A woman, dangling her daughter by a skinny arm, emerges barefoot from the bathroom. Her filthy feet and wet, soiled sari brush against me as she stumbles over huddled bodies and sacks, expressionless, seeking her space. My own space is here on the muddy floor of the train, which is lurching and grinding its way through the Indian night from Agra to Tundla. All other space is filled. There are people everywhere. They are sitting, standing, sweating, stuffed ten to a four-person seat, aunties and children sleeping peacefully with contorted limbs. Tin pails hang from lepers' knobby stubs, which poke dejectedly outward to beg for rupees. Passengers dangle fearlessly out open doorways, hanging on with one hand, feeling the rush of the warm, dizzying breeze. I'm sitting on my backpack against the wall at the end of the compartment between the bathrooms, my body packed between men who stare at me curiously and do not turn away. A cockroach scurries across my sandaled foot, toward the men in military uniform across from me who laugh as I flinch and draw my feet closer. They fight to capture it in their palms and then hold it before me like a prize.
'You are liking cockroach?' one asks with a mischievous smile.
'I eat cockroach for my dinner,' I say, motioning toward my mouth, attempting to join in their humor, as I often do here to break down barriers of language and culture. It is a halfhearted effort in my semi-delirious, dejected state, and they laugh cautiously, pretty sure that I am joking, but not quite. I dig into my damp pocket and offer beedies all around; they are accepted with a mixture of fraternity and astonishment that a woman should both smoke and say such incredible things about eating insects. I accept a light from the man beside me, who holds the match steadily long after the flame has reached his fingers, and settle back into my haze. A brownish liquid drips down the wall behind me. My face is so dirty that when I wipe the sweat from it with my sleeve it leaves a long dark streak. My head is burning in a way that only happens here. It is like fever, but there is no fever, only this terrible burning that blurs my vision and drenches my clothing with sweat. I am alone, dirty, and sick. I inhale smoke and eucalyptus leaf into my dusty lungs and wonder if this is what I bargained for. Is this what it means to be free?
Just yesterday I was safe in the home of the Lavania family. We had met a week earlier, on the grounds of the Taj Mahal. They took me and cared for me as a daughter, dressing me in sari and bindi and carting me around to visit their hundreds of relatives. At each visit, they put on Hindi film music and requested that I dance in my foreign, funny, trying-not-to-be-too-immodestly-sexy way. Mama Mithlesh took me, sick and sweating, to a doctor who prescribed a list of eight strange medicines I was required to take every day. She stood by me at night, daubing my tongue with repulsive spice mixtures as I dry-heaved over their porch.
I began to feel a sense of security and dependency I had not known during many months of traveling alone. This security soon grew into acute claustrophobia. I was never allowed to be alone, and the quiet, self-absorbed reflectiveness I'd been pampered with back home, where each family member has a private room, was seen as rude and remorseful. I could not leave the house without a male guardian at my heels. The family made certain that I finished my meals and drank my medicines. The daughter, Kavita, accompanied me on each trip to the rooftop toilet and told me how to wipe my ass with my hand. At night I shared the intimacy of the only bed, a single, with mama Mithlesh; I could feel her breath, the billowing folds of her arms and belly, her skin soft like the flour she pounded flat into chapatis.
I loved the Lavanias and appreciated their trust and hospitality, but I soon yearned to break free, to board another train into the mad, sensual anonymity of India, to disappear for days to a place where I could move about on my own. They begrudgingly accepted my excuses for leaving, fearful for my safety. I promised I would return. That afternoon, on the train from Dhaulpur to Agra, I rode with a cousin of the family, still under watchful eye, and settled into relaxing and disconnected daydreams about home, dress patterns, Provincetown, and Kate and Craig.
Then I arrived at the Agra station. The cousin was gone, it was one in the morning, and I was tired and partly delirious. Delirium is different in India from anywhere else. It is less sanitary and less internal. It is something real and alive and seething that drips like toothless bloody-gum paan juice splotching across the pavement and smiles at you so big, but doesn't speak your language. I felt the acid of a familiar nausea burning its way up my throat and into my mouth, my nose, my head as the world seemed to spiral outward and I struggled to keep my footing, imagining that if I were to fall, I might fall all the way to the other side of the world and wake up from an inconceivable dream. People swarmed about, evaporating in and out of the oozing, dusty heat, faceless, unfamiliar, climbing over tracks covered in trash and rats and urine.
Suddenly, there was Mintoo Lavania--thin, sane papa Mintoo emerging from the chaos to meet me and guide me onto the next train. Mintoo worked in Agra and had traveled there the day before. When I'd decided to depart, Mithlesh had telephoned to tell him I would be on the train. Mintoo bore down upon me like a protective father, 'Come, I take you to train. You are having food to eat? Okay, okay. You hurry now.'
I joined the masses forcing their way through the doors. Mintoo helped me to push my way in and waved as the crowd carried me off. And now, two hours later, I want Mintoo, I want Mithlesh, I want my mother and father at home, I want to release myself into a soft, clean sleep, and I am wondering--why did I leave? Why leave the Lavanias and why leave home? Why take it upon myself to buy a ticket into this mad land where the future is so unregimented and out of control and no one is looking out for me? I begin to wonder if my romantic notions of roaming the world unbound by any person, time, or place are foolish and naÔve. I am alone on the other side of the world, and no one is going to save me.
Most of the people on the train are sleeping now. I am amazed by the sense of peace and contentment among the men and women sprawled about. Several small children playing quietly on an upper bunk look at me and smile shyly. I smile back, and a gentleness comes over me like a soft wind. I listen to the rhythmic hum of the train moving along, the song of Onward! Onward! Swiftly into the Night, and know the strange mix of emotion that is traveling alone--terrible loneliness, degradation, fear, exuberance, adventure, perfection like nothing else. The constant pushing of boundaries, breaking out of monotony and comfort, keeps me alive and aware, allowing me to discover the world anew each day. I am surrounded by people unlike any I've met before. They are strong and resilient, compassionate, sincere, and their smiles linger with eyes straight on and curious. If I am to travel so far to break the boundaries of space and time, how can I remain bound within my own self-absorption and prejudice? I will never be alone so long as I step outside my room and outside my head.
I change trains during the night and fall into soothing sleep on a second-class sleeper bunk that a kind station worker finds for me amid the early-morning bustle. When I awake, I am in Varanasi, the city of the holy Ganges, and India envelops me once more.
From Passionfruit (#1). Subscriptions: $18/yr. (4 issues) from 2917 Telegraph Av. #136, Berkeley, CA 94705.