After endless fickle cycles of eating and sickness in India, I finally arrived at the point where curries, thalis, street snacks, dosas, paranthas, and chai all felt right in my belly. I had reached a state of nirvana. There was no vociferous gurgling, no nausea, no cramps, no farts, no follow through, it just sat there, making me full and content.
Brazen with my new found ‘normalisation’ to Indian hygiene standards, I got cocky. I went to the cheapest back-alley thali joints; fed on deep-fried samosas dunked in month-old murky oil; drank chai with cycle rickshaw drivers as open sewers chugged below. And still I felt fine. Full and fancy free, I walked around with my chest puffed out in a cheerful turgid stupor, inhaling air across a tongue aflame with flavours.
Then, like all good things, it came to an end. It was a warm, sunny day in Amritsar and I kicked it off with two aloo kaltha in a small roadside eatery. The dal was earthy; the salad of onion, chilli and coriander fresh and tangy; and the kaltha greasy and delicious, plump with chilli, potato, and herbs, and with a generous oozing lump of butter melting on top. My hand ripped at the bread, dunked it in the butter, scooped at the dal, and finally pinched at the onion in a messy and marvellous frenzy.
A little later, I ate aloo tikka from a cart at the end of the alleyway to my hotel. Deep-fried potato patties, drenched in a spicy green chilli and coriander sauce and a sweet brown mango syrup. It tasted divine.
A little later still, I drank chai beneath a tree on the corner of the road near the Mati Hindu temple. For dinner, I tucked into sarson ka saag, a Punjabi speciality of spinach, mustard leaves and a complex array of spices. I ate in a restaurant a stone’s throw from the serene Golden Temple, shovelling it in an unholy fashion with plenty of roti. It ended a day of delicious Indian cuisine, but the problem was that the ‘food experience’ didn’t quite end there.
One hour later, I am on all fours on my bed. I am wrestling with a toxic gas that after rising from the rumbling, churning battleground of my stomach is leaking slowly from my mouth. The accompanying cramps and nausea are intense yet refuse to send me over the edge and to the toilet. They are testing the limits of my endurance, seeing how much I can take.
I don’t sleep. Instead I have half-dreams where I fight physical manifestations of bacteria, carried over the top on wave after wave of sickness. The fights are brutal and no clear victor emerges. I sweat, I cry, I squeeze my stomach as if the clawing can somehow make the evil go away.
Morning arrives and so does the first wave of diarrhoea, that mix of relief and agony as liquid rushes from your cramping bowels. I press my head hard against the cold tiled-wall of the tiny bathroom in an attempt to control the accompanying nausea. I am sweating profusely and shivering simultaneously.
For the next 24 hours, I spend my time braced and battered, doubled-over on the toilet as crippling cramps and nausea take it in turns. Eventually, it passes and I finally leave the bathroom.
I look in the mirror and see a grey skeletal version of myself, leaning over a segment of orange, contemplating it. The game will soon start afresh.