BY REKHA SHETTY
Buddha was 29 years old in 533 BC when he walked through the streets of India and realized life was suffering. I was 15 years old about 2,500 years later when I did the same thing and came to a similar conclusion. Buddha founded a revolutionary school of thought devoted to meditation, enlightenment and spiritual liberation after the experience. I became nauseous to the point of vomiting.
Beads of sweat pooled at the tiny crevices of my body, at my temples, that dip at the bottom of my neck, and behind my kneecaps. I was entombed. Not because I was awkwardly wedged between the car door and my sister’s equally slimy skin, but because I couldn’t breathe. The air was saturated by two parts moisture, one part dust. I couldn’t inhale it; I had to swallow it, and squish around the little bit of warm spit I had left to keep my mouth from crusting over. I used the last reservoirs of energy in my body to rip my bottoms of my legs off the sticky car seat and slick the stray hairs back into the greasy mat on my head with the back of my hand. It was the sauna from hell. Fortunately, the heat was so disorienting, I lacked the concentration to actively fear for my life. The drivers of Bombay make those of Boston seem tame. The roads had no lanes, and the cars had no mirrors. Tiny vehicles and open rickshaws jerkily weaved and bumped about themselves, avoiding collision every few seconds by a few inches and a forceful slamming of the brakes. I tried to focus on what a grand adventure, exotic safari, and cultural awakening I was having as the erratic rhythm of the ever-wailing horns beat in the background. I desperately did not want to be one of those spoiled, narrow-minded kids who lets culture shock electrocute them.
“Not exactly your Salt Lake City,” my cousin, Anu, laughed nonchalantly. In striking contrast to us moppy-head, weary-eyed foreigners, my cousin looked cool and comfortable, unfazed by the urban circus around her.
“Yeah, he he,” I croaked with an awkward chuckle and a twisted trace of a smile. The unfunniness of the joke made the air heavier.
I couldn’t understand how the heat wasn’t choking her the way it was me. Or why her mosquito bites didn’t inflate into pink, puss-filled blimps the way mine did. But mostly I couldn’t understand the unaffected look on her face.
Humanity littered the sidewalks. Scummy slums overflowed with people, more people and then more people. Hoards of men, women and children clad in dirty, drooping rags and faded saris shuffled between the cars, pleading for money. Men wobbled on exposed twiggy legs warped with battered veins, and women with shrieking Hindu voices and lop-sided hips toted their babies up to car windows. Their skin stretched taut over their visible skeletons yet was wrinkled and ashy. Collapsed back into their skulls were pairs of yellow, crusty eyeballs, beseeching anyone who fell under their deadened gaze. And there I sat with my bright red slicker and unnaturally white nikes, gawking from my uncle’s auto, this make shift tour bus, at the morbid freak show before me.
Wandering hands found their way into our cocoon of safety. It was like my cousin didn’t even see them, like they weren’t there, like they didn’t exist. Even my dad took little notice. He was too busy methodically patting his forehead with his neatly folded handkerchief.
“Boy, we aren’t used to this heat,” he remarked, stating the obvious in order to make his contribution to the sporadic, meaningless conversation. My dad had grown up here, but the last 25 years in America had begun to outweigh the first 24 in India. He even told me he didn’t think he would be able to live here again; I wasn’t sure how that comment made me feel.
Twentieth century poets wrote about how the atrocities of war desensitized soldiers to death. I feared a similar phenomenon was taking place here. And I could feel it happening to me too after just two weeks in India. These wretched individuals were morphing into one entity, one gigantic mosaic of dust caked faces. They weren’t humans; they were zombies. Surely humans could never be so filthy, helpless, and degraded.
And so I sat, riding the heat waves in strange state of hypnosis. I shifted uncomfortably and unstuck my forearm from my sister’s. She had closed her eyes and her head fell unnaturally backwards onto the low seat back behind her like a retracting pez dispenser. Piles of cars were trying to pass through a tiny intersection like sands through an hourglass, a few grains at a time.
“Do these drivers actually think honking is gonna help the situation?” I said. Nobody answered me. I swallowed a hard, shameful swallow; I was that bratty, narrow-minded kid.
I turned my head to my window. Little kids had trickled into the clogged street. Some were hocking cheap trinkets; others were empty-handed. A girl, maybe 12 years old approached my window. I shrank into my seat. Oh god, I thought, one of them is coming towards me. I panicked and felt my heart throbbing inside of me. She tapped gently on the window. She held a can of cheap, miniature Indian flags. I cocked my head slightly and rolled my eyes slowly in her direction. I couldn’t bring myself to look at her directly. But she stared down at me, relentlessly, earnestly. She was so close to the window, her nose practically grazed the glass. And suddenly the mob had a face. A film of dust made her brown skin gray and all but concealed the rosy tint of her craggy lips. But her eyes were two glossy marbles in the sand. More circular than oval, they were weary but still radiated with youth. She had x-ray vision, and I didn’t want her to see a cold, black heart when she looked at me.
I pulled out a small wad of rupees I had in my pocket. I didn’t know how much it was, and I certainly had no concept of how much it was worth. I rolled down the window and gave it to her. Her round eyes grew rounder and her face pulled into a huge, crooked smile, exposing a ragged row of four of five yellow teeth jammed into her gums. I reciprocated a weaker grin, took my flag and rolled the window back up.
For a moment I felt good. For a moment this fragile, beautiful little person was happy. For a moment we both forgot the suffering. But only for a moment.
I didn’t tell anyone but when we returned home I threw up several times. Buddha gained enlightenment from detaching himself from the misery of the physical world; my experience tied me up with reality, and as I tried to fall asleep that night, all I saw was darkness.