Tag Archive: India

  1. A New Haven for the Arts

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    The summer before her sophomore year, Emily Hays ’16 went to India. And there, like so many literary and cinematic heroines, she had a revelation.

    She was trying to learn Hindi, but found it difficult to practice in the new environment. So, she said, she had to speak to strangers. Though her conversations were often short and rudimentary, they helped her feel connected to her temporary home.

    “Those tiny interactions,” she said, “made me feel more a part of that community than I ever did in New Haven.”

    Back in Connecticut for the fall semester, Hays felt a “moral obligation” to extend that spirit of community. A lifelong arts enthusiast (music and art classes as a kid, a few art classes and various music ensembles in college), she wanted to foster a spirit of creativity and cooperation right here in New Haven.

    And that’s how Blue Haven, a new student organization encouraging artistic and creative collaboration, was born.

    * * *

    Yale students are ostensibly pretty good at talking to strangers. They ace college interviews, charm their friends’ parents and schmooze with professors during office hours. But casual conversations between Yalies and New Haven residents unaffiliated with the University are relatively rare. Hays thinks that should change.

    At the start of her sophomore year, inspired by her time abroad, she resolved to build a community in her adopted Connecticut home. She wanted to connect students with local New Haven artists. And after a semester of work, Hays put together a show in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

    The collaborative performance, called a “commingling,” bridged the town-gown gap, combining a variety of artistic modes including song, dance and poetry. “It’s about getting performers and artists together in the same space,” Hays said.

    Comminglings are informal and often improvised. Anyone who wants to participate is welcome, and Blue Haven members encourage attendees to perform in pairs, creating mixed media duets.

    Sarah Lemieux, a New Haven-based musician and music teacher, performed at that first event in January. During the

    show, she took part in an impromptu collaboration with Dave Harris ’16, a Yale spoken word poet.

    “He asked me to accompany him,” Lemieux said, “and we just came up with it on the spot.”

    Alexander Dubovoy ’16, a seasoned jazz musician and Blue Haven’s publicity director, also performed at the original commingling. He said the show was a fun opportunity to branch out from usual on-campus creative circles. Plus, “We got a great response from the Yale community.”

    Following that first show’s success, Hays realized she could do even more for the New Haven arts scene. She orchestrated a second event in the spring semester, an art exhibition. Still, it was a fledgling endeavor, and much of the organizational work fell to her.

    Today, Hays works with a group of equally dedicated students — Blue Haven has grown into a full-blown, Yale-approved organization. (The name doesn’t have any particular meaning. “One of my friends just came up with a series of puns on New Haven,” Hays explained.) The group’s membership has expanded in the last year, and so has its scope.

    “Now it’s not just about being in the same space,” Hays said. “It’s about creating new art together, through combined inspiration.

    Though Blue Haven remains in its first semester of official existence, Hays and her fellow arts enthusiasts are already planning several events. Their first collaborative project will involve Kingdom Café, a regular open mic for New Haven youth, on Nov. 21 at the Afro-American Cultural Center.

    “Kingdom Cafe gathers upwards of 80 people a month, most of whom are high school aged,” said Kingdom Cafe leader George Black. The students are free to sing and dance and share poetry or visual art, he explained.

    Now, Yale students will also get to perform at their November event. Blue Haven and Kingdom Cafe members will be paired for their performances, said Black. “It gives me great joy to see a partnership forming where New Haven peoples, including Yale students, can be exposed to the powerful expression of New Haven’s youth.”

    In January, Blue Haven will form a similar partnership with The Future Project, a mentorship group for teens that encourages creativity and innovation. With these new affiliations, Hays aims to cement institutional relationships as well as personal ones. She’d like to ensure that students and local artists continue collaborating in coming years, long after she graduates.

    * * *

    Still, the 313-year relationship between Yale and New Haven is, in a word, complicated. It’s a well-known trope: disharmony between the University and the city beyond its glorious, swipe-access-protected gates.

    “A lot of the time, people talk about New Haven in terms of crime statistics,” said Hays. She thinks that some Yale students consider it a sinister place, a reputation reinforced by worried parents and out-dated college guidebooks.

    As a result, many students feel like they exist in the “Yale Bubble,” rarely leaving central campus and almost never engaging with the community at large.

    To Lucy Wang ’17, a student in Morse, the city does feel fractured. “It’s absurd that I don’t feel safe walking two blocks off campus,” she said. “I once talked to someone from New Haven who described Yale as a castle that no one else can access. It’s like two different worlds.”

    But many on-campus groups are working to improve the relationship between city and university. Becca Steinberg ’15, president of the New Haven Urban Debate League, believes that students should expand the way they think about the Elm City.

    “It’s not like we’re just at Yale for four years,” she said. “We’re in New Haven for four years.”

    The Urban Debate League partners with New Haven high schools and middle schools to provide debate coaching and host monthly competitions. That way, local students can have more opportunities to debate, and Yale students can build long-term relationships with their mentees.

    Steinberg feels a sense of responsibility to the city. “We have an obligation to reach out and really interact with the broader community,” she said. “It’s important to build that mutual back-and-forth.”

    For Blue Haven, that mutual back-and-forth is a symbiosis among all kinds of artists. And Hays believes that this cooperation benefits artists and audiences alike. A student who sees friends collaborating with local performers might realize that community extends beyond the four corners of a residential college (37 corners if you’re in Morse or Stiles).

    “There’s a common idea that New Haven is a security problem. This is a way of counteracting that conception,” Hays said. “There is so much richness here.”

    * * *

    While Yalies are perpetually inundated with Facebook invites to improv and YSO shows, they don’t always remember the larger arts community that surrounds them, said Dubovoy. “If you weren’t looking for it,” he said, “you wouldn’t necessarily find it.”

    “I know of some local art spaces,” Wang said. “But other than that, I sort of assume that arts-related people would have something to do with Yale.”

    In reality, outside the Gothic-and-Sometimes-Georgian Bubble, local artists are thriving. “It’s a really vibrant and diverse community,” Lemieux said.

    She named a variety of musical spaces, the majority of which are probably unknown to the average Yale student. “You have a fantastic symphony orchestra, a bunch of little hole-in-the-wall venues. Then there are more established places like Café Nine and Firehouse 12,” she said.

    That vibrant and diverse community is also larger than some might think. According to its website, the Arts Council of Greater New Haven serves around 130,000 artists, arts organizations and the general public each year.

    Even if you missed Aaron Carter at Toad’s, you still have plenty of opportunities to sample New Haven’s arts scene. Kingdom Café holds open-mic nights once a month. From Nov. 19 to Jan. 2 the Arts Council will host an art exhibition called More Than a Face, featuring self-portraiture without depictions of the face. And each summer, a huge number of musicians and artistic visionaries attend the International Festival of Arts and Ideas.

    Student groups and professional ones have always had resonant interests and aims. The problem, Dubovoy said, was that “no one had combined all of these goals into a forum for interplay between Yale and New Haven.”

    That’s where Blue Haven comes in. But even with the group’s early successes, it’s still trying to gain a dedicated following at Yale and in the surrounding city. Hays and her companions are currently looking for interested Yalies with organizational and coordinating skills, as well as potential performers.

    The foundation is in place. Members will keep commingling. And with each new partnership and performance, that Yale Bubble will get a little thinner.

    “I want to make sure this group lasts,” said Hays. “We want to create spaces where New Haven and Yale people feel really comfortable together. Where they’re creating together all the time.”

  2. On Flying and on Turning 20 (while flying)

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    Wake up. “Ma’am, your tray table must be closed for landing.” Your hands, the well-trained hands of a frequent flyer, push the table back up on their own, and you don’t even have to interrupt your sleep. You squeeze your eyes open and try to rub the sleep away but the cabin lights are bright and your head is achy and —

    Thud. The plane’s wheels hit the ground, and it roars and shudders and slows and hums and finally comes to a halt. The seatbelt sign goes dark, and seatbelts click open; it is time to leave. You drag your little black suitcase across the airplane aisle which is like every other airplane aisle, narrow enough so your suitcase keeps crashing into seats. You get off the plane and your legs automatically pick up pace even though you’re tired beyond belief because your legs know how long terminals can be, and you run through the Paris airport which is like every other airport, lined with walls of Belvedere and Miss Dior, and you stop and catch your breath at the immigration line which is like every other immigration line, reminding you that not all passports are created equal. Yours, with Republic of India lettered on its cover, always leads you to the longer wait, as one of the countless visitors to JFK or Heathrow, or one of the countless returning home to Delhi. Finally, you make it onto the plane which is like every other transatlantic plane, sterile white plastic interiors that remain uninteresting no matter how long you stare at them. You’re bored; so, utterly, thoroughly, bored. It’s your 20th birthday. 

    You’re flying! You try to tell yourself. You’re thousands of miles up in the air, and how is this not a cool way to spend your birthday? Not even that long ago, you would’ve believed yourself. Not even that long ago, you were 18 and you’d spent most of your years waking up to the same view outside your bedroom window, and so the bed of clouds and Technicolor sunsets you could see from planes were your favorite things. Not even that long ago, you were 12, “Unaccompanied Minor” lanyard dangling from your neck, and you wondered how, in just 8 hours, a plane could take you from warm and dusty India full of people like you to cold and clean England full of white foreigners. Not even that long ago, you were 8, and your plane took off in the rain but then you went above the clouds. It was sunny again even though it was still raining down below, and then wisps of white suddenly appeared right outside your window. Before you knew it, the wisps had turned into a wall and you were inside an actual cloud. You turned to your uncle sitting next to you and told him you were in love with flying. 

    What happened to that feeling? Every time you sat on a plane as a child, you used to look out at the clouds and imagine bouncing from one to the other, pillows strewn on a celestial playground, collecting soft fluff in your arms and pressing it against your face. Then, maybe it was the fifth grade, you learned clouds weren’t bouncy but were made of vapor, and you would freeze to death that high up in the atmosphere. Also, there wouldn’t be enough oxygen for you to breathe. You used to want to grow up and do grown-up things like clear immigration lines by yourself and hold your own passport. 

    Then you grew up and you had to clear immigration lines by yourself, standing for three hours in JFK holding your I-20, the crumpled piece of white paper that would prove to the officer that you weren’t in the States to stay, or to detonate a bomb, but just to study for a few more years at Yale. You used to collect airline booklets of the films they had in-flight, sad that the journey wasn’t long enough for you to watch more movies. Then you had to take a bunch of 13-hour flights from home to college and college to home. You realized no number of movies could help with the knowledge that you wouldn’t see your friends, or your lover, for 13 and a half weeks. Right now, on this flight, it doesn’t look like your screen works. You don’t even care. You plonk your head down on the tray table to try and sleep.

    * * *

    The air hostess wakes you when she brings out the beverage cart. You get excited about getting to drink wine on your birthday — you’re on Air France, after all. But the wine in the tiny screw-top bottle is shitty. You couldn’t really sleep, or get your TV to work, so you’ve been a voyeur of voyeurs, watching other people’s screens instead — the thirty-something man with a mustache in front of you is watching Brazilian models who periodically shake their butts; the forty-something woman with Chanel glasses across from you is smiling at Aaron Eckhart having sex with Cameron Diaz. You remember because you’re writing all this down on the plane, because writing about something is supposed to make you look at it with new eyes, but writing isn’t actually helping to make the flight any better. Happy Birthday.

    The Italian couple beside you doesn’t speak enough English to fill out their customs form, so now you begin to fill it out instead, trying to talk to them in Spanish because it’s the only Romance language you know. You’re terrified you’re penciling in the wrong thing and they’re going to get in trouble at customs.

    But they won’t. You’ve done this often enough to know that customs isn’t actually that scary, that despite the Caps Lock instructions on the form, they won’t actually make a huge fuss if you don’t PRINT your letters with a BLUE pen.

    You still get seated next to people who are strangers to flying. Two months ago, you were sitting next to a girl from rural Punjab, and five minutes before take-off, she had shown you her boarding card, looking petrified, asking whether she was on the wrong flight and if someone was about to come throw her off it. It was her first flight. At least, looking out her window, she would soon discover what a sunset looks like from a plane.

  3. India Awakened

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    A girl bathed in green light, lying on her back, wailing as she dies of starvation. An elderly monk swathed in orange robes, singing into a megaphone as he leads a caravan of ecstatic festival-goers.

    The Indian Ensemble’s original play “Thook” has activist ends — it examines issues of “food security, international trade and hunger,” according to the playbill — but succeeds in creating searing images of individual human suffering, compassion and humor. With just five actors, the production leaps nimbly from Winston Churchill’s kitchen to a corporate marketing photo shoot to the slums of present-day India.

    The show is divided into four scenes: a man playing Winston Churchill’s Indian cook and Churchill himself; a hellish sequence wherein three children see their father beheaded and seek refuge in an abandoned warehouse; the filming of a soft-drink advertisement, at which corporate marketers show off their blissful ignorance of third-world life; and finally, an extended story of a Hindu businesswoman and a Muslim trader falling in love in contemporary India.

    Amazingly enough, it works. The disparate storylines don’t feel thrown together — in part because the costume and set changes are interwoven with interludes about global politics that are never boring or difficult to follow.

    The actors are utterly convincing. Just minutes before one man plays Mahatma Gandhi, he plays Winston Churchill’s dog Rufus with equal believability. One woman plays a dying girl, a monk-grandfather, a working adult woman, and, believe it or not, Franklin Roosevelt. And still, credibility is not strained for a second.

    While the viewing experience is smooth, the connections that we are supposed to intuit between the play’s many elements — the meaning of it all — are less than obvious. Much of the show concerns the parallel Bengal food crises of 1943 and 2008. During the former, Churchill refused to send aid, and history repeated itself five decades later when the West largely ignored the food riots. But the historical connection, while poignant, only emerges after some reflection.

    The ambivalence of Churchill’s cook toward his employer reflects the audience’s own mixed feelings. Was he gluttonous, hypocritical and cruel or heroic, charismatic and affectionate? And why does Churchill shoot his dog?! “Thook” is a play of ideas, but not of easy answers or didactic conclusions.

    The set’s only constant fixture is a set of clouds fashioned from cotton and rope. Everything else is fluid: Effects are achieved by subtle sounds, masterful lighting and force of personality. Dripping water, ominous pulsing and distant traffic sounds enhance different settings. The show is a collaboration between the Indian Ensemble of Bangalore, who flew in from India last week, and the Hartbeat Ensemble, a Hartford-based group that explores social justice issues. Whoever was in charge of tech knew precisely what they were doing.

    I did not know before seeing the show what language it was in, and I am still unsure. Most dialogue is Hindi, with English subtitles projected on screens far above the stage that force the audience to choose between watching the stage or reading the text. Many jokes were obviously lost in translation and transcription, as was obvious from the heavy and frequent chuckling of the Indian family seated next to me, at moments when the rest of the audience was silent. But at random times the actors broke into English, in varying degrees of consistency with the subtitles.  Despite the jumble, there were still moments of lyric intensity that were communicated clearly and powerfully.

    In the final scene, an old Indian woman confronts a young African man and tells him, “You’re too poor to die. Death is an expensive affair.” The tragic double-bind of poverty and hunger could not be stated with more economy. “Thook” translates to English as “spit” and over the course of the play comes to mean something vital — a sign of love and of human instinct. It is messy and visceral and compelling and therefore a fitting title for a play that is all these things.

    Correction, Sept. 17: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the Hartbeat Ensemble as being from New Haven. In fact, the group is from Hartford. 

  4. Case 93 – Part II

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    Fiction continued from “Case 93 — Part I.”

    — But how did the animal floor become the zoo?


    I drew a picture of Henry and then began to put posters up around our school. We listed the main attractions — the Dalmatian mice, the Indian King Cobra, the Peacock, the White Lion and of course Henry, who we painted to match Francis’ fur for the grand opening. We charged 500 Rupees as an entrance fee; Ajit wanted to do 1,000 but I thought that was too much, don’t you think? I was going to get all the profit so I could run away from my father. You know, the zoo never would have happened, all you people would have never gotten to be so intimate with such beautiful animals if it weren’t for my father — that’s Ganesh’s doing.

    — What do you mean?


    She narrowed her eyes. I’m not an idiot; I know you read the gossip section of the papers.

    — I’m sorry Miss Hart. I didn’t mean to offend you; I just wanted to hear your side of the story, not the newspapers’.


    She sighed. Why don’t we pull out a smoother bottle of scotch? She got to her feet and walked back towards the bathtub. A year before we came up with the idea for the zoo, so when I was 13, my father started coming into my room at night. The first time he just kissed my feet, stared out the window. Hart yanked out a new bottle of Scotch from the tub then turned and walked back towards me, keeping her eyes on the new bottle. But then he started doing other things. I guess he thought it was okay because I wasn’t his actual daughter. I’m not entirely sure if my mother knew, if she realized his half of the bed was empty for long periods of the night, but that’s when I started looking for my real parents. Hart poured herself another glass of scotch. Ajit’s grandfather tried to help me, though I never told him about my father’s night visits. Dada just didn’t particularly care for my parents. He didn’t care for anyone who didn’t have family dinners. Hart took a long gulp of her scotch.

    — Did Ruby notice?


    Oh, Ruby was gone at this point. Yeah, they let her go when I was nine. I guess Ajit’s family raised me more or less after that.

    At this point in the interview the 15-pound pig strutted out of Hart’s bedroom and sat in front of the couch squealing. She picked him up with a huge smile.

    Aw Franny, baby. How was your nap? Hart put her nose up to the pig’s snout — the pig licked her back. The pig was indeed miniature and his fur was indeed this strange intricate pattern of red and blues, like nothing I have ever seen before. I kept blinking my eyes to make sure it was real.

    Franny, this is an officer who helped to lock that wretched old man away. The pig began to squeal more. Then Hart looked me straight in the eye.

    I’m not affected by it you know, I turned out perfectly sane.

    The pig settled down on the empty cushion between Hart and me on the Victorian Couch. Hart stroked the pig as she continued.

    Everyone in our entire grade came to Ajit’s apartment building on opening day — 88 14-year olds. Everyone had heard whispers of Ajit’s animals, but I was the only one who had actually seen them outside his extended family. Ajit and I split our customers up into two groups and lead guided tours of the animal floor, which now had signs throughout which said “Don’t Feed the Animals” or “Don’t Touch the Cobra’s Case,” or “Please ask an Attendant for a List of Animal Names, Animals Appreciate it When they are Called by their Proper Name and not their Species Name” — Ajit put that one up, I thought it was a little much, but then again it wasn’t my zoo.

    People started coming every Saturday. People we didn’t even know, like you. We started to sell monthly memberships. We brought out a tall ladder we found and placed it next to Henry under the Banyan tree so our clients could climb up the ladder and pose on Henry’s back; I would snap their photo with Ajit’s Polaroid camera. We charged 200 Rupees. Ajit also had me take a picture of every animal he ever had. We covered the walls of the front entrance with them. Underneath the pictures we wrote their birthdays with a dash, sometimes their death dates were on the other end of the dases.

    — Where were you planning to run with the profits from the zoo?


    Well, I found out about my mother at some point during the year we ran the zoo. My real mother. Sometimes you just find out about things if you want to know them bad enough — Ganesh must have helped me with this one. My mother is from South Carolina and was 15 when she had me. Her parents shipped her off to live with her grandparents in New York when she started to show. I was never in an orphanage; it was some sort of private adoption. I’m not sure how that all works. Maybe she wanted to keep me; maybe it was just her parents that made her abandon me and not her at all.

    — Are you still going to look for her?


    I’m not here to talk about my future, only about Ajit.

    — Sorry, Miss Hart.


    Anyways, I don’t know how my adopted parents found out about the zoo and the fact that I was collecting Rupees under my mattress, they didn’t know about anything else going on in my life. I don’t even think they remembered my birthday once Ruby left. But somehow my father found out and walked down the road to Ajit’s that Saturday. He was drunk, and as usual, an angry drunk.

    Hart bit her lip. 

    Ajit was the only one who knew about my father’s night visits. I only told him, because I wasn’t entirely sure if it was wrong or not. If that was something that all adopted kids had to endure.

    — What did he say when you told him?

    Hart stroked her pig, who began to inch farther away from me and nuzzle its snout underneath one of Hart’s needlepoint pillows. 


    He said he would pay.

    Hart poured herself more scotch.

    Ajit isn’t a dangerous person. How could anyone that loves animals be? But sometimes I think he understands his animals more than humans, and thinks that it is acceptable to handle life the way animals do.

    — So your father coming to the zoo …


    Yes. There were only about 20 kids roaming the second floor that day. I remember I was standing in front of Pirima’s case explaining the importance of the Indian King Cobra to a boy about 3 feet tall when my father walked in. I don’t like seeing people out of place, and my father certainly did not belong in Ajit’s zoo; he taints all magic in the world. He stumbled over towards me and all our clients started to move out of his way. Ajit just stared at me from across the room.

    — Did he say anything? Yell at your father?


    In a way, but my father can’t communicate the way Ajit and I can … My father started saying awful things. I don’t know if I even knew what cunt meant at 15, maybe I did. But I just remember knowing he knew my plan to run away. He knew everything. He lunged at me and squeezed my neck with both hands. I probably would have been knocked to the ground, but Pirima’s glass case stabilized me. I remember not being able to breathe, my world started to spin; I started writing the first line of my obituary. Fifteen-year-old American girl choked to death by drunken father, sandwiched between him and an Indian King Cobra case.

    But then all of the sudden I could breathe again. All of the sudden my father was on the floor, his eyes wide open staring at the glass ceiling above, with Pirima latched onto his left hand. She held on tightly, long enough to get an adequate amount of venom into his blood stream to send him into a 10-day coma, but short enough so that he wouldn’t die. When she was done, she released her grasp and slithered over towards Ajit.

    And then I ran. I ran all the way to the Vipassana in Igatpuri where I had gone to with Ajit once. I guess I assumed Ajit would come find me when the time was right, when things with my father were settled. But he never came. And then I read about his disappearance in the newspapers.

    — But Miss Hart, what about the case, the cobra, how did he get out to bite your father?


    Her name is Pirima. And you figure it out, you’re the detective, Ramaj, I was the girl being choked.

    — I’m sorry Miss Hart. I paused. Expecting her to continue, but she only stared at me. So, how did you get here?


    Hart looked at the pig and then took another sip of her Scotch. 

    Well Francis found me after about a year. I came back from painting meditation and he was just sitting outside the door to my bedroom, as beautiful as ever.

    — Do you think Ajit brought him there?


    Maybe, or maybe he just told Francis where to find me. It doesn’t really matter.

    — Ajit never came?


    You are fully aware he didn’t … After two years I received a telegram from Ajit’s grandfather telling me about how my father had embezzled from the American Embassy. Dada told me it was safe to come home. So I did.

    When I got home, I went into my bedroom and checked the mattress to see if the Rupees were still there. They weren’t. If my father was going to steal from the American Embassy, you better believe he’s going to steal from his adopted daughter.

    There was a note though. A note from Ajit. It was an address.

    This is it. This is the address. Ajit bought me an apartment, it’s in my name, but I didn’t pay a dime for it, and I have no mortgage on it.

    That’s the last contact I’ve had with Ajit.

    Are we done now?

    — Wait, Miss Hart, What about Ajit’s grandfather. Did he ever tell you where he is?


    No. When I saw him that first day I came back we talked about happy things. He gave me a sterling silver cigar case and a necklace with a Ganesh charm. He died the next day, the day I was planning on prying more about Ajit.

    Hart finished her scotch in one big gulp.

    I don’t know exactly why Ajit disappeared. Maybe it was Ganesh’s doing. Maybe he left because I left. Or, maybe he was worried people would ask questions, because a snake doesn’t just bite a hand. A snake doesn’t just put enough venom in its prey to put it into a coma but not kill it. Maybe that’s why Ajit ran, or maybe he knew Pirima would inevitably be kicked out of the apartment building, and he wanted to make sure she found a new home. Ajit would do something like that; he would spend seven years finding Pirima the perfect home.

    Hart smiled.

    You know, Ramaj, magic is like a drug, once you get a taste for it you’ll only want more, but I have a feeling you know this.

    I wanted to kiss her, no I had to kiss her. I lunged at her. The pig squealed, but she kissed back and I lost feeling in my toes. I saw her world, her story. I saw her and Ajit as children, lying across the highest branches of the Banyan trees staring at my younger self, staring into my soul. And then I let go. And all she did was smile, take off her sunglasses, get up and walk towards the front door — the pig followed close behind. I quickly grabbed my notes, put my tape recorder in my pocket and followed her, not knowing what would happen next, hoping she would pull me into her bedroom, I wanted another taste, I needed another taste.

    But, she opened the front door.

    Thank you … I always knew.

    At the time, I didn’t know what Miss Hart was thanking me for, but then again I also didn’t understand why I was the only detective in Mumbai that still wasn’t able to let the Agarkar case go.

    Stella Hart disappeared a week later. At first I just searched for her at the corner teashop where I had first found her. But then I was able to get a warrant for her apartment. It was barren, except for the bathtub in the back corner.

    I walked closer towards it and stopped when I heard a female voice whisper my name. I sent the other officers away telling them to wait for me outside.

    I took a deep breath, and continued to walk towards the tub.

    And there was the King Cobra curled up in a ball.

    Officer Nitu

    Pirima …

    She looked up towards me and then slivered up and around my body to rest on my shoulders, like an old friend.

  5. Case 93 – Part I

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    Date: Sept. 8, 1998

    Place: Malabar Hill Police Station, Ridge Road, Mumbai, India

    Interviewer: Detective Ramaj Nitu

    Interviewee: Stella Hart 

    I’m the only one who was ever able to interview Stella Hart about Ajit Agarkar’s disappearance, something I now understand they did on purpose. It took Agarkar being gone for six years and my buying Hart a cup of tea at the teashop on Apollo Street every day for a year in order for her to allow me to step into her sunroom with my tape recorder.

    I thought if I had Hart, I would have Ajit. But that was silly of me. No one will ever have Ajit except Miss Hart herself. There was something potent in that sunroom that day, something so potent I was scared to stay too long, yet couldn’t leave Miss Hart, and I think she knew it.

    Stella Hart. If you could meet her, you would understand that words can’t describe her. Her mystery, her beauty.

    I saw Stella Hart for the first time when I was twelve and she was eight. She was one of three Caucasian girls at our school, but she still dressed in bright yellow saris more than she wore Western clothes. She had something about her, even at eight, which I can’t really explain. We all started noticing her and Ajit when we spotted them lying across the highest branches of various banyan trees at recess. No one understood how they got there; even us boys four years older than them were never able to climb so high, and I still don’t think I would be able to. But we didn’t just notice them because of how high they climbed. We noticed them because they were just looking out at us, and then past us into all of India. We noticed them because they never talked to each other when they were up in those banyan trees. It was as if they spoke to each other in a language we didn’t understand, a language of silence, a language I longed to be a part of.

    During the interview, we sat on a yellow couch in the middle of the blue-tiled room. There was a bathtub in the corner of the room, which was filled with tattered books and Polaroid snapshots of animals. There was a puja table next to the bathtub, although when Hart caught me staring at it, she made it clear that she was not a Hindu. A long slinky dress covered her petite 5-foot-5-inch frame. She wore big translucent sunglasses, even when the sun started to set. She was twenty at the time.

    Hart hasn’t been seen since September 1998.

    – Ramaj Nitu, Oct. 3, 1998.


    — How did you learn about Ajit’s disappearance?


    I read about Ajit in the newspapers like the rest of the world. Well, yes and no. It’s hard to explain. You all came to question my father eventually. I was hiding at the Vipassana in Igatpuri; you know, the one three hours outside of Mumbai. I know the man that runs it. He kept me safe. My mother had fled the country, so my father was the only one your people could ask about Ajit in relation to me. I’m sure they regretted even trying. Detective Cornwell found him in a booth at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel bar overlooking the Arabian Sea, twirling a gin and tonic in his right hand. His left was probably still bandaged up.

    — Where is your mother now?


    My mother didn’t leave a note, and I don’t expect her back.  I think she was born with a kind soul, but even kind souls can be damaged by the stampede of time.

    Hart kicked off one of her heels, revealing navy blue toenails and a henna-covered left foot.

    I think she was just lost amongst a culture that wasn’t hers, a sea of colorful silk and elegant bindis, which put me at peace.

    Hart smiled.

    She taught me how to keep my nails clean and ordered dresses from New York for me to wear, but she looked at her feet when her drunk husband told the other parents, on the small bleachers lining the fourth-grade soccer field, that I was adopted, that his wife couldn’t carry a child. All she did was pull me out of soccer.

    She liked to pretend to be a socialite and had tea with women who didn’t like her. My father was obviously busy at the embassy, so they paid an African lady to raise me. Ruby. God, I miss Ruby.

    This was the first time I saw Hart truly smile, other than when I saw her at Ajit’s zoo.

    I was always jealous of the tone of her skin, of the way she never burned, didn’t have to wear a huge floppy hat under the Mumbai sun like my mother, didn’t turn red like my father. I felt it made her stronger, richer than anything else I had ever seen. Ajit always came over for Ruby’s cooking. He loved watching her pull at the dough with her hands when she was baking bread. He wouldn’t come over when she was breading chicken legs or boiling lobsters, though. He loved animals too much.

    — Can you tell me a little more about life with your parents, life with your father?



    — No?


    It is not important to the story of Ajit’s disappearance. Frankly, it’s not important or interesting for that matter. Ruby is more important.

    — Do you think there is a chance of him being released?


    My father?

    — Yes.


    You’re the officer, you tell me.

    Hart looked me straight in the eye. I looked out the window. She continued once I looked away.


    My mother told Ruby not to pack sweets into my lunch, but Ruby chose not to listen. Sometimes she packed me those chocolate Hostess cupcakes with icing in the middle from New York; sometimes she packed homemade oatmeal cookies. On Fridays, she would ride her bike to my international elementary school and drop off a warm lunch in the front office. Sometimes, it was lasagna; sometimes, it was takeout from a restaurant she stopped at en route. My favorite was when she brought me linguini with white clam sauce. At least once a month, though, it was a whole pizza pie with a note taped to the box that said to share it with Ajit.

    — Ah. Ajit.


    Yes, Ajit.

    Hart smiled, kicked her other heel off and crossed her legs Buddha-style on the couch at the mention of his name.

    I think I met Ajit in kindergarten. I can’t remember, to be honest. We were little, though. I liked him because he could catch butterflies and birds in his brown hands, something I could never do.

    Hart smiled.

    Ajit gets along better with animals than he does with people.

    — There are rumors that he claims he can talk to them.


    Ajit would never claim anything. Even if he can, he would never even share that secret. Some of the magic in life is meant to be kept to oneself. That’s what Ajit’s grandfather told us on the abandoned street when we found the miniature pig with intricate blue and red designs all over his skin, as if he had jumped right out of a painting. The pig squealed by my side the rest of the way to Ajit’s apartment building.

    “Stella,” his grandfather whispered to me when Ajit had run ahead to play with the fireflies. “This isn’t something you tell your friends over the cafeteria table, and especially not your parents.”

    I looked down at the small pig and picked him up in my arms, he stopped squealing immediately. “Stella, I love you, Ajit loves you, and now this little one loves you too.”

    I can’t believe I’m telling you about Francis. Well, you will probably see him anyway.

    Anyways, as I said we named him Francis. He is my pig, but we had to keep him at Ajit’s for obvious reasons.

    — Where is he now?


    Taking his siesta… Can I get back to Ajit?

    — By all means.


    I was the one that came up with the idea of Ajit’s zoo. He already had the necessities for the zoo, but I helped him organize it. I made it famous. The story of how Ajit’s animals came to be is unclear to me. His mother once told me over Sunday tea that when Ajit started talking, all he wanted was animals, not cricket bats or Legos — animals. It started with dogs, but then dogs turned into boa constrictors and serpents, those turned into Dalmatian mice, and then those turned into larger animals, like his white lion and brown panda bear. Eventually, his grandfather surprised him with an elephant we called Henry.

    Hart began to reach over towards the coffee table and opened up a sterling case with a large S engraved on it. She pulled out a cigar.

    You don’t mind if I have one, right?

    It was Ajit’s grandfather who taught us about cigars and scotch.

    Hart began to light the cigar. She walked over to the bathtub in the corner, reached underneath the tattered books and Polaroids and pulled out a bottle of Johnnie Walker Gold Label.

    Do you care for some scotch?

    Hart walked back over towards the couch.

    It may make this story a little more practical.

    Hart crossed her legs, allowing her long dress to slide up and reveal her bare skin. She poured me a glass.

    For the record, I don’t smoke cigarettes. I think they’re trashy. Only cigars. And I don’t like Madonna.

    Ajit and I liked to smoke cigars under the large banyan tree in his backyard. Francis and Henry were always with us. It was always just the four of us: a little petite white girl, a slightly chubby Indian boy, a smiling elephant and a miniature pig whose fur was an intricate design of red and blue. We started smoking cigars under the banyan tree when we were fourteen. We started combining them with Ajit’s grandfather’s scotch when we were fifteen.

    — What was Ajit’s grandfather like?


    Ah. Dada. I wish he were still alive. Ajit’s father doesn’t care for me very much. He thinks I’m the cause of Ajit’s disappearance, which I guess is true. But Dada would have stuck up for me. I take care of Ajit’s animals, you know.

    — I didn’t know that. I assumed they had caretakers.


    Well, they do. But I make sure Ajit’s animals are constantly being called by their proper names. It’s the only thing Ajit cares about with him being gone.

    — What do you mean? Have you talked to him?

    She smirked and looked at me with those big eyes, and her dress seemed to somehow slide further up her legs. 


    Yes and no … but back to Dada. My favorite memories of Dada are under the banyan tree. He taught Ajit and I the seven chakras of the body and made sure we knew all the different deities. Ajit’s and my favorite has always been Ganesh, with his elephant head — just like Henry. Henry was our personal Ganesh. We liked the idea of his big belly being able to digest whatever life brought. Whatever my father brought, or the summer monsoons. We liked to think that every obstacle put in our paths was put there just for us, that Ganesh had some big adventure for us in the end. I like to imagine him as yellow, like the sun, but Ajit swore he was pink. What color do you think he is?

    — I always thought he was yellow.


    Hart smiled. 

    Ajit always had to be different. But, I guess, so did I, in a way.

    We came up with the idea for Ajit’s zoo underneath the banyan tree smoking Dada’s cigars from Havana. At this point, Ajit owned every type of wild animal that existed in India.

    — Is that an exaggeration?


    Not at all. You’ve been to the zoo. How can you even ask that?

    — I didn’t think you would remember.


    I remember everything. He kept them in the second floor of the apartment building that his family shared with his grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles on his father’s side. Henry, of course, stayed in the garden — he enjoyed the shade of the banyan tree.

    — Was the Agarkar family ever worried about the animals getting upstairs?


    Oh no, not at all. We locked the doors to the staircase and even Sacha the chimp never was able to figure out the elevator. At first, we tried to have some sort of organization for the animals. First we thought to organize them alphabetically, but Ajit said that friends, even if they were different species or looked different, like Ajit and I, shouldn’t be separated. So, in the end, there was really no organization, which made it hard for newcomers but put the animals at peace.

    — But how did the animal floor become the zoo?


    I drew a picture of Henry and then began to put posters up around our school. We listed the main attractions: the Dalmatian mice, the king cobra, the peacock, the white lion and, of course, Henry, who we painted to match Francis’ fur for the grand opening. We charged 500 rupees as an entrance fee. Ajit wanted to do 1,000, but I thought that was too much, no? I was going to get all the profit so I could run away from my father. You know, the zoo never would have happened, all you people would have never gotten to be so intimate with such beautiful animals, if it weren’t for my father — that’s Ganesh’s doing.

    — What do you mean?


    She narrowed her eyes.

    I’m not an idiot; I know you read the gossip section of the papers.

    — I’m sorry, Miss Hart. I didn’t mean to offend you. I just wanted to hear your side of the story, not theirs.


    She sighed. 

    Why don’t we pull out a smoother bottle of scotch?

    She got to her feet and walked back towards the bathtub. 

    A year before we came up with the idea for the zoo, when I was thirteen, my father started coming into my room at night. The first time, he just kissed my feet, stared out the window.

    Hart yanked out a new bottle of scotch from the tub, then turned and walked back towards me, keeping her eyes on the new bottle. 

    But then he started doing other things. I guess he thought it was okay because I wasn’t his actual daughter. I’m not entirely sure if my mother knew, if she realized his half of the bed was empty for long periods of the night, but that’s when I started looking for my real parents.

    Hart poured herself another glass of scotch. 

    Ajit’s grandfather tried to help me, though I never told him about my father’s night visits. Dada just didn’t particularly care for my parents. He didn’t care for anyone who didn’t have family dinners.

    Hart took a long gulp of her scotch.