January, 2001, New Delhi
Crowds of savvy people weave confidently through the thick, smoky atmosphere of Indira Gandhi International Airport. Monica is as star¬tled as a body can be at 11:30 p.m., after 19 hours of travel. Desperate for air and space after the marathon flight in her small, stuffy seat, she’s overwhelmed by the viscous, jostling environment of the vast terminal. Muslim men in succinct knitted caps bustle past Sikhs in the urgent baggage room turmoil. Women hurry, too, looking astonishingly fresh in vivid saris and salwar kameezes: pulsing blue, alarming chartreuse, beaming yellow. In contrast, the few Westerners appear pretty ragged—the denim backpackers and the suited executives—with tousled hair and grey faces.
Momentarily dazed, Monica leans on a wall. Everyone else in this enormous cold, damp, room has grabbed a trolley or staked out a posi¬tion at the baggage carousel. Ashok Nair, the cordial professor who flew in the aisle seat next to her, snatches his battered brown leather suitcase and strides toward the exit. He doesn’t bother to wave good-bye. Ridic¬ulous to feel abandoned. Of course he’s not her guardian angel. And he has invited her to lunch this week.
Magically, her three blue bags arrive together. She readies herself to heave them from the carousel, then grasping the first one, strains at its weight.
“Ma’am, these are belonging to you as well?” inquires a sturdy Sikh man in his fifties.
Panic rises—at the sight of this tall, strong man gripping her lug¬gage—and falls at the sound of his kind, courteous tone.
“Yes, Sir, thank you,” she manages as he removes the second bag. She tugs off the third.
“You are most welcome.” His voice lowers. “If I may offer some ad¬vice?”
His skin has been pocked by some childhood infection. “Please do.”
“Pre-paid taxi. Go to the booth outside this customs area. Accept no other transportation.”
“Thank you.” She smiles as they both load bags on the trolley. “Thank you very much.”
Powder blue bags. She didn’t want her luggage confused with a stranger’s. How many weeks will the color last in India? She tries not to think how long she will last.
“Pre-paid taxi. Pre-paid taxi.” She repeats the phrase silently, steer¬ing the wobbly trolley. “Pre-paid taxi,” Father Koreth has emailed her. “Pre-paid taxi,” Professor Nair advised over their miniature dinners on the flight. “Pre-paid taxi,” she repeats over and over to calm herself through customs. Of course she has nothing to declare. (Nothing except: she’s thrilled, terrified, dazed to be here, to be so far from home.) Father Koreth and others have explained that Indian immigration is watchful of doctors working for Catholic missions. “They regard us as religious proselytizers, if you can imagine!” he wrote. “One must arrive with a single entry visa and strictly obey regulations.” So far she’s been very obedient. Still, she’s nervous as hell and can smell the sweat rising from beneath her tired deodorant.
“Nothing to Declare” lines are nerve-wracking. She tries to forget that last trip to Ireland where she splurged on Waterford crystal bowls and Belleek vases for Mom. Definitely over the customs limit then. Per¬haps she’s over all kinds of limits here. The limits of her flexibility, cour¬age, forbearance.
“Pre-paid taxi,” the mantra steadies her as indifferent customs agents flip through her documents.
Here’s a section from pages 267-268, near the “climax” of the book,
The jeep jerks sharply to the right and rests on a narrow shoulder, huddled against the silver-white mountain.
Monica looks over Shankar’s shoulder at the steep highway ahead.
Sudha stares out her window at rain coursing down the road. “It’s like a river.”
“Not good to drive in this,” he declares.
“Of course,” Monica agrees. “Best to wait. We have these downpours in Minnesota during thunderstorm season. I always pull over to the side of the highway.” The side of a well-paved, graded freeway, with broad safety shoulders. Near an emergency call box.
Sudha sighs, wraps her shawl close and closes her eyes.
The rain slows. Just as the storm abates and Shankar puts the car in gear, they hear the noise.
A deep rumble.
“What the—” Monica begins.
“Rockslide!” Shankar shouts. “Out. Out! Against the mountainside. Now!”
Monica opens the door, reaches back for her suitcase.
“No, no time. No time!” he screams. “Out!”
“Slide toward me,” Monica calls to Sudha. “Safer over here.”
“Faster this way,” Sudha says, opening the door on the far side.
Another earsplitting crack.
Shankar carefully edges out, flattens himself against the wet moun¬tain.
Monica follows, all the while, keeping an eye on Sudha.
Giant rocks and sheets of dirt pummel the jeep as the ground shakes fiercely.
“Sudha? Where are you? Sudha?” Monica screams.
Immense boulders and oh, no, a wall of rocks and snow and earth itself.
Monica bolts toward the car, shrieking, “Sudha! Where are you, Sudha?!”
Shankar yanks her arm. He’s too strong.
“Nothing,” he says breathlessly. “Nothing you can do—force of the landslide.”
They stare at this broken world. “Ma’am and the car are gone. Swept away.”
“No, no, no!” she pleads. “Sudha, where are you, Sudha?”
Shankar hangs on to her with one hand and dials his satellite phone with the other. He’s saying something in a calm, clear voice. Speaking in English. But Monica cannot hear anything except the growling earth.
Monica watches the landslide go on and on. It is probably over within minutes. But Monica is frozen, caught in the eternal flow of rock and dirt and trees and—
When she stops shaking, Shankar releases his grip.
Numbly she walks across the road.
“No, Ma’am,” he calls.
She’s moving too fast for him. If she doesn’t look down, if she doesn’t say good-bye, she’ll never forgive herself. Still, she can’t believe this is all happening.
She rocks back and forth between searing pain and numbness. “Sud¬ha. Sudha,” she prays. She can’t go on without her. They all need her. “Sud¬ha!” she shouts at the top of her lungs.
Another rumble from the earth. A loud, deeply vibrating hum ex¬ploding into a groan.
The globe, itself, is shifting.
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