Read The Best Place on Earth Online

Authors: Ayelet Tsabari

The Best Place on Earth (18 page)

By the curb, an army of taxi drivers surrounds them, calling Ian “sir,” gesturing toward their Ambassador black and yellow cabs. They are closing in, touching Ian’s forearms. “Bloody hell,” he says, lifting his arms over his head, revealing circular sweat stains. One of them picks up Ian’s backpack and marches toward his cab. “Hey,” Ian yells.

Maya puts a firm hand on Ian’s shoulder. She follows the driver and bargains with him, sneaks in a few words of Hindi. Ian gets into the cab and lets out a long sigh. “What a gong show.”

She smiles. “Welcome to India.”

He leans back and stares out the window, his hand clutching hers.

The New Delhi night is heavy with moisture, burnt-garbage smoke and car exhaust. Traffic is congested yet moving: rickshaws, bicycles and cars; brightly painted Tata trucks, adorned with shiny tassels like decorated temple elephants; entire families on the backs of motorbikes, the women sitting sideways, holding on to the free end of their saris. Passengers hop off buses while others hop on, the bus never quite reaching a full stop; some hang onto the bars from the outside as the bus drives off. Cows saunter in the middle of the roads. Ian watches the chaos with huge eyes, forgetting to blink. Then he leans his head against the headrest and closes his eyes, his eyelids fluttering. She understands how he feels. There was no reason to assume it would be different for Ian simply because he is Indian. He grew up in London, after all.

Maya had been fresh out of the army when she first arrived from Tel Aviv. She had started planning her trip in the last few months of her service. All her friends talked about going to India, it was the thing to do after the army, but she was the first one to make enough money to do it, working six days a week, twelve-hour shifts as a waitress on Mango Beach. She went about planning her
itinerary as she had her army office work: circled places on the map, placed sticky notes in her travel guide.

Two weeks into her trip, her backpack was stolen on a train to Varanasi: her passport, her traveller’s cheques, her address book, her clothes, her travel guide. Gone. She had nothing but the clothes on her back. It was as if someone had erased her. Not that anyone was looking for her. Her father had refused to talk to her since she had joined the army—no place for good Orthodox girls—and her mother had never been strong enough to fight him.

While she was stranded in New Delhi, sorting out the passport and traveller’s cheques, sleeping in random travellers’ rooms, she met Vijay, who ran a travel agency from a small glass cubicle in the Krishna Guest House. He and his wife, Amrita, took her in, letting her sleep in the back room, leaving homemade food in stacked tin containers by her mattress. Maya, in return, babysat their daughter, manned Vijay’s office while he was out for lunch, arranged his files in a system she had learned in the army. Amrita gave her one of her shalwar kameez to wear, stamped a bindi to the middle of her forehead, and when Maya looked in her small hand mirror, moving it over her body to try and construct a full image, she was stunned by her reflection. Her small frame, her dark skin, her straight black hair. “Like Indian girl,” Amrita gasped, wobbling her head from side to side, in that gesture Maya later adopted, somewhere between yes and no. Even her name was Hindi, Vijay said. In Hindu philosophy, Maya was the illusion we veiled our true selves with. Maya thought back to who she was before India, at the Orthodox girls-only high school her father transferred her to after he’d found God, then in the army, where she’d slept alone in an empty dorm room while the other girls went home for the weekends.

Now, when she walked the streets of New Delhi, the city made space for her, letting her in. She had never expected to experience a spiritual revelation in India, had thought it a cliché, yet here she felt she was unveiling her true self, stripping off the illusion. “Maybe you were Indian in past life,” Vijay offered, and she smiled at that, pleased.

The Krishna Guest House
attendant grins as she walks in. “Namaste, didi.” He shakes his head, eyeing Ian.

“Namaste, bhai,” she says, calling him brother in return. She passes Vijay’s old office; he recently made enough money to move to Goa, where he opened an office in Panaji. She leads Ian up the dark staircase, stops at a wooden door, fumbles with a large key. The green tiled hallway is poorly lit, and she can hear the echo of conversations, Bollywood music playing from the reception area, the attendant singing along. Ian twists his nose at the smells she has become accustomed to: damp air sweetened with burning incense, Lysol, fried oil, urine.

It is bigger than the single room she usually rents, her home in New Delhi, and has a window facing the hallway. It even has hot water in the shower. Ian walks through it with a wary look, touches the sheets, squints at the ceiling fan, peeks into the washroom with its ceramic hole in the ground.

“It’s clean,” she says. “I’ve been staying in this guest house since my first trip.”

“I think you’ve been spending too much time in India.”

“You’ll get used to it.”

He kisses her, pushes her onto the bed. She squeals. The ceiling fan grunts above their heads.

They spend the next day
walking up and down the main bazaar, a narrow street lined with shops and filled with backpackers, scooters, cows and emaciated dogs. The shopkeepers all know her; they invite them for chai, laugh when she speaks Hindi. Ian watches her inquisitively while the shopkeepers fling open embroidered bedspreads, urge her to feel wrap skirts and silk scarves, open boxes filled with jewellery, packages of incense and bindis. She smiles at their sales pitches. “Today, no business.” It’s too early to start shopping for the European festival season, during which she sells things from India every summer. This is her fourth time going through this cycle: she spends the fall and winter travelling through India, stocks up on merchandise during spring, and come summer—the unbearably hot monsoon season—leaves for Europe. She met Ian a few months ago while couch surfing in London. They were at a party in a huge artist loft in Soho, on the top floor of an old school. The place was bare: a record player on a desk, a stack of paintings in the corner, a double mattress and an L-shaped cream leather couch. She mistook him for an Israeli, maybe of Yemeni heritage, like her. Later he told her he’d thought she was Indian.

The real party was in the washroom, which was the size of an average bedroom, with brick walls and exposed pipes running along the high ceilings. She found herself standing beside him, crowded up against the raw concrete counter where people bent over, one at a time, to do lines of coke. He was small, compact, only a bit taller than her, his body defined and masculine. Later, when she touched his arm in conversation, she noticed his skin tone matched hers. He told her his father had left Rajasthan at sixteen with his parents and never returned. He’d met Ian’s British mother at a house party in London—Ian smiled telling her this—and
married her against his parents’ wishes. Ian had never met his grandparents, and now they were both dead.

She told him she hadn’t been on speaking terms with her father either, found herself sharing details she usually was reluctant to expose, describing the double life she had led all through high school, how she carried a pair of jeans and an eyeliner in her bag and changed in the bushes before heading off to parties in Tel Aviv. She was high and a little bit drunk, just enough to feel daring and sexy. When the party died out, the house emptied, and the grey morning poured in through the large windows, she sat straight up on the couch and said, “Let’s not go home yet.” They went to a café and ordered espressos, and the young, perky barista smiled at them and said, “You look like brother and sister.”

“Ew.” Maya twisted her face.

“No, it’s a good thing,” the barista hastened to add. “It’s a sign of harmony.” Maya and Ian laughed, looking anywhere but at each other. Outside the café they kissed. They flagged a taxi to his apartment, and by the time they made it to his front door, her bra was unfastened, his zipper undone and their lips raw and swollen.

She had moved into his apartment within three weeks. He had three other roommates, so they rarely left his room, spending days in bed, making love, drinking coffee, watching TV, ordering in. In the evenings, when Ian went to work, she’d visit him, sit at the bar and drink fancy cocktails he’d make especially for her.

“So why India?” he asked one night while polishing wine glasses.

She shrugged.

“But what do you do there? Apart from buying stuff to sell?”

“Nothing, everything. What do you do here? What do people do anywhere?”

“It’s not the same, this is my home.”

“People move. India feels like my home.” She stirred her fruity martini with her finger. “You should come with me,” she said, and he looked at her obliquely, smiling. “I’m serious. See for yourself what’s so amazing about it. Imagine what an experience that would be, being in a place where everyone looks like you.”

From the rooftop restaurant
above the Krishna, New Delhi is bathed in amber smog. Square crowded roofs are punctuated by a few tall apartment buildings, and two round domes in the distance are a hazy mirage. On neighbouring roofs kids are flying kites. The sky is a thin golden sheet, the sun a cigarette-burn at its centre. Ian highlights the itinerary for the day in his guidebook, then puts down the pen. “It’s so hot.” He fans the menu in front of his face. “How do people live here?” He walks over and turns the standing fan toward them. “I can’t wait to get to the beach,” he says, lifting his shirt to balloon over the fan.

The rickshaw zips around Connaught Place, the driver’s torso leaning toward the centre of the roundabout, the other vehicles swirling like debris around a drain. Maya lights a cigarette and inhales. She likes riding rickshaws; there are no doors, no glass to separate them from the street. The city is in their faces, like a gust of hot air. At the traffic light, beggars shove skinny arms into the rickshaw. Maya gives one man her half-smoked cigarette and lights another one for herself.

By the time they reach the Red Fort, the heat sits over the city like a fat, sweaty Buddha. They walk through the fort, its red walls faded to pink by the sun. The corridors are thronged with groups of middle-aged Europeans, their faces shiny and wide with awe, camera-toting Japanese in bucket hats, and young
backpackers, their flip-flops smacking the marble floors.

“Let’s eat. I’m starved,” Maya says as they walk out of the fort, pointing at a makeshift restaurant across the street: a few plastic tables and long wooden benches, huge industrial pots steaming under a tent. A tourist bus is parked outside and its passengers, middle-class Indian families, all wearing baseball caps and sneakers, are lined up on the benches.

“Here?” Ian follows her, stands behind her in line. He peeks into the pot, waving away flies.

The waiter places two large trays in front of them: small tin bowls circle a mound of rice, each filled with a different type of vegetable. A piece of steaming roti is folded in the corner of the tray. Maya gathers rice with her fingers and shoves it into her mouth with her thumb. Ian rips a piece of roti and dips it in his saag as if it were a biscuit in a cup of tea.

The bus starts honking and the passengers board. A young Indian couple in jeans and T-shirts eyes them and smiles. Maya smiles back. They must think Ian and Maya are just like them.

They take a rickshaw to the Chandni Chowk bazaar: tangled wires, chains of coloured bulbs and large banners hanging between dilapidated buildings. The heat is at its peak and everything smells stronger, ripened. As soon as they step out of the rickshaw, people brush against them, push them, touch them. Porters carrying canvas sacks of fragrant spices shove their way through; their dark, bony legs poke out of their lungis. Ian and Maya turn into an arched alleyway and beggars latch on to them. Ian is hugging his camera like it might leap from his chest. A barefoot child wheels a man with no limbs on a plywood board past them. A blind woman, her eyes excavated, waves flies away from her listless baby. Another woman’s nose seems to be eaten away by leprosy. A little girl with
an amputated arm tugs on Ian’s sleeve. Ian dispenses rupees at a panicky pace.

“Bas,” Maya yells at a young woman who has been following her from the moment they turned down the alleyway. The woman twists her face in a pitiful expression, pointing at her mouth, at the toddler she’s carrying, his hair matted, his eyes lined with kohl. Ian stuffs a rupee note into her hand.

By the time they make it to the Jama Masjid, Ian seems exhausted. They sit on the red sandstone stairs leading to the mosque, drinking chilled Fantas next to a group of young, fully veiled Muslim women. Ian massages the bridge of his nose.

“Headache?” she says.

“Just tired.” He looks at her. “You’ve been there before. Couldn’t you have warned me?”

She ignores the accusing tone. “It will get easier, you’ll see.” She thinks of her first time in this bazaar. She was mesmerized by it; she’d bought fabric and strappy sandals, sampled food from street vendors, walked until her feet blistered.

He takes a sip from his Fanta, wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and rolls his head from side to side until she hears a faint crack. “How about we stay somewhere nice in Jaipur?” He glances at her sideways, smiling. “I wouldn’t mind having a real toilet.”

The train to Jaipur
is air conditioned and a lot fancier than the second-class sleeper she usually takes. As the train chugs through the slums on the outskirts of Delhi—decrepit structures made of corrugated iron and patched up with plastic and cloth—Ian snaps photos: a young woman shaking a yellow sari to dry; kids skipping
over rocks, chasing the train; three men crouching to shit along the tracks, one of them waving.

The hotel Ian picked has rooms arranged around a stone-paved courtyard with wicker chairs and flowerpots. As they walk to their room, chatting about their plans for the day, they pass a group of backpackers, three boys and a girl, arguing loudly with one of the workers. “Babu,” one of them says in a strong Israeli accent, towering over the much shorter Indian man. “You say two hundred rupee, no? Two people, four people, no difference.” She walks straight ahead, pretending not to hear or see them, until they reach their door and she glances over her shoulder. One of them, a curly-haired boy with a tribal armband tattoo catches her gaze and smiles. Maya looks away.

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