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There Is Room for You
By Charlotte Bacon
Picador USA Copyright © 2005 Charlotte Bacon
All right reserved.
Chapter One Anna June 1992 New Delhi and Agra
The next evening, I set out from the Hotel Diplomat to walk through the great Indian heat my mother had warned me about. Even at eight o'clock the air was as slick and heavy as oil. No one was moving quickly. I found a phone exchange a few blocks away, failed to reach Rose, but left a message for James saying I'd arrived safely. My mother refuses to buy an answering machine-too much of a bother getting back to people, she says. Thinking about Rose's rejection of technology, still blurred with fatigue, I realized I'd wandered off the crowded boulevard near Connaught Circle and down a side street. A bright light at its end drew me on. I had to pick a path carefully; the way was pitted with holes and oddly quiet after the roar of the large road, though still thronged with people: men, women, and children walking slowly in the deepening night. The light became, as I drew closer, a metal barrel with fire rising from its center. A second one behind it echoed the flame. Triangles of orange through a chemical haze. Two small men poked long sticks into the drums. Then I smelled the hot tar. I wondered which part of the street the workers were repairing, since all of it was crumbling. The sidewalk wasuneven and broken, too. They lifted the sticks and leaned to spread the tar onto the pavement. Behind the men, a blue tarp was strung over a length of wire, and below that, I saw as I got nearer, a small gas ring and an aluminum kettle. The men rose, dipped their sticks in tar, bent again. Their arms were dark and shiny with their work. Their faces were splattered black. They were deliberate as they eased the dripping stuff from their tools, using light from the flames to spot which piece of the ruined street they would deal with next. They wore rags around their waists and around their heads, and they were laughing. Then one looked up and gestured at me. Tall white people are pretty hard to miss here. There aren't many of us this time of year; nor do we walk the streets alone. The men stopped and watched me, saying nothing. I turned back. It did not seem right to disrupt people doing work in rags and laughing. I had a late supper at the Diplomat and went to bed, too tired to look at the few books I've brought-the Lonely Planet book on India, a couple of volumes of Tagore, and the Upanishads. It had been hard to choose reading. You could bring the Boston Public and it wouldn't be enough to help you fathom India. I put Rose's pages back in their box, too, and tried to sleep in the hot, poor country where my mother had been born. As I'd explored the city today, I thought about her as a baby in India, listening to its music and din as she grew, knowing its temperature in her bones, becoming familiar with the difficulties it offered its people. She would know how complicated it was just to walk a single block. But it was hard to imagine her doing this. I couldn't see her in this country. I couldn't picture any of the English, much less Grandfather and Rose, finding their way in this huge, smoky city, with its compounds and mosques. Rose had such fragile skin, but she never wore hats or creams. She just rushed bluntly into the open, letting her freckles widen to splotches of cocoa-brown ink. It would have been vanity for her to care, and that accounted for the severe skirts, the men's pants, the tennis shoes where her pinkie toes rubbed holes and the skin bubbled through like a blister. It seems improbable that this country was where she became so tall and quiet. One reason I don't want to start reading her pages is that I'm nervous about finding something unlovely in her attitudes. I've also been thinking about the English who preceded her. To last here as long as they did means that they curbed what it was they actually let themselves see and feel. They must have entertained a muted range of options. It's a stratagem I'm familiar with in Rose's life. Plants, dogs, children, chores. Keep the focus tight. If the English had wanted to look more widely, they would have had to cotton on to the real problem for any conqueror of great civilizations. It's my guess that nothing but the collective habits of its 880 million people controls this place; not empresses, Congress politicians, Asokas, Shah Jehans, or Hindu nationalists. It's just too big. The sprawl I saw from the plane was real, it seems: even a taxi ride across town to the Red Fort could tell you that. So it's got to be the small, daily decisions Indians make about food, family, love, and work that maintain its restless stability. That, plus thousands of years' worth of a broad and subtle way of thinking about God, might have kept the English presence, no matter how onerous, in perspective. According to the Hindus, we've spent the last few millennia in the Kali Yuga, the black age, a cosmological prediction whose accuracy seems apparent given the woes of the twentieth century alone. World wars, famine, and profound disenfranchisement would certainly qualify as components of a dark time. Yet Indian myths have a penchant for capricious change-the slide of a ruler from power, the promotion of a humble man to wealth and grace. They must have behaved, then, as if they knew they'd eventually be rid of the foreigners, even while Victorian and Edwardian functionaries plotted train routes, sentenced criminals, and schooled soldiers, saying Indians think this, Indians always say that: retreating to the general to avoid seeing the particular, the human. Trying to brush off not just myths but politicians, marches, uprisings. Indians themselves probably didn't often bother to differentiate among district officers, judges, and memsahibs either, except as potential bosses or oppressors. Everyone trying to cut each other down to size, as all around them India just grew and grew.
That's what struck me on the early morning train to Agra from Delhi. Every inch of land has someone on it, though that was just in the cities, Mira said. Unfortunately, I had to peer at the passing landscape in quick glimpses. The conductor pulled the shades in our compartment to keep the heat from stunning us. When I tried to lift the one nearest my window, the Indians traveling with me grew upset. "Do not be steaming us with the sun," a man cried. Nonetheless, he was quite friendly. "Where is your homeland?" he asked, and nodded, not quite approvingly, when I said, "United States," with that odd combination of pride and dismay I'd come to acquire after being raised by Rose and Dad. My father often used to tell the story of how his parents had obtained three of the last visas out of Budapest. He also had tales about Grandpa the physics professor and Grandma the opera singer. Walter heard Isabella practicing at the university for months before he worked up the courage to find out who she was. But from the instant he heard her voice, he knew he wanted to marry her. "Isn't that incredible?" I said to Rose, who said it wasn't entirely true. Their families had known each other for years and approved the match. That part was left out because it wasn't as charming, and I was angry at Rose for not letting me make romance too pretty a destination.
Still, it was hard to link that beginning and those elegant professions with the people I knew. They were so fixed inside dense recollections of their old life, they barely seemed to have arrived in modern times. For them, the real world was still in Europe, and what they lived in was a platform not for life but for memory. The only concession they made to America was to speak English and use its schools to help their son learn skills to showcase the superiority of their culture. Their apartment was a reservoir of music and knowledge that found no outlet anywhere else in the country, or so they implied, and that was what fed their hearts. Visits from boisterous children who hoisted open the windows to stare at the suspended wonder of the George Washington Bridge provoked a kind of puzzlement. We were something they had never expected. Isabella was tiny, and she creaked under her clothes in ominous but comforting ways. Liszt. Violins. Walnut furniture. The slump of Walter's shoulders, his hands so like Dad's. Hands of those who've never touched earth, hands meant to roll and squeeze the ends of cigarettes. Men who slouch in small chairs in cafis and argue. I didn't know that that was where he should have been until I saw people like him years later in Central Europe. The men with the caps, wearing knitted vests below their jackets, men worn into deep grooves of community that I did not mistake for satisfaction. Grooves that were simply grooves, worn by habit and history. I don't have many memories of Rose there. She looked ill at ease in that apartment which smelled of cinnamon and bleach, where you could hear the neighbors' radio broadcasting the Yankees, an assault Grandpa fought with higher volume for Mendelssohn. Isabella and Walter were always kind to Rose, but I could sense they resented that Dad had used the American girl of choice not only to become a doctor, but to pick a gentile from England as his wife. A woman with crooked teeth and large bones and no experience handling proud and shattered people from a part of Europe that had tossed away its Jews with ruthless speed. At least the English had Disraeli, Walter pointed out diplomatically. Even so, they treated their grandchildren gently, with great, intimate affection, though I think we baffled them. Looking at James, you'd never know that half his blood was Hungarian. He inherited Rose's size, and he's as blond and polite as an English prince. He also moves like Rose, which makes it curious to hear such lovely Portuguese from him: it's a sensuous language, perfect for ballads, even when you used it, as James did, to pick apart debt schedules. All I acquired from our mother was height. I'm as olive-skinned as Dad, and have the black hair he got from Isabella, a woman veiled in flour and disappointment. She wore bobby pins like the withered digits of a witch. Everything about her appearance was pinched, except that hair. "Hard times, small bones," Dad sometimes said, holding out his delicate hands, often red from all his washing in the ER. Hungary, the 1930s, then New York during the war-he understood in his body what it meant to have to scrimp on light, food, room. He was nearly as quiet as Rose about the past, though kind enough to lessen the terror of his childhood by turning his experiences into actual stories. Dad's recollections were often harsh, but they managed to include cousins given to practical jokes and stickball play-offs. Still, he grew hunched when he talked, as if memory could diminish you. He looked like his father then, and I knew it wasn't just bad eating that had kept him small. Walter, too, was as sparely built as a house on stilts. Dad used to look at me and James in his parents' home and say, "Behold the conquering heroes," amazed and a bit horrified his children had grown so big, so conclusively American. He was thinking of Russians and Nazis. Of Rose and the English and India and of his new country's strident, interfering ways. By the time we were seven and nine, he'd made us learn the preamble to the Constitution by heart and had read us The Grapes of Wrath. "Remember your strength," he yelled when we got rough with the dogs, with each other. Stop it, Anna, I told myself, the heat of grief beginning to rise, the memory of his hands on my shoulders as he told me that anger was temporary but scars were not, preventing me from ripping James limb from limb during a stupid fight. I was thinking of this, I realized, because two small children in the compartment started to whinge and squabble, as Rose might have said, and the father, like Dad, restored calm with baleful patience. To compose myself again, I leaned forward to peek past the shade and glance at an upcoming station. Music blares everywhere in this country, and I forced myself to listen to its bouncy edges, the tremolo of the women's voices pressing high, then higher. Every time we pulled into a station, the loudspeakers were going. I recognized a few words now and then, and they also helped to pull me away from thoughts of my father. Love, house, mother. Prem, makan, mata. I had my Hindi phrase book handy and the list of words and curses Mira assured me would be useful on train rides. "Just don't say 'thank you' all the time. Americans are profligate with it. In India you only say it on important occasions. Getting someone's son a job. Finding a husband for an ugly girl." Use it, she said, when you really need it. Two girls stepped into my compartment and settled themselves shyly across from me. They shared a Walkman, the headset spread wide to make room for one ear each, their cheeks pressed close. It was probably a sound track; they looked dreamy and a little scared, the way fantasies about men make you when you're fifteen. But they were older than that. They had bridal magazines and a pharmacology textbook with them. Eventually they turned off the music and began to quiz each other for an upcoming exam, though they kept stealing looks at the pictures of new wives. "Very hard," one girl said to me, nodding at the heavy volume she held in tiny hands, though it was really marriage I wanted to warn her about. The word "hard" made me think of Rose, and what my father had said once about Grandfather when I asked if he loved his daughter. "Of course he does," he said. "But he was awfully hard on her." I wondered exactly what that meant. I knew Grandfather had helped Rose and Dad buy our small Concord house and the cottage in Port Clyde, where we spent happy, fogbound summers. I'd even seen his checks, bigger than American ones, signed in what I always thought of as India ink, documents that Rose whisked off to the bank without discussion. My father, when pestered, said it was money her own mother had, money for which I should be grateful because it allowed us what he called, with no irony, "the good life." He was right. We had our modest yet well-located real estate. Dad worked at a public hospital but told us to attend the best colleges we could and our tuitions would be paid for. Still, I also knew that in other ways my childhood was a single bed of a place, stingy with warmth. Rose set lights on timers, recorded gas mileage, and bought books and snow boots secondhand. Her own clothes were worried at the hems and sleeves by brambles and puppy teeth. At bottom, she was ashamed of her privilege and did not want any of us, herself included, to grow accustomed to soft living. Good fortune, her thrift implied, could change at any time, and what a horror it would be to have acquired tastes one couldn't sustain. Better by far not to develop them in the first place. You'd never risk disappointment that way.
Excerpted from There Is Room for You by Charlotte Bacon Copyright © 2005 by Charlotte Bacon. Excerpted by permission.
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