People say they feel things deep inside them, not in their gut, but maybe in their soul. This widely claimed instinct confirmed that everything would be okay once I landed in India. Maybe it was intuition or a strange moment of clairvoyance, but I knew India held the answer to my questions. My mind flooded with images from a couple nights before: messy blonde hair, cowboy boots, the face he made right before he finished. My stomach and I had engaged in a constant battle over the past few days, me trying to persuade it not to expel its contents. I had convinced myself that India contained whatever might finally get rid of the knot that had seized a plot of permanent residence in the pit of my stomach, though the specifics eluded me.
The colors were the first thing I noticed on our drive to the guest house. Doors and windows and buildings painted in bright yellows and greens and blues. They blurred past as we sped along the road, coming to life as dawn fell away and the sun crept into the sky. I’d slept for most of the plane ride, so I wasn’t tired. Each time the car stopped at a light or for someone crossing the street, I looked at the faces of the people walking by. A man was curled up asleep on what looked like a hot dog cart, though I was sure it sold kahti rolls or aloo kabli. Women walked with baskets of mangoes and coconuts balanced on their heads; I thought that only happened in the movies.
By the time we reached our guest house in Ballygunge, it was light out. The paint of the building chipped, brown dirt showing beneath the white. One red window frame faced the street. A black gate stood open at the carport to the right of the house. We tried to take our bags inside, but were stopped by two smiling men who shook their heads with vigor anytime we touched a bag.
“No no no, miss, we take for you.”
Our rooms were simple, two twin beds, one dresser, a bathroom connected. The bathrooms had a bathtub and a bucket, no shower curtain. In the small communal living space that connected two suites, a tray of tea and biscuits sat waiting for us. I never drank tea, but I poured a cup to be polite. It tasted like a combination of milky chai and an earthy flavor that I couldn’t place and didn’t like. I dumped a few spoonfuls of sugar in. After tea, a few girls went to take a nap, but my mind refused to rest.
My decision haunted me, hovering like a storm cloud above every conscious thought. I expected to feel different afterwards. Instead, I’d felt cold and dirty, naked in the back of Ethan’s truck. As soon as it ended, maybe even halfway through, I knew it was a mistake. I could not take that moment back, could never do it over. I had chosen Ethan.
The Ramakrishna Mission was only a few minutes away from the guest house in Ballygunge. Each afternoon, the monks led meditation, and since we were studying religion, our itinerary was filled with observing and participating in various religious ceremonies. After lunch of spicy chicken rolls at the Dharma, which our professor ordered for us completely in Bengali, we walked to the mission. Walking somewhere in India, I learned, was not like walking in America. People cluttered the sidewalks begging for money and trying to sell bananas and handcrafted trinkets. I bumped into a small fruit stand trying to keep up with Professor Suri. Each dirty face I saw made me sink further into my guilt. These people had, literally nothing, yet they seemed happy. Children laughed and played on the street while their parents called to us to purchase their food and scarves and jewelry. Their next meal depended on their performance on the streets; their lives existed from one moment to the next. All I could think about was the Christmas party and Ethan’s crooked smile, even with my full wallet and life of privilege.
The roads were completely packed with cars, but I didn’t see a single pickup truck. Horns honked nonstop. I couldn’t make out individual lanes. Wherever a small opening was created, a car wedged its way in. It seemed to me that they would all reach their destinations faster if they drove in clear lanes, but maybe that was just my American ignorance. Who was I to say what was better? We stopped at an intersection, where Professor Suri told us we would cross the street. The mission was only a block away. I could see it, a relatively clean and decent building among the structures with foundation cracks and peeling paint.
“Ladies,” Professor Suri said in her accented English, crowding us together in a small huddle on the street corner. “When I walk, you must follow. Do not stop, no matter what. Do you understand?”
I exchanged glances with others in the group, noting our mutual confusion. There was a crosswalk, but no light on the other side to tell us when to go. Suddenly, Professor Suri took off across the street and with a slight hesitation we followed. I looked to my right to see that cars were still moving towards us. My heart beat quickly, and I wanted to stop in case the cars didn’t. Professor Suri held her hand up at the level of her hip, as if her sheer presence was the only thing that could stop them from moving forward. It turns out it was, though they barely stopped in time. When I had almost made it across the street, the hood of a maroon taxicab bumped into my hand. I looked at the driver, my eyes wide. He honked the horn and shooed me out of the way with his hand. I broke into a slight jog to reach the other side.
“Never stop,” Professor Suri said again. “Let’s go.”
We entered the mission and walked through a courtyard abundant with overgrown foliage. The green color popped against the stark white walls. At the entrance to the prayer room, I slipped off my sparkly yard sale sandals amid the other shoes. I sat cross legged on the floor, the only position that seemed appropriate for meditation. While monks chanted prayers and mantras to their gods, I remained optimistic that an answer would appear to me. I tried to quiet my mind, to empty it of all thoughts, but his morning after words looped in my mind. It didn’t mean anything. No disrespect.
I knelt in a dimly lit room above a busy street at five in the morning listening to a nun recite the Lord’s Prayer to the rhythm of honking horns and squealing tires, and I sensed his hands on my shoulders, his kisses on my collar bone. My skin burned at every place he touched. Mother Teresa had prayed in this very spot, bowing in continued adoration even when she could not hear the voice of God.
Where are you, I asked Him, head bent even after the prayer ended. Can you hear me? Each word bounced off the ceiling, tumbling back at me with no response. What about you, Mother Teresa? Virgin Mary, full of grace? I heard nothing besides the rush of cars on the street below. I received communion, the body and blood of Christ, given up for me, but it tasted like stale bread and weeks old Merlot. I didn’t believe the nun when she said the sacrifice was for me, anyway. Not anymore. The sky brightened outside. I remained shrouded in darkness.
That afternoon, after orientation, we volunteered at Shanti Dan, Mother Teresa’s home for mentally and physically disabled girls. It means gift of peace in Hindi, but there was no peace, not for me. All day, I sat among the girls who had been cast aside by their society and their families. They seemed content, unaware of who they had been before the wooden playground and rows of beds. I envied them that lack of knowledge. We painted lopsided flowers on a drab concrete wall, and the girls could not stop smiling. I forced a half smile back. No amount of painted flowers changed what I’d given away and could never get back.
Eleven of us piled into a van built for eight before the call for morning prayer rang through the city. Visitation hours started at six, and Professor Suri told us we needed to be there as close to that as we could. Otherwise, the crowds might overwhelm us. The van bumped along the moderately vacant roads, and an hour later, we stood at the gates of Kali’s temple. It towered over us, a looming white building with red and gold accents, spires of different sizes rising from the roof.
All I thought about as dirt ground itself into my skin, darkening the bottom of my feet was how badly I hoped that my answers were inside. Perhaps Kali could absolve me from the guilt of letting Ethan convince me that a one-night stand could be more than momentarily intimate. I walked hurriedly in the ever-flowing stream of people, careful not to stop, lest the person behind me push me forward. Devotees lay down various trinkets, purchased at the front gate, below the Goddess’ statue, bowing with their hands folded in front of them. I only had a few seconds in front of her, and even then, I felt bodies pushing against mine. I looked at Kali, her large eyes, her multiple hands, one wielding the skull of a man, and asked her for redemption. I know that liberation is your thing, I told her, but I think they’re kind of the same. I need to be freed from the mistake I made. Our professor told us Kali is a mother-figure, so I figured she might understand. I wondered what my own mom would think if she knew what I’d done. To her, I was still the perfect daughter. I walked away feeling no different, simultaneously empty and full of regret.
To the right of the temple was a Ganga River ghat. Technically, our professor told us, it was the Hooghly River, but most Hindus view any river as an incarnation of Ganga. What didn’t work with Kali might work with Ganga, I thought. Maybe she would understand, could make order of the chaos raging inside of me. I watched for a few minutes in silence. The other girls in the group took pictures from the top of the stairs leading into the river. The temple was visible, towering over the water, with its red and white spires bright against the blue sky and the murky waters. I thought back to the readings we’d done during fall semester, recalling what I’d read about Ganga. Like Kali, she was a mother goddess, though she lacked the fearsome and vengeful qualities associated with Kali. I couldn’t remember reading that she was particularly nurturing, but I was in no position to bargain. I would take what I could get.
I removed my shoes again and walked to the bottom of the ghat, ankle deep in the water. It smelled muddy and dank, like a dog who’s spent too much time in the rain. I could feel eyes on me, those from my group, and the eyes of Indians, wondering what a blonde-haired pale girl was doing in the Ganges. My professor called out to me, shouting about toxins and parasites, but I ignored her. I stepped further into the river, a gritty slime under my feet, wondering how far the steps would go until I would sink, just a little, before catching myself and treading water. I wanted nothing more than to submerge my entire body, to surrender completely to the healing and forgiving powers of Ganga. I wanted to get swept away by the current and float until I could no longer feel guilt or shame, until my memories of Ethan were washed away for good.
I stopped when the water hit my knees. I didn’t want to spend an hour in a cramped cab in wet clothes. I stood there, my eyes closed, water rushing around my legs. Human ashes are poured into the river daily, and I wanted to feel as free as their souls. I raised my arms to the sky, begging to be cleansed, returned to the girl I was before, purified. Tears burned behind my eyes, and for the first time since I lost my virginity in the back of Ethan’s truck, I let a few of them fall. I felt a hand on my shoulder, breaking whatever progress I may have been making with Ganga. I wiped my eyes and turned. An Indian woman with deep-seated wrinkles on her face pointed to the top of the ghat, where the entire group was waiting for me. I bowed my head to thank her and she bowed back. Whatever cleansing may have happened had been interrupted; it would not happen now.
Airplanes make me existential; there’s something unnerving about seeing a place from so high up. How do the pilots know exactly where to land? It’s possible they could be off by just a degree and crash into a building or a lake. I suppose that’s why I’m not flying the plane; I’ve never been terribly concerned with accuracy or precision. Below me, Kolkata blurs beyond recognition.
I cannot see the temples from the sky. I cannot see the mosques or the churches. Shanti Dan’s brightly colored sign has disappeared below, along with the women living within its walls. All I see is green, blue, and brown spattering the surface of the earth to form what I know is Kolkata but could really be any city from way up here. Miles continue to separate me from India, a fading memory with each one. Today, I remember the refreshing lime sodas paired with spicy chicken rolls. Soon, I will forget the Hindi word for thank you, the face of Bikash, our driver, and his accented English. These memories blur, like singing The Sound of Music with my sister, which I only remember because I watched it on a home video once.
My memory of Ethan sharpens in insolence. It stabs me each time I remember him and what we did. We do not get to choose which memories to keep, which will stay with us, symbiotically aiding in our happiness or bleeding us dry. I have found that the parasites take hold and grow, refusing to be forgotten.
As the plane continues to ascend, I wonder if Kali sees her beloved city this way. Does she look down and see the swirling colors or can she see the specifics, the dusty streets lined with small shrines and paper offerings? She supposedly liberates, but I remain chained to the decision I made, to the person I was before I left.
When I land at Dulles, I will receive a second chance. On the way to India, we lost an entire day in the air with the time change. The flight lasted fourteen hours, but in reality, we left on Wednesday night and arrived Friday morning. Going home, we get an entire day back. We left on Friday and arrive on Thursday evening.
It’s rare to get to redo something in life. A test. A play in a volleyball match. A performance. But what will I do with an entire day? If I want, I never have to acknowledge the first January 13th. I need only recognize the second one. Time is relative, they say. And today, I feel the relativity of it. It doesn’t actually work that way, though. Even though I get to live January 13th twice, I don’t get to erase what happened, not on January 13th, and not on any other day. As if I need another reminder; I will never be able to redo that night with Ethan. Once something is done, it’s done.
All of my friends who have studied abroad talk about how inspired they felt when they came back. Wanderlust, they called it. They wanted to go see every thing in every place. Traveling transformed them into new, better versions of themselves. It’s like they left lost and returned found. India was supposed to change something in me, rattle me, shake up the shattered pieces and make me whole again. My brokenness lingers.
I wonder if I wasted this trip. Maybe years from now, I’ll find meaning in my time working in the slums and reflect on this cultural experience with wisdom and nostalgia. For now, I stare out the window as the plane ascends into the clouds. I lose myself in the blanket of white, imagining that the color still belongs to me: whole and pure, innocent.
Morgan Coyner is a native Virginian pursuing her MFA at Georgia College. You can typically find her watching Friends, blasting Taylor Swift in her car, or working on a never-ending list of knitting projects.