For my brother Ahsan, whose name means “an act of kindness”
and for my sister Salina, whose name means, “to bring peace”
My voice is gone. It leaves me as I stand on a street corner, waiting for a moment to wade across a road awash in the Calcutta monsoon wilderness. The water is up to my knees, and I wonder how I will ever cross the road. I step down into the street, unsteady, and fall. Crying out, no sound comes out of my mouth. I stay in that same spot in the gutter with water gushing around me for what seems like hours, but it’s just minutes.
I think about Calcutta, how it seduces you, swallows you, draws you into its dark murkiness when you aren’t looking. The city tempts you to move in closer, like the body of a woman in a sari soaked by the rains. An outline, a promise, an impression that you can almost remember but then you forget. Like a passionate lover, who attracts you by the mere fact it wants you. Stealthily it takes your body for its own, moving you this way and that as it pleases, until you are no longer a visitor, but dancing in some symbiotic union until it uses you up.
I feel two hands on my shoulders, lifting me from the water. The hands belong to Ahsan, a market man who has become my confidante and companion in this complex city. He usually sits in a nearby shop this time of day and the news of my fall has traveled quickly through the streets, leading him out into the torrent to find me. He tries to ask me questions, but I have no words, my voice has disappeared. His face tenses as we cautiously wade to a dingy dank cave of a tea shop. We awaken the rumpled owner, who offers us his dilapidated sleeping bench as a seat. Peering out through the glass, we watch as the city becomes clean, monsoon and city dancing their annual waltz. As chai is passed around in little china cups with broken handles and faded pink flowers, Ahsan calls for a doctor to examine me.
Ahsan takes a pinch of betel nut from his pocket, wraps it in a green leaf with a sprinkle of silvered seeds, and then places it in the side of his mouth as he sneaks a worried sidelong glance at me. He drinks chai and chews betel nut at the same time, spitting out blood red juice in magnificently straight and perfect lines against the wall. Our cracked plastic bench sighs with his weight as he shifts his body back and forth, pulling at loose threads on his soiled cuffs. I lean against him, drinking cup after cup of milky sweet chai, hoping the warmth will bring my voice back.
Ahsan began as my market man, and despite his lack of English and my lack of Hindi–as well as the different worlds we roam– we have quickly become close friends. We sit for hours at the tea shops, observing the crowds in silence. Like me, he takes note of the small things: a mended shoe, the way biscuits are arranged on a plate, a leg slightly longer than the other. Like me, he could not tell a lie, for his soft doughy face tells of his sins at a glance. I watch him as he bites his crimson stained lips in concentration as he ties his broken umbrella delicately with string.
The doctor arrives and mysteriously examines my hands, mouth, and eyes, and after an abrupt unintelligible conversation with Ahsan, announces that I am suffering from nervous exhaustion. Quietly I decide I am suffering from a love affair with a city that has behaved like an adulterous lover whom I cannot forgive.
I was resistant to Calcutta’s overtures at first. I arrived overwhelmed in a taxi in the middle of the night, and when I walked out into the steaming street, I could only see hastily built hovels, beggars and crumbling buildings covered in mold. The decay and decadence of a past era, mixed with a chaotic collection of people who seemed on the edge of starvation and disaster.
But surprisingly, the city drew me in, and I found myself taking notice of its literary and artistic spirit, its intimate city streets lit with neon strings of lights, its doorways adorned with marigold garlands. I began to see it as my city, and I thought if I ever left it, my soul would surely stay behind to inhabit such a perfect place.
I did not understand the city I loved. I did not understand that living there, as a longtime resident once told me, was a full time job in itself. To love such a city, to live in it meant to forget oneself. That protective personal space that surrounded me when I first arrived was gone one morning, and I became a feature of the landscape, unable to react to the painfully raw scenes which were everywhere one looked. The city required absolute loyalty and acceptance, but it did not offer that to me in return. It did not care that I was worn down and had nothing left to give.
I lost my voice because I loved the city and it did not love me back. My voice was lost in the tumult and trials of so many people, crushed together and demanding attention.
Ahsan decides I need a rest and that I should go to his village in Bihar. Voiceless, I do not protest, instead following him first to a taxi and then to my squalid hotel, whose saving grace has been the small vases of geraniums carefully placed in the entryway each morning. I change and pack without fuss, and we make our way to the train station, where we are greeted by his plump little wife. She is armed with plastic bags of gifts for his family: biscuits, milk sweets, and several mystifying bottles of skin bleaching cream. She fidgets, twisting the edge of her sari as Ahsan tells her she must stay behind with their small children. Sobbing softly, she covers her face with her sheer scarf, which glints silver as her eyes flash at me.
Rushing for the train, cramming our bodies into tight spaces in the jostling crowd, we push our way to our seats. Lurching forward, the train then stops and starts, as if changing its mind. Slowly we move out of West Bengal and into the Wild West world of Jharkland, and I wish I could stretch out on the sleeper car seat and rest. Then Ahsan tells me we may have to be awake all night, as the train is overbooked and people are sitting on our seats. In a grand effort to stay awake, we begin to drink cup after cup of watery chai, throwing the little clay cups out the window as the train moves along.
I’m confronting the grim reality of the bathroom as the train makes its first stop in Jharkland, and upon returning to my seat find our compartment filled with soldiers, casually carrying AK-47s like businessmen holding briefcases. Fatigued and frightened, I don’t argue when Ahsan tells me to put sunglasses on because they are staring at me. They seem riveted by my every move, and as I pretend to read a very dull history book about India, I imagine they must wonder how I can read on a night train with dark shades. I try of thinking of calming things, like my grandmother’s chocolate cake, English gardens, the Dalai Lama. I recall how the Dalai Lama said that you have to look at situations from all angles so you can become more open. I do not feel open and I wish I was back in my city that doesn’t love me back.
I sit on the edge of my hard plastic seat for hours, unable to move, crippled by fear. But once the fear and I get accustomed to one another, I try to look at the scene from their point of view.
Encouraged, I take off my sunglasses, and pass out sour little tangerines and peanuts. This seems an infinitely better plan than being terrified, and soon the guns are stacked against the wall of the sleeper car, tangerine peels and peanut shells litter the floor, and I’ve given my terribly boring book on Indian history away. I fall asleep and dream of the used bookshop I love in Calcutta, and how after I go there each afternoon I gorge myself on fruit in the fruit market, where all the merchants know my name.
Still dreaming of mangoes and Bengal pears, I’m awakened by Ahsan. We’ve arrived in Bihar, and we step off the train into a foggy silver mist. We move slowly, like dull-witted sleepwalkers, towards a line of tuk-tuk taxis, handing over our bags and settling in on the narrow seat. We are soon jolted to alertness, bouncing along holding on tightly, for the dirt road is rutted and muddy.
Just as we are a few miles from the village, the driver stops quite suddenly and tells us we’ll have to walk the rest of the way. Bihar is in the middle of a civil war, and an insurgent group, the Maoists, have been causing problems, murdering innocent people in the area around his village. As the driver explains that he is too afraid to go on, Ahsan looks grim. Yet he smiles at me, a smile that says, “We are in danger but I don’t want you to think so.”
As we walk, I wonder how he knows where he is. It’s early morning, dark, and everything looks the same. The villages we walk through are shuttered and cold ghost towns, the buildings and road all the same orange brown color, like that of a robin’s breast. Yet Ahsan navigates through this landscape majestically, like a magician, crossing a rice field here, ducking down an alleyway there. At some point I realize he’s managed to avoid all the main roads, taking us on a secret route which avoids the Maoists entirely.
As we near his village, people come running: children, uncles, neighbors. The children chatter excitedly as they run barefoot, while the men hold back: elegant, reserved, patient. The ghost town villages we now pass come wondrously to life: wooden gates opened, doors unbolted, toddlers playing games in courtyards. People run out to greet us, carrying baby animals sweetly attired in cast off sweaters of hot pink and banana yellow.
We arrive at his village, which seems to be a single road, a single strip of narrow earth, with a scattering of mud brick houses on either side. We pass a small mosque, painted bright electric blue with a raspberry heart shaped door, slightly ajar. The road has been carefully swept, and as if to prepare for our arrival, rose petals litter the pathways. The mud brick houses resemble medieval miniature castles, several stories high, with little turrets and small windows. Each door we pass is a work of art, heavily carved and decorated with symbols painted saccharine yellow.
His mother, round like an apple, is waiting for us at the family compound. His sisters and their children dart around us like birds, touching me and then running away. Everyone stares at me as Ahsan, his eyes tearing and his voice cracking, tells them I lost my voice. His mother takes my hand, leading me to a tiny mud brick room, where an empty rope cot sits waiting for me.
Sinking into the tiny cot, I try to fold my enormous body into proportions that will fit. Closing my eyes, I am gratefully ready to go into a long hibernation, when I realize I am not alone. Dozens of women from the community are entering the room from a tiny side door, some of them squeezing themselves onto my sagging cot like sardines, giggling at my enormous feet. An endless parade of colored saris swish past my eyes: jade green, eggplant purple, watermelon, cobalt, goldenrod.
Ahsan enters the room, telling me he doesn’t want me to be alone, but because he is man, he can’t stay here with me. Instead, the women of the village will look after me until I am well. I wish I could be alone, but it is fruitless to argue, I have no choice—and no voice.
The moment he steps out of the room the women surround my bed, touching my forehead, my hair, my legs, my feet. They turn my head this way and that way, pulling my hairpins out until my hair is loose. They look in my mouth, examine my teeth, and open my eyes wide, as if they are looking for my sorrow that has caused me to lose my voice. As they look intently for their signs, their hair coverings fall and they begin to use all of my hairpins, carefully doling them out so each woman gets a few.
More rope cots are brought in to the little room, so that there is scarcely space to walk between them, and soon they are covered with lounging boisterous women. They’ve brought their babies and their young toddlers, whose mothers delight in them whether they scream or gurgle quietly. The few windows are shut tightly, and the door is sealed from the inside with an enormous metal bar. Even in the dark, the women continue to talk, shout, and sing, and I wonder if peace will ever come.
It’s so hot in the room that I feel I may pass out, but I reason with myself that in my current state of exhaustion, this may not be such a bad thing. Yet in spite of the heat, someone is stirring coals in small clay pots, which are then placed under my rope cot, a mere foot from my behind. I try to shift position, but a woman holds me firmly in place, and motions for other women to lay down on either side of me, as well as a tiny child at my feet. Frustrated I cannot move and wondering if I will suffocate, I try to say that I am too hot, but no sound comes out of my mouth. Instead, more thick blankets are brought and layered upon my roasting body! Trapped, overheated, and with little oxygen in the tiny room, I fall into a deep dead sleep for two days, and dream of Calcutta.
I awake feeling I had been asleep for weeks, and I prop myself up on cushions to look around the room. I am alone except for a single woman, her soft broad face familiar-like Ahsan, she has a face which cannot lie. She moves to the side of my cot, and leaning down, she strokes my hair and face. She points to herself and softly says a word over and over again, “Salina. Salina. Salina.”
Salina swiftly leaves the room and returns with chai and deep fried bits of sweetened dough, which taste like pancakes and remind me of the pancake eating contests we used to have on Sunday mornings when I was a girl. As I eat, women with half covered faces gather at the doorways, leaning in and nodding appreciatively as I devour the entire plateful.
Salina and I walk out into a sky blue hallway which is half indoors and half outdoors, whose main feature is an enormous milk cow that is tethered to a tall wooden table. A mattress is brought, along with cushions and blankets, and I realize that they have set this table up as pallet for me. Next to it there is window where I can see into a neighbor’s garden of peach roses and jasmine growing in blue gas cans. I will share the sky blue hallway with this cow as my main companion for the next three weeks, as the women nurse me back to health.
Each morning I am taken to the sky blue hallway, and each morning I watch as the cow is milked to provide milk for my morning chai. At first I spend my days almost entirely alone, writing in my journal about the city I miss. I don’t notice the small things where I am, like the hand sharpened pencil that always is placed by my journal; the mural of leaves and vines the neighbor is painting on her back wall; or the constant plates of sweetened deep fried dough that always seem to appear when I wake up from my nap. But my voice returns, at first soft and breaking, then moving into its old graceful self, a gentle but powerful sound.
Slowly I forget my love of Calcutta, my love of its tangled urban alleyways, my love of its beat and pulse. I begin to notice the small things again, the way the cow has become accustomed to me and I to her; the way someone always leaves me a piece of hard candy on the windowsill by my pallet; and the way my clothes appear laundered and pressed as if I had taken them to the best laundress in New York City. Salina provides everything before I even know I need it, and she seems to appear whenever I think about her. She sings songs to me in the morning when I wake up, and in the evening she lays on my cot, stroking my hair.
One day I realize the neighbors’ mural is complete, and I ask Ahsan why they painted such a big mural on their wall. When he tells me that they painted it for me, so that I would have something beautiful to look at, my heart opens wide, healed. I find myself in love with these people who did not know me but who chose to nurture me back to wellness over the last few weeks. For the first time in months I am whole again and unbroken, and I spend the rest of that day looking at the mural of vines and leaves on the neighbors dun colored adobe wall.
My spirits lifted, my pallet somehow becomes the center of village life for the next few days, and it seems I always have visitors of numerous women and their children. Sometimes the children stay and nap with me, and when we wake up, I share my sweetened fried dough with them and teach them Patsy Cline songs with my recovered voice. The pallet that was once a place to rest becomes a place to laugh and love, and even the cow seems to enjoy having more people around.
When it’s finally time to leave, I know I’m not leaving behind just a simple one road village. I’m leaving behind my family: brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers. In spite of telling everyone not to cry when I leave, they begin wiping their tears with their saris and handkerchiefs. But I promise I will return, and since then, I have returned many times to the people who loved me even when they did not yet know me.