The Eternal Journey*

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Category : Purabi Basu

Purabi Basu
(Translated by Jyotiprakash Dutta)
I did not come from nowhere, nor was I swept ashore by a tidal wave.

I did cross an ocean by a boat though. I too had a home, a house, rooms with doors, grilled windows. My aging parents were in that house. Dulal was there too. Nobody is there today. Nothing. Yet, that’s where I am going back.

The tall, handsome young man sitting next to me has been listening intently to me. I have been talking for some time now. Tamal, too came to this country looking for a better life riding the fortune of a DV lottery. He is going home just for three weeks to get married. That’s all he’s told me about himself. I know nothing more of him.

***

It perhaps happens only to the fortunate ones. A lottery win puts you on your way to America! We couldn’t even dream of something like that in our time. Going home to get married? That, too, after only two years of coming here? For only three weeks? Are you mad? Where will one find the money? The time? The visa?

The blue passport of the man, whose ice-cold body I am carrying with me in the hold of this plane, is inside my bag now with a similar passport of mine. That little blue book is the thread that connected us. Yet how easily he left that book behind, and is gone now. Didn’t he know how precious that blue book was? Maybe he didn’t need it any more.

My story, of course, is different. I did not come from nowhere, nor was I swept ashore by a tidal wave. I crossed an ocean by a boat though. I still remember the huge waves! The little boat almost sank before it came up again. My companions were all male. I was sitting in a corner of the cabin benumbed. I only knew Hasan and Biroo from among all the passengers there although they were mostly Bengalis. Hasan and Biroo had been with me from Germany. We flew in the same plane to the Bahamas. How time flies! It’s as if it happened just yesterday. Twenty-three years have passed. Just before boarding the plane Parul thrust a small package in my hands saying, “Don’t open it now. Look at it later. You might need it. Nobody knows how and where you will be living.”

I opened the small brown package inside the plane lavatory and was stunned. My friend had given me three packs of the Pill, although she knew better than anyone that I was a virgin. I easily recognized the pills and understood what they were for, even though the instructions were written in German. I couldn’t thank her when I met her in a Chinese fish and vegetables shop in New York many years later. I just hugged her with all my heart. She smelled of fish all over, maybe because she was working in the raw fish section. Mita was five then, Arnab three. I went to the Chinese store to buy shrimp and catfish for them. Parul still works at the same store but doesn’t handle the fish anymore. She is now a cashier.

I still remember that night, just like any other night with a full moon in the sky.

The boat wouldn’t go close to the shore, they had already told us. We all had to jump into the water. I understood then why it was essential that we knew swimming. It was almost dawn when we neared our destination. The beach was deserted. If we could somehow walk across the sands in our wet clothes and enter the city, we would be safe. I had a lawyer’s name and address in my plastic bag. Not all of us were fortunate. Some of us got caught, some walked away. I spent two nights in a lock-up. I pretended not to understand any of the questions put to me. They even brought an interpreter. I wasn’t really afraid. I knew that once I put my foot on American soil, nobody could drive me away. Biroo, too, got caught. Hasan, luckily, escaped. He was the one who got in touch with the lawyer on our behalf, contacted the prison, the courts, arranged finances, and put us in touch with other Bengalis in New York and Germany. I could not thank Hasan enough – I was so grateful to him.

***

I did not come from nowhere, nor was I swept ashore by a tidal wave. I did cross an ocean in a boat though.
Coming from the land of the mighty rivers Padma, Jamuna, Meghna, I wasn’t afraid of water. Yet I wasn’t altogether fearless. Days passed, nights fell. We kept riding the high seas towards that unknown destination, living on dry biscuits, roasted nuts, and water. We despaired of ever finding the shore. And the towering waves, one after another. Each time we thought the boat would give in, turn over, but it didn’t.

The moon was full except for a tiny dark dent in one corner. Millions of stars twinkled in the night sky. Staring at them, I kept wondering if Parul was seeing the same sky in Germany, Dulal in Tarpasha, and Harun Bhai and his wife in New York. Would we ever be able to reach the shore? The silence was broken only by the slapping of waves on the dark water. We didn’t understand the sailors’ language; they didn’t understand ours.

Harun Bhai was not my relative, but my neighbour’s really. I had his apartment address in Astoria, and telephone number. I went to his place the night I reached New York. Considering one can’t turn back a helpless young Bengali woman and shut the door on her at night, he and his wife let me spend the night at their place. Next morning, they put four subway tokens, a five-dollar bill, and a copy of an irregularly published local Bengali fortnightly newspaper in my open hands and quickly left for work. Looking at the closed door, I understood, through these four subway tokens that they were telling me not to expect any further shelter. I couldn’t go back to their place again.

I was a little surprised reading the small classified ad in that paper, and at first didn’t really think I would personally present myself in response to the ad. However, by the time I reached the decision that I would do just that, I had almost reached the address given in the ad, getting directions from passersby. I had already spent one token. The address led me to a large red brick-built apartment building only two blocks away from the subway station. The middle-aged man was in the apartment — graying hair, unshaven face. He wore baggy white pants and a brown T-shirt.

” What do you want” he asked in Bangla on opening the door. I was a little astonished. How did he know I was a Bengali? “I saw this ad in the paper,” I explained.

” Isn’t it stated there in the paper that one must telephone before coming?” He was clearly annoyed. “All right, doesn’t matter. Come in, come inside.”

I entered the room. Even though it was day, the lights were on. The apartment was dark. Suddenly I felt a little apprehensive. I gave a slight shiver.

” Who is the sick person? You?”

” Why, doesn’t it show? I had a major heart attack. I have diabetes. My blood pressure is high. There’s some problem with valves, too. I can’t look after myself alone.”

” Do you have a Green Card?”

” Why just a Green Card? I am a citizen. And you?”

” I came to New York just yesterday. I would like to stay in America. That’s why I came after seeing your ad.”

” Oh, you are the bride then,” he laughed noisily, baring his teeth and coughing a little. “Did you look at yourself in the mirror? How could you think an American Bengali who has legal citizenship would marry a woman who looks like you?”

I recoiled. Although he wasn’t the first person who had made ugly remarks about my well-cushioned body and round face. I retorted, “What do you think of yourself? An old man, a scarecrow. A diabetic. With high blood pressure. You’re nothing but a barrel of diseases. Who do you think would marry you, except a lunatic?”

I darted out of the room. The man tried to stop me, and then started walking to catch up with me. He wasn’t angry, rather he was laughing at my outburst. He took me to a coffee shop across the street, rather forcibly. He told me his life-story over coffee and doughnuts. I saw no pretension in him. I still had a hard time calming down. I kept thinking of the things he said. He wasn’t a bad man after all, I later realized. The same day he found me a part-time job at a laundromat, folding clothes. A long twenty-three years have passed since, living with him – in happiness and misery, in sickness and health, at rest or work.

Mita is twenty-one now. Arnab nineteen. The relationship that started with the lure of a Green Card didn’t stop there. He talked rough but he wasn’t a bad man. Harun Bhai and his wife came to our wedding, with two other families. Biroo came too. Even he never thought he would live for twenty-three more years with that diseased, frail body. Yet he lived and gave me not only the gift of a blue passport, but two living beings as well, the two he thought would look after me when he was gone.

In reality, it didn’t happen quite that way. Arnab has dropped out of college and almost lives in a Jamaican mosque these days. All he cares about is religion and its rites. His long beard and dress hardly reveal that he was born and raised in America. From his behaviour and the way he carries on, he appears even older than me. Mita is just the opposite. She is busy with her friends all the time, all of them Americans. Between listening to music, dancing, and partying, she just somehow manages to stay in college. Arnab, my son, now wants to be called Asif. He has finally found his roots, he says. He enjoys looking backward. Not in any other direction. And Mita? Reacting to her brother’s behaviour, she is stubbornly trying to be more of a mainstream American woman. She is now living in Brooklyn with a fashion designer. ‘Living together,’ they call it. A chain-smoker, perhaps does a little drugs as well.

I did not come from nowhere, nor was I swept ashore by a tidal wave. I did cross an ocean by a boat though. I had a home in a faraway land. I had a house with rooms and doors and windows with iron grilles. My aging parents were there in those rooms. My little brother Dulal was there too. And there was something else that we kept hidden from everybody. Not even our nearest neighbours knew about it. We had this houseful of solid, dark hunger and poverty. We had been affluent once, and then poverty tiptoed into the house slowly and silently. Mother, father, homestead – they’re all gone now. Dulal fled the country. There is nobody there today. There is nothing there.

***

Yet, that’s where I am going back today, to that faraway land, because my husband always wanted to return home. Only his health didn’t allow it. He earnestly hoped some day he would treat himself back to health and go home. If that did not happen, his last wish was that his body be taken back home.

I am returning home with his ice-cold body today.

I did not come from nowhere, nor was I swept ashore by a tidal wave. I did cross an ocean by a boat though. People knew me. I had a home, I had a house with doors and windows with iron grilles. My aging parents were there. Dulal too. There is nobody there today. There is nothing there. Yet that’s where I am going back.

*Slightly abridged for publication.
Purabi Basu is a short story writer currently living in New York.
Jyotiprakash Dutta is a well-known short story writer.

http://munshigonj.com/MGarticles/PBasu/PBasu.htm

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