Sharmila sat still in a corner seat on the subway. She was on her way home from downtown. The officials in their shining towers had summoned her for a hearing after she had missed two citizenship tests in a row. She had expected to find herself before a judge. Instead, she was led to a large testing area and handed a citizenship test. It was their way of having one take the test. Silly official people! The whole thing was sooo easy. It disappointed her, as had many other things since she first arrived. What had she really expected of this land?
All around her swirled smells. Smells that revealed the intricate contents of each colourful individual.
At the hearing, there was a desi Canadian government officer who tried to impress everyone with his brisk, efficient manner. He smelled a little of her father’s Old Spice cologne. At first Sharmila thought that he was one of the assistants. But he turned out to be one of the commissioners. The judge appeared after the test and spoke to her rather kindly. There was no hint of a scent about him. The night before, her husband had urged her to study for a surprise test. He lectured her for ten minutes about the perils of failing the citizenship test. Her eight-year-old son warned her in sombre tones to pass so he could get his citizenship too. “It’s not fair, Mum,” he said. “If you fail, I get to fail too!” She had smiled at him and wondered how right he was.
All around her swirled smells. Smells that revealed the intricate contents of each colourful individual. Smells that had their own identity, like Canadian permanent resident cards declaring place of birth to the discerning. A woman wizened from the weather, probably fifty or more, in a multicoloured green-speckled sari, smelled of cumin, turmeric and sambar masala. When Sharmila looked at her, the woman looked away, her eyes like scurrying little mice. The desi kind of mice. The train stopped at Victoria Park. Sharmila wondered if her husband was going to be late again tonight.
The smell of their unrequited desires made the place warm and humid.
A girl got on. Youngish, South East Asian looking. Perhaps she was Guyanese or Indian. Sharmila could barely detect a smell about her. She put her nose to the stale subway air and pulled in another waft of air to identify origin. The tangerine-honey dewy smells of Body Shop products mixed with the youthful essence emanating from her skin. She was probably born in Canada, fated to lose desi origins.
A voluptuous blonde slid into the seat next to the Indian girl. She seemed to be around thirty. Barbie doll curves. The kind desi men dreamt of and could never date. Sharmila once overheard two desi men in a bus. “These angreezi girls spend too much money and they want you to understand them,” one said. “And they want to be seen around with you. The desi variety is definitely better.”
However this blonde did not look like the Canadian wholesome variety. This was definitely the sensuous European kind. She had on an expensive oil-based perfume and a look of utter disdain. Sharmila could smell her dripping vanity in the heavy scent.
All the other women appeared to blend into the background and they looked away from the blonde; the men, however, stole covetous glances at her. Sharmila wondered if her husband would glance too, if he were here. The smell of their unrequited desires made the place warm and humid. The subway carriage was suddenly a lush torrid green jungle and the blonde, a rare colourful bird of paradise. Sharmila sighed.
The gift or, one could call it, the curse of her nose. Her nose translated everything she sniffed into words, images and unearthly visions. In school Sharmila’s English teachers had always thought her extremely imaginative. Her family doctor in Toronto thought she might have a mild case of synaesthesia, a rare neurological peculiarity in which one’s sense perceptions blended into each other with startling results. “Not to worry,” he said. “Many painters and writers who have this call it a gift.”
Sharmila’s station appeared at the end of the dark tunnel. Warden Station. She stepped off the subway, through the turnstiles and down the wet, slippery stairs. Everyone was running by her urgently, while she climbed down the steps, one at a time, holding the rail guard. It always appeared to her like a scene from a Bollywood movie, in which she was from another time zone, walking down the steps in slow motion, while everyone else was frantically in search of something. Sharmila seemed to have more milliseconds, more units of time, to experience things around her, many more than everyone else. She thought to herself, “O baba! What were they running for?”
These people were running in search of Time! There was no Time to eat, so they had fast food. There was no Time to spend with their children, so the little time was called quality time. There was little Time to do all of life’s requirements, so there were time-management classes and little and big diaries that helped them manage Time. There was no Time to look after oneself, so they had creams, nips and tucks that turned back the hands of Time.
As Sharmila pushed open the door at the bottom of the stairway to the Warden Station parking lot, the frigid Toronto air brought in the warm smell of the breath of her nani, her maternal grandmother calling her across the light years from the inner chambers of her grandfather’s bungalow on a chilly winter night in Sylhet. She was suddenly eight years old again in Bangladesh and listening to her nani, a retired school teacher, telling her about the meaning of Time. The tin-roof squeaked as the metal contracted in the cold. In the distant dark corners of the ancient forest, a jackal howled to his comrades.
“Aye, sona, Amar kache gumao.”
“Nani, O Nani!”
Sharmila jumped up on her nani’s lacquer-polished four-poster bed, under the cotton mosquito net. Her fair, round-faced nani ruffled Sharmila’s plaited hair with her fragile fingers, through which blue veins showed. Nani was the fairest woman in the village. Sharmila often put Tibet powder on her face to become as fair as her beloved nani. Nani was wearing a soft white cotton sari for the night. She always wore saris to bed, unlike Sharmila’s aunts, who were more modern and wore nightdresses.
“O, Nani, what will I look like when I am old? Will I look like you?”
“Sona, Time will beat all of us in the end. The only things that will remain are your faith, patience and good deeds, and the way you help other people to find the Truth.”
“Nani, like the Buddha?”
“Yes, sona, and like all great men and women such as the Mahatma Gandhi, Sufi Shahjalal and Mother Teresa in Kolkata.”
All this was too much wisdom for an eight-year-old in one night. Sharmila hugged her grandmother and went to sleep.
Sharmila was home at last. It looked desi with Canadian touches. There was her mother’s brick-red and white nakshikatha embroidery on the wall. The elephants and the Bengali peasants in the picture bowed to her as she entered. “Asho Amar ghore asho, Amar ghore.” Welcome to my home.
Her plants emitted warmth and a friendly green odour that told her how joyous they felt at her return. These were her beloved money plants, bought from the Dominion stores. She brushed their rubbery surface with a light caressing touch. Perhaps they would usher in prosperity and wealth in this new land.
Sharmila twirled around the brown carpet, touched the sand-coloured harmonium with musical reverence and then ran into her bedroom. There was an absence of anything electronic in her bedroom. Her husband had declared, a long time ago: “No television, no telephone, kishu na—only me and you.”
In the beginning of the marriage, when they went to bed, he would not let her face any other way except toward him. And look at him she did, the dutiful obedient wife. Pretending a bit now and then. O, the endless dramas between man and wife and how they changed with the passage of time! There were times during her pregnancies when she could not bear the brutal male smell of him. Only when her children were born was she allowed to turn the other way.
She made sure that her babies were breastfed. As she lay in bed feeding one or the other, he lay on the other side, smelling her neck, waiting, on cold Toronto nights; she had often thought that heaven could not come closer than this. It was the freezing sleet on the windows outside and the warmth of the desi Tantric within. Even the angels would envy her . . . in the frosty heavens with their hurs and porees. The warm tantalizing mist of the humidifier took on the various manifestations of their desires, shaping them at will, at times intense, at times sleepily tranquil.
Perhaps this was one of the Truths that her nani had spoken of. People got married to keep themselves toast-warm on bone-chilly nights and also to keep out the great smothering Darkness.
Sharmila wished that she possessed a sari that had the magical colours of the lights and the half-lights of an Indo-Aryan dawn
Once, on a cold, frosty night, she had come face to face with a homeless person in downtown Toronto. A homeless woman! In Canada? She had been shocked, horrified! The odour of the homeless woman was overpowering. It twisted like an angry red cobra through her nostrils, flaring her insides. Suppose she became like one of them. It was too easy, too easy. Suppose her husband lost his job or became disabled? Or even abandoned her? Oh, why was she so afraid of being alone here? She pictured herself on a desolate Canadian landscape, with the cry of imaginary black winged birds in the greying distance.
Desi trembling heart on the cold shivering northern rocks. It was winter. Downtown Toronto. Slush, swoosh,slush and swoosh. She was begging on the streets. Shame, shame, shame, shame. She didn’t know how she got there. Her feet were swollen; there was grey in her hair. Where did the grey come from? She remembered a shelter, some desi drug-dealing friends and then the streets. She was too old for anything else. Some of the Christmas shoppers gave her some coins out of occasional pity; most just passed her by. Christmas eyes glazed with shopping lists, shopping lists, shopping lists. Some desi corporate people walked by with their white friends. Stolid butterflies in down-filled cocoons. She wanted to yell, Look at me! I was just like you! I was just like you! I was just like you!
A Canadian winter night. A clean sweep of sparkling snow. Grey streets lined in white chalk.
The whispering lingering white fear.
The dark silent promise of a terrifying, easy death.
A crystallized white corpse in the morning downtown streets.
A fragile unborn butterfly in a chrysalis.
It was that easy. It was that easy.
Sharmila shuddered at her own fantasies. Why did she feel things so intensely? She shook her head to chase them out, like errant children, out and away from the inner chambers of her mind.
Sharmila walked up to her closet and looked at her collection of delightful, maddening saris. They were her pride and joyous past-time. She loved to touch them, to caress them, putting one melodious colourful sari against her, then another. The smell of her saris took her back to a golden age when leisure time was spent reading and listening to classics on Nani’s gramophone. There were the cotton Kota saris, the Tangail thread work saris, the Rajshahi silks, the Mirpur Kathans and the ubiquitous Jamdani! The saris spoke lovingly to her in Bengali and they made her want to sing and dance. She took out a Jamdani sari, eggshell white with crimson touches. Would she be daring and sport a sleeveless blouse with it? What would her husband say? Would his eyes bear down on her and be captivated all over again, or would he frown and say: “Ki? What’s happening—you look too revealing!”
When she wore a sleeveless top with her Canadian clothes, he didn’t mind “But with a sari? Na, baba, better not risk it.”
Sharmila wished that she possessed a sari that had the magical colours of the lights and the half-lights of an Indo-Aryan dawn. One that she could drape herself with and he could gaze and gaze . . . She would tie him forever within the gentle waves of the cloth. But for now, she had to be content with this sari.
Sooo, would he notice this sari on her or will he not? Or would the Torontonian tiredness be in his eyes? The tiredness of the mortgage due date and credit card bills, the tiredness of yelling at children who thought nothing of their immigrant parents, the tiredness of shovelling snow, the tiredness of the slavish corporate job where a human being was told what to do and how to perform.
Before they came to this country of cold rocks, they would read poetry to each other, sometimes soothing Tagore, sometimes fiery Nazrul. Now all those poems had become icy dangling modifiers, syntactic structures that were unpronounceable tongue twisters in the northern hemisphere. A long time ago, they would sit on their veranda in the Circuit house in Bally Road and gaze with devotion at the full moon. Only a true-blooded Bengali knew the art of Gazing at the Full Moon. A book of poems would complete this sacred occasion, when the man would gaze into his consort’s eyes and recite mournful verses all designed to urge the woman to swoon in rosogollah delight. There was more romance than lust in Bengali poems, so the end would be muted, subdued and remarkably tranquil.
It was time for her to start cooking. Out came a Bengali cookbook. Her aunt had given her this book when she had got married and set up house. “This is for you, so that your husband doesn’t starve to death.” They all cared more about her husband than her. No one had ever given him a book about anything. Yesterday, her husband had demanded a desi dish, so she decided to give it a try. Potoler dolma. It was a vegetable dish stuffed with Canadian halal minced meat.
Didn’t they know that she was like a sentence? That she had surface meaning, literal meaning and textual burials in flesh
She had gone to the desi shop on the corner of Markham and Eglinton yesterday. The sign proclaimed proudly: HALAL BANGLADESHI, PAKISTANI, INDIAN MEEAT SOLD HERE. Sharmila looked closely at the sentence structure. There were sudden splashes of hot red colour bursting all over her mind. Images of the bloodbaths of the War of 1971 in Bangladesh flashed by like a silent movie. It was like watching a bioscope. Sharmila remembered her Transformational Grammar professor from the university saying, “A sentence was not just a sentence. It had meaning, surface meaning, hidden meaning, and textual burials in ink.”
Sharmila looked again at the sign. She could hear her professor chuckling his approval. Noam Chomsky, the brilliant linguist, the outspoken guru at MIT whom she admired so much, would analyze this to the point of oblivion. There was a seedy pub beside the store. A lot of construction workers and some deadbeats hung around there. One of them, seeing her look so closely at the sign, whistled and called out, “Can’t you read English? Lady, I can help you read that English sign, you know!” She had merely smiled, pretended not to understand what he saying (like a new desi) and gone in. She did the same thing with telemarketers on the telephone. Didn’t they know that she was like a sentence? That she had surface meaning, literal meaning and textual burials in flesh?
There were familiar smells inside the shop: Tibet soap and Tibet vanishing cream, half-burnt samosas, chanachur.
She had picked up some fresh coriander leaves and some green chillies. A few of the vegetables, like the half- dried pumpkin and the coveted Potol were shrivelled up in a corner.
The dish that her husband had demanded would not be possible. The vegetables were not fresh enough. Sharmila hoped nervously that her husband could not mind. So it would be simple Bengali fare. Dal, rice, bhaji, fried fish and, of course, chicken, the constant without which the meat-eating fiends would howl. “Fish, fish, again fish—O Mummy, I want Bangla curry chicken.” How warming, on kulfi-cold nights, was Bangla food prepared from scratch. None of those fancy French names, just plain semi-vowels and Bengali fricative consonants thrown in to make it sound pleasurable. She uttered the sounds of the palate:
“E . . . leee sh Bhaaaajii . . .
“Koo . . . ro . . . la . . . Bhaa . . . jii . . .
“Eeeees . . . h!”
Hot steam was escaping from the frothing basmati rice on the electric stove. It was almost done. Twenty-six minutes for two cups of rice and five cups of water. Sharmila still cooked rice the Dadi-Nani way, the traditional way her grandmothers did, by letting the rice boil in the water and then draining the starchy water away. Nothing was added; the rice retained its desi sanctity. If rice was eaten regularly, this was the best way to cook it. One would never get heavy or fat.
The steam now began to form patterns above the sink. She read the lines of her life in the steam as easily as a fortune teller reads tea leaves. The change in her husband had come slowly like the acrid smell of gas seeping from an ancient oven. Even the comfortable husband smell had changed into a scent that she could no longer define.
At first it had been the despair of never finding a job. Her body had borne the frustrated traces of the paths that he had forged through the city on his job-finding expeditions. And then the miracle! A corporate job! But then his eyes changed. At a corporate party that they had attended together, he kept away from her, as if he was almost ashamed of her. He laughed easily with the bleached corporate cougars whose nips and tucks squeaked at every laugh. He looked at her but once, with a certain annoyance at her desi sari.
Pain seeped in as it always did, little by little, in droplets. Fluid, nascent, pungent. It gripped her by the throat and scraped away her throat cells. Hurting, she wanted to grip a knife and slit away her pain. Pain also swept in the smell of the homeless woman and fear jabbed her throat. How was she to keep it all together? Her other self? Her family? This new city?
Sharmila washed her warm face at the kitchen sink. She could hear the wind-snow flying at the windowpanes.
She hoped that he would not notice her swollen, puffy eyes at the dinner table. Her hands shook a little. Sharmila knew how much he hated puffy eyes. The molecules of steam had now dissipated into domestic ether space.
The rice was done.
• • •
Notes on the Text
Desi—Widely used term for people and things such as food, movies and culture associated with South East Asia
(India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka). The Toronto Star reported one million people in the Greater Toronto Area fall under this category.
Sambar masala—Spices associated with South Indian and Sri Lankan cooking.
Angreezi—A colonial term meaning the English. Here it refers to all white people.
Bollywood—The Indian movie industry.
Bangladesh—Former East Bengal (United India). When the British left India in 1947, United India was divided to become India and Pakistan. East Bengal was a Muslim majority area and became part of Pakistan. After the War of Liberation in 1971, East Pakistan became Bangladesh.
Nani—Maternal grandmother (original Sanskrit, used widely in Bengali, Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi).
Sona—Term of endearment (Bengali, Punjabi, Urdu and Hindi).
Amar kache gumao—Lie down beside me (Bengali)
Sufi Shahjalal—(1271–1347). He was an important Sufi saint of Bengal. He was born as Sheikh Makhdum Jalaluddin in Yemen and travelled with dervishes from Turkey to Bengal to spread Islam. He lies buried at Sylhet, Bangladesh.
Nakshikatha—Decorative embroidery done with small stitches.
Asho Amar ghore asho—Welcome to my home (Bengali). Lines from a well-known song by Rabindranath Tagore.
Hurs—Heavenly pure companions (source: the Qu’ran).
Porees—Fairies (source: Bengali fairy tales).
Kota, Tangail, Rajshahi silk, Mirpur Kathan, Jamdani—Saris from Bangladesh.
Indo-Aryan—Around the year 2000 BC, a sun-worshipping Indo-European tribe calling themselves Aryans, using a language known as Sanskrit, invaded central Asia and occupied territory as far as the north of India. The Indo-Aryans were the descendants of these tribes. The term is used linguistically to refer to a wide collection of people united by their common status as speakers of the Indo-Aryan branch of the family of Indo-European languages. Today there are more than 1.4 billion native speakers of Indo-Aryan languages (Bengali, Urdu, Hindi, etc.). Many of them are native to South East Asia, where they form a majority.
Tagore—Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), Bengali Nobel Prize laureate for literature in 1913. The national anthem of India and Bangladesh were composed by him.
Nazrul—Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899–1976). Popularly known as the Bengali rebel poet, who espoused rebellion against religious orthodox traditions and the British Raj in India.
Potoler dolma—Vegetable dish.
Dal—Soup made with pulses.
Kulfi—Indian ice cream.