A cuckoo coo-coos while flying. Nearby, a congregation of red-throated flycatchers quarrel for space among the bougainvillea vines. I imagine them clustered in a circle around two smaller birds, their chirps bursting from the bush as tiny, hostile chants, “Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!”
Taller apartment buildings hover around the open sunny terrace of my flat, and I wonder if my neighbors see me giggling like a fool down here.
“Hello!” My landlord’s son, Aditya Das, stands on the second-floor balcony of the house attached to my flat. He shouts my name with a grin.
“Kemon achen?” I respond in Bengali and wave back.
“I’m well!” He responds in English. “Listen, my cousin and I have planned a day trip to Taki.”
Aditya continues to describe this place at the border of West Bengal and Bangladesh. It also happens to be his mother’s ancestral land, and of course, he would be delighted if I could tag along.
The next morning, I wake to the sound of drizzle. Grey-necked house crows circle above, leaving pock marks in the sky. They dive from telephone wires to mango trees, forecasting a downpour with a somber kaaa-kaaa through the sleepy neighborhood called Jubilee Park.
The nervous white egret—in residence at Tollygunge Club, otherwise known as Tolly and “the only Country Club of its kind in India”—skims around a lawn dodging golf balls.
By 06:15 I am dressed and wide-eyed in the middle of morning rush hour. Aditya sits shotgun in our rented car. There is a leak on his side.
By 06:30 we stop at the flat of his cousin, Joyoti-di. She is my mother’s age and a scientist.
By 07:00 Aditya says something about the leak, but of course, there is nothing we can really do about it now that we are on our way.
It continues to rain near Science City. Here are no more birds but machines and a sense of commercial time wrestling with nature. Everyone is watching everyone, waiting for someone, anyone to move in the din of traffic, yet a single hawker is the only sign of humanity that does not sit behind glass. He darts between the rounded hood of a yellow cab ambassador and an auto rickshaw. He wears a fixed smile for his face and the tired knees of a man who seems to have spent his whole life jumping at the screech of tires.
The March shower begins to fall in thick staccato rhythm, as Aditya exclaims, “My God.”
I watch him scramble to plug the leak. In the end, he exhales a kind of sigh that echoes, like brass in a concert hall, like mourning.
We are often unable to agree on the merits (or evils) of commerce and country clubs, and being that he is the middle-aged, middle class son of my Tolly-frequenting landlord, I most certainly never confront him about the meaning of rain in the car.
But again I am mute because like Aditya, I am a visitor from the United States with privileges of my own, and perhaps we have more in common as Asian Americans struggling for a place to call home, split with oceans in between and all its oppressions, contradictions, joyful and unforgiving climates at once. It is precisely this feeling of inarticulate self-awareness that I spend most of my year in Kolkata listening.
First, I listen to the birds, then to rain and the bowels of partition, and finally, the pulse of Bengali hearts that once upon a time bled open in the streets for the decolonization efforts of my mother’s people. Amar nam, tomar nam Vietnam! I also listen to the poetry of Tagore stuck like a magpie-robin in one’s throat, our shared displacement and struggles for autonomy.
Khánh Ly, the diva of Saigon, was my mother’s idol who sang for the dignity of Vietnam. Later in life, her voice would become bold and gravelly. For some reason, her music is all I can think about on the car ride to Taki until Aditya suddenly turns around.
“Here,” he explains with his palms and fingers flowing into a gesture of hands clasped in prayer, “is a confluence of three rivers.” Of the most notable of the three, the Ichamati, it is said that one can almost touch the vegetation of India’s neighbor Bangladesh on the opposite shore. “But we will just have to see when we get there,” states Aditya with a grin.
Meanwhile, we zoom through the dying storm, swerving puddles and blurred shadows. I squint to see out the window. Palm trees look like tongues, lapping at the sky’s tears. There are images of men along the highway. An angry body of water. Child sipping from a coconut. It moves so quickly, this scenery, and I find myself at once spinning, spinning through my own mother’s country.
“The road from Ho Chi Minh City to the sea conjures a similar feeling of grief,” I wish to say, but I do not say. Instead I sneak glances toward Joyoti-di with the occasional question—“What is your work? How much do you know about your family’s ancestral land in Taki?”
Her hair is smoothed into a single black braid. In the seat between us is her camera bag. For all three of us, this is the first trip to the Indian border, where there is a river-side village that was once called Home to somebody’s Ma, a long, long time ago.
Mother Land beckons
three hours away, where ghosts listen
among half-eaten temples.
Sometime between 11:00 and 12:00, we arrive at the banks of the Ichamati River, its ever-flowing boundary flanked by the occasional patrolman, a waving child, a wading fisherman. Scattered throughout the near horizon, brick kilns stick up like thumbtacks in the cloudless sky. I think I hear birds, too.