I’ve never been good at napping. On the rare occasion I am able to doze off in the middle of the day I normally awake irritated, disoriented and decidedly unrested. This trip proved to be no exception. After visiting Sarkapalyam in the morning, we returned to the hotel to escape the mid-afternoon sun. I lay down and was able to doze off briefly. Upon awakening, I felt overwhelmed and upset. I was emotionally and physically exhausted. Max tried to get me to talk and I couldn’t even make eye contact with him. I harbored the type of frustration that leads to unprovoked hostility towards others. I felt guilty for my curt responses, my lack of eye contact and intense passive aggression; all interpersonal skills I began therapy to address. In these moments, lying in our hotel room with the curtains drawn, the afternoon sun beginning to retreat, I bottomed out, feeling alone, defensive and shallow. My instinct was to crawl back inside myself, withdraw from the world and hope the world would continue on without me.
Though Max heeded my silent threats and did not continue to ask questions, his presence made the bottom of this spell shallower, easier to pull my head back up for air. His presence served as a witness. Had I been alone in that hotel room I’m not sure I would’ve gotten up, not sure I would’ve joined Anjali and Arun in our next task. I might have lain there, feeling paralyzed and wounded. That’s what I wanted to do, just lie there and become part of that twin hotel bed, dissolve and leave the complexity of this world for others to solve.
The evening plan was to return to a town neighboring Sarkarpalayam and visit a police station there to seek assistance. I was uneasy about engaging the police. It was hard to express this uneasiness in a way that felt productive. What alternatives were there to this approach? What other strategies could I offer? None, really. To complicate matters I was skeptical of my own reservations, worried my hesitancy was just my subconscious’ plot to derail this process, shield me from any further rejection.
In what had become typical fashion, our journey wouldn’t have been possible without the help of complete strangers directing us at almost every juncture. On the ride, it became clear that Amitabh believed there should be a police station but was unaware if one actually existed, let alone where it might be. I was anxious to arrive, in part, because I really had to pee and in part because I wanted it to be over. After a 15 minute delay on the side of the road in Sarkarpalayam, we turned around and drove 5 miles further away from Trichy. Our route continued to hug the banks of the Kaveri, giant, wide, and shallow. A small stream of water continued even in these dry months, a literal trickle of its overwhelming potential. The sun had begun to set, the sky darkening, evening settling in. Concrete bridges stood naked and slender, protruding out into the river bed for the purpose of siphoning water from the Kaveri for a variety of human demands.
After some maneuvering we found the police station. Stepping out of the vehicle we were met by the deafening squawking of hundreds of birds in the trees overhead. Their noise was overwhelming, filling the evening air, halting conversation and causing us to stare into the branches, searching for a source of sufficient magnitude. I peed behind an outhouse because I was instructed not to pee in the outhouse. An additional reminder that this place may have birthed me, but it was no longer a place I found familiar; it was a place I now needed a chaperone to navigate even simple tasks.
We hovered outside the station, waiting for Muthuraman to arrive. There were motorbikes parked outside the station underneath a new-looking, green corrugated metal canopy. A dozen or so bikes were parked on each side, forming a central pathway into the station’s front door, wide open, with yellow light pouring out, occasionally obscured by a figure entering or exiting. Outside the awning, beyond a small fence, two dozen bikes sat leaning against each other haphazardly. These unsheltered bikes were decorated in bird droppings, some so much so that their original colors were lost, only available to the imagination. The volume of droppings indicated that our noisy companions were a persistent fixture.
The police station was small. Upon entering, we were instructed to sit in the main room on a few benches. We were facing the door we had entered, the street and the desk the police investigator eventually settled in to hear Amitabh and Anjali explain our request. The police officer who heard our appeal was a middle-aged woman who wore a name placard reading: M. Vandayar. She dressed in the same tan uniform as most officers I’d seen; large belt buckles and tight fitting shirts, loyally conforming to their torsos, taking on a familiar shape, love handles an integral part of the form.
The officer listened as Amitabh, Muthuraman and Anjali explained my situation for what already felt like the umpteenth time. She was patient, inquisitive, asking dozens of follow-up questions, sternly glancing at me, occasionally. Eventually Anjali produced a few pages from my file and handed them, in their plastic sleeve, to M. Vandayar. We spent the next 20 minutes listening to her read through the materials in English, pausing every other line or so to ask clarifying questions. She appeared genuinely interested in, if not curious about, the situation. It was clear this was her first case of this kind. In general, I found it difficult to follow what was happening. There seemed to be a lot of translation taking place between English and Tamil and bits of other languages I couldn’t decipher. On top of this, the noise from our winged friends persisted. It was genuinely impressive that anyone could accomplish anything with the deafening sounds from above.
Max, Arun and I sat ignorantly to the side as Anjali helped Amitabh navigate the barrage of questions, with a growing crowd of scrutinizing officers huddled around M. Vandayar’s desk. In moments of boredom we watched white geckos scramble swiftly on the yellow walls. At one point Max counted four traversing this indoor habitat; I’d only seen two, perhaps an indication of our varying degrees of commitment to the conversation taking place, Max feeling completely isolated, me only partially. Every so often the group would turn to me and say a few things before nodding or turning back to converse. After 20 minutes of these exchanges, I stood and inched closer to the conversation, more and more anxious of missing a key detail or insight I’d regret not exploring later. I was acutely aware of my tendency towards self-critique and blame in hindsight and was motivated to avoid that sense of post-trip regret.
In the end, the police decided that it was a very risky situation for Sarai. Their primary concern was that Sarai was Christian, a religious minority in her neighborhood, and if the police called her in it could be perceived as harassment; they were particularly sensitive to these dynamics because elections were fast approaching. Oftentimes on this journey it was easy to forget that what we are doing was taking place within an increasingly complex political and cultural context, one that I was generally utterly ignorant of. This ignorance was one of the primary reasons I chose to hire ACT rather than search on my own, as others had. I knew I did not possess the faculties necessary to navigate this space, place and process in a way that would leave me feeling the outcome would be a positive.
Vandayar suggested that the most appropriate next step was for us to submit a written petition stating our request and to drop it off the next day at 10 am. The police felt that if they were acting on an official request they would be able to better justify approaching Sarai than if they called her in without reason. Furthermore, they were concerned that she and her daughter might be negatively impacted if she were to be outed as having had a child out of wedlock. The social stigma and repercussions could be severe, as we would later learn.
We agreed to return with an application the next day, Sunday. It was unclear to me what else would be done, if anything, beyond submitting the application. Would the police then escort us to her house and make a call? Would they dispatch officers to fetch her? Would they apprehend her on her way to work? Would they just accept the application, file it and move on? Would they even accept an application? The future felt as uncertain as ever. Few of those scenarios felt desirable or advisable from my perspective.
We rode back towards the hotel and stopped for shampoo and walked around a few little stores. We took some nice pictures. Arun purchased some street food that Max and I avoided. The rest of the night was uneventful, I didn’t sleep much, although 3 to 4 hours had begun to feel like an accomplishment.
The next morning started as the day before; I awoke at 3 am and waited for Max to stir and eventually rise, completing his routine in under a half an hour. Max grabbed his camera and we set out in the same direction as the morning before. It felt nice walking on a familiar path, seeing the same chai stand. We walked along the main thoroughfare, Max attempting to take pictures of cows and dogs without much success. We passed a butcher with numerous animal carcasses strung up for display or cleaning, maybe both. Once he noticed Max with a camera, he grabbed a massive turkey that was gobbling around the building and held it up, posing with the turkey, exclaiming something to the others in the shop. He was excited; it seemed amusing to him that we found his daily livelihood worth a second glance, let alone a picture. Max showed him the picture and we moved on, taking a turn off the main road, Race Course Road, onto a side street, quiet and residential.
I enjoyed walking through neighborhoods. I liked seeing similarities and differences between these other places. Observing the mundane often provides me with entertainment for hours. How does their sewer system work? Why do they pile trash as they do? Do they have to get permits for their stands? Who owns these cows and chickens? How is it possible for these buildings to be so beautifully colored, no neighbors complaining about lack of zoning conformance?
We wove our way back into the neighborhood and eventually found ourselves in a Muslim portion of the city, a hill with a mosque at the top and a vibrant green flag with a star and moon. An old man with thin balding white hair sat in the driveway of a large building and nodded at us as we looked up the white staircase towards the mosque. We took his gesture as an invitation to ascend. There were 3 men dressed in white on the porch of the mosque, one of them nodded to us welcomingly. I felt calm here; I felt at ease. We took in the view of the early morning city, taking pictures of each other, admiring the light and proclaiming that there were many towers sticking up all over the city, likely telecommunications focused. I wondered whether or not they served to announce prayer, though we had not heard any announcements yet.
As the sun climbed in the morning sky it revealed the dust and smog hanging low over the city. We descended and walked back to SRM hotel to meet Arun and Anjali for breakfast before heading back to the police station to deliver the application we had yet to compose. We ate quickly, Max deciding to stay and rest rather than join us for what could be hours of sitting in the police station. I joined Anjali in her hotel room as she wrote up the application, which turned out to be a handwritten letter explaining who I was and why I was attempting to connect with Sarai. I read it over once and signed it, indicating my approval. Sitting in Anjali’s hotel room, I wished I had printed out pictures of myself, something visual to leave with the paper; just in case Sarai ever saw the application, a picture could be a way for her to connect with me.
Muthuraman planned to meet us at the station instead of cramming into the Zoom Car. This time, the ride to the station was short and ordinary. It amused me how quickly the absurd was normalized. The road leading to the station had a small temple in the middle of the road, making it nearly impassable for vehicles. Amitabh expertly navigated through the narrow passage and parked. I remembered the temple from the day before but today I took it in, admiring the red paint, its small corrugated metal roof, metal bars covering one of the windows. It was in a wildly impractical location, the middle of the road, but no one else seemed to find it remarkable. Perhaps it had been there first, the road an afterthought, always occupying a subordinate position in the hierarchy in this non-car centric culture.
There were more villagers out and about than the night before. There were more peacocks, too. Arun scampered off to take a few more pictures, utterly fascinated by the elegant birds. While he was bushwhacking through the undergrowth, Anjali warned him not to relieve himself, because there was an elderly woman working in the fields below. There were fewer birds, and as a result it was substantially quieter, thankfully. After some inquiries we were directed to wait for the chief inspector, whose office was adjacent to the one we had occupied the night before.
The office was a vibrant blue with high ceilings, perhaps 15 feet tall, a few plastic chairs in front of the sturdy wooden desk, two cupboards and two benches for guests. Aside from the door we walked through, which had a curtain, there was a door directly to the outside that had a curtain rod and no curtain. We could see villagers passing by on their daily errands. When we entered, the inspector, A. Vijay Kumar, was seated behind the desk; two subordinate officers in white shirts sat with their backs to us. They did not turn to greet us as we entered. We sat behind them on the benches and Amitabh began his now well-rehearsed explanation of my situation and our novel request. Amitabh had become so well versed in my story that Anjali did not need to add much to his recitation. After a few minutes, the inspector asked his two subordinates to leave and we moved into their seats to discuss further.
Vijay Kumar was tall with a bristly mustache hugging his upper lip. His hair was short and parted in the middle, short enough that it stubbornly and familiarly stuck straight up in the air. His uniform was adorned with a few gold stars and other flares that no doubt held some significance. He reminded me of the graduate student, Girish, who had accompanied my sister and me 15 years ago when I had first returned to India. They shared round faces, thick lips and blank unrevealing eyes; I yearned for approval and acceptance from both. Girish was exceedingly kind, chaperoning us for two weeks as we bounced around southern India. A. Vijay Kumar seemed stern, not easily convinced and pragmatic.
A few minutes after we sat down, Muthuraman joined us along with a slow trickle of additional police officers, similar to the night before. The conversation and exchange with the inspector went about the same as the night before. Lots of questions, pointing at the file, heads nodding, glances to me and ultimately a recommendation to not pursue Sarai. The inspector took a much stronger stance than M. Vandayar. He felt that the biggest danger was that Sarai would, out of shame, attempt to kill herself. Although that idea had flitted across my mind in some extreme scenarios I’d played out while preparing, I chalked the possibility up to overly dramatic imagination. Hearing this as a somewhat legitimate possibility was paralyzing; my heart sank. I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream.
How could I be so fucking reckless? How could I be so selfish? Nothing about this journey seemed to matter anymore; I just wanted to not ruin this person’s life. Her death as a potential outcome felt like the literal worst case scenario. The rest of the visit felt transactional, rehearsed in a strange way. I wanted to leave, to be out of the blue room with its tall ceilings. Away from the man who I now blamed for introducing this debilitating possibility to my consciousness. Conversations continued and the inspector agreed to accept my application and do some follow-up research and suggested we return the next day, Monday, for an update. This timeline meant we would be staying in Trichy another night beyond what we had originally planned.
After a while we all stood, shook hands, thanked them and said we would look forward to talking on Monday. Anjali and Arun felt optimistic that the police were again so willing to help. On the drive back I tried to express my terror and my wish to completely withdraw from any future actions. Anjali and Arun batted aside my concerns and said that they felt we were in a safe position but would have to be more careful moving forward. They, along with Amitabh, did not seem to be as affected by the possibility of our presence leading a woman to kill herself. Arun and Anjali’s minds were made up and we continued with our itinerary. Next we would head to Pudukkottai, my alleged birth village, for the afternoon to look for clues about my relatives.