Where I dig into my archives and repost stuff I like. This one’s from April 2005.
Wherever I go, I am not allowed to forget – how perfectly crisp and displaced my unaccented English is. If there is an accent it is not one you can pin down. To my countrymen it betrays my independent school upbringing, a way of life, perhaps even my inclination towards the ways of the “West”. To all others it is a curious melting pot of diverse manners of speaking, testament to the absorption of diffuse cultures, if we are even able to say clearly what “culture” is, if we even had any control over these points of contact.
In a backpacker’s lodge in Australia one year, the football-mad nationalities gathered around the TV to watch the emotional Manchester United-Liverpool showdown, while the Americans sat in a corner unsure of what to watch out for on the telly. I realized, but not without some shock, that in the event I would ever watch my national team play (and so they did – at the Tiger Cup the next year, to surprise victory), the jersey I would be wearing would be the one on-screen. Red, too.
I said to a visitor once: the best thing about living in this place is the First World living at Second World prices. Everything else is a sort of win some, lose much situation. Our methodology in learning and teaching the Chinese language perhaps betrays far more than we are willing to let it – those characters, if we ever learn them at all, have become meaningless, we learn the broad strokes but not the fine print, we repeat to perfection the art of imitating a model essay under duress by our tuition teachers; those words are hieroglyphics at best, and the best that many of us can do is to attempt to create meaning from these hieroglyphs.
I am never allowed to forget my accent. In English, it is an accent which points not to precise geographic locations, but to imprecise states of mind and imagined affiliations. In the mother tongue, it is the lack of a passable accent that is grating to even my ears. Both have to do with displacement and unsettlement, and neither of them are exactly pleasant.
The district does not sleep tonight. Sonagachi is just waking up, but the streets are already lined with last night’s vomit, uncleared, and the air still reeks of the liquor from every night before for the past years, uncleared. Today’s girls have taken the place of yesterday’s, though, who have either moved on to be the mummy (the lucky ones), or given way to one venereal disease and unwanted childbirth too many.
It is easy to rage when reading about it miles away from the scene – the exploitation! The misery! The violence against women and children! The illegality of human trafficking!
Being here changes all that. The rage is still present but tempered with resignation; even understanding. Some of the girls look as young as 12 – mostly, they are; if not, then they are malnourished and hence look many years younger than their actual age. Most of them are not here by choice. The only people who get to choose are those who had “choice” taken from them in the first place: the ones who, now hundreds of miles away from their homes (in Bangladesh, Nepal, rural parts of India whose village names they never knew, cannot remember, or can never return to again from shame) – these people can choose to stay in, or ship out into the big cities of West Bengal and beyond, where they have no one, whose language they do not even natively speak.
Sonagachi is Kolkata’s red light district – it also happens to be Asia’s largest. Conservative estimates put the number of sex workers in this district alone to be at least 40 000. This number means nothing until you take a walk through it: girls as far as your eyes can see. Some of them reek of alcohol and substances; all of them look resigned.
It wasn’t the fist-clenching, heart-pumping moment I had expected.
Instead, I felt the – what shall I call it – sadness – permeate my body and grip my soul, as my eyes fell to meet their vacuous ones, woman to woman.
It was the moment I had been waiting for all my life, to invoke that trite turn of phrase.
I’d felt her inch closer to me, her arms against mine, as we tried to pretend to be interested in watching the movie, my palm against hers. We lasted about eight minutes. By the ninth, we were kissing breathlessly, bodies against each others’. She was my first as I was hers – it felt nothing like kissing the many boys we’d each had. I remember with precision all which I was thinking as I stepped into her darkened flat: how is it possible that I have only known this person’s last name for a week, and yet feel this.. impossibly close? After. I was lying stomach down, fiddling with my mobile to pretend to have something to do other than swoon.
“When you grow up,” she said. “You’re going to be really scary – impossibly brilliant and sexy. And I’m going to have to try so hard not to want you.”
I was grasping at straws vacillating between my rising enchantment and the crushing despair: that in two hours she had accomplished what it took my men months to, if ever at all – wrap me around like that. And she knew it.
I sat at the edge of the bed, as I would continue to for weeks after, watching her as the orange light fell upon her face, as I would for months after. Her hand in mine for never more than an hour each time. I remember thinking, my God, she’s so goddamn beautiful.
It has been a number of years, but I’m not sure I’m done growing up, or if I’ve even begun to.