An excerpt from the book, These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light by Dharini Bhaskar.
It was a warm May evening when Amamma, in a nine-yard summer yellow sari, tumbled out of the airplane. She followed the crowds, imitated their gestures, carried with her the air of a disenchanted frequent traveller. She kept pace with a German gentleman, asked for a cab as he did, said ‘Times Square’ softly, cautiously, just like him.
So this was Amamma’s first brush with the world, with streets outside Madras, beyond India. Around her, buildings rose and vanished behind clouds. People gathered like the pleats in a skirt, then blew away.
In a bit, the cab swerved into Times Square. Amamma peeled a bundle of currency off her sari pallu. She handed a fifty to the driver, accepted change, then slipped out.
The sun had dipped, and the streets were brash. There were flashing billboards, ads for Fuji Film, lights. And things my grandmother lacked a clear vocabulary for – peep shows, sex shops, back-room brothels, pimps, strippers. B-boys. Wrapped in silken yellow, Amamma ambled down 42nd Street, paused at an advert for Blondie, peered at a dimly lit arcade, and read open-mouthed as a banner screamed, ‘Live Nude Girls: $3’.
So this was Manhattan, this, an island stripped of inhibition and reserve, a place without taboos. My grandmother, I imagine, was momentarily perturbed, unsure of the things before her – the brazen advance of the night, the smuttiness of the lanes, the gloss of bodies. Equally, she didn’t know how best to respond. Was it right to be scandalized? Was she to stay nonchalant? Ought she to stare like the men before her? Or was it correct to turn away?
Suddenly – and I imagine Amamma watching with awe – a young boy gyred his gold-black body, windmilled his arms, spun backward. He glimmered like a river, twisted and turned with the ease of a runnel. He air-flared – a circus performer – then windmilled his arms once more.
My grandmother wanted to borrow the breakdancer’s ease, his suppleness, his sheer riverine exuberance. Emboldened, she marched forward, tapped him, and whispered, ‘Hello’. Asked, ‘How is it done?’
The breakdancer, his body twinkling with sweat, drew out an arm, reached for my grandmother. His fingers locked in hers, he put one foot forward, then another, skipped lightly, and took Amamma along.
A throng gathered – moviegoers and out-of-work actors and waitresses – but my grandmother missed the inquisitive bystanders. Already she was travelling, time-travelling, beyond the strip of earth she had landed in, beyond the feathery shimmer of the night, beyond. She was sixteen, bounding past puddles of milk, scampering up trees, sliding down fences. The future could be anything she wanted it to be – dizzy and frivolous, a Ferris wheel spin. Such was the privilege of youth.
And that night, Amamma was young.
‘Take this, lady,’ the dancer told her, and he pinned a brooch shaped as a bird to her sari.
Moments or hours later, my grandmother found herself alone, without the breakdancer, the crowds, that imaginary spotlight. She shook her head, then looked skyward. There wasn’t a star to be seen, these, our bodies, possessed by light 125 only a mesh of smog and neon; no heaven watching over her, just audacious light.
This, too, was beautiful, this absence, this rash omission of right and wrong.
My grandmother was unrestrained.
Over the next fortnight, Amamma stayed in motels, tagged on with indulgent twenty-year-olds, hitched rides with college boys. She learnt of The Eagles, hummed to The Rolling Stones, danced one afternoon to ‘Hey Jude’.
Alone, she walked through a sun-soaked Central Park, threw a coin into the Hudson, left a kiss on the Empire State Building. She bought discarded storybooks at the Strand, window-shopped along Fifth Avenue, waved out to the Statue of Liberty.
On some days, she’d have company. With Janaki, a shadow of Janaki, invisible to all except my grandmother, she’d visit museums – the MoMa, the Metropolitan, the Guggenheim or the Whitney. Together, they’d kneel before a Van Gogh, study a Picasso, weep noisily when confronted with a life-size Titian. Then they’d drift towards Times Square, comment on its sauciness, soak in its chutzpah.
‘How do you like New York?’ one of them would ask.
And the other would whisper, ‘It’s alive.’
I don’t know how my grandmother did it – how she travelled solo through 1980s New York, through its brassy hovels and impertinent joints, in a sari, with loosely tied currency.
I don’t know how she sought directions from tramps and scroungers, picked at meals alone outside subways, bargained for souvenirs and pretty trinkets, followed strangers through carefully numbered roads.
I will never know if she caught an X-rated film, made conversation with an opiate addict or wandered into a nightclub.
Most of all, I cannot tell how Amamma will respond to Times Square today, to its sterile marquees and vanilla stores and cheery streets in apple-pie order.
All I know for certain is this – that as a pigtailed schoolgirl, each time I’d ask her about New York, about that faraway city-country, she’d smile and drawl, ‘It’s alive.’
Image Credit: Dharini Bhaskar/ Hachette India
Excerpted with permission from These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light, Dharini Bhaskar, Hachette India