Slow Train to Tamil Nadu

Squatting on a night train as tracks race down below, I hold on for dear life to the handrail using a wet nap. I wonder about the odds of a rock ricocheting off the tracks and doing some serious damage to my intestines. I hold on and look down. What if Kalki, the 10th and future incarnation of Vishnu, appears in my train car whilst I crouch here? This position I am in, simultaneously crouching and shitting, seems familiar:

I am in India again.

Flowers: The gods are smiling on usthe monsoons have avoided us as if intentionally. We landed in Bombay at night. The city was dark and crowded and compulsive. Walking around early in the morning, when the people are already awake and the rats have not yet gone to sleep, the contrast is painful to the eyes and the heart and somehow mostly to the intelligence. We walk to the flower vendor to get flowers for the wedding. Single file we negotiate the flooding sewers and autorickshaws, one thing often interfering with the other. Every step I take is accompanied by a complicated series of looks up, over my shoulder, under my feet, down at Aisha. Aisha looks strait ahead. In our weavings to and fro she is often leading me rather than the other way around. I hold on to her small hand like a trained monkey. Her long thin fingers barely exert any force: she is humoring me really.

Nikaah: Then there is the wedding. The ride to the hall confronts our car full of people with the choice of opening the windows of the jeep for air, which unquaffs hours of hair and makeup, or keeping them closed against the downpour and not having any air to breath. We choose both. And as we all periodically open the windows and pant like dogs, and then close them and curse at our dripping locks, we get the best of both worlds. I try to recall the last time I saw such rain in India and can’t. By the time we arrive, I am a different person somehowtougher maybe. I set out to a wedding and arrived ready for war: hair frizzed out, eyeliner smeared, and sweating like I just took on Mohammed Ali. In my mind I am on the train already. All weddings are the same in the way their inevitably anticlimactic events are limited to a pathetically small range of possibilities. I wear a sari and stumble around trying to look graceful but humble. My postcolonial readings from school interfere with my ability to have a good time and my respect for the wedding party prevents me from any verbal release. We walk: with one hand I hold my saree slightly elevated from the floor and with the other I hold one corner of a red canopy under which the bride slowly makes her way to the stage. As the transaction between men takes place, I sit with a smile plastered on my face, vaguely comfortable in the thought that few here know me well enough to divine the truth and that tomorrow when I board the train, the wedding will seem years away.

Hyderbad: The Birla Mandir is an unencompassably colossal white marble temple for the god Vishnu, who is known also asMatsyavatara the fish, Koorma the tortoise, Varaaha the boar … and the list goes on. For centuries the god Vishnu popped in and out of history like Woody Allen’s Zelig, reaffirming righteousness and destroying injustice. The temple, which resides on a wind-swept hill overlooking Hyderbad, is as minimalist as India gets, which is to say one color. The sun beats down but the marble is cool. One of the main towers has carvings from the Ramayana. Below, where small groups of saree-clad women rest in the shade, hawks circle at eye-level. Temple bells softly ring out like tiny fairy voices and one need not strain the imagination too much to look out over all this and be convinced for a moment that it is indeed 1000 BCE and that should one look west, it would be entirely possible to catch a glimpse of the young prince Rama taking his last walk away from his inheritance on the path smoothed by Sita’s hands. We huddle in a corner to hide from the wind but there is nowhere to hidenot here, not in India. The wind finds us anyway. So do the local children on our way down the hill. All at once we are surrounded. This time we don’t give them money. I swear to myself once again that I will be consistent, but in a place where people use the same word for tomorrow and yesterday, consistency is a slippery concept. All the books say that you shouldn’t give money to kids because they themselves are being exploited, but it seems that no matter where the money goes, they are better off with it than without it. I hate myself more and more with every step I take downhill.

Train: We ride the trains at night and drink vodka and eat pretzels and play cards and laugh. Outside, India slides by like a hallucination. Inside the chai-wallahs yell "cold drink, cold drink, mango FROOTI!" and "chai … chai." Inside the folks that are on their way to Bangalore or Madras drink chai and take out the roti and rice that their wives packed for them. They peek in at us when they can and go back to whisper something about "Amrika," or stop by and ask a question. At night the villages are illuminated and our train casts a shadow as it glides slowly past. Outside in the villagessome lights go on. Some faces appear at the windows. Our windows exchange fluorescent blinks and we go on, content for now, I think, to be each other’s hallucinations.

Road: Unlike my first trip to India, I am now convinced that the auto-rickshaw wallahs are the best drivers in the world. Suddenly I am a kid again: playing Frogger, we dodge Tata trucks and scooters and swerve around village women without ever braking. I swear I feel the whiskers of the cows as we brush past and they are braver than I, for they do not even blink. I wince every timeat least for the first week or so. The first night I ever spent in India was full of hallucinations. A long midnight ride from the airport, our driver utterly oblivious to the traffic lights, paired with the fever I had developed on the way over from Paris had me hysterical. I called my mother and cried on the phone. A doctor came to my hotel room and gave me an injection of what I am now sure was a placebo. His advice to me, framed on both sides by a good-natured laugh, was to calm down before I hopped on the next plane back. Needless to say he was right.

In India there is a breaking point, a point that changes you permanently. Maybe for me it was that first feverish night in Bombay. Or was it the facial expression and subsequent ballerina-like leap of the little monkey that spotted a granola bar surfacing from a bright foil wrapper on Elephanta Island? Perhaps it was my horribly un(class)conscious attempt to buy our taxi driver dinner, to the horror of the wait staff, or the first time our taxi rounded a diesel-smogged corner in Jaipur and nearly ran into an elephant’s ass. Or maybe it was my last day in India, when a drug dealer spent about two seconds too long offering me Hashish in a little velvet pouch and I pushed him, arms flailing, clear across the street. Maybe it was the day we told the taxi driver to take us somewhere interesting and subsequently found ourselves in Galta, the monkey palace, a kingdom of monkeys, and fed them peanuts one by one. It could have been the day I clambered down from some viewing point to find our driver blasting a Bollywood song from the 1980s, Jadoo Teri Nazar, on his car stereo, and the long discussion of lyrics that followed. Maybe. Or maybe those are only the stories that threaten to make a neat package of something that doesn’t fit the box. Maybe the one thing that defines India for me is the way in which indescribable beauty is framed not-so-delicately by the all too common sights of child eunuchs, people dying on the streets, poverty the likes of which are not shown in our infomercials, infrastructural nightmares not even Soviet Russia could manifest, and pollution that would make sewer rats cringe.

End of the Road: We arrive in the south, Tamil Nadu; it is another country entirely from the India we saw some years ago in Rajastan and Gujarat. The people look less like the traditional Rajasthani paintings and more like those depicted in the Bhahavad Gitashades of skin so dark brown that they are blue. I feel pasty and pale and I want to disappear intothe sea of orange and green and pink and yellow sarees.

But there is no place between heaven and hell here.

Things I love about traveling: The sounds the train makes as it beats out a flamenco on the tracks; the crinkling of plastic bags as they open to reveal in the midst of the unfamiliar that surrounds me the most mundane things turned beautiful, like a feast of pistachios or dark bitter chocolate; the road signs (not a single one familiar), like alien markers pointing to mars; watching the eyes of the driver in the rearview mirror; returning empty bottles from Thumsup and Limca to the street vendors; taking walks before anyone else is awake; keeping track of the graffiti on city walls; going over the equally spaced speed bumps (about every 1/8 mile) in an Ambassador or Tata; bumber cars in the Indian countryside; being propelled through space while I sleepon a bunk the size of a coffin; and being awakened in an unknown place by the busy morning shuffle of feet in the train cars,.

Crabs: On the Sea of Bengal there is a beach covered with evenly spaced holes the size of golf balls and, though not visible at first, tiny crabs that scuttle about in a strange foxtrot from one hole to another. All together now, I can hear the leader crab say, the pinchiest of them, forward, to the right, scuttle scuttle scuttle. I am far out on the beach by the time I realize what I have walked into. When I do, I have to clench my teeth not to whimper.

Water: In Mamallapuram there are temples that were taken by the sea during the last tsunami. With the help of a dam, the water withdrew from one of the temples, but there are still conspicuous whirlpools where the other ones sit in the water just out of sight. Just like in Pompeii or Ephasus, my mind reels at the lack of life and tries to construct stories, to picture people, where no people have been for centuries. And though perhaps time and his accomplices, water and wind, having washed the pale stone of all our traces, will spare the structure for a few centuries more, perhaps even millennia, they have claimed the soul of the temple already and have merely to wait for the body to grow weak. And though there is nothing that can be said to motivate us more than time and the sway it holds, I will witness none of its marching on. A lifetime is barely enough for a proper look-around in this place.

Here I wake up before everyone else. I lay awake and play a game with myself. I try to make the shadows into geckos to eat the bugs I know are there. The mosquito coil burned out hours ago and there are still more hours to go before daylight. What do I get out of this exchange besides a shopping list of ailments? Before we set off for India my mother called every day to tell me that it is 50° C in South India. I have yet to see one of those days. I thought I would be lying awake at night and praying for the cooling breezes of a monsoon. But instead I play risk with bugs and geckos.

We drove through the Indian countryside today, stopped in some villages, drank some holy water, and ended up with red dots on our foreheads the size of bumblebees. I have never seen so many different shades of green.

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