On the first of January 2016, our girls party drove up to the Gateway of India and entered the heritage Taj hotel for a quick immersion in the grandeur of a bygone era.
“Let’s do high tea, it’s tradition!” I told my daughter and niece.
We sprinted through the lush corridors of the hotel and floated up the cascading carpeted staircase. We caught a glimpse of ourselves in the long mirrors. To our chagrin, we were not dressed in our Sunday best. But we “ragamuffin trio” shrugged our elegant shoulders because the sparkle in our eyes more than made up for our casual attire.
The hostess of the Sea lounge looked at us and asked if we had a reservation. “
“No,” I said, “but I used to frequent the Sea lounge with my dad when I was a teenager.”
“Surely,” said the well-trained employee, without blinking an eye and took us to a window seat in the restaurant.
We sat down. I gazed out at the glimmer of sea. The silver waters stretched over the teeming heads of a madding crowd of Mumbaikers and their guests on the street below. In the seventies of my childhood, Mumbai was not so crowded!
I studied the scene in front of me like viewing a painting in a gallery. The boat with ochre and emerald trim and a hint of red. White billowing sails competing to mingle with fluffy cloud gestures in the western sky. The barely perceptible boats far away on the horizon, bobbing peacefully on the waves invoked tranquility.
With a great difficulty of a child leaving the sight of her companion, I turned my gaze inside. I looked aroundme. I was alone at the table. From the snowy white linen, my eyes jumped to a Blue China sugar bowl heaped with perfect cubes of crystallized sugar.
Transported to my childhood, I took a cube and let it sit on my tongue. As it melted, I remembered how I would gingerly advance my fingers towards the sugar bowl as a child. At the same time, cleverly gauging how many I could stuff into my fist without catching the eyes of either parent in one go. Dad would be sipping his tea and mom would be pouring her cup. In that busy moment, when the spoon was turning, I would plan my sugar swoop.
I would manage to pilfer two or three of these extraordinary sweets with great ease. I would surreptitiously stuff them into my mouth and then try to conjure an expression of innocence. Alas, the two sharp bulges in my, then smaller cheeks, would give me away! My sister would take pleasure in my failure.
As I tried to assimilate the cubes, I was amazed at how much time they took to dissolve in my mouth in those days. My countenance would melt in embarrassment and I would beg for mercy at my mothers’ rebuking gaze. My mother prided herself in instructing us on good behavior. The tension would break as my dad would chuckle and say, “trying to avoid the horse’s eye, eh?”
I never understood that expression because there was no horse in this gathering! But I always obliged him to be at the butt of his joke. Then I would hide my face in my hands, but not for long because he would smile his dazzling smile and we would all be hypnotized by his presence. His lips would form his sweet singing signature moue that I have never been able to emulate and he would sing: “Rum jhum rum jhum, (2) Chhupo na Chhupo na, oh pyari sajaniya, sajan se Chhupo na…
I brush a tear and listen to the sounds of the ocean. I can hear dad’s laughter rise and fall on the waves. I catch myself singing the same song…
The waiter appears at my elbow, discreetly ignoring my faux pas of pilfering sugar cubes, “Would you like some champagne, miss?”
Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai, India, and works as a pathologist in Decatur Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home, and art. She has written two books: My Light Reflections and Flow through my Heart. She is a regular contributor to NPR’s Sundial Writers Corner.
I’m Asian American. My dad was born in the British Territory of Hong Kong and my mom is Chinese-American. My mom was born in the Deep South, in Mississippi, and not many Asians lived there. My Po Po is from Hong Kong and my Gong Gong came from Canton, China, so my mom knows how to speak a little bit of Cantonese. I was born in California. My mom says we are Chinese but we also may be related to Genghis Khan!
When I was in preschool one time I got bullied because of the way I look. I didn’t know why. But now I understand. Diversity is like genes from your mom and dad. Genes control how you look like, your personality and the color of your skin. So of course, nobody looks the same. Even though our ancestors come from different countries, we are still American. At my school, in second grade, there’s this presentation called, “Global Us. The Global Us is a play about your culture and your identity. Students perform traditional dances and songs. Afterwards there is a potluck. Did you know that food can bring people together? Countries all have different types of food, and Americans eat almost everything. My friend Lucia loves sushi more than me even though she is not Asian! I did not grow up in the Deep South but I love southern fried chicken, catfish, and hushpuppies! Yummy. Italian pasta is like Chinese chow mein. Argentinian empanadas are like Dim Sum. French baguettes are like American sourdough bread!
The most important thing about being Asian American is that we are still American citizens even though our ancestors came from different countries. A lot of times people cannot tell where we are from because of the way we look. They may say something racist like “go back to your country.” I get very confused because this is my home. You may have heard that the Coronavirus has been spreading around the world. My best friend, who is white, said to me that some white people are scared of Asian people because the Coronavirus can be contagious. But she knows I don’t have the Coronavirus even if I’m Asian American.
But do you know what? A virus doesn’t discriminate against people who look different from other people. In a way, a virus can be a role model, because they don’t care whether people are Asian or not, they just infect anybody with lungs. Nobody should be bullied for the way they look. We all look different. Differences are not bad. Differences are special. We should be kind and include everyone. We can all get along. Everybody deserves to be treated the same. Finding things in common like soccer, ice cream, and Minecraft can build a bridge to make friends like sushi and fried chicken. Everyone in America should be treated fairly because we’re all humans. We all should really get involved to create a better community around the world.
How do you write a book about loss—a loss that’s so propulsive as to ravage the notion of home, country and identity? What do you put in it, and what do you leave out? What message will this work deliver and how does it answer the questions of the moment?
The book is brilliantly braided together with analyses, personal stories and commentaries, with journalist D’Souza providing the political backdrop and events leading up to the Chinese-Indian incarceration, and Bay Area writer Ma—who was born in the camp—delivering the human stories.
The term “deoliwallah” then becomes a reflexive term enveloping remembrance, endurance and an indictment against the prevailing perspectives of the time.
It began with a dispute over the border between the two countries, as it inevitably does. D’Souza’s research revealed that in 1958, a Chinese map appropriated 1,00,000 square kilometers (38,000 square miles) that India thought of as its own. China claimed that India had “gradually extend[ed] its control over territory in the east.” The Indian view, on the contrary, was that “the border has been in existence and observed for 3,000 years,” with several treaties and conferences affirming its existence.
This finger-pointing rapidly escalated to border skirmishes. Then the tenor of the dispute changed on October 12, 1962, when India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru told the press that he had given instructions to “free the country,” and the press reported this as “Nehru’s famous call to ‘throw out the Chinese.’”
Chairman Mao Zedong framed his response to this rhetoric with “a massive, pre-planned Chinese attack” against India on October 20, 1962. “Within two days, an entire Chinese division, having crossed the border and torn the Indian defense to shreds,” continued to advance aggressively, wrote D’Souza. Indian soldiers, ill-prepared for the weather and poorly equipped with weapons, lost handily to the Chinese. In a month and a day, the war was won by China, and China made the decision to withdraw its troops to “their original pre-war positions,” leaving India to “lick its wounds.”
This bruising defeat, however, needed some reprisal and India found it in the passing of the Foreigners Law Act and the Foreigner’s (Restricted Areas) Order in India, which targeted people of Chinese ethnicity in India. D’Souza wrote that “taken together, these acts formed the legal fig leaf for the Deoli incarceration.”
“When you have war situations, odd things happen, perverse things happen,” remarked D’Souza, explaining the ways that we tend to simplify the rationale behind sweeping actions taken when countries are in conflict, drawing a comparison to the US detention of people of Japanese origin in 1942, an event that occurred twenty years before Deoli, at an even bigger scale.
And as we have seen in America and Germany, memories of detention and confinement doggedly pursue survivors serving as signposts of trauma and loss.
Joy Ma excavated personal accounts of this trauma and its aftermath, tracing the journeys of Chinese-Indians who were rounded up and detained “by peeling away the layers of repressed memories,” and tracking the legacy of injustice.
An inflection point in this terrain of recollections occurred when Ma interviewed Yeeva Cheng, the daughter of Michael Cheng, who was a teenager when he was incarcerated in Deoli. With eloquence and insight Cheng described how she absorbed the emotional ordeals of her father. One particular incident stood out in her mind. Cheng’s high school class was reading a book about a group of girls going to a foster home. For the school assignment, the students were asked to come up with five things they would pack if they had to leave suddenly. When Cheng told her father about the assignment, she said that she might want to pack a book. Her father laughed and said, “We didn’t even have a knife to cut our meat or to cook our food.”
It’s perhaps interesting to note that every Deoli survivor interviewed by Ma remembered what he or she carried to the camp, even six decades later.
Ying Sheng Wong recalled how a group of soldiers knocked on his house in Shillong on 20 November in 1962, when he was 16 years old, and told the family to take “only a few belongings.”
Andy Hsieh, also a teenager, was pulled out of his boarding school in Shillong, and “packed everything they thought they needed for a journey with no certain duration,” including his football shoes.
When Stephen Wan’s family was picked up, they were told to take “a few clothes,” with them.
Effa and Jack Ma, Joy Ma’s parents, were allowed to carry Rs. 500 and one bag of personal belongings per person as well as some New Year cookies.
Keiw Pow Chen, on the other hand, remembers how the guards “rushed them out of their home in such a hurry that they ‘didn’t carry anything.’”
Many others, too, were not given time to pack, and some were still in their nightclothes when they were picked up, ill prepared for what was to come.
The meager belongings of the detainees were testimony to how confused, surprised and hopeful most of them were, tending to believe that the situation was temporary at best, since many of them had been born in India and for generations had considered India as their nation and home. They were of Chinese origin but nationally and culturally Indian. That’s why the internment became an unfathomable betrayal to many.
When I sat down with the authors, I probed the question of who has the right to tell this story. D’Souza said that when they decided that the book required talking to the survivors, it was clear that Ma, who was born in Deoli, had a personal connection to the narrative. She had that right. So, while D’Souza worked on the political details leading up to the Chinese-Indian detention, even traveling to Deoli to record his observations, Ma approached community members. People from the camp remembered her as “that little girl,” the baby in the camp, Ma said, so it was easier for her to ask the tough, often painful questions of others from the camp.
In addition to Joy Ma, there were four others born in the camp. Ma said that their stories are not included in the book, as also the stories of several others who were not yet ready to share what they have spent a lifetime trying to forget. It’s taken a long time for Deoli survivors to be willing to tell their stories, Ma disclosed. As a result, the events surrounding the detention assumed an “epic, iconic status in their minds,” she said. When Ma first started conducting interviews, she described an outpouring of “despair and hopelessness” from having kept the stories to themselves for such a long time.
At a packed book reading at the India Community Center recently, the authors asked the audience to raise their hands if they’d heard of the internment camp in Deoli, Rajasthan, and a mere handful had their hands up. In “The Deoliwallahs,” D’Souza describes how astonished he himself was in March 2012 when he was first told about ordinary people, “totally innocent people,” being sent to a prison camp in India.
Why is the Chinese-Indian incarceration not well known, I asked Ma and D’Souza? Fear of retaliation against family members in India has kept the story under wraps for years, the authors explained, leading to a conspiracy of secrecy around the event.
Both Ma and D’Souza hope that this book will lead to better awareness of the Chinese-Indian internment, and like the United States, the Indian government will come to acknowledge the wrongs of the past and begin the dialog necessary to evolving into a more compassionate and responsible nation.
THE DEOLIWALLAHS—The True Story of the 1962 Chinese-Indian Internment by Joy Ma and Dilip D’Souza. MacMillan, 2020. Amazon: 198 pages. Hard Copy: $12.41. EBook: $9.99 License to image in the article can be found here.
The mantra of many Indians who left their homeland, for the longest time was – I will return to India in 5 years. The magic number 5 was almost unanimously agreed upon by many NRIs who moved to any part of the 5 of the 7 continents. Probably because only 5 were habitable, or because 5 years were enough to earn a degree, work a couple of years, and maybe even save $5K to get back home and start a new life! Whatever the reason, the promise was one of return to the motherland.
Back in the ’80s, college and job applications were non-existent. Applications had to be requested via regular postal mail. They had to be filled out by hand and mailed back. It was a time consuming and tedious process.
The arrival of the acceptance letter was followed by a series of phone calls to family and friends, distribution of sweets, and a party where sometimes entire neighborhoods were invited. After the initial ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs, came a torrent of tears.
As the departure day came close, the word ‘packing’ would send mothers in tears. Packing two suitcases with the maximum weight allowed was the most challenging and dreaded experience. Mothers wanted to pack not only clothes but food as well. In went processed condiments, homemade pickles, savories, and sweets. Fathers made sure documents, finances, and papers were in order. Suitcases were weighed, unpacked much to the dismay of mothers, repacked, and reweighed. After heated arguments, sobbing, complaining, cajoling, and hugging and making up, the final packing was done. And, after receiving a barrage of phone calls and reading numerous telegrams wishing ‘Bon Voyage’, ‘Best Wishes’, and ‘Happy Landings’, fatigue took over but sleep eluded, for it was the last day spent together before the great departure.
Upon landing on the new soil and clearing US Customs without any hassles, the migratory students adjusted to their new surroundings by flocking together. They forged bonds with other Indian students. From sharing dorm rooms, apartments, and even cars, to hunting for Indian grocery stores, Indian restaurants, places of worship, and procuring membership for Costco (earlier known as Price Club) they began their life here. All this coupled with coping with the new routine and rigor of academics, was the challenge of finding assistantships, on-campus jobs or other odd jobs to sustain a living.
Calls to India in the late 1980s were $3.95 for the first minute and $1.95 for every minute thereon. Parents and students agreed that outgoing phone calls would be made only once a month and talk-time would strictly be limited to no more than 3 minutes max. Almost every phone call would begin and end with tears and sniffing on both sides.
Letters to and from home would take three to four weeks to be delivered! (These were the days before the birth of the World Wide Web, Social Media, and Mobile phones) Aerograms or Airmails were used. USPS and Indian Postal Service were lifelines that held families together. Though the news and events (of birthdays, weddings, festivals, births, and deaths) relayed in the letter were long over, reading about them renewed all the excitement and also made one emotional.
Mothers checked in to see how their fledglings were doing, but it was actually a double-edged sword to drive one on a guilt trip for making the decision to study/work abroad, though it was a point of pride for them as well. It was always – “a cousin, a neighbor, or a friend’s son or daughter has gone to study in the US and is doing so well, so must you.”
The new students were in awe of the life here. Things that were unheard, unseen, and regarded as a luxury back home were basic needs here. Hot and cold running water 24/7, supermarkets carrying frozen breakfast and cut vegetables, ready to eat meals, shopping malls, washer/dryer, dishwashers, etc. was all thought to make life easy.
After the initial awe, shock set in, Chores! They were required to be done! No mother to provide fresh hot meals, no vendor bringing the vegetable cart to your door, and no domestic helper to help you clean and do the dishes. Every single chore had to be done by the student! It was time for the juggling act.
A brief period of stress followed graduation, the phase of changing the practice, a temporary F1 student visa into an applicable, permanent H1 work visa. Once that was settled, parents and students heaved a big sigh of relief. Parents proudly showed off photos of their sons and daughters, talked about their first car, H1 visa approval, and how they managed to find their first job.
It was now time to get married and settle into family life. If one was in love, it was time to take a favorite cousin, uncle, or aunt into confidence and have them convince the parents. Perhaps the parents were open and there were no issues, otherwise, after a lot of reluctance and melodrama, permission for marriage was given. If there was to be an arranged marriage, it required word to be spread about prospective brides and grooms, alliances would start to pour, photos exchanged, and matches made. The groom would then proudly bring his bride to this country and after the initial struggles, begin to settle down.
Once children were born, a new phase would begin. The free K-12 public school education, clean environment, excellent and prestigious universities for higher education, and so on acted as incentives to extend the 5-year dream. But soon the 5-year dream would be shelved, and a new dream, the vicious cycle of voluntary entrenchment would begin – obtaining a Green Card, buying a home, and becoming a citizen of the USA.
Anita R Mohan is a poet and freelance writer from Fairfax, Virginia.
It’s Spring. The birds perch on the bird feeder and peck at the grains playfully, making chirping sounds. They remind me of ma, my mother. A woman of small stature, slightly bent with age, deep wrinkles on the face, the kind that tells stories. She has hands with folds and creases, snowy white hair and a wooden stick that supports her old age. The birds know her. They gather on her balcony all year around. She makes sure they get plenty of food and water.
Short hair, glasses, a big red bindi on her forehead, beautiful well ironed crisp cotton sarees in vibrant colors, a watch with a leather strap and medium heels. Elegant and graceful is how I remember ma. When younger and still working, she would stop by my school on Mathura Road in Delhi on way back from teaching at her college on Lodi Road, where she was an Associate Professor in Political Science. All my friends knew her and those that didn’t, would ask me after she left if she was my mother. I would nod with pride and give her a huge hug, as if to claim her as my own.
She was born into a large loving family of six siblings in Jammu. Growing up, I spent many a summer break at my maternal grandfather’s huge home. Even today, when I close my eyes, I can picture that house on Link Road like I visited it yesterday. A strong scent of mangoes, lazy summer afternoons, friendships and fights with cousins, and hidden secret spots come to mind. Bauji, as we called my grandfather, was very much the patriarchal head of the family. He was large hearted, generous and adored his grandkids. Father to two sons and four daughters, he assumed the typical trajectory and focused on getting a good education for the sons and ensuring that the daughters were married into good families. But when Bauji saw how well my mother did in school and the keen interest she took in college, he decided to let my mother pursue higher education. It was a difficult decision to send his daughter from a relatively small town to the big city – Delhi.
I find some pictures of ma in a stylish hair bun with dark sunglasses and tight-fitting pants or churidars. This gives a peek into her college days. A student of Ramjas college, she stayed at the Indraprastha College hostel, pursuing her Post-graduation in Political Science. The pictures don’t tell me if she was a shy homesick girl who would run back to be with her family or if she was inquisitive and curious about this new world of Delhi, its academic trends, institutions of higher learning, fashions and styles. I wonder and weave my own visuals from that time.
We are here to be with ma and papa on their 50th wedding anniversary. We have been trying to convince her to have a symbolic get together with friends and close family, but she dismisses us. We argue and cajole her by saying we have come from miles away to celebrate this milestone. She just smiles and her eyes look sad and then she says that the sparrows that she tended to for years, have left her nest and flown too far.
The wedding album photo speaks a thousand words. Papa looks really confident and sharp, standing next to his bride. You can tell he is proud of marrying such a beautiful, accomplished woman.
After finishing her post-graduate studies, ma moved to the Post Graduate Institute in Chandigarh, north of Delhi. She received a fellowship in Gandhian studies, where she earned a stipend to support herself. A few years her senior from Delhi University, also pursuing his post-graduation in Political Science, papa had met ma a few times. Being from the same hometown, Papa’s sisters were friends with ma, but they had never met formally. He wanted to know more about her. He went to Chandigarh to meet her, only to find that she was in Jammu for a short break. He left a note with the warden and went on a trip to Manali, the hills near Chandigarh, awaiting her return. Once she was back, he looked her up again, determined to find out more about this Jammu girl. She was surprised to see him but agreed to go out for coffee. In the months that followed, they saw a lot of each other. They found their intellectual faculties stirring in each other’s company, giving way to more romance and stronger companionship. Papa’s sister, married in Chandigarh, was pleased but suspicious of his many visits to the city.
After some serious persuasion we convince ma to host a small intimate get together at India International Center (IIC) on Lodi Road, their favorite place. Last minute planning and chaos erupts. My sister takes the task head on. I call their closest friends and family. They are surprised to get a call a day before the celebration. A number of them are very excited. Some friends of over 50 years cancel their other commitments and promise to come.
Ma wears an off-white saree with a red border and combs her short,white hair back. They are getting longer but she wants to keep this length. My sister urges her to get a haircut. I implore that she should wear different earrings. But she ignores us and is adamant that she likes her simple look. Then suddenly, she asks if we can play a Punjabi folk song that is one of her favorites. She disappears to a time and place probably way in the past, while listening to the tune of, “Madhaniya Haye ve mereya daadeya rabba Kina jammiya kinane le jaaniya. Babul tere mehlaan vicho satrangiya kabutar bole ha”. The daughter is remembering the pigeons that freely sing in the courtyard of her fathers’ home while she is somewhere far away. The daughter wonders who and where life will take her after being born in the loving house of her parents. They got married after dating a few months. My father expressed interest in my mother and a proposal was sent to her family. And with much fanfare, dancing and music they were married fifty years ago.
We reach the venue and the guests start pouring in. Their longtime friends, who studied with them in Delhi University. Some of them retired Professors in Political Science, English, History, Hindi, respected and brilliant in their fields. They talk about their friendship of many years, they speak in glowing terms about the wit and humor of my father and his brilliant sense for political analysis and they speak of grit, determination and immensely useful political work of my mother. They share embarrassing but witty and humorous anecdotes from the past. My mind zooms in and out from the past to the present. I go back to a time when our house was the hub or adda for everyone, no matter what their political affiliation. Cups of chai flowed along with snacks and food, political discussions, and arguments.
You could see that ma is uneasy with all that praise and attention at the celebration of her anniversary. Her humility keeps her away from limelight of this kind. It’s time to cut the cake and she looks in my direction and whispers. She doesn’t want us to make a big deal. Everyone protests and she is forced to cut the cake. My sister and I shove a ceremonial piece in her mouth, and she gets a hug from dad. It’s time for everyone to eat and she is visibly relieved.
It is our last day in Delhi and the night sky is beautiful, the weather is lovely. We call Akram, our friend and driver for the past 2 weeks and he takes us to Kwality, one of our old-time favorite places to eat in Connaught Place, for a last meal together.
We reach the restaurant and ma walks ahead slowly, with her graceful wooden stick supporting her. Her snowy white tresses fly all over her forehead. She wipes the tears that she has been fighting. Papa is cheerful and relates stories of their courtship over a sumptuous dinner. I capture their various moods in a million pictures. She is tired of my camera clicking. The welts under their eyes and wrinkles as they smile, laugh and talk incessantly, capture their beautiful companionship of fifty plus years.
My mind again goes back to that smart and confident young woman who would come to my school and surprise me with her hearty laughter and an impeccable look of happiness. Her passion for her work came alive in her ability to strongly debate and contest colleagues over numerous discussions in our living room. I can’t stop thinking about how in all this, both my sister and I were still her world. As I sit across from her, I wonder where all the time just went by. From being each other’s world, each day and every moment, we became a part of a different far away world, just like she did years back, away from her home in Jammu. Was this the cycle of life? It just felt so wrong.
The next day, just as I leave for the airport, ma holds my hand with her fragile soft fingers and walks me to the balcony and asks me to feed the birds and then tells me that they will forever take care of me and my family as they took care of hers. Unguarded tears roll down our eyes and the sparrows perched on her feeder fly away as we approach them.
I fly back to my home, away from my parents, once more with nothing but precious memories
Veenu Puri is an analyst by profession who loves to write about the experiences of Indian immigrants. She has been living in San Diego, California with her husband and two sons since 2003. Dedicated to Ma, on her 75th birthday, Oct 21st, 2019 from a very thankful daughter as another year goes by.
I saw the man for the first time in Budapest on the Széchenyi Bridge. The chain bridge connected the western and eastern parts of what was once two cities, Buda and Pest. We exchanged a smile, as any two people might. Standing a few feet apart, we saw the Parliament House and Margaret Bridge on one end, the Freedom Statue and Royal Palace on the other, and the quiet, flowing Danube separating and connecting the two cities. We watched the same things, like lovers seeing the moon on a dark night thousands of miles apart, yet together.
A few hours later I saw him again, entering the hop-on, hop-off tourist bus my husband recommended. “This is the best way to see the city by yourself,” my husband said. He would be busy at the conference for the next few days and felt guilty about my being alone. Oh, how he wanted to see the city with me, he said, but I was glad to be on my own, free and independent, my sensibility so different from his.
From the upper deck with the open roof, my eyes followed the man who was heading toward the upper level. I turned and saw him walking toward the front, looking for a seat with perfect views, where I was seated. His eyes wandered to the one empty seat beside me. He gestured, asking if he could sit.
“I was hoping you’d ask,” I said with unaccustomed boldness and then hoped he might not understand English after all.
“And I was hoping you’d say okay.”
His voice was deep and full. He reminded me of my favorite Hindi actor, a tall, handsome man I fantasized about, a man of few words, confident on the outside, with a childlike vulnerability inside.
“First time here?” he asked.
“You’re alone?” I asked, hoping he wouldn’t ask me the same. I was tired of defending and justifying why I was alone—why I didn’t have a partner before I was married, why I was alone without my husband while I was married. The man didn’t ask, and I was relieved.
“Yes, always alone,” he said, shrugging casually and putting on his headphones.
How comforting he made it sound—alone, like an exotic indulgence.
Alone, I thought as I sat up straight, tucking my chin, feeling intoxicated instead of burdensome.
The man had an educated, traveled accent. His olive complexion and dark hair could have been from three-quarters of the world. His sense of style was European—a crisp blue shirt, narrow linen pants, and a printed scarf around his neck. He looked professorial with his black-rimmed glasses. He smelled like fresh rain, and I breathed him in.
A bit later he tapped my shoulder and pointed at the open map in my hand. I took off my headphones.
“How many days here, tell me again?” he asked as if I had already told him.
“A lot for us to do in three days, huh?” he said, peering over his glasses.
I liked his confidence.
“What would you like to see? The Gellért Bathhouse for sure, yes?” he continued.
“I’m Raoul, by the way.”
It was strange, even absurd, that this man invited me, a stranger, to be a part of his journey. He was either very dangerous and I, apparently, easy prey; or he shared the familiarity and warmth I felt. Either way, he talked, I nodded, I talked, he nodded. With fascination I watched his arms, his long fingers, his clean, clipped nails, and his mannerisms. I let myself be hypnotized by his vocal undulations, his accent sounding like musical notes. I was glad I wasn’t wearing my wedding ring. I noticed he didn’t wear one, either. Together we chalked out a plan to see Budapest.
In the nearly two years I’d been married, my husband and I never planned a day together. He decided what we did, where we traveled, what and who we saw, even the menu when we hosted. He was a stickler for detail. I’d been a thirty-nine-year-old spinster (too dark, too educated, too short). If I were a woman of a younger generation, I might have worn my personality and my education as a mark of pride. Instead, when my husband graciously offered to marry me without a dowry and implied I should be grateful, I acquiesced.
“Wait for me,” I said as we stepped off the bus at the bottom of Gellért Hill.
“Not going anywhere without you,” Raoul replied, offering his arm.
I took his hand and we walked up Gellért Hill to the Freedom Statue. For once I didn’t hear the voices I’d heard all my life—what will people say, what will they think, think of your reputation, please don’t bring us shame. For once I wasn’t a student, an employee, someone’s wife, someone’s daughter. For once I wasn’t the responsible, sensible one. Even as I was distracted by my thoughts, I realized this was the first time in twenty years I was excited by a man.
The liberation monument looked eastward, her metal hands holding a palm leaf above her head. She was majestic, exuberant in liberty. The monument was installed by the Soviets, who freed Hungary from Nazi occupation. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the monument was preserved and reinvented. A new plaque read: “To the memory of all those who sacrificed their lives for the independence, freedom, and prosperity of Hungary.”
“What would you do to reinvent yourself?” I asked Raoul.
“Become your pet, of course. A little Chihuahua that fits in your handbag,” he said, making me laugh.
“You want a photo with this view?” I asked, my hand still holding his.
The city below looked like a picture postcard. The sky was blue, and beneath it lay the Danube. On either side of the river were buildings old and new, each with a distinct style and built during different times.
“No, because all beauty can only be captured here,” he said, tapping his chest.
“Then you’ll take one of me? I want the river and bridge in the background, okay?”
I thought of my husband, of showing it to him if he asked.
I posed twice for Raoul—once for a photo on my phone, once for his.
“Want to see?” he asked, showing me his phone.
I didn’t recognize myself. My complexion looked radiant, my height seemed befitting rather than mockable, my hair cascaded–my “crowning glory,” just as my mother always said. I looked chic instead of homely. I had a smile I hadn’t had in so long. I blushed. He put his phone away, took my hand and locked it around his elbow, and in step we walked back toward the bus stop.
Raoul was an Italian-English translator. He was in his early fifties and single, though I found it hard to believe he didn’t have someone significant in his life. He was about six feet tall with a head full of peppered hair and a well-trimmed beard. Although briefly married when he was much younger, he said he had no children.
“Did you not find anyone else to marry?” I asked.
“Hard to live with a man who travels; it’s selfish, you know. And you?”
“I am a scientist, trying to change the world,” I said, surprised at my confidence and pride.
“Aha, no Chihuahua for you, then?”
“Oh, yes, yes, a Chihuahua-prince, like a frog-prince, of course,” I said. I watched him tilt his head back and laugh. I yearned to drop all caution and let go of the reserve that ruled my marital life.
I dreaded the thought of going back to the hotel room, of interacting with my husband. The room overlooked the busy street close to the old Jewish quarter and was central to sightseeing and public transport, yet it was dark, dingy, and claustrophobic. My husband didn’t notice. He came in late, did his work, and slept.
“Let’s change our room,” I said after we checked in.
He considered me fussy.
“I feel claustrophobic; the ceiling of the portico feels like it’s on my throat.”
“Aww, stuck in an elevator. Heard that story. Get over it.”
“Please,” I pleaded. “I find it hard . . . it’s like your OCD, you know,” I added, hoping he would understand.
“Oh, please, Revati, don’t compare my need for being clean to your silliness,” he scolded.
Once, early in our marriage, I suggested that my husband see a therapist for his OCD. Instead he called me lazy and clumsy.
“I’ll pack, I’ll get another room on a higher floor, it’ll be nice,” I persisted.
“Stop. Don’t waste my time,” he said, shooing me off without looking up from his computer.
An engineer from MIT, my husband assumed we would be a good match. Both of us were educated and independent. He was charming and convincing. I had heard of his brilliance in academic circles. He came to Budapest to negotiate an important contract, hopefully make enough money to retire and leave enough for our children, he said, then bit his lip. I didn’t believe he could ever retire, and by mentioning children, he made me feel like a failure.
At the hotel, after my first day sightseeing with Raoul, I was surprised to find my husband back early from his conference. I pulled out the Budapest map. I also wanted to show him the pictures Raoul took of me looking beautiful.
“Looks like these folks here are interested in closing the deal,” he said, his eyes on his computer.
“That’s good. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.”
I too was busy looking at my screen. That’s how it was with us. We carried on conversations as if nothing happened between us or ever would. A new email was in my inbox. Patent approved, said the subject line. My patent! Raoul brought luck into my life, I thought.
“I have good news too,” I said, but my husband didn’t respond.
I retreated to my world, recalling my mother’s words: “If he wants to share, good. If he doesn’t, excellent!” So I sent out some emails sharing the news of my patent, then showered and went to sleep excited about meeting with Raoul the next day. My husband worked well into the night. When I woke up the next morning, the room looked sterile. My husband had tossed out loose bills, receipts, brochures, and other trash. This was his routine.
Each morning I looked forward to meeting Raoul at the junction stop. I walked one level down from the street, went through the underground tunnel to the other side, climbed stairs, walked past coffee shops, and waited for him. We hopped on a bus and worked our way through the city, per our plan. No one paid any more attention to us than they would to any couple. Over the course of time, I rested my head on his shoulder, put my arm around his waist, wiped crumbs near his lip. His arm intertwined with mine, my hands interlaced with his. Like an entitled wife, I let him buy me lunch and care for me. I fussed and whined about my tired feet, and he indulgently got us foot massages. He sensed when I was cold and helped me put my jacket on. He watched me try on swimsuits, my first ever, so we could spend time in the bathhouse. I should have felt awkward or exposed, but I didn’t.
“Looks too old for you,” he said when I tried one on.
“Yes!” he said of another. “Perfect.” He pushed my wallet back into my purse, and I let him pay.
Ritually, each day he took two pictures of me, one on his phone, one on mine.
We got used to hopping on and off buses—green line, red line, purple line, yellow line—going to different parts of the city. We took breaks for coffee or lunch. We sat on park benches, people-watching, leaning into each other. Where had he been all my life?
On our last day together, Raoul and I pretended it was just another day. I hadn’t felt the need to talk about my life, and so I hadn’t told him about my patent or my past. We were like children with no concept of beginning or end. We were like the Danube—flowing on. That morning we were unusually quiet. We chose the longest route to the outskirts across the river. We held hands, as if letting go might jolt us back to reality. He guided me to the ferry, putting his hand on the small of my back. We cruised along the river and got off at Margaret Island and sat on a bench with our lunch bags. We watched the locals run and stretch, mothers and children at play, and young lovers lost in their own world.
I felt as old as the river and as young as a teen. I wondered if Raoul imagined a life with me, as I did with him. To have his baby, speak his language, sleep with him at night, grow old together, bicker about our pets and our kids. I stopped myself. Alone, I thought. Alone.
“We’ll stay in touch, yes?” Raoul said, as if reading my thoughts.
I held onto his arm as we walked back to the ferry. The evening sky was clear, and against it the Gothic Parliament House stood tall. The river reflected its lights’ glowing amber. Its Gothic steeples soared into the sky like dreams of all its people. Its Revival dome embraced old and new. With Raoul, my eyes opened to beauty. The din of life melted into silence, and we communicated without words.
As we approached the terminal, I dreaded our farewell. Would we make promises to each other? Would we rehash our time together? Would we ask each other questions that might or might not have answers? Would we exchange our contact information and plan to meet? Would this be a tearful goodbye? Did any of this mean anything to him? We would kiss, wouldn’t we?
I saw the hop-on, hop-off buses gathered, conductors removing their vests, marking the end of the day. A few of them sat at the roadside café, sipping coffee or beer. I was unable to let go of Raoul’s hand. We would always sit in one of the cafés—Raoul drinking beer, I sipping coffee—before we parted.
But before either of us could speak, I saw my husband sitting at one of the cafés looking at every passenger who got off the bus. I quickly retracted my hand from Raoul’s before my husband saw us. Then he came forward.
“Oh, there you are, Revati. I was hoping to find you here,” my husband said, hugging me uncharacteristically, his eyes scanning Raoul.
“Come, it’s getting late,” my husband said as he took my hand and led me away.
What happened then I don’t remember, just a few words like dinner, colleagues, contract, words I didn’t care to weave into anything meaningful. I turned around to look at Raoul, who still stood by the bus. When his eyes met mine, he pointed to the map in his hand and mouthed, “Your map has my contact info.”
That night at the company dinner my husband was in a good mood, probably because his male colleagues were impressed with me—beautiful, intelligent, funny, they said. My husband, talking with his boss, placed his hand on my back, claiming me. The evening came to an end inconsequentially, as all the company dinners did. Later in the night my husband stroked my arm… afterward falling comatose.
The next morning he was in a good mood. The meetings had earned him praise. He went down for breakfast, and I stayed to pack and to think about the previous day. I sat on the edge of the bed and closed my eyes. Over and over I replayed the last scene with Raoul. He wanted to stay in touch. He had a plan. He always did, and it was all on the map.
I toppled the contents of my purse onto the bed. I emptied my backpack. I opened my suitcase. I checked between the pages of my books. Where was the map? Then I remembered that I’d emptied all my papers on the bedside table before dinner last night. I looked there. Nothing. I looked under the bed. Nothing. I looked in the trash. Nothing. I left the room, looking for the housekeeping cart. “I lost something,” I said to the housekeeper, shaking her hand, and she looked at me with dread and pity. “Please find it. I lost something.” I ransacked her trash. She helped. Nothing.
Back in my room the phone rang. It was my husband, asking me to come down.
“The taxi will be here soon.”
“My map,” I said, “my map, the hop-on, hop-off map, where is the map? It’s red. Did you take it, did you toss it?”
“What map? I didn’t see any map,” he said. “I threw out some trash, that’s all. I didn’t see any map. Hurry up, Revati.”
I sat on the bed. Little plumes of tears sputtered down my cheeks, the room closing in on me.
After a few moments my husband came in, his expression shocked at seeing my clothes scattered on the bed.
I sat unmoving. “Where is the Budapest map? I want the map.”
“Enough of this nonsense!” he shouted, his spittle spraying. “Get up now, we have to leave soon.” He pulled at my arms to make me get up. I furiously punched his hands, and he swung his right hand across my wet cheek.
I stood up almost compliant, possessed by the ghost I’d become. But then I paused. I was shocked at what I did next. I grabbed his arm and bit deeply, then pushed him. He stumbled onto the bed.
“Don’t ever touch me again,” I said.
He looked bewildered. He took his right hand with his left and started slapping himself on his cheeks. I had never seen him do this. Then he kept hitting his head with the base of his hand. I wanted him to stop. “The bed is a mess. Clean it up,” I said, then took my purse, wiped my eyes, and left.
Manikya Veena was born and raised in Hyderabad, India. She earned a master’s in economics from Osmania University, and authored a short story compilation for children, The Banjara Boys. She serves on the advisory board for Narika, a nonprofit in the San Francisco Bay Area, whose mission is to help South Asian victims of domestic violence. She also volunteers at Community Overcoming Relationship Abuse (CORA) in San Mateo, answering hotline calls. She is a master class student at the Writers Studio in San Francisco and works as an assistant editor at Narrative. First published in the Narrative Magazine. This story is reproduced with the permission of the author.
This story was originally published on November 14, 2019 and curated by Culture and Media Editor Geetika Pathania Jain.
Winter solstice has come. A time symbolically used to celebrate the rise and fall of the sun. A time of year when we reflect on the past year and nurture hopes for the coming one. A time of year for reconnecting with friends around warm food and lights.
I turned the thermostat up a couple of notches and the white light effused a warm glow against the curtains. As I surveyed the house, I felt a surge of warmth course through me. Dear friends and family were visiting, and I was glowing from the companionship. The house had been through a deep clean: which is to say that the closets were stuffed and groaning. I warned guests to open any closet with care: a dozen things could tumble out at any moment, I said widening my eyes. The adults laughed, while the children nodded with sincerity, but an hour later I found them playing hide-and-seek, and finding a place to hide in those very closets. Oh well!
As time spun its way through the evening, strands of conversation were coming together too. Light-hearted topics were interspersed with hefty ones and laughter was sprinkled with wrinkled looks of concentration. It was beautiful to hear opinions changing ever so slightly; of course, it was not without the exasperation of trying to string complex thoughts into words that would convince someone of their perspective. I marveled at humanity once again.
“The art of conversation is the art of hearing as well as of being heard.”
― William Hazlitt, Selected Essays, 1778-1830
Can we get better? Absolutely. We lose sight of the marvelous gift we have of empathy and of trying to understand one another. Moments in which we bestow upon one another the inestimable gift of attentive listening are irreplaceable. Like the stuffed closets the children found a place to hide in, there is always room for our own mindsets to grow and expand.
With all the additional means of communication at our disposal these days – whether instant or otherwise, we are so intent on telling the world what we think that I fear we may slowly start losing the art of listening, weighing, offering our opinions without being attached to our own viewpoints, and allowing ourselves the beautiful vantage point of changing our minds.
The appreciation of merit from multiple viewpoints is an Art in itself.
It is a lesson that Nature herself teaches us in the simple act of the changing of the seasons. How wondrously we admire the same surroundings for different aspects during different parts of the year? The bursting of new life, and flowering trees in Spring; followed by the joyous long days of summer with their blooms of flowers; the beautiful fall foliage; and the cold rainy winters enabling us to reflect, change and poise ourselves for the cycle to begin again.
Each season brings with it a new physical aspect and a philosophical one.
I find winters winter a good time to look back on the year gone by; reflect on the grains that made up the texture of the preceding months, and those months layered upon years, like a tree, adding a ring to its makeup. A time for reflection of the past year and a time for hopes in the coming year.
Every year our hopes and aspirations for ourselves and our collective future differ. This year, given the state of political affairs in the US, and the deep divides that separate us, I hope we can strive towards truthful, honest dialogue. As we usher in the New Year, it becomes doubly important for us to remember that our strength lies in listening to each other respectfully; to engage in conversations sans ego so that we may learn to appreciate the beauty of human thinking and its many perspectives. That seems to be our only hope to collectively move towards a future that is filled with integrity and compassion.
As the French philosopher Simone Weil said in the early twentieth century, let’s bestow on each other the generosity of spirit so beautifully outlined in this quote.
Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity – Simone Weil
Now is the time to say thanks for all the small and big things in life. The time to appreciate friends and family. The time to appreciate the gifts of nature and of our place in it. The time for us to refocus our energies on what is possible and our duties towards society. I am looking forward to a new year informed by the past, yet open to the future.
Saumya writes regularly at nourishncherish.wordpress.com, and some of her articles have been published in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Hindu and India Currents. She lives with her family in the Bay Area where she lilts along savoring the ability to find humor in everyday life and finding joy in the little things.