Two personal essays are available to read here, Gratitude and Childen of the Maze. They were published in Five Points - A Journal of Art & Literature in 2011 and 2013.
by Edward Hower
I rub the back of my finger where the loss of my ring aches like a phantom limb. The ring was embossed with a gleaming silver quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala, and over the years I turned it round and round so many times that the bird was worn down to a ghost of itself. Now that it's gone, though, I long to feel the tiny beak and stroke the curl of its feathery tail.
Tonight, I'm staying in a hotel in southeast Asia, in the room where a maid or porter must have stolen my ring while I rushed downstairs late for an appointment.
Shaken, I remember the trip my parents and I made to Guatemala when I was eleven. After I developed a raw throat and broiling fever in the north, where the Mayan ruins were, they took me back to the capital city. From my hotel bed I heard my father shouting at the manager, Please—get my son a doctor! The manager, a chubby man in a tight suit, said he regretted my illness very much but the hotel physician, whose office was many blocks away, could not come because the army had ordered a curfew in the city. He added that the curtains over our balcony must please remain closed; its glass door looked out on a street close to the National Palace which had been targeted by rebel planes.
When he left, my father said, Does that little man think drapes can keep out stay bullets? Not that any're going to come buzzing our way! My mother begged him to phone the American Embassy to find me medical help. He dialed the number over and over, but each time the line crackled for a while and went dead.
She pressed her knuckles to her lips, staring at the closed curtains. As groggy as I was, I knew she was on the verge of tears not just because she was worried about my fever and the possibility of gunfire outside, but because she badly needed a drink. Earlier that afternoon, after green-uniformed soldiers had told the manager to lock the hotel's front door, I'd heard her plead with him to open the bar. The keys are right there! she insisted, pointing to a rack behind his desk. She winced as if jets of gritty wind were blowing against her eyelids.
The manager—SR. FERDINANDO, according to the brass plate on the counter–didn't reach for the keys. The barman is not able to come in, he said, and I must stay at my post–I am obliged to think of the safety of my guests! He kept mopping his face with a handkerchief. Madame, I can not even learn if my own family is safe!
My mother started to complain again, and I expected my father to yell at her to shut up, but he just gripped her elbow and guided her upstairs to our rooms. At home I'd sometimes told her to shut up, myself, when she tried to cajole me out of my sullenness. But after she put me to bed here, I was aware of her hand trembling as she stroked my forehead, and for the first time ever, I felt very sad for her.
Then the moment passed. I was aware mostly of hot coals blistering my throat. The rumbling of heavy vehicles in the street reminded me of faraway thunder, as if I were lying on an island in the eye of a storm. I did know something unusual was going on outside this overheated space I shared with my parents; whatever it was intensified their urgent voices and shadowy movements around me. My father's shouts into the phone–The boy's running a temperature of 104 degrees! Can you hear me?–were both alarming and reassuring. He was ordinarily a severe, distant man; I hadn't heard him sound so upset about me before.
I'd never known him or my mother very well. They lived in the main part of our sprawling country house while I occupied the wing off the kitchen with my nanny-cum-housekeeper, whom I called Miss G. From our two rooms there, the old servants' quarters, we often heard my parents shouting and slamming doors late into the night. Miss G complained that our “cells” were cramped and dreary, but to me they were safe, cozy caves.
One day, when I was eleven, I came home from school to find our doors locked. My parents had dismissed the woman who had loved and raised me. Afterwards, they let me phone her every Sunday, but we both cried so hard we could hardly speak to each other.
For over a year, as they tried to take over my upbringing, I did my best to make sure they'd fail at the job as disastrously as Miss G had warned me they would. My father took me to the country club; I refused to jump into the pool with him. My mother bought me books and toys; I flung them into the back of the closet. Now I had to eat meals in the dining room with my parents and sleep in a new bedroom upstairs from which I could hear them arguing about what on earth they'd do with me.
Once at the top of my class in school, I started getting F's–except on one paper about the ancient Mayan Empires. My father asked me if I'd like to visit Guatemala to see the actual Indians. I said No! and started tearing up the paper he'd barged into my room to read. He slapped my face so hard I bounced off the wall. I was too surprised to cry; the tingling in my cheek almost made me laugh with relief. My father helped me pick up the scraps of paper, both of us out of breath.
My mother worried about whether going to a place like Guatemala could be safe. My father assured her that, though its government was communist-leaning, President Eisenhower, who'd won the war in Europe, wasn't going to let any troublemakers bother U.S. citizens in some tiny Latin American country. And if we were careful about what we ate and drank, we'd stay perfectly healthy. My mother relented. When I refused to pack, she stuffed my new suitcase with clothes, including mismatched socks and long-outgrown shirts.
Having learned from Miss G to be sly around my parents, I kept up a silent defiance in northern Guatemala by sneaking away from our hotel to gulp down the strictly forbidden syrupy drinks that local people sold from roadside carts. Eventually, though, I grew fascinated by the old temples and the villages where Mayan Indians in brightly dyed cotton clothes came out to greet us. My father and I had something to talk about other than the problems I was causing at home. In one town's market, I admired a ring with a silver bird on it; my mother offered to buy it for me. I shook my head. But the old man who'd made it said the bird, a quetzal, was a powerful Mayan spirit; when he reached out to slip the ring on my finger, I raised my hand toward it.
Crack! Crack! I sat up in bed, rubbing my eyes. Crack! The noises reverberated from the street below the balcony. Are those guns? I croaked.
My father lowered the phone receiver and turned to me. No, no–store owners here slam big metal blinds down over their windows when they close for the day, he explained. That's all you hear.
But it's too early for them to close! my mother said.
The merchants are probably just worried about some…rumors or something. My father's eyes weren't shiny like the manager's, but they had a similar worried glint. Señor Ferdinando had almost no hair; my father's was thick and gray. I've never seen it uncombed before. He stared down at the phone receiver in his hand as if it were a useless dog's bone. It's outrageous! I can't get through to our own embassy!
More heavy blinds hit the sidewalks. I felt like whimpering with each crash but that would have hurt. Turning my ring round and round on my finger, I waited until the street outside was quiet again. The raw swelling in my throat made my breaths come out in scratchy moans.
My mother leaned over me, a thin-faced woman with frizzed grey hair, her forehead deeply lined. Can you open your mouth? She asked me, and I did. She dribbled some liquid down my throat from a tilted cup. It jiggled as her hand shook, splashing my lips. Later I learned that it contained water mixed with some crushed morphine tablets Señor Ferdinando had given her. All I knew then was that my pain was drifting away and my bed had turned to a soft raft floating on a sea whose warmth I could feel rising through me.
My parents and I had adjacent rooms containing two beds each; now my mother and father took turns watching me from the extra bed in my room. During her shift, my mother lay on her side, staring blankly at the closed curtains the way she sometimes did at home when she spent days in the chaise longue in her room refusing to come out. When my father took her place, he sat up against the bed's headboard with his stocking feet resting on the blanket. I'd never seen his feet in anything but black shoes or tennis sneakers. Changing shifts again, my mother and father spoke in phrases that hovered in the air like streaky little clouds.
told you we shouldn't have risked bringing him here, Ralph. Now look what
but things were going so well in the north. You said so yourself, he
I kept hoping and hoping. Oh, why do things always have to go so wrong
dammit, he was finally talking to us, Marion! He was smiling, eating and
A grinding sound cancelled out their words—the big fan on the bureau clunked to a halt. A whirling circle of wind had become the petals of a caged, steel daisy.
all we need! Can't you do something, Ralph, my God it's too hot to
My father sucked in his breath and strode out of the room. I waited to hear the door slam but it hung somewhere between wide open and closed.
The morphine freed my mind from being continually scorched by pain, and my thoughts seemed to come from somewhere outside my body instead of from inside my throat. Ever since we'd arrived in Guatemala, I reflected, my parents had fought less and less. In the north, I'd watched them walk around the hotel patio together, leaning down to touch the flowering bushes whose eager colors splashed over the walls. Here in the capital, they agreed that the park was a pretty place to walk in, that our hotel was charming.
I'd liked the hotel, too, before I got sick, especially its wood-paneled library full of big, dusty books in Spanish with drawings of armored conquistadores fighting feathered savages. Just at five o'clock my mother carried in her drink from the bar and, with the ice cubes clinking softly in my ear, looked at the pictures over my shoulder as I turned the pages. Then she sat in one of the overstuffed chairs facing me, smiling faintly. The piney scent of gin and the room's beige warmth lulled us into a peaceable silence.
Following my father, Señor Ferdinando came back to our room to see about the fan. Beads of sweat trickled down his plump cheeks like tears. I'd once read a book about a Spanish bull named Ferdinand who preferred smelling flowers to fighting, and now I pictured the manager as a hornless bull in a tight suit. But I liked him; he always smiled at me in the lobby, even after my mother had screamed at him.
Electricity is not functioning in the hotel at present, he said.
My father clenched his fists. But you must have an emergency generator!
I hoped not. Years before, one winter while Miss G was away on her vacation, a storm had knocked out the house's electricity and I'd slept wrapped in blankets in front of the living room fireplace beside my parents. For several days and nights, they didn't shout or slam doors. My mother cooked on a grate over the flickery logs while the wind howled outside the windows. My father whittled a piece of kindling into a long fork so I could turn bread into toast above the low flames. It was an adventure, like being marooned on the Swiss Family Robinson's island.
There is no generator, Señor Ferdinando said to my father.
It's too goddamn hot in here to keep those curtains shut.
My mother patted the air with her palms. We know this is difficult for everyone–
Right–let's just try to stay calm, my father said. This whole thing's going to blow over in a day or two and everybody'll forget it ever happened.
Isn't there a doctor… My mother spoke very slowly to Señor Ferdinando to make him understand. …close to the hotel?
The manager frowned. There is one certain doctor. But we do not like to call him.
Why not? My father demanded.
For heaven's sake… My mother's voice trailed off as she stared at the manager's face.
I understood only a little of what he and my parents said next, but the tone of their voices alarmed me.
The doctor lives across the street from the hotel. Señor Ferdinando's voice was almost a whisper. That man…he came to this country from Germany years ago, after the war. It is known…that he worked in the extermination camps.
The rumbling sounds from the street grew louder. My mother pressed her knuckles against her lips. My father shook his head over and over.
Among the few things I knew about my parents were what they'd done in the wars. In the first one, my father's bi-plane had been shot down on the German border and he'd been dragged away from the wreck with a smashed leg. During the second war, he worked for the government in Washington, and my mother, wearing the uniform of the Red Cross Motor Corps, drove sick servicemen from troop ships to hospitals near our home in Connecticut. I still remembered a summer afternoon when she'd stopped to rest for a few minutes at our house; I'd climbed onto the running board of her brown station wagon to peer through the window. Two shirtless men were lying on cots in back; I could see their chest-bones almost poking through their skin, their eyes bulging out of deep hollows. I screamed until Miss G grabbed me away. She told me years later that the Germans had shut those two American soldiers up in camps just like Jews and then forced them dig huge tunnels, day and night, with hardly anything to eat. I had no idea what Jews were but the thought of working in dark tunnels gave me nightmares.
I don't know…what to do, my father said. I'd never heard his voice sound so shaky.
I don't, either. My mother wiped her eyes.
Is he a good doctor? My father asked Señor Ferdinando. I don't mean good, I mean…
Patients come to his office. This is all I know.
My mother sat down hard on the side of my bed. Maybe we'll have to a take a chance.
My father leaned over me. But listen to how much better his breathing is.
That's probably the morphine. My mother's fingers rested on my forehead. Are you awake? How do you feel?
I feel… I was still floating on the raft. All I knew for sure was that I was terrified of seeing a German. I feel… okay. Honest, I… My throbbing throat blocked my voice.
His forehead's burning, my mother said. We can't wait any longer–
A rattling sound crashed into the room—stopped–started again even louder. I heard rapid clatters–faster and faster—like an enormous swooping can of nails shaking furiously overhead. The walls vibrated, the air rippled. A copper lamp crashed to the floor, rolled over and over, slammed against a bureau.
I must have blacked out. When my eyes blinked open, my mother was wrapping gauze around Señor Ferdinando's wrist. A bullet had flown through the glass balcony door and the curtain, grazing his skin. On the bureau a small metal box was open: my mother's Red Cross first aid kit that my father had laughed at her for bringing. Now he had a dazed look on his face as he watched her bandage Señor Ferdinando. I'd never seen her do anything like this, and perhaps he hadn't either.
When she'd finished, the manager stepped back shakily. Pebbly pieces of glass sparkled at his feet, and a lot more lay like tiny ice chinks beneath the curtains. The heavy cloth had kept the glass from spraying all over us.
My father took Señor Ferdinando's arm. They stepped toward the door, speaking in low voices.
It's night. A hush has dropped over the room. My throat burns again. The room is very dark. Then candle flames flicker close to my bed. A piney gin scent blows softly over my face, my mother's breath. She's trying to smile, though her lips are tight at the corners. Beside her, my father's face glows in the wavery light. At the edge of the darkness the bald dome of Señor Ferdinando hovers like a planet.
Between my parents, a stranger's face comes into partial focus. He has veiny cheeks and white eyebrows that sometimes give little jumps as if they're alive. Below them I can't see the eyes but I feel the man's gaze. Around his neck hangs a stethoscope whose twin tentacles glitter.
Do not be frightened, my boy. His tone is jovial.
I see a shiny hypodermic needle approach out of the darkness. It pierces my skin and shoots some heavy fluid deep into my arm. I shudder as an ache begins to spread through my muscle. Then the feeling fades because the red-hot coals deep in my throat seem to be screaming.
My mother grips my wrist. It's all right, it's all right…
Shall we give two injections? The doctor snips his words off at the ends as if with scissors. I think so. The swelling of the throat must be reduced immediately.
Is it safe to give him so much? My mother's voice is a whisper in the darkness.
What's that drug you're giving him? My father asks.
This is quite a new medication. Penicillin. The doctor's eyebrows jump. It is being called a miracle drug. Without it, your son–
Yes, give it to him!
Another prick, this time in the other arm, and the ache spreading.
The doctor nods at me. You are a brave boy.
I croak, Go away…
His face rises.
Señor Ferdinando's dome disappears. His footsteps fade across the room.
As I begin to doze off, I hear the doctor talking.
serious strep throat. The symptoms very much resemble trench mouth
soldiers in the trenches…. My father's voice is faint. Some of them even died
oh yes. But nowadays such diseases are found only in these backward countries, with sanitation of Indians so poor, contamination of water
but we were always so careful
did the boy take the sweet drinks they sell on the streets
I push my face into the pillow. My thumb presses the outline of the bird on the ring. Behind my eyelids, the candles flicker for a moment until I sink into darkness.
Sunlight stung my eyes. Near the open balcony doors, a small dark woman in a blue uniform squatted to sweep glass flakes into a dustpan, a crunchy sound. On the bed beside me, my mother was sprawled in her grey suit, one bare foot hanging over the edge, jiggling fast.
It was night when I next looked around. My father sat up on the bed where my mother had been, his socks pushed into the blanket. The fan whirred again, the bedside lamp blazed. My parents whispered. I heard my mother crying. My father stood close to her with his hand on her shoulder. Palms pressed my forehead again and again. My mother lifted my arm, my father slid a thermometer into my armpit.
What does it say?
My father paced. The ice in my mother's glass clinked close to my ears as if she were trying to cool me off.
It was morning. I sat up, blinking. The pain had just about gone from my throat. I could swallow again! My father took my temperature and held the little rod up to the light. Ninety nine! Look at that!
My mother grabbed his arm. My God, it really was a miracle drug!
Can I get up? I asked her, my voice still scratchy but loud. I want to get up now!
That evening I was able to dress myself and walk down to the dining room with my parents. The floor was wobbly under my feet. I looked for Señor Ferdinando at his post behind his desk, but he'd disappeared.
At breakfast-time the next morning, he was still missing. I felt bad that I'd pictured him as a timid bull. At lunch, he wasn't behind his desk, either, and I was afraid I might not see him before we checked out. The idea of going home depressed me, and I wanted to hide in the library looking at picture books. My parents decided I could stay there while they packed, if I promised not to go anywhere else.
As I flipped pages, the air felt heavy. I grew terribly restless. The drawings, mostly of old battles, scared me now. Dizzy as I was, I tiptoed across the lobby and stepped out the hotel's door onto the sidewalk, taking big breaths of fresh air. The city seemed almost deserted. Buildings looked scorched in the sunlight's glare.
I found myself in the small park where I'd seen Indian men and women sitting with their children on the grass and selling things from carts. They were all gone. Traffic noises were faint. Two gray-uniformed soldiers with rifles passed me, their boots thunking on the path. I held my breath; they didn't notice me. I approached a fountain: a statue of a robed woman pouring a continuous stream of water from a white pitcher into a tiled pool. I reached out to feel it splatter into my palms.
Wandering away from the park, I walked across an expanse of asphalt in front of the National Palace, a huge building with columns embedded in the façade and high, dull windows. I didn't notice that all of them were broken until I felt glass crunching underfoot. Shards of it were everywhere, glittering sharp as smashed ice. I felt precarious, as if I were crossing a frozen surface that was about to crack open beneath me.
Looking up, I saw my parents hurrying in my direction, and glanced around for somewhere to hide. Then, suddenly, I started waving to them with both hands. They had trouble walking on the glass, too, my mother gripping my father's arm. But they kept coming. They tottered on either side of me, my father steering me back to the solid ground of the park. I felt my mother trembling, though not the same way as she had days before. It occurred to me that she was frightened, and I stood straighter so that she could steady herself against my shoulder as she walked. In the park, we sat on a wooden bench beside a path.
Why did you leave the hotel? my mother asked.
I just needed to leave that room, I said, meaning the library. I wanted to see what had happened outside.
It's all right, Marion, my father said. The boy was curious.
It would have been cleverer to say I was sorry, but I wasn't. Are you mad at me, I asked them.
They glanced at each other and at me. Then, amazingly, they shook their heads.
I wish I could say that after we returned home, we stopped fighting and became a close, happy family. We didn't, but we did try, and I recall a period of détente—an island in time—when we talked calmly at the dinner table nearly every night. Occasionally we spoke about our escape from the revolution in Guatemala; my father assured us that shoot-ups like that were always going on in little banana republics. We never mentioned the doctor who'd come to my room. Soon I went away to boarding school, and then to college and jobs overseas. I saw my parents seldom, avoiding political discussions whenever I visited. We stayed in touch over the years until they died.
After the loss of my ring, I suddenly need to look up information about Guatemala on my laptop. With a few clicks, I find documents that weren't released for many years after the revolt. They report that the aerial machine-gun strafing I heard that afternoon in the capital was the start of an American-orchestrated coup that deposed the country's last democratically elected government and installed a series of dictatorships that secretly carried out what became known as “the silent holocaust.” Over 40,000 people were caused to disappear. Had our hotel manager been among the first? Over three decades, regime after American-backed regime carried out the extermination of at least 200,000 Mayan Indians.
Is there any way for me to fit into this history the night when my parents saved my life by calling in a Nazi doctor who had been part of an even more widespread genocide?
All this time later, I still recall the ache of the miracle drug spreading under my skin. Instinctually I reach for my ring finger to calm myself. Then I have an angry impulse to phone the front desk and report the quetzal ring missing from my room. But I don't, because I'm staying in a country in which any hotel employee accused of stealing from a United States citizen will be beaten senseless in a police dungeon, perhaps never to be seen again. Even in my silence—especially in my silence—I feel I am implicated in such scenes that occur in police facilities all over the world, everywhere that my country's influence is as powerful as it was on the evening when American-trained pilots opened fire on Guatemala's National Palace.
I think the best that I can do is clarify my own memories of the country, where the people are finally struggling to bring to light what happened in their cities and villages years ago.
Most of all, now, I want to picture the day when the three of us—my father and mother and I—are resting on a bench in the capital's park. Tree branches make a patch of shade for us. The air is hushed, warm. I smell wet grass around the fountain's overflowing pool. Up a path comes a clanking sound. Some men, followed by women and children in brightly-dyed cotton clothes, push wooden carts on which candies, cigarettes, and bottled drinks are arranged. I watch them go by, the carts' metal wheels bumping on the hard-packed dirt. Leaning back, I sit between my parents and listen to their quiet voices rise and fall as the water splashes in the fountain.
Children of the Maze
by Edward Hower
Walking up the driveway to Jaipur's prison complex, I recalled shadows of similar places falling over me, and nearly turned back. Then behind a window I saw a woman who must have been the social worker I'd contacted about my visit. A blurred figure, she seemed to be pressed against the heavy glass as she stared out at me. I stepped up to the main gate. A buzzer rasped, the gate's steel teeth slid sideways; when I'd stepped inside, it clanked shut behind me, making the floor shudder beneath my feet.
Mrs. Romila Sharma and I exchanged stiff namasté greetings, each pressing palms together. Her supervisor had ordered her to take me around, she said in a weary voice. In focus now, she looked alarmingly thin, and too young–30 at most—for the gray streaks in her hair. Her pale blue sari was gathered around her so tightly that her movements made only faint whispers.
“I'm very new to this posting but I will try to show you….” She narrowed her eyes at me. “Professor, what is it that you are looking for here?”
In my letter to her supervisor, a friend of one of my colleagues at the University of Rajasthan, I'd said I hoped to explore research possibilities for my Fulbright grant, and offered to teach English to make myself useful here. I'd written about my experience teaching in prisons, and the five years I'd spent counseling delinquents in reform schools a decade ago. Suddenly I missed those kids, and for a moment felt a rush of old worries that I might have caused some of them more harm than good by intervening in their lives. The taut, wary look on Mrs. Sharma's face reminded me of an expression I'd often seen in my mirror during my own years as a social worker.
“I'll be interested in anything you can show me,” I said, wishing I could have been clearer.
“Yes, all right.” Adjusting her sari at the shoulder, she walked ahead of me down a long, twisting corridor. Somewhere farther inside the prison more gates crashed shut; I felt metallic echoes gust against my face as they rushed through the tunnels. Some guards marched past me in khaki uniforms with képi-like billed caps; they reminded me of soldiers at the desert fortress in Beau Geste, the old film about a French Foreign Legion outpost.
We were in the men's detention area, most of which, as a woman, she couldn't take me to. A few prisoners, wearing gray drawstring pants and sleeveless gray shirts, kept their eyes to the ground as they passed us. Inside an empty barracks, double-decker beds were neatly made; the scoured floors gave off a dizzying tang of ammonia. The convicts were at work now. We walked outdoors and crossed a sandy courtyard to the factory. Like the other buildings, its high crenellated roof-line was topped by coils of razor-wire like elaborate man-traps. Through a window, I could make out men at benches assembling what looked like office desks. Along the wall, massive robotic machines clattered as if in a frenzy to bash their way out. The entrance was locked, and the racket swallowed the sound of Mrs. Sharma's small fist rapping on the door.
“They tell me I am to show you this building–then no one will let me in!” Scowling, she wiped beads of sweat from her face, smudging the dark mascara around her eyes.
“Never mind, I can see fine from here,” I said. The sun's glare was blinding; I shielded my eyes to squint inside. “The conditions look pretty good.” This was true; I wasn't just trying to cheer her up. An article I'd read about the notorious Tihar Jail in Delhi reported that over 12,000 men awaiting trial—“undertrials”–were kept in unspeakable squalor.
“I should take you to my work area, but I've never gone to it from here. There are so many corridors and courtyards!” Mrs. Sharma swayed in place. Then she led me back into another long, dim hallway. Our footsteps echoed out of sync. The deeper we went into the maze, the hotter and closer the air felt. A reek of disinfectant gradually gave way to a strong odor of smoke and spiced food that made my eyes sting. Mrs. Sharma paused at an open door. “The mess hall's kitchen,” she said.
Two prisoners, their bare chests glistening, stirred a cauldron of brownish stew. Other men wielded huge spatulas to scoop rotis–discs of bread–out of a wood-fire oven, an iron furnace that blasted red-tinted heat into the room. Through an inner doorway I saw about a hundred men in gray file into the mess hall. They gave off a low, collective murmur like the approach of rolling boulders in a subterranean cavern.
A kitchen worker in an apron approached me. His eyes bulged, his hollow cheeks looked sanded down to the bone. A burly guard in khaki tried to push him away. The prisoner didn't budge.
“Who are you?” He squinted at me, his jaw thrust out.
“I'm a teacher,” I said.
A gap-toothed smile cracked his face. “Years ago, a meditation teacher came! He made my mind so much at peace!” Suddenly he grabbed my wrist in both hands. I started, frightened. But his grip was light, and I recalled the way my American prison students had shaken my hand good-bye after each class, just wanting to touch someone from the outside world.
The guard gave the man a sharp prod with his truncheon. He let go of my wrist, but held me with his gaze a moment longer. “You want curry,” he said.
The guard tensed. Mrs. Sharma was at my side. “You don't have to eat!”
Hesitating, I wondered what I was being invited to put into my mouth. Then I said, “I'll try it.”
The man went to the stove and returned with a metal bowl. I used a folded roti as a spoon and took a bite. The food was unexpectedly tasty, better than I'd eaten in most American institutions. When I told the man this, he beamed proudly and strode away.
The guard, glowering at me, took the bowl. I'd made him look bad by accepting it from the prisoner. Pay-back time. “You liked this curry?” he asked me. “That convict, the cook—he was chef for big restaurant. Do you know why is he here?”
I had to lock my jaw to keep from smiling. “Okay, tell me.”
“Poisoning,” he said, and walked out of the kitchen.
The social worker stood beside me again. “What he told you,” she whispered. “I don't think it can be true.”
“I know. It's an old joke–what visitors get told in places like this. I didn't know it was international.” I saw her brows tense; she wasn't amused. “It's all right, Romila!” I said, then wondered if I should have used her first name.
I walked with her out to the corridor again. Her sandal heels clicked rapidly along. “If that man wasn't a chef,” I asked, “what was he?”
“He is Munji Bhil–the leader of a famous gang of dacoits.” Gradually she slowed her pace.
Dacoits, she said, were bandits who lived in desert ravines and ambushed camel caravans, leaving behind many dead. They also stopped trains by rolling tree trunks onto the tracks. When the locomotive crashed into them, derailing the train, the dacoits would leap aboard, guns drawn, to rob passengers—just like the Wild West in America. Munji Bhil had also been a smuggler. He trained his camels to out-race the mounted soldiers across the Rajasthan desert as he carried gems to Pakistan. He brought back raw opium as well as wagon-loads of cameras, video players, and other Western luxury items; because of India's trade restrictions on foreign goods, only smugglers could import them.
She paused by a door that led outside, glancing around as if lost. “Perhaps we can go this way….”
We walked out into another high-walled area. I looked down a long row of gray steel doors with thickly-screened windows. When I asked Mrs. Sharma what was behind them, her face went ashen.
“I am not supposed to take you here!” she whispered.
In this area were solitary confinement cells, mostly for “VIPs”—high-caste offenders and foreigners. Often upper class Brahmin men were kept in isolation for their own safety, she explained; one man here would surely be murdered if he were put among the other prisoners, who knew he'd once led a mob that had beaten to death some low-born “Untouchables” who'd “polluted” his well by daring to draw water from it.
“Hola! Hola!” I heard someone calling to me in a muffled voice from one of the cells. Behind the window in its door, I saw a bristly pale face. “Señor–come! Please–talk to me!”
“Don't!” She stepped between me and the man's door. I walked away beside her. The prisoner was a Spaniard, she explained, who'd been convicted of smuggling explosives to Pakistan where they were used against Indians in the disputed state of Kashmir. I recalled reading about women and children blown to pieces by road bombs there, and felt a surge of loathing for him. But why him–when the dacoit I'd met hadn't upset me? This place was disorienting me. The sandy ground muffled our footsteps.
“How long is he here for?” I asked Mrs. Sharma.
“I don't know.” She glanced ahead into yet another courtyard. “He–he may be executed.”
We walked on, entering an open area that appeared to be a century older than the rest of the prison; its stone walls were streaked brown as if rusted by time. In the center of the yard stood a platform made of heavy planks. A wide staircase led up to it. At one end a steel pole rose high into the air. A crossbeam jutted out from its top like the narrow beak of a monstrous black crane. The gallows.
I felt a chill rush down the back of my neck. “Is that where the Spaniard–where he might be going?” I asked, my voice hushed.
“Yes. I feel very bad to see that thing! It's against all I believe….”
“Me, too,” I said. But I couldn't stop staring up at the gibbet. From beneath, it looked huge, predatory. The plank steps sagged. How many men had climbed them, flanked by guards and a hangman, to confront a dangling noose? The courtyard was terribly still. The great bird waited. Never before had I felt so close to the instantaneous process of passing from life to death. I was appalled, yet felt an urge to walk up those steps, myself–to stand on the planks right beside the trap door, to stare up into the beak of death. I took a step toward the platform. Then I saw the social worker watching me–her eyes widening, her lips pressed together as if to restrain a cry—and quickly turned around.
She moved on. I stammered encouraging things about the place to try to dispel her uneasiness, and my own.
“We're doing our best,” she said, “at least for the convicts.”
“Who else is here?” I asked.
She looked down. “We also have undertrials. They have a different status.”
“I thought they were all kept at Tihar, in Delhi.”
She shook her head. “Undertrials are a high percentage of this jail's population.”
At the end of the yard the walls narrowed into an area of deep shadow. Slowing, we walked close to an old brick building with one long, barred, glassless window. The stench hit me first—piss and shit and rancid sweat. Through the already roasting air rushed a wave of body heat—from the men behind those bars.
“The undertrials,” Romila whispered.
They'd spotted us. Suddenly they began shouting, wailing, calling out to us in Hindi. I halted, my heart racing. The long, kennel-like cell was so dark that at first I couldn't make out complete faces, only grimy foreheads. And a long a row of knuckles—men's fists gripping each metal shaft. For an instant, I saw deeper into the low-ceilinged room; it squirmed with near-naked bodies squashed together, surging toward the light. Anguished shrieks ricocheted off the walls, piercing me in the crossfire. The social worker was frozen in place, one hand pressed against her cheek.
“Romila–come on!” I shouted to her over the racket, and gripped her arm. We ran together, my legs rubbery. I yanked open a door and we rushed through, slamming it behind us. Gradually, the screams outside faded.
On a bench in the corridor, she leaned forward, wiping her face with a handkerchief. I sat back, trying to catch my breath. I recalled what I'd read about Delhi's prison where “undertrials” lived in horrific conditions, thirty men to a room designed for ten. They slept in shifts on filthy floors. Gangs roved the cell blocks, demanding food and drugs, raping boys. Latrines overflowed, insects swarmed over the walls. Prisoners' throats were slit in the night. Those men waited to appear in court for many months, sometimes for two or three years, or even longer. Conditions must have been as bad, here.
“Are you all right?” I asked finally.
She raised her head. She'd rubbed the skin around her eyes nearly raw. “Still dizzy, a little—“
“I–I know where I am now! My work area is not far.” She blinked hard. “But you may have seen enough…?”
I stared down the deep corridor. “Let's go on.”
She opened a door at the far end of the hall, and we were outdoors again. From the other side of a high wall came twittery sounds, as if from a hidden aviary. I cocked my head to listen.
“Those are the children,” Romila said.
“What are kids doing in a place like this?”
“They belong to the female inmates. A small prison within a prison is here–for ladies. They can keep their children until they're about six years old.”
She called to a guard in a khaki sari who unlocked a steel door for us. I waited inside as Romila started across a big open courtyard. Several woman rushed forward to grab her hands. She squeezed their fumbling fingers, smoothed the saris back from their cheeks, spoke in soft Hindi to them. Her face glowed. The voices of the women splashed around her. Spotting me, though, they backed off quickly. Romila turned and beckoned for me to join her. Fifty-one prisoners, she said, lived in this area, some with their children. Now I saw little girls in brightly colored dresses, boys wearing neat shirts and shorts–all shrieking and laughing as they raced around in the hot sunshine. Many were playing with plastic toys on the loose ground; the yard was a giant sandbox for them. With cups of water, they'd created a small complex of mud fortress-like buildings whose rooftops were crenellated like those of the prison walls that loomed above them.
At the far end of the area was a loom about twenty feet long that resembled an enormous harp lying gracefully on its side. Women in hooded white saris were working the strings, pushing and pulling at wooden rods. More women in white glided along a dormitory verandah and hovered about in ghostly groups. As soon as I started walking toward them, they rushed away, pulling down the ends of their saris over their faces as they ran.
“They must hide their faces from men who aren't their relatives.” She said. “Many Rajashtani ladies still practice purdah. Even in prison, the custom remains.”
“Those white saris—are they the prison uniforms?”
“Oh, no,” she said. “Hindu widows wear white.”
“You mean…all these women are widows?”
“Yes.” Her voice dropped. “They killed their husbands.”
“All of them?” I stared at her. Hearing my voice rise, the children suddenly went silent. An echo of their cries rang against the far wall.
“Often their husbands abuse them,” Romila said. “The beatings go on year after year, from the time they are married at twelve or thirteen. And they can't escape anywhere. So one night, after the man has been drinking and passes out, a woman might pick up a heavy stone—“ She raised her hands in the air. “–and smash it down on his head.” She sighed. “Then if the men in her husband's family don't kill her, she is dragged off to the local constabulary.”
Several women peeked warily at me around the side of a building. I glanced down, pushing the toe of one shoe into the sand. On a road outside Jaipur, I told Romila, I'd watched from a car as man pounded a shrieking woman with a heavy tree branch as she lay collapsed in the dust. I'd wanted to jump out and help her, but the driver grabbed my arm to keep me from risking my life and his: it wasn't safe, he said, to intervene in a dispute between a man and his woman. I hadn't told anyone about this incident until now. “I still wonder if I should have listened to him,” I said.
“I'm afraid the driver was right,” Romila said. “And there was nothing you could have done.”
I was silent for a moment. Then I asked, “How long are the women's sentences?”
“Fifteen years, minimum, for murder,” she said. “But some of them stay longer. Often their families refuse to take them back in their villages, so they've no place to go.”
“And the children haven't either?”
“Not usually,” she said. “You must have been seeing how many street urchins there are in Jaipur. We don't want to add to their numbers.”
She waved at the kids. Racing forward noisily, they crowded in close and gripped the folds of her sari in their tiny fingers and nuzzled their foreheads against her like baby goats wanting their necks stroked. She smiled; her whole body loosened, as if a steel rod had slipped out of her spine.
With the kids tagging behind, she took me along a verandah to the “vocational learning area” where huge manual typewriters squatted on desks like prehistoric armadillos. Two more looms were strung with white thread. The ladies made their own saris, as well as bed-sheets that were sold to a hospital so they could use the money to buy small things for themselves and their children, Romila said. She taught literacy, typing, and weaving, and arranged for teachers to give classes to the children. “In their villages, they could never get the schooling we give them.” She pointed to a television set. The ladies and their children could view educational programs, and also see the Monday night Bollywood movie along with millions of other Indians.
My old social worker life was coming back to me here. One day at a reformatory, I told Romila, I'd supervised a kid named Minesha, a 17-year old former prostitute from Harlem, while she was visited by her 3-year old daughter. Minesha's aunt came into the reception room with the wide-eyed little girl, whom she'd dressed as if for church: pink pinafore with white stockings and shiny patent leather shoes. I'd loved watching Minesha play with her daughter; she hugged the child and braided her hair, murmuring to her in a soft, musical voice I'd never heard her use before. It was hard for me to pry mother and daughter apart at the end of the visit; they clung to each other with tears streaming down their cheeks. After the heavy front door had clunked shut behind the little girl, her wails from the parking lot made my eyes damp, too. Now, recalling the bird-like cries of the kids at the Jaipur prison, I wondered how it was that India, supposedly a less developed country than mine, had found a way to keep children with their incarcerated mothers for years.
“Being separated from her child—was that part of the girl's punishment?” Romila asked me.
“Oh, no,” I said. But then I frowned. “Maybe it was, though, in a way. For years, I thought I understood how things worked in that place. But then I realized I didn't.”
We were sitting at some school desks while children nearby stacked wooden blocks. Romila squinted hard at the far wall. “Today, I had confusion like this, too,” she said. “About this prison.”
“When we saw the undertrials?”
“Yes!” She pressed her knuckles against her lips.
Pok! A little boy in a red sweater threw a block against my desk. He grinned at me when I picked it up. A few other kids, more curious than shy, ventured closer to me. I took a big picture book from a desk and sat down cross-legged on the sand with it on my lap.
“Won't you spoil your clothes?” Romila asked.
“It doesn't matter.” I turned a page. Gathering her sari loosely, Romila squatted beside me.
The boy's huge eyes were level with mine as he watched my face. I pointed to a drawing of a cat, then mimed the Hindi name of the animal, which fortunately I knew, and smiled expectantly at him. In a sing-song voice, he said the word for “cat…” then for “dog,” “cow,” and “donkey,” as I pointed to different animals. I applauded each time he spoke. Kids clapped, too. Now Romila was joining in the applause. Finally she spoke, smiling and patting the air with her palms. The noisy recitation ended in a shower of laughter. She and I got to our feet. The kids leaned against Romila and stared at me.
“Every child in India has seen those animals,” Romila said, “except Rahul.” She rested her hand on the boy's shoulder. “He was born in here, so he knows animals only from picture books.” This didn't seem to bother him; he kept gazing at the book and chattering away in Hindi. I turned pages, and we looked at more exotica: squirrels and fish, trees and flowers. Other kids crowded around, and I smelled the sweet scent of laundry soap their clothes gave off.
Suddenly, growing agitated, they all turned toward a woman dashing across the sand. Her sari swept out behind her like a long, white cape. An “unbalanced” prisoner, Romila explained; she had to work out her mental stress by running. “We should leave now.” Romila glanced around. From the opposite end of the courtyard I saw dark eyes glowing at me through gauzy white veils. An agitated whispering swelled like the sound of leaves at the approach of a storm. “The ladies are frightened,” Romila said. “There are some here who haven't been this close to a man in many years.”
In an empty office near the gate area, Romila talked to her supervisor on the phone. Then she told me that she was sorry, but it had been decided that the prison couldn't offer me any research or teaching opportunities. A man couldn't be admitted regularly to the women's section; the male convicts had no need to learn English, and no “outsider” could be permitted near the undertrials. The decision made sense to me; I could see now that I'd been admitted only as a courtesy to the university. For a moment I was disappointed. Then the feeling passed.
“I'm afraid your time has been wasted—“
“No, the opposite,” I said. “I'm very grateful to you.”
Romila smiled faintly. Then she leaned toward me. “I did not tell my supervisor that we saw those men, the undertrials,” she said.
I nodded. “I won't say anything.”
“Thank you. I knew that they were in the prison, of course. But I never really saw them before today.” Sighing, she sat down beside the desk. “You know, Edward, I have been blind to many things. Sometimes I wonder if I ought to be working in a place like this.”
I pulled over a chair and sat beside her. “I used to wonder that, too, in America.”
“Surely, where you worked, there were no people like the men we just saw.”
“There must have been. I think there are people like that everywhere,” I said. “Maybe we all have to stay blind some of the time, Romila. If I hadn't, I couldn't have been any use to anyone.”
“And here, I couldn't help the ladies if I were always thinking about what happens on the other side of their walls.” She tapped her fingers quickly on the desk. “Normally, I just rush as fast as I can from the front gate to their section. And then, when I walk through the door in their wall, I feel so—I don't know—“
“That's right!” She blinked hard. “It is remarkable, because… they tell me that they feel safe when I come.”
“I used to hear that, too.” I met her gaze. “I think when the women and the kids see you, they know they're not forgotten. They're still part of the world. That's what you do for them.”
She nodded slowly. The room was quiet; even the echoes of crashing inner doors had stopped. “And that's what they do for me, too,” she said in a hushed voice.
I smiled. “I remember that feeling.”
We walked down the dim corridor together toward the front gate. It slid sideways for me. We stepped out onto the driveway's light. She pressed her palms together and said, “Namasté.”
“Namasté.” I made the same gesture, and stood there for a moment enjoying the stillness with her.