Words and art by: Amrita Ghosh
“One never knows who shares this journey of life with us unexpectedly.” A short story where two worlds wonderfully, albeit temporarily, collide…
She was standing just inside the corner of Maplewood train station in a bright purple shalwar kameez with her head covered in a black lacy scarf. A large red bag at her side revealed torn patches covered with Sellotape barely holding the open seams. Another larger brown backpack was set near her feet, spread open, revealing some items of clothing inside. She was heavy set, in her fifties, and had a funny gait as she walked towards the ticket machine where she began fumbling with it. Turning around to search for help, she spotted me, perhaps the only other South Asian at the train station.
I watched as she approached and I felt a slight trepidation that she was going to start talking to me. As she drew near she smiled widely, her eyes shining through her cloudy glasses. “Indian?” she asked, looking at me curiously.
I nodded my head and smiled back.
“Muslim?” she prodded deeper.
A bit peeved with her question, I replied almost in a whisper, “Does it matter?”
She smiled again, an unsettlingly large smile, which for a brief moment divulged a hint of a different personality. “No, just wondering,” she replied in perfect English.
“I need to get a ticket to New York. The machine isn’t working. Would you help me please?”
Somewhat frustrated, I helped her use the ticket machine and she thanked me profusely.
As she started walking away, I felt a sudden urge to start a conversation.
“You speak Urdu?” I asked in the native tongue.
Her face beamed and she replied, “Jee.”
I asked her if she was from India or Pakistan and she replied, “Na, Bangladesh.”
Surprised at her answer, I blurted out in my mother tongue, “You speak Bengali then?”
Her face suddenly changed, her appearance altered as if I had just revealed a glorious secret to her. She touched my arm and said excitedly in Bengali, “you too?”
Thereafter, we started chatting in Bengali, piquing the curiosity of the onlookers who were surprised by a woman in short hair and jeans speaking vociferously in an unfamiliar tongue.
It was an unusually hot day for New Jersey and the throngs of passengers at the train station seemed to have been lulled by the heat that afternoon. Faces gleamed in the sun in anticipation of the unfolding day, or perhaps just by the suffocating heat that engulfed us. The train whistled from afar, indefatigably indicating us of its arrival. As the station crowded with the approaching doppler sound wave of the train, she suddenly asked me nervously if I would sit with her on the train. I assured her and replied, “of course.”
“My name is Shireen,” she said, pronouncing the word in a heavy Bengali lilt. “What’s yours?”
I muttered my name in the proper Bengali intonation, surprised at its sound as I heard it aloud, so different from its anglicized version I had been accustomed to.
Sitting by the window, Shireen looked longingly outside at the departing platform and sighed, “Last time I saw my children, they were standing at a platform waving goodbye to me. It has been many years since then.” Her face had clouded and I was nervous she might cry. I wasn’t even sure she was speaking to me at this point, as she fell into a deep trance and continued speaking in a soft voice.
The unremarkable train ride to New York that I had taken many times before, suddenly turned into a magical space with the cadence of the train and Shireen’s soft Bengali words matching the rhythms of her story.
“I was born in the village of Isnapur in Bangladesh. My father passed for affluent and my grandfather owned many acres of land which he handed down to my grandmother. My mother died young of tuberculosis and my grandmother raised all of us, my siblings and I, with the help of our relatives in a joint family. I went to school where I did well, and I used to love reading Bengali poetry. Years later, when I was nineteen, I was married off to a man from Dhaka. He was much older than me but he gave me a good life. I had servants who brought me tea and cooked my meals everyday.”
Shireen turned from the window to look at me to make sure I was still listening and then, assured of my attention, she resumed her story.
“Then when I was in my early forties, my husband died suddenly from a stroke. I didn’t have enough education to get a high paying job that would support my three children. I didn’t know how to live anymore. I started working at people’s houses, cooking and cleaning for them, but the meager amount of money I made never seemed to be enough. You are educated and I am guessing you work in America, so you wouldn’t understand what I am telling you, na, but it was a different world then.”
I touched her hand, to ensure her that I did understand, thinking for a brief moment about my son and the divorce.
Shireen carried on with her story. “My sister was pretty. She was married to a very rich and educated man. He was studying medicine during those days and they moved to New York after some years and my brother-in-law started a gynecology practice in Jamaica, Queens. They applied for my green card some years ago and when it worked out I moved to America. Now I am here far from my children and fending for myself, but I can send money to them back home in Bangladesh every month. I take care of two babies in a Pakistani family in New Jersey, who give me one weekend off every month, and that’s why I am going to Jamaica to see my sister and her family.”
She paused briefly for few seconds, closed her eyes and said, “Life takes sudden turns that we cannot control, but god knew I could handle it and that’s why I am here.”
I was a bit startled at Shireen’s trust in me and I wondered if it was prudent to ask her why she had to work as a nanny in other people’s houses here in America when she could do the same kind of work in her homeland.
Perhaps sensing the question creeping up, Shireen prophetically turned to me and said, “There is more money here to save and send for my two daughter’s marriages and my son isn’t educated, so I have to make sure he is okay and has enough to get by. My sister always tried to help and still does sometimes. The family I care for are very kind to me and give me space to stay, but it’s still very hard. I save little money for myself, but it is enough to buy food and calling cards to Bangladesh. Sometimes, though, I stand and longingly look at the neatly stacked small cakes at Zaro’s bakery at Penn Station, yearning to buy them.”
As we sped into the tunnel, Shireen continued her journey into the past. She told me of the long acres of land her childhood home possessed, the feathery strands of white kash phool that bloomed everywhere and how much she loved to wade through them every evening at dusk while barefoot. She said, when she closed her eyes, she still smelled her house and her village, but she would never be able to return there. She stressed again that she needed to be in New York to financially help her three children struggling in Bangladesh.
The train was clearing the tunnel and passengers started getting up to walk towards the door. Shireen looked at me and said, “I kept talking about myself and I didn’t even get to know about you. What do you do, dear?”
I told her that I taught at a university and had a little boy. She quickly asked, “And your husband? Where is he?”
I replied as coolly as possible, already defensive and wondering what she would say next, “Nei. I don’t have one.”
Shireen looked deeply surprised and muttered, “You are like me then?”
Shireen’s response was something I didn’t see coming. Briefly taken aback, I asked her if she would like to come and visit my son and me sometime. She flashed a broad smile and brought out a greasy receipt from her red handbag, writing my name and number on the back.
When the train reached New York and we disembarked, a sea of people crowded around us and I quickly hugged Shireen, half embarrassed and half regretting that the journey had ended. She took my hands and looked into my eyes and said in Bengali, “I enjoyed talking to you today. One never knows who shares this journey of life with us unexpectedly. Thank you.”
On the noisy platform, I felt the touch of Shireen’s cold hands and shouted aloud in Bengali for her to hear me clearly, “Call me, you have my number. I will bring you to my home.” She nodded her head and raised her hand in a motion to say goodbye.
It was a year ago that I met Shireen on the Maplewood station platform. She never got in touch with me after that train ride.
Amrita Ghosh has a Ph.D in Postcolonial literature and has been a lecturer at Seton Hall University, NJ. Presently, she is a researcher at Linnaeus University’s Centre of Colonial and Postcolonial Studies, in Sweden.