Quick Impressions from One Month in South India

When it rains, the tall, thin palm trees blur into the horizon. At five in the morning, the single florescent rod in the hostel room flickers on, so abruptly I mistake it for lightning. An ant crawls across my laptop screen. Mosquitos bite my little toe, buttocks, chest, and wrists. A cat with eyes so yellow I’m half-convinced it’s not a cat at all, but some supernatural creation, roams the hostel grounds, scaling the wall in a single, fluid leap. A white cow, ears like a puppy dog, trots languidly beside the road. “It belongs to the city,” Manasa says, patting its side with a tenderness both casual and profound. Pastel pink walls in the office of a politician, the paint peeling and migrating onto the door frame. A baby like a tiny God, his eyes lined with black, a burgundy dot smudged on his forehead. Hundreds of dragonflies in the air above the fruit, vegetable, and flower market.

I learn how to scrub laundry against a stone, how to take showers with a bucket, and how to eat with my right hand. Looking shyly back at the girls that stare. Bat swarms in the purple evening. Machetes. Motorcycles. Pools of urine. Sellers of diamonds, silver, and pearls. Cane sugar, sweet corn, coconuts. A rat half the size of my forearm, jumping in a bucket on the roadside. The auto-rickshaw, that bedazzled contraption with the horse power of a souped-up go-cart, which I ride every day for ten rupees per kilometer. Inside: glossy photographs of 80’s Bollywood actors in opaque, squareish sunglasses, baby blue, glittery images of Ganesha, decals with Saibaba, Bob Marley, and “Jesus saves.” Bhavani covers the tips of my fingers in lumps of black, muddy henna. The smell is fruity and earthy, red-orange when dry–a human caressing of the sunset–and it alters the look and feel of my hand, my body, entirely.

The temple and its combined odors of incense, manure, and blossoms. Mounted ceiling fans rotating over the framed family portrait of Shiva, Parvati, and their infant with the elephant head. Barefoot, in the half-dark of a twilight sweating through the open windows, I walk through the rooms: a ceremonial fire burning, a pair of shirtless Brahmin building a small mountain of chrysanthemums. The lap of a cobra, a mechanical drum, a handful of fragrant lemon rice. A shrine hidden by thick magenta curtains, plunged in lime green lighting, a pewter bowl filled with camphor, a man singing along to an electronic recording of a Telugu mantra. Two miniature orange buses with license plates from Tamil Nadu. Durga lying in oleander, her face black, eyes spots of ochre, and along her tarred neck, a garland of raw, whole carrots. On the road immediately outside the temple, a dead cat lies splayed, blood and brain matter emerging from a wound along its face.