The Indira Gandhi International Airport weather station has a website, and June 9th, the day my flight landed in Delhi, was the single hottest day of 2007. The high temperature was 120 Fahrenheit – 49 Celsius – though, if pressed, I would divulge that I remember the pilot telling us it was 50.
I went to India the summer between my junior and senior years of college on a fellowship from the U.S. State Department to study Punjabi. There were eight of us. Our program was the only course offered by our fellowship that had no language prerequisites, so we were a mixed bag: half anthropology graduate students or Punjabi-Americans with a good reason for being there, half directionless wanderers who knew we should be doing something substantive with our summers but hadn’t made a lot of other plans. I was unquestionably in the second camp, a dabbling undergraduate with a yen for adventure and too much machismo to just go to France with the rest of the liberal arts majors.
We lived in an enormous house on a dead-end street in a pleasant neighborhood in Chandigarh, the capital of Punjab. It was hot pink and spackled like a layer cake on every side with frothy curlicue balconies. All the other students were boys, and they lived on the third story. I was not allowed to live with them because I was the only girl, so I stayed with the family that lived downstairs. The full-time residents of the first floor were me, an older Sikh couple, and their niece, Manpreet, but a rotating cast of other adult children, relatives, aunties, and friends meant the place was always full. The second floor was our school, a collection of pink-walled bedrooms that had been converted into classrooms. It all felt entirely self-contained, like living on a ship or in a very comfortable prison.
To visitors India always feels a bit surreal, but I would wager that Chandigarh might be the most surreal Indian city of them all. Planned by modernist Swiss architect Le Corbusier in the 1940s and constructed in its entirety right after the partition of India and Pakistan, Chandigarh is a bizarre temple to midcentury urbanism. Huge, empty green spaces dotted with dystopian monuments flank brutalist buildings made from hulking concrete slabs. The city is divided into block-shaped “sectors,” each designed to act as a kind of cell-like urban unit complete with everything residents may need, from car repair to post office to public park. Its newness means there is no true old town, none of the western-imagined India of packed and winding alleys filled wall-to-wall with history and human beings. Instead, the roads are wide, the intersections are spacious, and the relatively modest population of prosperous government workers and families seem to rattle around in the steaming plazas and expansive gardens.
Punjabi is not a frequently taught second language. Our school lacked textbooks, made-for-the-classroom soap operas, and those conversational tapes that have you repeating the cat is on the chair, the cat is under the chair, the cat is beside the chair. Our teachers had never taught Punjabi to anybody. We didn’t really learn much, and it was frustrating. After a few weeks of unsuccessful instruction and simmering conflict with our professors, there was a kind of unanimous yet unvoiced giving up, a group resignation that none of us would learn much of the rhythmic, mysterious language during our time in India, and we should instead focus on passing the time in the least exasperating way possible.
And there were a number of exasperations to encounter. Life with my host family felt like a return to adolescence, complete with all the stagnation and unpredictability that comes with having little control over your own time. The vast majority of meals were cooked for me, a state of affairs that doesn’t sound much like an affliction unless (like me) you love to cook. My journal from the time I spent in Chandigarh is filled with half-remembered recipes and descriptions of remarkable meals. My host family had a cook, Ram Das, a powerful-looking man who I later learned was also a gun-wielding bodyguard for the patriarch of the house (a retired chief of police). Ram Das taught me to make paranthas stuffed with spiced potato, and in exchange I cooked him a kind of bastardized spaghetti marinara using lots of garlic from the market around the corner and some of the most expensive dried basil I have ever purchased. Auntie cooked too, and she showed me how she made milk into salted yogurt that would be eaten every morning with pickle and roti, as well as an amazing dish of fried bindi (okra) with tomatoes and cumin.
Outside of the meals, life in Chandigarh was surprisingly boring. The most excitement that happened on a typical day was a game of gin rummy with Manpreet, a sweet, funny 12-year-old and incorrigible card cheat. We played in my room because it was equipped with a window-set air conditioner – a delightful treat when the power wasn’t out, which it was often. Sometimes her Auntie and any other peripheral Aunties who happened to be around would join our game, four or five sweltering ladies between the ages of 12 and 70 piled together onto my bed, each of us keeping one eye on Manpreet’s creative score keeping.
For a 20-year-old feminist from the West Coast with a healthy stable of vices, India was not easy. I knew I was supposed to be adapting to another culture, but part of me just rankled against the realities of a more conservative world. Men wouldn’t shake my hand. Despite the fact that it was, at times, well over 100 degrees outside, there were to be no bare shoulders, no leg exposed above the knee. For women, drinking in public was firmly frowned upon. In fact, none of the traditional diversions I enjoyed were available: parties, shows, beer, drugs, bars. And I missed them.
Instead, to let off steam, my classmates and I went out for chocolate cake and Chinese food. We set out on excruciatingly hot bike rides. Auntie and I walked in the park in the early mornings and watched retirees do yoga. One weekend some other students and I took a bus to Shimla in the foothills of the Himalayas and spent the day shopping for scarves for our mothers and watching monkeys clamber around on the sloping tiled roofs. Occasionally in the afternoon I would sneak up to the third floor, the boy’s dormitory, and drink warm beer on the balcony with some of the guys. We lamented together, missing driving, beef jerky, our girlfriends and boyfriends, all the freedoms and transgressions that make up the life of a certain kind of American college student.
The last week of June, we were informed that we would be given July 4th as a school holiday to celebrate American Independence Day. Around the same time, we realized the brushy plants growing wild along the side of the road were cannabis. These were two very exciting back-to-back developments. I’ve always tried to like pot. When I was a teenager growing up on Vashon Island everybody smoked it, and so I did too. But I always felt like I didn’t quite get it. It was like I was watching a movie full of allusions I couldn’t comprehend filmed in a language I was just on the wrong side of understanding. I loved the idea of pot. I liked things that stoners liked: listening to guitar solos, hanging out at the beach, snacking. I liked batik tapestries. I liked outdoor festivals. But I never did develop the relationship with it that others did, and most of the time it just made me anxious.
The afternoon of July 3rd we foraged what felt like about $300 worth of pot from one of the main roads in our sector. Our wild ditch weed didn’t really look anything like the crystalline hybrids I remembered from home, the kind with goofy, combative names like “Alaskan Thunderfuck” and “Sour Diesel.” Instead, it was a ropy, stringy kind of plant almost more like a grass than an herb, mostly stem, with a few tiny leaves and a little nubbin of flower at the top. No part of it seemed obviously more smokeable than any other part, so we decided to eat it. Our national holiday meant that I had been dismissed from my standing evening rummy game, so I volunteered myself to transform what looked like a bag full of landscape clippings into something that might get us high.
Most Indian homes don’t have ovens, so instead of brownies, I decided to make us no-bake cookies, the kind of thing a suburban mom might make for her turn at soccer practice snacks. I jammed our whole harvest, stems and leaves and all, into a pot of ghee and cooked the whole mess down into a toxic-looking brown-green sludge. That night was particularly hot. In a gesture to American freedom I wore my skimpiest outfit, a calf-length drawstring skirt hiked up over my braless breasts to make a kind of shapeless, strapless, above-the-knee sundress. It was an outfit I could wear only in front of my American classmates, and even then I noticed a twinge of modesty, but we were all swept up in that fast-and-false-intimacy that arises between young people far from home together.
I strained the pot and stirred the newly enhanced ghee into an empty saucepan over low heat, followed by two teacups of sugar, half a teacup of milk, a quick slosh of vanilla extract, and three chocolate bars, broken into little pieces. More stirring, the chocolatey steam condensing on my forehead, sweat beading on my bare collarbone. Then a big huck of peanut butter straight from the jar followed by three heaping teacups of oats. The dough (if you can call it that) started to come together, and I used two spoons to dollop big puck-like quenelles onto a cutting board before sliding them into the refrigerator to solidify next to the eggplant and a big bowl of paneer.
The next day, we had our Independence Day party. Our teachers came, and we all celebrated the ousting of the British by listening to Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty on laptop speakers while eating Domino’s delivery pizza and drinking Kingfisher beer. Later, after the teachers left, we ate our pot cookies and opened a bottle of ominously label-less whiskey we’d bought from a liquor store. The cookies were dense, vegetal, too sweet, and a little formless in both shape and flavor, but the reassuring combination of oats and cinnamon smoothed over most of their flaws.
We all lay flat on our backs on the inlaid marble floor under the ceiling fan and tried to stay cool as the cookies kicked in, but the night felt hotter and hotter as time passed. We watched a bhangra movie that we had all seen before. We drank our unlabeled whiskey and giggled together at the ludicrousness of it all, that fundamental unlikeliness of everything that feels peculiar to the vantage of late adolescence. Being high felt like home, and I luxuriated in the feeling of having executed a tiny symbolic rebellion against a strange, wasted summer.
Later, after everybody else had shuffled off to bed, I held hands on the sofa with a doe-eyed boy from the South so we could be homesick together. I closed my eyes and it was there: Chicken marinating for the grill. Bees swarming around the lemon balm. Rainiers sloshing in the melted ice of a truck bed cooler. Kids in saltwater sandals getting sparkler burns on their toes. The smell of hot nettles mixing with tidal flat funk. Then, as the cookies wore off, I felt that strange little door from Chandigarh to Puget Sound ease closed. The boy from the South went to bed, and I slipped back into the downstairs flat quietly to avoid waking Manpreet. Even though the power had gone out, the sheets on my bed were still cool from the air conditioning, and I slept soundly.