I’ll start by briefly sharing my own story. In April 2010 I received a Fulbright grant to study textile design in Finland. Upon arriving in Helsinki four months later, my careful designs for the next year almost immediately disintegrated. Trained as a painter, I erroneously assumed that embarking on a new career could be as easy as boarding a plane in New York as a fine artist and landing in Finland as a designer. Working for a client presented more of a conflict to me than I had anticipated. In hindsight my desire to dabble in design feels disrespectful; I now feel content to covet the textiles that I could never make.
To say that nothing worked according to plan is an understatement. And so I had to make new plans. After this shock and forced reconsideration, things worked out for me, especially after I realized that most of my fellow grantees, maybe all of us, had significantly rejiggered our initial proposals.
Near the end the grant period, all of the grantees were gathered in a room where we were asked to write thoughtful advice for future grant recipients. At the time all I could muster was: “Expect the unexpected.” When I recall the person who wrote a grant proposal almost two years ago — the graduate student who believed her experiences would magically crystallize into lasting career stability — I smirk. By the time I returned to America, the traces of that naiveté had been erased.
I felt like a different person as I repatriated. Yet this pales in comparison to David MacLean’s experiences. MacLean is a writer and like me he got a Fulbright. He traveled to India in 2002. Then, mysteriously, he woke up — as if he had been asleep — with no recollection of who or where he was.
MacLean’s story is exceptional; nonetheless, however trite the advice, grantees really should expect the unexpected.
The following is an excerpt of David MacLean’s story, which will be published in full by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in his forthcoming memoir, The Answer to the Riddle is Me.
“Draw the Devil from this Boy”
Written by David MacLean
Illustrations by Wook Jin Clark
On October 13th, 2002, I woke up in a train station in Secunderabad, India with no passport and no idea who I was. I was standing on the train platform, staring at a monitor. People were pushing past me. Train announcements in another language were coming out of static-filled speakers. Men in red shirts carried massive loads of luggage. There were crowds of women in burkas standing near a stall where a man was making omelets. Massive trains would sound their massive horns before they trundled out of the station. And I suddenly was in the midst of all of this.
At that moment, staring at the monitors, I was a blank sheet that had just been rolled into the typewriter, the little spring-loaded bar had snapped down suddenly and I was fixed. But empty. No backstory. No motivation. No distinguishing characteristics. No real idea even what I looked like.
A man came up to me. He was in uniform, wore a peaked cap, and carried a long stick. He wanted to know if anything was wrong.
I said to him, “I have no idea who I am.” Some chamber of emotion was unlocked in me and I started to cry. Blubber really.
The policeman pulled a little away from me. He spent a moment considering his strategy and finally decided on, “There. There. Please calm down. I am used to this situation. You foreigners come here to my country and do your drugs. I have seen this before many times.” He pointed to a patch on his shoulder. “I am here for you. I am a Tourist Officer. Now, do you have a passport?”
I shook my sobbing head.
“Okay. Now, do you have in your possession a wallet?”
I reached to my back pocket and pulled out a leather wallet stamped with an image of a cowboy with guns drawn. I was delirious with happiness. “I do,” I said, my tears turning incandescent. I opened the wallet and there was my New Mexico Driver’s License. “That’s me,” I shrieked as I shoved my finger on the half-inch picture.
I don’t remember what happened next. My memory of that day and the next is a string of Christmas lights, where only a few are lit. There is no sense to be made of which lights are lit, and you can flick at the dead bulbs as long as you want, they’re not coming back on.
The officer told me his name was Rajesh, but I could call him Josh.
He took me to a local guest house, which the police used as a safe place to deposit lost foreigners. A Chinese woman ran the place and she had a reputation for patience. The three of us sat down in her living room, white marble tile, creaking wooden furniture, and a shrine in the corner with a young man’s picture on it. She gave me a glass of flat Sprite, and she told me her story. Her son had been traveling in Singapore, when he overdosed on Heroin. She never got to see his body. They sent his ashes to her in a cardboard box. She wept as she told me this.
“You do not understand what you are doing to your mother when you put these drugs into your body.” She grabbed my hands and squeezed hard. I cried right back at her.
Now, not only was I a drug addict, but I was breaking my mother’s heart.
I was put to bed before the sun set. I didn’t sleep. The room began to twist. It didn’t behave. One corner of the ceiling would be too close, another would be miles away. The blankets itched. I was afraid to drink the Sprite. Birds flew onto the balcony and looked at me dismissively.
The room was getting worse. The darkness was thick and patches of it would circulate through and sit on my chest. I clawed at the patches and pushed them away. There were voices. I flipped the mattress over to find where they were coming from.
I climbed onto the overturned mattress and tried to breathe deeply. I watched the darkness separate and spin. There were bits of somersaulting colors. I was sweating. I had wet myself.
Two men walked into my room. I had never seen them before. They were both in their early sixties. One man had a silver beard and a pompadour. The other had a thick mustache and jet-black hair in an overgrown Peter Tork cut. They both had dark South Indian complexions.
“I am Mr. DeSappa and this is Mr. Sampson. Your mother summoned us here to help you.”
I looked at the two men looming over me. “This isn’t going well at all,” I said.
Sampson helped me up, while DeSappa flipped the mattress back over. They laid me down and knelt on the floor beside me.
“Your mother says that you have taken some drugs and that you should stop taking them.”
“I am so sorry.”
“We will sit with you until these drugs are out of your system. You will be okay. Jesus loves you.”
They began to pray.
“Oh lord, Jesus Christ, our savior, thank you for all of our blessings that you have given unto us. Thank you for our health. Thank you for our families. Thank you for the sky and all that it looks down upon. Dear lord, Jesus Christ watch over this boy here. Take the devil from this boy, lord. This boy is a good boy. He needs your help Jesus, take the devil from him. Draw the devil from this boy, lord.”
“Place your mouth on this boy and suck the devil out of him, lord.”
In the dark of that guest house, I felt my soul being ripped from me. The men stayed all night, praying and laying their hands on me as they prayed.
That morning on October 14th, 2002 in Secunderabad, India, a song bounced around inside my head. The thing was as it played the natural sounds of the city began to conform to the song. Now the birds pecking at seeds on the balcony, the dogs fighting in the street, the newspaper wallah’s ringing bell and his calls for people to bring him their paper were all part of the song playing in my head.
That morning all of Secunderabad was singing the refrain of a song lodged in my head. It seamlessly repeated that scrap of melody. Again and again.
I’m not sure when they called the ambulance.
David Stuart MacLean is a writer living in Chicago. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, Guernica, Gulf Coast, Quarterly West, and This American Life. He was a Fulbright Scholar in India in 2002-2003 and is a co-founder of the award-winning Poison Pen Reading Series in Houston, Texas. His memoir, The Answer to the Riddle is Me, is forthcoming in 2012 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State or any affiliated organization(s).