Hello, USA, 212-866-5826?” That is how the telephone operator from India began. Yes, I shouted, yes. It appeared that the ocean that lay between us was roaring in my ear. I switched to Hindi but the operator kept speaking English and next confirmed my name. Then, my father hurriedly greeted me, and asked me how I was, before giving the phone to my mother. These calls were expensive, I knew. When my parents requested the call, they would have paid for the first four minutes at the post office. After those minutes were up, the operator would break in to ask if we wanted to continue talking. This was now the second phone conversation with my parents. The first conversation had been about my having reached New York City.
—Why have you not written? No word for so many days.
—I have, I said to my mother. I did, just last night.
—Is it very cold there?
—No, no. I went to an apple orchard yesterday.
—We took a rickshaw and came here to call you because I woke up from a dream…
She wouldn’t tell me what she had seen in her dream, and so I told her that the only reason I hadn’t written was because of my classes. I had been busy. I knew the cost of the call was prohibitive but felt secretly happy when my mother said, “Extension, please.”
They were going to visit my grandmother in the village for Diwali.
—Send her a postcard too, my mother said. You don’t need to write anything much. Just write, Mataji, I am well. Just four words and she will be happy.
My grandmother couldn’t read or write. She would have asked someone in the village, perhaps a kid walking back from school, to read my letter aloud to her. Or my cousins Deepak and Suneeta, if they weren’t stealing anything at that time from her garden or her granary. About once a month, I sent my grandmother a postcard. I would sit down to write and then imagine a school-going child reading out my words. To bring to the young student a sense of wonder I would add a line or two about life in America:
When it is midnight in India, it is the middle of the day here.
Even the people who collect garbage have their own truck.
You cannot travel in a train without a ticket.
To go from one part of the city to another, I use the train that runs underground.
When I cook, the supply of gas is just like water. It is delivered through a pipe connected to my stove. No standing in long lines here for gas cylinders.
Jennifer and I took the subway down to Lincoln Center. It was an early Saturday afternoon. The plan was that we would walk across Central Park and emerge on the other side near Hunter College. We were
I said to Jennifer that the Mahatma would have found the price of the package a bit steep. But he would have liked the thriftiness of the early-membership plan. Gandhi came from a family of traders. He was inclined toward austerity but going to Asia Society to see an exhibition of photographs by Raghu Rai. As we were coming out of the subway station at Lincoln Center, Jennifer caught sight of a sign that said: “Gandhi was a great and charitable man.” Beneath, in smaller type, were the words: “However, he could have used some work on his triceps.” The sign was an advertisement for a gym. If you joined early, the sign said, you could save 150 dollars.
On the walls on the side were images that Rai had made in Delhi and Bombay. We went up to the Bhopal pictures first. There were three of them. One was the iconic image of an unknown child being buried, its eyes wide open, the small body nearly covered by ash and rubble. A hand near the child’s forehead gave to the picture a touch of tenderness, a human presence among the stones. There was a second picture of a child’s corpse.
I said to Jennifer that the Mahatma would have found the price of the package a bit steep. But he would have liked the thriftiness of the early-membership plan. Gandhi came from a family of traders. He was inclined toward austerity but he was also a man of the world. Jennifer asked if I was offended by the ad, but I wasn’t.
In India, Gandhi had been a face smiling from the walls of the decrepit offices in the small towns of Bihar. This use of his image for a New York City gym returned me to a different use of Gandhi, one that took the Mahatma out of the museum. This use wasn’t unknown in India, it was just ignored by official pieties. This was the irreverent Gandhi of the Indian marketplace. Long live Gandhi Safety-Match. Long live Bapu Mark Jute Bag. Long live Mahatma Brand Mustard Oil.
A poster with the arrow pointing down to the exhibition space had a quote from Raghu Rai: “A photograph has picked up a fact of life, and that fact will live forever.” The exhibition, made up exclusively of black and white images, was in a long room in the basement of the building. Upon entering, our eyes fell on the photographs on the facing wall. These were pictures from the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal from six years ago.
On the walls on the side were images that Rai had made in Delhi and Bombay. We went up to the Bhopal pictures first. There were three of them. One was the iconic image of an unknown child being buried, its eyes wide open, the small body nearly covered by ash and rubble. A hand near the child’s forehead gave to the picture a touch of tenderness, a human presence among the stones. There was a second picture of a child’s corpse. Here one could tell the gender of the child. And there was confirmation because the small girl had a piece of paper pasted on her forehead. Her name, Leela, was written in Hindi, and also her father’s name, Dayaram. A white piece of cotton covered her body but she too lay on a bed of dark stones that could be coal. I hadn’t seen the third picture before. It showed a man on a deserted road carrying a bundle on his shoulder. Behind the man was the equally deserted Union Carbide factory. Jennifer took my hand in hers when I went closer to the picture to read the caption. Then I saw what she had already seen. What I had at first thought was a quilt or a heavy blanket was the man’s dead wife. The gas had killed her the night before. I now saw the pair of stiff, naked feet protruding from under the paisley pattern of the sari.
Extracted with permission from The Lovers, by Amitava Kumar, published by Aleph Book Company