I’m writing a book about Tibetan appliqué and my unexpected quest to master this sacred art. Part art book, part memoir. A first-draft snippet from the travel-memoir part follows. I’d love your help in making it as fascinating and beneficial as it can be. Please read with gentle curiosity, then email me your comments and questions. Let me know if you want more or less of this kind of story.
Thanks in advance!
“No, no, wait! Show me the package! I need to see that it’s new.”
My head was swirling. Or was it the room? My fever blurred the difference but didn’t quell my fear or lower my defenses. I stretched out my hand in a gesture that fell somewhere between warding off (invaders?) and reaching out (for control? answers?).
Arjun was coming toward me with a syringe to take my blood. But Nisha was the doctor. Why was her friend going to take my blood?
“Show me that the needle is new!” I protested.
I’d lost friends to the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s and knew that getting a used needle stuck in my vein would put me at risk. And I was in India, for God’s sake, a land not known for perfect sanitation. In a private home with people I’d met just two days earlier.
Nisha was a medical doctor employed by the government hospital. Her friend Arjun was, well, just her friend, a well-traveled businessman who’d worked in various capacities that I hadn’t quite figured out—in the film industry, in cosmetics, in health products. He’d taken me out for beer in luxury hotels. He drove his own car, an SUV, and was one of the few Indians I knew to own a car in those days. He’d offered to let me to borrow it, but I’d quickly refused. Drive in India? No, thank you! He’d told me he dreamed of starting a health spa in the Indian countryside. That was all I knew.
I’d connected with Nisha through Servas, an international network of hosts and travelers, and had been invited to stay in her home. Though she’d been a member of the network for years, she rarely accepted visitors. But, she said, there was something about my letter…something about me. She told me she’d known as soon as the letter arrived that we were family, that I was her sister.
Upon first arriving in India, I had stayed in the home of a retired teacher of Sanskrit in a village near Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport. The teacher was strict, formal, and knowledgeable. The village children were delightful. Taking photos of them and letting them take photos of me was pure, innocent joy. The teacher kept scolding them and telling them to leave me alone, but they were so much more fun than he was.
A wiry old man wearing a white kurta pajama, the teacher proudly gave me a tour of the city. He took me to the 13th-century minaret of Qutab Minar, to temples, and to meet professors and friends who lived in neighborhoods at the outskirts of the city. We traveled on the public bus, crammed in among the locals. It was hot and humid in late-monsoon August. Sweat ran down my legs, hidden beneath my baggy drawstring pants.
Everyone we met offered Bengali sweets and glasses of water, which anyone in their right mind would be thirsty for in that heat. All these kind hosts could see the sweat pouring down my face. Certainly, they couldn’t have been convinced by my repeated assertions that I wasn’t thirsty. But I was concerned for my health. A foreigner just arrived in India drinking tap water? That’s a recipe for dysentery! I didn’t want to offend, yet I knew I had to refuse.
“But it has lemon!” they insisted, pointing to the freshly cut wedge they’d squeezed and dropped into the water, as if that would sterilize it and render it safe. To me, the fresh lemon was just one more source of threatening microorganisms. It was not by any measure a water purifier. To be safe, the water needed to be boiled. Maybe filtered, too. With iodine added for good measure.
“May I have tea, please, instead?” I hated to ask this. I so wanted to be a proper guest. And I so didn’t want to get sick.
At night, I slept on the teacher’s porch on a charpoy, a traditional wooden bed with webbing in place of a mattress. Although the night air was relatively cool, making sleep possible, the mosquitoes stayed awake all night to feast on my fresh, pink skin. The DEET I thought I’d covered myself with must have been sweated away. Or, I thought, having little private space or time in which to change clothes, perhaps I hadn’t been able to cover every inch of my body with the protective poison. The mosquitoes bit right through my lightweight clothes.
When Sanskrit Teacher delivered me to Nisha’s apartment, which was in a well-maintained government compound in the center of the city, I was covered with mosquito bites, scratched raw. Forty-eight hours later, I had diarrhea and a fever. I was taking Larium to prevent malaria, but Nisha wanted to make sure I hadn’t contracted it anyway. My fever made me woozy.
Nisha’s upscale government-issued apartment was much more comfortable than Sanskrit teacher’s village, but it was also unfamiliar. I was out of my element and, thanks to the fever, slightly out of my mind. And now some man was coming at me with a needle and a syringe to take my blood.
“Show me!,” I demanded. “Open the package so I can see the needle’s new.”
He handed me the sealed package with a sterile needle inside. I hated to offend him, but I couldn’t take a risk. I turned the package in my hand, examining it through my fevered haze, then handed it back. With thanks, I offered my arm. Together, Arjun and Nisha drew my blood into a vial. I heard their voices fade away as they left me to sleep, indoors now, on a thin mattress on wooden platform bed, a simple sheet covering my body, a fan turning overhead. They would take my blood sample to Nisha’s hospital to test for malaria. Every now and then, I opened my eyes to stare at a crack in the concrete wall or to admire the green vine creeping along the balcony outside the open door.
Good news came back the next day. I did not have malaria. Just a run-of-the-mill case of Welcome-to-India Delhi Belly. In the nine years I ended up living in India, I was only seriously ill that first week and once again in the last week, when I traveled to the sacred city of Bodh Gaya before leaving India for my next foreign home, in Italy.
I’m writing a book and I’d appreciate your help in making it as fascinating and useful as possible. You’ve just read a draft snippet. Your loving feedback will help me refine it. Please email me your comments and questions. Remember it’s a first draft. Let me know what touched you and what lost you. Let me know if you’d like to read more stories like this or would prefer to read more strictly about thangkas.
With gratitude overflowing,