FROM THE BEGINNING, we were sisters more than mother and daughter. Joanna Shaw rescued me in her way, and I tried to return the favor. I do not say this boastfully, but ironies are the way of the world, and now that I am an old woman I tell you with certainty that those who presume to lift another are most often in need of being raised themselves.
At the same time, those who appear the weaklings of this earth may possess strengths that overrule the mighty--that, indeed, may surpass even their own deepest longings and desires. I have seen this to be the case among women and children of my kind for as long as I can remember. Mrs. Shaw, too, was of my kind, though on the now distant day when I first claimed her I did not know this to be true.
On the contrary, as I watched her making her way down G. B. Road in her stiff yellow dress and broad-brimmed hat with her handsome young Hindu escort I thought this must be some pampered firenghi who possesses no notion of pain. She looked younger than her thirty-four years, with a fire in her eyes that at once invited and warned me away. I was merely one of countless children of the red light district. I owned nothing, not even my skin, but I knew why this foreign lady had come. The whole street knew. Tongas turned left instead of right at the sight of her. Khas-khas tati dropped over open windows. Smugglers bundled up their wares and trotted out of view. Women drew scarves across their faces, and the street became suddenly lively with dancing bears, monkey wallahs, and the calls of melon and paan vendors. All for the benefit of the foreigner who would come to save us.
My keeper, Indrani, said that in the days of the British her kind were missionaries and bored commissioners' wives. In the past two years since Independence they had been attached to the new Departments of Health and Social Welfare, and usually they were Indian, but they remained the same. Women with hair like dust clouds and radish noses who had never enjoyed the touch of a man--or so Indrani said. Such women in India, it was well known, were so weak that for centuries they had required the almighty power of the Raj to stand guard over their virtue. Now this responsibility had fallen to India's own officials and police. We in the street could not know why these men should protect the dust cloud ladies when they freely preyed on us, but neither did we question such things.
Mrs. Shaw was not ugly as the others I had seen. True, her body held hard juts and corners, and her lips were bare slivers against her teeth, but her eyes were large and filled with gold light, her skin and thick hair all the colors of honey. Her neck was long and slender and her ears shaped like perfect mangoes . . .
You see, even as early as that first day, I was viewing her in a different fashion. We were strangers, yet any stranger who is drawing such examination becomes something else, doesn't she? A stranger is strange, unknown, unexamined. When we study another we become familiar, and therefore cannot strictly be called strangers. I have often thought that of the thousands who pass in the streets each day, many hundreds may have passed before. Yet even if they pass two, five, twenty times, still they remain strangers except for those few who catch our eye, whose features we note and whose place in the street and day we remember--these are strangers no more but possessions of the mind. So in this way I, who was then called Kamla, claimed Mrs. Shaw even as I hid from her under the shadow of a bullock cart.
It was easy to see that she was new to India. Her face was like a child's at a puppet show, while her feet and twinkling gloves behaved as if they belonged to the puppet. How awkwardly they plucked at earth and air as she turned this way and that! For although Mrs. Shaw's small mouth rounded with evident pleasure at the sight of a tinseled altar or Bharati's little daughter, Shanta, with a red hibiscus in her hair, still she seemed to cling to herself, clutching her shiny white pocketbook to her waist as she stepped sideways past a dozing pi dog. Clearly she wished neither to touch nor be touched. Having claimed her, however, I dismissed this.
Copyright © 2003 by Aimee E. Liu. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the publisher.
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