There is a little girl at Fatehpur Sikri, the abandoned Mughal city, attempting to sell miniature snow globes to an unsentimental American tourist. The little girl is about eight years old, and her liquid-saucer eyes take up most of her wan face. She is bone thin and short for her age and a long braid runs down her back, tied at the end with a tattered blue ribbon. Her kurta is dirty, and she is almost certainly hungry.
If this girl lives until she is thirteen or fourteen, she may be married off to an older man who will never caress her face tenderly like a lover in a Bollywood film. Her family will have little money for her dowry, and her mother-in-law will remind her of this daily. She will labor in the fields, and this stranger, her husband, will crush her slender body beneath his. Eyes closed, she will wonder why her karma has led her to this.
This, I imagine, is her real-life ending.
Right now, I want to scour India off my skin. I long for my life of American cleanliness, crisp linens, and long baths.
My family left India when I was barely a toddler. Now, I find much of India’s daily existence both off-putting and oddly familiar. Like any tourist, my nostrils sting with the acrid, burning smog of Delhi. I am wide-eyed at the cacophony of horns in tangled traffic and the piercing cries of beggars approaching the car, hoisting up babies with severed ears, bandaged and bleeding. I turn my face in disgust at the people performing their morning ablutions and shitting by the side of the road.
I am also beckoned by the smell of pani puri and chapattis made by vendors with betel-stained smiles. I am intoxicated by the scent of night-blooming jasmine with its dusk-to-dawn perfume. All around me the brown faces are my face, and their retroflex consonants also curl the tip of my tongue and ricochet off my palate. And as I wander through the bazaars, elbow-to-elbow amidst locals and tourists, I find I am nostalgic for memories of a life I did not live and to which I can never return. Desi and ferengi, countryman and foreigner.
After three weeks of an exhausting and exhilarating journey through the stark desert landscape of Rajasthan and into its marigold-petaled heart, I arrive in Fatehpur Sikri, the phantom city and one-time capital of Akbar, the most powerful of Mughal emperors. Fatehpur Sikri, the City of Victory, a sixteenth-century souvenir of India’s cultural magnificence, was built on a rocky ledge twenty-five miles southwest of Agra by the toil of skinny Indian construction workers, dressed then as now in Gandhi-like dhotis. Bare-chested and thirsty, they heave red sandstone to build the Great Gate, the Halls of Public and Private Audience, and the hide-and-seek warren for the emperor’s harem games. As I walk through the barren courtyards, I imagine the jingle of ankle chains on the henna-rimmed feet of dancing girls and the echoes of the court musician’s sitar emanating from a platform in the Peerless Pool. I wonder if beggars ringed the entrance to the great city as they do today, praying for salvation at the tomb of the Sufi saint Salim Chisti.
Akbar had no children and went to the saint to seek his blessings. Chisti rightly predicted the birth of a son and heir, and Akbar built the tomb in his honor. Today, childless women of every religion visit the holy site and, with hopeful hands, spread silken cloth over the tomb and sprinkle it with fragrant rose petals. Finally, they turn to the tomb’s marble lattice walls to tie red strings around the intricate carvings, their covered heads bent in prayer.
Thanksgiving is an auspicious day to tie a red thread at Fatehpur Sikri, and in good faith, I follow the ritual. Not that an American holiday means anything to Salim Chisti, but I am in my thirties and unmarried, so asking for a family and a baby on this day from an Indian Muslim saint seems the perfect marriage of my East and my West. When I tie my red thread to the cool marble, I take my time waiting for a sign of Chisti’s assurances, a halo of brilliant light or electric pulse down my spine. But nothing. I’m certain he, like so many here, is simply maddened at the constant American demand for more, more, more. “Hah, no spiritually significant moment for her,” I imagine his skeletal, still-bearded jaw chuckling, moving up and down like a haunted house skull.
“But I’m Indian,” I say.
“Once, but no longer,” he corrects.
Discouraged and without an epiphany to call my own, I walk out of the tomb and into the courtyard, quickly swarmed by children begging and hawking cheap trinkets. “Didi, didi,” they call and trail me down the path leading away from the tomb. I wave them away with a no. Many give up and turn to look for incoming tourists–fresh, less Indian targets–Westerners not yet impervious to the utter poverty standing in the face of Mughal opulence. In this moment, I am far too Indian to be an easy mark.
The handful of boys still trailing me drop back after yet another chorus of no, no, no. However, a curious little girl continues at a respectful distance. Her skinny wrist bends back with the weight of a ring of miniature snow globe key chains. She should be in school, I think. What are her parents thinking? This is a question only a tourist would ask. Her parents are the ones who put her here.
She calls out to me. I look at her and see the kind of despondency that exists just before a child’s eyes go hollow, before they are wholly crushed by the unjust adult world that they had the misfortune of being born into. It is a desperation that only lives when there is still some small, fragile hope pleading not to be shattered. I see the sharp-eyed boys, the more aggressive salesmen from earlier, looking in my direction. If I give her money, they will be nipping at my heels again. And I am tired of India’s relentless poverty and I am late and I don’t have change.
“Didi?” she whispers. Sister.
A glance passes between us.
I turn my back to her and walk to the parking lot.
In the car, I’m gripped by what I have done. I fear that she will go home and be beaten by her father for not bringing in enough money. I search for her, my eyes scanning the piles of garbage on the road away from the City of Victory, but in vain. She is gone.
On the plane ride home to New York, I see this girl’s face over and over; she is burned into my brain. I drag her up the stairs to my apartment with the rest of my luggage, a ghostly souvenir of my pilgrimage to the motherland and my easy escape back to the West. India’s molecules may run in my blood, vestiges of my birth, but America is my life.
So this, I imagine, is her Hollywood ending.
I keep her. And in this life with me, she is safe. She is fed. She goes to school with a new ribbon in her hair and always has clean fingernails. Every adult in her life will tell her you can be whatever you want when you grow up. She wears a pink tutu to ballet class. She has a love marriage. She has a name. As the camera fades to black, she is sitting on a swing, smiling as she looks up into the dappled summer sunlight.
And I make her this real-life promise: every Thanksgiving I will remember that Salim Chisti gave me a child to love and that I left her on the dust-choked road to Fatehpur Sikri.
Samira Ahmed was born in Bombay, India, and grew up in Batavia, Illinois, in a house that smelled like fried onions, spices, and potpourri. She currently resides in Chicago. She’s lived in Vermont, New York City, and Kauai, where she spent a year with her husband and two young children searching for the perfect mango. Her creative non-fiction has appeared in Jaggery Lit and Entropy. She is currently at work on her first novel, Swimming Lessons, which was a finalist for the 2015 Sheehan YA Book Prize. Find her on Twitter: @sam_aye_ahm Web: samiraahmed.com