Solo Sojourn

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 na”ve. 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.

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