The night before departure, Delhi came to my dreams as a woman in black robes and a fast chase and a land that shifted underfoot. Were it not for the trailing of fuchsia and golden saris, the masala, the stray dogs prostrated in the street, the undeniable heat, were it not for all of India that is a call to exist in these daylight hours, that is too vibrant to deny, what happened there might just as easily have slipped from reality into the place where cultures never die, where memories of words and purpose detach from form and texture.
To return from Delhi is not to come like Dante out of the Inferno, collecting stories from the damned, it is like never descending in the first place, only having heard an insane peddler’s second-hand account of his escapades in hell. To know India is to sacrifice all objectives and replace oneself with colors, curries, the oracles’ words along the banks of her rivers at dawn. It is to wander, and relinquish concern for where and if the city ever ends. Still, prophets may be found in the intermediaries, and to return without having broken the surface tension is still to have stolen a look without falling through.
When I think about Delhi, I know that the heat of the city will be one of the last sensations to slip from memory during my passage to old age. Delhi is hot. 115 degrees Fahrenheit hot, so that even without the fly ripening fruit stands and men napping in cuts of shade, it would be otherworldly. Like most of India, Delhi’s climate is dictated not only by the spinning of the earth and the relative tilt of land to the sun so that four distinct seasons divide a year, but also by a monsoon that travels north inseparable with flood. During summer, the Thar Desert, that stretches out of the state of Rajasthan and into Punjab and Sindh, heats up to around 120 degrees Fahrenheit and the rest of the Indian subcontinent to degrees only slightly less severe. An area of low pressure is created over northern and central India causing the moisture heavy winds of the Indian Ocean to move over land. Like so many mystics and travelers alike, they are drawn north toward the Himalayas. However, the sacred range keeps the winds from passing into Central Asia, forcing them to rise, where in the thinning atmosphere temperature plummets, and innumerable drops of rain condense and fall.
Still, there is more.
In order for a drop of rain to form and fall to earth, water must condense around a particle of dust, so that at the nucleus of every drop whose water was drawn from the Indian Ocean, exists the matter kicked up by cows rummaging through street trash, petrol fumes, cloth dyers’ pigments, the carcasses of crows, stray cat hairs, street stand masala chai, henna, mango rinds. India’s dust is constantly being lifted into the atmosphere and falling again to join the waters of the Indus, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, the Cauvery, the Narmada, the Tapi, the Yamuna and on and on. Some of this dust settles in the beds of these great rivers, and some of it is carried in streams of silt and returned to the sea from where it came.
As the monsoon and the heat waves move north, they push ahead young travelers with six month visas, so that the course of many people’s wanderings resemble many others. So that, from Kerala to Goa to McLeod Ganj, you may encounter the same dark eyed Israelis, the Japanese bohèmes, the Canadian post grads; the season in which you travel from guest house to guest house, the foreign cult surrounds you in the mist. Myles and I arrived in Delhi one of the first days of June, a little over a month before the rains came. It was the hottest time of the year. The travelers that season had already passed through on to colder, higher climates, just as we would soon, to explore around the high-altitude deserts of Ladakh.
After three days of travel to get to Delhi, all I wanted was to sink into sleep with cold and umber memories from home. Instead, it was hunger that spit us from our hotel onto the streets of Connaught Place where we walked the circled city. Delhi is overpopulated, yes, but there is a lot to be said for its infrastructure. The city is split between Old Delhi and New Delhi, at the heart of the latter is Connaught Place, a circular colonnade that forms the main bazaar, former headquarters of the British and home to one of the largest concentrations of commercial and financial business. The roofed sections doubled as a resting place for men and women leaning against scratched glass storefronts with their homes at their feet and stray dogs living their own lives not their masters’.
It was in one of these stores that I bought my first shalwar kameez, a traditional Indian outfit of tunic, trousers, and a scarf. I fooled myself into believing I almost fit in, my light hair braided and covered, my light eyes behind sunglasses. When dusk fell I almost did, slipping in and out of crowds without having my picture taken.
With darkness blanketing the unlit streets in Delhi, the sound of cow hooves and rickshaw horns was more vibrant than my magenta scarf lifting in the still air. What became important about the half dozen varieties of mango wasn’t the sunshine shade of pulp but the juice dripping from my elbows leaving a trail of stick and slime. The heat makes the mangos sweet, one man said, it is good for something. When a city whose story is told in color begins to darken, what’s left is the light thrown from street food stands into a crowd of hungry men, and the shimmer of wet cement around a pile of rugs where water was thrown to settle dust.
That night we fell asleep early, and woke before the heat began peaking toward noon. On the metro we touched strangers on all sides; boundaries of personal space melted to the grey floor from stop to stop as we wandered about the city. Men sleeping in strips of shade, the market stalls retreating into slums, the fruit ripening, sweetening, rotting in the sun. The grass turning back to dirt and the water channels dry. My braid plastered to my neck. Every woman in that city looked like a queen of burnt almonds and honey. I looked like a wax figure melting.
After reaching a point when we could not drink more, sweat more, when we were unsure whether it was hotter to walk or remain still, we began retreating to the promise of cold. Now things were beginning to fade, every ten feet looking like the last. We stopped in a Jain temple doubling as a bird hospital, shed our shoes and walked up flights of winding stairs to a room of more or less a thousand injured pigeons. Past white cows tethered to hay carts in the street, each rib an entity. Past slow moving dogs with open wounds. Piles of grain growing into a singular heap. A rhesus monkey descending the metro steps on two legs with all the confidence of a man. A boy sliding down the double railing on his stomach. The air weighted with dust and wavering light. The heat. The heat. The heat.