A Change of Address
By Prinyanka Bhandari
When Mr. and Mrs. Lakshman picked her up from Detroit Metropolitan Airport, Amala was frail in appearance with a neck that hunched downward and lanky, branch-like arms that seemed to belong more appropriately on a banyan tree than in the shoulders of her feeble body. Upon her thin frame rested a dull grey cotton frock covered in pink designs of paisley. Her sandals were made of rubber with tiny specs of glitter embedded in the clear straps. Amala’s hair was dark and fine, stubbornly resting upon her cheeks, each strand finding a niche within the spaces between her ever-stretching eyelashes. No matter how tightly Amala tucked her strands behind her ears, they always crept back to the matte, young skin of her cheeks. It was everything Mrs. Lakshman wanted in a daughter’s hair, for her own extended past her shoulders in a thick, frizzy abundance she was unable to control.
Amala was nine years old when she stepped off her first plane trip and into the air of a strange country. When she was seven, her mother, a victim of the chikungunya epidemic, was unable to care for her, so Amala cared for herself, eating leftovers from fascinated tourists that took several pictures of her usual surroundings in the village of Kathara in Bihar. She often dreamed of what it would be like to one day carry a camera around her scrawny wrist and photograph Europeans and Americans as they waited for hot meals in comfortable establishments that served only bottled water, for any other kind was “practically poison,” Amala once heard a tourist say.
Sometimes visitors originally from India were kind enough to buy Amala a hot meal and maybe even candy afterwards. Once, a family who gave Amala a bottle of Limca left her with a travel pamphlet, which she eyed shyly throughout the time they spent with her. Her head bobbed up and down to steal a glance at the pictures as the father spoke animatedly with his hands, the pamphlet clutched securely in his fist. She was curious to see what it was that people from worlds away were venturing to Bihar to see. When the family left, Amala opened the brochure with such haste, she nearly cut her tender skin on one of the paper edges. Though she could not make out what was written, she viewed startling pictures of what she had known to be her homeland, only she had never seen places like this before. Stunning fortresses and ancient temples that boasted intricate carvings and unique architecture rested upon the folded panels of the travel brochure.
All she had ever seen was the old man with the prickly grey beard, walking around announcing, “mango fruity,” in hopes of selling some homemade refreshments; dried up banana leaves wading in the temporary streams brought upon by summer floods; her mother, wearing a yellow salwar kameez, leaning helplessly against stacks of bamboo and rubble, holding a dirty Styrofoam cup and pointing at Amala with pleading eyes upon the passerby. Perhaps she would never see what her home could provide for eyes that sought “culture and mystique,” as the brochure boasted.
But she would see what was across the expanse of water between continents she had heard about from the other kids that lived in Kathara. An American family wanted Amala to live with them through a program known as Bridges to Love. ‘It doesn’t sound like a maid service,’ Amala thought, using her narrow knowledge of the English language, but she was sure that was probably what they wanted her for–a house servant. It would be better than where she lived now, she decided, recalling what other children had said about America.
“You know, Um-rika has big, big buildings,” one said, wide-eyed, his expression full of wonder.
“And big schools,” another added. “More bigger than ours,” he said, nodding fervently.
The orphanage she had taken residence in since her mother’s death was hardly a “big building,” and its teaching facilities were modest; usually the children sat in a circle upon banana leaves for a few hours each day and rehearsed the Hindi alphabet.
But if she left, she knew she’d miss Neelkanth and Sandhya, with whom she’d discussed in some depth about what lay beyond Bihar, and who could collect the most empty Limca bottles before garmiyan, or ‘summer,’ as Americans often called it, was over.
Mr. and Mrs. Lakshman were silent most of the way to the airport. Mr. Lakshman thought to put The Best of Bollywood into the CD player, but decided against it, for he felt his wife’s mood didn’t agree with the upbeat temperament of the tracks. Mrs. Lakshman’s neck craned all the way to the right; her gaze rested through the passenger window onto the now blushing horizon, her meaty hands firmly kept in her lap atop her carefully ironed khaki skirt. Mr. Lakshman couldn’t tell if she was comfortable in this position, or if she remained this way to suppress the trembling nerves shooting through her plump fingers.
“We’ll probably need to take the toll way. I mean, if we want to get there before she lands,” Mr. Lakshman said, eager to interrupt the quiet that had unfolded throughout the car. He hoped Amala would have plenty to say, because it seemed his wife did not.
“Hmm,” Mrs. Lakshman responded in agreement, her tone soaked in indifference. He sensed a bit of emotion lodged in the center of his wife’s throat. He was quickly proven wrong, however, when Mrs. Lakshman said, “Whatever you think is best. You know this city better than I do.” She always managed to surprise him as far as her emotions were concerned.
Silence surfaced once more. This time, it was more aggressive, as the couple mutually sensed a need for mental preparation. Mr. Lakshman surrendered his efforts in trying to converse with his wife and focused on the upcoming signs that designated airport terminals.
When Amala stepped off the plane and onto the jet bridge, a fair-skinned female flight attendant with freckled cheeks and orange hair, secured tightly in the confines of a perfectly circular bun, escorted her to the arrivals gate. Amala wondered how the woman’s hair remained so neat during such a lengthy flight. Her hair would never allow her to restrain it in such a way.
“Who’s picking you up, sweetheart?” the orange-haired woman asked Amala, her tone sounding far too polite to be sincere.
“Auntie and uncle,” Amala responded as she was told to by the director at the orphanage. It was a simple answer that didn’t require Amala, exhausted and unfamiliar with English, to give much explanation.
“Oh, that’s wonderful,” the stewardess replied, apathetic, her glance somewhere in the distance away from Amala.
They walked a bit more, through the jet bridge until they reached the gate, complete with news stands, neon signs that read “Duty Free,” and weary vacationers making their way to baggage claim. Amala noticed a peculiar smell as she stepped into the airport, like that of burnt beans and warm milk.
“Well, there you are, dear. Enjoy your stay.” The woman then walked against the current of the crowded terminal, eventually trotting off to the restroom. Amala wondered if she was going to create a new hairdo for her next flight.
Mrs. Lakshman had imagined the day she’d pick up her child from the airport, much as any mother imagines holding her child in her arms after giving birth. Each time she envisioned it, she felt she would know Amala the moment she saw her. But as Mrs. Lakshman searched the faces of travelers hovering over luggage inching by on conveyer belts, she couldn’t make out anyone that might be her daughter.
Mr. Lakshman focused on technical worries: “We should take I-94 on the way back, that way we’ll be able to stop for food. She’ll be hungry, no?” Mrs. Lakshman wasn’t listening. She could only search for Amala. The rhythm in her chest now mimicked the footsteps of all of the travelers pattering across the grey expanse of linoleum in Baggage Claim C. She couldn’t see the girl anywhere.
But Amala saw Mr. and Mrs. Lakshman; she knew them immediately. She watched as the husband and wife stood still, their bodies calm; their eyes, however, circled about, frantically rummaging through their lines of sight for a girl they didn’t know, or perhaps even love yet.
As she watched them search for her, Amala began to miss her mother. It was strange, she hadn’t cried much when her mother died, but now tears–for her mother, her homeland, for Limca–dropped silently onto the linoleum floor. Her straight brown strands dipped into the moisture sliding down her cheeks, causing them to clump. She brushed them behind her ears as she walked towards the eager couple, now consulting with an airport employee, perhaps questioning whether the flight was on time or not.
As she moved along a pathway bordered by a wall of multicolored suitcases and duffle bags, she felt her hair creep out from behind her ears and back onto her cheeks.
She hoped they would like her.
© Sagebrush Review Volum IV Spring 2009