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“Churchgate ki …” I look at the map on the wall. The last stop.
“… ek, uh, ticket …”
“You can speak English.”
“So? Speak it.”
“I need a ticket to Churchgate.”
“Please. No. Round trip. No, wait …”
“You know, this queue is for second class, miss.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Rupees twenty-five less.”
I make my way down the dingy platform to the train. On the side of the first car is painted the face of a woman with a green dupatta on her head, her forehead marked with a dot of vermillion. The ladies’ car. I heave myself up into it and stand in the doorway. I know better than to sit down. Other women, those used to riding, will sit. They even have the sense of peace enough to buy oranges and chintzy earrings from the girls who miraculously work their way through the crowd with baskets on their heads as the train lurches southward. At some stops, the tan-uniformed police peek in. The girls slip out the side doors, then. Easy to do, since they never close.
Soon I will have to work my way through the bodies—streams of them shove on and off at every stop in a constant, almost equal replacement of flesh—to the opposite side of the car, where Churchgate lets off. It’s only seven feet away, but I cannot imagine moving now. Not with all the bodies in sweat-damp saris carrying armloads of plastic shopping bags full of oily, newspaper-wrapped fried goods. Across from me, a barefoot woman crouches against a wall, eating rice from a metal tin with her fingers. She stares at me as she eats. She’s not the only one. My body is being scanned by any number of pairs of eyes right now.
I am wearing the clothes I fled in: violet kameez thrown over a black skirt I bought before leaving New York, sandals. Appraisal of skirt length: bad. Appropriate covering of shoulders and chest: satisfactory, since gazes do not linger here. It’s my face these women are interested in. My eyes, mostly. My lighter skin. My hair: the pin-straight, milk chocolate-brown of it. In my ears are the moonstone earrings Mustafa gave me the night of the last full moon. He said they were the blue of my eyes. Their delicate drops dangle and tap my jawbone with each train jolt. I imagine they are the tender tips of Mustafa’s fingers.
“From behind you look Indian.” I stirred my coffee with a smirk. “If I had a rupee for every man who told me that,” I teased Mustafa, “I’d have… almost a buck.”
“That’s a lot of men.”
“I haven’t, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“I’m not.” Mustafa regarded me. “It’s your eyes that give you away.”
“My mother was Russian,” I explained. “Russian Jew.” I checked him. “Which makes me Jewish. Ethnically, anyway. It’s a matrilineal thing.”
Mustafa put his eyes on me, then gave them back to his coffee. He did not bother asking about my father.
“Are you a practicing Muslim?”
“I like to think I’m pretty good at it by now.”
I took a hot mouthful of milky coffee and swallowed. “What else are you good at?”
The sun shone through the window slats of his cement-walled house in the hills of Bandra. Mustafa ordered his mother to make us chai, then turned to me and whispered, “The kitchen’s downstairs. But we’ll still have to be quiet. And quick.”
When he first shut his bedroom door, his mother gave a disapproving look toward me. Mustafa had lit a Gold Flake Light and left it burning in an ashtray on his computer desk. He told his mother it was mine. Once the door was closed, he explained he did not, as a Muslim, smoke.
“But I keep a pack here for when I want privacy.”
Mustafa smiled, crushed the cigarette out, and came to me.
My father stood at the entrance of my bedroom, watching me pack. He was beaming. Happier than I was, considering I was only taking this trip to please him. He leaned a casual palm on my doorframe like some lazy cowboy. I knew, though, he was working hard to remain upright. Once he’d had enough of this spectacle, he would go back to the bed I’d set up for him in the living room to watch ITV cricket scores. It was Friday. I would reheat the chicken jalfrezi I made the night before. The one that was not as spicy as my mother’s.
Baapa’s face told me of this discrepancy. A mournful hitching of the corner of his lips after the first bite. The dish needed three green chilies, but I used bell pepper instead. Between the spice and his chemo, he suffered terrible heartburn. I’d had to make his life milder.
Growing up, Friday was Mom’s night. Shabbat. She laid the dinner table with white linens and crystal, covered her head and cupped the light of the white taper candles to her eyes, singing in a language more foreign-sounding to me than the Hindi she and Baapa spoke. Mom impishly foisted kasha kugel or pot roast with raisins on my father. He’d swallow it down with that same hitched scowl until Mom gave a laugh and squeezed his arm.
“You don’t have to eat it, Nayeem. I can fix you something. Thoda jalfrezi?”
My father always protested, gagged down the thick, salt-starchy food with which my mother’s ancestors had packed their nomadic bodies. He endured her Friday nights for my ethnic education. They met in Bombay in the ’60s. My mother was a peacenik and my father an activist academic. What better message could they send than their union of love? Still, it was hard for her, living as the white wife of an Indian man. People called her gori, white woman, as though it was her name. Once, she came home from shopping in silence, with a bruised cheek. She was carrying me inside her. My father, in turn, carried us along with his irreparable disillusionment to the States.
I took a leave of absence from college after Mom fell ill and was hospitalized. Friday meals returned to his people, at least as far as I was able to render them. That first Friday, I spent all afternoon stewing a penitent pot of jalfrezi, as hot as I could get it.
“Every day I pray,” Baapa said quietly before the first forkful reached his lips, “that Allah will take the cancer from your mother and put it in me.”
All the solid green marble table tops at Café Metro held the same items: a ceramic cup of sugar and saccharine packets, an ashtray, and a wooden caddy for the dimpled yellow wax paper napkins emblazoned with the restaurant’s name in bright red. I had come here every morning for coffee since arriving, mainly because it was a) 100 yards from the hotel and b) 100 degrees out by noon. As an adult woman I could not get away with the sleeveless, MTV fashion frivolities the Indian girls wore here. I had to stay covered, and it was too hot to sweat my way down to Colaba or the Fort Area to sit in air-conditioned chain cafés like Barista.
Coffee was all I ordered here, although I often eyed the patrons’ iced teas. Drinking the water would be a tragedy. Especially in its deceptive iced form. I even used bottled Bisleri to brush my teeth. And although the younger crowd greatly enjoyed the hookahs that left the air heavy with fruity-flavored smoke, I never indulged.
This Tuesday was more packed with kids than usual, I noted. Puffing away and giggling. The boys sat too close to the girls on the pillowed benches, the girls marked space for themselves by leaning forward and taking spoonfuls of the brownie ice cream sundaes the boys kept ordering to keep them sitting there.
I opened my complimentary hotel copy of The Times of India and looked up as a wave of girlish giggling overtook the table opposite me. I hadn’t seen him before. His back was to me, but I could see he was tall and athletically built, with longish waves of dark hair. He wore a saffron-colored kurta over jeans. He shook a young man’s hand and said something about ringing him later “on the cell.” Then he turned, still smiling from his good-bye business. Never in my ten days here had I seen such eyes on an Indian man. Large and round, the color of caramel sweets.
I opened my mouth. Shut it again. He’d looked away but now flitted his glance back to me. His smile shifted to something else. More exclusive. I bit my lip and forced myself to return to the news of the establishment of the first all-female political party in Indian history. I read a few lines as he headed to the back of the restaurant.
Suddenly, I had to pee like nobody’s business.
When I brushed aside the wooden beads, he was there. His head in the sink, letting the cool water stream over his face and hair. When he saw me, he lifted the dripping curls from his face.
“Your …” he stopped and started again, more carefully. “You have really pretty eyes.”
“Thank you,” I said, then added quietly, as I slipped into a stall behind him, “So do you.”
I lingered in the toilet, singing a little, trying to keep myself from laughing out loud. Someone entered the neighboring stall. By the time I finished I was sure I was alone, but as I opened the door, the young man stepped out of the stall next to me.
We stood beside each other in silence and washed our hands.
“Are you American?” he asked, finally.
“Canadian,” I lied. I don’t know why. Perhaps a sudden desire to be someone I wasn’t: someone who would flirt openly with a beautiful stranger in Bombay, a place where this sort of thing is frowned upon. Besides, Americans already had a bad rep.
“I’m Mustafa,” he said, putting out a towel-dried hand.
“Hannah,” I said. My mother’s name.
“I see you in here all the time,” said Mustafa. “I mean, I’m not here a lot. I’m busy with grad school. International business.” He kept his eyes on mine as he spoke. “But it seems like every time I’m here, so are you.”
“Must mean something,” I said.
Mustafa smiled at me. I smiled back up at him. My hands began to shake. I clutched them to me, mumbled something about having to get to the cybercafé to do some business. We agreed to meet the next day for coffee.
Tonight my father took no dinner, barely allowed the plate of mashed, soft-boiled egg to sit by him on the coffee table. “Just in case you get hungry,” I’d offered.
He was still smiling when he asked me to sit next to him on the bed. He switched the sound off the television, which aired a brightly-dressed Indian couple singing and dancing teasingly around a tree.
“Beti,” he said taking my hand. “When you arrive in Mumbai, I want you to do something for me.”
“Live,” he said. “Learn as much as you can. Everything I didn’t teach you.” He contemplated the plate of eggs, their yolky edges already going cold and dark. “Everything I should have.”
I brought his hand to my cheek. “That’s a lot to do in two weeks. You can fill me in when I get home.”
The airport car service arrived at six the next morning. As my father slept, I cleared the untouched plate of eggs and replaced them with two bananas and a box of sodium-free Saltines. I left the bottle of morphine by the food, highlighted the instructions for dosage based on level of pain. The contact numbers for all his doctors had been preprogrammed into the phone, which was cradled and freshly-charged, at his hand’s reach. I kissed my father’s cool, damp forehead. Then I left.
Mustafa’s mother had gone shopping with a neighbor; we had hours. I lay curled in his arms. “How old are you?”
“Twenty-nine. It’s scary.”
I smiled. “Don’t worry. Once you hit thirty, everything will be great.”
“It will be,” he said. “I’m getting married.”
“Oh?” I snuggled closer. “Who’s the lucky woman?”
“I’ve never met her. My parents know her parents,” Mustafa said lazily into my hair. “That’s how it goes.”
I spoke too quickly and brightly, to cover my shock. “What’s she like?”
“No idea.” Mustafa yawned.
I spun around and sat up. “Doesn’t that bother you?”
“Apparently not as much as it bothers you.” He laughed a little. “All I know is she’s in the States now, but after the wedding she’ll move here.”
“To this house?”
“To this room.”
I eased myself back down and tried not to think of how casually he told me all this. I wondered how many other Gold Flakes had been burned between my visits. There was a distant taste of acid in my throat.
“Does she smoke?”
“She won’t have to.”
The hotel manager ran behind the counter as my lift door clacked open. He often did this—a sign of diligence—racing to get the nice American lady her room key. But now he handed me a white envelope along with the key. I took it to my room and punched on the air conditioner. The letter was post-marked the day I left New York. It was typed, but for my father’s signature at the bottom.
He was sorry, he’d written, that I had to find out this way. He wanted me to know he did not intend to leave me akeli, but he took great happiness in knowing that I was now where he wished he could be, and that one day I would be where he has now gone …
I sat on the bed and looked around for something. The joke, maybe.
Because I have decided to end this pain on my own, there will be no insurance money coming to you. Therefore, I have given my savings to old family friends of your mother’s and mine. They have a lovely house in Bandra. There is also a son who is your age. I can hear you now, beti, your protestations that you are your own woman and do not need a husband. You should know your mother said the same when I met her! I ask only that you meet this young man. If you do not like him, you are not obligated …
I scooped up a handful of bedcovers and squeezed hard. My father assured me that I would be provided for regardless of my decision about marrying the young man.
His name, my father wrote, is Mustafa.
At Dadar, an old woman is helped onto the train by a station attendant. She’s in a faded, flower-print sari, its ragged edges grubby with street soot. This old woman is screeching in rapid, rasping Hindi. I catch only one word, which she repeats several times: Churchgate. Perhaps she wants everyone to know, so she doesn’t get trampled or left on the train when it pulls in. She wedges her tiny body next to me, reaching my shoulder, if that.
“Beti, beti,” she says, tugging at my sleeve.
I bend down and she offers me a string of words I cannot understand. I smile dumbly and tell her I speak English.
“Angrezi,” she says and smiles.
I nod. “Haan.”
Other women have witnessed this exchange and bite back laughter. “Hindi nahin?” asks one.
A young woman to my right adjusts the dupatta over her shoulder which has blown free from the train breeze. “She wants to know if you speak Hindi.”
“Sirf thoda,” I manage. “Only a little. Badly.”
She relays this to the others. The women laugh. One of them leans far out the door with her fist in the air and yells in jubilant English, “Bombay is the best!” Her traveling mates give a cheer and look at me to concur. I smile and nod vigorously.
The old woman taps me again. I bend down to her. “Angrezi,” she says, brightly, poking my arm.
The women who had been sneaking stares earlier now look at me without shame, all of us laughing and smiling. I feel calmer somehow, hot and horrible as it is. Just the smell of women is an unexpected comfort.
The old woman tugs at me. “I love you,” she says. She is proud of herself; this appears to be the only English phrase she knows.
“Aur … tumse pyaar hai,” I stutter.
The other women around us clap their approval. Someone asks my translator where my family is.
“I’m alone,” I tell her. She nods, tells the others, and returns her gaze to the passing shadows of palm trees and wind-worn shacks we clatter by. Talking stops; furtive glances resume, tinged with fading smiles.
Mumbai Central brings a new wave of bodies. Shoved in front of the old woman, I place my hands on the wall and make a protective shell around her. It’s too hot to breathe. I succumb to the pressing and resting against me as we travel on. Someone’s crackled gray hair scratches my forearm; ample breasts press my bicep. At Churchgate, I help the old woman onto the platform. She scuttles away without looking back.
“This is the last stop,” the English-speaking woman tells me as she steps down. “It’ll only go back.”
I nod. I don’t know when I will get off this train. I know I can’t go home. I am already there.
Screenwriter and novelist Rachel Astarte Piccione lives in New York City. She was also the 1996 Poet Laureate of Bucks County, Pa.
Katha 2004 Results
First Prize:(cash award $500)
The Troubles of Taqlif Hussain
by AMIT MAJMUDAR, North Canton, OH
Second Prize:(cash award $300)
by RACHEL ASTARTE PICCIONE, New York, NY
Third Prize:(cash award $100)
by PRASENJIT GUPTA, Iowa City, IA
For My Baby Who Will Walk in Another Country
by GEMINI WAHHAJ, Houston, TX
Instances of Disorder
by CHITRA PARAYATH, Lexington, MA