Buddhist and Hindu philosophy give special consideration to the lotus. The lotus grows in the dankest swamps. Beauty makes its home in squalor.

Chennai is a swamp. Grime is everywhere, that singularly human stuff smears the walls of crumbling buildings. Garbage piles on the sides of the road where cockroaches the size of ping pong balls crawl, antennae quivering with glee. The heat comes in shimmering waves. Mosquitos sample the blood of the rich, the young, the native, the blood of the poor, the sick, the old, the foreign; the city is their buffet.

Chennai is a lotus. Everything is twilight. The moon hangs behind the sheerest blusher, an amulet casting silver shadows. Sound is muffled. It is as if the noises are trapped shades moving behind a window, thudding harder and harder against the glass, willing it to shatter. Occasionally the glass cracks as a driver lays into his horn.  Out of my periphery, into my immediate consciousness. I’m roused. Brown eyes shimmer with intelligence. White teeth glisten. The rickshaw driver is smiling his beguiling smile, making me forget for a minute that I’m being cheated out of my money.

People walk so slowly yet somehow the playback is double-speed. Tamil tumbles from their lips like water collecting in a clay pot.

We sit on a roof under a hazy midnight sky. A lotus on a building on a swamp. I tell them what I think the difference between empathy and sympathy is. The difference between a shared blanket, two people smothering each other in their synergetic heat and two identical, separate, cold blankets.

Chennai is a large blanket. I wake up to find everyone in the house praying silently. I stumble into the prayer room to find Viji Athai wiping her eyes. Her father turned 80 and I think that’s why she’s crying on God’s lap.  A small voice in my head whines, It’s not that simple. I smother my head in a blanket trying to block out om namo narayanayana but I can’t. I can never block out the world. The world is in my head.

Chennai winds me like a screw. My awareness heightens with every adjusted mirror and dark alley. Every lingering glance makes me think twice, makes my skin prickle, makes my legs tremble with adrenaline. Makes my eyes narrow, makes my chin lift, makes my chest cave. Makes my heart pound makes my thoughts twist makes my mind race until Clarity sets it right. I focus. The world is in my head.

A temple buffalo winks at me. His eye is oddly human, or maybe divine. It’s as if he knows I know that there are spirits here. It’s as if he wants me to know he knows I know that there are spirits here. That I can be ok here.

Lily pads float on pond scum. The water is so still it’s glass. An opalescent city reflects on the surface, a perfect inversion. Imperfection inverted, I drift.

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