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.