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We rounded a corner and sped down the road, swerving between cabs and stray dogs, picking up speed as we entered a straight stretch. Raj and I squeezed together on a thin bench in the back of the auto rickshaw next to the driver’s cousin, ducking to avoid the tarpaulin roof. The cool Jaipur night rushed in at us through the vehicle’s open sides, whipping my hair across my face.
“Hey, don’t you think you should slow down a little?” I asked the driver.
We were going far too fast for India. I had been there a month and a half already and I knew the craziness of the roads in this country; the burned-out buses littering roadsides all smashed in with crumpled engines and wires protruding like veins; trucks overturned, their painted-on murals of Krishna and Ganesh grinning at me upside down, and the infamous “bus plunges” down cliffs into ravines. Just last month, news had spread through the travellers’ circuit of a sleeper bus on the popular tourist route from Goa to Bombay colliding with an oncoming truck as it retreated, too late, from the passing lane. The truck had ripped through the entire driver’s side of the bus, killing everyone who was sleeping there. Since then, I always made sure to sit on the left side of buses, not in superstition, but because it logically increased my chances of surviving India.
I knew that our rickshaw was out of control, but I considered myself too seasoned a traveller to make much of a scene. The driver laughed and turned to look at us. He was young, dressed in a half-unbuttoned collar shirt and polyester slacks, with the ubiquitous moustache and hair slicked back in a modish look. He had an air of machismo about him.
“You westerners! You have too much fear!” he said. “You need to let loose. You know, like the Indian way. Here we don’t worry. Here, no problem!”
He grinned at us and his cousin nodded in agreement. I could smell alcohol on his breath. He had been facing us for half a minute now and I wanted to scream at him to watch the road.
“I don’t know, man. Maybe you’re right, but do me a favour and slow down.” I gripped the edge of the driver’s seat, trying to manoeuvre my limbs inside in case of a collision. We were racing toward a traffic circle so fast that I felt that stomach-lurching sensation of being on a roller coaster just before it plummets downward. A car pulled around the circle and we headed directly for it. Our driver swung the rickshaw around sideways at the last moment and we screeched wildly toward the car’s right door. A moment before impact, he turned back to us.
“Don’t worry! Be happy!” he yelled.
The first day I arrived in India I didn’t think I’d make it longer than a week. On the ride out of Bombay airport, New Year’s Eve, we drove down sooty streets with people seeming to climb out of the blackness, out of ramshackle constructions of cardboard Cola boxes and metal sheeting, stumbling along the edge just inches away from the cab. Auto rickshaws zipped by like angry beetles, cars pulsed with strange music, everything coming so close but not quite touching as if some opposing magnetism or karma held them just inches apart. The air was thick and hot and made me choke. This is the sewer of my imagination, I thought to myself, bracing myself, holding my fists tight. This is that hell-place in the pit of my mind. The place that I always feared would be there when I was afraid to look behind me.
There are lots of ways to die in India. They are everywhere, peeking out from alleys that smell of urine, hanging in tin pails off lepers’ knobby wrists, sneaking up on you in the streets in broad daylight amidst Hindi film music and paan-wallahs. I had to look everywhere at once, to be constantly on guard. I wondered how the elders that I saw, some certainly 80 or 90 with skin like shrivelled fruit and hair sallow against dark faces, had survived for as long as they had.
On my second day in Bombay I called my parents. They were worried because a bomb had killed 33 on a train to Delhi just days earlier. I told them not to worry, that things happened everywhere. On my third day I went to the train station for the first time to book a ticket to Hyderabad. Children, barefoot on the cement and layered in soiled calico and lace, swarmed around me, tugging at my arms, my shirt.
“One rupee? One chocolate?” they begged. “One pen?”
Trains pulled in and out packed with people who hung from windows and doors. A torso of a man wheeled himself around on a board, skirting families asleep on mats. I found my way to the ticket lines and got in the tourist queue, attempting to decipher train schedules plastered on the walls in Hindi. A group of travellers sitting on packs in front of me offered their assistance. They had been in India several months already and seemed unfazed by the commotion.
“We had a bomb on our train a month ago,” one of them told me. He was from Sweden and wore a faded t-shirt over tanned arms. “Fucking thing blew up a couple cars down from us. Luckily, we were stopped, so we didn’t derail. Usually they try to set them off when the train is going, ’cause then they’ll kill more people.”
“It was stopped because they had to do some repair,” the woman beside him chimed in. “We were supposed to be moving when it went off. We were damn lucky.”
I spent my first train ride terrified of bombs. As the people around me jabbered and shared samosas, I sat stiffly, clutching my pack. I am not like these people, this is not my death, I thought. Why did I buy a ticket, willfully, to come to this country, to ride this train? Why not just stay at home where I know what I am up against? I made sure to get a bottom bunk so that I could evacuate faster if a bomb went off. And I slept with my boots on.
Everyone had a horror story. It was the topic of choice among travellers who had just met over dinner. We exchanged them like rites of passage, mingled into conversations along with who had yet to give up toilet paper and details on the consistencies of our bowel movements. In Kerala, two German girls with shaved blonde heads and bodies like tree trunks looked shaken as they described a flight they had taken on a small plane from one place in India to another.
“We were going along, right, and then suddenly we were going straight fucking up!” the taller one told me.
Others told of bus crashes, bouts of malaria, and run-ins with groping Indian men. Somehow we all made it. Things seemed to work that way here. There was a faith stronger than catastrophe which we adhered to. I gained it on an overnight bus from Bhavnagar to Diu.
Raj and I were seated in the very front of the bus on the left side, huddled under a sheet of yellow fabric, resting on each other’s shoulders. The road was narrow, winding through the dusty plains of middle India by moonlight. These overnight buses were always an ordeal. The only way to notice an oncoming vehicle was by its headlights and horn. The road was full of pot holes and only wide enough for one, so when we met another bus or truck we’d have to pull to the far side of the road and inch by it, the conductors of each vehicle poking their heads out the windows to check for space and yelling commands. Sometimes we’d get so close to a passing truck that I could smell the incense burning on its dash, seeping in a thick trail out into the night. When we rounded corners, the driver would blast the horn and proceed at full speed, hoping that anyone on the other side would get out of the way.
That night, the electrical system on our bus went haywire, jolting into sudden bursts of brightness and sound every few minutes like an out-of-control light show. Then, a few hours into the drive, it blacked out altogether and the road turned dark without the glow of the headlights. I thought we would stop quickly to repair the problem, but the driver kept going, passing the only spot for miles where we could have gotten help. When the headlights of oncoming vehicles appeared through the windshield, I leaned forward to watch them, my eyes opened wide. They can’t see us! I realised. As we got closer, our driver would pound on the horn and the other vehicle would swerve off to the side, missing us by a few feet. I gripped the rail in front of me, my eyes glued to the road, flinching every time I saw headlights.
Raj leaned back in his seat, resigned to whatever was to come. I sang songs to myself softly, trying to relax my body and my mind. When we finally pulled over at a truck stop, I stumbled to a table and drank a chai, exhausted, relieved to be out of danger for the moment. Flies buzzed around the table, landing on my arm and the edge of my cup. I watched them without moving. All I wanted to do was sleep.
When I returned to the bus, the lights had still not been repaired. I climbed back to my seat, wondering if I should stay behind, not wanting to be left alone in this nowhere place in the middle of the night. As we drove on, I noticed that all of the Indians on the bus were sleeping soundly, resting on windows and sacks, undisturbed by the danger of collision or the winding and grinding of uneven roads. A woman behind me snored lightly, her child curled in her lap. My body unknotted itself slowly, and I sang myself to sleep. When I awoke, the landscape was light with the first rays of sun, and I inhaled Diu’s wet morning air.
Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in the world. She breathes in gusts of hot, dusty air, like the breath of a very old woman. Her body rises and falls in sand coloured spires and wide verandahs. The streets of Varanasi are made of packed dirt, winding into alleys which interconnect and lose themselves amongst pantry kiosks selling biscuits and soaps, cows napping in puddles, packs of schoolgirls in green and white uniforms and noose braids, and bicycle rickshaws that are almost too wide to make it through. Eventually, they all spill out onto the ghats, leading down to the heart of Varanasi, the holy river, the Ganges.
I arrived in Varanasi four months into my travels in India. On my first evening there, I made my way along the ghats at sunset. The laundrymen were finishing their final loads, beating wads of fabric against cement blocks in the water and collecting the colorful saris and tapestries laid out on the steps to dry. The river was sleepy, lapping quietly against the shore, sending tiny frogs scurrying about. Above the ghats, a group of men, their dark bodies glowing with sweat, worked to start a dung fire under an enormous pot. They called down to me as I passed, inviting me to join them for dinner, and I promised to return. A few ghats down, I paused to throw a ball around with some children who ran wildly up and down the steps, around goats, in and out of the water. As I chased the ball toward the river, I noticed a single vessel moving across the water. Its owner rowed solemnly, perched upon the piles of thin logs which overflowed out of his boat. I followed him along the ghats toward Manikarnika.
I could see the smoke rising up as I approached. It reached my nostrils, sweet and earthy like sandalwood paste. I walked towards it dreamily and came upon stacks of logs laid in bundles on the sand and poking out from the windows of storehouses. When I reached Manikarnika Ghat I stood behind a fence and wrapped a scarf around my nose and mouth like the others who stood near me. On a cement platform below, doms wrapped in white dhotis tended six individual fires, adding wood as necessary, prodding charred limbs with sticks to keep them burning. A procession of men wound their way silently past me, down to the platform, carrying a body above their heads on a stretcher made of branches and twine. They laid it on the platform, all wrapped in orange and tinsel like a birthday gift, and stepped back to watch, chatting and tossing stones in the river. The doms built a pyre and laid the body upon it. One touched a torch to it and started a new fire.