Bombay Water3 min read

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By Sabrina Mehra Furminger
Published in 16.1

Illustration of women in sarees

Amrita Bhua’s servant carried the tray of water glasses around the crowded room with the grace of a cat. He was Nepalese and lived with his parents and grandmother in Amrita Bhua’s kitchen; my father assured me this was par for the course in Bombay. The young servant’s eyes were emerald green and he wore short linen trousers and leather sandals. He was beautiful. The party guests plucked their glasses off his tray without paying him a second glance. He stopped in front of me and I claimed a glass, mumbled out my single word of Hindi—shukriyah, the rich and caramel word for “thank you”—and cast a shy smile in his direction. I had no experience with beautiful boys. He seemed baffled by my discomfort and darted towards the kitchen. Again I was alone in the crowd.

The gathering was a loud and raucous feast for us, the visiting Canadians. It was my first trip to India, and my extended family had pulled out all the stops: musicians; fragrant garlands of orange and white flowers; an intimidating buffet of spicy food. That same afternoon I’d perused tall stacks of sarees in a cramped boutique. The portly shopkeeper had asked me in broken English if I was Brahmin caste but I’d not known what he’d meant. “She looks like that because she’s half white,” Amrita Bhua had replied disinterestedly; the storekeeper had peered deeply into my face as if it held the answers to the mysteries of life. My cheeks had burned crimson but I’d kept mum. His loaded gaze was nothing new.

Now among my numerous aunts and uncles and cousins, my new saree was an ill-fitting costume. And as I waited breathlessly for the beautiful boy to re-emerge from the kitchen with his heavy load, I saw the truth of my whole life: no matter where I go in the world, I’ll always be diluted. I drained the glass with one swallow. I am alone here and everywhere. I took some pleasure in my wallowing.

Amrita Bhua appeared by my side. “Where did you get that glass?”

Immediately I was rattled by the edge to her voice. “Oh. I got it from … the boy with the tray.”

“Oh, no!” Amrita Bhua cried out in horror. “It’s tap water. I told him to serve Bisleri right from the bottle, but he forgot. You Canadians can’t handle the Bombay water.” She placed her right hand on my forehead. “Are you feeling alright? Does your tummy ache?”

“I feel great,” I replied while doubting my own ability to gauge how I felt.

Soon I knew the wrath of the Bombay water. Hours later, as I wretched over the toilet bowl in the hotel bathroom, I wrestled with the knowledge that I’d failed the beautiful boy, himself an outsider in the land where my ancestors had once tread.

I’d tattled on him, however inadvertently. Perhaps Amrita Bhua would discipline him. The subservience of his life—and the outrageous punishments I imagined—left me deeply ashamed, until it dawned on me that, with that profound sense of shame, I finally belonged somewhere. My shame anchored me to my ancestors, my culture, and this faraway land. I would never see the beautiful boy again, but to this day I see his emerald eyes whenever I close my own.

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