2016 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest Runner-up
“We’re inundated with chai,” Ana said. Shruti had just walked through the door of their hotel room with two cups of the milky tea, a roll of brittle toilet paper sticking out of her bag, and that look of severe sympathy she’d been wearing since their first morning in Pondicherry three days ago. A gecko suctioned to the wall next to Shruti’s head and glared all around. The women were still on the first leg of their babymoon, and Ana had already contracted a stomach thing. Room service believed it was from standing too close to the Bay of Bengal, but Ana also drank a lot their first night in and ran off to sample street food sodden with lettuce and tomatoes while Shruti closed their tab. “Who knows, right?” Ana had said, shriveled, green, grimacing. Her stomach settled seven hours ago; she’d consumed nothing but chai tea since. Saucers and cups flowered the room, catching iridescent flies and gathering the bay’s breath on their porcelain lips.
“No more, please,” Ana said. “I’ll rinse off and we’ll go out.”
“Go out?” Shruti said.
Ana molted her white cotton kurta and stepped into the cerulean bathroom. She’d spent a whole day in there, expelling wherever, splashing buckets of water on the mess. There was a skinny window through which she’d watched a black cow huddle in a narrow yard. In the midst of her violent swelling and rupturing, while she harbored some secret microbe, Ana passed through fever dreams of giving birth. In each hallucination all her friends and lovers peered in from the narrow window to watch, dropping gifts and pledges onto the wet and disgusting floor at her splayed and cramping feet. She turned on the hanging water heater, and the heavy animal ruminated in the dimming sun. It was monsoon season and the sky wanted to break. She washed her hair so hard it hurt.
Shruti ordered kadai prawn at a cafe, and Ana pecked at her rice. The cafe was open air, and birds and French and Tamil words floated in on the breeze. The French settlers and native Tamil Indians had realized a beautiful equilibrium postcolonialism. All schools were bilingual, nineteenth-century mosques, temples, and churches rounded the corners of cobblestone streets. In the bazaar, below wrought-iron balconies, elephants ambled. They were headed for Sri Lanka the next day.
“The Sri Aurobindo Ashram is beautiful,” Shruti said.
“You already saw it.”
“Yes, but I want to see it with you.”
Shruti had made sure Ana was asleep, hydrated, able to make it to the bathroom and water pitcher before she went out alone to visit museums, eat off banana-leaf plates, and close her eyes in the temples. She’d held healthy Ana in her mind and signed both their names in all of the guest books. She saw the Matrimandir, the golden sphere in Auroville; the yellow French consulate; paid an elephant a rupee to bless her with its trunk; and walked kilometers of the rust-colored sand that lined Pondicherry’s jagged onyx coast. She couldn’t stand to see Ana sick. She’d needed to remove herself from it.
“I haven’t been to the Pondicherry Museum,” Shruti said.
They walked through Bharathi Park to get to the museum. The ashram wasn’t far. They could hear it moaning and ringing. Old government buildings surrounded the area like a council. Near a white neoclassical monument, Shruti opened a book of Aurobindo’s poems to read to Ana. Before she could get through one, the sky ripped and dropped a small ballast of rain, and Shruti lifted the poems over Ana’s head as they ran away.
In the museum, Buddha faces, balloon-breasted Shivas, and other ancient artifacts were laid out on the floor. An unplugged seismograph stood against one wall, doubling as a table for the absent guards.
“Nice,” Shruti said.
She’d stopped visiting India years ago.
“Limited resources,” Ana whispered.
“Priceless artifacts,” she continued.
Others, Indian tourists, took notice of Shruti and checked to see if they were looking at the same statuettes the subcontinent seemed to burp up every few weeks.
“But you can touch them,” Ana said, petting one of Brahma’s faces. The trip had been her idea. She’d prepared their passports and shots, and when their donor gained approval exactly two weeks ago, she bought the tickets. In a month she’d be inseminated.
“You shouldn’t,” Shruti said.
On the second floor, Shruti rubbed Ana’s abdomen. Gray clouds dropped glistening sheets of rain on the bay. That first night, Ana had said, “What if we just kept traveling, just kept going, never stopped?” Shruti thought this meant Ana was more excited about the babymoon than the baby. She’d been too messed up with anger and sadness to ask.
“We’re stuck,” Shruti said, looking at the rain, searching for the tapping she’d felt in Ana’s stomach when she was bedridden.
“Like hell we are. I’ve been in a bathroom for the last three days,” Ana said.
Women were jogging back and forth on the stairwell between the first and second floors, cradling stone Ganeshes, Vishnus, and Shivas in their arms. The lobby was awash. A team of short-sleeved guards wrestled with the seismograph to get it up the first flight. The women were different ages, all in white, like nurses or nuns. Ana led the way out. The rain was like burning light.
Shruti had stopped to watch a crowd of men chase desperately after a cow being torn down the street in the flood. When she turned, Ana was no longer there. She nearly drowned in the rain. Gasping, calling Ana’s name, Shruti stumbled forward. The entire world turned to a silver gas. The water was to her shins, grabbing at her. Her skin was so beaten it felt raw. Her eyes were pelted and bruised. On one invisible block or another, something—the water, she thought—snatched her arm and pulled her inside of a building. Behind the rain, she could hear children singing. Ana was holding her.
“You kept walking!” Shruti said.
“I thought you were beside me!”
The singing turned to laughter and applause, the clapping of feet on a stage.
“Ana, I lost you.”
“I found you.”
“You kept going.”
Ana discovered Shruti down the hall in a theater. She’d stalked off, soaking. On stage, children, Tamil and French, danced like confetti in colorful animal costumes, singing in separate languages. They were performing a scene from the Ramayana. Ana sat down. Wistful paper mustaches hung on the boys’ faces and one girl was done up with so many bangles she couldn’t breathe without chiming. Hanuman, the monkey god, was hauling islands into the sea to help his friend Rama rescue Sita. He’d promised Rama he would. The couple’s faces were carved in the papier-mâche meat of his heart. And Ana couldn’t bear it. She was already turning to Shruti to tell her, but Shruti was listening, scratching at her chest. Ana said something, but it was too quiet, too selfish against all that promise, friendship, and joy to be heard. The Tamil monkey boy with the blown-out chest had started to sing.