecated.

Although it was true that my total experience in cinematography was limited to experiences gathering footage in Britain and Scandinavia, I did bring a lot of cultural and linguistic cards to the table; so I didn't want to be treated like a flunky. At 53, Raj seemed very old to me. He had had part of his stomach removed due to an ulcer or something, and he was always complaining about the pain which made it impossible for him to lift anything. As a consequence, I was the donkey, carrying all the camera gear. He saw my plight, but could do nothing to help schlep the camera, lenses, film, recording equipment, and all. He lamented ... "In India I could just snap my fingers, and five or ten men would immediately rush to pick up and carry all this stuff – carry it anywhere and for any length of time for just a few Rupees!" "Well, I don't recommend snapping your fingers at the Germans," I suggested. "I doubt that anyone is going to jump up and haul anything for us.

We filmed around Frankfurt for a while, and Raj was in culture shock. I've been there too many times, and in many places. But he had it bad. He just couldn't imagine how things in Germany could be so completely different from India! At a small railway kiosk in Mainz we stopped for a much-needed Coke. But he wanted tea! "Raj," I whined, "Come on, they don't have tea in a place like this!" "Please, Tom, please ask them where I can get some tea," he persisted. I was embarrassed, but asked the portly woman behind the counter if she had tea. "Sind Sie verrucht?" (Are you crazy?) Tea? Well, that was just the first of many times when Raj asked me to translate the most outlandish things. I got into the habit of prefacing these odd inquiries with something like: "My friend here is from India, and wants to ask something weird; so don't be surprised..." It usually worked.

We borrowed a car from a Danish friend of mine who was living in Frankfurt at the time. She was in great sympathy for my plight, and insisted that I take her Volvo as long as I needed it. I will always be eternally grateful. We lit out for Nederland with the Volvo stuffed to the gills. But, at least we didn't have to deal with all that stuff on the train!

The first McDonald's in Europe had opened the previous year in The Hague, and an American friend of mine still in the military, drove all the way from Augsburg to Den Haag – five hours – just for a Big Mac. I wasn't nearly so desperate, but when we decided to stop in to try the burgers, I discovered that they had tea! Well, it wasn't really good tea as far as Raj was concerned – but any port in a storm. I look back now, after all those years in Asia, and realize just how important that was to him. The same thing went for rice. Raj was starving for rice – just plain old sticky, steamed white rice. I didn't feel sorry for him at the time, not fully appreciating how important a daily bowl of rice is to millions upon millions of Asians.

Our time in Amsterdam was an adventure. Filming prostitutes in shop windows proved far more difficult than it sounded. After being chased by irate women (and customers), we went under cover and got some footage. But later in Hollywood, where we edited the film, we found that we could have just bought footage like that in local stock houses.

In any case, from the Hoek Van Holland we crossed over to Britain, where Raj came into his own! I guess all those years under the British crown as part of its empire had made some Indians like Raj into little brown Englishmen. He was right in his element from the moment we drove the car off the ferry in Harwich and began driving on the left, reading signs in English! Raj could already smell the curry! I had only seen Raj as kind of a doofy guy totally out of his element in Continental Europe, but in Britain he was connected. He had wonderful Indian friends there who he could stay with. I took the train daily to Tunbridge Wells, and stayed at the Teen Challenge Center there. We often ate with the Indian families who were friends of Raj from Bombay. They were all quite Indian in all their ways, including dress and eating practices. I thought it all rather exotic, sitting on the floor with the men (only) and eating with our fingers.

We had to go back to the Continent to get some more footage in France, whereupon we would return to London to work on the editing. How hard could that be? Ha! From Dover we crossed the Channel to Oostend, Belgium, and headed south to Paris. It was Friday, and we had allowed for traffic and everything but French immigration. I drove up and gave the uniformed agent our passports. He tossed my American one back without even glancing at it. But Raj's was another story. After returning from the office he said simply, "You can enter, but he – referring to Raj – has no visa for France." I couldn't believe that I hadn't thought of this, but there was no point in arguing. The immigration guy was kind and saw our plight. He recommended that we turn around and drive like the wind back to the town of Tournai, find the French Consulate and apply for a visa there. "It is Friday afternoon," he indicated with a reference to his watch, "And they will be closed over the weekend."

Not wanting to miss our Saturday filming schedule in Paris, or be stuck all weekend in Belgium (with Raj), we searched high and low for the French consulate and parking in what otherwise would be a quaint little cobbled streets of Tournai. But we didn't have a second to spare to enjoy the medieval town. We finally threw ourselves through the door of the consulate at 4:55 p.m., with a whole five minutes to spare. They didn't speak English! In despair, I tried German. Dumb, huh? But that corner of Belgium is less than fifty kilimoters from France, Germany, and Luxembourg. One of the office staff was Alsatian and was delighted to help in German. He translated the forms, helping Raj get his visa even though it was past five and the rest of the staff left for him to lock up. Traveling always has its unexpected calamities, but now and then there are rare gems – people who really do help perfect strangers out of the kindness of their hearts.

Back at the border the same Frenchman glanced at the bright new visa in Raj's passport and said: "I never thought you would make it!" We thanked him and headed south again, hours behind schedule but underway, nevertheless. Off in the distance were some angry-looking, dark rain clouds, but it was still a sunny late afternoon day at the autoroute exit for the northern French town of Lille. We ate at a chain restaurant within view of the freeway.

By the time we were getting back into the parking lot, we had to make a dash for the Volvo, as the torrential downpour had finally reached us. I got Raj into the car and as I pulled my driver's side door shut, the window fell with a thud inside the door. Somehow it was off its track, out of sight, out of reach, and couldn't be rolled up no matter what. It was a great time not being able to roll it up at all, as it was raining cats and dogs all over my left side. Well, it's just a summer storm, I figured. Not wanting to waste any more time, as it was past six and Paris was still a few hours away, I decided to head on and deal with the window issue when we got there. It was getting real dark due to the rain, but it wouldn't be long until it would be night and I would still have to find #27 Rue du Printemps in Paris, which I had hoped to find in the daylight.

The freeway was a nightmare, awash with rain and huge areas of standing water. Every car that zoomed past us sent cascades of water into my open window. I was completely soaked immediately, and the huge trucks nearly drowned us with the tidal wave of water that they dumped on us as they roared past in the deluge. Raj was getting wet too, and not one to suffer adversity well, he began to complain. I stopped on the side of the freeway and got his coat and hat out of the trunk. Raj was not acclimatized to Europe, so, even in summer, he was always cold. He bought a winter coat in East Berlin when we were visiting while filming (in West Berlin). It was the tackiest thing imaginable. He had been impressed by how cheap it had been, and I didn't have the heart to tell him that it looked like something the Goodwill would unlikely take in. The hat was a sort of Russian-looking winter cap with ear flaps – very tasteful. Of course, although he looked like he just needed a grocery cart and a wine bottle in a paper bag to make the outfit complete, at least he was warmer than I was.

Totally wet and shivering all the way to Paris – soaked, tired, and hungry, we hit the outskirts of Paris long after dark. About two hours later we finally found Rue du Printemps #27, only to discover that we were in the wrong sector of the city! There were many streets with that common name in greater Paris. We really needed to be looking for Rue du Printemps in a suburb called Le Pecq. It was miles away. So we slogged through city traffic for ages, and couldn't find Le Pecq! There was one of those concrete signs that are so oddly French, but it clearly stated: "Peco." We drove around all over for an hour, and finally I stopped and walked over to the sign. The rain had finally stopped, but everything was wet and muddy. The paint had chipped away from the sign. The "Le" was completely gone and the "Q" looked like an "O" without the tail. We had been in Le Pecq all the time. Finally we found #27, and no one was home! "Now what?" I wondered out loud. Raj had been uncharacteristically quiet for the past hour, and it was well after midnight by then. I guess he had finally reached the end of his rope. I never knew if he was just sick of all this runaround, or if he was really ill, but he got my attention when he mentioned his very real heart condition. "Oh Tom," he said weakly, "I think I am going to die! ... Please take me to the airport, I want to go home to India. I don't want to die on foreign soil!"

What??

"Oh, great!" I thought, "The airport at 3 a.m." ...The obvious problems in getting him to Orley – wherever that may be in relation to Le Pecq – in a city the size of Paris. But all along I was flashing on the unthinkable: being pulled over by the cops en route, and having to explain this dead Indian in my car! And it wasn't even my car!

Then I had a great idea... "Come on, Raj. Let's pray!" I was serious. We needed help. We stopped and prayed fervently. When done, I looked up and saw a small sign: Hotel. Praise the Lord! We got a small room on the second floor where I could look out into the postage-stamp-sized parking lot. I had to go, but didn't want to walk all the way down the hall to the public loo, so I peed out the window into the shrubbery below. That was the closest thing I could do to, despite what I really wanted to do ... Go in Seine!


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