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Manual for an American Novice in a Small Indian Town by Tara Isabel Zambrano

Bring a large crate of bottled water, a hand sanitizer, and toilet tissue rolls. Fold your hands in Namaste only when you come in or are leaving. Convert the locals with your sunscreen and lip balm, your style of adjusting the shades on your eyes, the way you mouth Hello. Say you love the saffron painted (triangular stone) Lord Hanuman under the hundred-year-old banyan. According to mythology, the tree is a home to shapeshifters—if you are (un)lucky, one may fall hard for you and follow you around for the rest of your sweet life. Inside the dim-lit room, unpack your things and look in the old mirror. Shake off (your privilege) clothes before wearing them—sometimes lizards will fill themselves inside your shorts and t-shirt, sniffing, licking where your skin was. Eat warm khichdi only. Don’t fret if you are unable to sleep because it’s monsoon and the stray dogs are barking crazy, howling, and frogs are making sounds (like your neighbor in the old apartment building in NJ). Wear slippers or shoes at all times. Treat your throat infection with prayers and an abundance of chai. Watch the rain hanging in the air for days, then the unruly heat flattening your eyelids. In the roadside bazaar, roam around until your skin is translucent. Get over your lust for your half-Indian half-British college roommate by flirting with the woman who sells accessories and miracles. Take a census of the tattoos on her feet and arms, marvel at her clay-brown irises, her concave belly after four kids (possibly three daughters followed by a son). Procure bindis, glass bangles, and witchcraft to fend off men who snatch purses and jewelry, pick pockets. Under the streetlamp with moths swirling around it like a tornado, smoke beedis with her, and feel the tobacco scratch your skin from the inside—that itch of knowing more about the world. Ask the guest house attendant where you can get Indian beer, your fingers softly tapping and curling on the counter. Drink it for breakfast. Clean the dirt under your fingernails, don’t shave your legs or armpits for the full experience. Before you leave, watch the humidity outdo itself. Pack your things, look in the mirror in your room. Put your hand on your chest and feel the fluttering wings of the moth you accidentally swallowed.


Hear Tara Isabel Zambrano read her piece.


Tara Isabel Zambrano is a South Asian writer and the author of an upcoming short-story collection Ruined A Little When We Are Born, to be published by Dzanc Books in Fall 2024.

Plastic Rivers by Shome Dasgupta | Lottery by Scott Garson | Drones by Ulrica Hume | Mushrooms by Kathryn Kulpa | The Archipelago by Lorette C. Luzajic | Manual for an American Novice in a Small Indian Town by Tara Isabel Zambrano | A Single Ladybug, Lying Dead on the Windowsill by Elena Zhang