Sorboni Banerjee


Tommy Baxter


Theresa Edo


Erin Jang


Michelle Kearns


Madelyn Rosenberg Lazorchak


Jay Rubin


Sarah Williams

Introductory Essay


By Sorboni Banerjee

Dust and yellow mustard fields. Single file coconut trees lining the muddy edges of rice paddies. Green shoots of rice in watery mud. The grainy edges of the Indian sun. Barefoot men bent under baskets full of sugar cane, walking single file. Heat beating down in wobbled yellow lines. And dust.

On a long ride, scenery through the window of a car repeats and reverses itself: India came in flips and flashes, as the big, black car streamed across West Bengal, from Calcutta to the coastal town of Digha. We were still miles away from a summer holiday at the sea-beach, the sea-beach, the sea-beach. My cousins made it like a nursery rhyme. My legs were stuck to each other. Sweat dripped from my collarbone to my waist.

Late August in a tropical country emits a feeling of endings. The heat should fade. The monsoon rains sputter. It is the last chance to lie under a fan, draw a picture, have orange biscuits and tea with milk. That summer I had just turned fourteen. I played hide and seek and tag on the rooftop of our house in Calcutta in my bare feet. I hiked up my long skirt so I could run faster… and let the skin of my bare legs flash for one extra second. The boys next door would pretend not to watch. And I liked how it made me want to smile. I was young enough to play. I was old enough to play. There was no difference.

I spent the ride to Digha hanging out the window. Our parents were behind us somewhere. There were only children in this car, and our driver blasted the radio for us. “People people everywhere, everywhere, everywhere,” a Bengali rapper spit in English, and we sang along.

When we hit the towns and got caught between a cow and a motorcycle, street vendors with bright plastic baskets, children in dingy white uniforms, my younger cousin, Rilina, and I had no complaints. We tossed sultry smiles and waved. I had light skin and hair. Rilina had my American sunglasses perched on her narrow twelve-year-old face. The young men defiantly fixed their eyes on ours. We laughed and ducked down on the hot vinyl seats. The plastic felt like it was melting. Or was it my legs? Hey sexy, hey American girl… Come here beautiful. We blew kisses, made faces. I reached out to grab a handful of small pink flowers off a bush as we sped by, and tucked them in my hair.

The water was brown. I had expected a perfect tropical turquoise. Fog spread itself thin and far, steam rising from sour afternoon tea. It made me feel the weight of the shirt and skirt I had to wear over my bathing suit to go swimming respectably. It was so stupid. I glared at my brother in his shorts. Oblivious, he tossed me a wide black tire tube from a pile in the back of a truck for ten rupees a piece. We ran into the water.

Swimming in my skirt was like kicking through glue. Why couldn’t I be seven again? Rilina plucked at her heavy clothing as well. My mother told us to just take them off once we were deep enough in the dense water for no one to see our bathing suits. She waded in to get the waterlogged skirts, promising to bring towels to us when we wanted to get out. I lifted my bare leg just high enough to see its blur under the water and let my toes peek about the surface. I was free.

There was a boy with a little beard and a bright yellow shirt swimming nearby. I caught him staring at me so I smiled tentatively. He didn’t return the smile. His eyes held mine for an instant before he dove under the water and was gone.
My lips puckered from the salt. The tide rolled in. More and more, slick, black-haired heads bobbed in the swells. I collided with random backs. Hands brushed my body by accident. Suddenly, though, I felt fingers snake around my legs. Rilina squealed.

“Someone tickled me,” she spluttered.

“Me too,” I replied haltingly.

We let out a quick, short burst of nervous laughter. It must have been a mistake. Someone else’s brothers mistaking us for their sisters and trying to scare us. Nothing more than that.

The sky was a pale wash of gray and the dim, orange sun hung behind filmy sea-beach sky. I floated on my back, holding the tube with one arm. Someone swam right into me underneath the water. I waited for him to come to the surface so I could say excuse me, but he never did. Oh well. It was much more important to determine how fast the tube could spin when I kicked my legs.

The tide was rushing in now from opposites sides of the cove, colliding in the middle and spinning my tube in tight circles. I was out too deep. I felt the discreet sweep of water when someone swims by, and then, fingers. They slid over me, so many fingers, slimy like fish, eels, egg whites and yolks scrambled, left raw.

This was no accident.

There was nothing I could do but kick my feet frantically in all directions. The water was too thick and dim to catch anyone around me, but I saw the boy in the yellow shirt emerge to breathe in the shallow waves. It was him. I knew it. It was him, and it was his friends.

I paddled frantically toward my uncle and grabbed his thick arm. My voice sat like swallowed bubble gum in my stomach. “Help.”

He laughed and asked me if I was tired. I shook my head no, but he lifted me high into the air.

“Ready?” he asked.

What was wrong with him? Couldn’t he see? He heaved me up along with the tube. My naked legs flailed above the water. I landed far away, the thump of rubber on salt screaming, “look everyone!” The American girl is out deep again. Hold your breath. Swim to her. Swim by her. Swim on her. She wants it. She likes it. She wants to play.

The tide sucked the tube backwards, and there were mouths blowing bubbles on my back, palms on my stomach, pinching, poking, groping desperately. The water had fingers. The water had hands. The water was rolling bodies, brown like the waves, thick coffee, mud, salt boiling, lolling in a basin.

Seaweed and tears and tongues. With a sudden burst of energy I threw off the tube and just started swimming. My eyes squeezed closed, I bumped into someone coming up for air. I fought the weight of the water and swung out my fist to catch him in the side of the face. That boy with the yellow shirt. I threw my foot into the side of someone’s head, slammed my knees into a groin.

Faces were appearing all around me like little islands, boys’ faces, and I tore past a string of confused expressions. They didn’t even understand. They thought I was having fun. Saltwater bile came into my throat. It was all my fault. I threw my arms over my chest, pinching my own arms as I ran out of the water.

There is the anger a person feels right away, the kind that lives inside the moment that something is happening. And then there is the anger that comes afterwards - quiet monsoon heat seeping in like curdled breath. It was so hot in the car. But I didn’t lower the window past my eyes.

India shot by in strange and ugly shades of rotten purple through the tinted glass. The mustard fields looked brown like the ocean. The rice paddies were the color of fog. I wore my sunglasses, to hide my face, and stared blankly at the dust and tired people, held down with sinking baskets, miles away from a holiday at the sea-beach. When we hit the traffic of towns and villages, I sank as low into the seat as I could with Rilina. And we whispered about the boys at the beach.

The same song we heard on the way to Digha came on the radio. “People, people, everywhere…” It sounded like they were saying “pee-poh” instead of “people.” Why were they even trying to rap in English anyway? They weren’t American. I asked the driver to turn it down.

We stopped briefly in a small town, and I ventured out to a sidewalk stall. I knelt down and picked out a shell that seemed to glow in shades of peach. As I handed the man his money I could feel the heat of his look and the glances of the men on the street. I lowered my eyes.