INTRODUCTION BY BRANDON TAYLOR
The first scene of Bindu Bansinath’s story “White Town, Black Town” is shocking. The narrator, Latika, is a young woman riding a train home. She looks up to see that the man sitting across from her is gazing at her while he masturbates. Latika responds with what will come to be her signature ironic detachment: “I open my mouth to scream but stop myself — after a long day of work, even the punkahwallah has his needs, and anyway, loud sounds discompose the English passengers.”
While we don’t return to this stranger in the story, his gaze and the gaze of men like him keeps coming back. Latika’s detachment comes to seem less like a quirk and more like a coping strategy in a culture that aims to teach her that her body and her life are not her own. It’s also in many ways a story about the horrors (both banal and extraordinary) of colonialism, and the impact such a system leaves on a country. The story takes place between the segregated “white town” and black town” of Calcutta in the 1940s. Latika works as an attendant to a wealthy married couple, spending her days scrubbing up vomit and fetching tea, all the while simmering over with what felt to me like rage. Latika’s husband Ashok is desperate to become an engineer and to make railroads, and he too has fallen under the thrall of this wealthy white couple.
What makes Latika such an exceptional narrator is the way she remains alert and alive to the contradictions that fill our lives. Of her husband’s dreams to make railroads, she sees both the glee and the horror of it, thinking to herself: “He has dreams of becoming a military engineer, of studying abroad at Oxford or Cambridge, institutions he finds invariably better than anything here. Like foreign men, he has dreams of drawing lines on a map that come destructively to life.” Where her husband is thrilled that the families might be growing closer, Latika sees what is really at work: “Ashok was pleased with me when he learned Mrs. Crick and I are on a first-name basis. He thinks it means closeness between our two families. I do not tell him that it is an allowance she makes only out of embarrassment over the time I had to teach her to use a squat toilet.”
Bansinath is a gifted writer of close quarters, revealing in spare prose just how unsightly and how beautiful people can be up close. We see the skin flush, eyes moisten, and we can almost hear the creaky interior of human bodies. Intimacy, desire, distaste, familiarity, and love power these relationships. There are no quick routes to the mercy it takes to forgive people for their trespasses. Yet this story finds a way again and again as Latika navigates the complicated trek to adulthood. By the end, we are not shocked by what happens because it has a kind of inevitability to it, but we are grateful.
“White Town, Black Town” is a difficult, squirming story filled with discomforts, joys, and hideous turns of fortune and fate. We find out what happens when men abuse their power, and how one young woman takes a measure of control back for herself.
Senior Editor, Recommended Reading
“It Cannot Be Good, Wanting So Much”
“White Town, Black Town”
By Bindu Bansinath
By 1940, Western railroads snake through all of India. I hum the tune of “Suqun Dil Ko Mayassar” on the train ride back from White Town to Black Town while my husband, Ashok, bustles a cart of steaming tea from one end of the train to the next. The trip home from the Crick estate is a convenient thirty-two kilometers, the last leg of Ashok’s chaiwallah day.
I save a place for him beside me that he is never free to take, and so I sit alone, breathing in the mildew smell of the seats. Opposite me, a middle-aged punkahwallah waves a paper fan, shifting it between his sweaty hands. I avert my gaze when he looks at me. With the hand that’s free of the fan, the punkahwallah pulls the drawstring on his pants. His brown eyes dampen. One hand continues the wave the paper fan, the other twists at the hard thing inside his harem pants. I open my mouth to scream but stop myself — after a long day of work, even the punkahwallah has his needs, and anyway, loud sounds discompose the English passengers.
Once home, I prepare a pot of rice with pickled garlic as Ashok smokes opium in the small metrics of our living room. Our home is no more than a bedroom and a kitchen interconnected: one side is made of pink stucco, the other, blue adobe. Everywhere the air cloys with a camphor smell I cannot wash out. Over the window hangs a bazaar fabric of the Goddess Kali, her tongue lolling, one muscular cobalt leg crushing Shiva beneath her. We leave a shared chamber pot on the outside verandah, where it is cleaned by rainwater.
“Latika! I’ll take dinner here,” Ashok calls to me from our bedroom futon.
He turns on the tube radio, a soft British voice reporting on threats of European war. There is news in our country too, news of Quit India! strikes and civilized mutiny, but we do not listen to local stations. Ashok cocks his head toward the radio as I come to him with a silver tray. I am fourteen and he is eighteen. Both of us are at the age of understanding nothing. Married the week after my first menstrual period, with the expectation of conceiving children of our own, we have been together just shy of ten months, each of us a budding strangeness in the other’s life.
Of all the ways we are strangers, Ashok’s schoolboy optimism is the thing that mystifies me most. The mindless frenetics of railroad travel inspire Ashok, who has never left the South of India. He has dreams of becoming a military engineer, of studying abroad at Oxford or Cambridge, institutions he finds invariably better than anything here. Like foreign men, he has dreams of drawing lines on a map that come destructively to life.
“Mr. Crick and I were talking,” Ashok says. “After two, three years of work, he says he’ll pay my way through University in England.” Ashok lifts his middle finger to his thick bottom lip. He sucks pickle oil out from the crook of an overgrown fingernail.
Mr. Crick is Ashok’s employer, a London-born engineer who oversees the tracks of the city’s White Town. Ashok took up work with him three months into our marriage. Ashok has told me about these talks every night since he was first hired, some nights with more conviction than others.
“And me?” I ask. I make my voice high and small, each time acting like it’s the first time that we’re having this conversation. “What about me? Will there be work for me there, when you’re off in school?”
Ashok dips his hands into his copper glass of water I’ve set beside his tray, rinsing his fingers. Flecks of oil float to the water’s surface.
“I can ask the Cricks,” he says, yawning. Last month, after my second miscarriage, after it became clear I wouldn’t produce a viable child to occupy my time, Ashok offered my services as a maidservant in the Crick household.
“He’s a generous man. Taking us both on,” Ashok says. I nod, clear his tray, pour out his dirty water. After I finish the washing, he makes space for me on the futon. I lie on my stomach, my face pressed into the dairy-milk smell of Ashok’s feet. He prods me on the shoulder, as if to ask me a question, and I turn into him.
I had never seen a naked male body before Ashok’s, a sinewy brown cord knotted tight. When he touches me, it is only ever from the waist-down; before he takes me, he smokes a concentrated poppy so that what my body cannot do, he imagines it does. I always imagine he is touching someone else.
After, we lie naked on the futon, our bodies wet from dissatisfying efforts, my sari a makeshift blanket unraveled around us.
Ashok stares at a spider on the ceiling.
“Mr. Crick says I have potential,” he says.
“Very good,” I say.
“You don’t think so?”
Ashok picks at a hole in our futon. “What do you know?”
Maybe Ashok is right, and I don’t know anything. He is with me not for what I know, but for what I have been taught: since girlhood, I have been trained to be with him, to raise men by rote and ritual, to fry air into dough for them, to fast for their longevity, to scrub bedpans in times of their illness. This is the extent of me, Ashok thinks, and sometimes I too will tether my body to his belief in my own ignorance, because it exempts me from the burden of my own want.
Mr. Crick’s wife wears her blonde hair in a topknot and bouffant. When taking orders from her, I avoid her eyes, which are the shade of ice-blue that appears gray in Western films. In the few months I’ve worked with the Cricks, I’ve often found her bedridden under a canopy of mosquito nets, weakened by a gentle nervousness.
“Good evening, Latika.” She stretches inside a taupe silk robe, stroking my braid by way of greeting. She wipes the residue of my coconut oil on her bedsheet. “Would you replace these sheets for me? I know it’s time for you to go, but I’m afraid they’re soiled.”
She lifts her legs, and I pull the sheets from under her. “Yes, Tamsin.”
Ashok was pleased with me when he learned Mrs. Crick and I are on a first-name basis. He thinks it means closeness between our two families. I do not tell him that it is an allowance she makes only out of embarrassment over the time I had to teach her to use a squat toilet. She had soiled her cinched-waist dress attempting it alone. I did not tell Ashok how I scrubbed her feces out of the wool with some bleach and a washcloth while she cried on a silver-plated bidet.
“Is your husband well?” she asks.
Tamsin speaks with a schoolteacher’s slowness, affecting her words with a haphazard Indian accent she assumes for my benefit. This is her routine line of questioning as I fix her hair and set down her dinner tray of strip steak and masala potatoes. It is for the Cricks that I have learned to cook red meats, something good Hindus, believing in the life-force of every living creature, do not permit themselves to do.
She presses a fork into one corner of the steak and cuts through, revealing overcooked meat. I bite my lip. I know how to prepare it as she prefers: slightly rare, flushed and running with juices, the liquid evidence of a thing once alive. And yet I have this tendency to keep the iron skillet on the flame longer than I should, until all such evidence is dried up.
“He is well, thank you.” I have learned to answer her as Ashok trained me to do. “Working hard for Oxford.”
“Ah.” She nods. Her eyes pass over my body. I cross and uncross my hands in front of me.
“Sorry,” I add. “About the meat. Next time.”
“Not at all,” she says, her cheeks going momentarily red. I stare at the sliced chunk of steak on Tamsin’s plate, which soaks, now, in its own sorry puddle of juices. I am sorry to be this obsequious; I wonder if Tamsin is sorry to have made me so. Her silverware clinks as she slides her fork down into the uneaten chunk of steak. She lifts the meat to her mouth, smiling at me as she works her jaws in delicate little circles.
“There’s no need to apologize for these little things,” Tamsin says.
Blotches of red make patchwork of Tamsin’s cheeks. Her ruddiness is one of the only reasons I am grateful for the brown of my skin, dark enough to keep my shame and pleasures private.
Tamsin smiles at me before gazing down at her plate. I listen to the continued clink of her silverware as she dissects her dinner. I glance at her bookcase, teeming with the disarray of a picky reader. Above the shelf is a framed world map, countries rendered in pastels. I glance at Tamsin too. The yellow curls I pinned up for her this morning have come loose. With food in her cheeks, Tamsin looks like the grown-up version of the beautiful infant in a nursery rhyme my mother used to sing to me: Chubby cheeks, dimple chin. Rosy lips, teeth within. Curly hair, very fair. Eyes are blue, lovely too. Teacher’s pet, is that you?
The child is to finish the rhyme by answering her mother: Yes yes yes!
“I was saying you’re dismissed now. James will have your payment on the way out.”
Tamsin sets the tray with her half-eaten meal on the nightstand. She closes the panels of her nightgown tight around her.
As I make my way to the door, Tamsin clears her throat. “When you daydream like that,” she says, “what is it you dream about?”
Tamsin nods. “Come now, dear. We all have dreams.” She leans back, picks up the novel that’s splayed on her duvet, and turns to the page she has dog-eared. She has stripped away the cover, but I can still see the title threaded through the shell. Rebecca, reads the embossing.
Tamsin clears her throat again — this time, for me to leave. I shut the door behind me and run down the ivory spiral staircase of the Cricks’ house. Once the home of a wealthy Indian tea grower, the place is thick-bodied with concrete, built to withstand monsoons. An aggregate of glass-encased light bulbs hangs from the ceiling of the foyer, striking a rose-glow on the milky walls. Despite the aggressive absence of blemishes, occasionally a gecko still creeps along the walls, parading its spotted scales. There are three bedrooms with a connecting master-bath for each; a kitchen with a dormant tandoor oven in the centre; an office-study filled with books by Shakespeare and Kipling.
At the entrance to the foyer, I line up behind a row of cooks and maids. In front of the line, handing out envelopes of sixty-five rupees apiece, stands Mr. Crick in trousers and suspenders. Squarish black spectacles enlarge his eyes, which, unlike Tamsin’s, are round and brown like my own. Second to last, I watch him hand an envelope to Priyanka, a Marvadi maid not much older than myself, before I step forward to collect my own payment.
“Yes.” I kneel to touch his feet, pressing my hand from his leather-toed shoes to my forehead, smudging the powdered dot of vermillion on my forehead, the mark of my married life.
“My husband says you are doing big things for him.”
Mr. Crick smiles. The first two buttons of his Oxford are open, exposing a thin undershirt. “An ambitious young couple. How is Tamsin?”
“Ashok is the ambitious one, sir. And your wife is well. She has taken all her meals.”
“Excellent. Do check in with me tomorrow.”
He hands me an envelope with a King George VI stamp in the corner, even though it is not to be mailed.
I feel his eyes on me as I stuff the paper deep in my breast pocket, until its corners camouflage my blouse’s curve.
That night there are technical complications on the railroad, and the ride into Black Town takes an hour more than usual. Men with longer distances to travel become agitated and restless; boys like Ashok, with thin, pockmarked faces, are on the natural receiving end of their anger. Curses punctuate the transit, “hey bastard” in three languages: English, Hindi, Bengali. I shut my car door and hum a tune from Acchut Kanya to myself. The film is my favorite of all Bollywood talkies; I saw it with my mother one month after its release. It was one of our few excursions alone. I remember us eating guava-flavored ice in the stickiness of cinema seats, watching the impossible love story of a Dalit girl and a Brahmin boy. Now that I am married, I see my mother even more infrequently. I write her letters, but Ashok refuses to buy the postage to send them. I have complained until my voice thinned into weightlessness, but still, Ashok thinks he is justified to keep me from her. The scriptures says it is my duty to honor a different home.
Finally back in Black Town, I turn the tube radio to Bollywood hits, then fry mustard seeds and yellow dhaal over a burner. Through the fizzles and music comes the steady current of Ashok urinating into the chamber pot outside.
When he emerges, he avoids me, going straight to the rusting dial of the radio. He turns it, replacing the beat of tamburas with trained operatic vibrato:
Write a merry song to cheer them
Tell them that I long to hear them.
“Noel Gray,” Ashok declares, seeing the blankness in my face. “I was thinking. If Mr. Crick is going to send us to England, shouldn’t we know the music?”
I shrug. “We have our own music.”
Ashok lights a pipe. Because we have no table, I bring his dinner to the futon, squatting beside him and blowing the dish to cool it for him. I can smell the dried sweat of his work shirt. Small burns cover his fingers like ink notes. I know that he has been called bastard today as he is all days, that sometimes he is struck on the face by civil servants who accuse him of watching their wives with eyes that want too much. I know that he will not tell me these things when I ask about his bruises, that instead he will talk of something, anything else — his fledgling ideas about railroad design, the passengers who slept through their stops and ended up in all kinds of elsewhere, the humidity of the weather these days, the slight lack of salt in the dhaal I’ve made. And maybe after all this talk, he will press his body into me as we sleep, not caring if I am awake, only that I am there. I know, and I wonder if he knows, that when people look at him, they do not see the polymath-man he fancies himself to be, but rather something else, something less than a person.
At work I honor Mr. Crick’s orders piously. While the other servants dedicate themselves to the miscellaneous upkeep of the estate, I spend each day at Tamsin’s bedside, a makeshift nurse, pressing cool sponges to her powdered forehead, pouring her brandy when the emotional intensity of her afternoon programs gets to be too much.
“Good morning, Latika,” she always begins, then wraps the end of a cigarette with aquiline lips. “Light this, would you?” Often we end that way too.
“You’re lucky,” Priyanka teases me during the servants’ lunch of plain chapati. Her strange blue-green eyes roll back. “All you have to do is take care of a vegetable.”
There are rumours, Priyanka tells me, of fissures in the Cricks’ marriage. I learn Mr. Crick married Tamsin strictly out of familial pressure. It had been feared by his well-meaning relatives that Mr. Crick, upon immigrating to India, would fall victim to the poor judgments of a tropical climate and take up with prostitutes in our buzzing red-light districts. I understand too that Tamsin does not want to be in India any more than he desires her here, that the two of them live like an arranged couple, leading separate lives inside the same household. It is this, their separation, and not the brothel rumors that astound me. Besides, that a man strays for excitement is inevitable. To find shock in that is to be an ill-prepared woman. This Priyanka has always told me, when we are elbows-deep in the dish suds, when we knead our knuckles into fresh atta.
Each evening before collecting payment, I give Mr. Crick a report on his wife’s health. I never have much of interest to say, and yet I find myself looking forward to these check-ins with him, smoothing down the frizz along my hairline before them. When Mr. Crick comes home from work, I alert him that his wife sleeps heavily, or explain that I have given her a sponge bath to quell her nerves, or a foot massage though she seldom walks.
“Good morning, Latika,” she tells me as I set her hair with an iron, puffing the bouffant with yellow pins. “How is your husband?”
“He is well, thank you. Working hard for Cambridge. And yours?”
“Just fine, thank you.”
Beyond pleasantries about Ashok, she stops asking me questions. Often I sit in the armchair beside her bed as she reads, our mutual silence broken only by the rustling of her sheets as she gets up to go to the bathroom, or by her frequent requests for tea.
Waiting on her is like being the governess for a mercurial child. Sometimes she’ll forget the task she’s sent me out to do. “What’s that?” she’ll ask me, as I push her door open, balancing a saucer and a porcelain cup of tea. She’ll shake her head, tense her eyebrows until a wrinkled cleft appears between them.
“Take that away,” she’ll say, pinching her nose, shooing me away. “It smells too strong, that.”
In time I confide these anecdotes to Mr. Crick, covering my smile in shyness, speaking with an odd, new humor I have never before known myself to possess but that emerges from my mouth with the certainty of something that has been there all along. He laughs with me.
It is during these moments with Mr. Crick that I find myself talking the most. Each day, after the other servants leave, I smooth my hair with the damp sides of my palms and meet him in his office-study. Unlike the white walls of the rest of the house, the walls of Mr. Crick’s study are paneled with deep cherry oak and built-in bookshelves. On the end table in front of Mr. Crick’s work desk, a glass display case holds an open Bible. He keeps my envelope tucked into an antique chocolate box, apart from the rest. I am allowed free access to his library, taking out Robinson Crusoe and Little Women at my leisure.
“Something to entertain you.” Mr. Crick pats my shoulders as I make selections. “When work around the house gets to be too much.”
“I’m not the best reader, sir,” I admitted, the first time he handed me a title he’d chosen himself, Middlemarch, by George Eliot. “Not much schooling.”
It is true. I have finished only my primary education; after my engagement to Ashok, the prospect of moving on to pre-college was nonsensical.
I pushed the book back to Mr. Crick, but he pushed it back by the spine.
“I don’t know anything.”
“Nonsense,” he insisted. “You’re a bright girl. You’ll learn.”
Mr. Crick smiles at me, rolling up the cuffs of his buttoned shirt. Like so many of the Englishmen here, he has a forgettable face, with a thin line of lips, and cheeks gone slightly gaunt with age, offset by a head of thick, boyish brown hair.
Over time, the man Ashok sees in Mr. Crick, I too begin to see. In our daily exchanges, I come to learn that Mr. Crick is a poor cricket player — I’m pathetic with a bat, he swears — that he was an altogether average at Brighton boarding school.
“I had no potential there,” he says, laughing, leaning back in the creaky leather chair of his study. I hover in the frame of the doorway, awaiting my envelope. But outside the rain taps down like impatient fingers on a desk. I can wait a little while longer, or at least, until the water slows.
“It’s better for me here,” Mr. Crick continues. “Easier.”
“My husband is the opposite,” I say. “He thinks all the answers are abroad.”
“And what do you think?” He asks the question with his entire eyes, darker than powdered chicory.
“I think it cannot be good, wanting so much.”
Because railroad travel is heavy on weekends, Ashok works overtime on Sundays, and I am left at the Crick estate long after the other housekeepers leave. On one such evening, after Tamsin dismisses me early, her body drowsy with sleep, I decide I will catch the train into Black Town alone. The rain is clearer now than it has been in months. Perhaps I can use the time before Ashok arrives to relax on the verandah. I walk downstairs and knock on the brass door of Mr. Crick’s office-study to take permissions.
“Sir. Your wife is asleep. My husband is working late. I’m wondering if I may collect my payment? I was hoping to make an earlier train today. Just today.”
He pushes his spectacles further up his nose and sighs. His shirt is stuck to his torso, so dense is the post-monsoon humidity.
“Tell your husband there’s no need. It’s dark outside. A young woman shouldn’t be walking to the train alone.”
For a moment, I am terrified I have upset him. But the look in his eyes as he stands and walks toward me, his body as sleek as a grown cat’s, is something different than upset. Like so many things, I cannot place the impression, and yet it turns my mouth rancid as bad butter. I know that there is a sourness inside the cleft between my legs, which heats, in spite of my unease, to the lilt of his voice.
“Yes, sir. I will tell him. But he is only looking to show you he is a good worker.” Mr. Crick slides a hand under my blouse and presses hard.
“We’re very grateful to you, sir. He has big dreams. Engineer dreams. He tells me you’re going to do big things for us.”
He nods, brown eyes averted, undoing his belt buckle with his free hand. He calls my husband a bright young man and asks me to do with my mouth something I have never done before. As if greeting an elder, I drop to my knees. What we do then is another kind of reverence. His belt buckle is cold in the way of things gone long untouched. Underneath, the tip of the shaft is basted with salt.
That night, I put on a pot of rice for Ashok and listen to him practice English alongside the tube radio. I have a tightness inside that will not let me look at him. He is breaking sentences into monosyllables, sounding out each with accented slowness.
“Latika,” he says, switching the radio off. “The water’s boiling over.”
I turn to the flame: a distended white film leaks over the edge of the pot. “Oh.”
He shrugs and turns the radio back on. I scrape the overdone rice onto a banana leaf beside him. It is the first time I have overcooked anything. Ashok leans into me, hooking one finger in the lining of my blouse. “It’s nothing to worry about.” Like a sheepherder, he turns my body to him, shifting my weight onto his hips, dismantling the tie of my sari that another man has today dismantled, guiding himself inside in one soft gluck. Coral chiffon flutters around us.
For all the roughness of his skin, Ashok’s lovemaking is an unbecoming softness. Mine is the only body he has ever wanted. He is hungry for it because it is consistently his. I slap away the small stings of mosquitoes who take our intimacy as an opening for blood. As Ashok finishes, I close my eyes and hold him still. I pray for desire to shirk into me, but Ashok does not feel like anything, only skin and hardness. He slides me off him and falls asleep. I tell myself that the wetness in my body is not as heavy as the shame that hums between my ears. But then it is likely that I do not know anything, and the things I tell myself are things not worth telling.
Mr. Crick takes my desires and puts himself inside them, the photo inside a locket, then winds the chain back around my neck, my knees, my back. Unlike Ashok, there is no censorship in his aggression, no part of me he is disinclined to touch. The expertise in his hands is so pellucid that it absolves me of my guilt, leaving behind only a prickling after-empty.
“Bright girl.” Mr. Crick kisses the nape of my neck as I arrange the volumes of his bookcase. “You’re glowing.”
We carry on this way every Sunday for two months. I continue to update him about his wife, whose condition remains unchanged.
“She’s been eating Cadburys and mango pickle together,” I tell him, presenting him with the leftovers from Tamsin’s afternoon plate, for evidence.
Mostly Mr. Crick laughs and thanks me for my reports, no matter how inane. But there are times when he’ll listen and readjust his cufflinks, when patches of red overcome his cheeks like turbulent weather. He is thinking — I know this from his own admissions, from the candor that comes easily in our dishonest circumstances — of his wife’s sacrifices, how far Tamsin has traveled to be with him, how she has adapted to the funny taste of jeera powder, how one day she might die in a country on a continent that is worlds removed from the brick street where she grew up, where they could have built another kind of life together. I nod and collect my paycheck off the desk.
One afternoon when Mr. Crick is at the railroads, Tamsin calls for me in the middle of the servants’ lunch. “Latika!”
Her voice is so shrill that even the mosquitos stop midair. I pass my plate to Priyanka, who clucks her tongue.
“You’d better go,” she says. “I can only wonder what that could be about.”
I make my way up the spiral stairs, away from Priyanka’s reprobating eyes, but my feet this past few weeks have grown swollen in flat chappals, and my steps are leaden and slow. A nausea both fresh and familiar roils in the pit of my stomach and rings fetid in my mouth. I know that I have been discovered, if not by Tamsin herself then by the click-clacking of Priyanka’s tongue.
But when I open the door, I do not find Tamsin in hysterics. She sits cross-legged on her pillow, smoking a cigarette, the skin around her eyes tender pink. A film of hard, red gunk dries on her inner thighs. The bedsheet is studded with clots. Though larger and rounder than what came of my own two miscarriages, I recognize them immediately.
“Good afternoon, Latika.” She pats the bed, as if inviting me to sit. “I seem… I seem to have soiled these sheets, haven’t I? Replace them.”
My fingers shake as I grasp the silk and tug.
“How is my husband?” Tamsin asks, lifting her legs and breaking into cry-laughter. “I mean, how is yours? Working hard for Oxford and Cambridge?”
“Dear,” she slurs, gripping my hair for leverage. “The both of you belong here.”
Tamsin loosens her grip. She looks away, at the burgundy-colored crust drying on her thighs.
“I did it myself,” she says. “The neck of a brandy bottle. Some fresh wire.”
She exhales, her breath a drag of invisible smoke, and leans back into the dent of her pillow. “I forgot who taught me. I just knew, somehow. How to do it.”
She shuts her eyes.
“I didn’t want a child to grow up in a place like this,” she says. “A place like yours.”
My head is weightless. I kneel at the foot of the bed and vomit.
Kutti. Kutiya. Bitch. Tamsin spits the words, disgusted, standing up and tying her robe.“Out.”
Each appellation I deserve. But two of the three languages I never imagined her knowing.
On the train ride back to Black Town, I blink back the wet in my eyes, stare hard out the frosted glass of my car. Ashok’s figure flits back and forth, car to car. I watch him. Memorize his stature as he lifts a colander midair, as he strains pepper and Darjeeling from a pot. He wears a turban to hide perspiration in his hair from the passengers, so many of whom pretend they are quick to sicken.
Later, we lie on the futon.
“How did you get fired, Latika?”
A candle burns in the corner of our home, illuminating the Kali fabric. I bite back a rising bile in my throat.
“I was incompetent.”
The next day, Priyanka, who will become Tamsin’s new caretaker, drops off my final paycheck, balancing a copy of Middlemarch and my envelope in one hand. I present the envelope to Ashok that night. We are undressed for bed but untouching. I press my hands to my breasts, distended and sore.
“It isn’t the money, Latika. What will Mr. Crick think of this?”
Ashok shifts his weight away from me, begging for distance on our one-meter futon. With all the strength in my body, I grip his torso and turn him over, then kiss down to the seam of his pants. “You’re a bright young man,” I say, taking him flaccid between my lips, half to hold back my persisting bile, half in apology.
If Ashok wonders where I have learned to do such an act, he does not ask, only whispers: “Mr. Crick still thinks so, doesn’t he?”
I nod yes, over and over, until my jaw gives out.
With Indian independence from the British Empire in 1947 will come the departure of all military engineers and viceroys, and from home, Ashok and I will witness the dissolution of White Town and Black Town. The people of our city will realize, some of us more reluctantly than others, that all of Calcutta is, in fact, a Black Town. Only the ones who pretend otherwise, the Anglo-wallahs, will continue to live in search of people to owe.
Five years later, in 1952, the Indian government will put cooling fans and seat lights in the train cars of third-class passengers. Such changes are inevitable, even allaying, but in our teens, in 1940, we do not dream them possible.
I avoid White Town and live singularly in service of Ashok, but the nausea of my firing day never leaves me. While Ashok tends to his railroad work, I stay bedridden with hot flashes. On occasion, I write apology letters to Mr. Crick, imploring him for another chance at work, and then to Mrs. Crick. I write to her until I run out of apologies, and then I write to her about anything: a dream I had in which my skin is blue and black, and no matter how many garments I put on to dress myself, the cloth dissolves into this skin, into my nakedness. I hide these letters away in the pages of Middlemarch, a novel that doesn’t interest Ashok. I am not so naive as to send these apologies. In time, I am not so naive as to write them.
For weeks, as my feet and abdomen engorge, I pray it’s not what I know it to be. Then I pray that it will be like the others, self-erasing. But the nausea never leaves me. One night when I cannot swallow back my bile, I think of turning Ashok over in his sleep and laying on him the weight of my disgrace, confessing to him how I have loved in body the same man he adores in heart. But no matter all the things I have done, I cannot bring myself to do this, waking him instead by the sound of my retching outside into the chamber pot.
“Morning sickness?” he mumbles sleepily, holding my braid back in one hand.
A few months’ time proves him right. By some godsend, I grow fat and fertile. The mystery of my nausea, which I had attributed to shame, is instead the twisting force of a living thing. In that interim before I give birth, colored by the relief and jubilation of both Ashok’s family and mine, I watch my husband travel to the train station alone. I prepare vats of rice for his nightly arrival, listening with sadness and then anger over his big engineer dreams.
“Mr. Crick says two more years, Latika. Two more years, and we’ll be off.”
His dreams do not stop until our child is born, a baby boy with skin as white as the Cricks’ milky walls.
“Oh,” Ashok says, hands crumpling into mine on a sweaty hospital cot.
Day after day following the birth, Ashok and I stay at home, myself tending to the baby, Ashok lying soundless on the futon. I never have to explain my infidelity. Words are no more than fruit flies moving slowly through the air. That Ashok will not return to work goes unspoken. I steel myself to be thrown out of this house too, for karma to snake around my body and nip it into place.
But this doesn’t happen. Instead Ashok stands up from the futon one day and walks around the perimeter of our house, as if taking inventory of what is his own. He stops at the tube radio, turning the knob to a local channel that plays a Devika Rani song:
mai ban ki chidiya ban ke ban ban bolu re
mai ban ka panchhi ban ke sang sang dolu re.
Curtained by sound, we cry as much as strangers can in the presence of other strangers. And then, standing beside me, Ashok takes the baby from my arms into his. He stares down into its wide, chicory eyes, at once so like and unlike our own. Though we are at the age of understanding nothing, it is this that I know: Ashok will forgive me. In some ways, ours is the child he has always wanted.