Bombay on his Mind
approximately 830 words
by Kaye Linden
Amal pushes a supermarket cart with a squeaky wheel to his basement flat in the Bronx, climbs down six rickety steps and unloads green lentils, rice and purple onions. The unwinding of the white turban from his long gray hair takes a few minutes and he unwraps with the practiced rhythm of fifty years of Sikhdom. He stares out the grime-streaked window at the usual flurry of feet — white feet, black feet, stockinged feet, bare feet, painted toes in flip flops, feet in high heels, suede shoes, gym shoes, boat shoes, and the occasional cane. He dreams of Bombay markets—shawls hanging every which way in hot pinks, pale saffrons, peacock blues, (some so fine they pass through a ring) baskets of toasted, salted chickpeas, steamed rice cakes, sugared pancakes, hot steaming chapattis, sizzling goat meat on revolving spits, vegetables grilled, coconut curries, raw salads, yoghurt sauces, sweets made with honey, cakes made with nuts, chutneys with raisins, and thousands of bodies clustered close together, swaying and clinging, in hot, humid air heavy with the heady scents of turmeric, saffron and paprika.
Amal brushes his long beard, a familiar sign of belonging to twenty million others of the same creed. Able to see only as high as street level, he brushes and combs, combs and brushes while watching ankles—ankles fat, ankles thin, ankles in striped socks and ankles in sandals. He’s washed the window inside and out, the history of its New York City years clinging inside tiny cracks. At night, Amal drinks tea with cream and sugar and sits in his favorite armchair, his only chair, next to a lamp he found in an alleyway. The lamp-shade speaks of trials, its fringe unraveling, dark green stains on yellowed white. No-one knocks on the door to the basement flat. The last visitor drank tea and complained of dizziness. “Too much caffeine,” the man had said and left in a hurry. Amal’s tea, the same as that brewed by Bombay’s chai-wallas, demands just the right combination of brown sugar, cardamon, ginger and cinnamon, an aroma that wakes up foggy brains.
Last week, Amal invited the shopkeeper from the neighborhood grocery store “to have tea” but the man’s eyes widened and he declined, needing “to go home to his wife and kids.” That afternoon, Amal watched through the window, wrapping and unwrapping, folding and unfolding, washing and airing his turban. He sends money home from his work as a conductor on the Boston line, as a bus driver, and as a cab driver, tourists moving around him, away from him, throwing nickels and dollars his way. Once he got a crisp hundred dollar bill and kept it for himself. After a week, he sent it back to India. Amal saves so he can return home one day. He lives in his low rent basement, the simple life, tea alone, lentils on the stove.
He aches deep inside with the wide, wounding rhythm of homesickness.
He wonders how long he can fill the gaping hole with the earning of money. “Two more years,” he promised his family, two more years and they can buy a flat in Bombay. He stares out the window at the feet passing and pines for the feel of another set of streaming masses, for the bitter taste of India in his teeth, the acrid fumes of suttee, humidity blanketing his clammy skin, women in silken saris, chai from the chai-walla, singing “chai-eeeeeee, chai-eeeeeee”, calling out the tea’s location to passengers stepping from trains, hanging out windows for a chai to go, one-armed boys begging, bodies on bodies, sweat on sweat, trains that come late, trains that come early, women balancing suitcases on their heads, dirty feet, flies and mosquitoes, rats that hide, rats in garbage, cardboard hovels, congested roads, bicycles (three people clinging to the handlebars), hands begging, cows meandering streets, dead dogs lying below statues, tails forever curled between their legs. He pines for Bombay dust, car fumes, torrential rains, snot- nosed children climbing crumbling statues and throwing flowers at tourists. One day, he will trade this America to sell his wares again in a Bombay market.
But for now, he plays the role of the immigrant in America.
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A micro version of this story was published in February in the “Contemporary Literary Review India.” Above is the original and complete version. Feel free to critique, comment or hurl virtual tomatoes and rotten mangoes. Or, create your own micro fiction titled “India on his Mind” or “The Day I got lost in Bombay.” Remember, it is always crucial and fun to research your topics, even if it is fiction. Base the short story on truth.
I was indeed in India, a number of times. The way I have described it in this story reflects my perception of this amazing country and its rich diversity. In the photo above, I am immersed and joyful in a shop of shawls in a New Delhi marketplace.
Till next time. Kaye