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Author Biography: Aimee Liu is the author of two highly acclaimed novels, Cloud Mountain and Face. She has also published a highly acclaimed account of anorexia nervosa, Solitaire. Liu is currently President of PEN West, and lives in California with her husband and son.
There are not many better places to disappear than Kashmir, the perennial casus belli sandwiched between India, Pakistan, and China. When Chinese-American journalist Aidan Shaw went there on assignment in 1949 to cover the latest border dispute, however, his American wife Joanna was not particularly concerned. Aidan, after all, had been on far more dangerous assignments, and he'd actually been given the Kashmir assignment as a way of getting him out of the more politically sensitive China bureau (where his articles criticizing the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek had made him the object of FBI and HUAC suspicion). When she's later told that Aidan's plane has crashed in Kashmir (but that no bodies had been recovered), Joanna simply can't bring herself to believe it. Her reaction is partly denial, partly intuition-but whatever the reason, she's sure that Aidan is still alive. She goes through the official channels (State Department, press agencies, UN police) and gets nowhere, so she enlists the help of Aidan's best friend, Lawrence Malcolm (of the Australian secret service). Lawrence tells her bluntly that the only way to get reliable answers for anything connected with Kashmir is to go there yourself, so Joanna does, with Lawrence as her guide and the ten-year-old girl Kamla (whom Joanna had rescued from a New Delhi brothel) as their interpreter. In Kashmir, their trail leads them to China, then in the throes of a Communist revolution, and the question quickly arises: Who was Aidan really working for? Adifficult question. But Joanna is determined to find her husband-or find out who he was.
Some nice historical scenery and a good cast of characters, but otherwise a standard potboiler from Liu (Cloud Mountain, 1997, etc.).
At the same time, those who appear the weaklings of this earth may possess strengths that overrule the mighty-that, indeed, may surpass even their own deepest longings and desires. I have seen this to be the case among women and children of my kind for as long as I can remember. Mrs. Shaw, too, was of my kind, though on the now distant day when I first claimed her I did not know this to be true.
On the contrary, as I watched her making her way down G. B. Road in her stiff yellow dress and broad-brimmed hat with her handsome young Hindu escort I thought this must be some pampered firenghi who possesses no notion of pain. She looked younger than her thirty-four years, with a fire in her eyes that at once invited and warned me away. I was merely one of countless children of the redlight district. I owned nothing, not even my skin, but I knew why this foreign lady had come. The whole street knew. Tongas turned left instead of right at the sight of her. Khas-khas tati dropped over open windows. Smugglers bundled up their wares and trotted out of view. Women drew scarves across their faces, and the street became suddenly lively with dancing bears, monkey wallahs, and the calls of melon and paan vendors. All for the benefit of the foreigner who would come to save us.
My keeper, Indrani, said that in the days of the British her kind were missionaries and bored commissioners' wives. In the past two years since Independence they had been attached to the new Departments of Health and Social Welfare, and usually they were Indian, but they remained the same. Women with hair like dust clouds and radish noses who had never enjoyed the touch of a man-or so Indrani said. Such women in India, it was well known, were so weak that for centuries they had required the almighty power of the Raj to stand guard over their virtue. Now this responsibility had fallen to India's own officials and police. We in the street could not know why these men should protect the dust cloud ladies when they freely preyed on us, but neither did we question such things.
Mrs. Shaw was not ugly as the others I had seen. True, her body held hard juts and corners, and her lips were bare slivers against her teeth, but her eyes were large and filled with gold light, her skin and thick hair all the colors of honey. Her neck was long and slender and her ears shaped like perfect mangoes ...
You see, even as early as that first day, I was viewing her in a different fashion. We were strangers, yet any stranger who is drawing such examination becomes something else, doesn't she? A stranger is strange, unknown, unexamined. When we study another we become familiar, and therefore cannot strictly be called strangers. I have often thought that of the thousands who pass in the streets each day, many hundreds may have passed before. Yet even if they pass two, five, twenty times, still they remain strangers except for those few who catch our eye, whose features we note and whose place in the street and day we remember-these are strangers no more but possessions of the mind. So in this way I, who was then called Kamla, claimed Mrs. Shaw even as I hid from her under the shadow of a bul-lock cart.
It was easy to see that she was new to India. Her face was like a child's at a puppet show, while her feet and twinkling gloves behaved as if they belonged to the puppet. How awkwardly they plucked at earth and air as she turned this way and that! For although Mrs. Shaw's small mouth rounded with evident pleasure at the sight of a tinseled altar or Bharati's little daughter, Shanta, with a red hibiscus in her hair, still she seemed to cling to herself, clutching her shiny white pocketbook to her waist as she stepped sideways past a dozing pi dog. Clearly she wished neither to touch nor be touched. Having claimed her, however, I dismissed this.
I could not help imagining how it would feel to press my small dirty face between those clean folds of her skirt, to rub my palms on the whiteness of her gloves. I pictured my wild black hair coming smooth beneath the answering strokes of her fingers. My heart would quiet to a purr as her foreign voice poured over me. I loved her foreignness. I adhered to it. I did not believe she would rescue me, but I believed that she could if she so desired.
At the same time, I did not desire rescue. Rescue, as it is understood in the red-light district, simply means greater suffering and risk. Oh, I had heard of girls who were "rescued" by husbands and lovers and caring friends, but I also had seen the deadness in their eyes when they returned. And Indrani made sure I knew all the many, many reasons why other less fortunate girls never returned.
Mrs. Shaw could not know these things. I imagined that her kind dreamed in black and white, as I was told they lived. Black was the dirt, the baby, the fly, the water she would not touch. White was the disinfected palace where she must sleep at night and the other firenghi home to which she would flee when her time in India was over. Home for Mrs. Shaw must be a refuge, while home to me meant a dark place filled with blood and cries and madness.
For I, too, was a foreigner, my homeland also a world apart from Delhi. But I dreamed not in black and white but in colors bright as the waters of Holi. Fertile greens and dirt red, glacial blues and gold, these were the hues of my vision of myself, my life, my possibilities.
These colors I had seen not only streaming in the riots of festivals and the bloodletting of India's Partition, but during my travels long ago away from that first place of fighting and death and what love I could recall. By the time I met Mrs. Shaw I did not remember the place or the journey, only those colors and the sounds that accompanied them. Sounds of thrusting rivers and wind, skittering rocks and rain, but also the throat-swell of men's voices, the partition of vowels and guttural sighs, the language of my keepers. Whenever one from the hills came into the brothel, I would know it instantly and engage him with words from a buried poem, a song, a voice that once lullabyed me to sleep, a voice that had lost its face. And the man from the hills would roar. He would pull on his beard, cup his hand about my neck, and grope me with his eyes. He would talk at me a little and laugh, then set me down with a shake of his head, and Indrani would jerk her thumb for me to get back to my sweeping or go to the pump or fetch Mira or Fatya or Shahnaz for the hill man before he grew ill tempered. But then for a night or two my sleep would blaze with pink and gold, and the sounds would haunt me.
An odd thing happened after I claimed Mrs. Shaw. Hers became the face of my dream voice, and the dreams themselves colored pale as her skin. Looking up through the yellow veil of her skirt I would see her head bent, the shadow shape of her nose and lips, that mane of hair. She would sing me the lullaby of the hills in low-drawn tones with a catch of the throat, and I would rock to and fro with her tenderness.
Some days later she returned to our lane. Her dress this time was a speckled orange like the petals of a tiger lily, her hair swept back under a man's hat, her pocketbook shouting out red. Her steps, too, were louder than before. This time when Bharati's child ran forward with her grimy palm outstretched, Mrs. Shaw extended a gloved finger to brush the flies from the little brat's eyes. Immediately, the Indian servant gestured his disapproval. The two exchanged words. If you brush the flies from one child's eyes, he seemed to be saying, you must brush the flies from all. But even as he spoke, Shanta pressed closer, touching Mrs. Shaw's skirt with her cheek and crying softly, grasping. The escort tried now to hurry Mrs. Shaw away, but she reached back and dropped three paise into those pleading hands. When Shanta ran over to show off her treasure, I knocked her into the dust. Indrani, who had been watching from the doorway, dug her nails into my arm and lifted me off my feet, screaming that I should learn such skill from Shanta and then maybe I would be worth the fortune she wasted to keep me.
It had not always been this way. When I was younger, Indrani pretended to love me. A child of five or six, I had just arrived in Delhi, and she had recently a daughter who died. She would tell me tales of her own lost beauty. She had been a nautch girl in Lucknow, singing and dancing her seductions. The house was a packrat's museum filled with artifacts of her wiles: A caged green parrot from the South African lover who had joined in Gandhiji's Great Salt March. The yellow gold bells with which she used to adorn her hands and ankles. Saris spangled with silver, headdresses dripping mirrors and pearls. Photographs taken by an Oxford- trained barrister of her Pathaka mudra portraying the sun. For a time she would take me into her bed and hold me, humming the ragas of her youth, petting my "golden wheat-colored skin" and fawning over my turquoise eyes. But the house was hardly a business then. She had only Bharati. She still entertained customers herself, and her heart still possessed some measure of softness.
The madness of Partition changed Indrani. She had a brother in Amritsar who was mistaken for a Muslim. He and his two young sons had their throats cut in their own home. While the Muslim quarter in Delhi burned, Indrani took to drink. Afterward, as business improved and our house became more crowded, she grew fat and hard-hearted, and her tenderness toward me soured. I was a weight pulling her down. I was the biggest mistake of her days. I was the demon child from the north, but I would pay when I finally grew old enough. I would pay and pay and pay.
I knew what Indrani meant. I was the one who emptied the slop pots, carried the water jugs, washed the sisters' clothes and bedclothes and monthly rags. I shaved their lipsticks and kohl pencils, tidied jars of powder and rouge. I combed the coconut oil through their hair, lit incense at twilight, filled their oil lamps, brought the clay cups from which they drank whiskey and gin with their babus. I took them their glasses of tea in the morning and swept up the occasional shattered bottle. Sometimes I tended their bruises and wounds after this babu flew into a drunken rage or that one chose to act out the part of the jealous lover Rama. Unlike Shanta, I did not lurk behind the slit curtains or crouch outside the barred windows. (Shanta was always competing with the babus for her mother's affections.) But even in my sleeping place in the kitchen I was surrounded by the sounds and smells, the undulations of brothel commerce.
"A woman's body is her implement," Bharati told me once as we sat together patting out chappati for the evening meal. "Like the plow of the farmer, it is her means of livelihood and survival. Some say it is sacred. Others say it is evil. But it is a necessary vessel for spirit and for life. If as a girl you protect and use this vessel wisely, it may bring you comfort and wealth, a good husband and many sons. Once violated, however, a woman's body is forever diminished. Like mine, it will yield only daughters and the shelter of the brothel." Knowing the secrets of the flash house, I did not see that the protection and wise use of a body was much under a girl's own control, but I accepted these words as a gift to hold in the back of my mind.
And now as I watched Mrs. Shaw, I thought, yes, here is a lady who succeeds in using her body to secure a good life. Surely that is why she takes such pains to protect it from the violations of dust and beggars and the harsh midday sun. But even as this thought crossed my mind, she did something most unexpected.
There had been an accident. A boy named Surie in the next house had lifted his mother's sari while she prepared the morning meal. Somehow the fire got into the cloth, and both were badly burned. I had seen the victims with my own eyes as the flames engulfed them. They were lucky their faces and hands were spared, the legs not so good. By the time Mrs. Shaw and her escort arrived, the excitement had died away. Plasters of mud had been applied to the wounds. But it was still the talk of the street, and the visitors were drawn in. I went to watch from the communal tap a little down the lane as Mrs. Shaw moved forward and dropped to her knees, not to help the boy as I had thought, but in front of the mother. I heard a cry. At first I thought Mrs. Shaw was going to strike Surie 's mother, perhaps for allowing such a thing to happen to a son. But no, she called for water-boiled water, she insisted, and finally accepted a vessel of tea, which she used to clean the wounds with her own hands. She removed her gloves.
I thought surely she must stop and instruct one of the other women to take over, but no, she lifted the leg of the woman-a Shudra- with her bare hands. The servant brought a large white box with a red cross on it, and in the next instant Mrs. Shaw was stroking on the ointment with naked fingers, talking in a low murmur meant only for Surie 's mother. No one could believe it. Mrs. Shaw had the Untouchable 's very blood on her hands. Many of the onlookers turned away in disgust, but Mrs. Shaw's daring only drew me forward. She was so intent, so confident and fearless! She bound the wound in a long white cloth, then turned and began to do the same for Surie. All the time squatting, her speckled skirt dragging in the dirt, her hat-a Western-style man's hat of straw-slipping from this side to that until finally she flung it back to her young escort, who put it on his own head and then looked around as if he hoped no one would notice. And we all laughed at him, and he smiled. I had come so close, however, that it seemed he was smiling straight at me. Mrs. Shaw looked up and squinted through the light. She lifted a hand to shade her eyes. Quickly, I ducked back behind the water tank. My heart was racing, and my face was hot. I had claimed her, yes, but the very recklessness of her daring that had drawn me just instants ago now warned me away.
Mrs. Shaw clucked her tongue and finished dressing Surie 's burn. Then she and the young man went from house to house asking after other injuries and sickness. I tried to keep out of sight, but I could see Indrani looking out for me and scratching at her collarbone, which meant that she was angry, so finally I collected my water jars and brought them back.
Excerpted from Flash House by Aimee E. Liu Copyright © 2003 by Aimee E. Liu
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.