Moonlight, bruised, crests over the hills as Niharika, whose name means “morning dew,” pauses at a roadside stall to buy chicken pakora. Mangled blossoms of chicken breast, dense with bones thin as strands of hair, chickpea flour, and spices in dissolution are deep-fried in flaxen oil, and then adorned with circlets of lilac-white onion and lemon slices. The process is quickly and nimbly performed, and lit by a single buzzing fluorescent bulb. The street vendor, a devotee of Ayyappa by the smear of red between his eyes, pours the mixture into a newspaper cone with uncommon deftness and delicacy, as though arranging long-stemmed lilies. A laminated print-out affixed to the stall informs us that “PayTM,” a sort of Indian PayPal mobile app for micro-transactions, is accepted in lieu of cash. Across India I’ve been noticing this new millennium spin on everyday tradition: Facebook pages for temple sites, color televisions in remote villages fenced in by slim coconut trees. This union of the digital and the ordinary feels intentional, but natural, somehow: a marriage of wireless, and the wild. The father, the son, the holy spirit, and the semiconductor. I imagine an appearance of the goddess Durga, astride a collared lion, her many arms wielding a trident, thunderbolt, lotus, sword, and cellphone.
Morning dew and I, chicken pakora in hand, make our way up the hillside. The change in topography does not seem to daunt the locals, who have built, along the incline, what I imagine most closely resembles a labyrinth from the playbook of darker Grecian myths. That mood particular to twilight, sulky and foreboding, has descended. Add in a few gray clouds, a scattering of English wildflowers, and this could be King Lear’s cliffs of Dover. But, for me, this is a journey through memory rather than sentiment. I peer briefly through alleyways and am reminded of Gion, in Kyoto, where slim, forest green wood-paneled streets would terminate in urns of veined marble, or with a sliding door, opening noiselessly with the emergence of a geisha. Here, the gaps between houses are lit by ochre-toned bulbs, and feature pools of filthy, yet luminous, water encircling sleeping dogs. The occasional woman, barefoot and wearing a sari of patterned cotton that reveals the midriff but conceals the shoulders (a contradiction in modesty that I like to call “the paradox of the Indian crop top”) leans out of a window to look at me with a blend of curiosity, restraint, and a third quality I have not yet been able to name.
Strange, to think I came to this country, at least partially, to understand my Rajasthani father and have found so little here that reminds me of him. Sometimes I do think I notice him, in the taste of raw tamarind, which is midway between citrus and brine, or in the expression of a child who could have been him half a century ago. My mind suddenly travels to the poem by Li-Young Lee, “Visions and Interpretations,” which starts: “Because this graveyard is a hill / I must climb to see my dead, / stopping once midway to rest / beside this tree. / It was here, between the anticipation / of exhaustion, and exhaustion / between vale and peak, / my father came down to me / and we climbed arm in arm to the top.” But if my own father were here, I know he’d be two steps ahead of me, walking in short but quick, unflagging strides; he always did move at a pace that was difficult to match.
The color palette of the houses is dilapidated peaches-and-cream: exterior walls in coral pink, white-hued green, with the paint blistered in several places from floor to roof. But it is the brand of decay that suggests not death but the necessary experience of life, that asymptote approaching, but never equal to, immortality. I feel an expansiveness, as I stand atop the cascade of stairs, that brings to mind the soft yellow Ohioan wheat fields at dusk, a recollection from early childhood I’ve not had in years but that emerges now, fully formed: that same sense of distance being eclipsed, and of time acquiring the viscosity of a gelatinous physical solid. The glimpse of not precisely forever, but maybe a coarser, less pure form, a forever-ness, contained within the unctuous, sensuous waves of nighttime overwhelming the earth.
Halfway up the hill, we come across a tiny temple, shuttered closed for the night. To the immediate right is a mural of Durga, killing the demon and sticking her tongue out. The temple is labeled on Google Maps, a revelation which does not faze Niharika in the slightest but leaves me feeling intensely incredulous. But, then again, if Notre Dame, Giza’s pyramids, and Mount Everest are on the web, then why not this? Perhaps it is only appropriate that this be the way to achieve modern godhood.