Wednesday, 26 June 2013

What Fell Beneath the Tracks by Kawika Guillermo

Read by Brad Powers

A man with flaccid limbs drifts by me at the Varanasi train station. Except for a beard covering half his torso he is completely nude, and just as I see his swaying comportment crossing my path, he plummets into the railroad tracks, tumbling into the heavy iron rails the way one might fall onto a softly pillowed couch after a long, exhausting day.

On the train to Kolkata I can think of little else. The fall, his fall, a fall. It seems he was…drunk? Poor? Desperate? Really really old? Perhaps religious? Was the man's loosely-worn dhoti simply yanked off by the elements? I am so troubled that when Avisha's bag is stolen in the middle of the night and I am charging through each compartment of sleeping bodies searching for the stolen passport and credit cards, and when the Kalkota police with Rajastani mustaches and thick eyebrows finally arrive holding Uzis and AK-47s, and when we are left sitting in the station in Kolkata wondering if we are ever getting home, and even when, hours later, hotel owners start throwing our luggage into the floods of the monsoon, refusing to let us in without Avisha's passport and then we have to trudge for hours through a street flood that has risen to my waistline and our tears never show through the pouring rain—during all of that, I am still in that Varanasi train station with the heat slapping me down, still watching that nude man plummet into the train tracks.

 How does an entirely nude man get all the way from the platform staircases, through the corridors of the station and the hired guards, to my end of the train? Had he been nude the entire time? Had he really walked through the entire train station, naked? I wonder this as Avisha and I are rejected from our fifth hotel and sent back into the waters of the monsoon. With my notebooks already soggy from the floods, I begin to count the things we still have. The clothes on our backs. We have toothbrushes and bones. Defeated eyes. Variegated silk from Benares. Contemplation of the vacant railway. We have words that have hibernated for so long in our mouths. We just have to keep our heads in the right place. I repeat to myself an adage: The greatness of a man is not in his achievements, but in the way he reacts to tragedy. No longer with the privilege of cynicism, deprived of our sense of distance, we are comforted by every cliché that comes to mind.

Hours into our plight we are sick with exhaustion and wet to our chests, so we dampen the floor of an internet cafe. As Avisha calls her loved ones, reliving the tragedy again and again. I cannot forget that we are still in a state of desperation with no proof that we belong. The hotel managers and landlords still refuse to let us in, assuming perhaps that she is a prostitute from Orissa or the Northeast, and that I am trafficking her across the border. To them, we are on our way to Sonagochi, where I will sell her to the highest bidding brothel. When I show them her police report they snicker at the stamp.

We are, truly, in Kolkata.

I keep counting: We have mother-of-pearl bangles. A new bedcover three sizes too large. An ineffable urge to fly away from wherever we are. Songs that strangle.

As Avisha seeks help at the internet café, I go back in the river of the flooded street, heading towards that intersection where the current pushes against me. A black bull has somehow retreated to a rooftop. Children in school uniforms expel gay laughter as they are carried in the rushing flood. Unable to see my feet, I take slow, careful steps. In the water I begin to lose my mind. But my body does not give out.

At perhaps the eighth hotel, I meet Phillip, an Indian man with a small mustache wearing tucked-in plaid. As I tell him what has happened to us, his fists clench in a rage that I am far past, but I accept him as my stand-in, as it allows me to just sit and breathe. He offers us a room, tells us everything is going to be all right. He joins us in waking up the old clichés in his mouth. He says that we must keep our head. No matter what, keep your head.

An hour later I bring Avisha to the hotel. Phillip assesses the situation. You have no copies of your passport. No identification at all. No money. No credit cards. No cell phone. You have nothing. Nothing. Do you know what it means to have nothing? In this country?

It seems we just appeared, waiting to be picked up.

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