I’ve only been in India for a week so far but I’m already losing touch with basic things about myself like how I talk to doctors and what I like to eat. When the doctor asks me which cereals I usually consume I’m not sure why I say none, and I don’t even think of it as a weird thing to say until he asks me why and I am unable to answer. He looks at me like I’m insolent and perhaps not very smart and so I play the part and sink down in my chair and say, “I mean, I eat bread and things like bread.”
I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing here, but I’m getting used to this feeling that has been following me for the years I’ve been traveling. I know what I’m doing in Mysore, but not necessarily the clinic. I’m here mostly because I need somewhere to stay, and this is a nice place. From my room on the second floor I can see the sun rising red, and from the common veranda I can sit and watch it in the evening, orange and slipping beneath a horizon of palm fronds and the two reservoir towers on Double Tank Road. I checked myself in yesterday and this is already my third time sitting in this office. The windows are guarded by broad leaves and so the room is dim and seems cool compared to the South Indian scorch that’s surely mounting upon the day beyond them. The doctor’s desk and the arms of the chair I’m sitting in are a dark wood with worn varnish that somehow makes the room familiar. I sit up straight again and the backs of my thighs make a squeaking sound against the vinyl seat. Yesterday he took my pulse and told me I should avoid onion, garlic, chili and hot weather. Today he takes my pulse and asks how I feel. I tell him nauseous and he smiles because that’s normal. He says they’ll bring me food when I feel hungry but not before and that he’ll see me again tomorrow morning. When I stand up to leave I stub my toe on the desk and hurry out of the room like it didn’t hurt.
I came to Mysore to stay with my brother, Michael, for a couple of weeks before travelling around India, which I will do for the next five months. He lives here with his partner, Sanjay, an Australian from the suburbs of Melbourne whom I hadn’t yet met. They moved here to study yoga, and that’s what they do each day. Before I arrived Michael told be they’d bought a small countertop oven and had put on, to an inconclusive level of success, small bake sales outside the studio where they practise. Michael and I haven’t seen much of each other over the past few years. The truth about why I’m no longer staying with them is sensitive, not because of anything embarrassing for me such as needing rehabilitation or being on the run or the fact that I’ve been travelling in search of something only to encounter a perpetual sense of being lost, as in a sense of having lost everything, as in the big things, like myself, all of which are true and not true in varying degrees. It’s sensitive because to my foreign eyes they seem to be unravelling, because my brother seems like a different person, because of a deep sadness, though at this point in time it’s not my place to say.
There are only two others staying here at the clinic. One is a skeletal middle aged man who spends most of his time in his room, or else pacing up and down the upstairs hallway moaning and out of breath. There is also belching. I take this to mean that he is nearing the end of his stay and understand that I have this to look forward to. The other is a female Swami who arrived the day before me. I am shy and have mostly been avoiding her, although we watched the sunset together last night and I have noticed that she likes to read. There is a possibility that she doesn’t like to read all that much, it’s just that the days here are long. I don’t necessarily like to watch television but I’ve been watching the tiny one mounted on the wall above my bed because what else can I do when I’m waiting to get hungry, besides read and ignore my nausea and avoid the Swami so I don’t say anything to embarrass myself, which I’ve already done each morning so far with the doctor. I also wait for Michael to visit, which he said he’ll try and do most days. So I go up to my room from the doctor’s office and sit on my bed. The ghee that I drank this morning before the idols of Hindu gods is heavy in my stomach and I can tell it wants out. The amount will increase daily for the first half of my stay here, and will then be replaced by morning massage and steam treatments, which sound so much better to me, especially because I like ghee, and there’s no way I can know at this point that after I leave here it will be years before I can even smell it again.
My shirodhara treatment is at three. I try to look forward to it because it’s meant to be relaxing, lying swaddled in a linen loin cloth on a table in a warm room, even though I know the smell of hot buttermilk running over my forehead and filling my ears for twenty minutes will make me gag. I know my hair will continue hold its sour scent and when I try to fall asleep I will smell it on my pillow and feel sickish and frustrated. Afterwards, they’ll rub me down with oil and the soles of my feet will be so slick that I will face danger when I stand. Then I will steam in a wooden box with a hole cut in the top from which my neck and head will protrude, and I’ll spend the entire thirty minutes imagining the possibly real spider crawling through the dark quarters within.
My first night in India was spent in Bangalore. Michael and Sanjay met me at the airport and we stayed a night in a guesthouse. I rose before dawn covered in itching, weeping welts. In the morning we were served a breakfast of rice and curries on a leaf at a communal table and the boys showed me how to do it, how to scoop with the fingers of my right hand only, to push with my thumb, to not let my fingers into my mouth in the process. We ate a pizza with paneer on it for lunch at a Pizza Hut in a shopping centre. We returned to their apartment in Mysore in a hired car, and it would turn out to be one of very few pleasant transit experiences I would have during my months backpacking around the south. In two weeks’ time I will buy two seats side-by-side on an overnight bus to Ernakulam because I’ve been told this is a good way to avoid violation, and will wake in the night to discover a man in the seat beside me, leaning over me and staring. In ten weeks’ time I will travel in a third-class sleeper car to Mumbai, curled around my backpack on a top bunk, my bag chained and locked to the railing. I will not be able to sleep, and at one point when I turn around in the night I will discover a man leering next to me, his feet on the edge of the lower bunk, his head hovering and glowing somehow in the moonlight that enters through the barred windows. He will sheen from sweat, and I too will be sweaty as I realize that he is attempting to reach up the hem of my cutoffs, and in that moment I will feel exposed and remote, not homesick but homeless, as though it’s been an immeasurable amount of time since I’ve slept somewhere where this hasn’t been a possibility.
They made their spare room for me: plumeria, fresh papaya, a six-mantra chanting box, Nag Champa, and crisp violet bedding folded taut into a pallet on the floor. They were on the second floor of a walkup and had two bedrooms, a narrow kitchen, a wet bathroom, and a large living area decorated with flowers, candles, and cushions tastefully strewn about the floor to make a kind of sitting area. Walking into their house I had the feeling I’d interrupted a long conversation. There was some tension, and my closeness with my brother seemed to drive a wedge into an already forming rift. I felt both welcome and not. I fell asleep to the muted sounds of an argument, words meeting the night with the same dull thud of a boxing glove on a bag.
My first morning with them I woke early and listened to each mantra in the chanting box before rising and going to the living room. It glowed pink from the rising sun, and the air out the window smelled of wood smoke and garbage fires. A cow ambled up the road and when it reached our building it turned toward me and approached the window. A calf hung close to its side, its high pitched moo tentative and heartwarming. The cows and I were watching each other when Michael entered. I saw a man no longer in his early twenties, baby fat given way to angles and sinew, grey hair planting flags in the turf behind his ears. I saw my age in him, too, the small streak forming at my crown, my forearms too tanned and ropey. He asked me if I wanted to feed them and showed me the way they tipped the food waste out the window, how the cow and her calf came moseying over to moo at us and eat the scraps. I asked if he was all right and he shrugged and his glassy blue eyes said he didn’t know, so I asked him to take me to the shop. We bought mangosteen, pomegranate, pineapple, yogurt, badam milk. We sang our songs from childhood. We felt, together, something like home. On the way back to the apartment, crossing Double Tank Road, Michael picked up a terrified puppy and carried it across safely, and the dog was so frightened it tremored in his hands and peed all over the place before Michael put it down again and it scampered away.
We were cutting the fruit for breakfast when Sanjay got up and came into the kitchen, which was barely big enough for two. I saw a look, saw their disappearance into the other room, heard hard whispers. Sanjay came back to the kitchen and told me it was time to go to the market, that it was an amazing market, that I could pick out some new things to try. I covered the fruit plate and put it in the fridge and we hailed a rickshaw to Devaraja. On the way all Sanjay said was, “I feel like getting fresh coconut.”
Walking under the colourful canopies of Devaraja Market I saw mountains of limes and mangoes, starbursts of plantain, spires of spices and incense. I saw hibiscus and lotus and oils and soaps, teas packaged in elegant fabrics. I saw my brother trying to placate a tight-lipped man, I saw his need to please, I saw that somehow my arrival had surfaced something. I said to Sanjay, “I see them.” There was an old man sitting under an umbrella, flanked by mounds of coconuts. When he didn’t respond I said, “Michael, remember that guy at the market in Malacca with the gnarled fingers? Sanjay, did Michael ever tell you about the man at the night market when we were in Malaysia who was trying to prove his healing serum worked by ramming his finger through coconut shells? He asked for a volunteer from the audience and Michael went up there with him and neither of us knew what he was saying and I was so frightened that Michael would have to jam his finger into the coconut, too.” Michael and I laughed, and Sanjay said, “No, he never told me about that,” and Michael said, “Yes I did,” and we all walked right past the coconut vendor and deeper into the market until we were enveloped by the spicy fermenting fug. I stopped and bought some Jasmine and held it close to my face and when Michael looked at me I smiled and held it up to his, long enough for him to take a few breaths.
The day after the market Sanjay drove me here to the clinic on the back of his scooter and we said goodbye at the front door. I needed to be somewhere else; it was too much to for me see my brother reduced in a way I’d never seen, to see him bend in ways that made him look like someone else completely. Before driving away, Sanjay told me that a panchakarma cleanse is a great thing to do while in India, that it’s like a rebirth. He warned me that the last day of the cleanse would be spent pacing and moaning and trying not to vomit, and then on the toilet with one of the twenty something bowel movements I’ll have that day. “I’m serious,” he told me. “You shit all day.” Good, I thought. I wondered if this meant I would go home and tell everyone I had found what I was looking for, if this was what people mean when they talk about finding themselves. Just in case, I will check into an ashram in Kerala in about a month from now, earning my room and board by cleaning the rooms and working in the kitchen and, later, tending the vegetable gardens. I will dress in white and meditate in the mornings and evenings under a mango tree. I will stay for weeks until I wake up one day and realize I feel more like a tourist than a disciple, and that the presence of the gift shop grates on my nerves, and will pack my bags, leaving only a note for my roommate, Anat, with whom I will work in the gardens, and who will teach me how most tenderly to relate to the plants. My first night there she and I will be woken by a storm, and we’ll sit up together for hours on the small balcony, sticking our feet through the railing until they are drenched and cool. I will ask why she’s here, and she will tell me she doesn’t know. Anat and I will rescue a baby owl the day before my departure. We will place the owl in a small box with water and an old towel, and leave the box outside our room. In the morning, when I leave, I will find the box is empty, and I will allow myself to feel optimistic.
My room here makes me feel not like a tourist but more like a monk, which somewhere deep down authenticates the whole experience, although the concepts of the authenticity and cultural consumerism will not become a concern I discuss with others for a few years still. The austerity and ascetic lack of comfort make me feel close to the ground and open to anything, but—as will turn out in later conversations with friends about authenticity and travel—these are not conditions that will help my future self feel any more virtuous.
There is a single bed against a single window. A plain brown curtain gathers at one side, waiting to block out the dark once night falls and envelops the coconut palm and elephant ear fronds, the curry tree with its inky gemlike berries. Even when I open the window the sounds of human life outside are obscured by the depth of the foliage and birdsong. There is a desk behind the head of the bed with a simple green desk lamp that is plugged into an outlet on the wall, where I have also plugged in my chanting box so I can listen, each morning and evening, to the gayatri mantra, which has become my favourite. The desk is also where I will begin to discover small silver pinch bowls filled with rock sugar crystals, placed there during my absences. They are for me to suck on to keep at bay the mixture of low energy and nausea that will invariably mount until late in the evenings, when, around nine o’clock, the nausea will subside and I am allowed a meal. The meal will arrive not long after I alert the staff that I am no longer feeling sick, and will consist of plain chapatti, a glass of water and a simple, nourishing dhal. I find the appearance of the crystals to be quaint until I discover how heavily I will come to rely on them.
I only watch the small television when I’m at my most nauseous and therefore in the greatest need of distraction. This applies to all nausea except that of the final day, which will prove too extreme for the television and will drive me out into the common area to pace in agony for the hours before the purge.
Attached to my room is a wet bathroom. I will continue to view it as a luxury rather than a necessity until, again, the final day. There is a toilet with a padded seat, a small basin, and a hand-held shower head hooked high on the wall. Each day two small disposable shampoo packets are replenished, and because of this, and the buttermilk hair, I use them. The shampoo is black, and each morning I wonder what it would do, if anything, to a blonde.
Out my bedroom door is the only indoor common area. There are two tables with four chairs each and an uncomfortable wooden settee with hard worn and faded upholstery up against one of the walls. In the corner near the window is a single cubicle. It is nicked and warped and oddly corporate, a hand-me-down from a local office space perhaps. The chair, too, once ergonomic, is stained and tired, and though it still spins it is stuck in its lowest position and the casters are missing. It is at this desk that I will negotiate the power outages and slow dial-up to email friends, scattered still in different countries, the messages of which will, unbeknownst to me, form the bedrock of the very memories from which I will draw when I think back to this moment, this day, this experience, and write about it.
Every day Michael walks down Double Tank Road to visit me. We sit and read aloud together, and on my last day he will show up with a new book, as if our short time together weren’t about to abruptly end in the following days, as if the time between us were as it was when we were children: endless and yawning around us, always more of it to inhabit together. The book we are reading is by Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything, grown siblings learning the world over again. On my last day, though, we won’t read. He will find me upstairs walking in circles, doing my best to forget the nausea. In the morning I will have eaten a generous helping of herbal laxative paste administered by the doctor, and will be under strict instructions to keep it down, no matter how badly it wants out. Michael will stay with me all day, will help me tally my bathroom trips—twenty-two—and will be there still when I am empty and exhausted and served my final meal: plain rice gruel. After I eat we will sit in the dusk together. I will have decided by then to head south, and will say to him, “You can come. Come with me.” He will only smile and say, “You can’t leave tomorrow. You’ll still be too weak.” I will tell him I plan to leave the day after, by train, that I’ll pass back through on my way north in however many weeks it takes me to return. “I don’t want to go,” I will say. “I’m comfortable here.” And we will sit side by side, looking out at the palm fronds and the two tanks, now twin silhouettes against an inky sky.