The wall in front of the desk is a greenish turquoise. The painters came and finished the whole flat in just a few hours, and you can see where the paint-soaked rag dripped a little. There are green curtains on the window and I keep them pulled, except when I move them aside to water the succulents on the windowsill. Or to watch the women carry baskets of rocks on their heads at the construction site across the street.
My desk was 100 rupees and is oblong and wobbly, only three perfectly stacked coins—one penny and two fifty-cent paisa pieces—will get it straight. My moleskine, a review copy of Aamer Hussein’s The Cloud Messenger and Tantric Visions of the Feminine Divine, which I picked up at an overstuffed bookstore in Varanasi, sit on one end. Ants crawl into the holes in my computer and then crawl out from behind the “R” key or the number 8. I draw slanting lines around my desk with a magic insect-killing chalk named after my favorite scene from The Ramayana, when Lakshman draws a circle in the dirt around his brother’s wife in order to keep her safe. Just like in the story, it doesn’t really work.
Ahmedabad, Gujarat is dripping sweat and the crunch of grit between my back teeth. In May, it was 110 degrees for two weeks straight. The first night we’re here, I wrapped a wet towel around my neck, and lodged another one under my breasts. The ceiling fan seemed to move like a propeller stuck in seaweed. Everywhere my husband touched me, the sweat pooled and I turned away, so he didn’t see me cry. I wanted to go back to Kolkata, where we’d been for six months, or San Francisco, where I’d been for 10 years. I wanted a book locked in the storage place on Van Ness. I wanted to pull a hat down over my ears as I walked around Bernal Hill. I wanted to have chai with a poet I’d left behind in Kolkata. At dawn, I was still cataloguing my desires. My skin was covered with salt. My ankles were swollen. That’s when I wandered into the green room and sat down at the desk in my damp underwear.
It was my idea to come to India. I wanted to sit with my grandmother and write down all the secrets that she never told anyone else. I wanted to find the tree, under which, my father said he first fell in love with my mother. I wanted to solve the existential immigrant mystery of whom I could have been if they hadn’t left. But then my grandmother died. None of us were even there when they paraded her body around the village, so everyone could pay their respects. A stranger lit the flame to her funeral pyre. We had joked about it on the phone the last time I spoke to her. “Don’t go anywhere,” I had said. “I’m finally coming.”
In San Francisco, I would sit at my cluttered desk in our apartment on Folsom Street and try to salvage something from the pages and pages of words I had churned out in graduate school, in summer workshops, trying to find some guidance from the piles of earnest, typed-up notes that were someone else’s homework. But mostly I just stared up at the tin hearts and wooden Milagros I collected from trips to Mexico, or to visit my brother in El Paso. Annie Dillard says that when revising, you might have to bring down a bearing wall—the one holding everything else up. “What are you?” she asks in The Writing Life. “A woman, or a mouse?” I would sit in coffee shops on 24th Street, drinking pots of green tea as I tried to shatter the draft of a story—The Story, the one I knew needed to be broken open to survive, and in it’s survival be possibly good, maybe even great. Mouse, mouse, mouse, I berated myself. I sat on the couch in the dank teacher’s lounge at Ida B. Wells, which smelled of creamy salad dressing and roach motels, and scribbled down lines about the way the city tumbled down from the crest of Alamo Square. Before that, I wrote in furious bursts late into the night in my room on 20th Street in a house full of girls. There was a poster of Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” taped to the wall in front of me, so when I stopped writing I would look up and try to find all the dark-skinned creatures, who seemed sometimes evil and sometimes helpless. In the winter, I had to keep my coat on because my space heater would blow the circuit. Before that, I wrote at my desk in a crumbling newspaper office on Sacramento and Grant, after everyone else had left for the day. When I left, the streets would be sticky with the disinfectant they spray Chinatown down with every night. When I first got to the city, I walked 20 blocks to the brown crumbling ruins of Sutro Baths and wrote poems on the edge of everything I had ever known.
In Kolkata, my grandmother’s absence had filled my lungs to bursting. We spent the first two weeks trying to buy a desk, but they were either too expensive or too cheap. I tried to sit and write at the kitchen table, but the woman who used to cook for my grandmother came everyday at noon and asked me an endless stream of pointed questions: You’re so old, when are you going to have a baby? (She was 15 when she had her first of three daughters.) Does your husband beat you? (Hers does sometimes, but not too bad.) Where you come from, does everyone have electricity? (She’s been saving up, but with three daughters to marry off, electricity is the last thing on the list.)
Eventually the guy we bought our cell phones from, who also runs an interior design business, sent someone over to build me a desk. It sits right next to my grandmother’s altar, where she used to do an elaborate prayer ritual every morning for hours. To write, I sat in the chair she used to pray in, but the distraction persisted. The story was sealed tight against me, as though it had been shellacked with some magic solution. So, I pretended to write while my husband played his tablas in the other room, or when he went to teach music to children whose legs are different lengths because polio hasn’t been eradicated here. Eventually, I gave up on The Story. Instead, I jogged around the lake behind the apartment where couples, who sat hunched on every hidden bench, looked at my sweatpants suspiciously. I’d walk three blocks to buy eggs, coconut juice, papayas, sweet yogurt and newspapers. I took the metro to North Kolkata to follow a poet around alleys that smelled like ink, lined with hundreds of independent publishing companies, churning out books in Bengali that I couldn’t read. At dusk, I wandered around the campus of the medical college where my parents met. I visited my widowed aunt in the French colonial town where my mother grew up and watched a tiny boy try to teach himself to ride a bicycle twice his size on the field next to the house.
Back in my grandmother’s apartment, I sat down at the desk and tried to submerge into the writing. I set an egg timer to five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes and wrote down fragments of what I saw on the crowded pathway of the Gariahat Market, or about that time on Valencia Street when we were on mushrooms and shot Ryan’s crossbow into a building before dissolving ourselves in the tiny cups of poison at La Rondalla. I began a poem series about the dreams of street dogs. I started a novel about a self-storage space in Ohio, where a heroin addict, a Goddess, a cheerleader and a former Naxalite intersect. But nothing stuck. After the timer buzzed, I would wander to the window, where two crows had made a nest in the Neem Tree. I laid crackers on the windowsill and the male bird came. He would turn his head this way and that to look me in the eye.
But, on the other side of India, on the other side of the world, in the green room, I somehow found a way in. I write still half-asleep, my legs sticking to the particle-board chair. In the Green Room, I look up and five hours have passed. I leave the door open, but ignore the steady stream of people who come in and out of the apartment. I don’t speak Gujarati, so I shake my head if someone walks by—the man who delivers water, or the woman who wants our trash to feed to her buffaloes. The inability to communicate is like a key in a lock. Or maybe it’s the sweat lubricating everything. Or maybe it’s all the things I want that are someplace else—that bittersweet taste of loneliness in the back of my mouth. Whatever it is, in the Green Room, the story starts to come apart like it’s been submerged under water. Hunched and half-naked, I conducted a massacre, devouring babies, hacking paragraphs, peeling off sentences like sun burnt skin. And now, slowly, as the hottest months of my existence morph into a hesitant monsoon, I’m putting the pieces back together again.