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Human Traffic

When Rupah arrives in London, she is overtaken with gloom. Foreign land again, strange faces, tall people she should appease, an unfamiliar tempo, cold air penetrating her clothes, raindrops running down her thin jacket, a depressing gray light, and the English language that sounds so alien. Only yesterday she was standing in her garden in Sri Lanka, her husband watching her from the entrance to the house, her children hugging her and laughing at the heavy warm rain, her sari soaking it up, dimming its colors and turning it into a thin transparent piece of cloth. But now she takes the tube from Heathrow Airport into London, collapsing into a vacant seat. The exhaustion of a long flight does not obscure her aversion to the cold light, the distressing screeching the train is making, and the stuffy air in the crowded car.

As she knocks on the door at Pembridge Place and hears Mr. Allen’s steps slowly approaching the door, a lump grows in her throat. She puts the suitcase down, unfastens a button of her jacket, removes her gloves, adjusts her scarf, actions done one after the other out of habit, intended to ease distress. Another visit in Sri Lanka is over, another journey home and back again to a foreign land, and now a new count must begin, of days, nights, hours, and minutes until the next trip home. When Mr. Allen opens the door, Rupah wipes her tears and smiles at him. “I was expecting you,” he says kindly, and she follows him into the entrance hall.

She pulls the suitcase up the stairs and into her room. Everything has been left unchanged: the colorful bed cover she bought on her last visit to Sri Lanka, the Indian cushions she found in a shop in London, a table made of heavy dark wood facing the window, a huge closet, two large plants on the windowsill, and on a small chest is her altar to home: a colorful embroidered cloth, at its heart stands a statue of Buddha, his legs crossed, his hands placed on his knees, and his smile illuminated.  Colorful candles surround him, and two vases, now empty, stand behind him. Rupah opens her suitcase and begins to arrange her clothes in the closet, only the long skirt and purple sweater she was wearing for the flight are tossed into the laundry basket. When she is done, she lies on the bed and closes her eyes. The vibrant colors of Sri Lanka gradually fade. The smell of grass after the rain, the tall trees surrounding the village shedding heavy water drops that fall and crash on the water-soaked soil, the yellow-gray sky, the soft clouds, the boisterous laughter of her children, her husband looking at her from the entrance to the house, they all dissolve and lose their vitality and disintegrate in the gloomy room with its heavy furniture and oppressive silence. As she looks at Buddha’s face she thinks his smile is sad, and before she falls asleep she whispers to herself: May everyone be happy, may everyone be free from misery.

In the morning she gets up late, unlike her usual self, from a deep and dreamless sleep. When she wakes up she isn’t sure where she is, but the darkness outside reminds her that she is in Europe. She gets out of bed, washes and gets dressed, combs her long black hair and then gathers it up. It’s too late, she gives up morning meditation and goes down to make breakfast. To her surprise, Mr. Allen is already in the kitchen. “Well, dear, how was your visit home?” he asks. She looks at him and says nothing. He looks a bit unkempt, she thinks. Rupah assists Mr. Allen to take a bath. Every other day she goes to the bathroom with him, he takes off his clothes and sits on a chair in the bathtub. It’s hard for a man his age to stand for so long. She helps him soap and wash his body. The physical intimacy imposed on them causes them to speak in a somewhat alienated manner, in a very practical tone. Every morning he tells her what products she should buy, the medication she should get from the pharmacy, books that should be returned to the library. Rupah listens carefully, sometimes writing it down so as not to forget, giving in to the simple mundane spirit which turns them into partners, two people keeping a regular schedule, which brings tranquility to both of them.

Twelve years ago Rupah left Sri Lanka. Premala was five years old, Sahil five months old. Cyprus, Greece, Italy and now England, she travels by herself, from house to house, from one old person to another. New languages, different streets, both repulsive and tasty food, but old age is one: a withering body, bursting anger, forgetfulness, stench. The first time she travelled was the easiest; she thought she would be back in a couple of months. Kumar came home furious. He had been fired again. He was angry at his boss, fuming how arrogant and vain he was, blaming him for his failure, while Rupah thought that perhaps if he hadn’t been two hours late for work, he wouldn’t have been sacked. Whenever he started a new job, she dreaded the moment he would come back home, bitter and resentful, arguing that he had been wronged, suggesting there were hidden motives, never admitting that the fault was his. When she tried to soothe him and served him food, he tossed it on the floor. There is no other way, she thought, she must find a job abroad. He would never manage to provide for them, and Premala would soon be six years old. Only those who go to private school have a chance for a better life.

At the airport, she held Sahil on her lap. The baby clung to her, sticking his tiny fingernails into her body, leaning his curly head on her neck. When the time came to say goodbye, he wouldn’t let go.  Rupah pulled him away from her body, seeing his tiny mouth wide open and hearing his sobs but saying nothing, she handed him over to her mother, turned around and left without saying goodbye. A couple of months, that’s all, she said to herself on the walkway to the airplane, wiping her tears, straightening her skirt, checking that her handbag was closed, gathering her hair into a ponytail.

The toothless Cypriot woman Rupah cared for had a low, husky voice, she giggled for no reason, and called Rupah “honey.” She had old worn out dresses and a colorful head scarf. In her broken English she inquired why she left her family, and when Rupah told her that her husband was fired she chuckled in a voice resembling a crow’s caw and said, “Ah, good-for-nothing! Shame, a beautiful woman like you, couldn’t you find someone better?” Rupah liked her direct talk, with no pretense. She referred to her late husband as “the useless bum,” and to her only son as “the womanizer.” Time and again she warned Rupah that her husband was trying to get rid of her, maybe he wants to find another woman, probably younger, and begged her to return home.

Every weekend she went to the phone booth next to the post office and called home. Familiar voices emerged from the receiver: her mother came to cook for the children, Premala started private school and said grandma bought her a new backpack, Sahil said “mama, mama.” After five months abroad she asked to talk to Kumar and inquired if he had found a job. The gush of complaints that came from the phone lifted her at once to the small village at the foot of the round hills. “I was sacked, the boss is a liar,” he complained, and Rupah stood there and listened, and for a moment she was glad she was away from the village.

A month later, half a year after she had left, she called early in the morning. Kumar answered the phone, surprised to hear her. Silence fell when she said she was planning to return home. Two girls holding hands passed by the phone booth; a car was blowing its horn in the crowded morning street; pigeons landed on the bench nearby. “They all go,” Kumar’s voice was heard. “What? Who is going where?” she wondered, and he said “All the women.” Perhaps Rupah’s silence made him more talkative: all the women of the village – mothers of small children – left to go abroad, to work outside Sri Lanka. Chand’s wife, Harish’s wife, Mohan’s daughter, they all went away. Only elderly ladies and young girls were left here, he said, and she thought she heard a chuckle. Her spirit traveled from one house to another, from family to family, and she had to admit there was much truth in his claim: the mothers left, leaving the children behind, flying off to remote countries to provide for their families.

Rupah returned to the old woman’s house, ignoring her husky voice that came from the kitchen, and walked straight to her room. She took off the pink blouse and put on a white shirt and sat on the carpet facing the low cabinet, the altar she made for herself with the statue of Buddha. She could feel the pulse in her temples, a headache spreading gradually, becoming an obscure pain in an unfamiliar part of her body. The die is cast, she thought desperately; there is no way back. She had been sentenced to wandering; she would have to live away from her children for years. Premela, Sahil, there is no knowing when she would ever see them again. Her long black hair spread out on her shaking back. She lowered her head and cried bitterly, torn by yearning for her children. Buddha watched her, smiling as always, a breeze made the candle’s flames flicker, a pleasant scent of the purple flowers behind him wafted over the room, and she murmured in tears, “may I be guard for those who need protection; a guide to those on the path.”

In Greece, she cared for an elderly man, tall and heavy, with huge hands, who had a large family. A strange character, a mixture of vulgarity and outstanding generosity. His daughters, who lived nearby, came to see that she was looking after their father properly, each one giving different instructions. One said he should take the medication in the morning, the other said at noon. One prepared food for him, the other throwing it away and making her own dish. At first, Rupah tried to make peace between them, but after a while she let them have their way. Every time one would complain she pointed a finger at her sister. Nikos, now almost ninety years old, used to try and touch her breasts, and when he succeeded, he giggled, as if the attempts of this pretty woman to avoid him were funny. But every couple of weeks, he would draw a pile of fifty dollar bills from under his bed and hand them to her, out of sight of his vigilant daughters.

Asking her about her family and listening to her explanations, how she provides for the family, giving her children a better future, her husband is at home but doesn’t care for the children properly, he inquired: “Do you have friends here?” She was taken by surprise. Yes, of course she knew a couple of foreign workers, women from Sri Lanka and India who worked in the neighborhood. They used to exchange information: where is the best Indian food store, how can you find a doctor, what is the best time to go to the post office. Rupah never saw them as friends but as sort of sisters, sharing a similar destiny. When she remained silent, he said, “You live here, and that’s it. You make sure you have a good life.”

She was overwhelmed. She felt her life was devoted to a single purpose, aimed at nothing but providing for the family. She never thought about whether she was happy, only if what she did benefited her children. The life of wandering was justified only because they went hand in hand with devotion and sacrifice; this prevented further suffering. But suddenly Nikos’s words seem so reasonable, consistent with an irrefutable wisdom. In an instant, unconsciously, passionate fervor was awakened, an urge for happiness and pleasure she thought had been lost forever.

On Sunday, her day off, she got up in the morning and sat facing the mirror. She combed her shiny black her, put on burgundy lipstick, and circled her eyes with eyeliner she had brought from Sri Lanka. She then put on a white dress, becoming to her round figure, drew out of the closet the embroidered purse her mother had bought her, and left the room. When Nikos saw her, she thought she saw a touch of admiration in his eyes. He smiled at her, waved his hand and returned to his room.

She walked in the narrow streets of northern Athens, between dilapidated houses and people sleeping on the sidewalk, looking for an address a friend from Sri Lanka had given her. After about half an hour she found the building, covered with graffiti. Already as she climbed the filthy stairs, careful not to step on broken glass, avoiding a broken step, she heard the chanting. But as the door opened bright light enveloped her, a glimmer of glittering candles, and in front of her was Buddha, illuminated and affectionate. The room was crowded, men and women sat barefoot on the floor, chanting prayers. She took off her shoes, sat with the worshippers and joined the singing. Smiling faces around her, the familiar smell of incense, the long table abundant with food, the colorful fabric covering the walls, Rupah gave in to the joy that filled the room, the smiles and laughter, the pleasant odors, asking people where they came from and telling them about her village. And so, inadvertently, a spirit of home materialized in this room with its small shrine, a captivating warm coziness, breaking another miniature blood vessel that attached Rupah to her family and accelerating her path to liberation. And only as the dancing was finishing and food was gone did she go down the shaky stairs – she suddenly thought of Premala and Sahil. She halted. Panic took over her. She gripped the banister and closed her eyes, shattered by her own contentment, which seemed so treacherous.  She thought she would never see her children again. Leaning her head against the stairs, she whispered may all beings everywhere plagued with sufferings of body and mind quickly be freed from their illness.

Signora Bosco lived in a town in northern Italy, in a house with a porch facing a view of the valley. Always wearing black, she walked slowly, leaning on a walking stick, smiling at Rupah as she spoke to her in Italian. After every couple of words her face grew grave, she said Gésu Cristo and crossed herself. Every now and then she would use the very few English words she knew, “food,” “bathroom,” “drink,” and then she would go back to Italian. Rupah’s room faced the view, through the window she could see a wide valley and beyond it the surrounding hills. The abundance of greenery, the bright paths, the grazing cows meandering through the meadows, Rupah felt she had been here before. Only the thin sharp light, so different from the yellow-gray sky in Sri Lanka, reminded her she was in a foreign land. There is something transparent about the sky here, she thought. Strange, in Sri Lanka it is heavier.

Every Sunday Rupah went with Signora Bosco to church. Early in the morning Rupah helped her dress up, gently combed her gray hair back and tied it with a black clip, and they walked together to church. The road was slightly uneven, once in a while Rupah had to hold her to stop her from falling, bypassing puddles or stones on the narrow path. Though the church was rather close, they had to walk for more than half an hour. At first, upon entering the church, she was alarmed. The dusty air, light coming from a narrow window in the ceiling, creating a ray piercing the darkness, the intimidating pictures on the walls, the priest walking around with such a grave expression, the statue of Jesus tormented on the Cross, she nearly ran out, leaving the Signora by herself. Also, her silence on the way back was oppressive. She normally chatted constantly, talking to Rupah and ignoring the fact that she did not speak Italian. But on the way back from church she was always mute and introspective. She seemed immersed in contemplation, and now and then her countenance would change. Anger, sigh, sadness, a dismissive hand gesture, Rupah found it strange that the visit to the church made her sad, silenced her chatter and generated an unpleasant inner conversation. It’s a shame she can’t come with me to the temple in Milan, she thought. The simple natural chanting, sitting on the floor with the crowd, knee touching knee, the vibrant colors all around, red, orange, yellow, the flickering candles around Buddha, and the pleasant smell of incense – they would have made the Signora’s prayer pleasant and uninterrupted, without the misery Rupah couldn’t comprehend.

Rupah bought a laptop computer. A friend she met at the temple in Milan managed to buy one for her at a special price. At first all, those keys confused her, but in two weeks she could manage it well. She had heard people talking about Skype, and she wished to call her family in Sri Lanka. She sat facing the laptop, dressed neatly, her hair coiffured and her face made up, waiting impatiently to see her children. An ascending and descending tone, blue color spreading on the screen, stripes moving in circles, and suddenly she could see Premala shouting joyfully, “Come, come quickly, mommy’s here!” Immediately Sahil appeared, and as he saw his mom he started kissing the screen without hesitation and yelling “Mommy, come home, come home, when are you coming?” Her mother stood facing the camera, smiling and waving, as if she saw her daughter sailing away on a ship. Though they only laughed, blew kisses in the air and said almost nothing, when the conversation was over she remained seated almost an hour, facing the laptop. Her children smiling but missing her, her home, the familiar light coming through the window, her mother so thrilled to see her. They were all revived in her spirit, one after the other, bringing her distant home closer, but undermining the comfortable daily routine of the last years. In an instant, broken blood vessels were healed; torn when she left her family, they bled and almost died after years of living by herself.

The Skype conversation became part of her daily routine. Rupah sat facing the laptop, now wearing loungewear, her hair disheveled. At one o’clock, as the Signora took her siesta, Rupah spoke with Premala, Sahil, and her mother. At first, small mundane details filled her with joy: Premala’s school mates, her success at school, she showed Rupah her notebooks. The teacher said she was the best student in her class, and grandma bought her a new dress. She turned around facing the camera, and Rupah laughed and complimented her: a pretty girl with a beautiful dress. Sahil practiced bouncing a ball in front of the computer: ten kicks without missing once. He then tried to impress his mom and jump when the ball was in the air, but fell on the floor, and his mother’s pleasant laughter came from the computer: “Be careful, Sahil, so you don’t get hurt.”

There were also quarrels. Premala wished to tell mom a secret, Sahil wouldn’t leave the room. He pushed Premala, “I want to talk to mommy now,” she pushed him back, and he burst into tears. Her mother came from the kitchen, trying to separate the two. Rupah tried to make peace, but they couldn’t hear her. Finally, she turned off the computer. By tomorrow her mother will make peace between the children, and soon the Signora will wake up, and she needs to help her get out of bed.

The Signora’s son was courting Rupah. A slightly shabby widower, when his children left home he came to live with his aging mother. A man about sixty years old, his hair dyed black and saturated with hair oil. A heavy smoker, his shirt was slightly stained, and he spoke broken English. His small dark eyes moved anxiously from side to side, examining everyone in haste. From the very moment Rupah arrived at the Signora’s home, he smiled at her, offered help time and again, and also inquired: “Doesn’t your husband care you are here alone? Aren’t you lonely? Would you like to have dinner with me? How do you spend your day off?” Rupah smiled bashfully. This attention could have been pleasurable if she hadn’t felt men cannot be trusted. Her mother made her marry Kumar. She was in love with a boy in high school, but her devoted mother thought she had to find someone who would provide for her daughter. For months she paid visits to almost every family in the village, examining young men, wondering who would best suit her daughter. Even though Rupah cried when the date for the wedding had been set, her mother was determined, smiling to herself with confidence that the craze of youth would surely be replaced by a peaceful, comfortable life.

But at the airport, before Rupah left for Cyprus, the mother stood pale and upset, as if she had been found guilty of a crime but someone else was about to be punished for it. Her hand touched her daughter’s arm, perhaps caressing it perhaps grabbing it. And when Rupah forcibly detached Sahil from her body her mother held him tightly, and tears covered her face. From that day, she had almost never spoken to Kumar. Without asking for permission she moved in with them, cooking and cleaning, caring for the children. During the day Kumar sat in the back yard, in the evening he watched TV. His life amounted to hours of staring at the sky, the ceiling, the TV. Her mother got used to the lifestyle of her son-in-law. Only sometimes, late at night, when his friends came to play cards, putting money on the table, she sat on her bed, leaning her head against the wall and closing her eyes, pondering time and again why she had insisted her daughter marry this lazy man. All are nothing but flower in a flowing universe, she said to herself, but still, this bitter drop, biting and excruciating, wouldn’t evaporate.

Six times Rupah visited Sri Lanka. Every two years she traveled to visit home. Her preparation lasted months, she bought presents for her children, her mother, her cousins and their children, and also collected packages for relatives of friends. Yet she always returned in despair. From the moment she was picked up at the airport, in spite of the joy and excitement, the future separation from her children materialized in her mind. Every moment held a seed of departure.

She spent six weeks in the village. First she went home, hugging Premala and Sahil and crying. She then embraced her mother, and finally kissed Kumar on the cheek. She didn’t pretend there was any intimacy between them, and everyone accepted it naturally, without question.  Kumar had changed over the years. The somewhat elegant clothing he used to wear, slacks made of a shiny brown fabric and tight checked shirts, were replaced by visible shabbiness, as if he wished to display the fact that no one is taking care of him. His eyes, once merry, were now empty, and his hair turned gray.  When Rupah stood next to him, she could see his hands were shaking. Even when everyone was at home, he sat in the back yard and smoked, sometimes closing his eyes, sometimes gazing at the tall trees.

Rupah accompanied the children to school, prepared food, played with Sahil, shared Premala’s secrets. A dispossessed mother, for a couple of weeks pretending she was raising her children. Premala showed her where the spices are now, Sahil explained how they rearranged the storeroom, and she smiled at them, embarrassed at being a stranger in her own home. The children ate the food she made, but it was clear they were used to their grandmother’s dishes. When she picked up Sahil from school the teacher asked that the “grandma should call her,” he needs some help with math. Even her mother asked Premala to help her with cooking. Surrounded by joy, warmth, love, yet her foreignness was clear. A woman who, while visiting home, experienced a life that could have been hers. And as she was about to bid farewell, she was horror-struck since she couldn’t escape the notion that in spite of the enormous pain of leaving her family, there was also a slight relief. A stranger both abroad and at home, she closed her eyes facing Buddha and said nothing.

Mr. Allen walks slowly from his bed to the kitchen. His back slightly bent, he leans on his walking stick. Still, there is much dignity about him. The white hair looks like an aura encircling his head, the big brown eyes spritely in spite of the heavy eyelids, the body moving with effort to preserve vitality in spite of old age. Rupah prepares breakfast. She serves porridge and a cup of tea, and sits next to him to have breakfast. “Well, Rupah, you still haven’t told me how the visit to Sri Lanka was,” he says, a small smile spreading over his face, but the eyes are serious. He looks at her intently, awaiting a response. Rupah looks down at her plate, puts more jam on her bread and adds two teaspoons of sugar to her tea.  The sour steam of boiling Sri Lankan tea fills the kitchen. Mr. Allen is waiting, and Rupah sees she needs to reply. “I hope this will be my last visit there,” she says, and immediately sips the scalding tea.

Mr. Allen says nothing. Rupah is also silent, sipping tea and eating bread and jam. Finally, he clears his throat and says, “Do you want to return to Sri Lanka?” “No,” she replies, “I want to bring my children over here and never return there.” Mr. Allen seems shocked, but his furrowed brow indicates that he is not entirely taken by surprise. He makes a small ahem, a sort of short snort, as if he had revealed an unknown truth, but it makes so much sense that it’s no wonder. He eats some porridge, wipes his mouth with a napkin, and asks, “It won’t be easy, you know. Why now?” Rupah nibbles on her bread. She gets up, picks up the plates and places them in the sink, and as she turns toward him, she says, ‘’It’s a distorted life, wrong both for me and for my children. It leads to no joy, tranquility or liberty. A mother should be with her children. I give them money, but not a better future.”

Mr. Allen puts down his cup and looks at her. What a shame that she’s wearing cheap jeans and a shabby sweater, his thinks. When she had the long skirt and the Indian fabric blouse she was so beautiful, the vibrant colors flatter her dark skin and shiny black hair. “It won’t be easy to bring them here, you know,” he says, knowing that Rupah is already thinking how to proceed. “Wouldn’t it be hard for them to fit in here?”

When Rupah turns, he sees her face is full of tears. “Leave everything on the table. I will be back in a minute,” she says. As she climbs up to her room the stairs look blurred and the room obscure. She walks towards the altar, lights the candles and bows three times to the statue of Buddha. Rain is pelting down outside, the sky is dark and somber, but she sees nothing but the glare enveloping Buddha’s face. Light is kindled within her, legions of stars are illuminated, ancient moons move in a predetermined path, she closes her eyes and chants, “May I be well, happy, and peaceful; may my teacher be well, happy and peaceful; may my parents be well, happy and peaceful; may my relatives be well, happy and peaceful; may my friends be well, happy and peaceful; may the indifferent persons be well, happy and peaceful; may all meditators be well, happy and peaceful; may all beings be well, happy and peaceful.”

Emanuela Barasch-Rubinstein is an academic in the Humanities, an author and blogger. After publishing three academic books on cultural interpretation of Nazism (Mephisto in the Third Reich, De Gruyter 2014; Nazi Devil, Magnes Press 2010; The Devil, the Saints and the Church, Peter Lang 2004) she turned to writing fiction. Five Selves, a collection of five novellas, was published by Holland House Books in the UK.

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