by Michele Morano
Quickly, which is to say without second-guessing yourself, without wondering whether you ought to have come at all because sixteen days is a long time for the small boy you left at home. This morning on Skype, as he was getting ready for bed back in Chicago, he held up the spotted, raggedy baby-dog he’s slept with all his life and made it kiss the screen. “He misses you,” he said, before punching the dog and throwing it over his shoulder. Propped in your narrow bed, where a gentle, insistent call from the mosque across the street had nudged you awake before 5 AM, you tried to think of something reassuring to say, some way of easing his sorrow, but travel always feels like a risk, the leaving fraught with the possibility of no return. From half a globe away you could say only, “Soon.”
And so, quickly, which is to say without becoming self-conscious of the way you look and dress and move, your zippered pants and button-down blouse, your uncovered head and sunglasses. It’s the sunglasses that make you feel strange, hiding your eyes and drawing glances as if you’re a starlet or a trust fund child instead of a woman from a blue collar background for whom leaving your own country, still, after all the years and all the trips, imparts a thrill that vibrates in your gut. You take to the street each afternoon to let this feeling intensify under the hot December sun, which is bright as nails, bright as aluminum foil, bright as jet lag going on its tenth day, and you wear the sunglasses because without them you can’t see.
And so, head up, shoulders back, past the wall you slipped behind last night when you entered the courtyard of a movie theater that quickly filled with men. Young men in their teens and twenties and older men as well, fathers and uncles and a few women who made you feel better about going to a riotous, gun-filled, Bollywood chase movie filmed here in Mumbai, along Marine Drive and around Colaba, on streets you recognized except that in the movie they were half empty. In Bollywood, in between the musical numbers, Mumbai is quiet whereas the real street is filled with horns and people and surprises—like the brown goats that hop onto the seats of parked scooters and stare at you with judgment in their eyes.
Walk without apology, which is to say without denying who you are and where you’re from. Americans are always apologizing, saying “thank you” four times to the taxi driver, “thank you” to the housekeeper in a tone that says I’m the one traveling and you’re the one serving and I know it isn’t fair but at least I’m humble. In New Delhi a waiter asked, “Why do you people say thank you again and again?” the phrase you people rankling everyone at the table because what did he mean? Maybe the same thing your Indian colleague meant before you left Chicago. “Don’t take the poverty personally,” he’d warned. “There is tremendous wealth in India, enough to feed everyone right now. Don’t think your dollar bills hold answers.”
And so, walk as if you have no answers but somewhere to go, which is to say without pausing. Look, but don’t stop to admire the vegetables laid out on folding tables in the median and the women who sell them, dressed in saris the color of marigolds, the fabric draped over their heads to block the sun. Allow the flashes of color to enter, hear the calls of “Mom! Mom!”—which you know mean “Ma’am” but which remind you every time of the boy you left behind. Smell the sweet pungency of incense that comes from who-knows-where, turning the street into a temple, into a place of offering and prayer. But don’t slow down. Don’t lose your nerve.
Of course, nerve is the very thing you’re afraid of showing, the very thing you were warned against in the first part of your life. Don’t be nervy. Don’t overreach, presume, which is to say, know your place. Your place then was at home, in the backyard, in the park, at school. Not anywhere you hadn’t been before, not (God forbid) in a country that takes a full day to get to by plane and where the threat of terrorist attack is omnipresent. Already you’re used to throwing your hands in the air at entrances to temples and train stations for the security check. Who knows why you love this process so, the constant proclamation of innocence, the female guards who run wands over your body, then look you in the eyes and nod. This is the sort of detail you won’t tell your father when you call, your father who is so mortified by your travels that he hasn’t told a single person where you are, not the neighbor who always asks about you or the cousin who phones him every few weeks. He’s keeping it to himself like a bit of bad news, crossing his fingers you‘ll come back in one piece and come to your senses, too, stay home and take care of your child. That your child’s father takes excellent care is one reason you’re able to travel, to accompany a group of university students on their two-week study abroad, and you’ve gotten good at ignoring your father’s way of thinking. But here, on a narrow street that runs parallel to a wide avenue that empties into a free-for-all intersection, it’s especially important to push his fear away because if not, your nerve will evaporate so fast you’ll start to shake.
That’s what happened yesterday. In Colaba, after you’d walked under India Gate and through the lobby of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, its opulence fully restored after the attacks six years ago, you caught a taxi north. Just off the flyover linking south and central Mumbai, the taxi turned into what looked like an alley lined with stalls selling food, flowers, kitchenware. The stalls were small homes, with lit cooking fires and bedrolls and children perched on cardboard boxes, bending over notebooks. Elderly people and toddlers and chickens all walked dangerously close to the taxi, which didn’t slow down, so you held your breath and squeezed your eyes shut, whispering, “Someone’s going to die,” and when you opened your eyes again the taxi had come to a stop in the center of an intersection, its front grill nearly touching the front grills of four other cars. It was like being part of a Rubik’s cube, vehicles packed ahead and behind and to the side so that the solution seemed impossible and even getting out and walking away seemed impossible because there was no room to open the taxi door. But then, slowly, the drivers rocked and jockeyed and moved centimeters at a time until a small space appeared and your taxi slipped in and then the whole chaotic mess gave way, ordering itself into a miracle.
In Delhi, you’d walked in a group along the burning ghats, the cremation area on the Yamuna River, where a thin body wrapped in white muslin was being carried to the water’s edge. The sons of the deceased, three in all, stood beside the pyre, alternately gazing down the river and tapping on their cell phones. “Come closer,” said a man passing by, and another offered to take you onto the river in his rowboat. To the guide who led you to this place you said, “I don’t want to gawk, but I really am interested.” She assured you no one would take offense but that, having cremated each of her parents here, she would wait at the top of the hill. You wanted to stay, wanted to smell the sandalwood and flesh, wanted to witness the eldest son take a club to the charred skull, releasing the spirit completely from its bodily prison. But it takes a long time for skin and bones to burn, so you turned and followed the guide, feeling sorry not because of your curiosity but because a spirit was about to be set free from the body that had carried it for sixty or seventy years, and you’d wanted to witness the transformation.
You’re thinking of that now, of what it means to die in India and what it means to die in the U.S. and of your son who said one night, as you rubbed his back at bedtime, “The only thing I don’t like about life is that it ends.” His voice had sounded slow and heavy and something like resigned, and you carry that sound with you as the intersection nears. The closer you get, the less sure you feel, but push the thought out of your head that anything could go wrong, the way you keep pushing away the thought of people who die each day by falling from the open doors of commuter trains so packed during rush hour that not everyone can get all the way inside. You’ll think of those people, the ones who fall, when you ride a train north, to the wealthy suburb of Bandra. On that train will be a young mother carrying a two-year-old boy she sets on an empty seat, a boy who immediately gets down and toddles around as she drops to the floor. Using a small bundle of twigs tied with string she’ll sweep under the seats, along the aisle and around the open doors while the boy entertains himself. Nothing frightens him, not the world rushing past the train, not the businessman watching him with a scowl. At the next stop, two more of the sweeper’s children get on, maybe four and five-years-old. You’ve already given their mother the change in your pocket, and when the kids beg, stretching out their hands and touching their mouths over and over, you shake your head. “Nae, nae.”
The four-year-old repeats the gesture, tugging one of your traveling companions before kneeling down on the floor and resting one cheek against the man’s shoe. Your companion reaches into his pocket then, but before he can hand the boy some money, the businessman approaches and scolds you all. “You make this begging problem worse,” he says, “and then you go home and we’re left with it.” Your traveling companion thanks him for sharing this perspective, and the man nods, smiles, sits down again while the boy’s face remains against the shoe, and his mother walks to the open door and flicks the dust away.
Everything converges, this narrow street running parallel to the wider one, until you’re carried to the corner with the crowd, and the crowd breaks into people who step forward or hold back. Men in khaki trousers and madras shirts, women wrapped in silk, an elderly couple clutching each other’s arms. Try not to hesitate. Plenty of others will, natives who may still call the city by its colonial name, Bombay, and transplants who may never get used to a city of 20 million, and foreigners like yourself, wandering as if on a new planet. Some people falter at the curb, gazing across four lanes that aren’t lanes at all but a mass of motorbikes and cars, taxis and trucks, handcarts and the occasional cow, everything heaving and swerving in a scary, beautiful way. The traffic signals above, walk/don’t walk, bear little relation to what’s happening on the ground, and the biggest mistake is to watch the lights, to think that red and green mean anything definitive, to look for a safe time to move. There is no safe time to move, or rather, any time is safe if you stop thinking about it and go. Like you mean it.
Or, rather, go in a meaningful way. Maybe that’s the difference Paul Theroux has in mind when he writes, “Travelers don’t know where they’re going. Tourists don’t know where they’ve been.” Except that it’s hard enough to know where you are— to really know where you are— even at home. So, okay, you’re in India, in Mumbai. You’re not staying at the luxury Taj Hotel but at the budget YMCA, breakfast and dinner included, and your itinerary has taken you to Hindu, Sikh, and Jain temples, the real Taj Mahal, a Mughal village, Gandhi’s former home, and the largest slum in the world. You’ve also met with activists and visited NGOs, but don’t kid yourself. You’re a tourist. In the mornings you sightsee with the group and each afternoon you walk the streets alone, lingering in the grocery store and the pharmacy because in these places, too, India reveals itself. When Theroux writes, “India is a wonderful example of a country full of contradictions, even old-fashioned adventures, if a traveler happens to be willing to take a few risks,” he doesn’t mean the risk of crossing the street to get to a grocery store. But why not? Why should “old-fashioned adventures” be more noble than the dramas of everyday life?
And so, look first to the right, since traffic comes from the right in India, but look also to the left because traffic comes from every direction in India. If there’s a space, any kind of space in front of you, if stepping into the street doesn’t mean imminent collision, then go ahead. Quickly. Without apology. As if you belong, which is to say, by catching a rhythm that bypasses your brain. Later, what will come back to you most from India, amid the bright colors and flavors and the landscapes, faces, conversations, is the terrifying thrill of wading into traffic. On the surface, everything is loud and disorganized and overwhelming, but inside that chaos lies some kind of rhythm you can’t see, some kind of reassurance. Look right again, and left, and straight ahead to the center of the street where, yes, it’s possible to pause but try not to, even when a motorbike bears down, a helmeted man driving and an older woman sitting sidesaddle on the back, as calm and graceful as if she were sitting in a living room. Glance at the motorbike and at the taxi accelerating around it and at the pedestrian to your right who is crossing as you are, with determination, and allow yourself to feel the closest thing you know to faith. Soon you’ll be home again, the boy slipping a yellow plastic ring onto your finger, asking you to marry him as a way to keep you from leaving again. And you will say yes, of course my love, I will marry you, and his father will laugh because he knows better than anyone that commitment does not mean you’ll stay at home. It simply means that you’ll come back again each time, or try to, for as long as the good luck holds.
Michele Morano is the author of the travel memoir, Grammar Lessons: Translating a Life in Spain. Her work has appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Missouri Review, Fourth Genre, Ninth Letter, Best American Essays, and the forthcoming I’ll Tell You Mine: Thirty Years of Essays from the Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program. She directs the MA in Writing and Publishing Program at DePaul University in Chicago.