There are days when Asa wakes up and feels the sun on her face and the dusty breeze through her braids and forgets – for just a moment – that she’s living in Mumbai. It’s not an easy thing for me to forget. Living in Mumbai always means that there is a taste of sea salt and street grit in every bite of life. Waking up with a craving for puri or a frankie from Colaba is often a reminder that gently nudges me awake in the morning. Today, for a minute though, she was in that place of half sleep where she could see a vision of her brother and her cousin Trey on the steps of the house on Eastern Parkway. It was just a glimpse of their profiles, from an odd, non-existent angle. She swept by on her way to first Fridays and only glanced back at their faces before beginning her spritely stroll to her fictitious evening of acculturated fun. It was balmy that night in her dream, like any other real summer night in Brooklyn. Balmy is the perfect way to describe every day in Bombay. The resemblance clings.
She is here working at an NGO that helps women from battered and abused situations. Battered and abused often is a synonym for sexually abused and devastated. Yet for the sake of propriety, some semblance of dignity in not knowing what everybody knows, we’ll say battered. Some were married off to boys who took the dowry, banged the bride, and auctioned her off in Kamathipura on his way out of dodge. These things happen, people say, and Asa thinks she could help. Working at Safe Horizon had given her some sense of this purpose when she was home. She has always longed to fulfill this feeling of actually helping someone become someone. Not a new someone, not like the witness protection program, but someone actually worth a second chance at life. “Someone who was genuinely a victim,” she’d justify to herself on those lonely sleepless nights in Khar West.
It’s a credo that expats like us understand. Picking up and moving to the other side of the world to be someone new is something we understand. Asa has a gift for explaining this to the Sangeetas and the Shivalis of the interiors of Maharastra and Bihar who somehow find themselves washed out on a filthy mattress on the floor of a hovel. It’s like a nightmare out of Shantaram until Asa (and Kavita, the translator) comes along to go door to door asking if there are underage women there – working – who don’t want to be there – working. She does the grunt work. Her black conveys trust to their brown, when my white seems to convey pity. Both are unintentional.
This started as an internship. Actually, she was hoping to score something full-time at home, but the economy just isn’t booming like it used to. Being a social worker at a community based organization really isn’t the best come up for a Binghamton grad, but native New Yorkers do have that on the rest of us. They can afford to wait out the city, see what comes up, see if something sparks. They have no fear of late rental fees and peanut butter sandwiches for dinner. She worked at Safe Horizon for about 4 years and had only recently learned about the safe houses in the Bronx. But nothing really came together for her as well as it did for the women she considered clients. It felt so incongruent to see them rebuild their lives and for her to feel so stuck – financially, sure. There’s also the fact that at 27 she couldn’t pretend that living at home was just a temporary state. I’m not sure how she came to find the job, but she came to town with just one bag and that was a year ago.
When I left the apartment this morning, she was just blinking awake and the sunlight was peaking through the curtains on the sea-facing window near her bed. The fan was on low and her hair blocked only half her face from the sun. She rubbed her exposed eyelid with the back of her hand like an infant whose immature vision only allowed the sight of fuzzy shapes. She looked a bit lost in time and space, for just an instant, but she’ll soon be herself again. She’s got to renew the lease with the Gangulis and buy a new lamp at Fab India today. She’ll wake up soon and snap back into the Bombay she’s made for herself. She’ll see the Sealink and remember that she’s got a big day ahead, and she’ll be glad she came – just for an instant.
I, on the other hand, will be glad all day long – until I come home for lunch to see her breeze past me to hustle out the door. Braids in a bun, jeans under a kurti, she’s ready to face the hardest, oldest, baddest, whores, sluts, and prostitutes of Asia. When she turns to look back at me over her left shoulder, she’s got a kulcha hanging between her teeth and her keys in her left hand. The bread muzzles her words, so she speaks more with her chestnut eyes than her mouth. “See you later. Dinner, ok?” I nod, “sure,” but I’m lost in thought.
I’m struck by how busy she’s become being Bombay’s Michelle Pfeiffer or, better yet, the red light district’s Mother Theresa. A year ago, she was just Asa James, a girl from Brooklyn, running away from Brooklyn. Today, she isn’t that same person. I couldn’t tell you who she is exactly, but she’s not that. Come to think of it, she couldn’t tell you either. That much I know for sure. She has no clue anymore.