Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

Lili’s Song

BY JENNY BHATT

In the early morning, as Lili and her parents start their Mumbai-to-Goa trip, a baby shrieks on the pavement across the road, a mynah scolds from a nearby balcony railing, and a dog howls at their hired gold-colored Ford Figo. In an hour or so, all such sounds will merge into a cacophonous chorus led by the added drone of city traffic, which they hope to escape.

Lili has been visiting India from a young age. But this vacation has come after nearly eight years and everything is new. Her hometown of Kalamazoo, Michigan seems like anylittletown, USA compared to this chaotic, shape-shifting home country of her parents.

Her mother throws a pursed-lips, side-eye combo look toward her loose white tank top.

“It’s August.” Lili counters.

“We’re stopping at a temple later. Your pink kurta is in my carryon. Wear that.”

Exhaling heavily, Lili notes, with some satisfaction, how the muscles tighten in the side of her mother’s neck. She knows that, by conventional Indian standards, she is no beauty with her frizzy hair, long nose, and thin lips. Yet, on this trip, men have been staring long and hard as if seeing female skin bared for the first time. This lustful attention has not made her as uneasy as it has her parents.

“Dad, can I drive for a bit?”

“Lilima, we’ve discussed this. It’s the other side of the road with a stick shift. And these people don’t follow any road rules or lane discipline.” His voice has a warning edge.

“But when we’re out of the city—”

Her mother cuts in. “I don’t drive in India even though I got my driver’s license here. Relax. There are more adventurous things to do.”

“Adventure” is the word they keep repeating. Her father had said: “One big family adventure, Lilima, before you start pre-med and will no longer be our little girl.”

Yet they have not stopped treating her like one, of course. Even as they expect more from her and tell her often how, growing up in India, they never had her opportunities. Their ever-growing hopes for her hang like a heavy tolling bell from her lonely neck.

The radio is tuned to old Bollywood songs about love—desired, thwarted, gained, or lost. In India, her father enjoys singing along aloud—throatily, off-key, substituting odd words and phrases with a humming like a hive of bees. Her mother, nervous from his jauntily aggressive driving, interrupts him frequently with a high-pitched chatter.

Ankhiyon ke jharokhon se

Maine dekha jo saanware

Tum door nazar aaye

Badi door nazar aaye

“I hope you didn’t pack the camera in the bigger suitcase. . . Oh, this was one of my mother’s favorite songs. . . But she could not stand the hero. Who was he?. . . The movie, I think, had the heroine singing so this must be a cover by some male singer. . . My God! What is that auto driver doing?”

Band karke jharokhon ko

Zara baitha jo sochne

Man mein tumhi muskaye

Man mein tumhi muskaye

Whether coy or overtly passionate, the poetic lyricism of these movie songs Lili has woken up to her entire life no longer impresses her. The end game is always the same: sex. Nothing so great about that. Everyone does it. And her own experiences over spring break have proven how over-rated it is. Romantic love, she has decided, is the most selfish because it relentlessly seeks acknowledgement and validation.

A Hindi news announcer begins to inform, in urgent, galloping tones, about the elections back home. Lili’s father clicks the radio off.

“Two sides of the same coin,” he says, his anger like a freshly bleeding wound. “She’s just the lesser evil.”

Lili cannot resist. “You voted for her husband. Both terms.”

“My father had this saying—If god blesses a donkey, it too can develop the power of a wrestler. Anyway, times are not so blessed now with all the layoffs, factory closures, jobs sent to China . . .”

Her mother says, “Let’s hope for better options when it’s your turn to vote.”

Lili puts her ear buds in firmly—her only defense. Her father’s rankling bitterness about the country’s economy, which he usually holds forth on with much more eloquence, is also their collective pain. It is why her mother will not be able to retire early. It is why Lili is not going to a better university of her own choosing.

The mere reminder is like a corkscrew twisting deep into her skull. Though she had managed a GPA of 3.5, her SAT scores had come in at 1200. And, though she had made the honor roll at high school, all it had gotten her was a gold sash, not scholarship money. So, she will be majoring in biology at a university less than fifteen miles away. Four more years of being their “little girl.”

The city falls away soon and they are on a coastal highway. Unsigned fishing hamlets go by, punctuated by long stretches of mangroves and casuarina groves opening straight into the Arabian Sea. Her father has switched the air-conditioning off and opened both front windows, letting the fresh, tangy air in. His juddering acceleration around the serpentine bends is making her dizzy.

A little past mid-morning, they stop in the town of Alibag at the ruins of a seventeenth century seaside fort.

She has looked up all the places on their planned route and, as they go across the pebbly sand, skirting the southern perimeter, Lili shares some of the fort’s history. With the waves crashing nearby, she has to almost shout out how it had been built during Emperor Shivaji’s time to fight against the British, Portuguese, and Siddi Abyssinians. All of them had been drawn to India’s western coast by stories of her treasures and beauty. The Muslim-sounding name of the locality had come later—after a rich Jew, Ali, who had owned and farmed much of the land. Coconuts and mangoes, mostly. Her own earnestness embarrasses her because she sees they are only half-listening.

Her father smirks. “A Jew called Ali. Made his riches off other people’s lands and labor. Shocker.”

Her mother sniffs. “Those Bene Israelis were big in the film industry at one time, you know. Of course, they all vanished after Independence, once their British protectors were gone.”

Their condescension makes Lili turn away. She stares at the weekend tourists herding behind them. A few feet from her, a young couple giggles into a phone camera as a wet breeze blows their clothes flat against their clutching bodies. She reserves her disdain for these self-absorbed pleasure seekers who show no purpose, no ambition, no bravery. That she, too, is presently a part of them makes her loathe the shallowness of such excursions more. The ancient invaders had come with great spirit and audacity, changed landscapes and cultures, and left enduring marks and legacies. They had mattered.

All at once, it is so beautiful, so intolerably beautiful—the intense blue-black of the sea, the rippled gold-brown of the sand, the silky mossiness of the rocks, and the solid gray-black of the fort. Her senses awakened, she aches again for some sign, some event that will allow her to finally understand what she is for. As if chasing some invisible target, she charges up to the fort gates.

Her mother catches up outside one of the fort shrines. “Okay, Lili? Missing home? Friends? Social media?”

Laughter trembles inside Lili. When Taahira, from the only other Indian family in their suburban neighborhood, had last visited Mumbai, she had instagrammed almost every moment: eating street food with bare hands in Elco Market, riding helmet-less on the back of a motorbike along Worli Seaface, smoking hookahs in posh Carter Road bars,  celebrity-spotting at Film City, drinking fancy coffees in Colaba cafes. It is just as well her parents do not know what her friends share on social media—if Lili tried it, they would likely see it as nothing short of an act of rebellion.

Now, even if she could, she does not want to explain that the shifting topography within her is not simply fluctuating hormones. That she wants, more than anything, to gather herself and find her own separate place in the world. But she has never bothered to master whatever rules apply to such deeply personal disclosures.

So she says, “No, Mom, I’m fine.”

After Alibag, Lili’s father hugs the coastline, zooming past small, unsigned villages. A few cows amble past and make him swerve so sharply that they bounce onto the embankment. Lili’s mother screams and Lili slides to the other end of the backseat despite the seatbelt.

The car will not get back onto the road. It growls, resisting the persistent pressure of her father’s foot, and releases deadly gas fumes instead. They all push but their sweaty hands slip against the scorching metal.

A ramshackle truck comes clanging and coughing down the road, with colored tassels swaying and high-piled, undulating cargo. Under the fierce, blinding sun, its painted psychedelic slogans, symbols, and iconography shimmer like an otherworldly vision. The driver brakes to a screeching stop near them.

Three thickset men leap out to peer at the family and the car. Thumping Lili’s father on the back, they make him smile grittily as perspiration drips from his chin. Handling the car as if it is a dinky toy, they get it off the grassy incline. Accepting the notes of money offered, they drive off.

Lili’s mouth is dry and raw. Slowly, the blood circulates back to her icy hands and feet. The stabbing sensation behind her eyes is from the thought that, if she had been the one driving as badly as the locals, they would have lectured her for being an irresponsible child.

“Quite the adventure.” A white-hot anger makes her voice quaver.

Going slower now, Lili’s father checks the GPS and says, “We’re near Korlai village. Let’s get lunch.” He takes a hand off the wheel to pat and stroke her mother’s clenched fist as if it is a small, injured animal. Lili leans back and closes her eyes, feeling the chasm between her and them widening further.

The restaurant is a tin shack and they are the only patrons. In the open kitchen out back, the shirtless owner steams rice and fries freshly caught pomfret. They eat with their fingers, swatting away fat, languid flies, which seem to prefer drowning to death in the thick, spicy gravy. The limp black bodies have to be picked out and tossed aside.

As they finish up, an old woman shuffles by with a grimy matted straw basket. Her faded green sari is draped, dhoti style, around each leg. Worn by weather and age, her skin is burnished near-black. Shyly, she tips the basket to show variously sized garlands of roses, marigolds, daisies, jasmine, and other flowers Lili does not recognize.

“Will you take a gazra?” Her grin is missing several teeth.

She loops a dense wreath of blood-red roses around Lili’s mother’s bun. Their sweet fragrance mingles with the lingering pungent smell of fish curry. She holds out a cracked mirror, nudging Lili’s mother’s chin sideways to show off her work. The gazra is almost the same hue as the rising blush on the pale face.

Suddenly, Lili sees her parents as people apart and separate from her. Not Umesh, her spectacled father and the engineering manager at an auto parts firm. Not Shalini, her compact-shaped mother and the accountant at a local credit union. But a woman blinking prettily at the man next to her as if to ask, “Do I please you?

After getting paid, the old woman sits on the floor, her basket in her lap. Stringing jasmine flowers together rapidly, she sings a repetitive verse in a remarkably clear voice.

Maldita Maria Madulena

Maldita firmosa

Ai contra ma ja foi a Madulena

Vastida de mata

The shack owner wipes their table and flourishes his mop-cloth at her. She glares and sings louder.

Lili’s father asks him, “Is that a Konkani song?”

“No. Kristi. Some still speak the old mixed Portuguese here. It’s about Maria Magdalena, the cursed, beautiful one covered with leaves. Or flowers, perhaps.”

As they get up to go, Lili’s father puts an arm around her mother’s waist and says, “Come on, beautiful one.”

Lili corrects him, “Cursed, beautiful one,” and walks on.

Close behind, her mother says, in a stagey whisper she believes no one else but her father can hear, “Let it be. She’ll grow out of it.”

I’m growing out of everything, Lili’s mind blazes, including you both. And it hurts like you will never know—all this growing out of things all the time and all too quick; all this not knowing why and what for.

For the next few miles, the music is even more jangly and jarring. She wishes she had fancier noise-canceling headphones. She considers asking for the volume to be lowered but knows she will be told to “adjust”. Her stomach is churning acidically. She needs to get off the viciously winding road.

They arrive at their next stop in an hour. Lili’s mother’s family has, through their Bollywood connections, arranged for them to check out a horror movie shooting at a palace. It is closed to the public, so this is a special favor by both the owners and the moviemakers. While they wait to be escorted in, her mother opens the trunk and pulls out the knee-length pink kurta.

Lili sighs, “Later. Please, Ma.”

She is saved from further bargaining by a white-haired man in a crumpled black shirt unbuttoned down his chest. He leads them through the Gothic-Mughal arches of the entryway and brings them to a far, dark corner of the main hall. He explains, in his rapid English, how they have completed blocking and lighting for the shot and are ready to rehearse for the first take. A young princess is to be told about her arranged betrothal to an aging prince.

“Terrifying,” groans Lili as he walks away.

She wants to share her researched trivia: how the present owner of the palace is a descendant of the original Nawab who had built it in the 1800s; how many popular horror movies of the 1980s had been shot there by the infamous Ramsay Brothers; how the palace used to be open to the public but was eventually closed off because of vandalism. But her parents are mesmerized by the set and the teeming activity in and around it.

At the center, a heavily made-up actress dressed in red and gold finery reclines on a four-poster canopied bed. Several of the people surrounding her are yelling at each other or at other crew members in the periphery. The princess has the fatigued expression of a caged creature who has given up on the possibility of escape. A couple of camera dollies loom nearby, trained on her like deadly weapons.

As they wait, Lili’s resentment is like a toxic, suffocating fog. What is so special about watching a B-movie being made? Standing in a hot, reeking corner as if they are B-grade people? Waiting in the sidelines of the imagined lives of others?

A megaphone calls for silence. Lili slips away into cooler shadows and up a marble staircase. On the first landing, a door opens onto a tiny balcony with a glittering view of Murud Beach. A few kilometers into the sea, there is yet another, smaller fort on a rock island. Little black boats drift about as if lazily circling prey. The lapping waves are a welcome respite after the noise below.

“Kasa Fort.” The white-haired man is beside her. “Shivaji built it to  take on the Siddis of Janjira.” Gripping the balcony railing with both hands, he emphasizes, “These Siddis.”

They look ahead as if a big scene is unfolding. A sea-bird glides by, crying out. Another one answers more insistently. Sunlight crisscrosses the frothy blue water like gold-edged darts. A trapped piece of driftwood knocks against a jutting rock as the tide draws in and out.

He clears his throat and says, “The people of this place have a story about a Siddi princess, maybe as old as you. The night before she was to be married to a prince she had never met, she came to this balcony for a signal from her Maratha warrior lover. He came in a fishing boat at night to steal her away to Padmadurga Fort, as Kasa was known then. But they were caught by the killedaar in the underground pathway connected to another fort, Sindhudurga. Before they executed her, she begged to be brought back to the palace, her home. They agreed and, the same night, left her dead on this beach. In the morning, she was nowhere to be found. It is believed she haunts the palace, coming to this balcony on Amavasya nights—not even a sliver of the moon is visible—singing for her warrior lover. And all the sailors come forward, dash their boats against rocks they cannot see, and die foolishly.”

“Oh, come on. Isn’t that clichéd?” Lili murmurs.

“Oh, come on,” he mimics her. “Isn’t life clichéd? We’re born; we live; we die.”

“Ha ha,” she says. “Also, the last bit is kind of stolen from Greek mythology. The Sirens were haunting sea creatures who enticed sailors to their deaths by singing.”

He nods slowly and asks, “The sailors dying makes you sad?”

Breathing deep of the salty air, she replies, “I’m sad for the Sirens—sitting, waiting, singing the same lament for Persephone. This was their endless punishment for failing to save Persephone from being abducted by Hades. They had no choice, no control.”

“Maybe they should have screamed.” His fingertips are like cool daggers against her back. “Go on. Try it.” And, as calmly as he had shown up, he is gone.

Something in her armor releases like a rusty old catch. She screams with full force, widening her eyes and mouth against the wind, until her throat hurts.

Downstairs, her parents are taking selfies with the actress. Watching her smile at their polite banter, Lili is surprised at how much younger she is than she first appeared. Barely, perhaps, a couple of years older than Lili herself. Did she choose this career, this life? Or is she a modern-day Siren: punished and fated to be as others want?

At the car, standing beside their own enlarged, silhouetted reflections in the curved windows, her parents seem, somehow, smaller and of lesser consequence. Lili finds this both unsettling and comforting.

The last part of the day’s journey is the longest. The narrow two-lane highway has rough stretches where, during an unexpected, pelting downpour, it is like navigating muddy rapids. Through the rain-soaked mangroves, Lili catches glimpses of the lashing sea. And the tall baobab trees along the roadside gaze at the world steadfastly like old, benevolent souls.

Her mother drowses while her father plays a zig-zagging game with a white BMW that has been tailgating them for some time. The sheer cliff drop on their side does not have any crash barriers. Lili chews her lower lip, carefully observing in the wing mirrors.

Stopping the car on the shoulder, he dodges vehicles from both directions to get to a coconut seller on the other side. After the BMW races past, Lili gets out to look over the cliff edge and nearly gags. A rotting odor rises from a mess of torn old newspapers, dirty plastic bottles, frayed chunks of tire rubber, maggoty remains of a small animal, glinting pieces of glass. The breeze churning up the silvery dark Arabian Sea does nothing to soothe her clamminess. There is a harsh cawing all around as birds gather thickly like black clouds overhead.

When her father sprints back with three large coconuts whose tops have been lopped off, her mother points out how he is not a 17-year-old like Lili. His response is to raise the coconuts high so she has to skip and reach with both arms to get one. They beam at each other.

His buoyancy throughout the trip has intrigued Lili. For the first time, she has become aware of how all their relatives admire her father’s escape from lower middle-class India to a more comfortable life in the US. In some way, he has enabled their beliefs that, when he had left at her age, a specific vision of his American future had impelled him, and that he has brought it to fruition exactly as foreseen despite many odds.

They drink thirstily with short, flimsy straws. The sour, metallic taste is like swallowing tears. Her father hurls his emptied shell at the seashore. Both Lili and her mother hand theirs to him and he holds each up, as a bowler might, before giving a smart spin and hard toss.

“Do you regret not having stuck with cricket?” Lili asks.

“I wasn’t so good, really.” He squints into the low sun. “Anyways, college-level cricket then wasn’t what it is now.”

“He chose a more practical option: engineering.” Her mother pats his arm as if to reassure him.

She seems different to Lili too. Beyond glowing in the reflected glory of her husband, it is as if she has also achieved the life she had intended when she had left India. Though she had married a stranger after meeting him once in a roomful of elders and moved to a country where she had not known anyone.

Lili wonders if she will ever see her own future path as clearly as the empty length of the highway stretched ahead now. Or, if she will submit passively to her parents’ dreams, which her father has shared in such detail with the gaggle of relatives they already think of her as a doctor. Or, if she will, like them, build her entire world around another person and, eventually, look back on decades of numbing, frozen Midwestern winters with their kind of assured pride.

At dusk, they reach Ganpatipule. Through the tall brick-red entry archway, the temple complex is a quiet, clean space with coconut trees casting long shadows everywhere. A thin stream of visitors meanders in and around the main building or dissipates onto the beach a few feet away. The temple is both imposing and impressive with many intricate wall carvings of glossy red Ganeshas in different poses, substantial pillars on either side, a cream-colored tiered and spired roof, and an elegant brass kalash topper.

They stand in the archway, gazing at the ornamental header where the pot-bellied Ganesha is flanked by his usual companions, the goddesses Saraswati and Laxmi.

Her mother mentions the pink kurta again.

Lili mouths a silent no.

“Do as your mother says, Lilima,” her father says.

Something explodes in Lili’s chest. “Let me decide! Let me choose! I am not a child!”

“Yet you act like one. Fine. Do what you want. But you’re not coming inside.” He flicks a hand dismissively and it stings her like a slap.

Hesitating first, her mother follows him in.

The sea roars out to her. As a child, it had mostly frightened her, so that she would run up to the waterline, feet sinking in the wet sand, then start shrieking as the tides surged up to her. Now, she rushes to it, wanting to be deluged, to be swept up along the crests, to be engulfed in the unknown depths.

In the dulling light, the sand is almost white against the waves which foam black as they tumble forward, then spray invisible mist as they break. She kicks away a limp tangle of seaweed. Colorful shells gleam like jewels. Seagulls with long wings skim the water serenely, then swoop toward the thunder-purple clouds.

Standing against a slippery boulder, Lili pulls wet, green clumps of moss from it. To her left, an emaciated man squats between two sitting camels. A girl, probably nine or ten years old, is in front of him. He is tying something to her ankles: red velvet pads with rows of little brass bells knotted into them—ghungroo worn typically by classical dancers. After making sure they are securely fastened, he tugs her long braid playfully. She takes a few steps back and begins whirling.

The ringing of nearly a hundred metal bells fills the peaceful evening air as the girl’s bare feet fly. Fine sand billows around her thin legs. Forming delicate mudras with her hands, she flings her arms out in emphatic, sweeping arcs. Encrusted with dirt, her skirt swirls and swishes about her slight body. Her hair comes loose and whips across her face. A dervish-like rapture lights up her whole being.

Though Lili is motionless, she feels like she has been tossed violently high into the sky. She thinks: this is important, this is the clue, this is how to begin. But she is not able to grasp at anything more just yet. The entire coastline is now aflame from the setting sun and its heat reaches to soften and ripen something deep inside.

When the girl comes to a gasping stop, the man hugs her, then helps her onto one of the camels. He sits on the other himself. The camels are prodded up and, leisurely, rhythmically, they go past Lili in single file. She considers reaching out, saying some words to the child, but it is enough to exchange glances as if they have always known each other.

Turning, Lili watches her parents, shoulders stooped and hands folded, on the pradakshina path—a clockwise orbital of the outside of the temple and the small hill behind it. Like fairy tale figures, they seem destined to forever retread the only course known to them.

Heading back to the parking area, she is drawn to one of the few stalls still open. Delicate stoles inscribed with Sanskrit verses flutter from the roof canopy. She is drawn to a white one with curvy black lettering, pays without haggling, and wraps it around her bare shoulders and arms. In this new armor, she swivels confidently toward the temple.

Outside the mandir, a larger-than-life brass statue of Ganesha’s favorite ride—a divine mouse—is upright on a stone pedestal. She remembers the story of how, if a prayer is whispered in the mouse’s left ear, he will take it to Ganesha and it will be granted. Slipping her shoes off, Lili approaches and places a hand on the statue’s oversized left ear when her father appears on the other side.

“You have to cover his right ear at the same time,” he says softly.

She nods and reaches over with her other hand.

When Lili is done, she feels her mother’s hand warm against her stole-covered back. “Go on. We’ll wait here.”

Entering the quiet, near-empty inner hall with its elaborate wall carvings, she sets the temple bells swinging and pealing. A childlike exhilaration—that she might choose to do anything, take possession of anything—lifts Lili’s soul so that her feet dance forward to a wordless song of her own.