SORRY GIRL, NO PHONE MEMORY LEFT, the truck’s hand-painted license plate read in a sideways flirt. Two rainbow bunches of streamers bounced from the sides of the jalopying vehicle. A bundle of sugarcane sticks fell out of the open back. One side of the truck read I LOVE GANDHI, the other, LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL. Our car looked like a toy in comparison. I pretended not to be afraid of it toppling over onto us. I pretended we weren’t stuck in traffic in the middle of India, on our way to the hills.
The driver of our car glimpsed backwards every so often with his clean fatherly eyes. His face was ruddy, stubbled from going without shaving for a few days, and patchy from old pimple bruises. When we would ask him how much longer or to stop for a bathroom, he’d reply in a low obedient mumble. When we would stop for tea, he’d put one arm behind his back in a servile stance and drink from the hot steel cup in long thirstful sips—staring at the Indian sun. He had small children and got nervous when my grandfather told him we were going to the hills. How many days? he asked. I don’t know! my grandfather would say. Nobody tells you how many hairs on your head you’re gonna be born with!
I was a sardine—jammed with six sleeping souls bouncing up and down as the car continued through the rock-laden roads. Time became a big blur of jet lag— since we’d flown from the U.S. to my grandparents’ house in a quaint, forgotten town. I tried to wriggle my phone out of my pocket to listen to music, but my sister’s heavy resting head jerked when I made the slightest move. I sighed and wiped the fog off the window with a spare unicorn-speckled sock.
My cousin, Charlie, woke up and yelled, “I’M SO HUNGRY!!!” She rolled the window down all the way and stuck her head out, searching for food like an impatient animal. A cold breeze and smell of something fried and crunchy, mint and spices, and piping hot cardamom tea blew into the car. The rest of the troupe slowly awakened and shook the siesta from their eyes.
“We can’t get off anywhere now,” said my aunt, yawning. The cars in the jam were motionless like a bad Salvador Dali painting.
My other cousin, Alicia, poked the back of my head. “How’s life?”
“Cheeky,” I replied.
“Cheeky?” she questioned.
Outside, there was a man clad in orange garb wandering with a walking stick. He looked like a wise man of some sort—a turban wrapped around his head, clay beads hanging from his neck, holding an iPhone up to his foggy eyes. Maybe he was Socrates. Maybe he was a social sage. I imagined him sitting criss-cross on a great mountain—the high sun illuminating his wrinkled face—maybe taking a selfie. He tripped over a stone and howled in silent pain. Why didn’t he just cry it out loud? He felt around the ground frantically, feeling for his walking stick. The people that came and went passed him. Some gave him a sorry glance; some perhaps debated with their own conscience if they should drop everything and help him. In the end, he wiped the blood off his knees and picked himself back up alone.
Everybody in the car began talking about everything under the sun—loudly. It was as if the pressure building in our ears from going up was making us hard of hearing. My mom and aunts talked about cleaning up our poop when we were little babies, my older cousins talked to each other about their friends getting engaged, my sister and younger cousin argued about YouTubers, and my grandfather ranted to the driver about there being no phone service now. The noises clashed and tripped over each other and the honking cars passing by sounded in a cacophony. The driver shot a tense glance in the rear-view mirror, distracted and confused how to switch lanes.
A beggar quietly palmed my window like a ghost. “Give. Please give, madam. I am hungry.” I looked at the woman’s rough hands, then at her dirty face and dark eyes half covered by a scarf. She could’ve been known as beautiful if it were raining—if the water washed away all the dirt and suffering.
My grandfather rolled down the window and barked at her in the same Hindi tongue. “GET AWAY! BREAD IS ONLY BUILT BY HARD AND HONEST WORK…THE HILLS HAVE EYES!” He rolled up the window, angry. The woman palmed at his window. My grandpa cursed and the car jumped forward.
Everybody continued talking, but a loudspeaker on top of a small church ahead suddenly overtook all of the noise in my mind. There was chanting—verses, hymns, a maybe truth. I say maybe because I couldn’t understand all of it. I looked around the car to see if anybody else was hearing what I heard. Nobody. I looked out the window to see if anybody else in the city was hearing what I heard. It was impossible to tell.
I’d heard the chant before, upstairs in my grandparent’s house—when I locked myself in the bathroom and sat on the toilet seat to cry. I was wearing my winter jacket then, and my butt was frozen from the cold seat even though I was wearing two pairs of pajamas. I held my head in my hands and wiped the frustration out of each burning eye. Why are you so serious? asked my aunt. You’re not fun anymore! complained my cousin. You’re too sober, said my uncle. I could hear my younger sister and cousins laughing loudly in the room next door—they were watching a scary movie and eating spicy potato chips.
I stood up and went over to where the noise was coming from. I looked up at the window that was too high to see out of and continued listening to the chant. After each verse, a small congregation echoed a response back. I imagined them sitting in a small circle in the temple two blocks away. What kind of people would sit in that little temple on a Tuesday night? I wondered. Don’t they have anything better to do? What were they saying? They sounded like holy ghosts.
Pain and suffering are the remedies; pleasure and comforts are the diseases.
What did this mean?
My grandfather cussed out a toll guy and told him to fear the hills. My mother fell asleep again, probably praying. The last time we came here, the priest gave us flowers. She had been wanting us to come back here for years. She was running to the hills in full speed, and my father—he couldn’t wait to run back to my grandparents’ home. He was in the other car and was nauseous. He had been acting strange and childlike since we landed, running to my grandparents’ home with an open embrace, like he was going to hug the giant house, jumping up and down on the terrace when he saw kites flying, requesting a cup of warm milk only from the hand of my grandmother. Milk, milk, milk, he would always sing. I loveeeeeeeee milk.
There were patches of fog and smoke then. The cars and people that passed by were apparitions. There was a woman in a fancy car, staring at me with her pierced nose turned up. She looked like she’d been royal or something in a past life. She looked like she used to have smiling old woman’s eyes. But now, she had the eyes of a politician’s wife. There were men with horses decorated in flowers and garlands lined up on the sides of the road—waiting to take the next pilgrims up the hills. There was a woman in a yellow lehenga dress sleeping on a cot—flies settling on her unconscious face. There were two men crouched by a fire that ran only on dead grass and straw—no shoes, thin hats, both sharing a rough blanket, tapping at their iPhones in one hand. There was an infant and a mother with half her breast out—the milk dripping down to the ground—an injured wild dog lapping up the tiny puddle. Animal or human, out on the street or in the quiet of a hidden bathroom, there must’ve been some meaning in our suffering. Our living was incomplete without it.
I could’ve sworn these hills had eyes. How could they be blind to this all? No, the hills understood. The hills saw all.
“We are hereeeee!” my grandfather sang. We were at the bottom of the mountains. The tall giants loomed over us like bright green gods in the cold air. The driver was tired now. Everybody huddled their stuff together, took their phones off the chargers, and fumbled to put back on their shoes. My mother got out fast; ready to run to the hills at full speed. I got out of the car and tilted my head up high again at the wonders. My father came out last, eager to get the pilgrimage over with and run back to my grandparent’s house. The lights of the hotel went out.
“Uhh the light will be back shortly. Please come in,” said the doorman.
I don’t think we needed that artificial light anyway. A flock of black birds cawed over the burning orange Indian sun. It didn’t matter to me; I was running to wherever the sun was.
Arja Kumar is a human, writer, and nineteen-year-old college student from Illinois. Her work has appeared in literary magazines including KAIROS, Sweet Tree Review, Literary Orphans, Portage, Blink-Ink, and Bop Dead City. When she is not writing, she likes to cook, paint, and stargaze.