The Color of Tomorrow
I love colors. When I was six years old, I first learned the names of all the colors in English from Papa. He told me the midwife named me Neela, because I turned blue seconds after arriving. No one knew if I'd live past day one. Mommy's cord was my first necklace, and I didn't wear it well. Mommy agreed to the name Neela to remind her of her sin. Daddy disagreed. He wasn't formally educated, but he knew that a woman's umbilical cord would never intentionally hurt her offspring. Instead, Mommy listened to the raps of the evil woodpeckers around the village, the old ladies who told her that her body hoped for a son and tried to murder her female fetus. No one treasures girls in India. They cry. They bleed. They cost. And they get pregnant. Then they cost even more.
The word dowry was a curse word in our little home, because Papa would never make enough money to provide one, which meant neither of his daughters would ever get married. Like a hornet sting on top of a mosquito bite, the stamps of singleness and poverty on my forehead stained reminders that no bindi could hide. If a tiny decorative sticker centered perfectly between my eyebrows indicated a third eye, I needed at least a hundred more to see past my future, void of hope.
Until now. Until today. Opportunity came knocking and my parents answered like kids holding their bags open in the American custom of Hallowe'en. Stories about America are told to us weekly when the nuns share tales in English as they come around the slums with their bowls of steaming rice and lentils. The tales tickle my ears, but the words I treasure even more. I practice pronouncing English phases I remember all day long until I sound just like Sister Jane. I love her American accent. And I dream of one day visiting the wonderland across the ocean and saying to my first American friend, “Good Morning. How are ya? Lovely dress.”
Divali and Christmas are the holidays approaching on these cooler days of December. The best gift, well, the only gift really, in our stockings this year is invisible. Karma decides to take a day off, making anything possible. Fliers posted all over our little village on the east coast of Kolkata describe a life hinted at in foreign ads of magazines—dingy folded pages found in dumpsters displaying pristine American streets clad with large houses full of glamorous ladies—white, black, tan, and yellow—wearing bright clothes and perfectly manicured smiles.
Just because I find treasures in the garbage can, doesn't mean I'm dirty. Some people mistakenly call us villagers gandtha wallis. But we're not the dirty ones—by choice. The city turns off our communal pumps whenever they claim there's a water shortage.
After an atypical week when the water stays on for forty-eight hours, a bunch of us girls scrub harder than I ever remember washing. We couldn't let this moment escape us with at least a few of us getting chosen. If picked, the fliers promise passports, visas, and a free ticket to the United States. On top of all that, “Each selected winner will be assigned to the dining or entertainment departments of Masala Palace, the newest hotel in the prosperous city of Las Vegas.” The job title doesn't even matter to me. I just can't wait to dress up in new clothes and resemble a Bollywood divas as seen on Billboards everywhere. Maybe I'll even get a close up glimpse at Zac Efron, the Shahrukh Khan of Hollywood.
Masala Palace, like so many Vegas hotels, is theme based and the designers want the Grand Opening to be so authentic, visitors might feel they crossed the ocean and stepped into Little India, bar mosquitoes, slums, and dirt. Of course. The founders of the hotel shaped similar to the Taj Mahal offers girls fourteen to sixteen an opportunity to audition. The papers taped to trees, poles, and fences everywhere are written in colored ink with glitter splashed on the edges. If accepted, winning girls must agree to two conditions to secure their status. Since the job includes flights and living expenses, no one receives monetary reimbursement before the completion of the six month training period. We also agree to work an additional six months before requesting a visit back home. Sounds like a discovered treasure chest we just have to find a way to pry open. The most exquisite diamond lies encapsulated in one word: America.
Jyoti, whom we call Jay from infancy, is my baby sister, and her name means “light.” But she has no interest in all this hubbub about America. Although she'll play my “let's speak in English with fancy American accents” just to keep me from bugging her. With her fair skin and half-sun shaped eyes, she fares promising chances of getting chosen. Even her eyelashes flair out perfectly like upside down rainbows. Papa named her for her twinkling eyes and contagious giggle and the light she brought into our dark, little, four-walled, aluminum shack where candles are used only for emergencies. She stopped giggling the day Mommy's breasts dried up. No milk. No laughter.
When I was old enough to understand that skin tone equated beauty, the woodpeckers whispered chirps of dissension into my teenage years, saying Jyoti was named for her lighter skin. I'm the dark brown girl while Jay's skin is a pretty tan like the beach sand of Digha shores—where coastal Kolkata waves wash away our miseries with our sand castles, if just for a day. Regardless of our differences, Jay and I continue to grow up and grow closer, Jay's thick hair falling well past her bottom while mine barely reaches past my shoulder blades now.
Today, Mommy uses a dull knife to trim the uneven lengths, making Jay's straight across her back, while her hair is still wet from her bath. Mum lets mine be for fear of making it shorter. Without any official documents, they'll never know that Jay is only thirteen. She turns fourteen in June. At fifteen, I still carry the face and body of a twelve-year old although I am taller than most girls in the village. I'm hoping that Mommy's two best saris help both of us look a little older. Mum meticulously washed and dried them two days ago. Jyoti wears Mum's wedding sari, faded red with sporadic gold guild around the bottom edges. The second is navy blue hemmed with a thin silver thread that glitters if the sun hits the cloth at just the right angle. I wear the blue one. Always the reminder.
While Mommy works on our attire, Papa's knack for improvising produces our accessories. A deep well janitor by trade, Papa creates artwork using anything he finds when he has down times during the drought months when the wells lay virtually empty. Jyoti, Mum, and I love when he brings home his latest handiwork, even if displayed on a banana leaf or a hollow coconut shell. Through countless experiments, he contrives colorful pastes by grinding petals from wild flowers and adding white sand saved from beach trips and a few droplets of cooking oil he finds at the bottom of containers prematurely disposed of. One man's refuse becomes another's treasure.
And Papa loves to paint his little girls. He paints our arms, hands and feet the day before the tryouts with a henna-imitation that stains dark, intricately patterned swirls where blank flesh once lay. We are his breathing canvases, and the scents make me feel like royalty. Like I'm donning layers of expensive perfumes in preparation for my imaginary wedding. Dreaming is something Papa allows—in fact, encourages. Love that about Papa.
Like Papa had planned it all along, the henna designs catch the attention of the Masala Palace staff almost immediately. Early in the morning, girls all sporting their mother's clothes and wedding jewelry line up in row after row, anxiously awaiting their shot at the pot of gold in this rainbowless land.
When my turn finally arrives, I squeeze Jyoti's hand firmly and shuffle behind the man who calls himself Jim. He doesn't talk much. Just turns back once, looks me up and down and then asks me to follow him behind the curtained makeshift room just steps further. He jots a few things on his clipboard, perhaps checking details on my application that a kind neighbor helped us fill out. Mommy and Papa both knew how to speak and read English, but writing was not their strength. The nuns from the Sister's Convent taught both the parents and the kids without charging tuition. The nuns were the only white people I had ever met until today.
When Jim puts his pen down and looks up from his board, he says his first words to me. Word actually. Just one word. “Disrobe.” It's not a question. “Com-pletely?” I don't want to disappoint him, but I have never been naked in front of anyone except Mamma and Jyoti. Not even Papa has seen my small, barely budding breasts. Jyoti has been blessed with both the fair skin and the bosom.
“No, honey. Just to your undergarments, so we can gauge your uniform size if you get selected.”
Therein lie the problem. Us poor girls rarely owned undergarments. Bras and panties make for common wedding gifts, reserved for the occasional teen who slips into the heart of a rich boy and finds her ticket out of the village.
I swallow and from Jim's glance at his watch, I force myself to think of the bigger picture. That's what Papa tells us to remember when life throws a challenge our way. Think ahead, and the moment will pass. I fast-forward my thoughts to when my mother's sari will be wrapped around my hips once more and unravel quickly, lowering my eyes to the dusty floor. I drape the crumpled cloth over a nearby wooden stool.
“The designs on your hands and feet…” Jim moves so close to me, I can read the inscription on his buttons. Ralph Lauren. But he told me his name was Jim. I focus on the tiny silver engravings as Jim squats down and places his clipboard on the dirt floor. I hold my breath as a single cool white fingertip traces the curves and loops of the henna tattoos from my toes, across my feet, up and around my ankles and up toward my knees. A tingling sensation travels upward and I fear I might just pee. Right here. On Mr. Jim's dust-covered, black leather boots.
“Fascinating.” Jim says the word like a question.
He then stands up and now the 'R' 'A' 'L' 'P' and 'H' blur in my vision as his long pale fingertips begin to trace the patterns on my right hand and wrist and forearm.
I swallow and I cannot hold my breath any longer. I exhale foolishly into his face and my jaw drops at my mistake. “I'm so sorry, sir. It'll nev—””
“Don't be. Get dressed.” He drops my hand as if it were an apple and resumes making notes on his retrieved clipboard.
I pull my blue and silver sari around me frantically, letting it hang low enough to cover my ankles and wrapping the excess cloth over my arms and wrists. A man saw me today Mommy. And he touched me. Bile rides up my throat but I swallow when a different truth cuts into the dance of thoughts inside my head. The reality of Jim's words, “fascinating” and “lovely” hits me like a bullet between my eyes. I've been picked. And I don't want to go alone.
“Sir.” I know my time is up. Jim, Ralph, whatever his real name is, has no reason to give me even two seconds more.
Jim replies, “Yes. Send in the next girl will you?” He's sitting on the stool now, scribbling words too far from my sight to read. Not that I'm the best reader in the village, but I can get by.
“Sir?” I need to try one time, even if I jeopardize my chances.
“Nee-la? That is your name, correct? Do you have a question, because there are hundreds of girls waiting. Make it quick, then take this sheet over to the lady at the hiring table. Tell her that Jim says, 'Thumbs up.' Can you remember that?”
“Yes sir. I just wanted to make one small request, if I may? My sister—” I take a deep breath. “My sister also bears these designs. And she is very beautiful. Should I send her in next?”
Jim nods quickly. “Sure sure, and by the way…” He takes one last long look at my face, then waves me off after he says three words that I won't make sense of until I set foot on American soil. “Forget your name.”
I scurry out of the makeshift office, yank my sister by the arm, and push Jyoti in past the tattered divide of canvas walls. Who would have guessed that Papa's artistry would captivate the eyes of the Americans? But we're in and we're going. To the other side of the world!
Jyoti has always been a Daddy's girl. She curses her henna fading hands as we pack our small pouches with the few belongings that we're allowed to take with us. The flight leaves a week after the trials. Mommy helps us to choose amongst our few treasures, for fear that we'll pick foolishly. I want to take my sea shells, but she assures me that America has its own beaches.
“Take something from India that you won't find there Beta.” I savor the name Beta, the affectionate term used by parents for their kids in India, like the toffee I receive once a year on my birthday. I will only hear it a few more times before tomorrow.
Mom looks around and reaches for something on the top level of our one bookshelf. “How about this elephant painted jewelry box we found last year right after Christmas? It's empty, but you can go to America and fill it with things you find and bring it back next December with your treasures and your memories. I want you to store up everything so I can hear all the details, okay. Keep your stories safe for me so I'll know exactly how it goes for you.” Mommy takes a single hand from each of us sisters in both of hers, swallows hard, and continues. “For both of you. And stick together. No matter what. Don't let anything separate you. You will remind each other of the words and advice your Papa and I have given you. You are each other's only friend in America. Remember that. Don't trust strangers. Believe your sister only.”
“Array, we can't send her with an empty box.” Papa's voice interjects from the doorway. He's back from work. Early. Must have been another slow day. Few overflowed wells equals less pay. Again.
“You're perfectly right Das-Papa.” Mom always calls him the hyphenated name when we're around. Dad's name means servant, and Papa serves all his girls like we're queens, even when our castle looks nothing like the ones seen in Princess picture books Sister Jane reads to us.
Papa walks up to me with a closed fist. “Close your eyes Beta.”
I close my eyes and when Papa says, “Open now,” his palm displays a single seashell.
“But Mommy said no—”
“Turn it over.” Dad places the shell into my hand.
I gasp at the intricate painting of two hands kissing at their palms. The age old sign of Namaste. Or…
“Beta.” Daddy explains the obvious. “Take our prayers with you. One hand is mine and the other is your mother's. We will not cease praying for—” Each hand in the room now joins another until we form an unbreakable chain of linked fingers. “Both of you until we see you again.”
The silence in our ring speaks unbearable awareness of an impending departure. An inevitable goodbye. Jyoti shakes my hand from hers and runs outdoors. She refuses to cry in front of us. I, on the other hand, need my mother's shoulders and my father's arms. I sob into their embrace as my father's eyes linger on the door left ajar with Jyoti's exit. He needs to get her. I let go and move into my mother's bosom and weep until my loud sobs rumble down to a low murmur of intermittent sighs and whimpers. The shell is perfect. But nothing will replace the warmth and feel of my parents' hands which have held me all these days.
“Let me check on baby Jay and Papa.” Mom's course voice lets go of the moment before she unwraps her arms from my tiny waist. “I still need to give Jyoti her gift. Her keepsake.”
I take the elephant jewelry box and tuck it into my small, stringed, square pouch and sit on a crate near the far wall, fiddling with the strap until Mum and Papa return with Jyoti.
“Jay, show your big sister your memento.” Daddy nudges Jyoti toward me gently. I rise to close the gap.
Silently, Jay opens up her hands and unfolds Papa's freshly washed peacock embroidered handkerchief. Peacocks can't really fly that far, but Mommy shook her head as if to defy this fact as she pressed Jyoti's hand into the frayed cloth. “Baby Jay. You are our bird, and you can fly home to us in your dreams. Any time. Anywhere. You just close your eyes and think of your Papa or me, and we'll be there right away. No matter the time difference. The oceans. The sun or the moon. Just close your eyes and fly right home any time Beta. Any time.”
“Any time.” Papa repeats.
Jyoti takes the cloth, refolds it, and tucks it into her light brown pouch, small and square like my navy blue one. She doesn't say a word. I've always been the talker between us. I understand her silence. At least I think I do. She gets me too, and sees through the babble and knows exactly what I could've said in half the words.
We lay down to sleep the night before our flight after saying our goodbyes to Papa as the Indian moon floats above us, light slipping through the aluminum slats on our single room shack roof. Papa will have left for work when we awake, and Mommy will make us our last homemade meal before rushing us to the bus on the corner nearest the village temple. No rain dripping into our little palace tonight. The floor feels especially cold tonight, and the covers thin and coarse like a sheet of paper. Winter always brings a night chill. But at least the mosquitoes migrate south for the holidays. I turn to Jyoti and drape my arm over her neck. A whimper escapes her lips, and I squeeze in tighter.
“I'll hold you okay. All the way to America. And for as long as you need me to. Till you—till we both—get used to the changes. To everything. I'll hold you, okay? I promise to hold you.”
When morning arrives, Mommy shoos us up before the sunrise, not chancing a missed ride. Our ticket out of this hole we call home lies only hours away, and she wants us to arrive early. We scarf down servings of steaming cream of wheat. The helpings are large, like Mommy makes only on our birthdays. With each spoonful, I swallow tears that threaten a dam-break inside me. I know we are supposed to go. I know this is our time. I know all this. I just never knew how hard it would be to say goodbye.
Mum smoothes down my hair and cups my face, plants a kiss on my forehead and whispers into my ear, “Take care of Baby Jay, okay.”
“Yes, Mommy. I promise.”
Then she moves to Jay and plants a kiss on top of her head. Her lips linger there and I see a droplet from her tearing eyes land atop Jyoti's hair. A final treasure she'll take with her. Mum swats the tears away before more escape.
“Soon.” Mommy leaves us with one final word.
We carry it with us in our hearts with our pouches worn under our shirts and scurry over to the bus depot. I let Jay take the window seat as a thin, brunette lady, with small rectangular specs, wearing Indian garb, ushers each of us chosen girls aboard, checking our names off of her list on her blue spiral notebook. Even her book reminds me of my name. The name Mr. Jim told me to forget.
I concentrate on my navy blue skirt and white shirt, thinking how funny that I'm wearing western clothes while this American wears my ethnic attire. Perna Aunty brought us the clothes last night after Jay and I fell asleep. She had been saving them for this day. Except her daughters weren't chosen. So she left the farewell gift on our steps, perhaps ashamed that her girls weren't considered pretty enough.
And Papa traded two pairs of used chapals for our feet in exchange for household repairs he did for free all week. Which explains why we didn't see Papa much since the announcement. Mine were black and Jay's a dingy white. Mama scrubbed then both, but Kolkata mud penetrates deeply into everything you own, the longer you live here.
I can't look at Mum outside the bus. I feel the need to be the strong one. I look at the head of the girl sitting in the row in front of us. Her mother must have plaited her hair in those intricate braids. I wonder if the water in America will help my hair grow longer. The thought of so many first time experiences awakens an excitement that drums down the sadness of this goodbye. Just a bit.
Jay's face rains on the window. Her cheeks are wet, and her nose is running too. A single hand reaches up and glides down the length of the window now. Jay's fingers wipe her tears off the window as the bus drives off. Baby Jay, we're leaving the nest. It's time to fly Jay. It's time to fly, rain or shine.
Now as the plane's engine rumbles loudly outside Jyoti's window, I squeeze my baby Jay's fingers so long and hard, I can't tell whose knuckles are whose. Together, Papa says we make a soaring Blue-jay. Apart…not even going to think about it, because we have never been apart.
First we fly to Delhi. Then we begin our journey across the ocean to America shores. It's Christmas and as I scan the private jet hovering with fifty other giggling girls, I lean into my little sister Jyoti, and say, “I wonder if we'll see snow when we get to America?”
Jyoti runs her fingers through her long black hair and shrugs her shoulders. The airplane speeds up like a stray dog running away with stolen meat, and the twinkle of strings of lights on houses below make the capital look magical as the sun sets early this December evening. My ears pop as the plane gains height and then everything disappears, and only darkness looms outside as we begin our twenty plus hour flight across the world. I look around and notice not all are laughing. One of the few girls I recognize from my village wails loudly into her neighbor's shoulder. The airline staff person is threatening her to keep it down or she won't get any snacks. Kazi, her name is Kazi. Her outbursts lull to rhythmic moans as her seat partner rubs her shoulder and gives me a look of anger. Like I caused her pain. I avert my eyes immediately, dismissing the hostile glare as contrived and turn to the tiny square window Jay's forehead is leaning against.
Outside, the rain taps a farewell dance to us on the plane's surface. Monsoon season is quickly approaching. Papa's wells will be full and his nights will be longer. Mommy will work longer hours cleaning houses of nearby wealthy subdivisions. They'll be so busy, they won't even…
I put my hand on Jay's knee. “We'll be home in time for Christmas next year. And the best part: We'll make enough rupees to buy Mum the prettiest sari ever. And Papa can buy the tools he needs to build a real house for us. It'll all work out Jay.”
“Dollars.” Jyoti mutters, still staring out the airplane window.
“Even better.” Papa taught me that. Look for the better, and the fetters on your heart loosen, just a tad.
“Movie starts in two minutes.” A female voice without a face announces the event over the speakers. “Take out your earphones if you're interested. I'll come around to assist you if you're not sure how they work.”
“Our first movie, Jay! So many firsts! I can't wait to see what our next first will be!” I watch my seat mates as they unwrap packages of headphones, fiddling with the plug into the armrest, then tucking the buds into their ears. Seemed easy enough.
Jyoti leaves hers unwrapped and continues to stare out the window silently as I leave her. For a moment. To the land of color and music as the screen displays the words in swirling letters, “Disney Presents the tale of Beauty and the Beast.” Waves of oohs and ahhs and fresh giggles spread across the plane, and I am lost. In a song that promises a life that will be “Ever just the same…Ever a surprise.”