A Brief Bombay Visit
Shubha Venugopal

I twist on the burning car seat. Sweat collects under my arms and breasts, drips behind my knees. I fidget and curse; I fan myself with the only paper I have -- the wad of money safe in my purse. The car coughs, stalls, belches black smoke that lines the inside of my eyes. My face, plain here -- no customary cosmetics -- shines with Indian heat. I dream of cool blue walls, chilled countertops, sanitized floor tiles. I check again my plane ticket, tucked in a flap tied flat against my waist: release back to an American home. I count days on newly soiled fingertips.
Then I see her.
She stands with feet immersed in swirls of dirt. Shreds of cloth bunch and gather about her in dusty camouflage, brown and dull like her skin. Her hair coils into ropes stiffened by mud, caked with soot from car exhaust, perfumed with scents of old and new sweat. Bones protrude from ankles, cheeks, wrists; they spread wings and fly at the base of her neck.
She bends and straightens; she is washing fabric patterned an inadvertent design -- cloth punctured with holes. She dips clothes into polluted rainwater the color of tea, the color of mud-choked riverbeds. Perhaps she doesn't notice her family's clothes emerge filthier than before? Behind her slants her home -- four cardboard-thin walls, paper and straw, a tin roof that glints in the sun.
A child sits near her feet, gnaws on a banana peel. Another arranges rock piles, jumps in a modified hopscotch. I notice, then, children everywhere, popping up, covered with earth, wiggling like worms. Her children? Siblings? Hard to say because she is so young, blade-thin arms and legs still pliant and strong. One of the children sings.
The woman looks up, eyes meeting mine as I sit portrait-still, framed in the car window. No recognition. Her gaze returns to the child. And I see that, unlike me, the woman laughs. Giddy with sound, she appears not to care she is outside in heavy, humid air.
The woman returns the lullaby. The lilting voice leaves me closed in the cage of my car; I don't know the words. I have forgotten my language. I have forgotten my home.