Bombay Girls

by Janki Khatau

In Bombay, I am the navigator, the mapmaker. My grandmother makes the best ice cream, I tell Michelle as we climb the four flights of soft, sunken stairs to my grandmother's flat. Our hair, black and white blond, sticks to our faces, and our fingers linger on the railings that are wooden and rickety, wet and sticky with the red stains of paan spit, and full of ripe rotted spots. We will have this ice cream now, I tell Michelle, and then some more tonight, at the five-star hotel. After, we will walk by the sea. You can tell me then, I say, if my grandmother's ice cream really is the best.

We have just come from Chowpatty Beach, where we have our lunch under the beating sun and air hot from the heat of pushcarts selling the street food we aren't supposed to eat. We buy some pani puri anyway, crossing our legs underneath us in the sand and then delicately holding the ping pong ball sized puri in our fingers and tapping a hole in its paper-thin exterior. We are cracking golden eggs, but very gently. We fill the puri with soft, boiled potatoes and sprouted moong and then dunk it into spicy green water that sloshes in a shared steel bowl. I show Michelle these steps, and she follows me, tapping, filling, dunking; I am a Bombay navigator, a gourmet cartographer. After filling our third puris, she says, Wait. I lower my hand from my mouth, and she glances around us and then kisses me. The kiss is soft, and just seconds long. She pulls back and I am still leaning in, my eyes round in shock. We are in Bombay, on the beach, in the middle of a million people and I turn to see if anyone has noticed a yellow-haired girl kiss a black-haired girl—but no one seems concerned, and so, I suppose, we are safe.

We maneuver our way through the streets after lunch on the way to my grandmother's flat, ducking underneath and around the mob of black-haired people, the sun making us all glitter, making Michelle's white-blond look like the moon of a brilliant night. We reach my grandmother's apartment and ring the bell; we pant a little and beads of sweat magnify the freckles on Michelle's face, and on her arms. I imagine the cold ice cream then, melting on my tongue.

We sit at the dining room table and our damp skin dries under the slow air of the spinning fans. The table is glossy and the three round ice cream cartons reflect half-moons on its brown surface. I want to reach across and feed my guest, spoonful by spoonful of the rich ice cream with its hints of sweet cinnamon and bitter orange rind; I want her to experience this delight by my hand. But my grandmother sits between us. Taking the carton from Michelle, she scoops a smooth sphere into a glass bowl with pink flowers and pushes it in front her. I watch as Michelle slides her spoon into the chocolate and raises it to her parted lips. I wait for a judgment, or a sign.

We rest then, our bodies bled of energy from the food and from the heat. Michelle falls asleep immediately and I lie there next to her, in the big double bed with its pressed white sheets, watching her body flinch and tense and then soften into sleep. The streets are quiet because Bombay slumbers in the afternoon, and eventually, around three, I tap Michelle awake, whispering in her ear. She is groggy in the afternoon light, her brown lashes stuck together at the edges of her eyes, and I am awake, always alert and my black eyes are watching her blue ones. Come on, I say, and I tug on her hand, Let's go to Hanging Gardens while it is still quiet, and so we sneak out while the streets and my grandmother still sleep. The gardens are calm, and the ground is soft. We pass people doing yoga along a ledge that overlooks Chowpatty Beach, a rounded grassy hill with a gentle slope that nestles slums before it reaches the sand of the beach. We walk through scenes from nursery rhymes and trees whose branches hang low, like curtains sweeping the ground. When we pass the big brown boot from The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, I tell Michelle how I used to come to this boot as a kid to glide down the slide inside. Michelle wrinkles her triangular white nose and her blue eyes darken. She leads me then, inside the boot, and we stand very close in the cool, musty darkness. Then we are standing there and I am gazing down, and when I look into her blue eyes, she kisses me, and then we are standing very close and kissing inside the old boot.

Later, we walk along the beach below the garden, our feet occasionally touching the dirty water, and our fingers busy with our dinner, a crispy cheese and chutney dosa. We take turns feeding each other pieces of the folded up crepe with its layers of buttery cheese and spicy wet chutney, and I watch Michelle's face to see how she agrees with the flavor. I know she likes her food when she brings my fingers up to her mouth and licks off the remaining traces of taste. Her tongue is warm but I pull my hand away; we are in Bombay, surrounded by so many eyes, and Michelle's hair is like the moon in the middle of the night.

We walk along the beach in silence. We have known each other for just three months. Facts I know about her: she has blond hair; she is from Minnesota; she has a map of India tattooed on her wrist; and her boyfriend is Indian and named Varun. Michelle and I met by chance in Bombay in January; we were at Crossword, the big, American style bookstore in Breach Candy. I was drinking coffee out of a coffee press in the sunny upstairs cafe and she approached me, but her eyes were fixed on the press. She said, Is that a real coffee press? I've only had instant coffee since coming to India, and she looked longingly at the coffee and then at my face. Sit, I said, and have some. I can't have it all myself.

I found out that like me, she recently graduated and decided to come to India for a few months to travel. She was staying at a hostel in the tourist district and I was staying with my grandmother. We made plans to meet again, and over the following weeks, we explored Bombay together, meal by meal. Eventually, we decided to travel together and those are the weeks I heard all about Varun: in Goa, I heard about his long penis; in Kerala, the crazy sex they had; in Delhi, his photographic memory; and in Jaipur, his tendency to forget—birthdays, holidays, dinners. They have been dating for three years and this trip to India is Michelle's longest time apart from him.

We are back in Bombay now, after our month and a half of traveling, and this time we stay together at my grandmother's. Facts I let Michelle know about me: I'm Indian; I have no boyfriend (but would like one); my parents are strict; and I'm adventurous but easily scared—afraid of heights and bugs and slipping on pebbles or ice.

Michelle grabs my hand and I start; I realize that we have reached the end of the beach, and so we turn around and walk back the way we came, this time holding hands. How about some of that hotel ice cream, she says, I really want to try it, and her blue eyes look sharp at mine through a thin wall of blond hair and I say, Sure, let's go get some.

As we walk up the grand marble steps of the Taj, I tell Michelle that the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel is the only place where they might make an ice cream better than my grandmother's. We sit in the big, ivory colored booths and order honey ice cream and rum-raisin to share. Around us are five-star people, white tourists and rich Indians. They don't make pumpkin ice cream in India, I tell her, and pumpkin is my favorite flavor. She nods, and our ice creams arrive in tall crystal bowls, our spoons placed on delicate white napkins beside them. We take bites, we take turns feeding each other, and the honey coats my tongue, and the rum coats my lips. I look for the sweetness on her lips, and I glance at her fingers, which are clean. I keep waiting for a verdict but none arrives.

After dessert, Michelle and I are quiet again. In the darkness, we walk towards the water, and I keep reaching for her fingers and then retracting my hand, making fists in the shadows. I tell Michelle that now I will take her to see the Bombay skyline, the glinting queen's necklace, the romantic spot for Bombay's secret lovers whose secret is out. The windows of the skyscrapers glitter and we sit across the harbor on the flat rocks near the sea. It is breezy on these rocks and I stick my hands inside my green track jacket, fingering my lighter, my cell phone, my keys. I don't ask her about her boyfriend, or what this, us, the kisses, mean, and she also says nothing and pulls out a cigarette. I take mine out then, Gold Star cigarettes, Bombay cigarettes that are less than a dollar a pack, and we light them, sitting in silence, looking at the lit windows through our smoke. I watch her wide red lips as she inhales, pursing and then expanding again. I try to imitate the way she funnels the smoke in a clean, conical shape, but mine comes out cloudy and sits on my skin. She's been smoking for years, and I've been smoking for months. She turns to me then, and reaches for my hand. "Your grandmother's ice cream was better than the Taj's," she says, and my smile half hidden in the night, I put my hand back in my pocket. Really, I tell myself, that's all I needed to hear.

Janki Khatau received her undergraduate degree from Johns Hopkins University, where she majored in The Writing Seminars. She now works in New York City at a publishing house and writes about food on her blog, the gourmet cartographer (