The woman, like Kashi, was on the train in India.
From the upper berth where she had been keeping out of sight for almost two days, Kashi observed the young woman now with wide eyes, and froze at the sight of blood coming from her head. A man gripped her unusual hairdo tight to her scalp with his fist, so tight his knuckles were screaming white. He was yanking this way and that, quietly but firmly saying things into her ear that any Bengali or Hindi speaker must have been able to understand. Everyone in the car but Kashi, the quiet imposter. The pair had gotten on at the previous stop, and the man had pulled her onto the train that way too, hand to head. Now the poor woman was in a kneeling position on the floor in front of him, eyes streaming while he held fast. People fidgeted, watched, pretended not to fidget and watch.
The two women were about the same age, not much older than twenty, but Kashi noted the other woman was a little taller, a little darker, and quite a bit thinner than herself; her hair was chopped to mid-ear, and was mussed up on her head in an irregular way for most Indian women. She was dressed differently, too—no plain or elegant sari, but instead a cotton dress, some striped or flowered print—it fell just below her knees and puffed up in an unattractive ruffle at her shoulders. But Kashi, the young Canadian, with a picture given to her the year before of her Indian great-grandparents, which was sitting at home on her desk, could not very well dwell on the woman's strange fashion for long. Because even though she was by nature an observer, a writer, and most of all, for the purposes of this trip, a researcher of her absent father's family history, the woman before her was crying, and screaming, and grabbing at things to prevent herself from falling over, and this was a more urgent fact, a more present reality than any she had encountered since her arrival in the country a week earlier. This was saying a lot, because her very first interaction upon landing in Mumbai had been with an armless child who asked her for a stick of her gum. Kashi was forced to move her attention away from the woman's unconventional dress and note instead that she was in trouble.
Kashi the foreigner had been keeping a low profile from her perch on the upper berth since the day before. She'd been going it alone in India for several days, having gone a separate way from Jordan and Rose, a couple she had traveled with from Canada, with the plan that she would meet up with them again further down the line, in Rishikesh, where she was now headed. She had wanted to go it alone for a while, do the kind of observing that she could not do with co-voyagers that drew too much attention to themselves. Her desire to be alone had been fuelled by an ongoing argument with her friends about whether her Indian appearance made her lucky or unlucky. Rishikesh was considered a holy place; it was where the Himalayan mountains met the Ganges head on, and people from all over the world were known to flock there, to the ashrams, with their meditative intentions and their camera bags, and their illnesses, looking for respite. Kashi, who lacked the geographical details necessary for accurate family research, and whose main plan had been to look for her father in people's faces, people's actions, had failed to research places themselves much at all in advance of her trip, and had never even heard of the place until she had arrived in India, but it seemed like the perfect place to arrive go it alone in, even if the aloneness was short-lived.
The woman on the train was screaming now, and Kashi, dressed like an urban Mumbai Indian woman in her jeans and t-shirt, pretended to sleep in a fetal position on the top berth, not knowing what she could do, and intermittently closed her eyes. People
fidgeted and watched. From her perch, she made eye contact with the woman for a second without anyone else noticing. The woman's eyes asked for nothing—Kashi noticed this. She also noticed that the man looked like he was the girl's father (she was, after all, a girl), in a green sweater and baggy brown pants, grey tugging at the ends of his moustache.
She thought of her own father, in some muddled way the reason she was there, after all. He had been an immigrant to Canada from Suriname, a former Dutch colony in South America where most of the inhabitants hailed from India and Africa. He had never, himself, been to India. But she had wanted to be the one to go a step further back in exploring the family trajectory. She had done a little of this kind of research before coming. The Indians had been taken on ships to this new land of promise; many had been promised better chances of wealth; many were women running from the consequences of illegitimate pregnancy; these people were being recruited to take over much of the work of the African slaves who were gradually being freed. The histories caught her imagination, as she imagined herself on those ships, where so many people never made it off alive, due to illness or lack of proper food. Her father had told her that her great-great- grandfather had made a last second decision to jump aboard one of those ships. Her father, who didn't tell her stories anymore.
The day before, Kashi had not yet attained invisibility. She hadn't yet realized that desire, and had been sitting on a lower berth, reading. No one occupied the seat beside her, a rare and noticeable circumstance she only fully understood afterwards, as everyone else seemed to be traveling with their families or else they were men on their own. About six in the evening a middle-aged man had claimed the vacant spot and was eyeing her curiously, something she had learned to observe without employing her usual, preferred tactic of looking at things directly. He was priming himself to say something. She could feel it!it lasted for a good twenty minutes. But just as she thought that maybe he was going to let it go, his hand gripped her thigh and she was forced to turn rapidly to face him for the first time. He was almost handsome, but his smile thwarted that. He wore loose green pants and a tattered blue t-shirt. He had a beard and she could not tell how old he was.
“No,” said Kashi, firmly pushing his hand away. This was clear, she thought, and I am surrounded by people who will hear this.
“Where is your father? Your brother?” he asked her, still smiling. “Why are you alone?”
“I'm actually here looking for him,” she wanted to say, but did not. “You see, he went missing many years ago and I have a feeling I might find him here.” Missing, well, that was a loose term. She was sure he was somewhere.
“I am meeting friends,” she said instead, annoyed. “I'm from Canada.”
“You? Canada?” he laughed, grabbing her leg again, trying to separate it from her other one, without any reservation in spite of the people all around. It was getting dark.
“Stop!” she pushed him off again. As though on cue at that point, like a hero in a Bollywood movie, a large, muscular man sitting in front of them turned around, and spoke to him harshly in Hindi. They had a back and forth, and the offending man abruptly left his seat. Meanwhile, the muscle man had taken his place beside her, and although somewhat relieved to have seen the first man go, she braced herself for a new set of antics.
“You're lucky I'm here,” he said, extending his hand. “Raj. Police.”
She shook his hand, knowing that he probably could not imagine that his being a police officer did not comfort her.
“It's very unsafe for a young woman to travel alone in India,” he said. “I will sit with you and keep watch.”
Much to her relief, Raj did not try anything, nor did he try and engage her in conversation after she could no longer keep her eyes open. Nobody tried to get near her after that, and she was thankful. The following morning when Raj got off the train, wishing her well and bidding her be careful and trust no one, she retreated to the world of the upper berth, vowing not to move from that spot unless she was about to piss her pants. Kashi had a large backpack with her also, which she did not want to leave unguarded. She slept on, and around the backpack, and pretended she was a tired, quiet, perhaps ill Indian woman whose family was sitting just below her. She tried to convince herself of this, and almost believed it at times. If nobody asked her anything, she would not need to speak, or be noticed for who she really was.
But now the man went further and, still gripping the woman's oily hair, bashed her face into the front of the bench he was sitting on, right between his legs. She came away with blood dripping from her nose, and continued crying as before. He complemented this action by hitting the side of her head twice with his fist. Kashi jumped involuntarily, her body shooting forward, almost sending her falling, defencelessly from her high bed. She began to think that perhaps what was happening to her personally was that she was about to witness a murder, a public murder. She tried and failed to imagine the same scene unfolding with blonde Rose sitting nearby in her tank top, absorbed in her Harry Potter paperback, children crawling on her knees, asking for money and candy, or a lock of her strange yellow hair.
All the while she frantically pondered, the man was saying quick, fierce things to the now bloody young woman before an old man sitting across from him discreetly gestured to him to lean forward. He did so, his fist still gripping a handful of her hair, her legs splayed into the aisle, and the old man said something very quietly, almost a whisper, into his ear, as the slightly younger man still held the young woman's head up as though the rest of her body did not exist. He slowly nodded at whatever his elder had said, and loosened his grip on the woman, gradually letting go altogether. She hoisted herself up and sat beside him wiping at her face with a cloth from a bag on the seat and swallowing hard. He did not glance at her or speak to her at all after that, and the train rolled on. She continued to cry quietly, and Kashi felt that she alone saw this, as a quick glance around the car revealed endless averted gazes. She wondered where the pair was going and where the woman was being taken.
Only then did Kashi imagine successfully intervening in the violent scene as it had unfolded, only then did she picture herself dropping a book on the man's head or screaming “Stop!” in accordance with some idea of what she had always thought to be right: If someone is in pain or in need, help them. Simple. Had she learned this in Canada? Or from her father, who had taught her to respect all walks of life, and yet who, himself, mistook fear for respect, causing him to enter into a fantasy world where no one dared follow? Her fantasy could only have ended with hundreds of people staring at her, scolding her, yelling, asking questions she could not answer or understand, she told herself. They would certainly speak English too, but this did not comfort her.
“Sorry,” she'd have to say, “my Punjabi grandfather was conned onto a Dutch ship bound for South America a couple of generations ago, so I'm new to this place, and I don't speak—” She lay on her berth and swallowed hard and could not look at the woman anymore without feeling she was drawing attention to herself. She was a day away from her destination. She wondered if the man was, in fact, the woman's father.
She had chased the few things she liked about her father all over the globe, literally mimicking the routes that his family bloodlines had travelled, either by force or voluntarily, first to the Netherlands—the source of colonial power—then to Suriname, in South America, where he had grown up, and now to India, the original home. She thought about how bad her relationship with her father was, how as a child she had wished him dead, how he had always compared his own controlling, tyrannical behaviour, the guilt trips, the mind games, to his own father's more palpable, visible abuses, in an effort to make his own behaviour seem valid. Yet she was here to feel closer to him. She wanted to blend in here, to the brownness, to her ideas of herself as the daughter of a man she would never really know.
Kashi kept staring at the woman on the train in India from the corner of her eye, and the more she looked at her, the more she felt that she herself did not exist. The woman hadn't once acknowledged her, or even looked in her direction, except for that one moment in the middle if it. Without her, Kashi felt she might simply disappear. It had been two days, with very little food besides the granola bars stowed away in the side of her backpack, minimal bathroom trips, very few changes of position. It wasn't just that she didn't want to have to explain herself in an interaction, it was also that she didn't want anyone to notice that that she was alone. They were on the same train, headed in the same direction, Kashi and the Indian woman, from opposite ends of the world, and Kashi couldn't help but think of how their brains and hearts might look different, or similar. Is one of our hearts stronger? she wondered. Do we have different ideas of pain? Do our ideas cause us pain? There is nothing we could ever really say to each other, she thought, and eventually fell asleep, completely exhausted from trying to look like she was sleeping.
She woke up with a start, and could not say how long it had been, though it was quiet and dark in the car. She couldn't move her body. Her head half covered by the blanket, eyes half open, Kashi tried to move, to sit up, to push the blanket down, to fully open her eyes, but she couldn't budge!it was like there was a wall stopping her mind from being loud enough for her body to hear, assuming the two can be separated. She struggled for several minutes, her mind slowly rising to panic in spite of her snoozing limbs. It felt like if she did not struggle as hard as she could against the heavy, invisible cover, she ran the risk of never moving again, of sinking back into the bed so far that she would either become paralyzed, die, or simply vanish. After about five minutes, by sheer mental force, she snapped herself out of it, her body jerking forward, her mind propelling it fast into a half-sitting position. She wanted nothing more than more sleep, but was afraid that whatever it was that was sucking her into that elevated bed in the corner of the train wouldn't simply quit.
Her father had once said that her particular “sleep problems” sounded like the beginning stages of an out-of-body experience, which he had had, and which he said she should just let happen.
“Don't be a coward,” he had said, but she had never been able to “just let it happen.” She looked around for the woman, but could not see her anywhere. Her seat was empty, but the man she was with was still there. Kashi couldn't tell if he was awake or asleep; he sat upright, eyes closed, calm. The old man remained still in his seat, head bobbing to and fro across his chest.
There was no denying the fact that going to the bathroom was at this point a necessity, and she decided it would be wise to go while eyes slept. Slowly Kashi crept, rung by rung down to the train floor; her feet hadn't stood for a day, and they tingled as she went. It seemed the entire car was asleep. Her socked feet padded their way nimbly to the nearby toilet she had grown accustomed to relying on, but a quick tug on the door handle revealed resistance. Looking down, she realized that a little boy was curled up, asleep, right in front of the door. She did not know where the next bathroom was, but was sure it was far, and was sure she would wake someone on her unfamiliar quest for it. She asked herself what any normal, respectable Indian would do, and proceeded to nudge the boy gently with her foot, once, twice, three times, in his little ribs, but to her dismay he didn't stir, just sighed and kept dreaming. At this point she really had to go, and was beginning to become alarmed. What if she really woke him and he woke his parents, assuming he had parents, and someone asked her a question, and—well, she had really become attached to being invisible. It was a first-time experience for her, and the maintenance of her invisibility seemed a delicate affair.
“Where did you adopt your beautiful little ones?” the obnoxious woman in line at the bank had asked her white, Canadian mother. She had been one of many with the same question. “Oh, they're mine actually,” my mother would say when this happened. “My
husband is Indian.” Indian had always just been the easiest, most accessible description the family could find, in spite of its inaccurate, oversimplified implications. “Oh! I'm sorry,” the woman had laughed. It had been a small town, a white town, and questions about difference were generally treated with more respect than difference itself.
Unlike the smooth, sterile, enclosed spaces that were the trains she knew in Canada, India had introduced her to a new kind of train: no wifi, no automatic doors, and wide open spaces at the end of most cars instead of closed doors; any child or traveling vagabond or dreaming woman could easily grip a side rail and simply hang out, into the wind, or cautiously dip her head into the fast-rushing air. Kashi reasoned that she could squat, and feasibly hang out backwards, while peeing onto the ground below. Observing the risks, this way and that, she wondered again in spite of her urgent need to pee where the woman had gone.
Breathing deeply, she decided not to waste another moment out in the open as she was, and she stepped over the sleeping boy to the wide, breezy open doorway at his back, adjacent to the bathroom itself. Although it was not in her nature to take physical risks like this one, she felt she had no better option, and told herself repeatedly to stop being afraid, shut up and just do what she had to. Just let it happen, she told herself. Aside from the sleeping boy at her feet, there was no one in her immediate vicinity. She wished again that he would roll away for a minute, caught in some dream. Sighing, she pulled down her pants in one deft motion, and then gripped the door's side rails with both hands while dipping her ass to meet the wind. She started to go, but it was splashing up onto the floor of the train. She kept going, and tried to lean out further, into the warm night, thinking how frozen her ass would be if she was in Canada doing something like this. She worried that the wind or a railroad sign might send her hurtling, but she held on tight as she'd ever held onto anything, and just pissed, squinting into the darkness as she went, as they all moved in the cover of night, to make sure no one was watching. She saw legs and arms draped, she heard rasping and snoring. Finally, she pulled up her pants and stood, steadying herself. As she was carefully manoeuvring back to her berth, there stood the woman, right in front of her. Her bruised face had simply materialized out of the darkness, directly in front of Kashi's. Kashi felt that the woman was looking right through her; she advanced even closer. But then Kashi blinked, and the woman was gone.
Back in her bed, young Kashi sat upright against the wall and tried to do something like meditate herself into nothingness, or sleep. She did not understand where the woman had come from in the darkness or where she had gone, and was made uneasy thinking about it. Slowly she drifted off.
When she woke up, it was happening again, that frozen feeling. She could not move her body, and tried in vain to snap out of it for ten seconds or more before total exhaustion took over, and it overpowered even fear. It was too much effort to fight. Remembering her father's advice, she reasoned to herself, if whatever is pulling me is stronger than me, then maybe I should just let it have me. Finally she let go, and felt a painless snapping sensation at the back of her neck. The next second she was floating and saw nothing but white. And then suddenly she was back on the top berth, sitting up, looking around. It seemed to have taken a few seconds. She felt more rested than she had in a long time, but realized with a start just how hungry she was, and that she needed the bathroom again. Her legs ached and she unselfconsciously flung them over the side of her berth, wiggling her toes. It was light outside, and there was a scene developing below.
The woman's seat was still empty and the man she had been traveling with took no note. He appeared to be travelling alone.
Carefully, Kashi descended, rung by rung.