It comes at you like a runaway freight train, that slack-jawed, saucer-eyed cartoon face: “Why, in God’s name, would you want to go there?”
Trying to explain why isn’t so simple. In the world’s largest democracy, reason is nothing short of unreasonable, time is folly, and your gut is far too busy working overtime on a bacterial masala to be trusted. Unlike an all-inclusive Caribbean vacation, tidied up in percale predictability, you do not take a trip to India; it takes you.
Journeys on the subcontinent take your breath away for all the right — and wrong — reasons; yet trying to separate the good from the bad would be like trying to shave the face off a coin.
A few steps off Chowringee Road, and several steps back in time, barely stands the nearly 150-year-old New Market. Inside, lining the ramshackle halls: five-foot-high sacks bulging with cloves, curry leaves, and cardamom; a phalanx of purple Santas jam cheek-by-cotton-bearded-jowl clogging the aisles, while glittering saris of every hue flow above.
I had just ordered a chai at a stall when I feel a tug at my kurta. I shrug off the clinging children in Hindi and then in English, “Sorry, no rupees for you. Excuse me.” The counterman shushes them away to no avail as he warns me not to look at them. I pay for my tea, turn toward the exit — then something in the haze of my peripheral vision freezes me in my tracks. There, a little boy, no older than six, is facing up at me. I stop a breath in my throat, staring in disbelief at the voids where his eyes should be. There, in the open sockets are dark red holes of flesh. My hearing muffles as his soiled face mouths “money — money — money.”
I look away and rummage for my wallet. The chai wallah calls back to me, “No madam, please! Don’t give them money. This is mafia — a scam. They will keep doing this to the boys if you give money. This is what they do to boys. Don’t, madam!”
I look back at him; I look back at the boy, my heart thumping, vision blurring. I kneel down offering to buy them a cold drink or sweets but they insist on money, tugging and yelling, the bigger one reaching into my purse as I push him away, their grease-covered hands grabbing at me. “Please, money! Please, money! Money!”
I want to give something to help — to make it stop — to make them go away, but I counter my instincts and obey the counterman.
I pull my bag tightly, shoulder though the crowd and back out into the blinding chaos of my first morning in Kolkata. And breathe.
I arrived at the Old Delhi Railway Station in the pitch of a shivering morning. Wrapped in my oversized shawl, I navigated the iron staircases that bridge above the maze of moonlit tracks looking for the Shatabdi Express to Agra. Up and down from one platform to another. I searched frantically until I finally found my train, checked and double-checked the compartment number, and then the seat number, and cozied into my book.
An hour into the ride, I’m lost in my guidebook, so thrilled to finally see the Taj Mahal — “begun in 1632… ‘pietra dura’d’ in semi-precious stones… twenty-two years and 20,000 men to complete…” — when the conductor comes by to check the tickets.
“Oh, no. No, no, no.” He scrunches his face and calmly shows me that the car number matches, as does my seat number. I look up at him, “They match, yes? What’s the problem?” He jabs at the destination on my ticket, panting in Hindi, while wildly gesticulating around the train. I stare, bewildered.
A young schoolgirl in the seat ahead of me turns around to translate. She looks at the ticket and back at me quizzically. “Madam, this train is not going to the city of the Taj Mahal. This train is going in the opposite direction. It is going to the border of Pakistan.”
The blood drains from my face and my stomach drops. “But the car and seat number match. How? I even asked someone before getting on board if this was the correct train and he nodded, yes.” The girl calmed me and told me to get off at the next stop and change trains there. “Don’t be upset. Everything will be fine — it is your destiny.”
I disembark at Panipat, and with a resigned huff I ascend the metal stairs that creak above the width of the tracks below. As I descend on the other side toward the depot I look out, and there, perhaps 200 pairs of eyes are all staring at this very pale, very tall white girl.
Once on the ground, they crowd around, barely giving me enough berth to pass. I quickly exchange my ticket, and then I walk to the farthest end of the outdoor platform and light a cigarette.
No sooner does the first puff plume skyward than I hear the shuffling feet — maybe twenty men in total. They encircle me and, sheepishly, I greet with them with “hellos” and “namastes,” and they stare back mouths agape. When it’s clear that my salutations will not be volleyed back, I thump my smoke toward the track, roll my eyes, and head toward a small group of women.
“Come with us, Madam. Come over here,” the largest in the group yells as she twists her rope of braided black hair back atop her head. “Men are disgusting. Don’t look at them. Where are you headed? Delhi? Oh, very good. There is a women’s car on that train so you sit with us.”
The compartment, with its wooden pews and cageless metal fans bolted to the ceiling, feels like a working-class relic from the Raj. The train grinds slowly through the bucolic landscape, occasionally letting out a metallic wheeze around tighter bends. Outside on the trailing dirt road, a girl in a green sari switches the hind of a water buffalo and waves.
“Madam, would you mind to please smoke a cigarette for us? The girls would like to see this.”
I was now learning the reason why I had recently been gang-circled by gawking men earlier. “You see, only prostitutes and low women smoke. This is funny,” she explained.
The young girls in their school uniforms crowd around me, giggling and covering their smiles as I take one out, tap the butt against my Gold Flakes pack, light it, and in my best Catherine Deneuve, deeply French Inhale. I blow the smoke out the window and stub it out on the clapboard floors to the applause of the entire car.
And now, I’m asked to autograph their schoolbooks. I don’t even flinch; I go further and actually draw cartoons of myself, and a map of America, and what ends up looking like a severely disabled Lady Liberty.
The mothers in the group offer me their breakfasts from battered tins: spicy potatoes and curried peas with bits of naan, and from a thermos I’m poured steaming chai into tiny clay cups. Conversations overlap and addresses are swapped.
Then about eight or ten of the girls all turn to face me, jockeying into place, preparing for something. One of the older girls steps forward, just a couple feet away, and begins to sing. The other girls join in unison, a rolling Hindu hymn in perfect soaring harmony. The train is clacking along the countryside, past the crumbling temples, the morning smoke from kitchens rising. A temple bell clangs.
And this singing. And the mothers looking proudly on and beaming in my direction while arching their brows for approval. I smile broadly and nod humbly.
I glance out the window and back to the girls, and to the mothers, and to the wobbling ceiling fan above, and I try to hold it all in.
I choke out a nervous laugh and wipe my eyes. The larger woman pats my knee, “Don’t be sad, madam, we’ll arrive in Delhi soon.”
“I’m not sad, Shivani — I’m grateful.”
Destiny, kismet, or happenstance: Moments like these are the golden threads in the embroidery of our sackcloth existence — and the beauty of the those glimmering strings can make your heart unravel.
“There’s so much to take in,” I explain. “I’m just holding onto this as tightly as I can.”
It is impossible to talk about India without littering your speech with an avalanche of antonyms: revolting and resplendent, putrid and perfumed. The country is the geographical embodiment of cruelty and kindness, yet over time, the good memories glitter over the garbage, and that’s what lures you back — just hop the wrong train and you’ll head exactly where you need to go.