The twitter world of Indian teens went into a buzz about the cute guy working in the Indian restaurant. The word on the street was that he was morose, unfriendly, and burning with a quiet rage. Girls flocked to the Indian restaurant on Riga Avenue. They ordered, they waited, they giggled, they tipped generously but the quiet, fierce-looking dude was just that, angry, mad and in a world of his own.
The girls sighed, the men snorted, the parents scolded and the owner was pleased and grinning like a Cheshire cat all the way to the bank. Rama preferred to wash dishes at the back of the kitchen instead of ringing the cash register or serving the girls. Today, the girls came again, seven of them. Rama was almost ready to leave when the owner, Mr. Biswas, told him to wait a little longer as his replacement had not yet come. He reluctantly agreed and got to his post. He started working on one of the girl’s orders but scrupulously avoided looking at them. Coming from a repressed, oppressed environment in rural Bangladesh, he felt lost in a sea of perfumes, iPhones, and shrill laughter. A sudden siren made him look out of the window and he saw a girl walk up to the restaurant. He was so stunned that he dropped the order pad he was carrying and ran out to meet her.
“Mona?” he asked expectantly, “Remember me? Mona, it’s me Rama. How did you get out of Dalucheri? I’m so glad you’re alive,” he burst out in shrill exuberance. “Excuse me, sir. There’s some mistake. I’m not Mona and I have never lived in Daloo-chaa-ii.” “Dalucheri,” he said excitedly. “Whatever!” she said and left him with his mouth wide open.
“How could she forget?” He thought sadly. “It cannot be. She loved me so much. How could she forget? He ran after her following her to the end of the block turning around the corner. But as soon as he followed her there, he felt a blow land on his nose. Before he could recover, another landed on his skull and another on his chest. “Keep away from my sister, you lousy, %#@,” cursed a very well-dressed elegant looking gentleman about 22-23 years old, the same age as he was. He spat with contempt, “This is just a sample. You come near my sister again, you will be sorry you were born. You get it? - Idiot FOB, you all come to this country and don’t know how to behave. How dare you think you are equal to my sister! Just go back and stay in that filthy place you came from” and he went on and on raining blows on him again and again till his sister saw the blood suffuse all over Rama’s face and persuaded him to leave. Rama picked himself up slowly. A crowd gathered. Mr. Biswas came running, his portly self - huffing and puffing, “Rama, chede dau, let it go,” he said in Bengali and with some soothing words assisted him to get back to the restaurant to nurse his wounds. Rama looked flabbergasted and all shook up.
“Listen,” said Mr. Biswas. “Remember, you are here on a student visa. Don’t get into any lafda, you will not be able to work here and also lose your visa. Tell me what your problem is. I know some people here and maybe we can help. But tell me, please.” Rama was quiet. He felt numb at the way the girl’s brother treated him. Mr. Biswas waited, concern showing all over his jovial face. After a long time and with a lot of hesitation Rama spoke. “I was the only son of well-to-do parents. My parents owned 100 acres of fertile land near the river Padma. But the land was of no use as all over Bangladesh, Hindus had a hard time holding on to their property due to the draconian ”Enemy property act”, by which anyone can take over our lands as they were considered enemy property. My mother pleaded with my father many times to sell all the land and leave. But my father said that no one is going to run him out of the ancestral lands that had belonged to the family for thousands of years. But Ma was more practical and told him that as he had no means to defend the property, it was as good as gone. She was also worried about the safety of my sister. At the bottom of my heart I agreed with Ma.
When Hindus have lost 26000 acres of land, how can you hold yours? These things affected me and my studies. My grades were skidding on a downward slope, my father threatened to cut off my allowance and my mother looked frantic with worry. The only good thing in my life at that time was Mona. Ah Mona!” exclaimed Rama. His face beamed as he spoke about her. He tried to keep his emotions in check and continued. “I met her at college in a calculus class and something about her attracted me. She was very low-key, quiet, but her eyes gave her away. It was her eyes that drew me. They were wide pools of mystery. One minute they were bland, unassuming and the next they were flashing fire. Anyway, we became friends when she knew that I was against the enemy property act and expressed anger at the plight of our little community.
After college, we would stop in Dhiru kaku’s stall, have chai and singaras and discuss politics and gossip and then we would walk home. People looked at her oddly as if something was wrong with her. I thought that it was due to her low-caste and poverty, as our community had this penchant for status even though we were hanging on a noose. Also there was a rumor about her tendency to violence, that she was unfeminine and could fire a shot like a bandit, that her sweetness was just a mask to hide this side of her personality. Those things didn’t bother me and I just laughed it off. We were young, we were full of ideals, talked a lot, and in a year’s time we were deeply in love. We were planning to run away together as our parents would not agree to the marriage for obvious reasons. We went to Dhiru kaku to seek his advice and guidance. But as soon as we entered the small restaurant, we felt a strange unease, an eerie feeling that something was not right. All the hindus were quiet and tight lipped. Dhiru kaku was sobbing uncontrollably. “Somebody has taken his daughter,” a voice whispered. “Let’s go to the police,” said another. “Police!” spat another voice, they are at the bottom of all this. Mark my words.”
I looked at Mona and she looked at me. Our looks spoke a million words, and our hearts held all our secrets, yet there was something in her face that was perplexing. A new emotion settled on her soft features and brought out a hidden anger that pulsed in the veins of her forehead. She pushed her cascading hair back and said to me, “listen to me, Rama, I have to go now, but remember these words, living or dead, I will always love you. Let no one tell you otherwise. God willing I will see you again, but if not, please pray for me. If you get out of Bangladesh spread the word about our sufferings here.” She left before I could say anything. I was so astonished that I just gaped after her retreating figure unable to do anything. By the time I woke up from my lethargy, it was too late. She had disappeared. She had not gone home. She was not at the college the next day. Her parents were afraid to go to the police and I was in shock. I looked for her everywhere. After a couple of days, through hushed whispers, the news came trickling. Dhiru kaku’s daughter was safe. There was an attack on the lecherous Mullah and the girl was rescued. Along with that came frightening warnings of retaliation against the cowed Hindu community and especially against the armed and masked woman who led the assault. I could not believe that the oblique hints and slanted references were for the quiet, placid, soft spoken Mona, my Mona. I felt a surge of pride for her but also concern for our little community. If the faint whispers were true, then I was a marked man for everyone knew about my friendship with Mona and I would become a danger to all of them if I stayed here. That same night, I slipped out dressed as an old beggar woman, and hobbled to the nearest station that would take me to the border of Manipur. A tribal friend from my school who had long abandoned his native Bangladesh picked me up and made all the arrangements. My father finally sold some of his land and provided the money for me to get out of the country. I am stuck here but my search for Mona will never stop. I was so sure that the girl I saw was Mona. She looked so much like her.” And Rama finished his narrative, still dazed and puzzled at the vehement behavior of a fellow Bengali. Biswas listened with rapt attention, then mumbled a long “Hmmmmmm, Rama, did you know that I’m from Bangladesh. I left in ’47 and ate kichri as a refugee in Shealdah station. So I know the trauma of the Hindus who remained. I know Ashutosh’s father and will talk to him about his son’s behavior.”
At the Durga mandir, Rama met the girl Uma and her brother Ashutosh along with their father Dr. Das who escaped with Biswas during the partition of 1947. He came to America with eight dollars in his pocket and raised his two children with all the privileges that he felt was denied to him in his poverty stricken homeland. They drove expensive cars and wore brand name clothes and shoes. He also tried to tell them about Tagore, Aurobindo, Belur Math and Subhash Bose. The children would listen politely but the conversation always ended with, “but baba, why nobody does anything about the poverty, power problems, people spitting on the streets and the increasing number of beggars.” Dr. Das tried but felt that he couldn’t reach them, that there were too many issues that he himself did not have answers to. The small drift widened to a chasm during the teens. The children stopped attending any Indian functions and avoided the sermonizing elders, avoided the desi parties where they showed little interest in the topics that were discussed and developed an active disdain for anything Indian.
Ashutosh changed his name to “Ash”, and his sister changed hers to “Ann.” They had many friends and spent hours socializing with them. Slowly, the parents and the old country slipped from their consciousness. Dr. Das felt lost and helpless but he still felt the need to keep up appearances. He would therefore praise his children and their achievements and make excuses for them if they did not come to Durga puja or visit relatives. When they had parties, the children were usually absent. But this time, Dr. Das was adamant and gave a long lecture on duty to community and the result was Ashutosh came reluctantly with a stony face to give a stiff apology. Rama said humbly, “I do not want your apology, brother, just your support, and if possible your friendship.” He said, “When you feel like talking to me, you know where to find me. In the meantime, read all the painful stories of your brethren. Think of your sisters dying of shame and misery. And finally I am very sorry I mistook your sister Uma for Mona. I intended no disrespect. The girl whom I loved and who disappeared mysteriously looked just like Uma and I had pledged to continue her mission of carrying the voiceless cries of suffering of our community in Bangladesh. And for that I live and breathe and for the day when I can meet her again. Please give me a hand if you can. If not, I understand,” and with that Rama left.
Ashutosh felt bad that he acted in haste. He had never come across such stark misery and oppression as was described by Rama’s literature. His life was luxurious with trips to the mall, iPods, iPhones, sports car, girls and endless parties. The reality check with Rama brought him crashing to the emotional ground level with an unexpected thud. As the days went by, another thought surfaced. The girl who died was like his sister Uma, even looked like Uma, but an accident of birth gave Uma a chance to escape a doomed life. His father also escaped the doom. Shouldn’t he help someone to do the same? The little small voice in his being started rattling more and more and soon became a loud crescendo. He had to do something. He must do something.
On Sunday, he went to Mr. Biswas’ restaurant and sought Rama. He was in the kitchen, washing dishes. He was perspiring. His gaunt hands were working the suds and he was cleaning the first rack of dishes. Ashutosh was watching him, his face twisted with a sheepish apology. When Rama stopped to wipe the sweat from his brow, Ashutosh stepped forward with a humble demeanor and picked up the next plate. He scrubbed it and washed it and put it in the rack. Rama looked surprised. His puzzled expression slowly relaxed into a grin. Ashutosh smiled warmly in response, and the two of them finished washing all the 3 racks of dishes as if they were the best of friends.