To this day, I don’t have a car. I always want to remember the physical sensation of being caught in the massive, forward force of the second class sleepers of India, an ebb and flow more visible than any other in life. We must go on, everyone on top of the wheels. We don’t have a choice.
The next morning, we took a train from Ahmedabad to Indore, a bus from Indore to Dhar, another bus from Dhar to Mandu.
The sleeper was painted all in navy and periwinkle chipped blue, rusted at the edges, full of shelves with vinyl mats stapled on the walls with steel chains for bodies to lay on. The three of us–Farrin, myself, and Rob, the British boyfriend of a friend of hers who decided he wanted to see the city of Mandu–played rock, paper, scissors to see who would share a mat.
Rob and I lost. We lay, my feet in his face and my head on a steel bolt, while Farrin climbed and collapsed on the tin shelf above us. I didn’t sleep. I pretended he was Bill, curled next to me.
Farrin and Rob were used to everything, so they nodded off like babies every time they sat down. I was amazed that they could sleep on the buses, especially three local stops in when we were piled on with people–old men in turbans, policemen with sweaty mustaches, tiny bone-filled old ladies with skin like elephants, mothers and babies with dark eyes smelling like boiled milk and cereal, all yelling at each other over the ramshackle motor to look out, move over, stop the bus.
Chalo! Let’s go! And it was moving again, this time with three or four young men hanging on any metal extremity they can find inside or outside.
The villages were made of five or six garages in a muddy square, pasted with corporate logos on the metal siding–the same all over India–Airtel, Tata, Kingfisher, Vodaphone, faded and pasted over again. Inside sat the opposite: rows of garlic and ginger powder in colorful condom-sized packets, cigarettes, mangoes, small bananas, Indian Lays potato chips, and a dusty computer or CD player or two lying around.
The rest were homes–some constructed out of sticks and sharp metal held together with rocks weighted on pieces of cloth, some looking like cement blocks, laundry hanging over the sides, windows poked strategically for the sun and the breeze. A water pump stood at every five or so homes, most of the time with women and children gathered around it, the smallest hanging on the handle swinging up and down as tan water sprayed into the bucket.
The bus hustled through these towns, playing a short, abrasive song every time the horn sounded, but the people didn’t look up from their bowls of grain or helping their little one squat behind the house. This I could not sleep through, of course I couldn’t. They were living their lives, and I watched them as I passed by. I had paid to pass by.
When we arrived in Mandu, we settled into a flat pink stucco hotel covered in vines. We rented bikes from the general store for 50 rupees a piece.
The residents sat on their porches while babies of various sizes crawled around them. The neighborhood kids smiled huge as we passed, and did any physical feats they could think of off the top of their heads, talking a mile a minute in their language.
We floated through the countryside on our bikes down rocky roads, and the villages got smaller and smaller, the ratios of goats and chickens to people got tipped, and the kids wore less clothing but were no less joyful when they called out, “Hi! Bye! Chocolate!”
One five-year-old with belted pants and a striped t-shirt showed us his baby chicks. The breeze lifted, the air smelled fresh and burning, and we could see nothing beyond his house but fields and gray twisted trees with enormous trunks.
Every once in a while we came upon the ruins of a king’s temple or grave, walls crumbling but still sky high surrounding archways, signaling entrance to nowhere. As we walked under the archways, stairways would suddenly appear to the left or right. We would bend to them, to tunnels, until they opened to flat gardens, or rows of trees leading to a grave, or better, a vast stone pool with green water and frogs at the bottom, with infinite steps and decorative windows for no one but the dead and whoever chose to follow him.
Right before sunset, we paid another 100 rupees to climb a paved path up to the grandest temple of all of them on the edge of a plateau. It cut into the hill side and jutted out over the fields and farms at least one mile up, enough so that the view from the curving temple top seemed as if it were suspended in thin air and the land below was nothing but a patchwork quilt.
The beauty of India: this was not the key to my happiness, wherever it lay. It was not and never will be the key to anyone’s happiness, or spiritual peace, or whatever it is people seek when they can afford to take great journeys.
It is wrong to project narratives on anyone, or anyplace. The ruins of Mandu lay in bare stretches filled with life and secrets and history that had nothing do with us, or anyone who passed through them. How little, I wondered, had eroded since I arrived?
It is wrong to listen to your own echo, but the skin of everything I knew before was falling off of me, and I thought I saw my heartbreak everywhere, infecting the land, so I did it anyway. I stood on the highest plateau and I projected beauty for my own good, injected medicine into the colors, drew meaning in circles around the hills.
Like this: He is gone. He wants her. I am here. I want him. He is gone. He wants her. I am here. I want him. And so on.
Biking back, we raced until we were too tired and the slopes too high. We let go and coasted downhill, dragging our feet so we could see the marshlands at the bottom where women were washing electric blue and orange clothes and singing sharp ups and downs from the backs of their throats, in perfect non-unison so that each voice was in commune but distinguishable from the others, starting early or late, letting the listener know what was to come from the song or allowing them to linger on the notes that had past.
The sun had set and TVs hummed from the inner rooms of pink and turquoise painted houses. We bought a dirty bottle of Red Stag whiskey from one of the garages and some cold Kingfishers.
We sat on the street outside a restaurant eating dinner, dust in every crack attached to sweat attached to mosquito bites on our pink-tinged skin, covering sore muscles and cramping stomachs. We got buzzed, and then drunk, and befriended a 6’7″ New Zealander named Matt who shared our naan and oily masala and paneer.
Suddenly, as we ate, a rat, giant and pitch black, a foot long or more, ran from the kitchen and veered to the wall, disappearing into a hole into the night. The hot curries shone under the hanging fluorescent lights and the naan in my mouth went dry.
Rob continued eating, his face red from sun and booze. “Just pretend it’s a dog,” he slurred. I was about to protest, but then I realized that this, I could do. I could transform what I saw into whatever shape I wanted, just as I had to the men in Ahmedabad, just as I had done to the temples. I had made simple things into twisted roots and ribbons with myself in the center, glances into stares, shadows of Bill and Katie into three-dimensional monsters, following my every move. It was my one and only superpower, and until then, it didn’t occur to me I could do it the other way around.
Pretend the rat is a dog. So I did. “Cheers,” I said, and cleaned my tongue with Kingfisher.
That night we played cards and read aloud to one another, and the drink and the heat put me to sleep before everyone but finally, finally I didn’t wake up every hour, and in the morning the airplane haze was gone from my vision.
After we woke, Rob joined a game of cricket on the lawn. Farrin and I sat in the shade watching him bat with sharp clunks, drinking too-sweet coffee on ice. That was the picture of us, resting, laughing at nothing. It is one of my most treasured memories.
That was the fragrant April of 2011. That was before I knew how much money I owed to the government, before I was in range of anyone telling me to grow up, in the limbo before people I knew were turning into wives and husbands and parents, before–and it seems so trivial, but it made a difference–before my cell phone had turned into a tiny vortex of windows into other people’s lives that I felt obligated carry around with me wherever I went.
And now, with the cord to Bill cut, everything was bright and empty and suspended. The weeks stretched in front of us with no end but the flight home, no limits but the rupees I had saved, no guarantee of anything. I felt raw and pink and just born, half-blind, staggering on the brink, nameless to everyone but two people, no lover to worry if I fell. I would never be so free.
This is the final section of To Ahmedabad by Lara Avery. Get an email saying that her next project has kicked off here:
Front page image by Axel Drainville.