I wasn’t scared. I felt oddly calm in the midst of chaos, like a peaceful little eye nestled within a roaring hurricane. Soda cans ricocheted off walls, spilling their sweet carbonated guts in every direction. Trays of food and rebellious laptops flew towards the ceiling and stuck there like wet leaves. As I looked out through my tiny window there was only darkness.
It was my first time flying in a plane. All around me children cried next to their mothers, mothers desperately sang to calm their children, and a few men in suits furiously attacked their cell phones to sent out last words. I felt safe strapped to my seat. Everybody around me looked terrified, I just didn’t have the energy for fear.
I was too tired. I risked everything for my dreams. And I made it! I was a free spirit at last. I thought of my little brother—one of the few things I cared about in this world. Never being able to see him again hurt in my chest. I thought of how he would grow up confused about his sister, maybe even bitter about her leave. He had such a pure soul too, I hoped he could hang on to his goodness throughout his life.
“But why, why are you leaving?” he cried.
“Shh, Ishan everything will be okay. It is very complicated, I am so sorry.”
I patted his back as he quietly sobbed in my lap, trying my hardest to remember every last detail of my precious chota bhai¸ little brother, into memory. It wasn’t hard. It was impossible to forget the way his green eyes caught the sunlight and shined like emeralds, or how he always smiled even when being scolded. It was impossible to be angry at him. That boy was an angel. And his laugh, it was so warm and contagious we had to keep him away from sick.
“When will I see you again?” he asked.
I tried to answer as tears appeared in the corners in my eyes. I tilted my head to the sky and asked gravity to draw the water away, but it was no use. I couldn’t stand leaving my little brother. I sobbed until I felt too exhausted to carry on, and then crawled into my bed to return to the painless clutches of sleep, the beautiful purgatory that I loved so much. I started to doubt myself. I am a terrible person. Am I crazy?
An unmistakable feeling of guilt panged my conscience, an annoying little splinter in my psyche that refused to be removed despite my Herculean efforts. It was too late now to turn back, it would happen tonight. In a few hours I would be on my way to Chennai, the port of South India. A girl among thousands, an invisible ghost, alone, vulnerable, but free. From there, I would fly to Singapore and meet with the strange man. I chose a better life for myself, but I feared for my brother. Would he be okay? Unable to reconcile my problems with abandonment, I pushed away the argument to be resolved at a later date.
I remember the time I took him to Churchgate and bought him his first pani puri, those delicious spicy soup-filled crunchy snacks. I remember his first masala dosa, how he pledged his eternal allegiance to the curry-filled rice pancakes right then and there. And there was his obsession with ice cream. That boy really loved ice cream and would take every chance he had to eat it, often getting brain freezes, never learning.
It was during Holi, the famous spring festival of colors, when my life completely changed. It was hot and dry—nothing out of the ordinary—and on this special occasion Mama-ji allowed us a special treat. She gave us 200 rupees to go into town and buy whatever we liked. She paid us in secret so our father wouldn’t swell into one of his angry fits. We took the metro into town and spent the afternoon walking around Southern Mumbai.
We spent some time in Colaba, the famous tourist site of the city, and watched the foreigners wander around in their tank tops and flip flops, yoga mats strapped to their over-sized backpacks. They look dirty, and some of the men even wore braided hair like our women do! We watched as these travelers were attacked by street hustlers selling snake oil. Americans always had the most trouble fending them off, too polite. Hmmph. It was fun to watch their faces as they turned from surprise, to mild interest, then confusion, and then finally embarrassment as they reluctantly donned out a few rupees to shoe the beggars off.
Ishan was a curious young devil and loved approaching the firangi. Always getting into trouble and sometimes making friends, he felt no inhibitions in terms of approaching strangers. He especially loved Americans and would light up like a star whenever he saw an “I ❤ New York” shirt or a Yankees hat.
“Hi! Hello! Hi!” he smiled and waved. The westerners would usually reciprocate the smile and wave back, ultimately walking away, but on this day one man held our gaze and decided to approach us. We introduced ourselves and I found out he was from Singapore. He looked about 30 years old, but it was hard to tell. He wore an old face on a young body. He was dressed very nicely in professional Western attire, which meant he didn’t fit in very well here. He came here with a group of students he said.
“I’m here spreading the teachings of Jesus, the true founder and savior of the world,” he said.
Oh dear it’s one of these crazies. Did this guy even know where Jesus came from? He came from India, duh, he’s from my country! Jesus was taught by our yogis. His philosophies are ours. As we continued to talk I began to realize how strange this guy was.
“We have come together for a reason my dear, it is no coincidence that we are meeting right now. I came to India with a very vague purpose, but now I know God has sent me here to save you.”
I didn’t know what to say, I was shocked and never heard anything like this before. So, I grabbed my brother and said goodbye, but as I turned away he took hold of my arm.
“Wait! Where are you going? Don’t be scared, I am trying to help. Come have dinner with me, I’ll pay. Where’s your favorite restaurant here?”
“Leopold!” my brother shouted.
Oh brother. We had always been on the outside of that restaurant, the famous hip cafe that gouges of all of its patrons with outrageous prices, but we had never eaten there, it was too expensive. Tonight we would get to see how it looks from the inside.
We talked, and ate, and talked some more, and I realized that this man was genuinely kind, he didn’t mean any trouble. When he mentioned that he ran an organization that adopts Indian children, I quickly perked up and gave him my full attention. This could be my way out of here I thought. Could it be destiny? When my brother went to the bathroom I told him of my plans to run away, and his eyes grew wide. We decided to meet a few more times to plan how he could help me escape.
After a few months of planning and generous support from his friends back home, he procured for me a passport and a plane ticket. All I had to do was meet him at the Chennai airport; he said he would wear the same black suit. However, I couldn’t take Ishan because his agency only accepted girls. I thought this was strange at first but I assumed there was a good reason for it. It was a hard decision to abandon Ishan, but I convinced myself it was for the greater good. I would come back and rescue him for sure. Once I was educated and rich I would swoop down from the skies like a guardian angel and scoop him up and away from this life. At least I hoped I would. Or am I just taking the easy way out?
Am I a terrible person? I will surely be born into a lower caste, maybe even an animal or insect. I was supposed to work off my karma in this lifetime, but what if I am just adding more?
“Family FIRST!” I can remember my father yelling. “I put my life and blood into making this family, now it’s your turn to do the same. You will marry him and please him or I will teach you again.” If all my love was directed towards my brother, all my hate was directed at my father. He was quick to pull out the bamboo whenever somebody needed a “massage,” and selfish wouldn’t even begin to describe his personality.
Back at our house I kissed my brother goodbye and gave him something to remember me by. It was a Polaroid of the two of us and Mama. In the photo I was drooped over her shoulders and he was being rocked back and forth by her powerful arms. He was a tiny baby back then, I can’t believe how big he’s gotten now. If only I could take a photo of this moment.
I left my home that night. I left behind my family, friends, everything I have ever known, loved, and hated, it was all I had at the time and I was terrified that I made a huge mistake. I kept imagining the worse, what if I got kidnapped? . And even if I did make it to Chennai, was this guy I was meeting there safe? I thought about it for a long time, and decided it was worth the risk.
I didn’t even know the guy my father wanted me to marry. And he was almost 10 years older than me. That’s not right, and besides I’m too young to bear children. But, my father is a greedy man and wants me to marry into a rich family. The only way he can do that is through me. He is simply trading me like an object, like you would with a sack of flour, or rice, or a cow. As If I am just a commodity to him. But I am human, I am his daughter, and I don’t want to be a housewife. I want to be a doctor and spend my time helping people rather than doing chores all day.
A brilliant flash of lightning brought my attention back to the present moment, and I remembered how the pilots had completely lost control of the plane. We were now in the hands of Mother Nature. Trapped like a fish in a wave, there was nothing for me to do besides accept my fate. There was no use in struggling against the inevitable, it would just be wasted, fruitless effort.
As I pondered my mortality I grew slightly disturbed, but I was happy to cross one more item off my bucket list—at least I got to fly in an airplane. The plane continued to fall through the sky and I closed my eyes with a resigned sigh. I didn’t know if we would make it, I guess this is what happens to bad girls. I could hear the rushed mutterings around me, everybody praying for their life and apologizing for all their wrong deeds and unspoken words. My brother’s face appeared in the newly found world of darkness. He looked right at me, his face neutral. Where was that smile? I guess he didn’t understand yet.