Volunteers travel to Breezy Point, New York, and speak to the camera
of SuperStormSandy and their volunteer highs. They bring canned food
and wool blankets to teary-eyed recipients, weary
with gratitude. My parents landed in the paradise
island of Jamaica in 1975. They had come to serve
with a church but, upon arrival, their Kingston hotel
caught fire. The missionaries now themselves in need
of some service. Left on the streets in their nightclothes
and with a three year old daughter. As an attempt to prove her love,
my mother once recounted: Don’t you get it, I left my wedding
sari, my gold jewelry, my valuables, and took only you. All I remember
is sitting on the floor in some Kingston family’s living room
with a teenage boy who introduced me to his records and lent me
his headphones. Years later, my father’s letter full of the despair
of job loss at age 55 still closed with: We made it through
that Jamaica fire, we will make it through this. I think of my parents,
on their third day in Kingston, and how the only time
their daughter cried was when she was forced to leave
that boy’s living room, his headphones, and all that good music.
My first memories of grapes include
not buying them in order to support farm workers.
At age eight, I couldn’t quite draw the connection and,
even if I could, may have wondered (as I still do today),
if we don’t buy grapes, how will the workers get paid?
The idea of money as politics, as currency,
takes some imagination, some organizing,
some views of personal responsibility
and community accountability, together.
What money does in our name alone small
but if we get ten more, a dent, a message,
against apartheid, for farm workers, for Middle-East Peace.
The factory that burned down in Bangladesh
has among its clients Ikea. Four years of planning
culminated in a meeting with Joe on Tuesday evening.
The sale on cabinets ends next weekend.
The personal cost became too high.
I will myself un-reading
the second half of that article.
We can boycott Wal-Mart instead
– a place we never shopped anyway.
Just Act Normal
The only recent border crossing I can remember
is trying to sneak my 15-year old cousin Jeevan into the audience
of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. We had plans B and C
at the ready. We kept whispering to each other, Just act
normal, as the signs 16 and older kept
appearing on our path. Praising his basketball height
we thought we would get away with it. And we did.
What happens though when it’s not an afternoon,
but the rest of your life, and it’s not a studio audience,
it’s another country. Is Plan B still
to leave one family member behind?
Is Plan C still that Jaya will wait with Jeevan
in Central Park until the end of the show?
It was not dark. It was not night. I was not
outside. I was not alone. I was not
with strangers. There were women
in the vicinity. A mother and two daughters were
preparing breakfast two rooms over
in the next hotel suite. We were all recovering
from your eldest daughter’s extravagant wedding the night
before. Your niece, my friend, went outside
to make a telephone call. You came to say hello
in the fullness of daylight, sat too close on the couch
and put your gigantic arms around me
and your palm came down fully onto my breast.
Plain and clear. Plain as day. I jumped and ran
into another room. You went back
to your hotel suite. Your wife and daughters continued
to prepare breakfast. My friend came back and I told her
because we were in Madras and I had no one else
to tell. She said she cannot hear
of such things. Ten minutes later we all sat down together
for breakfast. You complimented the intricate design
on the sleeve of my dress. I sat wondering
whether you did this kind of thing
to your own daughters too, or only
to their best friends who came over to play.
This is how I felt when I came across a museum
exhibit about Native American tipis. To simply appreciate
the beauty of the acquired, the beadwork of the colonized,
without first a significant mention of the violations, of reparations
is like sitting at breakfast in Madras trying to enjoy
that daughter’s luminous newlywed smile and
that wife’s incredible, even when improvised, home cooking.
(“But they came all the way here already, taking such troubles.”)
When we left the Chennai orphanage
last August, we left our baby
formula, sweets, diapers, lotion, lice
shampoo and even the travel umbrella
from our handbag. We took in return
only an image of her rocking
herself and a traced outline of her left
foot. The floral pattern on my light green
notebook could not hide ten years
of dismay but now it contained one footstep
towards something possible. My narrow
notebook like the ones made of scraps
from the printing press given for free
to the workers. That season
Mary Oliver worked at the press she said
she only wrote narrow poems.
We had arrived with one pair
of toddler shoes, brown,
size seven, with pink flowers, but much
too large for her tiny feet. I now carried
an accurate drawing of her left
foot throughout Brooklyn, searching
for something small and perfect enough
that could stand up later in remembrance
as her first pair of shoes. Now, one year
later, a little girl in brown and pink shoes skips
down the subway corridor on her morning
commute from Brooklyn to Manhattan.
Note: “Kasthaputta vanhu (But they came all the way here already, taking such troubles)” is a phrase that was repeated several times during a telephone conversation between the orphanage director and the orphanage lawyer while we sat in the orphanage director’s office, hearing only her side of the conversation.
Sunu P. Chandy joined the DC Office of Human Rights (OHR) as General Counsel in September 2014. For the previous fifteen years, she served as one of the Senior Trial Attorneys with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, litigating civil rights employment matters in federal court through its New York District Office. Chandy also served on the Boards of Directors of the Audre Lorde Project, LeGal (LGBTQ Bar Association), and South Asian Women’s Creative Collective (SAWCC). Chandy has degrees from Earlham College, Northeastern University School of Law, and Queens College (CUNY), including an MFA in Creative Writing (Poetry). Her creative work has been published in Asian American Literary Review's Special Issue Commemorating the 10th Anniversary of September 11th and This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation. (Routledge, 2002).