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Armel Dagorn in Southword Journal

Armel Dagorn was born in 1985 in France, and has been living in Cork, Ireland since 2006. He teaches French for a living and reads and writes in his adopted language, English, whenever he gets a chance. His writing has appeared in magazines such as Wordlegs, trnsfr and 34th Parallel, and in November 2011 one of his stories was selected for the Lonely Voice Short Story Introductions series at the Irish Writer's Center.





The Making of Obstacles




There was a saying about this. Opportunity makes the thief? Or maybe Noel was just making it up, trying to rationalise his behaviour, to whittle it down to a general human trait. Quite a natural occurrence, really, something anyone could end up doing. Noel Sweeney wasn't ordinarily a thief. It had just happened there, almost without his realising it. He couldn't remember ever stealing anything, back home. Maybe it was just this strange land getting to him, making him act out of character. He had been in India for two months and although he was sad to be leaving that night it was probably for the best. Did Hindus have sins? The whole thing was a bit confusing to Noel, closer to the old Greek gods than to the homely black and white morality of the Catholic Church: a pantheon of messers. A thousand gods with a thousand names each against the one fellow who got cross when you took his name in vain.


The misbehaving of the young Noel had first come to his own attention a couple of weeks earlier, in Varanasi. He'd been visiting a temple a good bit away from the tourist-infested ghats, and feeling like a right adventurer for doing so. Although it didn't seem to matter whether you stuck to tourist traps or to fiercely local placesthere was always a good crowd around to stare at you. At the temple however, he'd found a bit of peace and quiet. It was the hottest time of the day, the hottest days of the year and Noel seemed to be the only fool walking around under the sun. The level of humidity was like a god's idea of a practical joke and Noel sweated rivers night and day. It seemed worth the trouble, as he walked towards the altar. There was nobody around. A woman had just left, after putting down a few laddus in a heap on a square piece of newspaper. The round sweets looked tempting, fresh among the old offerings of ripe bananas and mushy rice. Noel had never had laddu but he'd wanted to try it for a while. He reached out and broke half of one of the balls and put the grainy piece in his mouth. Laddu, check.

            Noel had been ticking boxes ever since he'd arrived in India. Boxes he didn't even know existed, but which became of the utmost importance as soon as they were discovered. Boxes he'd mock anyone back home who wouldn't know they existed. Ah! World-weary Noel would know all. On his first bus ride he had seen men crouching by the side of the dusty road, drinking hot chai out of small plastic glasses like a fat man's thimble. He had been restless then until the opportunity arose a few days later to share in that experience. He'd even squatted the Indian way, frog-like, his butt hovering just above the ground, resting on his heels. It hadn't quite worked out. His legs were killing him after a minute, and people around him had seemed to laugh even more than usual at the hairy, white chicken legs that his shorts left exposed.

            He had persisted, training at night in his room, practising his Indian crouching. He'd started wearing trousers at all times too, despite the fact that the only pair he had with him were jeans and that the temperature was usually above 45°C. He wouldn't be denied any experience, and he would prove to all who cared to watch that not only was he a man, but an Indian man too, if he so desired. He'd dined in 15-rupee eateries with his hand, rushing to finish his plate as fast as his neighbours, fighting back the spice-induced tears and waving the rice-wallah for more despite the fire in his mouth. He'd even drunk the water he'd been given in a metal tumbler, straight from the tapa daredevil of a man, Noel. No guidebook precaution for him, no sir.


He had felt quite happy with himself, the sweetness in his mouth a sample from the God's plate. It had turned sour quickly though. As soon as he turned away from the altar he saw an old man coming towards him from a corner of the yard. Noel hadn't noticed him before, or he would have been more careful with the laddu. The man reached him and started yapping in Hindi, or whatever language it was he spoke. Sanskrit? No, that was dead stuff. It was all a bit scary. The man only came up to Noel's shoulder, but he had a cartoonesquely round belly bulging forward. He didn't have a single hair on his head, and despite the weathered, tough-leather look of his skin, there was something youthful about him.

            “Sorry, I don't understand. English?”

            “You steal from Ganesh! Big, big mistake. You give back now. Give back to Avighna, Varaprada, Ekadanta...”

            Was the man serious? How could he give back a bit of laddu that was now making the rounds of his digestive system? Surely puking on the altar would be more offensive than what he'd already done. The old man kept repeating himself, trailing off into his own language like a lost trekker off the trail of English. Noel tried not to stare at his surprisingly white teeth. The two front ones were huge, like a donkey's, but one of them was broken into a scary fang. That must have hurt like hell.

            “You have to give back. Laddu. Ganapati love laddu.”

            “I don't have any laddu.”

            “So money. Give Ganesh hundred rupees.”

            So that was what it was about. Noel was both reassured and tired by the familiarity of the situation. A country of a billion inhabitants was bound to abound in crooks, and these swarmed in on tourists, scamming their way into bulgy, naive wallets.

            “A hundred rupees for laddu? Ah! I'm not stupid.”

            “Not for laddu. Laddu you take. For Ganesh. You have to please Ganeshyou steal from him. He will be very angry.”

            There was only one solution in these cases, as Noel now understood. Walking away. If he stayed and tried arguing he'd surely end up having to pay something. Somebody else might arrive and join in the scam, get his share of the tourist's bounty. He held up his hand, shaking his head, and started walking away.

            “You're making a mistake. You should appease the god, or great sorrow will befall you.” Noel almost turned around. There was just no end to surprises in this country. He'd thought the man's speech was limited to simple, blighted English, and now that. You just never knew. He gave the man who'd been minding his shoes outside the temple a five-rupee coin and a contemptuous smile. They were all out to get something out of you.


The laddu incident was no doubt the reason Noel stole the statuette so easily. He didn't think twice, didn't think if it was right or wrong or not, or how much so. It was the last day of his trip, a last day he spent roaming the streets of Mumbai picking up as many sights and sensations as he could before leaving. The tourist sites he'd done already that last day was about the real Mumbai, the teeming streets and markets where you had no choice but to get lost. His aimless ramble had brought him to the Dadar market, where he tried to walk on as confidently as the locals did, but he had to stop every couple of meters, stuck between makeshift stalls and prospective buyers. It got on his nerves fast and he decided to leave, but no matter what turn he took the next street was as always busy as the one he was fleeing.

            Eventually he turned into a quiet alley, mercifully deserted by the Mumbaite throng. Noel felt his whole body relax, his legs finding their own pace, unchecked. He thought about home, how eerie the streets of his parents' residential estate would no doubt feel, empty but for a couple of dog-walkers at all times. In twenty-four hours his life would be back to the easy uneventful routine he'd left for the trip. He knew he would miss India, the travelling, but now he was looking forward to going home. His parents would come to get him at the airport. His sister too, maybe.

            A few meters down the alley, a small shrine was nestled in a concrete niche in the wall. At the back of it was a statue of Ganesh. Or rather it had been, but it had now almost disappeared under a clay-like red matter and only a very simple, roundy outline of the god was left. Noel had seen that a lot before around the country. He didn't know what it meant. One in a long list of things he didn't understand here. He would collect new food and experiences, but proof of his ignorance filled up the opposite scale in ever greater quantity. In front of the covered-up god lay bananas and rice all well beyond eating point. Stubs of incense sticks sprang out of cracks in the concrete, and there on the left of the shelf was a little figurine of Ganesh, fallen on its back. Noel picked it up without thinking. His first intention might have been to simply put the elephant-headed god back on his feet, to correct one of the million minute mistakes of the world, but with the small piece of metal in his hand, Noel started thinking. He thought about his family at the airport, and his first dinner back home. He'd give them the presents he'd collected for them during the trip. His sister was getting a silk scarf, his mum a cute notebook. He hadn't found anything for his dad though, and the souvenir stalls of Mumbai, on which he had relied, had proved to be disappointing.

            Little Ganesh in Noel's hand was a pretty, dark elephant boy. Ganapati, the Maker and Remover of Obstacles, Ganesha of the laddu feast which had moved Noel into poaching sweets. It wasn't so much a thought or a plan as a fact, Ganapati was now in his pocket and that was that. Noel walked away from the shrine, and only then did he look around. There was no one in the alley, this time no self-righteous man showed up for his piece of the laddu-money. He went to the other end of the alley, a new present for his father found in the nick of time, at no cost but the foreign taste of theft. Had he just done that?

            As soon as he was back among the crowd, a loud bang covered the chatter of a thousand thousand hagglers, shaking the ground under his feet. He didn't recover from the shock for a few minutes, not until he'd run like hell, like everyone else, fallen, been run over and got back up again somehow. Run for dear life, run far to the nearest main road. There were still shouts and people running around, and when he looked back he saw a column of black smoke floating up from what must have been close to where he'd been. He managed to wave down a cab and gave the driver his hotel's address.


Noel felt good sitting in the Parsi café right by the corner of his hotel. There was a small middle class crowd, who wouldn't have seemed out of place back home. Maybe they were upper class here, God knew. It felt safe. He had a nice plate of chips in front of him, a cool beer. He could stay there until about midnight, then a cab would come to get him at the hotel and drive him to the airport for his overnight flight home. He had another beer, read his book. He glanced now and then at the TV, where the same news were given continuously in Hindi. Maps and footage didn't require translation though. There had been two other bombs on top of the one he'd felt in Dadar. He'd been shocked there, but a few hours at the hotel had calmed him down. The news helped him furtherit pushed the facts into the realm of TV catastrophes, gave it the necessary distance. That shit was happening in India, thank God. He was already back home. Not physically yet, but that would come very soon, it was a mere formality. The bombings didn't concern him any more than if he'd been at home watching them on the news.

            The receptionist at the hotel had made a big deal out of it, advising Noel to go even earlier, but the taxi ride proved uneventful. After an hour's wait the check-in opened for his flight and he got rid of the bag he'd had on his back for two months. He wouldn't lay eyes on it again until he was safely back home in Dublin, tanned and with a thousand tales to tell. When he stepped through the metal detector it went off, but Noel didn't think much of it until he stepped on the platform and emptied his pockets on the table. The security agent patted him all over then had a look at the contents of his pockets. Damn Ganesh figurine, he'd completely forgotten about it. The man now lifted it, frowned. Noel obeyed meekly when he was told to follow. He was made to sit in a small space simply set apart from the transiting crowd by four curtains. The man left, leaving the little Ganesh on the table, facing Noel. The little fucker seemed to be mocking him.

            The curtain moved and Noel saw a man in a guard's uniform, a man he thought he'd seen before. “This is national property. Where did you steal? Old statue. Ganesh, the Remover of Obstacles, the Granter of Wishes and Boons, the Single-Tusked Lord ... ” There was a mistake, obviously. This was nothing, a worthless trinket, anyone could see that. Was it yet another scam? The man asked again and Noel noticed his huge, broken front tooth. He thought about the other man who'd pestered him for a crumb of laddu in Varanasi, but they couldn't be the same, the one man. There was half a country between the two. This was just the newest avatar of Indian swindling. His mind was playing tricks. The bomb must have upset him more than he thought, he was seeing things. Who had he hurt? All he wanted was to go home.



©2012 Armel Dagorn



Author Links


Armel Dagorn home page

'A Life Misplaced': story by Dagorn in the Lonely Voice Introductions Series

'Won and Lost': Dagorn story in Down Dirty Word






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