It’s 1985. Bombay is red.
Every olive skinned forehead has a chalky red circle placed by the leathery fingers of holy men. They look like a collection of bullseyes. Black red garnets drip from earlobes to rouged cheeks. A woman walks with three small children. She is so stunning she could win beauty pageants, but she was born poor so she never will; she’ll never even consider it. Indira Gandhi was recently assassinated. I am fifteen. A sharp cheekbone is draped by a red sari. When the sun shines through it, the woman’s chin lights up like an electric strawberry. She bends over a camp stove on the sidewalk outside the Bombay airport. She twirls chapattis with her delicate fingers over a weak red flame. Her hands are speckled with mehndi patterns like blinking eyes on her palms when they open. The mehndi is faded the color of dried blood. The eyes and gold flash bright red secrets: the faded mehndi means the woman participated in a wedding a week or more ago. The smell of roasted nutty chapattis competes with the stench of sweat and shit. My thick green ankle length skirt is too thick and American in the humidity and perspiration drips down my doughy armpits onto the ground. I’m looking for my name on a sign. Petite men jump and shove each other to get at the white tourists who have money for motels and taxis. They call out “Rickshaw, Madame? Madame.” Their voices are low and sexual and pleading but harmonize like a choir. The men who call out Madame have red teeth. A boy with no legs whizzes past on a skateboard. His arms are extra long and knobby from polio. He has a collection of VHS tapes attached to the skateboard with a bungee cord. One of them is Michael Jackson. He doesn’t beg. Skinny children approach with fingers cut off at the knuckle from leprosy. There is no blood—only bandages. They move their fingers to their mouths and say “kanna” and look in my foreign eyes. I don’t have to know Hindi to know what starving means, but “kanna” means food. The kids spit red, the women spit red. The small puddles remind me I’m bleeding. Where am I going to find a tampon?
Bombay is orange. A band of Hari Krishnas march barefoot on orange dirt in big loose shirts and lungis that are like baggy pajamas. They are the orange that only the earliest morning sky knows. Their baldheads glisten in the heat and they smile that crazy smile of bliss that makes me want float on their orange cloud and never go home. The moon is amber and appears much closer and bigger here. From across the street, they come for me. I know I’m white because the men jump and yell and the lepers scurry to meet me. Some of them are my age or younger. I see a white sign with my name misspelled. My temporary sister with shiny black hair grabs my hand. She tells me her name means light. “This way,” she says and interlaces her fingers with mine. Her father walks like his hip is sore or broken because they tilt as he walks briskly. He’s doctor. He says “come” and I do. His voice is nasal and is hard to hear over all of the vendors who are calling “pakora, pakora, pakora!” the orange fried vegetables in white bags sprinkled with saffron, cumin, cayenne. Women carry giant baskets on their heads poised and dangerous but their faces are serene. The baskets are orange and brown and carry the smell of fish. Some baskets overflow with samosas and when one drops from the basket, beggar children scurry for it. Cars and bicycles heavy with chickens swerve around cows that rule the road. Fat, slow cows flaunt orange blossoms between their horns, swinging between them like a hammock. Their horns are painted with red and gold stars and flowers. Holy orange. My temporary sister wears an orange thread around her wrist that signifies that she has a brother and he tied it to her wrist in a ceremony that honors their bond. She interlocks her fingers with mine as we walk towards what looks like a toy car. The children knock on the window as our car drives away. They chase the car for several blocks yelling “Ferungi!” (foreigner, not the band).
Bombay is white. The bread the vendors sell in baskets when they yell out “pan pan pan pan” is wrapped in starchy white cloth. Milk is delivered in small bottles in grey metal baskets like in reruns of Leave it to Beaver. Each morning, I listen to my Prince: “Under a Cherry Moon” cassette tape from home on my walkman and walk along the gutter next to white marble houses. A man squats and shits in the street. I panic because I want to stare but I wasn’t raised like that so I look away. I think about what it means to be white here, to have the luxury of white cotton underwear and a private poop behind closed doors. The divine pleasure of white toilet paper. I pass men who wear the funny loose white pajamas. They open their pants and take their dicks out and point them at me and walk towards me. This happens so many times I lose count. It happens when I walk with my host family and when it does, my sister locks hands with me and squeezes tight. “This way,” she barks. “Ouch,” I say. She tugs me into a store that sells saris and nose jewelry until the men walk by the store and into the marketplace. I want to ask why the men do that but I don’t. Too ashamed and embarrassed. My host brother tells me “Women who come home after dusk are whores,” right away. He’s trying to explain why his father yelled at me for coming home past five. It’s a given. I can tell by his slouch and the way he wobbles his head that he thinks it’s silly. He wears American clothes a few years behind but the best money can by in Bombay: White Izod and blue jeans. I’m supposed be in college but I don’t go after the first day where I was swarmed by staring kids. Instead, I follow children to their homes which are in winding alleys in slums. I trust the kids who grab my arm and pull me past metal scraps and piles of garbage. I’m pummeled by the smell of shit and piss near their home of cardboard and dirt. I sit in the dark around a metal camp stove and drink their spiced chai from tiny chipped glasses. The grandparents sleep on the ground on a single blanket and glance over at me. All I see in the dark is their white hair. I can’t tell how many people live in the shack. The kid giggles and his mother stares into my grey eyes for a long time and laughs. She covers her mouth when she does this. The kids writes an address on a white piece of paper. I promise to write, but I don’t ever write. Two men follow me onto a train. Their bodies against mine harder and harder until a seat next to a woman is vacant and I squirm into it. A couple stops away is a four star hotel so jump off at the next stop and run inside where I won’t be followed, touched or flashed. I fill my backpack with rolls of white white toilet paper. I get home after dusk; White American whore.
Bombay is turquoise-gray. Monsoon rains with blue skies. Ganesh, the elephant God, is on posters in homes and stores. He winks from rickshaws promising triumph over obstacles. In some sects of Hinduism, I’m told, a woman is supposed to throw her body on top of her dead husband’s and allow the vultures to pick it clean.
In 1985, many cases of rape go unregistered because of the social stigma associated with rape. Women who are raped are outcastes. Rape cases in India have more than doubled since 1985.
Recently, an Indian woman was gang raped in Delhi. The gray hate and gray shame. The red angry spit. The cold gray shadows where the little girls are still sold out of cages. The gray spaces in the alleys filled with girls carrying gray tins begging for coins. Gray, dirty bandages on their hands. Accepting a Dowry is prohibited in 1986 but still widespread, like arranged marriages and the caste system. And the families I stayed with all had several servants and for the most part, the servants were girls. Women who file for divorce are outcastes. Lepers are outcastes. The women in Bombay who care for me are ornate and graceful with their God of hope and tenacity.
If they are outcastes, so are all of us. Let’s interlock our fingers tight and walk into the new and turquoise day.