The sun overpowers me like an olive press, squeezing every ounce of perspiration from my body. The fronts and backs of collared shirts and vibrant saris are thick with sweat; dark stains rise in a chorus on the Metro when commuters’ arms stretch upwards. Enervated men sleep on the streets, in the parks, filthy towels covering their unshaven heads. Hunger evaporates with beads of sweat as flies are swatted away. Some monsoon season this is.
A 1950s-style diner at the Indian Habitat Center: Plush white and red stools arrayed in a neat line, sparkly scarlet booths along the walls. They serve traditional American breakfast, fried eggs, Belgian waffles, bacon. It takes me back to junior year of high school, when stage crew would drive, clad in black from head to toe, over to Steak & Shake in Northbrook after the opening night of a play. Shakes and cheeseburgers for everyone, yes, that’s what we used to order. My goodness.
Not so far away, Lodhi Gardens’ crumbling monuments beckon visitors. Palm-lined avenues lead to dirt paths lead to faded signs telling of entombed sultans from a fallen dynasty. The shahada, the Arabic words for “There is no god but God, and Mohammed is his prophet,” decorates the interior of stone domes amidst haphazard coatings of pigeon droppings and yellow-orange moss. The cool air inside draws all comers: students in navy blue uniforms teasing one another, young couples jealously holding each other, old women in green, orange, yellow saris, guards with glazed-over eyes.
A shaded sidewalk through a wood. Impassioned couples hide under rectangular green bushes, sealed away in their own facade of privacy. Three old men laugh hysterically among each other on a bench. “Water, sir?” says a young boy tugging at my sleeve with his right hand while his left hoists a bag of beverages and snacks. A black duck with pink warts across its face waddles slowly, so very slowly, along the edge of a dirty pond. It must be sick.
A new faded sign, a new stone dome, a new cluster of tombs. Quiet steps so as not to awaken the homeless men sleeping between them. “There is no god but God, and Mohammed is his prophet,” the stones say. Quranic verses above and below. The cooing of pigeons, the flapping of wings.
Then back by the dirty pond, past the rectangular bushes with their half-hidden lovers, beside sinking stone fortresses, under leaning palm trees, next to marching students with their navy blue uniforms and smirking old women and toothless men chuckling at God knows what. I wipe the sweat from my brow.