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In the Land of Shiva: Part X

India never washes out of clothes. The curry smells, monsoon rain, salted sweat, it stains deep in the thread. But I couldn’t toss them out. The oversized shirts, my kurtas, and dupattas. Sometimes, the scent of India is comforting.

How easily an aroma can stir the memories. Sweat. The stench of crowd, dripping wet like overexerted cattle herded into stone stands. The afternoon scorched like midday, and we were lost in Amritsar. Trust in a taxi driver is necessity, but not by choice. And once the Pakistan-India border was found, we were quickly abandoned, driver gone in the masses.

Where to go? We knew of special seating for foreigners, but no signs, no direction, just a moving mass of bodies. Indians love their motherland on display. Isn’t She pleasing, a rare beauty! How privileged to be in this place, wait, we will show Her to you. No one can give you India like an Indian.

Six American women at the border. We take seats high in the stands. Looking around, I soon realize there are no women nearby. Men to the left, to the right, above and below. I can only shake my head at our naiveté. This is not our place. Women and small children at ground level, their vibrantly dyed saris in seated rows. How our pallid skin must have stood out like a blaring white dot across the way to the other watchers.

Hundreds of people gathered, waiting, as the men below in their uniforms and well adorned hats prepared riffles and formation. The mock fight between Indians and Pakistanis. Replayed twice daily, morning and dusk. I think it similar to the South’s fondness of Civil War reenactments. But the body heat, the sweat, the smells, the odor of so many bodies, it becomes suffocating.

My sickness was progressing. I was eating so little. Only hot food, no sauces, anything fried because it ensures preparation at correct temperatures. Even drinking water irritates my body, the stomach twitching with sharp dagger pains. I’ve managed a full coat of sweat, dripping down the brow, the neck, into my eyes, how the salt burns. Constantly, I am wiping with my cotton tee, too heavy a fabric for July in India. The sweat bleeds through to the point my shirt can soak in no more fluid. We’re confused, we’re cranky, in need of water and air, fresh air, free of men’s pits, mouths, legs, genitals, all the places they sweat and smell. The heat between bodies pressed close together, hundreds, is nothing I’ve felt but in that place. I wanted to claw myself free, a panic rising inside me, and then the realization that I was losing consciousness. Like my mind was floating calmly away, light as air, and how strange the senses become in such a state, rare acuteness. I felt as if my body had frozen onto the stone, unmoving, and I could listen so keenly to the sounds around. Men laughing, Hindi tongue, the slight movement of limbs surrounding, then it merged so cohesively, into a jumbled chatter. And then I felt my heart, how it was pumping feverishly, loudly, and the breath gone soft, like even my lungs had grown tired of their duties. Never before had the urge to faint crept upon me.  A quiet panic emerged inside my half alert mind. I cannot faint in this place, amongst these men. Who will know what to do with me? Jaye will want to cry. Haylie will scream in English. Jocelyn undoubtedly would be a fainting partner. Patricia would yell “Babushka!” as she had called me since our arrival to Dharamsala. Elsie, would be unaware, for she had left us in search of the sacred foreigner seating we wished to have found earlier.  Looking around, all I saw were men singing, sweat rags by the dozens being pulled from pockets to wipe down soaked faces, a constant series of motions repeated by the crowd, but never simultaneously. I wanted to scream, but snapped aloud, “I can’t!” And rose up, others following. The crowd such a tight squeeze, climbing over legs, apologizing in my native tongue, so useless was I, and then stone steps to the top, dozens of illy sized steps. This was an odd form of suffocation, strangling me of air though it is all around.

The border closing had only begun, but after sitting in the heat for over an hour, we couldn’t take it anymore. Being free of bodies pressed against me, I could breathe again, the feeling of fainting slowly leaving. And I drank water, hot bottled water, but it was grand at the time. Once it was over, Elsie managed to find the taxi, wondering where we had all gone. The foreigner seating was right at the base ground, front and center of the mock fighting. She played back her pictures. It was the only time I had the urge to smack her.

I don’t recall much of the ride back to the hotel. Jaye sat with me in the very back, on the floorboard since it was like a car’s trunk. Whatever the conversation, I had her laughing, and she looked at me oddly, wondering aloud how in my state of ill I could still find humor, a reason to laugh. I didn’t have an answer. Sometimes in such extreme emotional and physical states, laughter is the pressure release, and if I wasn’t laughing, then surely, I would have been crying, but that would come later in the rural clinic hospital several days later.

Back at the four star hotel, I sat down on the roll-away cot in our room. For over five minutes, I just brushed my heels, arches, and toes across the carpet. I hadn’t felt carpet beneath my feet since leaving the townhome in Charleston. It was soft, hunter green with a small saffron diamond pattern. And the window AC forced cold air upon my back, the sweat quick drying on my skin. Eyes closed, body slouched from exhaustion, all I could do was smile. Plush carpet under my dirty toes and air that was cold, not merely warm fan blown air circulating. It was true luxury.

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