I hear something. My eyes are heavy and when I open them the darkness of the room has started to lift with the morning light. A night full of checking up on my little girl, passing my hand and lips over her hot forehead and providing cool cloths, is blissfully coming to an end.
– Mmm…ard.. – she sounds weak and I can see her thin body sitting on the mat curled up and weak.
– Are you ok? – I scoop her up easily in my arms and kiss her forehead.
She is mumbling something. What? I dont understand. She says something about guys and looks disoriented. My heart is growing bigger in my chest and I can feel its urgency.
– Its strange… – I can see she is not sure what is happening. She is scared.- I can see rocks…on my finger here…
There are no rocks, no guys. She is hallucinating.
I am stroking her gently, lying through my hand that I know everything will be alright. The fever could be at fault, but I gave her tylenol earlier, as she could not sleep. Crap! Now I am scared too.
I call on Mr.Blab and have little patience for his questions as he is trying to catch up on the events while half asleep.
– You have to take her to the hospital! – I am not interested in chitchat. Thankfully there is a good one 3 blocks away from us, so it will take just a few minutes, even if he has to carry her there.
She looks even smaller as I am dressing her up. I am saying something to keep her calm. Not sure what. I can see her little ribs as I slide the top through her gentle skin. Does she eat enough? Poor thing. I think I can burst with worry if not for the lead weight in my stomach keeping me grounded.
Not long after they are gone. The door is closed. Its quiet. Its wrong.. The other kids are up and I need to pretend to be strong again. High on a cocktail of hormones saturating my trembling body, I can face anything, instead I make butter sandwiches, wash dishes, walk around like a zombie and do symptom searches on the internet. Nothing scary pops up. Breathe in. Good…or is it?
How long has it been? Why in the world did we not get a mobile phone?
After what seems like an eternity, I cannot stand the pressure anymore. Closing the latch behind me allows me to release the ugly face of unbearable worry. The warm water coming from the rusty shower-head soothes me into a deep breath. I close my eyes and let it calm me down.
You win India.
From the moment we stepped foot in Delhi, I knew you were different. Oh, yes, you are charming, I am not disputing this. I lost myself in your streets and alleys soaking up the atmosphere more than once. I have giggled like a child in the middle of a busy Indian home kitchen, as the chapattis are rolled and puffing on the hot tawas and the smell of popping spices in a developing curry makes my head spin with delight. My children still think that the best way to travel through the streets is backwards, sitting on the folded umbrella of a cycle rickshaw, as they squeal at the barely dodging them traffic. You should have seen the smiles they had. Maybe you did, I dont know, there were a lot of people around.
You made me fall in love with ginger chai. Have you smiled like me, when my 3 year old, sitting patiently on the grubby seats of your trains, raises his big eyes and asks us “When chai-man comes, can we get some chai”? Have you seen he careful way he drinks from those tiny paper cups as the train bobs along? Precious. I am biased, but still.
Your mountains, India. Those Himalayas are beautiful. The valleys that sparkle at night almost as much as the sky above, ah… Who knew there were so many stars? I am a city girl, we get whats left after spots like those steal all of them. I am not sure you go there often, but you should. See the beautiful people carrying traditions from years long gone and the herds of goats roaming around. With all the damming, tunnels and roads crumbling down the green hills, you never know when it will all be gone, replaced with mediocrity.
I have marveled at your past. All sorts of cultures have passed through your lands and inevitably left their mark. I have wondered if there is anything left of that ancient Indus civilization that started it all, a land that was lost to religious animosity and no longer yours (what do you think of Pakistan, by the way?). Walking through your cities and towns is like a cultural burst of flavors – the architecture left from the Mughals and the Europeans is so different, yet works somehow here, maybe because it was sealed with the tears of your people. I dont know, I dont really understand these things. Or religion for that matter. Still, your temples and devotees circling them with sparkles of hope in their tired eyes, always left me calmer somehow.
I think some of these are the reason so many find a visit to your lands so appealing. I did too. And if I came with a bigger bag of money, oh the time of my life would have been here, no doubt. Staying in intricately carved havelis, eating in lush exotic restaurants, being driven around in an air-conditioned car to some of the most beautiful sites in the World and being served, seemingly happily, hand and foot by the help. Who would not enjoy that!
But I was not insulated by my privilege. I saw.
They say that you are dirty, but I doubt many people are prepared for exactly how dirty you are. Dust covers everything in the towns, including the urine or paan spit (or both) soaked walls. It is hard to imagine how garbage ends up everywhere, until one sees people effortlessly throwing everything, be it the empty cup of chai on the train tracks, or the one used at a beautiful wedding and ends up on its previously clean floor cover. I was thinking maybe you wanted to test how strong my stomach was as I tried to comprehend how much filth is needed to turn snot black. How much sewage, content of mystery pipes and dead bodies is needed to make a flowing river smell like death? You know what, I dont want to know. You can keep your secrets.
I could not get used to not trusting your people. To say I did not like second guessing every word that came out of their mouths is an understatement. The country is rife with wrong information on top of intentionally deceitful conduct enough to make a paranoid maniac out of the most serene of travelers. It is mentally exhausting, even if we forget all the running around in vein we had to do. I like people, you see, I believe they are good in their core, but yours are scarred.
Your people are sad too, India. Yes, many are poor beyond comprehension. But this is not new, I have seen poverty before. The hard life of your people is written on their faces. The long years of injustice, of discrimination, corruption and most of all hopelessness have carved their way into those eyes, the eyes I have trouble avoiding. And I have tried to, because they pierce me deep and remind me of all the horrible things in this World. I have spent many hours in the company of jolly Indian folk, wonderful people indeed, full of life and future, only to be taken from my trance back to reality, with the ever so slight twitch of disgust at the mention of a lower caste people, or when they expect appreciation by the servants paid $50 a month and treated worst than house pets. Intelligent, seemingly open minded youth, still suffer from the blindness which is needed to live happily in this country.
It is the blindness needed to have a multimillion dollar mansion amidst disgusting streets and slums, where people fade slowly next door. It is the blindness that has to afflict your fat politicians to spare them the reality of the sadness their deep pockets are planting in those eyes I tried so hard to avoid. It is the blindness that allows for culture to be rife with sexual assaults, I have seen it, India, holding a child and with my man by my side. Those women that add often the only color to your gray and depressing towns, are people too. Should they die as infants drowned in those filthy rivers of yours? Or burned in the kitchen for not having enough dowry?
Finally, it is the disease that we westerners carry in order to visit places like yours and then exclaim of how wonderful they are, exotic and spiritual, you see. Because I dont understand it any other way. For me the undisputed grandeur of your distant past is overshadowed by the ugliness of your present. A present rooted deeply in how cheap and dispensable your people are.
By now my hands are pressing hard across my skin, as the water keeps on running on it like my racing thoughts. Dry skin starts to roll across my fingers into dark gray strings. I press harder and before I know it, I am scrubbing like I havent done in a long time. The energy inside me needs to come out, but there is more. I am washing India away.
Hours later, I lay down, reading stories to my kids. I am settled back to life armed with patience to wait out the end of your gift to us. You win, India. You can have your excrement and vomit tax, although I am not sure why since you have enough of it already.
My triumph is in the freedom and ability to leave.
But I will never forget you.