• ×

    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

    ‘You are liking cockroach?’ one asks with a mischievous

    ‘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

    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

    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.

    Published on Nov 1, 1999


    In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.