Koeli’s voice changed the air the way a craftsman changes a sheet of gold into a necklace of undulating, shimmering grooves. Tristan heard her singing thumris in the dark of the sitting room every morning as he brushed his teeth by candlelight.
The dawn has come
And my eyes are heavy with sleep
And you my love
Have been with another woman
And are telling me lies
The dawn has come
And my eyes are heavy with sleep.
Koeli sat on a cheap velvet cushion on the floor beside the window. The head of her tanpura rested between the bars of the window as the sky slowly grayed with sunrise. She favored the Gurjari Todi raga in the morning. It made her think of stormclouds and every kind of hurt she had known thus far in her young life. Her voice wept with sorrow and Tristan always left the house feeling as if he had had a breakfast of coffee and dark chocolate instead of the usual watery tea and crackers. To him, his kid sister had the most useful talent a hungry person could have.
As soon as the first rays of sun slipped into the room, Koeli stopped singing and rested her long fingers on the tanpura strings to break the hum. The room became completely silent for only an instant until it filled up again with the sounds of crows and the early trills of bicycle bells. Koeli twisted herself like a wet cloth until her joints crackled. She stood up and began the daily before-school ritual that she savored before venturing out into the harsh light of the outside.
Milk-clouded tea sat steaming in a little white cup with flowers, the one her mother got in a set on her wedding day. Koeli waited for the tea to cool as she parted her long black hair on the left and braided it in a fat plait with the green ribbon that was part of her school uniform. She had always resented being forced to wear a stupid ribbon in her hair and tried to find a creative way to incorporate it into her appearance without looking like a child. This was difficult—Koeli’s small thin frame gave her the appearance of being several years younger than sixteen. The uniformly white sari with a green border looked boyishly awkward on her as she wrapped and tucked it hastily. After examining her dark little face in the mirror, Koeli mentally renewed her vows to take up intellectual space if not physical.
Koeli hummed a song about hope as she gathered her books into her shoulder bag. She stopped humming when she walked outside. There was a yellow air of dread on the faces of the people careening by on rickety bicycles as if the thought of shuffling through another stack of papers in the midday heat made them feel physically ill. Even the thought of school felt tense, the long days spent learning useful things that she would probably never get to use. Koeli started humming again, thinking about the time when her voice will blare from a midday radio show, and for a moment these terrible faces will relax into a semblance of enjoyment and turn their radio up. The announcer will ask her in a formal manner,
“Miss Koeli, why do you sing?”
“I sing for the workers, sir. I sing in the spirit of the revolution.”
Koeli smiled at her thoughts and wondered at their improbability.
Anya lay flat on the grass, looking straight into the California sun. Dots like fractals appeared in her field of vision and bounced off the edges of her eyeball like a game of Pong. She followed them lazily with her eyes, no, her mind. She could actually hear the sounds they made, moving through her gaze. Ping, ping, ping! The rays of the sun made noises too, like television static. Ssssshhhhhhhhh…..
Everything was imbued with nearly imperceptible motion and sound. How lovely, thought Anya.
The loveliness changed as Eric turned on the iPod speakers inside the house. A Brazilian band sang about bread and circuses with clanging bells and horns blaring in a friendly circus way.
I ordered that leaves of dreams
be planted in the Garden of the Sun
The leaves know how to seek the sun
And the roots seek, seek
But the people in the dining hall
These people in the dining hall
But the people in the dining hall
Are busy being born and dying.
Anya started to giggle uncontrollably when she saw Eric lumber back outside. He looked like a suffocating, hapless bear. His face had turned bright red and his eyes were popping out of his skull. She half expected him to start dancing to the music with a pair of crashing cymbals. Things were happening here!
Anya was sixteen. She had taken her father’s old samovar from its display case in the dining room and brought it over to her boyfriend’s house. The samovar was a thing of true gorgeousness. Barrel-shaped and coated in a film of yellow gold, it had intricate enamel work of twisting vines and flowers, all royal blue, pink and white with green leaves. Anya’s friends had gazed at it with reverence as she brought it through the door, cradling it carefully like a baby goat. They congratulated her on finding such a beautiful object and agreed that it would make a marvelous addition to their trip.
“This is our barrel of meaning,” Eric said as he filled the vertical pipe running down the middle with charcoal. He then ceremoniously filled the little teapot on top with packed dry mushrooms and licorice tea leaves. The dry red caps seemed to so intimately belong in the old water heater. Anya held her teacup under the golden spout and reddish gold tea streamed into the cup, the strained light of sunsets.
By the first cup they were seeing things like through a weird glass of pink and green. By the second cup, Anya felt completely sexless. It was the most incredible feeling. She stood up from the grass feeling long and flat like a board, or Gumby. Her brown stretchy dress seemed like a part of her body, a true friend. The boys around her were friends, only friends and comrades in search of the fantastic lights that lived in their brains, waiting to be released in a rush of poison or confidence in illuminating medicines. Even Troy seemed to her a fellow soldier and his plush mouth only looked like a pink shape to her, so much a part of the pink shapes all around her. She did not think once whether her cropped black hair looked completely ridiculous (which it did due to her rubbing her head in the grass because it felt like feathers). Humans became to her living sculptures while the inanimate were too animated to bear. Not knowing what to do, Anya plopped back onto the grass and looked at the voluminously arranged sky in a half grin that slowly turned to a grimace.
A Mean Trick
Tristan’s father worked at the jewelry factory on Ballygunge Road making filigreed enameled gold bracelets and rings for American merchants who marked the products up a thousand percent. Before partition, his own father had been a farmer near Dhaka in what is now Bangladesh and had trained him to be the same since he was a young boy. Tristan’s father felt a special connection with the leathery oxen that plowed the fields in slow, agonizing motions. He spent entire days in the hard mud, beseeching the cattle to move, whispering in their fly buzzing ears like a friend needing a favor. When the rains came to soften the mud he rubbed his hands over the oxen’s jutting ribs and shouted words of encouragement. Tristan’s father wished he could sleep in the fields and thanked the stars that he was not in his uncle’s position. His uncle Debesh had a short leg and was not cut out for hard labor. Instead, he slept in a cot in the corner of the house and read book upon book about things Tristan’s father could only imagine to be the secrets of women and love. At the time, it was the most baffling subject on his mind. Debesh was only 7 years older than him but seemed to know about the most mysterious phenomenons, like why people riot and kill each other and the politics of rice. One day in the pouring rain, an ox slipped in the mud and ran over Tristan’s father’s foot with the plow. The foot was crushed so severely and irreparably that he had to move to the city to work in a factory painting beautiful trinkets that his own wife would never wear.
When Tristan’s father had placed his hand on his wife’s swollen belly in the year 1950, he had felt instant love for the little kicking foot. At around the same time in the dead center of the century, Debesh graduated from Presidency College with a doctorate in political science. He was offered a teaching job at his alma mater that, although did not make him wealthy, boosted the family credentials significantly. Tristan’s father asked Debesh to give his son a name that would become synonymous with wealth and intelligence, a name to eclipse all names of the next generation. Playing somewhat of a mean trick on his nephew, Debesh named the baby Tristan after Tristan Tzara and assured the family that his namesake was a great man of infinite compassion and prestige. In truth, Debesh just wanted to instill in the tiny thing a ready appreciation for the dynamic absurdity that was India.
The Holy Fool
“Dada!” Koeli called out. Several boys wheeled around, looking confusedly about for their little sisters. Laughing, she called again, this time spotting Tristan near the snack cart and running over to him. Tristan was secretly glad she never yelled his name out in public and instead just referred to him as older brother. He felt an odd discomfort with having a foreign name, no matter how soft the T’s and R’s became in the Bengali tongue—it felt to him bourgeois, pretentious, made more so by the fact that even the childish call of “dada” rang such intimate ghosts of his true name.
“What’re you guys doing here?” Tristan looked over at Koeli’s friend Priya whose portly being looked somewhat put-out at having had to run across a college courtyard of older boys, no, men. She wrapped the end of her sari around her midriff self-consciously while she pretended to consider buying a cup of tea. The man behind the cart looked at Priya for a second, and then his eyes rolled past her to peer into the brilliant sky. The vendor of the snack cart was a familiar and well-loved character at Presidency College. He had suffered some kind of debilitating mishap in his youth that left him in a constant daze, somehow plastered to a singular expression and notion. He functioned well enough to make tea and fry chicken cutlets, but with a look on his face as if he was constantly trying to recapture a lost thought. The boys affectionately called him the Holy Fool. He didn’t seem to mind. In fact he didn’t seem to hear or even understand anything besides the food in his cart and the invisible pull of the sky.
“It’s a half-day at school today so Priya and I are going to her house to listen to records. You can come if you want,” Koeli added, knowing full well her brother considered himself above it.
“Oh go on, you kids and your gramophones,” Tristan said, wiping the tea off his thin mustache, the growing of which Koeli thought was a direct contributor to his newfound pompousness.
“Yeah, anyway, just tell Ma I might be late making dinner.”
With a loud KRSSSHH Anya ripped out a page from her notebook and began to write.
Literature is for those friendless people who just want to hear a human voice once in a while, telling them truths that are hard to come by from living just one lifetime. It is for the burrowing into thought and skatting like jazz onto the discoveries of others, adding your own truths onto the great snowball of human knowledge. It is different from scientific knowledge because it accepts even the most unlikely truths without needing reproduction, indeed, eschewing reproduction.
Here she paused, pen in mouth, wondering whether she shouldn’t replace the word “eschewing” since she had no idea how to pronounce it. She moved on before her thoughts had a chance to settle.
My first realization of the awesomeness of literature came to me in poems—first through old Ginsberg and then through the supreme weirdness of Richard Brautigan. He wrote about a town made entirely of watermelon sugar. Just the thought of the process required to distill sugar from watermelons struck a wonderful chord with me. This guy was amazing. He saw the absurdity of the earth and instead of trying to make sense of it, he added to the great snowball of human absurdity. A boy I was enamored with at the time lent me that book.
Anya thought back to that boy and his long limbed insouciance but stopped herself. He was the stuff of daydreams and she didn’t have time for it. This report was due in like ten minutes.
Living in the world of “In Watermelon Sugar” would be unbearably lonely. It would be lonely and dangerous, empty with space and filled with tigers. The walls of everything would be delicious. The sky would be unnatural colors, a perverse red like the constant threat of storm. But hey, Richard Brautigan! Your world is not scarier than the one I’m in right now. I want you to know that I like the way you write words and even though you killed yourself and I’m not sure how entrenched you are in the literary canon, you’ll always be a poet to me.
As she walked hurriedly toward school, Anya tried to memorize the small speech. It’s just a dumb book report, she told herself. She couldn’t believe that they were still making people do these things.
“Public speaking is one of the most important skills a person can have,” her teacher had said. It was one of Anya’s personal demons—she felt cold and naked in front of so many eyes and her hands felt uncertain as to their role in the public eye. Anya bit off all her fingernails on the way to school and spat them out as she went, leaving a trail of ragged fingernails behind.
Krishna or Dark Skinned
Koeli and Priya ran through the vast corridors of Priya’s father’s house, giggling about something or someone whose details are escaping them now. They collapsed onto a huge bed covered in an orange batik printed duvet. Koeli let herself sink softly into the clean cotton as her laughter died away into something like envy. The room glowed in the radiant light of the evening sun that illuminated the rich silk tapestries on the wall and the gleaming, freshly washed marble floor.
Priya got up and slid a vinyl record out of its sleeve. She carefully placed it onto the record player inside of what looked like a giant wooden box and lowered the needle. The machine purred and spat out a riff of drums. Priya turned up the volume knob and cried, “I love this song!”
Koeli and Priya danced to a song called “Walk Don’t Run” made by the American surf rock band called The Ventures. Koeli didn’t know what surfing was and she had never been to the ocean but she danced and wiggled her arms anyway, because she could feel it was the right thing to do for a song like this. She sang a lot of la-la-las and bobbed her head from side to side. She pretended she was in a convertible with the hood down like actresses in Hindi movies and swung her hair from side to side. Priya laughed and tried to imitate Koeli’s strange movements but she felt graceless and stopped. She sat down on the bed feeling suddenly out of breath.
“You’re lucky, you know,” Koeli said to her friend. “I don’t know anybody else who listens to American music at home whenever they want. In fact, I don’t even know anybody who has a record player.”
“You’re luckier,” Priya pouted. “You can actually make music. You can sing and everybody knows that’s the next best thing to being fair. And anyway, my dad says this song is 15 years old.”
Koeli’s ears felt hot. She remembered her great-uncle Debesh telling her once, “Koeli, your voice is so beautiful and your parents are lucky for that. The greatest asset a dark girl can have is her voice.”
Then she remembered her own voice saying, “I hope to use my voice in something other than song one day.”
“And you’re impossibly thin,” Priya continued. “Do you know what? I’m getting fat,” she whispered confidentially.
“Oh shut up, you are not!”
They continued this game until the sun threatened to set and Koeli had to say goodbye and run home before the darkness beckoned violence.
Communist Party of India (Maoist)
Tristan pointed to a man buying ice cream. The man peeled off the paper covering the cup of vanilla-strawberry Kwality ice cream and discarded it carelessly on the side of the street. Three street children with swollen heads immediately ran over to investigate. One of them picked up the cover and licked it clean. They hung around the man with their palms out, asking for coins. The man looked over their heads, hailed a rickshaw, and climbed in without breaking a stride. The rickshaw puller was an old man with sinews like the roots of some long forgotten tree.
“Did you see him? That guy with the ice-cream? He’s a member of CPIML,” said Tristan with undisguised disgust. “Marxism-Leninism is a farce now in Calcutta. Even that asshole that lives two houses down from you, Raju, you know the one who ran over a beggar and paid off the cops. He’s a party member too.”
Raju snorted. “So that’s your reason for being a Maoist? Because there are assholes in the other party? There are assholes in every party, Tristan.” A couple of their friends voiced their agreement.
“And plus,” Raju continued, “the Naxals are biggest assholes of all. The so-called peasant rebellion in Naxalbari wasn’t even led by peasants; it was led by Maoists in peasant clothes. It’s fucking ridiculous that in a country where half its people are peasants, we can’t even come up with a real peasant rebellion. That should tell you something.”
“Tell us what? That they can’t read? That they don’t know about the communist doctrine? My great-uncle says to paint the trains—” Tristan was cut off by a thin boy smoking a joint.
“Your uncle is a bourgie in Naxal clothing,” he drawled. “He’s a fucking professor at Presidency College, what does he know about hunger.”
Tristan stared at the boy. He looked too young to be speaking here, with them, the youths of the neighborhood.
“My father was a farmer and his father before him,” Tristan said slowly. “The only reason my uncle wasn’t was because of his foot. He got into college through a scholarship and he knows more about hunger than you can imagine.”
“Yeah, he might have gotten a scholarship, but how did you get in?” The boy looked pleased with himself. Tristan looked down.
“And can I please remind you that your dear Mao is the one funding those asshole Pakistanis in their sadistic mission to keep Bangladesh? How can you defend that?” Raju continued.
The group was suddenly quiet, anxious at the appearance of two policemen in khaki pants walking by. They eyed the boys as they walked past, leisurely, with their hands on their batons. One of them spat a wad of red thick phlegm, colored by chewed up betel leaves and supari.
“We should leave,” Raju said in a hushed voice. “We shouldn’t have been talking about this out here. We should go.”
Tristan looked straight into the cops’ bland faces with defiance. He was nameless, the son of a lower-middle-class nobody. They would never know who he was. A cop looked at him and smiled with pointed red teeth.
An Important Investment
Koeli’s mother looked up from the boiling pot of rice as her daughter walked into the kitchen.
“Did Tristan tell you? I was at Priya’s.”
“Yes, he told me. I wish you had asked me first, we have guests coming tonight. They are friends of your uncle, very important people.” Koeli’s mother paused and stirred the rice. “Their son goes to the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur,” she added.
“Okay, well,” Koeli said, standing with her feet unsure on the ground, feeling flat like a board. “I’m going to go take a shower.”
Koeli poured water over herself using a red plastic mug. The water had been sitting in the deep cement basin for a day or two now and it was freezing cold. She shivered as she wondered about what would happen tonight. If it was for what she thought it was for, well—she stopped herself. There was no way, she was too young. Her parents would never agree to that.
The towel she wrapped around herself felt anemic and Koeli shivered violently as she ran with wet feet from the shower to her bedroom. She saw that her mother had laid out a nice sari for her on her cot. It was made of stiff starched cotton in a strange goldenrod color that seemed at once saccharine and threatening. The black embroidered shapes were too jagged, like a row of daggers line-dancing down the edge. She picked it up. As if on cue, a yellow spider in the corner of the room scuttled hurriedly toward a window.
Koeli’s mother came in as she was getting dressed and made fine adjustments to her daughter’s draping here and there. She stiffened the pleats at the bottom and made sure the small peaks of her breasts were fully covered underneath the sari. Koeli found this irritating and shifted uncomfortably under her mother’s unsettling new gaze. Koeli’s mother began combing her daughter’s long hair slowly and rhythmically, trying to calm her as if she were a frightened mare but this caused Koeli more distress than anything else.
“Hold still, I don’t want you to mess up the folds I just made,” her mother gently rebuked.
Instead of braiding it, Koeli’s mother twisted her daughter’s hair into a tight bun at the nape of her neck. After applying a thick rim of kohl to her eyes and a small red dot on her daughter’s forehead to center her beauty, Koeli’s mother lifted the end of the sari and draped it over and around Koeli’s hair like a hood. When Koeli looked in the mirror, she saw an image of a terrified child-woman trapped in a rectangle and she felt a surge of insurmountable hatred.
“Please sing a thumri tonight, Koeli,” her mother said. “You know how much I love love-songs.”
Koeli said nothing. She knew that she would not be able to sing a song of desire when all she tasted was so much bile-filled hate.
Later that night, the guests all gathered in the sitting room after dinner. They were well-dressed, well-spoken, laughed politely and talked politics as if they cared. The young man in question sat opposite of Koeli, looking miserably down at his feet. He was young too, and sullen as if he had been plucked from tasks of great importance.
“It’s terrible what the Pakistanis are doing to our people,” the boy’s father said. “Do you have any family in Bangladesh?”
“Yes, we do. They’re in Dhaka,” replied Koeli’s father.
“How have they been? No one is hurt I hope.”
Koeli’s father hesitated. “The lines of communication have been basically cut, the mail is not being delivered with any regularity anymore, and it’s hard to know what is happening. I am sure they are managing to get by.” In truth, Koeli’s father knew that his entire family had been killed one night in a raid by the West Pakistani government. They were hacked to pieces, except for his niece who was raped by seven different men and left crumpled in the corner of a room, ashen and limp like a used petticoat. By virtue of the Pakistani sperm, her illegitimate child would be Pakistani by birth, her Bengali blood eliminated like a pox. And if all that hadn’t happened yet, it was just a matter of time.
“Well, god willing they will come out of this unharmed. Something needs to be done about the refugees though, don’t you think? Calcutta cannot handle any more bodies,” said the boy’s mother from behind obese lips.
Talk waxed and waned throughout the night in a monotonous hum that left Koeli feeling drowsy. Tristan tried to leave the conversation as it turned to the topic of Naxal rebels, saying he had an exam in the morning.
“Stay for your sister’s song, dear,” Tristan’s mother said.
The entire group turned toward Koeli as if noticing her for the first time that night.
“Yes, let’s have a song,” the sullen boy said, waking from his stupor. Perhaps he too was expecting a love song. That night Koeli sang, to the horror of her mother, a song about disappointment.
This youth is like water
Resting in a cupped palm
It will drip away with time
And at the end I will wonder
Why did I while away my time
During my fleeting youth.
After the boy’s family left, Koeli helped her mother wash the dishes. She squatted near the faucet at the corner of the kitchen and wiped rice and fish bones off of the aluminum plates.
“Ma?” Koeli asked.
“Yes?” Koeli’s mother sounded too tired to even sigh.
Koeli wanted to ask her mother whether the decision to invest in singing lessons for her daughter was paying off as well as she had hoped. Instead she looked at the knotted joints of her mother’s chestbones peeking from the top of her blouse and stayed silent.
By the time Anya stepped into the house the gathering had already begun to parody human interaction. Music was blowing through the speakers and into the Aptos wind in the backyard and through the mountain gullies. A woman was singing in French, quite earnestly.
The moon is free I believe
That radiates above the rooftops
Even more than one would believe
It fluctuates between that and these
That parts that one never sees
It is above everything,
It is free of everything,
It is above everything,
It is free of everything,
It is above everything.
It was a very nice song, thought Anya. It sounded cheerful, and positive, and like the kind of music you’d like to drink to on a Tuesday night when you know you have to get up for school the next day too early, and trudge on into class with dark circles hidden under cream concealer.
“Hey! Anya man, take a shot!”
“Okay,” she smiled, “Let’s do it! Let’s make it double!”
“Excellent. What’ll you have?”
“You’re such a chick, man!”
This oft-asserted claim always confused Anya, that everyone chalked up her love of vodka to her gender and not her Russian lineage. Not that it was either of those reasons but only because she preferred tasteless poison to brown-flavored poison. But vodka she drank and strawberry flavored too, and some sort of aggressive pink soda to wash it down with and prepared for an evil sugary hangover the next morning. The music seemed to get brighter with each shot and more beautiful did the night, cold but not unfriendly, the spiny bushes lining the mountainside like hidden sentinels to protect from the world not contained within this massive home. Anya smiled and laughed and posed for pictures and tried to keep her heavy eyelids from bulging. Once she reapplied her lipstick in the bathroom and wondered who she did this for, this automatic motion. Her boyfriend was not in attendance tonight.
As the night wore on, Anya realized the house she was in. Hutch-like stone corridors led into vast double doors that contained hidden rooms. The kitchen was where everyone gathered and sat around the sofas (in a kitchen, mind you) and played music through supplanted hidden speakers in the walls, in the ceiling, possibly even in the leaves of the potted blue irises. Anya wandered out of the kitchen feeling tipsy, running her fingers along the small cliffs and ridges of the stone walls. Occasionally a glint of mica sparkled like an inlaid gem. Small pieces of framed art covered the walls—black scenes with white faces shimmering like ghouls in a still river, a shining globe like a sun growing over a sarcophagus, a somber Jesus Christ urinating in a night desert. A door ajar with a viola playing inside materialized in the row of paintings and appeared for a second to Anya as a painting itself.
Peeking in, Anya saw no one. What she did see was the most magnificent painting she had ever seen. She walked into the room and stood below its substantial heft, looking up as if in prayer. Small accent lights soaked the image of a woman, her belly swollen with a soon-to-be-human, sarcoid mass sinking heavily into the torn umber sofa, her flesh mangled by paint, bones casting shadows that glowed with their own suggestive flush. Anya was at once fascinated and repelled by the figure’s corpulent seduction. She swayed a little on the balls of her feet and imagined herself to be moved by the slight breeze coming in through a window. The sound of the viola coming through hidden speakers seemed to be playing for the viewing of this painting only, like a soundtrack. The painting outshone all others around it. Anya wished for something.
“Kind of disgusting, wasn’t I?”
Anya gave a small squeak of terror and spun around to find a woman curled up in a dark chair in the corner of the room nursing a glass of red wine.
“That’s me,” she indicated, pointing a wine at the painting, sloshing a little onto the carpet. “I was eight months pregnant and hanging out in London. They wouldn’t let me fly back to the states because of my pregnancy.” The woman smiled at Anya and sipped on her wine while Anya reeled.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. I’m Matthew’s mom.”
“Hi, I’m Anya,” Anya said, wondering who Matthew was. And then looking back to the painting, “Did Lucian Freud really paint you?”
The woman giggled appreciatively. “You know art, do you?” She had long black hair that fanned onto her black cashmere sweater. She had dark circles under her eyes that she had apparently tried to spackle with grayish concealer. Anya found her familiar and foreign.
“Yeah,” said Anya. “I kind of want to be a painter maybe.”
“Oh? That’s a wonderful goal. Although I should warn you that American art hasn’t been relevant in ages. There are just so few wars and so few artists that are really starving. And the ones that are starving, well, they’re starving.” She laughed again like it was an inside joke. Anya smiled politely and turned back to looking at the paintings on the wall.
“That’s why I never buy American art. Terence Koh’s might be the closest piece I have, but technically he’s Canadian.” The woman nodded her head at a square framed drawing in between two minimalist sculptures. It had tiny graphite curlicues like so many pubic hairs. Most of the piece was left with white space.
“That piece was made with the artist’s and his friend’s semen.”
Anya stepped backward automatically, her palms out slightly as if needing time to think. She could feel the woman continue to look at her in a way that she could only describe as unheimlich.
“Your face reminds me of this artist actually,” the woman said. “She uses her own body as art, binding it with rope and photographing the bulges in such a way that it stops resembling a human body at all. She is also very beautiful. Her own success is her critique on what it means to be a woman making art.” She stopped to breathe. “The only difference between art and porn is who you know.”
The Tin Drum
The air was unforgiving on that day. Oppressive, humid, the clouds voluptuous with rain, it was as if the sky itself was squeezing tighter onto the throat of the city. Things had been happening around; things where families paid for the price of their pride and of their young sons and daughters who dared to use their mouths in something other than consumption. There had been some kidnappings, some beatings, some indiscriminate sweeps of gunfire that cleared the streets prematurely and made leaving the house to go to the coffeehouse an act of beautiful courage. Instead, kids began to memorize circuitous routes that led to safety zones and underground hiding places. Families began to send their daughters away to other states and lived in fractured unity so mass murders were that much harder to commit. This was happening because some Maoists had killed some men in khaki and the men in khaki were not happy about it.
The date was March 26th, 1971. The night before, Tristan’s father’s visions of a raped countryside littered with bodies had come true. Those white feathery rushes had been the only things moving in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka. Sometimes there would be a sound of a child crying and a woman running into the street to look for her baby until the phantom faded again into the sound of a nation weeping, a voice united in grief, a hahakar.
Tristan’s great-uncle organized an impromptu lecture on the terrace of Presidency College. His voice surged through a handheld megaphone and vibrated into the bones of every young person there, shaking him and her to their core, giving them chills, willing them to take action. Tristan swelled with familial pride and glowed with vehemence.
“Action!” he cried with his fist in the air, along with the rest of them.
It was on this day in Calcutta that a young Bengali girl took a bus to College Street and strode into the coffeehouse with some purpose. She was meeting friends there to discuss what should be done in light of recent events. The girl was wearing a yellow silk kurta and blue jeans. Her hair was cut short into a flat bob and her face held a spark of something that girls were not usually allowed to have. She was an undergraduate studying engineering at one of India’s most prestigious schools of technology and right now, she climbed the mammoth stairs of the coffeehouse to the vast upper level because she needed coffee to think. The balcony overlooked the entrance to the coffeehouse with people milling in and out, students and writers smoking and talking, and those who smuggled in flasks of brandy, yelling loudly and ordering plates of fried meat. The girl ordered a cup of coffee and fried eggplants from a man who darted between the tables like a silverfish.
This girl was Anya’s mother. She blew lightly on the hot coffee and watched a young white man walk through the door of the coffeehouse carrying, or rather dropping, a large pile of things on his way to a table. He was trailed by another young white friend, also carrying, albeit more successfully, a bunch of wooden looking slats. White people were not commonly seen in Calcutta but if they were anywhere, they were here. They were more common after the Beatles had followed around some crazy swami four years ago trying to learn transcendental meditation. Usually such white people wore white kurtas down to their knees and had red powder on their foreheads and hair, having been blessed by a guru and then refusing to bathe until they reached the banks of the Ganges. But these particular white people were dressed in rather old looking pants and work shirts and something about the first one’s eyes caught Anya’s mother’s attention. They were heavy lidded, serious, piercing in their complete lack of color like a snow dog’s.
She watched with interest as the men set up. They chose a table and quickly assembled a sort of small puppet-theater stage, the kind that gathered men women and children in villages around for a break from their lives of agriculture and poverty. The stage was painted in red and white and black. They pulled out marionettes and by this time a crowd had begun to gather around them. Anya’s mother watched from the balcony as the marionette of a very small child played a tin drum, the sound coming from one of the puppeteer’s mouth in a loud RATATATAT like a machine gun. Anya’s mother was interested. She had read this book and knew the puppet child’s name was Oskar. Anya’s mother walked down from the balcony to sit in audience of the puppet show and as she watched little Oskar take down the Nazis with his tin drum, she chose a path of action that radically shifted the course of her life in three ways.
1 She met her future husband in the inflamed eyes of the white man from Russia.
2 She did not meet her friends that day to discuss plans and was subsequently left out of a decision to make pipe bombs that would be lobbed into a crowded street and directed toward a group of policemen.
3 She did not die several days later.
Anya moved toward the pool. It was safe to say that she was fucked up. She sometimes at parties would think, am I fucked up? And if affirmative, she would be happy, because let’s face it, no one drinks it for the taste. Anya moved toward the pool and by this time other people were fucked up too and being loud, yelling obscenities and squealing and shrieking in happiness, hopefully. She sat down on a shrubbery ledge and a hidden light illuminated her from the bottom so the hollows of her eyes seemed like pools themselves of deep considerations. A boy came over and sat next to her and they drank together from his red plastic cup like they were old friends but in truth Anya couldn’t place him from anywhere.
“I liked that book report you gave in class,” he said to her.
School is always sneaking up on you like that.
“Thanks,” she said. “I was so nervous, I had to drink like three things of Red Bull to get a word out.”
A girl walked, no, sauntered by them. She was so beautiful that they were both quiet for a while. She was Muslim, her head wrapped tightly in a purple jersey scarf and a tight black turtleneck binding her body in cloth. Green eyes rimmed in sooty eyeliner and tight jeans tucked into high riding boots made her seem more S&M than anything else. Maybe it was the way she walked.
“Why do you think some hijabis wear both the scarf and makeup?” The boy asked.
Anya had no idea but she thought she might try to defend someone whose hypocrisies were being pointed out.
“Maybe to her, hair is like breasts and vaginas are to other people, just completely sexual and no way around it so it has to be covered up. And maybe makeup isn’t so sexualized. Like by wearing makeup, she is trying to be beautiful without being sexy.”
The boy looked unconvinced. He drank more.
“There is such a thing as beauty without sex, you know,” Anya said.
He looked at her quizzically.
He put his hand on Anya’s thigh and squeezed a little. She got so nervous that she didn’t do anything.
After they had made out a little, Anya stopped kissing and pulled away.
“Hey,” she asked the boy. “Do you identify with any groups?”
“Huh?” he said.
“Like, do you consider yourself to be part of something bigger? Not really like a religion, but maybe are you working toward something?”
“Ahhksss,” the boy exhaled and rubbed his temple, “let’s save that discussion for the second date. Goals or whatever. Kind of a buzzkill. Aren’t you having fun?”
Anya shook her head.
“I have a boyfriend,” she said and walked away.
And Now on to the Importance of a College Education
Rows upon rows of pink and gold and red glass shimmered in the sunlight. Koeli ran her fingers across the delicate display of bangles and heard them tinkle conspiratorially. She wondered how much strength it would take to crush one in her hands. Not much, she thought. Lately she had been having fantasies of destruction and lunacy. Striking strangers for no reason, taking the cleaver meant for cutting gourds and slicing off her own hand, things like that. These thoughts were swirling inside her head all the time. She would stare off into space while picking up a ration packet of milk for her mother and imagine the street cow chewing its own sick to suddenly go mad and charge at her, curled horns pointed like bayonets and skewer her innards into the nearest tree. She imagined the shock of seeing something huge hurtling toward her, the exquisite pain of forcible entry and the eventual delicious feeling of never having to feel again. And then she looked down at the array of tinkling glass bracelets and felt ill.
“What about these, Koeli?” Priya pointed to a stack of turquoise and gold bangles. “What color sari are you wearing again?”
“Black,” said Koeli gloomily.
“Really?” said Priya. “But why? You look so much better in bright colors.”
Koeli shot her friend a loaded look. The money her mother gave her for new costume jewelry sat heavy in her purse. Her family and the young man’s family were putting together a formal night of culture. Koeli’s mother insisted on buying something nice to lift Koeli’s spirits.
“I’m really not trying to impress these people, you know. If music weren’t so important to me I would seriously consider singing like a howler monkey on purpose, I really would. I just don’t understand what they want from me. I’m poor, dark, way too young to be getting married and clearly unwilling.”
“Maybe they want someone young to get a head start on the grandchildren,” Priya teased. “What about college, though?”
Koeli laughed derisively. “Yeah, they say that they’re willing to wait until after I take my graduating exams and that of course they’ll consider college, but I can tell that as soon as I sign the marriage certificate they’ll hand me the keys to the kitchen pantry and from then on my life will be measured in spices.”
Koeli ended up buying a stack of black and gold bangles. She spent the rest of the money on flaky meat pastries that she and Priya chewed with relish to try to enjoy the small things in life since the big things aren’t meant for them.
Here Take This
Tristan was having a cup of tea under a tree with Raju when he saw the thin boy running toward them. His rubber sandals made a slapping sound against the road. There was something singularly unpleasant in his usually ganja-placid face. The boy stopped under the tree and stood with his hands on his knees, breathing shallowly and with trouble. His throat made a noise like an old carburetor. Raju handed him his cup of tea to sip from and the boy drained it in one swig. He wiped his lips and looked at Tristan.
“Something’s happened at Presidency. There’s a riot about to start.” The boy looked down at his feet. “I thought you should know that your uncle might be in trouble.” The boy continued to stand there with his hands on his knees, ribs heaving visibly under his light shirt.
“What? Are you serious?” Tristan asked, getting up from the ground. The humidity of the day had made him lethargic and feel like syrup. He understood the boy’s words but not their meaning. “What started this?”
“Somebody threw a pipe bomb.”
The word “bomb” accelerated Tristan’s brain like a tape on fast forward and he found himself running toward Raju’s bike tied to the tea stand.
“I’m gonna borrow this, I’ll bring it back,” he yelled to his friend. The thin boy ran behind him, catching hold of his shirt.
“Wait,” he said. “If you want to be a real Naxal and do something important, today is probably your best bet. Take it and use it as you see fit. Say something real for once.” His small palm bared to reveal an even smaller blade, rusting quietly in the misty air. Tristan took it without thanking him and jumped onto the bike.
Pedaling madly, he almost missed the frantic shape of Koeli running in the opposite direction with her hair coming loose from her braid, forming a veil of curls around her dark face. She saw him and screamed “Tristan!” He stopped short and wondered why his sister had chosen this moment to address him by his real name. He took it as some sort of sign, signifying something.
“Did you hear?” Koeli gasped.
“Yeah, I’m going there right now. You better go home and tell Ma I’m at Raju’s or she’s going to lose it”
“Take me with you, please,” Koeli begged.
“Are you joking?” Tristan almost laughed out loud. “Why would I take you? It’s incredibly dangerous for you to be there right now.”
“And not for you?”
“Look, Koeli, I really don’t have time for this right now. Please, just be a good girl and tell Ma. You know how much she worries about the smallest things, I really don’t want to give her a goddamn heart attack. Please.”
Koeli stared at her brother. She did not say anything and began to run again.
“And tie up your hair!” Tristan yelled after her. “You look completely insane.”
Story of a Small Man
While a small but organized group of Naxals threw a pipe bomb from the roof of Presidency College into a gathering of policemen standing in the street, a sugarcane plantation worker in Uttar Pradesh dropped his machete, the handle slippery from orange-ish bright blood. He picked up the knife gingerly and re-gripped the handle. Gritting his teeth, the worker tried to ignore his throbbing hands and slashed at the tall stalks. He imagined little crystals of sugar falling like diamonds from each gash his machete made into the fibrous grass. He imagined the shoots bleeding sweet molasses as the blisters in his hands ripped open with every blow, twelve hundred blows per hour, one ton of sugarcane that he alone harvested every hour, eight tons of sugarcane every day, for barely enough money to buy his family rice and lentils.
The jaggery-brown worker tried to think of anything to make the pain go away. He thought about the banana tree next to his house that held a bunch of thick green bananas that would last the family about a month if used properly. When his stomach growled in protest he tried to think of a song with a rhythm he could hack to but could only think of a Bengali song he had heard when the traveling movie theater came to his village last spring.
Oh all the troubles that I’ve seen,
Oh my brothers.
Seems that everywhere I turn
There’s just so much to be learned
I can never seem to find a real answer.
Decent people live in harm and strife
The wicked is a king for all his life
The ones who reap the golden wheat
Never have enough to eat
Workers of the diamond mines
Poorer than the dirt.
Oh my brothers.
Oh all the troubles that I’ve seen.
The worker paused to blink the sweat from his eyes only to see the furious red sun roll off the edge of the earth so quickly that the evening seemed to descend instantaneously, enveloping the fields in a welcome cool. And the worker forgot about his bloody hands for that second, and was truly glad. Somewhere in Calcutta, a student got a boot to his mouth.
The Holy Fool Laughed
Koeli’s feet were running faster than they ever had before. Dodging traffic and animals and people on bicycles, she ran straight to Priya’s house and knocked on the door. Trying to keep her breathing normal, she brushed her hair out of her face and clenched and un-clenched her fists. No one came. She knocked again, more insistently this time. An elderly maid opened the door, hand on a really bent hip.
“Hi, hi, is there anyone home right now?” Anya asked.
The woman shook her head slowly and with a toothless grin said, “No, honey. Everyone is out. Was it something important?”
“Okay, well, Priya wanted me to get her bicycle for her so we could go to the park. She’s still at school, talking to a teacher,” Anya said, hoping the maid remembered her well enough to trust this not very well thought out lie.
“Oh?” The maid looked unsure. “Usually she has to get permission to go riding at the park from her father,” she said.
“Priya said he already gave her permission,” Anya said quickly. “At breakfast.”
Thinking how much trouble could two nice young girls really get into, the maid relented and showed Koeli where the bicycles were kept. Koeli tried not to show her impatience and thanked the old woman, who smiled and invoked the name of the goddess Durga for safety.
Koeli could hear the blood pumping through her ears as the bicycle clipped by building after building. Hot surges of adrenaline coursed through her body and her fingers throbbed with anticipation. She felt like she had one of those fevers where big things look like tiny things and the body feels distorted and like a weapon. This felt more like living than learning how to embroider petunias on a handkerchief in school did.
On the street, everything seemed normal. It was the afternoon which meant shopkeepers were napping outside their shops with dishtowels over their faces. Flies were buzzing around the heads of dogs hungrily tucking into lunch scraps on the ground. It was like that for the most part until she hit the College Street area. At first it seemed like there was no one there. She could hear voices yelling far away as if from a dream.
Koeli slowed down and rode past the coffeehouse when she saw a group of men running away from Presidency College, carrying someone between them. It was a boy bleeding from the chest. There were pieces of shrapnel embedded in his skin. He looked very young. Koeli and the men stared at each other as her bicycle went past them. Her eyes looked very much like tea-saucers.
Koeli nearly fell off her bicycle when the explosion went off that felt like it was right underneath her, vibrating the bones suspended in her blood and muscles. As she turned a corner, a mass of screams and a slowly revealing scene shattered whatever image Koeli might have had in her head of what a riot looks and sounds and smells and feels like.
The burning skeleton of an autobus was glowing like an effigy in the center of the road.
Acridity was everywhere in the air—burning rubber and skin.
Throngs of people were beating each other with so many fists and dull weapons.
They pulsated like a breathing organism, forward and backward.
Their cries and screams pulsated too, like someone twiddling a volume knob on a gramophone.
A cop in an olive beret seized a girl by the hair and hit her in the face with a wooden baton.
Her nose splintered and black blood trickled over her mouth, eliminating it.
She fell down very quickly.
People stood on their rooftops to gaze upon the street.
Street children stood on the sidewalk as blood ran over their feet.
A rickshaw puller was pulled onto the ground and beaten until he did not get up again.
The bodies of two cops were face down in the gutter, as if hiding their charred faces.
A stray dog was biting viciously at a flea on his rump when it was hit with a flying stone.
A young man got right up into a cop’s face and yelled into it: “Inquilab Zindabad!”
He was taken down. The revolution lived on.
A professor of political science was beaten to death with his own cane by a cop with red pointed teeth. In his last second, he thought of the word “carnival” and died.
The Holy Fool laughed. His eyes were focused now and he had found the answer to his unasked question.
Koeli saw all this like a film reel unwinding. It did not seem like reality. It seemed very much like reality had taken off for a couple hours and was vacationing in Goa, leaving some kind of weird simulation of reality that was getting it all wrong. She saw her brother Tristan run up to the cop with the red pointed teeth and get real close to him like he was giving him a hug. When he moved back, the cop fell forward and didn’t get up. She saw a moving thing hit the ground behind Tristan and she saw nothing but the ground when she opened her eyes. She saw her brother lying still on the ground among other still bodies and she saw herself get up and somehow drag his unconscious body toward the entrance of the college. She saw a nook in the arch of the gateway and she saw everything else happen as she and Tristan became a part of the wall, indistinguishable in the shadows.
Anya sat melting into the black leather couch in her living room, feeling the silvery effects of benzodiazepines in combination with the otherworldly aural effects of electronic music wash over her in the sneaking light of summer sunshine that was coming through the gap in the curtain. She was bleary eyed like a spooked rabbit, wishing for sleep to come already.
The last day of school and the first night of summer prompted a group of friends to pop three pills of supposedly excellent E that is like basically a Molly man, with just the right amount of meth to keep you going through the night which turned out to be about 64 percent badly cut methamphetamines with who knows what other kind of powdery neurotoxin that kept Anya staring at her bedroom ceiling for three nights in a row, and by the third night experiencing acute and terrifying auditory hallucinations brought on by sleep deprivation. She kept hearing a radio tuning in and out in her head and a voice that sounded suspiciously like her father’s talking incessantly and so loudly that it kept that most desired sleep far from her grasp. She couldn’t understand the words but they were words she tried desperately to find meaning in so her brain could at least get some satisfaction from doing all that work, but nothing was there to be found.
Wearing her mother’s maroon MIT sweatshirt, Anya huddled into herself. The air conditioner was on full blast, humming quietly and rhythmically under the electronic music like the subtlest backbeat. She thought the Valium would work more quickly. It just amplified her tiredness instead of curing it. How unreasonable that some idiots eat ecstasy like popcorn at a rave and three of those things are affecting me in such an extravagant way, she thought.
It wasn’t even worth it, really. On ecstasy Anya didn’t feel one with the world and her friends, she felt sweaty and clammy and overwhelmed. She didn’t feel sensual or sexual, she felt like a malfunctioning machine with shaky vision. Instead of ecstasy, she felt an enormous sadness, too enormous to contain in her body alone so she touched people to transfer some of it. She sometimes liked these feelings and encouraged them synthetically. It only depressed her a little bit when she realized that most of her friendships were really just chemical camaraderies. But she very much liked the idea of raves and feeling a comforting kind of discomfort. Otherwise the comforts of your great comfortable life could really drive you batshit crazy.
Anya’s father walked in through the kitchen after having gotten off early at work and looked at his daughter lying on the couch, staring into nothing. He perceived her slack expression as an indication that she was entranced by the music that he never learned to understand.
“I don’t understand how you listen to this kind of music to relax,” he said to her in Russian. Anya’s parents both spoke to her in their own respective languages in order to inculcate her with the knowledge since childhood. But she, in a small rebellion, always responded to them in English and so had a useless understanding of both Russian and Bengali without the ability to communicate in either.
Anya mumbled in return, waving away her father’s comment with something like, go away you old fogey and leave me in peace.
“I mean, music up until the 70’s stood for something,” he continued. “People fought for things they believed in with music. What does this kind of music fight for?”
Anya sat up a little to imitate interest. “Sorry, Dad. Your generation squeezed out all the vehemence that was left in the 20th century. You guys had communism and all that. We have no one to fight against but ourselves. And aren’t you glad the new millennium is starting in relative peace?” She knew that wasn’t right but was too tired to correct herself.
“Say what you want about it, but you know I’m right,” he said as he sat down on the couch next to her and stretched his legs. He turned on the TV to CNN as Anya dragged herself off the couch and started trudging toward her own room. The last thing she remembered was hearing Harmeet Shah Singh reporting from New Delhi that early in the morning of April 6th 2010, dozens of police were killed in a Maoist ambush in eastern India. Her father turned up the volume as the Valium overtook Anya’s brain and she crawled under her thick feather comforter. She dreamt of a million things and remembered not one when she awoke.
The Ways in Which Love Manifests
Tristan awoke feeling like his face was on fire. He heard Koeli’s shallow breaths and saw nothing in the darkness but he could feel his entire body aching and stinging and crying out in the way bodies do. His jaw felt knocked out. His clothes were sticking uncomfortably to his body and when he tried to peel them off, searing pain shot through his skin. But worst of all was the strange feeling that everything had gotten a lot quieter.
It was nighttime when Koeli felt safe enough to support Tristan’s lacerated body into a rickshaw. The lower half of his face was bloodied from a huge gash above his lip. He looked as if he had fallen face first into a jar of tomato chutney. Koeli thought about the scar that would form there and with some satisfaction, how it would interrupt symmetrical moustache growth. Tristan was very quiet, gazing at the manure patties lining the walls of the crumbling city, steaming of nitrogen and heat. He was having trouble piecing together the chain of events that got him to the point he was at now. There was a loud ringing tone in his ear that made the outside world noises seem submerged in water.
Ten minutes later, Tristan handed the rickshaw puller a ten-rupee note that was incredibly somehow still in his pocket. Koeli walked in through the front door of her house with half of Tristan’s body draped over her shoulders. Their mother was sitting in the kitchen doorway. Looking up, she rushed at them, screaming incoherently. She was also crying. She hugged each of her children so tightly that Tristan felt his back crack. She then stepped back and slapped Koeli across the face. It was such an abrupt action that everyone stifled a laughter. Koeli’s father limped out into the sitting room, heaved an almost inaudible sigh, sank onto a cushion and listened to his children tell him that his uncle was dead.
That night by the steady flame of a red candle Koeli and her mother stitched up Tristan’s wound. Koeli’s mother took a sewing needle, held it in the flame and watched it turn black. She then threaded it with black thread and as Koeli held up the candle to Tristan’s face, pierced the skin around the gash over and over again, pulling the thread in a zigzag pattern. Tristan’s eyes watered as he tried not to wince, each pull of the needle feeling like parts of him, thin clear threads of him were being tugged out. He had several pieces of shrapnel stuck in his back but they were surface injuries, nothing too deep. The cuts bled through his clothes so Koeli tore up an old sari of their mother’s into long soft strips and bandaged Tristan’s torso. When they had finished, Tristan looked like a mix between a mummy and Frankenstein’s monster and felt about as functional as them too. He did not tell anyone that the world was becoming more and more frighteningly silent.
Anya’s mother and father sat at the kitchen table gripping their coffee mugs with both hands. They had things on their mind. Their daughter sat picking at a strawberry Pop-Tart.
“Anya,” said her mother, taking off her reading glasses as she clicked her laptop shut. “We need to have this conversation again, I think. You still haven’t told us where you’re planning on applying. How were your grades this semester?”
“Fine,” she said, not looking up. “I was thinking art school, like maybe RISD or something.”
“Anya,” said her father. “Have you done any research on art schools? RISD is incredibly difficult to get into. Not to mention expensive. Not to mention somewhat useless unless you know exactly what you’re doing.”
“Um, dad, you were a puppeteer for half your life.”
“Lucky for me then that those crazy Soviets paid for my education. Who’s going to pay for yours?” Seeing the deflated look on his daughter’s face, Anya’s father added hastily, “I mean we’re certainly going to do all we can, but I suggest looking into scholarships.”
Anya’s mother did not want to crush her daughter’s barely formed sense of ambition. “Look, why don’t you start creating a portfolio and we can go talk to someone about where to go from there. You haven’t showed us any of work recently. You have been painting, right?”
Anya lied and said yeah. She hadn’t painted in several months. She had been turning in half-assed proposals for really big installation pieces in art class. Her high-school art teacher, also the wrestling and football coach for whom druggie teenage painters were less interesting than his cauliflower-eared athletes who gave their bodies and minds so completely (literally, so much so that half the wrestling team tested statistically-significantly worse in sophisticated cognitive tasks) to their sports, handed out A’s in art class like who cares about this shit. Anya had a feeling that he made assignments based on what he thought would produce the most amusing results. One time he pulled her outside of class and said, “You know, Anya, when I said a self-portrait made out of materials that reflect your personality, I was thinking something actually do-able. And frankly, as far as I’ve been your art teacher for the last two and a half years, I’m not sure whether your personality really evokes uranium-235 for me. I think you might be overshooting your volatility.” The conversation, no, monologue continued with phrases like “applying yourself” and “wasted ability if not talent” and “ride you like a horse [to get you to do anything]”.
So Anya lied to her parents and said yeah. She then hopped into a friend’s jeep and felt the wind whip her hair as she tried to keep a cigarette lit. She felt good. Later, she took bong hits and giggled about the word “awesome”, because when you say something is awesome you’re really just saying “awe, so me!” She then watched an award winning neo-realist movie about the life of a young man struggling to find a job and starting a tentative family with a girl whom he falls in love with but she dies in childbirth. Anya wanted to cry during the movie, unsure about why she felt suddenly so emotional. Neo-realism usually did nothing for her.
The Story of a Small Village
While several incredibly high American teenagers watched a neo-realist movie set in a village in Bengal, another village in Orissa was being plowed over so the TATA Corporation could enact a factory to meet the growing international demand for nano-cars. A group of villagers protested, and loudly, that they would lose their homes and livelihoods. The TATA Corporation generously gave each family twelve hundred rupees, or thirty dollars, to relinquish their land and all rights to it and offered a cramped two-story rehabilitation building as an alternative dwelling. When the villagers refused to leave, TATA hired a band of goons to kick down the protestor’s doors, drag their wives and daughters into the street, strip them naked, and chop their breasts off. A journalist covering the story was found strung up on a nearby tree. TATA responded that these peasants were Naxal sympathizers, possibly informants, definitely criminals.
Yellowing the Skin
Koeli’s wedding date was set in a hurry. The groom’s family paid the priest a little bit extra to find an auspicious date in the next couple of months. Who knew what the city would become by the end of the year and it’s better to take what you can when you can take it. Koeli’s eyes had widened when they told her. All she could really hear was the chanting from the street as a group of men and her father and brother carried a stretcher with a professor’s corpse through the streets, draped in garlands of jasmine and marigold, adorned with holy basil leaves. And as students shouted their last goodbyes, others spoke quietly of a dying movement.
Koeli went to the banks of the Ganges with her family, staying a respectable distance away from the body with the other women. She watched her brother circle the body and sprinkle water and clarified butter on it. She saw him lower his torch to the body’s face and watched how the butter burst into flames like startling flowers blooming, and the way her father’s face bent into his chest, heaving. For the next two hours Koeli stood at the glowing pyre, smelling the urgent, feverish, disturbing scent of a human on fire. She did not cry and neither did Tristan who was just happy to hear the sound of a fire crackling near his ears.
A month later and the day before the wedding, the little house was filled with girls fluttering in their pink and green chiffon saris. In the middle was Koeli, face and neck plastered with turmeric paste, hands decorated in henna, sitting like an immobile goose while people whirled around her in bursts of infectious giggles. Her cousins and friends took turns feeding her small hard cakes and laughingly rubbing them on her nose and cheeks. Koeli in her red gingham sari felt like she was being basted for dinner but couldn’t help feeling a little giddy about being the center of so many things. When her future mother-in-law blessed her hair with grains of wheat and called her “daughter” though suddenly Koeli’s stomach felt hollow and tight.
While everybody sat down in long lines along the wall and Koeli’s beaming mother heaped mounds of rice and fish onto their banana leaf plates, Koeli managed to sneak into the bathroom to wash the turmeric off her face. As she scrubbed her cheeks vigorously, Priya walked into the bathroom carrying a pot of cold cream.
“You’re going to need this,” she said. “That stuff can stain your skin yellow if you leave it on for too long.”
“Thanks,” Koeli said and began applying the oily white cream all over her face. Her skin felt hot. She avoided Priya’s gaze.
“How do you feel?” Priya asked gently. She, for her part, felt rather pretty in a new lavender sari embroidered in gold threads and gold bangles glimmering on her dimpled wrists.
“I feel fine,” Koeli said. “It’s really great to see my cousins again—the little girls are so tall, it’s almost embarrassing.” She started to talk about how delicious the food looked when Priya cut her short.
“Come on, you know what I mean. How do you feel about this whole thing happening so quickly?”
Koeli looked up at her friend in what she hoped was a steady gaze and tried not to let her lower lip tremble. She smiled.
“Don’t worry, I really do feel fine. And anyway, what choice do I have now? My parents are already spending more than they can to put together this wedding, and I’m not going to complain about anything today. It would completely break their hearts.”
“But you have a choice! You can stop this from happening to you if you wanted to,” Priya pleaded.
Koeli laughed and said, “No, I can’t. We don’t have the money for me to go to college, so what’s the point? It’s either this now or the same thing later. But Priya,” she said seriously, “you can stop this from happening to you and I really hope you do.” She wiped the last of the cream and turmeric off her face with a rag and looked at her friend.
Priya knew that it was true and her eyes watered. She sniffed and hugged Koeli and they stood there for a while, tears dropping from their eyes and onto the bathroom floor.
Rising Up Into the Air
Anya’s mother moved to the states when MIT accepted her graduate application. She was glad to get away from Calcutta and the horrible memories of attending mass funerals of so many friends who had never gotten to step outside the confines of their city. She was getting tired of always watching herself in public, never being able to walk by herself, always feeling targeted. The man from Russia had also started to shift the tectonic plates of her ideologies, telling her stories of Soviet life and the heavy handedness that could crush any sense of originality.
“You cannot imagine,” he would say, “what it is like to live like that. And China, it is worse,” pronouncing it “vorse.” And she would outwardly scoff and argue, but inwardly wonder if he wouldn’t like to leave with her too.
And so they did. Her parents were none too happy but turning down a degree from MIT seemed foolish even to them. Anya’s mother was escorted to the airport by her entire family, even her stooped over grandmother with arthritis, and while her mother whispered in her ear warnings about the demonic American sluttiness, her father paced around the airport gulping down tears at losing his only daughter to a country across the world. The Russian man stood nearby with his suitcases, looking at the scene out of the corner of his eyes, eating a chocolate bar, pretending not only to not know Anya’s mother but also to not be falling in love with her. When the plane took off, the Russian man and Anya’s mother held hands and this lovely feeling of freedom and weightlessness spread throughout their body and it had nothing to do with being lifted into the air.
Their wedding was huge and sparkly and took them both back to Calcutta in a time of peace. Anya’s mother was secretly already pregnant and glowing profusely in the heat as her mother applied sandalwood dots on her face and lined her feet in red dye. She was weighed down by pounds of gold on her neck and arms. The maids were drawing elaborate mandala designs in the doorway with rice-paste and Anya’s soon-to-be-father was being fitted in a long silk kurta and a tall carved hat made of fragile milky-white cork. They saw each other from different doorways and burst into laughter. Someone blew a pink conch shell and somebody else rolled their tongue in ecstatic ululation.
Anya’s mother spent the days after her wedding perusing Calcutta’s famous book fair at the Maidan, a huge urban park with sprawling greenery and scattered remnants of Victorian legacy. She walked hand in hand with her new husband, ate cotton candy and spicy fish cutlets, and felt the baby kick like the soccer players who practiced at the Maidan every Saturday morning. She hoped her daughter would turn out to be someone forward and self-assured, that she would love books and soccer, and that she would learn how to break out of her proverbial Calcutta. She went to an outdoor concert where the singer sang a song he wrote for his young daughter:
Whenever you smile the sun is embarrassed
It wants to put its light-tiara on you instead
Whenever you clap your hands, Zakir Hussain
Quits playing tabla and raises doves instead
When Anya was thirteen, she dyed her waist-length hair purple. Anya’s mother freaked out and her father, after he had stopped laughing, asked her what she was thinking. Anya’s mother, who was rather attached to her daughter’s shining black hair, tearfully asked Anya what exactly it was that she was rebelling against. She felt a mixture of sadness and pride for her daughter having the good sense to reply that there was nothing to rebel against and that she was merely going through the motions of rebellion.
Koeli was not ready for the complicated politics of married life. At first she was bowled over by the sight of her husband’s family home. It was two stories tall, freshly painted in bright white paint and covered in garlands in anticipation of the newlywed’s arrival. A receiving party busily escorted the two kids into the house, making sure Koeli’s first step was into a bowl filled with milk and red dye, and she was amused to leave little pink footsteps all over the foyer. As her mother-in-law explained to her, she was now in charge of giving orders to three maids and a cook, all of whom were much older than Koeli. Her mother-in-law also made it clear that Koeli was by no means at the top of the pecking order, and that the matriarch’s word was the very last word. Koeli looked down and nodded.
Sex was a dumbfounding experience. Koeli remembered giggling with Priya about some gorgeous guy or another and feeling rustled when she read love poems in the library. But here was an act that aroused feelings in her, certainly, but she was unsure whether these feelings are the same ones mentioned in poems and songs. This is what Krishna pined for when Radha was away? This frankly painful and embarrassing act committed by practical strangers wore away at Koeli’s resolve to be a technically good wife. She thought maybe if she and her husband were friends at least, if not lovers, then sex wouldn’t be such a chore. Koeli tried to get him to talk to her about his interests but it turned out that he was only interested in technology. As hard as she tried to concentrate whenever he enthusiastically explained how and why an electrical current was magical, she knew she looked bored. He knew it too and they stopped trying to pretend altogether that they cared about each other.
“What do you think about the Naxals?” she had asked once.
He shrugged without looking up from his food. “Nothing,” he said. “They are terrorists. These lentils need more salt.”
Koeli smiled and wondered what he would say if she told him anything about her life before him.
Sometimes after an afternoon nap, her mother-in-law, her sister-in-law and she sat on the sweeping veranda and looked out into the peaceful street. She sang an evening raga while the other women combed their hair with coconut oil. The sky was always different depending on the time of year. During the summer, it was filled with clouds of every color and shape and the air was hot. Monsoons made the sky black and magnificent and smelling of earth. Koeli loved this time of day and made it her own, trying to forget about every banal thing that otherwise filled up her days. The maids listened to her while they cleaned the floors with yellow acid-water and rags, trying to forget about the noxious fumes that filled up their lungs.
Mother-in-laws have their own strange codes of conduct. They are like cruel coaches, training their young protégés to be effective future mother-in-laws themselves. Koeli’s mother-in-law, while not abusive, was adept at the art of the backhanded compliment. She often commented on Koeli’s beautiful singing voice and added that it very nicely drew attention away from her ugly nose. Koeli, who was fond of her nose, took it to heart and spent an entire day hating her husband’s mother and thought seriously about running away.
But she never did. The powers of mother-in-laws are sharp enough to break the spirits of young girls with desires. And once broken, those spirits are nearly impossible to fix even when there are continents between them.
If You Know What I Mean
Anya walked down a street in downtown San Jose passing chain link fence after chain link fence and feeling really paranoid that the yellow eyes of pit bulls were watching her walk around. Her nylon backpack felt comforting and heavy against her back and she slouched a little and let her growing hair fall over one eye. She was out to make art. Looking at the beautiful black girls and chola girls sitting on porches and hanging out, smoking cigarettes, Anya thought she saw a sense of purpose behind their eyes, under their purple tattooed eyebrows, in their huge glossy purple mouths, behind their oversize sweatshirts. More purpose than the waifish zombie-eyed girls who sold chiffon things in boutiques or who politely clicked their kitten heels through galleries that were ninety percent empty space anyway.
A tree with roots that cracked the cement around it was on the sidewalk in front of Anya. She sat against it with her feet over the curb, feeling small and significant at once. Anya drew a drawing. It was of a girl in a forest who was not lost. She had large concerned eyes. In superfine pencil she drew in every single hair on the forest girl’s head and every single hair in her eyebrows and lashes. This made the girl seem lushly hairy and beautiful. Anya took out a red felt-tip pen and wrote NIRVANA on the girl’s shirt. She then flipped the drawing over and wrote in pencil, “If you know what I mean, send something back.” Then she wrote her address but not her name and stuck the drawing in the first mailbox she found. Anya waited for exactly one month to feel despair that she didn’t get a reply.
When Anya returned home, she saw her mother sitting in the living room with her eyes closed and her glasses slipping off her face. An old Hindi song was playing softly.
My shoes are from Japan
My pants are from England
The red hat on my head is Russian
But my soul is forever Indian.
The indifferent light of a California morning striped the floor of Koeli’s bedroom. She lay in bed with the covers tangled around her feet, her hands clasped at her belly, staring at the white ceiling. The baby slept next to her, thumb curled into a perfect rose mouth. No noises anywhere, she thought. The ceiling was hard and drippy and ugly. Everything was white and off-white and hideous and Koeli was so tired of the baby crying all night and her husband’s light snoring that she found the quiet white ugliness almost beautiful.
Koeli blinked and carefully got out of bed, making sure not to wake the baby. It was fast asleep. She shuffled through the carpet into the living room where the sun had taken over. It was so bright. She squinted and wrapped the old bathrobe around herself tighter. She still felt small, even more so in a large country with largeness all around her. But her body had started to accumulate flesh, as all bodies do, and she felt a sense of gravity about herself that she had never felt before. Pulling out a Tupperware of yesterday’s fish curry from the fridge, Koeli thought about what she would do that day.
A blankness settled over her. Koeli ticked off the hours until her husband would come home from work. She had a student coming later in the day for singing lessons and after that she would start the rice-cooker and soak some lentils but that still left around five hours to do nothing. She couldn’t play music or it would wake the baby and she couldn’t leave it to go for a walk. Her modest circle of Bengali friends she really only saw during festivals and their children’s birthdays and even after five years of having lived in the states she was still afraid of driving on the highway.
How slow the days feel without the barked orders of a mother-in-law or the heat of a fire stove in your face all day. She should be happy for the baby, Koeli thought. Adoption agencies rarely cooperate so quickly so she should be happy but Koeli thought she never wanted a child in the first place. She had felt some guilt for her husband’s impotence, yes, and gave in to adoption when it became painfully clear that they would not conceive. But she never saw herself as a mother. Koeli stuck the fish in the microwave.
Chewing the spicy mustardy fish with relish, Koeli looked out the window into the street. People and cars moved by but made no sound through the walls. In a couple of hours school will let out and there will be a stampede of uniformed children running through these streets of downtown, pushing each other and starting fights and putting their arms around each other’s necks. That’s how Koeli liked children best: from afar.
Right as she extracted a tiny fishbone from her mouth, Koeli noticed a young girl outside place something in her mailbox, glance toward the house, and walk away. Wondering what kind of service the girl could be advertising, Koeli put on her slippers and walked to the mailbox. In it, she found a letter from Tristan and a very odd drawing of a girl in a forest. Her shirt said NIRVANA. Koeli flipped the drawing over and saw written, “If you know what I mean, send something back.” She stared at the scrawled handwriting and wondered if it was a joke. Koeli didn’t know what it meant.
Sitting on the uncomfortably cold leather sofa that her husband picked out, Koeli opened Tristan’s letter and tossed the drawing on the end-table. She turned the baby-monitor on and heard nothing but peaceful baby breathing. She curled her feet underneath her thighs and started scanning the letter. By the end she was massaging her temple. Her mother had passed away.
There she was back at the Ganges. It was much dirtier than Koeli remembered. The water was gray and smelled horrible. There she was standing again in a cloud of ashes, the remains of her mother’s cancerous body charring in the fire, with no one around to see it burn away. Koeli’s father was too weak to make it to the banks and Tristan was working in the United Arab Emirates as an oil worker. The money he sent to his parents kept them alive but those lives were getting smaller and smaller. He had abandoned his dissent in order to keep people alive. Koeli felt alone standing there, saying goodbye to someone who hadn’t really been alive in years. There she was again not crying.
She pulled out the drawing of the girl in a forest. Koeli kept the picture in her bag almost always. She often pulled it out and tried to understand it in context of the situation she was in. She still didn’t know what it meant. The picture was smudged and the same color as the smoke, the Ganges. She put it back in her bag and left.
Koeli hailed a taxi. She closed her eyes as it rushed down Park Street. It wound its way through crowded New Market, suddenly slowed and eventually stopped.
“Sorry madam,” the taxi driver said. “There is a strike happening. Traffic is very bad.”
Koeli hadn’t noticed the screaming picketers. She was swimming in her own loss. She rolled down the windows of the taxi and allowed their anger to flow through the cab. The young men were shirtless, their hollow chests glittering with sweat. Their voices were breaking as they yelled. One of them pounded on the hood of the taxi as he passed.
“Who is striking, do you know?”
The taxi driver laughed and said, “Who knows madam? There are a million strikes every day. Nobody is happy with anything in this city.”
Koeli watched a girl in the protest. Her voice was hoarse and she carried a banner defaming the TATA corporation. She was short and thin and wore huge glasses. Behind the lenses, Koeli thought she saw eyes that she recognized. Koeli pulled out the drawing and held it up to the window, lining up the forest girl’s face to that of the picketer.
“Thank you for the ride, brother,” Koeli said and hastily dropped some bills into the front seat. She opened the door into the strike and was engulfed in a sea of bodies.
“INQUILAB,” she yelled alongside the girl with the banner.
“ZINDABAD,” the crowd replied.