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When mother meets India

By her face I could see that it was the dirtiest place she had ever been. A slight wrinkling of the nose, a widening of the eyes. Breathing in thick diesel fumes, dust, and the smoke of cow-shit-cook-fires, we took a taxi through the night-emptied streets of New Delhi. Papers and plastic bags fluttered. Elephants, illuminated by the headlights, loomed suddenly out of the darkness, and then were gone again, drawn back into the strangeness of the night.

My mother had few bags. She is a practical traveller, and packs and re-packs in the weeks before a trip until everything is organized, compact, and nothing superfluous. She makes lists and sticks to them. This time, however, her pack was a treasure trove of scented candles and aromatic oils. “I was told India stinks,” she said.

Jim and I had come down out of the Himalayan foothills to meet her the day before, sick of gritty rice and dhal, of curdled milk chai, of two meals a day, sick especially of our intolerance of these things. Sick of ourselves.

It was even a relief to be back in the city. After a month in the mountains I had forgotten how sick I had been when we first arrived in Delhi, the nausea, the heat. Vomiting from a moving motor-rickshaw and spending days in bed alternately shivering and sweating beneath the precarious rotations of the ceiling fan, learning to hate the taste of: coconut juice, bananas, sweet sliced bread and bottled water. After a month in the mountains all I remembered were the contradictions of heat and green, of rain and the butterfly colours of sari fabric, the chipped tan paint of the naked walls in our hotel room, climbing bougainvillea, dirt streets, bare feet, snake charmers and street vendors, lame beggars, old men playing cards and spitting red betel nut juice into the dust, cows lying by the roadsides.

I had forgotten the lepers and the fly-swarmed eyes of children in the slums.

The steep terraced slopes, narrow road, hill temples, high white peaks in the distance, the threat of tigers under oh-so-close stars at night walking back to the ashram, the clouds pouring over the far hill just after sunrise, marigolds and steaming ginger tea, even Mira who, at twelve, was afraid to sleep alone and shared my room when the other girls were away, even the glacial blue-green of the river rushing away at the bottom of the steep valley and eventually joining the Ganges downstream at Rishikesh, all this was already being subducted under the tectonic plate of the sensory assault that was Delhi. All this I forgot as soon as we came down out of the hills, just as I had forgotten Delhi during the horrific winding bus trip north into the mountains. Precipices and sharp corners. Vomit on the floor of the bus.

India is much too big to keep in your mind all at once. Pieces must be dealt with, singly, then laid away for some time in the future when stories are told.

Delhi closes down at night. The evening is alive, vivid, full of markets and motorcycles, but at night metal doors roll down on store-fronts and houses and everything hushes. The streets are illuminated only by headlights of the few taxis and motor-rickshaws bringing late arrivals from bus station and airport. The cheap tourist quarter of Paharaganj, which was crowded with bright saris, dreadlocked hippies in tie-dye, street vendors, incense and beggars, cafes and souvenir shops, travel agents and rickshaw wallahs, cows and dusty puppies during the day was deserted when our taxi pulled up in front of the narrow passageway that was the main entrance to our guesthouse.

It is even possible that I had forgotten the filth.

Urine in the dust, hot concrete, and exhaust fumes. Every night, in different cities across the subcontinent we blew our noses to clear the dust out, dirty snot darkening the toilet paper that we bought at the kind of shops where you could buy imported cigarettes and bottled shampoo and carried with us everywhere, unaccustomed to using only water. Every night, after days spent wandering through famous monuments and unknown markets, we washed a scum of dirt and sweat and sun block from our faces and hands, and fell exhausted into uncomfortable beds in which I invariably replayed the day’s events, dreaming them just as they had happened, down to the smallest detail.

In my dreams, as in the waking world, spices in overwhelming variety were displayed in fragrant piles in the marketplaces. Cumin and amchoor, chillies and ginger, tamarind souring your nostrils, the bitter yellow of turmeric, the warm round smell of garahm masala spattering in hot ghee, and always the ubiquitous sickly sweet smell of boiled milk, sugar, and tea leaves that is chai, which was served everywhere in flyspecked fluted glasses.

You learned to drink with your eyes closed.

At night in our guesthouse rooms we lit the scented candles and tried to forget the smell of shit. In Jaipur Jim breathed open mouthed and hay fevered from the smog. The air was nearly thick enough to touch, despite the desert winter cool. My hair was full of dust and my feet blackened when I ventured out in sandals, sludge squelching between my toes.

At night my mother and I always woke together and often spent an hour or two talking, just the two of us alone. India made us small, overwhelming us with colour and variety, history, noise and size. Uncertain, together, in the dark we processed information that had passed through our eyes or minds that day. We talked of legless beggars, of the village children who had come out to our camp in the desert for the treasure of our empty plastic water bottles, of the clothing and customs around us. We talked of the cows which stole and ate bananas from the fruit-market stalls, of stoned hippies learning yoga in holy cities, of the camels and donkeys that hauled loads through the dusty streets. Often we talked of the dirt, which had so shocked us at first, as it gradually became normal and we ceased to be bothered by it.

In the cities and towns there was shit everywhere. Open sewers collected washing water and garbage. Bare-bottomed toddlers squatted and shat, their eyes lined with kohl for the glare, their torsos covered with itchy looking knit sweaters. Women peed together in groups by the roadsides, gossiping and laughing as usual, so that you could only tell by the spreading puddles under their lifted sari skirts that they were urinating. I too wore long skirts against this same contingency. It was either that or have to enter the public toilets, where I often saw women squatting everywhere but the holes provided, and the floors, slick with excrement and water, made them no place to lower pant legs. Visiting famous monuments we often found them to be favoured by locals as latrines, and sunset walks around old city walls were minefields of shit-piles.

That first night our room overlooked a courtyard three floors below. Awake and curious, my mother and I looked out the window with widened eyes to the charpoy beds below where two men slept, heads under blankets and feet uncovered, oblivious to our curiosity. Next to them two cows were stabled under a rather spindly mango tree. As we watched cowpats splattered audibly on the ground and the soft barnyard smell wafted into our room. On the wall by the cows a cloth feedbag started to move and writhe as we watched, and one by one a procession of rats emerged to feast on the cowshit. We stared, enthralled, disgusted, while the rats finished eating, and then vanished. 

In the morning we ate at a café across the road from our guest house. Jim and I revelled in eating eggs for the first time since we had left the UK two months before. My mother sipped tea and ate dry toast, looking apprehensive. It was the dirtiest place she had ever been, and she wasn’t going to take risks.

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