Betrayed by the City That Raised Me


Betrayed by the City That Raised Me

The Waiting Room by Annesha Mitha

I sweat through my blouse in a police station in Kolkata, not far from the house where I grew up. Kolkata is an unkind city in July.

The officers look at me like a foreign object. I want to say, bhai, how are you? Or bhai, any news? But all my energy goes towards breathing: one moment, then another, then another. Each breath, each moment, is a kind of failure. This wasn’t supposed to happen.

I hold tightly to my passport. It helps to have an American passport. It garners an ugly sort of respect. And though it is the thought of a selfish person, I want these men to help me before they help anyone else.

I shouldn’t be here, waiting. I lost hours to panic when I should have been searching carefully, logically. When I realized she was missing I ran. I rushed through the stalls, asking strangers if they had seen a girl, a little girl, alone, my little girl, alone. I yelled her name, the syllables singing my tongue. Tears escaped me. I looked under tables and behind curtains, hoping beyond hope that my Mrittika was playing hide and seek, that her smiling face, smooth and mischievous, was just one step, one glance, away from me. In this way, I searched almost the whole market, losing time I could not afford. But the police assured me that it was their job to find her, my job to wait. The moment is unyielding, a pebble in the throat. Maybe fifty years from now I will think: if only I had stayed calm, searched methodically. If only I hadn’t lost my head. I lived in this city at least as long as these police officers have, with their barely-there mustaches. I know where a frightened child could be hiding.

July barrels through the city. It’s part of the reason I came, part of the reason I brought Mrittika. I wanted to remember what heat felt like. I wanted to teach her what sweat does to skin, how lucky she is to be cool whenever she wants. I knew she would suffer in Kolkata. At eight years old, she has never experienced temperatures like this, heat that sweeps headlines. She still thinks the word inside is synonymous with relief. I thought, like my mother thought before me, that suffering makes girls strong.

And maybe if I had been more careful in the market. If I had held her hand, even when she grew sweaty and restless, her fingers squirming in mine like a fistful of worms, even when she wrenched with the force of a wild animal, feral and unkind. Maybe if I had trusted the city less. I told her—you can explore the stalls next to this one, but no further. And come back to me in five minutes. She smiled and ran so quickly her shoes bruised the pavement. I knew that smile spelled trouble, but I pushed that sense of trouble back into my gut. I wanted her to like this city. I wanted her to like me. I watched her dart towards the long-nosed goats. I started towards her, I tripped over the curb, I picked myself up, I looked up, she was gone.

The quietest places in Kolkata can still be louder than American’s loudest. You have to listen differently here. In America, I could be talking to the dry cleaner, or picking out a new scarf, and all the while I would hear the butterfly sound of her footsteps in the glow-in-the-dark sneakers she had begged me for last Christmas. There were always, even in the most chaotic mall or the loudest highways, small pockets of silence, a way to listen to the world. I could hear the rustle of her summer dress against her scraped knees, or the open-mouth way she breathed when she was thinking very hard about something. And once I turned away from my errand, I would know, instinctively, which way to move my body so that our bodies would reunite.

But in Kolkata, sounds bleed freely into one another. There is no isolated breathing, only the combined breath of an entire block. Haggling drowns haggling. Metal drowns metal. Teeth and tongue and spit and all the sounds a person can make. Who could be prepared to witness this beautiful chaos for the first time? Not my daughter, a child of the suburbs. Maybe if I had prepared her.

I only looked away for a second, I told the police, and they smirked at me. They thought I was a bad mother, and were they wrong? I thought I could still hear her, but the sounds of so much living tricked me. My daughter vanished into the sound.

A woman walks into the station. She counts the tiles on the floor to keep from fainting or screaming. Her sari is green, slightly damp, and she holds the end of the transparent cloth over her face in what was either an effort to block the sun or a sign of modesty. I know from her hands that she has worked hard all her life. I know from the stretch marks encircling the soft pout of her stomach that she is also a mother.

She approaches the officer, who sits in the cold air behind the plastic divider. Her words come out quickly, and my eroded Bangla picks up only snatches. Her son, an entire week, gone. He seems interested until he sees her hands. His remaining interest is lost when she gives the age of her son: sixteen.

“A sixteen-year-old boy should be just fine on his own, shouldn’t he?” He looks cruel behind the flat plastic glass. The American passport burns in my pocket, but I know that he would have listened to me even if I were not American. I have soft hands, the hands of someone who was born with a powerful father. And though I am ashamed, I was glad that the police were out looking for my daughter, and not this woman’s son. Let every other child in the world be lost, I thought, only let her be found. It’s such a lie: that suffering makes us kinder.

The mother sits down on the other side of the station, a clipboard and pen clutched awkwardly to her chest. She looks at me with a strange sort of pity, and for a minute I wondered if the police officer had told her why I was here, what I had done. But then I realize that I am drenched in a horrible amount of sweat. Sweat: the first sign of a foreigner, someone whose body has become accustomed to the cold.

I hadn’t slept well last night, though Mrittika did. All night she snored softly next to me, rumbling awake only once or twice to wipe the sweat from her forehead. Children’s bodies sweat with grace; they don’t smell, or don’t smell of anything other than human. They are comfortable with the salt and shine. It bothered me, for some reason, that Mrittika was no exception. It bothered me that she didn’t ask for the air conditioner. Watching her comfort, I felt as though we had somehow switched lives: me, the awkward American, her, the confident Kolkata child.

When I was little, I liked pretending that my dolls were helpless and not very smart. I would teach them everything: what the sun was, how to walk. And then they would forget so I could teach them again. I secretly loved when Mrittika was helpless. Every day she doesn’t need me, I feel a sense of loss. Sometimes I think Mrittika is too smart of a girl. I miss her babyness, her soft, pliable stupidity. I thought it would return here, where she barely knew the language, forming words in a clumsy American tongue, but she was bright, brave, and though I should not have been, I was annoyed. Maybe if I was not annoyed.

I scolded her all morning. I scolded her for not folding her towel. I scolded her for walking too quickly down the stairs, to where my sister-in-law had prepared a breakfast of maggi noodles. I scolded her for not holding her grandmother’s hand, when we went into her bedroom to say good morning. Then, I scolded her for holding her grandmother’s hand too tightly.

She looked at me with anger so incandescent I wouldn’t have been surprised if she unhinged her jaw and swallowed me whole.

By the time we were in the autorickshaw on our way to New Market, Mrittika was full of rage, all fists and sweat and narrowed eyes. She looked at me with anger so incandescent I wouldn’t have been surprised if she unhinged her jaw and swallowed me whole. Instead, she scooted all the way to the other side of the rickshaw, which worried me, because it was close to the open window where the cars whooshed by. I remember being a child and being clipped by the side mirror of a car, nursing the flat bruise for months. But I felt guilty for snapping, so I said nothing.

I have never felt unsafe in New Market. I know the old stalls; the Jewish bakery, my favorite kati roll place, the Bhutanese woman who sells beautiful silver jewelry. So I did not take Mrittika’s rage seriously. I would get her a snack or a bangle. I would let her pet a friendly dog, as long as she used antiseptic wipes to clean her hands afterwards.

But in the market, she wouldn’t hold my hand. Maybe if she had held my hand.

The shadows lengthen. I watch the only scrap of street visible from my sticky plastic chair. My sweat has dried and crystallized, the sharp salt cutting the tender folds of my skin. There is a fan, but I sit out of its scope. I don’t deserve relief. I deserve the stickiness under my arms, between my thighs, every bit of discomfort this world has to offer, I deserve it.

A white man walks in, and everyone jumps. Whiteness is rare in the city of Kolkata, most of the tourists are drawn to Agra or Delhi or Goa. But still, some still have the false song of Mother Teresa in their heads. To them, the city is an endless wound, a place to pour your good intentions and never, ever run out. We could tell that this was one of those white men, a missionary with a cheesy Bible verse on the back of his shirt and a collar of sweat even thicker than my own. He filled out a form for his lost phone and left. The policeman said, in a stilting English, that they would contact him if the phone was found, and the American looked happy, as if he expected the phone to be found. He did not bother waiting.

A street dog ambles into the police station, shivering with age. He has a scrap of coconut shell between his worn teeth, and he spits it onto the floor and licks at it furiously, trying to coax the last few drops of sweetness from the husk. He has the same snout as our beagle back at home. The officer chases him away, but not violently, with an affectionate tap to the rump. The officer treats the dog with more tenderness than the mother, who still sits across from me, clutching her clipboard like a shield. The dog sighs and sits on the front steps, watching the street just as I am. He does not look at me, does not even turn to smell me. I do not smell of food or friendship. We look out at the street together.

I am looking for my daughter. I cannot say what the dog is looking for, maybe food, maybe nothing. He soon falls asleep under the umbrella of my gaze.

If we had stayed in the house, like my mother had asked us to. I haven’t called her yet, said those words into the phone, “Mrittika is missing.” She’s the kind of old that can’t tolerate heartbreak. She used to sleepwalk, tottering, as if by magic, on legs that couldn’t hold her in the daylight. Our concrete floors put an end to that. She fell one night, pulling down a bookshelf on top of her. Her shins broke, the white bone winking from a rift in her flesh. She didn’t wake up, but she screamed. She screamed and screamed until my doctor brother came downstairs and bandaged her legs and injected her with morphine, scolding her all the while. She’ll die before she walks again.

When I left for America fifteen years ago, my mother had strong bones and paper-thin wrinkles into which morning light pooled, so that in sleep her face looked like sculpture. She was aging well, “with grace,” as they say, her neck still long and straight. Her skin peeked through the cracks in her sari, soft and alive.

If I hadn’t left, I would have been able to cradle her through her aging. I would have been able to comb her silver hair, even as it fell away in my hands. Instead, news came to me in fragments over the phone, usually relayed by my brother. I learned of her stomach bugs and sinus infections, her reduced mobility, the way her spine began to shrink into her body after the fall. I learned of it all but I did not witness it, and it became so that I could not bear to look.

“Stay with me today?” she asked in the morning, when I pulled a cranky Mrittika into her room.

“We’re going to New Market,” I yelled in her ear. I talk to her by holding her hand, kissing her forehead, stroking her hair.

“No,” she said, smacking her toothless gums together, “stay with me.”

“We can’t,” I replied, even though we could. But you can’t spend forever with your mother. That was the logic that brought me to America, the logic that took me to the market this morning. Maybe if I had spent forever with my mother.

I know this street corner. I know almost every street corner. There. The place where, once, I spilled ice cream all over my school frock. Ma said no ice cream for a month and I cried. That’s where the street dog used to snuffle at me while I waited to cross. I kicked her once, by accident, and spent the evening crying in shame. No name, spots, skin red and cracked with mange. There used to be a man there, over there, selling Coca-Cola spiced with tamarind, which I always eyed but never bought, remembering my doctor father’s warning: soft drinks, built for addiction.

I grew up so slowly. I was thirty before I was married and still, in many ways, a child. I was still living at home. It was impossible, in those days, to be a woman without a husband. I tried my hardest to avoid a husband and so remained trapped in the amber of girlhood, untouched, uncurious, unobserved.

But my daughter has such an ease with the world. She is fearless. She will feel older than me in a few years.

Two years ago, my daughter had a seizure. She died, then came back to life, a moment of silence between her two heartbeats. In my panic, I couldn’t remember the number I needed most: 911. I kept dialing the India numbers, time blasting around me, I was a girl again, and who was this child I was holding in my arms? She could not possibly be mine, yet she was sick, a sick child who would die without me. I called and called, my voice landing nowhere. I felt like I was in Kolkata again. I could not understand that America existed, let alone that I existed inside of it. Eventually, my senses snapped back into place. The ambulance came. It was a fever, the doctor told me, her brain cooking in its shell. No brain damage, I was reassured, and it was unlikely to happen again.

After that, I noticed a troubling bravery in my daughter. She’d wander further away from me, into street puddles, and several times I had to yank her from the path of cars. I would yell at her until tears streamed down her face, but she would do it again, and again. Within a year she had fractured both wrists, but even the casts seemed like a game to her. She’d come back from school with both of them covered in kindergarten scrawl.

Two blocks from here is the kati roll stall where I had my first beef. My college friends and I, disillusioned with the stuffiness of our Hindu parents, ran there giggling after class.

There’s a version of Hinduism where you lose your faith the minute beef touches your tongue. We wanted to lose our faith, with the same thrill I’ve seen at Mrittika’s sleepovers, when the girls take turns running to the bathroom and screaming, “Bloody Mary Bloody Mary Bloody Mary” with the lights off, except we were so much older, thirty-year-old children. The Muslim shop owner recognized us and rolled his eyes—spoiled girls, he thought, seeking rebellion. He gave us the beef rolls, beef udder for the more adventurous of us, but with extra, extra spice, then burst out laughing as we squealed from the heat. We stuck out our tongues in a joyful defiance, and that only made him laugh harder. Our tongues were swollen, red.

I can feel the joy I had in this city slowly being rewritten, rewired. This isn’t the city where I grew up anymore. This is the city where I lost my daughter.

I wanted Mrittika to feel free. My mother filled me with stories of men stealing girls, driving them out to the countryside, raping them, leaving them there to be mauled by tigers, the remaining flesh picked clean by vultures. She filled me with fear of the rain, how it could wash me away, slide trees down the hillsides to the street, swell the Ganges’ large tongue, fill the car, freeze my tender skin. She filled me with stories of disease. The smallpox that blistered my uncle, in those days before the vaccine, the malaria that sweat the life from an aunt. The elephantiasis of the man down the street, his leg brutal and bruised, larger than his waist. How my father used to chase him down the street with a vaccine, promising the cure, but the man was more afraid of needles than he was of his swollen leg.

I didn’t want that for Mrittika. Instead, I told her about how, when I was seven, my cousin, the one with the telescope glasses (no, not the one who was mean to you on Whatsapp), bet that I wouldn’t drink street water. I did, my mouth wet and smiling. I didn’t tell her how I came down with typhoid, only that I won the bet. I told her about chai wallas on street corners, how you couldn’t replicate that exact mixture of sweet and spiced in America. How the city was so gray that each scrap of green—a tree, a leaf—came as a soft-spoken gift. How there are entire streets that love dogs, take care of them. Entire other streets that love cats, leave bowls of milk outside. I told her about the amusement park on the Ganga, the rides that swirled and bucked in the same cadence as the black waves. I told her about the food in Tangra, shrimps as big as my palm, fried and doused in chili paste. Tangy, crunchy, cauliflower. I told her about her grandmother’s food. Ilish maach with so many bones you had to sift through them with your fingers. Like searching for treasure, I said.

I told her about the monsoons, how they filled up the entire sky like the earth was only another room to be flooded. I told her how the kids would stream outside, clothes wet, sucking rainwater down their throats. I didn’t tell her about how, each year, the flooding became worse, the water circling city center, tilting the buildings inwards. I didn’t tell her that by the time her children’s children’s children are old enough to understand the world, Kolkata might not be here at all.

I wish now I had told her the horror stories, too, the ones that every city has. The murders and rapes and bridge collapses and riots. I wish I had kept her a little afraid.

Another police officer walks inside. He looks too young. He has the wringable neck of a chicken, and his mustache curls outwards, as if to swallow his head. He doesn’t look at me, but avoids me with a consciousness that makes me think he is here because of me, because of Mrittika. He whispers to the cop behind the window, who whispers back. They speak in a Bangla too low for me to understand.

The officer leaves again, stepping over the sleeping dog. He leaves pity behind. The pity is for me. I am a thing to be pitied. My phone rings. It’s my brother, wanting to know why we weren’t home, if his wife should prepare something for dinner. We’ll be home soon, I tell him, and yes, dinner. For both of us, I say.

A boy wanders in from the street, around the same age as my daughter. He’s wearing the shirt of an American rock band I recognize vaguely. He looks tiny in it, his skinny body wavering in the black cotton. The acrylic lettering is stretched and worn from washing. Before I can wonder who he is, what he wants, he walks up to the mother on the other side of the waiting room. She touches his shoulder, and he leans into her soft arms. They do not speak to each other. He has come to keep her company in her waiting. 

I think about the loneliness I feel in this moment, how it blankets all my memories in a soft and pulsating blue, how it seems to extend before and behind me in an endless sourness. I multiple that loneliness by ten, by twenty, by, as if I was a child again, infinity. That must be the loneliness my daughter feels.

I can’t stay still. It is obscene to stay still, waiting, when I could be searching, yelling, calling her name. I straighten, give the woman and boy a sad smile. I rush out into the street.

I had a choice. Marry that man, go to America, or stay in Kolkata, study horseshoe crabs by myself, wait to be married off or else remain—though it seemed impossible, in those days—single.

The day I left, I came to my mother’s room to hug her goodbye. My father and brother were cold against me, furious that I was leaving, furious that I was going so far. I didn’t care. It isn’t love, I thought, that they want me to stay and keep house, to cook and clean the same dishes and floors that my mother and grandmother and great-grandmother had cooked and cleaned before me. That’s not love.

My mother was the hard knot of shame in my stomach, the doubt in my dreams.

But still, I felt guilty about my mother, and I saved her goodbye for last. My mother was the hard knot of shame in my stomach, the doubt in my dreams. I wanted her to hug me tight, and to feel the weight of forgiveness vanishing between us. When I looked for her, she was burrowed under the covers, and for a moment I was shocked by her lack of movement, my constantly busy, constantly occupied mother, but then I realized that she was mending my father’s dress pants, the movement so known to her that she could do it amid a sea of blankets.

“Ma?” I said to her.

She only grunted, peering at the darting needle.


Finally, she looked up. I drew closer, then instinctively held my hands out towards her. My mother liked to touch my hands, feel the softness of my unworked palms. She looked at me in a way in which few have looked at me since. The whole of me.

She touched my hands, picking at the purple fingernails I had gotten done in the salon, preparing for my American debut.

“What an ugly color,” she said.

What would have happened if I had let her disgust pull me out of my new, delicate life? If I had simply not gone to the airport? It was years before I saw my mother again.

I rush past the familiar streets of my childhood. Or are they familiar? They begin to melt, alley into alley, shadow into shadow. Is that where—no. But that must be—no. The map in my mind blurs. I didn’t realize how many of my landmarks had melted away over time, how many of them were organic, built to melt away. I am lost. Like my daughter, I am lost. I walk more, waiting for something to happen. Maybe the same forces that took her away from me will take me too, and we will meet at the bottom of the city like stray hair tangling in a shower drain. Maybe, if I walk long enough, we will turn up on the beaches of the Ganges together, the way that lost items do.

It’s dark now. Well and truly dark. And the dark brings the ghosts with it. I hate the thought of my daughter alone with the ghosts. I try to think of ways that she could be alright. Maybe she was waiting for a bus, fell asleep on the bench, would wake up any second, remember where she was, and find a pay phone, like she’d been told. But she didn’t have money for the pay phone. And she’s too young to think of the bus as anything other than a box that takes her places while her mother holds her hand. Or maybe she was wandering, one street corner away from a kind stranger who would ask, “Where are you going, are you ok?” Strangers in Kolkata can be surprisingly kind when shocked out of the heat, out of the quick-tempered days and countless errands. But you have to know how to speak to them, to say, hey, can you tell me which way to…no, I forgot the street name…the house is blue? To say, do you have a little change, I’m trying to find an autorickshaw?

Once, I saw a motorcycle wheel over a street dog’s paw, turning her bones into a bloody streak. The street ran to her, brought water to her panting tongue, wrapped her blood and bones in paper towels and trash bags, stroked her head. They knew she would die. The foot would become infected, and when scraps were thrown out the butcher’s window, she wouldn’t be able to catch them as quickly as the others. They kissed her small ears. They made her dying kinder.

But my daughter does not know how to speak to strangers. Even though she’s always bold, she’s still a little shy in her Bangla, she knows that it is weak. She hides it behind her tongue, preferring to communicate in the few English words that everyone knows. Yes, no, school, I don’t know, maybe, red, blue, dog, cat.

What was I thinking? The city sprawls, fourteen million heartbeats wandering in its dust and concrete. Did I really think that this could be mine, that it belonged to me at all once I left it? I pass by a street light, then another. A mother bathes her child in an alleyway. A broken neon light fills the street with a mechanical hum. From a balcony up above, I see a man smoking a cigarette, the cherry ember vanishing into his mouth. The ash dribbles down to mix with the dust on my shoe.

Mothers talk, sometimes, about an invisible line that connects them to their daughters. They talk about knowing in their hearts if their daughters are alive or dead. I search my soul, or the jagged shape that feels like my soul, for her weight. I find nothing, not even an absence. Kolkata was never mine. My parents never allowed me to explore. I was given permissible routes: school, pharmacy, father’s office. I didn’t know the city, I knew a bold line on its map. It was only afterwards, in America, that I allowed myself to believe the myth that the city was mine, mine alone. After all, Kolkata was not there to deny it.

Earlier, I had to give my daughter’s description. I’ve lost the habit of describing her in specific ways. In America I can just say Indian, I can say curly black hair and that’s it. Here, that description describes every girl.

All I wish for is the edge of relief. It seems like out of all possible pains the world holds, there is no worse pain than this. All I want is the possibility that I could cast this day into memory, no longer live in it, live wiser, kinder, hold her squirming in my arms.

My brother calls, lighting up the phone. He sends me a WhatsApp message, “???” I swat him away. I don’t exist outside of this moment, not until my daughter is delivered safely into my arms.

And it’s true that if I did not have a daughter, I would not be missing her now. I created this girl-shaped animal, and now that she exists, I will always be missing her. I love my daughter, I do. But when I was on that birthing bed, my own smells in my nose, everything white and red, the creature that would become my daughter separating my hips with her head, I thought that anything, anything would be easier than this. When she was put in my arms, a new door of loss came in my life. I nursed her, watched her, kept her from railings and potholes. I kept the door closed.

It’s been six hours since our hands last separated. Daughter, I hope that one day I’ll tell you about this, and you’ll laugh and maybe throw a pillow at me, chastising me for almost losing you. And I’ll laugh, too, ignoring the hurricane of guilt in my chest, because any amount of guilt is better than losing you. I promise. I promise because I love you so hard I will bring you to me. I love you hideously, I love you selfishly. My hideous, selfish love will wrench you out of the corner where you are lost, or out of the arms of those who would take you, I will float you into this street so that your little feet are in my lap, and you stand on my thighs, your head taller than me. Just like when you were little.

Or maybe not. Maybe I need to realize that love isn’t enough.

I see a blue light in the distance. It’s a police station. I squint—it’s the police station, the one in which I had been waiting. All this searching, and my body still knew how to form a circle. I hoped my daughter’s body, too, was traveling in a long loose circle, and very soon she would be back to where she began. The mother is gone, along with her son. Instead, I see a police officer perched in the waiting room, a small girl on his knee. They would have called me, wouldn’t they? Did I miss it? I walk towards the fluorescence, the late-night cars and rickshaws bumbling around me. The police officer shifts the girl from his right knee to his left.

And for a moment, I cannot tell if the girl is you or someone else. Her arms are thin, her hair curly, your arms are thin, your hair curly. Your nose—is it really shaped like that? There is a line of light in the station, and I know that after I cross it, everything will become clear. Features will snap into focus, and you, if it is you, will cry out in that beautiful, bell-like voice. But everything is frozen. I walk, and wait, and even though I have walked and waited all day there is no ease to these last seconds of waiting. Daughter, I will live in this moment until the day that I die.

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