Aseem

Photo: © Olga Breydo. All rights reserved.

It was an unseasonably mild winter followed by an unseasonably wet spring, followed by an unseasonably glum summer. Aseem was at a loss of why she had returned, and now why she continued to stay in a place that had adopted her with warmth and open arms, yet suddenly the very same land had turned on her. On a college campus, people were marching against outsiders; they raised their violent voice against everyone who was not a specific shade of America.

Aseem knew in her heart that her fellow Americans had accepted and supported her, that a couple of her friends were practically sisters and yet, she felt something personally, even physically, in her gut. This new environment felt like an ulcer in her stomach, urging her to flee, to leave the one place that felt like home. Should she leave? Look for a new job? Should she sell the condo? Would Ehsaan agree to sell it? How had this happened to her? She had read the cues perfectly, stayed away from politics, never discussing the economy, taxes, healthcare, sexuality, abortion, race or immigration and instead discussed news of nutrition and sports at the corner of Brangelina and the Kardashians. She watched news in the privacy of her home and remained a passive spectator on social media.

Overnight, policy and politics had come knocking, insisting she engage and acknowledge that she cannot alienate herself. Friends were adding and tagging Aseem, planning for a protest march scheduled in Boston. How had it come to this?

Boston

The Uber driver chatted with Ehsaan about the difference between Lyft and Uber. They were discussing the racial diversity in Methuen as they passed by the glowing green parking lot at Logan airport. For a fleeting second, Aseem wondered if this was an Irish joke, a parking lot named ‘Rainbow Cove’ even though it always glowed green.

And just as suddenly Aseem shook herself back to travel logistics. She ran through their itinerary for the next few weeks: a layover in Rome on their way to Bangalore followed by a couple of weeks in Dhaka. Dhaka and Bangalore reminded her of family and gifts. Along with Santa’s elves, she had started shopping for gifts since Black Friday. It was almost Christmas now, and she was finally done. Somehow, she was responsible for buying gifts for both her and Ehsaan’s families. Like everything else in their marriage, the first to do a task, held the assignment, permanently. Aseem was a gifter, in fact uncomfortable to visit anyone empty handed.

On their first visit back, to get married, she had driven herself crazy with the gift buying. She was getting married as well as buying everyone gifts. Aseem recalled past trips over the last eleven years. Her first time in Dhaka was her favorite. Everything seemed so familiar, yet exotic.

They had been back home four times now. As always, they would split their time between Bangalore and Dhaka. This time they had changed it by adding an extra week in Bangalore. This plan reassured Aseem, made her happy even. Their layovers had always been in Italy. The tickets from Dhaka to Rome and Milan were the most affordable, probably due to the sizable Bangladeshi minority in Italy. When they had just started seeing each other, Aseem had worried about such details. How would they manage their visits? What if her Hindi is insufficient? How would she stay alive for a whole week in a fish-loving household, street, neighborhood, city, and land? Once they started planning, such concerns proved silly. An itinerary had evolved to address everyone’s needs and ever since they followed the same circuit, with the occasional layover change from Rome to Milan.

Ehsaan joked about “visiting” home and returning home. He had moved into his travel mode, which meant he would be fun as long as they followed the minute-by-minute timeline, including the allotted free days. This kind of thing made their relationship tick. They were both thoroughly organized, enjoyed planning and reveled in an agenda efficiently executed.

Ehsaan was not much of a looker—too lean, all bones, always needed a haircut—but then there was the color of his skin, a complex shade of many browns. After much mulling, she had once mentioned it to him, “Your skin is like the earth from my childhood, the soil for sugar cane.” Almost instantly he’d responded back “And yours is the luscious hue of chocolate.” If their need to organize made them similar, their speed with words struck them as different. Aseem watched how her words fit together, how they affected others. If she made her words wait, Ehsaan was an improv artist, always ready with a witty response.

Aseem watched Ehsaan’s curls flop indecisively, like the tube-balloon figurines at car dealerships. Patting herself on the back for having found herself the perfect match when suddenly Aseem remembered that he didn’t seem so perfect when the conversation turned to the baby. Predictably, she wanted to have a baby, and Ehsaan was in no hurry. Sometimes, she wondered if he was right, their life was indeed perfect already, was there a need to change anything? But this fictitious baby was ballooning into an obsession. More and more, she saw Ehsaan as the obstacle between her and the baby, but he was also the only way she was going to have this baby.

While thoughts of such a baby kept her mind busy, they had checked in, gone through the security saga, stopped for gum and watched funny and forgettable YouTube videos, while waiting to board.

Bangalore

Expansion and the modern urban life sneaked up at its own pace, especially the traffic and the pollution. Aseem’s onslaught of complaints about the new Bangalore was at odds with the warm and fuzzy feeling of being back home, of being with Ammu. The mere act of sitting beside Ammu was an incomparable form of content; her shoulders relaxed and her heart sang with confidence. Her sister, Amruta, was practically a mother to her. Just being in the same car as Ammu, she felt safe and cared for. In fact, she was glad Nisha couldn’t make it to pick them up. Aseem loved her niece, but was also glad to have Ammu to herself. While the excitement was apparent in Aseem, Ehsaan appeared to be walking in his sleep.

Both Ammu and Nisha treated them like they lived there, and not just visiting Bangalore. Ehsaan continued on his Boston schedule, working from home for the first week. He even went into their local office twice. Apart from that, both Aseem and Ehsaan spent the day by themselves, an island of lazy amidst the activity that surrounded them; a calm in the storm she called it. They spent their days reading and napping, a staycation of sorts to a background score of vendors hawking everything from vegetables to plastic buckets with a good measure of religious and film music thrown in. When Ammu and Nisha got back from work, they played cards, board games, and watched movies. Ammu’s workaholism paid for the cook and domestic help. She no longer cooked or cleaned; she now paid someone to take care of her. Aseem noticed that Ammu was old when she was young, and young when she got older.

The lazing stretched into most of their three weeks in Bangalore. Their last week, Nisha dropped them off at a spa on her way to work and they got massages, followed by a long lunch and much people watching. Aseem had been to college in Koramangala, and so she was very familiar with the neighborhood, yet the walkers around fascinated her. She watched the lunch crowd imagining which one of the people walking by was the person she used to be; except she couldn’t find the right one for the future she offered. Many walked in groups of twos and threes, all interesting but somehow not right. Even worse, some reminded her of her extended family, some of whom had explicitly stated, “What would your parents have said? If you can’t leave that Muslim boy, we will leave you.” Ammu was not only a rock of support, but by association had also severed all family ties. Aseem was deep in thought, when suddenly Nisha was by her side, grinning. Aseem wasn’t sure how much time she had spent with her thoughts; a twinge of guilt creeping up that Ehsaan had been ignored. He did seem perfectly happy though, making film references, chatting with Nisha. Ehsaan saved his quick wit for the likes of Nisha, thriving on her comeback lines. Unlike Aseem, he was easily matter of fact about her growing up. While Aseem often mentioned how quickly Nisha had grown up, Ehsaan effortlessly treated her as an adult.

To Aseem, the beauty of Bangalore was feeling at home but having to meet so few people. She had no regrets about not reaching out to the family and there were only a couple of friends she met every time she went back. While Dhaka promised to be a party week, Bangalore was a family retreat, time spent in the cozy confines of Ammu, Nisha and Ehsaan. She had so much time that the following week Aseem went back for a second massage. She was waiting at the spa lobby, meditating over the idea of a monthly massage in Boston, when Nisha called to say she was waiting outside.

Aseem savored every moment of being in Bangalore and so stalled in traffic meant more time with Nisha. “I am so excited! I hope you get in to one of the Boston programs, I can see you every few weekends.” Nisha was applying to graduate programs in International Affairs. She stood a good chance because of her present work, consulting for UNESCO. While Nisha was so much like Ammu, she was also very different. Ammu was a workaholic; she was like an ant, working constantly to keep herself distracted from her own thoughts. Nisha, on the other hand, genuinely enjoyed learning, always curious to learn more. Even Ammu was excited, but after the applications were turned in, Nisha wasn’t sure anymore. When Aseem mentioned about moving to the U.S., she snapped. “I don’t think I can leave Amma…” Although Nisha didn’t complete her sentence, Aseem sensed the last three words: “like you did.”

Memory and time spun and weaved within Aseem. She knew it was true, Ammu was always giving, and she herself had been receiving. It had started early, with a ten-year gap separating the sisters. Ammu started middle school when Aseem started to walk. She barely knew their father when he was diagnosed with cancer, and soon enough their mother became a stranger too. The cancer was a backdrop to Aseem’s childhood, with a mother busy between hospital runs, keeping her job at the city’s plumbing department, and running a household. To relieve her mother, Ammu took little Aseem under her wing. The neighbors helped and hurt in equal measure, bringing in meals to help and staying back to ask for gory details about their father’s illness and their mother’s whereabouts. Ammu, sensing the food was bait began to barricade them, ignored the doorbell. Soon enough, Ammu was packing lunch and taking Aseem to school. Everyone was so used to Ammu playing mom, that even after their father’s passing, no one wished to rock the status quo. Seamlessly she had become two birds with one name: Ammu, short for Amruta and Ammu, an endearing name for one’s Amma (mother).

As is generally the case with status quos, this one didn’t last long either. One year spun into another, a groom had been found, Ammu married Deepak and drove away in his Maruti 800. Aseem, now in middle school was heartbroken and again, as always, minutes kneaded into years and numbed the heartache: a new status quo.

Only a couple years later, Aseem had sex education by learning her sister had become pregnant, and that a baby was on its way. The pregnancy and baby had colonized every conversation between their mother and Ammu. Deepak waited, looking bored, chatting with Aseem about school and quizzing her on the periodic table.

In fact, she was still in school, battling the stench of sulphur in the chemistry lab, when the teacher sent her to the principal’s office. Aseem instantly recognized her neighbor Uma Aunty, who looked scared. Aseem wondered whether Uma Aunty was also scared of the principal. “Had she gone to the same school?” Aseem wondered. Uma Aunty’s schooling had been her last weightless thought for a long long time.

The principal had explained something about Ammu, the baby, a car, their mother, a hospital and that Aseem should go to the hospital and be with Ammu.

Aseem wasn’t very sure when or how the information had crept into her, but somehow she had gathered the scraps from the earth shattering story; that Ammu’s water broke and a colleague had driven her to ‘The Cradle,’ the hospital where her obstetrician was already expecting her. She had called Deepak before leaving. He had picked up her mother from home and headed to ‘The Cradle.’

Only minutes from home, a juggernaut water tanker driving downhill, much faster than the driver realized, crushed the Maruti 800 into a concrete traffic circle. Nizam, from the corner-store recognized them and ran to the car to help. He had flagged neighbors who might have the family’s phone numbers.

Of course, all of this was hearsay. In fact the next few days were a total distortion, every moment rapidly shifting from too real to too unreal. Aseem could barely recall any details from those days. She wasn’t too sure how she had learned that Deepak and her mom had died in the accident. All she remembered was being in the hospital with Ammu, the baby in an incubator. Did they sleep? Had they eaten? Had the hospital drugged them? Aseem was still in a trance a week later, when they left the hospital with Ammu’s reckless stream of tears making salty splotches on the baby’s blanket. They reached home, and in an instant, Aseem struck out of her daze, jolted by all the people in the house. Her mother’s sister-in-law, her father’s sister, even Deepak’s mother with her bloodshot eyes and Uma Aunty, an estrogen army, each of them asking to hold the baby with a smattering of neighbors looking on.

Further in the week, when the estrogen army convened, attempting to coax Ammu to plan a naming ceremony, she announced that she had named the baby Nisha. And continued to explain that the baby was named Nisha (meaning night) since she had brought such a cataclysmic, exploding darkness with her. She explained that every time she called her daughter was in fact a mourning call. Her unapologetic exegesis not only questioned and loosened their maternal bonds, but also hastened away the estrogen army.

Days later, Aseem returned to school and the newly tattered and sewn back household found a rhythm. Nizam was the only visitor that didn’t ask any questions. He dropped off the groceries himself, politely checking in but never prying. Nisha, for her part, was determined to not take her name seriously, generously sporting her glorious smile. When she was nearly a year old, she had unknowingly converted even Ammu back towards the sunny side. Inspired to do right by Nisha, Ammu found a job, turned one day into the next. And for attaining such heights, Aseem would always be in awe of Nisha.

Sitting in the taxi, with Nisha all grown up, yet nothing had changed. The past was gushing through her mind’s eye, events enveloped by a hurricane of feelings. Years strained through a mesh until only the most intense moments remained.

She recalled how Ammu had convinced her to leave for America, after her Engineering degree. “People don’t know you there, you will have many months when you won’t see pity reflected in the eyes of everyone you meet.” She had even said that if it weren’t for the responsibility of a child, she would want to get away and learn to live afresh. Her exact words were, “Of course I hope you work twice as hard as everyone else, but more importantly, I hope you live twice as fully. Once for you and once for me.”

Nisha realized she had crossed a line. She was quiet while both of them were glad to have the traffic slow their drive and their racing hearts. Like a toddler, their thoughts scampered, simmered and rested, making a concoction with varying, yet equal measures of responsibility, regret and love. When Aseem and Nisha returned home, Ammu and Ehsaan were playing Scrabble, complaining how long they’d been waiting for the other two. Ammu and Ehsaan shared an easy camaraderie, warm but without the shake and tumble of deep bonds. Aseem was going to miss this, the loves of her life, all together.

The next day, their last in Bangalore was a Saturday, with Aseem and Nisha showering each other with loving warmth. It was a private duet, which only the two of them were aware of and participated in. In fact they even teamed up to make fun of Ammu. Oblivious, Ammu saw them like bickering sisters who turned friendly before they parted.

Dhaka

Aseem could only see Tabbu the way she saw herself, as Ehsaan’s little sister: Tabbu worshipped Ehsaan. For Aseem, Tabbu was the very sunshine in Dhaka and was looking forward to spending time with her. Tabbu was married to a wealthy business family’s only son. The family’s only request when she married their son was that she not work for money. She’d kept her word, but after a few years of marriage, she was beginning to feel cloistered.

Driven in her car, Tabbu, Ehsaan and Aseem were on their way to lunch with Ehsaan’s parents, at his childhood home, in a packed and more down to earth part of Dhaka. As they drove along the Buriganga, she watched the bamboo taxi boats waiting in the shape of a lotus, each petal drifting away ferrying a new customer across the river. Aseem was keenly aware that she was only privy to a particular Dhaka.

Dhaka is similar to Bangalore, yet in so many ways she experienced it differently. Aseem had been to Dhaka four times, but had only seen the same scenes. She had seen so many pineapples, but never once so much as touched one before it was peeled and presented. Anywhere else, she would’ve wanted to explore the real city, the land, the people, the culture. But in Dhaka, she took what was offered, a curated edition.

She was grateful to Tabbu for putting her life on hold, for hosting them during every visit, but most of all for being so accepting of their marriage. In so many ways, Tabbu was the singular reason Aseem could manage to have a civil relationship with Ehsaan’s parents. Over the years, her being Hindu or vegetarian had dropped off of the discussion. They still didn’t understand Ehsaan’s decision, but at least they no longer blamed her for it. And somehow, she knew it was all thanks to Tabbu. Tabbu had a way with their mother, and Ammi had a way with their Abbu. However, none of them had a way with Ehsaan. He had excelled in school and University, and moved ahead with a spear-like ambition. To them, Ehsaan was all ambition, until he brought up Aseem, thereby throwing emotion in the mix. Tabbu had played her role as the mediator to perfection. Aseem had thanked her and convinced her that she had a skill, that she should do an MBA. Tabbu was accepted at North South University and the MBA had changed the course of her life. She met her future husband Shaan there and the MBA became part of the family’s jute garment business’ accolades.

Aseem was acutely aware that she was sheltered in Dhaka. The Dhaka she saw was all Dhanmondi and Gulshan. While Ammi-Abbu’s place at Dhanmondi was middle class modest, it was impossible not to notice the old world gold-leaf gilding of Gulshan, except possibly to Shaan, oblivious to the large silver spoon hanging off his tongue.

Shaan was raised in Gulshan, on an unlimited variety of food from the family kitchen. Yet, he was on a constant quest for good food, and he knew never to judge a place by its ambience or clientele. To Aseem, her visit to Dhaka was incomplete without the Shaan crawl. The self-proclaimed Shaan Crawl was an almost 24-hour food expedition; they left around lunchtime to return the next day after brunch.

This time, the Shaan Crawl was on the last weekend before they left. While Tabbu touched up her lipstick, Aseem waited appreciating her jewelry collection. They could hear Shaan chatting and Ehsaan’s deep throated laughter, arriving in installments. Aseem caught a glimpse of Tabbu smiling to herself, and felt a twinge of inexplicable guilt. Almost as if she could read Tabbu’s mind, she knew that the glow in her eyes was because Ehsaan and Shaan genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. Aseem knew that there was nothing as important to Tabbu as her Dada’s approval.

Their time out with Tabbu and Shaan was an exercise in stretching oneself to enjoy Dhaka to its fullest. From previous experience, Aseem knew to skip breakfast, so she was starving by the time they arrived along with the lunch crowd at Star Kabab. As soon as they arrived, Aseem could see (and smell) why they would need the change of clothes Tabbu had insisted they pack. Everyone appeared to be busy with lunch, a white noise created by the mix of remix Bangla music, orders taken, takeout packages collected, takas changing hands, activity performed at an extreme speed resulting in a hum of humanity. As Shaan had promised, Star Kabab was the perfect choice. Aseem ate and was happy to watch the variety of people. The others at their table were busy eating and didn’t speak much, except a few occasional sounds of approval. She was surprised at how satisfying her food was. Although they’d been there for almost a couple hours, Aseem felt as though she flew through the flurry of Star Kabab.

Next in line was a short walk to a paanwala. Back in Boston, Ehsaan often spoke of how he missed the paan from back home. She had no taste for paan, but anyone would want to eat it if they saw this paanwala’s platter. It resembled a multi-layered dip, topped with a delicate pattern of flower petals and candied spices. Aseem was almost sad when he scooped some and packed it in the leaf. She certainly wasn’t going to miss this feast: it was an explosion of floral with spices, sweet and nutty.

Seeing Ehsaan, his mouth stuffed with paan, with not a clue where Shaan would take them next, she admired how seamlessly he switched from the organized Ehsaan to this free spirit, zigzagging like a kite, and enjoying the spin too. They were walking back towards the car, Aseem walked with Tabbu, who was slowing in the heels. “Does he do this often? Take you on all night dates?” she asked Tabbu.

“Last time he did, he suggested we should have a baby, but I’m just not ready.” She smiled.

“Neither is your brother! Maybe ‘not ready’ is genetic.” Aseem winked. They were still laughing when they caught up to the car.

Chalo yai, North End Coffee,” Shaan told the driver when they were barely in the car. Aseem was relieved to hear the word coffee but when they got there, she was struck by how different it was from Star Kabab or the paanwala. It felt like they were climbing up the social ladder. While the place was not opulent, it certainly wasn’t lacking either. Aseem noticed the air-conditioning for a second and was already accustomed to it by the time they were ordering. The barista was an artist, making portraits in their cappuccino. Aseem ordered a second, requesting a Che Guevara. As was always the case with Shaan, he made himself at home, lounging on the couch. Their fellow patrons were mostly younger, mostly gadget toting and all English speaking. The couple behind them spoke at length about the upcoming cyclone. Aseem was embarrassed to admit to herself that she now had to think a second before her brain registered what they were talking about was a hurricane.

They settled down and chatted over many cups of coffee, discussing everything from Dhaka University to politics. Ehsaan and Aseem mostly looked on Tabbu and Shaan discussing whether Trump would be good for Bangladesh or not. Tabbu insisted that Trump might be good for Shaan’s business but he wouldn’t be good for Americans, let alone Bangladeshis. They dragged their last hour at North End Coffee with Aseem ordering yet another Che, only to wait out the traffic.

Shaan was visibly excited about their next stop; all he’d say is that they wouldn’t expect this in Dhaka. Izumi was in fact, a jewel of sorts. On first peek, it was a high-end Japanese restaurant, but on looking closely the details spoke volumes. Bamboo, common to both cultures threaded the restaurant together. The place had the Japanese minimalism combined with local elements, golden light and mellow Bangla music created a surreal and dreamlike scene. If North End Coffee was earthy, Izumi felt heavenly.

Aseem was grateful to be vegetarian; the chef would put together something for her and she didn’t have to make any decisions. While she soaked up the space, and the sake, Aseem thought to herself that Shaan was like Midas, with him as guide, Dhaka shimmered with a glow, like seeing the space under the ‘chrome’ filter on her cellphone camera, real, but glorified. She shoved her thoughts away to focus on the present. The food of course, was incredible, some garnished with edible local flowers. Much like the paanwala’s platter, except with a Japanese twist. Hours later as they left Izumi, no one was hungry or full, however everyone was content.

Ekhan, Gulshan,” Shaan said to the chauffeur, and to the rest, “Don’t worry, the night is just taking off.” Shaan was entrusted with the job to ensure Farook came to a house party. Farook was among the many wealthy strangers they were to meet and greet when in Shaan’s company. Farook was known to become bored at parties, and would often skip them. Tabbu had hatched the plan to change at Farook’s place and pick him up. Aseem was glad to change; her clothes, she noticed, still smelled like Star Kabab. They, freshened up and in their evening finery, well appointed and approved by Tabbu, joined the others in the living room for cha (tea), at 10 p.m. “Cha is necessary, we have a long night ahead,” Shaan insisted.

Kareena and Zahid’s house party was cozy and elegant. Dinner was served at 11 p.m. As she tried to take in the elaborate spread on the table, Aseem’s mind flitted about like a fruit fly. She was especially delighted by the vegetarian variety. Fatima Khala’s biryani was the star of the party. Fatima Khala (Aunt Fatima) was the family chef who had worked in their home since she was a child. Ehsaan, who was drinking a bit, had become quiet, his attention had swayed from the conversation, but he was intently enjoying his kababs and biryani. The biryani had transported him to a parallel universe, one where the grains of rice mesmerized him. Biryani and phirni were seamlessly followed by a Karaoke session. Drinks continued to flow; Aseem knew that the flow of alcohol was a sure sign of wealth but at this party it was more like a billboard. Ehsaan sang every alternate song on the ‘Magic Sing Karaoke.’ Shaan sang only once, dedicating his music to Fatima Khala, thoroughly embarrassing her. Under the grip of the countless cocktails she’d had, even Aseem sang a duet with Ehsaan, an old Hindi song. Although Aseem thought karaoke was plenty, it was followed by a couple more hours of dancing.

When they left Kareena and Zahid’s place, it was in the wee hours of the morning and Aseem was shocked when Shaan told the driver to go to Rashid’s place. Although it was a short drive, Aseem truly hoped to catch a quick nap, which proved impossible while Ehsaan continued to sing, and Tabbu and Shaan flirted. As it happened, the singing was far from over. At Rashid and Rehaana’s place was a ghazal night with professional singers. It felt like walking into a chandelier, golden light and the most romantic music flooded the senses as they got settled. Aseem was already tipsy when they arrived but the music elevated her to a magical place, at the crossroads of warm and dreamy.

Aseem wasn’t very sure if she was asleep, but she opened her eyes to Ehsaan’s offering his hand to help her up. Unbelievably this party ended with breakfast! And further unlikely as it was, she was hungry again. Breakfast was simple but elegant, complete with eggs and paranthas.

When they got back to Shaan and Tabbu’s place, everyone quietly retired to bed. It took Aseem a while to calm her spinning mind, replaying random details from the night, while Ehsaan effortlessly drifted into sleep.

They woke to a rude shock when the alarm rang. Even in his sleep, Ehsaan must’ve set the alarm in time to catch their flight. Shaan and Tabbu came to drop them off to the airport, after a quick stop at Ammu and Abbu’s place.

Boston

Her boss was expecting her at work the next day. Aseem regretted not having even a day before getting back to work. They had spent both flights to catch up on sleep; the Shaan crawl had come with a price. Fatigue and the sharp airport light was a terrible combination. Aseem was fighting the onslaught of a migraine and she knew her best chance was to keep her eyes closed and distract herself. She closed her eyes and imagined her bed, the curtains drawn to make it a room-cave. As permanent residents and citizens passed by to greet the customs machines, Ehsaan and Aseem joined the line for ‘aliens.’ Keeping her eyes semi-closed, leaning on his elbow, Aseem reminded Ehsaan not to get too chatty with the Uber driver. Ehsaan’s response was rather lengthy: “I just want to talk to someone local, not feel like a visitor. Guess I missed home. Next time, I’d prefer the usual, this was way too long.” The immigration lines were rather long that day, and Aseem really didn’t feel up to an argument, so she let it slide and hoped for an indifferent Uber driver.

It was finally their turn, and the officer took their forms and looked them through. She read his name, Officer Jackson, and was glad for his deep, dull voice. Someone with a shrill, high voice would definitely bring the headache on. She willed her eyes open for the biometric photo as he stamped Aseem’s passport and handed it back. Aseem thanked Officer Jackson, walked ahead and waited at the wall for Ehsaan. He winked at her while he waited for Officer Jackson, gesturing that the officer must be taking a nap. Aseem smiled, thinking she’d missed Ehsaan during the trip. They had been so busy with everything else that they hadn’t paid much attention to each other. The officer looked back up to ask Ehsaan if he had ever been to the Middle East to which he responded with “Yes, once; I went to Dubai for a conference six years back.” Officer Jackson seemed glad that Ehsaan hadn’t denied the stamp on his passport. He took the biometric photo, but instead of handing the passport back to Ehsaan, he stood up, murmured an “excuse me” and walked away, passport in hand.

This worried Aseem and so she returned from her wall to join Ehsaan, and the annoyed, yet curious ‘aliens’ in the line. While Aseem had turned into a super sonic questionnaire—“What was that about? What did he ask you? Don’t tell me you joked with the officer?”—Ehsaan was plain confused: “Same questions as always, Where am I from? Where did I travel from? Have I ever been to the middle-east and then he photographed me. Maybe it is an issue with the biometric machine, I don’t know…he walked away. And no, I don’t joke with officers, what do you take me to be, an idiot?” He had barely finished his sentence when Ehsaan was already apologetic. He reached out and held her hand. This rare flare of temper quieted Aseem, as she realized no one had ever asked her if she had been to the Middle East. Was it because he had in fact been to the Middle East or do they ask this question if you’re holding a green passport? Anyone who had seen Ehsaan drink knew a devout Muslim, he was not. Aseem held his hand closer. Ehsaan apologized to the people lined up behind him. Aseem’s anxiety and agitation grew, thumping each other fist to fist; What was he apologizing for? for drinking alcohol? for choosing to be born into the wrong religion? for the terrorists across the globe? for being brown? for alarming society with his name? For Ehsaan’s sake, Aseem tried not be angry.

And so they continued, Ehsaan performing his apology and Aseem trying to contain her ears from burning up from the exploding emotions inside of her. After waiting a long time, Officer Jackson finally returned with another uniformed man, shorter with a sharp clarity in his eyes. He introduced himself as a border security agent and asked Ehsaan to follow him, which he diligently did. Who was this new Ehsaan? He was listening to instructions and apologizing…versions Aseem had never met.

Officer Jackson started by apologizing to Aseem and explaining that they need to clear Ehsaan before they let him back into the U.S.A. She retorted, “He has lived here for fifteen years and he has come back into the country at least that many times.” Officer Jackson explained that this didn’t mean anything. Aseem was quick to cut him off: “What doesn’t mean anything?” Again, the officer tried to explain that under the new regulations, they just had to do this. And again, Aseem cut him off: “What new regulations?”

Now, Officer Jackson’s voice proved to be trivial detail. Like an empathic doctor he exuded a kindness when faced with Aseem’s mental and emotional fragility. He explained about the freshly minted and already tarnished executive orders that were known as ‘the travel ban.’ He assured her that Ehsaan should be fine, since he was not from the jilted countries, except he had visited Dubai and had applied for a refugee visa in the past. Aseem was vaguely aware of Ehsaan’s efforts to leave Bangladesh before his college days. His father had a friend who was a chauffeur for a UN diplomat in New York and had urged Ehsaan to apply for a refugee visa. That road had ended midway, with the neighbor himself moving to London, to be close to Bangladesh and his ailing mother. The application was frozen and Ehsaan had decided to carve his own path to America. Aseem recalled what Ehsaan had said: “This is better after all, a fair transaction, this country needs someone with my skills and I want to play a part in the great American patchwork.”

Officer Jackson explained, “They are looking into how the regulations affect refugee visas that were applied but never reached fruition. Lastly, you may want to consult with one of the volunteers from Lawyers without Borders who are right outside. I know it may not seem that way, but your husband is fortunate to have landed in Boston, and not anywhere else in the country.”

Aseem thanked him and an acute awareness of the ocean of consequences flooded her. As she walked, something about her must have revealed her helplessness. A young lady approached her, introduced herself as Elena from Lawyers without Borders and asked if Aseem needed assistance. Aseem nodded yes; it was not unlike grabbing a stick while drowning in the ocean. Elena held this stick and Aseem followed along until they were at a table and some chairs. There she met other lawyers, an Eli and an Annabelle, both of who asked her many questions. A cup of coffee had appeared with the Motrin she had asked for. Aseem wasn’t sure whether to trust these folks but she knew she had no choice. She put her faith in the stick and lumbered on. As the medicine spread its elixir, Aseem was coming to herself, reclaiming her own. Eli and Annabelle continued to ask questions, piecing together Ehsaan’s storyline. Three lawyers and nearly three hours later, Ehsaan called. Aseem laughed and cried when she recognized the ‘unknown caller’s voice. She told Eli who was calling and stepped away.

It was surreal talking over the phone, with Ehsaan who was only a few walls away. It felt like Aseem was visiting him in prison; walls segregating their realities. In the few minutes that they spoke Ehsaan exhibited a swinging personality, businesslike, going through the motions and for a fleeting moment a raw Ehsaan. In a guttural voice he said, “There’re so many people stuck in the room, and they, no we only have Islam in common. I can only hope they feed us soon, and it’s not going to be hotdogs.” The cynicism was not lost on Aseem. Abruptly, he switched back to the businesslike voice, reporting there was only one other South Asian, a chef from Pakistan, who’d now missed his connecting flight to New York. The rest were mostly from Somalia, Sudan and Iran. Everyone’s phones had been turned in and so he had to put his name in to make this call. From such outgoing calls and incoming news they had gathered this tamasha (circus) was due to the new executive orders. She in turn reported to him about Officer Jackson, Eli and Annabelle, and the frozen refugee application that had ghosted up to haunt them. He sighed and said he should give others a chance on the phone, he will call back, that she should go home.

Eli and Anabelle agreed that she should probably go home and rest, but Aseem felt like she was deserting Ehsaan. Eventually she agreed to rest in Anabelle’s car until the lawyers wrapped up. As she walked to the parking lot, she thought to herself that it was so unlike her to trust a stranger, moreover a lawyer. She could only hope this wasn’t a trap, she wouldn’t get drugged or kidnapped, that she wouldn’t wake up somewhere that looked like Breaking Bad. But Aseem was exhausted and struggling to stay awake. She had eaten a subway sandwich earlier; she took another Motrin and was soon lost even to herself. She slept the abysmally deep sleep of jetlag.

Aseem woke up suddenly, not sure where she was, or why. It was dark outside; she was trying to find her bearings. Thankfully, her phone rang alight, helping her awaken. It was Ehsaan: “Where are you? I’ve been trying to call you!” He continued, “Listen, There is a lot of confusion about how this is going to pan out, and I am going crazy here. You should see all these people; it’s disturbing that this can happen in America. Anyways, I can’t stand this anymore. Can you hear me? I think I should go back for a bit. I have booked a flight back to Dhaka. All this will settle in a week or two, and I will be back then. I called my boss, through the board number. He’s okay with it. Are you okay?”

Through her tears, Aseem started off whispering but ended up screaming, “You did what? You’re going back and you’re informing me? I am your wife. Ehsaan! This is our life, not just yours to pick up and leave! Anabelle and Eli are working on it.” She knew he was putting in effort to be tender.

“I’ll be back Aseema, don’t overreact. It is not healthy for me to stay, the steep number of people impacted, my mind is astir with anger and I know I should leave or I will go crazy. I can’t go anywhere else without being questioned. Please Aseema, please understand.”

Summer in Boston

Aseem had loved America, like one loves a puzzle, wanting to put it together so she could make sense of it. It was a love that started as an infatuation, turned into a crush, ripened into affection and respect, evolved into a deep bond and with no grand announcements, had matured into a warm sunny love. And as it happens with love, it had begun to change again. And now, she had begun to question it, was she changing? Was the country changing? Or were they both changing, yet not changing together?

The America Aseem loved had welcomed her, and allowed her to find herself, to be herself. It was freedom and protection in one happy pie. It was the America of warm apple cider on Thanksgiving Day. When Ehsaan left on that cold January night, he had taken that love with him.

It had been over six months since the dreaded winter night. Aseem had spent almost all of that time being miserable. She often recalled their time in Bangalore, weeks of doing nothing; a calm in the storm she had called it. On returning home the peace had migrated outwards. Now, the storm was in the calm; her mind raced and thundered, even while the space around her remained neat and structured. On any given day, she woke up and missed Ehsaan, and suffered through many nameless emotions until she eventually landed on anger. From an early age, Aseem had learned to miss someone and go on living. This other form of missing someone didn’t reach grief but a disorienting frustration. She hadn’t lost Ehsaan; their marriage had not slowly crumbled so much as Ehsaan himself had. It had been a slow deconstruction of the Ehsaan she had loved.

She could only imagine what Ehsaan must be going through. For all the quick wit he’d exuded in the past, he didn’t speak much anymore. Aseem knew that Ehsaan was shaken up, maybe even scarred by the most recent immigration experience. She waited two weeks before mentioning his return home. He did not respond and Aseem assumed it was still too early, that Ehsaan wasn’t ready yet. At that time, in mid February, they spoke everyday and so she decided to check back later and when she did, he had snapped, “I can’t make it through another day like that!”

The muddle from the executive sanctions had been sorted. Ehsaan could return to his old life, but he said he didn’t want to. He had even asked if she wanted to come back to Dhaka and live there. “We can get an apartment, no need to live with Ammi and Abbu.” Back then he used to call her via Skype. She could only guess that he must’ve seen the confusion in her eyes, for he never called her again.

Now, Aseem called him everyday on her way to work, and continued to prod him to return, talking of his tulips that had started sprouting. Oddly, talk of his beloved tulips or news of his friends’ calls seemed to irritate him. Working on his little patch of land had been a matter of meditation and pride. When his tulips could annoy Ehsaan, Aseem’s worries progressed into panic. She stayed up late that night, rewording and rephrasing a long email to Tabbu, asking for her help, and if she would please talk to her Dada. She told Tabbu that she is planning on going to Dhaka to convince Ehsaan and could she please stay with Tabbu during that time?

Tabbu didn’t respond but when Aseem called Ehsaan the next day, he was angry, and cold. He told her that she shouldn’t bother his family, and that he will return on his own terms. Aseem heard Tabbu’s voice in the background and asked if she may talk to her. He shot back, “Like I said, keep my family out of this.” His icy voice shocked her. Something changed after that phone call. For the first time, Aseem felt shunned by Ehsaan. Although she continued to call him, she was gradually calling him only a couple times in a week. He didn’t seem to care how often or for how long they spoke. His indifference scared her but she couldn’t understand him. He had morphed into a new person.

She too had changed; thought-trains kept her up at night and sleeplessness altered her, making her anxious and jittery during the day, and a hungry insomniac at night. On one such sleepless night, Shaan called. He spoke so fast that more than once Aseem had to ask him to slow down and repeat. Shaan pleaded to help Ehsaan get back. “Tabbu is worried crazy, I don’t know why she won’t call you. Ehsaan has taken this whole episode rather personally, as a personal failure even. In my opinion, he wants to go back but its too late, too much damage has been done. Aseem, he’s depressed and lonely. Ehsaan has changed. Can you believe it? Our Ehsaan has become a drifter. And if we are to believe Fatima Khala’s brother, he has taken to afeem or charas (opium or weed). Abbu lives in his own world, immersed in his music collection and you know their Ammi, she’s blinded by her own love. I’m only calling you because seeing Ehsaan like this has sucked the very life out of Tabbu. Seriously, I’m worried for him, for Tabbu, for me, you… for all of us. Please, can’t you do something?”

Aseem knew Ehsaan was low; the apathy seeped through the phone lines. When they spoke, he never acknowledged any of this, only going through the perfunctory: niceties and money. He had built a cave around himself. It was over six months since the awful night and she only saw more impending fog.

In fact, in recent days, she could only sleep if she built make-believe plans for the future. She fantasized about filing for divorce, selling the condo and fleeing again to a place where no one knew her. Aseem considered moving. But where would she go? This was home, the only place that had accepted her. She thought of selling the condo in Cambridge, but that would mean bringing it up with Ehsaan. Maybe he would like that, he could get half the money from the home, their home. Such was the new rhythm her life had gained. Dozing off to sleep sketching a prospective plan and waking the next morning, in tears from just thinking about it.

 

by Jo Jyotsna Rao

From the Author

Jo Rao.jpeg

Jo Jyotsna Rao’s “Aseem” is inspired by the power of financial and cultural capital and the borders it creates. Spanning across Bangladesh, India and U.S.A, “Aseem” addresses the evolving immigrant idea of finding and making a place to call home. It reveals a perspective that begs a telling; a reflection of the shifting dynamic of privilege in our entangled domino environments. Jo’s characters work to lead us to the crossroads of political and personal.

 

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