Living between Cities by Nandini Nessa
Shillong-The District Headquarters
They say trace the mossy broadleaf and evergreen lip of the Pamshutia Canyon, and by charting this lesser-known route to Shillong, you’ll save an hour on a motorcycle. I weave past trucks loaded with boys and mules and freight, zooming up and down this deadly, cambering ten-kilometer stretch. Everywhere is an overwhelming green, a green that tackles the sky, head-on. In the contours of these verdant hills, one sees breasts, bottoms. Often, I’m distracted by the heights, but today, a dank fog has settled, muting the jungle with its misty outline.
I pull over for a light snack at my favorite roadside stall in Sohra. I notice a girl, young, no older than seventeen. She wears a blue gingham pinafore, hair braided down her back, universal-mountain-girl threads. She has round, sunburned cheeks from growing up in a place so high it nearly touches the sun. A picnic basket rests on her slim hip. She shows me the contents, steaming hot dumplings.
She rubs her belly and asks, “Hungry for momos?”
“Ho-oid,” I say, nodding.
I speak broken Khasi. My favorite phrase: shit-dang, or feel very hot. I admit, I steal most of my archaic vocabulary from Reverend W. Pryse’s 1855 Introduction to the Khasia Language; Comprising a Grammar & A Vocabulary. The first line in the volume has won many a wayfarers’ heart, including mine: This little compilation originated in the desire of the compiler to learn the dialect for love. I imagine Reverend Pryse guiltily fantasizing about a local girl, probably a minor, and so unable to act out his unspeakable want, he distracted himself with words.
Momo-girl hands me the doughy satchels, puckered open with chicken-and-chili mash oozing out.
She holds up all ten fingers, and gasps when I hand her a hundred rupee note.
“Khublei, khublei,” she says, smiling.
I eat hungrily with my hands. I watch the girl sell her ten-rupee momos within minutes to other men, who squat along the roadside, sipping milky cups of tea. She skips innocently about, like a younger child would, just so the men leave her alone. She stuffs her coins and my one hundred-rupee bill into the basket and starts to make her way down the dusty road.
“No iáid!” I call out after her. “I have a moto!”
She hesitates for a moment, searches my eyes for treachery, doesn’t find it, and agrees to take a ride. I slip on my helmet and offer her the extra one I keep in my trunk, but she refuses, as most of them do. She’s demure as a virgin, and leans side-saddle on the seat, holding her basket tightly against herself. Most of them do this too. But when I get in front she irreverently wraps her legs around my back. We drive for ten minutes, and I feel her press her fingers into my belly, scared of the rumbling terrain she knows with her eyes closed. She yells something. I can’t hear for the wind in my ears, so I pull over.
She points to a path leading her back toward her home, somewhere nestled deep inside the forest.
“I can’t bring my moto,” I say.
She hops off and stumbles, disoriented from the ride.
“Khublei,” she giggles, making her way up the path.
I know this steep expanse of forest well. Within a few paces, momo-girl will come upon a wondrous bridge composed entirely of gnarled rubber tree roots. Villagers have trained the roots to grow through hollowed out betel tree trunks. Roots grow across rivers, finally settling in the soil on the other side. Trees grow older and the bridges form, connecting villagers long separated by waters. After one hundred years, these bridges will have grown to unearthly proportions.
Borders erased in twenty years’ time.
I wait until the bright blue of her pinafore disappears into the leaves.
I prefer my motorcycle and never ride the Dawki-Shillong bus. Besides the mile- long walk from Tamabil across the Indian border to Dawki, on my last bus ride there’d been an incident involving a woman—the only woman on the bus—and her husband. They bickered for an hour. She hurled a serious accusation: her husband liked young boy-whores. Panthi, she spat. She cursed him all the way north. Their drama held a captive audience until the bus driver pulled into a road stall, miles from the final stop. Some men got off to smoke cigarettes or piss. The woman’s husband pulled her by her long braid, off the bus. He slapped her face. As soon as some men started egging him on, he slapped her again. She screamed, but we didn’t say anything. Any others distressed by the scene showed no sign of being so. The husband slapped his wife again and again, until her lip and eye had swollen shut. When I finally couldn’t stand it anymore I shouted from my window for him to lay off her. My voice cracked like a teenager’s and was no match for the commotion. After minutes, the bus driver honked loudly signaling us riders to get back on. The couple returned. The woman retreated to her seat, now mum. No more epithets. Her husband beamed triumphantly. Sick to my stomach, I motioned that the bus driver stop. I wanted to walk the rest of the way to the border. I offered the woman my hand, to walk with me, but she sat with her chin fallen into her chest, seeing no one, least of all seeing herself, in me.
With each border crossing, a fantasy torments me: a BDR border jawan will refuse my Tk. 300 bank receipt of the mandatory border tax payment, demand to see my passport, which I will refuse. Roughly, the jawan will escort me into a small filthy room, ask me again to show my passport or strip my shirt, as smugglers abound in these parts—
But it’s eerie, the sameness of it, every time I cross the lines. Like clockwork, the BDR border jawan, a pock-marked boy in his early twenties, stamps my receipt, dismally muttering, “Good day.”
I’m nearly out of fuel as I enter Police Bazaar, a neighborhood in the city center. Hotel Pine Point is in the center of the bustle, resembling New York’s Flatiron building. Neon signs flip on as the clock tower strikes five. Adventure travel, shopping emporia, and foreign banks clutter the central plaza. I leave my Enfield with the valet, a teenager whose boxy pinstripe suit and wiry frame make him look like a tautened strip of measuring tape. When the kid shakes my hand, I notice the word L-I-V-E tattooed on his right hand knuckles. He gestures that I sign the valet ticket slip, and suddenly, the tattoo on his opposite knuckles becomes visible, E-V-I-L. Hardcore after-hours persona, I suppose.
My room’s classic mountain lodge kitsch: burgundy carpet, wooden walls and ceilings, faux bamboo furniture, mattress as inviting as concrete, framed National Geographic photographs of tribal life. Vista of the Shillong Peaks outside my six-foot-tall bay windows more than compensates for the tawdriness. On the bed, I empty my backpack: passport, toiletries, a headlamp, a compass, a gift for my uncle’s wife; a wooden tribal mask, (worn on the back of the head to stave off jungle tigers, for they never attack a man face-to-face); an identical copy of the button-down shirt and slacks I’ve got on now.
In a small satchel are rubbing alcohol, gauze, syringes, hormones and sesame oil.
I keep few possessions. I keep myself spry as a moving target. Roadside hotels are my home. I live between cities, Dhaka and Shillong, with a three-month stint in Brooklyn.
I’ve just come back from a visit with my sister, who still lives in Brooklyn, where we grew up. Ten years ago, when our parents died, we buried them in Dhaka, and I stayed behind. She left me, never once looking back. At the time, I questioned her heartlessness, her total abandonment of me. But now, after the way I deserted my girlfriend Jana, I’m pretty sure I understand why.
It was the evening of my flight. Jana, my girlfriend for nearly a decade, fought with me days leading up to my departure, saving the worst for hours before I left. For the last ten years, no one acknowledged our relationship. Everyone in our building thought of me as some corrupted American, short-haired, mannish, unmarriageable. She was the sweet girl who lived with her parents, a bit old—twenty-nine—to be unmarried, but that’s the way these days. Grandfather and I lived in the flat below hers.
“I haven’t seen my sister in years. I need to take this trip by myself.”
“You should take me to meet her.”
“I just don’t know.”
“You don’t know what?
I didn’t say anything.
She stared at me. She looked so old, suddenly, morose and ragged. Had I done it to her?
“I don’t care,” she said, finally.
“You don’t care about what?”
“That you are a girl,” she whispered. “How many times you want me to fucking say this? Take me to America or bring me with you when you take these little trips to India. Take me away from this god awful place! But you won’t, will you? What do you do over there anyway? You must have another woman. You love some prettier, skinnier, smarter Indian kutti—”
I held her as she disintegrated. She tried to kiss me, bring me back to her, but as she clawed into my back with her fingers, drawing me close, I felt remote. Cold. Here she was, with the world to lose and nothing to gain but hostility, and most certainly, rejection, from her family, her girlfriends, and her colleagues at the university. I left her there, crying. Spent the night in a hotel near the airport, and left for the States the next morning. How could I explain to her that in a few months everything— my body, the person she’d known, would change?
I feel a vibration in my pocket; a text message from my uncle:
My good El. Meet me at the rooftop bar
My love will be performing tonight.
To which I reply:
My room first.
Barely ten minutes later, there’s rambunctious knocking at the door. It’s Stalin. He gets his nefarious nickname for being the first of his grade school buddies to grow a mustache. But out here, tribal folk name their sons Hitler, Lenin, Genghis, in spite of historical connotations. So he fits right in.
“My god,” Stalin gasps, as I let him inside.
“You bastard, you scared me half to death.”
Stalin sits on the bed. “Seems we’ve got much to—discuss. My god,” he says, nodding as if confirming something. He shakes his head, as if he doesn’t believe what he’d just confirmed.
“Communication is not my strong suit,” I joke.
“So, this whole business,” says Stalin, gesturing at the hairs along my chin. “Hormones?”
“Man can do anything in America. You know, our likeness to each other is astonishing. I hear your voice, I hear myself. I see the sprinkling of a beard, you are sure to be a handsome fellow.”
“I’ve been hiding from Jana, so I haven’t seen Grandfather. But when I speak to him on the phone, he hears my voice and it’s like I’m playing this cruel trick on him. He calls for you. Grandfather’s not well. He barely sees anymore, spends his days listening to Hindustani classics in his study.”
“I’ll give the old man a call.”
Stalin winces at this news of his ailing father and leans back to lie down on the bed. I can’t help but notice his once impeccable abdominals have been replaced by a mellow paunch. Once upon a time, Stalin could have written a playboy’s manual, a book of hijinks and hit and runs, but these days, he’s looking—hurt. He drinks his Johnnie Walker Black each night of the week, puffs his Bensons by the half hour. Pack-a-day habit has yellowed his teeth and fingernails. The more successful he becomes, the less well he looks.
“Fantastic for my business,” Stalin says, sitting back up. “I’m now assured you will be taken seriously.”
“You’re the definition of a narcissist.”
“What do you want me to say? That I see you? C’mon. As far as I’m concerned you’ve got no business being a woman. I have considered you my nephew since we had our first whiskey in Dhaka.”
“How will you…explain to Danah?”
“Fact: my songbird wife smokes enough ganja to have more relaxed sensibilities than most. Now let’s get upstairs. This guy needs a drink.”
Hotel Pine Point’s rooftop bar is slowly filling up with the Friday happy hour crowd: ex-pats and locals with a taste for American music, plus a smattering of vacationing young Israelis recently relieved of their military duties. The drunken young men hoot their pleasure at the young local beauty fiddling with the microphone onstage.
“It’s worse than usual tonight,” Stalin says. “The entire Israeli army is here, undressing my woman with their eyes.”
“Take it as a compliment.”
We’re inside one of the fancier hotels in Shillong, on par with any of the four-star hotels in New York, but it reeks of cigarette smoke, even in the open air. It’s rare to see locals. Sandals aren’t allowed. Traditional tribal clothes aren’t allowed, unless they’re worn by a non-tribal. We situate ourselves at the circular bar in the back of the club.
“Give us a couple of Johnnie Walker Blacks on the rocks,” says Stalin to the bartender.
“Right away, sir.”
“I’ll have a soda and lime,” I mutter.
“Right away, sir.”
Stalin snorts. “What is this? You become a man and drink like a goody girl?”
“I’m adjusting to the shift in altitude.”
“Cheers to your health.”
The bartender slides us our drinks.
“So you are still fucking that chunky girl back in Dhaka?” asks Stalin.
Stalin holds up his palm. “Sorry. My humor doesn’t suit you, I understand. Besides, I’ve been there and done that. Who wants a girl that eager? Tell a bitch to put up a fight.”
A blonde woman sitting across the bar says loudly, “Schrecklichen kaffee!” She dismisses the bartender’s proffered espresso cups.
“The Germans hate the coffee,” says Stalin, in a conspiratorial whisper.
The other blonde woman looks up and stares at Stalin. She whispers something equally conspiratorial to her friend.
“Do they know you?”
“The coffee-hater does. I’ve picked up a hodgepodge of tongues kissing foreigners’ lips. And thankfully no venereal disease,” says Stalin. He grins and pulls out a cigarette. No soon as it dangles from his lips the bartender sparks it. “Originally, my objective was to marry one of them.” Stalin tilts his head toward the Canadian couple next to us, their origins given away by the maple leaf patches sewn on their backpacks. “Canada would spare me the embarrassment, you see, America’s quite loaded, imperialist. I stand for something, I’d seem ridiculous.”
“You are ridiculous, Stalin.”
“But I found a local beauty and now I’m whipped. And I’ve got a legitimate gig with the Uranium Corporation.”
“So you go from helping slum dogs to going nuclear?”
“Look. Nuclear is efficient. And I’ve got to play the game to get out. Coming out, sort of a theme with us men,” says Stalin, with an exaggerated wink. “Except I’m a man, and you’re—”
“I’m what?” I say, feeling like I might hit him. Lately, anger flashes quicker than I can contain it, unexpected, and there’s something wicked about the aggression.
Stalin put up his hand again. “Ok, Ok, Ok, before you attack me let me defend myself. I come from a place that lacks reverent terms for Outsiders. Pardon me, I’m a bit liquored, even before we got here, but you see, I just borrow words that are either ancient and irrelevant, or Western and irrelevant. They’ve trickled down by way of TV, by way of India, dirty Indian pop water, runoff from cities like Bombay or Bangalore. In those places outsiders name themselves. We’d have that too, had we stayed part of India like we goddamn should have. But we’ve suppressed that, blame the freedom fighters, blame the mullahs, blame the heat, blame living below sea level, blame the fault lines, blame living downstream, I don’t know.”
He pauses to swish a sip of whiskey as if it’s Listerine.
“You don’t have names for the way people are.”
He nods, absent-mindedly agreeing with me as his gaze shifts elsewhere: Danah and her band are poised to begin their set. Onstage, she projects a punk alter-ego. She and her band mates wear matching shredded black jeans and leather motorcycle jackets. Her hair hangs loose and grazes the back of her knees.
“Cheers to beauty,” says Stalin, clinking his glass with mine. “So, let’s go over tomorrow’s plan. We’ll smuggle the orchids in the attachable trunk of your Enfield. Once you get back to Dhaka, a Mr. Laurent Beauvoir will meet you at Sonargaon Hotel. You’ll give him the goods there.”
“He’s coming to get them himself?
“Mr. Laurent Beauvoir is not the hi-fi florist. He’s just another worker bee with a fancy name. The florist is a French Moroccan, and he’s not taking any risks.”
“This whole thing’s a risk.”
“Not if you follow my lead. I know these lands better than my own country’s. By virtue of my wife, and this matrilineal society, I inherit everything her family owns, with full access my in-law’s land. And anything on these lands can be stolen and smuggled. We’ve got the world, the very best stuff at our fingertips.”
Danah begins to speak, and everyone becomes hushed. “Up in these here mountains, we’re far from places like New York or London or Paris or even Delhi and Bombay. You see, and sometimes we don’t hear things straight. Sometimes we come up with our own ways of letting a song escape back into the world. So, here we go.”
“This is when you should start to worry,” I joke.
Stalin doesn’t laugh, and looks at me strangely. “Shh, she is beginning.”
Here in the city center there are no stars overhead. Tendrils of gray and black mar the usual constellations visible in the villages. In my pocket is a gift for Danah, a guitar strap made in Brooklyn, a place she dreams of performing. I can’t imagine the right moment to give it to her. Stalin’s always around, always watching.
Each phrase of Danah’s song produces a memory:
Me, falling into an ocean cove, a twenty-foot drop, on a family trip in Rangamati. Jana, Stalin, Grandfather and me. I crash into ocean, slicing my thigh on a rock. Warm blood mingles with saltwater. From somewhere faraway I hear Jana screaming. Stalin is swimming toward me. As I feel the world blacken overhead. My last thought: If I’d grown up here, I’d have known how to swim.
All I’m left with is a scar, a long crescent, ugly and permanent, down my thigh.
Danah flutters across the stage, and bangs on the drummer’s cymbals. The audience whistles and howls for more. She smiles, revealing brilliant rows of teeth, a slight gap between her front two.
“Encore!” I shout, along with the Israelis, as she croons the last note.
“None of that, now,” Stalin says, slapping my hands mid-applause.
I finger the guitar strap in my pocket. I want to give it to her. But it’s not the right time.
“I should get to bed.”
“As you wish. Tomorrow, then?”
I don’t go to my room. Instead I pick up my Enfield from the valet, who sits in the parking garage, avidly playing a game on his phone. He stands at attention when he sees me.
“How may I help you sir?”
“Just going for a midnight ride,” I say, handing the kid my ticket.
“Please sign out, sir.” He produces a clipboard with a sign-in sheet from under his stool. “I must warn you, there are police blockades throughout the city. Please be careful.”
“What’s the game you’re playing?”
“It’s my favorite.”
“Yes, sir,” said the valet.
For a kid with such an ominous message inked on him, he certainly is polite.
L-I-V-E-E-V-I-L boy is right. Just minutes on the road, ahead of me I see red flares and a crowd of angry people.
Protesters have stationed themselves along the route leading out of Shillong’s city center toward Sohra. They hold huge signs with reflective letters, UCIL, YOU KILL! Stalin’s boss at the Uranium Corporation of India, Ltd. has signed a pact with the state government to begin mining uranium all along the southern fringe of the Meghalaya plateau. It’s undoubtedly a cash cow. Possibility of End of Days disaster fuels the agitators. To them, it’s simple mathematics: for every extractable and usable kilo of the uranium, one thousand kilos will be processed. The remaining nine-hundred and ninety-nine wasted kilos will be stored for eternity in drums, waiting to get spilled in some apocalyptic nightmare.
Police hover lamely at the scene. Hidden from plain sight are rifles, unlit barrels of gasoline. These dangers are not lost upon them. They nervously watch the students’ angry faces. There will be no rest until the sun rises and the students scatter homeward, more afraid of their parents than the police.
“Where are you going?” asks a cop sternly, as I ride up to the blockade.
“I’m meeting a client in Sohra for business.”
“What business at this hour?” He narrows his eyes.
“He is Australian. We’re opening a tour agency.”
After a moment’s consideration, he accepts this answer and lets me pass.
Twenty minutes later, I arrive at the forest clearing. Here, one enters barefoot. Touches nothing and takes nothing. Not even fallen branches ominously referred to as widow makers. Village members of the local government, or dorbar, are afraid to move a dead man unless the dorbar leader sanctions it. These virgin tracts of land are revered, believed to be laced with divinity. They’re protected by the grove priest, who is Danah’s father. He accompanies all day time visitors.
No one is allowed to come in at night, and fear keeps most intruders at bay.
I can’t get caught.
Heard or seen by anyone, I will be arrested, which means the end of the operation, life as I know it, and Stalin’s marriage.
In this cavernous midnight, in a forest where I am the only one awake, in this place outside of the city, finally, there is a moment of sojourn. This may be the one place on earth that I am me.
I kill the engine and wheel my bike past the rim of beech trees that line the forest. It’s better to move gradually, the way one unwraps a cough drop during an opera. I untie my boots and remove my socks, which I suppose is a bit odd, considering I’m strolling in here with a motorcycle. But I like paying my respects. The ground is uneven and slick under my feet. Dewy grass crunches under the motorcycle tires. I worry about things like crushing rare insect families, murdered-before-classification, or molesting sleeping snakes. As I trudge deeper inside the forest, the wind ceases. I click the headlamp on. I can no longer see anything without it.
I’m definitely a plains person, accustomed to flatlands and rice paddies and white beaches. Chirping, croaking, hooting, slithering, trilling—all manner of fauna is indescribably alive. It’s at once exhilarating as it is fearsome. Moonlight barely filters through the lush canopy of trees, so I can’t see what I hear. The possibility of encountering a mountain bear or the rare tiger occurs to me and I slip the wooden mask from my jacket and strap it to the back of my head. Against Stalin’s suggestion, I don’t carry a gun. Stalin keeps a Colt .45. He says a man must fend for himself when representing an unpopular position. But I’m unarmed, and will stay that way. I’m afraid I’ll be the one maimed in a fight.
I walk at a snail’s pace through the forest, worrying about stirring a sleeping animal, or a vigilante from the dorbar. The double straps of my headlamp and mask start to give me a headache, but I keep on. My feet and my Enfield’s tires are thick with mud and forest gunk. Orchids poke haughtily upward from the base of a tall pine. But I’m not bothered by tomorrow’s task at the moment. I set my backpack down and sit on it, careful not to disturb the flowers.
I peel my jeans down to my knees. The scar on my thigh gleams in the headlamp’s stark light. I hate how it looks. It occurs to me: Jana’s always loved it. It reminds her of when we fell in love, when I lay bedridden after my fall. She sat beside me, changed the bandages, read me the day’s news, rubbed my back. Now, I hardly remember how that all felt. It’s a marking point. I remove a fresh syringe from my satchel. I’ve forgotten the gauze. Slowly I pour rubbing alcohol along the scar. I push the syringe’s fluid into the vein. I picture myself a cartographer, inking a border town beside a river, on a map. Each injection, each newly discovered city, brings me closer to completing my atlas.
Nandini Nessa is a writer based in Brooklyn, NY. She received her BA from Vassar College, and MFA in Creative Writing at Brooklyn College. She has been published in the Dash Literary Journal and is a regular contributor to Brooklyn Bodega and Thought Catalog. Her play, Nayana’s Passing, premiered at the 2005 Dixon Place HOT! Festival. She is currently at work on her first novel. You can follow her on Twitter.