I was alone as usual the night I met her, in my spot on the balcony of the Leopold café overlooking the scene below, my pitcher of beer in front of me placed on the table by Pasha the waiter as soon as I sat down, without any superfluous exchange between us other than the coded nod of recognition. It was a Wednesday in late November. In the United States, it was the eve of Thanksgiving, and as I brooded over my beer that night I was clutched by the pangs of exile. You were too young to comfort me, or to ease my loneliness at the time, Maya, only eight years old, born at an apocalyptic hour in the land of Armageddon at the turn of the millennium. Thank God, you were safe at home that night, guarded by your ayah, Varda, in the apartment we were renting during that stage of our journey after I left your father the Holy Beggar and we moved our spiritual epicenter from Israel the land of the Messiah syndrome, to India the land of the swami syndrome, to the buzzing corrupt super metropolis of Bombay sinking under the weight of its overpopulation on its soggy landfill, to set up a sister branch of my tour operation business, known in those days as Seekers International.
Do you remember Varda Aunty? To give credit where it’s due, despite all her shortcomings, her deceitfulness, her deviousness, and so on, had it not been for Varda coming so fortuitously into our life at that time, I would not have been relieved of child care burdens to carry on full steam with my business, put food on the table for you and a roof over our heads, fork up the scandalous baksheesh required to get you into Cathedral, not to mention the tuition and all the essential extras for that most posh of feeder schools to the world’s most elite universities so crucial for your future, or, for that matter, to treat myself to a few hours at the Leopold a couple of nights a week to ruminate over a pitcher of beer for some necessary restorative inner peace. All in all, I still maintain that in retrospect we were incredibly lucky to have come upon her on the very first day we moved into our building on Hormusji Street in Colaba, down the narrow teeming lane from the Mumbai Chabad center, and best of all, a short stroll from the Leopold. Clad only in her bra and panties with her varicose veins pulsing and bulging like one of those light-up tourist street maps, she was standing on her head on the landing outside her door when we arrived, going native like all those Indians carrying out their most private personal maintenance activities in public spaces, out of sight of their core inner world whose opinion matters, but under the eyes of millions of strangers who are meaningless to them and don’t know who they are. We took each other’s measure immediately, she scrutinizing upward, I down, recognizing at once a fellow member of the tribe, the Israeli oldies floating on the airwaves from her flat triggering nostalgic synapses unnecessary for identification purposes but serving as gratifying confirmation, sealing our instant relatedness.
She had come to India to find her son Golan who had, in her opinion, dropped out too long in Manali in the North on his post-traumatic post-army rite of passage travel flip out. Within a week of running into his mother as he was closing a deal on some stash with the local Hebrew-speaking Indian hashish wallah, the boy turned around and headed straight back to Israel, morphing in due time into a life insurance salesman, an amusing anomaly in the land of Gog and Magog teetering on the brink of extermination. Varda, meanwhile, settled in Bombay where she went native, trading her senior citizen hair dye from Israeli burgundy to Indian henna orange. My second thought after laying eyes on her perpetrating her daily exercise routine in our faces, after classifying her intuitively and definitively as a fellow wandering Jew, was, Bingo! Maya’s metapelet. For someone messed up in my particular way, a Jewish mother is a known quantity, ideal nanny material. I could handle the damage control, no problem.
Sitting in the balcony of the Leopold gazing at the action below, breathing in the secondhand heat of bodies pressing against the bar running along the wall behind me, I was prostrated again by the renewed awareness of how alone I was. When did it happen? Swirling in the ripeness of the semidarkness all around were couples and groups, muscle, hair, mouths, teeth, bodies that to my eyes were nothing but vessels evolved to house sexual organs packaged at all levels and degrees of attractiveness desperate for pleasure, mindlessly driven to breed and destroy themselves. No one saw me, I was invisible, my time had passed. Now and then some odd soul would take the risk, slide into the empty chair opposite me and venture the opening moves only to be wished away, a mortal presence too sad to absorb. Better to be alone. Too much weakness and neediness already coming into view, in the end it would all trail off into familiar squalor and meanness. But supposing I wanted a part in it—how was it done, how did you play this game? I had forgotten the rules, I no longer knew the steps to this dance. All of those living units agitating frenziedly around me, in squads of twos, tens, were closed off from me, sealed up unto themselves, with a private history and a present known only to themselves, an intimate smell unique to themselves, a sound frequency only they could discern, out of my range. They were the insiders, I was on the outside, excluded. Who among them would ever notice or care about me enough to bother to sponsor me, as it were, take my hand, lead me into the inner circle of light? How would it profit them? What did I need to do to penetrate the walls they put up to shut me out, what did I need to do to belong?
From my solitary perch on the balcony I watched her enter at the usual time with her retinue, giving off star power glow that emanated from within her and shot out like rays from her skin, hair, stride, her flashing style, or perhaps it came from the light that instantly flicked on in me and beamed on her the minute she appeared. I had viewed her many times before and was always waiting, waiting without quite realizing it on my nights at the Leopold for her descent, a goddess from the heights. My eyes followed her every step as she was ushered in with her tight little clique, plucked by the establishment’s powers ahead of the queue of kids and tourists, expats and locals, hoodlums and hangers-on crushed against the wide unshuttered entrance and led straight to the prime table down on the main floor directly in my line of fire.
Her group was unusually relaxed on this night, I noticed, ironically unwired for a change, infused it seemed with a more solid assurance of well-being, eerily calm. One of the women, someone I had not seen before, had a baby in a sling carrier that she nursed at the table while sipping her beer; when she was done, she let her breast remain casually out and ready for the next feeding, exposed in the most natural and charming way, poking from the nest like a curious little bird eager to check out what was going on. They laughed, chatted, flirted, but without the shrillness and preening and desperation I had noted on other evenings, serenely nursing their beer and absently extending their paws to scoop up some crisp munchies. She was depositing bits of spicy prawn chili into the wet mouth of a man I had seen before, his hair moussed in tight ringlets, patting away the grease with a napkin. I watched as if through a window, it was a party to which I had not been invited. They were native specimens in a glass case, command-performing their tricks in a private audience for me, exclusively for my entertainment. For as long as I looked at them they existed, I told myself; when I turned my eyes away they would cease to exist. I got up to pay my bill. It was already around nine o’clock, late, time to snuff them out and head home to real life—to supervise your homework and bath, Maya, the sacred hour of your bedtime. I slung my bag over my shoulder, waved farewell to Pasha the waiter whom I would never again see in this life (when I look back now at my actions that indelible night, the one thing I regret is not having left him a bigger tip), and headed down the stairs, approaching the periphery of their aura and breathing it in, though they took no notice of me, no different from a fly.
The moment I waited for on those nights, the cherished anticipated moment when I would pass within a foot of her and inhale her voraciously on my way out to the street, the greatest intimacy I could ever imagine myself aspiring to with her—that was the moment of the first explosion. Smoke plumed up almost immediately, and after that the screaming, wailing, panic. I ran and grabbed her, pushed her under the table, and like her majesty’s secret service exploiting the only window of opportunity for physical contact between common folk and royalty, I dared to throw myself on top of her for her own good less than a minute before the second grenade was thrown, sputtering out like a cautionary warning very close by. Then came the staccato of the machine gun bullets firing rapidly, nonstop, seemingly at random. It was as if I were dreaming. It was as if we were extras captured in yet another battle scene in the endless cycle of Mumbai’s gang wars, this time being fought out on the atmospheric turf of the Leopold café, like a stage show to draw tourists into this noir hot spot. Cautiously I lifted an edge of the skirt of the tablecloth that was our sole screen of defense, and jutted my head out a fraction in an effort to figure out the coordinates, praying not to dislodge the sheet of glass I knew was flattened over the splayed menus on top and send it crashing. One of the assassins was only two feet away from me, spasmodically jerking out his AK-47, shooting frantically, indiscriminately, even into bodies seemingly already dead. Small and scrawny and intense, greasy black hair, cheeks so pathetically smooth over which a razor had never passed, the feathery dark down of a mustache, milk white teeth, a rucksack on his back filled with ammunition like any other third world tourist who could handle an automatic rifle and a satellite phone but didn’t know how to use a flush toilet—this was just a kid, sixteen or seventeen years old maybe, the gang lords had sunk to a shameful new low in the recruitment of their hit boys. Later, of course, I along with the whole tuned-in world were notified that it wasn’t a gang war at all this time around but a full blown terrorist attack, and these poor primitive suckers doing the dirty work were shahid wannabes, suicide martyr material plucked from the most miserable holes in Pakistan and sent over the waters to turn civilization into carnage on their blood strewn road to paradise. But while it was unfolding it seemed so unreal, unbelievable, like a scene from a Bollywood movie. I was waiting for the villains to sling their AK-47s over their shoulders and break out in rousing song and dance, and I was not afraid.
In the space between the dying down of the shooting and the dawning absorption of all that was happening, I dragged her out from under the table. She was trembling audibly. It was all I could do to hold back from scooping her up in the cradle of my arms and carrying her away to a safe zone if one still remained on this planet. Grasping each other’s hands, like two little girls fleeing a boogeyman lumbering behind them down a dark alley, we ran across the war zone restaurant, past bodies huddled on the bloodstained floor, wounded or struck down forever or simply shocked out, overturned tables and chairs, shattered glass, smashed crockery, bullet pocked walls and doors and windows, the metallic smell of firepower, the rust smell of blood charging the atmosphere. By the time we reached a side door of the café, the ghostly end-of-the-world silence in which everything had been frozen, rendered all the more silent by the punctuation of the shrill insistent ringing of unanswered cellphones in the pockets of the dead and dying—that silence now cracked open never to be recovered. The crying and screaming was terrible as we ran out into the darkness to escape it down a narrow lane toward the sea.
Our flight came to its terminus at a seawall outcropping, and we collapsed on the rocks. The Taj Mahal Hotel in all its opulent grandeur loomed darkly above us nearby, and beyond that rose the great basalt stones of the Gateway arch on the waterfront. Welcome to Mother India. A fraught silence engulfed us from which every living heartbeat had been bled. We could hear the lapping of the tide in the distance. The plaza was eerily deserted, even by police and criminals. The world had come to an end. We lowered our heads into our hands and wept. I did not forget you, Maya. The airwaves gave off no signal from you, the smooth black cellphone in my pocket was a miniature tombstone. Everything had been blown up and swept away, nothing was left. We were alone.
We wept for all the noble reasons, for having survived, for the massacre that would define us now forever, for the meaninglessness and absurdity of human suffering and striving. The long manicured finger of her left hand, the one she did not use to eat, pressed into the corner of my eye and tenderly traced the path of a tear down my cheek. I yanked the elastic out of my hair and shook it loose. Her eating hand slipped coolly under my kurta against the skin of my belly, then down to the cord that held up my homespun cotton khadi Gandhi trousers, setting me throbbing as if gripped by fever. The world had come to an end, the possibilities were endless. I could go on, Maya, but as you know, I don’t consider this an appropriate subject for a mother to share with her daughter, so I’ll stop here. All I will add here for the sake of closure is that on that night of all nights what we enacted on the rocks, she and I, was the natural consummation of our destined union born in the shadow of mortality under the table on the bloodstained floor of the Leopold café. Later, Afterward—ah, such rich signifiers!—entwined in each other’s arms, we fell asleep in a cleft of the rocks.
To this day I don’t know what woke us up, the sound or the light. There was a series of thunderous blasts and the sky lit up, illuminating a hidden universe of lovers tucked in the niches and crannies of the rocks, their eyes startled open and fluttering wildly. Tongues of flame were shooting up from the Taj. Its magnificent dome was burning. There was a brilliant otherworldly light, neither day nor night. What time was it? I foraged in my bag for my cellphone, and it was only then, Maya, that I realized that the reason I had not heard from you was that time stopped for me at the Leopold when I turned off my device to prevent a ring from jolting the killers and drawing their hyper jittery attention to our huddled mass under the table. It was now nearly midnight, I saw, and there were six messages, five from you, text and voice, all identical, Mommy, come home now! The sixth was from Varda Aunty: Terrorist Attack Chabad House Saving Maya-Baby.
Black smoke canopied the Taj and I turned to her and said, Go home, it has nothing to do with you, it’s all about the Jews again, but she shook her head. Under no circumstances would she leave me at this time. The child was in danger. Nothing is more precious than a child. One little Jewish girl. Ten little Indian boys. It is the lesson of the Holocaust. A Jewish life is worth fifty non-Jews. A fine thought. The wisdom of the terrorist handlers recounted in the aftermath, final instructions. Everything was deconstructing all around us, but we were armed with our newly hatched love and we set forth to rescue you.
The sea was black to our left as we ran clutching each other’s hands, knees bent, stooped perpendicular, like enemy targets in all those war movies, locust scuttling from trench to trench. Hunched over in this way, we wove unimpeded through the web of darkened alleys and lanes, arriving too soon at our besieged backstreet, swept clean of its night crawlers and regulars, and muffled as if under an executioner’s hood. Police in khakis and soldiers in jungle camouflage with helmets festooned with twigs squatted against the buildings, pistols and rifles cocked at Nariman House, the Chabad center lit up like a stage with its fourth wall gouged out to expose the furiously ravaged interior cavities of its set. From its blown out windows intermittent bursts of gunfire sputtered down, a bullet sieved white flag waving like a mockery of surrender—the rabbi’s ritual garment, fringes flying.
The paanwallah proprietor of the stall across the road hauled us in as we hugged the walls of his tin-roofed shack sidling past, scolding Lunatics (meaning us, she and I, eyeing her greedily, what was this luxury item doing here in our savage bazaar?)—we were the lunatics, not the villains center stage in the show now being broadcast live direct from Chabad House across the pit. Two locals had already been shot, he was telling us this for our own good, maybe they were already in Hindu heaven by now; some old guy fleeing from the house trying to pass himself off as yet another Jewish victim had been lynched by community watchdogs, taken for a terrorist, his bones broken in pieces, it will require hundreds of thousands of dollars in mental health therapy to get him to venture out again to peddle his diamonds; the Israeli army was expected to make a surprise appearance any minute, its legendary ruthless crack elite commando force of superheroes slated to swoop down in the darkness of night to drop their nuclear payload right here in a spectacular display of fireworks, right here on Hormusji street, according to the most top-notch reliable sources, which is why the street is being evacuated—hadn’t we noticed? Bad girls, you deserve to be spanked—what are you doing out on such a night as this?
Don’t worry, she said to me. We will find her.
She took my hand and led me away to you. It was such a blessing, to be enclosed within those brackets of reprieve from the weight of always being in charge to which I had been sentenced for life. I let myself go, let myself be taken by her, I put myself in her hands, though she could not possibly have had any idea in which of the buildings in this war zone you were crouching terrified, or from which you might have been spirited away by the lords of evacuation. She was sublime that night, pure essence of mother animal in the wild, she picked up your scent as it had translated itself through me and brought us straight to our building, straight to our floor, our door, which she opened with the key she plucked neatly from my purse.
Inside, darkness and void, nothing, nothing, you were not there. No sign of life—those words bore down on me, sign, life, none, not even a note from Varda, the least she could have done was to leave a note to quiet my pounding heart. So we were located within the minefield after all, it was as I had always suspected. You had been evacuated, cleared away, ethnically cleansed for your own good. Where had they taken you? To what detention camp, what umschlagplatz, what collection point awaiting deportation? We ran out into the hallway and vented our four fists in wasted rage on Varda’s door, rattling the tchotchkes inside, the brass elephants, the laughing Buddhas, the incense burners, sending the mauve Post-it note with the smiley face she had affixed to that door twirling slow motion downward to the floor. “Gaga,” she had written in her loopy Hebrew with her signature violet felt marker, and beside it an arrow, pointing upward.
Up on the roof the party was already full blown. The residents of the building had all spumed upward and out with their dogs and cats and birds and goats, their numbers strengthened by friends and neighbors also escorted by their pets expelled from the restricted zone, all variety of spongers and oglers including news media types, camera wielders, journalists, bloggers, along with politicians carping the diem, as well as army sharpshooters and snipers who had identified the prize view from our rooftop; we were declared to be just at the outer fringe of the officially designated off-limits strip, as it turned out, safe, if such a concept can be said to exist on this planet. It was past one, Thursday a.m., pre-dawn, Thanksgiving Day. Everyone was settling in on that rooftop for the grand finale however long it would drag on, staking out a space, spreading blankets and camping gear, laying out food and toothbrushes and water and other supplies, setting up computers and assorted electronic hookups to supplement whatever might not be detectable to the naked eye with a running minute by minute authoritative stream of what was unfolding on the ground. The Chabad center glowed in the dark across the divide suspended in the black hole of an alternate universe, silent, a mass of hot gas about to combust.
We searched for you everywhere on that rooftop, Maya, we searched for you but could not find you. Daughters of Jerusalem, if you see the one my soul loves what will you say to her? Tell her I am sick with love for her, sick. A group of Israelis sitting cross-legged in a circle on the floor around a centerpiece of six burning memorial candles was strumming guitars and belting out defiantly “Am Yisrael Hai,” that rousing hymn. There among them in that campfire circle, eyes closed fervently, was your nanny, Varda, singing along. OK, Varda, we get it, the Nation of Israel Still Lives, Still Yet, as we used to say in Brooklyn—but Where Is Maya? As if in answer, a gunshot rang out from the Chabad House below, floodlit in the crater, then a scream such as never was and never had been created, a woman’s scream, followed by sobbing, sobbing, and she cried, There’s Maya, and yes, there you were so young and tender in your pajamas, your mouth open and no sound coming out.
You were such a sensitive, delicate child, Maya—what could Varda have possibly been thinking by bringing you up to this rooftop and allowing you to witness such X-rated abominations? Still, there was no point in confronting her at that moment, high as she was in the orbit of her Jewish persecution and survival support group, and besides, her responses would have been predictable: The child needs to know, she needs to see with her own eyes how they hate us and always will hate us, in every generation they will rise up against us to destroy us, she’s got to be taught, and so on and so forth. I made a mental note to myself: Later, later when all this is over, deal with Varda.
We carried you down to the apartment and laid you our baby on the bed between the hovering warmth of our two bodies, murmuring to you, stroking you until at last your face, rigid with horror, your mouth frozen in the zero degrees of a scream, thawed to life again and the voice you had lost was restored to you. The voice in that scream was the voice of the rabbi’s wife, distorted, but you had recognized it, you knew her voice when she had a voice, she was our neighbor, your friend. What had they done to her to wring out such a scream? What sight had they flashed across the screen of her eyelids before she might have closed them forever? What was the last thing she saw in this life?
We met her and the rabbi, her husband, nearly three years earlier, not long after we had arrived in Mumbai and settled into our apartment. It was a Thursday too, I remember. We were returning home from your admission’s interview at Cathedral, which went very well, I’m proud to say, and he was lugging home over his shoulder like Santa Claus a canvas sack stuffed with a dozen bleeding chickens he had just freshly slaughtered for the Sabbath. He decoded us instantly by our surface DNA and invited us to his table. The chickens were roasted, she supervised her dark-skinned menials in all the preparations, she blessed the candles and fed the hungry—the Lonely Planet gang, the dutiful tourists sweating the rounds of Jewish heritage sites, the diamond traders from Ramat Gan and Antwerp and Forty-Seventh Street in Manhattan, the Israeli post-army dropouts, the spiritual seekers, the useless kosher eaters, wandering Jews passing through on the road to the messianic age, a cast of millions in multiples of six. When it came my turn to introduce myself around the table our first time there, I said, “I used to be a rabbi’s daughter when I was a little boy.” The rabbi coughed up a sharp laugh, bunched his wiry red beard in the shaft of his fist and adjusted the black velvet yarmulke on this head. “Ah, a rebel!” he declared. “But we still love you. The Rebbe says it’s a mitzvah to love all Jews, regardless.” The rebbetzin in her long sleek Sabbath wig sat down next to me, took my hand and confided that she was pregnant. It was her third pregnancy; her first two babies had not survived, cut down by a hereditary Jewish disease. “Jewish hereditary diseases are so unfair,” I commented, “considering that just being born Jewish is a hereditary disease.” What drove me to regress like that, to act up like such an adolescent? Why was it so vital for me to signal that once I had been an insider, I knew their territory, but I had seen the light and now was proudly out? To this day I still cringe with shame when I remember that first night. Even so, she embraced us, Maya. She smoothed your cheek and said, “Such a sweet little girl, the sweetest of the sweet, may no evil eye befall you. When my baby is born, God willing in a good hour and in good health, I hope you will be friends. I hope you will come to visit every day.”
You visited so often in your uniform on your way home from school I suppose I should have set limits. They could have brainwashed you, reeled you in, another stray Jew; I was familiar with their mission, I knew their power. But you insisted on going, and swept over by personal nostalgia and my conviction that the familiar however harmful was at least manageable, I let it happen. Almost every afternoon you stopped by for a short play date with little Moshe while Varda waited for you outside their building smoking bidis with the security guard. (And where was he on that day the monsters rose up out of the wine dark sea and cut a straight path to this Jewish hostel?) Varda made a point of not remaining inside chatting and consorting with Moshe’s ayah Sandra lest the entire world wildly attentive to her every move regard her as a common nanny in the same category as this little peasant from Nepal when in reality she was an astrophysicist slumming as a child care provider; as for the guard, he was actually a chemical engineer between jobs, Varda told me. “Moshe’le is my favorite baby in the world,” you would say. “His mama lets me hold him and carry him around.”
The night little Moshe’s mother let out that scream you lost your voice, Maya, for hours you did not speak a word there on our bed lying between us, until dawn when released at last from the evil spell that gripped you, you turned to her and said, “What will happen to Moshe’le?” “He will be saved,” she replied with an assurance no one would dare contradict as you sank into sleep, and over your fragrant head our lips met like the wings of the cherubim over the holy ark.
As we slept in our apartment the constant pounding on the roof directly above us did not abate. Up and down the stairs there was stomping and thudding all through the night constricting my throat and chest with a deep grinding bass pulse. I knew I must wake up for the sake of my family, to protect you from a threat I sensed very close by, but a great weight was pressing down on me and I could not move. Mama! you cried out to me, but you were too far away for me to reach you. I summoned up every remaining shred of my strength to rip the coils holding me down in which I was trussed and drag you from the window where you stood staring into the cockpit of a helicopter, the pilot’s dark eyes smiling on her, shaking his helmeted head side to side in a movement the rest of the world translates as no, but in the official Indo-Aryan and Dravidian body language of the subcontinent it is yes—yes yes yes.
“It’s Moshe’le,” you cried, pointing to the baby on the screen. “He wants his mama.”
We waved as his helicopter brushed our window so close, dipping down low then lifting and whirling away, no longer ours as it joined the flock of choppers suspended under the clouds. From the windows of buildings all around faces popped out, citizens were spilling out onto the balconies, the street so strangely deserted last night was coming back to life, filling with humans panting with curiosity and excitement at a calamity not strictly their own, stray dogs, goats, the whole teeming mob, all pressing toward the poisonous blot of Nariman House. A large white van had drawn up there, maybe an ambulance, maybe a hearse, the airwaves were buzzing, something was happening. Still creased by sleep we ran barefoot up to the roof. Carving out a pathway for us, she shoved to the head of one of the packs gathered in front of a screen. “It’s Moshe’le,” you cried, pointing to the baby on the screen. “He wants his mama.”
Ima, Ima, baby Moshe was sobbing on the screen, the bullet pelted facade of the Chabad House in the backdrop behind him, sobbing in the arms of his ayah Sandra blinking in the dusty late morning daylight of the street. He would not stop crying despite all her tricks to calm him, nothing could stop him from calling Ima. His body stiffened, arching desperately in the direction of the place that contained his heart’s only desire, as if he would launch himself from the street back inside there whatever the consequences. A clump of fuzzy black microphone spider heads was thrust at Sandra’s face as she was being lifted into the white van struggling to hold on to the baby. She had been hiding in a closet when she heard him crying, she paused to recollect. She didn’t think, she said, she just ran and grabbed the baby. She found him wandering dazed in circles around his mother and father lying there so still on the floor—but alive, Sandra insisted, still alive. “My rabbi and his lady, they were so quiet—I should have carried the baby out, then run back inside to save them. I will never forgive myself.” The door of the van sealed behind her like breath expiring, like a spaceship, just as a grenade tossed out of one of the windows of the Chabad center exploded nearby killing a scapegoat, and the crowd ran for cover.
Varda materialized beside me. “Ha, Super Ayah Sandra! How much do you think they paid her, those guys in there, for that little public relations stunt? Muslim freedom fighters release Indian nanny with her Jewish charge in a compassionate gesture. We love all little children. It is the Zionist entity we must uproot. Tell me something—who arranged for that van to show up just at the right minute? Such a big hero, Sandra! Say bye-bye to your ima, Moshe’le. You will never see her again.” Tears were streaming down her face.
Everyone was weeping on that rooftop as they milled in front of the screens watching the baby crying inconsolably for his mother. It was a communal cry-in, incredibly cathartic, an emotional enema, the deeply satisfying pleasure shared by an audience in a packed movie theater viewing a tear-jerker together, absorbing the same stimuli and responding as one. But this was not just discreet sniffling and dabbing at the corners of the eyes with a tissue. It was wrenching sobs, loud and heaving, wailing. I stood there among them taking it all in, struggling to suppress the lump rising in my own throat, fighting to keep my voice from breaking out in howls and losing itself in chorus with theirs. There’s nothing like the cry Mother to turn on the waterworks even in the most base and hardened human specimen. I’d had a mother too, gone. With all my willpower I resisted being manipulated like a Pavlovian dog by this universal trigger, it took every ounce of my inner strength to keep my emotions from churning up and flowing over. Those weeping most openly and lustily, I marveled, were the mighty special commando saviors who now dominated the scene on the rooftop, armed with submachine guns and gleaming knives with saw tooth shark blades. They were the ones who had been stomping up the stairs all through the night I realized to take up their positions on the roof. Now they stood there sobbing helplessly in their black jumpsuits as the baby on the screen bawled Ima and would not be comforted. Tears poured out unrestrained from the cat-like eyeholes of their black balaclavas.
The commando who materialized as the leader of the unit assigned to our rooftop wept his fill, then dried his eyes, gave his nose a good blow, and turned to peer into his scope pointed at Nariman House. In a deliberate public display of professional diligence, he took his time surveying the scene, communicating coordinates and other data to underlings. Only when he had thoroughly satisfied himself that his duties had been properly dispatched did he acknowledge the reporter and cameraman agitating his airspace. The mission is Shoot and Scoot, he declared. My boys are the cream of the cream, tried and true veterans of the Gujarat riots, class of 2002. We know how to deal with these loonies. The Israelis are breathing down our necks. There’s nothing they’d like better than to jump in and take all the credit. I don’t give a damn if it’s Jews in there, or Israelis or Disraelis or Queen Victoria’s pet monkey. I have one word to say to you Israelis, so listen up: This one is our baby! This is Mother India, a sovereign nation. You stay out of it!
Not too far away on the rooftop, a politician in jacket and tie was discoursing expansively on the record, aiming his remarks at the entire subcontinent and the movers and shakers beyond, sucking microphones like lollipops poked forward by media enablers. He was pleased to announce that the situation was now under control at the Taj Mahal Hotel. According to an exclusive intergovernment update he had just now received, guests still inside the Taj had taken refuge in the posh members-only lounge known as the Chambers, where they were enjoying free drinks and tasty hors d’oeuvres, settling in comfortably for the duration until the crisis is fully resolved by our brave first responders. The terrorists have no clue where they are hiding and will never find them.
Even Varda had found a reporter and cameraman team settling for her insights during this lull in the siege, while commandos and snipers stood around sipping chai from unglazed earthenware mugs then hurling them against the stone parapet or like missiles down into the empty street. She identified herself as a proud Zionist, an Israeli, and a Jew in that order, who unfortunately had already had far too much experience with situations like this, she wouldn’t wish it on her worst enemies. If there’s someone out there who imagines for one second that the Jews are not the main target of this little exercise and the designated victims as per usual, she was here now in the fabled land of enlightenment to enlighten them. She reached into the pocket of the vest over her kameez, drew out a crumpled sheet of paper and held it out in front of the camera lens. “This is the terrorists’ top handler who is now pulling the strings from Pakistan,” Varda declared, bobbing the photo annoyingly to rivet the audience’s attention to the image. It was a blowup of a headshot of a man, balding, ponytailed. He reminded me of someone—someone I associated with group spirit dining, maybe at the café Leopold. At first I thought it might be the celebrated writer of a doorstop novel about the Bombay underworld—what was his name?—a former murderer and hoodlum who had reportedly escaped from life imprisonment in Australia to become a bestselling author with a cult following and whom I would spot now and then holding court at his reserved table at the Leopold with his consort at his side, an Indian princess, stunning even through her veil. But then it came to me, and I remembered where I had seen this guy. It was at the Chabad center, at the Sabbath table. He had been wearing a yarmulke; I filed him away then as just another hung-up Jewish male on the road, indulging a midlife identity crisis. For two weeks at least he had lived at Nariman House, Varda briefed the press, a Muslim fanatic disguised as a religious Jew, scoping out the place, Varda could now authoritatively assert, stashing ammunition, planting bombs, turning it into the terrorist base in anticipation of the attack. She, Varda, had sat right next to him at the Sabbath table. She shuddered at the memory. Between the chicken soup with matzo balls and the schnitzel he had dared to reach out his hand and touch the tip of her chin, urging her never to pluck out her bristles; he found them very sexy. Did Varda really say that on TV? She would never forget his face, she said. It was the face of the devil. His eyes were two different colors. One eye was green, the other, brown.
Varda’s voice breaking this news reached us when she and I were already back down in my apartment. We were lying naked in bed making love with the television blaring to keep the sounds of our intimacy from assaulting your innocent ears, Maya. We stared mesmerized at the screen. Did Varda actually think that what she was sending out over the airwaves was good for the Jews? How could this guy have hauled all those supplies and ammunition into Nariman as she claimed without anyone inside wising up to what was going on right under their roof? Was this an inside job? Maybe the guy with the ponytail was really a Jew after all; maybe he was a Mossad agent setting up the operation to incite hatred of Muslims in the hearts of over a billion mother-loving Indians. She turned to me and nuzzled my face with her lips. “I just love the goat hairs on your chinny-chin-chin,” she whispered. “Never tweeze them—OK?” A laugh squirted out of me, I thought she was spoofing, but she placed her long slender hand softly like a stopper over my mouth and said, “No, really—I’m serious. Promise.”
We were living those days of the siege in a bubble, abdicating our survival to the protectors entrusted to watch over us. Mumbai was paralyzed, schools and businesses shut down, its masses huddling in high rises and slums and chawls as the beasts ran wild through the streets. It was an enforced vacation from daily life, from all the schedules and stresses that constricted us, and though we knew that outside our sealed door catastrophic events were unfolding, it was I admit a restful break for us, a time-limited reprieve, an interlude, and we let ourselves sink into it. What else could we do? We had no choice, it was out of our control. You spent the time playing quietly in your room with your same sex parents paper dolls; she and I passed the day in bed not even bothering to get dressed.
Toward evening we put on robes and gathered at the kitchen table for a simple vegan Thanksgiving meal of dal that she shaped into a rooster of India, tarnegol hodu as they have it in the Holy Tongue, a tuki, decorating it with sweet mango pickles and setting it on a bed of basmati rice. You gave thanks for mommies, the more mommies the merrier, and you added a little prayer for baby Moshe’s mommy, may he see her again soon, amen. She gave thanks for the terrorists for bringing us together, but for nothing else, thank you. I lifted my third bottle of Kingfisher and drank to that too but added, Yes, there is one more thing to thank them for—empowering me to do what every self-help guru and spiritual mentor so strongly advises but which only today, thanks to the enforced confinement imposed by the terrorists, I’ve succeeded at accomplishing—living in the moment. And mindfully.
We slept deeply through the night, having by then already been conditioned to the sporadic bursts of gunfire and explosions, the tramping on the roof, the stampeding up and down the stairs, until sometime in the morning when a series of blasts such as had not been in the repertoire until then jerked us to alertness. We threw on some clothing and headed out of the apartment. The door to your bedroom was still closed as we had left it the night before. Why trouble you, we reflected. Let the child go on dreaming in her purity and innocence.
From our rooftop we had an unobstructed view of commandos rappelling down on ropes dangling from a helicopter onto the roof of Nariman House. At street level, a commando brigade stormed the building through the front door. The fighting raged through the afternoon into the evening, so prolonged and intense for a battle between such a reputedly crack battalion of well-armed warriors and by most accounts such a small band of unseasoned guerrilla amateurs that I was almost leaning toward giving some serious credence to Varda’s paranoid conspiracy theory about enemy infiltrators and ammunition stockpiling. Rocket fire boomed from the Chabad center, windows shattered, black smoke and tear gas poured out, walls crumbled exposing the bullet riddled wasted interior, soot smeared walls, furniture broken in pieces illuminated like a post-apocalyptic movie set by floodlights aimed from surrounding rooftops. Toward night what sounded like a bomb exploded, set off by the gunmen according to sources, rocking buildings up and down Colaba Causeway, sending everyone diving for cover.
When darkness descended the fighting finally waned for the first time that day. For a brief otherworldly moment, we were encased in the unaccustomed texture of silence. Then great cheers burst out from the throng of onlookers now packing the streets and alleyways, celebrating on surrounding rooftops and balconies. The commando heroes were filing out the door of the war zone of Nariman House grinning jubilantly and waving their arms, flashing thumbs up signals and v’s for victory, graciously bending down to accept kisses of gratitude from exquisite little girls, in training as sex slaves. The siege was over, the insurgents were dead. So thorough had been our commando sweep that not one perpetrator had escaped alive to terrorize ever again, the populace was assured.
The young rabbi and his wife and the other Jewish hostages did not come out to take their bows in that triumphant curtain call. Maybe it was simply a tactful gesture of deference to the heroes of the hour lest the victims steal the limelight. Maybe they had been whisked out a back door, maybe even on stretchers in a condition not suitable for public consumption. Was there a back door? We were dying, dying to know what happened to them, there was all kinds of speculation. They were alive when the Indian forces entered but were killed in the crossfire. They were already dead by the time the showdown began, murdered by the terrorists. They had been spirited away to Israel by the Mossad in Elijah’s chariot for a joyous reunion with little baby Moshe in his reed basket fished out of the Indian Ocean. There were rumors of barbarism and torture. The bodies had been mutilated, what looked like a fetus had been ripped from her belly, his member had been hacked off and stuffed in his mouth, two women guests at the house were bound together with wire, raped and slashed, the eyeball of a male hostage was resting on his cheek, Torah scrolls were smeared with excrement and torn in shreds, stray dogs and feral cats were roaming, licking the blood soaked floor, it was a pogrom. The fate of the hostages was the main topic on all the screens on our rooftop in the aftermath of the final battle—along with postmortem wrap-up interviews with the commando heroes. “We went in, we did our job, and we got the hell out of there,” a beaming commando laid it out for the interviewer. “I’m not going into details. I don’t need those human-rights-wallahs breathing down my neck.” I turned to her as one does to one’s closest dearly beloved to share the moment, but she was no longer at my side.
She was not in the apartment either. I ran down the stairs outside and there you were, Maya, in front of our building, whimpering and drooping as if you had been drugged, so small and slight in Varda’s arms. A restless minicrowd of street regulars already bored with the main event, searching for new action in other places, menaced around you as a runt reporter who seemed to have lost his way in life, wearing a badge affiliating him with an outfit called the Hindu Orphans Press, stood there videoing Varda with his mobile. “I had to save the child right away,” Varda was declaiming. “There was not one minute to waste. She was no longer safe in her own home. It had been taken over by the criminals. She was in grave danger. I did not stop for one minute to think about myself. I grabbed her and ran.” This was one sick lady it now struck me, your soon-to-be-former nanny Varda. How could I ever have left you alone with her? Forgive me, Maya. Her grandiose delusions were pathological. Among nannies, she was deserving of the most honor, more honor even than the great Sandra, innocent babes she snatched from the jaws of death. Her paranoid delusions were off the charts. Not a single sanctuary remained on this planet that had not been infiltrated by alien invaders. She was the savior, celebrated and feted.
There was a great roar nearby and your eyes darted open, but then as if losing interest you turned and stared at Varda, cocking your head with such sweet curiosity, trying to make sense of her bizarre utterances. Varda cupped the back of your warm shapely head in the palm of her hand and sought to draw you close to her breast almost smothering you, but you wriggled desperately out of her clutches, squirming down barefoot to the filthy road paved with shit crying Mama, Mama, and with both arms spread out wide you ran toward me as I squatted down in the filth opening my arms in turn so wide to receive you, and the motorcycle gunning behind me now roared in front of me slowing down just enough for her to lean over and scoop you up and set you down between her and the rider in his leather goggles and Luftwaffe cap with a frill of black hair peeking out on the edges, and she sang out, Let’s go for a ride, Maya, and you weren’t even wearing a helmet.
Excerpt from Mother India, by Tova Reich (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2018). © Tova Reich. Reproduced with permission from the publisher.
Tova Reich is the author of The Jewish War, My Holocaust, One Hundred Philistine Foreskins, and other novels. Her most recent novel, Mother India, was a finalist in fiction for the 2018 National Jewish Book Award, and was longlisted for the South Asia Literature Prize.