“Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” This was what Shakespeare felt about life. But for me, life was fun and frolic, love and smiles until the green-eyed monster envy got a hold on me. Strangely enough, I was not jealous of any celebrity, but of my own sister whom I had not considered worth a dime.
I was unsure of whether what I did was right or wrong. But my decisions brought me here miles away from my home to an alien land, along with all my hackneyed beliefs and prejudices. Anyone would have been proud to get admission in an Ivy League University where I had landed by chance. Yet, I was not happy.
I was awed by the myriad cultures and multitude of the languages spoken by the students around.
A month had already gone by, I was unable to adjust yet. Being a self-opinionated person I had never taken the first step to friendship. I expected people to flatter me. Alas! Here I stood no chance of being considered beautiful or better than others. There was one more thing that intrigued me. How could these white people become friends with black ones?
That was the first long weekend of first semester. Most of the students had already left for their homes. I had an awful feeling of being left out. I couldn’t even tolerate my family enjoying without me. I was waiting for my cousin, who had promised to visit me. It was a beautiful day. A perfect setting for a perfect evening. Manicured lawns decorated with all sorts of flowers, tall pine, maple and oak trees. But nothing could cheer me up, I was in such a depressing mood.
Naomi, my roommate waved at me. She was going to spend her weekend with her parents. “Why don’t you come with me? You can stay with us.” l had a strong urge to accompany her but remembered mom’s warning, “Don’t go to any stranger’s house. You will invite trouble.”
It was sibling rivalry that had brought me here away from the love and care of my home. As a child, I was the chosen one, the darling of my parents. It was their indulgence that kept me vivacious and bubbly, full of fun. Whereas their apathy had turned my sister Meera, a sulking child, grumpy and distant. Mom was always apologetic about her in front of the guests as if she had made a mistake giving birth to her. “She is a little dark,” mom would say, “I don’t know whom she has taken after. Everyone in our family is so fair and beautiful. Just look at Mitali.”
It filled me with an immense sense of pride. I reigned as the uncrowned princess of the household. As a child, Meera had many complaints against me, “Mom tell Mitali to clean up the room. She has made a mess,” she would say but was scolded as mom favoured me. For her, I was a trophy, an achievement to be boasted. “Look Meera, don’t come to me with complaints. Can’t you do a little bit for your younger sister?” Poor Meera was let down at every step.
Meera tried to reason out with mom and papa. She shouted, cried, sulked, but ultimately settled down. She came to realise the futility of all this. Circumstances evolved her into a mature person. She buried herself in books and rarely spoke. Mom worried more and more about her reclusive daughter but never bothered to understand her.
I slowly turned into a narcissist. Proud of my beauty and a fair complexion. Openly making fun of my sister and likes of her. I was a bully at school, targeting vulnerable fellow students.
Years passed by. Meera had completed her schooling and was appearing for competitive exams.
As papa was scanning the newspaper for Meera’s NEET result, he couldn’t believe himself. “Meera,” he called her aloud, his voice ringing with disbelief and joy, “Come here child. Just see, is it your roll. no.?” She had got the seventh position in All India Ranking. Unable to believe, he bought all other newspapers available to be sure. My parents were overwhelmed at her achievement.
They had been unfair to their ‘unfair’ child, never realising her worth. Here she was – a long-neglected child – making them proud. I was proud of her but deeply jealous at the same time.
Neighbours, friends and relatives were now singing her praises. I was driven to the background. All eyes were upon her now. Seething with jealousy and anger I hated my sister more than ever. She got admission in one of the best medical colleges.
Mother’s behaviour towards me changed drastically, “What are you doing Mitali? Come help me. Don’t just keep staring at yourself in the mirror,” she shouted often. I cried to see the change in her attitude. That dark ugly girl had become her favourite now.
I realised how a little bit of praise, especially from the people you love could change you entirely. But because of my distorted sense of self-love, I had taken it in a negative sense. I thought I deserved it and was getting more and more egotistical each day. My hatred for black people increased. In my misplaced sense of justice, I held Meera responsible for all my ills.
Bitter at the favours withdrawn by my parents and friends, I almost grew evil. For me beauty was goodness. But now I had to prove myself. I started studying hard just to have revenge. My hurt ego wanted the attention back and I was ready to go to any length for that. Luckily I didn’t have any evil plan. I wanted to prove that I could beat her in any field. And I made it. I was able to secure admission in one of the best US universities. I was offered a scholarship also.
Mom was reluctant to send me but I insisted. It was Arjun, my cousin who assured them that everything would be fine. He was a research scholar at the University of Knoxville.
Arjun had promised to visit me that weekend, but he didn’t turn up, he called me instead, “Sorry Mitu, I won’t be able to come to meet you this time. I have to submit my project report on Tuesday.”
I panicked. Perhaps he was able to sense it, “Why don’t you come here?”
“What are you saying bhaiya, how can I travel all alone?” I retorted. Arjun laughed, “Now you will have to do it. It’s not all that difficult, I will book a seat on a chartered bus for you,” he said coolly.
I was still unsure of travelling alone in America. I was bewildered at so many different ethnic groups. In my prejudiced mind, I still had great admiration for the White people and an inherent dislike for the Black. I was afraid my instant reaction might offend people.
I didn’t want to look foolish or naive, so I decided to go to visit my cousin all alone. Arjun sent me e-tickets and instructions which I was to follow.
Trembling at heart, afraid to make a mistake at any time, I was ultimately able to board the bus from New York Bus Station to Washington. I stood in the queue waiting for my turn. I could see a motley crowd, speaking different languages which were alien to me. To whatever place they belonged, none of them jumped the queue.
My bus arrived. Both the driver and the conductor were black women. So huge that the driver was just able to fit in her seat. “There is nothing feminine about them,” I thought. I had never seen women driving buses in India and had no trust that I would be safe. I was literally trembling as I boarded the bus.
We were still inside New York City when police vehicles stopped our bus and surrounded it. Those were the days of terrorist activities and they doubted all Asians of being terrorists. I was sure that I would be taken in for being one. I could see all eyes focused on me.
It turned out that one of the glass windows of the bus had a minor crack that was detected by the cameras on the way. “This bus won’t go,” declared one of the officers. I was relieved that I was not to be implicated in any terrorist activity.
Another bus arrived. We entered and the journey was resumed. For the time being, I forgot my worries. Sometimes I wonder how our inherent fears and prejudices can mould our opinion about the other human beings.
The bus after moving through the city of NY sailed through a beautiful terrain of landscapes. At every step, I wanted to get down and enjoy roaming about. Entire way was a series of picture-perfect scenes.
By the time I reached Washington, night had fallen. Here we had to take another bus. I was allotted a seat in front flanked by two seats which were occupied by African Americans. I cringed at their touch. I had a revulsion to their dark complexion. Years of pampering by my parents and people around gave me the impression that the black was evil, while the white was virtuous. Fairy tales further convinced me that black and ugly were the monsters and fair and beautiful angels. Even the beast had to turn handsome to match the beauty.
The temperature inside the bus was very low, I was shivering. I couldn’t sleep for a long time but ultimately dozed off.
I woke up to a perfect morning. Heaven would not have been more beautiful than the scenario that opened up. Tiny houses dotted gently sloping hills. Lower ranges were covered with magnolias, red maples and all sorts of flowering trees. Higher ranges had undulating rows of pine, maple and oak trees. Fleece like clouds floated amongst the mountains. Mesmerised, I watched as nature unfolded itself.
But there were ominous clouds building up. Then everything was gone as if a huge stroke of brush had painted it all black. Passengers woke up with a rude jolt. That huge double-decker trembled like a dry leaf.
The driver tried and brought the bus to a standstill. It was already a ruin. Most of the people rushed out. A few came back to get anyone left inside. Strong winds threatened to carry everything away. The rain started pouring down, holding hands people tried to stay together.
It was a tornado that had brushed us, barely sparing our bus. It left a trail of destruction behind. When the rain subsided, people started moving one by one. I had nowhere to go. I had no way to inform my cousin where I was as I had lost his contact details. Would I ever be able to meet my family again?
As the tree under which we were standing was about to crash, a strong hand pulled me aside. I was terrified and resisted. That person put a hand over my mouth to stifle the cry. He carried me and ran towards a building that was being battered by the fury of the wind and the rain. He ran inside. I was trembling, “That was the end of me,” I thought. I imagined I would be raped and murdered. I tried to run out again. “Do you wish to die, missie?” he shouted.
It was a barn. Water was filling up in it. It was pitch dark. He seemed to be familiar with the place. He was able to find a few candles and lit one. In the dim light, I could see two horses trapped in their stalls. He carried me up and almost threw me on a haystack. Then he went down and brought both frightened horses up one after the other. I watched him while he coaxed the horses and calmed them down.
He was a co-passenger, who would not leave me out even putting his life at risk. I sat there crying and unsure. There was nowhere to go. I waited for my doom. He found some blankets and covered me. My fear subsided slowly. As I watched him struggling to help me and the horses, I started feeling safe.
“Can I help?” I asked reluctantly. The smile that lit his face was the loveliest I had ever seen. The danger was still not over, but his very presence was reassuring. I knew now that he was the kind of person who could not harm anyone. No longer a black monster, this man was an angel.
It was on the third day that the water subsided a little. In the meantime, he did everything that he could to make me comfortable. There was something pleasant about him. I forgot he was black. His tender care and gentlemanly ways won my heart.
A rescue team found us and we were taken to a camp where he made efforts to inform my cousin about my whereabouts.
Those three days were enough to mould my mind, fashion me into a person I never was. Those three days made me fall in love with humanity and goodness. That tornado sucked away all the hatred I had for the black people. Those three days gave me my best friend for life. Life was a dream once again. My mind was cleansed of a hundred and one prejudices that it had nurtured.
He was Nicolas. A man from Philadelphia.
“Who taught you to be so tender and affectionate?” I would often ask him. You looked like someone who needed protection,” was his answer.
Mom and papa didn’t relish the idea of my being friends with a black man.
Meera was glad. “Mitali, I am thankful to Nicolas. He did not just save you physically, but moulded you to a loving person. I now have a sister.” She laughed and bantered, “Mitu, don’t marry Nico if you do, your children we will be darker than me.”
I simply blushed.
Photo By: Sarita Khullar
(This is an entry in ArttrA-4, a room8 writing game at ArtoonsInn. We’d much appreciate you rating the story and leaving a review in the comments.)