It is a simple truth. India is a wonderful lover but a terrible mother. She is the exotic land you visit for a short ‘life-changing’ vacation, the mistress in a torrid affair. You can swoop in here and make award-winning documentaries on her poverty and her cows. You can even dabble in the cookie-cutter marijuana encrusted spirituality that she pedals.
But this is not a land to be born to, or to belong to. I don’t need these 20-something, wide-eyed, mineral water drinking firangs reminding me of this cruel truth every day.
I run yellowed, coarse fingers through my Delhi-heat-sweaty hair and snort loudly. Nothing makes me more claustrophobic than acknowledging my country through the eyes of enthused foreigners. I am at a safe distance from the noisy, excited tourist group and can afford the luxury of snorting at them. I light a Classic Mild and inhale deeply, the picture of Indian patience and hospitality while my firangs go about oohing and aahing through their shopping.
The mad tangle of wires overhead blocks the afternoon sun. Not a ray of light ever makes it past these keepers of the dark to the labyrinth of Chandani Chowk below. I was born here, to this endless night. I walk down the narrow, familiar gullies of the bazaar and feel my skin crawl with the sounds, lights and smells that I know so intimately but cannot stand. I take a deep breath and smile at the expectant, rapidly-freckling faces of my firangs.
“This is Dariba Kalan – the street of the incomparable pearl. It was built by Shah Jahan as a gift for his many wives. Even today it is considered Asia’s largest Jewellery market”, I announce in my most impressive voice. The women look around dubiously at the small wooden doors and the crumbling walls of the ancient shops.
“I know it is hard to imagine but business worth crores happen every day. Look around, you might even find a great discount”
My heart skips a beat as an unbidden thought crosses my mind. What if someone recognizes me? What if someone calls out my name? What if Ammi comes screaming hysterically with her unwieldy Burkha streaming behind her, “Zara, meri Jaan! Is that really you?” Or Iqbal, with fire in his eyes and barely controlled fists, would he drag me by the hair through the bazaar? Would he call me a lying, cheating whore? But the panic and the questions quickly subside – I can’t recognize my own reflection in the shop windows – how can anyone else?
I look like an emaciated combat-ready pixie with my short hair, a too-big-for-me man’s shirt, a cigarette between my lips and at least three kinds of smiles – none of them real.
Jane breaks away from the group and comes up to me. She has an infatuated twinkle in her eye that I recognize immediately as India-lust. “I simply adore it here, it’s so… mysterious and wise. Zara, please tell me something about India, something special.
Something about her accent, the way my name rolls off her tongue and the exotic mystery she lends those simple syllables makes me careless.
“She is what she seems, a bundle of contradictions. A poor country with unimaginable riches. An ugly country with breath-taking beauty. A young country with a history so old, her beginnings have long since decomposed into myth and legend…”
I stop myself. My face is beet red. “Err… I mean…India is umm… great.” I shrug nonchalantly to make up for my excited tirade.
“Yeah” She rewards me with an inscrutable smile and dissolves into the rest of the entourage. I have never been caught off-guard this way before. But in my defence, it is a difficult thing to reign in – this jealous love I have for my country.
Every day, I watch as different sets of firangs have raging, passionate romances with India. And all I can do is watch like some cheap voyeur, a peeping tom. I am excluded from this hallowed circle of wanderers by the ironclad hand of fate.
At least being a tour guide gives me glimpses of her in a way I know I cannot get without the firangs. I make a great tour guide – I know everything about the city and speak impeccable English. I feel guilty though, and dirty. It is as if I lust after my own mother. It is not for nothing that we refer to our country as ‘motherland’, desiring her in this way just seems wrong.
“Wow, even Sigmund Freud wasn’t this twisted” I worry about my sanity sometimes.
We reach the famous, if squalid restaurant – Karim’s.
“Anyone care for a bite? The recipes used here have been passed on from the royal kitchens of the Mughals. Try the mutton biryani – it’s the best you’ll ever have.”
Everyone is more than eager to grab any excuse for some respite from the unrelenting heat. Richard is furiously scrubbing hand sanitizer on his palms. Uma is glancing furtively at the butcher cleaning a bloody chicken carcass in full view. Sam makes a nervous joke about the infamous Delhi Belly and Yvette is clearly miserable as she slathers some more sunscreen on herself – completely ineffective in the cruel Indian summer.
Jane is watching a little boy eat Brain curry and Khameer Naan at the table next to ours. He seems about five years old and is clearly enjoying the meal as his father ladles some more curry onto a plate. Without warning I am transported to a sepia-tinged memory.
I remember the full moon night that twinkles benignly at the sound of our laughter. It is my 16th birthday and I am dressed in a brand-new blue salwar-kameez. I have been allowed to leave my long hair open just for tonight – they flutter about excitedly in the night breeze. We feast on perfectly slow-roasted tandoor Raan prepared by Salim chacha who runs a small restaurant down the road from Karim’s. His dhaba is the real deal, taken for granted by the locals and completely invisible to the tourists.
My large family sits surrounding me, flooding me with warmth. I feel invincible – intoxicated with the newly discovered power of being a woman. I feel baba watch me. I can see his mounting discomfort with every admiring male glance thrown my way, with the way my eyes dance with laughter, with the life that courses through me unapologetically. It makes him nervous. This would be my last night in the open air for a long time to come. For now, I laugh in blissful ignorance. The next morning baba walks into my room and sits at the farthest corner of my bed. The bed creaks violently at the unfamiliarity of his weight.
He clears his throat and tries to meet my eye. Instead, he stares at a spot on the wall inches above my eyes and announces, “We have fixed your nikah to Iqbal chacha.”
He leaves his words behind and walks away. They crawl into bed next to me and stare malevolently. I feel their gaze on me, an uninvited presence.
Iqbal chacha, my father’s brother. I was to be his third wife. I had often tried to escape his roving gaze and groping hands at weddings and festivals when our large family would congregate. I try to get used to the idea, but I can’t seem to swallow.
Jane is shoving her fancy DSLR camera in my face and I am jerked out of my reverie.
“Zara can you please take our picture?”
She is now sitting with the little boy and his father who seem dazed by this curious unafraid creature. She tries to communicate with the boy in broken Hindi and frantic gestures. “Photo? Camera mein dekho … smile! They look into the camera with frozen smiles. I click.
It is quite late by the time we finally shuffle out of the restaurant. I collect my baksheesh from the owner of the establishment, my reward for getting him business. Stars twinkle and the nocturnal breeze tip-toes along my skin. The world transforms around us as creatures of the night emerge, their world reclaimed from the unforgiving daylight. Women on the sides of the road whistle and flash their too-thin bodies at us. Beady-eyed men come close and whisper, “you take maal? Very good, from Manali.” Some firangs are effectively seduced and disappear into the bowels of the dark. The rest of us walk on, unimpressed by the distractions on offer.
Miraculously we find an auto. “Bhaiyya, Pahadganj chalenge?”
“Double rate lagega madam.
The four of us squeeze into the tiny vehicle – a glorified golf cart. “So this is what sardines feel like”, quips Yvette. Jane sits on my lap and my arms are around her semi-loosely. Our bony, pointy bits rub and grind against each other painfully. She doesn’t complain and neither do I. Yvette and Uma are talking about getting a tattoo, “… probably Shiva, or I could even get, like, my name done in Hindi.” The Auto guy leers at Yvette’s ample cleavage in the rearview mirror as he expertly balances a bidi with one hand and the steering with the other. I turn away embarrassed and angry – these stupid, shameless firangs. Whores, all of them. From the corner of my eye I too can make out the braless outline of Yvette’s breasts. I look away quickly.
Iqbal was the same. A man. Firangs would come to his itr shop, exotic women with blue eyes and strange accents enamoured by fragrances that Iqbal serenaded them with.
“Whores, all of them”, he would tell me later, his eyes glazed with undisguised lust.
“Speak to me in english. Speak to me like a gori mem”
He would pant with his moist breath on my face as he thrust into me. If I obeyed him, he hit me and called me a whore and if I did not, the beatings did not cease till the sound of the morning azaan echoed through the skies.
“Look at what you made me do.” He would say later, gazing tenderly at my bruised face.
Whore, whore, whore I would chant, staring at the mask in the mirror.
Jane scream-talks against the screeching wind and I have to strain against her to make out the words. I catch her mid-sentence, “… so they call it the Madonna-Whore Complex. Where there is love, there can be no desire and where there is desire, there can be no love. It is not possible for a man to love a woman if he is fucking her, you know. That’s basically what Freud said.”
Jane and I had discovered our common interest in Freud a few days ago and she often broke into animated psychological analysis of anything that caught her fancy. Usually I just nodded politely but this time, I feel her words move inside me like weights shifting in place.
“So a wife can either be a mother or a whore… there is no in between”.
I think about of Iqbal thrusting into me in the darkness of his bedroom and the guilt and revulsion that racked my ragdoll body. I think about baba and his sudden and complete discomfort around the daughter he once gave piggy-back rides to.
Jane is still enthusiastically illustrating finer details of the ‘Madonna-Whore Complex’ to me. I try to pay attention as I extricate myself from my sharp, jagged memories.
I want to ask Jane a question but we are already here at the hotel rather unfortunately named ‘The Belly of India’. Uma pays the tobacco-chewing, rotund auto guy who stuffs the money down his vest and drives off. Uma brandishes her wad of notes at me and pays me for the day. I too stuff the notes down my bra (safest place) and turn around to wave goodbye to Jane but she has already disappeared into ‘The Belly of India’.
I walk home, it’s just around the corner. Maybe home is a misleading term, but for the moment home is what this is. I don’t think I believe in the idea of home anymore – Just because you are born to a certain place, doesn’t make it home, does it? I always imagined home to be this fuzzy, warm kind of feeling – like love or happiness.
Anyway, currently my approximation of home is a rickety charpoy inside the matchbox premises of the Rahim juice centre. Rahim lets me stay here for just 25 rupees a month. He accepts this ludicrously low amount only because I refuse to stay for free. Rahim is a perennially middle-aged man with a heart that melts like butter on a hot summer day and eyes that can strip you in less than a second.
By that I don’t only mean that he imagines me naked each time he sees me but also that he has the uncanny ability to read my mind. I know that he watches from the cracks in the bathroom door while I bathe. Maybe he knows that I know, maybe he doesn’t. I pretend not to notice just as he pretends not to notice the ever expanding pile of books by bed. Indian history, the teachings of Plato, the poetry of Pablo Neruda, the lectures of Freud, the latest Harry Potter – I had them all. Books had always been my solace and my friend and Pahadganj was a veritable treasure of second-hand gems of books.
Two years, or two lifetimes ago Rahim had found me at the Ramakrishna Ashram metro station at some nameless hour of the night. I must have looked like I felt – petrified, cold and lost. Despite the thick December fog and my all-encompassing Burkha, I had never felt more exposed. The waves of giddy freedom had already given way to waves of fear-induced nausea. But I kept reminding myself, “What is the worst that can happen?” After five years of marriage to Iqbal this prospect only gave me comfort, the imaginary worst seemed better than my reality.
It had taken me months of planning to finally run away from ‘home’. While I had planned the running away to perfection, I had no idea about what I was running toward. Rahim did not ask me if I was lost or if I would like him to take me to the police station. He did not ask me what my hourly rate was or look at me like I belonged to a mental asylum. In fact, he did not speak at all but simply handed me some roti-subzi. After I was done stuffing my face with much needed sustenance he asked if I would like a safe place to rest.
I don’t know why I trusted him that night. Desperate and overwhelmed, I was convinced that he was the answer to my prayers, the direct result of Allah’s mercy. The humble charpoy that he set up for me felt like a bed of roses to my weary body and I fell into a dreamless sleep almost instantly. The next morning, I asked him if I could work for him in return for food and boarding, “please sahib, I beg you… I have nowhere to go”.
“Can you speak angrezi?” was all he asked. He immediately set me up with his friend Manohar, a tout-cum-guide for firangs in Pahadganj. Of course, thanks to my English-speaking skills and command over history I am easily Manohar’s best (and cheapest) employee. Manohar is endlessly curious about me – my gender, polished manner and impeccable English are unmissable signs of an affluent background. He knows that I am not the average ruffian he comes across. But fear of Rahim’s wrath keeps his questioning gaze silent.
The next morning, I wake to the shrill ring of my 2nd hand, Palika Bazar bought Nokia.
“Hi Jane, what’s up?” I yawn into the speaker.
But our Delhi tour finished yesterday and Yvette has already paid my fee.
…Oh, alright. Sure.
Yes, I will meet you at Nirvana in an hour”
Wondering what new surprise Jane had for me today, after a quick bath and breakfast of yesterday’s rotis I ambled up to the popular Nirvana café. Smells of stale tobacco and weed, of fresh coffee and pakodas hit me. I see Venkat’s balding head bobbing toward me in the distance.
I know Venkat quite well – he runs the café. The problem is that he only seems to recognize me when stoned. I once met his rare sober self and he flatly refused to believe that he had ever laid eyes on me.
“Hi Venkat” I say apprehensively. “Heyyyyy! How are youuuuu?” he exclaims through blood shot eyes.
“Can I get you some fresh coffee? It’s on the house! We don’t charge pretty girls.” he winks at me.
I fake-grin back and roll my eyes at his receding figure as I wait for Jane to show up. She comes rushing in, flushed with excitement and beaming at me.
“I have a proposition to make”, she says without preamble.
“You come with me to Varanasi as my guide. All expenses paid plus a salary of 500 bucks a day. Stay with me for a few days and then you can come back to Delhi. We leave this evening. Please say yes!”
I know that I should say yes without a moment’s hesitation. But I just stare at Jane vacantly. My blood screams in protest with 21 years of ingrained morality outraged at the mere suggestion. “Wrong. This is wrong. Wrong. Wrong”, I shake my head to shut out the voice that sounds suspiciously like my mother.
“I would love to, but I have never been outside Delhi!” I did not want to tell her that the first time I had gone anywhere unchaperoned, was when I became a runaway. “Won’t it be cheaper for you to hire a local guide?”
“You are the best guide I know. And you know Freud!”
“Not personally or anything”, I grin.
She pauses for a second, hesitating. “I like you Zara, you remind me of myself in so many ways. I think we will make great friends. Please come with me. Pretty Please?”
And that was that. Next thing I know Jane and I are on a train to Varanasi squashed up against seven other people on a berth meant for three. Jane is chattering excitedly to our fellow travellers who seem fascinated by her.
But I am preoccupied with Rahim’s reaction to my news.
“You should go Zara! You have never had a holiday. And don’t worry about Manohar, I’ll talk to him.”
And then after an endless pause,
“Will you come back?
Are you sure?”
I assured him that I would be back. Of course I would. But now, the question keeps repeating in my head with the rhythm of the train. Are you sure, are you sure, are you sure. I watch the world whizz past station after station. The scenery outside the window is stark and quixotic – now a hillside, now a forest, now a sleepy little village.
The chugging of the train, the train tracks stretching in endless possibility and the feeling of going towards something makes me heady. I have always been running away from things, this moving forward is new to me. I have never felt this free. I am shedding old skins. I am floating in space. Diffusing and expanding. Drenched in a glorious lightness of being.
Lost to the moment I do not notice Jane’s eyes on me. She watches unblinking as wanderlust sinks its fangs into me and travels through my veins like a drug. She watches as the shades and light of the evening sun play on my face. Our eyes meet in a moment of true nakedness, an inadvertent intimacy. And I know she has lived through my moment of an awakening that I barely understand. But I can see the recognition in her eyes. Jane knows all about wanderlust.
I cannot look away. Desire like I have never experienced before, like I did not know could exist hits me like a bolt. Almost simultaneously, the voice in my head start shrieking hysterically and shame pools on my cheeks in bright red neon. I escape to the privacy of the tiny, smelly train toilet. I catch my breath and ask Allah for forgiveness. I wash my face and try to wash away the guilt, take a deep breath and head back to the berth.
Jane offers me one of her inscrutable smiles; I feel mildly irritated with her and angry with myself as I try and concentrate on the scenery outside. After a few moments of relative silence, the magic of the train works on me.
Presently, Jane remarks, “do you realise that your country is quite amazing?”
“I think I do.
Last year, I had a client named Mr Cohen. He was one of the more unusual tourists to come to Pahadganj. A 60-year-old Canadian – impeccable manners, perfectly charming. He once told me that whenever he cannot bear to live in little boxes of black and white, when he needs to ‘dance in colour’ – he simply comes to India.
“Well, India can be a great escape,” Jane remarks.
“Oh No, I don’t think he believed he was escaping. He was simply coming back home”.
Jane just smiles one of her smiles into my eyes.
I refuse to take the bait. For I know that is what it is. I do not want to speak to her about home or the lack of thereof. She has already sneaked under my skin and peeped too far into my mind. I shift in my seat – but it is impossible to create any distance between our squashed bodies.
As the train halts to a stop at its final destination, a mixture of dread and excitement rise with the bile in my throat. VARANASI, announces the yellow sign board in clear Hindi, English and Urdu. The train station itself seems steeped in a strange old-but-new air, and I am instantly seduced by the sights and sounds that greet me.
A dog squats next to a repose sadhu with ash-streaked dreadlocks. A little boy hops across the train tracks with impossible alacrity, collecting discarded plastic bottles in a large dirty sack. In the distance a harried looking family shepherd a coolie in red carrying a giant white package. It strikes me that the white package is a dead body.
I see many such white packages bobbing up and down the station like upside down clouds carried on the shoulders of the living. Of course I knew about Varanasi – Hindus bring their deceased here to cremate them at the Ganges. But who expects the dead to be part of the large living body of commuters at a train station.
We get out of the station and auto-wallahs immediately swarm Jane like flies. But Jane who is now experienced in the ways of India squats them away with ease. She chooses one at random –the newly crowned lord of the flies smiles triumphantly at the competition while Jane gives him the address to our hotel, “Anil Guest house, Raja Ghat, Bhaiiya.”
I chuckle quietly.
“What? What is so funny? I thought I did quite well!”
“Yes, yes you did. I’m sorry.” I say in between my laughter. “But I am willing to bet Anil Guest House is not where we are going.”
I had enough experience with touts in Delhi who try to get firangs to the hotels that offer them the highest commission. It was something I had done myself, way too many times to count. Unsurprisingly we halt at a completely different ghat and a completely different guest house. “Very nice rooms, close to ghat. Very clean.”
Jane doesn’t even bother looking at me, “fine! Take care of it won’t you.” After a round of intense haggling – valiantly fought and won by yours truly, we finally settle into our Spartan but clean room-with-a-view. Jane’s eyes follow me across the room as she watches the realization spread across my face.
“We are sharing the room?” I know this sounds ridiculous coming from a runaway living in a strange man’s juice shop, but the idea of such forced proximity from Jane made me nervous. Jane just shrugged, “I am a budget traveller, you’re an expensive guide. Go figure.
Have you ever had a sleepover?”
“No”, I state sullenly. Spending the night anywhere but in ones’ own house was probably the most blasphemous of all blasphemies in the Sheik household.
“Well then, let the slumber party begin”, Jane announces in an important voice as she bows before me.
Five minutes later, we fall into a dreamless, exhausted slumber. And if Jane snored a little bit, I was too knocked out to notice.
The next morning, Jane wakes me up at what seems the middle of the night. 4 am, announces the ancient grandfather clock in the hallway.
“What? What? Is it the police?” my eyes pop wide open in panic.
“The police? No it isn’t the police, you buffoon. but if you don’t hurry up, I am going to call them.”
That is how the sun finds us, sitting on cobbled grey stone with the solemn Ganga at our feet. We watch as the world slowly rises from its slumber. Morning artis with offerings of fire, fragrance and flowers to the gods. People preparing to wash away their sins. Their belief in this spiritual do-over gives them a special childlike glow. Bleary – eyed families gather with their dead, performing one last duty of chaperoning them safely into the afterlife.
I expect Jane to struggle with all the contradictions burgeoning and jostling for space around her, but she surprises me.
“This is harmony” she says, with her eyes wide shut.
“Life and death and rebirth and wonder and the ordinary, beginnings and endings and heartbeats of eternity – all here in this moment, in this space, still and moving all at once.
Here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life which grows;
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart”, she quotes softly.
My heart tattoos loudly against my ribcage and my blood is a river gushing loudly in my ears. The magic I have always felt inside me moves with the words that flow from her lips.
“Yes”, I say. It is all I can manage.
“Do you believe in rebirth?” she asks without looking at me or waiting for an answer. Instead she dips her hand into the river and smears a wet finger across my lips.
Powered by a wisdom beyond reason or knowledge, I do the same.
We sit at the ghat by the Ganga with our hands and our loneliness entwined in a moment of shared eternity. As I stare into the flowing river, shapes form before my eyes. A black, bloody carcass rises from the waters like a shape-changer – now it is Iqbal, now Abba, now Ammi and a thousand other faces all at once and dissolves back into the bowels of the Ganga.
And I see myself reflected in the depths of those insatiable waters. This reflection is not me, but a shadowy, darker version. Somehow angrier and more desperate. This is Zara with her long tresses and her robes of black. Her hands and feet are tied with ropes made of ammi’s pleas, abba’s disapproving gaze, Iqbal’s chant of whore,whore,whore. No matter how much she struggles to escape – the ropes, like a hungry python only get tighter and tighter around Zara.
And then this Not-My-Reflection-Zara stops struggling. She is still, unmoving. For a moment I believe that she has given up – my heart sinks. And then I see it, her lips turning upward in a triumphant smile. The ropes fall limp and lifeless at her feet, devoid of the power that bound them to her. And she is free.
I feel the bitter, hard knots of yesterdays’ come loose inside of me and disappear.
I do believe in rebirth.
From the corner of my eyes I can see jane staring into the river too, a smile hovering on her lips.
As we turn to leave, the setting sun lights up the path ahead of us and behind us our shadows merge into one.
Angrezi – English language
Bhaiyya – brother
Chacha – paternal uncle
Firang – slang to refer to foreigner
Ghat – river bank
Gori mem – white/Caucasian woman
Gullies – lanes/ streets
Khameer – fermented
Itr – perfume
Maal – slang for marijuana (in this context)
Naan – Indian flatbread
Pakodas – Indian-style fritters
Roti- subzi – traditional Indian meal of vegetables and flatbread
Salwar – kameez – traditional Indian dress
Kanika Mehrotra is a practicing clinical psychologist who has recently decided to rejoin the slow but quixotic world of academia – She loves to write and is still in the ‘struggling writer’ phase but hopes to make it out of there soon. Although not one to put herself in boxes – she does identity herself as a writer of literary fiction.