His toe floats closer to God than his grandmother’s prayers have ever reached. He is flying before he can walk. He is crossing oceans before he has taken his first step. His tummy grumbles.
The other airplane passengers fill the cabin with the smell of his grandmother’s cooking. They are like spices in the belly of an adventurous bird that must be cursing at itself for gorging on Indian food before traveling half way across the world.
The pungent pilgrims are just as eager as the bird to be defecated onto America: the land of the water fountain. Enveloped in a milky moonlight, they sail through hills of cotton searching for comfort.
Through the window the baby’s mother watches the moon run with them, perhaps because it is also not full. She is worried again. Did she make the right choice? Do they have rice in America? Will they see a better life?
Doubt is the irritating reminder that God keeps secrets. Even from the faithful.
She caught this current bout of concern from her parents in the taxi ride to the airport. Their anxiety was understandable. Her father rarely left the state and her mother rarely left the kitchen. For them traveling from their ancestral villages to the state capital was like leaving footprints on the moon.
Now their daughter and grandson were about to look down on the clouds. So despite the lack of air conditioning in the cab they wore attire suitable for their progeny’s ascension. Her mother wrapped her fair skin in a lush green Mysore silk sari. She wore a red butu from a Vishnu temple and white ash from a Siva temple on her wrinkled brow and a reflection of her sleeping grandson on her hazel eyes. Is he really the reincarnation of her son?
If Hinduism wasn’t written on her forehead, she could have easily passed for an Italian. Her husband, on the other hand, could have passed for an aboriginal. He had curly black hair, big south Indian eyes and a smile that played Simon-says with everyone else’s. He replaced his dark hairy chest and dhoti with a white buttoned down shirt and grey slacks. Sitting next to the cab driver in the front, he faced an obnoxiously large sticker placed on the windshield of the elephant god Ganesh. Ironically, Lord Ganesh, the remover of obstacles, was partially blocking his view as he attempted to survey a city that has changed so much since he had moved there so many years ago.
The city’s population had surely swollen beyond the point of obesity. Around them moving things of all types defied spatial dimensions as they inched over a narrow bridge like cholesterol squeezing through an artery. The baby’s grandfather could feel the city’s blood pressure rising with each beat of a malnourished hand against the window.
Their cab was a Hindustani Ambassador. It was hardly a luxury car, but, in those days, being in a car was a luxury. So beggars followed them like desert eyes follow heavy clouds, as they sluggishly treaded through a thick mixture of honks, burning filth, laughs, engines, cows, yells, chatter, barks, spices, monkeys, carts of fresh mangos, radio tunes, incense, and too many prayers. All of it competed to dance with every sense and sensibility as if choreographed by a Bollywood director.
The bridge they crawled over was created before it was planned; as if all of the pieces just didn’t fit together. Like most of the third world, it was designed by the God of survival and he is an industrious engineer. In his view all of the pieces can fit together; they just need some minor adjustments. From across the ravine a tall European church watched as daily traffic jammed rebellious pieces into place.
The poor bridge suffered from sclerosis. Cracks formed along its curve like the ones that will form on the baby’s mother’s frown left by his father’s wedding ring: their marriage just needed some minor adjustments.
In contrast to the bridge, the church seemed immaculate. It towered above the neighboring Indian buildings as if to trumpet its superior genetics– clearly engineered by a God with higher standards. Surveying this poor backward country with the intention of saving it, the church shifted its attention down below the bridge. India always has a way of reminding you that there are people below you.
The slum teemed with a kind of life that grows in the cracks of broken promises.
In a dirty gully, a group of boys were playing cricket. The bowler threw a stolen ball with his right hand. His left hand was cut off so that when he begged it could pull on the conscience of the privileged. A group of girls marched into the center of the game.
“Get out the way!” yelled the bowler.
“Not until you let us play!” responded the girl in the tattered yellow shalwar. She was leading a protest against gender discrimination in the neighborhood cricket game. The boys had very little patience, but the girls lost theirs a long time ago. The sun was setting and soon it would be too dark to play. They were already learning that in a society, which often denies its own sexuality, blame is too frequently placed upon a woman for the crimes committed against her if she does not find shelter before nightfall. They knew that if they didn’t take a stand now, there would be nothing left to fight for.
As the arguing commenced, one child turned her face towards the on looking church. Her eyes shined like two little mirrors, which the foreign spectator avoided peering into. The building preferred to focus on the seekers busily swarming around her. Disguised as monks, merchants, conquerors, slaves, and refugees, they seeped into this city from every place and every time to stake a claim on what cannot be conquered. Some have left their mark on the wall reeking of urine at the edge of the slum, where the images of a cross, a swastik, a star and crescent, and many others can be found. (The authorities painted them to stop people from peeing on the wall as part of an initiative to potty train a nation.)
But no matter what their flavor is, these are desert people. Lost pilgrims searching for a place where no one is thirsty.
And soon a few will be fortunate enough to leak out of a bird and into the land of the water fountain. In a North American airport a man’s brown hands would be waiting to cradle his son. Created before they were planned, the little boy would spend his childhood surveying every crack and blemish on those palms like a foreign spectator.
The family will zoom from the airport across a gray bridge into a gray city never noticing the river below. It will seem so lonely without villagers massaging its sides with dirty clothes and pilgrims climbing over each other just to die at its banks. In India, rivers are gods. In America, rivers are in the way. But what more could a pilgrim want?
Even in the land of plenty, there is never enough.
But far away, under a third world bridge, more people than drops of clean water went unnoticed. Each one carrying a unique spice, they swirled, clashed, danced, and, eventually, melted into Brown. Brown People on Brown earth that live in Brown walled huts with Brown thatched roofs. A Brown that has been steeping for millennia.
The church creaked back in the breeze to avoid the scent like a colonizer poorly hiding his repulsion for a native’s offering, but its attention was dragged to the native’s daughter staring from the slum. As if her eyes carried death, no matter how much the church refused to acknowledge them, it could not escape their lure. In those two little mirrors, the church could see how it leaned on the bridge like an old man too dignified for his cane. Apparently it was never actually standing, but falling with as much grace as possible. And soon, it too would dissolve into the brown like fresh milk poured into a pot of chai.
‘A tea stained city’ thought the little boy’s grandfather. From inside the cab the city looked like it was tinted in sepia. Apparently the ambassador was screening an antique film in its windows and the old man had seen this same tragic story too many times before.
It’s set in a place too familiar with life to know its value. Endless fields of fertile Brown for flags to blossom. Claiming them.
Green for Muslims.
Red for Communists.
Saffron for Hindus.
Crosses for Christians.
Flags planted on a muddy battlefield. We are not people, just a brown to be conquered.
Impatiently, the man glanced down at his wristwatch and then back through the windshield. Beyond the sticker of Lord Ganesh, he watched time hesitantly weave through a river of brown obstacles. In India, people are in the way. So he remained trapped in this theatre that constantly replayed the scene where his son is killed in an ambassador just like this one.
“I’m getting out!” thought his daughter looking out the taxi window with her son tightly in her arms.
“I’m getting out!” thinks his daughter looking out the airplane window with her son tightly in her arms. She doesn’t notice the illegal immigrant hiding on the back of his little hand. A third world moth snuck in and camouflaged its tea stained paper wings on his light brown skin. She is busy vigilantly watching the world outside that schemes to hurt him.
“After all, sons don’t hurt themselves,” thought her father. At least that’s what the police report confirmed. Officially, immediately after the accident, the driver scrambled out of the car and dissolved into the brown world outside. Her mother still prays. Hasn’t life proven to her that Karma is the only law in this country that cannot be bribed?
“It’s their fault!,” declares the feminist under the bridge. She points at brown children as the sun collapses onto the horizon.
From a bird soaring west, a mother watches the sun’s final breath disappear with the twilight as its ashes are scattered below. Pieces of its skin glow in broken bangles that litter a dirt road with constellations, cosmic dust in the footprints of children. Their little brown bodies become shadows soon to submerge into night.
She is worried again. Will they see a better life?
Amidst honks, yells and evening prayers,
one small voice cries,
“Guys, stop fighting, we don’t have that much time left!”
Where there is uncertainty, there is possibility