Hey all! Remember when I said I was doing a reading? Well, the reading happened last Saturday and it was amazing. I was so honored to be amongst such passionate folks -- writers, listeners, and organizers -- that cared about disrupting stereotypic narratives of Bengali life and art. It was also amazing to be in the physical space where the photographs were being displayed; I lingered much longer than just the reading, talking to people and taking in all the amazing photographs.
It was a lot of work to write this new response piece to their work, mostly because I wanted to respect representations of people that I do not share experiences with, even if my work fiction. But in the end, I had a deadline and I had to take the plunge. For any friends and fans who couldn't make it to the reading, here is a recording of "Holding Hands," my piece in response to Taslima Akhter's photos of Bangladeshi garment workers and the Rana Plaza factory collapse. Recording credit goes to Kyla Cheung. Text below the jump, including a more formal introduction than the one that was read in the recording. I appreciate all of your thoughts over Twitter or email.
This piece will also appear in The Margins, a magazine published by Asian American Writer's Workshop.
I had a very hard time writing this piece. I spent a lot of time writing and re-writing, crossing things out and writing the same line over and over again. I have been thinking a lot about what it means to write about someone’s experience when it is not your own. I unintentionally gave myself a hard prompt when choosing Taslima Akhter’s work; her work very much affected me as I read and watched about the Rana Plaza collapse last year. I have lived in the US for the majority of my life and I only have a few family members that work in garment factories, most of my relatives still live in our home village. However, I think that one can be affected by loss and struggle regardless of whether they have direct lived experience. Intentions must be clear. And although intention does not always reflect consequence, I believe that creating more stories helps us to link ourselves to others’ suffering.
The old cotton bag was tucked away at the back of my closet with all of the other broken unfinished things. When one of my chachas brought it with him from home, I had already known what was inside, folded carefully with the pattern facing inward to keep it from wear.
I unzipped the liner; it was cool between my fingers.
I spent every winter break on the phone with my mother. All of my other seasons were claimed by school and my father. I had been marooned on this island for six years, ever since my father won the lottery for a U.S. visa and borrowed money to set up a shop in Manhattan. On the phone with my mother, I mixed in more and more English words with Bengali every year.
“You have to come back soon. I don’t know what you look like anymore, ammu,” my mother would say every time.
My father had framed a picture of her and put it up in the small entryway to our apartment, so that I would never forget. It was printed on plain paper in black and white with creases at the edges. But I never believed that the woman sitting there was my mother; the woman in the photograph never smiled and was forever a new bride with her hands folded and covered in mehndi.
My mother was maker of things. Her hands were small and thin and so dark that people would remark about the fairness of my skin in comparison to hers. They are very rarely still.
When I was younger, I wanted my mother’s hand – their creases and folds – but mostly their skill. She would come home and chop onions on the bhoti, and when the power went out and everyone lay down to sleep, I would still see the outlines of her hands bent over the blade. When I want to cut anything, I can only use a knife.
It was spring now and we had put away our winter things. It took me several days to go digging for the bag. I scrunched the fabric as I lifted the quilt and spread it out across my bed, just staring. My mother’s tiny thorough stitches zigzagged over the fabric in greens and golds. I traced my finger over the smallest leaf as it sloped upward, melting into the other leaves, these red and brown against the dark blue cloth.
I had seen the news from afar, in glimpses of articles sent around by friends and 15-second news clips on the British television networks. And then there were all the calls. My father’s friends calling to check in, chachas and chachis from all over the States, people we hadn’t seen since we first landed in New York. I would pick up the phone and immediately hand it over to my father, or send it to voicemail.
The day before we left Bangladesh, my mother had an accident. One instant her hands were moving lightning quick, chopping vegetables for our evening meal, and the next they were covered in blood. I don’t remember a scream. I only remember being eleven years old and feeling so small as I rushed over to her. She was looking at her hands like they had been severed from her body.
“I cut myself,” she said. Then she started laughing.
It frightened me, the whole thing. I rinsed her hands with a bowl of water and told her to keep still. I heard footsteps on the stairs outside, and called out. She was still laughing when my father burst into the room.
“Pagol! Tumi pagol!” he said to her, tugging her up onto her feet. He instructed me to get a towel as he helped her put on her orna and her shoes. I tried to follow them out the door but my father sent me back inside. I took out the only knife in the house and resumed cutting vegetables.
When they returned, my mother had stitches and her eyes were blank. She was no longer laughing.
“I didn’t feel anything. You were leaving, so I couldn’t,” she told me in one of our phone calls years later.
At a certain point, I could no longer ignore the death count. On the school computers, I scrolled past the graphic images of bodies covered by rubble and the calls for protest. I had spent all my time thinking that this was happening to other people, so I wouldn’t feel anything. Then I overheard one of the voicemail messages.
“She’s in the hospital. She hasn’t woken up,” my aunt shouted over the crackle of the telephone line, “Alhamdulillah.”
I ran my hands over the quilt until I reached the corner where my mother’s embroidery abruptly ended. There, piercing the edge of the fabric was a thin silver needle, still threaded and ready for use. I reached for it, then yanked my hand away. I stared as a small bead of blood rose on my thumb where the needle had pricked it. I began to giggle. I do not have my mother’s hands.
When my father came home and heard the message, he went into his room by himself and, despite his attempts to muffle it, I heard him sobbing through the thin walls. I wasn’t sure whether he was happy to hear that she was alive, or sad that she had not been given peace. I put my ear up against the door and listened for a moment to the sound of his breathing. I could hear him whispering “pagol, pagol, pagol” over and over again like a hymn.
From the entryway, my mother’s photograph stared at us both, waiting for her turn to speak.