In Kerala an elderly Sikh invites you and Sophea into his small apartment to watch WWF wrestling. He feeds you Tandoori chicken, egg curry and scrambled eggs and tomatoes. He doesn’t speak a word of English, but you drink whisky and speak in your mother tongues as if you understand each other. Your hand goes around Sophea as you watch Triple H take down Mysterio. During the commercials, you watch the stock market meltdown.
“How is that possible?” Sophea asks, as if you know.
For some reason, you are overjoyed. Where will you be when it all falls apart? Apparently, India.
Panic has gripped Bangalore, aka ITocracy, aka calltopia, which houses one out of every three office buildings in India. Perhaps that’s why it’s the center for obesity and diabetes. At 3am, when the American workday ends, Bangalorians drink off the global crisis in jam-packed pubs, chaotic night markets, and large strip malls with rooms full of belly dancers. Here, in the IT revolution city, the economic plunge has hit hardest. Anxious young Indians in collared shirts jabber on headset headphones in a desperate, panicky English. The city is a surreal desert of nascent buildings still undergoing construction, and the only movement comes from migrant workers living in tent cities on every roadside. American multinationals aggregate in industrial parks; their incomplete buildings cast foreboding shadows that stretch from the rocky hills of HITECH City to Hyderabad.
The news of the stock market crash disappears in the sixteen-hour train ride, sleeper class, where you and Sophea lay on the upper berth of a crowded cabin, holding each other beneath a rusted fan. You easily grasp onto passing soft drinks, unappetizing samosas, or the coarse hair of children with sticky fingers. Outside the train, the sunset straddles the horizon of rice fields and electrical towers that look like steel angels in the dark. She sweats through sleep.
Expats flee Delhi to protect their assets, leaving you and Sophea to chase the red-tape fairy around the train station from one ticket counter to another. You fill out forms, get tickets stamped, all while carrying luggage on your backs. You new colonials suffer through the old colonials’ leftovers, foremost among them, the bureaucratic obsession with identifying you, sorting you out, helping you decide where you belong. But you and Sophea fit no stamp, you’ve both been gone too long, rejected America, Asia, love, and happiness. Boats without anchors, but in the end tethered together.
After hours of confusion at the train station you discover that there is no train left for Jaipur. Why go to Jaipur? A British man asks. Why travel when the world is melting?
We are poor, you answer. Too poor to care about an economic crisis. At home, nothing would change for us. We would still be eating ramen noodles and McDonalds. This crisis is just about you becoming like us.
Just to spite the recession, you buy first class.
In Chandigarh two high school boys chat with you in line for a Bollywood film: She your girlfriend? You kiss her? You fuck her? How many girls you do this with? Very common in America? They are obsessed with foreign women. Very naughty, very sexy they say. You ask them about Indian women. Very naughty, very sexy, they say. The first boy tells you he has proudly slept with seven to eight Indian girls, all of them his friends and prostitutes. The second boy has a meeker sex life, at two to three women.
The crisis grows more distant when you reach Amritsar, where Sikh pilgrims lie scattered on the white marble of the Golden Temple. Sophea invites a young Indian from Canada to share a Thali, and you can’t help scooting into his space. Moments later she sits him between you both on the bed of your hotel room. She places your hand on his thin jeans, letting you trace his thigh. He is the first to kiss you. You kiss back, until you are all drunk on wine, listening to the allahu akbar chant from a nearby mosque. Amritsar becomes your sacred space, a place where people must have touch, must express respect even in their style of eating, must cover their heads in humbleness.
The first night in Jaipur, the capital of Rajastan, a fuse blows out in your five-dollar hotel room. You and Sophea move to another room and that fuse blows out too. No money left, a man says. No electricity. The next day you relocate to another hotel for three dollars a night. It is ridden with ants, spiders, fleas, mosquitos, cockroaches. The mattress is a cot on wooden planks. It reminds you of your first cockroach-ridden apartment. You wake up with new places to scratch.
To find yourselves in a new city means you must survey the perimeter, ridding yourselves of the tourist monuments like passing difficult excrement. And after the tourist sites you pace towards whatever seems exigent—a broken down building, a gathering of Indians around a well-lit street, a strange figure in the dark. You and Sophea simply float within the crowd, you unthinking and unassuming defectors, imbibing in the aura of the city and its people, retreating from certainty, trusting the void wherever it leads.
And Jaipur is a city full of Gods, Kings, monkeys, and street children. The latter work in groups, perhaps. Although the world is melting, Sophea still gives rupees whenever she sees Mani, a fifteen-year-old girl with a baby covered in flies. Sophea likes Mani because she always takes money and never asks for more. She takes food too. The street children usually don’t take food. They scream “fuck you, cheap America!” But Mani gets it, so Sophea gives her money.
In Rajasthan, men follow Sophea with their eyes, their steps, their hands, and occasionally, with their lips, though none have been reciprocated. In the Guide it warns that “Indians are known for harassing women in Western style clothing.” This means asking for kisses, asking how many people Sophea has been with and whether or not she uses condoms. It means that when she orders beer the waiter assumes she is only doing it for the men in the room. It means constant whistles, taunts, and arms and hands falling upon different parts of her skin.
In Udaipur, breezes compensate for overhead fans. You can spot the scattering colors over Badi Lake. Back-up generators may fail the people, but never the tourist. You inhabit landmarks for three dollars a night. In the hotel bathroom you only find a squat toilet. You’re used to it now, and when you can’t find any tissue in your backpack you just grab the excrement with your left hand. After a year of wandering around Asia, this is what you’ve learned. No more fantasies. No more armor. Just a left-hand wiping the shit off.
about the author:
Kawika Guillermo’s stories can be found in Feminist Studies, The Hawai’i Pacific Review, Tayo, Smokelong Quarterly, and many others. He writes monthly blogs for Drunken Boat and decomP Magazine, where he serves as the Prose Editor. His debut novel, Stamped, will be released in 2017 by CCLAP Press.