BY JANIKA OZA
In the apartment in Berlin, I sleep on the carpet in a rolled quilt patterned like the night sky. Beside me, in a twin bed pushed against the wall, my brother. He is here to work for a summer; I am here to visit him for ten days, after six months of thesis research in Nepal. I came to Berlin instead of going home, prolonging my time away. Not quite ready for this crossing to be over. I feel lighter, changed. I’m afraid that going home means going back to a self that I’ve forgotten, a self that I don’t know how to remember.
One wall of the apartment is made entirely of a window that looks out onto a small rectangle of lawn. From the neighbour’s tree, lemons spill over the fence like cat’s eyes. We’re staying with a single mother and her pre-teen son. We share the space but exist separately. In the mornings, she leaves out freshly baked loaves of strawberry bread that gather fruit flies and dimple in the heat. Above the toaster, a pink poster reads, FUCK THE PATRIARCHY. Often, she stashes away her son’s video game controllers, only to forget where she’s hidden them. We watch them searching, giggle cautiously, unsure how much to intervene.
I haven’t seen my brother in six months, and meeting him in this new place feels like a sliver of home. I tell him stories of my time away, show him the half-moon scar on my stomach from the guard dog my first week in Kathmandu, languages mixing on my tongue. He, in turn, shows me the city he’s come to love, surprises me with his German. We trade words like candies, like secrets we’ve been waiting to share. Auslander. Bideshi. Zuhause. Ghar. I want to ask him what he’s missing. I want him to ask me.
When he leaves for work in the morning, I crack open my laptop and Skype my boyfriend. It’s the second time in six months that we’ve done this, and the first time I’ve seen him clearly. Without internet at my homestay in Nepal, we relied on disjointed text messages and the occasional broken phone call. The first time we Skyped, a week before I came to Berlin, he told me he was no longer coming to visit me back home like we’d planned. His features were blotchy, a series of creamy pixels scrambling and reconfiguring in slowed time. In the bottom left corner, my face was frozen, a small, dark knot. I kept my voice even as tears slid down my cheeks, for once grateful for the poor connection.
This time, in Berlin, I see him anew. I’m not surprised by any of it, the hazel flecks in his eyes, the newly stubbled chin. But something isn’t there. Now that we’re talking regularly again, I don’t know how to fill him in on all he’s missed. The time the bus broke down on a rural road in southern Nepal, hundreds of kilometers away from anyone I knew. The precise quality of the darkness during a nighttime power-cut, a black so cavernous you could misplace your own body. The weeks I spent living with my aunt in India, when she told me I was brave to leave home—how I understood that at my age she already had children, and how I didn’t admit that to me, that required infinitely more bravery. The truth that the months I spent away from him were some of my happiest, the feeling of a button unfastened, of spilling out and into myself. I feel a world apart from what we once knew. I’m angry with him for not knowing so much. I lose my patience when I can’t follow his stories, not being able to picture the places, his new friends. The self I want him to know no longer translates. It’s a lonely place, this anger.
When I leave the apartment, I don’t know where I’m going. Just to walk, to wander. Ghum gham garnus. I make a mental note to ask my brother how to say that in German. But then I think that there are more practical things I should know how to say first. Things like, I’m lost, or maybe, I don’t know my way back home.
– – –
It’s a privilege to wander, to move without necessary destination. To exist without the need to arrive. In Nepal, I could wander safely, without attention: my brown skin, my nose piercing, my small stature made me nearly indistinguishable from the people around me, as I was frequently told. Nepali justai, they would say, you look just like us. I came to enjoy this, the anonymity it afforded me, the ability to simply blend in. There, I could exist freely in my skin, the distance between myself and everything around me closing in a way that I had rarely experienced. It was only when I opened my mouth, when the words fell crooked from my lips, that I revealed myself as not from here.
I think about this as I walk through a highway underpass in Berlin, find myself facing a series of road signs whose directions I cannot understand. Around me, couples stroll sipping from bottles of beer and children gnaw on ropes of crusty bread. I think they eye me as they pass, though I might be imagining it. Here, my aimlessness is visible, even suspicious. I don’t yet have the words to ask for help finding where I’m going. Instead, I retrace my steps, listen to the cars vibrate across the overpass. The only way that feels certain is the journey back.
That evening, my brother and I walk along the water’s edge, where artists with rumbling speakers line the path. Beneath their patchwork costumes, the paint smearing their cheeks, their faces are furrowed. On the way home, we pop into a pizza place, hungry from the day’s heat. Behind the counter, fists twirling a pat of dough, the man stops. His eyes, dark, wet, search out mine, the shade of his skin matching my own. This familiarity, I understand, is rare. He puts down the dough, shimmies his body between the counter and the other customers, speaking directly to us.
“India?” he says, motioning his fingers between us, connecting us with an invisible line. “Pakistan?”
We nod. “India,” we confirm, as if this one word can encompass the web of migration our ancestry spins, weaving from pre-Partition Karachi to Kenya and Uganda, from Rajasthan to Hyderabad to England and Canada. But we hear what he’s really asking, the question that doesn’t need to be spoken, the thread of knowing he’s trying to stretch between us, drawing us closer in history and time. Justai.
The man presses a palm to his chest. “Pakistan,” he says. Around him, the men stir vats of sauce and whip cheese into place. The air smells of yeast and oil. One of the cooks grunts pointedly, his grey eyes cutting to the man with the hands cupping his heart. But he doesn’t notice: he is still, absorbed, singularly focused on us.
“We’re visiting,” I say, “we live in Canada now.”
The man’s features rearrange, his eyebrows pulling close. He pokes his tongue from his lips and says something in a language that is both familiar and out of reach. We look back, blank. He sighs. “Urdu?” he says finally.
We shake our heads. It is apparent now, the gulf between us. But still, he watches; still, he holds us captive in his gaze. We share a few more words, in English and German, tossing them across the ocean of distance. We smile, nod, press our hands to our hearts. Before we turn to leave, I see him swipe his eyes with the back of a flour-dusted wrist.
– – –
At home we are quiet, heavy with knowing. I’ve felt it before, the relief of discovering a face like my own. The way it settles me back into myself, smooths over the loose seams. I stare at the textured ceiling, the moon cutting it into glowing stripes. I knew this man. I didn’t know him at all. But I witnessed him, his sorrow, the truth in his stare. How desperately he asked to be seen.
– – –
In Kathmandu, the growing population and energy scarcity mean that power is chopped up into scheduled morsels in different neighbourhoods each day. Load-shedding, it’s called, when the government shuts off the power for a whole section of the city for up to 17 hours at a time. During this time, we sit in the dark, shadows from the candles stuttering across the walls. We talk, tell stories, laugh. We strain our eyes to read. We drain our phone batteries taking mood-lit selfies. Always, we stay together, warding off the monsters lurking in the darkness with a knee pressed against a thigh, the brush of fingers against a wrist as we reach to light another candle.
It is these moments I miss most when I return home. I know that this is a privilege, to miss something that causes daily inconvenience to millions of people, that regulates how they can order their lives. Something borne of crisis, a crippling power shortage, unconquerable because of political instability, corruption, drying rivers. I publish articles about proposed hydro-dams on Nepal’s sacred rivers. I start writing my thesis about these rivers, about the people whose lives I entered, then left. It feels wrong to miss something I could so easily leave. I miss it anyways.
Back home, my relationship is over. The ugly secrets that lived in the silences finally bared their cracked, rotting teeth. With my Toronto Wi-Fi, the truth is unmistakable, the lies striking in how clear they become. I miss connection, togetherness, in a way that unmoors me. I remember how it felt to exist generously, where every place could hold the feeling of home, its warmth and its weight. I remember how it felt to embody home for a stranger. I don’t know a word for that in any language, for that glimpse of connection amidst the unfamiliar, how it grounds you back into yourself. How much meaning can traverse that distance, even when so much doesn’t translate.
When my brother comes home at the end of that summer, we barely speak. I feel as if I am mourning the loss of so many things. I imagine he is, too, the time away enough to cement a new reality. We orbit around one another, reading books in silence over morning toast. It is not unpleasant, nothing tense. There is understanding in that silence, a knowledge of how much there is to say, how hard it is to say it. We’ve gone back and we’ve grown forward, outward. Different and the same. We lament the loneliness of coming back even as we indulge in its comforts. This, I think, is home. We walk to the park, call our relatives in other time zones. He begins reading books in German, his finger trailing slow down the page. I send Facebook messages to my friends in Nepal, knowing it might be weeks before they’re read. When we talk, it is without the pressure of trying to say all that can’t be said. We leave room for each other to slip back into the seams of ourselves, but also space for what wasn’t there before. How little, how much, we ask of each other: to look, to keep looking; to be seen. We go back to where we came from; we reach out, fleeting, cautious; we return, altered, to where we began.
Janika Oza is a writer based in Toronto. She is the winner of the 2020 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest, and her work has received support from VONA, Tin House, One Story, and the Millay Colony. She is published or forthcoming in Catapult, The Best Small Fictions 2019 Anthology, The Cincinnati Review, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere.
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