Curry spices, patchouli and fresh cut marigold blossoms thicken the air. My gut twists. I close my eyes. Stomach ailments are so common in India that I ignore my own for several weeks until I am weak and sad and dangerously thin, and then a little bit longer, until there is blood.
I sit listlessly in the shade of a tree outside the medical clinic waiting to see a doctor, my thoughts wafting with the smells. I start to convince myself that I have probably contracted a rare disease while wandering through Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Or more likely I’ve developed cancer of the bowels and it is, most definitely, terminal. I am 18-years-old and not above a little mental melodrama. The idea of dying slowly in the foothills of the Himalayas in India strikes me as romantic. I imagine sitting in the lotus position to accept the death of my body as my spirit rises to join the cosmos in a spectacular display of golden light much admired by all who bear witness.
A clatter of metal on pavement and shouting shakes me from my mental theatrics. People shout. A man lies sprawled out on the road under his bicycle. He’s trying to right the bike but one leg is tangled through the metal frame and the wire basket on the handle bars gives it an awkward weight. A crowd is gathering. Fruits, vegetables and little newsprint wrapped packages of dry goods scatter across the pavement.
From his prone position, the man desperately tries to gather his belongings, sweeping them with his forearms toward the basket on the bicycle, still on its side on the ground. A scrawny woman with a baby on her hip steals one of the packages and hurries away. People shout at her back. She keeps walking but opens her hand and lets the bag drop. It splits open and grains of rice spill in the dust. A guava rolls to a stop where I sit. I pick it up, rise and scoop up a couple more.
“No! No! No!” Everyone is yelling at me at once.
God, I think, do I really look desperate enough to steal food?
“It’s ok,” I say. “ I’m just helping.”
Bent over, I keep gathering up stray fruit and vegetables, a packet of rice, working my way to the man figuring everyone will stop shouting at me when they see what I’m doing. A boy pushes his way through the crowd.
“Do not touch this! This man very sick!”
I stop. For the first time I see why the fallen man is struggling so hard to pick up his bicycle and belongings. He has no fingers, just stubs of hands. His ears are cauliflower nubs. The flesh of his nose has collapsed into his face, sinking into his skull. He is a corpse, rotted yet still alive. My stomach, already queasy, jumps. I’ve never seen it before but I recognize it immediately – leprosy.
I stand pressing the paltry goods to my chest. The man looks at me. Wide brown eyes gaze out from his monstrous shell, and I see in them the fear; worse, the expectation that I will cringe and turn away. For a split second I consider it. The crowd grows.
A woman stoops to pick up something from the ground. I think she’s decided to help too but then realize she’s picked up a palm-size rock. She yells at me. I don’t understand her words but recognize the threat. A man yells at the woman but I don’t know if he’s telling her to drop the rock or to take aim. So often, this is how I feel in India, a stranger in a crowd on the verge of becoming a mob.
I am not brave. In one swift move, I plop everything I am holding into the bicycle basket, untangle it from his leg to set it up right until the handlebars rest in the crooks of his elbows.
“There you are,” I say in a ridiculously cheery voice.
He stares at me, momentarily stunned. More people are gathering. And yelling. This is going to get ugly. I want him to get on his bike and go. “Hurry,” I say wishing I knew the Hindi word. “Hurry. Go.” Instead, he carefully leans the frame of his bike against his hip, lowers his head, and presses both palms of his fingerless hands together in a gesture of gratitude.
I am mortified. I don’t deserve this reverence. For one thing, I know leprosy is not particularly contagious. For another, I really do just want him to go, for both our sakes. Suddenly the bike slips down his body and nearly topples a second time, and we both make a mad grab for it, crashing into each other, almost knocking one another down, and we see the shock of our own expressions reflected in the other’s and, I can’t explain it, we laugh. We crack up. Everything is suddenly absurdly hilarious. For the first time, I really see the man beneath the frightening flesh.
He sees that I see.
Then he throws one leg over the bike, pushes and kind of hops onto the seat before pedaling off, steering with his stubs. The crowd parts in fear to let him pass. Then quickly disperses.
It isn’t until he is at a safe distance that the woman tosses the stone aside making sure it lands at my feet.
Vivian McInerny is a journalist, essayist and fiction writer whose works appears in U.S. newspapers and magazines. At age eighteen, she traveled overland from Europe to India. This is an excerpt from a memoir of that journey.