I saw her on a long distance trip.
The bus from Las Vegas was scheduled to arrive at 5:20 am in this small town in Utah, where I stayed for several days. From there I started the next leg of my trip. I did not want to be late. When I came out of the hotel room the manager was asleep in his cubby behind the office in that early dawn. I did not want to wake him. I left the key in the keyhole and left. It was dark, cold and lonely outside. I walked to the nearby gas station that served as the bus station as well. No other passenger seemed to be waiting for this bus. But the bus did arrive at 5:10 am, a full five minutes earlier than scheduled. I thanked myself for being in the station a little early. The driver, a portly middle aged lady, opened the door and came out to check my ticket. She opened the luggage compartment in the belly of the bus, pushed in my suitcase and closed it. She then followed me inside the bus, took her seat in the driver’s seat, and closed a tiny safety door around her. There were only a few passengers in the bus and it was very quiet. I took my seat behind the driver. Everybody looked asleep, or if not completely asleep they were trying their best to sleep. The driver started the bus and turned off all the lights inside.
“Where are you heading today?” the driver asked me in a low voice so as not to disturb the sleeping passengers.
“Junction,” I replied.
“Junction?” the driver wanted to be sure. “You mean Junction, Kansas?”
“Kansas? No. No,” Did I then get on to the wrong bus – I thought. “I want to go to Junction in Colorado.”
“That’s Junction City, Sir,” The driver corrected me. “Junction is in Kansas. Junction City is in Colorado. You want to go to Junction City in Colorado.” She took a breath.
“I won’t go that far.” She was now more relaxed. “There would be a change of driver before that. And that next driver is going to go to Junction City. And I am going to tell her to drop you off there.”
It was early and still dark outside. The driver appeared to be happy to have someone to talk to. Initially I wondered if she was feeling sleepy driving silently all by herself. But that was not the case – she was alert. In another hour or so the driver announced that the bus is going for a rest- stop. It was a gas station-cum restaurant and convenience store. She told passengers that this was a good time if anyone wanted to use the bathroom. Most of the passengers got off. Their eyes and disheveled hair told of the sleeplessness that they had gone through. Some stood in line for the early breakfast at the Subway restaurant.
When the bus finally started from the rest-stop the faint light of the day was slowly appearing on the horizon. I could see that the passengers were still trying to sneak a nap. I tried to guess about my fellow passengers: their age, their race and may be their social and economic background and I was curious to sneak a peek into their lives and their families. If the upbringing has any bearing on one’s physical appearance then none of them appeared to have come from a privileged past. Of all the passengers that I have come in contact with so far, most came from a class that I didn’t know much about in America, but they were the ones that I wanted to know the most.
An hour or so passed. I silently unbuckled my seat belt, stood up and took a slow walk down the aisle to the back of the bus. My alibi was to visit the lavatory at the end. On my right on the other side of the aisle was a middle aged lady who evoked the best impression of the bunch. Behind my seat and leaning over his backpack in sleep was a thin, malnourished white man. He would leave the most dramatic and traumatic effect on all of the passengers down that day. An African American young man was asleep curled up in the flat three-passenger seat next to the bathroom. I would not have chosen that seat to avoid the jerky motion at the back of the bus. But the young man seemed to be taking advantage of the little roomier space. He remained undisturbed as I opened and closed the bathroom door. In the middle seat was sleeping a Caucasian lady in her early to mid-thirties. Bereft of physical beauty and material means she reminded me of those luckless young widows of my yore. Next morning when the bus halted at another rest-stop for the passengers to clean up I noticed an effort on her part to keep away from any direct eye contact with others. I saw the sadness in her face and noticed her insecurity.
Who a lady would be travelling from Las Vegas, the sin city, alone on this all-night bus trip? My mind roamed the alleyways of my memory to seek a similarity – any similarity – to link her to the people I had known. I remembered Radha-pishi, my Radha auntie, that young widow who took care of me in my childhood. Radha-pishi still had the glow of her youth then. And she was forced to move from one family to the next to secure her survival. Might she be travelling this bus on this night to earn an existence if she were in America now? I don’t know. But I wouldn’t blame her. I felt that “Radha aunties” are also in America, strewn away in the by-lanes of life, lost in the apparent dazzle of this country’s prosperity.
I had searched for Radha auntie when I grew up and I wanted to know what had happened to her. When Ma came to visit me in America I thought about asking her about Radha auntie. But something stopped me from doing that. For I knew that would have opened a can of unsavory worms left closely shut and hidden away in our mutual memories many decades ago. It was in East Bengal and Radha-pishi came to work for our family when I was a mere toddler. My developing sense of understanding was then fresh and it absorbed human emotions like a dry sponge thirstily absorbs water.
I remember that Radha grew up in her parents’ home in the middle of a village not far from ours, and in the dry months we could easily walk there. But in the rainy seasons, we had to use a tiny boat, which we children were not allowed to use. Radha-pishi was Dotto-der meye, the Dotto family’s daughter. She looked young and beautiful. And she was a widow without any children. Not our immediate relative, she was a sister by acquaintance to my father and thus she became my pishi (auntie). In this culture, we create relations based on one’s age and sex. A middle aged man becomes an uncle. A young girl becomes a sister. Without a husband and child, Radha-pishi lost all her claims to a home and livelihood, which was the accepted practice in our culture. As it happens with so many other young widows in Bengal villages, she ended up in her parents’ house after the death of her young husband. I never knew how he died.
Brought up to be married off at a young age, the young girls in these societies were illiterate. They were worthy of no other work but to raise and take care of their families. And when there was no family of their own to take care of, they became the care taker of the village as a whole – if and when anyone needed them. When no one needed them they had no way to support themselves. That was how Radha-pishi lived her life and so she was happy to come to our home helping my family. Along with Mohi, our live-in helper, she became the new help of the family. She cooked her own food in the small shed attached to the kitchen. And she might have slept in one corner of the long veranda of our big house. She had few material possessions – a couple of outfits and a container to pack her cooking pots. Radha never raised her voice, did not get involved in any fracas in the family and when challenged, she meekly moved on without a protest. Living on the pity of others in the society, she knew that there was no one to defend her.
Besides helping my mother in endless family chores, she also babysat me and took me around the neighborhood. In the summer evenings, when my mother used to be busy cooking inside the kitchen, she usually sat in the courtyard of the house. On a mat, stretching her legs, she would lay me in the cusp of her stretched legs and slowly bounced me up and down to help me fall asleep. Looking upward, I saw the bright silvery stars twinkling high up in the dark sky above. And I saw stars streaking across the open sky and falling somewhere on the earth. Jackals howled from near a haunted house in the distance. In no time the neighborhood dogs started barking. And in the pitch black darkness I grabbed Radha-pishi’s hand and softly said, “Pishi, I am scared of the jackal.”
“Don’t be afraid, Baba,” Radha-pishi held me in her bosom and hugged dearly to comfort me. “I am your meye and I shall be always with you!”
“Meye?” I wondered loudly and cheerfully.
“Because you are my Baba,” she said poignantly. I could see her shining wet eyes in the light of the stars.
From then on I called her Radha-meye. In some evenings she carried me on her waist around the neighborhood till I would fall asleep and she would hand me over to Ma. Getting up in the morning, I would still look for Radha-meye. I was so attached to her!
She created her little ‘home’ in the nooks and crannies of our large house and her kitchen was in the outer shed. She collected her food from working around the village. In the early spring when the farmers finished harvesting their winter vegetable crops, Radha-meye went around the fields collecting the left over tiny potatoes that the farmers did not care to collect. She would then fry them for dinner. Being her ward, I got the chance to consume a part of the food. In our home I could never taste such tiny potatoes because they were too lowly for my mother’s cooking. The ones Radha-meye fried tasted so amazing that I have never forgotten them.
And who would be the chaperone for taking the kids to the winter fair? Radha-meye took me and a few kids to the arong (fair) at Afra one year on the last day of the Bengali winter month. We walked through the dry winter fields from our village to the next, and then the next; then we crossed the paved road, the only paved road we had in that area, on which buses ran. After walking through more empty winter fields we reached Afra, the place where two rivers met. We crossed the river by a ferry. The arong was in full swing: kids were riding the ferris-wheel, and the candy man was making pink and blue cotton candies. Radha-meye bought cotton candies for us. The winter day was short and we had to return early; thin patches of shapeless, gray-white clouds stretched across the afternoon sky as we crossed the vast, empty field. Crisp winter wind chilled my bare feet and they also hurt walking on the sharp stalks that had dried after the harvest. The day was clear, the sky ethereal, ambiance unforgettable and the serenity of the endless open horizon forever shaped my memory.
But those happy days did not last very long. A game had already been started behind me that as a child I would not have guessed. Around that time one day, Baba and Ma seemed to have some disagreement. They never quarreled. Only that Ma stopped eating. Neighbors came to talk to Ma to relent, but Ma did not. And then Baba also stopped eating. I don’t remember for how long it continued, but one day Baba left for Hindustan. Many years later I heard that it was because Ma neglected her home cooking.
Around that time one day Radha-meye started working for our relative next door. Soon she started moving her belongings from our house. One evening while she was working nearby, I caught sight of her. Somehow she did not notice me nor did she come to put me on her lap. I cried out loud for her attention. Before she would have come and held me to her bosom. But she did not come that day. My mother finally came and took me away. Radha-meye seemed to forget me from then on. I longed for her and it was many years later that I came to know why. Ma did not like her affection for me. She felt that Radha was encroaching on my Ma’s relationship with her little son. A widow’s maternal instinct was standing in the way of my mother’s love. My mother did not like her being attached to me anymore and wanted Radha to move out of our house – which she did. This created a void in me that I lost only after we fled East Bengal and take refuge in the West.
Many years later as East Bengal was exploding under the grip of the Pakistani military, millions of people came seeking shelter in West Bengal and I wanted to see if Radha-meye might have crossed the border along with others. However I could not reveal that to Ma. One day, I traveled to the border town, seeking Radha-meye in case she might have crossed the border with all the unlucky millions. But I fell ill from heat and exhaustion. When I arrived home the next day, Ma had to call the doctor home. I told Ma that I had gone out with my friends, and had to spend the night with them. I could not tell her the whole truth; I spent those two days searching for Radha-meye in the refugee camps along the border town, and I did not find anyone of that name or resemblance. I never heard of Radha-meye again. Years passed, and I went to a university, and then to America for even higher education. Over time, I stopped thinking about her.
Later, Ma came to visit me in America. She spent a lot of time alone on the sofa, watching the television. Though she did not know English and did not understand the conversations among the characters, I guessed that she could pick up the story. Sometimes when I returned from office and we ate dinner, I would sit near her watching the evening news, and the next show after that. On one of those days, there was the very hot story of the divorce of famous movie actors. There is really nothing unique about such news in American Hollywood stories. But this divorce happened because the wife claimed that her husband had an affair with the nanny of the family, a beautiful girl who took care of the couple’s young children.
That story reminded me of my own childhood and of Radha-meye, who dearly cared for me and who was a beautiful nanny in our house. One difference was that she was a young widow. Now that I was older, I started to look back and wonder if there might have been some similarities there. I started to ask myself, once again, what the two ladies had fought about so many years ago. Was it about me, who both Ma and Radha-meye loved dearly? The memory that comforted me was also the memory that came back to confront me. And conspire. If that was the case then why did Baba and Ma stop eating and why did Radha-meye leave? Why did the elder neighbors come to our house late at night, when us children would normally be asleep, to try to intervene between my parents? They talked in whispers as if to keep us children undisturbed. And what made Baba leave for Hindustan? My longing for Radha-meye’s love started to create cracks. My world unraveled. Was there then another love triangle that existed?
Could it really be Baba who created the friction between the two ladies? It had to be a social taboo. Radha-meye might have lost in that socially-forbidden fight, like all the other fights in her life. But I harshly questioned my doubt.
“Such affair can only happen in a promiscuous society,” I tried to blame it on America.
“Is that right?” my conscience retorted. “Then what happened between Malanchi-mashi and her next door neighbor? Was that not love?”
“But it’s so difficult to happen in such an old and open society,” I tried to temper down the raging tempest in me. “It was such a rural place.”
“So love does not happen in small villages?” countered my morality.
I realized that my long-held beliefs about a simple life and love could no longer satisfy the logic of a mature mind. In my mind I tried to salvage whatever was left of the sweet serenity of my childhood. Was her love for Baba the main reason Ma had fought? Then what about me? What about all the love I cherished and longed for? “Was I then just a pawn in the middle,” I asked myself. “Was I just a collateral casualty?”
The next stop was my destination. The landscape along the highway outside had grown vast and lonely. Craggy, twisting canyons with burnt-red buttes beckoned in the distance. It was then that I heard a female voice sobbing on a phone. Though the voice was muffled by the noise of the moving bus I could hear her nonetheless.
“He beats me,” the voice cried inconsolably. It was that lady. Fellow passengers around grew inquisitive. But the bus wheezed brazenly past that desolate land. It was surreal. And I wondered if Radha-meye would have done anything like that if she was in America. The lady tried to hide her face between the seats and lower her voice.
“I don’t want to go back to him anymore,” her voice cracked. “He does not love me no more.”
(I like to thank Mrs. Catherine C. for her advice and editorial help.)