Bombay is red and it’s 1985.
Every olive-skinned forehead has a chalky red circle placed by the leathery fingers of holy men. They look like a collection of bulls-eyes. Black red garnets drip from earlobes to rouged cheeks. A woman walks with three small children. She is so stunning she could win beauty pageants, but she was born poor so she never will. Indira Gandhi has been assassinated. I am fifteen.
A sharp jaw is draped by a red sari. When the sun shines through it, the woman’s chin lights up like a neon strawberry. She bends over a camp stove on the sidewalk outside the Bombay airport. She twirls roasted chapattis— Indian tortillas— with her delicate fingers over the weak red flame. Her hands are speckled with the dried blood color of mehndi: henna temporary tattoos like blinking eyes on her palms when they open. The mehndi has faded over time, which means the woman participated in a wedding a week or more ago. The toasty nut chapatti smell competes with the stench of sweat and shit. My green ankle length skirt is too thick in the humidity and perspiration drips down my doughy armpits onto the ground.
I’m looking for my name on a sign. Petite men jump and shove each other to get at the white tourists who have money for motels and taxis. They call out “Rickshaw, Madame? Madame.” Their voices are low and sexual and pleading but harmonize like a choir. The men who call out “Madame” have red teeth. A boy with no legs whizzes past on a skateboard. His arms are extra long and knobby from polio. He has a collection of VHS tapes attached to the skateboard with a bungee cord. One of them is Michael Jackson. He doesn’t beg. Children approach with fingers cut off at the knuckle from leprosy. There is no blood—only bandages. They move their fingers to their mouths and say “kanna” and look into my foreign eyes. I don’t have to know Hindi to know what starving means, but “kanna” means food. The kids spit red. The women spit red. The small puddles remind me I’m bleeding. Where am I going to find a tampon?
Bombay is not just red. It’s also holy orange. A band of Hari Krishnas dance barefoot on dirt in big loose orange shirts and lungis that are like baggy pajamas. Their clothes are the orange that only the earliest morning sky knows. Their bald heads glow in the heat and they smile that crazy smile of bliss that makes me want to float on their orange cloud and never go home. The moon is amber and appears much closer and bigger here. From across the street, they come for me. I want to be orange like their lungis, not big and white because the men jump and yell while lepers scurry to surround me. Some of these men are my age or younger, boys really. My temporary sister with shiny black hair grabs my hand. She tells me her name “Jothi,” (prounced Joe-thee) means light. She says, “This way,” and interlaces her fingers with mine. Her father walks like his hips are sore or broken because they tilt as he walks in short brisk steps. He’s a doctor. He says, “Come,” and I do. His voice is nasal and hard to hear over all of the vendors calling “Pakora, pakora, pakora!” Pakora are salty orange fried vegetables in white bags sprinkled with saffron, cumin and cayenne.
Women carry giant baskets on their heads poised and dangerous but their faces are serene. The baskets are orange and brown and carry the smell of fish. Some baskets overflow with samosas and when one drops from the basket, beggar children scurry for it. Dried orange paste cakes the corners of their lips. Cars and bicycles heavy with chickens swerve around cows that rule the road. Fat, slow cows flaunt orange blossoms between their horns, swinging between them like a hammock. Their horns are painted with red and gold stars and flowers. My temporary sister wears an orange thread around her wrist that signifies that she has a brother and he tied it to her wrist in a ceremony that honors their bond. She interlocks her fingers with mine as we walk towards what looks like a toy car. The children knock on the window as our car drives away. They chase the car for several blocks yelling, “Ferungi!” which is Hindi for foreigner.
Bombay is also white. The bread rolls the vendors sell in baskets as they yell, “Pan pan pan pan” are wrapped in stiff white napkins. Milk is delivered in small bottles in grey metal baskets like in old episodes of Leave it to Beaver. I listen to my Prince “Under a Cherry Moon” cassette tape on my Walkman and walk along the gutter next to palatial marble houses. A man squats and shits in the street. I panic because I want to stare but I look away instead. I think about what it means to be white here, to have the luxury of white cotton underwear and a private poop behind closed doors. Visions of divine white toilet paper taunt me as I pass men in sandals and white turbans. They open their funny pajamas and take their dicks out and point them at me as they walk towards me. This happens so many times I lose count. It happens when I walk with my Indian host family and when it does, my sister locks hands and squeezes me tight. “This way,” she snaps. “Ouch,” I say. She pulls me into a store that sells saris and nose jewelry until the men walk past the store to the nearby marketplace. I want to ask why the men do that but I don’t. Jothi avoids my eyes and holds a green and gold sari. “How much?” she asks the saleswoman. My long skirt is white with gawdy pink and black flowers. We leave with my first-ever sari.
I’ve never been on a double-decker bus so I ride one all day and the men stare. I switch seats to wriggle out of their sight but they come closer, stand over me and clutch the handrail near my head. I wander into an indoor market and two men in turbans pinch my butt. I run to the nearest rickshaw and tell him, “Bandra Road.” When I walk in the front door, the family is sitting at a table for dinner. They are angry and silent. Later, my host brother tells me, “Women who come home after dusk are whores,” right away. He’s trying to explain why his father yelled behind their closed door earlier. The father yelled so fast, I couldn’t catch one familiar word. I can tell by my host brother’s slouch and the way he wobbles his head that he thinks it’s silly that his father yells but I’m afraid he will kick me out, send me back home. He wears American clothes a few years outmoded, but the best money can buy in Bombay. White Izod and blue jeans.
I’m supposed be in college here even though I’m a junior in high school. The first day, I am swarmed by kids. The only white girl there in my loose yellow shirt, I sit in the back of the class on a bench. Students stare and giggle so I walk to the train station where I follow children to their homes in the slums. I trust the kid who grabs my arm and pulls me into a snaky alley past metal scraps and piles of garbage. I’m pummeled by the smell of shit and piss near homes made of cardboard and dirt. Inside, I crouch in the dark around a small fire and drink spiced chai from tiny chipped glasses. The grandparents sleep on the ground on a single blanket and glance over at me. It’s so dark, I can’t tell how many people live inside. The kid giggles and his mother stares into my grey eyes for a long time and laughs. She covers her mouth when she does this. The kid writes an address on a white piece of paper. I promise to write. I never write. Two men follow me onto a train. Their bodies against mine harder and harder until a seat next to a woman was vacant and I squirmed into it. A couple stops away is a four star hotel so I jump off at the next stop and run inside where I won’t be followed, touched or flashed. I fill my backpack with rolls of plush white toilet paper. I get home after dark: white American whore.
Bombay is turquoise and gray. Monsoon rains with blue skies. Ganesh, the elephant God is on posters in homes and stores and in rickshaws promising triumph over obstacles, but in some sects of Hinduism, I am told, a woman is supposed to throw her body on top of her dead husband’s and allow the vultures to pick it clean. When I walk the streets in the morning with my Walkman, I look up at the roofs of gray buildings for the bodies of mourning women and the hungry vultures, but I never see them. I see gray hate and gray shame and red angry spit on the dirt every couple feet. I walk past cold gray shadows where the little girls are still sold out of cages. The gray spaces in the alleys filled with girls carrying gray tins begging for coins. Gray, dirty bandages on their hands. I see turquoise Ganesh on posters. Indian women feed their daughters sweets from a vendor on a train. Indian women twirl chapattis wrapped in gold and turquoise saris. They ask to buy my American jeans for their daughters. Fisherwomen keep their baskets perfectly balanced. Outside the train, families line up outside of the Indian Embassy, hoping to leave. I never write to the children from the slums.
Years later, Bombay is still fresh in my mind and in my bones. As a visitor, I was naïve and lost. When I hear bells, I still see statues of Ganesh in a cool, stone temple and smell sandalwood incense. If I sent a letter to one of the kids from the slums, it would say: Remember when I pointed to your bandaged knee and asked you what happened? I could tell by your khaki shorts and pressed white shirt that you were cutting class too. We exchanged grins. You saw the man press his hips against me and said, “We get off here,” as you reached above me to pull the silver cord. I followed you home and met your sister and mother. Lock hands with them and keep them safe before and after dusk.
Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.