“You’re old enough,” my cousin Mohammed said before we hopped on his motorcycle. I was 18, and despite our family’s objections, he was going to show me the real India. Up to this point, my Indian experience consisted of nightly dinner engagements with obscure relatives, unsentimental gift giving and marathon video-gaming. Every four years, my mother, my younger brother and I returned to Nasik, a city four hours outside Mumbai where the rest of our family resides, and each visit had been identical.
After a 20-minute drive on a dirt highway, charging through choking clouds of dust and smog, around battered trucks, scooters, rickshaws, cars and other motorcycles, Mohammed and I arrived at the local butcher’s market. It was nothing more than a huge corrugated roof and exposed support beams, a desiccated shell of a building, yet the suffocating odor defied the open-air construction. The butchers worked on large concrete slabs, where they carved open goats, hacked them apart and laid the bits out for sale. All around, skinned carcasses hung upside-down from chains fixed to the ceiling. Flies swarmed about, unoccupied butchers absentmindedly swatting at them on occasion. Stray dogs freely entered the market, lusting over the goods, kept at bay only by a shout, the wallop of a newspaper, a sharp pebble slung at the belly.
Mohammed began taking photos with a bulky new SLR camera that my mother had brought for him from America. He had asked for it to aid in his field research on the preservation of the Indian house sparrow, a project he was increasingly committed to when he had time off from the local college, where he worked as a biology professor.
As Mohammed toyed with the camera, taking photos of the market, a few butchers noticed and approached us. Assuming we were reporters — and without giving Mohammed a second to correct them — they began complaining en masse, producing that quick, constant, choral flood of grievances which seems to only be possible in foreign tongues. Mohammed translated:
“This market is owned by the government, but look how dirty it is.”
“They have no clean water to wash the meat.”
“They can’t keep the dogs out.”
“They can’t keep the flies out.”
“But people will eat this, it will go on their plates.”
“They think if we show the people what goes on their plates, maybe they can force the government to make the market better.”
It didn’t make sense. This was where people came to buy meat; they saw it all for themselves, firsthand. Even if Mohammed had been on assignment, here to conduct an exposé of the appalling condition of the market, his photographs couldn’t possibly amplify the circumstances which viewers were already intimately acquainted with from their day-to-day lives.
Mohammed criticized the Indian press. He compared my family’s attempt at keeping me from going off with him to the relationship between the Indian media and public. Indians are a proud people wanting to celebrate their successes, not wallow in the misery of their failures — besides, desperate, impoverished people wanted to hear good news, not to be reminded of the ugliness of their lives. And that’s what the newspaper reporters and television anchors gave them: the semblance of absolute progress.
By now a small crowd had gathered around us. Despite Mohammed’s attempts at explaining that we were not journalists, a man pulled us aside. He led us to a public bathroom nearby. First, he pointed out the local police station, then he directed our attention to the restroom, a sort of long brick-and-plaster outhouse without a door. Even from 10 feet away the stench of shit and piss was unbearable — but of course it was disgusting. This was India, and that was a public bathroom; expecting otherwise would’ve been silly.
But what the stranger wanted us to see were two men who were able to ignore the overwhelming odor with wide grins. They were sitting on the stained, chipped clay tiles of the bathroom floor, just beyond the entrance. One was heating a piece of aluminum foil with a lighter. The second was holding a straw with one end hovering above the foil and the other in his mouth. People were walking in and out, urinating with ease and washing their hands before exiting. At some point, one of the happy men lay down.
The police station was two blocks away.
We came to the banks of the Godavari. Mohammed explained that rivers were considered sacred in Hinduism, which was why people were bathing in the deep green water that smelled of trash and bubbled up into swathes of indelible gray foam. He explained that their religious rites were making the river even more polluted: The run-off from the soap stayed in the current and, farther downstream, worshipers performed the same ritual bathing, adding their own soap-scum to the water. Each attempt at absolution further degraded the river until all the devotional noxious spume funneled out to sea.
From the middle of the river rose a temple, thin and long like a dagger stabbing up through the current. It was five stories tall, but due to the high tide that followed the monsoon season, the first story was completely submerged. Walking along the riverbed, we were confronted by a pack of what Mohammed called “professional beggars.”
“These are beggar colonies,” he said. He claimed that they allowed only the most disfigured and heart wrenching to join their ranks. They worked the streets together, sometimes clashing with other beggars over turf. At the day’s end, they split the earnings amongst the group, dividing it along their own hierarchical lines. When Mohammed wasn’t looking, I gave 20 rupees to an old woman with a face like crumpled brown leather and nubs for fingers.
Mohammed had been taking photos since we stopped at the butchers’, and now he wanted a shot of the entire river. He wanted it all: the devotees bathing in the toxic water, the beggars preying on the faithful, the temple standing against the flood. We climbed a ladder up to the roof of a nearby building.
While my cousin took his shots, I surveyed the area below. In a pen beneath us, cows were eating out of a large pile of rubbish, feeding on the discarded bamboo leaves that were used to wrap portions of rice and chicken. Between two cows knelt a man and a small girl in a dirty yellow dress. They were picking leaves from the unopened trash bags, scrapping remnants of food from the folds and shoveling it into their mouths.
“That’s not something you see in America,” Mohammed said, “people eating beside cows.”
Days later, my entire family took a vacation. My mother considered it absurd that our relatives had spent their entire lives in India without ever seeing the Taj Mahal, so she rented a tour bus, hired a driver and a guide, and we set off for the sights of the North. We visited Agra, Delhi and Jaipur to behold the olden treasures of Indian civilization.
In Delhi, we stayed at a particular hotel that had its own bridge. The bridge was constructed as a gimmick to make the place appear more luxurious than it actually was, a cheap attempt to compensate for the green mildew stains in the corner of our room. To reach the front entrance of the hotel, you had to cross the bridge, but the only thing it traversed was a man-made cavity, a small valley below, complete with an artificial stream.
There were also two swans, huddled beneath the bridge, seeking cover from the unrelenting North Indian sun. The feathers on the edge of their wings were a dry reddish orange, like rust. The pair awkwardly waddled back and forth, revealing patches of missing feathers. I remember thinking that it would be easy for them to fly away, but then I realized their wings had probably been clipped.
Originally published in Annalemma Magazine.