In the morning, the Sarma family explored the Jaipur palace hotel grounds, Kai lagging a few paces behind his parents and little sister. As they strolled through the spring gardens past blue iridescent peacocks with fanned-out tails, he daydreamed about what it might be like to be a prince, to have the world at your feet. But as they passed the long gravel drive, his thoughts shifted to consider the mystery at its end—the chaotic streets of the Pink City, a phantasmagoria of forts and street markets and fortunetellers.
Reading to his family from the guidebook, Gopal explained that the palace, a sedate tan edifice with Islamic filigree and blood red railings, had been converted to a hotel in 1925. "We got special rates because I'm still an Indian citizen."
"Why?" Hema asked, skipping down the brick path. Prahba had dressed Hema in an electric blue chiffon salwar that matched her own.
"They charge Americans more, but they didn't check your citizenship statuses."
"I'm Indian, too!"
"You were born in America. If you come here when you're grown up, you'll have to pay full price," Prabha said.
Hema grabbed her mother's hand, yanking for leverage as she jumped.
"Then again it's not like you'd even come to India if Mom and Dad didn't make you come, Shrimp," Kai said. He straightened his thrift-store pinstriped suit, which he wore with skull cufflinks over a Dead Kennedy's T-shirt as a form of protest against the vacation.
"Yes I would, too!" Hema put her hands on her hips and thrust them forward. "I'll visit India every year all my life, just like mommy and daddy."
"Nobody made you come with us, Kai!" Gopal said.
"You didn't give me a choice. You never give me a choice." Kai had come out to his parents during Pillayar Chaturthi. He'd been planning to tell them for some time, and resolved to do so while they stood in front of the statue of Ganesha, as the priest spooned vibhuti, sacred ash, into his palm. As they returned home from the temple in Livermore, he blurted it out. Back home in Palo Alto, Kai had a number of bisexual friends that were out to their parents. He hadn't expected his own to take it so badly.
"What? I didn't give you a choice?” Gopal slammed the book shut. “What nonsense! We let you wear that ridiculous outfit didn't we?"
"Engineering college, no dating boys, skipping the spring break trip, visits to India year after year. Everything in my life has to be your way," Kai said.
"That's enough you two. We're here to have fun, right?" Prabha pled. She adjusted her dupatta, breathing heavily as she huffed up the short flight of steps to the hotel. A month before the trip, Prabha had reminded Gopal that Kai would be graduating high school that summer. She was intent on having one last happy family vacation together and so, instead of spending two weeks shuttling between relatives' houses in Chennai, the Sarmas used their second week to tour Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, parts of India none of them had seen. Kai sighed loudly in the direction of his mother, veered off the path, and cut across the lawn towards the restaurant.
It was early for lunch, and the Sarmas were the only people seated at the palace's Pearl Restaurant. On the gaudy gold-papered walls hung gilt framed mirrors reflecting infinite rows of polished wooden tables and a wide Persian carpet, violent with hot pink roses. None of them felt quite right under the chandeliers, but Kai was the only one to voice it.
"All this is too fancy. Biriyanis and pilafs and meat," Kai said, gesturing at the placid Renaissance frescoes in oval frames that loomed in the high ceiling. "I just want idlis and sambar."
"We've been away from Chennai a day, you can't be sick of North Indian food yet." Gopal scanned the detailed menu. Kai knew his father was looking at the price tags of the dishes.
"Kai ma, you can't spend this whole vacation complaining. What would you like to do today?" Prabha asked.
He frowned. "Nothing. Watch TV maybe."
"But you only turn eighteen once. We should celebrate so you won't forget."
"We're going to the elephant polo match," Gopal reminded Prabha. Kai rolled his eyes.
The waiter appeared quietly, holding his pen and notepad ready. "You are ready to order, Sir?"
Gopal waved a squat hand. "A Kingfisher beer for everyone at the table—except the little one. Do you want a mango lassi, kutty?" he asked Hema, who nodded. The waiter jotted down their orders and smiled with an obsequiousness that made Kai cringe. Kai ordered only a chicken appetizer.
"That all you want?" Gopal asked. "Get something fancier."
Kai shrugged. "I'd rather have a bucket of KFC, but this'll do."
"You never eat properly," Prabha said. "That's why you're so depressed all the time."
"Not this again."
Prabha's face crinkled, but her tone was conciliatory. "We'll go out again for your birthday when we get back home."
"So this is an exciting time for you, Kai," Gopal said in a cheery voice. "Where are your friends going to college?"
"How would I know?"
The waiter set down three glasses brimming with amber beer and the mango lassi. Gavin was Kai's best friend, the blue-eyed boy he'd harbored a crush on for three years, the only other boy at his school who bought indie vinyl records and skateboarded at the bowl to The Clash, the boy who'd gone with him to the thrift store to buy the pinstriped suit. The boy who, just last week while they were studying calculus, told Kai that even though he was bisexual, he just wasn't attracted to him. A cute redheaded girl in their Spanish class had already asked Gavin to prom, and he'd said yes.
After the waiter left, Gopal took a sip of his beer. "You're not friends anymore?"
"Nope. You'll be happy to know."
"I didn't want you to stop being friends."
"No, you just told me I couldn't date him, that I couldn't date anyone I find attractive. Which doesn't matter because he doesn't even like me like that."
Hema sipped her mango lassi. Prabha frowned. "Do we have to talk about this in front of your sister? Kai you know that all this gay business makes us uncomfortable. Let's talk about something pleasant."
"And how do you know you're gay, anyway?" Gopal continued. "At your age, you don't know."
"Shh." Prabha swatted Gopal's hand lightly.
"Right, you're so concerned about making my birthday special, but let's chat about what college my so-called friends are going to, now that you've forced me to pretend I'm not gay, forgo music and go to some stupid engineering school."
His parents glanced at each other, unsure of how to respond. At that moment, the waiters whisked out silver platters stacked with gleaming metal dishes of meat and rice and vegetables and pulses. Ceramic plates were gently set before them. Trailed by a fragrant vapor of cardamom and anise, the waiters left.
The jubilant hum of Rajasthani being spoken just outside the restaurant doors drifted into the restaurant. Moments later, a group of young men paraded into the dining hall, and sat around three tables. One set wore long stiff black coats, their heads wrapped in bright orange pagris. The others wore white polo shirts and shorts.
"Who are they?" Hema asked.
"Those are the elephant polo players and handlers," Gopal said. "For the match this afternoon."
Kai caught the eye of one of the polo shirted men as he sat down at the table next to them. He was handsome, godlike, very young—perhaps twenty, dark with an aquiline nose and light brown eyes. His tender lips had a dusky mauve cast. He smiled radiantly at Kai.
"Do you like your first beer?" Prabha asked Kai. "Is it going to your head?"
Capsaicin from the chilies that seasoned Kai's chicken had disintegrated on his fingers. He rubbed his nose, setting the edges of his nostrils on fire, and took another sip of the cool froth. "It’s not bad."
"I remember my first beer," Prabha said. "We had just come to the States, and we were at a taqueria with your father's colleagues, and as a Brahmin girl, you know, I never touched alcohol, it was as forbidden as meat. But everyone at the table was ordering Tecate or margaritas, so I thought to myself, what the heck? I did, too."
"And I look over five minutes later!" Gopal broke in, laughing, though Kai wasn't yet sure what was so funny. "And she had her head on the table! Completely drunk on one beer!"
Irritated, Kai said, "I hate to break it to you guys, but this is not my first beer." The handsome man was eating a plate of biryani with his hand, licking his fingers occasionally and speaking loudly to the other men. He smiled again at Kai when their eyes met, a friendliness that so startled Kai that he could only glare at him and then blush, both ashamed and hopeful that such a moment might recur so he could smile back.
"Where have you had one before?" Prabha asked, her voice reedy and high.
"Just around, on the weekends sometimes."
Gopal and Prabha looked at each other with worried expressions, but said nothing.
An hour after lunch, the Sarmas pushed through a gathering crowd of tourists in large reflective sunglasses and gleaming white sunhats. Over loudspeakers, a man announced the players in English as elephants lumbered by, tails swishing and wide backs draped in crimson brocade. The elephants' ancient faces and foreheads were ornamented with elaborate dusty designs in pink, chartreuse, and lavender powders.
Kai located the handsome young man patting the back of a slightly smaller elephant as it loped away from his teammates. Seated in front of him was a wispy man in a black jacket and an orange pagri. Kai followed his player's elephant progress across the sunny lawn.
Two men rode each elephant—one an expert handler in a formal jacket, the other wielding a mallet to play polo. At one point, the handsome man's small elephant squatted and took a dump. His handler ministered startling, forceful kicks to the elephant’s neck. When violence failed to work, he leaned forward and whispered, stroking the recalcitrant behemoth.
As the handler coaxed the elephant back to his teammates, Kai lifted his binoculars to take a closer look. "I want to see," Hema demanded.
"Wait a minute," Kai said.
Hema tried to seize the binoculars, but Kai shrugged her tiny, sticky, grabby hands away, and retrained the binoculars, trying to discern from the announcer's comments whether his handler had been introduced yet.
"Give it back to me! Give it back to me. It's not just yours." Hema began to cry, and the spectators sitting in front of them turned to look at her.
"Kai give it to your sister already! What in bloody hell are you doing?" Gopal snapped. Kai handed the binoculars to his sister, feeling the usual strained numbness of his father yelling at him. Then the match began.
There were four elephants on each side, black jackets battling red. The smaller two elephants on each team were on the front lines to attack, while two larger elephants remained behind to defend their goals. A referee sat astride a docile elephant that followed the teams back and forth.
Once the game was in full swing, the handsome man's elephant snapped to attention, charged towards the goal pushing the ball with his stick, and scored. Kai jumped up and yelled. A sweaty man in shorts ran after one of the other elephants to scoop up its giant turds. The ball zipped back and forth. The elephants were stomping and trumpeting, their large ears flapping. With comedic timing, the red defender's elephant plopped down squarely in the middle of the goal as the handsome man's small elephant approached and scored again. The crowd cheered.
Kai leaned over and whispered at Hema, making a menacing face. "I want the binoculars."
"Come on, quit being such a fucking pain in the ass."
"No!" She exhaled with a fake sob. Kai tried to grab the binoculars, but she held them away from him.
"Stop it, Kai," Gopal said, his voice even.
"Stop what? Why do you keep taking her side?"
"I'm not taking her side. She has a hard time seeing because she's small. Fair is fair."
"As long as fair is fair, I'm your son. Not your punching bag."
Prabha rested a soft hand on his shoulder. "Kai, let's talk about this later. When we get back to the room."
"Punching bag? What nonsense!" His father's eyes darkened, an eclipse.
"Ever since I told you that I'm gay, you treat me like dirt." Kai slumped forward, his suit jacket over his narrow shoulders feeling too brash, too big.
"I told you, I don't want to hear about that gay business. We're not going to agree, so let's just drop it."
A little man sauntered up and down the slope between rows of spectators, shouting in a nasal twang as he hawked boiled peanuts in paper cones. Gopal yawned. "Let's go back to the rooms. I could use a nap."
"I'm going to buy a snack and walk around." Kai stood. "I'll meet you guys back in the room later. Looks like they're pretty much done."
The crowd cheered as the game concluded and the riders dismounted. Kai's player pumped his fist. Kai followed the peanut hawker, bought a cone, and popped peanuts into his mouth one by one as he climbed the steps and trudged along the marble walkway, onto the garden path and past a swimming pool.
From a distance, Kai saw the swarm of tourists dispersing. He hurried in the other direction shading his eyes from the sun. There wasn't much time before the tourists who'd come only for the match tried to leave the compound. Two guards in burgundy suits stood at the end of the gate, and they nodded at him, and said, "Good evening, sir. Will you need a driver, sir?" He said no, and they opened the gates.
As the gates closed behind him, Kai reveled in the freedom of not knowing where he was going, of being free from his parents' recitation of facts, their tedious schedules and intricate plans. A mangy one-legged dog limped across the street. Three beggar women with thinning silver hair sat on the side of the road. One of them hobbled towards him and he hurried forward to escape her outstretched arms and upturned palms.
In the late afternoon light, the city glowed rose, luminous, rising out of the deep shadows. As he approached the bazaar, Kai heard the men. He immediately recognized the cadences of their speech though he could not understand what they were saying, the joyful rolling sound of it washing over him. Turning, Kai spotted his player in the crowd.
The player took short strides, a cigarette drooping from his mouth as he searched his pockets for a lighter. He made eye contact with Kai a moment later, and this time Kai smiled.
The player raised his hand in greeting. "So it's you again. American, no?"
The other men paid him no mind. The player stopped. His eyes bore a sweet, overly sincere intensity. Kai blushed and looked away. Unfazed, the man said, "What are you doing now? You would like to celebrate with us?"
Kai glanced back at the palace gates, now one hundred yards behind him. The group of men strode ahead with arms slung over each other's shoulders, singing and carousing with beer bottles in their hands. "Why not?"
Kai introduced himself. The player said his name was Vikrant. He lit a cigarette and handed it to Kai. "But call me Vik."
"I can say Vikrant," Kai said. He was thinking of how his father mocked his American accent when trying to say Tamil words.
"You are wanting me to call you Kailash then?" Vik smirked.
"No, I'm just Kai."
"Okay then." Vik lit another cigarette. He hooked arms with Kai, and ran to catch up with the group. When they stopped running, Kai took a deep drag and coughed.
"You are not smoking cigarettes?" Vik asked, holding out a hand to take the cigarette back. Kai waved his hand away.
"Not many people smoke where I'm from."
Vik walked arm-in arm with Kai, his warm skin pressed against Kai's skin. Kai tried to suppress his excitement. His father had once explained that men were publicly affectionate with each other in India, and it didn't mean they were gay.
The deeper they traveled into the heart of Pink City, the more crowded it became. Businessmen and young women drifted by in faded jeans. Mothers in beaded salwar kameezes with their children hurried past the men. In the bazaar, Vik began speaking in Rajasthani to another man, and released Kai's arm. Disappointed, Kai fell a little behind.
In one stall, a white-haired woman perched on a stool behind a gold birdcage that housed a small green parrot. Tiny pastel strips papered the floor of the cage. Schoolchildren in plaid uniforms were handing the woman rupees and taking the slips of paper in exchange. Kai watched for a few minutes. As they left, a little boy knocked over the birdcage. The cage door flew open. The parrot fluttered out and began hopping down the street.
Kai stooped and picked up the parrot. The parrot's heart, big and wild, was beating furiously beneath his bright, fragile feathers; his wings had been clipped. The old woman spoke to Kai quickly. He shook his head, repeating, "I speak English." His English broke and he fell into an accent. His cousins mocked him, assuming this was an affectation, but falling into an accent happened every year when he came to India, as if he were remembering something he'd forgotten.
Kai righted the cage and opened his fist. The parrot hopped back into the cage and pecked at the slips, uncovering a rose slip with his beak. Before the woman closed the door, the parrot hopped back to the door and bowed towards Kai. He smiled and took it from the parrot's beak. The fortune was written in characters, probably Rajasthani characters, which he could not read. He turned to ask Vik what it said, but Vik and his friends were nowhere to be seen.
He had not paid much attention to the geography of the bazaar. From which direction had he entered?
As he moved down the street, a group of thin children with scraggly hair jostled him. He stepped on a boy's bare foot. "Sorry, sorry," he apologized. The boy looked at him with a fearful expression before hurrying toward his group. The sun dipped behind the buildings, sending the Pink City into heavy shadow.
"Do you speak English?" he asked a young woman crossing the street. She wore acid washed jeans under her beaded orange kurtha top.
"Is that the way to the palace hotel?"
"Which one?" she asked. "There are several."
"The closest one." Tears pricked his eyes. He couldn't remember its proper name.
She spun him and pushed him back into the bazaar, telling him to walk that way. He thanked her and hurried blindly in the direction she'd sent him. A man shoved him, and he reeled. A group of chickens blocked his way. Skirting them, he once again spotted the old woman and her parrot. He realized he'd already passed the vendors selling bric-a-brac—sandalwood elephants, miniature ivory gods, larger cowrie shells carved with tableaux, mindless seashell games—many times.
In the midst of his panic, the seashell games reminded of soothing times—eating murukku with his father, drinking cold buttermilk on his grandparents' patio. There were times he'd gotten along quite well with his father, times when his father helped him solve puzzles, times when his father proudly brought him to his office, introduced him to his pale, pocket-protected colleagues, and explained binary code to him. He knew the rift between them had developed long before he'd announced he was gay, but he couldn't pinpoint the moment.
Kai heard someone shouting his name. He thought for a moment it was his father come to find him, but when he whipped around, he spotted Vik smoking a cigarette outside a building further down the street and beckoning him.
"There you are," Vik said. Two blue smoke rings, no trace of worry in his face. "I am thinking you are lost."
"I was. But here I am."
"I will buy you a beer. You drink beer, no? Come."
Inside the warm bar, a ceiling fan was spinning and AC/DC reverberated on the surround system. Polo players and elephant whisperers huddled around tables, drinking beers. A few young women in jeans wove between the groups and laughing.
After ordering their beers, Kai and Vik spoke about their homes, about their fathers, about what they planned to do in the future. Vik had grown up poor in a nearby village, and moved to Jaipur only the year before. He worked as a jewelry salesman during the week, and as an elephant polo player on weekends. Kai revealed that he wanted to be a musician and go on tour with his band, but his parents wanted him to be an engineer.
Kai searched his pockets so that he could buy the next round. He realized with a start that his wallet, which had only held two 1000-rupee notes and some change, was gone. He remembered the children who'd rubbed against him. "Oh my god, oh my god," he gasped. "I was pickpocketed."
"This is happening to tourists all the time." Vik went to the bar to order two more beers.
After drinking another beer, Kai ambled into the bathroom. A stench rose from the concrete floor— a foulness so strong it made him woozy. Kai unzipped. It took a few minutes to relax enough to piss in the unfamiliar bathroom. He finished and went to wash his hands.
Vik opened the door. "You like me, no?"
Kai shrugged. He remembered the electricity of Vik's arm touching his arm, the hairs on both arms tickling each other, the sensation of desire. But he knew, too, he might be reading this wrong. There might be signals crossed, there might be disgust.
Then Vik took Kai's face in his warm palms. He held Kai's face for a moment and his eyes shimmered as he swooped in and touched Kai's mouth with his own, before kissing him. Kai felt himself drowning and then saved, as Vik's tongue explored his mouth. Vic’s calloused hands slipped under the back of Kai's shirt. He smelled something on Vik, an odd animalic smell, perhaps the elephants. Vik pulled away and unzipped Kai's pinstripe trousers.
"Soft hands," Vik whispered, as he turned Kai around. Kai's jaw pressed against the cold concrete wall, and for a moment, he wondered whether this was it and he wanted to giggle, soft hands, soft hands.
After it was over, Vik left to smoke outside, and Kai washed himself in the sink. They returned to the palace hotel in a companionable silence, with Vik's arm slung around Kai's shoulders. All the vendors at the bazaar had cleared out their wares.
"Where you going now?" Vik asked as they approached the gates through the indigo darkness.
"Agra. Tomorrow we go to the Taj Mahal."
"And when you will be home?"
"I will come to California to visit you someday," Vik declared with great confidence.
For a moment, Kai was pleased, but his joy quickly turned to worry. He hadn't expected to see Vik again. Part of him didn't want to see him again, but he couldn't say why. His English faltered as he tried to reestablish their connection without the assistance of a beer buzz. Kai imagined his friends' reactions to the funny elephant polo player from Jaipur. Anticipating his father's reaction, he found the prospect of a visit terrifying.
In spite of his fears, Kai agreed, and Vik handed him a pen. He wrote his name on the back of one of Vik's jewelry shop cards, a tacky affair with mismatched gold retro type.
Vik took hold of his hand. "You will remember me, no?"
Kai nodded. When they kissed, their lips were soft and smoky, tongues blunted by beer, tongues tracing their departure. Kai tried to memorize the smell so he wouldn't forget: elephants, musky cologne, sweat, coconut oil, metallic hair gel, but in a moment, Vik pulled away.
He clapped him on the shoulder. "I'll be seeing you!"
At the gate, a guard asked, "Are you Kailash Sarma, sir?" He explained Kai's parents had called the police for fear Kai had gotten lost. The gates opened, and Kai looked over his shoulder. Vik was gone.
As he and the guard trudged towards the well-lit lobby, Kai pictured his father's different reactions, variations on his prior reactions to various misadventures. They would go back to the hotel room, and his father would beat him with a belt, as he had once many years before. They would go back to the hotel room and his father would start yelling. They would go back to the hotel room, and his father would not talk to him, his deafening silence saying so many things, while saying nothing at all.
By the black marble concierge desk of the lobby, two men in olive uniforms were talking to his parents. Hema, clutching her baby doll, noticed him first and barreled towards him.
"You're okay!" She wrapped her tiny arms around his hips.
"We were so worried," Prabha said, enveloping him in her familiar scent of honey and oranges.
"What happened?" his father asked. Kai couldn't read his face.
"Everything all right, sir?" an officer asked.
"Yes. I thought I'd take a walk in the Pink City, but I got lost and pickpocketed. One of the polo players from this afternoon recognized me from lunch and brought me back."
"But you weren't hurt, were you?" his mother asked.
Kai repeated he was fine, half wanting to admit to his mother—for so long his staunchest ally, even though, of late, she had served as a foe—that something had changed, that his body hurt, that the same thing that hurt also made him feel victorious and confident. He decided not to say a word; perhaps this was the plastic sort of son his parents had wanted all along, a son whose adventures were concealed from them.
Inside their suite, a tray of oranges, figs, lychees, coconut chunks, and mango slices rested on a wood divan carved with marching elephants. "We ordered room service while we were waiting for you, but we saved you some." Hema kicked off her slippers.
"Have some pomegranate seeds." Prabha handed him a silver dish.
Kai eased onto the edge of the master bed with its enormous dream-white canopy, dug into the pile of pomegranate seeds with his fingers, and waited for his father to tear into him for going to the Pink City without them. To his surprise, Gopal patted him on the shoulder, the way he had when he was small. "I love you, Kai."
"I'm sorry I worried you," Kai repeated, oddly touched. His heart came up in his chest, clenching with an unfamiliar ache; he couldn't remember the last time his father had said he loved him.
"Can we go to the magic show on the lawn?" Hema climbed on the bed and began running from one end to the other. The bed rippled with her bounces.
Gopal glanced at his watch. "We might just make it."
Kai's pinstripe suit pants were splashed at the cuffs in some sort of greyish-brown liquid, possibly sewage or mud. He searched his luggage for fresh clothes.
As he changed in the bathroom, he found the rose fortune written in Rajasthani in his pocket. He opened it and looked at the foreign characters. He'd forgotten to ask Vik what his fortune was. Nobody he knew could translate it. After he had changed into fresh clothes, he slipped the rose fortune into a pocket of his suitcase. Already Vik's finely chiseled cheekbones and luminous light brown eyes were fading from his memory.
That night on the lawn, the Sarma family would sit in the shadows witnessing fire-eaters and muscular men striding barefoot on hot coals, and the following afternoon, they would ride the train to Agra to see the world's greatest monument to everlasting love, and just one week later, they'd fly in a rickety domestic plane to Chennai to bid teary farewells to Kai's grandparents, before flying via Singapore to SFO, where they would settle back into their modest house, and Kai would finish his senior year of high school, never again speaking to Gavin or skateboarding in the bowl. Although Kai would never hear from Vik again, all the rest of his life, Kai would remember as an aphrodisiac the odor of elephants, and he would remember the parrot that plucked and handed him a rose fortune in a language he could not read.