Friday, September 02, 2016


She stepped off the airplane onto the indoor ramp leading into Bombay’s International Airport. Even though she was inside, the humidity settled on her skin like a familiar, worn-out sweater. She could not meet the eyes of the people staring at her. A white hand passed her gaze and held her arm.

“Are you ok, Gabby?”
“Yes, mom, let’s go.” Gabrielle said, wincing at her mom’s use of her nickname.

As they walked through customs, Gabrielle kept her hand in her bag. She was touching an old photo of hers, a dark skinned girl, about four, in a school uniform with two long braids and a serious expression. She took out her passport and handed it to the customs official.

“Gabrielle Raynor?” the customs official looked at her through his thick glasses on his broad nose.

“Why are you coming to India?” he asked her directly, looking back and forth to her and her mother.

“Tourism, sir”, her mother answered for her.

Tourism is such an interesting term, Gabrielle thought. Didn’t tourists go to countries to discover them as strangers? He mumbled something in Marathi to the other man with a thick mustache; Gabrielle understood two words she had learned in an old book at the library “Pandhari Ayi”, white mother. He laughed as he loudly called the next person in line.

“Let’s go, sweetie”, her mother pulled her arm.

After claiming their luggage and haggling with the underweight, narrow-waisted porters, Gabrielle and her mother made their way to the taxis waiting outside Bombay airport. The sound of construction was at full blast, despite the local time being 2am. They scanned the faces of people awaiting their relatives. Women in brightly colored saris, men with beards and skullcaps, women in veils, children running around as if it were daytime. Some looked like they were not even waiting for someone, just watching strangers arrive, waiting for a glimpse of a Bollywood celebrity. They all stared at Gabrielle and her mother. In relief, they saw a young man in uniform with an emblem of the Sea Rock Hotel with her mother’s name on a small white board “Janice Raynor, Bloomington, Indiana”, who signaled them with a warm, shy smile to come over.

The airport porter was now agitated about having to hand over the luggage to another porter instead of having the opportunity to extract more money from foreigners and started loudly arguing with the Sea Rock driver. A crowd of curious onlookers, who were usually not willing to help, gathered quickly.

Janice quickly stepped in and shoved a $5 bill into the airport porter’s hand and asked him to go, in a stern tone. Locals looked on, first surprised to see a foreigner acting so bold with a porter, and before national sentiments could take over and release an angry crowd, Janice and Gabrielle quickly stepped into the anonymity of an official car with tinted windows and exited the airport.

As the car sped through the streets, Gabrielle sat up to get look out the window.

“You can sleep, madam, you really see the city during the day”, the driver said in his accented English. He spoke formally to Gabrielle, as if she were a grown up and not sixteen.

“Do you want to rest, Gabby? It’s nearly afternoon back home. You must be exhausted.” Janice said. She was tired from the journey.

“No, mom, I’m fine,” Gabby said not looking away from the street.

As her mother dozed off, Gabby sat closer to the window. There was not enough time to look at everything, the driver was speeding. But she saw more than what she saw in the encyclopedias at the library--children with matted hair sleeping on the roadside, women and men walking in the streets, men holding hands, family homes set up on the side of the road, makeshift tents of blue tarp under bridges, old beggars going to cars at stopped traffic lights asking for money in exchange for blessings. There was a bustle of life that was appalling and completely delightful for Gabrielle.

She dozed off for a bit for when she awoke, the driver was unloading the luggage and her mother was handing him a tip.

“Let’s go, Madam.” A sweet young woman in a sari greeted them at the gate and walked them to their room. As they got ready to sleep, Gabrielle looked out the window and saw the ocean.

“Looks like Daddy got us the best room in Bombay!” her mother exclaimed.

The sun was on its way up over the tip of the Bombay suburb of Bandra by the time Gabrielle finally fell asleep. She awoke to the sounds of her mother talking to her father on the phone.

“Yes, we are good. The flight wasn’t bad, it sure is strange to be here after all these years.” She tried to speak softly not to wake Gabrielle, but it was hard for her to hear. She couldn’t see her mother’s expression, but she was very quiet for a moment.

“Mom…” she groaned.

“Sweetie, its daddy. Do you want to say hi??”

Gabrielle said hi quickly and went to take a shower. After breakfast in the cafeteria facing the Arabian Sea, Janice had arranged for them to visit Choti si Asha, an orphanage at the Mount Mary Church in Bandra.

“Are you sure you want to go today, Gabby? We can take a day to rest. Maybe do some site-seeing?” Janice asked her yet again, pulling a strand of hair away from Gabrielle’s face. Gabrielle winced.

“Yes, mom. Please remember what we discussed,” she said, gathering her bag.

Her mom sighed and asked the doorman to get them a taxi.

Gabrielle was beginning to feel uncomfortable from all the staring. Her skin felt like it was on fire, not because of the heat—it was June and Bombay’s monsoon was expected soon. The air was sodden with anticipation, feeling heavy whenever they stepped out of an air-conditioned space. Every time someone looked at her and her mother, she felt foreign too. Yet, here, she looked like everyone else, not her mother.

She stepped into the waiting black and yellow taxi and watched the taxi driver slide across the seat to set the meter. Gabrielle watched the driver intently. First, he bowed his head to the small statue of Ganesha, the newly lit incense was blowing into his freshly oiled hair, combed downwards in lines of black, gray and white. He smelled like a familiar soap. His eyes darted between her and her mother while he turned out of the Sea Rock Hotel to drive along the Arabian Sea.

“This is Bandstand madam, most beautiful part of Bombay, many filum stars living here,” he said.

“Gulzar, Dilip Kumar…” he said listing names of Bollywood celebrities from the 1980’s.

“And Rekha, right?” Janice said, surprising both Gabrielle and the taxi driver with her knowledge of a well-known Bollywood heroine. After that, the driver didn’t stop smiling whenever he glanced back in the mirror.

Being a passenger in the taxi was a jarring game of Frogger for Janice and Gabrielle. Janice held on tight to the seat in front of her until her white knuckles were nearly digging holes into it. Gabrielle closed her eyes whenever she thought they were about to crash into another car. Driving past Bandra’s churches and many near-accidents later, they safely pulled into Mount Mary Church, designed by the Portuguese during their rule of Maharashtra in the 1500s. Preparations were underway for a festival with other churches, which a large banner stated would be the following Sunday.  

“Here we are, Madam.” The driver slid across the street and pulled the lever to stop the meter. He handed her a rate card. Janice shoved Rs. 500 in his hand and asked him to wait there.

“We won’t be long, right Gabby?”

But Gabrielle was already inside, following the laughter punctuated with squeals within the large building attached to the church.

Didi, didi, didi,” a small girl ran up to her calling her the respectful word for elder sister, and grabbed Gabrielle’s hand. Other girls surrounded her asking for a handshake.

“Oh hi,” Gabrielle smiled and grabbed the little girl’s hand with some hesitancy.

Her mother walked in behind her.

“Mrs. Raynor, how wonderful to see you after all these years!” called out a woman in a cream colored sari.

“Sister Kishori!” Janice went over and hugged Sister Kishori tight. Sister Kishori went to let go, Janice still held on.

“And is this our little Gabrielle?” she smiled and asked.

“Here she is,” Janice stepped back so Sister Kishori could take a look at her.

Gabrielle felt awkward being examined by Sister Kishori—she looked down at the concrete floor and began to look for patterns, like she always did when she was nervous.

She looked up and met Sister Kishori’s eyes.

“Hello,” Gabrielle managed to say.

The smell in the room reminded her of their unfinished basement back home. Gabrielle loved that smell and her mother and brothers always teased her about liking strange smells. The smell of clothes not fully dried after the rains. The smell of the ocean that sits on your clothes after you have spent the day there, the invisible dew drops soaking into your skin.

Gabrielle kept her hand in her pocket, touching that old photo while Sister Kishori gave her and her mother a tour of the improved facility for the children.

“This is the wellness room, when any girl needs to be taken care of, they are brought here. With the latest outbreak of dengue fever, we have been taking all the precautions.”

Gabrielle watched Sister Kishori move around effortlessly, even as little girls ran around them; not taking a break in her well-rehearsed tour of the facility. Sister Kishori was as modest as the statues of the Virgin Mary. Her cream colored sari covered her full body, not revealing any skin, as Gabrielle had noticed with other women wearing saris. Her blouse was long-sleeved. Despite the wrinkles on her face and dark circles under her eyes, her hair was jet black and thick, matted into a large bun.

“This wellness room was donated by one of our Japanese patrons,” she said proudly.

They walked into an office and Sister Kishori called one of the older didis to take the little ones back to the playroom.

“They get very excited with visitors,” she said as Gabrielle and her mother sat down. She motioned to the older girl to send for chai and snacks. Within minutes, small Dixie-like cups of hot, sweet tea and rectangular cookies were served to them.

Sister Kishori sat down and spent a few minutes arranging her desk in order while Gabrielle and Janice looked at one another. Janice gave Gabrielle an approving look to go ahead and try the tea.

“Yes,” Sister Kishori leaned in to talk to them. “So tell me what brings you here today?”

“Well,” Janice started putting her cup of too-sweet tea down, “as you know I spoke to Sister Mary about some questions Gabrielle had regarding her adoption. She knows we adopted her when she was four years old, and all the other information we had was that she was given up for adoption around two months?”

“Yes, that is right madam. Let me get your file for you.”

As she searched for the file, Gabrielle finished the chai and cookies. The sweetness was overwhelming, but she did not want to seem rude. Her mother had not drank the rest of her tea.

“You didn’t have to come all the way here for this information. We could have sent it to you by post,” she said as she returned to the desk.

Janice remained silent and pressed her lips together.

Gabrielle spoke quickly, “well, Sister, I needed a little more than that.”

Sister Kishori really wasn’t listening but was knitting her brows together while looking at the file, flipping the pages back and forth.

“Is everything ok?” Janice asked.

“I think there has been a mistake. Gabrielle was brought to us at two days, not two months,” Sister Kishori said, perplexed.

Gabrielle felt really hot again. There was a large lump in her throat and she wanted to push it down, along with the tears she felt coming. This was so different from the daydream she had imagined. All these years, she thought her mother had abandoned her after two months. Two months of a mother’s love, two months of lullabies, two months of cuddles, two months of biological love. Two months, not two days. She always wondered what she could have done wrong in two months that her mother had not wanted her.

Her mother’s outburst interrupted her daydream.

“This is so wrong! How could you mislead us? This child’s past has been shared with her!” Janice’s tears escaped in anger from her bloodshot eyes.

“I’m very sorry Mrs. Raynor,” she said apologizing, “there was some error in the initial translation from Marathi to English.” She was pointing to the file, as if to help clarify.

“Wait, Madam. I will tell you. Baby Gabrielle was abandoned at a construction site. The woman who brought her was not her mother, but a worker from Shakti Mills, who had found her at the worksite.”

“Why were we told otherwise?” Janice demanded. Gabrielle stayed silent and focused on the pattern on the dark green concrete floor.

“Madam, she was two days old and sick. She had a black tikka to ward off the evil and a torn dress. We do not know how long she was there. And there is no information on her biological mother. That is all it says in the incoming file.” Sister Kishori spoke with regret now, less defensive.

“But I remember a woman coming to visit me here, she wore her sari like pants, through the middle, her hair was black, I think?” Gabrielle inquired, her voice shaking.

“That was the woman who found you. She had an affinity for you my dear. But there was no relation.”

“This is why we do not like to enquire into this trauma, madam. We encourage parents to not share these details with the children.” Sister Kishori spoke directly to Janice, as if Gabrielle were not there.

Sister Mary, the head of the center finally entered the room. She had been close to Gabrielle. She saw everyone in tears when she came in and saw that everything had unraveled quickly.

“This must be very tough for you. I am very sorry we didn’t have any better news for you. But you must know, the Moushi that used to come and see you was very happy when she heard you had gone to America.” She put her hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder and gently squeezed it.

“What can we do to help, Mrs. Raynor? I realize we have put you in a difficult position.”

Sister Mary continued to speak to Janice to allay her frustration; while Gabrielle went back into the daydream she always had when she was in the bus, in the car, waiting for her brothers’ soccer practice. It felt so different to her now that she could feel Bombay and India, not just imagine it from the Encyclopedia Britannica she read when they went to the library back home. Was she one of those children with the matted hair who was on the side of the road?

When the sisters were done speaking with her mother, Gabrielle asked if she could spend the day at the center.

Her mother was concerned, but relented, it was 3pm and jet lag and emotional fatigue was overwhelming her.

“Please eat lunch with us first,” Sister Mary insisted.

A girl in long braids and a school uniform brought a simple meal of fresh chapattis, steaming lentils, potatoes and rice in a steel plate.

“Reshma is one of our top students here,” Sister Mary praised, “she is preparing for her medical studies and goes all the way to St. Xavier’s in town. She also helps care for the little ones and tutors the other children.”

Reshma smiled at Gabrielle and beamed as she left the room.

Gabrielle liked the food; it was a little spicier than the one at the Indian restaurant back home. Janice took Gabrielle to the side and gave her a hug. “We’ll talk about this tonight, ok? I love you so much. I’ll be back at 6pm to pick you up.”

“Love you too, mom. See you.” Gabrielle walked back to the room where Reshma and some other girls were in a room facing the sea. Though they could not see it, when they opened the window, they could feel the breeze.

They all talked about school, Hindi films and their friends. Gabrielle laughed at their jokes and they asked her questions about America. She thought about explaining growing up in a small town in Indiana with a white family and two white brothers who were born after her. The stares in her community and how people assumed she was the daughter of the owner of the Indian restaurant, who himself was from Bangladesh. And though her parents were so loving, how they somehow dismissed her feelings by saying “but we don’t see color, you are our little angel”, when she came home from school crying about being teased about her skin color.

Instead, Gabrielle talked about her favorite books, friends and her school. She showed them some ballet steps. They demonstrated their best Bollywood moves. She looked out the window, imagining the sea hitting the rocks somewhere close by, and saw clothes drying on the line in the hallway. She inhaled the moist smell in the air, it had settled on her skin again, at least for the moment.

The Locked Gate

As the sun rose, pressure cooker whistles sounded off, the Bombay Municipal Corporation pulled the lever to release Bandra’s allotment, and the water at Christina Bungalow grumbled up the pipe, sputtering, angry, making its way to the water tank on the roof.

Savio D’Souza had switched on the motor and was watching the pipe from downstairs. He called to his wife “Florence! Florence! Has the water reached the tank? We need to make sure there is enough water in the tank. Florence? Florence!”

Florence grumbled up the stairs, more angry with each step. Why does he always make me go up? He knows my knees are bad, she thought to herself. She slowly reached the top, peering in; the water had trickled into the black rubber tank, filling to the brim.

“Yes, it has Savio”, she called back down, hoping he would not call her again.

She waited a moment on the balcony; the crows were hovering around the courtyard. She noticed the iron-wallah at the neighbor’s house, soon he would ring the bell and Savio would be shouting for her again. She quickly resumed her morning chores. Her grown son, Sebastian, worked all night at the call center and had slept at 6am. Florence’s daughter, Violet was a college student and had a Mathematics Class at 10am. Florence quickly prepared Violet’s breakfast, swept the floor and ironed Sebastian’s shirt.

Violet was skinny like her father, she had his complexion and short temper. Like Savio, she hated eating but was picky about her food. Tall and broad like his mother; Sebastian had inherited her wide smile. At home he was painfully shy, preferring to stay upstairs when others were home or people were visiting. Though Sebastian was grown, he still gave is entire paycheck to the family. Florence hated this fact because Savio had lost his job last year and had not looked for another one since. He felt he made enough money with the various paying guests he kept in the house. The paying guests were mostly foreigners so Savio didn’t have to make 11 month leases as was expected by Indian rental laws. The entire downstairs of the bungalow, except for one family room was given to the paying guests, mostly pronounced PeeGees (PGs).

What frustrated Florence the most was that the big kitchen downstairs was given to the PGs. And though Florence didn’t like to cook, nor was she particularly good at it, she resented the fact that her and the children were squeezed into such a small space upstairs.

Their bungalow was like others on a side road in Bandra, the Queen of the Suburbs, as it was nicknamed in Bombay. Bandra was known for its sea-sides laced with dreaming lovers intimate in anonymity, film star sightings and posh eateries. Nestled between coconut trees and busy roads, Christina Bungalow was a beautiful Portuguese themed home with a classic Goan Catholic feeling. A grotto with a large cross was visible through the gate on the right side, and Savio’s scooter was in front of it. It stayed parked there for a long time after Savio was gone. This road, which led to St. Andrew’s College, was one of the only streets left in Bandra that had not given up the bungalows for expensive flats with hundreds of residents. Most of the residents were Catholics, for the local housing society had decreed that all owners should be Catholics of Goan descent, preferably.  

Florence had just given Violet her breakfast of omlet, pav and chai, when she heard Savio again.

“Florence! Florence!” he called from the downstairs family room.

“Coming,” she responded going down the windy staircase.

Heavier in her middle age, Florence was always a bit clumsy but beautiful. Photos of their marriage that hung in the family room downstairs showed Florence smiling wide as she and Savio looked up from cutting their cake. She was wearing a white dress and he, slim and waif-like was smiling a forced side smile, his eyes glancing sideways with a skeptical grin in a black suit. Friends had jokingly said they looked like the number eighteen; he was ‘1’, so thin, he almost seemed one dimensional. Florence was the ‘8’ round and plump, with color in her cheeks.

“I never wanted to get married,” Florence told the PGs, “I was about to pass age 30 and my family was getting frustrated with me. So I met Savio and decided to marry him”. Both were Goan Catholic and the families had agreed. They had few common interests but the pressure of time and society bound them together. Sebastian was born the next year and Florence kept herself busy with the child. Savio began working for an international transport company as a courier.

When Sebastian was one, they had moved into Christina Bungalow to care for Savio’s ill uncle, Anthony D’Souza. He had dementia and needed daily care. Florence cooked and cleaned for the old man, and he was grateful and appreciative. When he died, he left them an amazing gift, but no way out of it. He left the bungalow to Savio and his 12 cousins. Family wars at the Bandra Court prevented them from selling the house without sharing the profit with all the cousins. The D’Souzas stayed in Christina and made it their own.

The left part of the first floor of the bungalow was for the PGs. It had three bedrooms, one office and 3 bathrooms, all with hot water showers and English toilets. Savio wanted the PGs to be as comfortable as possible. He enjoyed drinking and smoking with their friends when they held parties in the courtyard. They always bought expensive liquor and sometimes Savio helped himself to it when they were at work, filling the missing portion with water from the Aqua Guard filter. For Savio, the PGs were a welcome relief, a breeze of fresh sea air in Bombay’s stale, musty climate. They reminded him of being young in Bombay, roaming around aimlessly with friends, smoking and drinking feni liquor from Goa. For the PGs, Christina Bungalow was as close to home as they could find in this foreign country. Florence did not mind them, they were good company at times, but then she had to share her washing machine and kitchen with them.
Florence came to the family room and saw Savio on the sofa.
“Florence, where is my breakfast?” he asked.
“Savio, I am preparing food for the children. Can you please come upstairs? But please be quiet as Sebastian is sleeping” she responded.

“Bloody kids”, he muttered loud enough for Florence to hear, “always bloody sleeping”.

Savio had never shown much interest or affection for his children. They seemed like an afterthought and a nuisance to him in general, like unwanted pets. Their tension had come to a painful culmination where Sebastian and Savio had a hurtful fight about keeping PGs in the house, Savio wanted them and Sebastian didn’t—resulting in the fact that both men had not spoken to each other in 2 years. Florence had to make sure they steered clear of one another. Though the job was tough and tiring, she was relieved when Sebastian took the night shift at the call center.

As a family that wasn’t very close, they made extra efforts to avoid one another. Savio wanted to make sure the PGs were happy. Sebastian and Violet cared if their mother was content and their father was not asking them questions. And Florence had to make sure no appeared outwardly unhappy. All the avoidance did not stop the bitterness from building, like a tumor growing slowly within one’s body, waiting to take aim and destroy everything being held together so precariously.

Florence often complained to her sisters about Savio. The three sisters did not like him because he never treated Florence well. Her sisters were all happily married, according to Florence. They had nice husbands who cared for their health problems and bought presents on holidays and occasions. These facts burned Savio’s pride and he banned Florence’s relatives from coming in the house when he was home.

“And then on my birthday, all he did was drink feni and sing Goan songs with his friends all night. I had to keep serving them and serving them. I was getting so tired”, she complained. The sister, plump like Florence, nodded, hating him with every new story. Florence smarted from Savio’s ill treatment of her, but never raised her voice or fought back with him. It just wasn’t worth it, he was a stubborn man, she would say to herself. But at times, she would feel so angry, she would shout at whosoever was around. After some time, she would reconcile herself to her fate, a surprisingly Hindu conclusion for a Catholic.

Her anger rose in the monsoon months of 2005. During the massive floods that July, when the sofa was floating in the family room, the refrigerator was filled with dirty rain water and people were swimming down the road, Savio was cross with her for not saving more items during the flood. During the flood, Lloyd had taken rope and tied a chair to his porch—sat in the rain and waited for the storm to pass—ignoring everyone’s pleas to come in during the torrential rains and flooding.  

“He didn’t know how much I did. I took care of the PGs, cooked food and carried that TV up the stairs”, she said to her sister from Mahim, rubbing her knee, remembering the pain. Though the sun came out, the water rescinded back into the sea and the electricity returned, not all items were spared from long term damage. Hurt feelings could not be dried out in the sun on a hot and humid Bombay afternoon.

Florence was still upset from when Savio had forced her to give up the family dog. Chip, a large mixed Labrador was always tied to the main gate, which was always locked.

“Savio makes us keep the gate locked. Every time the servant comes, I have to fetch the key and Savio always misplaces it, why do we have to be locked up inside?”, Florence complained to her next door neighbor.

Chip was allowed to howl and bark at all those who walked by, but never let to venture out further than 10 steps outside the gate. One day, he broke free and ran away. Somehow, Savio found him and dragged him back home. He was morose, tied to the gate again.  When Savio felt he was trained enough to take him for a longer walk, he broke away and ran too fast and far to be caught again. Neighbors speculated they saw him at Bandra Bandstand, by the sea with stray dogs, playing and running around, but Savio never wanted him back after that.

The only time Florence and Savio seemed to enjoy each other’s company was at the Bandra Gymkhana. Relics from colonial times and taken over by Goan Catholics, the Gymkhanas were traditionally racket clubs, typically where sporting events took place. Over the years, they had evolved into social and sports clubs, with exclusive membership fees and tiers of access. All Catholics were allowed, and Hindus with deep pockets were considered for membership. The Bandra Gymkhana had music and dancing on Wednesday evenings. Savio, Florence and whichever PGs were available would go and enjoy the beer, chips and music from the 50s and 60s. They would return home slightly drunk and smiling, and the next morning the angry water would be pushed up the pipe once again.

The following April, Savio began complaining of back pain, and already rail thin, rapidly started losing weight. When Florence finally convinced him to go see the doctor at Holy Family Hospital on Hill Road, the diagnosis was Leukemia, and it was too advanced to treat. Savio never went back home. In that hospital for the next month, he met visitors and spent time with his family. His death was imminent, so Savio and Sebastian reconciled. Savio passed in early May and his funeral was well attended, with past and present PGs telling stories of his kindness and generosity. He had a family plot at St. Andrews Church, where he would be buried next to his parents Winifred and Vasco D’Souza. Florence felt conflicted about his death. It was so sudden, everything had been so normal. She wondered how she would manage without him around yet thought she would finally be free.

When visitors left and the PGs moved out, Florence joined the widows group at the church. She began doing yoga and lost some of the extra weight. She went on a group trip to Kerala with other widows. She was financially comfortable, her children were supporting her; Savio had left money for them in an insurance policy. While sorting his piles of papers from the family room, Sebastian discovered a file that Savio had created about everyone in his life, including Chip the dog. The file documented various incidents for the humans, rent paid late, and dinner not satisfying. For the dog, it contained transgressions that included barking too loud when the PGs came home and attempting to bite the pav-wallah.

When friends came to pay their respect, she would say she missed him, but found herself complaining about his stubbornness. Every day, she had to climb up the stairs to see if the water had come up to the tank. Her knee ached in the winter. The children were busy with their lives; Sebastian had become outgoing and had a girlfriend. Violet was the lead in the college play. Florence began to resent these changes and felt guilty for her conflicted feelings. A few weeks later, the neighbor came home late and saw Florence sitting inside the family room with the TV on. There was a large lock on the gate.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Long Division

Stop teaching them all this kitchen work, let them focus on their studies,” Bauji would tell Biji.
“You don’t know ji. If a mother does not teach her daughter properly, what will her in-laws say? All this education does is make a woman crazy! Just look at Shanno.” She would whisper the last word, like it was an expletive.

I pretended not to listen as Bauji and Biji spoke on their separate chattais. Shanno Chachi was so beautiful.

She had flawless skin, brown eyes lined with kaajal, and long hair which was covered with her dupatta. She and Chachaji didn’t have any kids yet. Shanno Chachi always hugged me. She always took my side when Biji scolded me.

Bauji felt us girls should go to school with our brothers. It was part of his faith in the work of Pandit Nehru.

My sisters, Pinky, Khushi and I would get excited when we thought of more little kids around the house. Our elder brothers, Karan and Veer only cared about farming.

We had moved to Amritsar when I was 6 years old and the country was cut into parts by the partition. Karan and Veer were ten and fifteen. Bauji says we had to travel in kafilas for days in order to reach the outskirts of the city. We lost two of my young brothers, Ravi and Vijay, during the journey. In the chaos of the crowd of grandparents, cousins, uncles and young aunts, vessels, animals and children, each person thought they had gone with the others and when we reached the refugee camp, we could not find them. Biji cried so much, she says, she could have filled up all the five rivers of Punjab. At the time, Pinky and Khushi weren’t born, so I became her Laddo, her favorite.

My Chachaji, Bauji’s younger brother, was 22 at the time of partition. He was young and strong, tall and broad, with a thick black mustache. From four years after moving to Amritsar, I have memories of Shanno Chachi. She used to spend a lot of time in the upstairs room, in the far corner of the kothi. She was sweet and kind to everyone.

Our kothi was huge compared to our neighbors. Bauji said he got only about half of what we had in Lahore. “Still,” he said, “be thankful we didn’t have to go to Delhi and live in some camp for many years. A Muslim family used to live here, and then we had to trade countries”.

Ever since we came to Amritsar, our Dadaji rarely left the house. He told us stories of Lahore and missed his friends from the government college there. His memories shaped my images and became my memories.

“Puttar, our mohalla was inhabited by all communities, Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh. There was a very gentle, pious, Muslim lady named Bibi Nishan, who was living there with her two sons. In our younger days, those boys, along with other children of that community as well as ourselves used to collect in the evening at an open place in the mohalla and play gulli-danda. There was never any quarrel among us. We always addressed Bibi Nishan as Massiji, and our Mataji was addressed by her children as Khalaji. The society, as a whole, was a well-knit unit. The intimate affection surging from the hearts of the people for each other was abundantly visible.”

Dadaji was just about to celebrate his retirement when we had to leave Lahore and make the 50-kilometer journey by foot to reach Amritsar. Although all of us adjusted to life in Amritsar, Dadaji never did.
Shanno Chachiji and Hemant Chachaji began going on long walks in the evening. Her long braid would hang below her dupatta. She would look at Chachaji shyly as he talked about his textile business he was starting. Biji would shoo us away when we tried to follow them.

Six monsoons came and Chachaji and Chachiji had 4 children, 2 boys and 2 girls; the house was full again. I was sixteen. Even Biji had warmed up to Chachiji and was encouraging us girls to study further. Biji gave Chachi all types of unsolicited advice, ranging from child rearing to the right types of masala for the dal.

Chachi always smiled and said “Yes, Bhabhiji”.

On a grey winter afternoon, I was walking home from school with Khushi. We saw a group of women standing outside Nandu Grewal Uncle’s house wearing dark khaki saris and uniforms.

“Mr. Grewal, we have reports that you have been keeping a Pakistani woman in your house since 1947. We are from the Commission for Women, Central Government. We are in the process of repatriating all the abducted women to their native countries. It is our duty,” said the taller woman with sindoor in her hair parting.

“Madam,” Nandu Uncle started, with his voice low, “there is no woman from Pakistan living in our house. Our whole family traveled here from Pakistan, lost many relatives, but did not bring anyone here. Aren’t you about 10 years too late?”

“It is the duty of our country to repatriate each Pakistani woman back to her country” she said as she left.
We walked home and were talking about it casually when Biji heard and grabbed us. “What did you say?

Who is here?” she looked scared and confused. We told her what we had heard, and she immediately called Bauji, Chachaji, Chachiji and went upstairs. They spoke in hushed voices. I heard crying and Chachaji’s voice placating Biji and Chachiji.

The next day, the same tall woman from the Commission was at our door.

“Mr. Khosla, is there a Shenaz Khan living here? Age about 30 years?” she inquired once Bauji opened the door. He brought his full body weight to the door; we all hoped that his wide shoulders could keep their probing eyes out of our life.

“Madamji, we have been living here for many years. There is no one with that name here. You Dilli-wale have nothing better to do with your time than to harass refugees who are the victims of this country’s policies?”

Bauji spoke loudly; his voice did not quiver.

“Sir, we have a report filed from the family of Miss Shenaz Khan. She was last seen in Lahore 10 years ago. Her family has been looking for her for many years. Sir, we don’t want to disturb you and your family, but this is an order from the highest Commission for Women in India. We have been told Shenaz has a distinguishing birthmark on her back, as her parents have described. Our lady officer would like to check your sister-in-law, Shanno.”

Biji flinched as we all tried to grasp what was happening. “Please,” Biji said.

“Madam, we cannot leave until we have this verified. If we are wrong, we will surely leave. Please let us return their girls so ours can come back,” said the tall woman.

Shanno Chachi came down the stairs with her cherubic young son on her hip.

“Hold him,” she said as she handed him to me. He was fine without his mom, but I had to swallow hard to push the lump in my throat down further.

I knew the birthmark. When Chachi had me massage her back, she would slide her kurta to the side and it looked like 10 inch pink boundary that split her back. We all didn’t know what was happening.

Chachi and the lady officer came downstairs. Chachi’s eyes were red, but there were no tears. The lady officer seemed smug, unaware of the consequences of being proved right.

“The next step will be for you to meet your parents on Grand Trunk Road at Wagah Border,” said the tall woman.

“No, this is my family now. I don’t want to see them,” Chachi said. Everyone was crying now. Her moon faced son, playing in her arms quietly, gurgled and played with his mom’s necklace. “I have forgotten everything with them and I just want to be here”.

“Miss Khan, please fill out this form. We will take you to meet your parents tomorrow morning. You will go alone,” she said, looking straight at the angry Chachaji.

“My name is Mrs. Hemant Khosla!!” Chachi cried and left the room.

After the woman and her officers left, Bauji sat all of us down to make sure our imaginations were not misinterpreting what had happened.

“Children, you are now old enough to know the truth,” he started. I stared at him for a minute. He looked older than I had ever seen him before. “During the time of partition, there was a lot of chaos, rumors and fear mongering. The British scoundrels gave the nation hardly a few weeks to selectively divide itself. Parents of young girls feared for the safety of the entire family. Many parents killed their daughters with their own hands to avoid the humiliation of rape and molestation,” he stated. We lowered our heads in shame. Bauji had never mentioned such words in front of us.

“This was not just Muslims, but Hindus and Sikhs like us. Each family had to take critical decisions with very little information or time,” he paused for a beat.

“But Bauji, is Chachiji…?” Khushi started.

“Wait puttar, let me finish. In Lahore, as your Dadaji has described, we lived in a beautiful colony with Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. No one ever imagined having to leave. Next door, there was a family whose daughter was good friends with your Nirmala Buaji. When Partition was announced, a Hindu mob had gathered outside their home and their daughter was playing at our house. We immediately told both girls to hide. Her parents, after that incident, decided that they would leave Lahore and go to their native place of Karachi. They still had relatives there and did not want to remain in Lahore with the border being so close.

They had prepared their kafila as well. The parents then heard what was happening during the journeys of travel, on train or by foot, the rape, disfigurement, the humiliation of young women in front of family members. It was just too horrible to hear. We heard loud yelling from their house and Nirmala ran over crying.
“They want her to kill herself” she told us.

“Your Dadaji went to their house and tried to talk to them but could not reason through their fear. Frustrated and sad, they said they would rather leave her behind than take the risk of losing their other family members in the journey. We decided, as a family, to take her with us. After all, we had your Hemant Chachaji and other uncles with us. Shanno was distraught that her family would take such a step against her. Still, she agreed to come with us. Despite the heat of August, we had to take precautions to protect Shanno and Nirmala’s modesty. We had them wear 3-4 different salwaar kamizes. Your Dadiji ground up pieces of glass to be kept around their neck, with red chilli pepper, in case they were attacked. We wanted them to be prepared in case the unthinkable happened.

When Shanno came to us, she was scared and sad. She and Hemant started to like each other, so they were married. She believes in our religion but we never had her stop practicing her faith. We encouraged her to keep in touch with her family, but she never wanted to. Slowly, she took our family as her own and started her own with your Chacha.” Bauji stopped, exhausted from re-living a difficult time.

I looked over at the others, everyone was crying. “But what now, Bauji?” Khushi asked, breaking the sadness.

“Now, nothing,” Chachiji said. “I don’t want to see them. Why are they looking for me now? Didn’t they want me dead?”

“Shanno,” Bauji said, “you should see them at least. They are your parents. Let them know you wish them well”.

The tall woman and her team from the Commission on Women came promptly at 10 a.m. Shanno Chachi still didn’t want to go. We asked them what would happen next.

“We will inform you when we return,” they said.

“At least let me bring my husband and children. They should see my family now,” Chachiji pleaded.
“No madam. Rules are strict. No children or family,” she said, and they left.

Hemant Chachaji was raging. “We should have hidden her as soon as we found out,” he said, pacing. “How can she face the family that wanted her dead?”

“Hemant,” Bauji said, “How long could you hide her? Don’t worry. She will be back soon. Those are her parents after all; they had to make some difficult decisions.”

We were all confused and angry. Chachi was travelling to Wagah Border in a van tomeet her past, which time had helped her forget.

She returned that evening with a different woman, a social worker. Visibly disturbed, she ran to her room. Chachaji followed her.

The woman introduced herself as Kamlaben Patel, who was working with Mridula Sarabai, in charge of the Recovery Operation, Women’s Section, Ministry of Relief and Rehabilitation. Rameshwari Nehru, Pandit Nehru’s sister was the honorary advisor.

Kamlaben told us that Shanno Chachi had met with her parents and they wanted to take her back to Karachi with them. “They regret the decision to leave her behind and don’t want her living in India. They have even arranged her marriage with a young man who understands her circumstances. They don’t want her children there, since they were not raised as Muslims,” she stated.

“No!” Shanno Chachi protested, “This is my house, this is my family. You are ruining my life.”

Bauji tried to reason with Kamlaben, “look Madam, no one abducted Shanno. She came and married of her own will. We have never ill-treated her. I understand the need of recovering the women who were forcibly abducted. We think your commission is doing valuable work, but in this case, it’s been 10 years since the Partition and Shanno is a mother herself. Do want to uproot another family?” Bauji was trying to appeal to Ms. Patel’s rational side.

“All valid points, Mr. Singh, but Shenaz is a Pakistani, she must be returned to her country. It is a matter of national pride! We need to get our women back from Pakistan as well. We will pick her up in the morning to bring her back to her family.” Kamlaben said sternly.

Bauji let us in on the adult conversation after Kamlaben left. “Shanno, what happened there?” he asked.
“Bhaisab, my brother, father, mother and uncle were all there. They had decided to stay in Lahore and said ever since I left, they felt cursed,” Chachi said. “I told them about you all they got very angry. They said this was your plan to get me married to your brother. I said they were wrong and that we were all happy. They said they had been looking for me for years. Now it is time for me to go back, they said. I told them about my children, my family. They said it does not matter; the government will cooperate with us. I just screamed at them, what is the point now? You lived so many years without me! They didn’t agree and said they would formally press charges to get me back, without my husband or children,” she said, weeping.

Hemant Chachaji was enraged, “well, if being a Muslim is that important, I will convert! Why separate us now?”

“What if they run away?” suggested Biji.

“Each city with repatriation cases has high security. I already tried legal and illegal routes,” said Bauji.
“We can’t just sit by and watch this happen,” Bauji said, but we had run out of alternatives.

Usually we slept in the baramda when it was hot outside. Tonight, Chachaji and Chachiji slept alone in the room upstairs. Their light was on all night. No one slept.

The roosters started at 4.45am and we all got up to draw the days’ water from the hand pump. The morning was crisp and cool, the sun rising slowly, with lethargy.

Chachiji made her special aloo parathas that morning. We all ate more than our fill, gulping it down with lassi. The morning was passing so fast, but each minute passed with the sodden feeling of a pending monsoon.

The knock at the door came at 10am. Kamlaben had a van full of other women in the back, crying and cursing her.

“Ruining another girl’s life. You crazy people! May God curse you and your family,” one said to Kamlaben. Others wept and cried for their children.

Shanno Chachiji was determined not to cry. “I will come back,” she said sternly, “for you and my children”. She looked at Chachaji who was holding her hand tight. Kamlaben pulled her. “Lets go Shenaz.”

We had all tried to reason with Kamlaben, plead with her, even tried to bribe her, but she held strong, as if the entire nation’s sovereignty depended on her.

“Leave me with my family!” was the last scream we heard from Chachiji as the van drove away. And we never saw her again.

We all tried to appeal to the government to get Chachiji back. Chachaji must have sent hundreds of letters to the old address. We didn’t know if anyone had received them.

Six years later, at my wedding, I looked at my dear Chachaji, visibly aged, refusing to remarry, raising the kids himself. Chachiji was a close memory for all of us. The chili from her parathas fresh in our mouths, her children running around. Her long braid probably had some grey hairs now. We all thought about her and hoped wherever she was, she was ok. At least we had symbols of Shanno Chachiji around us. She, well, she just had herself.