in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money,
our great country of money, we (forgive us)
lived happily during the war.
—Ilya Kaminsky, “We Lived Happily During the War”
In the spring of 2022—after nearly three years away, during which a global pandemic taught us the depth of every truth made opaque by dint of being paired with Instagram photos of people rollicking and relaxing on vacation (“Life is a gift,” say, or “Live in the Present”)—I went home, past the “Chicken’s Neck” connecting that remote northeastern region to mainland India, past low hills flecked with rows of the famed Assam tea plants, past a fisherman on an overladen scooter who lost his balance and his strapped-in basket containing the day’s catch on the half-dirt tea garden road, to the village by the river Barak where I was born and raised. Today, however, the village of my childhood has been nearly obliterated by the fruits of an economy where money and goods flow more freely, albeit still inequitably, from a fount that did not exist: a globalized, open economy that replaced the one India had modeled after its strategic and cozy friend, the former Soviet Union. Today, a paved road of interlocking bricks has replaced the perennially potholed road that would torture rickshaw-riders into stomach cramps. Today, the old water pipe at the head of our lane, which delivered treated drinking water twice a day from the local Public Health Engineering plant, is hardly noticed, since most have the means to have water piped direct to their homes, or to purify water through reverse osmosis machines purchased sometimes through Amazon—yes, Amazon.
When I was a child, the low range of hills beyond the paddy fields—the North Cachar Hills—seemed to mark the farthest edge of the world, and there I stood, close to the void itself.
Now the world “out there” is only as far away as a finger’s tap on a smartphone, ubiquitous now even in my village. Nearly everyone I know there—teacher, farmer, shopkeeper, house-helper—owns a phone, and I see there, as here in the U.S., the incursion of what Don DeLillo, in White Noise, called “the daily, seeping falsehearted death.” WhatsApping, texting, Facebooking, streaming, buying . . .
I first saw the images of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on my brother-in-law’s smartphone. We were sitting in the veranda of my childhood house on the same old wooden benches, covered in a sturdy plaid fabric meant to last. The strong February sunlight blurred the lace curtains’ edges, as though whatever lay outside existed only in the imagination. A lull had fallen upon us in the aftermath of a delicious, heavy meal featuring several of my favorite dishes (my mother buries in the earth her harvest of my choice vegetable—these finger-sized yams we call “paan” in Manipuri—to keep them fresh until I come home). Also, if my memory serves, on that Sunday the paan was cooked with hilsa, my favorite fish, native to neighboring Bangladesh and full of tiny, fine bones.
My mother and sister began ferrying dirty dishes into the kitchen; my father drifted away for yet another nap, his rubber chappals slapping the cement floor; and my brother-in-law pulled out his phone.
Russia had launched its invasion a few days prior, on what happened to be my fifteenth wedding anniversary. A handmade sign—“Happy Anniversary, Bill & Grace—God Bless You”—was still tacked to the veranda wall, and blue balloons, inflated by my father’s lungs, hovered above us like cartoon bubbles, full of our unarticulated thoughts. We had just eaten the remains of the cake especially procured for us from Silchar, the district headquarters an hour or so away, and my father talked about how the Russian invasion and all the attendant global disruption meant the world was likely coming to an end. My mother added that the village goldsmith, Luangton, had quoted her an extra-high price for the earrings she’d inquired after for me—prices had gone up overnight. “Because of Russia-Ukraine,” Luangton had said.
But I hadn’t yet seen any images or footage—in spite of amazon.com and the fancy road and all the new shops and the internet, the rest of the world still seemed a distant planet. I awoke as I’d done two decades ago to the joyful din of neighborhood children playing games, the local Satsang mandir singers singing their tireless, passionate, frequently off-key bhajans, and, more than once, the broken-goods man uttering his long cry for things that had outlived their usability—broken tin, iron, plastic:
Into this soiled Eden the illuminated rectangle of my brother-in-law’s phone delivered the stomach-twisting noise of a missile hitting a tall apartment building in Kyiv, and the young actor-turned-president whose face invited trust, saying, “We will defend our country—our truth is that it is our land.” A news anchor talked in a superior, excited way over him, with footage interrupting, of assault helicopters traversing the smoke-filled sky like ominous dragonflies, ordinary citizens patrolling the streets, an armored vehicle speeding up, crushing a car.
Soon I could no longer bear it and walked into the bright February day. My brother-in-law kept watching.
The books that you really love give the sense, when you first open them, of having been there. It is a creation, almost like a chamber in the memory. Places that one has never been to, things that one has never seen or heard, but their fitness is so sound that you’ve been there somehow.
—John Cheever, The Writer’s Chapbook (edited from The Paris Review interviews; emphasis mine)
Two years earlier, for the first time, I’d seen footage of a July 2004 protest outside the gates of the historic and holy Kangla Fort in the state of Manipur, to which nearly all Manipuris—including those in neighboring states like Assam, such as my family—can trace their origins. The seat of Manipur’s rulers, with a legacy stretching back to 33 CE, Kangla Fort was first occupied by the British in 1891 and then by Indian security forces bent on keeping the land of my ancestors, by any means necessary, wedded to the Indian Republic. At the demonstration, twelve Imas—mothers—were protesting the extra-judicial killing of Manorama, a woman who’d been taken into custody by the Indian paramilitary force Assam Rifles (these Imas were Meira Paibis, torch-bearing women with a long legacy of activism against the British, alcoholism, and oppressive policies, to name a few). Manorama was killed “in an encounter,” shot sixteen times in her genitals, the men in uniform empowered in these actions by an act of Indian Parliament, which has its origins in pre-independence British India and grants soldiers the right to arrest, shoot to kill, or detain a “suspect” without a court order.
One of these Imas, a woman with the lock-shaped face of my dead inechoubi—my eldest paternal aunt, who’d nurtured me like a mother—raised her arm like a sword and, with a rage that suffused her being, said, “Indian Army, come out! We are all Manipuri ladies, you know—we are all Manorama’s mother—rape us, kill us, flesh us—!” They had come wearing only their phaneks (sarongs)—no blouses or petticoats—and stripped, their nakedness a symbol of all they were willing to give up for Manorama: the modesty whose surrender or absence, in a conservative society, would lay a woman bare to ridicule and public shame, for themselves and their families. The phaneks these twelve Imas cast aside, when worn as a “proper” woman should, are meant to cover even your ankles.
I wept with helpless anger when I saw that video. But for an accident of fate, that could have been my Inechoubi, protesting my death. And my sorrow and rage was amplified by a keen awareness that most of the world knows nothing—and therefore could not care less—about Manorama, or those twelve brave Imas, or the land of Manipur, or us Manipuris for that matter.
Truth: I nearly cried when I saw those first images of Russia’s assault on Ukraine. Eating the hilsa and all that delicious paan cultivated by my mother, then seemed an act of sacrilege. But I didn’t weep—I swallowed the lump in my throat, felt a bit ill, and did the convenient thing by walking out into the bright day.
Before 2021, I knew next to nothing about Ukraine, its history, or its people. My knowledge amounted to whatever remained after my tenth grade geography exam, for which I’d crammed, and then regurgitated, the contents of a textbook with newsprint-like paper:
- Ukraine used to be part of the U.S.S.R, its present relationship with Russia ambiguous.
- Its capital was known to me as Kiev, not Kyiv.
- The country was rich in natural resources, including the elements all the greedy want their hands on, some of which end in “-ium.”
My ignorance would have lived a long, uninterrupted life but for a chance email conversation last year with Askold Melnyczuk, whom I’d met while studying at the Bennington Writing Seminars (Melnyczuk also happens to be AGNI’s founder). From this son of Ukrainian refugees who’d fled their native land when his grandfather found himself on the Communists’ kill list, I learned the following:
- that I wasn’t necessarily alone in my ignorance, and,
- that Ukraine—the second-largest nation in Europe—had been invaded, underrated, and relegated to late-arriver status, its ancient and rich history unknown to the rest of the world, not unlike my own place of origin.
My curiosity—the crack in the door that might open up to empathy—was stoked.
I began reading Melnyczuk’s debut novel, What is Told (Faber and Faber, 1994), which The New York Times called “genially pessimistic” (indeed, it has no choice to be anything but pessimistic—it’s the geniality that’s a wonder).
The sunflower-embracing Natalka who appears on the first page, a girl prone to wandering by herself to listen to the wind, whose mother “frequently had recourse to the pedagogical strap”—I knew her immediately, this dreamy dark-eyed girl from the boonies who ends up in a big city. I felt a special solicitousness toward Natalka, understanding firsthand how, for her, “the world beyond the village was all rumor.” My Wikipedia searches came later, all those details about Natalka’s country merely augmenting, not usurping, my memories of her planting her big mouth on sunflower seeds, of her husband, the pompous but well-intentioned professor of art history Zenon Zabobon, falling before a firing squad, only to find himself alive amid all the piss and shit of the fallen.
On that sunny February afternoon, the footage on the smartphone in my native village reopened that tender, fluctuating archive, the chamber in my memory created by What is Told.
I can now retrace my steps, the writer’s luxury.
My American-born husband, Bill, and I found ourselves strolling outdoors, down the length of the redesigned Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, an airport for the India of the twenty-first century. We’d left my district in the northeast from a World War II–era airport very early in the morning—our flight to the U.S. was not until the following night. Possibly feeling a bit smug—having managed to rebook canceled flights—we were now searching for the Holiday Inn near the airport, where we had a reservation and hoped to spend a restful day and a half. After walking the equivalent of several blocks and finding no sign of the Holiday Inn’s existence, and after several befuddling exchanges with “industrial security forces,” hefty men carrying semi-automatic rifles, I discovered the following:
- The Holiday Inn was somewhere “up there” within the international terminal.
- The waiting room here at the airport’s extremity, from which I’d just placed a call to the Holiday Inn? Sorry, but reentry—to its armless seats where I could stretch out and sleep, to its restrooms—was forbidden, a fact I discovered only after walking out to relay information to my husband.
It was late in the evening, and there we were, stranded in the infamous Delhi smog, the nearest restroom the entire length of the terminal away, only enough rupees between us to split a sandwich from a nearby food stand, and the international terminal (and therefore our Holiday Inn) closed to us until precisely—not a minute earlier, we were told—twenty-four hours before the departing flight. “A gloomy environment will cure pride,” John Climacus of Egypt (c.579–649) is reported to have said, but instead of my pride being cured, I gave in to stress, hunger, and dehydration. My decade-plus life in the country of money had turned me soft.
“Taxi? Taxi, ma’am?” said a man who’d been oscillating about us.
“No!” I said with such irritation that he backed up.
“Okay,” he said. “Okay.”
We’d lapsed into that silence which is an ally to discomfort. I put on my headphones to listen (again) to the audiobook version of A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, George Saunders’s loving, wise master class in book form, an exploration of a few seminal nineteenth-century short stories by Russian writers (Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol), when a voice burst my bubble of detachment. It was as if someone had flung a brass vessel down in a temple. I removed my earbuds, sure we were about to witness a major assault, and began crisscrossing the entryway to locate the source of the voice. The voice boomed—no other verb will do—each nearly indecipherable word escalating until it seemed that the three- or four-story ceiling could not contain it.
“Sir . . . Sir,” a rather timid voice tried to interject. It belonged to an agent sitting behind a glass wall. His words clearly did not have a mollifying effect. The shouting went on, reaching a kind of zenith. Then a man came out, walking very fast, still talking. It was He of the Voice, wearing mud-colored pants, the durable outdoorsy kind with many pockets, and a faded red baseball cap. His brow was heavy, his face substantial and a bit pink, as though with sunburn. Indeed, to a fault he resembled the Wild Gentleman in Turgenev’s The Singers, one of the stories Saunders discusses: “‘rough-hewn,’ as we say . . .” All the watchers, including my husband and I, turned our eyes downward. When he passed the two of us, the man gave a casual nod, the most incongruous of gestures for someone who had just performed the verbal equivalent of an entrechat.
I tried to return to Saunders and the Russians, stretched out, with half of me hanging off the joined chairs whose cold metal arms existed to prevent repose. It was impossible to tell how much time was going by—five or six hours are interminable in such circumstances—and in my precarious state, I was beginning to nod off when I became aware of an encroaching presence. It was the resonant-voiced stranger again, this time pushing his cart into the entry vestibule’s far corner where we’d retreated. On the cart was a duffel and a long black bag capable of holding two bodies at least. Conveying his intent with many gestures and some scattered English words—“You—please—look—my—ah, lost!—I come, please!”—he indicated that he wished to leave his cart in our safekeeping while he went on a quest for . . . something. I was surreptitiously trying to remind my husband of the Voice of TSA’s message: If an unknown person leaves their luggage, et cetera. But he’d nodded, and the stranger, with a loud “Thank you,” was gone.
Travelers came and went. Outside, the streetlights barely pierced the curtain of gray gauze that was the joint effect of night and smog and smoke. But just as I floated the question, “What if he doesn’t return by the time we can go inside?” the stranger returned. With exuberant expressions of gratitude and taking off his ball cap, he planted himself quite near us. It became obvious he hadn’t had a recent opportunity to take a shower. I sat up, my one buttock insensate. He was talking to himself in a language I thought might be Russian, scrolling through his iPhone with a mixture of aimlessness and thwarted intent. “This man is straight out of a Chekhov story,” I said to my husband. At last, unable to resist—in rural India, where I grew up, it is not considered rude to begin a conversation with such questions—I asked him where he was from.
“Russia,” he said, the first syllable coming out as if through a throat coated with too much honey. My husband and I looked at each other, a gesture with no meaning except perhaps “Oh, yes,” but the stranger, taking a quick visual inventory, added, “Eastern Europe . . . Hungary . . . grandma.”
Hmmm, I thought. He thinks we’re judging him—because of what’s going on in Ukraine.
“Russia,” I said, hoping to undo any damage caused by the misinterpreted look, “I love Russian literature.” I tried to tell him about A Swim in a Pond in the Rain—then, giving up, said simply, “I love Chekhov.”
“Chekhov!” he bellowed. And I mean bellowed. After trying to say something in English, rolling his eyes and striking his forehead, he began to speak in Russian. He really was out of a nineteenth-century Russian story, I thought again. It was astounding—without understanding any of his words except “Chekhov,” I understood that he loved Chekhov’s work too, that “the absolute and honest truth,” to use Chekhov’s translated words, had touched him like some Pentecostal gospel, so that in this foreign land he had no choice but to speak in tongues. As if any further confirmation was needed, tears began to roll from his eyes, unchecked.
“I think he’s sleep-deprived,” my husband said.
Thus sparked, the conversation somehow proceeded: him speaking in Russian with a few scattered words of English and many hand gestures while I supplied key English words meant to serve as signposts in the no-man’s-land of our verbal exchange. Rather miraculously, we distilled the following:
- He, a Russian who spoke neither English nor Hindi, visited India frequently, where he was a ski guide or instructor in Gulmarg, the popular skiing destination in Jammu and Kashmir.
- The long black bag he’d left with us contained his ski equipment. He was traveling to Sri Lanka, where someone—“girlfriend”—awaited and where he intended to surf.
- His surfboard was missing. He’d expected to find it awaiting him at the airport. He could find neither the equipment nor anyone who could help him.
By this time, the moment of our entry was only a couple of hours away. The Russian had moved even closer, until he was seated right next to me. Suddenly, apropos of nothing—insofar as I could comprehend—he said, “Ukraine . . . Putin . . . oligarch!” this last word accompanied with rapid arm movements, both horizontal and vertical, meant to denote a kind of organizational structure. Pointing to the top, he said, “Money! Money! Money!” I made encouraging noises, said, “Yes, yes, yes.” I hadn’t even looked at the time on my phone, my fatigue and hunger forgotten. What a gift, I thought, self-reflection nowhere on my radar just then. By now the Russian didn’t seem to require inquiries, prompts, or any participation from me at all. Leaving Ukraine behind, he went on to “Syria,” and “Bashar al-Assad.” Again I understood that we were on the same page—that the West, including and perhaps even foremost the U.S., had let Syria’s people down, leading to a decade-long conflict marked by sieges, starvation and hunger, millions displaced from their homes, and the deaths of more than 350,000 Syrians.
The stranger’s voice rose, nearly attaining the same volume as when he’d enveloped the clerk in his ire. We, the conversationalists, had become a focal point in the entry vestibule. Other travelers—including a lean European in a sky blue tie-dyed T-shirt featuring Lord Shiva—stared at us, not bothering to disguise their interest. If this was a work of fiction, I thought, right about now something would shift because I have clearly unleashed something deep, elemental in this stranger so that both of us have forgotten our immediate, physical, un-ideal circumstances.
“Chemical weapons!” he cried, startling me. Plucking at his forearms and pointing to his eyes, he said, “Children—the children!” And then he began to weep.
“ and [she] who has a guilty feeling always seeks justification outside [herself].”
—Anton Chekhov, in a letter to Nikolai Chekhov, March 1886
When my phone’s radar-like alarm announced the precise minute of our permitted entry, it disrupted this by-now semi domestic scene: using Google Translate and allowing the stranger access to my Wi-Fi hotspot—he appeared to be having trouble connecting to the airport’s free connection (who doesn’t?)—we were working to assess what he needed to get to Sri Lanka, a transfer which seemed to require paperwork he didn’t have.
A polite young man in an indeterminate gray-brown suit arrived from the Holiday Inn to escort us to that Shangri-la.
“We have to go,” I said, pointing at the guide. Perhaps he could find someone else to help?
“Did you notice,” I said to Bill as we walked past the gun-toting guards and into the cool, high-ceilinged terminal, “his tears were for Syria, and the people of Syria—but not Ukraine?”
If this were a story, I would have failed miserably. I’d judged my character, a character I didn’t understand.
Now and then, here in Santa Monica, I wonder out loud if that man ever made it to Sri Lanka with his surfboard. I also wonder if, one day, back in his native country, he will have another public meltdown, only in this case his tears and rage will be for Ukraine—the thousands killed and the twelve million who have fled their homes as of this summer. What then will become of him? Would he be among the thousands arrested for voicing their dissent, like the lone woman standing in Moscow’s Manezhnaya Square with a sheet saying “two words”—likely a reference to nyet voinye, “no to war” in Russian—who was arrested within the time it took me to type two words?
Thinking about the Russian and his tears for the Syrian children has made me return to What is Told. I want to remember the murder of seven million people in the old country and Natalka’s flight from Rozdorizha. I want to feel—really feel—at least a fraction of the visceral sorrow that overtook me when I saw the Manipuri Imas protesting the rape and murder of Manorama in front of Kangla Fort. I want to remember what it was like when the line between me and Natalka dissolved, when that Ukrainian girl with all her hopes and dreams, was me.
I doubt I will ever see the Russian again. But if I do, I hold out hope that he and I could weep together—for the children of Syria, for the children of Ukraine, for all who have been ravaged and are lost.
Grace Singh Smith is blog editor of AGNI and has been part of the editorial team since 2019. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Santa Monica Review, Cleaver, Aster(ix), AGNI, The Texas Review, and elsewhere. Her story “Oshini” (The Tishman Review) was selected for the 2018 Best of the Net anthology, and her story “The Promotion” was cited as notable in The Best American Short Stories 2016. A native of Assam, India, she lives in Santa Monica, where she is at work on her first novel. (updated 6/2019)