Madurai, India, 2009. Photo by Monica Byrne.
I come back balancing three paper cups full of chai. Bella and Chloe are lounging on the train platform, wearing their heart-shaped sunglasses, watching ropes of rain slither off the edge of the roof.
I met them three days ago, in Kochi. We’ve shared one hotel room, ten meals, and two autorickshaw rides. But here we part. They’re going to the tourist town on the coast—Varkala, on the Arabian Sea. They tell me about rippling cliffs, smooth beaches, and cafés that serve sweet iced mochas. But I’m not going with them. I’m going inland, to Madurai, to see the goddess.
Chloe notices me. “Chai! Wonderful.”
Bella says something in my direction.
“What?” I say.
Bella raises her voice, to be heard over the drumming of rain. “WE’LL MISS YOU.”
Chloe nods to herself, as if to say, I suppose that’s not unlikely.
I can’t see their eyes behind their sunglasses. “But you’re going to have such a great time at the beach,” I say, trying to be heard over the rain, trying to sound like I mean it.
Chloe nods more vigorously, as if to say, That’s for certain.
“So,” says Bella in the same raised voice, “where is Mad—Mudd—”
“Madurai,” I say.
“Ma-DOO-rye!” says Bella.
“Ma-DOO-rye!” says Chloe. They become a chorus of overlapping Ryes and Doohs and Maahs, then stop and blow on their chai.
“It’s deep inland,” I say, “in the middle of Tamil Nadu.”
“What’s there?” says Bella.
The question catches me off guard. Like I have to defend Madurai, even though I’ve never been there. Anyways I can’t explain this call I feel—to the center of a country, not to its edges.
“A big temple complex,” I say. “To the goddess Meenak—”
“What?” says Bella.
“MEENAKSHI,” I say, annoyed, having to bray her name like a donkey.
I page through my travel guide, find a picture. “A Hindu goddess, a warrior woman. Madurai is her place,” I say, pointing. “She has three breasts and fish eyes.”
“Fish eyes? Like from the ocean kinda fish?”
“Then why is she hundreds of miles inland?”
I shrug and close the book. I don’t want to answer their questions. I don’t want to tell them why I want to see the goddess and what I seek from her—some feeling of actuality I suspect I’ve never had before. I can’t wait to be alone, away from them. I’m not like them. All they want is leisure, pleasure, and fun in the sun.
“Your train!” says Bella, leaping from the bench.
I swallow the last of my chai and crumple the cup and cast it on the track. The platform is alive now. All the families are stirring, aunts, sisters, mothers, grandmothers. Books shut, bags hoisted, children grabbed away from the track.
I have four items of luggage. I sling them around my body in their most energy-efficient configuration, which prevents Bella and Chloe from hugging me.
“Well, I just want to say—we should write postcards—”
Bella shakes her head. “Sorry, what?”
I raise my voice. “I said it was nice to meet you both—”
Bella draws back and stares at Chloe, and they exchange a look of confusion behind their sunglass panes.
People are getting on the train. I can’t waste time.
“Bye!” I say, holding up my arm in what I hope is a universal gesture.
It works. Bella and Chloe each hold up an arm cocked at a right angle, two pharaohs in a gesture of farewell or warning, depending on whether you were going or coming.
I have a window seat reserved in a sleeper train. I’m the first one here. I push my luggage under my seat, peel off my sandals, and sit cross-legged as I shuttle my phone up through my clothing and scroll to my chosen playlist: “Night Train to Madurai.” Lots of Joni Mitchell. I’ve planned for this.
A little girl comes into the compartment, alone. I smile at her. She’s dressed in cotton salwar kameez of blue paisley. She sits down and leans her head back on the wall and stares at me, seeming to gather nerve. Then she looks away and closes her eyes as if concentrating. When she opens them, she turns back to me and speaks.
“What is your name?” she says. The four notes make a melody.
I take one earbud out. “Wendy,” I say.
“Are you from the U.S.A.?”
“Yes,” I say, “California.”
“What is your hair?”
I’m used to being stared at because of my hair. It’s ketchup-red, just like the pigtails of the burger chain girl. “It’s red.”
“You live like this?”
I smile. “Yes.”
Her head drops back and she looks away again. She’s gathering her English in her head, gathering up the words and staggering under them like too many parcels.
“May I have pen?”
“No,” I say. Why do people have to corrupt these innocent exchanges. Why couldn’t we just get to know one another without a turn to begging.
“Why?” she asks, mystified.
“You shouldn’t ask Americans for things,” I say. “It breeds dependency.”
She gives me a look to say, well la-di-da.
“What’s your name?” I say, trying to change the subject.
But she’s already lost interest in me. She’s gazing down the aisle at something I can’t see. She swings her legs forward and hops down to disappear down the car.
At the same moment, a young woman appears from the other side. She consults her paper ticket, unshoulders her purse, and sits down at a diagonal from me. She might be my age. She’s wearing a sari of aquamarine, in a shade I’ve never seen, even in all the seas of saris one sees in India. She doesn’t meet my eyes, though I keep trying to meet hers.
In my guidebook, by a fluke of the layout, Madurai and Varkala are in adjacent sections. I flip from pictures of one to pictures of the other. The city of Madurai is bone-white. The ocean at Varkala is thunderstorm-blue.
Surely, by now, Bella and Chloe have caught their train. Maybe they’re already wheeling on the beach between curtains of rain, content with the usual tourist fare.
Joni Mitchell says, Fly silly seabird—no dreams can possess you.
I curl up tighter and stare out the window.
The train weaves through Kerala, into Tamil Nadu, ever deeper inland. Crowds are gathered at every road crossing. Hosts in white, on motorbikes, gunning their engines. We pass into the suburbs and houses are colored pink and tangerine. We pass into farmland where coconut palms chart the paddies. We stop many times. At the end of each platform, a green light glows, signaling Go.
I check my compass. We’re going east, but the disc swings to indicate north. I shake it, level it. The disc swings again, but now settles on west. I roll my eyes and drop it.
I flinch when an object appears very close to me. It’s a paper cone, held by the young woman across from me. I hadn’t even seen her get up.
“Bhelpuri,” she says. She has her own cone, in her other hand.
“Oh, wow! Thank you,” I say. “That’s very nice of you.”
She gives me a tight smile, sits, and tosses the contents of her cone to mix the rice krispies, onion, tomato, sour mango, cilantro, and lemon juice.
“Are you going to Madurai too?” I say.
She looks up. “Madurai, yes,” she says. But she says it quickly, like M’dh’rai, like a shiver, in contrast to my long belabored syllables. I blush. I want to be like her, blending in, disappearing.
“You should be going to the beaches at Varkala or Goa,” she says. “You fit in better there. Why are you going inland?”
Again, I feel defensive. Why does anyone go anywhere?
“To see the goddess.”
I get excited. “Yes,” I say. “I’m going to spend all of Friday at the temple complex. My guidebook says the priests unite Meenakshi with Shiva every night.”
“They’re husband and wife,” she says. “They consummate their marriage.”
“I want to see it.”
“No one sees it.”
“Then maybe I could just see the procession.”
“You won’t be allowed.”
I didn’t expect this. “Not allowed?”
“No. You’re not Hindu. There’s a big sign in the temple.”
“I might be Hindu.”
“You are definitely not Hindu.”
“How do you know?”
She smiles at me, but it’s not a nice smile. It’s a smile of sufferance. I’m paranoid that she can see what I am: raised in no religion, except for the occasional Christmas service with my stepfather, green and red and gold garlands at the edge of my memory.
She changes the subject. “There are other things you can see, other goddesses even. There are idols of Parvati there. Meenakshi is an aspect of Parvati.”
“I knew you weren’t Hindu.”
“Well, what does it mean?”
“Aspect means an incarnation. Every goddess has many incarnations, generous and mischievous, creators and destroyers. So if you only see Parvati, and tell Parvati of your desire to see Meenakshi, Meenakshi will know you tried and she will bless you. Be content! Don’t try to see what you are not allowed to see.”
“What will happen if I do?”
She picked a pebble out of her cone and threw it out the window. Her voice was dull and colorless. “Then the goddess will be sure to reward you.”
I purse my lips and look out the window.
The train stops in a mid-sized town. All the signs are in Tamil, now; my few words of Malayalam are useless within a few hours’ ride. Chai-wallahs stroll up and down the aisle, balancing towers of paper cups on canteens, calling chai chaia chai chaia chai chaia chai.
An elderly woman arrives in our compartment. She carries a sack close to her body, as if it were precious, and wears an elegant sari of silver and navy. She’s alone. She says something to the young woman in turquoise, and the young woman answers, pulling at the other woman’s sari, rubbing the fabric between her fingers. They talk for awhile and laugh, resting their hands one atop the other. Do they know each other? Are they family? How easy for them to relate, to create intimacy, because they speak the same language, know all the same references, two birds in the same air. And here I am, a fish trying to fly.
Avoiding my eyes, the old woman takes a seat beside the young woman and folds her hands in her lap and gazes ahead. The train clenches, and we slide forward, gathering speed. We pass into open land now. I can see the moon rising over undulating hills, gibbous, heavy-lidded.
By the time I look back, the young woman and the old woman have fallen asleep together, heads templed.
Joni Mitchell sings, Oh California, I’m comin home.
I wake from a doze.
My contacts feel like potato chips. I blink to re-lubricate and they settle back into place.
It’s evening now. The moon has risen farther up in the sky and glows white. We’ve stopped. I cup my hands around my eyes and look out the window to see a small concrete platform lapped by colorless weeds. In the center of the platform is a kiosk, where a slope-bellied man is peering down at the levers. He looks like he just came in from the fields. He picks up a radio and talks into it.
Meanwhile, a skinny figure has let herself down from the train and is shuffling down the platform. It’s the old woman from my compartment. She reaches the end of the platform and puts down her sack and draws out of it a black block of metal with a glittering glass lens. She holds it in her left hand, at waist-level, and turns a switch. The lens bursts into brilliant cerulean blue. Why not green, I wonder? What does the color blue mean here?
I turn to look at the young woman to ask her, but she’s nowhere to be seen. In her place is the little girl.
“Hello again,” I say. “Are you alone?”
She stares up at me with big eyes. “No,” she says. “I have Meenakshi.”
I’m confused. I don’t know if she’s talking about a human or the goddess. Maybe this is some divine orphan. “Is that a family member?”
The little girl cocks her head as if to consider the question, then shakes her head ‘yes.’
“Where did she go?”
The little girl shrugs. “Toilet? Or kappi.”
Not goddess, then. I feel happy I recognize the Tamil word for coffee. “Or maybe kappi, then toilet,” I joke.
The little girl giggles. I feel good that I’ve made her giggle. She’s not asking me for pens this time. I’m making progress.
“Well, we’ll all wake up in Madurai together, right?”
She nods but avoids my eyes, shy again. I turn back to the platform. I fantasize about the young woman insisting that, instead of me going to my hotel upon our arrival in Madurai, I come with her to her home, where there’s a corner to sleep and idlee and cartoons with the children in the morning. Not another aseptic hotel room, but a warm home.
A hiss of pressure, and the train begins to move. We slide toward the faithful old woman in the sweltering dark. The cerulean light swells in our window, and then she’s swallowed back by the night.
I check my watch. It’s nearly ten. We’ll arrive in Madurai early—5:00am—so it’s time for bed. First I go to the bathroom marked Western Style and grab my ankles over the toilet seat, breathing through my scarf.
When I come back, the little girl is sitting by the window, cradling the young woman’s head in her lap. Where are all these women going and coming back from? Is this part of the mystery of being called inland? Bella and Chloe won’t be seeing this on the beach at Varkala. They’ll only be seeing other white tourists.
I look out the window. We’re curling around the base of a mountain, now, and the throat of the train bawls into the darkness.
I pull down the window blinders and switch off the light and lie on my side. The train sways and rocks us to sleep.
My body can tell when the train is still.
I wake up and wait. I blink in the darkness, seeing forms coalesce and pass and dissipate.
Only when we start moving again can I fall back asleep.
Another kind of sound intrudes.
A voice is repeating something. It’s trying to tell me something. I’m surfacing.
The train is still. Light floods the car. I blink and sit up, wiping yellow crystals out of my tear ducts.
My car is empty. The young woman and the little girl are gone. So is everyone else.
I hear commotion outside. I struggle with the metal blinds and finally wrestle them up. I see thongs slapping the concrete at eye level. Finally I can hear what the voice is saying: Madurai. Madurai. Madurai.
I check my watch. It’s only 3:05am. I feel so annoyed. Why is the train two hours early? I plan for things to happen the way I’m told they’re going to happen and now they’re happening differently. I move as quickly as I can, hating everything. I pull out my four pieces of luggage and sling them around my body in walking configuration. I maneuver myself out of the car and down the aisle. I’m the last one to leave the train.
I follow the last dregs of the crowd. Down the platform.
Up a stairway. Over an overpass. Down a stairway.
I come with the flood pouring out of the station gates, and leggy men bend into my path like river reeds. Madam? Taxi? Madam? Rickshaw? I plow through, ignore them, trying to look like I know where I’m going. I have to keep it up until they leave me alone. But they’re not easily dissuaded, not at this hour. They follow me. Where you go, madam? We can take you. Sure they will. And charge me an arm and a leg for it. I try to walk faster. They start jogging alongside me like Manchester United in training. I ignore them, still. One of them with a curled forelock and a half-smile says, “Why are you in Madurai, madam?”
I stop and snap, “To see the goddess!”
He recoils with a look of hilarity. He calls to his fellows, and a laugh arises among them, and they jog away together, fingers raised in victory.
I’m glad I could provide their evening entertainment. I plunge down a side street, fists clenched. I have to find my hotel and I want it to be safe and clean. I’m owed that much. My stay in Madurai is beginning inauspiciously. Winged insects wheel and collide near the glowing orange bulbs overhead. I stride under them. I have no pity for other living creatures at 3am in the heart of the Indian subcontinent when I don’t yet have a bed to sleep in. I think of the young woman and the little girl, whoever they were, now settling into the city with the rest of the train’s harvest, sinking into their warm families and delicious beds.
Finally I see my hotel, Meenakshi Paradise, with blue paint peeling from the sign. How strange that gods are embedded everywhere here, shamelessly, in worship and commerce alike.
I walk into the lobby. It looks like a used car dealership. A bleary-eyed man looks up at me from behind the counter. He is joined by another, rising from some task below. A third rouses himself from a nap on the bench and joins the other two. Three aspects of the god.
“Can we help you, madam?”
“Yes. I have a reservation.”
Three sets of eyes follow the middle one’s finger as he draws it along the register.
“Wendy Finley!” says the middle one, raising his eyes again as if seeing me for the first time.
He flings his arm toward the elevator. “Come! I will show you to your room.”
I appreciate his enthusiasm, but feel too dazed to return it. We crowd into the elevator: he, and then me, with my four lobes of luggage. After the door closes and the elevator begins to slide up he meets my eyes in the mirror and says, “How old?”
“Canada.” I’ve lied, just to mix it up. I’m so tired.
“Canada!” he announces. “Caaa-naaa-daaa!”
I don’t laugh. All my dreams are clogging my brainstem. I need to sleep.
The elevator stops and the doors slide open and I follow him down an open-air corridor tiled in warping linoleum. The warm night air flows in and sloshes over us. He unlocks #612 and turns on every light in the room. The room is egg-white. Every surface is bald and bare—tile, curtain, bedsheet, wall.
“Fan,” he says, plugging it in to demonstrate its functionality.
I nod. I want to be alone.
He leaves me. With an understanding that the room is fine and I’ll pay in the morning and I must sleep, must melt into my bed and not move, because the ache for sleep is universal and anyone, anywhere, knows how it feels.
I wake, dry and chilled.
My bed has no sheet.
I plunge my hand into my bag that is next to my bed and root around and pull out my scarf, which I arrange over my body, and curl up under it, to entomb myself for further sleep.
I dream of Bella and Chloe. They’re dozing, lying in the surf, letting their bodies rise and fall, letting the foam pop on their skin, content with what India has given them. They’re wondering why I insisted on going inland, alone; instead of with them, to the sea.
I tell them: I don’t want to go the places I’m expected to go. I want to see real India.
What is real India?
The goddess will show me.
I feel a tap on my shoulder. It’s the little girl from the train, holding out her open palm.
I wake to bhangra.
It’s playing at maximum volume right next to my ear.
I know what it is. It’s a couple next door. Yes. They are doing their morning dance routine. I know this for a certainty. I thrash up and pound on the wall with the heel of my palm. But there is no response and the music doesn’t stop. No, then it can’t be real. I must have dreamed it. The music is still there. I throw my scarf off my body, looking for the source. I look under my bed and all my blood rushes to my head. I get up and look out the windows but, no, it’s coming from inside my room.
There’s a dial embedded in a panel set in the wall above my bedside table. I turn the dial to the right. The music gets unbearably loud and my heart jumps up into my brain. I turn the dial the other way and the music disappears, back down the black hole it came from.
I stop, breathing in the silence, the music still echoing in my ears. A horsefly buzzes against my screen.
I turn over and press a pillow over my head and wonder why I’ve come.
I sleep very late and eat a mid-afternoon lunch.
I feel like a sane and reasonable human being again.
I tell myself that the unpleasant night doesn’t have to be definitive of my experience of Madurai. It was a transient weirdness: the early arrival, the lack of sleep, the lack of bedsheet, the odd dreams, the dry throat, the loud music. It’s over now. It’s dusk and I’m fresh for the goddess. I walk down the street, sipping rose milk through a straw. All streets lead to the temple. Its four horned towers rear above the city like talons.
Families are on pilgrimage. I see sisters and daughters and aunts and mothers. They stroll along the boulevards that hem the temple, their arms laden with shopping bags, full of fabric and sweets and little Shivas. They pass me as though I’m invisible. Maybe I am.
I stop at the front of Meenakshi’s temple. One of its tower soars above me, every inch covered in rainbow scrollwork. I take off my shoes and entrust them to the street, as hundreds of others have done. I peer in through the gate, and even from here, I can see that there’s a whole world inside, with its own cities and towns, pools and rivers, realms and climates.
Now everything is going how I want it to go.
A hand slaps me on the back of my leg. I turn around and look down to see a boy, his head bound with rags, his feet missing, holding out his hand. I stare at him, incredulous. He hits my leg again and holds out his hand, as if I’m stupid, as if I don’t understand. But I understand. I know these children are maimed by their pimps and sent out to beg. I don’t want to play that game. I shake my head ‘no, sorry,’ and turn and step across the threshold.
The bazaar surrounds me. The ceiling glitters. The flagstones are slippery with orange petals. Carved horses leap out of the walls. Gods stand in their shrines, each one smeared with crimson cream and mustard powder.
The sound of horns comes from far away, from deep within the temple. It sounds like a New Orleans funeral. I feel sure the goddess is calling me. I follow the sound past the great pool, into the passageways beneath the next tower. I’ve entered a new realm with a new climate. What did I expect? Nothing like this vastness. Coming inland means believing that the world is always bigger than you think.
I continue to follow the horns, taking a new hallway that leads down into yet another hallway. The sound gets louder. There’s always another corner to turn. The horns are overlaid by a percussion made from thousands of tools: men lie on their backs with brushes and chisels in hand. Their eyes glint from within tunnels, then turn back to work. This world is constantly under construction. They’re burrowing ever deeper inwards, making new worlds.
One of the workmen is lying on his side, repainting the fingernails of a god. He turns to me with his cheek on his hand, rolling over like a lover in bed, and meets my eyes. His eyelashes are thick and black and he’s wondering why I’m here.
A horn bawls out right behind me and I break eye contact. I press myself against a pillar as the puja passes: a parade of bare-chested priests, bearing a thick silver pole on their shoulders, in turn bearing a carven silver palaquin, and a silken banner fluttering over the darkness within. It’s Shiva. The bridegroom is coming. They accompany him with bells and torches. They’re bringing him to Meenakshi’s chambers.
You probably won’t be allowed, said the young woman on the train.
I have to try. I came here to see the goddess.
I follow men in white shirts, their backs crossed with satchel straps, and the women with long braids, tied with white blossoms.
We follow Shiva under a rainbow ceiling: pink, green, yellow, blue. The deeper we go, the bigger it is. We’re all shuffling, heads down, intent. It’s as if I’ve only been at the edges of the galaxy before, and now, I’m headed to the core. Bells ring, alerting the bride. We’re coming. I see flames ascending ahead. The crowd is getting thicker. A woman stumbles into me from behind, and I stumble into the man in front of me. Neither apologizes or even looks. They’re used to the crush of intimate strangers. We pass through a cloud of incense. The passageway narrows. I have no sense of where we are in the temple. I’m very far away from where I began. We pass through more clouds of incense, thick and sweet. I look up and see the haze of white neon lights. A drone is added to the music, a steady thread that draws us on. I can’t tell where any of it is coming from. My body is held up by other bodies, on all sides, as we press forward. I can see, through the elbows and shoulders and necks, the men holding Shiva’s litter over a mandala, and a spry old priest, his lower half swathed in tiers of white fabric edged in green and red and gold, and ropes of white blossoms draped in circles on a silver urn, and flames ascending and descending. The trumpet brays, the drums beat. The crowd presses forward. Is it almost time to see the goddess Meenakshi? Is it almost time for the consummation? It must be. I press forward with them. Everyone seems to understand what’s happening. Everyone here shares the same language, birds of a flock, turning this way and that on columns of air. I long to know. I long to make sense of all the things I’m seeing and hearing and feeling. I long to be soothed. Is this what Shiva himself needs from Meenakshi? To be set at ease? Then I’m the bridegroom as well, goddess. I want to know you. Petals fall from the ceiling. I want to know myself. I press forward to see the consummation. I want to erase my life and start over. I want to have been born here.
I push forward even as the crowd pushes me forward.
The horns blare in my ears.
The flames are in my eyes.
My lungs fill with smoke.
I cough and blink and tears stream down my cheeks. We are so close, pressing forward, pushing to make it happen.
The crowd parts.
A little girl appears before me with her palm outstretched and says, “Pen?”
How can she be here. How can she be asking me for a pen, now. How can she profane this moment.
I push past her, and the crowd pushes me past her. We’re so close to the goddess.
The crowd parts again and a little girl holds out her palm. “Pen?”
I can’t believe this. Why is she only asking me? Everyone else ignores her, so I ignore her. I push past her, and the crowd pushes me past her. I can see it: Shiva is approaching the threshold. He and Meenakshi are nearly together now. We’re all shuffling, bodies pressed, crushing forward into the smoke. We’ve left the little girl behind. She’s finally left me alone this time.
A man stumbles into me from behind, which sends me stumbling into a woman’s back. Her sari is silken peacock blue. My nose grates along the golden embroidery, skinning it. Drums are in my ears and smoke is in my lungs. We’ve come to the center of the world, the core of the galaxy, and we’re all like clay, bent beyond our natural shapes, pulled across time and space, a man on my back and a woman in my groin. I want to know the truth. I want to know myself.
The wave finally releases me and I pop out of the surf.
I’m coughing. I swallowed some water. But once I’ve gotten it all out, I take a deep breath and wipe my eyes. The tip of my nose burns; I skinned it on the sand.
A cute blonde boy nearby asks me if I’m all right. I think he’s English. His wrist is attached to his board by a long plastic tether.
“Fine, thanks,” I call. “That wave was just bigger than I thought.”
He gives me the thumbs up. Maybe I’ll find him later for mocha lattés at the hostel.
My toes find the sand and I stand upright, suddenly tall. The water is surprisingly shallow. It’s easy to walk up onto the beach, up to my towel. Indian men stare at me as they pass. They always stare at me because of my hair. I turn to face the water and snuggle down into my towel, feeling the sun beat down on my skin, watching the spindles roll in from the Arabian Sea. The midday light is so bright. I dig out my heart-shaped sunglasses and gaze west. I feel perfectly at ease.
Oh California, I’m comin home.