Read “I. To Ahmedabad.”
Farrin called above the motor of the rickshaw, touching my bare shoulders. “We’re getting into the city, now. You’re going to have to cover up. Did you bring a scarf?”
We were flying over the river on the Nehru bridge, swerving. Around trucks, around small Tesla cars, around other rickshaws in a chorus of honking. I put one hand on my bag and the other clutched the side of the vehicle as we braked inches from a huge, pink Krishna painted on the back of a truck.
I shook my head. I was wearing a sleeveless dress that brushed the floor that I had changed into in the bathroom at the airport. I thought I was covered up already, but then again, I had come this far from home both to distract myself, and remove myself as a distraction. More cover wouldn’t hurt.
Right shoulder, left shoulder, right shoulder, we leaned into each sudden tilt, brushing the fabric of pedestrians’ brown pants and saris.
People moved through the side streets of Ahmedabad as they would on their own property. Young men on bicycles made figure eights around yellow dogs, women holding children walked serene between the streams of traffic. If a vehicle had the capability to produce noise, it would, every few feet, against every encounter with another vehicle, in deep or high blasts of ‘hello.’
Our rickshaw was a motorcycle with a rusted green metal compartment attached to the back. No doors, no windows, and no seatbelts. Farrin had stuffed my army bag behind us, where it hung, perilous, from a small shelf. Outside a shopping center, we pulled over, and I followed her down a concrete stretch between two large hotels. We had crossed the river Sabarmati into the “new city,” where she lived in an apartment.
“Okay, muffin,” she said as we walked. “Put on a t-shirt or something.”
My mouth was still dry with plane air. We had embraced and cooed and gone directly from there to here, wherever we were. It looked like it could have been anywhere in the suburban US. “Can we get water?”
“Maybe in here,” she said, gesturing, though there were no doors in sight. “You’re a champ.”
“What are we going to do?”
Farrin turned to me and raised her eyebrows. “Liquor,” she said.
Alcohol was technically illegal in Gujarat, a predominantly conservative Hindu state in the Western part of India. But tourists were allowed to buy it if they had a special dispensation, marked on their passport. Having been in Ahmedabad for the past year, Farrin had used up her “tourist status booze.” Mostly on getting to sleep in the heat, she had told me.
Through a disguised door, down cement steps, into a basement full of crates. Crates, and crates, and crates, each one a jigsaw of tall, dusty bottles. Men sat among them, each next to an electric fan.
At the sound of our voices, more men came from a back room to stand and look. It did not feel like a time to say hello. The men on the street in Brooklyn hated it when they said hello to me, or asked me where I was going with my ass, and I did not say hello back. I had been called a bitch, a cunt, and a prostitute as I have walked past men without saying hello.
What I learned from this: men like to decide when it is time to say hello. If I did not say hello to men on the street, I was a stuck-up bitch. If I did say hello to Bill, my ex-boyfriend, I was clingy and needy and possessive. Don’t worry, there are many ways in which women are taught the proper times to say hello. There are entire thirty minute episodes of situational comedies, hundred of films, and thousands of novels about what happens when women say hello to men at the wrong time, or say hello too much, or not at all.
I was projecting what I had learned from these narratives on the silent, staring men in Ahmedabad, I know now. It is wrong to project narratives on anyone. The fact remained, however, that they were looking at our breasts and our arms and our backsides, for whatever individual reasons each of them had. Maybe one was lustful, but the others were just curious. Maybe one man was just staring into space, thinking about his family.
But if I said hello, that would mean I was okay with them staring. There were ten men, and two women, one of whom was afraid to return their gazes. Everyone’s breaths were heard. It was not time to say hello.
“Red Stag, please,” Farrin said, and handed one of them my passport.
“Do they have—” I began, eyes anywhere but theirs, eyes on the bottles.
“They just have Red Stag,” Farrin whispered.
One of the men pointed at Farrin, asking, “Is she your guide?”
“What?” I was startled. Farrin, my guide? “Oh, no,”
“What are you?” he asked, looking back and forth between us.
The question has many answers, but Farrin had heard it more often than me. She didn’t answer at first, and simply held out her hand for the bottle.
What are we? I wondered if this was also a chance to explain ourselves, to draw their attention away from our parts, and the fact that we were buying supplies to get drunk in a room where they couldn’t or wouldn’t.
Farrin is a Vermonter, a genius, and in India, she was a Fulbright scholar. Her grandmother is Malaysian, and her grandfather, Indian. Her mother is white. Most in the United States guess that Farrin is any nationality from Puerto Rican to Tibetan. Many in India guessed she was from the Northern part of the continent, which is to her advantage when conducting interviews with Gujarati women. She once worked on a restored pirate ship off the coast of Greece. Her job was sleep on it at night, and escape if anyone were to steal it. She has attended Oxford University, and would later attend Cambridge. Please do not put coriander on anything she eats.
Me, I come from German and British stock, horse farmers in Kansas and Puritans in Massachusetts. I come from New York, where I barely lasted a year, watching a dog poison himself under my care. I look forward to trying your whiskey, as I have spent most of the past year drinking forties of Corona in place of dinner. I had to cut off all my hair because I could not get a brush through the tangles. I am in love with a rugby player who is in love with everyone he meets, which is why I love him and he will never love me in the way I want him to. I wrote a novel for teenagers that might reify the very unrealistic expectations that have broken me and brought me here, barely out of teenage years myself. I hate myself for that. I never know when to say hello.
I recalled the baggy sweater I had started to wear over every outfit, no matter the temperature, as a suit of armor to walk around Prospect Heights. I wished I could wear it then.
What are we? Bodies.
“We are friends,” Farrin said, and put her free hand on my back. At her touch, I stopped shrinking. We said nothing more, and left the men in their basement.
As we went back up the stairs, I said, “People always have to know, don’t they?”
She shrugged. “We all do.”
Farrin’s neighborhood was tucked in a complex under an enormous overpass, next to a street lined with stands. People sat in half-moons, smoking and shooting the shit, their bicycles and motor bikes leaned against long strings of foil packages of dried milk, seeds, spices.
We slid through a cramped, open-air market and felt for ripe mangoes.
Farrin pointed to what looked like sticks of butter behind the clerk in a refrigerator, gesturing for two.
“And dho pani,” Farrin said.
Dho pani were two enormous bottles of lukewarm, filtered water, which I poured down my throat like a potion. I was instructed not to drink from the taps until I had a couple week’s worth of tea.
Inside Farrin’s place, the heat found its way through the upper windows, bounced off the concrete walls onto her photos of the Green Mountains, the hand-woven embroidery she had acquired from skilled weavers, quotes she loved, photos of friends. I struggled to stay awake while she boiled water, poured me whiskey and Coke from a glass bottle, started the stove.
While the matar paneer simmered, we sliced the mango—“you came at the peak of mango season, my love”—which to my dry tongue tasted how you might think a brand new gold crayon should taste as a child: sweet, sparkling lava.
She put on Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young. We spoke of her research, now finished. Tomorrow, we would watch India compete in the Cricket World Cup at the flat of a young man studying architecture. The day after, we would pack her things and get on a train to Mandu, a city high on the plateaus of Uttar Pradesh.
I licked the hot plate clean. My eyelids fell. I brushed my teeth, stripped to my underwear.
As sleep overtook me, I realized I was happy, and this is the way the mind works: when I am happy, I think about other happy things. In whatever number my emotions arrive, I square it. The mango and the whiskey and the sight of my beautiful friend–this happiness bubbles over and cannot be contained in one moment, in one memory. When I am sad, it is the same.
I watched the light go away and thought about the last time I saw Bill in person, “I wish you could live here with me,” I had told him.
On his visit to New York, we had propped up our bodies in bathrooms, in stairwells, in my bed for hours, forgetting plans with friends. We had bought wine on the Bowery and borrowed a corkscrew from a limo driver, strolling around Washington Square Park, drinking from the bottle. We had gone to Coney Island and walked on the empty beach in 30 degree weather. We had sat on my couch, holding hands, half-dressed, in silence.
“I do, too, baby,” he had said. “But I’ve got to finish school.”
“What if I come back there?” To Minnesota, where I had left him. Where we could never say good-bye to each other permanently.
His lips to mine in the middle of Penn Station before he took a bus back to his family in New Hampshire. Clutching him as he clutched me with equal intensity. Connecting mouths in the middle of a tornado.
“I gotta finish school,” he repeated. “You distract me. You’re too much.”
We agreed he would finish his junior year, and I would return to him, but only after I got home from India. I would not get in touch with him until I returned.
You’re too much. Sometimes he would tell me this after we made love, too. I believe I chose then to take that as a compliment.
I was happy in that moment at Penn Station not because he was leaving, of course, but because moments like those are when it is permissible to feel at full capacity. You are not allowed to worry that you will never be loved when you are standing in line at the store. You are not supposed to cry over a broken glass. Perhaps this is why I sought and still seek difficulty, because difficult times are when that much feeling is allowed. You can never be too much when much is needed.
Look at me, worn down, I said to him in the dark in Ahmedabad, because I could not speak to him any other way. The mattress was a mat on a thin bench. I didn’t care. My job was to sleep, and soon, to ride a train into the center of India. Indifference: square it. If I learned how to feel nothing, I could be nothing squared. I would cover up, I would be quiet. No more distraction. I am a blank canvas. This was a victory. Look at me, I didn’t even think of you until now.
Hours later, when I woke, it was dark beyond dark, and there were snakes in my gut that were trying to get out through my mouth.
“Farrin?” I called into the other room, where her bed was.
When I stood, the snakes stirred further, biting at every opening.
“Farrin?” I called again. The bed was empty.
I wandered the rooms, bent to keep my guts in, feeling the walls for a light switch. I found none. With the glowing screen of my cell phone, I spotted the toilet in the center of one of the rooms, and didn’t know whether to hang over it or sit on it. My intestines slivered in both directions.
My knees found the ground and I watched everything I thought I could have, leave in waves of vomit: the lava mango, the sweet happiness, the paneer, the strength, the water.
“Farrin, are you there?” I called, but no one came. I remembered vaguely that she had mentioned something about going out to say goodbye to friends in Ahmedabad, as she would not be returning after our trip. I had fallen asleep and forgotten to ask her what time she’d be back.
I straightened only to collapse again, on the seat this time. On top of my remains, I shat liquid. The bowl was filling. Farrin had showed me how to flush: fill up a bucket from the tap, pour it down, wait until it goes away, browned.
At a pause, I did this, burning with humiliation and fever.
Before the bowl emptied, I vomited again, overwhelmed by my own stink. I had no more water to wet my mouth, because I drank it all before, two enormous bottles. I took off my panties and cleaned myself with the tap, careful to keep it away from my dehydrated head, finding vomit and shit in secret cracks, only to let my intestines loose again. And again, and again to flush.
Soon, I was too weak to move from the floor. Farrin had not yet returned.
I wondered how much English her neighbors knew. They had come in to introduce themselves earlier during dinner, pushing carts of groceries and kids, smiling and nodding, but all in Gujarati. They would find me naked, holding my shins, shaking in spittle and vomit.
“Hello!” I called as loud as I could. “Hospital?”
I could hear motor bikes and cars pass on the busier streets beyond the complex walls. People were still there. Though I knew I was close to losing consciousness, the thought was comforting. Someone would find the body, quiet and blank, no longer too much. Not even enough. The square root of all of them.
I wondered if it was food, or dehydration, or perhaps just what happens when you exist to excess and have nowhere to put all of it. Then I remembered I had used the tap water to brush my teeth.
You fucking idiot, I told myself. You dead fucking idiot.
To Ahmedabad by Lara Avery will continue in two weeks as part of her YOU, LARA project. If you’d like to receive an email alert saying that her new piece is up, sign up here:
Front page image by Kenny Lam.