INDIA JOURNAL—DEATH ON THE ROAD TO DELHI

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January 8th 2013

There was no more fire blanket in Agra. No more mixing of heat waves and smog. Garbage fires burned like tea lamps. Seven boys and a full-grown cow hovered over a dying flame smoking on the street beside a burned out garage to keep warm. We mixed with the cold fog that suffocated the dirt alleyways. The soot soaked precipitation: an amorphous breath storm of nothing, pasted us to the walls, and we roved within it like moving pictograms appear to float in air.

A tuk-tuk chariot dropped us to the bus stop an hour early—an hour 45 in Indian time. We killed the added minutes conversing with two Germans about a tourist wearing a hospital mask taking pictures of a cow eating garbage on the side of the road. Some travelers here keep their head behind a camera, their senses hidden, everything at a distance to remain unaffected and deaf to the present.

We boarded the bus and sat in the very front. Above our heads, a 23-inch television sat precariously inside a cube cutout, propped up by a bible to keep it from falling forward. The bus was over-booked, so there was predictable chaos. Loud words slowly settled into begrudged acceptance. The Germans got on late and had to sit with our 22 year-old driver and his friends. Sardines were running this tin can. Two hours later we fought our way out of Agra proper, and the clock started. This was not going to be a 4-hour bus ride to Delhi.

The highway was a devil’s promenade. Grain trucks, hatchbacks, and motorcycles followed the dragon’s tongue north. The lizard’s cheeks were caked with bulbous sores of poverty—shacks, and camps, and mud hovels inhabited by the damned by circumstances beyond their control. It’s their birthright.

4-hour in, we had progressed 60 kilometers out of the 170 to Delhi. Endless tongue and timeless flatness swallowed time and left us stranded. I was fighting to finish the last two sections of On the Road: Kerouac’s decent into Mexico. At that moment I didn’t share his fascination or his feelings of freedom. Maybe two weeks ago when I was caught up in the bright storm of Bangalore’s flower market, but not now, not on this grey dead road, not on this rusted bus. The breaks hit, we slowed.

I saw the truck veer, the van pull, I saw the motorcycle flip and tumble like a weed of clipped springs. I saw the body of a young man lay like a baby on its side. He had baby feet. Their naked soles, fresh and pink, lay one on top of the other, toes curled in rest.

Time stopped because traffic stopped. Horns blared like trumpets calling the dead to action. Young men leapt from their hatchbacks and motorcycles and surrounded the baby, and like boys, stood there apprehensive to pick up the gentle soul lying so vulnerable and fresh. So, he just lied there alone. Like kings with myrrh and frankincense, the men on the bus all wanted to look at the child, they wanted to see the first born introduced to the world on the tip of the lizard’s tongue, in this universe that had lost meaning. I wanted to see the baby too, but just his feet.

Why no shoes? I asked myself. Why on earth would you ride a motorbike with no shoes on?

Our driver had a schedule to keep and forced his way to the shoulder to pass. The feet were no more, just a pulverized head lying bent back, an ugly retched throwaway face, no longer a beautiful baby boy. The apprehensive boys took pictures with their phones. I saw shoes stranded up the road.

I did something I haven’t done in years. I prayed. I prayed so hard that I curled up like a baby boy in my stomach and wished for the dragon to blow a breath and end this all right now. But, the devil sleeps in Delhi, and we were yet not close enough for him to care.

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I VISTED GRANDMA IN THE HOSPITAL TODAY

I saw grandma today. She’s very sick. Well, dying actually. When I went to her room in the assisted living house, it was in her old room because her new room is in the hospital ward now. I moved her bed, the family dish cabinet, the old dinner table we used to use for Thanksgiving and Christmas. We were taking them to a place to be sold. No one wanted them.

On the last load I stayed behind with my aunt. She said, Josef, there’s no reason for you to take the last; you should visit grandma, but bear in mind that it’s pretty grim. I said that I’m used to that, and that it didn’t matter; that I was ready for just watching her for a while.

Hospitals, even “rehabilitation wards” within rest homes always smell like stale chips and used synthetic clothing. Nothing beautiful can be summoned within that scent. However, the thoughts that echo within those that travel down those halls makes up for it.

She looked so small on her single bed. The bed was made, but she lay fragile under a blanket, looking like an ant underneath a wet leaf. I sat next to her, saw her face stretched so tight and tired. Where was the caretaker and the boy now? Where was the man and the too old to keep being old anymore, but there at that moment.

I kissed her forehead and she woke up. She wasn’t supposed to; she was supposed to be too confused, too detached — they told me to be prepared with the fact that she may not recognize me. She opened her eyes and asked, you’re back from New Zealand. Yes grandma, I’m back.

And we talked like we used to, but I could tell it took everything for her to remain engaged. So I made it easy. I talked about travel. I reminded her of all the places I’ve been. Told her that it’s hard to have two homes when neither feels like home. There was silence. Then she said, I’ve traveled a lot too.

She has been all over the world. When I was a child she would be gone for months at a time, but would return with stories about Greece, Kashmir, India — amazing adventures that I couldn’t have ever imagined if it wasn’t for her gift of story. She taught me that who we are as a people of the earth has everything to do with the differences, not the likenesses.

And then, when she had nothing left, she said to me, you can go everywhere in the world and be nowhere. And then she went to sleep.