The cow’s gaze was unmistakably suspicious, but she walked down the road toward me anyway, trailed by another cow and a little calf. I kept my lens straight as I could, level with their eyes, because I’d been told to get footage of “animals.” The lead cow flicked her head back at her companions, as if alerting them to this unmoving human with the globular eye.
I’d woken that morning in my room at a hotel in the Andaman Islands run by a wife and husband. At about 7:40 a.m. the manager WhatsApp’d me a picture of himself unprompted, his right hand held up to his face, a moth or bee or some other winged bug crawling along his thumb. Twenty minutes later this man knocked on my door to ask if I wanted breakfast, which I did — egg curry, roti, chai with just enough ginger. No mention of the photo.
I was in Port Blair to work on a freelance article and video about the extremely sexy subject of soil moisture. I poured the last too-hot, too-sweet drops of chai down my throat and called a cab driver who had given me his phone number when I’d first got off the plane.
We drove under the arch of the research station I’d been visiting without incident for a couple of days; this time the guard out front told us to stop. I got out and fumbled with the car door. The guard motioned to a small room shaded with palm trees but still baking in the mid-morning heat.
In the office, the man in charge told me he was very sorry, but I had to get this permission, also another permission, this form and that, and then I could return to my work. I replied that I’d already been there two days, that I’d been speaking with one of their scientists, in fact had an appointment to shoot a video with him right now, and how had I been supposed to know about these permissions? Last year I could have come and gone as I pleased, he said, but a few months ago a Bangladeshi journalist had been there and written something bad. Now he had new rules to enforce. Maybe shoot the interview off-campus, he said apologetically. That would be fine. I walked outside, bewildered by the compromise but considering it, and then my driver said he’d just seen the scientist, leaving in a car of his own.
The scientist texted that he’d meet me later but he no longer wanted to appear on camera, what with the scare about permissions. So I found myself back outside the hotel, shooting b-roll of cows, suddenly free of the work I’d planned for the rest of the day, my bank account drained of a hotel night I no longer needed.
I guess freelancing is feigning certainty about a job in order to get it. I’d been so sanguine at first that I even insisted on my Google-provided route to the research center on the first day. “Go straight,” I said, when the driver had pulled over, his face crinkled in uncertainty. “Trust me,” I remember saying, like an ass. I led him uphill on a ribbon of a road and at the top he stopped. The other side was cracked and jagged and mostly dirt, and with a grimace he told me he wasn’t risking his cab for this. I got out and walked through a village where dogs slept, chicks peeped after mother hens, and some men were digging a trench for a pipe.
“No,” they said.
When I got back to the top, my driving companion laughed. I called the scientist, handed over the phone, and we were outside his office in maybe 10 minutes.
I returned to the hotel after the cows, tugged off my sweat-drenched shirt, and tossed it over the back of a chair under the whirring fans. The dry one I pulled on would soak through in an hour, when I went back out to this “jogger’s park” that overlooks the airport’s runways, stretching themselves toward the sun as it sets.
I’d been there the first night for b-roll but my shots were fuzzy and distant. I was trying for something more Instagrammable: People sitting on benches staring into the faint glitter of the low-lying city.
A boy of about 10 walked up and I said hi. Vainath was waiting for his dad, who was doing three laps, but Vainath had already done four, he told me, because he’s training to be in the military. He’s got it all laid out. By fifth standard he’ll write an exam, and his good results will send him to a military hostel in the city for three years, after which he’ll go to an army school on the mainland and become a lieutenant. Unless his parents have their way. His mother wants him to be a doctor. His dad wants him to be an engineer, but Vainath said he doesn’t even understand trigonometry. Or, it’s not that he doesn’t understand it, he just doesn’t see when he’ll ever use it.
I told him that’s true, maybe. I thought the same thing when I was his age. I think the same thing now. You’re right, I said. Unless you wind up an engineer. Vainath looked away and said he saw his dad. He turned to me, gave a quick wave, and dashed off.