Shanghai Battle Scars

ImageI begin to count the scars on my body as soon as I hail the only cab I spot from the hotel’s courtyard. Dadi, I hear myself say. The first word I learned in the Shanghai dialect. A cigarette burn brands my left forearm, the shape of a tiny whale. I make up a story, tell people it’s a birthmark. I leave out the context, the backstory, the nights smoking packs of slim mentholated cigarettes with strangers whose secrets waft over on thin veils of smoke escaping their lips. Multiple mosquito bites pepper both of my legs, signs of my stubborn refusal to protect my limbs from the torrential downpours that arrive with spring, that I dance in with my friends. A fading scar from a fall after a night of club hopping mars my right knee. I run my hand over my neck wondering if there’s a bruise there too from last night. Battle scars from life in Shanghai. Proof that it is not all a lofty dream made of feathers from birds let out of their cages.

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***

What is it about physical contact? That refuses to leave the confines of your memory? I did not study abroad and then miraculously “find” myself as so many other students claim. Number one, this was not my first time out of the the US. In Shanghai I lost bits of myself, tossed shards of myself to the wind, melded together a little more strongly the contradictions that make me up. I search for signs of it–what everyone is talking about–in my notebook, my iPod when I am back in the States, away from the clubs, the cabs and the Chinese classes.

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My notebook is filled with snippets of memories, film strip moments captured and re-arranged. My iPod is a virtual diary, the connection to Shanghai I carry in my pocket. Meticulous visual notes, a hoarder of my nostalgia. Instagram’s filters, the uniform square format, the hash tags create the illusion that I can compartmentalize myself, my experiences, my travels into easily accessible byte sized bits. But that’s all it is. An illusion. I know neither more, nor less of myself. It was not love at first sight for me and Shanghai, a caption reads, but like coral that grows on a reef, this city is becoming an inevitable part of me. Sentimental to a fault, reductionary. Written about three weeks after a rat fell through a gaping hole in my bathroom’s ceiling.

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Still it fascinates me how a simple loose ceiling tile changed the course of that rat’s journey, displaced it, sent it careening down into a world it knew nothing of, into the unfamiliar. The day it happened I re-learned the word for rat , lao shu. Wo de fang jian you lao shu, I complained to a security guard who had been in a deep slumber before a posse of new friends and I valiantly descended the stairs. He laughed, sent a young man up with a long stick and then sent us on our way. It’s China, someone said to me shrugging before offering to sleep in the hallway so that I could sleep in his room without fear. Lao shu. Forever stamped in my memory, forever tied to the sound of a few pebbles falling onto hard tiles.

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It’s China, I think to myself when He replies via text message, that yes, we should have dinner and drinks while He’s still in town. Amidst the noise of the karaoke singers in a bustling restaurant in Pudong, I sip my Shirley Temple and imagine the sound. Pebbles falling onto hard tiles.

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I remember the things that make this city loveable: that traffic rules are suspended when you cruise around on your bicycle, allowing you to weave in and out of bus lanes and rows of cars at your leisure, that Pizza Hut here is a higher brow restaurant instead of a fast food joint, complete with classical music lightly playing in the background and heavy glass doors which belong in the lobby of a high end hotel, that the hanging laundry adorning the sides of apartment buildings signals the teeming life that exists on impossible levels in this city.

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I remember the being in awe of the mix of the city center’s architectural styles, a mix which condenses Shanghai’s cosmopolitan history into graceful neoclassical structures, traditional sloping shikumen roofs and the distinct Art-deco facades of old hotels built in the 1930s. And I remember the desire I felt when I first met Him. The instant attraction and the feathers tickling my stomach whenever he touched me. And I remember the guilt and the shame. And then I let those feelings go and feel no regrets, let them rise up like helium filled balloons.

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I left bits and pieces of my fragmented self in the letters and handmade cards I left my friends, in the books and discarded objects (a pair of scissors, 3 textbooks, a box of tissues, a bottle half filled with shampoo) I left in the tiny single room I resided in on the uppermost floor of my dormitory, Xue Si Yuan, in the blue and yellow threads of the friendship bracelet Micol made me that slipped off my wrist during a day of sightseeing, in the long kisses and moments of dancing free up against His lithe body, in the secrets I let set sail in the conversations to friends I trusted. In the shame I let set sail away from my soul as I boarded the plane back to New York City.

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Displaced in Delhi at 17

Sometimes I close my eyes and try to imagine the irregularly shaped rectangle of sky I encountered as I lay my soaked head back on the steps leading up to the roof.  The coolness of the painted concrete was the only relief from the midday sun.  The steps were powdered with dust like pastries in a bakery.  The sky was so close it threatened to blind me.  It would be a moment of calm in a city swimming in noise.  Getting to that one moment of calm, a moment where my senses were not assaulted, was a trip in itself.

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A decorated auto rickshaw

Shweta and Hannah grabbed my hands as we attempted to cross the street.

“RUN!” Shweta screamed.

The car and truck horns blared as we dodged stray dogs and bicycles.  We had taken the Delhi Metro into another sector of the city to do some shopping and sightseeing.

Shweta’s uncle asked us if we wanted to take a ride in an auto rickshaw.  We nodded eagerly and waited on the roadside as he bargained with the rickshaw driver.

“Don’t speak or they’ll charge us a higher price,” Shweta’s little brother, Deep, told me.

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I continued to listen to Shweta’s uncle as he tried to bargain with the driver.  The conversation was getting heated and I picked up on the sour expression of the driver as he leaned against his auto rickshaw.

“Yes, because clearly they don’t know I’m American,” said Hannah loudly.

Shweta’s aunt laughed and looked at me.

“Yes!  We’ll tell them you’re from Kerala, in the south of India” she said.

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She, as well as others, were only teasing me.  It was endearing and made me feel like a part of their family, reminded me of the way my own family and friends tease and joke.  But to know my English and very limited knowledge of Hindi had the power to change someone’s perception of me, enough to charge me a higher fare, amused me the way jokes pinch at someone’s sense of Self and being in the world.  The sharpness is not strong enough to dig under my skin, but the touch is unsettling enough for me to still remember the moment clearly, to still experience a slight dent in my ego.  Little moments like these I collected like bottle caps.  Moments of displacement, of marveling at the way history’s legacies continue to haunt us all, spectators of the past living in the present.

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The green and yellow auto rickshaw was a tiny force of fury.  The sides of the vehicle were completely open with no doors and a tarp like material formed the hood.  There were no seatbelts and three of us squeezed in with the driver.  Cold metal poles were the only things to hold onto and each other.  I looked at my warped reflection in the side mirrors of the tiny vehicle and focused on the buildings and children being left behind on the street as we surged forward.   The speed was riveting and the wind generated slapped me in the face and sent my thoughts flying.  Our driver wove through lines of trucks, bicycles and cows seamlessly.  The tiny rickshaw leaned from side to side as we dodged other vehicles. The streets of Delhi flew past, resembling moving film strips.

Other rickshaws flew by us at speeds I thought impossible judging by the lanky men pulling them along.  Motorcycles and scooters narrowly missed hitting us and I realized roof.jpegthat there were no sidewalks here.  The unmistakable sound of rapid fire Hindi, as well as other languages sent my mind reeling and paralyzed my tongue.rick.jpeg

“Driving in Delhi is awesome!” screamed Shweta.

The wind got knocked out of me before I could respond and I noticed a small smile emerge on our driver’s face as we laughed and marveled at his city, his city that he drove through every day.

Delhi is a city of paradoxes.  It is overwhelming, overpowering.  Beautiful, bright eyes of children weaving in and out of traffic on the highways haunted me.  Their hands, caked with dirt, were always extended, palms up.  Rickshaws and the luxury cars cruising beside them put into perspective a city of sharp contrasts.  In the same day I wandered through the market stalls of Chandi Chowk and enjoyed a strawberry shake in a café I could find in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood.   In a daze, I immersed myself in the pool of controlled chaos that was bo.jpegChandni Chowk: the persistent yells of the vendors, the shoulders jutting into me, the refreshing coolness of lassi, a yoghurt based drink.  We had gone from bargaining for a set of bangles to tags bearing a price thousands of rupees more than the prices we heard in the alleyways of Chandni Chowk.  Sitting in a café next to India’s answer to Borders Book Store: Crossword Book Store, I wondered about the worlds within this world and my place in that world or between these worlds.

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Ignore my face, read the wall behind it.

sdchwet.jpegThere were moments of calm high above the alley ways of Delhi.  It was in these moments, as the walls of buildings basked in the rays of the setting sun, that I felt integrated into the puzzle that was Delhi.  The peeling paint of the stairs leading up to the roof of Shweta’s uncle’s home was the color of coral.  There, I could lose myself in the sky and send any doubts of being in Delhi at that moment upward like a rising balloon.  Kites extended beyond the reach of tiny toddlers on surrounding roofs.  Saris were draped over laundry lines, a family was eating dinner, two young male students watched us as we watched the horizon.  A flock of birds rose up and circled about in the sky.  So much was happening on these rooftops stacked like pancakes all around.  I didn’t need a fluency in any spoken language to understand the intimacy of these little moments that often go unnoticed in new places.  To understand that there are certain moments that even evade the grasp of language.

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A Day at a Liberty Avenue Hair Salon

“Keep yuh head straight,” Natalie tells me after first straightening it herself in the sink she’s washing my hair in.  I wince.  Since I’m in town I decide to get my hair blown out straight, just because.  I like my hair straight.  But I also love my hair when it doesn’t even know what it is.  In its natural state it’s a hybrid of waves and curls—curls which failed to spiral in the proper fashion and ended up at the beach instead.

There is a fat, possibly confused, pigeon waddling back and forth between the chair I’m sitting in and the wall.  It seems stuck.  An empty V8 Splash can and bottle of pepper sauce reside next to three large bottles of hair conditioner on the mini fridge in front of me.  Rinse, lather, straighten head, sit up, repeat.

Any activity within beauty salons—those places we venture bravely into so that we can experience beauty as pain—I am inept at.  I lose all sense of following directions, tense up the way I do when my doctor is giving me a check-up and make things awkward for myself, waiting customers and the three women who have been cutting my hair for the past 8 or so years.  By now they find my awkwardness in these situations endearing.  I hope.blogphoto hair 2

When I get my eyebrows threaded (a particularly painful form of self-torture within the beauty arena) my hands are always readjusted roughly by one of the Indian women at Kavita’s on Liberty Avenue,  when I get a haircut and blow out my head is always wayward, my spine not stiff enough against the hard chair.  I never get my nails done because god knows how my hands would react under the pressure to stay still for longer than a minute.

And yet.  I still do it, still feel my confidence rise after my individual eyebrow hairs have been mercilessly yanked off my face in a matter of minutes with thread which feels more like a dagger scraping against my skin.

This particular salon is reminiscent of a narrow tunnel or an inlet.  The front doors open up to Liberty Avenue, the back door to a confined courtyard of cracked concrete and weeds.  Under the elevated tracks of the A train, next to a sari store, across the street from Met food market and a fish market with a giant whale hovering about it there are more mirrors in the place than floor space.  The effect is slightly disorienting, the mirrors on both walls reflect the street life outside.  Old aunties wheeling their mini carts full of fresh baigan and catahar.  Teens checking themselves out in the mirrors as they strut down the concrete runway on the other side of the glass doors.  Cop cars cruising down The Avenue.blogphoto hair 1

Inside the salon there are a few pots of fake plants, posters plastered against the walls without mirrors of women with the same light skin sporting radically different hair styles.  Their images and reflections are inescapable.  The scent of dhalpuri, doubles and curry hangs lightly in the air, the way the scent of damp earth hangs in the air after in rains.  Nothing much has changed in the years I’ve been going to this place except that a fish tank once filled with water and fish is now dusty and filled with marbles.  The three ladies who run the salon hail from Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago.

Part of my dilemma in this beauty-is-pain space is sitting still and controlling my breathing.  It requires a discipline I just don’t have the patience for.  It’s always about the desire to tame something on the body.  Shaping eyebrows, straightening hair.  And once the anxiety about not being able to stay still sets in, it’s impossible to not move.  It’s hard enough trying to fall asleep at night, but channeling my inner statue while someone prods my head or face with hands and hot and metal instruments begins to feel absurd.

Plus, there are all sorts of distractions which cause both voluntary and involuntary movements of my body.  On this particular day all sorts of shit happens.  Maybe I’m only noticing it now because I started writing a blog.  Now everything seems blog worthy, bloggable.blogphoto pigeon 2

There is a stray pigeon who wandered in from the back door strutting up and down the length of the salon, periodically stopping to admire itself in the wall of mirrors, preening its feathers and spinning around  in tufts of hair as they fall to the floor like tiny parachutes.

There is a group of catty girls and an older man who enjoys staring at people the way one stares at a piece of meat on the grill.  No place to sit, my mom, younger sister and I stand up and lean against the mirrors.  Confined quarters.

“That’s his kid, but at the end of the day he’s my man,” one of them quips, towel flung over her shoulders and hair decorated with the shiny foils used to create highlights.blogphoto pigeon 1

“You don’t think this color is too light for me,” another interrupts, staring into the mirror.  Her hair has transformed from jet black to caramel brown with chestnut highlights according to Natalie.  Whose job is it to come up with the names of hair dye colors, I think idly.

“When I was in the emergency room is when he shoulda stepped up and showed me he was my man.  I didn’t even expect my father to be there, but him?” she continues, ignoring the question.

“Not at all.  You have the color for it,” someone says glancing at me after posting a photo to Facebook of the unsure girl.

There is always this underlying tension in the beauty salons in my neighborhood.  Light skin versus dark skin. But that is a whole other blog post, a whole other box of shit-that-should-be-talked-about-but-people-are-too-scared-to.blogphoto hair 3

The other part of how I fail in the beauty arena has to do with the social obligation to gyaff.  I wrote previously about gyaffing.  I love to gyaff, but gyaffing at the beauty salon is different, more akin to American small talk.  Obligated, less sincere, more about fulfilling social obligations.

“So what is it you’re studying again,” Natalie asks digging her fingers into my scalp.  For the past four years this has been the first question Natalie asks me whenever I’m in town.

“I’m studying international relations,” I lie.  It’s easier than the mouthful—English with a double minor in global and international studies and creative writing—I’ve stopped hurling at the innocent people who ask me what my major is.

“What will you do with that?” I’m asked for the umpteenth time by someone this year.

“I want to be a journalist,” I lie again.  The conversation promptly moves into the safe zone of gossip between Natalie and Natasha, the other hairdresser working.

“Natasha, come leh me tell yuh wun good story,” Natalie calls over to Natasha who is in the process of blow drying hair to rival the length of Rapunzel’s hair.

“About Lizzie’s wedding?” she asks keeping her eyes on the mirror.

“Dee wedding postpone because she havin a baby.”

“Maybe she eat too much duck curry.”

“Other people have problems, yuh know, but not she.  I heard dee shower was sloppy,” she says.

They continue talking about the ill-fated wedding.  My mind moves between the space their words create in the air and my own hazy day dreams.  Only the scathing heat of the hairdryer against my temples jolts me back to the hard chair.

 

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History’s Hidden Quarters: A Review of Gaiutra Bahadur’s Coolie Woman

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Coolie Woman:
The Odyssey of Indenture
by Gaiutra Bahadur
Hardcover, 274 pages
ISBN-13: 978-0-226-03442-3
ISBN-10: 0-226-03442-9
Price: $28.00-$35.00, £20.00

There are some books which infiltrate one’s skin, which burrow deep underneath layers of tissue and stay there.  Then there are others which rip the skin from your body and recreate that being which is you.  Gaiutra Bahadur’s Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture is one of those books.  I started it on a train ride from Syracuse back home to New York City.  I couldn’t put it down, couldn’t get the simultaneous familiarity and unfamiliarity of its words out of my mind.

Gaiutra Bahadur’s narrative begins before the words.  It is easy to miss, to skip to the title page and not run your fingers over the perforated pages of the inside cover, golden and resembling the wooden exterior of a ship.  The golden pages evoke images of the wood of The Clyde, the ship which ferried her great grandmother, Sujaria, from Calcutta to British Guiana in 1903 as an indentured servant.  The book itself functions as a ship of sorts, bridging diasporas  and national narratives of identity in the US, India and Guyana, all linked by a mass migration triggered by British imperialism.

Ask the average American to indicate Guyana’s location on a map and most will give you a look of befuddlement.  Do you mean Ghana, some ask.  Nestled in northeast corner of South America’s coast, Guyana is the only country in which English is the official language.  An outsider in more ways than one—it is also one of only three Caribbean nations which is not an island—Guyana’s relativeImage invisibility in the mainstream media is one of the reasons Bahadur’s book is so crucial to understanding the gendered aspect of colonial uprooting and labor migration in the 19th century.  Bahadur herself migrated from Guyana to New Jersey when she was 8 years old.

A work which blends poetic prose with meticulous research and journalistic attention to both the visible and invisible lines and contours of history, Coolie Woman also attempts to create a bridge for the reader to access the hidden stories of the Indian women who embarked on this Middle Passage of sorts.  In an interview with the New York Times Bahadur, an American critic and journalist with degrees from Yale and Columbia, explains her choice to focus on indentured women:

“I chose to focus on the women because their story is a lost history within a lost history: the story of Indian women within the story of Indian indenture.  While many slave narratives exist, only two memoirs about indenture do, and men wrote both.”

It is estimated that a quarter of a million women left India on ships headed to the West Indies to work sugar plantations.  Their stories, few of which are recorded in their own words, are provocatively described by Bahadur as fleeting glimpses into the lives of indentured women “from behind a curtain separating the woman’s quarters from the rest of the house of official history”.  Coolie Woman resists the myth which imagines history as a solid entity, an object one can hold up to the light and examine.  Instead, history is a process of reconstruction and re-imagination.  History and memory are intimately intertwined—the miraculous, the flawed and the faulty aspects of each revealed.

Bahadur’s work of creative academia is, paradoxically, a meditation on a particular question, as well as the unanswerable nature of the question itself: what were the exact stories of the women who embarked on a journey they had little knowledge of, what were the social conditions and motivations pushing them away from their native soil to a new continent?  Perhaps the greatest strength of Bahadur’s narrative is the way it functions as a means for Spivak’s subaltern to speak.  The subaltern being, of course, the indentured women themselves who left India for a tumultuous three month voyage across the Atlantic.  The complication regards their visibility, since many of the women were illiterate and kept no written record of their lives.  Glimpses of these women, however, are visible in bureaucratic colonial records, photographs and post-colonial folk songs and poetry.

ImageBahadur’s first encounter with her great-grandmother Sujaria is made through a remnant of British colonial bureaucracy.  Described as a “brittle artifact, sepia and crumbling with age”, the emigration pass for Sujaria—known by the Empire as Immigrant #96153—reads: “Name: Sheojari.  Age: 27.  Height: five-feet, four-and-a-half inches. Caste: Brahman”.  Bahadur goes on to describe other broad brushstrokes which construct a vague outline of Sujaria: that she was four months pregnant at the time of boarding, that there was a burn scar on her left foot and that next to the spot allocated for her husband’s name there was only a dash.  In these moments it is most clear that not only were a people uprooted, but memories of their existence as well.  Markers of difference are visible on their bodies, notable, but the broader canvas of history renders them invisible, to be excavated by a searching eye like Bahadur’s.

I never knew my grandfather travelled by ship to England to complete his Bachelor’s Degree until I interviewed him for an oral history project during my sophomore year in college.  Similarly, Bahadur did not learn of Sujaria’s journey to Guyana until she was in her 20s.  I never knew that he travelled on a ship much like one my great-great grandparents travelled on probably in the 1800s from x in India to x in British Guiana, that he re-created a history coursing through his veins.  What wrapped vines around my mind and body as I read Bahadur’s words was that too familiar feeling of an empty memory.  The empty memory of a place which exists only as a myth in the book’s imagination and in my own.  What of these memories of nothing?  Do they not also matter in history’s public quarters?  The subaltern, in Bahadur’s book, can speak—even if it is through the veils drawn by history’s more public quarters.

More information on Coolie Woman can be found here.

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Gyaffin in the Wake House

Guyanese wakes are the best part of dying.  Gyaffin galore.  To gyaff is the Guyanese-Creole English equivalent of chatting, storytelling, gossiping.  I come from a family of people who like fuh gyaff, storytellers.  Gyaffin at wake houses take on a different nature than everyday gyaffin.  Gossip that rivals any high school or college campus, card games that mask the flirting going on between the young people.  Hormones have no mercy, no sense of what mourning is, no care for grieving.  I learn of failed attempts of women I encounter to elope—on wedding days—with a man I just greeted hello with a double kiss on the cheek and a how yuh do.  They throw glances at each other when they think no one is watching.  Whispers send snippets of the past whizzing by me.  The deeper one gets into the wake house the more scandalous the gyaffin becomes.  Then there is chup chal, a card game that I only remember how to play when I sit down, cross-legged, in the wake house.

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Winter shadows of Grandma’s roses

But the best part of gyaffin during funeral times is the retelling of the jumbi stories.  A jumbi is the generic term for the myriad demonic spirits which form the pantheon of Caribbean ghostlore. These spirits still live, still roam the realm of the living, a shadow of what they once were, now used exclusively for evil purposes.  To turn into a jumbi after death meant that one possessed the same evil qualities amplified in their afterlife before they died.  Jumbis never escape, rearing their heads in stories, mirrors and between tree branches.  What I loved about these stories, displacing me by means of the sheer horror they evoked, was how much history lurked beneath and between the words.  As a child I tried to catch glimpses of Guyana’s colonial history from these jumbi stories and store them in the jars of my memory.

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Grandma’s front steps, the site of many gyaffin sessions

My father will talk of trees which bleed, trees which can break the metal blade of a cutlass and the hand of the fool who wielded it in the first place.  The sounds of horses galloping on empty streets and graveyards that if pointed to will result in the decapitation of one’s finger.  But it is my grandma who is the keeper of the family jumbilore.

“Meh tell Lana husband do not urinate pun dee coconut tree in dee front yard,” my grandma will start.

“Why,” someone asks, even though we’ve heard this jumbi story time and time again.  It never gets old.

“Because dee Dutch man live there,” she replies with the utter conviction, as if it were obvious.

According to family lore there are two Dutch men living in the front yard of my grandma’s home in Nandy Park, near the fruit trees, Back Home in Guyana.  The first Dutch trading posts established along Guyana’s many rivers was in 1580.  By 1620 the Dutch West India Company had armed bases and imported African slaves to work their sugar cane plantations, created by draining Guyana’s swampy areas on the coast and near its many rivers.

“And after he did exactly what I tell he nah fuh do, would you believe he had to go to a doctor before he could urine again?”

“And yuh know, meh neva did like dat bai,” my grandma will add in the midst of the raw, infectious laughter which ensues every times she tells this story of the man whose punishment was not being able to urinate.

“Columbus first discover Guyana, yuh know,” my grandma will continue, sitting up in her rocking chair, becoming more animated with each word, each foray back into the past.

Grandma’s fence

Columbus did reach what is today called the Caribbean in 1492.  His explorers were in search of the Golden City.  The coast from the Amazon to the Orinoco River was deemed Guyana, but the Spaniards showed little interest in exploring the region.  It was in 1595 when Sir Walter Raleigh declared in his book, The Discoverie of the Large, Rich and Bewtiful Empyre of Guyana, that “whatever prince shall possess it, that prince shall be lore of more gold, of more cities and people than either the King of Spain or the great Turk.”  Guyana changed hands between the Dutch, the French and the British between 1780 and 1831 when Guyana was officially declared a British colony until independence in 1961.

“The Dutch use fuh live in dee interior.  Yuh know, at dee bottom of dee Pomeroon River—and dat river is dee deepest river in Guyana—there’s a punt,” my grandma tells me, starting another story.

“What’s a punt?” I ask.

“It’s like a boat.  Wid a flat bottom.  And on top of dis punt dey would put logs and send dem upriver.  Anyway.  One day when me and yuh Papa were still livin’ in dee Interior, we learned of dis punt dat once a year does rise up from dee very bottom of dee Pomeroon river,” she says.

“The whole thing rises up from the bottom?”

“When I went with yuh Papa I looked ova and saw the punt was connected to a chain hook on to a tree.  And when you try to see what is on dis punt, would you believe all yuh can see is snakes?  Snakes covering the riches and jewels of dee Dutch people.  It was in dee Pomeroon I first learn dis story.”

It is Guyana’s many rivers whenever they are brought up in these jumbi stories which haunt me the most, long after listening to my relatives paint a picture of deep rivers inhabited by alligators, piranha and mermaids who roam the fish markets in the day time kidnapping children underwater and letting them go only after taking away their ability to talk.

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My Grandma and Papa at one of numerous backyard jams

“Have you ever seen the Dutch man,” I ask my grandma, half joking and half not.  My grandmother is one of those people who sees the impossible, who has lived the kind of life that even words cannot do justice to.

“Me?  Of course.  But dee Dutch man like me.  And whoever me nah like, he does trouble,” she’ll say laughing every time.

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Beauty and the Beholder

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Street art and cats in Beyoğlu

When I was a kid I discovered my birthmark, you know, the way Columbus “discovered” America.  The color of powdered Ovaltine, it embellishes my right calf just above my bony ankle. It is the shape of an oblong nebula or the silhouette of a flying saucer.  It is more than a few shades darker than the skin surrounding it, a floating island.  The edges are uneven like the edges of ripped cloth.  My family jokes about the location of it on my foot.  They’ll say “Nad, you’ll be walking a lot of places”.  By “walking” they mean “traveling”.  It fascinates me that in the Creole traveling is as simple and as everyday as walking.  That is only to be expected in a country where more people migrate out than stay in.

A friend once described it as “a piece of you I only see in the summertime”.  Covered up by woolly leggings in the winter, it is a piece of me only visible when short sundresses with hems that graze my knees let it kiss the muggy summer air.  It’s a coffee stain seeping through the taut, stretched cloth of a canvas and the tattoo I’ve always wanted.  It’s a stamp, unique to the geography of my body.  It’s grown with me, travelled with me, become elongated and prominent.  Not a blemish, but a marker of something different.  Birthmarks are born when something goes wrong with one’s blood vessels–they do not form properly or there is an excess of them.  A permanent mark of something gone wrong in your body.  If you were to close your eyes and run your hands over the taut skin above my ankle you would never notice where the birthmark begins or ends.  Velvety, uninterrupted like the foam which floats above a latte.  But, open your eyes and there it is daring you to think again.

Of the places I’ve “walked”, Istanbul is one of the most memorable.

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The view from the rooftop of Hotel Grand Peninsula.

I like to experience cities from the ground up- right up to the rooftops.   The sky and the sea looked like they had fallen out of a dream that evening.  From the rooftop of the Hotel Grand Peninsula a view of muted cotton candy skies, the dark silhouette of hills lining the horizon and a lone tug boat slowly making its way across the Sea of Marmara manifested.  Mist hung over the sea like a stretched piece of silk and for a moment the red and black tugboat seemed to be the only thing in the world.

Istanbul, for me, consisted of spasmodic spells of action and these moments of lull.

Every city has a sort of background noise that can’t be turned off.  At night, before I could catch up with the new time zone, I listened to the pleasant background noise of that particular sliver of Istanbul we were in.  The high pitched clink clank of utensils and glasses, the low rumble of car engines, the occasional outburst of a tug boat horn slicing through the air, laughter that transcended language barriers and the disconcerting screech of cats fighting all made their way through the open window and wrapped around my ears as I tried to fall asleep.  The call to prayer eventually drowned out most of these sounds each night, but not completely.

We were on the Funicular to Taksim.  I was admiring my friend’s dusty rose shorts when I noticed the glare of a girl our age standing near us.  I admired both of their styles, though they were completely different.  The girl was wearing jeans, a long sleeved t-shirt with a quirky graphic design plastered across the front and a head scarf—the outfit was a mix of earth tones, calming to the eye and chic.  My friend wore a flowing white top and the dusty rose shorts.  As we talked my friend absentmindedly touched the back hem of her shorts when the girl next to us said something.

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The tram riding through the heart of the city.

“It would be more beautiful if you fixed that outside,” the girl told my friend with a glare that was all ice.  That referred to the hem of the shorts. Image

What is Beauty?  Every new place I travel to displaces, contracts, widens my definition, my understanding of Beauty.  It’s at once a chameleon and a stalwart.  Flexible, yet immovable.  Style and fashion vary but where is the line drawn between self-expression and cultural disrespect?  It was a fleeting moment, in the Funicular car, but one that continues to rise up from the waters of my memory whenever I think of that trip to Istanbul.  Has one brand of Beauty been globalized to the rest of the world?  Here lies a paradox. There is clearly an idea of what is Beautiful that is marketed to the rest of the world, but even such complex processes as globalization cannot lay claim over every mind.

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Reflections near the Spice Bazaar.

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The Mythologization of Guyana

It is a ritual to go to the airport with my father to collect and drop off our perpetual rotation of relatives.  It is an unspoken time to bond.  My father is the kind of man who will not say much, but whose awareness and consideration to the people and conversations and gestures and things around him is of a level that few people, even those of his family, realize or appreciate.

A sweltering day in Queens.  Hot asphalt.  I know this trip to JFK International Airport by heart.  A five minute drive from our house, it feels  like the airport resides in our backyard.  On summer nights my grandfather, Papa, will sit out on our deck with a glass of Scotch on the rocks watching the planes dangerously skim the rooftops of my block en route to one of JFK’s landing strips.  If you close your eyes and listen only for the roar of the engines, a sound like waves colliding with jagged rocks on loop playback, it feels like you can lightly run your hand over the wings.

“You know,” Papa will start, his Caribbean accent colored with a British lilt, reminiscent of a childhood and adolescence lived under the empire on which the sun had eventually set.

“Why is it that Americans forget about the past participle, Nad?”

I miss my grandparents whenever they take their annual trip Back Home.  Cut to the slick automatic doors of the entrance to ARRIVALS.  My father and I treat arrivals in the airport like a stakeout.

“You stay on the end closer to the door.  I’ll be by the magazine racks,” he says the way a leader of a military operation would.

We stand on opposite ends of a throng of people waiting for two flights arriving from Colombia and Guyana.  Spanish and Creole mingle side by side, settling quietly over the terminal the inevitable way dust settles on window sills.

“Guyana nah suh bad now, yuh know,” I hear one bystander tell someone.

“Me cyant even imagine livin’ there now bwoy.  Meh get to used to Dis Place,” contemplates another.

“Dem was bad days we left man.  Now everyting is different.  Yuh nah shart of anything,” another jumps in.

Anything you want.  I grew up short of nothing, yet what I wanted the most, to the know the fields and streets my parents and grandparents and uncles and aunts walked through, ran through, danced through, rode bikes and scooters through, I could never seem to grasp.

Canada, a much more suitable place for chubby cherub of a baby according to my father.

Sure enough my Papa and Grandma waltz out, my Grandma leading the way and fretting about something to my grandfather.  Two huge suitcases resembling ripe guavas ready to burst  hide half of my grandmother’s  lean body.

“Dhruv, how yuh do,” greets my Grandma.  Her scent, all flowers and sweetness, lingers.  I greet my Grandma and Papa with a kiss on the cheek, the way we are brought up to greet both family members and strangers we welcome into our homes, a remnant of Back Home.

Back Home is its own entity, a phrase  with roots extending outwards and in, wrapping around the ripe memories of my family members and around my own empty memories of Guyana.  It is a term that is interchangeably used in moments of anger, as well as moments of happy nostalgia.  Many Creole words are like that, able to take on multiple identities, able to move fluidly across the terrain of emotional feelings.

“Anything yuh want, Guyana have now,” my Grandma tells me and my relatives with pride as we stand around the suitcases on the floor of the dining room like pilgrims standing around a holy relic.

I’ve traveled to ten other countries and numerous states before ever going back to the country my own family comes from with a memory that will retain more than a hot flash of images that may not even be my own.  I am told that I did, in fact, go Back Home when I was one, a chubby cherub of a brown baby with skin untouched as of yet by the relentless gaze of tropical sunshine.  There are disputes as to whether or not I came back with measles or an ungodly amount of mosquito bites.  It is still a site of contention between my parents.

Aunty Rose and I…shirtless and apparently laughing at a joke no one else gets.

“I don’t know why you decided to take her back to that dizz-GUSTIN place,” my father has said on numerous occasions to my mother who pays as much attention to his words as she does to American reality television, that is to say nil to negative nil.

“Dhruv you’re dizz-Gustin.  The girl didn’t come back with measles.  Just mosquito bites,” she will repeat like a mantra.

Pause. Part of the problem about writing about a place which exists only as a myth in your imagination, mythologized in conversations by your family members is trying to write down the way in which those who have lived there talk about it.  Dizz-Gustin.  In technical terms it can be translated into ‘disgusting’.  But the way it is spoken evokes more than the word ‘disgusting’.  Guyanese Creole English is an alter-ego of the language, spoken with the whole body and utilizing facial expressions, hand motions, sometimes other people.

My grandmother is a pro at evading the greedy hands of Customs Officers.  She has smuggled back in her suitcases 10 bowls worth of ri-riri peppers, 5 bags of Guyanese bread (tennis rolls, plait bread, solara), bags and bags of sweets (pera, sugar cake, fudge), frozen chunks of fish (scaly green hassa, shiny snapper) and a slew of other vegetables which are imported Ova Here, the term used by my family members to refer to their adopted home, but decidedly taste different.

Back Home have everyting now,” my Grandma repeats.

“KFC, air-conditioned malls—”

This is how my mom brought me to Guyana.

“Toilets inside the house,” interjects my uncle Nigel in jest as he takes a bite of the homemade fudge.

Attempting to ride a motorbike in an alleyway in Guyana with one of my mom’s numerous cousins. Apparently I was shirtless the whole trip.

Back home,  in my house in Queens, my home, I take out one of a plethora of my baby albums.  My father’s camera and video camera were some of his most cherished possessions.  I still remember playing with the multitude of film canisters which lived in all corners of the attic we lived in and later the house we moved into.  My childhood has been meticulously documented and arranged into these dilapidated albums and a series of video cassettes by my mom and dad.  In ways I am grateful, but sometimes I am horrified.

The snippets of Guyana I try to paste together in my memory’s album  from conversations, photographs and online reading still provide some basis for me to create an image of the place.  It is a place that will mar my body with battle scars.  It is a place which changes physical bodies.  The land and climate will mark outsiders.  There are photos where I can discern glimpses of the wooden houses on stilts, the wrap around verandahs where family members and friends gyaff , the popular pastime of chatting, the Bottom Houses, that negative space between the bottom of the house and the dusty ground where hammocks are hung, caharies of curry cooked and dogs sleep.   The green rice fields and dark, murky rivers weaving their way like a snake through the country.  Green, green, green and the seawall, a place where stones laid down by human hands meet the Atlantic ocean.

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