Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Part 1

Glory to you, O Ganesha,
You are the delight of Gauri
And the charming son of Shiva.
You are the extirpator of all pairs and contraries
And the deliverer from them.

Delhi, Day 1

Strange, the unseasonable cold. Like an omen, lying thick and low over the city. Smog, yes—that, too. But the cold. The chill in the air keeping the cows close-huddled together, keeping the mangy dogs at bay, crouched close to each other, nursing pups through the night or making forays into the deserted streets in hopes of scraps.

The pigs horded the scraps, of course, and lorded over the trash mounds—bits of paper, rejected vegetables, dust swept from the cafes, cow dung gone uncollected by the women who would slap it into patties, let it dry on a wall somewhere, and then later use it to heat their meager homes.

But in the January cold—only 50 degrees Fahrenheit in Delhi—almost unheard of—the cow-dung women were the fortunate ones. Others lay in doorway or crowded onto flat-bed carts; their whole families bundled under whatever bits of blanket, burlap, or rejected fabric they could find. Some slept in shanties fashioned from cardboard boxes and even more lay like sacks of laundry lined up along the sidewalks.

But that wasn’t her concern as she lay shivering under the thin bedspread in her room. She knew the window was leaking over her bed. One pane was missing completely. But there wasn’t a wind, and stuffing a towel into the jagged space would do no good. The whole cavernous building was cold. The desk clerk, if he was still awake, was slouched into his sweater vest, a scarf wrapped around his head from crown to jaw as if he had a tooth ache. Other men were there, too, somehow managing to doze through the chilly night on the reception area’s cracked vinyl settees, while the black-and-white set burbled on in overly-cheerful Hindi. Movies. Bollywood. Those insipid, unrealistic undertakings where the cast suddenly burst into song while a woman, clad in the customary virtuous sari writhed with a complete absence of virtue under a downspout.

Maybe that was how the men could sleep—in the grey light of the TV there was no winter. There was only the India of dreams, full of desert heat, religious fervor, jewel encrusted royalty and peacocks strutting tirelessly through palace gardens.

She roused herself from a half-dream, emptied her backpack of anything wearable, and layered a ridiculous assortment of pants, skirts, t-shirts and socks under her fleece jacket. Then she doubled the bedspread, threw her towel on top for luck, and tried again to sleep.

She imagined she could see her breath.

This cold was only supposed to visit the Himalayas—Delhi wasn’t close enough. Wasn’t the point of an Indian holiday to escape the east coast winter? She could’ve saved herself the trouble, gone to Canada instead. To bone-chilling Toronto where, at least, the hotel rooms guaranteed heat. But no. Twenty-four hours in the air and then this—the shock of the cold that had taken several minutes to register when she’d stepped out of the airport terminal. She pulled her knees to her chest and managed to wrench her way into a fitful, dreamless sleep.

Somewhere, in the pre-dawn hours, women were rousing themselves from charpoys, peeling themselves from the body heat of husbands and children. Or maybe lifting their stiff limbs from the mud-washed floor, arranging saris, pulling the ornate border over their heads as a gesture against the cold. Just a gesture. Some women owned a shawl, others made due with the luxury of wrapping their own arms around their thin frames for a moment.

And then there was work.

Light the fire. Cow dung, burning slow, filled the room with sweet smoke. Set the pot to boil, maybe chop potatoes with a small knife. Fetch water. Every morning was like that. Heft the clay pot onto the crown of the head and move with the same certain sway of the water buffalo going out to pasture. Move through the dark, not even hearing the jingle of jewelry at the ankle, the wrist, the neck, the ear, the nostril. Just move, almost able to sleep again in the momentum of the chore. Swing the bucket up from the well and fill the vessel, then squat, settling it back onto the head.

Maybe chew a Neem branch on the way back, cleaning the teeth, giving the tongue something to do. Waking slowly like that—waking into the activity of the day. No time, really, to be bothered by the cold. There was just doing. Life depended on the motion of doing. Once doing stopped, the world would fall away.

She, struggling to sleep on the hard hotel bed, didn’t know that, didn’t think of life that way.
She was thinking of the monsoon palaces, the floating palaces, the water gardens. She thought of food, of what she’d eat when she let herself awaken and venture from the room. She worried not about where the food would come from, but how she’d find a café and whether or not she’d have to eat alone, and if she’d be able to communicate with the waiter. She worried about germs, and then she thought again about the floating palaces where surely there were no germs.
Like the movies with the writhing maharani, her jeweled breasts creating a waterfall while she slicked her sari flat against her skin, molding it to her body so that no one had to wonder what she looked like naked.

They did wonder, though. Because they wouldn’t see her naked. Nor would they see her gliding along the dusty road, feet turned dust colored, skin colder for the metal against it. Neem stick between her teeth, urn balanced on her head. The family’s water for the day, potatoes boiling, men rousing to the warming home, day coming in slow and pale.

Day coming in everywhere, pushing back the blanket of night. Cows lowing, spry pigs rooting for the best morsels, dogs whimpering at their sad lot.

Cows waiting patiently for the old women who would surely come soon. Morning brought them in droves—the widow women clutching warm chapattis slathered in butter, which they fed to the cows from their own hands.

It wasn’t at all what she’d been expecting. And nothing had prepared her for it—not the movies she’d rented (Kama Sutra, Salaam Bombay, A Passage to India), the books she’d read (Rumor Godden’s Peacock Spring, John Irving’s Son of the Circus); not even the Lonely Planet guidebook she’d bought months early but, admittedly, hadn’t read, unless perusing the color pictures counted.

The thing was, Indira Gandhi International Airport terminal was neat, clean and orderly. There were no throngs of school-aged children begging for coins, no lepers, no hassling vendors, no elephants or even cows. Just subdued lines of weary travelers winding their way through customs, the obligatory smack of the stamp and then on to baggage claim.

If anything, it was anticlimactic.

Of course, Ami chided herself, this is just the airport. India is out there, past the doors. Airports are really some sort of neutral ground, some sort of holding tank for the in between, the lost, the disenfranchised. She’d been among the masses of wanderers when her flight laid over in Amsterdam. Trapped in the sterile white airport, surrounded by the statuesque Dutch in their crisp gray uniforms, she’d felt neither here nor there. Nowhere. And Indira Gandhi Airport terminal wasn’t really any different, except that she’d come through customs and was nearing the entrance to the real Delhi.

Ami pulled her passport from her back pocket, where she’d stuffed it, and gazed at the stamp, slightly smudged from closing the little book so quickly. Smeared, but it was there, right next to the full-page visa granting her permission to stay in India for six months if she so desired. She was legitimate.

Remembering the advice of Holly, her globe trekking friend at home—which was now twelve time zones and twenty hours of flight time away—Ami tucked her passport into the flesh-colored money belt she wore strapped under her clothing. She’d resisted the idea of the silly little bag, preferring to carry her passport, traveler’s checks and credit card some place she could easily access them, until Holly pointed out that if she could get at them easily, a nimble-fingered pickpocket on the streets of Delhi could clean her out even faster. So, Ami bought the ugly money-belt and dutifully deposited her return ticket, along with her other important papers into the Velcro-secured pocket.

It itched.

And looking around the terminal, Ami couldn’t imagine what all the fuss was about. Indira Gandhi Airport could’ve been Philadelphia, except that most of the late-night arrivals were Indians—the men turbaned, the women swathed in rich saris, gaggles of small, bleary-eyed children dragging along behind the wheelie-bags and luggage carts.

Making her way to baggage claim, Ami felt a twinge of anxiety that her own backpack, newly purchased for the trip, wouldn’t arrive. Holly had advised her to pack light enough so that she could carry her bag onto the plane, but she hadn’t listened. Even though the trip was only for three weeks, she couldn’t imagine life without her toiletries, a decent supply of underwear and a few changes of clothes.

“You only need one change of clothes,” Holly had insisted. She’d been to India several times, and promised that Ami would be able to buy new clothing to wear for less than it would cost to do a load of laundry at home. The guide books and travel shows all said the same thing, but when Ami stood in front of her closet trying to figure out what one outfit she’d bring—what one outfit would cover all possible incidents of heat, cold, grime, travel comfort, wrinkle-proofing and still manage to look good?—she just couldn’t do it.

Honestly, she had tried. Once the pack was stuffed to bursting, Ami had forced herself to remove half of its contents and then she’d zipped it shut and set it resolutely by the front door, refusing to entertain any thoughts of adding to it. And all the way to the airport, sitting in the cab, she’d tortured herself with the idea that she’d left behind something she’d really need.

Holly, riding along for moral support, promised that India—especially Delhi where Ami would spend the first few days of her trip—would have everything she could possibly desire. Shampoo, nail clippers, Band-aids, extra socks, tampons…well, maybe not tampons, Holly admitted with a frown. India was a little weird about feminine hygiene products. But certainly they could be found in a pinch—it would just be a matter of attracting a crowd while trying to explain in pigeon English to a confounded pharmacist exactly what the item was.

Once Ami was in the air she’d relaxed. It was just as well, she figured, that her bag was stowed in cargo. It meant it was out of her hands for the time being—for the twenty hours of flying and laying over. Anyway, she had the necessities—her return ticket, her passport, her traveler’s checks and a Visa card with a five thousand dollar limit and three crisp hundred dollar bills: her emergency fund.

Standing in front of the baggage carousel, Ami suddenly felt differently about her luggage. Whatever was in it, however inappropriate and badly packed, was her only link to home. If it were indeed lost, she’d be floating freely into the vast, inexplicable country of India with nothing for ballast. She needed the bag for its weight, its familiarity, its very presence, which proved that she was a traveler—someone who came from some other place and therefore had some place to return to. A home.

Just as Ami felt panic prickling at her palms, her pack wended its way around the carousel. She pushed through the throng of passengers, reached into the sea of flailing arms, and grabbed the strap of her pack. Airborne, it crashed into several bodies, but no one seemed to notice. They were too busy grabbing madly for their own possessions.

With the luggage, a chocolate-brown L.L. Bean travel bag with a detachable daypack, situated on her shoulders, Ami made her way to the information desk where she asked the thin, college-aged man how to get into the city.

“Where are you going, Madam?” he asked politely, in clipped British English.

“To Delhi,” she replied blankly.

“Of course, Madam, but which hotel are you staying?”

She hadn’t made any arrangements. It had never crossed her mind. She’d simply planned to land and then figured it would all fall into place.

“I shall make the reservation for you?” inquired the young man. He sported the thinnest rendering of a mustache over his full lips.

Ami remembered something from her first trip about the Main Bazaar. It was a crowded shopping area an area frequented by hardened travelers and chock-full of cheap rooms.

“I’m going to the Main Bazaar,” she said, trying to sound convincing. “Is there a bus?”

“Madam, this time is two a.m. It’s best for you to take taxi. Also, driver will direct you to
nicest place to stay in Paharganj.”


“Yes Madam. Paharganj is Main Bazaar.”

“Oh, thank you,” she replied, adjusting her pack. Already it felt heavy on her back, and she’d only been wearing it maybe ten minutes.

“Taxi is just outside,” the information clerk gestured to the automatic sliding glass doors. “Enjoy your stay in India.”

So, then she half expected it to be easy. She’d just waltz out the sliding glass doors, hail a taxi and be swept into the heart of Delhi.

It didn’t happen that way, though.

Through the doors, where the other travelers made their way in pairs and small groups, waited a throng.

Ami wasn’t sure she’d ever really seen a throng before, but there it was—a mass of people all reaching out and shouting, competing with each other to collect their loved ones first. And then there were the touts, shouting over everyone else.

“Madam, Royal Hotel, very nice. Special price for you!”

“Yes, Madam, you like taxi?”

“Yes, Madam, I take your bags. Only fifty rupees.”

She felt a pair of hands trying to remove the pack from her back, and she swung around abruptly to face a rather small man with a thick mustache and red teeth.

“Okay, okay,” he spoke rapidly, “Thirty rupees.” Again he grabbed at her bag.

“No!” she shouted, not wanting to be rude, but caught off guard. She lurched out of his reach, almost bowling over another tout.

“Madam, you need taxi? Palace Hotel?”

“No,” she replied, “Main Bazaar?”

“Main Bazaar? Where you stay?”

“I don’t know,” she admitted helplessly. “The desk clerk said…”

“Okay, okay. I know some place. This way please.”

“How much?” she asked, trying to remember what Holly had told her. Haggle with the drivers. They always over charge. “How many rupees?”

“Six hundred rupees,” he said, giving his mustache a twirl. From the looks of it, every man outside the airport sported a mustache, except for the turbaned Sikhs with full beards.

“Too much!” she protested.

He sighed. “Okay, how much you pay?”

That’s when she realized she hadn’t changed her money. Ami turned quickly and began to push her way back through the crowd.

“Okay, five hundred rupees,” the taxi driver called, mistaking her retreat for hard bargaining.
“Four fifty, best price!”

“I forgot to get money,” she shouted over her shoulder, slipping back through the doors.

At the moneychanger, Ami thought to ask what the normal fare into Delhi would be.

“Paharganj? Three hundred rupees,” replied the sleekly coiffed woman behind the teller booth. She didn’t look like someone pulling a 2am shift in an airport.

Ami thanked her and tucked the wad of rupee notes into her money belt, trying to be discreet. As she hefted her bag onto her shoulder again, the woman waiting behind her caught her arm.

“Hey, I’m heading to Paharganj, too, if you want to split the cab fare,” she said in an American accent.

Ami nodded gratefully. “Thanks. I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“Yeah, I could tell,” the woman answered, taking in Ami’s attire as if that explained everything.

Ami glanced at what she was wearing. Olive green cargo pants, purchased from the J. Crew catalogue, a black t-shirt, a zip-up gray fleece jacket, and a pair of light blue Nike running shoes. Holly had promised that travel in India required only a good pair of sandals, but Ami wasn’t willing to leave Philadelphia, in January, with bare toes.

The woman, who had turned to the business of changing her dollars into rupees, was wearing a long, wrap around skirt over a pair of loose cotton trousers. They appeared to be pajamas, with cuffs gone gray from dragging on the floor. She wore battered Birkenstock clogs, a thick, purple and green Peruvian sweater, and a small brocade cap over her close-cropped hair. She looked like she’d done a bit of traveling—a suspicion confirmed by her well-worn backpack, covered in patches boasting the countries she’d visited.

“I didn’t mean anything by it, you know,” she announced, turning back to Ami. “I mean, there’s nothing wrong with being a first-timer.”

“Well, I do feel a little stodgy, I guess,” Ami admitted, wondering who the hell said stodgy but someone who actually was stodgy. “I mean, I really appreciate sharing the cab fare.”

“No problem. I don’t mind haggling with the bastards, either.” She hoisted her pack over a shoulder, and Ami noticed with some degree of satisfaction that it was full to bulging.

“How long have you been, um, on the road?”

“Dunno. Maybe two years? I was with this acting troupe in Madrid for awhile, but I’m taking a few months off.”

Ami nodded as they left the terminal again, pressing their way through the throng, which, despite the ungodly hour, hadn’t lessened.

The woman cleared the touts shouting by the doorway and marched up to a driver sitting on the hood of a bulbous black car.

“How much to Paharganj?” the woman demanded.

The driver, a stout man, probably near fifty, stood up and tucked his shirttail into his pants. He was wearing a scarf around his neck, and suddenly Ami was aware that it was, indeed, rather chilly.

“Four hundred rupees.”

“Two hundred,” the woman shot back.

“Three fifty, good price.”

“Two fifty, my final offer.”

“Okay, okay. Three hundred. Best price.”

“Deal,” she said grinning broadly.

“Which hotel are going?”

She turned to Ami and shrugged. “Any idea?”

“No,” Ami admitted.

“Hotel Ganesha,” the woman offered.

“You are knowing address, Madam?”

The woman shook her head, and the driver went off to consult with the other cab touts.

“I have a guidebook if it helps,” Ami offered, pulling it of the front pocket of her pack.
“Oh that’s excellent!” The woman replied. “I totally made up Hotel Ganesha. It sounded like a sure bet.” She took the Lonely Planet and thumbed through the Delhi section. “Do you want somewhere mid range or bargain basement?”

“Um, what do you think?”

“For you first night, spend five hundred rupees and have a private bath. If you’re on a budget,
you’ll be using the squat toilet in the hall for the next…however long you’re traveling.”

Ami nodded. She wasn’t sure what to think of the squat toilets. Holly had told her about the
contraptions, extolling their virtues. But Holly also hadn’t minded sleeping on hard mattresses, stained from countless bodies. Oily bodies. The pillows, she claimed, were always stained with hair oil. The thought of it now made Ami cringe. She was glad that they were heading for a midrange hotel.

When the driver returned, the woman announced, “Hotel Hare Rama.”

“Yes, Madam,” he answered, gesturing into his cab. “Hotel Ganesh, not in Paharganj. Maybe Connaught Place. Many tourists going to Connaught Place, but this time is too late.” He indicated his watch. “Lock out time.”

The two women hefted their packs into the truck and slid into the back seat.

“By the way, I’m Ami,” she said as the cab inched its way around the other vehicles waiting for riders.

“Yeah, I totally forgot to introduce myself. I’m Celeste,” the woman answered, slipping off her cap and running her fingers through a near-crew cut. She wore a silver ring through her nostril and a bindi sticker over her third eye. “Actually, my parents named me Jennifer, but I changed my name to Celeste when I started traveling.”

When Ami was in college, she’d fancied changing her name. In fact, she’d imagined that she’d buy one of those around-the-world tickets when she graduated and travel to all the exotic places—Thailand, Japan, Africa, Australia. And she’d tell everyone she met to call her Shanti. That was the name she wanted at the time.

“Celeste, where are you heading from Delhi?”

“Well, I’d planned to go north, to Rishikesh, but it’s too cold now. So I don’t know. Maybe to Benares, to see the Ganges, or maybe to the desert. I love Rajasthan.” Her eyes turned dreamy.
“What about you?”

“Rajasthan,” Ami answered. She’d decided right in that moment. The desert was what most captured her imagination. Men in bright turbans driving camels. The stark brown landscape. And heat. In the cool night air, Ami wanted heat.

Devesh Marugan wiped the dust from the hood of his Ambassador with a clean towel. It was too dark to see what he was doing, despite the small light in the courtyard of the driver’s quarters where he was staying. Still, he knew his car well, its contours, the places where it collected the most dust, so he wiped by memory. In the morning he’d give it a good wash.

Thankful that his trip was over, Dev let himself sink onto a charpoy in the courtyard. The air was cold, but he wasn’t ready to go in yet, knowing that all the cots in the room were probably occupied by snoring men. He zipped his jacket to the neck, feeling himself still wide awake, pumping adrenaline from the late-night drive in from Jaipur. His last fare, a middle–aged English couple, had been the difficult sort, but he didn’t really mind. It was a good job, even if the hours were long. And honestly, he didn’t mind driving. He could go all night, never feeling sleepy, never weaving along the road.

Dev prided himself on his good driving record, his clean car, and his people skills. He’d learned to deal with these westerners, their bizarre demands, their insistence that India conform to their ideas of what was what. “No spicy food, young man,” the English woman insisted over and over. He didn’t tell her, of course, that in the tourist stops the only seasoning they use is salt, and maybe enough turmeric to turn a dish the curry-yellow all westerners expect.

“Keep the beggars away,” the couple pleaded in their nasal voices. “Dirty, dirty,” they sniffed, stepping over club-foot children on their way to the temple, where they asked Dev to wait outside, guarding their shoes.

“This lady is watching your shoes,” he tried to explain, hoping they would see the logic of leaving their expensive and cumbersome Rockports with the crouched old woman who sat all day on the temple steps.

“We don’t even know this woman. Now, be a good chap and stand guard,” the man cajoled, guiding his sock-foot wife into the temple, their cameras swinging from their shoulders.

Dev had tipped the old woman from his own pocket, apologetically. He couldn’t be responsible for teaching all westerners the customs. And anyway, more often then not they didn’t seem to want to know. They just wanted to take their trip—a week, maybe ten days—get some good photographs and avoid the lepers at all costs. Dev gave them the experience they came for. A trip as sterile and comfortable as India would allow.

Despite the aggravation of dealing, day in and day out, with these unrealistic expectations, Dev found a soft spot in his heart for his western tourists. They paid him handsomely, usually, even if they didn’t mean to. He received a small fee each time he brought customers to the over-priced rest stops and the upper-end guest houses with western toilets. And then there was the shopping. As silly as he found the activity, he quickly learned that Europeans, Canadians and Americans love to shop. It seemed they could forgo the temples, the palaces and the gardens as long as they could spend money in the markets.

So, Dev gave them what they wanted. All along the route he delivered his tourists to the manicured and exceedingly civilized art shops selling whatever was in vogue in that region. In Udaipur, miniature paintings. Jewelry in Jaipur. Pashmina shawls in Delhi, mirror work in Jaisalmer. The tourists, of course, were completely taken in by the polished salesmen (purporting themselves as art enthusiasts) and the gleaming shops (referred to as art schools, and often boasting real live students carrying out the work that was supposedly passed down to them by the masters). For every sale, Dev received a commission

And then, at the end of the trip, there was the customary tip, almost always handed over, discreetly, by the man. Dev reached into his pocket as he sat back on the charpoy and pulled out the envelope. He’d made himself wait to count the money. He freed a small bottle of whiskey from his pocket, purchased earlier that day while his English people selected a particularly gaudy brooch in the Jaipur gem shop. The brooch earned him several hundred rupees—enough to warrant a little celebration—and besides, after all day driving, he found he needed a little something to sooth himself into sleep.

The envelope was sealed, but he held it between his thumb and forefinger, measuring the stack of bills. A decent sized payment. He slid his nail along the lip and let the bills slid into his palm. Two thousand rupees for five days driving. He couldn’t help but smile. The westerners, over the years, had bought the Ambassador for him. Not much longer and he’d be able open his own business, maybe have a house in Delhi and a wife.

All those days on the road, crossing and recrossing India—it did get lonely. It would be nice to have someone to come home to.

The cab bumped along the battered streets of the Main Bazaar, not bothering to alter its speed to accommodate the tight curves and narrow passageways. It was the jostling that woke Ami.

“I don’t remember falling asleep,” she muttered, looking at Celeste who was gazing out the window. “Are we there?”

“I think so. We’re somewhere.”

The car lurched to a halt in an unlit alleyway, bringing to mind too many cop-dramas where hapless females were cornered and assaulted. But there was nothing to do except clamber out of the back seat and look around.

The driver heaved each pack from his trunk, one at a time, grunting with exertion. “Madam, three hundred fifty rupees,” he said, blowing on his hands to warm them.

Ami was thinking of how strange the cold was. Why hadn’t she checked on the weather before she’d left home? Was it always this cold in January? Wasn’t India supposed to be sultry? She started to reach for her money belt.

“You said three hundred at the airport,” Celeste announced. She was right, of course. Ami had forgotten.

“Yes, but drive was farther. This is far side of Paharganj, near railway station,” the driver gestured vaguely back the alley.

“Three hundred. That’s the deal,” Celeste told him, handing him her half of the fare.

He pocketed the bills and looked at Ami. She handed him a hundred and fifty rupees, then thought better and added twenty more. “Where’s the hotel?” she asked.

“Just this way,” he pointed farther down the alley. “Sign is not lit, but you are knocking loudly.”

“Is it closed?”

“Madam, Hotel Vivek always open. You are knocking.”

“Hotel Vivek? This isn’t Hotel Hare Rama?”

The man waggled his head from side to side, smiling. “Hotel Vivek, very nice place.”

Celeste let out a long sigh, shouldered her bag, and began the walk down the dark alley. Ami, not sure of what else to do, followed suit. They banged on the narrow door, gently at first, and then with increasing violence until, finally, a teenaged boy clad in an undershirt and sarong let them in. With a surprising lack of ceremony, he instructed them to sign in, glanced at each passport, and handed each woman a key, pointing them up a winding stair case.

“I’ll see you in the morning?” Ami asked, suddenly uncertain as she stood outside her door.

Celeste nodded. “I’m just down the hall if you need anything,” she said warmly, then turned the key in her own lock and let herself into the dark room.

Delhi, day 2

This is how dawn came, for those who witnessed it. First, there was just a thin crack in the darkness; a pale sliver of grey along the horizon. It wasn’t even enough to wake the roosters. Light slipped in slowly, sluggish as honey left out on the cold stove, washing the earth with its dingy hue. There was no romantic rosy glow, no warm amber of sunset. Just the tired, steely tones, chilled, hushed.

The Moslem men woke, made their way to the mosque or kneeled in their courtyards, rolled out mats and began the call.

Mohammed a rasulila. Mohammed is the prophet of God—in the first light of dawn no one could be offended. That’s the secret of the earliest hours—there’s no religion, no conviction.
Hindus made their toilet, then stepped into their gardens to evacuate nostrils, lungs. Om Nama Shivaya. The name of God is Shiva.

In the Christian grave yard, a worker arrived, blowing into his hands, his thin body bundled into a sweater vest and wool shawl, his feet at odds, bare but for rubber sandals.

Then the call to prayer intensified, voices lifting into the thinning sky, floating out over Delhi, over the dirty buildings, the alleys crowded with garbage, sleeping cows, rooting pigs. A dirge of sorts, to the unaccustomed ear. Or a madrigal in half notes and minor keys.

Crows rustled, rose and settled on the wall of the graveyard. The worker stamped cold from his feet, took up his shovel and walked into the rows of graves, some disarranged by time, others vandalized. Some headstones had crumbled, returning to dust, same as the bones they once guarded. Others still stood stiff and formal, oblivious to India’s penchant for decay, for the ruinous and organic forces which grip all of life into death.

And dawn, too, came like death, with stealth, unforeseeable and impossible to say exactly when it arrived. In which precise moment the atmosphere turned from night to day—even the most astute observer couldn’t tell. Dawn drifted in, astride the mists and wisps of smoke from cooking fires, from factories, from trash heaps burning and exhaust from the knot of vehicles already forcing themselves into the city streets.

Dawn came with no pretension, drafting off the lories that rolled all night across India, baring down on Delhi by morning.

It was like that.

The prayers ended, not at once, but nearly. The crows flapped and settled again, a woman threw a pan of water into the open sewer, and another woman set her bare-bottomed son to squat over that same running gutter. The worker in the cemetery reached the bare patch of earth, lifted his shovel and began his day’s toil.

(image from

Ami woke three hours later to the sounds of chanting floating through her cracked window. She rose from the hard bed and peered out. Pigeons swooped over the domed mosque from where the singing emanated. Below, a lone figure tended the cemetery plot of a Christian church. Crows pecked at the dry earth. A skinny dog ran by, tail between legs. Ami noticed that her breath came out steamy against the cold morning—maybe even colder than the night—and she shivered despite the layers of clothes she’d piled on.

But it’s beautiful, she told herself. This is India. The chanting intensified, reaching out to Allah. Ami pushed the window open a little farther and gazed out. The lone figure in the cemetery looked heavenward, as if moved by the singing, and then lifted his sarong and squatted.

Ami ducked back inside, giving the man his privacy, though he didn’t seem to care. She lay in bed and tried to think about her day. What to do. She hadn’t really thought about that. She’d envisioned arriving, having a big breakfast, doing a little shopping, then hopping a train to somewhere. The Taj Mahal, the Kama Sutra temples—weren’t there so many places she’d wished always dreamed of visiting? Shouldn’t she go to the Ganges, or to Sarnath, or maybe to a camel fair… Suddenly it all seemed terrifically improbable.

Flipping onto her stomach, Ami grabbed the guidebook and looked at a map of Paharganj. It looked simple enough—a sort of crescent-shaped area emanating from the railway station. Already she’d solved one problem—where to catch the train. Maybe she should do that first—settle her ticket to Rajasthan. She flipped through the Rajasthan section of the book, taking in names of cities in the desert state. Bikaner, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Pushkar. She put her finger on Pushkar and mentally selected it.

That settled, she slid off the bed, grabbed her toiletries and padded into the bathroom. It had a rickety European toilet and a shower with no stall. The water simply splashed all over the white-tiled room, eventually running down a central drain.

And it was cold.

After giving up on the water ever heating, Ami took a quick sponge bath and dressed in the same cargo pants and sneakers she’d worn the day before, pulling the fleece jacket over a fresh t-shirt. She felt dowdy, especially after her encounter with Celeste, but held out hope for a colorful outfit to be purchased in the market. With that thought in mind, Ami strapped on her money belt, unzipped the daypack from her luggage, and locked her door behind her.

“Your friend, she is already leaving,” announced the boy behind the counter. He was dressed in pressed slacks, a button down shirt and a sweater vest, and looked slightly older than Ami had thought the night before. Perhaps twenty or twenty-one.

“She checked out?”

“No, she is going to breakfast. Just around the corner, you will see her.” He opened the door and leaned out, pointing to the end of the alley.

Ami nodded, trying to return his bright smile, then followed the sparse directions. There was, of course, no sign of Celeste, but the market was fairly quiet. There were a few back packers out, wandering down the streets. Ami stepped over a pile of cow dung, then eased around the cow that had, no doubt left the mess. Men were huddled, squatting, around a makeshift chai stall under a sprawling tree.

“One chai?” Ami asked, holding up a single finger, then trying her Hindi, “Ek chai?”

The man, crouched by the fire, gave her a long look, nodded. He lifted a kettle from the gas burner and poured steaming water into a pot, adding a pinch of tea. Then sugar, then milk from a metal pitcher. Finally, he poured the dark brew into a thick glass and handed it to Ami. She lifted the hot glass to her lips and sipped, while the squatting men, each wrapped with a wool shawl, watched.

It was good, better than she’d expected. How to say “one more”? She gestured, pointing to the empty glass, and a full one was handed to her.

“How much? Rupees?”

“Four rupees,” the man answered.

She handed over the money and the empty glass, making the Namaste sign with folded hands. The man bowed his head, too, and returned to his tea.

A little further into the market, Ami passed a crowded café. Backpackers spilled into the street, eating banana pancakes, eggs and drinking steaming mugs of chai. As she peered in to the dark and dingy interior, Ami caught Celeste’s eye, and Celeste waved her in.

The table was already crowded, but everyone wriggled around to make room for Ami. “Have a bite,” Celeste pointed to the menu, which offered several variations of the western breakfast:

1 egg fry-toast-butter-jam
2 egg fry-toast-butter-jam
and so on. The odd thing was that the prices changed depending on the order of the food. Toast-jam-butter was a rupee more than toast-butter-jam. Ami smiled. “What about samosas?” she asked, craving an Indian breakfast.

“You’ll get sick of that after a while,” one of the guys at the table, dreadlocked, and dressed in a long kurta announced.

“Really? How long have you been in India?”

“Don’t know. About six months.” His accent was British.

Instead of revealing that she wouldn’t be traveling long enough to get sick of the food, Ami busied herself ordering samosas and a mango lassi—no ice, you know, ice? No ice!—from the waiter, who wore a greasy undershirt and a sarong.

“So, what’s your plan?” Celeste asked, leaning across her own plate of egg-fry and toast-butter-jam. “We’re all heading south to an ashram. Auraville, you know it?”

Ami had heard of it. A sort-of spiritual community inhabited mostly by westerners. “I’m going to the train station to buy a ticket to Pushkar,” she announced, hoping she sounded sure of herself among the band of road-weary travelers.

“Righteous place,” a guy with long, dark hair spoke up. “I just came from there. Lived around the lake nearly a month—lots of cheap rooms. You can live on two-hundred rupees a day if you eat the thali plates.”

Ami did the math in her head. That was less than $5. She had no intention of eeking by on five bucks, risking intestinal disease from bad food and sleeping in lice-infested flops. But she smiled. “Sounds great.”

“Problem is,” the guy continued, picking toast crumbs from his beard, “it’s hard to catch a train right now. It’s the Mela, you know?”

Ami shook her head. She didn’t know.

“Kumba Mela,” Celeste spoke up. “I just found out, too. Apparently, it’s a pilgrimage to the Ganges that happens every twelve years—a really big deal. The whole country’s on the move. The trains are booked for weeks, and don’t even try to get near Allahabad.”

Ami looked down at her fingers.

“That’s why we all decided to head south,” Celeste continued. “We all met here this morning and figured the best plan is to get away from the Ganges. Should be more mellow in Pondicherry.”

Ami wondered if she’d ever been that fluid, that able to meet people and make plans on the spot. She hadn’t thought of any of these obstacles.

Celeste’s gang of hippies and would-be Sadhus chatted away while Ami nibbled her samosas in silence. When she finished, she left a twenty-rupee note on the table and slipped away, waving over her shoulder to Celeste, who was braiding the hair of the woman beside her.

There was nothing to do but try to get a ticket anyway, and hope the hippy was wrong.

Dev woke late in the morning, stretched out on his narrow bed and wiped sleep from his eyes. The other drivers had already left, busy on jobs, picking up tourists and taking them to see the sights in Delhi.

Main Bazaar, madam. You buy nice Pashmina shawl. I take you to my uncle’s shop—very nice shop, good price.

Dev shook the thought out of his head. Sometimes it got old, the same tired lines over and over. Like a dance he’d grown tired of, but still had to dance. He threw his legs over the edge of the bed and rolled out, barefoot, onto the cold concrete floor. He hopped on one foot, then the other, gathering his pants from where they folded on a chair, and slid them on. He’d go by his sister’s house, see about staying with her a few days until he got another job, and leave his laundry with the dhobi wallah.

Someone had left a bar of pungent Chandrika soap on the sink. Dev washed his face and hands, then wetted his hair and slicked it back with a comb. He shaved, using a disposable razor, and examined his reflection turning right and left, looking for defects.

“It’s important to be neat and tidy at all times,” the boss was always saying. He required all drivers to wear short hair and a clean shave, or a trimmed moustache—except for the Sikhs, who were allowed their top knots, turbans and rolled beards. The boss always wore a suit and neck tie, a practice Dev was glad he didn’t have to endure. Maybe someday, when he owned his own travel agency, his own fleet of cars. But not now when his job was driving through the thick of the heat, racing across Rajasthan at midday.

Heat. Dev smiled to himself, thinking of summer in the middle of winter. He repacked his small bag and left the room, locking the door behind him.

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The main bazaar was passable, but barely. By late morning, the streets were crowded with every sort of person, conducting every sort of business. Portly men smoothed their vests over their prolific stomachs, haggling over bidis, expensive watches, sets of bracelets for their daughters. Women in wildly patterned saris sought out the best bunches of carrots, potatoes, bags of basmati rice. Old grandmothers shuffled past teenagers lounging on their motor scooters. Boys combed and recombed their glistening hair, posing like movie stars or wrapping their arms around other boys, cuddling against each other the way they weren’t allowed, but longed to, with girls.

Hawkers sold everything from lengths of sari silk, intricately carved sandalwood sculptures and packets of bindis, to the socks women wore with their sandals—the big toe held in a separate compartment—and industrial strength bras and panties. And all the peddlers were men, of course. Even the bra seller. He looked out over his wares as if he was oblivious to the rows of high-waisted white panties spread across his cart, twirling the ends of his moustache between his thumb and index finger.

Ami ducked into the first travel agency she came to.

“Madam, yes, your friend is telling the truth,” the man behind the desk informed her, looking up from his computer. His hair was neatly combed, his moustache trimmed, and her wore a tie with his crisp, white shirt. He made Ami feel at ease, even as he offered the bad news. “I can make you a train reservation for next week. Maybe you will stay in Delhi and see the sights.”

“No, it’s too cold,” she whined. “I expected India to be warm this time of year.”

“It’s most unusual, this cold spell,” he answered agreeably. “But this will pass in a week, maybe two.”

“I’m only in India for three weeks,” Ami admitted. “I was hoping to see some of the countryside. Rajasthan.”

The man nodded empathetically.

“Maybe I can take a bus?”

“Bus is not leaving today. Maybe in two days you can reserve a seat on the bus.” He typed into his computer.

Ami slumped back in her chair and felt slightly ill. Already the trip was too difficult.

“One thing, Madam. Maybe you would like to hire a driver?”

“A driver?”

“Yes, a private car. The driver will take you to Rajasthan. To every place you wish to visit. The driver will also find nice hotels for you.”

“I have a guide book,” Ami said defensively. Weren’t drivers for old people? Did she look old?

“Yes, then you will suggest a nice hotel and the driver will take you there. No carrying your luggage, no worrying with trains or busses.”

Ami had to admit it sounded sort of nice.

“How much?” she asked.

“For all of Rajasthan—Bikaner, Jaisalmer, Udaipur, Pushkar, Jodhpur, Ajmer—also two nights camel safari for you…” The man smiled and wrote a figure on a piece of paper, sliding it across the desk to her. “One week’s rate,” he said slyly.

Ami glanced at it, and her heart sunk. She shook her head. “Too much.”

“Okay, Madam.” The easy smile beneath the moustache. “Tell me your budget.”

“I don’t know,” she admitted helplessly. “I hadn’t thought of it. I was planning to take the train.”

“Yes, madam. Tell me, what sort of accommodations do you like? Five star hotel?”

She shook her head. Couldn’t he just look at her, one day in India and already disheveled, and know she wasn’t staying in the Taj Hotel? “Budget accommodations, I guess.”

“Maybe five hundred rupees a night? A nice room with bath?”

She nodded. That sounded good. No lice.

He scratched his head, took out his calculator, and devised a new figure. The number was still large, but as Ami looked at it she felt a certain sense of relief flooding her.

“Only one night on the camel safari,” she said. “And are you sure the driver is safe? I’ve heard drivers in India are…”

“Yes madam.” The man smiled. “Some drivers are crazy. This one is a very good man. He is driving with no accidents for ten years. Perfect record.” He amended the figure and typed it into the computer. “I am only needing a credit card number and your reservation will be complete.”

Ami dug her MasterCard out of her money belt, arranged to meet the driver later that afternoon for a tour of Delhi—a trial run, really—and gratefully put her trip into the hands of someone else. Things suddenly looked brighter.

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Celeste packed her bags at Hotel Vivek, yanked an extra thick sweater over her head and silently praised herself for her foresight in not ditching the woolen garment in Thailand. The guy she’d been with at the time had taken one look at the bulky item popping out of the top of her pack, and rolled his eyes. She wasn’t high maintenance, though. She wasn’t like those fresh-faced yoga groupies, flocking to India for twelve day retreats with gurus of questionable repute.

No, Celeste knew how to take care of herself. And she knew a thing or two about travel. Two years on the road, traveling first on a round-the-world ticket and now just on what ever whim possessed her.

Outwardly she made a point of scoffing at the spiritual seekers she crossed paths with. What did they know about spirituality? Obviously nothing if they thought they could absorb that, the very heart of a culture, on a two-week trip. But inside she sometimes envied them, their comfortable lives and their sense of wonder at encountering the discomforts of traveling.

For her, there was only moving. Only that in-between feeling. Dirty hair, dirt under the nails, the ever-present vague discomfort of intestinal upset. In truth, she was looking forward to hanging out at Auroville for a little while. Maybe she’d get her own place to stay. Maybe she could chill for a couple months, even longer. There was no rush to get anywhere anymore.

Celeste closed the door to her room and stopped off at Ami’s door, knocking lightly and waiting for a response. None came. She waited another minute, then continued her way toward the reception desk. Ami was hard for her to figure—not that they’d really spent any time together, but Celeste liked to think of herself as a good judge of character.

The thing about Ami was she presented no particular agenda, which was troublesome. She wasn’t a yoga groupie, a spiritual seeker or a back packer. She was too straight to fall into the hippie traveler category, and too alone to be any sort of student or cultural tourist.

Maybe she’s doing research, Celeste finally decided. Anyway, she’ll be fine. It’s not like I can help out everyone I meet who’s out in the world for the first time, right? She returned her key to the desk clerk, who turned away from his Bollywood flick with a flash of white teeth.

“Madam is checking out?”

“Yep. I’m heading south.”

“Your friend, too?” He pointed at the stairs down which Celeste had just dragged her bags.

“No, she has some other plans.”

“Okay, I should say good bye for you?”

“Yes, can you?” She smiled and gave him a twenty-rupee tip, then swung her pack onto her shoulder and pushed her way out into the alley, navigating back to the café where her new friends were waiting.

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By mid-day, Delhi was thick in smog. A ghastly, noxious choking gas that burned the nostrils and made the eyes run. Travelers returned from India with tales of picking black nuggets of crusted snot from their nostrils at the end of a day in Delhi. Those who lived there protected themselves as best they could, some wearing surgeons masks or mouth and nose coverings fashioned from bits of flannel. Others, caught off guard, wrapped the edge of a scarf or sari across their faces.

Traffic seemed like utter madness to the untrained eye—all those vehicles converging without the aid of western stoplights. At the roundabouts, lorries, motor scooters and bicycle rickshaws swarmed together, and then, God willing, separated again and went on their way. All executed, of course, with an obscene amount of horn blowing, because the Indian horn is not so much a warning device as a turn signal. When one vehicle comes along side another and is preparing to pass, the horn is blown vigorously. Never mind frayed nerves, or the mind-numbing noise pollution. That’s how it was done.

To the trained eye, however, the same scene was not so much chaos as an intricate dance. A snake, of sorts. That’s how the traffic moved—like a snake, undulating and weaving. One only had to let go of focus, relax, and give into the motion. Then the vehicles danced, swayed, flowed together and apart.

And if a person, a traveler, learned to flow with the traffic in that way, learned to see it as a serpentine ballet instead of a disorderly nightmare, then one began to unravel the secret of being in India.

But few travelers grasped that concept, especially on the first trip.

Instead, it was white knuckles all the way to the temple, and then the maniacal gauntlet from the car through the throng of beggars and touts to the door of the temple. Then, sweet relief inside the gates as serenity descended with the wafting clouds of Nag Champa.

Walled away from the noise and hurry of Delhi, a palace here, a fort, a shrine, a temple through which devout Hindus shuffle their bare feet against the cool tiled floor. Plump women with grey-streaked hair pulled back from their stern faces as they glide toward an alter with a coin or a blossom. Their barrel-chested husbands offering sweets to a sadhu, receiving the blessing on bended knees, rising and rejoining their wives as they’ve always done—as they’ll continue to do.

In the crowd, here and there, a few gangly tourists make feeble attempts to blend in, to appear, if not religious, at least stoic. The wives steal disdainful looks from the corners of their eyes. Hairy white legs in shorts. Disgraceful. And the foreign women, sloppy in jeans, wrinkled t-shirts, their hair disheveled. What would they think, one woman wonders, smoothing her shawl across her ample bosom, if we came to their country and visited their churches in our dirtiest clothes? She slides on, picking up her chant on her prayer beads.

But there is sanctuary. The travelers feel it through their thick socks as they skim along the floor. They breath in lungs full of the incense-scented air and train their eyes on the praying sadhus swathed in orange robes, on the gold-leaf mosaics and the garishly painted idols of Rama and Sita. They force the images into their minds so that they might carry some piece of the journey home with them. Outside of the temple, on a marble veranda, a girl looks up and spies a bright green parrot in a tree.

She’s a million miles from anything remotely familiar, and something inside her is singing.

He wasn’t what she’d expected—which seemed about right. Ten years of perfect driving, the tour guide had promised, which, in Ami’s mind, added up to a man her father’s age. A portly, comfortable man, perhaps a Sikh with a tightly wound turban and a kindly smile. A man in a Mister Rogers-type cardigan with a jolly laugh.

But the man sitting on the hood of the black Ambassador outside the tourist office was none of those things. He was young, to start. Not a teenager, but certainly not a middle aged man made wise by life’s experience. He was wearing a fleece jacket, much like Ami’s, and a pair of track shoes with his khaki slacks. And he was frowning slightly. As she approached, she noticed a deep line between his eye brows, the sort of crease that comes from worry.

Damn it, she thought, then put on her best face and extended her hand. “Hello.”

“Madam Ami,” he answered, pumping her hand, still frowning. He pronounced her name Ah-mee.

“It’s Ay-mee,” she corrected.

“Sorry, Madam. Ay-mee,” he repeated, looking worried. “I am called Devesh.”

“Devesh,” she repeated dutifully.

“You may call me Dev,” he said shyly. “Many people are calling me Dev.”

“Okay.” She slid into the back seat, and he jogged around to the driver’s door, hopping in.

“I am giving you tour of Delhi?” he asked over his shoulder.

She nodded. At least she’d get an idea for his driving skills. If he did anything crazy, she’d return to the tourist office first thing in the morning.

But Dev proved to be a competent driver, maneuvering the complex and apparently random Delhi traffic with the ease of a pro. He delivered her safely to the India Gate, the Red Fort, Jama Masjid and finally back to her hotel.

“Madam, what is your good name?” he asked, turning around in his seat to face her.

“My good name?”

“Yes, your proper name.”

“It’s Ami,” she replied, confused.

“This is not your pet name?”

She understood then. “No, it’s my proper name. You can call me Ami. Many people are calling me Ami,” she said with a smile. “Will you pick me up at this hotel in the morning?”

“Yes,” he answered, with no trace of a smile. “We must be leaving early. Six o’clock.”

“Six?” She was alarmed.

“Okay, okay. Seven o’clock.” He turned back, ending the conversation, and flipped on the battery-powered plastic shrine on his dashboard. All around the glow-in-the-dark figure of Ganesh, the elephant-headed god of prosperity, garish red and green lights began blinking like a Christmas flea market.

There was no way to respond to that, so Ami slid out of the car and watched as Dev pulled away.

On the Road, Day 3

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Somewhere in the desert the car stopped. Ami jolted awake.


“Sorry Madam. Train is coming.”

She looked around. There was no sign of a train, just pale, dry earth as far as they eye could see. Not sand, really. More like dust. The tracks were set up a bit from the rest of the land, on a little hill. People had gathered at both sides of the crossing, leaning on the closed crossing arms in anticipation of the coming train.

Dev climbed out of the car and wiped his forehead, looking around.

Ami imagined that he’d talk to someone, point out that the train was nowhere to be seen, that they could cross in plenty of time. He’d explain that he was driving a tourist, an American at that. He’d get things moving.

Instead, Dev lit a bidi and squatted in the dirt near another man. The man said something through his betel-stained lips and Dev laughed.

Ami opened her door and stepped into the warm mid-day air. A swirling wind blew her hair in her face. She unwound her scarf from her neck and covered her head. Almost instantly, a group of small children, who until that moment had been as absent as the train, appeared at her elbows.

“Madam school-pen,” they chorused, touching her in light little pinches.

Dev looked up, but didn’t do anything.

“No school pen,” Ami answered in vain. They continued to clamor for chocolates, rupees and any number of small items until one of the caught site of an older child attempting to hoist a kite on the unpredictable breeze.

Somehow, dragging Ami with them, the kids surrounded the boy with his kite, all craning their necks upward to watch the action.

The kite’s owner looked shyly at Ami and offered his string.

She took it. It had been years since she’d flown a kite. She tugged a bit at the thin line, encouraging the shoddy paper kite higher into the atmosphere. It resisted her prompting and crashed onto the railroad tracks. The kids all ran, in a swarm, to fetch it back.

Still no train.

“Tough luck,” said a man just behind Ami’s shoulder. She whirled around, surprised that the man was really no more than a teen-ager, his moustache just a silken suggestion over his lip. He was holding a very fat baby, its eyes rimmed with kohl.

“Your baby?” she asked politely.

“No. This is my cousin-sister’s,” he smiled broadly.

Ami didn’t understand the cousin-sister thing. That could mean pretty much any female in the vicinity.

“You are English?”

“No, American.”

“Very good country,” the boy offered his assessment. “Michael Jackson. Terminator. You are living in California?”

“No, Philadelphia.”

He looked back blankly, then regrouped. “You are coming to my house for tea. Yes?”

She gestured toward her car and the tracks. “The train…”

“No problem. Train is not coming for a long time. You are taking some tea, then the train is coming.”

Ami glanced at Dev, who was now sitting among a group of men. He seemed quite comfortable. “Okay,” she answered, and followed the boy away from the tracks toward a row of houses that sprung up along the colorless dust.

It crossed her mind that no one knew she was there. Still, the boy leading the way looked harmless. A teenager, only her height at best. She felt impervious to danger, too far away from anything she considered real to be affected.

The house, which sat on the edge, balanced between the village and the dust, was a fairly elaborate affair, with a set of steps running up to a carved entranceway. The entire outside had been white washed, though not too recently, and the steps were crumbling, rejoining the desert.

Ami followed behind the boy, through the entrance way and into a darkened hall. “What’s your name?” she called to her host.

He smiled. “I am Murad” He pointed her through the hall, which opened into a courtyard. An older woman appeared from one of the rooms that surrounded the courtyard, pulling her sari hem over her face. “This is my mother,” Murad announced.

“Nice to meet you,” Ami said awkwardly. The woman didn’t meet her eyes.

“This is my American friend,” Murad told his mother. He handed over the squirming child, and the women peeped suspiciously at the tall westerner tracking sand into her house. “You make tea,” Murad instructed in English, then repeated his instructions in Hindi.

The mother cast a disapproving glance over her shoulder, but trudged dutifully off toward the kitchen.

Ami felt like an intruder, and was thinking of leaving when Murad took her arm and steered her toward a room. “This is my room,” he pointed. “You will come in?”

Ami peeped in at the single cot and thought better of it. “What do those steps lead to?” she asked, pointing to a narrow flight of stairs in the corner of the courtyard.

“Yes, come see,” the boy announced, guiding Ami up to the roof. It was just a flat expanse, looking out over the desert. Behind her, she could see into the tangle of the village, and in front of her, what she supposed was the road to Bikaner. It was rutted and narrow. There was still a crowd at the tracks, but no sign of Dev.

“Maybe the tea is ready?” she asked brightly, heading back down stairs. Murad raced after her, eager to regain his role as tour guide. Just as Ami stepped back into the courtyard, Dev burst in, along with two of the men from the village.

“You must come now, Madam,” he said darkly. “Train is coming.”

“She is just having tea,” the boy announced. “Only one minute waiting”

“No, there is no time,” Dev insisted.

Ami was confused by his stern countenance. He seemed almost rude, barging into these people’s house. But she nodded her head.

The mother bustled into the courtyard, carrying the cup of tea, but Dev brushed her aside and hurried Ami out the door.

“Thank you,” she tried calling after her, but the family only stared at her. She couldn’t even guess at what they were thinking.

“Madam,” Dev whispered urgently when they were away from the house, “You must be more careful.”

“Why? Were those people dangerous.”

“They are Muslim people,” Dev announced, as if that explained everything. He didn’t offer to expand on the subject, but only stalked back to the car. He held Ami’s door open and she slid in, feeling like a child in disgrace, without knowing why.

Luckily, the train picked that moment to arrive, and soon Dev was back at his post as driver and they were maneuvering the tracks and bumping away from the dusty little village and the children with their scrap of kite.

It was easy to ride and dream, looking out over the landscape. Daydream, or sleep with closed eyes—it didn’t matter which. The day slipped into her subconscious.

Ami hadn’t slept well the night before, despite moving to what the afternoon desk clerk, a jowly, middle aged man called “a much better room, Madam. And heater for you.” The room looked over the alley, offering an interesting view of a pig family rooting through a trash pile, the ridge of hair standing up on their backs like Mohawk hair cuts. Even though the view offered little in the way of inspiration, the bed—settled into a box-like frame on the floor—was softer, and happily buried under an assortment of faded satin-covered quilts. Plus, the one small window, from which Ami could spy on the punk-rock pig family, actually closed, which meant that the diminutive portable heater would have a chance at warming the space.

Unfortunately, the heater offered little more than a dull whirring noise, and occasional sparks from its plug.

After receiving word that Celeste had moved on (“The boy he say your friend she is leaving,” the desk clerk informed Ami, before settling back to reading his newspaper. “Did the boy say where Celeste was going?” Ami asked, hopefully, but the man only shrugged.), Ami set out on her own, feeling a bit intimidated by the confusion of Paharganj at first, but then adjusting. Really, it was just like a shopping market anywhere, only, perhaps, livelier. She let herself be lured into a few shops, testing perfumes and trying on scarves, before settling on a blue cotton shawl.

“Wool is better,” the woman behind the counter instructed Ami, peering over a large set of glasses. She was as strict as a librarian, her red tikka glaring like a stop-light between her eyes. “This time is too cold for cotton. You try nice Pashmina?”

Ami shook her head, wondering how she dared to defy the shop’s proprietress. “I like this one.” She held it too her cheek. “It’s soft.”

“Soft, yes. So you buy Kashmiri shawl. Very soft, but also very warm.” The woman was already lifting expensive squares of fabric from a shelf.

“But this is a gift, you see,” Ami attempted a new tactic. “For my grandmother in the USA.”

“You-es-say? California?”

Ami nodded. “Yes, where it’s too hot for wool.”

The woman softened slightly, and allowed Ami to purchase the thin shawl, which she wrapped in paper.

Time passed effortlessly as people moved through the market with no care for the late hour or the impending cold. Darkness was banished by the bright shop lights and inviting cafes, warmed by the heat of the ovens. Ami pushed her way into a busy restaurant where a Chinese chef stirred noodles in a massive wok over an open fire. She took an empty chair at a table of white travelers, hoping they wouldn’t mind.

“Canada?” A man leaned toward her, his scruffy blond beard scratching her ear. “England?”

“No, America. USA.”

“How do you like India?” he asked, his German accent thick.

“I’ve only just arrived…”

He nodded, looking bored already, and turned back to his friends.

As Ami ate her fried noodles, realizing how hungry the day had made her and how long it had been since she’d last thought to eat something, she wondered if three weeks would bring her any closer to the state of laid-back ease those other travelers exhibited. She doubted it. But how long would it take to become that—so unconcerned, so at home, even in the clutter of Paharganj—and was it even possible to change into such a road-weathered soul, or did one simply have to be born that way?

Back at her room, Ami brushed her hair and pulled it back into a ponytail, then gave herself a sponge-bath in lukewarm water. She set her alarm clock just in case the desk clerk forgot to wake her, and burrowed under the blankets.

Sleep came, but only for a couple hours.

Somewhere around 1 a.m., a rowdy group of cricket players—or maybe they were soccer players—returned to the hotel and began a late-night party, moving from room to room, using the stairwell to shout to each other between floors. In the lobby, someone turned the TV up full volume, filling the hotel with the sound of Bollywood music.

At 4 a.m. Ami awoke from a restless dream to realize that she had, indeed, been asleep, and she sunk back into blissful unconsciousness.

Then, at 5 a.m., the wakeup calls began, which involved the desk clerk standing outside a door, banging loudly and shouting “Hello! Hello! Yes, hello!” until the door was answered. No longer fearful that she’d oversleep, Ami rolled over and switched off her alarm, and pulled the pillow over her head.

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The car wove through narrow villages, kicking up dust in the late afternoon. Ami peered out the window of the Ambassador, taking in market carts laden with king coconuts, long sugar beets, bunches of greens and piles of bright oranges. Men lounged by the road on charpoys while women hauled water in brass urns, balanced on their heads. Children played in the dirt, oblivious to the traffic of lumbering water buffalo, whizzing motor scooters, painted lorries sporting the word “TA-TA” on their bumpers, cars and bicycle rickshaws.

“What is this village?” she asked, but Dev only shrugged.

Too small to know the name. “So many villages, madam,” he replied.

“Call me Ami,” she told him, wondering if he was still angry from earlier.

“Ah-mee,” he said, then smiled in the review mirror. “Ay-mee.”

She leaned back, resumed her watch. A cow, decorated in gold-trimmed blankets and marigold garlands stood near the door to a shop, calmly munching at a garbage pile. A boy ran into the market, carrying two large roosters under his arm.

“Look at those roosters!” Ami cried gleefully.

“For fighting,” Dev told her.

Faded murals from Hindu lore graced the façade of one building. Dark-skinned men squatted by the wall spitting red betel juice onto the dirt. A sadhu, wrapped in orange robes, waited patiently in the waning sun, his long dreadlocks arranged elegantly around his head. As the Ambassador sped past, Ami caught the glint of the large silver hoops he wore in each ear. A peacock fanned its tail as they left the town and surged into the countryside.

It was well past dark when Dev finally pulled into the gravel drive of a guest house. Ami was too tired to argue about their accommodations, and her stomach was queasy from the rutted roads and the steady stream of diesel exhaust from passing busses and trucks, her head swimming from half-sleep disturbed by passing vehicles and the incessant blinking of the dashboard shrine to Ganesh. No matter how rural their journey, they never escaped the constant flow of traffic, never escaped the reach of the elephant-headed deity.

The guest house in Bikanar was plain. A concrete square of a building with spacious, dingy rooms. Ami shivered as she looked at the low bed with its single bed spread. The night air was chilly—even Dev had zipped up his fleece jacket and was rubbing his hands to warm them as he peered anxiously into the room.

“It is alright?”

“It’s just that I’m cold…” she faltered.

“No problem,” he answered gravely, and spoke to the proprietor—a young man, maybe a college student, in rapid Hindi. The two conversed in serious tones, with many of the confusing head bobbles that looked like they should signal a no, but were often followed by consent. When the other man turned and fled down the hall, Dev announced, “Okay. He is bringing heater for you.”

Within a few minutes, an archaic space heater had been plugged in and was spewing, if not warmth, at least an electrical static. Ami’s luggage appeared at her door, and the young proprietor was back, holding a carbon form. “Five hundred rupees advance fee, Madam,” he said. “Price includes dinner.”

“Dinner? Where?”

“Kitchen is just outside.” He motioned vaguely, and Ami parted with five hundred-rupee notes.

The food, served in a dimly lit room at folding tables, was bland at best, and tasted as if it had been allowed to stew for the better part of six hours. Still, it was something to settle her stomach and allow Ami to crawl into bed, with all of her clothes on, huddled as close to the rickety space heater as she could get. She felt the gloomy weight of misery descending—this wasn’t the India she’d hoped for: it was dirtier, more complicated and far chillier—and her trip was already far different from her romantic free-wheeling vision of three weeks riding trains, visiting temples, and wearing flowing kameezes. But before Ami could even shed a tear in her frustration, sleep hit her like so many horn-blowing kamikaze TA-TA trucks.

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In the driver’s bathroom, Dev stripped to his underwear and stood over the sink, washing his face and his armpits. It seems like just two days ago I was doing this, he thought to himself. Only in Delhi, just a few kilometers from my sister’s house.

Not that it really mattered. He’d been able to have a meal with his sister’s family, which was about all the time he needed to remember that her house offered no privacy. He was welcome to stay with his sister, Meena, and her accountant husband Raju, but it meant sleeping with their two boys.

Dev loved his nephews, Sunny and Apu, but spending time with them was a far cry from relaxing. Sunny was six, already in school and insisting that everyone call him by his proper name, Sunil. No one did, of course. Apu was just four, and determined to do everything his elder brother did.

Then there was Maya, the baby. She was just a year old, still sleeping in her parent’s room, and the princess of the household. Sometimes Dev thought he liked his niece the best of all, not that he would ever admit it. But Maya never demanded that he play camel safari, crawling around on his hands and knees while his nephews climbed on his back. She also never looked at him with sad eyes, like Meena often did, saying “You need to settle down and start your own family, Dev. It’s fine for you to stay here; you know you’re welcome whenever you like. But you should let Mrs. Bikam find you a match. You know mother is worried about you.”

Maya was happy just to be held and given a bottle, or taken for a stroll in her pram. She rarely cried, and usually regarded everyone in the house with a happy gurgle.

No, it was alright to be driving again. Dev hadn’t even been surprised when he’d stopped in to the office and his boss had announced, “I have another one for you, since you’re back.”

“Japanese?” He sometimes liked them—they didn’t expect him to speak their language fluently. Often they were content to talk amongst themselves, leaving him free to pass the time lost in his own thoughts.

“No, American.”

Americans were sometimes worse than the English. They spoke fast, with lots of slang, and were genuinely shocked at the state of India. But they also tended to travel with lots of cash, and knew how to tip.

“How many?”

“Just one lady. She wants to see Rajasthan.”

Dev could drive the Rajasthan circuit with his eyes closed. Udaipur—you like James Bond? You know, Octopussy? Pushkar—you like to make nice puja? Jaisalmer—you like camel safari? It was an easy job, so he took it.

When he came back out of the bath, two other drivers were sitting at the one table in the room, smoking bidis and cutting a deck of cards. He’d seen them both before, greeted them with a friendly grin, and pulled his pajamas and kurta from his bag.

“You like to play?” One man asked, gripping the stump of bidi between his teeth.

“Sure,” Dev agreed, not so much because he liked cards, but because he was in the mood for some company while he sipped his whiskey and waited for the tension to slip from behind his eyes.

Bikaner, day 4

A thick mist hung low to the ground in the morning. Ami checked her watch—barely 7am. Her time was still off. She rolled out of bed and gingerly changed her clothes, trying not to expose too much bare skin to the cold air. Her wardrobe selections were limited—a pair of loose cotton pants and a t-shirt emblazoned with the likeness of Krishna would have to do. Her cargo pants were filthy and everything else she’d packed would be too light-weight, and even the t-shirt would have to remain under the cover of her fleece. She gazed wistfully at her sandals and pulled on her Nikes again.

Hoping for some exercise, Ami slipped out the door and took in her surroundings. A wide front yard with sprawling trees, then a long stretch of flat road. She couldn’t see either end, so she started jogging easily to the right, relishing the emptiness. No one was around—just house after large, seemingly empty house. After a half-mile, Ami decided that she was heading away from any semblance of a town, so she turned and headed back the other way, passing her still-sleeping guest house, and trying to note her distance. An older man, head wrapped in a thick wool scarf but legs bare under his dhoti, gave her a disapproving glare and she slowed her jog to a walk.

The quiet street let out onto a busy thoroughfare, where a swell of scooters and motorcycle rickshaws was already gaining momentum. Ami found a tea stall cozied up to a tree along the road, and hunkered down on one of the makeshift benches with the small group of men already sitting there. They each stared at her, but no one spoke a word.

“Chai,” she said to the vendor. “Ek chai.”

He grunted, pulling his hands from beneath his sweater vest and poured hot tea into a glass. Ami handed him several rupee coins, which he pocketed with a nod.

The chai worked wonders. Hot and sweet, it seemed to make its way into her core, soothing her fears and misgivings, warming her to the idea of the day, of the untapped possibilities. She tossed back the hot liquid, returned her glass, and took off purposely toward the guest house.
Dev was tinkering with the Ambassador in the driveway. “Already up?” he looked surprised.

“Just out for chai,” Ami told him.

“You take chai in the kitchen,” he pointed toward the dining room where Ami had endured the mediocre dinner. His brow creased with concern.

“I like the chai stalls,” Ami told him. “Don’t worry, I can look after myself.”

He half-smiled. “You are taking breakfast, and then we go Junagarh.”
She looked confused.

“Very nice fort of Raja Rai Singh. You are taking camera, make some nice photo.”

Sight-seeing. Dev was turning out to be a not only a driver but a tour guide as well. Ami nodded and went off to get ready.

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Even in the winter, the desert turns hot in the daytime. Earth bakes into dust, and out across the expanses of land people toil under the sun. It seems that no one would live so far out, half a day’s drive from the nearest town, but people do. It’s impossible to drive more that a minute or two without seeing signs of human life. Along the road, small groups of pilgrims move, one of them carrying a pole with a white flag. And off in the distance, a man drives a camel. Brown earth, brown camel, brown man, bright turban of red, pink and gold wrapped around his head.

The women, too, wear their colors. Wide skirts of red and green, cholis of yellow or purple, and half-saris spanning their torsos with vibrant hues of magenta and chartreuse. Perhaps that’s how their men recognize them—by the colors of their saris. The people cover themselves in the colors that the desert doesn’t provide—otherwise their eyes would starve for longing.

But there is color. In the resplendence of the mustard fields, in the sudden oasis of a water hole where sleek black water buffalo sink into the mud, in the shrines dotting the countryside: white and orange.

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The Fort proved to be a monolith of pink stone, complete with a moat and a palace with courtyards, balconies, and towers. Ami trailed after a group of what appeared to be Rajasthani villagers, pointing her camera out at the gardens now and then. She marveled at the arched doorways, carved lattice and ornate elephant litters, then distracted herself from a vicious-looking weapons display by watching two village men unwrap and redo their pink and red turbans. They wound the lengths of fabric at impossible angles, from the crown of the head to the right ear and then back to the left ear, leaving a tail trailing down the back.

Other young men, perhaps city bred, watched Ami, winking when they caught her eye. She laughed inwardly, thinking that she was a good decade older. They looked for their reflections in antique mirrors, pulling combs from their back pockets to arrange their shiny black hair, vainly tucking their shirts into slacks, gold studs flashing in their pierced ears. They were as beautiful and as vain as girls, except for their feet, which had somehow been overlooked. Wide brown feet in rubber sandals, thickly calloused and often cracked.

Passing by the lattice-work balconies where the women of the palace had lived, kept in purdah their whole lives, witnessed the goings-on of the palace, Ami tried glimpsing through a narrow opening. If she pressed her whole face against the marble, she could see a section of a courtyard. Mimosa trees, papery bougainvillea flowers and still pools. Her lips were dry, reminding her she was in the desert, and no matter how cool the temperature, she’d better ask Dev to stop for bottled water.

Down one hallway she found herself in a wash of color—light filtered through yellow bottle-thick orbs of glass—another purdah curtain. But amidst all the pink stone, the color was welcome. She trained her camera on the amber hallway and snapped a shot.

The morning had warmed significantly—enough to necessitate peeling off her fleece—when Ami left the fort and made her way back to the Ambassador. The parking lot, by then, was crowded with the bulbous black cars, as well as tour busses and minivans. Dev was waiting in the sun, talking to another man. They leaned toward each other as if they were sharing a secret, the man’s arm around Dev’s waist and Dev’s arm draped across his friend’s shoulders. When Ami approached, they slid apart a little.

“Madam,” Dev announced jovially. “My good friend Raja.” He said it like goodfriend, all one word.

Raja stuck out his hand, and when Ami took it, he simply held hers limply for a moment, as if he knew the gesture of shaking, but had no use for the act itself. “Madam,” he said. “How do you like my country?” He gestured broadly.

Ami wondered if he meant the actual countryside around them, and if, indeed, it was, in some way, his, or if he was referring to the whole of India. “Fine,” she answered lamely.

“You are English?”


“Oh, very nice. California? New York.”

“No, Philadelphia,” she replied.

He looked disappointed. “My cousin-brother is living LA,” he offered. “Many many movie stars.”

“How do you know Dev?” she asked, to avoid the movie star conversation, a subject on which she was grossly under-informed.

“We are driving same route,” Dev explained. “Many years now, driving tourists in Rajasthan.”

“So Rajasthan is your specialty?”

“Yes, exactly,” he answered. She’d meant it as a joke, but obviously he took her—and the comment—quite seriously.

“So, where next?” she asked breezily.

“You are visiting Rat Temple?” Raja offered.

Ami looked quizzically at Dev, who explained, “This temple is some miles outside of the city. Very special temple where devotees make offerings to the holy rats.”

“Holy rats?” She didn’t like the sound of that.

“So many!” Raja informed her. “You cannot believe! And so large!”

“Please, not the rat temple,” she turned to Dev, almost whining. She wasn’t ready for that much of a cultural experience.

“Okay, okay,” he waggled his head. “We are going to Jaisalmer. This is very long drive, so we are leaving soon.”

Ami settled into the Ambassador’s lumpy back seat, wriggling her butt into a comfortable sag, readying herself for more hours of bumpy roads and exhaust fumes.

(image of the Rat Temple from

Flying over the potholes, Rajasthan opened on all sides. It was not a place so much as it appeared on the map—the jagged western corner of India—but a concept. An idea of long-lost kingdoms, regal princes and mysterious queens secreted away behind locked doors. A dream of mogul rulers who built lakes and floating palaces on the dry earth. A last romantic hold out.

For no logical reason, men set up brick factories in the middle of nowhere. In their lungis and sandals, they dug the clay and pressed it into blocks. Then they fired the bricks in tall kilns, sending the smoke into a relentlessly blue sky. The finished bricks were stacked in walls that snaked along the boundaries of a boundless land.

Small houses and baked mud huts popped up here and there, in the middle of a mustard field or a broiling sweep of land. Women worked tirelessly to carve a living from the dust, children played with whatever they could find. In a fraction of time, just enough for a snap-shot, a man lifted a charpoy from in front of his small home—too small for a window against darkness—and moved toward his brother who waited just a couple yards away. There were no crouched women in the picture, no children with hair knotted by the wind and sand. Before the man could even lift his eyes to the blue ceiling over his life, the car sped past, sweeping the only witness away.

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It was midday, or sometime after a Leonard Cohen tape and a Fleetwood Mac double album, when Dev pulled into a rest stop and Ami peeled off her earphones. The rest stop was a far more elegant version the ones she was used to along the freeways at home. This was a large building—sandstone, perhaps, painted a cheerful yellow. Poles along the perimeter boasted colorful flags, and a tall stretch of wall secured a grassy courtyard.

What is this place?”

“Restaurant, madam. You are taking some lunch?”

Ami slid out of the Ambassador and stretched her legs, then wandered toward the entrance, a long, cool hallway leading into the main building. To her right she spotted the washrooms, and ducked inside, happy to find the toilets were the western variety. That was always a treat—though so far Dev had veered away from anyplace featuring the traditional squat toilet and the ever present water tap and bucket at hand-level. Admittedly, she did feel guilty using toilet paper, knowing it wreaked havoc on the India plumbing systems. But she tried not to think of it too much as she shut herself into a stall.

A few moments later, washing her hands, Ami noticed a small woman wrapped in a faded sari standing by her elbow. She turned off the tap, and the women instantly produced a folded triangle of paper. Ami took the bit of towel, dried her hands and looked at the woman again, who was holding out a cupped palm expectantly.

Oh, Ami thought, feeling stupid. She found a couple rupee coins and handed them over, but the luxuriant courtyard, the bright flags and the western toilet suddenly made sense. This was, in affect, a tourist trap. This place was set up so drivers could stop off with wealthy European and American fares. And probably Dev got some sort of kick back for bringing his clients here.

She wasn’t surprised to find the menu to be expensive, once a thin, haughty waiter had seated her at a sunny table. Ami ordered dhal fry, a chapatti, and an overpriced bottle of water, then looked around. A German couple was plowing through a heap of pillau, and a table of French travelers, all in elegant, upper class trekking wear, were slurping lassis through straws.

Suddenly, Ami felt lonely. She looked around for Dev, but he was nowhere to be found. Probably out back lounging on a charpoy with the drivers of the Germans and French. Probably comparing their fares, laughing about the silly westerners and their aversion to squat toilets and tap water.

A peacock strutted across the grass, dragging its long tail. Ami wondered what the hell she was doing.

It was one thing to visit India as a student, safe in the company of classmates, no matter how annoying the group dynamic became. Travel was made for the young, for people with no sense of time, responsibility or financial obligation. Students with their parents’ credit cards and several hundred dollars worth of traveler’s checks, which looked like a pile of Monopoly money.

It was probably just fine, too, to travel as a wealthy person on holiday. Just to pop in to a country for a week or two, have an exotic experience, then jet on back to business as usual.

But to work and save, planning the journey out for more than a year, all based on a dream of temples, incense and mogul palaces gleaned from books and movies… and then to tear away from life, from routine, hoping that it would all still be there to return to… that was an altogether different situation.

The food came, piping hot, but otherwise fairly bland. Bland, of course, so as not to offend the western palate. Ami ate, sliding chunks of chapatti through the butter-drenched lentils, and then she paid her bill, leaving a tip though she wasn’t sure if that was protocol.

Dev reappeared out of nowhere, standing by the car. “Nice place?”

“It’s a tourist place, Dev.”

“Yes. Good, clean for you.”

She nodded unhappily and folded herself back into her seat, sinking back into daydreams and miles of dusty desert road and the vastness of space, sky and silence.

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Just before the sun set, Dev stopped at a grove of trees along the road. They were in the middle of nowhere. At first, Ami thought he had to pee, but that would have been out of character. They weren’t familiar enough with each other for Dev to show signs of having bodily functions. She never saw him eat or seek out a bathroom, and she had no idea where he slept. In the car, perhaps. He spoke rarely, and those times with his brow so furrowed Ami hated to prolong the conversation for fear of adding to his burden of worry.

But when Dev climbed out of the car, he gently opened her door for her and motioned that she should follow. Through the trees, they climbed a rocky path onto a ridge, and there lay a small lake. It appeared perfectly round, and still. The path led to a diminutive shrine, far too small for a human being to go inside, but other visitors had left offerings of marigold flowers and coins. Ami left a five-rupee coin and looked back at Dev, who nodded approvingly.

“Now you are ringing bell,” he pointed to the copper cylinder suspended overhead. Ami pulled the rope, and it chimed, ringing out over the water.

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She didn’t love him in that moment. It wasn’t that easy. She didn’t even turn to look at him, to notice the clean line of his jaw, his handsome brown eyes, the set of his shoulders. But she did see his hands. Strong brown hands, clean under the nails. It wasn’t like they bumped hands and then moved shyly away, she just happened to notice. Nice hands is what she thought. It wasn’t about attraction.

And later, much later, when they’d finished two King Fishers and an embarrassing amount of whiskey sneaked into a restaurant’s garden in Udaipur, she noticed again. The hands, as if they were disconnected from him. Strong hands, helping her up, guiding her into the twist of the streets, into the dark heart of yet another city.

“Madam, you must be careful.”

“Sir, I think it’s your job to watch out for me.” She erupted in a fit of giggles over his insistence on niceties after they’d spent the evening drinking, shoulder to shoulder, in some restaurant apparently frequented by collegiate travelers and upper middle-class Indians on the make.

They were caught in the beams of an on-coming rickshaw, and he pulled her up against him as it hurled past on the narrow street.

He smelled like aftershave, and alcohol, and incense.

Their faces were so close she could count his eyelashes, even without the aid of a street lamp.

“It is late,” he was saying, but it didn’t mean anything. For in reality, it had been too late for some time. That’s how it goes, she thought to herself. By the time you realize what’s happening, it’s already pretty much happened.

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The first real problem came in Jaisalmer, when Dev ushered Ami into a high priced guest house overlooking the town. She balked at the rates and fled to the car. Undaunted, Dev continued on, trying a newer place, complete with a restaurant, which was in the right price range, but didn’t offer hot water.

“Is there anywhere else?” Ami asked, feeling frustrated, hungry, and ready to be off the road. Dev pulled into a seedy hotel at the outskirts of town. A group of men, all with slicked back hair and greasy undershirts, crowed on the steps spitting pan into the dirt. They followed Ami with their eyes as she made her way to the door. Right away, she didn’t like the place. The desk clerk, a paunchy man in polyester slacks, showed her to a windowless room with a soiled bedspread. “500 rupees only,” he announced. A man peeked out of the room across the hall, grinning to reveal a mouthful of bad teeth.

“No way,” Ami told Dev. “That place is horrible. I bet it has rats.”
Dev looked offended. She decided not to care.

“These men are staring at me, leering as if they have no manners. What’s the matter with them? And why should I pay 500 rupees to sleep on a dirty bed?” Ami was getting worked up. Why should she care if this was his friend’s place or his cousin-brother’s or whoever? It was dirty, and full of seedy men. She wouldn’t sleep there.

“Which place, madam?” Dev asked stubbornly.

Ami stalked back to the car and fished her guidebook out of her pack. Flipping to Jaisalmer, she read off the name of a few guest houses that struck her fancy. “Deepak Rest House? Hotel Paradise? Hotel Chandra Niwas?”
Dev shook his head. “These places are inside fort.”

“So?” She’d read a bit about the fort. Wasn’t that sort of the point of going to Jaisalmer?

“Car is not going into fort. Only by motorbike or by foot.”

“Oh.” She suddenly understood.

Dev seemed to register her disappointment. “No problem. I am driving to fort entrance, and calling motorbike to take you. Then I am returning to meet you in the morning.”

“No, it’s okay.” She made up her mind. “We’ll stick together. Just a nicer place, okay? Somewhere not like this.”

“Okay? No problem.” Dev opened her car door for her and she got back in, determined to be a bit more accepting.

They tried the Centerpoint Guest House, a place claiming to be family-run. It was a little further from the fort, and located down an especially sandy road, but the rooms were clean and promised hot water from 7am to 10am.

“Madam, I’m picking you up at 8 o’clock. Many things to see tomorrow,” Dev announced once Ami’s bags were stowed in her room.

“So early?” She knew she sounded like a spoilt child.

“Okay, okay. Eight-thirty.”

Arun Chodary leaned back in his chair, surveying the scene. A group of western girls—college aged—chattered to each other across the room.

“English?” he asked his companion. “Canadian?”

Dev turned to look at them. They wore long skirts paired with lose kurtas and the hiking shoes favored by Americans. But he only shrugged.

“Tell me about this one you’re driving. Is she wealthy?”

“Not like most of them. Not a backpacker, but not with money to throw around.”

Arun nodded. “Is she good looking?”

Dev sighed heavily, and smiled at his friend. “You can see for yourself tomorrow when you give her the tour.”

But Arun wasn’t really listening. One of the girls had caught his eye. She was blond, her hair tumbling down her back in a loose ponytail. Arun flashed his straight-toothed grin, and she turned back to her friends giggling.

“Perhaps I’ll give a little private tour this evening,” he said, low, to Dev. “Shall we meet up later for drinks?” He checked the gold watch at his wrist.

“No, I’m tired. I’ll see you in the morning.”


“Nine o’clock,” Dev revised the plan. “She’s not an early riser.”