Ten years ago I was in Mumbai with a friend I've since fallen out with. We were visiting another friend whom, as time has passed, I've also lost touch with. The three of us were there for New Year's, and my friend and I—the one I fell out with—were traveling back to Kolkata by train once the trip was over, and then back to New York shortly after. At first, the idea of Mumbai was exciting. Visiting friends in foreign cities usually is. Isn't this crazy?! we'll say upon reuniting. Completely wild, we'll nod. The extreme familiar—a close friendship—reoriented by the extreme unfamiliar is usually a formula for fun. All the qualities of a new experience in the company of someone who lessens the overstimulation sometimes brought on by new experiences. This is why we laud people who make good travel companions. We value that mix of curiosity, of limit- ing impatience for the trip's duration, of being responsive, even-tempered, but also willing to skip the museums and spend whatever money you have left on day drinks and aimless walking.
But in Mumbai, I remember drinking too much vodka and feeling restless. Like I couldn't figure out why I was there. Like I was meant to be having fun—so much of it—that as a reaction, my anticipation had soured. I was in possession of all this freedom, traveling with a friend, visiting another friend, and yet, I felt hollow. Looking out an apartment window, standing on a balcony, returning to my book, barely reading, thinking of perhaps sightseeing, not knowing where to start. Waking up early and badly wishing for the chatter only a family can provide. That nothing-talk that grows lively for no reason. Ten years ago was too young to know friends who chatted in the morning. It still might be.
But one morning I was given a task. My mother called and asked, since I was the only immediate family from Canada in Mumbai at the time, if I'd visit my cousin's husband's mother who was recovering in the hospital. She had undergone heart surgery. I was thrilled. Something to do. A destination. I could leave my friends, the vodka, the lazing around, and arrive somewhere. I got dressed, decided to wear a pair of dangly earrings, and grabbed a shawl my mother had loaned me for the trip.
Downstairs, my friend waved over an auto-rickshaw and in Hindi instructed the driver where to go. I under- stood none of what he said, but smiled, climbed in, and stared at the map I'd drawn that now looked like nothing at all. A few lines, a turn I'd emphasized by going over it a few times with my pen, some more lines, a big loop. The scribble had made more sense moments ago, but now that I was in the auto-rickshaw, among life as it zipped past me—two wedding processions; daylight waning; immea- surable traffic—I hoped the driver knew where he was going.
An hour went by. We'd stopped twice for directions. I showed anyone willing to help, my map—the lines, the turn, the more lines, the big loop. I said "Heart Hospital" over and over. Heart Hospital! Of course that wasn't the name of the hospital. It was called the Asian Heart Institute. But somewhere along the ride, the rickshaw driver started saying heart hospital and so I started saying heart hospital. Whenever someone giving directions would nod, I would nod. He nods. I nod. And so on. But shared nodding in a country where you don't speak the language is, I learned, the same as saying, Yes, yes, yes. But what were we agreeing on? Was I simply trying to keep the mood light and not look too confused? "HEART HOSPITAL," I enunciated. The more I pronounced the words, the more the words lost all of their meaning. Say anything too much, and soon language becomes pummeled nothing. Totally estranging, inadequate, and without substitute. Your tongue may as well be numb.