This week’s assignment is to write a short piece, either fiction or non-fiction, about something ugly – and find the beauty in it.
The air in Calcutta was ugly. It was hardly “air” at all, really; it was more like smog and diesel fumes, with maybe a side of oxygen. Tissues came away gritty and black after I blew my nose.
I started to bless the searing of my mucous membranes; the air also carried the smell of open sewers, stray dogs, herds of goats that walked unmolested through the city, and if it weren’t for the buffer of industrial pollution, I would have had no relief from earthier scents. (Once I used a public restroom at the train station. I had, by that time, mastered the Eastern toilet technique, — Place feet on the planks provided. Squat. Adjust aim. Proceed. — but in this case the previous occupant had evidently been suffering from some kind of intestinal complaint. I managed. Let’s leave it at that.)
Weighted as it was with pollution and humidity, I wouldn’t have thought the air could’ve held as much sound as it did. Bikes (dingdingdingdingding), bicycle rickshaws (erEEerEEerEEerEE), rickety buses with wooden floors and seats (beeepbeepbeepbeepbeeeeeep), taxis (blatblatblatblatblat), and lorries (hoooooooooonnnnnnnnk) drove at breakneck speeds through the narrowest of alleys. Each house was surrounded by a wall of brick or stone, ideal for echoing and amplifying the unceasing clamor of the streets.
At night, the air was blessedly cooler, and quiet. It was then that we made the acquaintance of the mosquitoes small enough to slip through the bed’s netting to whine in our ears. I wanted to stop taking the chalky quinine pills that closed my throat and made me queasy, but every morning a new batch of itchy welts reminded me to keep it up.
About halfway through our stay, I went up to our room dejected and hot. The ceiling fan whirred ineffectually overhead. I was sick of an atmosphere charged constantly with unease and uncertainty. The aunts and I had exhausted the topics we could cover in words we all understood, the cousins were too shy to talk to me. I didn’t know if I could take another week of meeting relatives whose connection I barely understood, trying to figure out when to offer a handshake, and when to bow to touch the feet of an elder. I was tired of strangers staring and rickshaw wallahs sizing me up unflatteringly before agreeing to accept my fare. My head pounded, my stomach heaved, my lungs wheezed.
I lay down on the thin, hard mattress. My parents’ house, I thought, would smell like turkey today, because Dad would be heating up the leftovers. The air outside would rush by in wintry gusts, cold but clean.
In the morning, I was hot, then cold, then hot again. “Robin,” I moaned. “I think I have a fever.”
When I opened my eyes again, my new husband had returned with his aunt. Her hand was cool and dark on my forehead, soft with the practiced touch of a mother. As Robin and my father-in-law hovered anxiously in the doorway, she smoothed my hair and peered gently into my eyes.
“Julie, chai?” she said. Another aunt shooed the men away and entered, bearing a tray of the milky tea with its inevitable circlet of Ritz crackers. She adjusted her sari, bracelets jingling, and handed me the tray. I raised the cup. Warm, sweet, spicy air rose up around my face.
“Chai,” I agreed.
India has been on my mind lately. Robin and his dad are making plans for a trip, and it’s bringing back memories from our trip together, almost nine years ago. I can’t go this time. I wish I could.