A woman yells at a man sitting with his wife and child—“Go back to Delhi!” Her shouts fade as I’m carried along a human wave to another line, another frisk, a shuttlebus to my gate, all the while wondering what he said or did—definitely something lewd. (And in front of his wife and kid!) The wind from the bus windows smells like diesel and over-ripe bananas. In the sprawl of shelters stacked along the airport’s borders, a woman hangs laundry while her son tries to get his kite to lift like the airplanes on the runway.
These were my first glimpses of Mumbai in January 2013, a sort of faraway nearby—a long, not-so-long time ago. My husband was my live-in boyfriend then, our son a germinating thought. Greta Thunberg was ten years old, Obama was President, and Bin Laden dead after a decade of war. #MeToo was not yet a movement, though women’s outrage stewed. I was in my late 30s and my biological clock was like two sliding electric doors that had been steadily inching closed.
Maybe I was thinking about India as some sort of last hurrah before I started a family. Maybe I was craving air-quote “authentic” travel, venturing beyond monuments, museums, and espressos, like my friends in the solar-powered eco rock band, Solar Punch, who were heading back to India for another tour. Founded by my now brother-in-law, Alan, a physicist, and his activist buddy James Dean, they rocked out to the environment, which is so weird it’s actually cool. Their music is upbeat and electric, popping with the oil-slick rainbows they write and sing about—in English and (language class) Hindi. For me, off-the-beaten track meant a crumbling castle with a nearby bar, but for them, it meant playing a cover of Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” to a military audience at the disputed border of freaking Kashmir.
So when the band started planning their fifth tour of India, sponsored by various NGOs and Bhavan’s College, I joked that I could be their stowaway. We were sitting around James and his wife Elisa’s kitchen table, watching footage from their travels on an iPad: a sea of saris, boats drifting down the Ganges, storefront temples bursting with gods. Some impulse came over me—I must go there! I must convince them to take me. Luckily, they weren’t too hard to convince; pay my own air ticket and I could tag along, the more the merrier. I’d see “the real deal India,” my almost brother-in-law Alan told me: rural places, urban places, on the road with the band, sleeping in ashrams. Was I prepared to have my mind blown?
The air is different in Ahmedabad—heavy with smoke, wood burning, hint of something chemical—and I suddenly understand the weather app’s forecast of “Smoke.” The band picks me up—they have a van and a driver—and whisks me a couple hours Southeast, to the Muni Seva Ashram in Goraj, where the air clears. We tour the 300-acre ashram campus with our host Deepak, a friendly gentleman with a ready smile, bald head, and neatly trimmed white beard. He lives and works at the ashram—an engineer, solar guru, and, crucially, Solar Punch’s liaison to NGOs.
James introduces me as “writer, friend, and fellow veg-head!” Alan adds, “And also my brother’s girlfriend,” to which Deepak says, “Ah, you are already family, but welcome to our family!”
There’s a cancer research hospital, a nursing college, an orphanage, daycare and elder-care centers, residential schools, a guest center, and an organic farm here, about 90% of which are off-grid. Deepak leads us beyond the vine-covered brick buildings to a grove of solar dishes. Though some mirrors are cracked, the hundred or so parabolic dishes supply enough power to run the hospital’s air-conditioning. “The technology of the future is already here!” jokes Deepak as he points toward the sun.
On the way to lunch, we pass women with pots atop their heads and greet them “Jai Shree Krishna” – a local “go-with-god” pleasantry. Skinny palms painted with orange and white mandalas and ohms shade the path. In front of the hospital is a courtyard that can be used for reflection or prayer, but the ashram’s purpose is not religious practice. Deepak tells me, “Our ashram is where you can pursue your own interests and capacity without there being any expectation of you.”
Relief! I didn’t entirely understand what an ashram was or could be, thought they were the Eat Pray Love variety. I’m already anxious about being a burden, like some exotic pet that Alan foolishly brought along. I’m not a musician, nor a photographer like James’ wife, Elisa, or an electrician like Matt, the other two tag-alongs, and though I care about the environment and social justice, I’m more of an armchair activist. Always a nervous traveler, my brain is a skipping record of self-scolding about why I can’t seem to ever pack appropriate clothing or purchase good travel shoes; I always get blisters, pack clothes that don’t suit the occasion or weather. I plan too-long trips and get morosely homesick at the half-way mark. I fear contracting parasites and getting kidnapped by sex traffickers. I’m a terrible sleeper. My main goal for this trip is to make it home without any of my companions figuring out what a freak I am.
I’ve secretly vowed to be super cautious about food—no fruit, nothing raw, and only bottled or treated water; luckily there is a reverse ionization station at the ashram, and the water is refreshingly cold and slightly metallic-tasting. In the corner of the dining room, an old woman sits cross-legged over a large cutting board, chopping a turnip-like root beside the biggest bowl of shredded chard I’ve seen since my post-college days as a prep cook. The ashram food in front of me is delicious and simple: dal, creamy yogurt raita, a curried potato dish, and plenty of steaming rice and naan. A jar of a red pepper condiment is the centerpiece of each table. I pile on more awesome pepper stuff, my eyes watering, imagining the microbes screaming and dying in my gut.
James, Alan and I linger over cups of sweet, delicious chai as Deepak tells us about his late wife, recently lost to cancer. They met as young professionals in Germany, and, idealists in love, returned to India.
“My wife was educating people about deforestation, poison in food, telling people what they didn’t want to hear. I was glad to have her occupied so I could pursue what I wanted—typical man,” he says, sheepish grin. “When I asked her, ‘Why are you happy while I’m so unhappy?’ she told me, ‘I am happy because I’m doing what is right,’” he taps his heart, “‘and you’re unhappy because you’re always trying to prove yourself.’”
He quit his job at a chemical company and joined her NGO.
“A-ha moment,” James twirls circles around his mess of dark hair, “when you realize your labor and your values are majorly conflicted!” James has the charisma, drive, even the look (long face, sideburns, bushy eyebrows) of the leader of a benign cult.
When Deepak’s cellphone chirps, he excuses himself, off to solve some issue. He has the energy of well-fed hummingbird, and the ashram is his nectar.
After lunch, as we pass a playground, I spot a dozen or so gray langur monkeys. They have dark little intense faces; their fur shines almost silver in the sun. Some groom each other, brushing and picking out insects. The adults are easily twenty or thirty pounds, with spikey fur. Alan warns, “Don’t smile or show your teeth—it’s a sign of aggression.” They sit on top the swing-set bars, run up the slides, then slide down on their backs. The ashram children wisely keep their distance and watch, untangling their kite strings.
Jet lag summons me hours before dawn. I lie awake in bed in my part of the basic suite I share with James and Elisa until the sky lightens. I attempt to shower, but the water is painfully cold, so I settle for a five-second rinse. The guesthouse is mostly for people visiting relatives at the hospital—looks like a four-story octagonal motel with a center courtyard. Outside, I follow the sound of a bell to a small, dome-topped temple where a few men wave incense and pray.
By late morning, we’re in the van, traveling a few miles down the road to Vivekanand, the ashram’s solar-powered residential school. Children sit waiting on tarps, grouped by T-shirt color. The band plugs their equipment into the sun: amp to battery to inverter to four flexible solar panels (sixty-eight watts each) that look like silver yoga mats. Joe taps his drumsticks, igniting minor key chords, and, in unison, they sing: “Ohhhhhh mi kri ya nana!” The song “Surya Namaskara” is an ancient Sanskrit mantra that Alan has written music to. The kids are laser-focused on the guys bouncing around the drop-cloth stage; one boy smiles into his fist, and another pops his eyes out, wha? Who are these middle-aged white freaks singing in Hindi?
As the band transitions to “Running Clean,” with its ska-reggae riffs, its wah-wah-WAH guitar solos, it’s like a hand of sound transports me to my past, my college days in upstate New York, spinning in tie-dye to folksy rock. Swinging my hips in the blazing sun, I land back in India as the band harmonizes: “RUNNING greeeeeen!” Pale, lumbering Andy is grooving on bass in his ear-and-neck-flap safari hat. Alan bounces in a red-and-black ball cap, while drummer Joe, a red bandana tied around his shaved head, bucks his body with the beat. Front-man James dances his guitar around barefoot, sunglasses atop his frizzy hair. They’re all excellent musicians, and their songs are the sort of the kid-friendly stuff that adults dig too.
Then, we are all moving to a Bollywood cover song—“Yunhi Chala Chal”— dancing with cupped hands and fluttering butterfly fingers. The Bollywood hits are to warm up their audiences for American eco-rock, and that they do. Transitioning to a sing-along, James asks the kids to repeat the chorus: “Oh, it’s hot in here! / There’s too much carbon in the atmosphere!” They repeat it earnestly, and I do, too.
During “Goa” the power flickers. Alan shimmies toward the amp as the sound dies, James transitioning from the “Oh!” of the song, to a “whoa, whoa, whoa what happened to the power?” Drum solo as Alan fiddles with cables, and James uses the glitch as a teachable moment, saying, “When the sun is your power, you have to charge up!” Karishma, a young woman in pink jeans from the ashram, translates. The voltmeter reading is 12—should be enough juice, yet it’s not getting to the amp. (Later, they’ll determine that the batteries, provided by the ashram, are old, not holding the charge). Teachers pass around lezims—bow-shaped instruments made from metal tubes and cymbals attached to a chain—and we improvise, dancing in a conga line, shaking the lezims to Joe’s drumming and Andy’s rattling of goat hooves.
After the show, girls beckon me from their open dorm windows. They want me to take their photo, and affect serious, family-portrait smiles. They break into toothy grins as they gather around to see their faces on my digital camera. As we chat about school, one girl tells me, “I love technology class.” I say, “Girl power!” and we fist bump.
We load the van, and I realize one way I can be useful is by carrying things. When Alan hands me the power inverter, a blue box the size of a DVD player, I whisper “my precious, my precious” as I ferry it to the van. I notice our driver Manush’s dashboard shrine, a diorama covered with tinseled fabric. He explains that there are major gods and millions of other deities from which people can choose their own. I recognize Ganesh’s elephant head, Saraswati with her many arms. “Sort of like Catholics choose a favorite Saint to pray to,” I say, and he nods politely. In contrast to Catholicism’s formal mass, Hindi worship seems laid back, spontaneous, and integrated into daily life.
I’ll start to notice god statues rising up from traffic circles; framed, colorful prints for sale everywhere, from truck stops to street vendors; and in storefront temples, life-size idols, called murtis, draped with strings of lights. I’ll recognize Guru Nanek by his long white moustache and cotton-like beard. So many gods, so little time.
We wake before the monkeys and birds. We’re piling our stuff by the van—suitcases, guitars, drum kit, collapsible solar panels, precious inverter. Goat toe-shakers. After downing cups of chai brought to us by the kind ashram staff, I take my vitamins, which I’ve been popping like a body-builder. (I read that A, C, and Goldenseal make the body inhospitable to parasites). I’m trying to cram my imitation Frye boots into my suitcase, the smallest one I own—every time I open my bag, they pop out like snakes in a can. I thought they’d protect my legs from mosquitos, but it’s way too hot for leather boots and I haven’t seen a single mosquito, plus they are a pain to pull off every time we enter a temple, home, school, or canteen.
Our new driver’s name is Shakil. “Like the basketball player, Shaquille O’Neil?” Andy jokes, and Shakil laughs and motions ‘tall.’ We are heading toward northeast Gujarat to Adipur, a town about 100 miles from the Pakistani border, a twelve hour drive. Gujarat is about half the size of the neighboring states of Rajasthan and Maharashtra; on a map, it’s a big-jawed dog head chomping at the Arabian Sea.
When the sun bursts over the horizon, it spreads like a smear of honey across the bread of land. Fog drifts like ghosts over the fields of castor oil plants with their furry, clustered buds. As we pass through a village, people are whizzing by on mopeds, setting up fruit stands and food shacks. Skinny stray dogs, all the same sand-brown color, trot along the dirt roads or nap in shady corners.
Elisa is explaining ISO and shutter speeds to twenty-something Matt, who is a sponge— an amateur documentarian, he’s helping with filming. He’s got freckles, arrow cheekbones, a carrot-colored ponytail.
Matt asks James if he’s a part of a particular “green” meet-up in the New York burbs.
“Fancy drinks and blah-blah-blah,” James scoffs. “Maybe I’m being a little harsh, but there’s a lot of talk in those groups, no focus on action, and I get frustrated with that.” James, he’s definitely a doer.
His more relaxed other half, Elisa, nods, absently tugging her braids. “I mean, sometimes you’ve got to start small and hope it catches on.”
The first five hours unfold like those time-lapse videos. On the highway, through the haze of pollution, parades of commercial trucks with tarp-wrapped loads remind me of a traveling circus, each one painted with flowers, birds, gods, snakes, diamonds, and triangles; strings of pom-poms hang off side mirrors and façades rise like masks announcing, GOODS CARRIER! Each truck is a temple to its driver’s gods. Rainbow psychedelic words announce: HORN PLEASE! At the toll, a handler stands outside the booth and hands the rupees to the attendant. I wonder if this middleman is to discourage robbery, employ more people, or for some other function?
After lunch at an unassuming rest stop, Hotel Janpath, where we order an enormous quantity of tasty food, including the spiciest green biriyani I’ve tasted, all for under twenty bucks, we’re back on the road. When all traffic halts for a passing freight train, all vehicles—trucks, mopeds, cars—pile haphazardly at the rail gate as young men circle through, peddling corn nuts out of baskets.
“We find out all sorts of weird stuff about each other on these tours,” Andy tells me in his Brooklyn-ese, all drawn-out vowels and dropped r’s. “Like, Joe’s the Stooge Guy!”
Drummer Joe is fiddling on his iPod, removes an earbud.
“Yup. Three Stooges Fan Club, bidding for stuff on eBay. I even went to see Curly’s grave,” Joe admits. He loves how there’s always someone breaking character. “I moved around a lot as a kid, but wherever we were, I could count on watching The Stooges after school.”
“That’s how I felt about The Grateful Dead growing up!” Andy says. “Like I knew them!”
Speaking of dead, an hour later, while staring out the window, I spot an old Sikh, white tunic, pants, and turban, lying in a fetal position on the line that marks the shoulder.
“Did you see that old man?” I ask Alan.
“Yeah. Weird. Maybe he was resting?” he says, rubbing his hand over his Adam Sandler-style haircut.
“Why would he rest in the road?” I ask.
Our companions are napping, and Shakil is speeding along.
“Don’t worry, someone will come for him,” Alan says. “Indians take care of their dead.”
The van’s curtains are partially closed against the relentless sun. A video plays on a TV above the driver’s seat, costumed women dancing to hypnotic, syncopated music of high-pitched yodeling, called Navratri Garba—a harvest prayer to the mother goddess. It’s a fitting soundtrack for this intense, trippy drive.
A few hours outside Adipur, James makes some calls on the phone Deepak loaned us. “Yes, I’m looking for Miss Reetu,” he says. Then, “Oh, no. Is she okay?”
As Director of the India Youth Climate Network, Reetu has co-sponsored Solar Punch’s previous tours. When she heard they were coming to Bhavan’s College, she talked them into this 400 mile detour.
“Reetu went to the hospital this morning. Fainted,” James explains. “Someone else will meet us.”
Murmurs of concern for her echo throughout the van.
“Things won’t go as planned, but they’ll go,” Alan says, a bit of Indian wisdom he’s picked up.
A salt desert, the Rann of Kutch, separates India from Pakistan, and beside windmills churning the hazy sky are canyons of dug-out earth. Elisa points her long lens out the window at huge frustums of mined salt, like flat-topped white pyramids. Beside them in a dirt lot, families have lined up with jugs at a water truck, children leaning into their parents, everyone reasonably waiting.
I first fell in love with India, or the idea of India, when I was a teenager. My best friend in high school, Shanta, had Indian immigrant parents. Her parents worked for IBM, and her mom stuffed us with samosas every weekend. Her family had the same lazy Susan of chutneys and condiments on their kitchen table as I’ve seen everywhere here. Every summer they traveled to India for a month, and Shanta returned with stories of week-long weddings and secret crushes—scandalous flirtations with distant cousins—and bearing exotic gifts—golden bangles, rings, tapestries, embroidered purses and shirts.
Then I met G., a gorgeous boy from a different high school. He had a sexy, Morrisey-like wave of black hair, was tall, lanky, soft-spoken, and radiated cool. His great-grandparents had left India for South Africa, and his parents left South Africa for New York when G. was a junior. We were star-crossed sweethearts, however, as my parents forbade me to date him, my Italian mother claiming there were too many “cultural differences” that I was too young to understand. They were too late, anyway, because I was already in love—my first love, falling like free-fall Six Flags rides, body tingling with adrenaline, mind buzzing with thoughts of him. My parents would not even discuss the matter, and my list of pro-G. arguments (I was on the Mock Trial team) went unheard. G. was sweet, smart, responsible, Ivy league bound like me, and loved photography, nature, movies, and New Wave music. His family always welcomed me with open arms, and not in a fake way. His mom was pretty and wore jeans and sweaters. She worked full-time supporting the family while his dad repeated his medical residency. Since we couldn’t hang out at my house, we were always at his, and I’d often stay for dinner; I broke naan with them several times a week. But G. and I couldn’t overcome the obstacle of my parents, and so we broke up in college, and lost touch soon after.
Perhaps they were sure G. would break my heart, but ultimately, the opposite was true: my parents broke my heart, and the missing chunk eventually grew back thickened with scar tissue. Only after watching several Indian films on the Air India flight over do I realize that my own romantic saga was well-suited to a Bollywood drama.
Crawling along a paved lane crowded with people, cattle, and mopeds zipping beside ancient bicycles, we pull up to a sand-colored building with mauve trim, the Lachhwani Dharamshala— a resting place for travelers. Inside the gate, there’s a large courtyard surrounded by a two-story structure. Two men meet us, one young, one old. The elderly man stands beside a moped with an extra set of wheels. He’s here in place of Reetu. After a quick round of introductions, a brief discussion about the room situation ensues—seven of us and four rooms, one single on the upper level, away from the others. The room doors are outfitted with locker-style locks.
Elisa grabs James’s hand, says that she and James are married, so can share a room. When it sounds like as an unmarried female, I will be put in a room by myself, upstairs, I stutter a meek protest, “I don’t think….” as blood rushes to my neck.
I’m scared to be by myself.
Alan notices my unease, asks if I’d be more comfortable rooming with him, and Matt can stay in the single. “This is my sister,” he explains to the men, and the issue is solved. It’s not totally untrue. I give Alan a quick bow, Namaste.
Our room is in need of a good scrub down. The beds are thin pads on metal frames, no sheets, and there’s a rusty cabinet for clothes. “How do you flush?” I ask, pointing to the blue toilet with no handle.
“Ah,” Alan says. “You fill a bucket with water and pour it in.” I used to be an avid back-woods camper, so try to adjust my mindset.
“Is this the dingiest place you’ve stayed in India?” I whisper to Drummer Joe, who has wandered in to observe Alan’s toilet-flushing demo.
“God no,” Joe says, his left eye twitching. With his neatly-shaved head, meticulous goatee, and hint of aftershave, he looks and smells like he just stepped out of his Queens apartment. “Bangalore was. We brought home bed bugs.”
I hold up my hand, stop. Brother Alan, meanwhile, tests out his key in the lock.
In Adipur, Solar Punch is scheduled to play for the Indian Institute of Sindhology the next day. Before the partition, Hindu and Muslim Sindhis co-existed, sharing a language and culture. After the partition, Hindus were forced into India, while Muslims remained in Pakistan, resulting in one of largest diasporas in history. Adipur became a refugee camp for displaced people, and the Institute of Sindhology was founded to preserve Sindhi language, literature, and culture.
Back in the van, Shakil follows our guide, a man a motorbike, through the dusty streets. A 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck in 2001, and the town has only partially recovered—among the concrete buildings, towering piles of rubble remain. Gentle-eyed oxen are nosing through open dumpsters and debris. We’re dropped at the town square, which has ’80s theme park vibe: Ferris wheel, fountains, concessions, and a murky manmade reservoir in which dragon-shaped pedal boats glide.
“Back home, you get fined for honking, but here it’s encouraged!” Matt says over the deafening noise. The main intersection beside us has no signal; I bite my knuckles as a boy on a bike is nearly hit by a car. The air is thick with exhaust fumes. It’s rush hour on the eve of the Uttarayan, the International Kite Festival.
I am overwhelmed and over-stimulated in a I-could-die-here-and-no-one-would-find-me kind of way. Inside a grass courtyard, there’s mural of three wise monkeys, each one covering his eyes, ears, or mouth; below them is Gandhi with his walking stick. Something about the mural comforts me. We all go to check it out, and since the park has a shrine, we have to remove our shoes—I chide myself for wearing sneakers instead of flip-flops like the others.
The townspeople are all staring, smiling. Three young women see my camera and ask me to take their photo, and so I do. A man asks me to pose with his young daughter. He looks happy, like he just won something. His daughter says, “You look like Taylor Swift!” (Aww. How kind; if Taylor Swift was pushing 40, I think.) The father asks, “Where are you from?” He tells us we are the first Americans ever to visit Adipur. Could this be true?
The motorbike guide wants us to ride the rickety-looking Ferris wheel. No effin’ way, I think. Andy sits it out with me. As we watch it whirl against a pink smog sunset, Andy says, “Nobody comes here. We are in a place no one goes,” his voice filled with awe.
“Nor is even on the road atlas,” I say, a tad concerned.
“Reetu, she’s a trip. She’s brought us to places we’d never even dream about. She’ll turn up,” he says. “I’m not worried,” he adds, probably because I look petrified.
As they stumble off the ride, Elisa says, “You know those little things called safety bars? Ha! I was holding on for my dear life!” My eyes say, I told you so.
“You’ve arrived at a very special time! Lohri is the harvest festival,” greets our mysterious solar sylph, Reetu, an attractive, thirty-something woman with a Jackie-O bob. We’ve arrived at a house in a nice part of town, and a bonfire burns in the communal yard among the half-dozen houses. Reetu is as bubbly as a cheerleader, hugs each band member, hugs me. I notice the Band-Aids on her arm—she’s had an IV. (Nervous exhaustion I’ll later hear.)
Lohri, she explains, happens every January, thanking the gods for the harvest and welcoming the longer days ahead. Reetu invites us to remove our shoes and walk around the bonfire three times, as is custom. The night has grown cool and the heat feels good on my arms. As I circle, my mantra is: Relax, let go, relax, let go. A child hands around sweet sesame brittle wrapped in newspaper. I thank him, and he smiles shyly, brings more.
Finally, the old man from the dharamshala ushers us into a house, gesturing with his cane. The living room shelves are filled with English-language literature, much of it American—Dickinson, Hemingway, Carver—which surprises me. The man has thick, white hair and a wide, pockmarked nose, and his eyes are a blue-violet color.
We go around again with our names again—his is Bijanni.
“May I call you Johnny?” I ask.
Silence for a second—I think I’ve been too informal—and then he barks a cackle, and Reetu laughs, too.
Reetu says, “Jani means heart, a term of endearment, like my love.”
My face reddens, but the nickname sticks; everyone starts calling him that.
Johnny has a deep, gravelly voice, and speaks in commands. When he says, “You will be my adopted granddaughter!” and insists that I sit beside him and act as the server—fill bowls from a pot of dal—I do as I’m told. A cell phone chirps, James’s pocket, Deepak’s phone, and he fumbles for it – someone for Deepak.
A woman brings platters of food—various curries, a cabbage dish, more homemade naan, all delicious. I wonder if this is Johnny’s house, if the woman is Johnny’s wife, and I’m trying to figure out what Reetu’s connection is—she is staying upstairs, but lives in Kashmir. Johnny jokes that she is emotional, and mimics crying; she tells him to cut it out.
After dinner, I’m so ready to collapse that when I see Johnny’s moped with the extra wheels, I say, “I should hitch a ride with you.”
Though I was kidding, Johnny invites me to hop on. I feel a rush of fear, remembering the traffic from earlier, and implore, “Please go slow!” The van follows us the three blocks—I didn’t realize how close we were—to the dharamshala. When I hop off, Johnny pinches my cheek, then taps it, like my Sicilian grandmother used to.
Because it is too loud to sleep—Gujarati techno fills the streets—Alan, Matt, and I wander outside the gate, which an innkeeper has opened. An old woman sits on a stoop, and young men crowd the street around a bonfire. I look up the road—it is dotted with many fires. There is a party vibe, and the guys seem to be drunk or high, though Gujarat is a dry state.
“Please, come!” a young man invites us to walk around his fire. “Five times!” he says, and I wonder, why five? I remove my sneakers, and walk quickly, feeling like a hot dog on a spit, inwardly chanting: “Relax! relax!”
The grandmother fills my hand with puffed rice, and I’m not sure what to do with it so stuff it in my pocket. Young men crowd Alan. “Where are you from?” they ask. Matt, with his shockingly red hair, is also a celebrity. Something about the young men’s eyes, as they take me in, is unreadable, neither lascivious nor disinterested.
The brutal gang rape and murder of a young woman on a bus in Delhi occurred a month earlier, so I’m hyper aware of the intensely male energy. I notice that other than the grandma, I’m the only woman around. I make my way to Alan, who is encircled by excited young men, and grab his arm. “Bro, we should head back,” I say, and he agrees.
Our room is dimly lit from a single bulb, and a border of cracked decorative tile runs along the walls. The bathroom has two spigots, one for feet, the other chest high. Someone told Alan there’d be hot water at 7 am. We examine the mattresses with the light of our phones, finding various stains, but nothing living. “No bugs,” I say, singing, “Wel-come to the Hotel Dharamshala….” Brother laughs, hands me a blanket from his suitcase so that I can sleep on top of the blanket on the bed as there are no sheets. I pop a Xanax and offer him one, which he gladly accepts.
I lie there, listening to muffled beats outside our bar-covered window, remembering the dead man on the road from earlier, his bright white turban. I drift off, thinking about how I should have packed a sheet instead of four pair of capris.
We wake to a prayer bell clanking outside the street-facing window. It’s 6 am. By six-thirty, there’s a bucket of warm water outside our door, and I realize what was meant by hot water. I let Alan have it and soak my head in a freezing stream under the bathroom’s spigot.
Johnny arrives and is cheerfully barking —“Al-an! Mr. James?” We follow his four-wheeler moped to a local family’s home. The woman has a spread that covers several tables, and her twenty-something son, also a Deepak, jokes she’s been cooking for days. Everywhere we go, we are met with beautiful food, no two meals the same, and nothing like Americanized Indian food with the same heavy gravy. The woman tells us that undhiyu is a special Kite Festival dish; eggplant and green beans and purple yam simmered in a yummy crimson sauce. Delicious. The adadiya, a winter cake made with sixty-four spices, tastes like gingerbread. On the balcony, we eat and watch the sky fill with kites; rhombus shapes and diamonds, solid colors and rainbows.
Later, at the concert venue, an old auditorium with royal blue seats, the band sets up the solar panels in the courtyard to charge the batteries. Inside, Matt is like Spiderman on a ladder (wearing webbed water shoes) adjusting the stage lights. As the band starts a sound check, Johnny arrives—time for lunch!
What? We just feasted two hours ago!
Back to Johnny’s house we go. Sitting around the same table, Johnny asks me, “What are you teaching in your college?”
“Short stories and poetry,” I say.
He tells me that he is a librarian. That explains all the books.
As the others mill around, Johnny urges me to take a second helping of food. I’m full so I decline. Suddenly, he reaches out, pinches my cheek, then slaps it. Hard. Brief sting, and I’m like, what the hell was that?
I wander outside, lightly rubbing my cheek.
As evening falls, we wait backstage, wondering if people will show up. Soon folks trickle in, and the venue fills with the local well-heeled, formally dressed in sarees and kurtas. Reetu and Johnny offer speeches in English and Sindhi. By the end, there’s a crowd up front, dancing and singing along to the Bollywood covers.
The band chats with fans outside as the rest of us pack the van. We are only five days in, and I’m wondering how I’m going to make it through ten. Averaging five hours of sleep a night, I feel something like mania kicking in, a delirium brought on from exhaustion, malaria pills, and culture shock.
I’m pacing, following lithe Matt as he moves equipment. I’m carrying the inverter, whispering my precious, and chattering at him. My stream-of-consciousness covers cataclysmic exes, months in the woods, dusty Texas towns, a divorce and rebounds. Free-spirited Matt is a sensitive art-guy, humors me kindly, listening, saying, “That’s crazy! What happened next?”
It’s about 10 p.m. when Johnny wants to take us to local restaurant. I pull Brother Alan aside, tell him about Johnny’s pinching and cheek slapping, and his eyes narrow. “Yeah, I’ve noticed he seems fixated on you.”
At the restaurant, Johnny motions me over, but I pretend not to notice and, instead, sit near Joe. Alan slips into the seat beside Johnny. I don’t want to be an ungrateful visitor, so I justify the pinch-slaps as a generational thing that I’ve invited or misunderstood. He’s old, lonely, set in his ways, and I feel a little sorry for him. Not sorry enough to let him near me, though.
Before we head back to the dharamshala, Johnny insists that we go for ice cream. “That’s nice of you, thank you, but we leave before dawn,” James says, trying to beg off. But Shakil follows Johnny’s motorbike down the dark streets. Johnny marches up to the ice cream place—it’s closed—then stumbles, and falls. Collective gasp! Shakil helps him up, he’s ok. Like us, Johnny, too, has pushed himself.
Later, as I rearrange my overstuffed suitcase, I notice that Alan’s bag is empty except for a change of clothes, blanket, sheet, and Ziplock of toiletries. Brother’s smart packing inspires me to downsize. I stash a yellow cardigan and three Gap tees in the rusty cabinet for a housekeeper to find.
Before dawn, Johnny arrives to see us off, wearing the same suit as the night before. He hands around gifts, each wrapped in newspaper.
“I’ll see you next time,” he says, big smile. I offer him my hand, and as he lightly shakes my fingers, I silently forgive him.
In the van, Joe’s muttering, “Let’s get the hell out of Dodge” and I’m like, “A-fucking-men.” Elisa tells us that she heard from Reetu that Johnny never married—“He’s an old bachelor,” she says. We each open our gifts, a book plus a chocolate. My book is Sindhi short stories and poetry translated to English; the chocolate is a jani, heart. I unwrap the foil, bite. It tastes like Hershey’s.
Fire on the highway! Burnt shell of a lorry, flames spewing coal-black plumes as the trucker and few good Samaritans watch. We are taking a different route back to the Muni Seva ashram, through Ahmedabad to drop Matt at the airport for his evening flight. I’m secretly jealous that he gets to go home. I’m beyond tired; I just want to pop laxatives, binge watch Netflix, and sleep for days. I miss my boyfriend, Scott. (We could only afford one airline ticket and that’s why I came alone). What kind of delusional hubris had made me think I could handle being a groupie on a solar band’s third-world tour?
At first, I was a little skeptical of the whole first world preaching to the (post-Colonial) third world thing. Coming from our American culture of gas-guzzling conspicuous over-consumption, how can we tell people who have nothing how they should live, how to be green? But Indians like Solar Punch’s earnest “let’s all help each other be green” vibe, and, in fact, keep inviting them back. Alan told me that India has been interested in solar for decades, more so than the US. Everywhere we go, people have been happy to engage in conversations about solar. After all, India has 300 days of sunshine per year, a stat I hear repeated over and over. Plus Americans are well-liked; everyone has some auntie in Cali or Jersey.
Though we are in Ahmedabad—pronounced Am-da-vad by locals—I’m dreaming ahead to the mythical Bombay of my youth, like gin and the Stevie Nicks song, a place Brother said would be easier, rife with shopping bazaars. I can’t resist the favorable exchange rate, fifty-three rupees to a dollar! (A chai costs three rupees).
Ahmedabad is the financial capital of Gujarat, and billboards for banks and telecom companies hover above the oxen in the streets. Deepak’s phone chirps. It’s Deepak! He wants Shakil to take us to the Adalaj Stepwell. An ancient water well built by a Muslim king, it’s like a pink sandcastle, five stories deep, arches carved with lace-like intricacy.
At the Stepwell entrance, a woman asks, “Please, take a photo with us?” I pose with her and her three daughters, each with a vermillion teardrop between her eyebrows, then I hand my camera to the father. I will be in their vacation photos, and they in mine.
Next, we stop at the Gandhi ashram, where Gandhi lived from 1917–1930 in a simple room: white walls, stone floor. The mystery of the three monkeys is revealed—one of his only possessions was a statue of three monkeys that he used as a paperweight. Their message: do not speak lies. Do not hide your eyes and ears to reality. The museum has airy redwood ceilings, photos of Gandhi and placards with his writings, like: “One cannot follow truth or love as long as one is subject to fear.” I jot this down, underlining fear.
After an early dinner, we bid Matt farewell with hugs and speed off to the Muni Seva ashram for a night before two more heavy travel days. I flip through Johnny’s slim volume of Indian Literature, a 1987 bi-monthly he has signed and dated so that I will remember him. Many of the poems remind me of haiku. Like: “Where is the sun’s disc? / Where have the moon and stars fled? / The season etches a line of cranes / like a horoscope in the sky.”
Out the window, I almost expect cranes, but see kites: caught in trees and utility wires, they look like prayer flags. Suspended in the air like so much confetti, the kites are spectacular to witness, and like Reetu said, it feels lucky that our trip overlapped with the festival. Though beauty has a price—Reetu also told me that the strings are coated with glass, to cut down other kites in competition, and as a consequence, they decapitate thousands of birds. Bloody bird heads flash in my mind, but I shake the thought out. Instead, I wonder: what will become of all these kites?
Between Ahmedabad and Vadodara, an industrial corridor dominated by petrochemical plants, the weather changes, and it feels like a sci-fi movie about the apocalypse. It’s a carbon fog: a noxious mix of factory pollution, diesel vehicle emissions, and the smoke from the burning of fields. I bury my face in my hoodie, coughing. This will pass, I think as the van speeds through the hell-on-earth dark. I recall that dead Sikh on the road, his hand reaching at a grotesque angle; those blue-faced temple gods with white-lipped knowing smiles.
It will let up, I figure, it must, right? But it doesn’t, and there is nothing to see or think about for hours except the choking smoke, each shallow breath. Through my mind flows a tickertape of panicked resolutions—boycotting plastic bags and bottles, composting, going door-to-door with clipboards to stop fracking! I’m going minimalist, out with the clothes, pillows, knick knacks. Not throw out, recycle! This is the mental looping that travel sparks: the realizations about my own hypocritical heart.
When I close my eyes, I see a planet engulfed in flames. A line from a famous Carolyn Forche poem pops into my head, when a sinister Colonel shows Carolyn a bag of dried, severed human ears: “Something for your poetry?”
Everyone is quiet. It is as if a continental forest fire rages nearby, and we are rushing to escape its path, but can’t. I’m scared, sad, angry, too. Every climate change denier should be forced to ride hell’s highway before they open their big, fat mouths. Everyone should.
By the time we arrive at the ashram, past midnight, I’m sobbing. “I didn’t realize it was this bad,” I blubber. “Maybe climate change is beyond fixing, maybe that’s why no one fucking cares! This is just crazy. How do people live here?”
James and Elisa wrap me in a group hug, saying, “We know. We know.”
“The first time we came here, I felt the same way,” Elisa says. “Still do, actually, it’s just maybe lost a little of its shock value.”
The next morning, the air is still smoky, and we have a two-year old, Karishma’s daughter, Niteshi, in the van with us to Atgam.
When Karishma asks me if I have any children, I say, “No, not yet.” I think: will I ever have a child? If I do, what kind of world will he or she inherit?
Niteshi is coughing, poor kid, until we get to Atgam, where the air clears, and her cough suddenly stops. Later, I’ll take a Q-tip to my ear and twist; soot black.
The school children we’ve met know formal English phrases, “How are you” and “What is your name?” and “Where are you from?” In Atgam, our driver Shakil’s hometown, they dress in gorgeous embroidered orange lehengas flecked with mirrors, their hands painted with henna, and welcome us to their school in a receiving line, arms swimming in tandem, conjuring Saraswati. I accept a jasmine lei around my neck, bow, then sneeze. The girls perform an amazingly choreographed harvest dance, and it is all sweetly elaborate—the whole town has shown up.
This stop was a last-minute extra; Shakil bartered the Atgam performance for a reduced van rental rate. That’s how the band makes these tours work; they don’t bring home any money; through bartering and whatever they get paid for shows, they pay for their airline tickets, transportation and food, and deal with whatever freebee accommodations are provided. (They all have day jobs back home, of course).
Above the outdoor stage is a professionally printed banner: “Welcome Solar Punch Rock Band From USA! Courtesy of Shakil.” After the band performs half a set to enthusiastic applause, pre-teen girls crowd around, asking us for our autographs. “I will remember this day forever!” one says, holding out her henna hands—I’ve asked her if I can photograph them.
A girl wearing a pink tunic gushes, “I love your English!” then asks me, “Have you met Justin Bieber?” I admit, sadly, that I have not. “That is my dream,” she says, clutching her heart. “He’s pretty awesome,” I agree.
We are, as usual, unwitting actors in a complex theater of Indian hospitality. We move from house to house, eat what’s offered—pakoras, biscuits, sesame brittle and something new, khandvi, resembling thinly rolled pasta, made from a chickpeas-yogurt batter and seasoned with mustard seeds and chilies.
It is early evening when James calls his contact at Bhavan’s College, in Mumbai, about checking into the dorm. His long face clouds. He’s got the phone on speaker, saying, “Adi, my friend, this has been confirmed many, many times.” The college kid is like, “Sorry, very sorry.”
It is the weekend of Kite Festival and we have no place to stay the night. And they’re short one bed for the other nights. James sighs sharply, scratching his head. “We’ll figure it out.”
Andy says, “Remember the time they just, like, closed the state border on us?”
Brother Alan waves off the story, no need to revisit near-disasters. “Things will not go as planned,” he says.
“But things will . . . go?” I offer.
Oh, I’ve slept on my share of floors, airports, cars, but now I’m feeling rattled and fragile. The band is not in control; James is not, nor is Deepak. India is like a carnival of fireflies guarded by an army of cats.
I open the road atlas to get my bearings, and, oddly, there’s a proverb: “Everything anyone says about India is always true, but the opposite is also true.” I feel this in my bones. I am trying to let go, yet still, in my innermost place, I hear: I want, I need, I want. I daydream about hairdryers and flat irons, then feel guilty. Internet, phone, Google maps, Amazon, Starbucks, A/C, hot showers, all those conveniences that are so second nature they almost seem a part of me, but also majorly contribute to climate change.
We cross the state line into Maharashtra, stopping for food and cold, refreshing Kingfisher beer, the Bud of India. The beer cheers us up. Back in the van, Andy’s says, looking on the bright side, “The Beatles only spent seven days in India. We’re better than the Beatles,” he flashes a wacky grin. “Not better, but you know.”
“I love being in this band,” he adds, as if the beer has loosened something sentimental in him. “It makes me a better person,” he says. “You know, doing stuff that matters, being present, all that.” I know what he means; eight days ago, I wouldn’t have, but now I do.
When we’re an hour so from Mumbai, we begin stopping at every motel we see. Each time, James and Shakil go to the front desk then return, shaking their heads, no. Parking lots are clogged with families sleeping in minivans, under tarps, in cars. It feels hopeless.
Finally, at the last motel before the city limits, James and Shakil emerge, thumbs up. There is one room left—a 9-bed suite—for extended families staying together. Eight twin beds separated by nightstands, one queen in an alcove, and a huge bathroom with two separate shower areas. After everyone gets a hot shower, we spread out as there are more beds than there are us.
I call out “G’night!” securing my sleep mask and earplugs. Within minutes, someone’s snores sound like the ocean from a block away.
The GreenKarbon Festival at Bhavan’s College in West Mumbai, is, as it touts, 100% solar powered—there are two stages, solar cooking demos, booths with recycled-material gifts. We wind up with enough beds – I share a clean, basic dorm room with Brother. Solar Punch performs their first gig with their faces painted like tigers and monkeys.
When we cab it to Radio One for a scheduled interview, I get to see Mumbai up close: miles of gray, concrete apartment-towers, their caged-off balconies hung with laundry, and sprawling slums packed in between colonial-era buildings covered with scaffolding. The traffic is an endless, intense snarl. Eleven miles in the early afternoon takes us nearly two hours. The journalist calls the Radio One office to say she is stuck in traffic. How does anything ever get done here, I wonder. I glance at the newspaper in the reception area: protests, women holding signs, “Stop the Violence!” and “No More Rape,” black scarves tied around their mouths like gags. I think back to my first day, the woman at the airport, yelling at her harasser.
Back at the college, the only place that has Wi-Fi is, strangely, the college’s “Nature Center,” so drummer Joe and I camp out there, getting our tech on, sending emails and checking Facebook. During the hottest part of the day, I return to the room to rest. My stomach feels fine, no parasites, and I finally got a decent night’s sleep. I reorganize my suitcase, stashing my bulky leather boots at the back of the dorm cabinet. We’ve been on a good run together, but I’m ready to let them go. Someone will adopt them.
Later, the evening air is sultry, and with the sun behind them, filtering through palms, the band jumps onto the outdoor stage to applause. The massive solar apparatus has been storing the sun’s rays so they can play into the night. Through the mike, James’ voice booms, “This song is about money. You know, Mobsters,” he says, miming a gun and launching into the Bollywood hit “Dhan Te Nan.”
The crowd erupts, floods in front of the stage, dancing through “Dhan Te Nan” and into the band’s original eco-dittie, “Plastic.” By now I know all of their original songs by heart. Plastic, it’s getting kinda drastic. Plastic! Here till eternity, yeah!! The college kids like the music, get the lyrics, and it’s dawning on them how perfect this band is for the eco festival they’ve put on. After the first heavy, grungy chords of the Bollywood favorite “Rock On,” James belts out: “Dil kya kheta hai mera…” The girls hide their mouths behind hands, swooning, he’s like a freakin’ John Mayer or something. They dance in a long line, as if they have come to the key part in the movie of their lives where everyone is a star. I blend into the crowd, swinging my hips, and like the students, cup my hands, snaking my arms to and fro. Rock On! Hai yeh waqt ka ishara! A guy in a Justin Timberlake-style vest does a pelvis-leg-pop shuffle while other revelers raise their pinky-and-index fingers to the sky.
“Rock On” is my new favorite song, even though I only understand two words.
The first early morning of Kite Festival, back in Adipur, Alan and I headed to the roof of the dharamshala where a few teenagers were flying kites. At first there were just a few in the air. Then more people popped up on various roofs, and the sky filled with swatches of color. Some faraway ones I followed with my eyes, not sure if they were kites or birds.
A young man leant his to Alan, and after a couple attempts, it lifted up, a giant eye looking down from the sky. “Yesssss!” Alan cheered.
I’d never seen the sun like this before, pollution enhanced. It had just risen, and hung as if from a cord, large and peach-yellow, its edges as crisp as the moon.
On my final day, as a last-ditch effort to make my flight—I’m flying alone back to Newark, layover in Delhi—Brother flags a tuk tuk to the airport, as none of the cab companies called by the college students show up for me. The tuk tuk’s miniature wheels remind me of a child’s scooter, and its bugish yellow-and-green compartment of a carnival ride. Brother offers to come with, and because traffic is heavy, we never exceed 20 mph, which moderates my fear of dying.
I feel a familiar pull of stress in my neck. Underneath the trilling horns, I conjure that cool, syncopated-female-yodel-music that Shakil played for us: breathe in, then out. I clutch the bag in my lap for balance, a fruitless instinct, recalling that Ferris wheel spinning over Adipur, and that shell of a truck, burning on a remote Kutch highway while its driver helplessly watched.
At an intersection near the airport, one of the few I’ve noticed in all of Mumbai, Brother says, “Watch your bag.” When I look, I see a girl of around seven, inches away from me in the chaotic road, holding synthetic roses. She mimes with her free hand: “hungry.” Other children appear, selling plastic wind-up animals. Their faces are open like their hands. I want to give a few rupees, but we lurch forward. How quiet and light on their feet they are, appearing as if out of thin air, like magic.