My grandparents book rooms in five-star hotels for my comfort. The rotting mango, the yellow teeth, the pore-clogging pollution, the constant clamor, the cow feces. Keep me inside.
In India, men piss in the streets. They button up. They rarely wash their hands. Never with soap.
Afterwards, they stare, starving for a slip of skin—a wrist, ankle, or breast—their eyes dark.
My grandmother confesses: she used to skip school to suck tamarinds and watch boys work. My mother says she used to flick the lights for the boy across the way, and that his letters used to come crumpled from sweaty hands, and that she hid them in volumes in her father’s bookshelves.
My mother’s father glared at her breasts while he found, read, ripped the letters.
I kissed at fourteen. My mother and her childhood lover never touched a finger.
Language tumbles out of Indian mouths: Hindi, Telugu, Bengali, English curse words. South Indians pretend they don’t understand Hindi; North Indians speak nothing but Hindi.
I imagine that in Mumbai my aunts lounge behind silk screens, that they dust at their upper lips to remove sweat, that perfume lifts from their clothing. I imagine that the singer drinks tea from Assam, while the actress titters and reads lines from her newest drama. They lay on pillows stitched by hand, encrusted with tiny mirrors.
My mother says they live in squat apartments, chasing after herbal cures, jobs, and men. They call up for laundry and raw vegetables, and skip work to read American grocery store fiction.
The burnt sienna of Moghul architecture, the blinding red of marriage markers, the dusty red of blood, the silken red of chiffon wedding clothes and rose petals. Red.
I’ve known people who’ve died of heat stroke, cancer, or malaria. While there, I partake in a corneal ulcer and uncontrollable vomiting.
The room where my ophthalmologist cousin scrapes my ulcer out sheds gray light. He places a canvas bag, with two eyeholes cut out, over my head. I look like a Pakistani prisoner. That night I wake every hour to soothe the surface of my eye with drops. I wonder if this injury signifies a deficient perspective.
A doctor injects medication into my hip, after I almost vomit on a visiting priest. Our hug smells sour and a piece of regurgitated rice sticks to his clothes. I miss my flight home, but cool sheets, dry toast, and my grandmother’s leathery hand trying to pull the fever out of my forehead keep me sane. The hotel staff sends flowers.
Colored saris twisting around my fists, flowers floating down the river, suns colored out of a palate of infinite oranges, soggy rice paddies, piles of pomegranates in the dust, the scent of clay, delicate stonework ridges.
The Taj Mahal, mottled ivory, emblazoned with Arabic inscriptions. Up on its balcony, I look out at the site of the unfinished, unstarted, Black Taj.
Shah Jahan planned to build an identical, but black, Taj for himself. Then he and Mumtaz would rest together. But his son deposed him before the plans could begin.
What would it have been like, to lie symmetrically dead to your lover, but far across the river?
Mosquitos, errant taxi drivers, disease-ridden water, thousands of violent, grabbing hands.
Long meals, long talks by the paan seller every day, long prayers.
I worry that someone will make a breakthrough about cancer or genetics or the origin of space. I worry that my ex might leave a message. I worry that all the songs on the radio will change, and I’ll have to learn new lyrics.
Inside the temple, sweat on my neck, gritty smoke in the air. This is what the gut of a bear must feel like. We circle the fat blue Krishna, every so often kneeling prostrate in front of him. My breath heaves, fighting the perfumed heat.
When I stumble back outside, the humidity chokes me just as hard.
All my life my family strove to recreate this world, building it up in their new Western community with Teen Patti card games, spicy pakoras, Sunday pujas, colored bangles. They built a New India, not even seeing what the old one was.
Street women, squatting on the curb, paint my skin with henna. The delicate pattern sprawls up the underside of my arms to the elbow joints. Their fingers, stained dirt and dried henna, grip tightly.
The women finish and hold out their hands, bracelets jingling, for their rupees.
I worry about resting my arm on my side, and ruining it all.
I raise my arms into the sunshine, hoping the henna will bake, dry, and fall off, leaving a rich red in its place.
Back in the States, my suitcase smells of earth and cumin. My grandmother likes the odor. She buries her nose in the clothes she helps unpack. Over time the smell lessens, mixes with Connecticut spring.