On the morning of the riots I woke up, starfished on my bed beneath the single, fluttering ceiling fan. Outside, the city was rattling into life. Children played in the street, someone rang a bell for Puja, neighbors conversed, pigeons cooed sweet promises of violence to each other and menaced sparrows off the choicest window ledges, dogs barked themselves into hysteria, and underneath it all was the somnolent humming of pollen-smeared bumblebees clustered around the trumpet vines. By local standards, it was quiet in the city.
But all was not well. Somewhere in Jaipur’s old city, a police officer had stopped a Muslim couple on a motorcycle. An argument ensued, things escalated, and the driver was arrested. The family cried foul, people gathered outside the police station, and someone panicked and fired into the crowd. A young man was killed. The crowd scattered, then returned as a mob. Shop windows were smashed, stores looted. Rumors spread of snipers on the rooftops. The authorities declared a curfew until order was restored, and “to prevent the dissemination of misinformation,” they shut down the city’s internet service.
So, as the city ground into lockdown, I lay in bed and sweat pooled between my body and the sheets until my limbs were sticky with salt. The waiting was interminable. But there was nothing else to do so there I remained, restive, straining my ears, hoping and not hoping to hear what was happening outside.
Slowly, sounds began to reach me. First was the ceaseless honking. In Jaipur, there are no discernible lanes, just a river of vehicles which swerve around each other at will. To indicate that someone wants to pass, move over, slow down, speed up, turn or perform any of the other functions that vehicles do, it is customary to honk. For those of us who come from a culture in which honking is considered an act of vehicular aggression, everyday life in Jaipur feels like an auditory assault. Eventually, the body adjusts, and the incessant honking fades into the background like extraordinary static.
At a pitch just above the hum and growl of cars lies the hubbub of human speech. In the streets, people are always yelling, calling out, praying, gossiping, and bartering in a plethora of languages. Although English is one of the most commonly spoken languages in India, foreigners often find themselves drowning in a sea of unfamiliar syllables. India is a country of polyglots. Of the 1,562 individual languages recognized by the Indian National Census, at least 150 languages have significant speaking populations, to say nothing of the dialects.
Without English, I felt unmoored, adrift in an ocean of words I couldn’t decipher. The day of the riots, waiting for someone to explain what was going on and why I couldn’t go outside, I could feel my world constricting. Listening to Hindi meant nothing to me; these foreign words divorced from their meaning were simply another set of noises, distinct yet impenetrable, just like the cooing of pigeons, occasionally punctuated by exploding fireworks and the hysterical barking of dogs, which here are ubiquitous, ownerless, and bold. What is more, they are loud. Their howling, yipping, snarling, whining, barking, crying, and yelping oscillates across the auditory landscape.
The dogs of Jaipur are shaggy-coated, muddy-pawed, garbage-eating mongrels with insolent tongues lolling between decaying teeth. No matter where you go, you will see them. There are street puppies of indeterminate and varying ages, from squirming puddles of blind and helpless newborns to strapping young starvelings gnawing possessively on scavenged bone shards. Some are unsightly: the bitches with swollen and pendulous teats from litter after litter of pups and old, sick ones gone ragged with mange.
Pariah dogs, they are called, the genetic descendants of wild dogs and escaped pets. They eat waste produced by humans, steaming mountains of rotting food and plastic that pile up in the streets. Without fences or municipal trash collectors to thwart them, these dogs live in villages, cities, and everywhere in between. In the dusty villages of the Gangetic plain, dogs snooze in the sun and frolic in the rice paddies. In Agra, in the shadow of the Taj Mahal, insouciant hounds yelp and go about their canine business. You can see them sprawling in the shade, slouching down alleys, begging, eating trash, scratching their rumps, shitting insolently in the road, and sleeping on street corners and under cars.
The family I stayed with in Jaipur also had a dog. His name was Romeo. He was a certified purebred Papillon of excellent pedigree, with a coat the color of fresh snow in the Himalayas and a nervous disposition. Every week he was sent to a groomer to be shampooed and conditioned and to have his nails trimmed. Without these timely interventions his fur would have become clumpy and unmanageable, and his claws would have skittered and slid on the tiles.
Romeo had one of those mysterious esoteric conditions that strikes animals whose existence is superfluous and contrived. The combination of a genetic bottleneck in his venerable heritage and intolerable levels of pampering he endured produced in him a curious neuroticism. Though in all fairness it’s probably reasonable to be a little neurotic if one’s predetermined purpose in life is to be small enough to fit in a handbag.
I felt a strange kinship with Romeo. He and I were both helpless and pampered. The family Romeo and I lived with in Jaipur owned many hotels and lived in the casual opulence of the very wealthy. They were Rajput, and descended from royalty. Romeo and I wanted for nothing; our worlds were circumscribed by luxury—yet without constant care and special attention, we both surely would have perished. Romeo needed grooming, walks, affection; I needed specially filtered water, foods that wouldn’t upset my delicate American constitution, and constant translation.
Americans abroad are notorious for expecting people to cater to our monolingual lifestyle and for behaving as if people who don’t speak English are somehow remiss. I never felt that way. I wanted to learn Hindi. I struggled hopelessly with declined fricatives and glottal stops. There were no loan words, none of the same grammar rules, nothing comforting or familiar. I trudged through memorization, learned how to say “What animals do you rear?” and “She takes the red sari to mother.” It wasn’t scintillating conversational material, but I kept trying, if only out of the desire to feel less like an ornamental lap dog. Once I managed to inform my Uber driver that “Many students are reading about India.” My diction was flawless. But he only spoke Urdu.
Because my Hindi was so limited, I was reduced to facial expressions and hand gestures. Asking for directions meant elaborate pantomime, like the world’s longest game of charades. I was reliant on the translations of others to understand the significance of events around me, but I didn’t always trust my interpreters. My host father’s confident assertions that Shiv Sena, a far right political party with a violent history and ties to fascist ideology, didn’t matter because its efforts were concentrated in the state of Maharashtra, and that “Muslims are trying to take over the world, it is in their holy book,” shook me deeply. On such occasions, I wanted to argue; instead I said nothing. It is very hard to mime “I appreciate your kindness as a host, but vehemently disagree with your political views which I find extremely dangerous.” Mute and furious, I retreated to my room.
Without language to order my life by I couldn’t debate politics, but my other senses seemed to improve. I lived in a world of sensory events. The specialized cells that make up my eyes still informed me of the orange and pink wonder of a sunset and the slanting of the light on pigeon’s wings. I watched smoke billow from burning fields in Punjab as farmers hurried to clear them for planting, inhaled the spicy sweetness of marigolds mingling with the staid earthy scent cow manure, and felt the urgency of thirst and the stickiness of sweat drying on my skin.
The world was so bright and sharp, it made my head spin. But I still yearned to interrogate, to discern the reasons for events. Why were farmers compelled to burn their own fields? Why were some altars decorated with vibrant wreaths of flowers and others unattended? Why was that skinny cow wandering through the traffic?
In time I noticed other things too, like how the face of India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi was everywhere. Modi was always staring beatifically yet sternly from televisions, billboards, posters, banners, accompanied by a string of Hindi–slick campaign promises, no doubt. Everyone I spoke to in Rajasthan seemed to love him. They cited his “incorruptibility” and hailed him as an economic visionary.
In the U.S., people tend to focus more on less savory aspects of the Modi regime. As governor of Gujarat, Modi presided over anti-Muslim riots that left thousands dead and injured. His rise to power has been predicated on suspicion toward Muslims and other religious minorities. Under his rule, Hindu nationalists have harassed and murdered uncooperative journalists. The week I arrived in Rajasthan, Gauri Lankesh, fearless journalist, campaigner for women’s rights, and outspoken critic of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, was murdered by three men outside her home. The “New India” Modi and his supporters promise is for Hindus alone.
A bystander always, I grew quieter and quieter by the day. I asked fewer questions for fear of the responses I might hear. Now, this seems craven. As a foreigner, I could have spoken against the excesses of the BJP without fear of retribution. And still, I said nothing. I nodded politely. I reminded myself that I was a guest here. I tried to make my opinions small and unobtrusive.
Instead of arguing, I studied. Hindi remained as unyielding and incomprehensible as ever. By the end of my time in India, I had memorized the devanagari script. I could laboriously sound out words but I couldn’t understand them. I still know how to say “excuse me,” “I am well,” “goat,” and “vegetable.” Yet so much remained beyond me, not just in Hindi, but in English too. I was haunted by things I saw, things I felt couldn’t be explained in any language — they spoke for themselves.
Once, while stranded in the train station of a little town only a few kilometers from the Pakistani border, I noticed half of a dead dog. Pacing nervously around the platform, waiting in the gathering dusk for a train that would never arrive, I almost didn’t see it at all. As I walked closer to the tracks, a cloud of corpse flies rose up and with a giddy jolt of comprehension, I glimpsed the flank of a dog which had been snipped neatly in two.
It was nothing like the routine gore of roadkill. This dog was sliced so cleanly through the middle that its rear end lay on the other side of the tracks. There was hardly any blood. The last locomotive had severed it with such force that the twin halves of what had recently been a trash-eating, tongue-lolling, cat-chasing mongrel were disunited with surgical precision.
I still think about that dog sometimes. The carcass comes looming up out of my subconscious, every detail sharp as if it were yesterday. I remember the iridescence of the flies that settled there, the slow way the sun hovered low and red in the sky over the mostly empty train station, how the dog’s two sections steamed gently in the cool evening air. ▩
Julia Mason is a writer living in Seattle.