Adventure and far-off places are on my mind today.
I was in Leh a year ago and the memories keep flooding in at unsuspecting moments. The maze of mud-walled paths and lanes, winding around and around and ending abruptly, the far-off blue snowcapped peaks and the closer brown ones, jagged and treeless and striking against the 12000 foot rarified air. It was hard to breathe there. The air was thin and my diaphragm was contracted also by the aching for the people and the country that claimed me as their own ten years prior.
I lived in India for two years during high school and traveled to Leh last year following my ten year reunion. Though I had traveled India extensively during my student years, I had not been to Ladakh – and still, Kashmir is on my list of places I must see. Ten years was too long to be away. Friends I had lost touch with in that time were speaking in instant confidence with me about the intimate dreams and fears and longings only shared between kindred spirits. Reunited on a hill in Taluka Mulshi in the state of Maharashtra, we barely slept. Every moment was precious and our hearts were as swollen as the monsoon clouds, releasing years of struggle and growth before we were all pulled back into our far-flung corners of the globe.
In Leh, I mourned my separation from these dear friends but tried to revel in my last few days in India. I wrote a paper in college once that perhaps I will share here in the future, but the title is the most relevant here: Mera Bharat Mahan. My Great India. India, with it’s smells rolled into one contradicting, complex concoction – smog, fried pakora, paan, excrement of every kind imaginable, dust, exhaust, sweet julebi; it’s sights – water buffalo, bicycles, Tata trucks with yellow signs on the back reading “horn OK please,” cars of every size and variety, blackened buildings (and patchwork fields dotted with gold and white temples outside of the cities), motor rickshaws, sidewalk dwellers, betel nut stains, sadhus, glamous women in western dress riding in cycle rickshaws; and it’s sounds – the cacophony of different kinds and volumes of vehicle horns and bells, shouting, buzzing, thrumming, peddling, begging — all of this had overwhelmed me at first. But gradually, over two years, I had fallen in love. But I did not understand to what extent I’d fallen in love until I returned last year. In the deluge of my recognition for this place that will always feel like home I came up drenched and filled with joy and longing for this place I could only visit for a short time.
One of the first poems I published is about India. A real experience I had there that brings me back in time to that moment and to the person I was at 17 when I first arrived in India. I share it here.
Tea Time on the Jaipur Express
“Chai chai chai garam chaiiiii …”
“Best price, for you only madam!”
“Panibottle, panibottle …”
I wipe the sweat off my white
face with my dupata thickening
its coat of black train grime.
“Ha, ek chai please.”
A paper cup, too sweet
watery milk, a taj mahal
tea bag. I fork over the two rupees and the little girl with kohl
painted eyes stares up, radiant,
devastated. The menacing man
behind roars at her delay. Quickly
she contorts, double-jointed,
frantic, a whirlwind bending
through her hoop with grotesque
rapidity to the rhythm of the man’s
hollow clapping. Her eyes are unmoving,
fixed on my face. Wary of Mumbai
begging rings and slave driving slum
rajas, I offer bananas. The man
sneers, kicks her forward
into the next car, where, perhaps, more
benevolent angrezi await.
Her eyes wash her face away.
I hide in my paper cup of chai.
It is no longer sweet,