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Authors: Maria Chaudhuri

Beloved Strangers

BOOK: Beloved Strangers
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To my father and mother: You are always with me.

To my brother and sisters: You are my laughter.

To my husband and son: You are my gifts.

‘When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.’

kahlil gibran

Contents

Prologue

Saving Grace

Fallen

Beloved Strangers

Deep End

Sweet, Sour and Bitter

Epilogue

 

Acknowledgements

A Note on the Author

Prologue

The Three Stages of Separation

Kicking and Screaming

Maybe the child already knew that once she stopped sharing the same body with her mother, her world would shatter irreparably. That knowledge alone must have made her cling to the walls of her mother’s womb with all her infant strength.

Her mother lay on her back on a damp hospital bed, flanked on both sides by nurses in white. It was the hour after midnight, and she groaned with the pain of labour that had started eight hours ago. The sharpness had gone out of her cries. The only other sound was the unexpected December rain beating against the windows. And then, just as the nurses exchanged a tired look, neither mother nor child could hold on to each other any longer.

A great force overtook the two bodies that were still one, ripping them apart. Bones moving, skin splitting, tissues tearing. Blood, blood, more blood.

A head emerged, then a body, covered with the wounds of a perilous journey. As the nurse placed the baby in her mother’s arms, the little one didn’t cry, didn’t make a single sound but, in the wake of separation, looked on with great surprise.

This was the story of my birth. My first separation. My disembodiment.

Learning to Fly

In one corner of our school playground there was a stack of red cement bricks piled high against a wall. The wall was low enough that if we climbed on top of the stack, we could peer over it into the neighbour’s backyard. Every day when the last bell rang, my friend Nadia and I raced to the stack, climbed up on it and surveyed the view for a few minutes. It was not a spectacular backyard. The grass was not mown, the bushes were untended, and a child’s broken crib lay discarded next to a rusty metal chair. But there was something enchanting about the garden. Tall stalks of wild lilies grew everywhere, giant roses burst forth from overgrown bushes and deliciously ripe red tomatoes rolled on the ground where someone had once made a vegetable patch. The image of that abandoned garden, mysterious, lonely, yet full of possibility, made my imagination soar.

‘I want to run away,’ I told my friend Nadia.

‘Where to?’

‘Dallas,’ I said, remembering the Ewing family from the popular television show and their beautiful ranch in Dallas, Texas.

‘Let’s run away to New York! I have an uncle there.’

‘So you’ll come with me?’

‘I could.’

We both remained silent for a moment, contemplating the feasibility of the plot.

‘What about our parents?’ I said at last.

Nadia frowned and I immediately regretted my query.

‘They will forget about us,’ she concluded with a slight twitch of her lips.

‘You’re right.’ I agreed.

My friend nodded, linking her arm through mine. ‘We could become actresses and get our own house. A big house with a red-tiled roof.’

‘Or we could be detectives, like Nancy Drew and solve mysteries all the time.’

We looked at each other and giggled. We were inside our plot now – we were characters moving the plot forward. And we got into it so much that it became our daily after-school ritual in first grade. We spun the same reverie of escape and it left us breathless with excitement every time. Even as adults, we never really asked each other why, back then, it was so important for us to plan on running away.

It was not that home, for me, was an unhappy place. But in our home joy had an ephemeral quality to it. It was like trying to catch a glimmer of sunshine that slips in through a crack and dances around the room but never quite settles. We were novices at capturing joy, never able to hold on to it for very long.

I asked my mother one day what would make her truly happy. She thought for a second before responding, ‘If I could go to a place very far away from here, all by myself, where I could just sing, I would be happy.’

My heart sank at the thought of losing Mother. ‘Is there such a place?’ I asked fearfully.

‘Sure. Up in the mountains,’ she replied.

I was young enough to think that avoiding mountains was the only way to keep Mother at home. But I was also old enough to understand that my mother was not happy at home. She needed to be up in the mountains to be happy. And she needed to be there alone. Despite myself, I began to devise subtle ways of leaving my mother alone. Perhaps if she could be left alone right
here
at home, she’d be happy and never leave for the mountains. So I listened to her more than I spoke to her. I observed her rather than follow her. I found ways to be near her without disturbing her. And I began to think that being alone was the right way to be. Even though it didn’t always feel right. Especially when I had bad days at school and needed comfort and advice or when I struggled to understand something on my own but was too afraid to ask Mother about it or when I laid sick in bed wishing that someone would lie next to me and read me stories all night.

Letting Go

When I was eighteen years old, I left Dhaka and went to America to claim my new home. After that, Dhaka’s trees, shrubs, air and water decided that I was not fit to return to her. So she attacked me and after she was done, the skin on my face was her burning red trophy, my sinuses and air passages the plundered pathways of her victory. She polluted her water so I could neither cool my infected organs nor douse the fire in my throat. I limped about the house, my whole body one large noxious pustule. My mother regarded me with dubious sympathy, ‘But we are all breathing this air and drinking this water, and so did you for eighteen years!’ How could I tell her that the water had been poisoned specially for my lips, the air made toxic only for my lungs? I knew what was happening to me was nothing but the seal of a vital separation between Dhaka and me, my old life and the new one I sought.

My older sister Naveen, who also returned to Dhaka for holidays, was never punished in the same way. The city greeted her with open arms, made her skin glow and rewarded her with hours of glorious rest and recreation. Naturally, my sister wanted me to snap out of it and join her in her sojourns. She too, regarded me with suspicion, ‘Surely you can’t be feeling
that
bad?’

Oh, but I did feel that bad. Even Dhaka’s doctors were perplexed. It wasn’t allergy season. The trees were almost bare. They couldn’t figure out what was giving me this set of allergic reactions. One doctor asked, hopefully, if I ate a lot of shellfish. ‘No,’ I croaked, ‘I don’t eat any shellfish.’ Another doctor suggested that we wash all the rugs and curtains in the house to get rid of mites. A tumultuous week followed. The maids scurried about, washing the curtains in boiling hot water. Rugs were cleaned and dried in the hot sun, floors were wiped with antiseptic solutions. The mites may have perished, but my misery lived on. The helpless doctors stuffed my eyes, ears, nose and mouth with every potion at their disposal until, finally, I lay in a limp and medicated heap, unable to move or speak. Still, the vile liquids flowed and flowed, draining my lymph system only to fill it to the brim again. They were viscous liquids of brilliant colours: crimson, green, yellow. Like wicked schools of fish they crawled along my body, spreading their venom everywhere.

The following year, I decided to arm myself with American ammunition to put up a fight against my Bengali ailment. Hidden under the layers of clothes and shoes in my suitcase, were my weapons – Claritin, Zyrtec, Allegra, Singulair, Nasonex, Benadryl, Sudafed, Tylenol-Sinus and many more. I anointed my body with the concoctions of war and waited for ambush. It came after three days of waiting. The liquids rose within me like an apocalypse. The war was over before it began. I lay in a state of semi-consciousness for days. The world came to me in shadows, moving closer in the shapes of hands that fed me more liquids. I dimly remember the desire for solidity and dryness. All I dreamed of during those melting hours was to be whole once more, to feel the entirety of my body, to be revitalised through every breath, to be held upright and propelled forward again by the force of each muscle, tissue, ligament and bone.

Each time I was there, Dhaka was merciless to me until she exiled me from her soil once more. As soon as my airplane lifted off Dhaka’s angry bosom, my body would begin to repair itself. By the time I inhaled the frigid air of New York, I could smell again the rancid scents of coffee, fries and cigarettes. What had Dhaka smelled like? I longingly wondered. And I knew I would have to return to her, again and again, until my insides became redolent with her breath.

Saving Grace

I still remember the night my father came back from the hospital to tell me I’d had a baby sister instead of a baby brother. He tried to smile, but the muscles in his face wouldn’t relax. In my five-year-old mind, I knew immediately what had gone wrong: I had cheated. Because I didn’t understand Arabic I had translated my prayers into Bengali. But God must be spoken to in the Holy Language. I was too afraid to tell my father about my terrible mistake but it seemed that he already knew. He put me to bed and told me that the best time to ask for God’s forgiveness was right before going to sleep, when the mind was too exhausted to lie.

I wasn’t as eager for God’s forgiveness as I was for my father’s. It seemed that there was always a glass wall through which I viewed my father. This wall was my father’s fear of God, his belief in what God wanted me to do rather than what he wanted from me. Every evening my father would come around to announce prayer time. He’d instruct me and my sister to perform our ablutions and go over the list of things to ask from God:

 

1.        baby brother

2.        long lives and good health

3.        a big house of our own

4.        a job at the World Bank head office in Washington D.C. for him.

 

My father warned us that if we didn’t pray hard enough, God wouldn’t answer us. I wanted to ask my father what would happen if God didn’t answer our prayers but was afraid of upsetting him with such a question. We were supposed to believe in God because He was Merciful, Powerful and All-Knowing. We were supposed to believe that there was kindness in whatever He had in store for us, even if it caused suffering at times. If we believed in God, we had to have faith in His absolute knowledge. At five, I didn’t understand God and His essence as well as I understood my need to please my father. I knew that if I tried to follow the instructions of God, I would please Father.

And so I imagined having God over for tea, getting to know Him over a light-hearted tête-à-tête. Would He drink his tea with milk and sugar, taking care to gingerly dip His Marie biscuits into the hot sweet liquid so as not to lose its crumbling edge inside the cup? Or, maybe we could invite Him for a real meal. Surely God would like the spicy mutton biryani and juicy haandi kebabs made by our cook Amol. Did God like to eat? He must. If He had never felt hunger in His life, how had He known to make us so hungry?

BOOK: Beloved Strangers
8.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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