KYSO Flash
Knock-Your-Socks-Off Art and Literature
Issue 10: Fall 2018
CNF: 622 words [R]

Real Calcutta

by Nancy Parshall

“There is no poverty in Calcutta,” said Mondira. I knew she was lying. I’d taken “Hungry Nations” class in high school, a whole unit devoted to India. That morning, I’d watched her choose fragrant spices and bright colored fruits from carefully arranged baskets at a covered market. Her driver, Aneesh, waited with the car as she moved from vendor to vendor, judging the produce, her chin high like a queen balancing a crown. As we walked out of the marketplace, gaunt beggars in dirty brown cotton swarmed. They parted like schoolchildren as Mondira walked through, the bright oranges and yellows of her silk sari flowing behind her, her gold bangles jingling with every step. Wide-eyed, I shuffled behind, wanting to offer something.

That afternoon Aneesh took me on a tour of Calcutta. I sat alone in the backseat as he drove past the Victoria Memorial building, the Dakshineshwar Temple, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Howrah Bridge. He showed me the India Mondira wanted me to see. I felt cheated. This wasn’t the India I learned about at the dinner table, the one with starving children I helped by cleaning my plate.

At the end of the tour, Aneesh pulled over. “I will take you to those places you are wanting to go. But you cannot be telling Madam. I will lose my job.” He saw my nod in his rear-view mirror as I moved to the edge of my seat.

Aneesh drove. Larger houses became smaller houses became sheds. Mothers with children, the elderly, stray dogs, sat at the edge of the road as if waiting for a parade. Aneesh stopped the car and said, “These people are living on the road. They are having their spaces and returning each night.”

“Can I get out of the car?” I asked.

“Yes. They won’t hurt you.” Aneesh got out too and waited, leaning on the car. He didn’t take his eyes off me. When a young woman, flanked by four dirty children, stood and walked to me, the street fell silent. Without saying a word, she handed me her baby.

“She’s beautiful,” I said, looking back and forth between the woman and the baby in my arms. She smiled and showed me her palms as if offering something. I was Princess Di, spreading cheer to the downtrodden. I thought about the big lie that says we are all created equal. I thought about how the change in my pocket might feed her family for a week. I thought of my friends back home who already had babies, who were living their futures, while I lived an unattached present. Looking into the infant’s big brown eyes, a part of me longed for that future.

I held the baby out and the mother took a step back.

I stepped toward her.

Aneesh, now next to me, took the baby. “She is wanting you to keep the baby.” He handed her back to her mother. I stood rooted in the spot as Aneesh tugged on my elbow. I stumbled to the car, glancing back to see if she was following. Rickshaws weaved around her as she stood in the road, cradling her baby, watching her hope drive away.

In the thirty years since, I’ve walked the Great Wall, Angkor Wat, and Borobodur. I’ve seen Mount Everest, Mount Fuji, Mount Kilimanjaro. The Plain of Jars in Laos. The Golden Triangle in Thailand. Victoria Falls. The Grand Canyon. Lhasa. But my mind always returns to the real Calcutta. I see her still standing there, still holding her baby, still sleeping on the street. But it’s not her at all. My would-be daughter, now with a family of her own, stands in her mother’s footprints waiting for hope.


—Published previously in Dunes Review (Winter/Spring 2016 [20.1]); appears here with author’s permission


Nancy Parshall
Issue 10, Fall 2018

splits her time between Northwestern Michigan College, where she teaches English, and the Lake Leelanau hobby farm she shares with her husband, David. Her writing has appeared in KYSO Flash, Dunes Review, Dime Show Review, Bear River Review, and others, and was nominated for the 2016 Best of the Net awards. Her fiction chapbook, Proud Flesh, won the 2017 Michigan Writers’ chapbook competition.

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